A quick guide to Stockholm

My first encounter with a born-and-raised Stockholmer, while on a walking tour of Potsdam, Germany in 2012, wouldn’t have initially led me to choose his hometown, which he described as “boring”, as a travel destination. But after hearing great things over the intervening years about the city from non-Stockholmers such as Pedro and Jesse T., and seeing it ranked competitively on VirtualTourist’s listing of most-popular European cities, I was sold.

One evening in May, after careful deliberation about where and when I would go on my annual urban holiday, and mentally asking myself “Are you sure?” one last time and self-answering in the affirmative, I clicked a “Submit” button on Lufthansa’s web site. That was it: I would be off to Stockholm in mid-July.

Now back in Winnipeg, I have no regrets.

Contrary to the Stockholmer’s advice three years ago, what I found was a city that was far from boring. Not as sexy or dramatic as London, Paris or Berlin perhaps, but a pleasant and lively city where I found enough to do to pass seven days without much effort; a city in which the nearby kebab shop is still doing brisk business after 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and in which I could go in search of something fun or interesting to do at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night and find it easily. (If that Stockholmer I met thought a city where you could do that was “boring”, God knows how he would have described the vast majority of North American cities. “Comatose”, perhaps?)

Q & A — Stockholm, Sweden

Q. Why Stockholm?

A. Stockholm is a good choice for those who have already seen some of the grand cities of Europe, such as London, Paris and Berlin, and are now looking for a city that has many of the best things about European urban life — the cafe culture, the history, the nightlife — without being a Disneyland for Adults. In other words, someplace interesting enough to be a bit touristy, but not completely and grotesquely overrun by tourists.

Q. What are the best things to see and do in Stockholm?

A. Different people will have different interests, of course. For the most memorable Stockholm experiences, I would recommend:

a.) Check out the Vasa. The Vasa Museum basically has just one exhibit: the ship by that name which sunk in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. It had the good fortune to sink in the harbour’s brackish waters, which meant that this elaborately designed wooden ship was in unusually good condition when the Swedes raised it from the sea bed in the ’60s and put back together to become a museum piece. It’s a rare opportunity to see an original 17th century ship up close, and the story of ego and incompetence that led the giant ship (by 1628 standards) to literally flop over on its side just 1.3 kilometres into what was supposed to be a journey to Poland is an entertaining one.

b.) Take each of Free Tour Stockholm‘s three urban walking tours. One covers Norrmalm, the island on which the modern city centre is located. The second covers Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s “old town” neighbourhood (and the one area which is “overrun by tourists”). The third covers Södermalm, which was considered Stockholm’s shabbiest neighbourhood 20 years ago, but which is now known as a “hipster haven”. The guides work for tips (from what I’ve seen, 50 to 100 Swedish krona, or $7.50 to $15 Cdn., seems typical) and each tour takes about 90 minutes. A great way to learn more about Stockholm and its history, and to meet travelers from all over the world.

c.) Take a fika break. In fact, take all the fika breaks you want. Taking some time to relax and enjoy a coffee and pastry while reading a book or watching the world go by, an experience known as fika, a casual term for coffee, is a beloved part of Swedish culture. In Stockholm, you’re rarely far from an independent cafe or even a franchise outlet such as Espresso House or Wayne’s Coffee, which sell quality coffee and pastries. (Their offerings make Starbucks, which has an unusually weak presence in Stockholm, look third-rate by comparison.) Budget a rather steep 60 to 80 krona ($9 to $12 Cdn.) for the experience, which is worth it.

Keep in mind that space is at a premium in Europe’s densely populated cities; thus you might be expected to sit in very close proximity to strangers during peak times, and will not be allowed the vast personal space that North Americans are used to. Respecting others’ privacy (more on that later) is important here.

(Cautionary note: Be careful about using the term “fika” around Germans, as the pronunciation is very close to that of “ficken”, their slang term for sexual intercourse.)

d.) Enjoy the city’s parks. Kungsträdgården, a fairly small park in the city centre, is a popular place to hang out and people-watch, and frequently hosts free concerts, festivals and other events. The much larger Djurgården, south and east of the city centre, is akin to Assiniboine Park with harbour views.

e.) Learn how those Scandinavians got to be so on-the-ball about everything. Those wanting to learn more about how Sweden has become synonymous with the sane, ethical, earnestly responsible government that is becoming an endangered species in North America might be interested in taking in a tour of City Hall and of the Riksdag, Sweden’s national parliament.

f.) Enjoy the nightlife. If you’re into nightclubbing, Stockholm has its fair share of clubs filled with people who could pass for fashion models. But if that’s not your thing, no problem. During a summer evening, there’s a good chance something will be going on at Kungsträdgården, or that Drottninggatan, the pedestrian mall that serves as Stockholm’s main retail street, will be full of people and buskers. Outside the old PUB department store on Drottninggatan, one could spend half an hour or more many evenings relaxing and watching Mareks Radzēvičs, a Latvian musician, play the cello. If you have a few krona to spare, toss it into his cello case. Continue south on Drottninggatan toward the Riksdag and the Old Town, where there will be plenty more activity.

g.) Go for a sauna. It’s a Nordic tradition, it’s very relaxing, and many Swedish hotels offer them. In fact, it’s rather amazing that it has never really caught on in Canada, given our similar climate. And since part of traveling is experiencing things you wouldn’t experience in your home town, don’t freak out if the sauna is mixed-gender-nude — just mind the etiquette rules that you’ll be expected to adhere to.

