fredag 25 maj 2007

Charging to take your rubbish

Gardner Street bag dumping
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

The government is planning to allow councils to charge for rubbish collection from private houses.

To anyone other than a politician it is obvious that if people are charged for having their rubbish bags taken away there will be an epidemic of dumping them outside other people's doorways or anywhere else.

The way to deal with this is to put a tax on packaging, cans, bottles, etc, to cover the cost of disposal. That will create a fund from which councils can draw on to pay for getting rid of the rubbish.

Containers that were subject to a returnable deposit would be exempt.

Simple. What's the problem?

torsdag 17 maj 2007

Orc Breeding Programme

The new government guidelines on embryo experimentation are being sold on the idea they will help scientists to produce a cure for a terrible disease. But sooner or later someone is going keep one of these, for example, pig-human, embryos a bit longer than the guidelines state, just to see what will happen. And a bit longer still. And after 22 weeks the embryo is viable and could be brought to full term. In fact, it might have happened already. What happens then?

Tolkien was criticised for writing fiction, but this sounds not entirely dissimilar to the way orcs were bred. Very useful, too, they would be, for doing boring or dangerous jobs, or military use. Correctly programmed, they could be relied on not to go on strike for better pay or conditions.

But it is OK because the new rules might help scientists find a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

The Feast of the Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension has, from time immemorial, fallen on a Thursday, nine days before Pentecost Sunday. The Anglican church celebrates it. In many continental countries, and not just Catholic ones, it is a public holiday.

It is often accompanied by traditional ceremonies. In Oxford, for instance, the Parish of St Michael's at the North Gate performs the ancient custom of 'Beating the Bounds' on Ascension Day. The clergy and members of the congregation perambulate the parish boundary, passing through and around various buildings, in order to 'mark' the boundary stones. On this day, the door between Brasenose College and Lincoln College is opened, and the procession ends with lunch in Hall at Lincoln College, accompanied by ivy beer. Afterwards, hot pennies are thrown to the children from the tower of Lincoln College into the front quadrangle.

Lincoln College Ascension Day ceremonies

In view of the religious and historical importance of this festival, it is astonishing that the Catholic bishops of England have decided to abolish the day and move it to the following Sunday, thereby destroying the scriptural connection. I get the impression that a lot of people are upset about this. There were as many people in my parish church this morning as there would normally have been on the day. Perhaps they were trying to say something. Sadly, our bishops are not going to listen.


Originally uploaded by excauboi.

All over the world, there are people who suffer at the hands of their own governments or from invaders from outside. The plight of the Palestinians gets more attention than any other of these oppressions. In comparison, Tibet, Darfur and other African oppressions are way down the league table for exposure, and therefore the sympathy, they receive. And as for land grabs, what about the continued Russian occupation of East Prussia?

Why is this? The Palestinian conflict is a nice assignment for journalists. They can stay at a comfortable hotel in Tel Aviv, take a taxi out to the troubles and be back by the evening, where they can rely for their safety on the Israeli army, whom they will then revile. At the sight of a TV crew, the Palestinian teenagers with nothing better to do can be relied on to start trouble, and so the cameramen get the dramatic footage they want. It is the perfect conflict.

But the Palestinians seem to have a poor sense of public relations. The stone-throwing young man wrapped up in a keffia has become iconic of Palestine. Is this really the way the nation wants to present itself? And why kidnap a BBC journalist who is going to present the very story of oppression they want the British viewers to see?

This is not to excuse the Israelis, who in recent years have been remarkably stupid, for example, by building their monstrous wall. But what are they to do? There is always a substantial body of Palestinians who do not want the Israelis on what they see as their land. Short of vanishing into thin air, there is nothing the Israelis could do to satisfy this body of opinion.

And in the meantime, as ever in the Muslim world, the Palestinians are riven into factions, which makes it impossible for anyone to negotiate, as there is nobody who can be spoken to in the knowledge that they have sufficient authority to make any agreement stick.

So I will concentrate my sympathy on the people of Darfur and Tibet. But when I see anti-Israeli comments, I always suspect anti-Semitism is at the root of it and so, subject to my reservation about air-miles, I will not be boycotting Israeli goods.

onsdag 16 maj 2007

Jeffrey Sachs Reith Lecture - Remedy for Poverty

Jeffrey Sachs cites the Nordic countries as a model for the remedying of chronic poverty in Africa. This displays an astonishing ignorance. Political systems are a product of a history and culture. They cannot be transferred. In any case, the Scandinavian model of high welfare and high taxation of labour is not sustainable. It pushes up the cost of labour and drives the most talented and entrepreneurial people away. Ingvar Kamprad, head of Ikea, lives in Switzerland. Ingemar Bergman before him lived for many years as a tax exile from his home country. If the Swedes et al wish to keep their welfare system in the long term, they will have to shift to the taxation of land values instead of the taxation of work. The whole thing depends on a massive and generally honest bureaucracy to run it. This is not a model that anyone should be recommending for export.

