torsdag 30 augusti 2007

Thoughts prompted by looking out of the train window

Originally uploaded by seadipper.

Coming back on the train after a day out in Lund. The standard fare for the return journey was a bit less that a similar length journey in the UK after all the rebates and my railcard discount.

The train is nice and comfortable, with plenty of space and you can see out of the windows.

Out of the windows you can see things like wind generators and lots of freight trains, and not just trains for shipping containers and oil.

Something is different here.

torsdag 16 augusti 2007

The Atmospheric Railway, Starcross, South Devon

Brunel's Pumping House
Originally uploaded by budgie2007 / Rich B..

Opened in 1847, Brunel's Atmospheric Railway did away with the need for a separate locomotive on each train. Instead, there were pumping stations such as this one at Starcross. It was unsuccessful but the principle was sound. No doubt Brunel would have jumped at the chance to power his trains by electricity from a fixed power station. That would have solved his problem but the technology was not to come for another thirty years. Seemingly the British government has not yet grasped what the benefits are. What is it with the UK government that they are so often unable to make sound decisions where matters of technology are involved?

More twaddle from the British government

Earlier this year I signed the petition for a fresh electrification programme for Britain's railways.

This was the wording of the petition.

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Instruct the Department for Transport to, within six months, update the 1981 joint Department of Transport/British Rail 'Review of main line electrification' to take into account current installation and energy costs and rail traffic levels; and, if the positive conclusions of the original report still stand, revive the proposals for a rolling programme of main line electrification in Britain."

Details of Petition:

"The 1981 Joint Review concluded that: 'On the assumptions made a substantial programme of main line electrification would be financially worthwhile. All the larger electrification options examined show an internal real rate of return of 11%; the faster options give the highest net present values'. These conclusions were endorsed by the Joint Chairmen of the Steering Group, BR Vice Chairman Rail David Bowick and, DTp Under Secretary Rail John Palmer."

And this is the government's reply...

The 1981 "Review of main line electrification" established a business case for electrification based on the then prevailing assumptions about the difference between diesel and electric in terms of railway cost and performance.

The Government has just issued the White Paper "Delivering a Sustainable Railway", defining the outputs that the railway has to deliver over the period 2008 to 2014 in the context of a longer term strategy for meeting national needs. The need for electrification was taken into account in the development of the White Paper. Electrification can deliver reductions in operational carbon emission and can contribute to increased capacity, but is very expensive and also vulnerable to the development of low carbon alternative fuels during its long asset life. Over the period of the High Level Output Specification (HLOS) there are better value solutions to the need for additional capacity, mainly in the form of train lengthening. The White Paper does not preclude further electrification in the longer term, but this needs to be considered route by route on the basis of business need, rather than being driven by a national strategy, and must pay back within a period of 10-15 years in view of the potential for development of alternative low carbon forms of traction.

There are fundamental flaws in this response which will no doubt be examined in detail by Roger Ford in one of his Informed Sources articles in Modern Railways.

Two points stand out. Electricity is not a fuel. It is a system of power transmission. Far from being vulnerable to the development of low-carbon alternative fuels, railway electrification makes it possible to use whatever fuels or other means of electricity generation become available, such as wind or tidal power.

The second issue is related to the first. With electric traction, there is no need to convert the chemical energy in the fuel into mechanical energy on the train itself. This process takes place in a fixed power station. The benefits of converting chemical energy eg from coal, into mechanical energy, at a fixed location instead of on each train, were recognised by Brunel in the 1840s when he devised the Atmospheric Railway which ran from Exeter to Newton Abbott.

The most efficient form of "prime mover" traction is probably diesel, but a diesel train typically weighs 25% more than a comparable electric train. Effectively this is dead weight which is having to be moved around unnecessarily, adding to energy consumption and wear and tear on just about everything, including the much larger number of moving parts compared to an electric traction unit. Worse still, the engine has to be big enough to deliver the maximum power output on starting even though it may spend two-thirds of its time throttled back when the train is running at constant speed. [this is incidentally, a disadvantage which does not apply to steam locomotives where the conversion of chemical energy into mechanical energy takes place in a separate device and the boiler acts as an energy reservoir].

All of which makes nonsense of the government's policy of increasing capacity by running longer trains. No satisfactory diesel traction unit exists which can deliver the power to run a cost-effective and long train. The Virgin Voyagers and similar types of train are cost-effective for up to five cars in length. Nobody makes a high-speed passenger locomotive capable of delivering the 5500 hp needed to run long trains at speeds of 125 mph. Within the restrictions of the British loading gauge,the technology does not yet exist. The government's claimed objectives, and reasons for not going ahead with further electrification, cannot be achieved without electrification.

