Archive for December, 2014|Monthly archive page

Spy cameras in shop changing rooms

SpycamThis picture (left) is doing the rounds in Twitter (I have had it retweeted from @LuLzWarefare). Worth noting, I thought. The Tweet does not identify the particular shop where spy cameras are used in the changing rooms, but the point is a more general one, I sense.

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Classic cigarette campaign – logo and strapline

DSCF0906Marlboro has entered the Christmas campaign with some sparsely located posters, this one in Munich. Regular readers will know that Marlboro’s Maybe campaign has generated controversy regarding its juxtaposition of cigarettes and youth/sex. When the criticism has been at its height, Marlboro has kept the “Maybe” and removed the unambiguous images that feed the regulator’s misgivings. And so we are here, the Marlboro box and label are prominent with the unambiguous transferred to the statement IMG-20130128-00074“100% MAYBE FREE”; in other words, smoking Marlboros ensures against mediocrity, as per other adds in the campaign (for example, never fallen in love, right).

The landed rich fluff up their feathers

Foxhunting2So, a quarter of a million people turned out on a sunny bank holiday yesterday to pledge their support to their local hunts, for ten years now deprived, by law, of the right to hunt live foxes. This turnout is supposed to be a clear signal that the law should be overturned to allow the rich, again, to tyrannise the countryside in the name of fun. There are seemingly something like 60 million people in the UK. It is going to take more than 250 thousand rich people and their employees to overturn this law.

And then there is architecture. Charles Windsor (aka the Prince of Wales) has apparently come up with 10 principles of architecture that have traction only because he is rich, powerful and the heir to the throne. The principles all reflect his worldview – privilege, aesthetic, means, wealth, ownership, to name but a few. His principles have been put to the sword by architecture critic, Douglas Murphy, in the Guardian newspaper. I have to say that I enjoyed reading the demolition job which concludes with thePrince_Charles_2012 following:

“[W]hen Charles blasts modern architecture, he is essentially blasting the historical processes set in motion by the industrial revolution, and lamenting the diminution of his royal power in the world that it brought about. His dreams of traditionally designed cities are dreams of a world where people forever know their place.”

There’s a lot of architecture that I do not like, but there is an awful lot of architecture that reflects my own origins, sense of place and aspirations. My former university, the University of East Anglia, is one big block of concrete. But I owe so much to that place and the people within it.

Pictures: Master of foxhounds leads the field from Powderham Castle in Devon, England: Owain.davies

Charles Windsor: Dan Marsh

 

Veggie Christmas dinner

Being in Germany over Christmas, one must have the special meal a few hours earlier than in the UK. Heiligabend is the important time to share food and exchange gifts. So, this year I took a couple of recipes from the Guardian newspaper website and amended them, as one must.

Mushroom_tartFirst is the mushroom tart (left). This one looks a little over-baked, but it was rescued from the oven in time. The creator, Yotam Ottolenghi, admits the recipe is complicated for what is, essentially a stuffed mushroom starter. However, even by my standards it was interesting. The mushrooms are marinated in a hot mixture of fresh thyme, rosemary, vegetable stock, garlic, lemons, cinnamon, butter, salt and freshly ground black pepper! They then sit in a baking tray with pastry and topped with pine nuts and parsley. And to ensure a snug fit, I added grated carrot mixed with honey.

The main course owes its origins to a recipe by Tom Hunt – Fig, chestnut, ricotta, and beetroot-top rotolo.Root_pie Actually, it became a bit of a pie (I used the same pastry that I had used for the starter and I was unable to roll it, not least because Tom Hunt’s recipe uses pasta and not pastry). Mine, therefore, is more of a root pie – grated beetroot, carrot with onions, leek, fennel, dark brassica leaves, chestnuts, figs, red wine and flavoured with fresh mint and black pepper. It was started in a wok before being transferred to a dish and baked for 30 mins at about 150 degrees celsius.

It was complemented with roast potatoes and Quinoa salad containing broccoli and pomegranate seeds.

If there is any thought about it, chestnuts tend to be quite dry, so a sauce of some benign kind might have helped. Again, interesting.

