torsdag 31 december 2009

Handel voted BBC Composer of the Year

I was pleased that Handel won the vote for BBC Composer of the Year. This was a difficult choice, the others being Purcell, Haydn and Mendelsson.

Most mornings when I am in Brighton, I am down at the seafront at dawn. Sometimes the sea is rough and the sky an angry red, presaging a stormy day. The scene is operatic. Scene Two of some Handel opera, in fact.

I have put a selection of Handel operas on my iPod, which are perfect for a long train journey.

tisdag 29 december 2009

St Thomas Becket

29th December is the anniversary of the murder in 1170 of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. It is usually celebrated as one of his two feast days but the feast seems to have been superseded on account of the readings which are those for the Feast of the Presentation.

At a time when Britain is plagued by bad government, it seems fitting to commemorate an Englishman who resisted it.

About twenty years ago, the curate of my parish church in Brighton was Fr Mark Elvins who is a descendant of the Thurnhams of Thurnham on the North Downs, who were connected to Ranulph de Broc, one of the four knights who committed the murder on the instigation of King Henry II. Whilst on a visit to Rome he had mentioned the fact to someone in a religious house and was presented with a relic of St Thomas. King Henry VIII had intended all relics of St Thomas to be destroyed, but Fr Elvins related to me that relics had been presented to the King of France and the Papal Legate at a state visit some time in the thirteenth century, and this was why Henry VIII's intention had been in vain.

Fr Elvins established the St Thomas Fund which runs a home for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics in Brighton. He subsequently became a Franciscan and is Master of Greyfriars Hall, Oxford.

British subject executed for drug smuggling in China

I thought that there were many disturbing aspects of this case. I am not in favour of the death penalty, but it is the decision of the Chinese to punish drug smuggling in this way and that surely is the end of the matter. There is a good case to be made for the severest punishment for drug dealing. There is an even better case for decriminalising it altogether. What there is not a good case for is to make it a criminal offence and not imposing the severest punishment, which is the policy in the UK. Chinese society was for centuries enfeebled by opium addiction and the country's determination is understandable. The Chinese have not forgotten that the British went to war against China to protect the "rights" of British merchants to sell opium in China.

Also worrying was the fact that that a man with severe mental illness had been lost track of by both his family and the British health care services, to the extent that he had ended up in China. Is this part of "Care in the Community"? Though it is not clear how his mental illness led him to commit the particular crime of drug smuggling. One can envisage all sorts of crimes for which mental illness would be a mitigating factor and grounds for claiming diminished responsibility, but drug smuggling is not, on the face of things, one of them.

Finally, the protests of the British government strike me as hypocritical. If anyone is to be blamed for this, they are not in Beijing, but very close to home. Was this man known to the Social Services, and who was responsible for his Care Plan? How did he come to fall through the system? If his condition was never picked up by the authorities, where is the evidence for his illness?

And all this from a government that has failed to resist pressure from the US for the extradition of a man with autism or Asperger's syndrome, who, from a computer in his bedroom, allegedly cracked the security of a US military computer system. Now, that alleged crime is precisely the kind of act that might be expected of someone with Asperger's syndrome. It is also evidence of a high level of skill which the authorities can ill afford to lose. The place for this individual is at GCHQ or some similar organisation. It should not be forgotten that brains behind the predecessor of GCHQ, Bletchley Park, were similar oddballs such as Alan Turing. In the days of GCHQ they were known as boffins, and they helped to win the war. It is a serious indictment of contemporary British culture that there is no room for them to make the contribution they undoubtedly could.

And in any case the US authorities are picking on the wrong targets. The guilty parties are those who specified and commissioned the computer system, who should be Court Martialled for neglect, and the suppliers of the system, who should be sued.

tisdag 22 december 2009

Who is to blame for the icy roads?

The Daily Express today ran a headline about how badly Britain's local councils had dealt with the snowy weather. Normally this newspaper's promotes the view that the best councils are those with the lowest council tax.

Being prepared for snow and ice is expensive and must be paid for through taxation. The Express editorial team seems to be suffering from cognitive dissonance.

måndag 21 december 2009

Obsolete technology?

You need to listen hard. There is something very odd about 71000, the Duke of Gloucester, which sounds different from any other steam locomotive: the exhaust sound is soft and almost perfectly regular, sometimes described as a "chatter", and presumably due to the special valve gear with which it is fitted. The video shows it pulling hard - probably flat out - up the notorious Wellington bank. It also shows that there is surplus steam which is being released from the safety valves.

As part of the programme of research, upgrades and remedial work which the owners have been engaged in ever since the locomotive was removed from the scrapyard in the early 1970s, it is presently undergoing further modifications to remedy yet another manufacturing error. This fault apparently meant that the centre of the three cylinders has only been producing half the power it ought to, so that the locomotive is only running at 5/6th of its potential. Since, this defect notwithstanding, the locomotive was, until the arrival of the 3,690 hp class 70 freight diesels,  probably the most powerful in Britain, with a maximum output of around 3500 IHP, the results of this latest upgrade should be interesting, with a theoretical output of 4,200 IHP.

The video below shows it climbing another notorious bank, Shap, on the West Coast Main Line. Again, the smooth regular exhaust sound is noticeable. Also noticeable at the end of the video is the black smoke indicating incomplete combustion, which remains an occasional feature of the locomotive and suggests that there is further potential for improvement.

This is not what one would expect of an obsolete technology in its dying stages. It makes one wonder if the most useful thing the DfT could do would be to fund the < £500k it would cost to resolve the remaining problems, and then arrange with one of the ROSCOs for the purchase of a entire fleet, plus the construction of the supporting infrastructure of water supply, turntables, etc, for use on main lines which are never likely to be electrified. It also raises two further questions: whether a streamlined version should be built, with a wedge-front casing somewhat in the style of an HST, and whether a small-wheeled freight version would not be better value for money than any diesel. It certainly does not sound as if the technology should be confined to the museum just yet.

söndag 20 december 2009

The price of keeping taxes low

Once again, the snows are upon us and once again the roads are not being cleared. Are councils to blame? Perhaps, but keeping the roads clear of snow costs money. If councils were to take the responsibility, then council tax would rise. But the way for councils to win approval is to keep the council tax low.

So the real reason why the roads are blocked with snow is because people are not willing to pay for the service.

torsdag 17 december 2009

The case against high speed rail for Britain

The British government is preparing a report on the future of high speed rail in Britain. A firm proposal is expected in the spring. Enthusiasm is growing, as more and more people become familiar with travel on high speed lines on the continent.

But Britain is not the continent and the British railway network is not tied in to the continental one except through the Channel Tunnel. The case against high speed rail in Britain is strong, and it needs to be put, because investment in high speed rail could turn out to be bad value for money, especially bearing in mind how else it could have been spent.

France, Germany and Spain, which have the best-developed high-speed systems, are large countries with cities far apart, separated by sparsely-populated countryside. Britain has a completely different pattern of settlement, with 80% of the population living in less than one-third of the land area, but relatively spread-out within that area, in low-density suburbs that are difficult to serve economically by any form of public transport.

For these reason, most people's preferred mode of travel is the private car. Public transport is used primarily for travel within the denser areas of the larger cities and conurbations. Most rail journeys in Britain are made within London and the South East

Rail remains important for inter-city travel but a typical inter-city journey in Britain is around 200km, perhaps even less. This is why high speed rail may not be a worthwhile investment.At a start-to-stop speed of 100kph, a 200 km journey will take 2 hours from end to end. Increase the speed to 150 kph and the journey time goes down to 80 minutes, a saving of 40 minutes. A further increase in speed to 200 kph takes the journey down to 1 hour, a saving of another 20 minutes. The next 50 kph increase in speed reduces the journey time to 48 minutes, a saving of just 12 minutes. (see diagram) Successive increases in speed yield diminishing savings of time.

And what about the costs?
The general rule is that energy consumed is proportional to the square of the speed; a train running at 200 kph uses twice the energy of one at 140 kph. But things are much worse than that. There is a set of critical speeds where the technology changes. At speeds of up to 40 kph, railways can run under what is known as a "Light Railway Order" with simplified signalling, etc. Most of the preserved museum railways operate under this rule. Special dispensations from the rules that apply to ordinary railways can be given to railways operating at up to about 90 kph.
The next break-point is 160 kph, when the railway is classified as a high speed line and must comply with EU rules for such lines, which add an entire additional layer of costs.

In addition to these critical speeds where the lines become subject to different regulations, there are other break-points due to technical requirements. 120 kph is about the maximum speed at which the ventilation of trains by means of opening windows is acceptable. At speeds of above about 160 kph, more efficient braking systems are needed, the suspension system has to be very much more complex and the track must be constructed to different standards, using heavier rails and other components. The situation changes again above 160 kph, when some form of continuous in-cab signalling such as the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) becomes essential. It is also the case that at higher speeds, wear and tear on both trains and track become much heavier due to the higher forces involved, proportional to the square of the speeds.

What the diagram seems to indicate is that for the sort of inter-city journeys that are typically made in Britain, it is worth constructing new railways and increasing train speeds up to about 160 kph, just below the point at which the lines become subject to EU regulations, but no more than that.

måndag 14 december 2009

Tax is the answer for climate financing

No, it is not, but Tax Justice has been making approving comments about what is being hatched in Copenhagen, which should put one on one's guard immediately.

The proposals are for a financial transactions tax and a carbon tax, so that the rich can help the poor. But the likely effects of a financial transactions tax are unpredictable, as the system is a delicately balanced one. An effect of trading at high frequency and volumes is that exchange rates keep within close limits, which probably helps to stabilise the system. But since it is working quite well at the moment and is peripheral to the land-based boom-bust cycle, it sounds like a bad idea to interfere through taxation. In any case, where is the principle behind such a tax?

Taxes on carbon hit those in cold or remote areas the hardest, which adds to congestion in the more populous regions. That is a bad idea. And poor people, being tenants, are not in a position to do much to reduce the size of their heating bills. This sounds like another soak-the-poor scheme dressed up with good intentions.

The Scandinavian countries have been cited as models. However, it is never a good idea to cite them as examples of anything. They have small populations, a large land area and plentiful timber and hydro-electric power, not to mention nuclear power stations - 47% of Sweden's electricity is nuclear.

All talk of rich countries and poor countries ignores the fact that there are poor people in rich countries and rich people in poor countries. Tax normally hits the poor hardest in all countries.

And where will the money go? As always, politicians the world over will grab what they can and syphon it off into their own pockets and those of their cronies. This is money taken from the poor in the first world. Where is the fairness? Where is the justice?

fredag 11 december 2009

Thomas the Tank Engine attacked for 'conservative political ideology'

Children's favourite Thomas the Tank Engine has been attacked by a Canadian academic for its "conservative political ideology" and failure to adequately represent women. I read this in the Daily Telegraph, so it could have been a spoof (see link at bottom). Had it been April 1st, one could have been certain. But then again, such things are possible.

Apparently the trouble is that the engines have boys' names and the carriages have girls', such as Annie and Clarabel, which makes it sexist. Eventually came Daisy the railcar, which solved the problem a bit, but she took a long time to settle down and could misbehave at times.

A lot has happened since the last Thomas story was written, what with the railways being privatised and so many new trains replacing the old ones. There are real possibilities here. How would the engines react to finding a real stinker like a Voyager? Here is an attempt to bring things up to date.

Latest news from Thomas...
When the Big Railway was privatised, many of the old trains were replaced after a while. Some of them came to live on Sodor. First to arrive were the two emus, called Biggie and Ciggie, who came with a diesel locomotive called Edgar. But Edgar turned out to be not very strong because he really needed electricity to go properly, and as there wasn't any, the Scottish twins Donald and Douglas were put in charge of Biggie and Ciggie. They are only used during the summer as they have no steam heating. Biggie and Ciggie have become very popular because the seats are comfortable, and passengers like to travel in Biggie's buffet car where they serve teas with scones, cream and home-made strawberry jam in the afternoons and real draught beer in the evenings.

After the trial on the branch line with Ciggie, Edgar was used inside the carriage workshop, where he could run when he was connected to a long cable and plugged in just like a vacuum cleaner. He has turned out to be quite useful, but he is hardly ever seen outdoors.

A few summer visitors have helped out for a while. Thumper came for a few months whilst Arthur was having his overhaul, and the next season came Jack Spratt, who was very thin and sounded like Thumper. Jack was used on the main line whilst Henry was getting new tubes for his boiler.

Foreign friends
There have also been a few foreign visitors who stayed for a while; unlike humans, engines from different countries can talk to each other perfectly well. Hermann had three domes and would never talk about the work he had done, which made the others suspect he had done something very bad in the past. Maurice smelled of garlic and boasted about how fast he was, but was quite nice really. Everyone liked Sven, a quiet and friendly little tank engine with big headlamps, who wore a red snowplough even in the summer and smelled faintly of a mixture of cinnamon and coffee. Sven, a distant relative of Arthur, was very clever but never said much except when the others admired his delicately machined rods and red wheels. Then he would nod in agreement and once said, modestly, "Not bad! They made a good job of me, didn't they? Look at my oil cups - they have proper metal covers instead of the corks you've got."

When engines are left on their own together, they often talk about coal, of course One night, Duck mentioned that Welsh steam coal was the best and that he hated the taste of anything else. This led to an argument, as Donald and Douglas disliked any coal that did not come from Scotland. Sven, who so rarely joined in a conversation, mentioned that he had been fed with logs of wood for a while. He said that they tasted delicious, and were cleaner than coal. They were not dusty and the smoke smelled nice, but he didn't feel so strong as when he was fed with coal.

Zoltan the Hideous

Another foreign visitor was Zoltan. The others all felt sorry for him because he looked so hideous and sad. He had an ugly face, pipes grew all over his boiler like ivy on a tree trunk, and he had two domes joined by a big pipe. Zoltan looked battered and was painted dull black. They wondered whether he was sad because he was ugly or if being ugly made him sad. One night he told them all about himself. He had run on the Emperor's railway, but then he had been sent to a place where the water was so dirty that all the engines got boiler-ache. That was why he was fitted with an extra dome and the pipe in between. He had also worked for the army for a long time and was badly treated. He was sad because of some of the things he had been made to do.

"You shouldn't worry about what you look like", said Thomas, trying to cheer him up. "You could easily get a new shape. "

Duck piped up, "Lots of engines have been in the army. My old mate Rod was always telling stories about the things he had done. It's a pity, though, that you never went to Swindon. You would have come back with a nice tidy tapered boiler without even one single dome, a brass safety-valve trumpet, a copper-capped chimney and a neat cab. Engines that went to Swindon always came out with the proper domeless Great Western look. I hate domes."

"Haha! Talk about domes", said Henry. "You and Oliver have got bigger domes than any of us. Have you seen yourself? Great Western engines either have a huge dome or none. The rest of us have proper-sized domes."

This business of domes was a sore point with all the engines, but especially for Duck. It was best not to talk about it. Duck was very proud of his dome and whenever he passed the station buffet he would try to steal a glimpse of it, reflected in the windows.

None of this left Zoltan feeling any happier. "It isn't just my domes and pipes that make me look so ugly. There's my cylinders and valve gear too. I just look completely wrong. I'm the ugliest engine in the world." He started to sob.

These engines were just shed company for Thomas and his friends, because when the Fat Controller measured them, he found they were too big to run on the railway. They used to be taken out into the yard on special days and run around a bit so that visitors could look at them but in the end, they were sent back to their own countries.

Hans and Hank
Then there was Hans. He was bigger than Gordon, slightly streamlined, and looked very smart. His boiler and cab were not painted but left in the natural silver colour of the metal, which was kept polished. His wheels and rods were painted bright red. He always spotless even after a day's work. No speck of soot ever came out of his chimney. He was too big to run on the railway but worked on his own in the yard every day. He moved about very quietly. The other engines did not know what to make of Hans at first and thought he was stuck-up and unfriendly. Thomas cheekily asked him if he was really a steam engine. "Yesss!" hissed Hans, irritated. Thomas asked him where he kept his coal, as he couldn't see anywhere for coal on his tender.

"I don't burn coal", said Hans. "I burn diesel. Just like you burn coal. I am very strong, clean and quiet. I am cleaner than any diesel. I use less diesel than a real diesel. I used to burn coal but oil is easier. Incidentally, I am much older than you think I am. I am older than some of the rest of you. I started off in the army so be careful how you talk to me."

Hans impressed everyone, especially the Fat Controller. They could see that he had been telling the truth. But one morning, after he had been for a few weeks, Hans woke up with a worried look on his face. "It's my last day today - I'm off home to Switzerland tomorrow. There's a lot of work for me to do on the big railway there. I am going to be tested. I have got to compete with a diesel."

After breakfast, he puffed out into the yard outside. There was a tremendous racket to be heard. It was a visitor who came to a stop on the track next to Hans. Two columns of blue-black smoke were shooting out of his roof like a volcanic eruption. "Hiya! Hank's the name." Hank was painted a red-brown colour, the same as the soft drink he was advertising. The name of the drink was painted in white flowing letters all the way along both of his ribbed sides, and he looked just like a giant soft drink can himself. "You all think yer better than me buchoo ain't. I'm the greatest'n ahrm gonna prove it." He spoke in a loud drawl.

The two engines spent the day doing heavy jobs, and when they had finished, they played tug-of-war. Hank screamed for all he was worth, whilst Hans was almost silent, but neither budged, and in the end, the competition was declared a tie.

Emmie and Tracey arrive
Then came a whole season when nothing went right. It started just before Christmas, when Hank turned up again one frosty morning, this time with six shiny white and green carriages, and the special purple vans called Hatch and Match, one between Hank and the carriages, and the other at the back. The Fat Controller came out with Daisy's driver to meet them and looked doubtful when he saw Hatch and Match. Their presence was always a sign that the trains were going to get up to mischief.

Hank uncoupled the front four carriages from the others. This is Emmie", he drawled. "She ain't said nut'n since ah picked 'er up. Just a squeak now n'then. I wuz told she was sometin called Lectrostar." Hank screamed off trailing blue smoke behind. The carriages, obviously brand new and fresh from the factory, stood silent.

Emmie was wearing a lot of make-up, with fluorescent lipstick, dark eye-shadow, and long artificial eyelashes. The Fat Controller and Daisy's driver climbed into the cab. It was freezing cold inside and smelled of new plastic. They looked into the passenger compartment, where the seats and carpets were all carefully covered with polythene sheets. In the cab were rows and rows of switches, more rows and rows of coloured light bulbs (none of them lit), and rows and rows of buttons. The Fat Controller looked at his reflection in the grey computer screen. On the cab window was stuck a piece of paper saying that the train should not run with carriages with a different version of the windows. Daisy's driver, walked the length of the train and back and shrugged his shoulders, then he got back into the cab and pressed a button marked "standby power supply". Nothing happened. The Fat Controller shook his head from side to side. He climbed out of the cab and checked the label pasted onto the side window. In the space for the destination was scrawled "Sodor" in untidy handwriting. He put his reading glasses on and checked the label again. "Sodor", it said.