Considering that the petion was signed by a whole phalanx of people whose knowledge and understanding of the railway industry in Britain is second to none, a reasonable response might have been on the lines that the government will consider reopening the issue. But no, the official line is pushed out. If the government will not look favourably on a modest and well-argued petition like this, then what is the point of the petition process? It looks as if it is no more than another window dressing exercise. But that is how things are done in Britain.

söndag 12 augusti 2007

Why not travel by train?

Interesting article in todays Observer about the need to encourage people to travel by train and improve Britain's railway system. The picture shows the 24 tickets you need for a return journey from London to Stockholm. This demonstrates the problem.

I travel all over Europe by train and in my experience the British system is the worst – even Estonia's is better, in its modest little way. The UK now has the very worst rolling stock. This is partly for historical reasons, because the carriages have to be made narrower and shorter than they are everywhere else but they try and fit in the same number of seats.

But the main problems affects all the railways in Europe, not just Britain's. Huge amounts have been spent on technology but it does not produce a more comfortable seat or a decent amount of space for people and their luggage. The only really pleasant modern trains (less than 15 years old) are the Danish IC3, followed by the German ICE trains.

Because these ultra high-tech trains are so expensive there is a shortage of carriages and the seats have to be stuffed in.

You can get horrors like the Thalys between Cologne and Paris where the seats are crammed in so tightly that all you can see is a bit of curtain and all the luggage sometimes has to be stuffed into the doorway and unloaded onto the platform at stations just so that people can get off the train.

The overall shortage of seats results in having to book everyone into a seat and is really the cause of the crazy pricing systems which are not just a British quirk. I have been booked into seats for 20 minute journeys in Sweden. It is crazy because it makes it difficult to buy tickets. The high capital cost of the trains is the reason why the train companies have no leeway so they try to book all their passengers into a particular seat on a particular train.

The continental railways are slightly better because they run more older trains which means eg Stockholm to Uppsala has plenty of carriages though they are old, with an old locomotive at each end, so that train always has plenty of really comfortable seats, better than, say, first class on Virgin. But in Britain all the older carriages got scrapped because of the safety panic, which was entirely unjustified on the basis of actual statistics.

Why are trains so expensive now? That is an interesting question. The manufacturers (there are only three in Europe) have a vested interest in selling all the technology. Modern railway managers think they cannot do without it. High labour costs, largely due to the shape of the tax system, encourage the replacement of labour by high tech gadgetry. And there is the partly irrational pressure for higher speed. The faster a train has to go, the more it costs and the more the track and signalling costs. It will cost between two and times as much to run a railway with trains going at 140 mph than at 90 mph. But the time savings are not always commensurate. This is especially true in Britain where 85% of the population live within 150 miles of, say, Leicester (why this is so is itself an interesting question). The median long distance train journey is less than 100 miles and high speeds save little time.

This is even more the case when considering door-to-door journey times, because the time taken to get to and from the station is important. This is why trains. compete badly with cars for so many people's journeys.

Perhaps the real answer is to invest more in local journeys eg by constructing more tram systems.

Long distance (international) travel by rail is so troublesome, mostly due to the difficulty of buying tickets, that my preference is to use the ferry. You can go all the way to Denmark
on the luxury cruise ferry, with your own cabin with sea view, and two nice meals, for less than it costs to go by train, and it gets you most of the way there with no trouble, on one ticket!

What are governments actually for?

And now for a bit of fundamentalism. Most discussion of politics seems not to start from an agreed set of assumptions. This is apparent from those blog discussions run by newspapers. So try this.

The functions of the state are

(1) To defend the realm
(2) To administer justice
(3) To deal with emergencies
(4) To make land available to the people so that they can support themselves and their families.
(5) To collect the rent of land.

These are minimum requirements. (1) is normally accepted but states go well beyond this to become aggressive; (2) is perverted so that courts are engaged in applying laws which may or may not be just; (3) European states are quite good at dealing with emergencies, but few others are; (4) the whole concept of giving everyone the opportunity to support themselves is not properly understood and (5) governments everywhere fail to collect most of the rent of land and have to rely for their revenue on charges on labour and capital.

Cradle-to-grave socialism does not fit into this scheme of things and ought to be unnecessary but a handful of countries have nevertheless been making a reasonable job of things for many years. As a general rule, countries with small populations seem to be best at the task, especially those with a low population density. But it is not the way to go.

Believing in the Bible

The revival of Evangelical or Bible-Believing Christianity is a menace second only to the rise in Fundamentalist Islam. As a Catholic I find myself agreeing with the atheists and agnostics in discussions about believing the bible and regarding evolution as nonsense, or "just a theory".

The bible is a collection of texts that were adopted by the Catholic Church as being worthy of study and for the purposes of contemplation. The Catholic Church has always taken the view that it is the authority when it comes to the interpretation of these texts. The main point is that the New Testament takes precedence over the old. The rest is primarily theological. Evangelical Christians have taken these texts and given them all sorts of interpretations, often weird and wacky

Anyone who interprets scripture literally is either naive or mischievous, or both.The New Testament is essentially a narrative to help understanding of the theology of the Catholic Church. It is not in itself meant to be regarded as authoritative.

As for the Old Testament, this was originally written in Classical Hebrew. Until modern archeological finds, the oldest text was the Septuagint which was made from Hebrew about 200BC, if I recall. This is a translation from Hebrew with all the implications it has for loss in accuracy. The King James bible was from the Hebrew but this was from a late version which is obviously different from the Hebrew version the Septuagint was made from.

But the major problems for people who want to interpret it literally are

(1) Hebrew is written without vowels and there are many words that are written the same but are actually different. eg it is like trying to decide what B*G actually is.

(2) The bible was written down before 200, possibly a long time before. Over such a long period both the meaning of words and their usage changes. So it is arrogant and stupid to claim to know exactly what it all means.

(3) The overall style of writing is poetic and metaphoric. So it is even more silly to claim to be able to interpret it all "literally".

Those who are attacking bible-believing Christians, should just remember that there is a lot more to Christianity than the sort of half-baked tosh they keep on coming up with, which is giving religion a bad name. In fact, it really has almost nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity as traditionally presented.

onsdag 8 augusti 2007

I am a Nazi

Of course not, but I have been accused of being a racist several times recently. Why, and by whom?

I have suggested that Islam is problematical. Not Muslims. I don't know many but the ones I have met personally seem pleasant enough and when I had an operation a few years ago I had no qualms about putting my life in the hands of an anaesthetist whose name pointed to a Moslem background. But to question Islam is no more racist than to question Communism or a political party manifesto. Múslims are not a race. They are people who follow a particular creed. They may be born into that but when they are adults, it can be taken that they are continuing to follow it out of choice. Unlike Jews, for example, who may become atheists, Catholics, Buddhists, or Muslims, but remain Jews. (Incidentally, the Jewish Cardinal Lustiger, former Archbishop of Paris, died last week, a piece of news which I was sorry to read).

Now if one had a religion whose text was Mein Kampf, one might expect problems from some of its followers. I am not going to quote from the Koran, but if anyone thinks it is a suitable text for a religion of peace, they should do a search on "Jews, Christians, kill" and look at what it says. It is little better than Mein Kampf. Some of its sayings are reminiscent of Hitler's. On these grounds the Koran could be regarded as an incitement to racial hatred and its publication in breach of British law. Of course there are different ways of interpreting the Koran, but in the absence of any authoritative body or figure to say how this should be done, it is inevitable that some people will take it literally.

It has been in discussions with "liberals" that the accusation has come up. In my experience, liberals are as intolerant of others' views as the most hardened reactionaries, but the irony here is that they are defending something that stands in direct opposition to their values and whose followers, if they got the chance, would quickly do away with all that they hold dear.

As the discussion goes on, it usually then turns into an attack on the bloodthirstiness of the Bible and the warlike behaviour of Christians. Now Christianity was indeed a religion of peace until around 1000AD. It turned warlike with the Crusades but these began as a defensive action, following 400 years of Muslim aggression. The trouble was that things got completely out of hand, with attacks on Jews and then on fellow Christians in the Byzantine empire. This was the start of the disgraceful and indefensible treatment of the Jews during the Middle Ages, sanctioned by the Catholic Church. The goings-on in South America were essentially a colonial action involving the theft of land and precious metals. But conversion to Catholicism at least, has on the whole been a peaceful affair. I cannot comment on Protestantism, but it is unfortunate that the two branches of Christianity are lumped together as they are indeed very different, with different attitudes to proselytisation; indeed, some branches of Protestantism have close affinities with Islam both in their rigid adherence to a text and their aggressive approach to conversion.

