... in travel

Europe Asia Express

04 Oct 2020 | 210 words | europe railways travel infrastructure maps

Lately there has been a lot of talk about reviving the Trans Europe Express (TEE) that had its heyday well before i was even born. If that means more investment into high-speed trans-european rail infrastructure it has my full support (even though it will be next to impossible to match the design sensitivity that came along with the TEE).

Speaking about railway nostalgia, I came across this illustration on flickr today, which illustrates the networks serverd by the TEE predecessor Simplon Orinet Express and its middle eastern equivalent the Taurus Express in the late 1930s:

Taurus Express and Simplon Orient Express via Bruce Sterling's flickr

If there is talk about reviving old railway networks then we should probably skip the TEE and go right here. If revieved, this network would cover more than enough of the world for me to never set foot into an airplane again and spend the rest of my life exploring these parts (as of writing i have visited or lived in 9/11 of the stops on the European side of this network and 7/13 on the Afrian/Asian side).

And since we are discussing reviving express trains here, i am also very much looking forward to the Chungking Express sequel that is apparently in the works.

© Piet Mondrian, 85 Waterloo Street Warrenton VA 20186, USA

15 Oct 2018 | 863 words | copyright art united states business travel

On the 16th of July 2015, a couple of hours before flying back to Amsterdam i rented a car in downtown Washington D.C and drove for a about an hour to Warrenton, VA to take a photo of a residential property located on one of the main thouroughfares of the small town:

85 Waterloo Street Warrenton VA 20186, USA

So what triggered my interest in this rather unremarkable building in an unremarkable town? The house on Waterloo Street was home to HCR international, a company that since 1998 has been managing the copyright in the works of the Dutch born artist Piet Mondrian (1872 - 1944). As a result the name of the company featured prominently in the copyright notices alongside reproductions of the works of Mondrian on Museum websites and exhibition catalogues all over the world.

I had developed an interest in HCR international when we were working on the “Wiki loves Art/NLpublication in 2010. During the work on the book i became aware of the somewhat dubious reputation that a certain Hillary Richardson (presumably the H and the R in HCR international) had among museum curators who dealt with works by Piet Mondriaan. Apparently Ms Richardson was rather demanding when it came to providing permission for preproductions of Mondrian’s works. Not only was she known for asking high royalty rates (see this 2015 NY Times article for examples), she was also known to be very specific with regards to the copyright notices. According to a 2011 art magazine article, HCR generally demanded that copyright notices are placed vertically alongside any reproductions, that Mondriaan name must be written with one ‘a’ (the original Dutch spelling is with ‘aa’). Evidence from around the web also seems to indicate that she insisted that HCR international is named in all copyright notices.

So how did the copyrights of the most famous 20th century artist from the Netherlands end up in a residential house in Warrenton, Virginia? Like many other artists from continental Europe, Mondriaan had to flee from the Nazis. During a short stay in Paris in 1934 he became friends with the American artist Henry Holtzman. In 1940 Holtzman arranged for Mondrian’s passage from London to New York City, where he rented an apartment-studio for Mondrian. During the next three and a half years he was one of Mondrian’s most intimate associates.

When Mondriaan died of pneumonia in 1944 he willed his estate (including the copyrights) to Holtzman. Holtzman continued to live for a considerable period but eventually died in 1987. His estate, including the Mondriaan copyrights, fell into the hands of his three children, who set up the Mondrian/Holtzman trust. In 1999 they hired the art historian Hillary Richardson to manage the copyrights on behalf of the trust and, as a result, from 1999 onwards HCR international managed Mondriaan copyrights from the House in Warrenton, VA.According to its website (2015 version), the Mondrian trust…

… aims to promote awareness of Mondrian’s artwork and to ensure the integrety of his work. We intend to carry forward his legacy and influence a new generation of artists by managing and encouraging copyright use for Mondrian’s artwork. The trust grants licenses and copyright permissions to those whishing to reproduce Mondrian’s images.

In reality, as evidenced by the way that Ms Richardson operated, it is fairly clear that HCR international was not primarily concerned with Mondrian’s artistic legacy and integrity but rather interested in bringing in licensing revenue. In an email exchange between Ms Richardson and me in 2010 she declined an to contribute to our publication because “Mondrian is keeping me very busy!”.

