How Much?!

By cjohnson | May 20, 2006 8:17 pm

Well, went on part one of my Journey Around My People: shopping in Central London. Was not looking for anything in particular, but although I know it is true from past experience, it never ceases to amaze me how much stuff costs here. Have all the salaries gone up by about 30% since I left? I don’t think so…have they? For starters, the Guardian, which as you recall since last year has been seriously modified from its perfectly-fine format (yes, I ranted about it), costs 0.70p during the weekday! And the Saturday edition today was £1.30!! I’ve no idea how much the Sunday paper will cost….. are they just going to ask for a gallon of my blood, perhaps? (People in the USA….just multiply by roughly two to get the after-tax dollars and cents.) Do you get more for this extra money? More sport (everywhere… bl**dy football, and gossip about footballers and football managers and football club owners and footballer’s wives – this is supposedly real news) and really huge colour pictures.

Another example. Guess what the minimum price of a single ride on the underground (the subway system) is now. Just one stop. £3.00. No, I’m not making that up. I burst out laughing at this at the airport, and people looked at me as though I was nuts. (I sometimes forget how easy it can be for people to tell. Got to hide that better.) Now I know that there are ways around paying that, by bundling things into travelcards, and “oyster cards” and the like, but…it is still symptomatic, imho. I don’t mean to gloat here: We have our own problems with pricing of some things in LA (for a house, you pay an awful lot for basically a wooden box in LA), and as for the transport prices: On the plus side, the coverage, connectivity and frequency of the whole transport system in London seems really excellent compared to how it used to be not so long ago when you were (still) paying through the nose get around the city.

Half-decent sandwich? Decent cup of tea? Indifferently-made cup of coffee? Fork it over, guv’nor. Yep, it is still an expensive city, and getting worse (in that regard) by the minute.

Well, with that in mind, I headed off to Liberty’s for a bit, to just look at stuff. Reason? Well, gift ideas, or just general amusement to see what sorts of things people will be convinced to buy. Sometimes, you see nice things, I must admit. That’s how they get you….they mix nice things in with the pointless dreck, and you can end up buying a bit of both in your bid to bring home the good stuff. Then I went to the new Habitat on Regent Street, as I like to visit such shops selling pretty good home furnishings. I saw several things. Although I hasten to point out that I don’t have the cash flow to afford a ton of this stuff (sorry girls), I must admit that, puzzlingly, a lot of interesting and reasonably well-made “design” stuff can be comparably or sometimes even better priced here than in some stores in the USA. I think that maybe the gap on the high street between the 1980s Argos catalogue (never mind if you don’t know what that is) and the really high end stuff was filled here earlier than in the USA, and so there is a better range of good-to-pretty-good stuff to be found. Maybe not…I have not done a thorough survey. I’m a theoretical physicist, remember: What the bleep do I know? But based on the tube price and the price of a cup of coffee in a cafe you would imagine that your typical Design Within Reach type stuff (basically, affordable to pretend-affordable pretty well made authorized knock-offs of well-known designs by known designers) would be astronomically priced over here. It is not neccessarily so – there is quite a continuum of good stuff. I’m not sure why, but seeing what stores like Pottery Barn, and even Target, etc, are doing, I think that the USA will have caught up soon if it has not already. Anyway, still just looking. Wallet deep in my bag. I can’t transport a lot of this stuff anyway.

london shoppingA lot of the stuff is just silly, but this is the entertainment part of it all, remember. Some of it I like because it is interesting to see fun use of geometry. Good to see mathematical forms out there in the wild…maybe brought into people’s homes. People appreciating mathematics a little without even noticing it. They or their children might count the sides and edges, notice some patterns. You never know where that might lead. Oh, and it can just look nice for the sake of looking nice. Why not? The hanging shade to the right for example. I really like it. I love it, in fact, but I’ll keep the love in the store since I’m pretty sure that it is one of those things that -if I had more money than sense- I would buy and rush home, only to find that it sparks a “what was I thinking?” self-inquiry which I could do without.

So let’s examine it for its own sake and not worry about where we’d put it. It’s basically a very very fancy version of a stellated regular dodecahedron. Having spent a lot of time in the past making all sorts of similar shapes -from as few as four sides (tetrahedron) to as many as 30 (triacontahedron – love those…from my problem years obsessing over the golden mean…still my favourite number, perhaps), I can appreciate this new turn on an old chestnut: The foldy-fiddly-spirally touches on each face? Good on yer, mate. (To whoever designed it).

london shoppingThis stand-alone corner lamp (on the left) was also tempting. Nice piece of geometry to bring home, too. I could make this work. I have just the corner, sitting empty right now. I think of a hexaflexagon when I see this. Anyone remember what that is? I spent hours making and playing with those, and am not yet fully convinced that they are not traversable wormholes…… Never mind if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Just read or give your kids a copy of Martin Gardner’s ” Hexaflexagons and Other Mathematical Diversions : The First Scientific American Book of Puzzles and Games”, and when you (or they) come back for more (or even if they ask for a barbie doll, video game, or tonka truck),
read (or give them) his “The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions “.

normal foster world trade centreThe lamp also reminds me a tiny bit of the elegant design that the architect Norman Foster (yes, he of London’s new “gherkin” building) put in for the World Trade Centre site in New York. (That is the one that should have won the competition, by the way. By a mile. Not the monstrosity that they are going to put up instead.)