What of the Bible? It is essential to remember that the Bible is the foundation text of the Catholic Church, which defined it in its early years. So bible-believing Protestants are just taking the Catholic Church's book and leaving part of the rest of its teaching, a curious, illogical and inconsistent thing to do but that is their choice. The Catholic Church, through its body of tradition, lays down how the bible is to be interpreted. The essential point in this connection is that the New Testament takes precedence and supersedes the Old. So when people describe the Bible as being as bloodthirsty as the Koran, it is necessary only to ask them if they can find any bloodthirstiness in the New Testament, as interpreted by the Catholic Church? They will not find any.

What to do? We need to go out of our way to treat our Muslim neighbours well and not to let our attitudes be coloured by prejudice. But we should also be on our guard and in no doubt they they subscribe, with more or less commitment, to a creed that is pledged to destroy all that is good in the European way of life.

And I will make a prediction. The British will tolerate one more terrorist incident resulting in loss of live. The incident after that will trigger communal violence which will prove impossible to stop. Decent people will end up protecting people who would do away with them if they had the power. When the mosques have been attacked it will be the Christian communities who will be letting Muslims use church halls for their services. Strange times are approaching.

The growing gap between rich and poor

A frequent topic for discussion is the widening gap between super-rich and the poor, with people in the middle being squeezed down. This is occurring in most countries, the effect being particularly marked in the USA and Britain. Nobody seems to know what to do about it.

Yet there is no mystery about what is happening. It is precisely as predicted by the nineteenth century economist Henry George, who, in his book "Progress and Poverty" examined and accounted for the paradox whereby the enormous increase in productive power produced by the Industrial Revolution led to a small class of wealthy people and a huge class of people squeezed to the limit and living in poverty.

The past thirty years have seen a succession of revolutions which have had the same effect as the first Industrial Revolution, of increasing people's productive capacity. First we had the large centralised mainframe computer, which did away with a vast number of routine jobs. Then came personal computers, which did away with another raft of jobs. And then came the communications revolution which brought us the internet, mobile phones and other technologies which have transformed the way people work. Each has increased the individual's productive power at least five-fold, but who has enjoyed a five-fold increase in real wages? It is probably the most recent of these information technology revolutions which has resulted in the great widening of the gap in the last few years.

George explained why an increase in productive power does not result in a commensurate increase in real living standards. The experience of the past few years vindicates his analysis, and, incidentally, the relevance of his proposals to deal with the problem. But are any politicians or their advisors really interested?

Download Progress and Poverty freely

or buy the book

söndag 5 augusti 2007

The Wreck of the Vasa, Calculus and Naval Architecture

King Gustav Adolph's flagship, the Vasa, sank in 1628 when a squall blew it over in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage. It is now on display in a specially built museum. This incident was similar to that which sank the Mary Rose in Portsmouth Harbour in 1533.

The guide explained that the ship was too narrow for the amount of sail which it carried and that there was insufficient knowledge of ship design at the time to prevent this kind of thing, other than rule-of-thumb. There was a commission of inquiry but nobody could be blamed.

Which has set me thinking. What had happened to the Vasa was widely known. It is also likely that shipbuilders understood that a narrow ship was a faster ship. But optimum design would require the application of calculus, which was not invented until around 1675 by Newton and Leibnitz, apparently simultaneously and independently. And, as far as I know, it was to be another century before the mathematical principles were applied to practical shipbuilding.

As I understand it, Newton was concerned about the motions of the planets. Of Leibnitz I know little. But Newton was a member of the Royal Society, which was founded just after the Restoration in 1660. To what extent, I wonder, was the Vasa disaster the driving force behind the interest in science by monarchs such as Charles II?

Can anyone shed some light on this?

lördag 4 augusti 2007

Kräftskivor - Crayfish party

Grövelsjön, northern Dalarna, August 2006
Originally uploaded by marielinder.

Kräftor är ett litet djur som ser ut som en hummer. De har två klor och hundretals av ben. Svenskarna äter dem i augusti men värför vet jag inte. Kräftor innehåller nästan ingenting som man kan äta. Det finns ett stycke kött samma storlek som min lilla tå vid svansen och två stycken i klorna, men det är mycket små. Man måste dra ut köttet från den hårda skalet med fingren. Man behöver bra syn och ljus. Därför är kräftor inte mat. De är ett roligt spel.

Igår kväll satt vi tillsammans i ett stort rum på Göteborgs Nation. Gardinerna stängdes och det fanns levande ljus. Det var ganska mörkt. Det fanns massor av kräftor på bordet. Vi hämtade kräftor och åt dem. Vi drack mycket öl och snaps och sjöng många studentsånger. Men det var svårt att äter kräftor. Det smakade ganska bra men det fanns också bra ost och knäckbröd som var bättre så jag åt det istället. Jag åt bara ett halv dussin kräftor därför att de var för besvärliga.

