söndag 29 augusti 2010

A little adventure

Got stuck in a lift yesterday and had to be rescued by the fire brigade. There were six of us and though there was a notice saying "maximum load 6 people or 500 kg", the lift started and then stranded us between floors, with the LED display saying "excessive load". As I weigh less than 60kg and the heaviest was 90kg, I can't see how we could have exceed the limit, and there ought to be a margin of error anyway. We were there for 45 minutes.

This was a good team-building exercise and funny in retrospect but if there was an emergency door-opener and a short ladder inside the lift, it would not have been necessary to call the fire brigade at all, at considerable expense to someone.

måndag 23 augusti 2010

Fertility treatment madness

Britain's fertility regulator is planning big changes to the strict rules governing egg and sperm donation in order to try to stop more childless couples from seeking treatment abroad.

The sweeping liberalisation would see the most significant shift in policy governing sperm and egg donation since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was established. The changes could see the amount paid to women who donate eggs rise from £250 to several thousand pounds – but experts have warned the move would see women donating eggs purely for money.

Donated sperm could also be used to start as many as 20 families rather than the current limit of 10, despite fears such a move would increase the risk of half-siblings unwittingly marrying or having children together

The madness is that each year in Britain, hundreds of thousands of perfectly healthy embryos are lost through abortion. Why can't the NHS get its act together and arrange for pregnant mothers who cannot bring up their children can have them adopted by couples who want children but can't have them?

This would solve two problems at once and save a small fortune. And not only that. These procedures are risky and the children produced by these artificial interventions can have lifelong health problems.

Confirmation day in Gothenberg

It was confirmation day at Kristus Konungen Catholic Church in Gothenberg yesterday. Bishop Arborelius came to confirm what seemed like a huge mass of young people - I didn't count them but they must have been at least thirty. The church was very over-full, which these days can not be a cause of complaint.

Services with a bishop present are a demanding test for the altar servers. The parish has a very competent team who rose to the occasion, and all went off smoothly, so congratulations all round.

lördag 21 augusti 2010

Seat comfort and design

Despite decades of collecting ergonomic data, seat design on public transport is as erratic as ever. The most comfortable train seat I have ever sat in was in a second class compartment in a carriage built for the North London Railway in the mid-1860s. This was a bizarre shape - the back of the seat had a cross section like half a pear. Which meant that it provided good lumbar support. I have sat in uncomfortable seats in first class inter-city trains, and comfortable seats, like the one illustrated, on commuter trains.

The key things to get right are lumbar support ie of the lower back, and the angle of the cushion, which should slope slightly from front to rear. If lumbar support is absent, a rolled-up sweater will provide it. Once these two things are correct, the spine will adopt the correct position.

Seats in British Railways mark 1 stock were mostly on the sloppy side, exept for the last of the type, introduced in the 1970s. Much research went into the seats on mark 2 stock, and these felt odd at first but one noticed the benefit at the end of a long journey. Unfortunately, the designers went and spoilt the things with headrest wings which were hideously uncomfortable for people with long torsos.

More recently, seats are something of a lottery. Southern's class 377 stock has excellent seats in some of the vehicles whilst others in the same 4-car unit are exactly wrong, with a horizontal cushion.

Most train seats these days are curved in both directions, like car seats, to provide lateral support when cornering, but this makes them difficult to upholster. Trains do not go round corners so fast that lateral support is needed, and bench seats with a correct cross section are all that is required.

The need to provide lumbar support coincides conveniently with the need to provide room for luggage between seat backs, as the curvature needed for the former creates space for the latter. An excellent example is the class 180 Adelante (below).

The fashion for unidirectional (airline style) seating in trains ought to be questioned. A few more seats can be fitted in, but at the cost of luggage space. A further drawback is that the upper edge of the seat back is unsupported, which means that the seats need a much heavier frame than if they were designed to be back-to-back or fixed to a bulkhead, and even then are liable to uncomfortable resonant vibration. With seventy or eighty seats in the average rail vehicle, this must add a substantial weight penalty.

The subject needs to be looked into.

tisdag 17 augusti 2010

Never mind the gap

Never mind the gap, originally uploaded by seadipper.

Retractable steps are standard on modern Swedish trains. This one slides out from under the floor. This probably pays for itself because people get on and off quicker and it presumably prevents accidents.

måndag 16 augusti 2010

The growing menace of Anarcho-Capitalism

The actions of the Cameron government are best understood when one recognises that the driving force in contemporary political economy is Anarcho-Capitalism, A-C and nobody seems to have noticed. The beast needs to be named and revealed in the light.

Its High Priests are David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Bruce L. Benson, etc, drawing on recent sources such as Ayn Rand and much earlier ones including John Locke.

The mark of an A-C advocate is their assertion that all taxation is theft and deification of "the market." "There is no such thing as society comes" from the same stream of thought.

A-C notions are cropping up regularly in discussion groups such as the Guardian's Comment is Free, though probably most of those who are spouting them have no idea of their origins.

The left has no answer to this which is why A-C is making the intellectual running at the moment and will continue to do do. It is very dangerous nonsense because it is grounded, partially, on familiar experience which makes it superficially plausible.

The underlying fallacy of A-C is that it accepts John Locke's flawed theory of the origin of property rights. Since the left in general has no coherent theory of property rights to pose as an alternative, it is defenceless in the face of this onslaught. The alternative notion "All property is theft" does not stand as it is so obviously flawed.

The only plausible arguments against A-C is the set of ideas put forward by Henry George in the nineteenth century. Better get familiar with them or A-C will take us over and society will be smashed to smithereens.

Time for a new Papal encyclical methinks.


The Traditional Latin Mass (again)

I attended a Tridentine Mass this afternoon. Latin for the mass and readings, Swedish for the sermon. I was not in the most attentive of moods, I never am at that time of day, in fact I was pretty dozy and the effort of maintaining attention consumed more than my available energy. I did not really have much to bring to this particular party.

The ceremonial was down to the bare bones, with no singing. However, even in these circumstances, it clearly does provide a more intense experience. Something special really is going on here. Objectively. I don't think it is my imagination.

onsdag 11 augusti 2010

A Catholic success story

St. Aloysius, the Oxford Catholic parish church for the centre of Oxford, is now served by the Congregation of the Oratory.

It was originally a Jesuit parish, and the building, designed by J A Hansom, was completed in 1875. In the 1980s, the parish was taken over by the Archdiocese of Birmingham, and in 1990 the Archbishop of Birmingham invited members of the Birmingham Oratory to run the parish and found a new Oratorian community. In 1993, the Oxford Oratory was established as an independent Congregation.

Since then, the congregation has built on the Oratorian tradition of fine liturgy, with the Sunday Solemn High Mass as its centrepiece, and in this way has built up a vigorous parish life.

Language and music in the liturgy

Over the last few months I have come across a variety of languages in the liturgy. In England, I have encountered the new ICEL translation, which is soon to become mandatory, replacing the rather free interpretation dating from the late 1960s. An accurate translation of the definitive Latin text, it has a slightly antiquated style and I wonder how it will go down. Published with it have been the recommended musical settings, which we tried for a few weeks. We found that the notes do not fall naturally with the rhythm of the words and trip one up all the time. Someone familiar with the Gregorian chants needs to re-work the settings so make them easier to sing. It does not help either, that they were written out in modern notation instead of the four-line Gregorian notation, which is easier for inexperienced musicians to sing.

Then I have been in Sweden, where the most commonly-heard phrase seems to be "what did you say?" About one-third of what is written is never voiced, and with wide variations in dialect, it is notoriously difficult to hear what is being said. The difficulty is compounded with a high proportion of clergy who have come from other countries. It is possible to speak the language with grammatical perfection and not be understood.

In Sweden, mass is often celebrated in other languages, usually for national or other groups. Thus there are liturgies in Polish, Croatian, Aramaic (in the Chaldean rite), and English, mostly for visiting students from former British countries. A Polish one I attended was a particularly moving experience on account of the the piety of the celebration and the quality of the music, even though I understood not a word. Then there was the celebration of a mass in Swedish with (excellent) newly composed musical settings to the Italian text. I came across a mass in German, celebrated by a German bishop, which I passed up on, and a friend of mine, a priest, is soon going to be visiting but has only been taught to say the mass in English, so he will be concelebrating in silence, if at all.

I also made a visit to Riga, where I attended a mass in Latvian, and again, despite not understanding a word, this was a moving experience due to the piety of the celebration, helped also by the fact that it was in a medieval building where mass has been celebrated for the best part of a millenium.

What is one to make of all this? On the one hand, having liturgies in the languages of national communities is an encouragement to members of those communities to remain in contact with the church, which provides an important point of focus. On the other hand, the end result is that parishes become divided into national sub-communities who rarely get to meet each other, and to that extent it is divisive.

With the benefit of hindsight, it could be argued that the normal celebration of mass in the vernacular was unfortunate. It seems not to have been the intention of Vatican II, since the official document states only that mass "may" be celebrated in the vernacular, with the implication that it was a departure from the norm, which would for the mass to continue to be celebrated in Latin.

In the spirit of the liturgy
But we are where we are and Latin is not going to become the norm again, at least not for a very long time. So what could be done? It would be beneficial if clergy, particularly seminarians, with the encouragement of the bishops, were encouraged to learn the Latin mass in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms, and to say it more frequently. Another option would be for the priest to recite the Canon of the mass in his own language, but silently, whilst the congregation follow it in the missal, also in their own language. This would follow from a suggestion made by Cardinal Ratzinger in his book "The Spirit of the Liturgy". The dialogues and Ordinary, together with the readings and any hymns, would then be either in the local vernacular or, preferably in the case of the Ordinary, in Latin.

It would also be beneficial if members of both immigrant and native communities were encouraged to attend these masses together and to share in their social activities. This is a two-way thing.

There is also work to be done in the schools, in particular, the teaching of the simpler Gregorian chants, which are well within the ability of schoolchildren.

Humpty-Dumpty is not going to be put back together again but something more coherent might be made of the pieces.

fredag 6 augusti 2010

Wikileaks from Sweden

I assume that whoever sprang the latest Wikileaks was making use of the Swedish freedom of information laws, which were introduced by an eighteenth century king (Gustav III, if I remember correctly), following a series of corruption scandals.

I hope the US is not going to declare war on us for promoting terror.

M Therese Henderson and Jocelyn Belamide

M Therese Henderson and Jocelyn Belamide are two young composers who work together and have been making a valuable contribution to the music of the Catholic church. Little of the liturgical music from the 1970s and 80s will be of lasting value, but this collaboration is something else and it is encouraging to know that there are still composers around who can produce good quality liturgical music.

We had a visiting choir from Italy this week, with a very patient choir master who taught some of us a Mass and some other music by these composers, including a beautiful setting of the Panis Angelicus which was not at all difficult to learn.

However, it seems that most of their work has been in Italy and the settings we sang were in Italian.

They deserve a wider audience. I hope that in due course they will set their music to the Latin texts if they have not already done so, and possibly also write settings for the new English translations. If set in Latin, the music would work well with the Gregorian chant settings of the Propers and could be used for Extraordinary Form celebrations of the Mass.

onsdag 4 augusti 2010

A matter of taste?

Primiz blessing, originally uploaded by [f as in...].

In a previous blog I was taken to task for expressing my dislike of the Catholic cathedral in Stockholm. My critic suggested that it was just a matter of taste.

The cathedral consists of a late nineteenth century red brick building in the Gothic revival style, with an extension constructed in 1983. The latter, which stands in the space formerly occupied by the original sanctuary, is a rectangular space, with facing brickwork inside, and a flat ceiling of gilded hexagons. It is a typical building of its time, which is part of the problem: it now looks thoroughly dated. Expressing the ideals of the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council, it now just seems as much of its time as a pop music hit from the same period. It is barely adequate in the light of the reappraisal of the Council that has been going on for the past decade, and in particular since the election of the present Pope.

But is church architecture just a matter of taste? A church is the setting for the divine liturgy, and its purpose is to point to that which lies beyond the material world. It is unfortunately the case that architects schooled in what is still referred to as the "Modern Movement", though it is now more than fifty years since it reached its zenith, are particularly poorly equipped to the challenge of designing buildings with a religious function, because the Modern Movement was founded on the rationalist ideal.

Worse still, there is the whole question of architecture as symbol. The built environment functions as a symbol system, analogous to a language. Certain combinations of sound have no absolute meaning but by convention, within a language, they mean one thing and not another. These meanings are not a matter of individual opinion. So it is with buildings. Here we are dealing with a symbol system that has evolved over two millenia. A structure that looks as if it could be a suburban railway station is unlikely to function well as a church.

tisdag 3 augusti 2010

Important Inter City Express documents

Although the Inter City Express programme has been cancelled, these two documents contain much useful information relevant to future rolling stock design in general. They address, amongst other things, many of the shortcomings of trains such as the Pendolino, generally considered to be Britain's most unpopular train.

On the other hand, they reveal the extent of the mission creep which seems to be a feature of so many UK government projects. There seems to be a failure to appreciate the difference between what is important and what is merely nice to have. Is it really necessary to have passenger counters, or power points at every seat. There has also been a tendency to specify in details matters that might be better left to the designers resolve. Is it necessary to have a toilet in every vehicle, provided that there are enough of them overall and that they are reliable? Modern train toilets are complicated and have ancillary equipment which is needed regardless of the number in a vehicle. It might be more cost-effective to provide some vehicles with two or more toilets, whilst others have none.

These specifications need to be gone through carefully to ensure that design solutions are not unduly constrained, possibly leading to better alternatives being blocked.

Technical Specification for Inter City Express programme
Inter City Express Programme - invitation to tender

Ricardo’s Law in brief