måndag 27 september 2010

Israel settler moratorium ends

As a supporter of Israel, I despair at times.

I was sorry to see that the moratorium on settlement in the West Bank was allowed to run out. I have no great expectations of the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, nor of the Palestinians' ability to run a peaceful and stable state. But the Israelis need to be careful not to put themselves in the wrong. The moratorium should have been extended and the Israeli government should have had the courage to stand up to any opposition.

It seems that the settlers are mostly "orthodox" Jews from the USA and it would not be unreasonable to describe them as religious fanatics, with much in common with the US Protestant Christian religious right. This kind of worship of land has nothing to do with traditional orthodox Judaism as it has been understood for the past 2000 years. It is little more than a pernicious and dangerous form of idolatory.

lördag 25 september 2010

Palestine - how the occupation began in 1967

Most people alive today where not even born when the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. Too much comment is made without an understanding of the background.After 1948, the Gaza area of Palestine was annexed by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan. This was the situation until 1967.

After the 1956 war, a contingent of United Nations troops was placed in Gaza, in a buffer zone between Egyptian and Israeli territory. In the early part of 1967, the Egyptians built up a concentration of military forces in Gaza and then asked the UN force to leave. The aim was an invasion of Israel. Considerations of sheer numbers made it certain that the Israelis would be wiped out, with an invasion from the Jordanian side to deliver the final blow. It is said that there was some kind of agreement made with the Jordanians that they would not attack Israel, the rationale being that the Jordanians were not keen on the idea of a Palestinian state as neighbours, and the Israelis were not keen on fighting a war on two fronts.

In the event, the Israelis knocked out the Egyptian forces through an attack on Egyptian airfields, leaving them with air superiority, and the Egyptians were quickly routed. The Jordanians attacked nevertheless even before the Egyptian defeat, and were also defeated.

The end result was that Israel ended up in control of the whole of the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai peninsula. Initially, the occupation was as peaceful and benign as any occupation can be. The Israelis were anxious to talk to representatives of the Palestinians and get themselves out. Unfortunately, no Palestinian representative with any authority emerged. The leadership eventually coalesced around Yasser Arafat and his terrorist group Al Fatah - who began their career with a series of aircraft hi-jackings. They refused to actually talk to any Israelis as they regarded the country's entire existence as illegitimate. Thus were sown the seeds of the present troubles. It was all unnecessary as the Israelis at that time would have happily departed with a peace agreement in their hands.

From the early 1970s, things changed. Settlers started to move in to the West Bank, leading to conflicts at a local level. And then the Israeli government changed. Since 1948, the Israeli government had been a benign left-leaning social democratic alliance. The 25-year dominance came to an end with the election of the nationalistic Begin government and the rise of hawks like Ariel Sharon. The Palestinians had missed their opportunity.

Even so, the Israelis have not been completely intransigent. Following the 1973 war, there was a final peace treaty with Egypt. The Sinai peninsular was returned and normal diplomatic relations established. But Egypt did not want Gaza and that remains as a problem too.

Israel v Israel

DSC_5763, originally uploaded by abcharlie.

Last night I saw the premiere of a film about Israelis who protest against the occupation of the West Bank. They are a handful of people who are making a brave stand against the Israelis, often at considerable personal risk. The film showed the degrading conditions the Palestinians are having to endure with the constant security checks at an increasing number of barriers where they are caged in whilst they wait to be searched and have their papers examined. And to add to their problems are the settlers, often from the USA, who are stealing land and then abusing the local Arab population - even the young children of orthodox Jews in Hebron are behaving in this way. And then there is the hideous concrete wall.

The trouble is that the Israelis have not done this for no reason at all. The draconian security is largely a response to the suicide bombings that were a regular feature of Israeli life before these measure were introduced.

One difficulty is that the Palestinians have got themselves an image problem. The picture above is iconic of Palestine. One interpretation is that it is a case of David fighting Goliath. But there is another reading, and it is not favourable to the Palestinian cause. Quite the reverse. It is very unflattering. Like Yasser Arafat's constant wearing of an army uniform. It inspires no confidence. It does not suggest the possibility of peaceful intent.

Where does this end? To help in understanding, it is really necessary to go back to the origin of the occupation in 1967. Unfortunately, supporters of the Palestinian cause tend not to do that. And there is also the issue that there seems to be more concern about Palestine than a host of other injustices round the world that receive nowhere near the same amount of attention. Israel is of course a nice assignment for journalists who want to record disturbances. They can live in a nice air-conditioned hotel in conditions of safety that depend on the effectiveness of the very Israeli army whose behaviour they condemn. The film shows how ugly that behaviour can be. It reflects no credit on the Israelis and is immensely damaging to the fabric of Israeli society itself. This is a situation with two sets of rights and wrongs and it is not useful to take sides at all.

torsdag 23 september 2010

Has Fuji filled gap in the camera market?

A few months ago, I wrote that it ought to be possible to produce a camera with a much reduced specification that will do most of the things the Leica M9 will do at a fraction of the price. It would incorporate a bright optical viewfinder like that on the M, but with a simple fixed projected frame. The sensor would be between 20mm and 25mm square and somewhere around 12 to 15 megapixels - no more. The lens would be fixed and wide-angle, with an equivalent focal length of about 30mm and an aperture of f/2.8 or f/2.

It looks as if Fuji has come up with a camera that comes close to this specification, and will presumably be followed by others.

It is not precisely what I was proposing, which was for a square format sensor, and it has power-focussing, which I am not keen on, but it appears to provide most of what I have been looking for in digital cameras. And at a price of well under £2000, it should give Leica something to think about.

tisdag 21 september 2010

Papal and other impressions

The Pope has duly come and gone, and seems from this distance to have made a good impression. The aggressive atheists duly made their protest and seem to have made little impression at all. But what kind of impression is the Catholic church as such making?

We have plenty to say about sexual morality, abortion, euthanasia and so on, and we need to because no-one else is making a stand. It sets us well apart from the mainstream secular way of thought in modern Europe. You cannot win a debate about the immorality of abortion with someone who thinks that an embryo is just a blob of jelly. If you argue that the individual comes into existence at the moment of conception, they will look at you with blank incomprehension. Mention of the human soul cuts no ice at all. So this not a useful way to conduct discourse.

Yet adultery, abortion, homosexuality or contraception have consequences that are readily discovered by empirical observation. There is no need to invoke revelation.

Then there is Catholic Social Teaching. The church and scripture have long spoken out against usury. The present financial crisis was the consequence of - usury. Yet who has referred to the connection?

We need to do better in the way we present the teachings of the church. Otherwise we shall just be picked up on our weaknesses.

söndag 19 september 2010

Southern Railway to axe toilets from new train fleet

This headline from the BBC web site is not quite right, as the trains in question are not new but in fact some of the oldest in Britain, dating from 1976. Originally used for local services in London, they are being transferred for South Coast routes, including Brighton to Portsmouth, a ninety minute trip. The trains have no toilets, which is unacceptable but people will just have to accept it.

This is another one of the indications that Britain is turning into a third world country. At one time there were toilets on the stations, but these got vandalised and were closed. There were few complaints as there were toilets on the trains at that time. Putting toiletless trains on a ninety minute run is probably going to cause the train company more trouble than they bargained for as desperate passengers are going to use the gangways between the carriages to satisfy the call of nature.

These use of stock is stupid, because there are trains used on short journeys in the London area, with toilets which are locked permanently out of use. These are the class 456 sets, operated by Southern itself. A bit of judicious shuffling of the fleet would largely solve the problem. If it was not that the railways were so fragmented and new stock is of so many incompatible types, it would also have been possible to shuffle to units around so that trains with toilets, presently used on South West Trains services could be used on the Brighton to Portsmouth run. An alternative would be to transfer the Brighton to Portsmouth service from Southern to South-West trains, as they have more suitable stock.
Story on BBC web site

lördag 18 september 2010

Solar flare threat to transport system

A conference next week will discuss the threat from electromagnetic storms from the sun, which could paralyse high-tech infrastructure. The last such storm was in 1859, and blocked telegraph communication, then in its infancy. But the low-technology systems then in use were little affected.

Electromagnetic storms are caused by solar flares but similar damage can be caused by electromagnetic pulses from nuclear explosions. Most affected will be - it is only a matter of time before this happens - extended power lines such as the electricity grid, and satellites and the systems that depend on them, including GPS. But the disruption could potentially be far more widespread, as heavy current surges in the grid would damage switchgear and transformers, and it could take years to get everything back into service.

The most vulnerable services are the pumps that keep the water supply and sewage systems running. Failure would quickly lead to flooding, contamination and outbreaks of disease. Electrical transport systems would come to a standstill, with the failure of both traction supplies and signalling.