Senare hade vi druckit för mycket och då stod vi på stolarna och när vi sjöng. Sedan sjöng vi högre. Men sångerna var inte melodiska. Egentligen fanns det allt ingen melodi. Därför kunde man inte lära sig melodin.

I slutet var vi ganska fulla. Det är konstigt därför att Svensk smaker liksom myggorkiss, som vi säger i England, och snaps smaker som medicin. Usch! Men i alla fall hade vi en rolig tid.

Men gourmetmat var det inte. Jag skull hellre har åt fisk och chips. Och jag skulle hellre titta på kräftor i akvarium än på tallrik.


Crayfish look like a small lobster. They have two claws and hundreds of legs. The Swedes eat them in August though I cannot imagine why. They contain almost nothing one can eat. There is a little bit of meat in the tail, about the size of one’s little toe, and there are two tiny bits in the claws. These tiny bits of meat have to be pulled out from the hard spiny shell, using fingers. It needs good eyesight and a bright light. And so crayfish are not food. They are a game.

We had a crayfish party last week. We were all sitting together at long tables in Göteborg Nation (a student union building). The curtains were drawn and the were candles on the tables. It was quite dark. There was a stack of crayfish on a table. We fetched the crayfish and ate them, drank lots of beer and snaps and song student songs. But it was hard to eat the crayfish. They tasted quite nice but the crispbread and cheese were better so I ate that instead. I only had a half-dozen crayfish because they were so troublesome.

Later on, too much had been drunk and then we stood on the chairs and sang. Then the singing got louder. But the singing was not melodic. In the end there was no melody at all. So nobody learnt the tunes, which I think is what they were meant to do.

At the end, a lot of people were really drunk. This is strange because the Swedish beer is gnats’ piss and the snaps tastes medicinal. Yuk. But all the same, we had a fun evening.

But gourmet food it was not. I would rather have had fish and chips. And I would rather have watched the crayfish in an aquarium than on my plate.

The state of Britain

One of the people on the course is a 25 year old Croatian who is studying Swedish so that he can do a Masters degree in International Relations in Helsinki. He has been in Britain for about half his life.

I had a long conversation with him on the bus on the way to Stockholm. His analysis is worrying, as it roughly coincides with my own. His generation has just switched off from public affairs. He finds hardly any of his own British contemporaries that he can talk to about anything serious.

In my own experience this isn't entirely true - I get to talk to young people at my old college when I go there, and things are not quite that bad. But they will mostly go into high-powered well paid jobs which is fine but it does nothing for the public realm as such.

I thought it was just me being a miserable old fogey but seemingly it is not. I wish it was. If we have no insight into our problems, how are we going to get out of them?

Of interest in this connection is the view of Sweden held by both people on the course and others I have spoken to. A common misconception here is the importance of the country, which is exaggerated. It is easy to get the idea that it is bigger than it is, despite the fact that Ken Livingstone's realm is larger. They do not seem to recognise that this is is a little backwater on the edge of the planet where the news is mostly about the weather and a blocked train toilet will make the news. Almost nothing happens. And there are problems, which mirror Britain's - failure to integrate immigrants, bureaucracy, a loopy housing market and rising house prices, and disguised unemployment. There is also significant homelessness, a drug problem and crime levels not much lower, proportionately, than Britain's.

The difference, which is not related to the size of the country, seems to be the way these problems are perceived - this is evident from talking to people, and from comments in the newspapers, which I can now read and at least get the gist of. There seems to be more awareness of the issues and criticism goes beyond mere grumbling and complaining. Which leads to hope that here at least, these problems might, just, be addressed in a sensible and effective way.

Stockholm City Hall

Edit: Stockholm City Hall
Originally uploaded by soylentgreen23.

We had our conducted tour of Stockholm City Hall today. As an iconic building, it attracts a constant stream of visitors, being one of those tourist attractions which appeals to a very wide range of people with all sorts of different interests and cultural backgrounds.

Completed in 1923, and gloriously extravagant, it cost three times more than intended and it provides accommodation for just the city councillors and a couple of hundred support staff.

There is an interesting comparison with London's County Hall, also on a key site by the river almost opposite the Houses of Parliament. What happened to that? The Council was abolished and the building sold. Most of it is a hotel and on the ground floor is a Macdonalds.

Who has their values and priorities right?

In praise of Aspergers

We should take a moment now and again to acknowledge the fact that civilisation as we know it would never have arisen if it were not for the...