People have looked to Scandinavia before as an example of the way to do things - this was in the late 1950s, when Swedish architecture and planning was much admired and planners tried to build the same kind of thing in Britain. It didn't work. Swedes are self-disciplined and conformist, the country is big and sparsely populated outside the cities, which are quite small, and many families have a summerhouse in the countryside. In contrast, the English were used to living in houses and doing their own thing, with at least a few square yards of private open space. Eventually, the model 1950s developments around Stockholm and Göteborg became problematic too.

Curiously, Sachs said nothing about land ownership and land tenure in Africa. No country can get itself out of poverty if that is not sorted out so as to give everyone access to land and natural resources.

tisdag 15 maj 2007

Good news for train passengers

Grand Central are going against the trend with their plans for refurbishing the HST trains for use on services between London and Sunderland, pending arrival of their new Chinese trains in 2009.

As the pictures show, the seats are laid out in groups of four, correctly located in relation to the windows. And there will be plenty of luggage space between seat backs, which is not possible when all the seats are arranged to face the same direction.

The mark 3 carriages used in the HSTs have only eight windows per side, which allows 64 seats in each vehicle, as the window spacing was designed for first class.The new carriages, which appear to be based on British Rail Engineering Ltd's International Coach, have nine windows per side, which still gives a generous seat spacing for 72 seats.

They will also be more pleasant to travel in as the windows are bigger than those in the HSTs.

What will replace the High Speed Train - the story continues

The Department of Transport continues to develop its specification for the replacement for Britain's Inter-City 125 trains (HSTs). The actual work is being done by consultants Mott MacDonald, who have been paid several million pounds for work so far. The specification for the new train, now referred to as the Intercity Express Programme, continues to escalate. In reality, it is likely to turn out to be little more than an expensive wish-list; the aim now is for a very lightweight train with modern standards of crashworthiness, powered by either diesel or electricty with the option for changing over en-route, with Virgin Voyager standards of acceleration and a top speed of 140 mph. That is asking for a lot.

Whether there is a need for such a train at all is debatable. Some routes on which the HST fleet is used need to be electrified, as the stations are close together and the traffic is dense. These include the Great Western Main line to Bristol and Cardiff, and the Midland Main Line to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield. Once the routes were electrified, electric multiple unit trains as used on services out of London (Waterloo) to Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Weymouth would be suitable. A run-on build of a 25kV version of the Siemens class 444 would do nicely.

This leaves the East Coast Main line from London to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which is unlikely to be electrified north of the Scottish capital, and the Great Western line to Devon and Cornwall, which again is unlikely ever to be electrified beyond Bristol. For these routes, some other form of traction will be needed, referred to as "self-powered", but in reality likely to be diesel.

One of the key factors in the specification for the new trains is the wish for high speeds. What seems to be little understood is the way in which the costs of railway operation rise exponentially with speed. There is twice as much energy in an object moving at 140 mph than there is at 100 mph. Also, at the higher speeds, air resistance becomes an increasingly important factor in energy consumption. Vehicles must be heavier as it becomes more difficult to make them adequately crashworthy. The design of systems such as signals, suspension and brakes is more critical. The track has to be kept to a much higher standard. There is more wear and tear on everything. All of which drives costs up exponentially.

At the same time, increasing speeds bring diminishing returns. Every additional speed increment cuts the journey time by a decreasing amound. A 100 mile journey takes 80 minutes at 75 mph, 60 minutes at 100 mph and 48 minutes at 125mph - the first 25 mph increase saves 20 minutes but the second one saves only a further 12 minutes. Where there are a lot of people making journeys of 300 miles or more, as on the Continent, then the higher speeds are worth having. In Britain, however, where 85% of the population lives within 150 miles of, say, Leicester, the median long distance journey is probably around 100 miles, which is catered for very well by electric multiple unit trains with a top speed of around 100 mph - the sort of thing that South West Trains is using.

There is a case for dedicated high speed trains between London, Newcastle, and Edinburgh and Glasgow, but for the rest, flexibility and capacity are key, with ordinary carriages capable of being operated in push-pull mode by any form of traction, and with a top speed of no more than 100 mph. This seems to be the most common type of train over much of Continental Europe, where multiple unit trains tend to be confined to suburban routes around the larger cities.

