Sunday, 26 April 2015

Thomas the Tank Engine meets Doctor Strangelove

Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks. 
General "Buck" Turgidson, from Doctor Strangelove, conceding that an all-out nuclear war might involve a 'modest and acceptable' level of civilian casualties. But, hey, every dark cloud has a silver lining. The survivors might be subsisting in a scorched, radioactive wasteland, but we'd still have steam trains and who doesn't love steam trains?

Yes, steam trains. During the Cold War, several countries, including the Soviet Union and Sweden apparently kept a Strategic Steam Reserve (SSR), to be used in the event of a catastrophic war or overwhelming natural disaster disabling electrified railways and cutting off the oil supplies needed to run diesel trains.

There were even rumours that Britain kept its own secret SSR, although this seems to have been an urban legend, based on the wishful thinking of a few steam enthusiasts who wanted to believe in a secret cache of pristine steam locos just waiting to be discovered. A myth, but a strangely resonant one.

Here's Roy Bainton writing about our imaginative modern myths of what lies beneath, including those 'mighty iron beasts, waiting there in the subterranean darkness' to emerge in their country's hour of need, like King Arthur* from under his hill:
The aftermath of the 1963 Beeching Report, which decimated Britain’s rail network, coincided with the dark days of the Cold War and the growing paranoia around the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. As a long-serving steam locomotive driver, the hapless Sheffield railwayman was among many who were designated the sad task of seeing their faithful engines, which were to be replaced by diesel units, off onto their final trip to the breaker’s yards at Barry Island in South Wales. He’d already heard strange stories of footplate crews being sent home early from work only to return to find ‘their’ engine had vanished during the night. Then, one night in 1967, he’d been approached by ‘a man from the MoD’ and was asked, along with a selected few other drivers, to become part of a special crew taking selected locomotives on a journey not to the scrap yard, but to a secret location, where they would be mothballed for future use. However, every driver, fireman or Fat Controller employed in this scheme was required to sign the Official Secrets Act and never reveal the whereabouts of their slumbering Thomas Tank Engines. Urban Myth - or Conspiracy nuttery?

The facts are thin on the ground, but there were selective records kept of all locomotives decommissioned and scrapped. Members of the train spotting fraternity are noted for their meticulous thoroughness, and those with a keen eye soon spotted the absence in the records of approximately 70 engines. It is known that at one time the Royal Engineers ran courses for the Sappers in steam loco driving . With the closure of the Longmoor Military Railway in 1969, which ran 70 miles between Liss and Bordon in Hampshire, the MoD lost its own in-house training facility. All this could be cited as circumstantial evidence, although it doesn’t prove locos were ‘spirited away’. However, if they have been hidden, then their location remains the Holy Grail for romantically-minded rail fans.

This secret fleet of locos, claimed by train aficionados to be Stanier 8 and 9F models, most of which were only 10 years old, with an expected service life of between 50 and 100 years were to be kept in reserve in the event of a nuclear attack. The USSR had already done this, as had Sweden and some other Eastern European countries. It became known as the SSR (Strategic Steam Reserve). Railway fans of a more quixotic bent saw these fine machines in the role of a mechanical King Arthur, ready and waiting to answer the call in the hour of Britain’s need. Being organically propelled vehicles, and, at the time, the UK having huge coal stocks, they offered the prospect of some kind of transportation in an apocalyptic Mad Max landscape where everything electrical had been trashed due to the immense electromagnetic radiation given off by a nuclear blast.
* Sadly, the King Arthur Class locomotives don't seem to figure in the legend of Britain's Strateigic Steam Reserve...

Friday, 24 April 2015

Should be taken with a handful of salt

So that too-big-to-fail criminal enterprise and byword for corporate irresponsibility, HSBC, has thrown its toys out of the pram. Guess which newspaper paper is practically falling over itself in its rush to wrap the big crybaby in a big fluffy comfort blanket and stuff a consoling dummy into its squalling gob? Yes, it's the fearlessly independent and utterly unbiased Telegraph:

'If Labour wins, HSBC exit could be first of many
'HSBC, Britain's biggest bank, has announced that it may leave the UK following several increases in the bank levy and post-crisis regulatory changes,' wails obedient Telegraph hack Szu Ping Chan.

There, there, never mind:
Any initiative to increase regulation on banks is usually met with an uproar from banks that they will be forced to move their headquarters abroad with catastrophic effects on tax take and business. That politicians and regulators routinely appear to be held hostage to implied threats to leave is testament to the unbalanced information available as to the contribution of the banking sector. But are the threats themselves even credible?

