Students Exploring Europe

The students have three-day long weekends for travel and have visited about a half-dozen countries that Barb has mentioned to me : Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, and the Netherlands so far. There were a few minor misadventures along the way:

One group went to the wrong airport for their flight from London and had to try again the next day. Oops.

Another group discovered that although most people in Switzerland speak multiple languages, English isn’t often one of them. They discovered this when they ended up at the wrong train station to catch their connection on their way to a hike up a mountain. A few of the women also misunderstood the guides warning about the thin air at altitude, and were very concerned about not being able to breathe up there.

One group that had never stayed in a hostel, went to Amsterdam and accidentally booked a hostel in the famous red light district. They were a bit shocked that attitudes about prostitution and marijuana were not only very open, but that such activities were actually aggressively advertised. Which would be a bit surreal for Americans.

Some students went to Germany for Oktoberfest and stayed in tents. They reported the tents were already quite dirty even on the first week, and that they won’t serve you a beer until you have a seat at a table, and they had to wait hours for a seat at a table. But they did manage to explore a bit more of the festival than just the beer hall, and some took a serious side trip to visit the remains of the concentration camp near the festival grounds.

Some of that group also ran into hours long delays at the airport waiting for a connecting flight. I already wrote a long rant about the cheapo airlines in Europe, so I won’t comment except to point out that the Eurostar and other high-speed trains are not much more money than the cheapest flights and most Europeans like them better than the airlines.

So there were a few snafus involving language and customs, but the women stocked up on chocolate in Belgium, the men toured the Volvo plant in Sweden, and irregardless of whatever they found to do in Amsterdam everyone returned to London in time for their classes, so there’s that.



“You can’t eat scenery” & the value of a guide

In Ireland it is the custom for tour guides to actually drive the bus as well as tell the tourists what they are seeing. Kevin Clancy, our guide, seemed cheerful and competent, while driving a big bus on narrow single track roads or in heavy traffic, but he mostly talked about practical things. He opened up a bit when he talked about the progress that had happened during his lifetime; things like electricity, cars, modern houses, the public schools and sports in the “new” Ireland, multinational companies with branches there. All things that didn’t exist when he was a child .
He had an interesting habit of clearly differentiating between Ireland the country, by which he meant the physical land inhabited by the people of Irish decent, and Ireland the nation, by which he meant all the people of Irish decent anywhere in the world.
The second day while we made our way up the western coast, he opened up.

You see, this is the part of Ireland hit hardest by the great famine (often called “the hunger” by Irish, and the “potato famine” by non Irish). As Kevin pointed out it can’t really be called a famine when a country is growing and exporting more food than would be needed to feed its people.

And Ireland was certainly doing that. In fact, during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women, and children died of starvation and related diseases, Irish exports of calves, bacon, and ham actually increased. Food of all kinds (peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, butter ) was shipped from the most famine-stricken ports of Ireland to England where people could pay higher prices. One example: In the first nine months of 1847 Ireland exported 822,681 imperial gallons (3,739,980 litres) of butter to England during the worst of the Famine.
Overall, Ireland lost about 25% of its Irish speaking people in less than 5 years about one million died and another million emigrated, out of about eight million total. They went to America, to Canada, to Australia, to Asia, to Africa in the famous coffin ships. Many died en route.

When there was a previous famine in Ireland, the ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland. During the Great Famine, Laissez-faire capitalism was the ideology of the British ruling class. The merchants lobbied against an export ban, fearing a drop in food prices, and there was no ban on exports.

In 1861, the revolutionary Irish nationalist John Mitchel wrote that “Potatoes had failed all over Europe, yet there was famine only in Ireland. ‘The almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight,’ he concluded, ‘but the English created the Famine.’Today, there are less than seven million people living in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland combined, while 70 million people worldwide claim Irish descent. That is Kevin’s “Irish Nation”.

Kevin also showed his worth in a much more practical way on the last evening of the tour. We were touring the Aran islands about a twenty-minute ferry ride out from the mainland, and we had rented everyone bicycles for the day, with an agreed time and place to meet with plenty of time to catch the ferry back to the mainland. It turned out that two students didn’t know how to ride a bike, so we arranged a tour by pony cart instead. The cart owner put the four of us in with a family already that was already booked, resulting in an overloaded cart that the pony simply couldn’t pull up the hills. As it got later, the pony went slower. I and the students took to jumping out of the cart and walking up the hills ourselves, but we were still running late.