A welcome straw in the wind, therefore, is the announcement of the formation of a new rolling stock leasing company, Sovereign trains, which is about to place an order for three new trains, to be built in China, similar to the HSTs, for a new service to be run by Grand Central Trains between Sunderland and London. These will have a locomotive at each end, like the HSTs, but the carriages, or a similar version of them, will be suitable for any form of traction, in push-pull mode.

The interesting thing about the carriages is that they appear to be to the design developed by British Rail Engineering in the 1980s. These were known as the "International" and based on the Mark 3 coach used in the HSTs. BREL sold a complete factory to build the International design in China. The demonstration train built for British use went to Ireland, so at last British passengers will enjoy the benefit of this excellent design, which was a major improvement on the mark 3. (artist's impression above) They resemble similar carriages built in the 1980s and used all over the Continent except on the dedicated High Speed Lines - such as the French Railways' Corail and similar vehicles running on the German railways. If there was to be an outbreak of commonsense, the Department of Transport would stop pouring money away on consultancy and watch this development carefully, as a large standard fleet of such vehicles, and suitable electric and diesel locomotives to power them, could be exactly what is needed on Britain's railway in the foreseeable future.

Grand Central Railways plans new train services

lördag 12 maj 2007

The Modern Movement and the denial of transcendence in church architecture

Chapel interior
Originally uploaded by andrewpaulcarr.

It is unfortunate that the traditional Latin liturgy has been taken as a rallying point for ignorance and reaction. An article by Moyra Doorly in the journal of the Latin Mass Society addresses a widespread concern when she remarks upon the failure of recent church architecture to establish a sense of transcendence. But she goes on to attribute this failure to the Modern Movement, which is unjustified. The history of twentieth century architecture does not warrant such a conclusion. (Article by Moyra Doorly in Mass of Ages)

During the closing years of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, new conceptual tools were becoming available to architects and designers through the proliferation of descriptive systems. These led to advances in understanding of all aspects of the built environment and product design – materials science, civil engineering, project management, acoustics, heating, lighting, ventilation, biometrics and ergonomics, and hygiene.

As these new techniques and insights were assimilated into the design process, it was inevitable that architects would reflect upon how they thought about and practised their profession. A vigorous discourse developed amongst theorists and practitioners in architecture and design. A multiplicity of stances, often contradictory, were taken up. The diverse trends of that period are commonly referred to as “Modernist” but it is a label with no actuality outside of the writers’ intentions.

Like the Amish, one can choose not to live in the present, but this has never been part of the tradition of the Latin rite church, which recognises that the incarnational world is one of change. Far from being responsible for the denial of transcendence, the additional conceptual tools at the disposal of architects from the start of the twentieth century have made it possible to create spaces better suited than any before for the celebration of the traditional Catholic liturgy; consider, for example, the buildings of architects such as Auguste Perret and Antoni Gaudi, the latter anticipating the works of contemporary designers, and who were as much involved in early twentieth-century discourse as the Vienna Secessionists and the Bauhaus school.

Much recent church architecture - and liturgical practice too - is indeed a denial of transcendence, but it spoils a good case to lay the blame on Modernism. Twentieth century architectural theory and practice should not be held responsible. The reasons lie elsewhere.

fredag 11 maj 2007

Labour's 1997 Pledge Cards

For the record - the Five Pledges of 1997 were to cut class sizes to 30 or under for those aged five, six and seven; fast track punishment for persistent young offenders; cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients; get 250,000 under 25-year-olds off benefit and into work; set tough rules for government spending and borrowing, ensure low inflation and strengthen the economy.

Britain - the Greatest Country in the world?

"The Greatest Country in the world" was how the Prime Minister concluded his speech in his Sedgefield constituency, announcing his retirement. At a recent gathering of my contemporaries, now in the sixties, the consensus was that Britain was a place to move away from. This cannot be dismissed as the reaction of a bunch of grumpy old men. There are many worse countries than Britain in the world, but to make such a comment is plain silly.

How typical of the man, too, to read off a list of statistics, carefully selected to show the Labour government's record in the best possible light. This was as simplistic approach as Labour's "Five Pledges", which formed part of the 1997 election campaign.

Improvement in the overall quality of life is not what most people in Britain would recognise as we go about our daily business in Britain today, encountering as we do so the failure of so many public sector bodies to perform to a satisfactory standard.

tisdag 8 maj 2007


Hagia Sophia
Originally uploaded by John of Witney.

