Scottish Tram Financing

Transforming Travel... or not. Edinburgh Tram's optimistic route plan.
Transforming Travel… or not. Edinburgh Tram’s optimistic route plan.

Some Edinburgh City councillors already privately refer to the city’s tram project as the problem that “cannot be named”. Much as actors refer to Shakespeare’s tragedy as “the Scottish play”, superstitions of bad luck now bedevil the production. A dramatic shift from the optimism that initially characterised the development of the Edinburgh tram, towards pessimism.

That which cannot be named is no longer just the failure of a flagship local transport policy. The issue has engulfed the City of Edinburgh Council, and now risks destroying local politics completely: Not only the existing administration, but public trust in local government decision-making.

Political heavy-weights, who normally shy away from the minutiae of local governance, are now offering parental guidance in public: Alistair Darling (local Member of Parliament, and former United Kingdom Chancellor and Secretary of State for Transport) described the option to borrow £231 million ($370 million) to complete the city centre section of the tram line as “absolute madness” – the local population would be saddled with vast debts. Days later, Graham Birse (chief executive of the influential Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce) called the decision to not complete the city centre section, “bonkers” – far fewer passengers would use a tram that did not serve the city centre adequately. Even Alex Salmond (Scotland’s First Minister) has become directly embroiled, struggling to contain calls for an immediate public inquiry to identify who is responsible.

Burn the witches! This Scottish tragedy is rapidly descending into farce. That would be unfortunate, because this particular local difficulty goes to the heart of the Scottish nationalist agenda: A desire for greater devolution of public funds to local level. More localised independent entities have fewer financial resources, so are less able to manage expensive, risky projects. Consequently policy ambitions also need to be scaled back. Such scale isn’t necessarily a problem – small can be beautiful. The problem lies in pretending to be big, when not.

This article introduces the concept of risk in tram (and similarly large public transportation and infrastructure) projects, chronicles the decisions that lead a relatively small local authority to need to find hundreds of millions of pounds to support a single project, and explores the implications for future policy-making, especially in the context of a more devolved Scotland. Continue reading “Scottish Tram Financing”


Difference and the Same

‘Blogosphere luminary, LarĂ­sa, thinks I’m smart. In capitals, because the word itself evidently lacks sufficient emphasis. Her implication, that this is a good thing.

Yet it’s driving me mad.

This article tries to explain why. It defines aspects of intelligence as difference from average, and then quantifies this as degrees of shared reality. The article provides a model where genius and stupidity are almost identical, where the closer someone is to the join, the closer they come to insanity – the “reality of one”.

It explains why wider human society continues to believe extremes of intelligence can be a positive attribute, in spite of the social disconnection associated with this. The article shows how perception-based, consumerist social structures have built reward structures upon this delusion. The nature of illusion is then considered, with particular reference to aesthetics, and the role of empathy in maintaining illusion among humans.

The article lastly introduces the concept of social gravity – the tendency of humans to the same – and then challenges the idea that everyone should be dragged back towards that single point of gravity: Rather, by maintaining multiple illusions, a social structure emerges where multiple extremes of difference can be maintained, while still averaging to the same.

Like some of my more abstract writing, this isn’t terribly well researched. Equally, the topic so broad, it isn’t practical to consider every counter-argument or divergence of thought within the text, and still maintain some form of readability. It may be helpful to first read Michael Gazzaniga’s Science of Mind Constraining Matter, which provides the rationale for some of the statements made in this article. Continue reading “Difference and the Same”

Michael Gazzaniga on the Science of Mind Constraining Matter

Michael Gazzaniga. Can neuroscience explain it? You know – consciousness, being, the number 42. And if everything you thought you were transpired to be nothing more than an easily deceived heap of neurons, would that trouble “you”?

During October 2009, Michael Gazzaniga gave a fascinating series of Gifford lectures exploring how our brains process the information that gives us our sense of “I”. Gazzaniga drew extensively from neuropsychological studies of people with “split brains” (explained later) to develop the notion of a single “interpreter” within the brain – a part of the brain that analyses all the data available for meaning.

