söndag 31 juli 2011

Opposition bandwagon rolling nicely

The opposition to HS2 is now gathering momentum, as articles such is this, one of no less than six on the subject, published the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in the past few days.

Part of the case is made by those speaking up in support for local transport. But argument for HS2 on the grounds that we need increased capacity is not still not being countered effectively.

The argument is simple. The cost of building, equipping and operating a high speed railway is proportional to at least the square of the running speeds. That is a consequence of the laws of physics, as applied in an engineering context.

At a conservative estimate the cost of a 200 mph railway be double that of a 100 mph one. Advocates of HS2 would have us believe that as we need extra capacity which can only be provided by building a new railway (true), it might as well be a high speed one as it will only cost a teeny-weeny bit more (false).

The optimum speed for inter-city trains in Britain is between 100 mph and 130 mph. Faster than that leads to diminishing returns.

fredag 29 juli 2011

Personal space

An experiment by KLM, though it is not clear why it only applies to business passengers.

torsdag 28 juli 2011

High speed rail is not dangerous

Whatever conclusions can be drawn from the high speed rail accident in China, doubts over safety are not one of them. The Japanese and French safety records are outstandingly good. A German ICE trains were involved in a single incident in 1998 which was due to the use of a type of wheel technology developed for use in tramways. However, that accident would not have happened had the conductor applied the emergency brake when a passenger reported what was obviously a serious problem.

What the Chinese accident does demonstrate, however, is that corners cannot be cut and that everyone involved needs to know exactly what they are doing.

High speed rail cannot be done on the cheap,

tisdag 26 juli 2011

Responding to the consultation

Fundamentalists and fanatics

Oslo Royal Palace by seadipper
Oslo Royal Palace, a photo by seadipper on Flickr.
In 2007, the Royal Palace in Oslo did not even have railings around it. It would be nice if last Friday's tragedy did not change this, but it is unlikely.

Although the attack turns out to have been by a lunatic with allegiance to the extreme right, with an overtone of Christian fundamentalism, it is telling that the first assumptions were that it was the work of Islamic terrorism.

That is not course not to say that events like that in Oslo require any ideology at all to motivate them - personal grudges and hatreds are often sufficient. However, the perpetrators of these kinds of atrocities often turn out to have fed on a diet of hate literature. It comes in many forms. The extreme right has its own canon of this material, founded on a paranoid fear of difference. The far left looks to Marx and his insistence on the necessity of class warfare. Islam looks to the Koran, which, if not hate literature, contains passages which are potential incitements to hatred. The same can be said about the bible, but that is moderated by the mainstream churches, which can assert authoritatively, how potentially problematic passages are to be interpreted. The real difficulty with religious texts occurs in the absence of recognised authority. This is why Christian fundamentalism and Islam in general can lead people into trouble.

Usually, of course, it does not. But when mentally disturbed individuals get it into their heads to do something, whether on their own or in conjunction with other people, then nasty things are liable to happen.

söndag 24 juli 2011

Architecture and liturgy

the Romanesque  Abbey "Sacré Coeur"  Paray-le-Monial

I went somewhere different for mass today - a church built about twenty-five years ago. The design was a break from tradition, with a short wide nave so that everyone was close to the sanctuary. The interior was exposed facing brick, the acoustic lively and the general ambience light and airy. The liturgy was spoken apart from the hymns. Thus it can be said to be an expression of the predominant theology of the post-Vatican II movement. Attendance at this, the main Sunday High Mass, was poor, with less than one-third of the places occupied - though it could be that many people were away on holiday.

It would be more difficult to construct such a building today, as there is a growing movement towards the use of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, which in turn is having an influence on the way that the Ordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated. One thing that needs to be recognised is that whatever growth is taking place within the Catholic Church is focussed around the Extraordinary Form, which is in particular drawing young people of an intellectual bent.

That in turn raises the question of what forms of architecture would be suitable for a contemporary Catholic church? What is known as the Modern Movement - ie based on the principle that form should follow function - gives little direction. In a church, moreover, precisely the reverse tends to happen: function follows form. Obviously the building should provide a setting in which it is possible to carry out the liturgical actions, and the requirements of acoustics must be satisfied. After that, theological considerations come to the fore. What counts here is the symbolism, which quickly raises questions of architectural style. Reference to historic style then becomes inescapable.

The difficulty, then, is that all historical styles are loaded with baggage - associations and connotation of one sort or another. Gothic is simply out of keeping with contemporary sentiment, whilst Classical and Baroque styles have overtones of triumphalism, having been favoured in the twentieth century by dictators such as Stalin and Mussolini. But the style usually referred to as Romanesque - a solid and stripped down classicism, seems to carry no such associations. Indeed, it is precisely the kind of church architecture that one might expect to be generated by applying the maxim "form follows function".

lördag 23 juli 2011

Terror in Oslo

First reactions to the terror in Oslo assumed that it was the work of Islamists. It then turned out to be the work of what appears to be an - apparently lone - maniac with links to the extreme-Right".

In other words it had more in common with those rampages that deranged men (they are always men) embark on from time to time in the US, with a close resemblence to the McVeigh bombing.

It has naturally come as particularly shocking that it should have happened in Norway, which, like the rest of Scandinavia, has been regarded for the last decades as a haven from the nasty things that happen in the world. Yet every human society has a dark underside and there is no such thing as a safe place.

On the other hand, these events do not happen in a vacuum. There have long been strange right wing movements throughout Europe and the US. In the latter case, they hark back to the ideal days of the early US where sturdy independent homesteaders lived simple honest lives as horny-handed sons of the soil. In the Germanic countries they tend to focus on Nordic myth with allusions to the Hammer of Thor and that kind of thing. However, it has to be acknowledged that they feed on widely felt genuine concerns. The fact that the initial assumption is that it was the work of Islamists is telling. There is also a need to be concerned about the contemporary sense of rootlessness, which can seek refuge in very odd places at times.

torsdag 21 juli 2011

Radical rail signal plan faces union battle

Network Rail faces a battle with its staff over proposals to close nearly all Britain’s 800 signal boxes and replace them with air traffic control style computerised centres.

NR held talks on the plans this week with unions representing its 5,000 signallers. The company refused to confirm claims by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union that the changes would reduce the number of signal staff, which the union puts at 6,000, to 2,000. The changes are intended to boost punctuality and save £250m annually. Full article in FT

It is not clear from the article whether this refers to the introduction of the European Train Management System (ERTMS), which still has a long way to be developed before it can be said to be beyond the experimental stage. Whilst I have nothing against the introduction of new technology, I would question whether it is sufficiently robust to withstand the kind of things that can happen in the long run, such as extreme weather, solar flares and other unusual and potentially damaging events.

About thirty years ago a snowstorm brought down ancient signalling equipment on the Exeter line west of Basingstoke. The service was kept going using a makeshift arrangement using the public telephone system. Present day GPS systems seem unable to cope with things like train announcements when reception is bad - in tunnels and cuttings, for instance - and in some places they are consistently given out incorrectly. So there not only is there a lot more testing and refinement to be done before such a system is up and running - there is the potential here for pouring a few billion pounds into a black hole.

The union response is predictable - that just shows the persistent influence of job creationist theory. There is plenty of work to be done. The reasons why it is not done and that the unions' members face the prospect of unemployment and will not share directly in the benefits are questions that those who work in the trade unions' policy departments would do well to start asking.

Changes signal death of old technology

måndag 18 juli 2011

Is this really another Catholic Church scandal?

Yet another abuse and cover-up story surfaced at the weekend, this one concerning the Irish Diocese of Cloyne. But to what extent it can be relied on is another matter, as the comment from Thirsty Gargoyle points out. However, over the past few years, the skeletons have been tumbling out of the cupboard in Ireland. One disastrous consequence is that the once-solid Irish Catholic church is now on the verge of collapse. With the Catholic priesthood so tainted, who would want to be a priest in such a situation?

Although the abuse has been described as "paedophilia", strictly speaking, it is not, since the abuse has mostly been directed against pubescent boys, from which it can be concluded that the priesthood has accepted into its ranks homosexually-orientated men who could not control their inclinations.

A look around the world reveals a mixed picture. The Irish-influenced church in the USA seems to have suffered similarly. In England and Wales, nasty cases have come to light but the problem does not amount to an epidemic. In Germany there have also been a few, and there were strange goings-on at a seminary in Austria. In Spain, Italy and South America, errant priests are more likely to take a mistress than abuse male teenagers. But the misbehaviour does not stop at sexual misconduct. A friend from Salvador was telling me recently how the village priest would hob-nob with the local landowner, whilst ignoring the plight of the poor. All priests - in fact, all of us, need to control our inclinations, whatever they are. Often a potentially harmful inclination, under control, can be positive and rewarding for those involved.

Some people argue that a contributory factor is the liturgical reform of the 1960s and the decline in the practice of regular confession. There is no doubt that regular confession, and the older form of the liturgy encourages a more devotional and indeed holier attitude amongst both clergy and people. In those days the teaching was to avoid what was called "the occasion of sin" - in other words, not to get into a situation where things could happen which ought not to happen.

However, there has been misbehaviour amongst the clergy since the foundation of the church. Although we expect better, that should not be surprising because the priests are mere humans. Of course, abuse can happen in any situation where there is an unequal relationship of power. The fact that people point their finger at the Catholic church is that they have higher expectations. That is in itself an acknowledgement that they recognise the church as a force for good, and the betrayal is for that reason particularly shocking.

The point about the Catholic priesthood is that they have the power of making Christ present as a consequence of the sacrament of ordination they have received. Nevertheless, ordinary Catholics have a right to assume that their children will not be molested by their parish priest. On the other hand, such is the level of suspicion that the clergy themselves are now vulnerable to unjust allegations against which it could be difficult to defend themselves.

The situation is a mess. The very worst aspect of this is that a generation of people will, from a sense of disgust, be deprived of the spiritual goods that the Catholic Church has to offer. Who will believe the truth if they do not trust the messenger? In the light of all this, yesterday's reading was pertinent.

Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house. His disciples approached him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.

[Matthew 13:24-43]

Olympics security costs

A report today states that as many as 12,000 troops could be needed to provide security during the Olympic games, to protect the games themselves and key venues in London.

The decision to bid for the games was taken by the Blair government around 2003 and is an example of the then-prevailing megalomania. The same hubris produced assurances that boom-and-bust had been defeated.

Yet this was already after the attack on the World Trade Centre and it was obvious even then that the games would present a security problem.

lördag 16 juli 2011

Neo-Libertarians on the march

The Neo-Libertarians in the Conservative Central Office think tank are presumably the driving force behind the proposals to privatise more public services, as set out in the new White Paper.

But the big private consultancies will just muscle in. These outfits cannot provide the continuity and local and specialist knowledge essential if the job is to be done well. Nor are they particularly innovative, except in devising the kind of asset-stripping deals that caused the trouble with Southen Cross.

The public sector is often indifferent but that is ultimately preventable with good democratic control and accountability. This is a recipe for disaster.

fredag 15 juli 2011

Thameslink and the Derby job losses


I am not an advocate of Buying British in principle, but Derby would almost certainly have got the Thameslink train order if there had been some rational thinking about Thameslink itself. There is no conceivable train that can operate the route satisfactorily as it comprises two inter-urban routes, two airport links and an inner city metro all in one.

Thameslink should have been cut back to operate within the area of the Greater London Authority. Anyone who has used the service regularly and thought about it must realise this. A problem at, say, Brighton will result, a couple of hours later, in disruption at Bedford, and vice versa. This is not unusual as both the Brighton and Midland main lines carry dense traffic. It would have been better to cut back the route and transfer it to London Overground which is a similar type of service. The trains could then have been a further build of Bombardier class 379 Electrostars.

For the long distance routes a further build of class 377 Electrostars would have done the job perfectly well. A small additional fleet of Electrostars has already been running on Thameslink for the past couple of years. These are fully compatible with Southern's existing fleet so the operators can help each other out when things go wrong. This results in a bit of mixing and borrowing as required.

The introduction of Siemens stock will preclude this as it will almost certainly not be operationally compatible with the Electrostar fleet with which it will share the tracks.

Had the DfT made this a requirement as it most obviously should have been, it is most improbable that the order would gone anywhere else than to Derby. However good the Siemens bid may have been, it has not resulted in a best buy.

I blame the civil servants at the DfT.

torsdag 14 juli 2011

US prepared for military response in cyberwar

The Pentagon has disclosed that it suffered one of its largest ever losses of sensitive data in March when 24,000 files were stolen in a cyber-attack by a foreign government. There is talk of military responses against this kind of thing. William Lynn, the US deputy secretary of defence, said the data was taken from the computers of a corporate defence contractor.

Am I unusual in thinking that a military response is the wrong response to attacks on the US government's computer systems? It seems to me that a more effective way of discouraging the problem would be to make computer security the direct responsibility of the military. In the event of a breach of security those responsible could then be tried by Court Martial, just as a soldier would be if he neglected his rifle so that it failed to fire when required.

The simplest way to secure a computer or computer network is to disconnect it from the internet. But even if the network is connected, there is no excuse for information to be left open for outsiders to read. Effective encryption should suffice to prevent people from gaining access to the content of files. This loss of data sounds like a case of gross negligence.

måndag 11 juli 2011

The great wealth of the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church is often criticised for its wealth and its betrayal of the teaching of Christ, but I have not personally noticed that the Catholic church is particularly wealthy - we are always having to scrape around for funds to keep buildings in good order. A few of the religious organisations are perhaps better endowed than is good for them. The so-called treasures of the Vatican would go nowhere if they were all sold and the money given to the poor.

The present pope Benedict appears to be committed to propagating the authentic teaching of Christ. There have indeed been bad popes but that is beside the point which is that Jesus Christ is really and certainly present in the sacraments of the Catholic Church (and Orthodox ie non-Protestant churches).

What would Jesus Christ think about the Catholic Church if he came back today? He might find the vestments and ceremonial a bit ridiculous, but it is not a question of IF Jesus Christ came back today. He IS back to day and present on the altars of the Catholic church. That would still be the case even if every single member of the clergy was a wicked and sinful man, which of course they are not. Man lives by signs and symbols, and the rituals of the Church are signs that help to point to Him and His real presence.

söndag 10 juli 2011

Good riddance News of the World

That the News of the World was Britain's best-selling newspaper says much about the British public, and none of it complimentary.

As an editorial headline in today's Observer puts it, "Murdoch's malign influence must die with the News of the World" However, Murdoch's is far from being the only malign influence in the British media. One the right, we have the pervasive "me" culture, that manifests in the championing of motorists' rights and home ownerism, whilst at the other end of the political spectrum, the discourse is permeated by a low level Marxism, typified by proposals for policies based on job creationism, and the championing of allegedly progressive causes such as "women's right to choose".

The Observer editorial continues "The scandal over phone hacking has exposed a rotten empire and the urgent need for stronger press regulation." That is an ill-judged comment. Whoever composed the sentence will come to regret it. The underlying problem is that much of the British population still identifies itself as belonging to one of two tribes, leading to a pervasive and destructive them-and-us culture. The newspapers simply reflect that culture and regulation is not going to stop it. I have never bought a copy of the News of the World and I do not even recall bothering to open one left on a train or bus. But if people did not buy and read newpapers filled up with salacious tit-bits, then they would not get published. The problem is the British public, not defects in regulation.

tisdag 5 juli 2011

Bombardier announces job losses

Bombardier announced today the loss of over 1,400 jobs at its Litchurch Lane factory in Derby. This follows the award of the £3 billion train order to the German company Siemens. Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of the trade union Unite, has written to Philip Hammond and Vince Cable, demanding an urgent meeting.

Of course, without detailed inside knowledge one cannot possibly comment on the particular situation inside the Derby plant, but the tendency within the UK, in contrast to industry in countries like Germany, and Japan, is for management to keep a certain distance from the people on the factory floor, issuing orders from on high and failing to put sufficient value on the knowledge held by those in the front line. It is largely a consequence of the British class system. I wonder if the Bombardier factory is a shining exception?

måndag 4 juli 2011

Traditional Catholic liturgy IS charismatic and pentecostal

Charismatic pentecostal worship is characterised by repeated cries of "Alleluia, Praise the Lord" and speaking in tongues. Rather like this.

söndag 3 juli 2011

An era ends

1967 Tube Stock at Pimlico, originally uploaded by bowroaduk.

After 43 years, the end of an era: the 17.10 train from Seven Sisters to Brixton, the last 1967 Tube stock in passenger service, 30th June 2011. The design was the product of Design Research Unit, the company headed by Mischa Black, professor of industrial design at the Royal College of Art.

Sadly, these days, design has been degraded to become very largely, and little more than, an adjunct of marketing, though the old tradition lives on in Scandinavia. So this example of honest functional design deserves to be celebrated.

Boris derails Cameron's 'perverse' £34billion high-speed link

According to an article in the Daily Telegraph, 'The future of the planned High Speed 2 rail link has been thrown into fresh doubt after Boris Johnson dubbed the project "perverse" and "inadequate" and said he "cannot support" it.'

I don't think anything Boris Johnson says is going to be decisive in this but he is a big and influential gun. The trouble with the Anti-HS2 lobby, however, is that too much of it consists of Nimbys and elements from the roads lobby such as the RAC.

The pro-rail lobby needs to speak up for a sound alternative strategy of investment in rail. The country could end up with nothing at all.

Japanese cheese blues

 The idiocy of politicians’ interference with international trade knows no bounds. The Japanese negotiators want to maintain a tariff on ch...