Things changed when the Mondriaan copyrights expired on the 1st of January 2015. When i contacted Ms. Richardson again in early 2015 to see if she would be willing to talk about how  the fact that Mondriaan’s work was now in the Public Domain, she declined pointing out that because of the expiration of the Mondriaan copyrights, she was no longer working for the trust:  

Dear Paul Keller, Thank you for your inquiry. Due to the expiration of Mondrian’s copyrights worldwide–except for many in the US and in Spain, I decided not to renew my contract with the Mondrian Trust for the limited rights. That has given me the opportunity to consult for a producer of educational art apps and to use myart historical background researching works in private collections here in Washington, many of which span several centuries and cultures. They are new and rewarding challenges after 16 years working withMondrian’s incredible images …

That email was singend off with a new adress for HCR international:

HCR International 4100 Cathedral Avenue Washington DC

So when i visited the house on 85 Waterloo street in July 2015 both the Mondriaan copyrights and HCR international were no longer residing there. Still, looking at the house on that hot summer day, I could not stop but wondering how Mondrian, the 20th century icon of modernist abstract art, would had felt knowing that more that half a century after his death his copyright would be administered from a small residential property in rural Virginia.

More pictures of the house and Warrenton, VA in this flickr album

Twice as fast = twice as nice

So today the dutch railways (NS) ran a one-time Amsterdam Berlin intercity service that was 27 minutes faster than the usual 6 hour 30 minutes Amsterdam Berlin intercity service. They achieved this by omitting all stops between Amsterdam and the German border (Hilversum, Amsersfoort, Apeldoorn, Deventer, Amelo and Henglo). According to the NS it should be possible to further reduce travel time to four hours by aquiring engines that are capable of running 200 km/h on the Dutch and the German railwys (right now there is a change of engine in Bad Bentheim that takes about 15 minutes) and by skipping most stops on the German side (Bad Bentheim, Rheine, Bad Oeynhausen, Minden, Wolfsburg, Stendal and Berlin Spandau). The main obstacle against this badly needed upgrade of the Amsterdam Service? According to the Volkskrant all these little places insist on having the train stop in their stations.

Still the NS seems to be fairly determined to upgrade the line and bring the travel time down to four hours1, which would make it roughly competetive with direct flights between Amsterdam and Berlin. Four hours between Amsterdam and Berlin would mean an average speed of 160 km/h which is nice compared to the current average of 98 km/h but it is a far cry from the 200 km/h reuired to qualify as a high speed rail service. By comparison i have recently had the pleasure to travel on the so called Zon Thlays (a dedicated summer weekend only service that connects Amsterdam with the south of France) which runs the 1244 km from Amsterdam to Aix en Provence in 6 hours 47 minutes (an average speed of 187 km/h including a 15 minute crew rest stop at Paris CDG Airport, required by labour regulations). This is nearly twice as fast and makes the 6 and a half our drudgery of the current Amsterdam Berlin service even more unbearable. It brings Marseille within 7 hours of Amsterdam which feels quite amazing in more than one way (both of them being old port cities on opposite sides of the continental European land mass that culturally feel much further apart that a 7 hour train ride).

Now most of the service runs on dedicated high speed lines (with the notable exception of the bit between Antwerp and Brussels which the Belginas refuse to upgrade, in their own petty version of the i-want-the-train-to-slow-down-and-call in-my-little-village described above) and it does not make any sheduled stops between Brussels and Valence, bypassing Paris to the east (see routemap below). The trip feels like a triumph of infrastructure over time and it illustrates that if we ever want to get Euroepans of their addiction to low cost flights we will need to substantially invest into better high speed rail infrastructure.

There is no good reason why people should be able to fly across the continet, destroying the climate in pursuit of the next city trip if we had infrastuctire linking major cities that would allow travelling 1200 km or so within 6 hours (think breakfast in Amsterdam, dinner in Marseille). Now such infrastructure does not come cheap2, but given the climate destroying effects of our addiction to cheap short haul air travel, there are little alternatives.

The most logical source of the required investments would be a suracharge on intra EU airline tickets. A modest €20 per ticket would bring in €12,5 billion per year (based on the 626 million passengers of national and intra EU28 passengers identified in the 2016 air transport statistics). To make the point that people should take the train insteard of the plane it this surcharge should be inreased to €100 per ticket for routes that compete with trains services that take 4 hours or less such as Amsterdam-Paris (1,26M passengers in 2017 = €101M extra ), Paris-London (1,07M passengers in 2017 = €86M extra) and many others. Over time such surcharges could result in substantial funds that can be invested into building a better high speed train infrastructure (think Japan) and in the short run they would make train operators on existing high speed connections much more competetive.

Given the political clout that the airline business has (they have succesfully resited the idea of taxing jetfuel for decades) such a measure would require a lot of political will to enact, but given the untenable trajectory that we are on when it comes to airtravel, there may be little other choices. The only other alternative would be for people to actually travel less. While undoubtably better, it is quite a hard sell on generations raised on cheap jet-fuel and the idea that multiple city trips per year are a basic human right.

