Thursday, 7th September, 2017

Business of the day:

From York to London, King’s Cross by Virgin East Coast.

10:31 a.m. limited stopping train: Doncaster, Newark, Peterborough, so 2hrs 11min scheduled (but actually did it in well under the time).

Nothing to do but devour Times and Guardian.

Out of King’s Cross like a ferret down a rabbit hole, round the corner to catch the 91 bus to edgy Crouch End.

Carte du jour:

The standard menu of the Maynard Arms in Park Road. Along with a bottle of equally-standard South American Malbec.

Beer of the day:

East London Brewery’s Jamboree, on draught, at the Maynard. 4.8% ABV as advertised, and believably so.

Quote of the day:

“Buddy” [neurotic hybrid hairy dog, recently transplanted from Noo Joisey to Switzerland] “is now on doggy benzodiazepine”. Yes, indeed.

Ear-worm of the day:

The Hollies: He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother:

Annoyance level: slight.

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Happy Yorkshire Day!

I, Malcolm Redfellow, being a resident of the City of York declare:

That Yorkshire is three Ridings and the City of York, with these Boundaries of 1,142 years standing;

That the address of all places in these Ridings is Yorkshire; That all persons born therein or resident therein and loyal to the Ridings are Yorkshiremen and women; That any person or corporate body which deliberately ignores or denies the aforementioned shall forfeit all claim to Yorkshire status.

These declarations made this Yorkshire Day, 2017. God Save the Queen!

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Skinny

It’s not often the Oxford English Dictionary fails to trace an etymology, but in this case, it does:

skinny
slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). With the. Detailed and esp. confidential information about a person or topic, ‘the low-down’; (also more generally) news, gossip.

Though I suspect the Senate vote on the “skinny” Health Care Bill was more about:

orig. U.S. A cup of coffee or a coffee-based beverage made with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk

Meaning: thin, unsustainting, not nutricious, less than stimulating, more for appearance than any real benefit.

Now to Nate Silver on fivethirtyeight.com. The vote has just gone down on the defection of Senators Collins, McCain and Murkowski. We knew two of those would be hold-outs, but we were meant to be surprised by John McCain. As if he hadn’t signalled already …

This is usually the time when FiveThirtyEight would say “let’s not get too carried away …” but, well, this is one of those times when you should maybe get carried away? It’s not really a surprise that the bill failed. It always had a lot of problems, and Republicans didn’t come close to passing straight repeal or BCRA in the Senate in earlier votes. But that it failed in a way that will be so embarrassing to both McConnell and Trump is noteworthy and will have all sorts of implications for Republicans.

Enough already.

But there were a couple of “issues”.

Lisa Ann Muskowski has been around some time — she’s been the Senator for Alaska since 2002. Go to that official web-page and find that she has established clearly her “red lines”:

… many provisions of the ACA that have worked for Alaska that Senator Murkowski believes should be retained. Those provisions are:

  • Prohibitions on the discrimination for pre-existing conditions

  • No annual or lifetime limits

  • Coverage up to age 26

  • Continuation of coverage afforded under Medicaid Expansion

  • Maintaining access to Planned Parenthood facilities

This is a lady who has seen off the Alaskan Republicans previously: they tried to elbow her out in the 2010 Primary, so she went for a write-in campaign, and took out the ‘official’ GOP nominee (a Tea Party and Palin face)  by four clear points. The sheer bone-headedness of the Trump Administration is — yet again — on show trying to rough up the lady. Or, as Silver has it:

the Interior Department’s threats to screw over Alaska — presumably ordered by the White House

See it here:

Another indicator was the way some republican Senators kept their powder dry. Heller (Rep, Nevada) and Sasse (Rep. Nebraska) held their votes back until it was clear they could vote with their party leadership without disturbing the outcome. Ah, c’mon! Done it myself in London Borough politics: once you know the party has the votes, a pointless show of principle becomes easier. In this case, it works the other way: a show of partisan loyalty would be cheap compared to putting the boot into the higher-ups.

So here we are, relishing the aggravation caused Trump and McConnell. It looks as if the weirdo fringes have been consigned back into their boxes. McConnell is begging Democratic input (and — as things stand — it’s only too easy to watch the GOP leadership swivelling in the wind).

But the real Democrat goodies are still there for the taking. This session has not produced the repeal of ObamaCare, and there is no reason to believe much will change. Effectively, then, we are half-way to the mid-terms. There’s something in The West Wing about the short windows of political opportunity in the American system. If a decision doesn’t get actioned in the first six or eight months of a term, it runs up against the next electoral cycle. So: strike one to the Dems.

Then there are 49 GOP Senators and over two hundred members of the House who bear the mark-of-Cain on TrumpCare. Short of actually dumping on twenty million or more suddenly deprived of health-care (and resentful about it) that can’t be bad party politics.

But above all, here’s another aggrieved citizen — but this one with a soapbox:

“Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski is declaring it “Failure Friday” for President Trump, saying that if you want to know what failure looks like, “just take a look at the last 36 hours of the Trump presidency.”

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The old order changeth …

And slowly answered Malcolm, in the large:
‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And Pod fulfils itself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

There are a couple of mini-Pods around the house, including the little one that’s no bigger than a USB socket. I normally have at least four devices here on the desk — a fifth, the 60MB 4th generation, was carted to London to transfer a large .mpeg and is still down there. The 8oGB 5th generation is in a box, needing a battery transplant. So that currently leaves two iPads from the second and current generations. Oh, and these specimens:

Have to admit affection for that second generation 20GB. And it’s only 15 years young.

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Another fine mess …

I’m reading Modern Railways, pages 26-27, with great interest. Roger Ford’s hatchet job on Virgin Trains East East (VTEC is our main line here in ‘old’ York) starts well:

remember that while Virgin Trains West Coast is 1% Virgin/49% Stagecoach, East Coast is 90% Stagecoach with a 10% sprinkling of Virgin fairy dust.

After that, we know where it’s heading. And it’s all downhill.

For a start the Stagecoach prognosis is to lose £84.1 million on the East Coast franchise in the next two years.

There’s a further £44.8 million impairment of intangible assets associated with the right to operate the franchise. As far as I understand that bean-counting gobbledegook, I assume it amounts to paint jobs and cosmetics — including the very useful and passenger-friendly meet-and-greet stuff.

And on top of that there £57.5 million already spent, mainly on the £40 million rolling stock upgrade.

Then come the other problems.

Not this decade, Sir Richard

Those promised glossy Hitachi Azuma trains are at least two years behind schedule. And the schedule premium payments were based on a May 2019 introduction. Ford’s assessment is: a continuation of the VTEC franchise on its current terms untenable after May 2019. Ummm.

As I read it, the infrastructure problems are as acute. Not least of which is power supply. Ford has it that the Power Supply North is not done, in part because the Hendy Report took some out of the five year budget £40+ million needed to achieve the upgrade. With Cross-Pennine introducing electrics, that’s another drain on an already barely-adequate power supply.

Ford’s conclusion, as printed:

Overall, East Coast is probably a sorrier mess than the W[est] C[oast] R[ail] M[odernisation] (That’s going some— Ed!).

He also slips in another wrinkle: if the Azumas can’t be brought into service, the tax-payer is still committed to paying for them for a further twenty-seven and a half years.

A useful read.

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Blessed Saint Margaret

This week, for family reasons, to King’s Lynn, and what was Saint Margaret’s and is now dignified as Lynn Minster.

Lynn deserves greater notice that it gets. Much of the town-core has many fine buildings, all the way back to the medieval period. Of the baker’s dozen of Grade 1 listed buildings in the town, the 15th century Hanseatic Warehouse would be a treasure anywhere. The late-17th century Customs House, and its position on the old harbour, has to qualify as gem-like: Nikolaus Pevsner was bowled over by ‘one of the most perfect buildings ever built’. From Tuesday Market (now, inevitably, a parking area, and the Minster, one walk through High Street and Nelson Street: Nelson Street (renamed sometime — presumably c.1805 — for the Norfolk Hero, but originally Lath Street) can be little more than 150 yards in length, but contains two dozen listed buildings.

Why has Lynn been so fortunate to preserve so much of its history?

First, I suppose, because the Luftwaffe (who were the chief instigator of post-War British architectural horrors) had far too many better targets. Second, because — after its brief span as a Hanseatic port — the town became a by-water. The clue is in the wikipedia entry:

The town centre is dominated by budget shops reflecting the spending power of much of the population.

The corollary of that is the #Brexit vote: across the district, over ⅔ voted Leave.

St Margaret of Antioch

A remarkable number of English churches (a list is here) are dedicated to one or other of the Saints Margaret, but the unhistorical virgin of Antioch gets most billing.

Which raises an obvious question.

My assumptions were the confusion with Marina of the Orthodox Church, also, from the Latin, the sea.

Then Margaret, for being an impious young lady, was sent to mind sheep. Which gives the wool-trade connection.

But then, I belong to a generation which had yet to develop feminist studies. So I have to go with the mood: her cult grew after the first millennium because invoking her was a charm against the dangers of child-birth.

The cult of Margaret of Antioch appears, too, in the town arms. Legend has it that Margaret was devoured by a dragon, but, when she produced her crucifix, the dragon’s belly split apart, and she stepped out unharmed. For this miracle, she was — so the story goes — beheaded.

Which side are you on?

Back in the Minister, high above where the rood screen should be, is a royal arms. They are those of Charles II. And thereby hangs another tale.

The two Members of Parliament for Lynn were Thomas Toll and John Percival, both puritans. We can presume thereby a strong faction of the goodly burgers of the town sided against Charles I. By the nature of business, the parliamentarians were based in the urban trading and commercial classes. Added to which, there would have been considerable import of subversive protestant materials and tracts  — the illicit pornography of the time — from the Low Counties. The Norfolk countryside, however, was more royalist — as one might expect among the unenlightened land-owning gentry. The royalists had their supporters, too, in the population of Lynn. The result was, to put it mildly, civil commotion, with the royalists coming out on top. The royalist leader was Sir Hamon L’Estrange, who emerged from his feudal base at Hunstanton as “governor” of King’s Lynn.

During the summer of 1643, the parliamentarians had mopped up Lincolnshire and were ready to move on Lynn, by now the only royalist hold-out across East Anglia. Put on alert, royalist Lynn strengthened the defences. The Earl of Manchester rolled up with his besiegers, secured the roads and bridges into Lynn, and began occasional bombardments from across the river. On 3rd September one cannonball made a direct hit on the west window of St Margarets. Another ball was turned up in Nelson Street, and now features (as right) over the entrance of Hampton Court.

Manchester had the water supply to the town diverted, but Lynn held out on the hope of relief from Newcastle’s royalists across the Wash. Manchester issued his ultimatum on 15th September, ordering the defenders to remove women and children. After three weeks defying the siege, Lynn surrendered, and at day-break on 16th September 1643 the parliamentarians occupied the town.

Come 1660, the church-wardens of St Margaret’s. Mathias Welles and Thomas Thetford (making sure their names were prominent), rushed to make amends. Hence the royal arms high on the chancel arch. Jollier lions and unicorns are hard to find:

 

 

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Going critical

The world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place in the west stands, Old Stagg Field, of the University of Chicago on 2nd December 1942. Which means that I was born in the atomic age. Just about.

I blanch at Enrico Fermi’s confidence in his own expertise, that one of the most (ahem!) explosive experiments in all science was undertaken alongside East 55th Street.

Coitus interruptus

Translate that to national economics, and today an experiment of comparable magnitude is happening next to Westminster Bridge. The (erstwhile) “Great Repeal Bill”, then down-rated to mere “Repeal Bill”, has now slithered into the light of parliamentary day as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

The Mayo Clinic reckons the withdrawal method of “contraception” has, in practice, a failure rate of 22%.

It’s hard, ain’t it hard?

Of course, today is only the First Reading, so little more than a nod-and-a-wink.

The real event will be the Second reading; and there we can expect the Labour Opposition to lay amendments, and vote against any substantive motion. With a nominal majority of a bare dozen (and that’s only achieved with the mercenary aid of the DUP), the work of the government whips will be severely taxing. This is where the business of minority government becomes progressively more onerous. All the Opposition has to do is keep the powder dry, and a cohort floating in and around the Commons chamber, and every single Tory (and paid DUPper) has to available for instant voting service.

The nearest to living through the dying months of the Callaghan Government is James Graham’s drama This House. I saw that in its original at the Cottesloe Theatre, so that must have been in the late autumn of 2012. Philip Glenister (yes, DCI Gene Hunt of Life on Mars) humanised the (more-brutish-in-real-life) Labour Whip, Bob Mellish. The best rôle was Charles Edwards as the Tory Whip (and later Speaker of the Commons) Jack Weatherill. The play was revived in the West End over the past winter. Next tour it will be on tour around the provincial theatres. It’s not just a good (arguably, great) play: it is supremely relevant to our present political predicament.

For anyone with socialist/anarchic tendencies (like myself), the progress of the Brexit legislation is going to somewhere between fascinating and a-laugh-a-minute. There are few things more delightful than watching the natural enemy impaled on a cross of his (or, in this case, her) own construction. As the BBC web-site summarises:

MPs must “work together” on Brexit, the minister in charge of the UK’s EU exit has said, as he published a bill to convert EU law into British law.

The legislation, known as the repeal bill, will ensure the same rules apply in the UK after Brexit, while giving UK parliaments the power to change them.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said he will “work with anyone” to make it a success, but he faces opposition.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told the government: “This will be hell.”

Labour vowed to vote against the legislation unless there were significant changes to the details previously set out, while the SNP said there needed to be “clarity” over which powers repatriated from the EU should go to the devolved nations.

The Conservatives are relying on Democratic Unionist Party support to win key votes after losing their Commons majority in the general election.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said there could be “parliamentary guerrilla warfare” on the bill.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “For opposition parties and for Remainer Tories there is a sense today of ‘here we go’. This is government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book”.

Formally known as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the draft legislation is a key plank of the government’s Brexit strategy.

Note therein: government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book. This is why Theresa May was induced to go for that General Election, which was supposed to bring in a phalanx of Tory Brexiteers, all grateful to the all-powerful Theresa May for giving them their seat. This is why the Labour Opposition (who, where it counted, exploited the Remain tendency) feel the political wind behind them. This is why the SNP and Lib Dems feel they have a chance to regain lost ground. This is why, for all the Corbyn bounce and froth, the combined Opposition may not — yet — want to bring the whole thing crashing down. Better to watch, wait, and relish the Tories in a terminal agony.

The Tory press

What allowed Fermi’s reactor to “go critical” was withdrawing the control-rods:

A simple design for a control rod was developed, which could be made on the spot: cadmium sheet nailed to a flat wooden strip … The [thirteen-foot] strips had to be inserted and removed by hand. Except when the reactivity of the pile was being measured, they were kept inside the pile and locked using a simple hasp and padlock …

(Herbert Anderson, a research student at Columbia, under John R Dunning, who became Fermi’s assistant at Chicago, quoted by Richard Rhodes, pages 433-4)

The extent to which the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill goes critical, and toxic for the Tories, depends on how the public prints moderate the reaction. The analogy of those cadmium strips is how the “papers of record” record it. Since the UK press is heavily dominated by foreign and Brexiteering owners, I have little faith the delivery will be as honest (and inflammatory) as it should be.

Take, for an example, Iain Martin in today’s The Times.

His main thrust is:

Negotiating Brexit terms with a nascent superstate will require leadership that Theresa May is not equipped to provide

Out of the traps, one recognises a frothing Brexiteer by the travesty of the EU as a nascent superstate. It isn’t. It is a working model of 27 proud and separate nations who have chosen to subsume some aspects of sovereignty in a common enterprise. Martin even goes so far as to nominate the next Tory Prime Minister:

Of the available candidates the Brexit secretary David Davis looks to me the best choice and Boris seems done for. But the chancellor Philip Hammond could emerge, or a compromise candidate such as the home secretary Amber Rudd or Priti Patel, the international development secretary.

We can see we have wandered further into Cloud-Cuckoo-Land when Priti Patel (few come harder rightist) can be suggested as a compromise candidate.

Go forth, or fourth, and stupify

In the middle of Martin’s musings comes this:

Right now, Britain does not have any leadership: it must find it soon or lose badly.

Partly this is because voting to leave a superstate in the making is, it turns out, much easier than actually leaving. The hard Brexiteers had given too little thought to how it would be done, certainly. The softer Brexiteers (me included) cannot agree on what a compromise looks like. And gleeful ultra-Remainers want to try the experiment of telling the voters that last year’s referendum doesn’t count.

Martin elides any distinction between the Tory Party and the wider nation. If Theresa May is not up to the job, the whole national enterprise is rudderless, without leadership. Not so, unless we have truly evolved into an “imperial presidency”. The power in the land should be the collective will of the Commons. If there isn’t a dominating political majority, the various views represented in the Commons have to be sifted until a consensus (actually, no more than a general will of over 320-0r-so MPs) is arrived at.

But Martin’s worst bit of journalistic legerdemain is to assert there are only three possible viewpoints: hard Brexiteers, softer Brexiteers and gleeful ultra-Remainers. The 48% (or, as recent polling suggests, now nearer the mid-50s %) are all gleeful and, like the Irriducibili football hooligans of Lazio, ultras? Catch herself’ on, Iain!

Outside the foetid world of Tory tabloids, one general opinion is closer to a fourth category: soft Remainers.

These are the folk who, regretfully, accept what came out of the 23rd June 2016 referendum,

  • whether or not it was fairly run (the electorate was appropriately pruned),
  • whether or not we voters were told truths, half-truths, or diabolical lies,
  • whether or not a 48.1/51.9 split is final and decisive’
  • whether or not it multiple subsequent interpretations anyhow approximate to what was argued beforehand.

And “soft Remainers” are going to be the crucial mass of MPs and their noble Lordships who will be the equivalent of those cadmium rods, and determine the final shape of  the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

One practical example

What happened at Stagg Field has had consequences over the intervening three-quarters of a century (Grief! Am I that old?). It led to:

  • Hiroshima, and Nagasaki;
  • deterrence theory, and MAD;
  • some 500 nuclear power plants across thirty countries around the world;
  • Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl;
  • the production of 11 or 12% of global electricity supplies;
  • nuclear and isotopic medicines and advances.

One thing that has been universally agreed is that nuclear power should be controlled and regulated internationally. After various failures (the Baruch Plan, UNAEC, attempts at non-proliferation treaties), for sixty years we have had the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Not perfect, not wholly world-wide, but it largely works.

Gone critical

Across Europe and 29 nations we have Euratom. Originally Euratom was somewhat aside from the Coal and Steel Community, but was pursued as a discrete operation and source of energy. For convenience, Euratom was folded into the 1965 Merger Treaty of the EEC. Even after Maastricht in 1993, Euratom remained a separate entity, not under direct EU control. There is, logically, no reason why the UK should not remain as associated as Switzerland — except the bone-headedness of one, Theresa May, as the thrall of the Tory head-bangers. The objection by these types is the European Court of Justice’s

rare and arcane judgments on nuclear matters… Rules on nuclear energy are not politically sensitive and were not an issue in the referendum campaign. The government does not need to take such a rigid position on the ECJ in this domain.

(The Times, second leader, 12th July 2017.)

In recent days, all and sundry have recognised that the UK needs supplies of isotopes (for which we have no production facilities) through Euratom (which also gives access to 71% of world uranium production).

Then there is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. It will be owned and un by EDF Energy. That is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Électricité de France. Which, some may think, raises intriguing questions of Euratom oversight.

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