The question that must be asked is whether we have made ourselves too dependent on high technology and what can be done to reduce our vulnerability?

Aggressive atheism at large in Britain

The Pope, on the first day of his visit to Britain, has warned of an aggressive atheism, and in particular, anti-Catholic emotion, at large in the country. That is certainly my impression. I have noticed this even with old friends. But if one is any doubt, take a look at the comments in the Guardian's Comment is Free page. There is plenty to criticise the Catholic church about, and anger is by no means out of place, but there is a crude, ugly and vicious tone to what is being written which suggests that something else is going on in the country.

Britain is, of course in a bad way, with the public finances in a dire condition. That itself points to moral bankruptcy, since it indicates that politicians have been offering the voters goodies without regard to the cost, and that the electorate have failed to question how they are to be paid for.

And underneath that has grown up a culture whereby people think they can make a packet by scrambling onto the housing ladder, thereby playing the land value game. But it was a game that could only ever be played for a few decades. Moral bankruptcy has brought about actual bankruptcy. Now it is game over.

fredag 17 september 2010

Cardinal Kasper - "Britain Third World"

Cardinal Kasper has been criticised for referring to Britain as a Third World country. In a critical article in the Guardian, Catholic progressive Catharine Pepinster hinted that it verged on the racist.

I don't know what the meaning behind the statement actually was, but in my experience, Kasper was spot-on. I come into the country twice a year, at Harwich. You get overwhelmed by the smell of Jeyes Fluid when you step off the boat, the immigration officials are gratuitously offensive and the trains to London are carefully timed so that you have to wait an hour for the next one. Then one gets onto a cramped and uncomfortable train which is well overcrowded by the time it gets towards London.

Definitely not First World any more.

onsdag 15 september 2010

Swedish train accident on Sunday evening

This accident, with one fatality, appears to have involved a train and a heavy construction vehicle. The exact cause remains to be discovered. According to one report, the train was going too fast past a site where repairs were in progress. However, a union commentator has been critical of the practice whereby work is successively sub-contracted to the point that those actually doing the work are unaware of the correct safe working practices. Does that sound familiar?

In the UK, track maintenance these days is usually done with a complete line possession, the trains being diverted or replaced by buses. Despite all the complaints this leads to, perhaps there is more to be said for the practice.

Trams are good value for money? Or are they?

"Trams are very expensive to install, especially on UK streets. Where ever the track goes, the road has to be dug up and all the services (water, gas, elec, phone) have to be moved 50ft to one one side. For miles."

You are talking about on-street trams. Outside the city centres, most of the mileage of tramways in many European cities is off-street anyway, the same goes for Manchester and Croydon.

The expense of renewing services for on-street tramways must be compared with the alternative of underground railways. Buses can only carry a limited volume of traffic before they become inefficient and cause environmental problems of their own. Cities need tracked electric transport if they are go grow beyond a certain point and still flourish. Stockholm, with a metro, has also supplemented it with a new tramway, the first section of which opened last month.

Many British cities have had, or will soon have, their underground services renewed anyway. If a decision is made to relocate them on the assumption that there might be trams in the future, the additional cost is minimal. Had this decision been made ten years ago in Brighton, for instance, the streets would now have been tram-ready. It is a matter of planning ahead.

It is also the case that many British cities had extensive tramway systems until the 1950s and the services may still be mostly in the right place. Until the information is obtained and collated, nothing can be said with certainty.

In the Edinburgh case, it has been remarked that the utility companies have taken everyone for a ride and got their old pipes and cables renewed at the taxpayers' expense. I don't know how true this is, but it does not sound entirely slanderous.

måndag 13 september 2010

Tea party gathers momentum

The spread of the Tea Party is a manifestation of the beast named ANARCHO-CAPITALISM (A-C).

Its prophets are Ayn Rand, and its high priests are Murray Rothbard, Bruce L. Benson. The economic theory comes from the Austrian School via Chicago, and it is founded on the fallacious theory of property rights put forward by John Locke. This leads them, paradoxically, into the same trap that Marxists fall into - that land and natural resources is a form of capital or nothing other than capital. That particular error makes it impossible to analyse contemporary economic and social problems.

A-C was the guiding principle behind Thatcherism, possibly having entered the political bloodstream via academics at St Andrew's University. Early UK advocates included Keith Joseph, and the principles of A-C underly the utterances of such as John Redwood. In a diluted form it was and remains a strong influence on both Labour and the LibDems. With Marxism discredited, there is nothing much else to draw on at the moment as a source for ideas in political economy. In the UK, the Taxpayers' Alliance is a front for this movement.

The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church (CST) offers the best hope, since it takes the view that both socialism and capitalism are flawed in their different ways. But CST offers no more than a framework of basic principles to work from. There is a job to be done in developing new practical policies.

Station dwell times

Slam door train at night

Station dwell time is the time a train stands at a station while the passengers get on and off. In the days of slam door trains (above), with ten doors on each side of the carriage, this could be less than 20 seconds. This was possible because passengers were well disciplined and closed the doors after them. Circumstances change and some time in the 1960s, the decision was made to replace slam door trains by trains with power-operated doors, a changeover that was finally completed about five years ago. One effect is that station dwell times have become a matter of concern, due to, amongst other things, the operating time of safety devices; for instance, plug doors do not open until 15 seconds after a train has come to a stand. When there are many stops on the route, the extra time builds up.

Commuter trains normally have doors at the 1:3/2:3 positions, which is intended to give better access than the alternative end-door location, but this layout has disadvantages. When bodyshells are designed on the monocoque principle, substantial reinforcement must be provided around door openings part-way along the vehicles. The vehicle itself is divided into three compartments, which restricts the options for seating layouts. It is difficult to provide intermediate doors between the entrance lobbies and the seating areas, which makes extra work for the heating and ventilation system; in the winter, seated passengers are blasted with cold air every time the doors open. Unless station platforms are fairly straight, there can be large gaps between the platform and the train. In some of the earlier designs of train such as the class 313 and 455, loading and unloading was glacially slow until the vehicle layouts were redesigned a few years ago.

Is there scope for improvement? There is a need to study precisely what happens at stations when the trains are in actual service. First, the passengers alight, and then the waiting passengers get on. The delaying factor for alighting passengers seems to be the need to take care stepping down off the train. For boarding passengers, the delay seems to be the time for those already on the train to move down inside the car, so that the queue backs-up on the platform.

If this is the case, the most useful improvements that could be made would appear to be the provision of a larger step-board to close the gap between the platform and the train, and the elimination of pinch-points inside the vehicle. These changes could mean that there are many routes where end-door vehicles could be used instead of the present 1:3/2:3 stock. There are many commuter routes where the original sliding-door fleet is approaching the end of its service life, and could therefore be replaced by newer cascaded stock presently running on longer-distance commuter services where end-door vehicles would be more suitable, provided that attention was paid to the detailed design of the doorways and the space around the entrance areas.

söndag 12 september 2010

Short life expectancy of X2000 trains

An article in Göteborgs Posten recently referred to the growing list of defects occurring on the Swedish X2000 tilting trains (picture in blog title) and predicted that they would be replaced after a relatively short service life.

New trains such as the Regina have better acceleration and bogies which are easier on the track, giving similar journey times without the need for the same top speed and the associated complications of tilting.

There is probably a more effective alternative to premature scrapping. The X2000 trains could be provided with new bogies and the power cars rebuilt or converted to driving trailers. An off-the-peg type of locomotive such as the Bombardier TRAXX would provide the traction. This ought to offer very much better value for money.

torsdag 9 september 2010

Koran burning madness

Mary and Jesus, originally uploaded by bweston23.

The Koran is an unpleasant book. Some authorities have attributed it to an Arian Christian source. Arians were a heretical group of Christians who asserted that God did not become incarnate in Jesus Christ, which is the orthodox Christian doctrine and is one of the reasons for the spread of the image of Jesus as a child in the arms of his mother. Moslems venerate both Jesus and Mary, and follow the same teaching as the Arians on the matter, which suggests that there may be something in the view that there is a connection. In any case, ideas spread.

But essentially, Islam is a religion of the book. In fact, in this respect, it differs not at all from the heretical version of Christianity followed by the mad pastor who wants to burn the Koran. Such an act will actually be counter-productive.

If one wants to challenge the Koran, use the intellect, not the methods of half-literate street mobs.

måndag 6 september 2010

Terror weapon

marmite, originally uploaded by dontcallmeikke.

I asked a friend of mine to bring a couple of pots of Marmite with him from Britain. They were impounded at Stanstead airport on the grounds that the jars contained more than 100 ml of fluid.

This confiscation of property is unacceptable. In the first place, my friend would not have gone to the trouble of buying the stuff if he had been informed about the restriction, so the publicity was obviously inadequate. In the second place, the security officer could easily have ascertained that the contents was indeed Marmite and not something that could have been used to blow up the aircraft he was travelling in, so this is just the usual story of officials deliberately being awkward. In the third place, he should have been able to leave the offending item somewhere and retrieve it on return, or post it back to his home address.

But the most worrying and serious matter is that the 100 ml limit is not sufficient to prevent anyone from doing serious harm if they were so determined. There is an almost endless list of substances of which a mere 100 ml would be sufficient to cause mayhem and the death of hundreds of people. So is this really to do with security or is it more about exerting control by causing difficulties for people and humiliating them? And if the aim is security, then all fluids should be taken from the passengers, placed in an envelope and transported on the aircraft in a secure container, the items to be recovered by the owners on arrival. These is something amiss here.

torsdag 2 september 2010

Christian Democrats

A friend of mine mentioned how disappointed he was about the performance of the Christian Democrats. His objection was that they were too liberal, especially in relation to abortion and "gay marriage". He suggested that they had become too concerned with chasing votes and lost sight of principles.

The two issues he referred to need a whole discussion in their own right, but there is a more general point, which is whether there is a place for parties which describe themselves as "Christian"?

In some European countries, notably Germany and Italy, Christian parties are major political forces. In others, such as the UK, they have never gained a foothold and the idea is alien. In the UK, committed Christians of various persuasions have found a place in each of the three main parties. Amongst the most famous was Hilaire Belloc. In 1906 he ran as Liberal candidate in the marginal South Salford constituency where the electorate was overwhelmingly Protestant and Belloc’s Catholicism was considered an insurmountable political liability.

Urged by his campaign manager to make no mention of religion, Belloc began his first election speech in typical pugnacious fashion: “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This (taking a rosary out of his pocket) is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.”

After a shocked silence, there was applause. Belloc won. Whether contemporary British voters would have rejected him on the same grounds is an interesting question, given the wave of anti-Catholic emotion which is currently sweeping the country.

In practice, the Christian Democratic Parties in Germany and Italy have never been much more than parties of the centre-right. The social and economic ideas set out in the series of encyclicals beginning with Rerum Novarum have had little, if any, influence on their programmes and policies. One wonders whether the British model is not preferable. There is little Christian influence anywhere in contemporary British party politics. That merely reflects the mind of the British public, as a democracy, even with an unrepresentative electoral system like the UK's first-past-the-post, is bound to do. In that environment, a Christian party would get nowhere unless it watered-down its policies to the point that they were indistinguishable from anyone else's. And Belloc's gesture would probably ensure that he did not get elected.

If one feels sufficiently dissatisfied with the state of all the political parties, it is probably best not to engage directly at all. Catholics at least, have a duty to be aware of the social teaching of the church, which is a closed book to most people. This calls for study of what the church is actually saying, and it stands outside all the current fashionable -isms. Of particular relevance is Caritas in veritate, issued in June 2009. This pointed out that the most important means of charity was through justice. But of what precisely does economic justice consist? What is unjust about the present economic dispensation. These are big questions which the encyclical leaves open, rightly in my view, because this is the challenge for the laity to explore.

Results will not come quickly but ideas leak out gradually and in the long run this approach is more likely to produce worthwhile and lasting change.

onsdag 1 september 2010

God exists, but only in the mind of the believer.

"As an atheist I will make this admission. God exists, but only in the mind of the believer."

That applies to the entire universe. What one actually knows about everything is a construct of the mind as it interacts and interprets bodily sensations. Even basic concepts like hot, cold, salt, red, blue, pain, pleasure.

"There is actually no God out there in space,"

Of course not. But what is space? Nobody even knows how many dimensions it has. At one time, the figure was three, then Einstein came along and it went up to four, now cosmologists are coming up with all sorts of bids - eleven, if I recall.

"What you believe to be true is true for you."

No, that is when people are mad. If belief is out of line with experience and reality it is not true. One can believe in, say, Father Christmas but this being untrue, it has no interpretative value and it would be very foolish to lead one's life on the assumption that he exists.

Brexit row over brand protection

As part of the acrimonious Brexit negotiations, there is a row over protected product names such as Melton Mowbray pies and whiskies general...