On the plus side, it was good to get out there and see the old town again. My old stomping ground. It took only about an hour before I was getting back into the swing of walking on pavements (=sidewalks, for the USA reader) which are crowded, and with everyone in a dreadful hurry and trying to cut across your path. By the end of that hour, I was just like everyone else, scowling slightly with a slightly pissed-off expression, complaining about stuff, mild background shopping-headache. Ah….London….the good times return!


  • Wowbagger

    A single is £1.00 on Oyster, which is about the amount you’d pay in most American cities. I think the high prices on regular tickets is to get people to switch to Oyster, which facilitates faster movement through the ticket gates.

  • Clifford

    Er….see my next sentence. I mention Oyster cards. Also, yes and no. You pay a fixed price to go anywhere on the system in a number of American cities….. at least way further than the distances you can travel in London before changing zones and having the price jump. Also, how many visitors know about or use oyster cards, I wonder? Like I said, however, there is less to complain about on using the system than there used to be, so I’m not entirely down on it.



  • Wowbagger

    I know you mentioned Oyster, but I wanted to make the point that part of the idea of setting high prices for regular tickets is to get people to switch to Oyster (i.e. they’re not just trying to screw regular commuters over). However you are right about visitors — Oysters have to be pre-ordered, so they’re not an option for one-time visitors.

  • Clifford

    Also, it is a really weird way to run a system… with two tiers. If you really want to get people to use the lower priced method…. why have the higher price at all? Unless you’re trying to screw the visitor over…. which is who I’m writing for mostly in the above.



  • Dan

    Pay-as-you-go Oysters don’t have to be pre-ordered any more – you can line up at the service window in any Tube stop, fill out a form, pay your three quid, and pick one up (and when you’re done, they make great little souvenirs).

    As for the existance of the regualr fare schedule, I’m not sure – I assume to deal with other Brits in town, as tourists are “supposed” to buy 1-Day Travelcards (anyone who would buy one who’s in London more than once just buys a PAYG Oyster). After doing the math several times from having people come to visit us, it comes out that it’s a better deal to buy a bunch of Travelcards if you’re planning on using the Tube for less than six days – on day six, the premium you pay for the Travelcard (over the Oyster’s price capping) equals out with the three pounds you paid for the card itself. That, and we’ve just started keeping an extra Oyster around the house, giving it to people who visit us, and asking them to give it back with the same amount of money as was on it when they started using it.

    On that note, though, the Oyster daily price-capping has done more for Tube ridership than anyone imagined, and I curse its absence when I’m using the transport systems in any other city. But you’re right – three pounds for a zone 1-2 single is pretty ridiculous, and there was a fair amount of outrage when it was announced (especially since the Oyster fares were reduced simultaneously from an already-cheap level, and the Tube infrastructure needs a lot of work)

  • damtp_dweller

    “More sport (everywhere… bl**dy football, and gossip about footballers and football managers and football club owners and footballer’s wives – this is supposedly real news) and really huge colour pictures.”

    Perhaps you’re forgetting that this is silly season in the UK what with the upcoming world cup. I agree that gossip about footballers’ wives does not constitute actual news but, for God’s sake, this is the world cup. You know, the collective national hysteria that engulfs this fair isle once every four years and leads men to cry into their pints when they realise that yet again England are going to be dumped out on penalties.

    Quite honestly, if it weren’t for this quadrennial spectacle of self-flagellation among all sections of the British press, from the loftiest broadsheet to the most scarlet of red-tops, this country would be a damn sight less interesting place.

    By the way, I think you’re completely wrong about the Guardian’s move to berliner format. *Everyone* here agrees that it’s a much better paper since it switched away from broadsheet.

  • Brunsli

    I admire any shopper who finds geometry.

  • Clifford

    damtp_dweller:- You’re probably right about the Guardian, but I can’t quite see it for all the huge football pictures. One would have to read a whole week’s worth to make a proper assessment. Maybe when it is not silly season (when is that, exactly?)… and I am still not happy with them abandoning a science section but keeping a technology section. That seems a retrograde step to me. And overall, I’m just a conservative when it comes to newspapers. I like the broadsheet format. I miss it. I agree that there was quite a bit of good stuff to actually read in the Saturday paper that was not football – and they kept Posy Simmons – …but at £1.30? So maybe it’s fine…..



  • Science

    The economy boom in England has resulted in massive price rises. It is being funded by an enormous amount of consumer debt, easy credit.

    House prices have doubled over the past few years. I bought a one-bedroom starter-home flat in Weybridge for £56,000 in 1999 and sold it for £102,500 in 2002. With inflation going at that rate, salaries are obviously rising and other items are going up in price.