Calculations by the Independent Commission on Banking show that the threats may in fact be empty. More than 50% of taxes from banking come from activities that would be ‘hard to impossible’ to carry out from abroad, such as retail and high street banking to UK customers. Another 27%-36% of the financial service tax contribution comes from “sticky” activities meaning that they could theoretically be moved abroad but only with considerable inconvenience. The activities that could easily be moved abroad only contribute 5% of all financial services tax contributions. Unless the level of regulation is extremely punitive, the banks are likely to find that leaving the UK does not make good business sense. In addition, it is highly likely that, with the emergence of new economic centres on other continents, a significant proportion of “unsticky” activities will relocate anyway. In short, threats that banks would leave the UK if regulations and reforms go ‘too far too fast’ should be taken with a handful of salt.
Banking Vs Democracy

And that's making the huge assumtion that it's good for Britain to to carry on hosting such a dangerously top-heavy financial sector:
But critics of the banks' sheer size - and there are a few of those around, including the governor of the Bank of England and the chairman of the FSA - will be concerned that British banks will remain dangerously large relative to the size of the economy and the financial resources of the British state.
It is worth reminding you that three banks - HSBC, RBS and Barclays - each have gross loans and investments equivalent to annual British economic output, GDP, or more...

...To put that into context, British banks in aggregate are well over six times bigger than American banks, relative to the size of their respective economies.
Robert Peston

Thursday, 23 April 2015

'As a generation we have turned a corner'

Women becoming nuns hits 25-year high
BBC headline 

A Church source explained  that England and Wales experienced a remarkable nun boom last year, triggered by women being drawn to the religious life because of a 'gap in the market for meaning in our culture ...  the fact that more women are becoming nuns than there has been [sic] in the past 25 years shows that as a generation we have turned a corner.' When I looked, this was the 8th most popular story on the BBC news website:
So, exactly how many women became nuns in England and Wales in this extraordinary year?

45. Up from a low of seven (in 2004).

Does an unconventional lifestyle choice by 45 people out of a population of 56,000,000+ constitute a demographic trend that warrants a national news headline and a soundbite from an official source explaining how 'as a generation we have turned a corner?'

Maybe, as a generation, we have turned a corner - but not in the direction suggested by the Church spokesperson. In 2001, working with some rather larger numbers, the census for England and Wales asked the question "What is your religion?" 14.81% said "none." When they asked the same question in 2011 around a quarter (25.1%) said "none." This might not represent an actual loss of 5 million religious adherents in a decade - other surveys are available - but the general trend looks clear and, this time, the magnitude of the numbers isn't so ridiculously microscopic that they disappear at the scale of national populations.

Now it's true that the Catholics haven't experienced quite the same level of catastrophic decline as the Anglicans, but doing better than the Anglicans isn't setting the bar very high, considering that:
  1. The Catholics are starting from a lower base (8.9% of the population, as opposed to 19.9% for the C of E, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey 2009, which was for the whole of the UK, not just England and Wales).
  2. Several denominations, including the Catholics, have benefited from recent demographic changes, like the arrival of more Polish Catholics in the UK, according to research by people like Peter Brierley who surveyed nearly 300 Christian denominations in the UK in 2013.
  3. The stark decline in ordinations to the priesthood has been somewhat offset by the poaching of former conservative Anglican priests via the The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
But, for all the qualifications, the long-term trends look bleak, as this snapshot from before the advent of Polish migrants and the Ordinariate shows:
The figures for marriages and baptisms are not simply alarming, but disastrous. In 1944 there were 30,946 marriages, by 1964 the figure had risen to 45,592-----but by 1999 it had plunged to 13,814, well under half the figure for 1944. The figures for baptisms for the same years are 71,604 (1944), 137,673 (1964), and 63,158 (1999)...

... Apart from marriages and baptisms, Mass attendance is the most accurate guide to the vitality of the Catholic community. The figure has plunged from 2,114,219 in 1966 to 1,041,728 in 1999 and is still falling at a rate of about 32,000 a year.

In 1944, 178 priests were ordained; in 1964, 230; and in 1999 only 43-----and in the same year 121 priests died. 
Michael Davies' book Liturgical Time Bombs, as quoted on the Latin Mass Chairman's blog.

It makes you wonder why the Catholic Church would want to overplay 45 people deciding to join religious orders as a significant 'generational' shift.

  • they're fully aware that the actual numbers are less than a drop in the ocean, but they're desperate for anything that might look like a positive headline
  • their spokesman was Father Dougal McGuire, who's still having a few conceptual difficulties with the relative sizes of big things and small things...:

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The obsolescence of satire, continued

First, Deutsche Bank issued an apocalyptic warning about voters putting the economy at risk. Now those lovely people at Goldman Sachs want you to know that they, too, are worried in case you take foolish risks with the economy. Seriously, you couldn't make this stuff up.

Well, that's the first two horsemen out of the traps. As far as I remember, the third horseman of the Apocalypse rode a black horse - maybe we'll next get our next lecture on responsible behaviour straight from the horse's mouth of that Libor-rigging, tax-evasion promoting, mis-selling old nag that was only saved from the knackers yard with a £20.5bn injection of public money?
What is it David Cameron keeps on saying about not taking any lectures from the people who created the mess in the first place?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Katie Hopkins, film critic

I love the smell of bullshit in the morning...
Today in entertainment news, I can exclusively reveal the appointment of celebrity pundit Katie Hopkins as the Sun's newest film critic. Here's the acclaimed columnist at work on her review of Apocalypse Med, an ultraviolent action movie which doesn't literally exist in our world but is graphically real inside Katie's head:
Suddenly she began writing in sheer panic, only imperfectly aware of what she was setting down. Her small but childish handwriting straggled up and down the page, shedding first its capital letters and finally even its full stops:

April 4th 21st, 1984 2015. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child's arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never

Katie stopped writing, partly because she was suffering from cramp. She did not know what had made her pour out this stream of rubbish... 
In other news, sources close to Katie Hopkins have confirmed that, as well as writing reviews of imaginary movies, Katie will be continuing with her regular opinion pieces for the Sun, now to be published under the exciting new title The Two Minutes Hate.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Control button

Have you ever pressed the button on a pedestrian crossing and doubted whether the button really affects the timing of the traffic lights? Thanks to Chris Baraniuk writing for BBC - Future I now know that - at least sometimes - it doesn't. Placebo buttons (AKA idiot buttons) are apparently a thing, at pedestrian crossings, or on London Underground trains, where pressing the button to open the carriage doors doesn't affect when the automatic doors will actually open, or in offices where employees can assuage their feelings of powerlessness by pressing a fake button which purports to adjust the thermostat controlling the workspace air con.

But don't worry, folks, the little white lies are only for your own good:
“Feeling you have control over your world is a desirable state,” she [psychologist Ellen Langer] explains. When it comes to those deceptive traffic light buttons, Langer says there could be a whole host of reasons why the placebo effect might be counted as a good thing. “Doing something is better than doing nothing, so people believe,” she says. “And when you go to press the button your attention is on the activity at hand. If I’m just standing at the corner I may not even see the light change, or I might only catch the last part of the change, in which case I could put myself in danger.”

...The truth is that technology has long been deceiving us. Sometimes this is ethically questionable, but in other cases the user benefits from a sense of control and reassurance that the system is working as it should. 
Which sounds plausible ... kind of ... but it does make you wonder about the sort of power relations going on here - the users of the system are conned into thinking they're some kind of engaged stakeholders when in reality they have as much control as lab rats in a Skinner box.

It's also a worrying sign of how cheaply acquiescence can be bought (or, more accurately, how easily it can be stolen). But at least it provides us with a new metaphor for these days of management and nudge. Where the Roman elite talked about "bread and circuses" as shorthand for the real crumbs they had to throw the plebs to keep them from rioting, we've got "idiot button" to describe the trigger for those fake feelings of autonomy and agency which keep the Not Very Important People in their place (also see "engagement", "choice"and "consultation").

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Chaos theory

I'm Mark Lancaster, standing for the party that's headed Britain's coalition government for the past five years, and I approve this message.
The party election leaflet from our local Conservative MP recycles two of David Cameron's riskier election soundbites, 'Competence and a clear plan' versus a 'Coalition of chaos'. Probably not the best choice of words to big up the record of the biggest party in Britain's first coalition government since 1945.

It's not the only weird bit of Conservative electioneering that's been going on lately - there was that odd blip when the attacks on Ed Miliband decohered from consistent jibes about him being a spineless, ineffectual dweeb to the paradoxical hypothesis of Schrödinger's Ed, a being who exists in a state of helpless, invertebrate dorkishness whilst simultaneously being a ruthlessly efficient political assassin and major babe magnet. I guess neither version is real until an observer opens the ballot box.

John Lanchester detected a Cunning Plan behind the apparent electioneering chaos. His theory was that the strange change of taunts from "Ed the loser" to "Ed the unstoppable Terminator sexbot" was a calculated piece of positional warfare, intended to secure the Conservative right flank. Lanchester's theory was that the Conservative election machine deliberately talked Ed Miliband up as a credible threat, in order to to traumatise the lost children of the Conservative family in their adoptive Ukip home. The plan was supposedly to frighten the little mites into believing that a vote for cuddly Uncle Nigel would let Ed the scary wardrobe monster into their bedrooms and make them all come running back home to mummy:
The idea was to get Kippers imagining Ed in front of that very same Downing Street backdrop, launching a new initiative to open the country’s borders to HIV-positive transsexual terrorist Roma benefit scroungers. This might have had the side effect of making Ed a more imaginable prime minister for some centrist voters – I think it probably did, a little bit – but those aren’t the voters the Tories are after. They want the Kippers to think that a vote for Nigel is a vote for Ed, and that Ed is their worst nightmare. 
All part of a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel? Or just an unsightly tuft of random stubble in need of a quick shave with Hanlon's Razor ('Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.')? You decide.