If you’re an ABBA fan, by all means check out the ABBA Museum. I avoided this one after being warned by an Australian expat living in Sweden that he was ready to puncture his eardrums after two hours.

Skansen, a historical park depicting how Swedes lived in the olden days, is apparently hugely popular among those who can tolerate large numbers of families with children.

Q. When is the best time to go?

A. Summer. Stockholm sits slightly above 59° North latitude, making it one of the most northerly large cities in the world. In fact, it’s further north than Churchill. At this latitude, the summer days are even longer than they are in Winnipeg, while the winter days are even shorter and darker. Hence, Stockholmers make the best of their summers, which are cloudier than they are in Winnipeg, but generally mild.

Hotel prices tend to be a bit better in the summer, too, as there are fewer business travelers around and there is more competition for price-sensitive holiday travelers.

Q. What is the weather like?

A. As noted, summer days are mild: typically with highs in the low to mid-twenties Celsius during the day, and lows in the low to mid-teens at night. It rains periodically, but not too heavily or frequently.

Q. Are things really expensive there?

A. Stockholm is one of the more expensive cities to visit, but there are ways to mitigate the costs. Find a hotel with a complimentary or affordable buffet breakfast (the ubiquitous, Swedish-based Scandic hotel chain is a safe bet), and eat breakfast like a king so that all you will need is a modest lunch later on. Go for a proper meal later in the day, at a price which is about 25 to 50 percent higher than Winnipeg levels; avoid progressively snacking throughout the day (outside of fika breaks), as the markup over standard Winnipeg prices is higher, and could end up costing as much as a single restaurant meal.

Also be price-aware about buying alcohol or taking taxis, as the prices are typically at least 50 percent greater than Winnipeg prices. See Numbeo.com’s Cost of Living Comparison for more information.

Q. I heard that the taxes are high? Is that true?

A. If you had a hissy fit over the Manitoba Provincial Sales Tax increase, you’ll go into shock over Swedish sales tax, which is 25 percent on many goods. Don’t feel too bad for the Swedes, though, as they do get their money’s worth: car ownership in Stockholm is largely optional even for families with children due to the city’s walkability and the country’s excellent public transportation network, qualified post-secondary students pay no tuition, and the country is ranked near the top in everything from economic competitiveness to freedom from corruption to peacefulness.

But — it is possible for you as a Canadian to get a sales tax refund on purchases that you are taking back to Canada with you, as long as you are carrying them in your carry-on baggage. I’ve never applied for this rebate because: a.) It’s a bit of a hassle, and requires you to have sufficient time at whichever airport you’re exiting the Schengen “border-free Europe” zone at, and, b.) I’m getting a benefit from the safe streets and excellent infrastructure that European cities provide, so it’s not like I’m paying but getting nothing. But if you’ve got a bit of extra airport time and some space in your carry-ons for your purchases, go for it.

Note that in Sweden, sales taxes are included in advertised prices. The price you see is the price you pay.

Q. What is the best way to get there?

A. Since there are no direct flights between Canada and Sweden, you will need to travel via a third country. I would recommend taking Lufthansa’s overnight Toronto-Munich flight, and then making a quick one-hour connection to their mid-morning Munich-Stockholm flight. This is for four reasons:

a.) It gets you into Stockholm earlier, and thus less exhausted, than almost any other option;

b.) Munich is one of Europe’s best airports for making a connection at. I was able to disembark my flight from Canada, clear Immigration, go through airport security, and then walk at a relaxed pace to the departure gate for the flight to Stockholm in 29 minutes flat;

c.) In the unlikely event that you do miss your connection, the next non-stop flight is only about three hours later and would still get you into Stockholm by mid-afternoon;

d.) Lufthansa is a good, reliable airline. I will candidly admit that getting an unexpected and unexplained free upgrade to Business Class on the flight back to Canada makes me a big Lufthansa fan; but I’ve also spot-checked their on-time performance on Flightradar24.com, and estimated that only about five percent of Lufthansa flights arrive more than 30 minutes late — as good as it gets in the business, and a good indication of a company that has its act together.

Alternately, KLM’s Amsterdam hub and SAS’s Copenhagen hub, the latter served by SAS’s Canadian partner Air Canada, should be among the better airports to make connections at. Avoid tight connections at the sprawling Frankfurt-Main, and avoid all connections at much-despised airports such as Chicago O’Hare, any New York City-area airport, London Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle.

Q. Is Sweden part of the “border-free Europe”?

A. Yes, Sweden is part of the Schengen Area, in which people are allowed to move around — even to take up residence in a different country — with minimal hassle. For example, some people live in Sweden but work in Denmark, commuting daily across a bridge that connects the two countries, often without having to even report to a customs officer.

What does that mean for you as a Canadian? You will need to clear Immigration (a.k.a., Passport Control) at the first Schengen Area country that you arrive in; most likely Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark. Since Canadian tourists are generally considered low-risk, it is unlikely that you will be asked more than just the basic questions: the purpose of your visit, how long you intend to stay for, where you plan to visit, etc. Unlike Canada and the U.K., which is not a Schengen country, most if not all Schengen countries do not require you to fill out a paper arrival card or customs declaration before landing.

If you connect through London Heathrow, you should not need to go through British immigration formalities as long as you stay within the secured International areas of the airport. This is easiest if both your inbound and outbound flights arrive and depart from the Star Alliance’s Terminal 2 or British Airways’ Terminal 5.

Even if you are arriving from another Schengen country, you will need to clear Customs on arrival in Sweden. This is a less bureaucratic and less interrogative experience than it is in Canada and the U.S. Like much of Europe, Sweden uses a Green Channel/Red Channel system: walk out of the baggage claim area through the Green Channel exit if you have nothing to declare, or walk into the Red Channel area and speak to a customs officer if you do. (On my arrival in Stockholm, a couple of uniformed officers stood off to the side scanning the crowd. The Green Channel exit was unstaffed, which is not unusual at European airports. Arriving passengers can be spot-checked, however, so don’t try sneaking things through.)

Q. Does Sweden use the Euro as its currency?

A. No, Sweden continues to use its traditional currency, the Krona (shorthand: SEK). One Swedish krona is equal to about 15 cents Cdn. Therefore, $100 Cdn. is equal to about 667 SEK, and 100 SEK is equal to about $15 Cdn.

Q. How much cash should I get?

A. At least 50 percent more than you would go through in Canada during the same period of time. For example, if your cash spending in Canada is about $80 per week, get at least $120 Cdn. worth of Swedish krona, or 800 SEK, before departure or just after arrival.

If you prefer to use plastic, Sweden is a credit/debit card-friendly country, provided that you have a chip card and a four-digit PIN. (Longer or shorter PINs might be problematic.)

Q. What is the best way to get into the city from the airport?

A. Flygbussarna‘s coaches offer the best combination of price and convenience. Coaches to and from Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, 45 kilometres by road north of the city centre, run every 10 minutes during much of the day for $30 Cdn. per person round-trip. The drive takes about 45 minutes. Tickets can be purchased online before leaving Canada.

Commuter trains run every 30 minutes between the airport and Stockholm’s central railway station. How much you will pay depends on whether you buy a single-trip ticket or a multi-day travelcard: a one-way ticket into town costs $20.25 Cdn. per person, while a seven-day travelcard, valid for bus, metro, tram and train travel throughout the Stockholm area with airport privileges, should cost a total of about $73.50 if my calculations are correct. This is an option if you are travelling light — commuter trains might be crowded — and intend to use public transportation frequently during your stay.

Arlanda Express runs swanky, high-speed trains that cover the 45 kilometres between the airport and the city centre in just 20 minutes. But they run at 15-minute intervals, slightly less often than the slower Flygbussarna coaches, and are vastly more expensive at $79.50 Cdn. per person round-trip. Not really worth it unless you want to take a high-speed train just for kicks.

Taxis between the airport and the city cost about $75 Cdn. each way: worthwhile for a family, but couples and solo travelers will get better value by taking a coach if they’re staying at a hotel within the city centre. (Or try your luck with Uber.)

Q. Where would be a good place to stay?

A. In or near Norrmalm is your best bet. This will put you within walking distance of much of what the city has to offer, and close to Central Station and metro and tram stops for trips further afield.

Staying in the centre of the city, even if it’s more expensive than staying in a suburb, has two advantages. First, you can drop off any purchases you make during the day, or run back quickly to pick up or drop off a rain jacket or umbrella. Second, you can more easily return to use the toilet, bearing in mind that public toilets in Europe are not always as easy to find and sometimes are pay-to-use. (Even in the expensive NK department store, it costs 10 SEK, or $1.50 Cdn., to use the restrooms.)

Q. Is it safe in Stockholm?

A. Yes, quite safe, though some would recommend being cautious around metro stations, streets outside of pubs, and the Sergels Torg sunken plaza at night. There are only about 90 homicides per year in the entire nation of Sweden out of a population of 9.5 million; this would be roughly equivalent to Winnipeg experiencing just 6-7 homicides per year.

Visitors’ primary concern should be in not making themselves easy targets for pickpockets and bag-snatchers. Take only what you need for the day with you, and leave the rest in your hotel room safe; and familiarize yourself with these anti-theft tips from Frommer’s and the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police.

Don’t bother with the strange new trend of wearing your backpack on your belly instead of on your back. It looks ridiculous; it automatically flags you as a tourist who is likely carrying more valuables around than the typical local person and who won’t be in town long enough to see justice carried out; and if you have your passport and your credit and debit cards all in one backpack, you’ll be royally screwed if a thief does get ahold of it. (For that second reason — not flagging yourself as a tourist — I recommend not sporting a Canadian flag while traveling. Or wearing white sneakers, which is apparently another give-away that someone is a North American.)

Q. What is the best way to eat affordably in Stockholm?

A. Stockholm’s Middle Eastern eateries offer meat and vegetables in good portions for moderate prices. A hearty Shish Tawouk plate at the STHLM Bistro in central Stockholm costs only 99 SEK ($15 Cdn.), and the city’s various kebab places offer similar value.

Unlike Canada, advertised Swedish prices include sales taxes, so the price you see is the price you pay. As restaurant servers in Sweden are relatively well-compensated compared to their Canadian counterparts, tips are normally limited to rounding the bill up to the nearest multiple of 10 or 20 Swedish krona ($1.50 to $3.00 Cdn.), which usually works out to five or 10 percent. A Canadian-style 15 percent tip would be a bit extravagant, akin to giving a Canadian server a 30 percent tip.

Avoid restaurants in Gamla Stan, the touristy old-town area, which are less reliant on repeat business than restaurants elsewhere in the city and therefore have less of a vested interest in your being satisfied. Instead, eat where the Stockholmers eat, which is basically in any other part of the city.

Q. Should I rent a car?

A. No, unless you’re planning to travel out into rural areas poorly served by Sweden’s excellent public transport system. Stockholm is by no means a “car town”, which is a good thing as a car town is a dull town. Parking for one hour on a weekday afternoon in central Stockholm typically costs $9 to $13.50 Cdn., vehicles entering the city are subject to congestion charges of up to $9 Cdn. per vehicle per day, and Stockholm gas prices are currently about $2.15 Cdn. per litre. And for all that expense, driving won’t save you much time: a trip from Central Station to the hip Södermalm area, for instance, takes 10-20 minutes both by car and by Metro.

In fact, while in Stockholm, you might notice that a fair bit of freedom can be gained by not driving. As a pedestrian or public transport user, you’ll be free to have a drink or two even on an empty stomach without worry, you can wander more because you won’t be tethered by the need to stay close to where you parked your vehicle, and going out on the town will be less expensive and involve less effort.

Q. Do people speak English there?

A. Approximately 86 percent of Swedes are able to speak English well enough to carry on a conversation, and many will quickly switch to English if they detect that you are not a Swede. It is a second language, though, so don’t assume that they know jargon or nuances that most Canadians would know: keep your English simple and direct.

As always when traveling in a foreign country, it is considered good form to know and to use basic niceties such as hello (hej), please and thank you (tack in both instances) and pardon me (ursäkta mig). Hej is pronounced identically to the English word hey, tack is pronounced the same way as the English word by the same spelling, and ursäkta mig is pronounced ur-shack-ta mye.

Q. Are the people friendly?

A. Stockholmers can seem rather aloof by Winnipeg standards, but also calmer and more polite. As in the other Nordic countries, respect for others’ privacy is both offered and expected, and asking questions that cross that privacy threshold — even questions we take for granted such as “What did you do this weekend?” — might be seen as impolite in their view.

This can have its benefits however. For example, in a Swedish restaurant, servers will not hang around your table, and might not even approach unless they see some indication that you wish to speak to them or that you’ve finished the meal. While this might be considered poor service in Canada, it is considered good service in Sweden, as the server is making a point of respecting your privacy.

But once again, Swedes are remarkably polite and civil, and you can count on being treated courteously wherever you go.

Q. How do they feel about Canadians?

A. Swedes aren’t the type to offer unsolicited opinions to strangers, so it’s not readily apparent. My best guess is that it’s probably a benignly neutral view, possibly leaning positive — but that they don’t really give us much more thought than we give them.

Q. Do people really dress up nicely in Stockholm?

A. They tend to be conservative-casual dressers: well-fitting, unostentatious, neutral or moderately coloured clothes are fashionable; excessively baggy or flashy clothes are not. Jeans and t-shirts are fine as long as they meet this criteria. Leave the sweat pants at home, as you would probably be considered an oddball for wearing such clothing in public in Stockholm, and in much of the world outside of North America for that matter.

Stockholm in Images

Twenty years ago, Södermalm was the last place one would go as a tourist in Stockholm. Today, it’s a must-see neighbourhood due to its historic character and its status as a “hipster haven”.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s oldest neighbourhood, can be annoyingly touristy — but also beautiful.

Central Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården Park is the site of many free events, and a fine place for people watching.

Head down to Hotorget Plaza in Stockholm’s Norrmalm area on Sundays to experience a genuine European market.

I wonder what kind of reaction the owner would get driving that middle van around Winnipeg?

Further reading:

The Canadian government’s travel information page for Sweden

Kwintessential’s guide to Swedish etiquette

Tsipras: The loser who ought to have not bet

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras: A man with not much to smile about.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras: A man with not much to smile about.

“In politics, one plus one does not necessarily equal two,” a political science professor once told a roomful of us back in my university days. “In fact, in politics, if you add up one and one and get two, you’ve probably got the wrong answer.”

Indeed, concealing one’s true intentions has long been a useful skill in politics. “Je vous ai compris,” French prime minister Charles de Gaulle told the ruling white minority in Algeria in June 1958 to allay concerns that he would grant Algeria the independence that would bring the colonists’ privileged way of life to an end. In English, the words meant “I have understood you” or, more aptly, “I get the message.”

This and other duplicity bought time for de Gaulle to accomplish his real goal: France’s withdrawal from Algeria, which de Gaulle even in 1958 privately knew had no hope of continuing on as a French colony, and overseeing the country’s transition to independence. After de Gaulle’s deception of the colonists became known, the bitter joke was that the French leader had been misquoted, having actually told the crowd “Je vous hais, compris?” (“I hate you, understand?”)

If someone of de Gaulle’s intelligence and cunning were Prime Minister of Greece today, that country might not be on the verge of a meltdown of its banking and even medical system, which could trigger emergency humanitarian assistance for what was a few years ago a moderately affluent European country.

What Greece has instead is prime minister Alexis Tsipras, who is no Charles de Gaulle. Frustrated by negotiations in which fellow members of the European Union, primarily Germany, insisted on painful economic and political concessions in return for helping the Greek government avoid national bankruptcy, Tsipras called a snap referendum on the European Union’s terms, which was held this past Sunday.

Tsipras himself campaigned for the “No” side in that referendum, claiming that a rejection of the European Union’s onerous terms would strengthen his position at the bargaining table. And he won, with 61 percent of the vote.

Yet there are now reports that perhaps no one in Greece was more horrified by Sunday’s “No” victory than Tsipras himself. A stunning article written by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Athens correspondent for Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper, and published Tuesday notes that the result left the Greek prime minister “depressed” and that “what should have been a celebration on Sunday night turned into a wake.”

Why? According to the article, Tsipras had tried his hand at de Gaulle-style duplicity, campaigning for a “No” vote while privately hoping for a “Yes” vote, and failed miserably. Evans-Pritchard writes:

Greek premier Alexis Tsipras never expected to win Sunday’s referendum on EMU bail-out terms, let alone to preside over a blazing national revolt against foreign control.

He called the snap vote with the expectation – and intention – of losing it. The plan was to put up a good fight, accept honourable defeat, and hand over the keys of the Maximos Mansion, leaving it to others to implement the June 25 “ultimatum” and suffer the opprobrium.

The consequences of Tsipras’s losing bet, according to Evans-Pritchard:

Syriza [Tsipras’s governing party] has been in utter disarray for 36 hours. On Tuesday, the Greek side turned up for a make-or-break summit in Brussels with no plans at all, even though Germany and its allies warned them at the outset that this is their last chance to avert ejection.

[ . . . ]

Events are now spinning out of control. The banks remain shut. The ECB has maintained its liquidity freeze, and through its inaction is asphyxiating the banking system.

Factories are shutting down across the country as stocks of raw materials run out and containers full of vitally-needed imports clog up Greek ports. Companies cannot pay their suppliers because external transfers are blocked. Private scrip currencies are starting to appear as firms retreat to semi-barter outside the banking system.

Greeks cannot be blamed for feeling miserable about their lot in life, with unemployment running at 25 percent and their citizens rating their own average satisfaction with life at the lowest level of any OECD country. Austerity policies, under which the population is obligated to accept a lower standard of living as the price of being assisted by other European governments (who need to be mindful of their own electorates) and of returning to economic competitiveness in the absence of a currency-devaluation option, is now being linked to rising suicide rates and growing public health problems, and has put the country in “an effective debt trap in which the effort to escape through austerity has reinforced the enclave” (see PDF page 8, print page 138).

By calling a referendum, Tsipras gave the Greek people an opportunity to vent their pent-up anger — and they did just that by voting “No” in Sunday’s referendum. If it is indeed correct that Tsipras was betting on a “Yes” vote to get himself out of office at an opportune moment in which he could leave with his reputation intact rather than as the man who took Greece into bankruptcy,  he has botched it up spectacularly.

Recommended reading for those interested in this topic (and who want something more than the tedious, uninformative partisan mudslinging to which the Greece issue has been sometimes reduced in Canada):

Drones and commercial aircraft on a collision course

Flights into and out of Sweden’s Arlanda Airport were delayed Monday night as air traffic control dealt with a new instance of an increasingly common problem: a drone having been spotted in airspace where it posed a collision risk to commercial airliners.

Monday’s incident wasn’t the first time that a drone interfered with air traffic in the region around Arlanda, which serves both Stockholm, 35 kilometres to the south, and Uppsala, 30 kilometres to the north. A 2014 report noted that drones flown in the airspace around Bromma Airport, a smaller airfield used mainly by budget carriers, occasionally caused flights to be diverted. Indeed, Bromma was closed for half an hour one day last month due to a drone being flown in restricted airspace.

While a drone might seem small compared to a jetliner, neither airlines nor pilots care to be burdened with the consequences of one being ingested into an engine, and no one wants to find out what would happen if a drone struck a windscreen, or the horizontal or vertical stabilizer at the back, at flight speeds.

Yet the day is likely coming when an aircraft and a drone will collide, hopefully without any consequences more serious than a smashed-up drone and a bit of superficial damage to the passing aircraft. Consider the following incidents:

June 5, 2015: A Southwest Boeing 737 landing at Dallas’s Love Field passed “a few hundred feet” from a drone being flown uncomfortably close to the arrival flight path. Another aircraft claimed to see a drone flying close to the approach path as well.

May 23, 2015: An Air Canada Embraer 190 taking off from Toronto en route to Saskatoon took “an evasive manoeuvre” to avoid colliding with a yellow- and black-coloured object flying at 2,200 feet above sea level (or about 1,600 feet above ground).

Sept. 1, 2014: A WestJet Boeing 737 was approaching Calgary inbound from San Diego at 7,000 feet above sea level (or about 3,500 feet above ground) when the pilots observed “a remote controlled vehicle crossing their flight path at the same altitude in front of them”.

And perhaps the most bizarre incident of them all:

March 19, 2014: The pilots of a chartered Dash-8 flying at 3,800 feet above sea level (3,700 feet above ground) over the northern outskirts of Perth, Australia noticed “a bright strobe light directly in front of the aircraft . . . [which] appeared to track towards the aircraft”. They took evasive action to avoid a collision with a grey, cylindrical-shaped object that passed about 20 metres off to the side of the aircraft and 30 metres below. The object that nearly collided with the aircraft remains unidentified, and the incident has been classified by Australian air safety investigators as a “serious incident” involving “interference from the ground”.

 

 

Does politics give people the blues?

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

During the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, one YouTube video that went viral showed four year old Abigael Evans crying as she tells her mother, “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney”. The video was still getting views in 2015, when a commenter left a message on the site telling Abigael not to feel bad, as politics could make grown-ups cry as well.

Both she and the commenter were far from alone. A mid-May Economist article noted that young people are so turned off by politics that to even discuss such topics in a social setting is “deemed distasteful” and that it “kills the mood”.

Within a couple of weeks, I stumbled across further information about why that might be while reading Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being, the English translation of a book written by German authors Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe and Ronnie Schöb.* In Chapter 7, they discuss the results of an experiment carried out in a 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index study in which one random sample of Americans were asked to rate their satisfaction with life, while another random sample were first asked about their political views and then about their satisfaction with life:

Beginning January 9, 2009, half of the respondents were asked political questions as usual, whereas the other half were no longer asked any political questions but were asked about their life satisfaction right away. For the latter group, the average life satisfaction skyrocketed immediately after January 9, indicating very strong context effects. (pp. 95-96)

The source of this information was a 2012 paper by Angus Deaton of the Center for Health and Well-Being at Princeton University, who noted that:

People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives . . . [T]he effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.

Three months later, another change was made to insert a buffer between the political and life-satisfaction questions for all respondents. Immediately, this showed up as an increase in how well people rated their overall life satisfaction compared to the answers they gave when there was no buffer. As Deaton observed, the jump in reported life satisfaction was equivalent to the expected effects of “a more than doubling of per capita GDP”.

While this says something about the risk that one set of questions in a survey could accidentally influence how people respond to the questions that follow, it also says something about why Canadians and others around the world are tuning out on politics: if having politics on their mind makes them feel worse about life, and not thinking about it makes them feel better, the sensible thing to do is to give politics no more attention that necessary.

Politicians who wish to make the societies they govern happier places to live, and to keep the dreaded it’s-time-for-a-change sentiment at bay until a later election, might find that their best bet is to simply stay out of their constituents’ faces. And as for the large numbers of politically disengaged people, about which there has been much hand-wringing in recent years, the best policy might be to simply leave them in peace.

* – Available at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg at 306 WEI 2015.

Three ways to take the stress out of international summer travel

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

In the summer of 1972, the earliest year for which Statistics Canada keeps numbers, 282,210 Canadians returned from trips to foreign countries other than the United States. It took another 16 years before that number finally cracked the 500,000 mark in the summer of 1988, and 17 more years before the one-million mark was passed in the summer of 2005.

If the people who worked in the airports in that busy summer of 2005 thought it was a hectic couple of months, they hadn’t seen anything yet. During July and August 2014, more than 1.7 million Canadians returned from foreign countries other than the U.S. — a 70 percent traffic increase in just nine years.

If the 2000-2014 trend were to continue, by the end of the decade an additional 300,000 Canadians will be coming home from long-haul foreign destinations every July and August, boosting total returnee traffic during those two peak months past the 2 million mark.

That might turn out to be good for Winnipeg’s long efforts to land more long-haul flights. Not only is demand for international travel continuing to rise, but the additional crowding at Canada’s traditional ports of entry and the upcoming launch of new versions of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families — which will be able to fly nonstop for the first time from Winnipeg to the British Isles, bits of northwestern Europe or Hawai’i  — could make new seasonal services economically viable.

Yet in the meantime, this soaring demand creates a more pressing concern for Canadians this summer: how to keep one’s sanity in airports and on airplanes that are more tightly packed with people than ever.

1. Mind who you fly with. Even though the days are long gone when airlines advertised that they were so much fun to fly with you might not want to leave the aircraft, or showed supposed airline employees singing and dancing about what great service they offer (yes, that’s Suzanne Somers, pre-Three’s Company), there are still some airlines that have better reputations than others. Skytrax annually assesses the world’s airlines on quality of customer service, assigning one star to North Korea’s Air Koryo, the ultimate bottom-feeder, and five stars to the world’s best airlines, all of which are based in Asia or the oil-rich Middle East.

If you’re going to Asia, try flying Cathay Pacific or Japan’s ANA, two of the five-star airlines serving Canada. Air Canada is a safe enough bet as one of only four four-star North American airlines (the others being Porter, JetBlue and Virgin America). Other four-star airlines that partner with either Air Canada or WestJet include China Southern, Japan Air Lines, Korean Air, Air New Zealand, Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines.