Kevin somehow got the ferry to wait on us, and then, once back on the mainland, our bus broke down with a computer failure. Stopped dead in the middle of the only access road to the ferry terminal, blocking traffic in both directions.

S.U. students pushing the bus back out of the way.

By the time we had our luggage out of the derelict bus, Kevin convinced two other tour bus drivers to combine their loads, freeing up space to take our group back to our hotel, and he had a new bus in the morning. What would have been a very expensive disaster in New York or Philadelphia was really not more than a minor inconvenience . Thanks, Kevin.

Western Ireland’s Tragic Beauty

The first group trip of the new year. If we going to Ireland, why not just go to Dublin ? It is after all, a quick cheap flight with lots to do? Dublin to Galway or Killanarny to Galway is about the same time by coach, so why the devil would we skip Dublin?
Exactly because it’s cheap and easy. Easy enough that the students can fly over themselves, book a room, tour the Guinness plant (and drink one or two), snap a selfie in front of the Apple or Google tax havens campuses, hear some traditional music in a pub , and buy their parents a nice gift stamped “Hand Made In Ireland”, then check Ireland off their list, and never learn anymore about this part of the UK than a tourist standing in front of the Eiffel tower knows of France.
So we went to the rural west, to where there is little but the sea, the stones, the sky, and the Irish people. After landing near Killarney, We toured the “Ring of Kerry” a 100 mile loop coach tour along the Atlantic coastline beside beaches and mountains, through villages and narrow roads lined with hedgerows taller than the bus. By avoiding the city we had time to include some less known stops:
1. Killarney National Park a large woodland park near the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks mountains, with streams and waterfalls, wildlife and pony carts, a site called Ladies View overlooking the Lakes of Killarney, and Muckrose House, a manor house ( country estate) showing off the lifestyle of the rich and powerful.  See more at this Link  A nice contrast to –
2. The Kerry Bog Village, Link here ,a reconstruction of a typical late 18th century village in the Boglands or Peat lands, as it would have been back in the day when commerce depended on animals, not steam or electric power. Or, as my Scottish ancestors would say, back when the men were men, and the sheep wre nervous.

Peat is like a dense, waterlogged blanket of moss and dead trees, heather, and other vegetation that forms when there is high rainfall and poor drainage for thousands of years, and it is very acidic. This acidity prserves the “bog bodies” like the famous “Lindow Man ” at the British Museum Link here
Peat burns with a slow, smoldering, smokey fire that lasts all night and was widely burned for heat throughout Europe. Today, peat lands are very endangered, and Ireland has more peat lands still existing than all the rest of Europe.

The bog village is a collection of small, thatched roofed cottages belonging to the several classes of village people: a turf cutter, a blacksmith with his forge, a successful farmer who shared his home with his farm animals, an unskilled laborer, a skilled roof thatcher, etc., and a wagon or caravan drawn by a single horse and owned by a travelling family of Romany people, a herd of Kerry bog ponies, and a pack of Irish Wolfhounds, the world’s tallest dogs, bred for the nobles for hunting and fighting, they are almost as big as the Irish ponys.
3 The site of the oldest continuously running fair in Ireland, dating from at least the 4th century .The Puck Fair where the normal rules of society are ignored and a he goat is set up as “King for a Day” in a highly Pagan looking celebration.
4 Kissane farm. A huge working sheep farm covering two mountains and the valley between, with demonstrations of trained border collies hearding up the sheep and wool shearing both by hand and with electric shears. Link here

5. Dun Aonghasa a bronze age ring fort on the isle of Innismore off the Connemara coast. Link here 

6 The Burrens rock formations and the Cliffs of Moar are both wonderful scenery Link here ; the Burrens as rocky as the face of the moon, but with brilliant wildflowers growing down in crevices as deep as a man’s arm can reach, and miles of rocky cliffs dropping hundreds of feet straight into the Atlantic. And featuring the worst weather we have experienced on this trip.