Michael Gazzaniga then attempted to rationalise the interpreter, concluding that our focus should be on the interactions of people, not the brain itself. This logic was then expanded to wider society – social structure, interaction, and law. Those later thoughts raised many more questions than were answered.

This article attempts to summarise the key themes in a non-technical manner, with a few naive attempts to interrogate the theories developed. This is my interpretation of 6 hours of lectures. Interpretation, because I tend to recreate Gazzaniga’s conclusions by re-analysing the information presented. With a complex topic such as this, it is likely that some of my interpretations will differ from his. Sections titled “Interlude” are entirely my analysis. Continue reading “Michael Gazzaniga on the Science of Mind Constraining Matter”


As I write, the United Kingdom is in the midst of a national election campaign. A month during which politicians vie to confuse the electorate with big numbers. Politics is suddenly ravaged by intangibility, because the national economy is unable to sustain the usual tangible proxies for a better life – “more schools and hospitals” – and because the tangible results of fixing that economy tend to be unattractive – “less schools and hospitals”. So the best political strategy is not explaining the consequence of choices in a language ordinary people can understand.

Do you like the sound of £100 million ($150 million)? Can I tempt you with £160 billion? Expressing these figures per person in the population can be useful. The first figure is one bar of luxury chocolate for everyone. Doesn’t sound so big now, does it? The second figure is like everyone having a £2,500 bank overdraft (loan). Strange that, because indirectly, we do.

Unfortunately, applying the economics of household groceries to major items of government expenditure introduces certainty. The idea that one can visit a store where luxury chocolate bars are sold for precisely £1.70. Yet many large elements of government expenditure are akin to ordering a chocolate bar years before it can be eaten, for a price that transpires to be somewhere between £1 and £5.

Larger businesses will be familiar with this concept. It’s called risk. Such businesses are often far more interested in what “it might cost” (£5) than what “it will cost” (£1.70), because what it might cost might lead the business to bankruptcy.

The national economy is chaotic in its complexity, but overall, things should average out. So long as all the assumptions are broadly reasonable: Ultimately some will earn/cost more, some less. Short-term in-balance can be solved by (basically) printing more money, and then down-grading future assumptions until everything is back in balance.

However, this breeds a form of arrogance. A sense that government doesn’t need to consider the possibilities. That we can deliver a radical new policy – that has never been done before – and, in spite of it never having been done before, we know precisely how much it is going to cost. Just like a bar of chocolate.

Unfortunately, assumptions tend towards optimism. On average, projected costs are less than actual costs. This isn’t just a problem for accountants. It means that decisions are taken which do not reflect reality. Potentially leading to a Disneyland scenario, where everything is affordable until after the decision is taken, when suddenly everything has become too expensive. It ultimately challenges the validity of decisions, and in doing so, the moral authority of those that take them.

This article uses the Edinburgh Tram project to demonstrate the inherent uncertainty of large government infrastructure projects. It discusses the role of optimism in planning, and the methods used to reconcile planned optimism with subsequent reality. The article describes how the involvement of the private sector in public projects has evolved over the last 20 years, and the highlights the different time-scales applied to private investment and public choices. It concludes that optimism is not only unavoidable, but necessary. Rather, the true problem lies in tendency of people to demand certainty from the public sector, while accepting uncertainty in the private sector. Continue reading “Optimism”

Railways for Prosperity

Recreating the Island of Sodor in Kidderminster. In the dying years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the United Kingdom government launched a policy document called “Roads for Prosperity”. £23 billion ($35 billion) would fund a network of highway improvements. Schemes that eased capacity constraints on the strategic (primary routes) road network. It was a response to rising car use, and the belief that not providing sufficient highway capacity would damage the UK economy – national prosperity.

