Real yanks don’t like trains

August 30, 2013

Residents of the United States really don’t like travelling by train, reports The Economist. Stats abound to prove how different US train travel is from elsewhere:

When you adjust for population, the disparity is even more shocking: per capita, the Japanese, the Swiss, the French, the Danes, the Russians, the Austrians, the Ukrainians, the Belarussians and the Belgians all accounted for more than 1,000 passenger-kilometres by rail in 2011; Americans accounted for 80. Amtrak carries 31m passengers per year. Mozambique’s railways carried 108m passengers in 2011.

Aside from the obvious explanation (America is just so darn big) there are a number more interesting, including most of the track being owned by freight companies, meaning passenger trains get second class status, often delayed by their freighty competitors for trackspace. And, inevitably, train travel has become political, with President Obama backing investment in high speed, thus making opposition to rail the natural Republican stance.

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Obama: the most videoed president in history

August 22, 2013

Did you know that President Obama has an official videographer? I found out today, thanks to this NPR article.

Arun Chaudhary spent the entire 2008 campaign and the first two years of the administration filming Obama behind the scenes.

“We are definitely talking about thousands and thousands of hours,” he says, “and that’s just … my camera.”

Chaudhary and his successors have filmed Obama on the basketball court, in the Oval Office and palling around with Elena Kagan seconds before he nominated her to the Supreme Court.

How cool is that? The problem, it transpires, is that the sheer volume will, given the format, make it a nightmare for future historians to navigate:

While the material will go to the National Archives and eventually to the Obama presidential library, Chaudhary says there are crucial differences between official and casual events that make his material much harder to search.

“I could put the text of a speech into a file or something next to the video of the speech … and then when you’re searching for a specific line, it can come up,” he says. “But to actually have someone transcribe every casual conversation the president had with anyone while I was filming, I can tell you would take a long time.”

Those transcripts don’t exist, and nobody plans to create them. The behind-the-scenes footage is labeled by date and place. But beyond that, the contents will remain a mystery until someone combs through and catalogs them.

In the meantime, here’s a really fun compilation clip:


Rabbit hutch homes set to continue

August 21, 2013

So yesterday’s post was a case of ‘too enthusiastic too soon’: the government’s consultation on living space did not, as it happens, go so far as to back standards on room sizes in new build houses in order to reverse the trend towards increasingly hutch-like homes. In covering the news, the Guardian quotes a housebuilder:

Jeff Fairburn, chief executive of Persimmon, which accounts for about 10% of the new homes market, claimed the reduction in house sizes reflected modern preferences and lifestyles. “We have house types to maximise efficiency. [Today] you have living and cooking spaces at the back of houses and less formal dining space. I don’t recognise claims that houses are too small. That is not the feedback we are getting.”

By ‘feedback we’re getting’, you suspect Mr Fairburn means ‘the feedback we choose to listen to’.


We live in the smallest homes in western Europe

August 20, 2013

The FT today covers the news that communities minister Don Foster is launching a ‘space consultation’, which is not quite as exciting as if the policy being consulted on were about whether we should live on Mars, but likely to be more important. As anyone who’s owned, lived in or visited a home on a newly-built estate will recognise all too vividly, modern dwellings have shrunk compared to their forebears. But I was surprised to read by just how much:

Typical new homes in Britain have nearly halved in size over the last 80 years, making them the smallest in western Europe, as builders try to eke greater profits from their plots of land. The average one-bedroom new-build home now offers space equivalent to a Tube carriage. Developers have been forced to deny the use of cut-size furniture and wall mirrors in their show homes to create the illusion of roominess.


Don’t fly Chinese

August 19, 2013

Were you frustrated by airline delays or airport inefficiency this summer? I know I was. But any problems surely pale in comparison to those facing the Chinese flier, if this report by Time magazine is anything to go by. The stats speak for themselves:

According to data provider FlightStats, all of the  world’s 10 worst airlines for timekeeping in June were Chinese. FlightStats also  notes that China’s airports — also operated by the state and bereft  of customer-friendly facilities like decent restaurants or shopping — are  prime offenders for tardiness. A paltry 18% of flights from Beijing’s Capital  International Airport took off on time this June — the worst record of any major  airport anywhere in the world. And Beijing is far from China’s only  laggard. No. 2 on the FlightStats’ global offenders list? Shanghai.

The reasons for this woeful state of affairs apparently include military dominance of airspace (restricting the freedom of passenger planes), the inertia of a small number of government-owned dinosaur airlines (three firms alone account for 80 per cent of the market), and overly-stringent air traffic control restrictions. But passengers are fighting back – impressive in this most restrictive of regimes – and in July an entire planeload of frustrated travellers simply refused to disembark upon landing because of being delayed for so long.

The chance of positive change currently seems to be slim, however: according to Chinese media reports, airports are attempting to avoid angering travellers by… simply not announcing delays at all.


The two men in the red corner

August 19, 2013

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza thinks the fault lines of the Republican Party can be personified in the towering figures of two men: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul. A bold claim this far out… but party poll data do emphasise how neatly the Party is bifurcated. Here’s Cillizza’s main argument (full article here):

The political reality is that Christie and Paul almost certainly can’t peacefully coexist within the Republican Party — which has lost the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections and finds itself on the wrong side of the shifting demographics of the country — because they represent such divergent views on the right way to move the party forward.

Paul sees principle at the root of the Republican renaissance, a core set of beliefs grounded in libertarian principles of keeping the government out of people’s lives and fundamentally rethinking the way American military might is used abroad.

Christie is openly dismissive of the “college professors” in the party who would rather win arguments than win elections. He is a political and policy pragmatist who is explicitly positioning himself as the guy best able to break the Republicans’ White House drought.

And this is the polling data:

Fifty-four percent of respondents believe the party needs to be more conservative; 40 percent believe it needs to moderate. On abortion, 26 percent believe the party isn’t conservative enough while 25 percent think it’s too conservative. Ditto gay marriage, with 31 percent describing the GOP’s position as too conservative and 27 percent saying it isn’t conservative enough.


Are older people deserting the Republican Party?

August 14, 2013

If they are, it would be a really big deal, not least because ‘seniors’ are amongst the voters most likely to actually vote. The Atlantic has this story which suggests it’s happening quickly and dramatically. It stems from a national survey by ‘respected on both sides of the aisle’ Democrat pollster Stan Greenberg, although a national survey with a comparatively small – for the US – sample size of 841 likely votes (in 2014).

But the drop in support does seem big even if you stick to comparing to an earlier Greenberg poll, taken at the start of 2011:

Just 28 percent of voters 65 and older had a favorable view of the Republican Party in a national survey conducted last month by the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, versus 40 percent who had a positive view of the Democrats. That’s a reversal from a poll Greenberg conducted in early 2011, when 43 percent of seniors saw Republicans favorably and 37 percent saw Democrats that way.

What are the reasons for this? Probably a mix of reaction against Republican plans to change healthcare funding, more positive feelings about Democrats’ ability to run the economy, and ever-increasing frustration at GOP obstructionism in Congress. Interesting stuff.


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