2. Mind where you sit. A passably comfortable seat for someone of average height and waistline should be at least 17.5 inches wide, and offer a seat pitch of at least 31 inches, that being the distance from the back of your seat to the one in front of you. But more tightly packed seats previously found on short-haul feeder flights, 17 inches wide at a 30-inch pitch, have been making their way on to long-haul flights as airlines try to pack more passengers into each aircraft. Air Canada Rouge and Austrian Airlines are the worst offenders; though even the regular Air Canada has taken heat for outfitting some of its Boeing 777-300s with 458 seats, compared to just 299 seats on British Airways’ 777-300s.

Before booking, look for the aircraft’s seat pitch and width information on the airline’s web site or on SeatGuru.com. If the seat pitch is less than 31 inches, or the width is less than 17.5 inches, expect to feel squished.

3. Treat schedules as being somewhat like a politician’s promises. The typical flight, believe it or not, arrives at its destination almost exactly on time, or at least within five minutes of the scheduled time — and it’s the typical, or median, travel time that airlines normally use in setting their schedules to maximize aircraft and staff productivity.

While it’s in the airlines’ best interests to base their schedules on median travel times, it’s not in your interest as a traveler to do so, as this could force you to run for your connecting flight or wait in line to be rebooked if that flight leaves without you.

Canada’s two major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, have been doing a fairly good job of keeping to schedule recently, but it’s still in your best interest to allow enough time in your schedule to handle a 30-minute delay (which will give you about 90 percent certainty) or a 45-minute delay if a missed connection would be more than just an inconvenience (which boosts the certainty level to about 95 percent on most airlines).

Delta and United, the two other big airlines serving Winnipeg, have been suffering some long delays on their worst 10 and five percent of flights recently. If flying Delta, a 30-minute delay allowance will still give you about 90 percent confidence of making a connection; but leave room for a delay of up to 70 minutes if making a connecting flight is absolutely critical.

United Airlines, the least-reliable major airline serving Winnipeg, should be given an even wider margin of error on its schedules. Based on its recent performance, allow for a 70-minute delay if you want 90 percent certainty of making a connecting flight; and for a 90-minute delay if you need 95 percent certainty.

Also beware of United’s tendency to sell unusually short connecting times between incoming international flights at its Chicago hub and onward flights to Canada, some connections being as short as 80 minutes. Your odds of making these connections are poor. All passengers arriving in the U.S., including those immediately continuing on to Canada, must go through full U.S. customs and immigration screening, which has been reported to take two to three hours on a busy day in Chicago due to U.S. government cost-cutting. After clearing U.S. border controls, you will need to re-check your bags, transfer from United’s international Terminal 5 to their domestic-and-Canada Terminal 2, go through security and make your way to the gate, which could easily add another hour or more. (And after all that fun, you’ll need to do the whole border clearance thing again two hours later here on return to Canada!)

Delta’s Minneapolis/St. Paul hub is said to work somewhat better; but even then a minimum connection time of three hours is recommended, not including delay allowances, if you arrive from outside of North America and connect onward to Canada.

If arriving in Canada from abroad at Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, budget at least 90 minutes for immigration, baggage delivery, customs, baggage re-check, security screening and boarding when coming back into the country, on top of the 30-to-45 minute delay buffers suggested above.

The worst economy since World War II? Well, no…

An ad that has been recently airing on Canadian radio stations and paid for by Unifor, a major private-sector union, claims that Canada’s economy has done worse under the current federal government than under any other federal government since World War II. This is a rather bold claim to make. But is it true?

One rough measure that economists use to measure a society’s economic distress is the Misery Index, which is rather simply the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. It attracts its share of criticism for giving inflation too much weight and unemployment too little weight: fair enough.

Yet even if one accepts that the weighting could use a little fine-tuning, it appears that recent years have been far from the worst since World War II. That dubious honour goes to a decade-long bout of economic ill health from about 1976 to 1985 (at its worst around 1982) when either high inflation was eating away at people’s savings, or unemployment was wreaking havoc with peoples’ cash flow.

A second difficult period came in the early ’90s, when the misery index briefly spiked and unemployment was persistently greater than 10 percent for a two-and-a-half year period from late 1991 to mid-1994.

Unemployment rates, inflation and the "misery index", Canada, 1976-2014. (Click to enlarge.)

Unemployment rates, inflation and the “misery index”, Canada, 1976-2014. Source: Statistics Canada Consumer Price Index and Labour Force Survey data on CANSIM. (Click to enlarge.)

 

Recent times, by comparison, have been not so bad. Even during the 2008-09 global economic crisis, unemployment rates — which suddenly rose here, as in other countries — were no worse than they were during the mid-to-late ’80s economic boom, and they have been gradually declining since then. Inflation rates have also remained low, much unlike the 1976-82 period when they were trending steeply upward. The only way these could be described as being the worst economic times since World War II is by pretending the tough times of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s never happened.

The case against knighthoods

Those who know even a little bit about Canadian history will know that the country’s first prime minister was Sir John A. Macdonald. “Sir”, of course, wasn’t his first name: the man who might otherwise have simply been known as plain old John Macdonald was made a knight of the British crown upon taking office on July 1, 1867.

The tradition of knighting prime ministers, and other Canadian dignitaries, continued for half a century. Seven of the country’s first eight prime ministers would be bestowed with the “Sir” honorific, the exception being Alexander Mackenzie, who rejected the offer of a knighthood on three occasions in a show of his egalitarian ideals.