When we left London it was like a sauna, while Ireland was still sunny but cool and wet. By the time we got to the Cliffs of Moar we had horizontal freezing rain and winds strong enough that it tore the buttons off my coat. The visitor center has a glass roof for viewing the rocky cliffs – it was like looking at a glass shower door with the shower running full force against it. The squall blew over quickly, but the damage was done.

I got sick. Half the students got sick. We had what the Brits call a “chesty cough”, though an American doctor would probably call it Bronchitis, but it took a few days for the symptoms to become severe enough to matter much.

Most of the students seemed to enjoy the night life in Killarney ( and the next night in Galway), at least until it became obvious that the drums and guitars, fiddles and pipes were not going to stop at midnight. Or at two a.m.. Or really much before daybreak … cough, cough …

Cruising the Thames from The Tower of London to The Cutty Sark

A month ago, we took a day out to celebrate my survival of another year. This year’s birthday plan was to tour something in London that’s older than I am.   As the local Amish say “We get too soon old, and too late wise”.

Since London is a port city on the Thames and the Thames has a few years on me, that’s where we headed. We took a river cruse from the Tower of London by the famous Tower Bridge to the Cutty Sark  in Greenwich  England.

There was some kind of a “two for one and a half price” deal running on admission to the Tower or the Cutty Sark or Royal Observatory and riding the water taxi on the Thames. A water taxi is essentially a day pass on a cruise riverboat with “hop on hop off” privileges at a few stops  along the river. Deals like that are extremely common on lots of tourist attractions – I intended to get a “London Pass” good for fifty plus attractions when I first came here until I found out they were only good for one or at most a few days, and I can only handle two attractions per day. Maximum.

The Tower of London, Beefeater Tour

tower-of-londonYou got to give William the Conqueror credit for not letting aesthetics get in the way when he had this built a thousand years ago  – this is built for strength, not beauty. It is a square stone tower three stories tall with turrets at each corner and surrounded by several defensive walls and a green space where the moat used to be. The legend is that Duke William’s men actually floated the giant stones that make the base of the tower over in boats from Normandy when they invaded England. While  I think that story is as likely to be as true as most of what the guides tell, the very idea of bring your own rocks does indicate an intention to stay awhile. And the French did rule England for about 500 years afterward.

The ultimate disgusting moat surrounded the tower and connected to the Thames via a deep  ditch so that twice a day high tide would “flush” the moat into the Thames. That’s where the sewage from the castle, garbage, dead animals, and occasionally dead humans were thrown.  Be-headings were held on he green across from the tower; the heads were put on spikes on the tower bridge for a while before ending up in the moat. All in all, a cheerful spot.

BeefeaterThe free Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) tour is worthwhile, although they do concentrate on the bloodiest bits of the history , saying things like “We’ll beheading to the White Tower now”, and our guide related a rather unlikely story about the crown jewels being stolen when the Beefeaters got drunk and left them out on the table overnight while playing dress up with a friendly jewel thief. They were recovered the next day and re- stolen several times thereafter, but they were there for us to see.

The crown jewels :are crowns, swords, and sceptres, including the 530 carat Cullinan diamond, the largest top-quality cut diamond in the world, as well as rubies and sapphires the size of goose eggs. Worth a look. Worth two looks actually; the jewels are in bulletproof glass cases with moving sidewalks on each side to keep the crowds moving through at a steady speed so no one can hold up the line by oh-ing and aw-ing in one place, you ride the moving sidewalk past the display to a blank wall then turn around and ride the one on the opposite side back to where you began. Quite clever really, and the exit is through the gift shop. Sigh.

The original tower contains a display of armor for both men and horses on the first floor. It’s called the Line of Kings, although the only king’s armor I could be sure of was Henry the Eighth because it was twice the width of anybody else’s armor. And it had a half round steel codpiece of kingly proportions. It looked like a cannonball half buried in the crotch of the armor. Upstairs were other royal weapons like a gold-plated machine gun and a bejeweled revolver (by Tiffany, no less) on the second floor. I never made it to the third floor, my wife never even made it to the second. They didn’t worry about handicapped access when they built this tower, and the lift only goes down to the gift shop in the old dungeon and back. Seems appropriate, somehow, since dungeons and gift shops both bring up images of screams and torture, but maybe that’s just me.