    When buying a new laptop, it is tempting to take a trip to New York, buy it cheaply there, throw the box away and sneak it into the UK through the green channel of customs here. The prices of electronics in London are probably 50-100% higher than in America.

    When there is a recession triggered by an oil crisis or whatever, the UK will be in a serious state because of the huge amount of debt generated by the high prices. Any significant jump increase in the base rate of interest would cause a crisis. The only way out of it is to very gradually increase interest rates to reduce the amount of debt to a stable amount in a controlled way. The UK government is not doing this as it would be unpopular with business leaders, who don’t want the economic growth to slow down that way! The public is just taking advantage of low interest rates to borrow enormous amounts on the basis that a lot of other people are doing the same thing (group-think mentality).

  • Cynthia

    That glowing light fixture sort of oddly resembles a cross between a M.C. Escher sphere and a Calabi-Yau shape. The question is: what type of consumer would purchase such an item? A fan of the arts or a fan of the sciences.

  • candace

    Honestly, every time I go back home to the US, *I* reel from sticker shock: “A Snickers costs HOW MUCH now?!” Seriously, I can’t believe how quickly inflation has jacked up the prices back in the US, whereas a packet of crisps is still 30p here. Last time I was there, I was aghast at how much the prices had increased in only two years!

    Also, don’t forget that
    1) there is 17.5% of VAT and
    2) the dollar has tanked. Seriously tanked.

    Things actually aren’t that much more expensive here, it just seems eye-wateringly expensive when you have puny dollars to spend. And besides….Habitat?? Liberty?? Not exactly discount shopping, were we?? 😉

    See here:

  • Plato


    ….from my problem years obsessing over the golden mean…

    When I seen this statement, I of course recognized your position now.

    I am enthralled by such “seeing,” however abstract, that it have some tangible connection to reality?

    On it’s own, very artistic for sure.

  • PK

    A few years ago after the introduction of the Euro I had a shock when I went back to Holland. We went in at the exchange rate of € 1 = f 2.20, but numerically the prices in restaurants (in Amsterdam and Utrecht) roughly stayed the same.

  • BlogD

    Ha. Try living in Tokyo.

  • Clifford

    Hi Candace…. Wait…. Notice that I did not use Liberty’s and Habitat prices as example comparators. I actually pointed out that design furniture (for example) can compare pretty well to things cross the Atlantic. For price comparisons, I was using food and travel… those basic things that everyone is concerned with. I’m pretty sure that they are more expensive, once you take into account how much they are relative to the average salary, etc. I don’t think it is subjective. I do agree that low-end snack food like crisps and chocolate bars can indeed be very cheap in the uk, compared to real food you would buy to eat as a meal. I don’t consider this to be a good thing at all. But then I am a bit of a curmudgeon…. 😉

    And don’t get me started on electronics and electrical appliances, and things like music and video. I don’t even bother visiting such stores in the UK any more. Even when I lived here I would wait until I was in the USA to buy such things. You basically swop the numerical amounts unchanged, and then with teh exchange rate find that they are twice as expensive…… Pretty sure I’m not making that up.



  • IrrationalPoint

    Scotland is cheaper and they have good tea. You cannae climb them Highland mountains wi’ nought but watery yuck — ye need a proper cuppa and porrige. If you come visit, I shall see that you get both.


  • adam

    I am back in the UK in July and I am sure that it’s going to be painfully expensive unless the dollar gets back to a sensible level (which isn’t likely).

    On the matter of design on the cheap, Target do produce a Michael Graves (who has designed for, amongst other lines, Alessi, including designing Alessi’s best-selling item ever) line. Some of their furniture doesn’t look bad, either; it’s not made fantastically well, but I remember even back in 1989 or so, Habitat selling a bookcase for a hundred quid that looked like it had been made by a mediocre 13 year old in woodwork class. And there’s always IKEA, I guess.

    I did my PhD in London not that long ago, and survived OK on my EPSRC grant. Although I’d never catch the tube for less than 4 stops or so (I used to walk from the train at West Brompton to Imperial, which was fine unless there was a real downpour).

    Every time I go to NYC, I experience the ‘how much’ moment, too, but the weakness of the dollar has made London into a place that I just can’t afford to go to that often.

  • Plato

    Sometimes it is about science and we don’t even realize it? :)

    How does one think, one cannot become biased towards life, without the geometrical incursions tainting the world view?

    Golden Ratio tendencies….? :)

  • Jeff Nuttall

    Speaking of “fun use of geometry” (as well as a bit of astronomy and biochemistry), have you seen this site? It’s something I stumbled over a while back, and I decided if I ever have the income to spare on that sort of thing those are the kind of decorations I’d like to have around…

  • Pingback: Shopping, Sightseeing, Science | Cosmic Variance()

  • Pingback: Big Ears | Cosmic Variance()

  • Pingback: More Future Scientists Revealed! - Asymptotia()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar