Ah, that blasted productivity slump again

Recently I saw this familiar yet unchanging graph on one of my favorite news sites:

Source: Office for National Statistics

This to me, is quite astonishing. Really? Productivity rose consistently up until the 2008 financial crisis, then slumped, without any significant improvements since? Perhaps most intriguing is that economists can’t agree as to what is causing it.

I can never resist speculating about things like this. I have absolutely no data to back my ideas, but shoot, I’ve gone to the effort of setting up a blog – I’m allowed an opinion right?

One of the most striking changes since that line stopped going ‘up’ was a significant loosening of fiscal policy in the United Kingdom. Quantitative easing, near zero interest rates. We all know that these conditions create asset bubbles, that was on purpose. The London property market has turned out to be the largest outlet.

The situation these days is so bad, that earnings, even by the most skilled, have become practically irrelevant when it comes to purchasing property. Either you have existing equity, or you can sod off.

I cannot help but ponder the potential issues for the economy given that we are now in this situation. In the United Kingdom – the lion’s share of economic activity occurs in London, where one of the most fundamental needs of human beings, that is, a stable living situation – is more or less out of the question for anyone born after 1985 – an unfortunately, ever increasing portion of the capitals workforce.

It’s not all about London though. Millennials all over the country are subject to the endless shake-down of buy-to-let landlords, and are understandably becoming increasingly frustrated. But let’s put them aside for a little bit and consider another demographic: Those who have already left, or never came here to begin with.

With link between earnings and home ownership smashed long ago – Gone also, is opportunity. Opportunities for talented young people to carve out a life which is acceptable to them.

In my line of work, when conditions deteriorate – the top talent is always first to scatter into the wind. One cannot help but wonder if that also applies to entire economies.

I am by no means implying that what I’ve talked about here is the sole cause of Britain’s productivity slump, but I do wonder if taking steps to re-unite earning power with the ability to purchase property may not be such a bad thing.

That having been said – incumbents (ranging from landlords to land bankers) are not going to take thier hands out of the property cookie jar by choice. It is difficult to imagine a scenario which does what I am suggesting that wouldn’t be bad for all of us.

Canada’s rarest export

It feels as if it’s been a while since the hurricane of Canada’s very own John Daly of politics blew through the media, but for me it’s been difficult to overlook the significance of what Rob Ford has done for his country.

This mayoral debacle has triggered an export of something almost never seen out of Canada:

News.

It’s not as if the lack of news from Canada has gone unnoticed but it has definitely been one of my longest running personal observations, so much so that the first thing I did when arriving in Toronto a few years back, wasn’t hit the tourist trail – Nope. I went straight into the nearest newsagent and bought me a stack of domestic newspapers, found the nearest park bench and read them. This may seem like an unusual thing to do but there’s something I had always wanted to know: Just exactly what is a Canadian newspaper? Merely a synonym for a stack of blank paper? Or is there stuff printed in them, i.e. news, and if so, what kind of news is it? Finally after more than 10 years I had my answer, and immediately found myself asking another question: What is news?

I can’t help but cast my mind back to 1997, when this all began. At the time I was a teenager living in my home country of New Zealand, and Winston Peters’ parties ‘underpants on expenses’ scandal was running red hot, while unlikely to have made global headlines, it was a very big deal at the time and even had our media doing a little soul searching of their own. In particular I recall one story criticising the media accusing them of being too focused on political scandal, crime, violence and the rest, and in particular, that we should be more like Canada. Part of this story featured a couple of Canadian news clips documenting the raising of speed bumps by half an inch, and the second about a new paint job on a city library.

Well it is certainly difficult to accuse that of being sensationalist but it did have me asking: Does news become news because it’s on the news, or is it news because people are interested in it? Back to that park bench in Toronto. I’m sitting smack dab in the middle of the most polite, well mannered and orderly country on the planet, questioning the newsworthyness of the news I’ve just handed over a few dollars for.

I would never dispute that Canada has always had a seat at the table of global news generators, and it very much appears that Rob Ford has been the first person to occupy that seat for quite some time, but what next? Sadly it’s going to take a lot more than one man to get this enormous country punching anywhere near its weight class.