There is more of course; a monument and a museum, the statues of exotic animals called the “King’s Beasts”, a flock of live ravens, and a fine cafe where we had lunch; but our boat awaits.

The water taxi is actually rather nice – a glassed in lower deck that stays dry and warm, and an open upper deck that, much like the buses, does not. But it’s clean and equipped with a small bar and snack shop that the buses lack. It takes an hour or so to go a few stops, and the pilot on the pa system informs you of what you are floating past in route to the Cutty Sark.

Cutty Sark In Full Sail
Cutty Sark In Full Sail

The Cutty Sark We visited the world’s sole surviving tea clipper, and the fastest ship of her time. . The ship was recently renovated, raised up 15 feet into the air and a museum, cafe, and shop added underneath her copper clad hull, so it makes an interesting tour.

First off this is a beautiful ship. Secondly it is huge, since it was built to haul a lot of tea in a single voyage from China to England before they built the Panama Canal. it carried a crew of about twenty men ( although some of those men were only teenage boys), and the two lower decks are all open space – stacked floor to ceiling. wall to wall with freight – first tea from China, and later wool from Australia and New Zealand. This cargo space is now a museum area with talkative guides for adults and multimedia exhibits for kids. It is interesting to me that the emphasis was on speed – apparently the English nobility were keen to impress their guests by serving the first of the years crop of whatever tea was harvested

101-9F511425-842196-800On the ride back, I took a few photos of the Themes all lit up at night which probably isn’t all that remarkable except that it was only about four thirty and looked like midnight. We are apparently way north of the Equator here and the days of December are short, unlike this post which is way too long.

Kew Gardens and Wimbledon

So how do you make a tour of famous tourist attractions miserable enough to justify giving the students academic credit for attending? Easy; just schedule it for November .

The weather in  London is just about as horrid as advertised; and it has interfered with two business tours that we were quite looking forward to. I also caught the worst cold I have had in years.  The tours and presentations couldn’t be scheduled early in the semester because of uncertainty about when the student’s trip to Bahrain would be, so we ended up trudging around in horizontal, freezing rain..  If you get a chance to visit either Wimbledon or the Kew Gardens , do so in August or September, not in November or December.

Kew Gardens

A Kew Greenhouse

Britain is known as a land of gardeners, but this mecca for gardeners is not the most beautiful garden in Britain; Kew Gardens is much more than just a pretty face. Dating back to the Plaginet era, Kew is actually a world-class botanical research facility, so like the trip to Wimbledon, we arranged a tour with a special presentation about the economics of the gardens.

Since no one expected any visitors on a day like that (in spite of our reservations), lunch for 20 students was delayed, and we were so late for the after dinner talk that the guide only had time for about a third of what she intended to cover. In my programming days, we would call it “cascading failures”.

So very briefly Kew specializes in breeding and raising plants with high economic value: unusual foods like coffee and bananas, plants that provide valuable raw materials like the oil palm and the rubber tree from the tropics, water lilies that clean up sewage and polluted water, and lots of plants with medical properties.

They search the world for these plants, bring them back home and raise them in greenhouses or whatever protected environment is required, and breed varieties for resale. And make a beautiful space as a side benefit.


Wimbledon is a world famous attraction with a very unique business model that most visitors will never know about, although they will be happy to talk about their business if you ask. We asked.

The guide opened his talk by creating a mind map of the top ten sporting events the students could think of: the World Series, the NBA playoffs, the Super Bowl, etc.. Then he questioned them on whether or not you would be able to know if you just saw them on TV if you were watching the championship on the chart or just another game.

wimbledon 1If you turn on a TV and see people in white clothes playing tennis on green grass or holding up a large silver cup or plate, you are seeing a carefully staged message for the Wimbledon brand. Other tennis tournaments may be played on an artificial surface by people wearing wild colors but they aren’t Wimbledon – and everyone knows it.

Back in 1868 the Wimbledon Club was a coquette club, one of the very few places young men and women could mingle in the Victorian Age. Tennis at that time was a game more like today’s racket ball, played on an indoor court with rackets, a net, and a hard ball that bounced off the walls. The game we know is really “Lawn Tennis”, developed at the Wimbledon Club as a way of raising money by selling the nets, rackets, clothes and so forth, like they did with coquette.

So how does Wimbledon make its money today? The guide asked us for suggestions and we came up with the usual: tickets sales, television rights,  merchandise, hospitality, licensing, etc. Providing content for TV and the Web is a huge income stream, but  none of others contribute much money at all.

Tickets and basic hospitality are deliberately cheap enough that just about anyone who is interested can afford to attend a Wimbledon match. A basic ticket costs 50 pounds, but is very hard to get and doesn’t even let you choose which match you will see. A more expensive ticket goes up to 200 pounds for a better seat at a better match, but even that is relatively cheap for a major sporting event.

They have a full state of the art TV studio on the premises, with permanently installed cameras, wired for radio, TV, and internet coverage, so  anyone who wants to broadcast a match will find it much less expensive to us Wimbledon’s equipment than to bring in their own, and they can buy various packages of coverage from just images to full coverage and use of the studio for before and after match interviews.

But the unusual thing, and the most profitable, is they sell what they call debentures. Basically a debenture is like a bond. When you buy a debenture you are making a fifty thousand pound (US $ 75,000) interest free five year loan to Wimbledon. That includes a free center count seat every year that you can sell for whatever you can get for it. Those center court seats are realistically impossible to get any other way, and they are they only tickets you can ever resell. Every other ticket is non resell-able, and that policy is tightly  enforced. There are 2500 such debentures every year and they always sell out. Recently one such debenture holder sold just one seat for one match the equivalent of US $75,000,and Wimbledon was completely happy with that.

They also have a wonderful museum, great grounds  with “the best grass in the world”, and are very much a class act. Just don’t visit in November or December.


Coastal France: Bayeux & Mont Saint-Michel

Since I already complained about driving with my schoolboy French in my post about the Ferry , I will skip all that and start with Saint Malo where we spent the first day of our break. This is a lovely thousand-year old stone walled port town with long sandy beaches in Brittany, France  just across the channel from Portsmouth, UK.

A fancy carousel and a tiny train are just outside the main gate for children and tired tourists.  Narrow, winding, cobblestone streets full of restaurants and tourist shops line the walls, which are thick enough to walk three abreast on top,  accessed via narrow winding stairs by the gates. Yeah, it’s right out of an Errol Flynn era pirate movie.

And that makes sense, because Saint Malo was once famous as the home of the French Corsairs (basically pirates) who attacked English ships under license  from the King of France. They could attack any ships of any nation that was at war with France, but practically speaking that meant English ships for most of the middle ages.

Saint_MaloOur hotel is right inside the third gate of the great wall facing the sea, and since we  had to waste time getting our rental car, breakfast time became brunch time before we could get anything to eat. The French usually eat light breakfasts like coffee and croissants ( with chocolate, of course).

Egg dishes like omelets and quiche are considered hearty fare for later in the day. So we had omelets served with a huge pile of french fries (frites in French) and salad.  We explored a bit of Saint Malo ( blue skies, palm trees and roses growing in well tended gardens outside the old stone walls, nearly empty rocky beaches and seagulls beyond),  then drove to Mont Saint Michel.

Mont Saint Michel
Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel is an Abbey built on a tidal island – a solid granite rock – off the coast of Brittany that is surrounded by mud flats and quicksand during low tide and forty foot deep water at high tide. Now think about building that when you could only get materials in and people out for a few hours a day – when the tide comes in, the sea fills the twelve miles of surrounding basin in about two hours, faster than a horse could run at full gallop. Anything or anyone caught by the tides drowns. So not the easiest place to build a monastery even now, but they built this over a thousand years ago.

There is a complete village inside the walls, with a single narrow, steep, cobblestone street that winds all the way up from the gate at the bottom to the abbey at the top with a maze of connecting alleys between buildings.

Steep: We only walked up about half way and were winded carrying nothing heavier than a purse and a small backpack; I wouldn’t want to carry groceries up.

And Narrow: It is  just wide enough for a cart drawn by two horses to pass through. I was there in the evening when they picked up the trash.  A guy drove a forklift with a plywood box on the front up the hill, picking up bagged trash, and the throng of tourists had to scramble into the doorways of the restaurants and shops to let him pass.

I would have liked to stayed long enough to see the tides come in, but the idea of driving after dark convinced me  to drive back to our hotel for dinner. We parked outside the wall, and walked in past a dozen restaurants (of various nationalities with French & English menus in the windows), stopped at a seafood place, and ordered by pointing at the menus and wine list (both in French only) and in a few minutes had huge pots of mussels (mine in a cream sauce, my wife’s in a wine sauce) served with french fries. And mayonnaise. The waitress has no English, my French doesn’t qualify as intelligible, so I wrote the words Ketchup and Biere on a napkin and hoped. It worked, she brought both, giggling all the way.

Bayeux ships
Bayeux ships

The next morning, we had a French breakfast in the hotel, loaded our bags, watched the sun rising over the ramparts, then strolled along the beach, and finally drove to Bayeux where the famous tapestry is on display. I would have never found it without the GPS.

The presentation of the tapestry is really very good. The whole thing is a great long piece of linen cloth almost as long as a football field completely embroidered with the story of the battle of Hastings, where the French defeated the English in 1066.  The audio (in English) describes things scene by scene, like reading a huge comic strip.  There is a copy of it with some commentary online here if you want to see how it tells the story. And it’s a great story – kidnapping, treason, a sea voyage, a battle for a kingdom, an apparent defeat, then a rally, and a final victory with new King of both France and England – it reads like an action novel, all embroidered in pictures for an illiterate age.

Our hotel in Bayeux was Le Chateau Hotel a Bayeux  an eighteenth century château that was turned into a hotel back in the fifties, when people like Lauren Bacall and movie stars stayed there then. It is still fabulous – rose gardens with swans swimming in a stream beside the main house and a staff like you would hope to find at the finest conference hotels. This is where the receptionist went way above and beyond the call of duty as I described in my post on talking the ferry.

And the thing is these folks seem to really like Americans, I could mangle the French phrase for “I don’t speak French, do you speak English?” and get a big smile and some communication ( their bad English,  my worse French, and hand gestures) every time.

It’s not because they are looking for a big tip( rare in France) but, I think, because seventy years ago American heroes liberated France from the Nazis, and any American might be related to those heroes. With the sense of history these people have, seventy years ago is about like two weeks ago in the US.

Anyway, if you have some tourist dollars (or euros) set aside, I recommend spending them in France once things return to normal. I certainly will.





Prague Life After Communism


Prague’s golden age was almost a thousand years ago when it was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Under the Prague castle there are bricks that date back to 885 AD, and when Charles IV became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1350 AD  the humble little city became the third largest in Europe, and like London during the British Empire it was both the political and financial center of Europe.

And since it was never bombed like London , the medieval architecture is still intact. And what architecture it is. Although all this history is “like catnip” to me, I won’t be spending much time on it. We are here on a mission.

This is going to be an intense week because of the students presentations  I mentioned in my London Program page, so culture, art, music, and architecture all just have to get fit in where ever and how ever we can arrange it.

Currently Prague is the capital of the Czech republic, a country about the size of North Carolina, that has existed only since 1993. Prague is much smaller and easier to get around than London with an excellent public transit system of buses, trams, and a simple underground train line. These are soviet era trains, built heavy and strong, and the terminals being more modern are in better repair than in London with fewer steps and huge escalators that will carry you up or down many stories at a go. That means it all works, and it works well. After a few days, it is possible to get around town (without speaking the language) on public transit.

prague _malaStranaOur first full day in Prague we took a walking tour of the King Charles Bridge, the Lesser Town and Old Town areas, then climbed two hundred and eight stone steps to the Prague Castle on the highest peak of the city. This is the old town, the tourist areas, but still very much a part of modern Prague’s government and embassy area. And just look at the architecture – built without electricity or power tools; really just men on scaffolds with hammers and chisels.