This is Hagia Sophia, the ancient cathedral of the city of Constantinople in Asia Minor. It was the scene of a horrific massacre on 29 May 1454. This is how it happened. I am not keen on the American style of this quotation, but the picture of events that day is clear.

"…Crashing aside the Christians at Varna in 1444 they [the Ottoman Turks] secured possession of Walachia, Moldavia, Transylvania, the territory now called Bulgaria and Romania, then in 1453 they put again under siege Constantinople which on May 29 fell into the hands of Mehmet II and by the way: do you know who was Mehmet II? A guy who, by virtue of the Islamic Fratricide Law which authorized a sultan to murder members of his immediate family, had ascended the throne by strangling his three year-old brother. Do you know the chronicle that about the fall of Constantinople the scribe Phrantzes has left us to refresh the memory of the oblivious or rather of the hypocrites?

"Perhaps not. Especially in Europe, a Europe that weeps only for the Muslims, never for the Christians or the Jews or the Buddhists or the Hindus, it would not be Politically Correct to know the details of the fall of Constantinople. Its inhabitants who at daybreak, while Mehmet II is shelling Theodosius’ walls, take refuge in the cathedral of St. Sophia and here start to sing psalms. To invoke divine mercy. The patriarch who by candlelight celebrates his last Mass and in order to lessen the panic thunders: “Fear not, my brothers and sisters! Tomorrow you’ll be in the Kingdom of Heaven and your names will survive till the end of time!”. The children who cry in terror, their mothers who give them heart repeating: “Hush, baby, hush! We die for our faith in Jesus Christ! We die for our Emperor Constantine XI, for our homeland!”. The Ottoman troops who beating their drums step over the breaches in the fallen walls, overwhelm the Genovese and Venetian and Spanish defenders, hack them on to death with scimitars, then burst into the cathedral and behead even newborn babies. They amuse themselves by snuffing out the candles with their little severed heads... It lasted from the dawn to the afternoon that massacre. It abated only when the Grand Vizier mounted the pulpit of St. Sophia and said to the slaughterers: “Rest. Now this temple belongs to Allah” Meanwhile the city burns, the soldiery crucify and hang and impale, the Janissaries rape and butcher the nuns (four thousand in a few hours) or put the survivors in chains to sell them at the market of Ankara. And the servants prepare the Victory Feast. The feast during which (in defiance of the Prophet) Mehmet II got drunk on the wines of Cyprus and, having a soft spot for young boys, sent for the firstborn of the Greek Orthodox Grand Duke Notaras. A fourteen year-old adolescent known for his beauty. In front of everyone he raped him, and after the rape he sent for his family. His parents, his grandparents, his uncles, his aunts and cousins. In front of him he beheaded them. One by one. He also had all the altars destroyed, all the bells melted down, all the churches turned into mosques or bazaars. Oh, yes. That’s how Constantinople became Istanbul. But Doudou of the UN and the teachers in our schools don’t want to hear about it."

Quoted in full from Oriana Fallaci, in The Force of Reason (pp 42-44)

But perhaps one should not judge the Ottomans too harshly. While Byzantium was still a Christian empire, Constantinople and other cites were attacked in the Fourth Crusade, being sacked in 1204.

The Crusades - should we apologise?

Originally uploaded by seadipper.

Not having been born in England nor having English ancestors, I always feel uncomfortable about the flag with a red cross on a white background. A vision of St. George at the seige of Antioch during the First Crusade is said to have preceded the defeat of the Saracens and the fall of the city to the crusaders. Richard I placed himself and his army under the protection of St. George during the Third Crusade. He became the patron of England in the late Middle Ages.

The Crusaders were a murderous rabble; the First Crusade was marked by attacks on the Jewish communities of the Rhineland, who had been settled since Roman times, while the Fourth Crusade was disgraced by attacks on the Christian cities of Byzantium, including the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. Nevertheless, the Crusades were a belated response to 350 years of Islamic expansion, under the renewed impetus of the Saracens. This should not be forgotten.

måndag 7 maj 2007

The North-South divide

Hamish McRae refers to the persistence of the North-South economic divide and questions the wisdom of taking money from the South and giving it to the North (Independent, 2 May).

The difference in productivity between north and south is an example of the principle described by David Ricardo in the nineteenth century. Ricardo observed that farmers could grow more corn in some fields than in others, the difference between the yield from a particular field and that from the worst field in use (the "marginal field") giving rise to a set of land rental values. The principle applies to all commercial activity. Any street busker knows that he needs to set up pitch in a busy place.