But heck, it’s been a bloody good start.

A functional old town

As my plane descended into Marrakesh, I wondered if this would be a place I’d be able to write anything about. At the time I suspected, probably not. This was likely because all my limited imagination had managed to conjure up was an Arabic Bruges, a city which despite being a famous tourist attraction and a great place to visit, to date I have not managed to come up with a single paragraph on which wouldn’t put the most chronic insomniac to sleep.

After a relatively sleepless Christmas eve, I woke up the next morning and nervously made my way towards the Medina (Old city). I really had no idea what to expect. Being Christmas day, a shred of instinct expected little more than tumbleweed. Fortunately for this sightseer, there is no Christmas in Morocco. As I strolled down a quiet street, approaching the Medina’s outer wall, my ears were gradually filled with the sound of a busy city. As I walked through a gate in the wall I was greeted with the most incredible sight: Absolute bedlam. Donkeys, Horses, Camels, Scooters, Push bikes, Motorbikes, Carts, Wheelbarrows… Everything that could possibly be moved was being moved at speed, with little regard for pedestrians. My visions of a quaint beautiful desert city were smashed to pieces.

Satellite dish on the move

Within minutes I had found the souqs, but I’d seen this kind of thing before and predictably, they were of no interest to me. I continued to push my way into the Medina, continuously dodging a medley of moving people, animals and vehicles. Within about an hour I’d established that there was something very very different about this place. Having travelled to 31 countries to date, I wasn’t expecting too many surprises, but this place blew my mind.

So just what was it that had me so excited? was it the Moroccan rugs? The Snake charmers? The Orange juice?

Most European cities have an “old town”, but these areas play little-to-no part in the lives of the locals, they are merely containers for bars, cafes, and souvenir shops mostly frequented by tourists, and occasionally, locals treating themselves. This template is repeated literally hundreds of times throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, I was expecting the same of Marrakesh.

A new window being hacked out of the masonry

Just a few minutes walk from the souqs, I encounter a ramshackle electronics repair shop, inside is a guy repairing CRT televisions. Holy Hell, Hans; What on earth is going on here? Firstly, It’s been several years since I’ve seen a CRT television, let alone someone repairing one. As it turned out, it was only a taste of what was to come.

A general repair shop

As I wandered on, I encountered the workshops of more and more industries: Blacksmiths, Textiles, Food, Clothing. I could go on. In a nutshell, Almost every activity required to support human life was happening, and happening inside a handful of square miles. Sure, there’s places with a lot of industry, but what was so incredible, was quantity and diversity of industry in such a tiny space; furthermore, none of this was for show.

Push-bike structural repair

The most obvious hint that all this wasn’t a tourist puller was the difficulty of taking photos without being yelled at, or having everyone in a 12ft radius demanding 20 Dirham. Tourists were not welcome in these parts of town. For me, it had become very difficult to imagine an “Old town” with any economic activity other than selling booze and fridge magnets, but here I was standing in the middle of a what seemed like a microcosm of 1800’s industrialised Britain.

Blacksmiths at work

I wandered around for hours and hours, fascinated by the madness of this place; all the while, one question was on my mind: Will us westerners ever live like this again? We used to, a few hundred years ago, but sadly, other than shops selling  mobile phones, handbags and shoes, very little can be found in our towns these days.

A white post, obscuring a Television repair shop

As romantic as it’d seem returning to our version of this way of life, unfortunately the catalyst for such a shift would hardly be described as positive by any competent economist. In a society living in the stranglehold of global markets, wishing upon the aforementioned would be, in most circles, lunacy. I think this way of living makes a lot of sense and normally I’d be quick to chime in on such a discussion, but having so much invested in this western world, it’s tough to know where to stand.

As countries become richer, more and more of this “old way of life” is bulldozed, concreted over, and replaced with the western project we call “Progress”. I do wonder what should we be wishing for here: For Morocco to stay poor, so we can continue to witness these incredible places, or for them to transform into a wealthy country. Having money is good, right? If there is one thing I’m fairly sure of, it’s that if Morocco did become rich, the Marrakesh Medina would be transformed from a functioning living and working city into a super tourist-machine ‘Venice of Africa’. Sadly, it’s already heading in that direction, and it’s us tourists which are driving that transformation.

