Sunday, November 29

Give an inch, they'll take a metre

The UK’s perpetual confusion between metric and imperial measures has cost Garry and I a fortune. In accordance with EU law, energy utilities are required to charge for services using cubic metres. As a result the local gas company regularly converts imperial meter readings to a metric equivalent and charges customers accordingly. This is a common practice in the UK where many older homes still operate meters that read gas volume in cubic feet rather than cubic metres.

This is exactly what our gas company has been doing, which would have been perfectly OK had our meter been taking an imperial measure. It was not. As a result, our already metric reading was consistently converted to metric, resulting in a calculation that more than doubled our actual use. For almost four years the gas company has overcharged us to the cumulative tune of more than £2,500. We were gob-smacked when the error was discovered. Without warning, our regular gas bill switched from a standard debit to a massive credit.

Regular readers may recall me blogging several years ago about the size of our gas bill. At the time we thought it was a result of price inflation that had hit the UK. Now we know we were being systematically ripped off. Garry ran the utility and secured a cash refund. We’re putting the unexpected windfall toward the cost of vacation already booked for 2010. Garry also tells me I can run the heating for longer each day as it’s clearly costing far less than we thought.

The UK’s stunted shift to metric measurement fascinates me. In 1969 the Government set up the Metrication Board with a remit to educate the public and promote the adoption of metric standards. 1975 was set as the target date for completing the bulk of this conversion. However, the pace of change proved far slower than expected. The change became politicized, caught up in the nation’s perpetual animosity towards the European Union, resulting in the disbanding of the Metrication Board in 1980.

Animosity was further fueled by a realization that the UK has already signed the European Directive 71/354 supporting the EU’s drive to universal metric use. The UK was legally commited to a metric future, but could set its own transition timetable. This resulted in the measures for pre-packaged goods changing in 1995, while in 2000 it became illegal to sell loose products in markets and stalls using imperial measures. The only exception was that of draught beer which could still be measured in pints.

Today, aside from beer, it seems that only distance and speed is continue to be measured in imperial units (miles and miles per hour). Almost every other aspect of daily life is metric. Temperature is measured in Celsius, weight in kilograms, liquids in litres and so on. Even the nation’s currency was converted to a metric or decimal form back in 1971. The reluctance to finally change distance and speed measures is at odds with everything else that’s happened.

I’m not sure what people fear. I recall how relatively painless the conversion experience seemed in New Zealand. In 1972 road signs were converted to metric in a matter of weeks. I recall households being issued with stickers they could place on imperial speedometers to indicate signed speed limits in km/h. We happily drove our family car for years with these stickers in place. At school, our maths class taught imperial measures one year then metric measures in subsequent years.

The irony of the UK’s resistance to a final phase of conversion isn’t lost on historians. The modern concept of a decimal measurement system actually originated in Britain. According to the UK Metric Association, the distinguished scientist and philosopher, Bishop John Wilkins, founder of the Royal Society, proposed a metric system in 1668. His "Standard" unit was almost exactly one metre and like the metre was to be divided using decimal units. He also proposed decimal units of volume and weight similar to the modern litre and kilogram.

However, it was France that first applied his ideas, going metric in 1799. The metric system was fatally tarred this point forward as a foreign, notably European, imposition. Today, only three countries have yet to adopt what’s now known as the International System of Units; Myanmar, Liberia and the United States. Perhaps Americans still believe that if they give an inch, others will take a mile? The British certainly do.

Saturday, November 28

Sky high in Shanghai

Two years ago I blogged about the emerging World Financial Centre in Shanghai. At the time the building was just weeks away from being topped out, rising more than 492 meters (1,614.2 ft) above the city. Last weekend I was back in Shanghai and couldn't resist an opportunity to visit the stunning, glossy observation deck that spans the building's crown, 474 m (1,555 ft) above the street.

Access to the three-level observation deck is gained via a high-speed lift that rises from a dimly lit, black tiled basement lobby, ten metres below ground. An exhilarating ride whisks you to the 97th floor at a speed of more than 10 metres per second (36 km / h). As you ascend the elevator counts up the metres above the ground. A bright, sunny atrium then greets visitors with a spectacular view of downtown Shanghai and the Huang Pu River below.

A second lift takes you up another 35 metres to a soaring glass walkway, which includes a floor of heart-stopping glass panels. This is the world's highest observation deck. It also marks the top of the distinctive bottle-opener shaped hole in the building's crest. Souviner stands elsewhere in the complex tout large silver bottle-openers modelled on its distinctive shape.

It goes without saying that the view from 474 metres is spectacular. Perhaps the most awe inspiring sight is the bird's eye view of the neighbouring Jin Mao Tower, currently the world's seventh tallest building. At 421 metres it soars above the surrounding city. However, when viewed from the world's highest observation deck, it looks more like a toy. How times have changed. In 2003, Garry and I enjoyed cocktails at Cloud Nine, the world's highest bar located on the Jin Mao Tower's 87th floor. We felt we were drinking in the clouds.

A sculpture at the base of the World Financial Centre also captures my imagination. Without a hint of irony, a giant horseshoe magnet frames the building, symbolising the growing global pull of China's burgeoning economy. Since the 1980s, the Chinese economy has grown at an average annual rate of 9%. Thirty years ago China set the goal of quadrupling its gross domestic product btween 1980 and the year 2000. This goal was achieved in 1995, five years ahead of schedule.

Friday, November 27

Shanghai sights

I arrived home last night from a quick four-day business trip to Shanghai. These photos capture highlights from a couple of excursions squeezed in during spare moments. The colourful, baubled tower in these images is the Oriental Pearl Tower, one of Shanghai most famous landmarks. It's 468 metres high but, as the image above shows, its height has since been surpassed by two even taller buildings. This image was taken from the 100th Floor observation deck of the new World Financial Centre, at 492 metres, it's currently the world's second tallest building.

Monday, November 16

Here for another year

We've signed a renewal for our Swiss Cottage lease. We're here for another year in the UK. It's hard to believe we're less than eight weeks away from the start of our fifth year in the same house. The weather this weekend certainly hasn't inspired us to retire in London. We've had a shocking Autumn storm swept across the country bringing heavy rain and winds up to 100mp/h along the coast, 60mp/h in London. However, today dawned with perfectly clear, bright blue sunny skies and all was forgiven.

Sunday, November 15


We've been celebrating Garry's birthday in style this week. On Thursday evening we had tickets to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, dead centre, eight rows from the stage. As the end of our fourth year in London draws to a close we both enjoyed an opportunity to rekindle memories of home. For several hours the Palace Theatre in Soho was filled with all manner of Australiana. Garry came away declaring it one of the best musical productions he'd seen in London.

Familiar names and icons cascaded across the revolving stage all evening. Highlights (of which there were many) included a satirical but surprisingly accurate reenactment of the Imperial Hotel, numerous indigenous roadkill and the surreal spectacle of Jason Donovan singing a Kylie medley. Jason was superb job as Tick, the middle-aged drag queen who co-opts his friends into joining him on a road trip across Australia's hot, dry interior.

Afterward we went for dinner at our favourite Thai restaurant Chiang Mai. However, our 'official' celebration meal took place the following evening. I'd booked us into Roussillion a contemporary French-influenced Michelin Star restaurant. Garry and I had seen it featured in a popular BBC television show called MasterChef. We enjoyed an evening of fabulous food and wine, finally rolling the door shortly after midnight. The kitchen even created a special gingerbread and orange icecream birthday platter.

Tuesday, November 10

Turning blue

The Met Office is forecasting a frosty high of 7°C tomorrow after an overnight low of 3°C. Today's high was 9°C. It's all a bit of a shock after experiencing October temperatures several degree above normal. With temperatures regularly peaking in single figures it's hard to deny that Winter is almost upon us. As you'd expect, the central heating is now on permenantly twice a day; morning and night. Christmas and the shortest day, December 21 (Winter Solstice), are now less than six weeks away.

Sunday, November 8

Surgery update

My mother is back home after surgery to remove her breast cancer tumour. The operation appears to have gone as planned. We'll have full test results back within two weeks. With a little luck the news will continue to be positive. I hope my Mum makes a full and rapid recovery.

Saturday, November 7

Are you in or out?

This week’s headlines brought to life another of those quirky British traits. Despite living on an island barely 35 kilometres off the coast of France, the British have an odd and often divisive love-hate relationship with the rest of Europe. At times belligerent nationalism and latent animosity towards Europe is considered healthier than embracing it. I’ve always struggled to comprehend why treating the rest of the continent with such distain is seen as progressive and endearing. As an outsider looking in, I'd argue that the opposite is true.

French and the German citizens are far more comfortable reconciling nationalism and trans-regional passion in equal measure. The British in contrast seem to struggle with the concept of being equally national and equally European. Even their language reflects this sentiment. People regularly talk of, “flying to Europe for the weekend” as if the United Kingdom wasn’t part of the continent.

Personally, I consider the European Union (EU) a glorious experiment in supra-national federalism. At University I once wrote a paper about its steady expansion from the initial Treaty of Rome to the accession of Spain and Portugal in 1986. I found it fascinating to watch the EU's jurisdiction expand across more and more territory, while progressively harmonizing pages of national legislation and introducing a common currency. The EU seemed a perfect anecdote to the zealous nationalism that had dragged the entire globe into two bloody wars.

This week the EU took another, somewhat tortured, step toward greater union as the Lisbon Treaty was ratified by the last of its 27 member states. This treaty has been almost eight years in the making. As the new millennium dawned it was clear that integrating nations of the former Soviet Bloc into the EU would make it unwieldy unless its voting practices and institutions were reformed. The original intent was to pull together the EU’s numerous treaties and agreements as a single Constitution. However, the document eventually produced was soundly rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

Two years later European leaders stripped back aspects of the Constitution, reducing it to a treaty able to be ratified without referendum in all but one nation, Ireland. This new treaty, known as the Lisbon Treaty, was subsequently rejected by Irish voters in June 2008, but ratified by all other national parliaments. On Tuesday, Vaclav Klaus, the President of the Czech Republic finally signed an accession law previously passed by the nation’s parliament. His was the last signature required after the Irish Republic passed a second referendum in support of the treaty on October 3. Next month the treaty will officially become law across the EU.

Here in the UK the week has been filled with headlines as the British Conservative Party finally dropped its opposition to the treaty. The media also speculated on the possibility of local candidates filling two posts created by the Treaty of Lisbon; President of the European Council and, High Representative (effectively the EU’s new Foreign Minister). Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is being touted as the first President, while the current British foreign secretary David Miliband is considered a front runner for High Representative. I cannot help but note the irony of a nation that keeps Europe at arm’s length, while keenly lobbying for its citizen’s to fill the EU’s most coveted roles.