When the term “Bohemian” appeared in France in the early nineteenth century, it meant living an unconventional and quite tolerant lifestyle like the young and often poor artists, writers, musicians, and actors in many major European cities did. When Jack Kerouac and the  “Beat Generation” used the word it also implied living well on very little money, something that is still possible in Prague – the basics like food and clothes, public transport and apartment rents are very cheap , small luxuries like  restaurants, beer, jewelry, candy, and cigarettes that are super expensive in London are quite reasonable in Prague, while imported “status symbol” goods like expensive electronics, designer label clothes, and luxury cars are even more expensive than they are in London.

I assume that taxes have a lot to do with this, but it seems to work – the people seem well dressed and well fed, many families have two homes ( a house or condo in Prague and a cabin in the woods half an hour away from the city), a car to get back and forth between them (Skoda is the domestic car),  and enough leisure time to enjoy both.

Although generally very tolerant ( marijuana is recently legalized, prostitution and alcohol abuse are treated more as annoyances than crimes) this is no liberal paradise: relations between the Czech majority and the many illegal immigrant workers are strained, and relations with the Romas (known as Gypsies) are especially bad.

Although the area is historically Catholic, most Czechs are not religious. Most Czech people are capitalists at heart, but there is still a strong (and growing ) Communist party.

Outside of Prague Russian is the common second language and English is rarely spoken. Possibly some people turn back towards the Communist party because  scandals involving high level government officials seem to be more common now. Perhaps the older generation.



The Morris Mini Tour

Visit  for more giant robots and rayguns too.

Thousands of Giant Robots Outside Oxford

That isn’t the title of an old sci-fi film, but it is the thing I will remember after suiting up in a spark proof overcoat to tour the Morris Mini plant in the Cowley area of Oxford, UK.

The first car  made here was a two-seater Morris Oxford in 1913, assembled on a stationary production line from parts ordered by a young motorcycle mechanic named William Morris. He took his first home-built car to a car show and a dealer ordered four hundred cars. He had no factory, no employees, and no dependable source of supply for the parts needed, but hey these are just details, right?

Morris Manufacturing soldiered on through the war years making things for the military, and when the world wars were over it started producing cars again, but the ten to fifteen year old designs were no longer competitive and they had to redesign from the ground up. Morris Motorcars really hit its stride in 1959 with the famous transverse engine front-wheel drive car designed by Alec Issigonis: the Morris Minor and its identical twin the Austin Seven and later the Mini Cooper.

State of the Art Once
State of the Art Once

The Mini went on to become the best-selling British car in history. This super space efficient design of a front wheel drive axle and gearbox connected to a transverse engine is the inspiration for almost all small front-wheel drive cars produced since the 1960s.

Today the new Mini is part of BMW, but is still designed and built in the UK by thousands of giant robots (and hundreds of humans)  in three separate plants in the UK. But this is the plant where it all comes together: engines from one plant, sub-assemblies from another, wheels and tires, interiors and carpet, and the bodies made here are combined to make cars. Every one made to order, two door Minis, four door Minis, and the large Clubman model, all on the same line, by the same robots, in the order they were ordered, with different dashboards and electronics, different colors of bodies, carpets, and seats.

The only thing done in batch mode is the exterior paint because it takes hours to switch paint colors. This should be a logistical nightmare, but it isn’t. Everything is bar coded to an order and the robots are quite clever (for robots). They read the bar codes and change their “grippers” (not “hands”) to fit the two door, four door or whatever model, and grab the next piece off of the stack and weld or glue or bolt things together.

Logistics are really the secret of building a thousand cars a day – having the right bits in the right bins at the right time so the robot can grab the next piece in a stack and it will be the right bit for the car in progress. The right electronic options, the right color of carpet, the right choice of wheels and tires, the right seats. And it works. They literally build a thousand cars a day here – in forty days they make as many cars as Morgan Motor Cars has made in over a hundred years.

Modern Robots Building a Thousand Cars a Day
Modern Robots Building a Thousand Cars a Day

And the robots don’t look like the poster above, they look like this. No photographs are allowed on the tour, but this is a recent photo.

Obviously they can’t afford downtime – with that many robots all waiting for the next task, a few seconds delay costs thousands of pounds.

Quite amazing, really.