Magazine subscriptions

I subscribe to two weekly magazines – the New Statesman and The Economist. The former for twelve years, the latter perhaps four years. The Economist is an essential read for my work. The New Statesman feeds my interest in political debate. I took up reading it when I ended my daily subscription to the Guardian newspaper.

NS_coverWhen big public holidays arrive, both magazines publish bumper editions – sufficient to keep readers satiated for the two weeks that the magazines are on holiday, as it were. The New Statesman’s bumper edition is, generally, full of pap and even some of my favourite columnists let the side down. This year, for example, Will Self has taken to writing about another columnist in the same magazine! And to make matters worse, when that columnist started a few years ago, I only managed a couple of weeks before I lost the will to read any more, life being too short and all that. Holding the fort are the veterans Peter Wilby and Hunter Davies.

The Economist, however, fills out its pages with features on history, culture and science. Although it is unashamedly Economist_coverconservative, neo-liberal, it is at least well written and thoughtful. Hence I’m prompted to relay one of those features to readers (20 December 2014, pp82-84). It tells the story of the rise of pork as a symbol of affluence in China. It is a favourite food. Seemingly, Chinese citizens eat the equivalent of half a pig each per year (that is 500 million pigs annually). Such is its importance for the Chinese government seeking social stability, it is subsidised to the tune of $22bn per year. However, this leads to environmental and resource challenges.

Most are factory reared. Consequently they are routinely fed antibiotics to stave off disease that could decimate what is increasingly an in-bred, non native pig population. They are mainly fed on cash crops, particularly imported soy beans. These are grown predominantly in South America on land much of which has been cleared of rain forest. Moreover, the Chinese pork industry is responsible for 50 per cent of the total global soy market. Each kilo of pork requires 6kg of feed.

PigThen there is the waste. Each pig produces, apparently, 5kg of waste per day. Traditionally, pig excrement was highly valued as a fertiliser; however, mass produced pigs generate contaminated waste – antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, etc., not suitable to spreading. There is also too much of it. Pigs and pig waste have become increasing sources of water and soil pollution.

Moreover, the pigs themselves produce methane and nitrous oxide. These are potent greenhouse gases somewhat more damaging than carbon dioxide (300 times more so, it is argued).

I gave up meat 35 years ago. I may give up the New Statesman in 2015.

Why calls to keep the East Coast rail franchise in the public sector are folly

logo_eastcoast_3The East Coast rail franchise has been successfully run by the UK state organisation, Publicly Operated Railways (POR), since it was abandoned by National Express in 2009 when it failed to meet its financial targets.

East Coast will return to the private sector in April 2015 after a protracted bidding process was finally won by the joint Stagecoach/Virgin venture (90/10 shares respectively). The Department of Transport somehow avoided awarding the franchise to the French state railway bid (Keolis and Eurostar joint venture).

The anti-privatisation debate has been championed by the Labour party and is logical. DoR has made healthy returns to the Treasury, why hand these to a private company when the public sector has done so well? At the very least, why could DoR not bid to run the franchise?

The Conservative government’s response, essentially, is that anything that the public sector can do, the private sector can do better. Notwithstanding the fact that often they cannot as two of the franchisees for this route – GNER and National Express – have failed. However, the Stagecoach/Virgin alliance has worked on the West Coast route and Stagecoach has been running the London commuter franchise, South West Trains since privatisation in 1996. But ultimately, the Conservative government has an ideological fixation with the private sector. Many of its members have positions in private sector firms that benefit from government contracts.

For me, however, keeping individual franchises in the public sector is a red herring. These are companiesNetwork_Rail_imagesCA0ADM11 that have no assets. Whilst they are the main channel for passengers to access railway services, they are far from being the railway. The assets of the railway are arguably where the value is. Now, fortunately, the key assets – the permanent way, signalling, stations, etc. – are public sector assets after the demise of Railtrack in 2002. But these assets do not generate surpluses. Quite the contrary. Despite announcing a pre-tax profit for 2014 of £1.035bn, the cumulative debt amounts to £20bn.

Class171By contrast, the owners of the rolling stock make a killing out of leasing trains to franchisees. There are three major players whose profit margins after tax seem to be around 10 per cent, according to a Channel 4 News investigation. Whilst there may well be some shrewd investment and management involved, ownership of these firms lacks transparency (two have registrations in Jersey and Luxembourg). Moreover, these businesses were sold at privatisation for a song. Porterbrook Leasing, for example, was sold in November 1995 for £527m. It was resold in July 1996 to Stagecoach for £825m. In essence, it costs a lot of money to lease trains to generate high profits for the leasing companies.

My argument, then, is this. The railway is only meaningful when it is an integrated whole in terms of its ownership and operation. Keeping franchises in the public sector when the real money is made by those with whom they must contract in order to provide train services; namely, rolling stock leasing companies, is to miss the point. It gets the Labour Party off the hook. But it is not public provision of public services.

Picture: Class 171 Mackensen

Public housing

Bill_RandallI was very pleased to hear Councillor Bill Randall being invited on to Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday to discuss current inequities regarding housing in the context of the acute shortage experienced in Brighton and Hove where he is a senior figure and a distinguished housing expert. This being the BBC, he was pitted against Adam Memon (right) of the Centre for Policy Studies an apologist forMemon continued expropriation of public housing by private landlords and provision of public subsidy for this through high housing benefit allowances. Seemingly in Brighton and Hove, 6000 council dwellings have been sold since Thatcher’s flagship ‘right to buy’ policy of the early 1980s; one thousand of these have passed into the private rented sector. Another tranche have been resold to private sector buyers from outside the town – Brighton, in particular, is extremely expensive and ex-council houses are sought-after properties. A cursory glance in the window of an estate agent shows a three-bedroom example for sale at £275,000. The exchange has been captured here:

Picture: Bill Randall: brightonandhovegreens.org; Adam Memon: CPS

The oil price is a problem

Oil_wellWhilst I am delighted to see that I can fill the tank of my ever-so reliable van for a fraction of what it cost this time last year and fly until my heart is discontent in the knowledge that the value of the airlines (share price) is increasing, they having done nothing more than survive three months since the oil price started to plummet, it is bad news. Why?

First, burning hydrocarbon fuels is bad for the environment and price is a key regulator of consumption. Second, many oil producing countries – some of them not the richest – have set their budgets at anticipated levels; for example, $100. The shortfall of $35 (reflecting today’s price-per-barrel) can make the difference between life-and-death. High oil prices, then, can be good transfer payments between rich and poorer countries.

Third, oil company shares are down sharply. With these stocks being some of the key investments made by pension funds, meeting obligations becomes more difficult. Fourth, investment in renewables will be hit. Suddenly it is only cost-effective to burn oil. Fifth, geopolitics. When demand goes down, price is often regulated by cutting supply. This is not happening for reasons which are currently unclear. However, there are some suggestions that it is a power battle between oil producing countries particularly in the middle-east rendering the region even more unstable than it already is. That is also not to mention the situation in Russia. Very much an oil economy that is suffering also from ludicrous EU sanctions. There is unrest ahead.

What about the positives? Well, I can think of one key positive. The glut in demand is, in part, caused by shale oil production in the USA and tar sands in Canada. These two practices are very damaging to the environment. $65 a barrel is not sufficient to warrant such production. Whether the firms will cease their activities remains to be seen, but what is clear is that where fracking has not yet started, it is unlikely to do so.

Picture: Flcelloguy/Wikipedia

Few cigarette campaigns over Festive period

DSC00549In Germany the tobacco companies, I assume, do not try to compete with the more traditional Christmas advertisers – alcohol, mobile phones, chocolate – for expensive billboard space. The L&M brand, however, seems to have decided to be the smoke of the season promoted by this inspirational effort “5 Euro and more inside” (left). No frills, essentially.

The more, I assume, is the fact that there are 20 cigarettes inside the packet (other brands have fewer). But you get what you pay for, no doubt. In the case of cigarettes, conceivably, the no frills product offers the chance of death before Christmas. Not worth the billboard cost, if you ask me.