Route of the direct Thalys service from Amsterdam to Aix en Provence

  1. Which is probably an unrealistic excpection. This 2018 study by engeneering firm Royal HaskoningDSV (commissioned by Natuur en Milieufederatie Noord-Holland) comes to the conclusion that without upgrading the track the measures described above would result in a retuction of travel time of 46 minutes only (page 32). This would mean five hours and 38 minutes total travel time which is not much better than the current situation. The same study calculates that upgrading the route to proper high speed infrastructue would reduce total travel time time to 3 hours and 4 minutes (page 36, note that this tiem includes transfer to and from the train station) ↩︎

  2. The above-quoted Royal Haskoning study claculates the cost of buliding a HSL network that connects Amsterdam with most mayor metropolitan centers within a radius of 750km to be €78 billion. Such a network would consist of 3310 km of new HSL infrastructure (which, of course would be only one part of a Europe-wide HSL network). ↩︎

The intriguingly strange motor cycle product names of Pakistan

25 Jul 2016 | 128 words | branding lahore motorcycles pakistan travel

One of the most intriguing things that i noticed during my short visit to Lahore, Pakistan last week were the product names for the local motor cycles. In Lahore the Honda 70 (and its various knock-offs from local brands) is a near ubiquitous motor cycle that seems to be the primary means of transport for the cities less affluent inhabitants. At some point, while walking through the old city i noticed that the product name of the Honda is Cash Forever 70 (or CD70). As it turns out all of the knock-off versions als have cash-themed names. Cash Forever (Road Prince), Hot Cash (BMC) and Urgent Sale (United):

Cash Deposit

Cash Forever

Hot Cash

Urgent Sale

BMC gets extra points for appropriating the BMW logo for their brand.

X-mas in the desert

22 Dec 2015 | 153 words | desert xmas namibia travel

Sitting here and reading this:

[…] The tourists come for the desert’s skyscapes and crumbling adobe buildings, its mysticism and tequila and Instagrammable earth tones. I’m a tourist, too, of course, even if I’m moving at a pace of years instead of days. When people ask me how long I plan on staying in Marfa, I answer vaguely: “It’s not my forever-place.” Whatever that means. Between the fancy grocery store and Amazon Prime, Marfa is hardly a place of deprivation. But even with kale and art openings, the desert is hard. Trash snags in the scrubgrass. Only rich people have lawns. Last week, a pack of stray dogs chased me down the street, and today the wind is so strong it feels like the house is under attack. When I go back east, I always get a little emotional the first time I see a cluster of trees—the easy abundance! All that green![…]

1 plus 8 - the room is a map of the territory

07 Apr 2013 | 300 words | algorithms art exhibition review travel

Yesterday we saw 1+8 at the opulent Galata branch of SALT. 1+8 is a dynamic eight-screen video installation about Turkey and her eight neighbours based on the feature film of the same name directed by Cynthia Madansky and Angelika Brudniak. I usually do not have much patience for video installations but 1+8 managed to capture my attention for quite some time. If you are to believe the catalogue text this thanks to an the brilliance of a ‘custom made algorithmic computer program’ powering the display:

“The installation invites the audience to become immersed in the contemplation of life at the eight borders of Turkey. The multi-screen projection lends itself to experience simultaneity and inter-connection on a physical level. The choreography of video’s on the eight screens, is created dynamically with the help of a custom made algorithmic computer program allowing for a unique viewer experience, whereby the projections will never appear the same way twice.”

Not sure in how far the algorithm contributed to my enjoyment here. Being a bit obsessed about maps i was much more delighted by the way the room (a large rectangle) was used as a map of the territory, with the videos projected on those parts of the wall that correspond with the actual borders between Turkey and its eight1 neighbours (this of course only works with a country like turkey which is an even bigger rectangle):

turkey in a box

Also, it appears that the border regions between Turkey and its six Asian neighbours are really fascinating/beautifull which makes me want to travel there at some point in the future

  1. One of the things learned here is that the Turkish consider the Autonomus Repubic of Nakhchivan a neghbouring country (which – it should be noted – has the tiniest possible border with Turkey). ↩︎ ↩︎

How to not run a high speed train service

12 Jan 2013 | 1098 words | infrastructure travel railways stupidity

Earlier this week i had the ‘pleasure’ of travelling down to Brussels using the new so called ‘Fyra‘ service by NS Hispeed for the first time (the service is operational since 9 december 2012). While the Fyra is making news mainly for the unreliability of the service (said to be somewhere between 55% and 75% on-time performance in the last week, with 5% of the trains ‘never making it to Brussels at all1 both journeys where perfectly on time. Still the entire experience really sucked. Here are a couple of suggestions what not to do when running a high speed rail service:

#1 come up with a crazy ticketing system that requires you to have a reservation when travelling on one sector (Rotterdam -> Antwerp) but not on the other (Amsterdam -> Schiphol). There were at least 2 groups of passengers in my immediate vicinity who were almost thrown of the train, because they had in fact a reservation for another train (2 hours later), neither of them were aware of this transgression. Threatening to throw people, who have paid for a ticket, off a half empty train just because they did not manage to understand the needlessly complex ticketing system is about the most stupid thing you can do to build a loyal customer base.

More generally the entire Fyra ticketing experience sucks. Apparently some idiot in the marketing department decided that it is somehow desirable to try to emulate airline ticketing practices because air travel is such a pleasure these days. Which of course it is not. One of the nicest things of train travel is the fact that you can just buy a ticket and board a train whenever it suits you, something NS hissed seems to be determined to help out of the world.

On both of my journeys there was a lot of completely unnecessary commotion because people were sitting on other people’s reserved seats and had to stand up only to figure out that someone was sitting on their seat and so on…

#2 Runs the trains on a completely useless time-table. Before the Fyra we already had the Thalys high speed service on the same route. Problem with the Thalys was that it did not run really frequently. So what would a sane person responsible for the Fyra time table do? you would expect them to schedule in the Fyra trains in between the Thalys trains so that passengers have more choice in arrival times. Except the Fyra time-table is off course not made by a sane person: Say you need to be in Brussels at 0900/0930h (not an entirely uncommon time for meetings to start) in which case you have the choice between trains arriving at 0742, 0808 and 0942:

Fyra timetable

#3 Have long scheduled stops along the way. One would assume that the advantage of a high speed train over other trains is that they get you to your destination faster. One thing that certainly does not contribute to getting from Amsterdam to Bruxelles as quickly as possible is making scheduled stops of 5 minutes in Rotterdam (2 minutes would be plenty to let people get on and off the train).

Now spending 3 unnecessary minutes on the train would not be so bad if the trains where not so goddam awful. It is not only that they are extremely ugly from the outside but rather that they are feeling extremely cheap;

#4 Make sure that 1/3 of the window seats face a cheap plastic wall panel instead of the window. The entire 2nd class interior of the trains is made out of cheap plastic, which gives the trains a super cheap feeling. It this is the worst if you are assigned (though the stupid reservation requirement mentioned above) a window seat which actually turns out to be a cheap plastic wall seat. Guess that is what you get when you take a train with relatively small windows and cram it full with seats.

Fyra window seat

#5 Have no power sockets and no wifi on board. I mean seriously NS hispeed, how is this even possible2? this is 2013 and you think that power plugs are something that only needs to be installed in 1st class? This is the dumbest attempt at an up-sell i have encountered in a long time. Hell, this is probably bad for our national competitiveness: While the Dutch arrive in Brussels with half empty batteries, the French, the British and the Germans arrive with their devices fully charged.

Also no wifi is a pretty stupid move, although fortunately you can organise your own connectivity, which is not really an option for power (one might consider bringing an extension cord to tap power from the toilets which do have power outlets for electric shavers, something i can’t imagine anyone using but apparently NS hispeed things that shaving yourself on the train is more important than charging your laptop).

The only hopeful thing is that the trains seem to be of such shitty quality that they will most likely not last very long (both cars i was travelling in had roof panels that made creaking noises every time we entered or exited a tunnel). If i was NS hispeed i would order new trains today. In the meanwhile i will be taking the Thalys

Update 1 June 2013: Turns out that the roof panels did come off. Yesterdays presentation by the Belgian railways company about the reasons why they are cancelling their Fyra order contains this image:

Fyra roof panel coming off

While the Belgians have cancelled their Fyras and are promising us more frequent Thalys services, NS has still not realised that they will need to order new trains.

