Saturday, July 14, 2012

Seeking summer, 2012

2012 Seattle DrownedAncient Central American calendars ended in 2012, leading to predictions of global apocalypse: the eponymous movie predicted a deluge of water cresting the Himalayas.  In The Day After Tomorrow, water inundated New York City as the Gulf Stream reversed.

And then there’s summer, 2012, in Europe.

South along the Maas 7-12

Cinematic renditions exaggerate the conditions, but there is no denying that this has been an exceptionally cold and wet season.Ironically, while the United States suffers under heat, draught, and violent thunderstorms, summer has been completely absent in the Netherlands.

The Maas terrace cafĂ©’s are open, but empty.  The river is running high for July, swirling muddy beneath the St. Servatius bridge.

 

   Warm drinks replace cold beers; soups are preferred to sunglasses.  Pedestrians bundle in layers of warm tops and coats, hats, in July.

A meadow of multicolored umbrellas carpets the pedestrian streets – shoppers hurrying, huddled over, between the showers.  They stop into storefronts when the rain turns particularly heavy, shaking the drops off of their coats and wiping their glasses.

Summer festivals, concerts in the Vrijthof bandshell, are attended by wintry onlookers.  Musicians shiver in crisp white shirts, slowly turning sodden on their windward shoulder.

On the personally negative, the wet weather has put something into the air that is tweaking my occasional asthma: I’ve been waking at night unable to breath and coughing (This month brought to me by the Dutch words allergie, hijgen, hoest and niezen).

On the positive side, when the sun breaks through, it’s glorious in comparison.

 

It’s just a lot too little.  People are making August plans to head south, Spain, Turkey, even Greece, in search of a bit of warmth.  Thus, people readily know where to start the conversation when a colleague sports a tan.

For the rest of us, it’s a glance heavenward to see if the clouds have finally moved through; a glance downward to avoid water pooled on the saturated ground.

And remember, it could yet get worse.  The Mayan calendar doesn’t end until December 21st, 2012.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Run silent, run deep

I hop back and forth across the Channel a lot – I didn’t realize how often until I was discussing it with a colleague yesterday who said that he hasn’t been on a ferry since college.  I do it monthly.  I don’t mind it – it’s a nice break on the trip from Cambridge to Maastricht and, if the seas are calm 9rarely), I can get a few thoughts organized after a couple of hour’s windshield time getting to the docks.

Today I had afternoon meetings out towards Oxford, then needed to get to France before 9 pm.  The veerboot timing simply wasn’t going to cut it, but aferry.com threw up a good fare on the EuroTunnel options.  I’d never done it before, it’s only half an hour across the channel (as compared with three times that much by ferry, so I went for it.

In some ways, it’s a lot like getting on the ferry.  Exiting at Folkstone (after the same dash along the last motorway after traffic jams on the M25 Orbital), there’s a short, dedicated road to the layers of ticket check and passport control.  You get a card telling you which line to join.  You queue up ahead of being allowed to board.

 

Then it changes.  The rail cars are rolling stock, fully enclosed with a portal in the side to admit vehicles.  Once inside, you jam up against one another, four to a narrow cylindrical compartment with small portholes.  The doors are valved shut, the staff checks that everything is locked down, and the announcements begin.  You stay in the car throughout the trip, barely room to open a door and no room to open the boot once inside.

 

 

The train glides forward gently, then angles a few degrees down at the nose. I don’t know how to describe it other than like a submarine: the windows go black and there’s a perceptible feeling of diving under the Channel.  Staff comes through every 10 minutes to check that nobody is smoking or taking flash pictures (apparently it upsets the fire detection system) and the whole compartment gently sways and bumps through the darkness outside.  It’s stuffy, even though its well lit.

France comes quickly and cars are of and onto the highway without the 20-minute delays common at the Calais docks.  In that sense, it’s really nice: there’s more time for the really important things on the other side.

 

 

Cheap French goods at Auchen,  Good French veggies at Carrefour, and picking up the new lease car Winking smile

Monday, July 9, 2012

Understanding the European Crisis

Week by week, month after month, eurozone financial crises cycle through the news, traversing one country after another.   European leaders meet repeatedly to negotiate the final answer, which always involves gigantic loans offering limited reassurance to governments and markets.

nyt graphic

I’ve understood the problem with oversized loans, limited revenues, and the payment gap that is causing countries to lurch towards fiscal disaster.  But it wasn’t really clear how the banks fit into all of this: why aren’t bank issues more easily separable from sovereign ones?

The New York Times has published an outstanding info-graphic that shows some of the answers.  In their telling, weak economies drag on both the countries and the banks, decreasing domestic output (GDP) and tax revenues for the former, increasing bad loans and the cost of money for the latter.  The problem that I hadn’t realized is that the bank’s assets have become much larger than the  gross national product in many countries, so their problems simply became larger than national economies had capacity to handle.

The numbers really are amazing.  The banks borrowed so that they could lend more than they had in deposits, and more than Bank assets vs gdpthe countries could guarantee.  By 2012, bank assets exceed twice the size of their respective countries economies in many of the worst-positioned countries.  It didn’t matter that Spain had low debt levels; it didn’t matter that mega-banks were broken up.  The imbalance remained. And the national treasuries couldn’t cover them.

The two are not completely independent: banks spin off money that contributes to the GDP.  In the UK, that contribution is about 14% of the total (manufacturing contributes 12%).  But when bank assets grow faster than GDP, it’s a delicate bargain. Bank assets are again growing faster than GDP, raising the load that will need to be bailed out if loans repayments and asset values drop again.  It seems like a statistic that would be worth following (but a surprisingly hard one to ferret out).

The NYT analysis is quick going and intriguing in many ways – ‘worth spending 15 minutes thinking about.  Too interlinked; too over-leverged.  And reforms don’t go a hair’s width towards addressing it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

At the Hampton Court Flower Show

It’s my month for gardens: the Barrington Open Gardens, and now the biggest in Britain: the annual fest at Hampton Court Palace.  It takes the better part of a day to explore: acres of show gardens, pavilions, and vendors.  All of the plants are meticulously labeled, beautifully arranged, competitively judged, and all for sale.  I’ve put a selection of images on my Flickr site in addition to these.

   

 

Serious shoppers find their plantings at the show, all collected into Wheelie Boxes.  These are dangerously underfoot in the pavilions, worse than any airport.

 

And, while looking down, I found that it was easy to identify the (over)serious gardeners by their footware.

  

They love to label things, almost to the point of losing the blooms,

 

Among the flowers were sculptures, glass and brass and water,

  

And around them were concept gardens, urban gardens, low-water ‘impact’ gardens, and world gardens.  Here, for example, is the ‘Beer garden’ and the ‘London Riot garden”.