Europe’s hidden middle men

Lately I’ve been taking a closer look at a curious citizen (or often not) of the European landscape: The street hawker. My first encounter with them was some years ago in Paris. Many many hawkers could be found around the Eiffel tower, selling small plastic LED-lit models of the tower. But here’s the interesting thing: They’re all selling the exact same stuff. Exactly the same. This is rather contrary to standard business practice, where, ideally, you’d rather not be selling the same stuff as the guy next door. It’s not as if no-one has ever noticed this, more likely, is not asking why. By the looks of it, this is not a free market.

Handbags for sale

Recently, on a trip to Venice, I encounter these hawkers again for the ‘I-don’t-kn0w-how-many-ith’ time, but this time there’s something different. Amongst the Sub-Saharan African hawkers selling knock off handbags, are some South Asian hawkers; selling different stuff: Splat balls! Then, more South Asian hawkers selling the exact same splat balls, furthermore, each one had the exact same approx 40x30CM melamine board for product demonstration.

A splat ball being splatted

I think I know what’s going on here, I just need to confirm it.

I tried to have a chat with one of the handbag sellers, but when it was established I wasn’t going to be buying one, he quickly got aggressive, so that was the end of that. Without the confidence for journalistic style fact finding, I’d instead have to speculate.

It’s not exactly a secret that there are millions of illegal economic migrants on the European continent, all who have made punishing journeys from their home countries, across many borders, looking for a better life. I’ve got a pretty strong feeling that these hawkers are those people.

Here’s the problem: You’ve just escaped your impoverished, oppressive home country, made an epic many-thousand mile journey (which many don’t survive) to Europe, only to find: They don’t really want you here. Worse still, you’ve got to make some kind of living to survive, but you can’t work, because you’re illegal. Maybe you could start selling stuff on the street? Works for quite a few. To do so, you need to get your hands on some cheap goods, really cheap, not least because you’re flat broke from paying a string of traffickers to get you this far.  Retail stores aren’t an option, because stuff is too expensive to re-sell on the street, and what kind of retailer is going to be selling fake Louis Vuitton bags?

What you really need is some mass produced tourist gimmicks from the far east (think China), not only that,  but the supply chain has to be very short, because people aren’t going to pay top prices for goods sold off the pavement. Problem is, without a credit card, internet connection, or even an address to have them delivered to, getting this stuff is going to be pretty tough. You need a middle man.

The middle man

This guy is the focus of this post. I’ve never seen this person, nor do I know where to find him/her, or have even confirmed their existence, but the evidence for their existence is strong. This person is likely a citizen of the country the hawkers operate in, or has a legal immigration status; Perhaps even a small business and most importantly, a hotline to Alibaba, or similar outfit. This guy has the best market you could ask for, He buys stuff from the far east, and flogs it off to the hawkers. He doesn’t even need to advertise, as the hawkers, and prospective hawkers, find out about him through word of mouth. He’s also the reason why all the hawkers sell the same stuff: When it comes to cheap mass produced goods purchasable by illegal migrants, his product catalogue is the only one in town.

Based purely on observation, It’s fairly likely that each ethnic group has their own middle man, which the hawkers come to know through friends or family connections once they arrive in their destination city. I don’t have any feelings of contempt for the hawkers, but what about those middle men? (Assuming they exist). Well, they’re taking advantage thousands of peoples desperate struggle for survival, and probably turning a fairly healthy profit in the process, but then, without them, they’d have no chance. It’s difficult to know where to stand on this one.

A trully Spanish hole in the ground

If you’ve spent a lot of time outside of Spain’s main cities (Which I haven’t) you might have observed something I saw when descending on my first flight in: Holes in the ground. Not natural holes, but holes of the man-made kind. Most of these holes were accompanied by work sites and construction machinery, not looking particularly attended. On my next trip, a long train ride from Madrid to Valencia, my late friend Amal and I stared wide-eyed out the window at a continuous scarred “war-zone” of a landscape, which did indeed have a lot of holes in it. More interesting still, many of the holes were accompanied by abandoned looking worksites complete with rusting earth moving machinery, then a mere kilometre later, we see a fully active worksite centered on another large hole.

Conceptually, I can understand the need to dig a few holes from time to time, but what I cannot understand is a good reason to dig new holes, when there are other half-dug holes a short distance away. Indeed, digging holes is a very Spanish occupation; this observation was further bolstered on another trip in to Barcelona where I saw (once again, out the plane window) what could have been the mother of all holes, likely visible from space, a few dozen machines were carving up the topsoil at a frenzied pace, assumedly for some kind of large-hole-needing development.

The thing that’s puzzled me about all of this is: Why Spain? I’ve not really seen all of this hole digging, and abandonment of thereof anywhere else, at least not on this scale. A better informed person would quickly point me to the matter of Spain’s failed construction boom, and ailing economy, which, even though true, doesn’t really satisfy me.

At one point, I was standing in Valencia’s main train station, staring at a large billboard of a Spanish construction company. It depicted a beautiful green landscape (like none I have ever seen in Spain) but with an army of machines digging holes in it. In the bottom right hand corner a single word read: “Progreso” (Spanish for “Progress”). Without even realising it at the time, I had just been given my answer.

Reopening the book on Film Photography

Sadly, I’m a bit too young to have really experienced photography using film, worse still, when I first became interested in taking pictures 12years ago, I was already in possession if one of the first affordable digital cameras. To make up for this; a couple of years back I borrowed an old 35mm film SLR from a friend. I guess this was more out of curiosity than anything else. Throughout the time it was in my possession, I ran about 10 36-exposure rolls through it. It has since been returned to its owner.

But just the other week I bought a 35mm film SLR of my own. See, here’s the thing: I just wasn’t quite happy to close the book on film yet.

So why on earth would anyone in this day and age bother to continue shooting 35mm film? Well that is a very interesting question, one which likely has a different answer, depending on which film-shooter you ask. Is there a technical benefit of shooting film? I’m a technical kind-of-guy so surely I’d have some kind of argument to this effect?

If you read the opinions of a well-known photographic-equipment blogger, he’d have you believe that there is a super crazy amount of detail on a 35mm film slide, sufficient to produce 30 megapixel scans in superb detail, but then he would, because he likely gets a cut each time he refers one of his readers to his photo lab. I know from experience that this claim, in the context of scanning to digital, is simply not true. Let me take a minute to explain why. Even the finest grain films (i.e. Velvia 50) do not yield more than 5-7 useable megapixels after scanning, I say useable because sure, you can scan at higher resolutions, but as you start going above this figure, you start noticing the grain, which is the key problem here. Grains and Pixels just don’t mix. If you found a film with exactly 30 million grains which lined up perfectly with all of the pixels on a 30mpix scanner, then you’d get the promised 30mpix. In practise this doesn’t happen, so we have to scan at significantly lower resolution to the extent where there are many grains “under” each digital pixel scanned in order to keep them invisible, this is known as undersampling, and that undersampling just stole 50-75% of your film slide’s resolution. It is true that you could scan at very high resolutions (think 50mpix) and apply complex algorithims, such as noise reduction, then scale the image back down to say, 20mpix, which would get some of that resolution back, but to me this is once again starting to wander into the realm of “just buy a high-resolution DSLR”…

To date, I have never taken a digital photo with the camera in “Black & White” mode. Shot on Black & White film, the images in this post are scans my first B&W frames, shot on my prized newly-acquired Nikon F6.

So what other technical benefits could there be? Is the dynamic range better? No. It’s not. Well, OK, it could theoretically be comparable or better, but without your own darkroom and a lot of dodge-and-burn, how are you going to cash in on that? Considering that most scans are likely 8-bit sRGB or Adobe-RGB, you’re not getting that dynamic range anyway, worse still, if you go directly to print at your processing lab, they’re just scanning it into an sRGB JPEG file and printing it digitally behind your back anyway, so your extra DR Is instantly trashed right then and there. You might as well have given them a JPEG from a cheap point and shoot camera. What about pure optical printing process? Optical printing processes are becoming very rare these days and I needn’t go further than my parents’ photo albums to see that the ones that did exist en-masse weren’t all that great anyway. OK, so you could get some greater-than 8-bit scans done for a higher price, but sheesh, you might as well put your money into a DSLR, because even with the most disciplined scanning workflow, digital is always going to involved at some point, so you might just as well say ‘sod it’ and start off with a digital image.

Colour rendition? Nope, that’s pretty average on film too. With such a ridiculous amount of information captured in each frame taken by a high-end DSLR, you can easily emulate the rendition of any photographic film ever made. What about contrast?

I could go on but as far as I am concerned there is absolutely no tangible technical benefit of shooting film. So what on earth am I doing messing around with the stuff then? Well I actually largely covered my opinions on this one in a previous blog post, but I’d go on to say that there’s just something so satisfying about sitting down and flipping through a pack of newly-developed photos, which at the very least, I had to wait a few days to see. These days photography ought to be satisfying, because it sure as hell doesn’t earn any money… I’m just not quite sure if digital gives me that obliged satisfaction personally. Having said all of this, it’s unlikely you’ll catch me travelling with a film SLR because, hey, I’d prefer a little more than 6 megapixels, 36 exposures, ISO 100 and no instant-review for my holidays snaps thank-you-very-much! But then, my parents managed just fine with this limitation during their European travels, and they were happier with their pictures than I have been with mine so far. Damn it.

Ryanair strikes again

I’m currently sitting at Stansted airport, stuck, because my plane broke down, so they’re having to fly in a new one in from Greece. I suspect I’m going to be here for a very, very long time.

I hate flying Ryanair. Every time I board a Ryanair flight, a little piece of my soul dies. Unfortunately on this particular trip, there weren’t a lot of other choices. The worst thing of all is, Ryanair doesn’t need to be as crappy as it is. If they just did the following:

  • Sort out that garish blue and bus-yellow colour scheme
  • Remove the stupid “We’re on time” chime, and, especially, stop playing it when the flight arrives late
  • Stop making me queue up at the check-in desk to have my boarding pass stamped, with a crappy date stamp. I’m actually going to walk into Ryman and buy one, so I can stamp my own Boarding passes in future
  • Stop capping peoples’ bags at exactly 10.0000KG. Standing in the queue worrying that your bag is 1 gram over, and that you’re about to be slammed with a huge fee tends to make you a bit of a nervous wreck at the best of times
  • When you deliver your passengers at their destination 4 hours late, surely, you could pass up on playing all the cabin audio advertisements and apologise? At 1:30AM in the morning in a foreign country, I’m generally more concerned about how on earth I’m going to get to my hotel than I am about buying perfume from this crappy airline.
  • Generally just “de-tackified” the whole operation. Just because it’s cheap, it doesn’t have to be tacky too

On the face of it, Wizz Air may appear to be a crappier airline still, due its run-down planes, astoundingly even-smaller amount of legroom, but actually; I’ve been on a few Wizz flights now, and unlike Ryanair, I’m not furious and disillusioned after every flight.

DB: BAHN.

With almost endless daily ranting about the poor level of service provided by the UK rail companies, it almost seems a shame not to join in. But I ought to keep my mouth shut, as the railways in my own country, far from a vast nation-wide network covering every place worth-living-in, are little more than rusting scrap. Even then, one can’t help but stand on the sideline and observe the spectacle.

So what on earth is all of this about then? As a New Zealander who grew up in a culture barely knowing of the existence of trains, the offering in the UK is impressive: It’s fast, efficient, comfortable, effortless, fairly expensive (but worth it). What on earth is there to complain about?

