Unforgivable

Two things I missed most about Australia are:
– paying $5 for a small bottle of water (best business ever), and:

– watching policemen arrest cyclists for not wearing helmets

I spent two years in London and really only started enjoying my days there when I traded the Tube for a bike.

The first few months I terrified myself over the dangers and deaths on my commuting route. I bought a Swedish Hovding airbag scarf and rode everywhere in a bright yellow jacket.

I have no regrets over the Hovding. Design and engineering that good is well worth the coin, but I soon stopped wearing it. Partly as it was designed for dainty Swedes rather than Australian-Greeks which made it a little tight around the neck, but mostly as it was an unwelcome entry of fear into my daily commute.

A Hovding. Looks best on Swedes.

It turns out cycling is actually incredibly safe. It is only about twice as dangerous as walking down the street, and noone loses sleep over that.*

Cycling safety statistics are fuzzy, but Boris bikes provide some interesting data points. Since 2010 Boris bikes are ridden helmetless by clueless tourists and children cycling for the first time. There were some 40 million rides to 2014, and maybe another 10 million since. There has been only one death.

Both of these men are still alive.

So in one of the busiest cities in the world your chance of dying is perhaps one in fifty million. This is in line with the estimate of 1 UK death per 30 million miles ridden made elsewhere, but the Boris bike data is far more robust.

Anyway, back to my favourite things, some boffin calculated that Australia’s criminalisation of helmet-less riding has increased death by a factor of 20 to 60. Twenty to sixty times!

It turns out that 90% of cycling deaths have nothing to do with your head. The real danger is being crushed to death by a garbage truck or some similar indignity.**

Even this isn’t enough to explain how injury rates are no higher when wearing a helmet. The most convincing explanations are that cyclists modify their own behaviour when freeriding, and car drivers (who actually cause all the deaths) drive more carefully around the helmetless.

But why would death rates increase?

As it turns out, cars run on petrol while bicycles run on body fat. The bizarre criminalisation of freeriding caused cycling to drop by over 30%. Multiplied by the amount of riding, that’s a lot of fat. For some groups, such as young women, the drop in cycling was almost complete.

Occasionally weird behaviour bubbles out in civilised conversation. It’s apparently OK to say that¬†a train stop in Bondi is a bad idea as ‘all the bogan Westies would come’. It’s OK¬†to¬†lecture indigenous¬†footy players on race¬†in national newspapers, and it’s OK for a lazy air-conditioned drivers to swear at cyclists outside in the heat, who pose basically¬†zero risk of death to anyone in a car. Fine.

But¬†the nannies running the show over here scored a¬†spectacular own goal. Their spouses are fatter, their kids worse at sport, the traffic thicker and the air smellier. This time they‚Äôve also actually killed a number of people.*** But what¬†I’ll never forgive or forget¬†is that they‚Äôve made life here just a little bit more dull.

* per distance unit, I’ll update this with a source at some stage
** or a crazy speedy Russian, in my only near-death experience. He veered into incoming traffic on Westminster Bridge to save my life, so I owe him at least that much

*** kind of, whatever

pss I actually have a weird kind of respect for whoever sells 750ml of water for $5.

Stalin and Mao

It takes a certain level of judgement to look back on Stalinist Russia and decide that sounds like a good idea. This was the conclusion made by Tsipras in the 90s, no less. Some of his allies are genuine Maoists. I got the first taste of this when I was woken up by shouting in Thessaloniki many years ago and saw a legitimate communist rally taking place. Who knew communism was still a thing!

Tsipras has smothered his behaviour in the language of democracy. He is the freedom fighter for all Europe, the same way  Putin is the enemy of all fascists.

Tsipras could have used this referendum as a negotiating ploy but he didn’t. He had a direct line to Merkel but slapped her in the face by not even broadcasting his intentions hours before.

He could have called a referendum for last week and spared the suffering Greeks a week of capital controls. He could have called a vote on a proposal that actually exists, but he did not. This election is a sham. Tsipras has no obligation to leave if he loses.

Who is this guy? When Tsipras first formed a government  he might have joined with moderate pro-European allies on the left. Instead he formed an alliance with the far right, and made their leader the head of Defence. This is not the action of a hinged man. This is the action of someone for whom the means justify the ends, as they did for Mao, Stalin, Trotsky and the other men honoured by Syriza.

Syriza is manned by the descendants of losers of the Greek civil war. They were the first to be burned by US napalm in 1948. They were  locked up under the military dictatorship with all the  tortures, abuses and indignities dished out by US puppet states half a century ago. Syriza is not part of the Greek establishment. They were the losers of the modern era.

Tsipras’s allies are in Russia and Venezuela, his heroes the rogues and scoundrels of the early-to-mid 20th century Left. He was never here to compromise.

It‚Äôs not a good idea to think politicians are stupid – there is usually some kind of plan. Even seemingly dumb operators like Abbott and Gillard are surprisingly effective when you look at what they actually achieve. The only plan consistent with his¬† random and constantly surprising moves is to break Greece from Europe and align it with different friends, with a different style of government and with the freedom from the EU to set its own radical path. In this context the circus of the recent ‚Äėnegotiations‚Äô makes plenty of sense.

Greeks should not fear leaving the EU half as much as what Tsipras and his radical Syrizans would do if unconstrained by the EU. The next election is 2019 where Tsipras can actually be booted out is 2019. Most of the Greeks I know would prefer to live in London than Moscow, and will surely vote that way.

Tsipras has already intensified the blistering poverty of Greece (those overgenerous pensions are about 500 euros a month). We can at least be thankful that so far he has proved better than his idols.

Getting close

For the past few years I’ve always thought the Greek exit fears were way overblown.¬†That now seems optimistic.

There have been some cringey moments from the Greeks. The first was Varoufakis parading around European like a university student.
When Tsipras replaced him on the negotiating team I thought that was an excellent sign: Tsipras showed restraint, authority and distance. He could have easily positioned himself as the statesman behind the scenes and continued to intervene when his negotiators got too excited. But lately he himself has come across as hysterical.
At the end of every meeting the news is leaked that the Syrizans tried to convince their counterparts to release a memo saying progress was made.
The fact this has been consistently refused – when the bar for progress would be so low – is concerning. It’s also revealing of the characters of the Greeks involved. Why waste energy and public conflict on something that is form rather than substance?
 
There has been a lot of talk about ‘game theory’, ‘prisoner’s dilemmas’ and so on.
This has totally backfired. There is certainly insight to be gained from these kind of thought experiments. But it is at the margin. If Varoufakis and Tsipras thought there was a way to game their counterparties – who have decades more experience
I jumped on the bandwagon and read¬†‘Thinking fast and slow’ by Kahneman after it was widely praised. It was certainly interesting, but by the end of it something just wasn’t quite right. Can we really draw so much insight from experiments designed with a handful of participants making faux gambling decisions? There is more to this world of ours than that.
The Greeks have attempted to play a tough negotiating game as their theory recommends Рbut this will not be decided by old suited men playing cards, or deciding whether to buy now or later. It will be decided by popular opinion, the wave of which all these politicians ride.
It’s another demonstration of the failure of academics in politics. Witness Miliband, his college advisors and his bizarre rhetoric. The only people more annoying than student politicians are student politicians who don’t grow up.
There is now limited time for the Greeks, and almost no goodwill. Syriza has played for domestic political support but lost the argument overseas.
On all the key metrics Рunemployment, bank deposits, GDP Рthere has been a stepwise change for the worse. The Greeks who supported Syriza deserve better.
It didn’t have to be this¬†way. Funnily enough a major part of their failure has been form, rather than substance. A little more respect to institutions they are asking money from might have actually helped.

Rogues

The world’s political scumbags can barely contain their excitement in lining up to support Mr Blatter.
The filthy¬†hacks of FIFA have always been¬†irritating, but as a rule it’s best not to get too worked up about things like this. Plenty of¬†corrupt men actually¬†do die old, rich, happy and oversexed.¬†It’s probably best not to get too worked up about¬†it.
But as an Aussie there’s one part of the saga that particularly niggles.
Australia¬†not only received one vote for what has become Qatar’s World Cup,¬†we also tried to use honest taxpayer coin to peddle influence with FIFA’s¬†slimiest officials.
Of ¬†$46 million the¬†Federal Government provided for our embarrassingly unsuccessful¬†bid, a full¬†$12 million¬†was handed to three of Sepp‚Äôs pals, led by a Peter¬†Hartigay, ‘special advisor’ to Sepp himself. This guy:
Peter Hartigay
$500 thousand more made it directly into Jack Warner’s personal bank account.
I can’t tell if it’s worse that the Australian government paid this awful man, or that the leading lights at FFA were naive enough to think that half a million was going to cut it.
I can imagine the conversations when Sepp Blatter rocked up to Australia, all charm, and convinced FFA to make a bid he knew would fail. A con artist of the highest order.
How do you end up with a $12 million pay check from a country like Australia? Where does such a career even start?
Mr Hartigay’s first claim to fame was to fly in to Bhopal after one of the more horrific chemical accidents in industrial history. He masterminded the PR campaign that helped Union Carbide avoid paying due compensation to the survivors and the families of those that drowned to death in poison gas Рa real kick in the teeth.
This is the man Australia saw fit to pay $12 million for a losing bid. Makes you not want to pay your taxes.

Zero

For a number of reasons the recent halving in the oil price is undoubtedly a good thing. Most obviously because it’s a direct cash transfer from the bad guys (loosely Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran) to the good guys (the rest of us).

But more importantly energy bills are something that we are simply better off without. It’s like a tax, only it’s sent offshore and vanishes into the maw of a handful of sexist, violent and viciously homophobic despots.

If energy prices went all the way to zero this would be swimming. All goods would become cheaper and more available. The economics is a little confusing but this still holds if you use a not-money measure like hours-worked.

It’s interesting to consider what else we’d like to go to zero. Obviously all commodities come to mind, and the human and financial capital sucked into those industries would be redeployed. What else? I’m not sure.

As a flipside, the one thing we want to go up is wages (again, doesn’t need to be in monetary terms).

Tragically it’s always going to cost something to dig ore out of the ground, much as the Aussie majors would like to test how far they can push the price down.

But energy? Maybe that can go close to zero. Every solar farm that’s built adds 40 years of capacity with only minor costs added. Over a million houses in Australia now have panels on their roofs. The key dynamic here is that once solar is installed it pumps out free electricity indefinitely, or for the rest of our lifetimes anyway.

As the price of PV solar approaches dirty coal, we can expect installation rates to increase steadily, and the total installed capacity to increase exponentially (ok so technically that means both have to increase exponentially, whatever).

Short of a wide-spread shift to electric cars this should over the next two decades place firm downward pressure on electricity prices.

For all the green movement’s heart-felt angst at capitalism, when the prices finally reach that tipping point, where it always makes more sense to install solar over coal, the shift will happen overnight, with an economic force that noone will be able to resist (without losing their money anyway).

The prospect of fusion adds a further dash of spice to the mix. It’s too hard to assess something that’s always five to ten years away, but no doubt we’ll get there eventually.

If the world was run by solar and the transport and storage problem was solved physically (hills, fly-wheels etc) or chemically (hydrogen, batteries etc) what would happen if we were plunged into a nuclear, astro or cyclical winter?

Technically society can last on electricity alone. We can grow all our food hydroponically, live underground and create our own light… with enough time. If we lost all power things would be difficult. At least the fusion plants might keep going.

Which brings me to my next point. There are a number of times (blessedly fewer as time rolls on) when society collectively decides to be totally irrational, and aggressively attacks anyone who speaks sense. Some examples are drug incarcerations, forcing people to use helmets on bicycles and, ofcourse, nuclear power.

There’s a great quora response that compares the tens of thousands of people that die every year in the coal industry, to the handful that have died in nuclear power.

What about Chernobyl? There were 60 immediate deaths and 4000 direct cases, perhaps another 4000 from those exposed. If you include everyone in Europe who died of cancer and was exposed to low level radiation, you get a higher number, but you don’t need me to point out why that’s poor science and even worse maths.

These are tragedies, ofcourse, but over a million people die in coal mines every year. This is a direct result of the anti-nuclear. What about Fukushima, which lead to Germany basically mothballing its entire nuclear industry? The toll from radiation exposure is precisely zero.

By the way, this includes twenty five thousand deaths in the US and Europe a year.

You just can’t argue for nuclear and saving the lives of these millions without sounding like a right wing capitalist bastard.

Ofcourse, it’s probably the name itself that’s so toxic, linking incredibly safe power generation to our most feared weapons. My favourite example of this kind of thing(though it certainly wasn’t my favourite subject) is the reaction to one of our greatest achievements: Nuclear Magnetic Resonance . Naturally this had to be rebranded as MRI, since who would dare slide into a Nuclear treatment machine?

It would be almost as bad as eating chemicals.

Greek Fashion

The most important thing is to see things as they are, not how they look. Charmers are far more dangerous than awkward bumblers, and the best opportunities are rarely the sharpest dressed.

Tsipras, the cool new Greek PM, and his sexy bald Finance minister, Varoufakis, are cases in point.

Varoufakis made Osborne look like the toff he is by rocking up to Downing street like a dad who likes 70s rock music. The meeting went well.

View image on Twitter
However, the UK was just a warm-up. Varoufakis then turned up to meet officials from the ECB.

Syriza¬†(the party of Varoufakis and Tsipras)¬†have done excellent work in building¬†their negotiating position. Tsipras’s fiery history of¬†fierce rhetoric¬†gives him ample space¬†to be¬†more reasonable than expected, while¬†leaving little doubt on his mandate to push hard.

Greece actually has more negotiating power than the ridiculous, punitive, 90s-crisis style ‘bail-out’¬†suggests. It’s clear¬†a completely new approach is¬†the best thing for Greece and (a little more contentiously) for their Eurozone partners.

The ECB responded to all this as expected, by beating their own chest. They are now¬†refusing Greek banks access to ECB funding – which sounds worse than it is, given that the banks’ continued access to slightly more expensive, but available, ELA funding.Unfortunately Varoufakis sartorial choices are more consequential here than in London.

After an unproductive meeting Schauble looks old and befuddled, but also like someone who simply doesn’t believe in giving money for free. He is backed by the vast majority¬†of Germans. My personal favourite was his repeat of the offer to send 500 German tax collectors to Athens.

The Eurozone officials should focus on Syriza’s sensible and reasonable policies, rather than the left wing radicalism perception. But on this case, I’ll side with ze Germans. There is no point provoking people. With German opinion so one-sided, perhaps Varoufakis should have left the politics at home, and worn something a little more¬†neutral.

There will be plenty of time for him to look daringly fashionable, and many more opportunities to poke fun at the European Establishment. This perhaps was not one of them.

Supportive editorials by publications like Der Spiegel show many are behind Syriza’s economics. But¬†the young Greek upstarts need to give the elected officials of the North¬†as much popular breathing space as possible. It’s one thing to show up the former Greek government as boring and lame in a fair democratic fight. It’s quite another to¬†pull the same stunt on¬† the Eurocrats that will decide Greece and Syriza’s fate.

Varoufakis is already a hero in Greece and to many in bystander nations like the UK. The real challenge will be to win over public opinion in Deustchland.

How civilised the British

There is little more annoying than seeing a man (usually a man) puff up his chest, beat it with fists and holler his love for God, country and/or team.

An unfortunate part of being an expat in London right now is seeing the usually good-natured Scots wallow in patriotism and both rudely and publicly flirt with nationalism, itself barely a step from racism.

The risks of independence are huge Рthe lost benefits equally so. If there ever was or is a case for free trade, unrestricted movement, a shared legal framework and common association amongst people, then surely it is so for the largest British isle.

Yet the world could quite possibly soon watch centuries of tangled roots be ripped apart. I would not bet against the SNP from here.(1)

But while traversing down the emotional thread of alternating credulity and misapprehension that every foreigner looking at this issue has or will go through, it struck me how ridiculous the whole spectacle really is.

This is a moral issue where the Brits are once again streaks ahead of the world, and most of the rest of the West. I don’t even need to give examples.(2)

In sight of blood-boiling nationalism on one side (the same both North and South of the border), we are treated to the astonishing reality that the English really would amputate a rather significant limb to keep accordance with the law.

How uplifting to see the true level of modern British civilisation.

(1) I joke, there’s a price for everything. I wonder what odds that Tom Waterhouse wanker is giving.
(2) Spain/Catalonia, IraqSyriaTurkey/Kurds, Israel/Middle East (and vice versa), Ukraine/Crimea – on which even my most favourite commentators blatantly disregard the actual vote¬†which actually¬†just took place, Western Australia/rest of Australia, I should stop…