The knighthoods largely came to an end in 1919, when the House of Commons adopted the Nickle Resolution, limiting the awarding of knighthoods and similar titles in Canada. This occurred under the government of Sir Robert Borden, who accepted a knighthood of his own but never cared much for it, and thus left instructions that his tombstone simply identify him as “Robert Laird Borden”, minus the “Sir” part.

So, aside from a brief policy reversal under Richard Bennett’s 1930-35 government, that was that for nearly a century. Even John Diefenbaker, a staunch Anglophile, left well enough alone as far as knighthoods were concerned during his 1957-63 premiership.

Who would have guessed that talk of restoring knighthoods in egalitarian Canada would resurface in the second decade of the 21st century?

The issue was first raised by an obscure guest on an equally obscure CBC Radio program in 2014, but was given a more visible platform this past Thursday when Jamie Carroll, a former national director of the Liberal Party, published an op-ed in the National Post calling for the restoration of Canadian knighthoods.

Carroll writes:

Yet in 2009 New Zealand restored knighthoods and damehoods after a nine-year hiatus, allowing recipients of the country’s top honours under the New Zealand Order of Merit to convert these into titles. Last year, Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, moved to do the same, enduring a significant attack on his leadership in the process. He survived, and recipients of the senior rank of the Order of Australia are now also entitled to the prenominal Sir or Dame.

Abbott’s survival should be a cautionary tale, however. By awarding an Australian knighthood to Prince Philip without consulting his cabinet or caucus — a move described as a “captain’s call” — he offended many Australians’ egalitarian and, in some quarters, anti-monarchist sentiments.

A little more than a month later, he emerged from his party’s caucus room not so much a triumphant victor as a man rescued from the gallows at the last minute, as his fellow caucus members defeated a motion to dismiss him as party leader and prime minister by a 61-to-39 vote. The message was clear: you’re forgiven this time — but don’t confuse ‘forgiveness’ with ‘getting away with it’.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand prime minister John Key had tread more carefully on the matter of knighthoods and royalty. Yet a 2014 study by Konrad Raff of the Norwegian School of Economics and Linus Siming of Italy’s Bocconi University found that knighthoods have had mixed economic effects in New Zealand, benefitting some but weakening the economy for others.

Knighthoods, of course, tend to benefit those who are already socially connected to those who decide who gets one of these illustrious prizes. Chief executives of large organizations enjoy particularly favourable odds of getting a knighthood in those countries that still hand them out. Thus, Raff and Siming decided to test how the withdrawal, and then restoration, of this perk affected CEO behaviour in New Zealand.

They found that taking away the knighthood perk in 2000 had both a negative effect and a positive effect. CEOs who had suddenly lost their shot at a knighthood became more like those CEOs who never had a shot at a knighthood in the first place: they became more likely to reduce staff, a negative outcome, but improved the profitability and productivity of New Zealand businesses, a positive outcome.

When the knighthoods were restored in 2009, New Zealand chief executives who stood favourable odds of a knighthood once again showed a change in behaviour, hiring more staff (a good thing for those who happen to get those jobs) but more willing to let productivity and profits drop (a bad thing for job-creation in the rest of the economy); while CEOs not in line for a knighthood continued more or less as before.

Another discussion paper by Andrew Mell, Simon Radford and Seth Alexander Thévoz of the economics department at Britain’s Oxford University discusses the perception that British honours are not necessarily given out on the basis of merit but, much like Senate appointments here in Canada, are a patronage tool to reward prolific party fundraisers and others with outstanding political IOUs.

Britain had been the home of a “cash for honours” scandal in 2006, when the revelation that “100% of all Labour party donors of over £1 million since 1997 had been offered either a knighthood or a peerage” forced a police investigation of the then-Labour administration. The investigation found insufficient evidence to prosecute, but the damage was done.

The Oxford group set out to mathematically test the presumption that 27 of 779 major party donors nominated for British peerages between 2004 and 2015 could simply have been politically active people who had the good luck of being chosen for an honour without anyone taking into consideration how much money they brought in.

Their findings, in classic British understatement:

As is frequently claimed by all parties accused of selling peerages, it is of course perfectly possible that it is pure coincidence that “big donors” are disproportionately likely to be nominated for peerages. However, the odds of it being pure coincidence are roughly the same as those of entering Britain’s National Lottery five consecutive times, and winning the jackpot on each occasion. Whilst coincidence is theoretically possible, this explanation does stretch the limits of credulity.

Restated later:

As stated, we have no proof that any of the parties indulge in the sale of peerages, but the odds are overwhelmingly likely that such donors would stand an astronomically disproportionate chance of eventually being nominated for a peerage.

If knighthoods are ever reintroduced in Canada, don’t count on them being handed out purely on the basis of merit. Naturally, our elected representatives will be all too happy to nominate a loveable public figure from time to time, whose being bestowed with a knighthood generates a bit of favourable publicity for the government.

But more often than not, you could count on these honours being handed out much like Senate appointments: as incentives and thank-yous for party fundraising, and as consolation prizes for those whose political careers have come to an untimely end. As the Oxford findings show, you can literally bet on it.

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