After living here for a few years, I’m starting to see what people are complaining about. The most common complaints generally seen to be centred around overcrowding, overcomplicated ticketing systems, punctuality, cleanliness, and so on. When we lift the lid just a little on the British railways, we see a highly dysfunctional mess with many private companies and state owned enterprises generally just “not getting along”. Everyone’s got their own little patch within the nationwide system and they couldn’t give a darn about anything other than profits. So what on earth is the solution to all this mess? The United Kingdom government has been trying to figure that out for the last 50-70 years, with varying combinations of full state ownership, partial privatisation, largely privatised and so on. They’ve all (eventually) fallen into some form of dysfunction, requiring government intervention. Every time this comes up in the media, one name is always mentioned, which is also the subject of this post:

Deutsche Bahn. Ah yes. Those pesky Germans again. When you first arrive in Germany, you’re immediately smitten by its presence: The super-giant public transport “Machine”. Its logo can be seen on almost anything that moves. It’s efficient, reliable,  clean, punctual, comfortable… and it’s also owned 100% by… The state. So how is it then, that this state owned railway in Germany has been so successful, when the same recipe failed so spectacularly in the UK? Politicians of this country have been trying for a long time now to “Bottle up” some DB and bring it back here.

Is that really possible? to somehow create a whole new transport body, which I’m going to cheekily call  “Großbritannien Bundesbahn”, or GBBB for short. Let’s say we pass every necessary piece of legislation, and 100% copy the DB “operating manual”, Could this monster possibly succeed and even come close to the level of efficiency as its German counterpart? Not a fucking chance.

When you ride on German public transport, there’s something different about it, something “intangible”. You could try and bring DB’s body here, but its soul will always remain in Germany. When you’re building a Bismarck sized entity like DB, there’s a few very-difficult-to-get-right things that are absolutely essential to its success:

  • Objective. A public transport system should be a service to a country, not a profit generating machine. It’ll always run at a loss, the profits will be made on taxes from the economic activity it generates.
  • Jiggery-pokery. People like tradition and familiarity. If you’ve got a brand set-up, working and successful. Leave it alone. Even if operations are a bit complex behind the scenes, always present the same simple and unified face to the public. Transport for London at least, manages to do this.
  • Repeatability. Use the same ticketing system, same fare structure, same ticketing machines, same everything nationwide. If people think a system is too complex to figure out, or that they have to re-learn it every time they use it, they’re not going anywhere near it.
  • Engineering efficiency. If you’re running hundreds of different types of vehicles in a system, this severely reduces efficiency, as many skill-sets, workshops and parts inventories are needed to service them.
  • Brand acceptance. The staff will treat your brand exactly the same way in which the public treat it. If the public hates your brand, your staff will trash it from the inside out.

Sure, DB does all of the above, and the UK railways largely do none of it, but the last point, to me, is the most important and most difficult. No legislation or operating procedure can immediately create this. I also feel that it’s the one the UK would struggle with most of all. The British public hate the railways, and the staff working on them could care less. As far as I can see, there might be 2 ways to solve this:

  • Fix the symptoms: Sure, if you throw enough subsidy at the system, the level of service will eventually become satisfactory, but this would take far more money than the Government can currently spare, so we can pretty much forget this option.
  • Fix the problem: This would require a fundamental restructure of the current system, basically bringing everything back under the control of the state, or a single central (properly) managed private entity. For this to succeed, everyone involved would have to be working not just for money, but also for dignity and gratification. In a culture were people would rather a hand-out, this has little chance of success.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I’m not sure I can actually see any way out of this at all.

Prague: The perfect antidote to modern urbanism

Now, if you think I’m about to write a lengthy blog post about the beauty of Prague, think again. Doing so would be akin to writing about the roundness of the wheel, the greenness of grass, or perhaps even the wetness of water. I know you’ve already been to Prague, and I know you’ve also witnessed it’s beauty first hand.

As always, I don’t just write about places because they’re beautiful. I write about them because there was something thought provoking. The thing that’s stood out in Prague is the tourist demographic. Specifically, the American tourists. I mean sure, there’s a fair few American tourists in the big hang-outs such as Paris and London but their numbers are eclipsed by those of the Eastern Europeans and others, thus to say they are in the minority.

So what’s up with all these Americans? Well unfortunately I don’t know too many Prague-loving yankee folk, so as usual I’m just going to have to speculate on this one, which is much more fun anyway. To get to the bottom of this we need to go back to the key objective of tourism: To see something you don’t normally see in your home town/country. Let’s suppose you were born and raised in the so-called “Greatest country on earth” and you’re about to load your arse onto a plane and go some-wher’, by golly, it had better be somewhere good. Strictly speaking, by Amercan standards: Prague is good.

So what do I mean by that? I’ll come right out and say it: The urban fabric in most of North America is, well, different. My predominant memories from my 2010 visit were Strip malls, Parking lots, Chuck E. Cheese’s, Wall-marts, K-Marts, Home depots, McDonalds, Taco-bells, Blank concrete walls, Blank grass berms, Asphalt, Vast highways… I could go on and on. Needless to say these aren’t the building blocks of a beautiful city. It hardly needs to be said that Prague (as arguably one of the most beautiful cities in Europe) is extreme opposite of all of that.

You could say I’ve been a little hard on the little ol’ USA there but actually, as someone from New Zealand I’m fairly well qualified to comment on this as we are also a suburb loving, “built post world war 2” car-culture country . We’ve never heard of public transport and we too have (albiet smaller) strip malls to go with our vast state highway network, not to mention many millions of auto-mobiles. Our country was also almost entirely constructed in the golden age of liquid fossil fuels and it really shows. Indeed it is very difficult to find urban beauty in New Zealand. Most of it seems to be either painted over or buried amongst modern developments. In an age where it’s not acceptable for a building to take longer than 2 years to construct, we’re only going to see less and less of this beauty. It also doesn’t help when a fistful of them are levelled by a large earthquake.

Now, is all of this urban trash isolated to New Zealand and the USA? Nope. It’s a global phenomenon and an unstoppable one at that. You only have to venture a short distance outside of Prague to find the same flimsy GIB Board®, MDF and Fibrelite™ constructions seen throughout my own country. The fact of the matter is that although Prague’s urban landscape is almost utopian, building this kind of thing comes at considerable cost.

So it appears that for now, at least, humanity continues its new found endless cycle of constructing buildings which always look fantastic in the Artists concepts, but turn out to be a just a little less than fantastic when completed, finally to end up as “tacky” in 30 years time, when the wrecking ball finally moves in and the new Artists concept is drawn. All the while these hand-built timeless stone and marble buildings will be preserved and continue to be enjoyed throughout the generations.

Anyway. Enough of all of this heavy-hitting, depressing ramble. The other thing I’d really like to mention about Prague is the refrigerators found in small shops. I walked into a shop to buy a bottle of water, I head over to the fridge and start tugging on the door, but it wont open?! stranger still, the handle is half broken off. Seconds later the store keeper is yelling at me. “You have to ask!” he shouts. He then pushes a button under the counter which “buzzes” the fridge door open, much like you would buzz a guest through the front door of your apartment block.

I’m sorry, but what is with this? So I have to go down the the front of the shop and ask the owner to buzz the freakin’ fridge door open? What on earth is the point of this? I thought this might be an isolated case but alas, no. I came across it several times and even found a shop with this same style of electronic lock on the ice-cream freezer. There were no shortage of amusing occasions where other tourists were seen to be tugging and heaving on the doors of these frozen Fort-Knox’s. No wonder the handles were often broken off. I can actually see a sane use-case for this kind of thing in the home, where young children are constantly stealing from the fridge, certainly, one would not have gone a miss to keep my child self out. But in a shop? I was so peeved at being told off for attempting to buy a drink that I almost stormed straight out!

War of the green crosses

As I’ve travelled around Europe I’ve noticed something: Pharmacies. Not the fact that there are pharmacies, but the signage they use, specifically, the large bright green flashing Neon and LED signs. They’re everywhere and they’re very hard to miss. What amazes me is how much of an eyesore some of them can be. I’ve literally seen pharmacies with huge more-than metre by metre, flashing, blinking retina burning, gigantic green crosses. Often they will display crazy animated patterns or some form of semi-useful information on them i.e. time & temperature. I once saw one with a stock ticker. Apparently the pharmacy owners have a need to “one up” their competitors as the scale of these signs seems to balloon as the density of pharmacies increases in a given area. The United Kingdom is a notable exception. Pharmacies tend to have small subtle non animated Neon signs, probably due to fear of being served an Asbo. Pictured below is the grand daddy of all of the pharmacies I’ve ever seen – In Lyon, France, this guy has no fewer than 46 Neon & LED crosses on his shop. Nice. I can’t help but feel that he may be taking the mickey.