Then he noticed a big brown envelope tucked beneath the driver's desk. He opened it and went through the wad of papers inside. He showed them to Daisy's driver.

"Look! It says Sodor on the label all right. Doesn't it? But this piece of paper is typed out and it clearly says Selhurst. Have a look", said the Fat Controller. He wasn't sure now.

They had another look at the label on the train. It could have said Sodor, but then again it might have said Selhurst. They couldn't decide. In the end, the Fat Controller said that Emmie had to be got out of the way and he asked Donald to put her in the carriage sidings with Hatch and Match.

Then he went over to the other train. She looked almost the same as Emmie, with too much makeup on. Again, he checked the label and again he couldn't decide whether it said Sodor or Selhurst, so he went through the other papers in the envelope and it turned out that this train was in the right place. "She's here for testing", said the Fat Controller to Daisy's driver. "The Big Railway is too busy so it is being done here."

"Hi, dude! I'm Tracey the Turobstar. I'm good at everything". She had begun to burble to herself in a in a boastful tone.

Donald had come back wondering what to do next, but the Fat Controller sent him away for a drink of water and asked Daisy's driver to take Tracey to the shed.

Tracey the troublesome
There were quarrels almost immediately. After a few days, the conversation one morning went like this.

Thomas, "Ooh, you nasty girl! You smell of diesel! And you are keeping us awake by running your engines all night long. We have been tired in the morning ever since you arrived. You don't belong here. We know. Go back to the Big Railway."

"I need to keep my engines running so that the cleaners can vacuum my carpets", she snarled. Tracey ran her engine up to full speed and spouted black smoke all over Thomas.

Thomas blew off steam from his safety valves,

Tracey replied, "I don't like noisy steam engines. They belong in museums."

With a blast on her two-tone horn, she set off for her day's work - she had been given a job on the branch line for the time being - rumbling and muttering.

One chilly January morning, Tracey threw a tantrum while out at work, and refused to budge. She fell silent in a sulk. The Fat Controller had to order buses so that the passengers could finish their journeys, and sent for Thomas and Match to tow her back to the shed, where she carried on sulking for the rest of the day.

Oliver came to the rescue. The passengers were delighted to see him again, with his old autocoach called Isabel, and he puffed happily up and down the branch line with her all week, until Tracey felt like working again. But she was very lazy and temperamental and in the end she couldn't do any work at all as she needed a special spare part which had to come from Germany. So it was decided that she should be sent back as soon as possible to the Big Railway, together with Emmie, who had never moved since the day she arrived. The move was delayed because a family of robins had nested between two of the carriages and they had to wait until the chicks had flown before Emmie and Tracey could finally go. All the engines howled and shrieked and hooted with joy as Donald and Douglas towed them away. They were never heard of again.

How Thomas and Vera fell out.
Worst of all was Vera the Voyager, who arrived on her own during the half-term holidays that February. Vera had a deep gruff voice and smelled of drains as well as diesel. She didn't sound anything like a girl. "I'm really fast", she growled. "I can lean over when I go round curves."

Gordon hissed, "I'm nearly as quick as you and I can pull lots of carriages. You can't pull anything at all and you've only got four carriages of your own. People have to book up weeks beforehand if they want to travel on you. And the Fat Controller has to charge them more. There's no room if a lot of people want to get on."

Vera gave a little shudder and let out a burp. She had bad manners. "I don't need to pull carriages. The passengers can sit inside and I go ever so fast. I've got computers. Dozens of them. And a shop. And every coach has its own engine. I cost five million pounds, so there!"

"H'mm", sighed Gordon. "I overheard people on the platform grumbling about you yesterday. They said the seats were too close together. They often had to stand because you were full up. They couldn't see out of the windows. There was nowhere for their luggage. Your toilets were often blocked. You bump and shake the passengers as you go along. They said they would rather travel in my comfortable old carriages, with me pulling them. And you smell of poo. You shouldn't be sharing our shed with us. You take up as much space as three engines. Sir Topham Hatt could have bought lots of us for the money you cost." Off Gordon puffed to get his carriages.

The Engines' Revenge

Vera was with them all that summer and by the end, the other engines had had enough. One windy autumn night, they decided it was time to get rid of her. They hated Vera, with her bright red paint and smug, leering face, smothered in lipstick. They were tired of the bad smells she gave off. She often woke them when she came back late from her long trips, and then kept them awake by running her engines. Thomas said she was flashy, dirty and stand-offish. She wouldn't even couple to them without having Hatch or Match in between. A plan was worked out. Next day, James was going to take a train on the line that ran along by the sea. It was his favourite route. It was easy work because the line was practically level. The track was built on the old sea wall and ran in and out of tunnels through the red rock, past little coves and along wide beaches. It was a beautiful stretch. During the summer, children on the beach would turn and wave to James as he puffed past, and James's driver would wave back and give a toot on his whistle. But when the sea was rough, the waves splashed right over the track and made James wet, but he never minded, even though water sometimes ran down his funnel. Many times in the winter, the cleaners had emptied bucketloads of seashells from his smokebox.

When James's driver came to collect him in the morning, James pretended he had boiler-ache. The Fat Controller said he would give James and his carriages a rest and sent Vera instead.

"No", growled Vera. "I only go on long journeys. And I don't want to go along that nasty line next to the sea. It makes me feel seasick."

"The people will like you. You are new". The Fat Controller knew she liked to be flattered, though he had heard the complaints too, and that she didn't like to go near the sea. But he insisted, and so off she went. But when she came to the stretch of line by the sea, a huge wave washed right over the line and water poured all over the engines and the other works under her floors. Vera spluttered and came to a stop, whilst the spray from the big waves continued to fall on top of her. By then, and it was later in the morning, James was feeling better and the Fat Controller sent him and his carriages to collect her passengers. They were very pleased to see him and all waved and cheered.

Duck was sent to collect Vera but she would not let him pull her. "I'm not going to be pulled by a dirty old-fashioned steam engine. I won't even let myself be coupled to one. You should know that", she said, in a low, hoarse voice. "Go back and get Match", she said bossily. Duck was angry and felt insulted. His green paint was, as always, fresh and shiny. He was very proud of his appearance. The copper cap of his chimney, and his pretty brass safety valve trumpet, were always polished in true Great Western fashion. It wasn't just him that was being insulted; she was insulting everything Swindon and everything Great Western, and on his very own stretch of line, too. He wouldn't have it. With a roar, he let off a jet of steam at Vera and puffed back to his shed to get Match. When he came back, Duck gave her as hard a bump as he dared, and then dragged her back to the sheds. She was a sorry sight, with sea water running out under her doors and swags of seaweed draped over the openings in her roof.

What happened to Vera
"What are we going to do with you?", asked the Fat Controller, scratching his head. "I'd send you for scrap if you weren't so young and hadn't cost so much."

He told Duck to shunt Vera into the sidings where he put the carriages to wait when they needed to be repainted. Vera stayed there, next to Emmie and Tracey, for several months. By the end of that time, ugly streaks of rust were showing through her red paint, the seaweed on her roof had gone dry and her roof was covered with bird droppings.

Towards the end of the winter, Edgar was sent to collect her and shunt her into the workshops. They took out her engines and carted them away, where the metal was melted down and made into garden furniture. Her computers were carried out and given to the local school. They cut off her ugly nose and gave her flat ends like ordinary carriages, with proper buffers so that they didn't need Hatch or Match if they need to be coupled to the engines or any of the other carriages. The holes in her roof were covered up. They gave her new windows that the passengers could open if the weather was fine. They took out some of the seats and spaced out the rest, so her carriages were comfortable for the passengers, and fitted her with steam heaters and vacuum brakes so that the steam engines could pull her. Each of her carriages was given her own name: Barbara, Bella, Bertha and Betty. And to finish it all off, she got a new coat of dark red paint with fine gold lines all the way along the sides. When all the work was done, they looked perfectly respectable. Duck came to collect her and she was shunted into the sidings with all the other carriages.

Next day - it was the start of the Easter school holidays - Gordon came to collect his train. At the front were Barbara, Bella, Bertha and Betty. "Gosh, how smart you look", he said. "I can hardly recognise you. You are the smartest carriages on the line." Everyone was very pleased with them. The other engines envied Gordon because he was the only one allowed to pull them. The other carriages, too, were a bit jealous at first, but they quickly settled down to their new job.

Stan the new engine

The Fat Controller was pleased at the way things went after he had dealt with Vera. One day he came into the shed and told the engines some news. There was going to be a visit from a brand new steam engine. It was a relative of Gordon's, called Tornado. In fact, he looks very much like Gordon, except that he is painted green, he explained. Then he told them about Stan. The Fat Controller said he felt sorry for the engines as they often looked tired. The truth is they were getting old and it was bad for them to be working so hard all the time. Stan was going to come and join them - when he was finished.

"What do you mean, when he is finished?", asked the engines in chorus.

"Stan is being made", replied the Fat Controller. "People are starting to build steam engines again, specially for lines like ours, but perhaps the Big Railway will have some too. He will be brand new when he arrives at Sodor. If he behaves well, I shall get more, the same as Stan. Together, we shall show the people on the Big Railway how things ought to be done."

"What does he look like?" they asked.

"Something like Arthur, but slightly bigger. You know how useful Arthur is. He can do most things quite well if they are not too much for him. Well Stan will be a bit bigger and stronger." He will be able to push and pull Biggie and Ciggie, the same as Oliver does with Isabel.

The other engines asked what would happen to them. "Don't worry", replied the Fat Controller. "When Stan and his friends arrive, you will only have to work on special days".

Article in Daily Telegraph.

tisdag 8 december 2009

Lesbiska biskoper i Svenska Kyrkan

Man säger att en biskop i den svenska kyrkan blev den första lesbiska biskopen i världen. Men det kan inte vara sant. Det finns redan en biskop i Lesbos - den är faktiskt den grekiska ortodoxa biskop Metropolitan Iakovos III.

måndag 7 december 2009

Punishing the bankers

Canary Wharf

Punishing the bankers with a windfall tax is this week's political big idea. The trouble is that it is based on no principle. Worse, it is retrospective and therefore contrary to a fundamental principle of jurisprudence.

It is difficult to believe that no laws or contracts have been broken. Have none of those responsible obtained money by false pretences, or failed to exercise due diligence or, indeed, reasonable professional competence? This is what needs to be investigated and tested in open court. Those found guilty or responsible should be duly punished if any crimes have been committed, sued if contracts have been broken, or both.

Windfall taxes are a blunt instrument and set a bad precedent.

lördag 5 december 2009

A Patriot for me?

The past few years have seen a spate of attempts to build new steam locomotives in Britain. Tornado, Mostly the aim is to construct examples of types that were never made it into preservation, such as, Tornado, the brand new A1 Pacific completed last year, the culmination of a twenty year project. It seems to be performing particularly well, perhaps because the construction is to a higher standard of precision than was usual when the original locomotives were built in the last 1940s, and possibly also because the machine receives more care and attention than was possible in the days of British Railways.

Following this have come two further projects for large main line locomotives to fill preservation gaps: a Clan class British Railways standard Pacific and a Patriot class 4-6-0, a type designed in the 1920s. A third new build project is for the construction of a small tank locomotive to the North Eastern Railways G5 design, introduced in 1893. Yet a fourth is to build an example of the extinct British Railways class 3 2-6-2 tank locomotive numbered in the 82000 series. There is also a project to

Of course people can do what they like with their money but the first two projects seem a bit pointless. There was nothing wrong with the Clan class but as soon as they were built it became clear that there was little need for a locomotive intermediate in size between the class 7 Britannia and the class 5.

The Patriot class was a scaled-down version of the Royal Scot class, which was designed and built in a hurry, and introduced in 1927 for main line services on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. The railway actually wanted Castle class locomotives, following a successful test in 1925, but the Great Western Railway refused the request, and got the Royal Scots designed and built by a private company. Construction of the the Patriot class continued until 1934, when a new design, the Jubilee class was introduced, with various improvements based on Great Western practice. The Royal Scots, as originally built, suffered from a variety of problems and all were eventually rebuilt, the intention being to create one standard design with the rebuilding of all the Patriot and Jubilee class as well; about one-third of the Patriot class and two Jubilees were rebuilt to this scheme. Some of the faults of the Royal Scot class, notably the inaccessible inside cylinder, were inherent to the design of all three classes. Designated power class 6P in British Railways days, performance of the Patriot and Jubilee class seems, on the whole, to have been inferior to that of the similar sized Castle class which were designated 7P. The Patriots cannot, therefore, be regarded as a high point of locomotive design. I suppose that if a group of people want to recreate a piece of the past, good luck to them.

The third proposal, for a small locomotive, is altogether more practical. It is intended specifically for heritage line use and it will be interesting to see how the project fares.

The most promising, however, is the fourth scheme. It is the promoters' belief that a BR Standard class 3 tank engine is the ideal locomotive for everyday timetabled services on many of the UK's heritage railways. Being precisely the right size for the kind of trains that heritage railway actually operate, it has been suggested that this type could be an ideal candidate for limited series production. Whilst the promoters of the scheme say that this is well beyond their own scope, they believe that making their breakthrough could encourage others to take over in the future. Batch production would drastically reduce the unit cost of building new examples, estimated (2007) at between £1,250,000 and £1,500,000.

On the basis of 1950s costs, a figure of under £500,000 per unit should be achievable, given a reasonable of production run. But one must then ask whether some of the features of the original represent value for money? Are the advantages of the complicated boiler worth the extra cost? Should the locomotives not be fitted with advanced features which have been developed and proven since the original locomotives were built? Examples include energy conservation features such as super-insulation, and more up-to-date multi-fuel combustion and exhaust systems, and features to facilitate and reduce maintenance, such as water treatment and external heating by off-peak electricity.

What would one end up with? A locomotive that would satisfy the enthusiast, since it would look, sound and handle much like the originals. But it would have significantly improved performance, needing less hard work to keep it on the road. It would, for example, have cleaner emissions than a diesel and if Swiss experience with new steam locomotives is any guide, it would use less fuel as well. Such a machine would in fact be a serious challenger for miscellaneous duties on the national system, for example, to run passenger trains on non-electrified lines, presently operated by 1980s railbuses, for leaf-clearance operations and possibly for permanent way trains, for which large diesels are presently used inefficiently.

This is a project that deserves to go forward, since it could pave the way for the return of an undeservedly neglected technology.

Is global warming just a myth?


Following disclosures about leaked emails, people no longer know who or what to believe on the subject, since few of those making statements on the subject are completely impartial and are without any vested interest in the outcome. In an attempt to settle the argument, the front page of today's Times reports,

"The Met Office plans to re-examine 160 years of temperature data after admitting that public confidence in the science on man-made global warming has been shattered by leaked e-mails.

"The new analysis of the data will take three years, meaning that the Met Office will not be able to state with absolute confidence the extent of the warming trend until the end of 2012.

The Met Office database is one of three main sources of temperature data analysis on which the UN’s main climate change science body relies for its assessment that global warming is a serious danger to the world. This assessment is the basis for next week’s climate change talks in Copenhagen aimed at cutting CO2 emissions." Full article here

There are surely easier ways of getting hold of the information that this? Botanical gardens the world over have been recording the dates of flowering of various species for 250 years and more.

Plants that flower early in the spring, such as daffodils and crocus, are sensitive to the weather. The data collected in this way is completely objective and impartial and provides a reliable guide to long-term trends. It is surely sufficient to resolve the question one way or another.

söndag 29 november 2009

Railways on the wrong track

Electrostar at Milton Keynes

Once the present orders for Britain's trains have been delivered, a new series of designs will be launched. Trains such as the Adtranz Electrostar (above), for local services, were a development of the British Rail Networker, which came into service in the early 1990s, whilst large numbers of suburban trains were also purchased from the German manufacturer Siemens. The first came into service around 2000, and after prolonged teething troubles are performing reasonably well, apart from chronic problems like unreliable toilets, and uncomfortably bouncy, or uncomfortably hard, riding. But in comparison with the trains they replaced, dating from the 1950s, they are heavier, harder on the track and guzzle electricity, so there is plenty of scope for something better.

The next generation of long distance trains, the Inter City Express (IEP), was specified by the Department for Transport and that contract has been awarded to Hitachi. This is a hybrid electric/diesel train which can run on both electrified and non-electrified lines. The concept sounds wonderful but in practice, it means that an electric locomotive is being dragged unnecessarily over lines that are not electrified, and a diesel locomotive is being dragged unnecessarily over lines with an electric power supply. Worse still, the diesel locomotive will not be powerful enough to maintain the same schedules as the Inter City 125 trains, and over electrified lines the diesel will be needed to provide additional traction over some of the route.

The DfT defends the design and has invented all sorts of post-hoc arguments in its favour, but the real reason it has come about is because the civil servants could not comprehend the time-honoured practice of changing locomotives to haul trains over lines that were not electrified. This was the way that the Metropolitan Line was operated for over 50 years until the route was electrified all the way to Amersham in 1960; an electric locomotive hauled the train to the change-over point and a steam locomotive took the train on. The switch was made at Rickmansworth (below) and took just two minutes, so this was hardly a difficult thing.  

Rickmansworth - electric traction takes over

Much the same was done on the Waterloo-Weymouth route as the line was originally electrified only as far as Bournemouth. It would have been the obvious way to run the London to Aberdeen service: an electric locomotive would push the train to Edinburgh, where the train would split, with the front portion being hauled onwards to Aberdeen by a diesel locomotive.

Expensive follies

These are expensive follies. The prices for rolling stock have spiralled. Mark 1 stock cost about £6000 per non-powered (hauled) vehicle in the early 1960s, about £250,000 in present-day terms. The first of the Electrostars cost about £750,000 million per vehicle, and the current price is about £1.25 million. The next generation of trains will be even more expensive, with the Hitachi trains costing an astonishing £5 million per vehicle. With trains costing so much, the railways are forced to operate with a minimum of spare capacity, whilst passengers have to be crammed in as tightly as possible if fares are to be kept to reasonable levels. Which explains why, for instance, the seat spacing on mark 1 stock was 92 cm with some 3-a-side compartments, considerably more than in recent designs.

The cramped interior of a refurbished HST

Nothing works with anything else

A curious feature of all the new trains is that the different types are mutually incompatible; in the case of Electrostars, units are unable to operate together if they have different versions of the software! Few are operationally compatible and in many instances, different designs of couplings mean that vehicles of different types cannot be joined even in an emergency. A further complication relates to running long trains on routes with short platforms. This is possible but difficult because nobody has yet come up with a simple system for ensuring that passengers do not open doors where there is no adjacent platform; the system adopted uses satellite positioning and a database!

Not just a UK problem

The problem is not confined to the UK's railways. The same trend has  occurred throughout Europe, with trains become ever more costly and complex, and with seating being crammed in ever more tightly.  Part of this trend, which has been going on since the 1970s, has been the substitution of locomotive-hauled carriages by fixed-formation trains, such as the British Inter-City 125 and Voyager, the French TGV and the Swedish X2000. The great drawback of such trains is that carriages cannot be added or taken out of the train very easily, which makes it hard to match the number of carriages to the number of passengers likely to travel. Trains are typically made up to a minimum size and the seats sold under some complex scheme with a few bargains available for those who book in advance and extortionate fares for those who are not in a position to commit themselves to travelling at a particular time.

Of course, having to travel on a pre-booked train means that passengers have to allow generous margins for delays, which effectively wipes out much of the advantage of the shorter journey times that have been achieved with today's faster trains.

Rail travel is in need of a radical re-think.

torsdag 26 november 2009

Compass swings off course

Compass, which describes itself as the think tank for the "Democratic Left", has just come out with a set of proposals for putting the tax system to rights. As this was written by Richard Murphy & Company, the proposals are predictable.

1. Introduce a 50% Income Tax band for gross incomes above £100,000. This raises £4.7 billion compared with the current (2009/10) tax system, or an extra £2.3 billion compared with introducing this band at £150,000 as proposed by the Chancellor.

2. Uncap National Insurance Contributions (NICs) such that they are paid at 11% all the way up the income scale (although pensioners would continue to be exempt); make NICs payable on investment income. This results in further revenue of £9.1 billion.

3. In addition to (1) above, introduce minimum tax rates of 40% and 50% on incomes of above £100,000 and £150,000 respectively; these raise an additional £14.9 billion.

4. Introduce a special lower tax band of 10% below the poverty line (below £13,500 per annum), while restoring the ‘basic rate’ to 22%. This costs £11.5 billion.

5. Increase the tax payable (higher multipliers) for houses in Council Tax bands E through H (while awaiting a thorough overhaul of property valuation and local authority taxation) raising a further £1.7 billion.

6. Minimise personal and corporate tax avoidance by requiring tax havens to disclose information fully and changing the definition of ‘tax residence’; these two reforms are estimated minimally to yield £10 billion.

7. Introduce a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) at a rate of 0.1%, applicable to all transactions. This would raise a further £4.2 billion.

8. Immediately scrap a number of government spending programmes (including ID cards, Trident, new aircraft carriers, PFI schemes), reforms totalling £15.1 billion.

9. Urge that all current small limited companies be re-registered as limited liability partnerships to simplify their administration and reduce opportunities for tax avoidance.

The proposal to amend the Council Tax is worthwhile as a temporary measure, pending reform of the system, but the other measures would be worse than useless.

Income tax levied at less than 20% is not worth the trouble of administering it that this causes. In fact, multiple rates are generally a nuisance as returns have to be exact. It is better to raise tax thresholds to a minimum based on 35 hours work at the national minimum rate, and then come in at a rate of around 30%, with a higher rate of not more than about 40% for the top 10% of earners. More than this just encourages avoidance.

Too much is raised from income tax. It sounds fair but is not, and is a major cause of job destruction as the burden actually falls on employers. Thus the main victims are people with low qualifications who are effectively locked out of work opportunities. I find it strange that an organisation that claims to be on the left should be promoting a tax system which clobbers the poor and lets the rich - country landowners, for instance - get away with not paying their

Council Tax and the UBR need to be reformed to exclude buildings and improvements, whilst agricultural land should be subject to UBR - that is an elephant in the room. The proportion of revenue raised from property taxes needs to be drastically increased so as to get rid of opportunities for avoidance altogether, then it ceases to be a problem.

There is useful scope for increased taxes on "bads" such as alcohol and tobacco - the former is far too cheap to the point that it is a public health hazard.

To deal with the problem of youth unemployment, it is worth considering putting the under-20s on the same tax code as over-65s, with an NI exemption - the latter is a real job killer.

Naturally, John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network (which is advised by Richard Murphy) has commented approvingly, These people obviously have little interest in thinking more widely about the issue. The tragedy is that the main victims are those whom they affect to be concerned about.

Nobels mardröm

Innan Alfred Nobel dog fick han en mardröm som handlade om framtiden. Kanske var den en uppenbarelse.

I början såg han en stor öde slätt nästan utan träd. Det verkade vara ändlös. Då fick han se ett litet moln som växte upp över fältet. Molnet blev större och rörde sig hit och dit, utan mål. Då uppträdde ett andra. Och ett tredje. Snart blev luften fylld av rök och nu rörde molnen sig i hans riktning. Han blev så kall och rädd att han började huttra. Sedan hördes ett dundrande ljud som fortsatte i en tid innan det blev tyst. Då dykte det upp en massa svarta tjocka moln som höjde sig mot i himlen. Precis två minuter senare kom ett otroligt högt ljud och en kraftig vind. Bullret fortsatte under en tid, men han visste inte hur lång.

Nu förstår han att fältet är ett slagfält. Hela tiden blir ljudet högre. Plötsligt blåser det så hårt att han kastas ner i gyttjan. Lerklumpar ramlar ner på honom. Nu får han se en massa män springande omkring. Männen är klädde i kakifärgade kläder, stålhjälmar, och klumpiga svarta stövlar. Sedan verkar det om att jorden exploderar. Alla männen kastas högt upp i luften. Kroppar, huvud, armar och ben kommer regnande ner. Där män stod bara få sekunder tidigare finns det nu ett stort, djupt hål i jorden. Blodiga lik med slitna kläder på fyller hålet. Luften överallt är fyllde av svart rök som luktar beskt. Han känner igen lukten. Det luktar dynamit. Nu kommer ett vinande ljud och allt sprängs omkring honom. Sedan blir allt tyst.

Efter en tid känner han att han vaknar ur en dröm. Nu ser han en gestalt som han inte känner igen. Vem är det? Är det Gud? Jesus, kanske? Är det en ängel? Är det hans bror som dog för så många år sedan?

”Förlåt mig, det var mitt fel!”, skriker han gråtande. ”Jag trodde sprängämne var bara en fredlig sak. Man använde dynamit för att bygga vägar, järnvägar, hamnar, gruvor och så vidare. Och ingen vågar använda de kraftigaste vapnen. På sådant sätt kunde vapen garantera fred. Trodde jag. Jag gjorde min förmögenhet genom att sälja vapen och dynamit. Jag har orsakat bara död. Massdöd! Hjälp mig! Vad ska jag göra? Jag är en djävul. Jag är djävulen själv. Jag förtjänar det hårdaste straffet!”

Men gestalten svarade, ”Det var inte ditt fel. Säkert var du lite aningslös, men du avsåg ingen skada. Ondska hände eftersom djävulen kom in i världen. Var försiktig i framtiden men gå i fred.”

torsdag 19 november 2009

Drottning Kristinas sista tanker från Rom

Vilket konstigt liv jag har haft! Det verkade som en lång resa, eller rättare sagt, som många resor samtidigt: en resa från Sverige till Italien; en resa från den Lutherska till den Katolska kyrka; en resa från prinsessa till drottning och från drottning till... jag vet inte! Vad är jag egentligen? Själv kallar jag mig drottning men så är det inte.

Jag har bott i palats i hela mitt liv. I Stockholm var palatset kallt och mörkt. I Rom var palatsen ljusa och vackra i barocka stil. När jag kom fram till Rom tänkte jag försöka bli drottning igen. Jag försökte att bli Napolis drottning, men försöket misslyckades och då hade jag ingen politisk roll.

Men det är inte heller sant. Jag blev vän med två påvar: Alexander VII och Alexander VIII. Jag blev beskyddare till många målare och berömda kompositörer: till exempel de underbara Carissimi, Corelli och Alessandro Scarlatti, som skrev så mycket när de var medlemmar i mitt hov; när Carissimi dog år 1675 blev jag mycket ledsen.

Men trots att livet i Rom var spännande och jag trivdes i stadens kulturella miljö, kunde tiderna bli besvärliga. Aldrig var jag helt nöjd. Ibland längtade jag efter Sverige. Efter en tid verkade livet i hovet vara meningslöst.

Ångrar jag någonting? Jag ångrar inte att jag abdikerade därför att det inte fanns något val. Om man vill bli katolik fanns det heller inget val; det måste man göra. Men när jag bodde i Rom verkade det som om jag slösade bort min tid. Om jag skulle ha fått min tid igen skulle jag har blivit en Karmelitsyster istället. Jag tror att om jag hade gjort det skulle jag har levt ett lyckligare liv. Säkert att vara nunna är lämpligast för en drottning utan något rike. Jag önskar att jag hade fått bättre råd när jag kom fram till Rom. Nu är det för sent och snart kommer jag att dö. Hur kommer jag att bli ihågkommen i framtiden?

tisdag 17 november 2009

Guardian now part of British gutter press

The Guardian has pretensions to being the standard-bearer of the intellectual wing of Britain's press. If this is so, one must ask where the hell the country is heading.

Yesterday it carried an article by a Carrie Quinlan under the title "Vatican to welcome aliens". She writes

'The Catholic church has had a conference about astrobiology. Awesome, say I. I've never heard the term "astrobiology" before, but it is seemingly a way of talking about aliens without sounding like a geek or someone with an unusual relationship to reality. It's one of the paradoxes I enjoy in my brain that I think in all probability there is life on other planets, while at the same time being more than happy to mock anyone who claims to have met it. So, the fact that there's now a much more sciency sounding word one can use to talk about the possibility of Wookiees, Sontarans and Borg is very special. I might be welcome at dinner parties once again.

'I might even be welcome at a Vatican dinner party, which is particularly pleasing – they do, after all, have the best wine. And it'd be really amazing to have a proper conversation about astrobiology and its implications for religion."

The article continues with several hundred words in the same flippant vein, whilst the comments quickly degenerate into the usual anti-Catholic polemic about gays  and condoms.

What a pity it is that the author did not bother to explain how conferences on astrobiology come to be held under the auspices of the Vatican. The Vatican astronomers have been in the forefront of the discipline since the observatory was established at Castelgandolfo in 1582 and run by a group of Jesuit astronomers.
The conference is one of the results of a project that began about thirty years ago as a programme for the systematic mapping of the spectrum of everything in the sky. The Jesuits took it on because it is incredibly tedious, and at the time offered no prospect of results, Nobel prizes or any other return on the effort. No-one else wanted to do it.

As the results were gathered and analysed, it was realised that all sorts of information could be extracted, including the presence of exo-planets (that is, planets orbiting stars other than the sun), the size of these exo-planets, their distance from their parent stars and the composition of their atmospheres, which could indicate the possible presence of life as we know it. All of which is amazing except seemingly to Guardian journalists and their fawning readers who take such pride in their ignorance.

Good journalism seeks to educate and inform. I thought that was the Guardian's particular mission in that regard, a much needed counterweight to the gutter press. This parade of ignorance, proudly displayed in the article and in the vast majority of the readers' comments, most of which are off-topic, leads to the question whether the term "British intellectual" is now an example of an oxymoron? It seems that the Guardian has now become part of the British gutter press.

For what it is worth, here is the article.

Fr Chris Corbally SJ of the VATT team writes,
'The "systematic mapping of the spectrum of everything in the sky" section has the spirit of the NStars work, if the details are not completely accurate. It is not a Vatican Observatory project as such, just my own with colleagues mainly from Appalachian State University, but it does need a spirit of service rather Nobel-prize getting; we are not detecting exo-planets, just finding the better, solar-like candidate host stars. It is possible that a spin-off project, which we are just starting, that of monitoring the cyclic activity of young solar analogues, may also indicate stars more likely to have planets modifying that (chromospheric) activity.'

lördag 14 november 2009

Språk och ojämlikhet i Storbritannien

Under andra världskriget och efter

Under andra världskriget blev förhållandena i Storbritannien en fråga på liv och död. Ingen brydde sig om hur man talade. Men nu var språket påverkat av radion. Den så kallade ”Received Pronounciation” (RP) spridde sig genom sändningarna av BBC. RP bestod av en blandning av överklass, Oxford och Cambridge universitetens socioleketer, och södra Englands stadsspråk. Man kan lyssna på sådana språk i gamla inspelningar. Så småningom adopterade medelklassen den ”RP” brytningen.

Efter kriget verkade det som om klassskillnaderna nästan hade försvunnit. Strax efter krigets slut år 1945 var valet och Storbritannien valde en socialistregering. Jämlikhet blev målet. Barn fortsatte i skolan ett år till och de duktigaste eleverna fick platser på gymnasiet utan avgift. Regeringen drev den brittiska ekonomin enligt keynesianska principer och då följde en period av högkonjunktur som fortsatte till slutet av 1960-talet. Ekonomin blev så bra att många invandrare kom från olika länder. De flesta kom från de dåvarande brittiska kolonierna i Afrika, Karibien och Indien. Nästan alla fick jobb och blev lyckliga men inte särskilt rika. Även om det fanns en ekonomisk kris år 1964 hade Storbritannien en bra ekonomi på 1960-talet. Det verkade som om ojämlikheten hade besegrats.

Återkomsten av ojämlikhet

Men det var bara en fasad. De ”gamla” familjerna äger en stor del av den mest värdefulla marken i Storbritannien. Ursprungligen fick familjerna mark av de svaga, fattiga Tudor och Stuartmonarkerna efter reformationen. Kungen konfiskerade mark som hade tillhört kyrkan och gav den till de mäktigaste riddarfamiljerna så att de inte skulle motsätta sig honom. Fortfarande äger sex av dessa familjer mark som på 1700-talet blev delar av Londons centrum. Familjerna har blivit otroligt rika. Efter kriget gjorde socialistregeringen ingenting åt det här underläggande problemet. Det fanns ingen ursäkt eftersom situationen var välkänd och realistiska förslag hade presenterats för regeringen.

Men människor insåg att keynesiansk ekonomi inte är hållbart i praktiken. Förr eller senare kommer inflation och prisbubblor och sedan kommer en ekonomisk kollaps. Det är precis vad som hände i slutet av 1960-talet: prisbubbla och kollaps 1974. Efter en period av lågkonjunktur valdes Margaret Thatcher i valet 1979. Thatcher drev ”monetarist” ekonomier, liksom Ronald Regan i USA. Socialism skulle komma att dö.

Snart ökade arbetslösheten. Fabriker revs ner och maskinerna såldes ofta till Indien och Kina. Kolgruvorna stängdes. Från geografisk synpunkt blev de tidigast industrialiserade städerna i norra och västra delarna av landet hårdast drabbade: Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, samt gruvdriftsområdena, också i norr, som döptes till ”rostbältet”. Sedan uppfanns en ny industri: rörelse av pengar. Några människor blev mycket rika. På den tiden blev ”loadsamoney” målet.

Hur såg Storbritanniens ekonomi ut i slutet av 1980-talet? Först och främst hade landet blivit beroende av finansiella tjänster. Men det var inte bara finansiella tjänster som lyckades. Tjänster som design, musik, reklam, konsulter lyckades också. Det uppkom en stor skillnad emellan sydöstra England och de andra delarna av landet. De flesta män som jobbade med finansiella tjänster hade inte studerat på de gamla universiteten och talade ofta med en arbetaklass London brytning. Många framgångsrika män och kvinnor som jobbade i musik och modeindustrier hade föräldrar hade invandrat. Storbritannien har verkligen blivit två länder igen.

Hur har språket påverkats av ekonomin? Nuförtiden är regionala dialekter utanför sydöstra England betraktade som dåliga. Några brytningar blev betraktade som roliga, särskilt av ungdomar. Överklassens brytning är fortfarande ett tecken på makt. Och den så kallade ”Received Pronounciation” har ändrats med en inblandning av ”Estuary” engelska – det betyder arbetaklassdialekten öster om London. Jämför drottningens inspelningar nu och för 50 år sedan så kan man höra skillnaden lätt.

Ur en annan synpunkt har ingenting ändrats. I Storbritannien är alla fortfarande genast dömda efter sitt uttal.

lördag 31 oktober 2009

Hacker extradition scandal

The case of the autistic computer hacker whom the Americans are trying to extradite is worrying. The legislation is intended to be used against terrorists, and nobody has even suggested that the man concerned has any terrorist links.

If anyone should be on trial, it is the US military and their computer software consultants responsible for the lapse, and who have evidently failed to maintain the security of their systems.

The British courts should have dismissed the extradition request out of hand. What is going on here?

tisdag 27 oktober 2009

Another Brighton Halloween suggestion

Meet at St Mary Magdalen's Church and go round Brighton saying a decade of the Rosary at selected locations. I suggest the Abortionarium, the various witchcraft shops round the town and the dolphin fountain in the Old Steine.

Disgraceful article by David Milliband

What a disgraceful article David Miliband wrote in The Times yesterday. Under the title "Britain is still a big player. Europe needs us", and speaking in support of Tony Blair's bid for Presidency of the EU, he claimed

Britain is a leading contributor of people and money in tackling the great challenges of the world. Our Armed Forces are trained, equipped and flexible. And we are willing to deploy them in the toughest places. and again Second, British ideas give us influence. During the economic crisis, Britain has been at the forefront of new thinking.

Who in Britain is actually doing this contributing, who exactly is being "deployed", and what is this "new thinking"?

Miliband should take a walk round Brighton and see the grinding poverty in which many people are trapped, as a result of being expected to "contribute". He might also consider deploying himself for a while with the military, to find out how things are at the sharp end and whether their equipment is all that it might be.

He could also usefully to a bit of travelling incognito as an ordinary standard class passenger both in Europe and Britain. He would then notice the astonishing difference between the two, and the shabbiness and poor quality of the infrastructure of this "Big Player".

I cannot even imagine what Britain's new thinking could have been at the forefront of during the economic crisis. Britain's economic policies ensured that the country was as badly placed as it could have been when when the storm hit, and in no small measure actually helped to bring on the storm. This "new thinking" has resulted so far in sterling losing about 25% of its value against other currencies, with nothing to show for it apart from signs that the asset price bubble is starting to blow up again. And it could yet slip out of control and lead to a hyperinflation.

The notion of Britain as a player suggests that international politics is a game. Britain's politicians need to grow up. And their glib use of language needs to stop.

söndag 25 oktober 2009

Suggestion for Halloween in Brighton

How about this for a counter-cultural activity in the most godless city in the UK?

Meet St Mary Magdalen's Church. Process through city to St Nicholas, Christ the King (Clarendon Church), St Bartholomew's, St Joseph's (Elm Grove), St Peter's, then down the Steine and up St James's Street finishing at St John the Baptist, Bristol Road.

It seems to me that it would be a good idea to resist the atheism, and strange spiritualities such as Wicca, Tarot, Crystal energy and other beliefs that are running in this part of the world.

Suggested starting time around 6 pm. Please leave comment if interested.

torsdag 22 oktober 2009

Who needs new Windows?

Windows 7 cannot come too soon. Lots of perfectly serviceable computers will be thrown out and become available for next to nothing if they do not end up as landfill. Computers which run XP will also run a Linux distribution just fine. If all you do is browse the internet, write letters and edit photographs, which is all that most people use computers for and Linux does perfectly well, this is good news. In any case you can run both Windows and Linux on the same computer if you want to and you can even run Windows as a Linux application. Windows can do the fancy things like run Autocad, Linux is good for simple routine tasks or if you want to tinker.

There is no need to get into arguments about which system is best. There are horses for courses, so take your pick. But I get a bit angry when I see people being sold expensive Windows systems when they did not need them and could have mangaged just as well or better with Linux running on an old box under their desk.

BNP adopts Spitfire as icon of Britain

It strikes me as odd that a party with Nazi antecedents should be using Spitfires in its advertising. Spitfires were used against the Nazis, not by them. Surely the BNP should be showing Messerschmitt 109s?

måndag 19 oktober 2009

En invandrares upplevelser i början av 1900-talet

Min mormor och morfar var invandrare. De flyttade till Storbritannien i början av 1900-talet. Min mormor kom från Estlands huvudstad Tallinn och min morfar från Babruisk som ligger nära Minsk i nuvarande Vitryssland. På den tiden var både Estland och Vitryssland en del av det Ryska kejsardömet, liksom Finland. Min mormor hade studerat till lärare vid Tartus universitetet och hon undervisade i musik och kanske språk. Hennes modersmål var antagligen tyska och hon kunde ryska, och judiska, hebriska, estniska. Sådan språkkunskap var inte ovanlig. På den tiden var tyska och ryska de gemensamma språken. Hon hade avslutat sina studier 1895 och förresten, på den tiden hette Tallinn Reval och Tartu Dorpat. Det verkar som om hon blev privatlärare. Hennes släkt var affärsmän som handlade med pälsar och som blev mycket rika.

Med min morfar var det helt annorlunda. Han hade många syskon och familjen var fattig. De flesta syskonen flyttade till USA men av en slump hamnade min morfar i London. Kanske hade han blivit lurad. Omkring 1900 kom min mormor till London för att hälsa på sin syster. Hon träffade min morfar och snart gifte de sig. Det var ett beslut som min mormor alltid ångrade. I början kunde hon inte engelska. Familjen var alltid fattig. Hon tyckte inte om sina engelska grannar som var hotande och ofta fulla. De fick två flickor och då kom första världskriget.

Det verkar att, som flicka, var min moder mycket medveten. De flesta flickorna i klassen var också invandrares barn och talade engelska med en märkbar brytning, en blandning av det judiska språket och arbetaklassdialekt. På något sätt – vem vet hur – visste min moder att det var viktigt att tala engelska med överklassbrytning. Hur kunde man lära sig det? Det var ingen gåta. Det behövdes bara att hon lyssnade noggrant till läraren och sedan kopierade exakt. Och det gjorde hon. Hennes klasskompisar såg ner på henne men hon brydde sig inte.

Hon slutade skolan när hon fyllde 14 år, blev lärling på en hattfabrik och när hon var färdigutbildad etablerade hon sin egen affär. Snart blev hennes affär mycket lyckligt. Men hennes mor blev obotligt sjuk och min moder tvingades att stanna hemma för att ta hand om henne. Efter min mormors död var det omöjligt att börja igen med hattaffären eftersom då, som nu, var det lågkonjunktur: det så kallade hungriga trettiotalet. Vad hände då? Hon gick till kvällskolan och lärde sig att skriva maskin. Nu blev hennes överklassbrytning verkligen till nytta för henne, eftersom hon kunde jobba som sekreterare till exempel, på myndigheterna eller på något stort bolag. Om hon inte hade lyssnat noggrant till sin lärare skulle livet ha blivit helt annorlunda. Med arbetasklassbrytning kunde män och kvinnor bara få något tråkigt jobb i någon fabrik och bara dålig lön.

söndag 18 oktober 2009

Turning towards the Lord

Whilst the sanctuary floor is up this week, our temporary altar has had to be placed where is was not possible to say Mass except in the traditional position ie facing east. Our parish priest, Fr Blake, explained this and reminded everyone that this is how Mass was said for all but the past few decades of the church's history. This shows the elevation of the Host.

When the floor has been put back the altar will be placed in a more permanent position. Many people in the parish would like to see it go, as soon as possible, in what must surely be its ultimate location - where it was originally, against the reredos. That means it will no longer be possible for Mass to be said facing the people, but there is a growing preference for it to be said as in the photograph. It gets rid of the them-and-us feeling created when the priest and congregation are facing each other across a block of stone, for all the world like a terrified junior in front of the boss behind his desk.

Of course, it could turn out to be impracticable to put the altar anywhere else but in its original position, which would resolve the question nicely.

lördag 17 oktober 2009

Migration to Windows 7

If you are interesting in migrating to Windows 7, this article in the Financial Times might be of interest.

On the other hand, you might find it so daunting as to conclude it wasn't worth the effort, and you could decide that it was easier to go out and buy a new computer. However, you probably don't need to waste your time and money at all, let alone throw away a perfectly good computer.

If you are running XP, then your present computer will run the latest versions of Linux without trouble, though it helps to put in extra memory. 2GB is good, 512MB can be a strain especially if you are using it to edit photographs.

What to do? First, save your data - photographs, word-processing documents, etc, also your email addresses. These can go on CDs, DVDs or USB memory sticks. Then download a copy of the live-CD version of a Linux distribution and burn a CD. The various versions of SuSE and Ubuntu are good and you can try all them first without altering your computer. In fact, you need never load them on to your computer if you don't want to.

When you have found one you like, install it. Ideally, you will divide the disk into partitions, with separate partitions for swap (a sort of temporary notepad that the programmes use), "/" (which means root, where all the programmes go), and "/home", which is where your own files go. The root partition should be at least 10GB, preferably 25GB. The advantage of doing this is you can regularly do "clean installations" without having to wipe your valuable data, which, being on the /home partition, is undisturbed by any changes. A good option for desktop and tower systems is to fit an extra disk drive and put the Linux system on that instead. That way, your Windows system remains unchanged and you can continue to use it.

The installation process loads the entire operating system and applications at one go, since they are all included on the disk or downloaded from the internet. Installation disks, activation codes, number keys and all the other troublesome things that go with using proprietary software will then become a thing of the past for you.

onsdag 14 oktober 2009

Relics row continues

The visit of the relics of St Theresa of Lisieux continue to provoke anti-Catholic articles and comments. There was yet another on the subject in today's Guardian, with a string of mostly approving comments. Much of this is just Britain's Calvinist legacy on display - good old Paisleyite prejudice dressed up as liberalism. It is strange how a few old bones can get people's backs up so much, especially with those who affect disbelief. If it is such a load of nonsense, why not ignore it? Instead, these people just give it the publicity which presumably they believe it does not deserve, thereby helping the cult to serve its intended purpose.

As a Catholic who does not do relics and was never particularly keen on St Theresa's style of spirituality, I had no intention of going to visit them, but thanks to all the comment in the British press, such as the above article, I changed my mind and went to Aylesford where she was on display last weekend. Contrary to my expectations, I found the event worth while and a good sermon was preached which you can listen to here

What can be seen looks like a scaled-down mausoleum - say about 1:50 - with a barrel roof and fish-scale roof slates made out of some veneer, in the late nineteenth century French chateau style - a fine piece of craftsmanship, protected these days by a perspex cover. It is in effect a portable shrine. A full-sized version would look quite impressive on a low mound in a spacious park setting.

Many saints have a following and people like to visit their shrines. There are usually a few pilgrims around St Brigit at Vadstena in Protestant Sweden, where even King Gustav Vasa did not dare to get rid of her. Funny, the Swedes don't seem to make the kind of fuss, probably because Calvin never had much of an influence in Lutheran Scandinavia and they don't get so worked up. It is always good to know where one's prejudices come from, but thanks for the publicity anyway.

The Haj starts on 25 November so presumably we can look forward to a spate of articles about people flying thousands of miles to worship a lump of rock thought to be a meteorite. The response should be interesting.

måndag 12 oktober 2009

EU needs constructive criticism

It is a poor argument on the part of the Euromaniacs to label sceptics as unprogressive and Little Englanders, as they so often do. As someone who spends much of my time outside the UK, I can hardly be considered a Little Englander and as a beneficiary of the freedom of movement and residence that comes with EU membership, the last thing I would want is a break-up.

However, it does not help to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of the organisation as at present functioning. There is a democratic deficit. Legislation, often ill-considered, is churned out, some of which can only be implemented at considerable expense and to little gain, or is positively counter-productive. Its protectionist trade policies work in the interests of the big trade cartels which have the resources to lobby at Brussels and Strasbourg, and against the interests of consumers. It has failed to devise an effective policy to protect fish stocks, despite ample scientific advice which would have enabled it to devise a workable strategy. And the Common Agricultural Policy is nothing but an expensive scam.

The benefits from infrastructure projects simply end up in the pockets of landowners in the areas that gain, since they just lead to an increase in rents and land prices. And the huge resources that were put into the Republic of Ireland merely generated a monster land price bubble, followed by a disastrous implosion.The EU is in need of constructive criticism instead of the uncritical support it gets from the Euromaniacs.

söndag 4 oktober 2009

Tories will force jobless into work

"Tories would force jobless to work". So ran the Sunday Times headline today. The policy was tried in the 1980s. I saw this from the inside. I was working for Lewisham Council and my colleage was involved in a scheme for refurbishing the railway arches in Deptford. A worthwhile job got done and a few people acquire useful skills. But it was an administrative nightmare. The client, British Rail Property Board, concluded that the work could have been achieved much more cheaply by letting the work out to contract on a commercial basis, which was what happened with later phases of the project. Cameron is spouting nonsensical political rhetoric.

So what should the Tories be proposing? Get out a pocket calculator, pencil and paper. How much would someone get in benefit when out of work? Jobseeker's allowance, Housing Benefit and all the other things that come free. Now work out how much it would cost an employer to give the same person a job and leave them with the same amount, and that is before the person has to pay the extra costs incurred in going to work, such as travel and meals out.

There is a big difference between the two figures. This used to be called the tax wedge but people who ought to know about it appear to have forgotten, including all the country's politicians and media commentators.

But if the aim is to minimise unemployment, the first thing to do is to get rid of the tax wedge by raising the thresholds for PAYE and Employers' and Employees' National Insurance contributions. Which does not have the headline-catching appeal of "force the jobless off their arses" but is actually one of the things that absolutely needs to be done.

Irish say yes to EU "treaty"

Pity the Irish didn’t have the guts to say NO. And NO again, each time the politicos asked for a YES. The EU provides a forum where only the rich and powerful can exert effective influence.

Who has actually read this treaty and understood the full implications of what is contained therein?

In the remote event that the British government were to introduce a tax on the rental value of land, the Duke of Pestminster and his pals would no doubt appeal to the European court that their human rights were being infringed upon, and the tax would be ruled unjust, and overturned.

fredag 18 september 2009

Västtrafikens nya kontokort

Västtrafikens nya kontokort är jobbiga. Problemet händer om man reser mellan zoner och måste checka ut vid avstigning.

Idag åkte jag från Korsvägen till Burö och bara glömde att checka ut. Mina tänker var på någonting helt annat. På väg tillbacka var det helt omölijligt att checka ut därför att spårvagnen var absolut fullsatt och en tjej stod framför maskinen och kramade den!

Västtrafik kommer att förlora mycket pengar pga det nya systemet, inte bara genom fusk men eftersom systemet är opraktisk.

Kanske finns det en enkel lösning. Jag haft hört att i Hong Kong används sensorer som kan läsa kort utan att man måste dra ut kort ur ens ficka. Sensorerna verkar likadana som används i affärar som skydd mot tjuvar.

Windows 7 coming soon - advice to students.

Windows 7 is due out on Oct 22. It is pricey, with several versions to choose from, the cheapest being crippleware. There is a cut-price offer for students which Microsoft said was ideal for those students who couldn't afford to buy a new PC with Windows 7 pre-installed, but still wanted access to the latest cutting-edge tools and software.

Computer users upgrading from Vista to Windows 7 will have to pay £79.99 for the Home Premium edition, £189.99 for the Professional edition, or £199.99 for the Ultimate edition. Those still running earlier platforms, such as Windows XP, will have to perform a clean install, and will need a full retail copy of Windows 7, which will cost £149.99 for the Home edition, £219.99 for the Professional edition, and £229.99 for the Ultimate package. All copies are single-license, meaning they can only be installed on one computer.

Students - resist the temptation
This is a temptation students would be well-advised to resist. I have just done some Linux installs. One was on a 1.6 Celeron with 512 Meg RAM. SuSE 11.1 with KDE was a bit sluggish so we increased the RAM to 2GB and that works nicely now. The other was on a ten-year-old 500 Mg Pentium III with 384 Meg RAM, running Windows 98. Ubuntu 8.10 would not run from the live CD. Puppy Linux ran but there are limited disc partition options. Mepis run but looked a bit heavy. An install of Xubuntu was successful but the screen resolution is limited to 600 x 800 due to a bug, which will not be be sorted out until next time round. Also it did not have Open Office. Finally I installed SuSE 11.1 with Gnome from the live CD. The 3G broadband worked perfectly and instantly, possibly because I had installed the huawei E220 driver for which the rpm can be downloaded. But it is a bit sluggish and would run better with one of the lighter windows managers, however, the lighter windows managers do not appear to have easy access to the 3G network drivers. Still, it has resuscitated an old PC which would have been thrown out. I shall try to get some more memory which should help things - there is space for 768 Meg on the board.

Moral: Don't be tempted by the offer of cheap software. If you are a hard-up student, try and cadge an old computer - anything less than seven years old will do nicely, put in as much memory as it will take and install the Linux operating system with Open Source applications on it. You will also gain the benefit of an opportunity to find out how computers work. You will also avoid wasting time installing separate applications as they are all included on the one distribution disc, and you will also be spared the trouble registering and typing in all those 25-digit security codes.

If you are after leading-edge software, then you definitely need to follow the Linux-Open Source route in any case. Proprietary software is for those OAPs who are technologically illiterate.

torsdag 10 september 2009

I'll never understand economics...

I often hear this from my fellow Catholics. It is just not good enough. If you look at the encyclical Caritas in Veritatis, it is evident that the Catholic laity have a clear duty to attempt to understand the truth about economics.

Economics as taught in academic institutions is mostly a load of baloney and if you have reasonably normal thinking capacities you should not expect to be able to understand it.

The entire subject of economics has been surrounded by a fog of confusion for the past 100 years. If you are a conspiracy theorist you should be able to find good reasons why it is in some people's interest to ensure that confusion prevails amongst the populace. And that is the underlying reason for the present mess. Economic theory as presented by the so-called experts, including most politicians and journalists, is a crock of shit.

Anyhow, there is no reason why any person of average intelligence should not be able to understand economics and there is no excuse. There is material out there which explains quite clearly how the system works.

A good place to start is Progress and Poverty by Henry George which can be downloaded from the internet. A more recent though slightly technical exposition is A New Model of the Economy by Brian Hodgkinson. There are also courses run by the School of Economic Science at various centres round the country, including London, Croydon and Brighton.

In my experience, Christians in general and Catholics in particular seem content to feed the hungry and never bother to ask why there are hungry people when there is plenty of food around, or dismiss it as "a consequence of sin". If one does not bother to look beyond that glib answer then one is part of the sin.

torsdag 3 september 2009

Bekväma och obekväma tåg

Som britannisk, log jag när jag läste artikeln i Tåg (juli 2009) ”Dags för nya personvagnar” och kommentaren ”komforten når sin smärtgräns”. I Storbritannien kan personvagnarnas korgbredd inte vara mer än 2.82 meter och då måste vagnens längd vara som mest 20 meter. Om vagnarnas längd är till exempel 23 meter, då måste korgbredd vara minskad till 2.74 meter. 20 meter långa personvagnar används för pendeltåg och brukar ha fem platser i bredd, men på pendeltåg får man sitta till och med 2 timmar. Samtidigt i nya fjärrtågsvagnar som Pendolino och Voyager, samt ombyggda mark 3 är stolavståndet mindre än 90 cm. Sådana tåg når verkligen smärtgränsen!

I jämförelse är SJs vagnar som B7, B4 och B2 (ovan), även Regina, mycket lyxiga. Korrugerade ytor spelar ingen roll när man sitter inne i tåget. Dessutom ser dessa mer funktionella ut och vagnarna bli starkare för likadan vikt. Enligt min åsikt finns det bara två klagomål: brist av rum för stora väskor bredvid, eller under, sittplatserna, och att så kallade fönsterplatser som inte får ett fönster bredvid. Då kan man inte titta på landskapet men istället får man se bara plast. En fönsterplats bör betyda just det.

Artikeln handlade om stigande kostnader per sittplats. Det är ett internationellt fenomen. Nya personvagnar innehåller osynliga högtekniska utrustningar som är nödvändiga för säkerheten och nuvarande tågs högre hastighet.

Hur kan kostnaden minskas? 70-tals personvagnar som mark 3 är fortfarande välbevarade och det verkar som om de kan rulla minst 30 år till. Antagligen kan man säga likadant om SJs vagnar som byggdes samtidigt. Sådana vagnar kan renoveras för ett relativt billigt pris – typiskt mellan 25% och 35% i jämförelse med nya vagnar, beroende på specificering. Arbetet kan bestå bara av ny inredning eller någonting mer ambitiöst: ny luftkonditionering, nya boggier, stolar, osv. Då kan vagnarna ser nya ut och bli minst lika bekväma som nya vagnar därför att det inte är nödvändigt att packa i så många resenärer som möjligt. Dessa vagnar kan förstås aldrig bli handikappvänliga och nya vagnar behövs också. Men resurserna är begränsade och bör inte slösas genom att skrota personvagnar som kan gå i många år till.

Ricardo’s Law in brief