  1. Which of course makes you wonder where it is they are ending up then. Some black hole in Brabant? Or do they simply disappear as the Buenos Aires subway train in ‘Moebius’↩︎

  2. And no, the fact that the trains were tendered is not an excuse for this as the train manger on the way to brussels suggested. In a tender you get what you write into a tender specification and apparently some idiot at the NS thought that having power plugs in first class only would be just fine. Guess the people writing tender specifications didn’t spend significant amounts of time on board of trains back then. Every half intelligent person could have figured that laptops and phones would become a big thing and that one of the great competitive advantages of trains is that you can work on your devices while charging them. ↩︎

Flying dutchman

09 Dec 2012 | 417 words | capitalism food mexico travel business

On a recent trip to Mexico city (to attend a Creative Commons LatAm meeting) while we were waiting to be cleared for take-off, i overheard my neighbour in seat 21C (one of the best economy class seats on this type of plane, that is usually occupied by frequent flyers) talking on the phone to his family at home. Somewhat surprisingly he expressed astonishment about the size of the plane (‘there is a staircase next to me’) and curiosity about how he would handle a flight this long (12.5 hrs). While i usually avoid talking to seat neighbours like the pest, this tickled my curiosity and after we were on the way i found myself inquiring where he was headed and about the purpose of his trip.

Turns out my seat neighbour was in the tomato business (given the fact that Mexico and the Netherlands are the two biggest tomato exporting countries in the world, sitting next to someone in the tomato business on this flight should not really be a surprise).

More specifically, he mentioned, he used to run a family farm, growing tomatoes and other vegetables in a small number of green-houses but about five years ago he had to sell the business because he could not scale up to remain competitive. Nowadays, he told me he was working for one of the large tomato conglomerates as a quality inspector.

This company had been hit pretty hard by the EHEC crisis two years ago when pretty much their entire European market (read: Germany) had collapsed. This had led them to decide that they needed to diversify there and become active in other markets outside of Europe.

As a result the company started to explore the possibility of licensing the production of snack tomatoes to US companies that would operate greenhouses in Mexico producing snack tomatoes for the North American market. They has recently completed the first such deal and given that his manager who would usually oversee these kind of operations had just gotten a baby and prefers not to travel that far, here he finds himself in an aeroplane, the size of a greenhouse flying across an ocean for the first time in his life in order to spend a week in Mexican greenhouses to ensure that the Mexicans do not mess up the carefully controlled Dutch formula that is supposed to produce thousands of thousands of identical small red snack tomatoes. Makes me wonder what i will be doing in five years from now…

Emancipation gone wrong

11 Nov 2007 | 299 words | iran drugs travel

After being in Iran for a week one of the biggest dissapointments so far (right after the food, which is the most unimaginative i have come across so far) is the fact that they seem to have banned ghalyun smoking in most places outside of Teheran. If you belive the daily star (which of course would be a foolish thing to do) this is part of the ‘toughest moral crackdown in years’ which is otherwise fairly invisible (at least to my eyes).

When we were looking for a tea house to have a smoke in Isfahan a couple of days ago we actually got a slightly different explanation: It seems like the governemnt (or the ayatollahs, or whoever runs this country) decided that young girls where smoking too much, to the extend of becoming addicted to smoking ghalyun/argileh (I have heard this concern in other middle eastern countries before). Therefore the wise rulers decided to ban women from smoking in tea houses which seems to have resulted in the girls rightfully pointing out that it was unfair that men were continued to be allowed to smoke in the tea houses. This in turn seems to have resulted in the tea houses being closed altogether (apart from Tehran), and now eveybody smokes at home or in the park or whereever one decides to have a picknic (which seems to be one of the favorite passtimes of the locals here, as long the picnic place is less than ten meters away from a mayor highway and less than 1 meter away form their own car)

This whole situation severly limits your options to pass time in the evening, which now basically consist of eating (unimaginative) or drinking tea and reading (which is actually a fairly relaxing way to spend a vacation).

Collateral knowledge...

05 Sep 2007 | 247 words | amsterdam exhibition art travel photos

… used to be the subtitle of this blog for a while (in fact it still is, but i have not really found a place in the layout where i could put the subtitle). in the meanwhile (which is the title of the blog) collateral knowledge has teamed up with identity & aesthetics and got promoted to be the title of the second el-hema koopavond (evening shopping event) at mediamatic in Amsterdam on the 13th of September:

According to the programme i will present my idea of ‘collateral knowledge’ by ways of a nice old-fashioned slideshow (with a twist) of my travels through Dubai, Lebanon, Amman, and Damascus. Also presenting is my dear friend Tarek Atoui who will close the evening by a performance dedicated to the populations who have been suffering from the latest political and military events striking Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq (Tarek sounds a bit like a diplomat these days!). The evening will be opend by Mounira Al Solh who – again according to the programme – will present her artistic practice, wherein she addresses issues of identity and aesthetics by weaving together matters related to Lebanese politics, diaspora, immigration, and the condition of the art world.

Should be a splendid evening, so if you are in Amsterdam make sure to drop by. The whole thing will start at 2030h and entrance seems to be free (i guess they expect you to buy t-shirts like crazy). Many thanks to Nat for pulling this together.

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: