onsdag 30 november 2011

Important projects get go-ahead

An initial reading of the Chancellor's Autumn statement reveals that the go-ahead has been given to the TransPennine electrification and the strategic Oxford-Bedford line.

These are two of dozens of projects around the country that cumulatively represent excellent value for money. We need a rolling programme of such schemes.

måndag 28 november 2011

Lenovo X61 repair

Lenovo X61 repair by Henry░Law
Lenovo X61 repair, a photo by Henry░Law on Flickr.

I bought an X61 laptop recently, about four years old with nothing on the disk. These are very good value at around £150 on Ebay. With the small battery and without the docking bay it weighs about 1300 gm which makes it a powerful netbook, with a 1TB hard drive and 4GB RAM.

When started to use it I discovered minor damage to the plastic case. There was a split on the left hand side at the very rear, spreading from the corner of the fan ventilator. As a result the screen and lid were opening unevenly.

This is a stress point and a design flaw not on the earlier X31 I have. I would not be surprised if many X61 machines have exactly the same damage. I have mended it unobtrusively by cutting a piece of black plastic and super-gluing it over the crack, which reinforces where it is needed.

As it would have been easier to do this before the crack had occurred, it might be worth thinking about doing this preventatively.

fredag 25 november 2011

Who cares about tax havens?

There is more moaning about tax havens. Professional moaner about tax havens, Richard Murphy, has just published a book on the subject. I am sure it is a fascinating read. Personally I do not give a fig about about tax havens. They are the product of a rotten tax system.

If the bucket leaks it is up to the owner of the bucket to fix it. They should not blame the cat for lapping up the spilled milk.

tisdag 22 november 2011

Fanny may in the U-kay

The government's announcement of guarantees for 95% mortgages for house purchase, suppported by both Prime Minister Cameron and Deputy Clegg, demonstrates either an absolute lack of understanding of the nature of the problem, or moral cowardice, or both.

The aim, we are told, is to "unstick the housing market", which has stagnated due to the banks' refusal to give mortgages larger than 80% of the value of the property they are lending on.

Fanny May = taxpayers will pay

This sets the scene for a UK run of the Fannie Mae debacle. It will also pump up the housing bubble for a while. The government is doing the very thing it should not be doing.

If the housing market worked as advocates of the free market assure us it does, then the price of houses would drop to market-clearing levels. Some building firms would lose a lot of money, having bought land at the height of the boom and found themselves stuck with it in what they call their "land banks". That's market forces for you. They misjudged and overpaid. According to the principles of market capitalism, they would be allowed to fail for their mistake. But in the re-worked style of capitalism that is now being imposed in Britain, capitalists who get it wrong are handed out welfare at the expense of the taxpayers. It gives rise to moral hazard in a strangely reversed mirror-image style of socialism.

There are, apparently, about 300,000 housing units for which planning consent has been given but which have not been constructed. This is the "stickiness" referred to but the real cause is that the developers are asking too much and refuse to drop their prices to take account of the present state of the market. And so the taxpayers are being asked to pay for the developers' mistakes, and pay they will, because there will be defaults on some of these 95% mortgages

What should have happened was that the developers should have been made to pay the price. After all, they were happy to rake in the profits when land values were rising. Apart from having to provide a bit of social housing or planning gain, they enjoyed rich pickings from the increases in land value released by planning consents.

To get development moving again, all the government needed to do was to announce that as from 6 April 2013, sites with planning consent would be subject to the same Council Tax as if the development had been constructed. The sites would have been built on and the exchequer would have received useful extra revenue. It would not have been LVT but the end result would have been similar.

söndag 20 november 2011

Traditional Latin Mass is the future

From next week, for a trial period, our local parish priest has decided to say an Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) every Sunday. This is partly a response to the growing attendance at the weekly Friday evening TLM, and partly as a result of experience with using this liturgy on other occasions. The surprise has been that it is more accessible and inclusive than the 1970 Mass in any of its forms. This is not an experience confined to the local parish, as I have noticed it elsewhere. The future of the Catholic church is with the TLM, accompanied of course by other practices such as regular prayer by the laity and regular confession.

The main benefits are, first and foremost, that it is perceived as more prayerful. There are extended and well-defined periods of silence, but it is a silence in which something is happening. With the priest facing in the same direction as the rest of the congregation, there is a stronger sense that everyone is taking part in the action, which is less dominated by the celebrant. The priest finds it less distracting. The sacred mysteries are shielded from the full view of the congregation just as they are in an Orthodox liturgy where the altar is situated behind the iconostasis. The servers have an easier task as everything is carefully prescribed and it is necessary only to learn what has to be done and when.

The use of Latin is inclusive. Language is a great divider, separating both nations and social groups within nations. Latin cuts across all these divisions, since it has long since ceased to be the property of any particular nation. The TLM also has the advantage that the choir is singing during the long recitation of the prayers of consecration, which are best followed silently in the missal in whatever language one chooses.

Paradoxically, this growing realisation of the quality and accessibility of the TLM comes at an unfortunate time, because the new, and much improved English translation of the 1970 (Novus Ordo, NO) Mass has just been brought into use. One wonders now what its long-term future is? Its main value may in the end be for catechesis.

A further question raised is this. What is the legality of introducing TLM practices into an NO celebration? What if all the NO rubrics were followed but the prayers were to be said in English? What if the prayers at the foot of the altar and the Last Gospel were recited? What if the Canon of the Mass was said silently, either in Latin or the vernacular? These things are not provided for in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which stipulates how thing should be done, but on the other hand, celebration of the NO mass is still very much according to the way the particular priest chooses to do it. Would it then be wrong for a priest to adopt TLM prayers and rubrics in an NO Mass?

fredag 18 november 2011

Trains too long

Chiltern Railways has extended a service to London by an extra carriage; great for easing overcrowding, but less helpful to the commuters stuck at Saunderton station because their platform is too short.

Is it beyond the ingenuity of the industry's engineers to devise a system with a detector and locking system so that a door can be opened only if there is a station platform alongside?

Article here

onsdag 16 november 2011

The lost route into London

Before the electrification of the West Coast Main Line, there were two routes from London to Birmingham, with little to choose between them. The direct Great Western route, which ran through High Wycombe and Bicester, was then more or less abandoned as a through service, with the section from High Wycombe to Aynho Junction being reduced to single track.

Since privatisation, the route has been upgraded and converted back to double track. Earlier this year Chiltern Railways introduced a through service from Marylebone to Birmingham, and there is even a suggestion to electrify the route.

Unfortunately, further development is going to be limited by restrictions at Marylebone, which in the space of twenty years has been transformed from a sleepy backwater to a very busy station with a large volume of local traffic.

There is, however, another route into London which is scarcely used - the former main line into Paddington which branches off the Great Western route to the west at Old Oak Common and then run alongside the Central Line to Ruislip; the line from Marylebone joins this line at Northolt Junction.

At present it would not be possible to increase the amount of traffic on this route due to the volume of traffic using Paddington. If, on the other hand, the Heathrow Express were removed and given an underground terminus of its own, as part of the Crossrail project, this would reinstate the entire route and double the capacity between London and Birmingham.

måndag 14 november 2011

More Electrostars coming to Southern?

Brighton Station with different sorts of trainsWhitechapel StationVirtuous design - Electrostar train seating bay
Electrostars, the EMU originally developed by AdTranz before it was taken over by Bombardier, are a mixed bunch. The first entered service around 2000 and comprise classes 357, 375, 376, 377, 378 and 379. Originally they were quite unreliable but they are now in the same league as the EPB units which they replaced, dating from the 1960s.

Variations include alternative seating layouts, sliding or plug doors, full width cabs or half-cabs with gangways (top picture), and AC, DC or dual voltage types.

Probably the most successful version is the class 378 for London Overground (second picture), which has sliding doors and longitudinal seating, an ideal layout for the type of service for which they are used.

Some versions are very comfortable, for example the end cars in the units operating on the Southern main lines (third picture) have 2+2 seating with tables, all aligned to the windows.

Much less satisfactory are the vehicles with 2+3 seating. The bodyshells are not wide enough for 2+3 seating, due to the way the bodysides are curved below the window, with the space being further cut into by ducts at skirting level. This reduces the width at floor level, so that passengers sitting by the window cannot put both feet on the ground straight in front of them, and the gangway is so narrow that special catering trolleys had to be obtained.

The reason for this curvature is not clear because the steps project beyond it, and platform levels are always well below the level of the bottom of the bodyside. It appears to be nothing more than a styling feature, and whilst it looks quite elegant, style should not be at the expense of space and comfort.

Electrostar train - mind the gap

Another fault is that at concave platforms there is a large gap between the platform and the train. This is due to the position of the doors. The closer the doors are to the bogie centres, the less the gap at curved platforms. Trains such as the end-door class 158 are particularly good from this point of view.

The argument for locating the doors more centrally is that it improves station dwell times, but getting on and off Electrostars at some platforms at stations like Clapham Junction can be a bit of an adventure as there is a chasm to be negotiated. This cannot be good for station dwell time. There is a need for more research on this topic.

One way and another, the Electrostars would benefit from design changes to address these issues before further examples are built.

Paedophile clerics - who should pay?

The recent decision by the courts, that priests are in effect employees and answerable to their bishops, raises two concerns. These will presumably be considered by the appeal court to whom the matter has now been referred.

First, there is the substance of the complaints themselves. Many of these relate to incidents long ago. The principal actors are in many cases long dead and cannot be cross-examined. There is a lot of money at stake. How can genuine victims be distinguished from gold-diggers?

Second, in the event of damages being awarded, who should be responsible for paying?

Parishioners contribute to the church's funds, and it appears that these are held by trustees under rules set by the Charity Commissioners. Is compensation for actions due to a bishop's negligence a proper use of these funds?

There would be a good case to argue that they are not. Most people would not give money to the church if they thought it was going to be used for such a purpose. In effect, it would be to underwrite the actions of the bishop, over whose appointment and actions they had no control. Dissatisfaction with bishops is widespread, with concerns about matters that extend well beyond the misbehaviour of what is still, fortunately, a tiny minority of priests.

In a hierarchical body such as the church, the chain of accountability is upwards, so that responsibility for the actions of a bishops must surely lie with whoever appointed him. Or could the liability be personal?

onsdag 9 november 2011

Limits of democracy

Occupy Brighton camp
Occupy Brighton camp
Occupy Brighton camp

This is the protest camp that has sprung up in Brighton, in Victoria Gardens. It seems to be dominated by the local anarchists. I have a certain sympathy with their anger as they are the generation that is paying for the decades of mismanagement of the economy.

However, a brazier was burning under a large and very old tree, which cannot have been good for it. I suggested that they might like to move it to where there were no tree branches above. I mentioned this to someone there, and she said she accepted the point and would put it to everyone at the meeting. It seems as if there is a democratic structure in which everyone has an equal voice. Perfect democracy, one might say.

Except this. It is worrying that nobody had the sense to realise that fires should not be lit under trees. But in situations like this, there are those who know and those who do not, and giving everyone an equal voice could have a bad outcome. It is like trying to run a ship with a committee made up of the entire crew, and giving them an equal say, when there are some who know about sails or engines, some about cooking, some about navigation, some about radio, some who are normally content to shift heavy stuff around, and so on. You cannot leave technical decisions in the hands of people who are not versed in the relevant discipline.

The Brighton occupation raises another point. Most of the campers seem to be middle class, affecting a working class accent. They have the resources to equip themselves with comfortable, weathertight accommodation. But also in Brighton is a hard core of genuinely homeless people, with nowhere to go, who are living in the streets and sleeping in shop doorways.

I wonder if it has occurred to these concerned anarchists to engage with their neighbours who have fallen through all the safety nets? How would they feel about sharing their well-found accommodation with those much worse-off than themselves?

The single tax is not a tax

The Single Tax is not a tax. It is the collection of the rental value of land and its use as public revenue. Were this to be done there would be no need of taxes.

Transport Select Committee ifs and buts

In its report published yesterday, the Select Committee has succeeded in drawing opposite conclusions simultaneously. The headline can be taken as a go-ahead signal - but the qualifications are so many and so significant (see preceding post) that it must be read as a recommendation to stop and reconsider the project.

It seems to me that the real question that still needs to be asked is whether, given a decision to spend this amount on transport, high speed rail is the best investment.

To get at the cost of an alternative, a comparison is the reconstruction of the line between Edinburgh and Tweedbank, a 49km stretch, at a cost of around £250 million - £5 million per km. The cost of the 200km HS2 line between London and Birmingham is given as £16 billion - £80 million per km. However, HS2 includes some very expensive tunneling at the London end which would have to be constructed regardless if capacity is to be increased, whilst the Edinburgh to Tweedbank route will not of course, be electrified, and is partially single track. Taking account of these differences, a reasonable estimate for reinstating an existing alignment as a good quality main line would be around £10 million per km for a double track route, plus another £2 million for electrification - a total of around £12 million.

Thus, the same amount of money will buy many times more conventional railway - and there are worthwhile schemes all over the country waiting to be built, mostly involving reinstatement of Beeching closures in areas where the population has greatly increased, reinstatement of double-track routes which have been singled, works to remove bottlenecks and speed restrictions, and electrification. The route of HS2 itself could be one such reinstatement, and would provide the same capacity enhancement. The existing GC main line alignment, whilst suitable as a conventional railway, cannot, however, be made into a high speed line.

The poor value for money also applies to rolling stock. A standard high speed train costs £30 million - that is the price of two conventional trains with the same capacity, or six 4-car Electrostars. But the aim is that some trains would be able to run onto the existing rail network. These would need to be specially designed and cost around £52 million each. This extra cost reflects both the non­-standard design and the premium for a one-off order.

It is considerations such as these that the government must now take into account before proceeding further.

tisdag 8 november 2011

Transport Select Committee publishes HS2 report

There is a good case for a high speed rail network, linking London and the major cities of the Midlands, the North and Scotland says the Commons Transport Committee.

Launching High Speed Rail – the report of the inquiry into high speed rail, including the Government’s proposal for HS2 – committee chair Louise Ellman said,

"A high speed rail network, beginning with a line between London and the West Midlands, would provide a step change in the capacity, quality, reliability and frequency of rail services between our major cities.
A high speed line offers potential economic and strategic benefits which a conventional line does not, including a dramatic improvement in connectivity between our major cities, Heathrow and other airports, and the rest of Europe.
High speed rail may be a catalyst for economic growth, helping to rebalance the economy and bridge the north-south divide. But the Government must do more to promote local and regional growth strategies to ensure we get maximum economic benefit from high speed rail.
High speed rail is affordable: HS2 will cost around £2 billion per annum over 17 years. Construction of a high speed rail network should start with the line between London and the West Midlands, as this is where capacity needs are greatest. But we are concerned that under current plans high speed rail lines won’t reach Manchester and Leeds for more than 20 years.
The Government should also look at options to build southwards from the north and link to other lines such as the Midland Main Line. We see no reason why the Scottish Government should not begin work on a Scottish high speed line, to connect with the English network in due course.
Investment in HS2 must not lead to reduced investment in the 'classic' rail network. We are concerned that the Government is developing separate strategies for rail and aviation, with HS2 separate from both. We call again for the publication of a comprehensive transport strategy.
Investment in high speed rail has potential to boost growth but may have a substantial negative impact on the countryside, communities and people along the route. This must be better reflected in the business case for HS2 and future phases of the project. We would encourage the Government to follow existing transport corridors wherever possible."
The Transport Committee sets out a series of recommendations on high speed rail:
  • The Government must firmly commit to the Y network before seeking parliamentary approval for HS2
  • If the Government decides to go ahead with HS2, it should publish a summary of the financial case showing how the project is affordable alongside sustained investment in the classic network as well as its priorities for expenditure in the next Network Rail control period (for 2014-19)
  • More information about the Y network (to Leeds and Manchester) such as the location of stations and environmental impacts should be published and strategically appraised before a final decision on HS2 is made
  • A full assessment of the case for building from north to south should be carried out as a priority
  • It is disappointing that a major strategic scheme is being designed and assessed to a large extent based upon the value of travel time savings, which are not universally accepted. This issue should be addressed in the updated economic case for HS2 with the implications for scheme design made explicit
  • The Government needs to make clear how HS2 fits into its wider aviation strategy, looking again at the case for a direct link to Heathrow in phase I on the assumption that the high speed rail network will extend to Manchester and Leeds. The costs and benefits of routing HS2 via Heathrow should be set out more clearly and there should be a clear statement about the status of possible complementary schemes such as those which would link Heathrow by rail to Gatwick or the Great Western Main Line
  • Better information should be provided to explain the Government's rationale for its proposals for London termini and linkages, which are the most expensive and complex elements of HS2
  • Operating 18 trains per hour at 225mph are risk factors for which more technical information should be published. It is questionable whether the system proposed is being designed with sufficient margin for expansion
  • Claims that HS2 would deliver substantial carbon-reduction benefits do not stand up to scrutiny. However, HS2 will produce less carbon than an expanded motorway network or greater domestic aviation in the event of increased demand for inter-urban travel
  • Government support to enable the full potential of high speed rail to be realised, - including funding, for the development of regional and local strategies for transport, housing, skills and employment - should be recognised as a priority
  • When announcing its decision on HS2, the Government should provide a more explicit and comprehensive statement about likely patterns of service on the classic network once HS2 is operational
  • The Government should engage with Network Rail to identify whether there are affordable options to enable more peak-time capacity to be provided for Milton Keynes and Northampton commuters before HS2 opens
  • The Government should desist from disparaging opponents of high speed rail as NIMBYs. Both sides in the debate should show respect for each other and focus on the facts

måndag 7 november 2011

Latin Mass goes from strength to strength

Traditional Latin Mass- Arundel Cathedral by Henry░Law
Traditional Latin Mass- Arundel Cathedral, a photo by Henry░Law on Flickr.

This would have been a rare sight even ten years ago, but with the publication of Summorum Pontificum in 2007, and the removal of the remaining restrictions on its use, the old rite (Tridentine) Mass is being celebrated quite frequently, at least in some places.

When the restrictions were lifted, people seem to have thought that it would be an exception, and hence it was styled the "Extraordinary Form" (EF), as against the Novus Ordo (NO) liturgy now termed the "Ordinary Form". What was perhaps not expected was that it is, though very slowly, becoming mainstream. A couple of parishes have adopted it as the main Sunday sung mass, whilst there is a growing number of Sunday celebrations once a month, and regular Low Masses on weekdays. Also surprising (or perhaps not so surprising), is that attendance is no longer exclusively by the ageing stalwarts who have supported the Latin Mass Society for the last forty years. A substantial contingent of under-30s is now typical in congregations at these liturgies.

Equally surprising is that an increasing number of parishioners with no special interest in the liturgy are comfortable with the EF Mass, and possibly more so now that the new English translation has come into use. This latter is a great improvement on the old translation and has prompted attempts at setting the new texts to the traditional Gregorian Chants. These are of mixed quality. The rhythms of the English language do not suit the Gregorian Chant, which is presumably why Anglican Chant was devised. An increasing use of Latin is also leading to liturgies which switch awkwardly and unpredictably between the two languages. The logical conclusion of this trend is to do everything in Latin apart from the readings, but in the NO, there is the long period when the Canon of the Mass is recited, which does not work particularly well in Latin, but which in the EF form is said silently whilst the choir is singing the Sanctus.

This difference, which is the most noticeable one to anyone in the congregation, means, perhaps surprisingly, that the EF Mass is more accessible than the newer form. A further benefit is that where parishes are ethnically mixed, not only is the Latin neutral ground, it would also help to unify parishes which have become divided into different national groups according to which mass they attend.

The sooner that parish priests realise this, the better.

fredag 4 november 2011

Catholic architecture

Brompton Oratory by Henry░Law
Brompton Oratory, a photo by Henry░Law on Flickr.
The design of the London Oratory, seen here on the Feast of Corpus Christi, is what became standard after the Council of Trent. It is clear and logical both from an architectural and theological point of view. There is a linear progression from secular to sacred: nave, then sanctuary, marked by a change in level and altar rails, then further steps leading to the altar, then reredos with the tabernacle in a raised position in the centre, the whole surmounted by, and culminating in, the crucifix and three flanking candles on either side.

The sacredness of the sanctuary is further emphasised by a change in flooring materials and rules concerning who is permitted to be there and what clothing they should wear.

It would be difficult to think of an architectural form that could more clearly express Catholic theology. This architectural and ceremonial use of differences to present teachings of a profound nature, is, as Claude Lévi-Strauss explored in his development of structural anthropology, a common thread in all human societies. Neglect it at our peril.

torsdag 3 november 2011

More web fraud - take care

I have been receiving emails purporting to come from Paypal and asking for confirmation of my username and password. It seems as if they are being intercepted.

This was an obvious fraud but I clicked on the link and was directed to a login page which looked like the official one. But the web address did not begin with https. I entered my email address and a made-up password which logged me in to some site with a form asking for various details, again without the https prefix.

If you get one of these, report the fraud to whoever is being imitated. Yahoo, Google, Paypal and the banks have their own email address for this.

Ricardo’s Law in brief