It didn’t happen. Neither the threat to prosperity, nor the policy:

  • Environmentalists rallied against the few early projects (famously turning the Newbury Bypass and Twyford Down into civil battlegrounds) – road-building became politically negative, rather than positive.
  • There was never really enough money in national budget to fund the policy – increasingly obvious as the UK economy dipped into the recession of the early 1990s.
  • Even with the policy, roads would still be built slower that road traffic was growing – it was not possible to “build your way out” of the problem. It’s worse than it first seems, because new roads generate additional traffic growth, requiring more road capacity, generating more traffic…

The legacy was apparent in Tony Blair’s first Labour administration (or more accurately, John Prescott’s, the minister who led the transport and environmental agendas in the late 1990s): Much greater emphasis on sustainability, local projects, and use of forgotten modes, like buses and shoes.

Now, step forward 20 years to 2010.

The Secretary of State for railways and other transport, Lord Adonis, announces plans for a new high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham. At least £15 billion ($23 billion) for the first phase, rising to £30 billion with extensions further north. (Read those figures with caution – the costs of the previous West Coast Mainline upgrade project increased so much that nobody could remember how low the initial estimate was.) Inflation means that the cost of this latest rail project is only about half the (real terms) cost of Roads for Prosperity. But Roads for Prosperity proposed thousands of miles of highway, across many different locations, compared to a few hundred miles of railway track between a few large cities. And “Railways for Prosperity”, as I’ve corrupted the latest proposal, doesn’t have the pretence of strategy.

Politically it’s work of genius – the benefits flow to the political class (who tend to use trains), especially those living in increasingly marginal electoral territories in the West Midlands and North-West of England. Meanwhile, the Peoples’ Republic of Great Missenden (and soon likely every other other community near the route) is up in arms because the totalitarian regime they likely never voted for, has decided to build a railway – without the local station necessary for them to commute to London. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

Forget the “high-speed” aspect of the title. Operationally, the need is to increase capacity (see the box below). Make space for more trains on one of the busiest railway lines in Britain. More capacity creates more redundancy in the system, which makes it easier to recover from operational problems, and so makes trains more reliable. From bitter personal experience as a passenger, I suspect reliability is worth more than speed here. Of course, “better reliability” sounds a lot vaguer than “30 minutes faster”.

Read beyond the concrete, and the talk is all about “economic growth”, and “jobs”, and.

It’s at times like this that I want to pick up a shotgun and blow my brains out. 20 years later we’re back where we started. And nobody seems to have noticed.

This article uses historic examples to question the strength of the relationship between transport and the economy. It highlights the political biases towards railways, and their funding. The article explains why grand transport projects remain popular, when their overall impact on problems is often minimal. Rough analysis is presented that demonstrates the futility of building new railways – the 21st century reality, that we simply cannot afford to continue enlarging our transport networks in response to increased passenger demand. Finally, a stark comparison is made between communications and “transport” policy, which questions the validity of spending 15 times more on a new railway, than on a core element of “digital” inclusion. Along the way, the article clarifies a few popular misconceptions, from the influence of Unionism, to the impact of “integration”. Continue reading “Railways for Prosperity”

Valuing Nothing

In 2007 I wrote some introductory Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing. This article continues to explore the value of things in a highly intangible, knowledge-based economy. It wanders through internet-based payment systems, economic structure, role of government, organisation of information, community, and society, before disappearing into the realms of philosophy. It contains no answers, but may prove thought-provoking. Continue reading “Valuing Nothing”

Paul Saffo on The Revolution After Electronics

Paul Saffo spoke to Stanford’s Media X conference on the art of predicting the future. Specifically predicting which technology will come to dominate the next decade. Paul’s talk may at first seem somewhat contradictory in nature: Demonstrating how to do it, while simultaneously showing it can’t be done. This article summarises the talk.

30 Year Cycle

Every 30-50 years a new science turns into a technology. With approximate dates:

  • 1900: Chemistry
  • 1930: Physics
  • 1960: Electronics
  • 2000: Biology

We are now on the cusp of a revolution from electronics to biology. The precise inflection point, the point of change, may not yet be clear.

Paul noted that Thomas Watson’s famous misquote, “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers”, was made in 1953, right on the cusp of the electronics revolution: Aside from the fact that he was talking about a specific machine, and not all computers, the quote is a good example of how it is difficult to predict the future at such points of radical change.

Forecasting the Future

The goal is not to be right, but “to be wrong and rich”: It is easy to take the view that one cannot forecast. If you do attempt to forecast you will still mostly be wrong, but the very act of trying will increase your chance of success over those that do not try.

The further away from a point in time you predict into the future, the greater the level of uncertainty. The difficulty in forecasting is finding a balance between being too narrow and too broad. Forecasting might use wildcards. The “hard part” is to be wild enough.

Typically forecasts for a new product or technology’s introduction are linear: The magnitude of the amount of use of the technology is forecast to grow steadily with time.

Reality tends to be represented as an S-shaped curve: In the early stages the magnitude of use is below the expectation generated by the linear forecast. Usage then rapidly grows, such that the actual usage rises above the prediction in the later stages. The result is that in the first part, forecasters tend to over-estimate performance, while latterly they under-estimate performance. Venture capitalists tend to have linear expectations, and so are disappointed in the early stages, while failing to see the later potential.

Robots and Inflection Points

Stanley, winner of the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. Paul Saffo used the example of DARPA’s annual competition for robot-driven cars. In the first year only a handful of competing robot drivers made it out of the starting gate. No car completed the challenge. The next year 22 out of 25 robots got further than the leader in the first race.

The example gives a quantifiable measure of how the technology is developing, year to year.

Spotting the inflection point, the place at which real, dramatic change starts to occur, can still be hard. Sometimes it can be spotted using data which has been ignored or hidden. Sometimes it is a case of looking for what does not fit. The anonymous quote, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes”, is apt. Look back in time as far as you look forward.

The good news is that if you miss an indicator, you still have lots of time to spot another.


Paul contested that the last three decades had been characterised by a dramatic cheapening of a component technology, which in turn had led to the widespread use of a product:

  • 1980s: Cheap processors led to the processing age. The result, widespread use of PC.
  • 1990s: Cheap communications lasers led to the access age. The result was the network infrastructure to support the World Wide Web.
  • 2000s: Cheap sensors are leading to the interaction age. Applications are currently missing, but widespread use of robots appears to be the future.

Biology and Electronics

Electronics is building biology, and Paul expects that eventually biology will rebuild electronics: These technologies are far from isolated.

An example of developments in electronics progressing biology can clearly be seen from work on the human genome. A well funded government-backed project was beaten by a far smaller project. The smaller project was able to successfully deploy robots, with the results that the cost of the work dropped by a factor of 10 each year. The government project had been funded based on the cost of technology at the outset, and initially failed to adequately respond fully to the changing cost structure.

The creation of the first artificial genome in January 2008 may yet prove to be the inflection point.

Trust Instincts at Your Peril

“Assume you are wrong**” (** and forecast often)

Paul used the example of the sinking of a US naval fleet near Honda, on the west coast of the United States, on 8 September 1923. The fleet had been navigating using a forecasting technique called “dead reckoning”. The coastline had a (then) new technology available to assist navigation – radio direction finding. This allowed a bearing to be given between a land station and the fleet.

The radio direction finding gave an unexpected result that did not match the forecasted position. The lead boat in the fleet concluded that their position was more favourable than anticipated (closer to their destination), and turned sharply… straight into the rocks they had been trying to avoid. The 11th boat in the fleet did not trust the judgement of the lead boat, and when the fleet turned, it hedged its bets, slowing and waiting to see what happened. It was one of only 5 ships from the fleet not to run around.

The morale of the tale: Hedge your bets, but embrace uncertainty. Or as written once on a tipping jar:

“If you fear change, leave it in here.”

Divergence of the Species

The question was asked, will biotech lead to a further aggregation of wealth? Yes. The electronics revolution had itself deepened inequality. Biotech raises a particularly ugly spectre which extends beyond wealth, to life itself. The wealthy would be likely to use their wealth to extend their lives. The ultimate outcome – species divergence. Currently the rich tend to benefit from better health care, and so extend life. But biotech is likely to create a lot more options.