Productivity in the north is inevitably lower than in the more favourably located regions closer to centres of population. This is due to many factors, the most important of which are transport and energy costs. The difference is apparent in rents across the country. The high rental values in London and the South East are the market value of the better infrastructure and trading opportunities available there. This is a value that is sustained largely by public spending. The real subsidy recipients are landowners in the better-off areas who enjoy steady rental growth on the backs of taxpayers at large.

The problem nationally is that taxation ignores these realities of locational advantage and disadvantage. The tax take, as a proportion of the the wealth produced, is almost the same regardless of whether a business is running in the far north
of Scotland or Central London. But in the more distant locations, the burden of tax is critical and can preclude successful production. More tax is demanded from the North than it can afford. The same applies also to pockets of geographical disadvantage – East Kent, and even parts of Greater London – within the most prosperous regions.

This explains why some areas suffer from persistently high unemployment. The problem is tacitly recognised through the programmes of grants and "subsidies" that have been funneled into the regions for many years. Hamish McRae is right to question these policies. But they are not really subsidies, since all they are doing is to feed back, in part and at considerable cost, resources that should not have been taken out in the first place.

The tax system needs to be reformed so as to take account of the facts of geography. When it comes to "ability to pay tax", the prime factor is location.

Engineering Miracle

Amongst the famous sayings of Dr Johnson is the politically incorrect "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." Much the same might be said about the Pendolino, the fleet of tilting trains ordered by Richard Branson's Virgin company and now running on the West Coast Main line.

This month's Modern Railway has a couple of articles about the Pendolino. What is coming to light in the discussion is astonishing.

The Pendolino fleet consists of 53 trains, each of nine cars, of which 46 or 47 must be in operation each day to run the service. The cost of the trains was such that only this bare minimum was affordable. There have been attempts to procure a further 106 cars to lengthen the train, but this is unlikely to happen, mostly because of the financial and regulatory morass of Britain's botched railway privatisation.

The lengthening scheme has intersected with the first major mishap involving the Pendolino trains - the derailment on 23 February. The initial comments following this focussed on the good performance of the carriages, and it was said that damage was so light that they could all be repaired and put back into service. This seemed optimistic. Each vehicle must be stripped and checked for distortion and it is now thought that several are beyond repair. A further difficulty is that repairing these aluminium bodyshell structures is no easy task - unlike steel, which can be welded with relative ease.

Had the order for the extra 106 vehicles gone ahead, replacements for any that have to be written off could have been built on the production line at around £1.7million each. If not, then replacements will have to be virtually hand-built at almost double the cost

Although Network Rail's insurers will pay, the incident raises other issues. With no spare trains, Virgin has had to use a locomotive-hauled train to fill the gap. And it also appears that each one of the nine cars in a Pendolino train is different from all the others and contains essential items of equipment, so there is no question of taking out odd vehicles, or replacing them with spares, or borrowing from other sets. This known as an "integrated system". One implication is that if the extra vehicles were actually ordered, it would be difficult to add them to the existing trains except as part of the scheduled heavy overhaul programme, as the software will have to be reconfigured and tested. But this level of complexity has also had an impact on daily maintenance and led to what is decribed as a "culture change" in procedures; either the whole train goes, or it does not. The whole operation is now on a knife-edge, with no leeway for things to go wrong.

Pendolinos apparently embody some other very peculiar engineering. A software problem resulted in trains running into the bufferstops at Liverpool Lime Street; this was identified and resolved in less than a week, but it sounds as if there has been a misappliance of science.

And then there are the toilets. If you have travelled in one, you can't have missed the smell of drains that pervades some of the vehicles. Like all modern trains, they have storage tanks for the effluent, but instead of being in the usual place under the floor, they are at a higher level and the muck has to be pumped upwards. This, combined with some insufficiently robust plumbing, has led to persistent problems, compounded by the fact that there are not enough places where the sewage tanks can be emptied and the contents disposed of. And the curved sliding doors to the wheelchair-accessible toilets have been endlessly troublesome.

Fortunately for Virgin Trains, the Pendolino trains have been procured and a build-and-maintain contract from Alstom, whose headache it is to keep them on the road. Like the dog walking on its hind legs, it is surprising to see it done at all. Alstom has risen to the challenge, but that such a state of affairs has arisen at all points to a failure in setting and holding to a sound engineering design philosophy. It would be nice to think that the lessons will be learnt and applied to the replacement fleet for the HST now being developed by civil servants at the Department for Transport, and now referred to as the Inter City Express Programme (IEP).

Ricardo’s Law in brief