Thursday, 30 April 2020

Early Redford

Most devotees of classic film, and collectors of classic quotes, know of the dismissal of Fred Astaire's performance at his first screen test: “Can’t act; slightly bald; can dance a little.”. Less well-known (indeed I cannot trace a Web reference) is an assessment of the young Robert Redford by an equally obtuse studio underling: “Just another Hollywood blonde; throw a stick on the beach and you would hit half-a-dozen of them.”

Well, the chance comes to assess that aspirant actor tonight on the CBS Justice channel. In 1960, five years before his big screen credit in Situation Hopeless -- But Not Serious followed by Inside Daisy Clover, he launched his career playing numerous parts in TV series. One such was the Perry Mason episode being screened tonight at 6 p.m. (and repeated tomorrow at mid-day).

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Wales must not neglect vaccination

It is tempting for young parents to put off the MMR jab during the current emergency. Indeed, there are informal reports that vaccination rates in Wales fell in the first quarter of this year, as if the dire results of the fake "autism" scare were already forgotten. It cannot be stressed enough that measles can be a killer, and it and mumps can cause life-changing damage. Rubella (German measles) is a threat to unborn children.

So it is unsurprising that NHS Wales has issued a media release reminding us of the need for vaccination. There need be no Covid-19 infection fears; social distancing measures are in place to protect both the public and the nursing staff that administer the vaccines. Appropriate infection control procedures are being followed.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Non-Covid-19 stories from the last week

These would have received more attention in the UK if it had not been for the pandemic

Iran's Revolutionary Guard launch military satellite

Al-Jazeera reports that "As a military satellite, what we're likely to see is this to be used specifically for intelligence gathering and secure communications for the navigation of forces on land and sea". Iran learned the hard way of the value of satellite data during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam, who was in 1988 regarded as a US asset, was supplied with data about Iranian troop movements by the CIA.

The intelligence about military activities by Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies will no doubt be invaluable to Iran's clients worldwide and must surely be of more concern than Iran's developing a successful launch vehicle.

Flash floods in Yemen aggravate cholera epidemic

Facebook buys large stake in Indian conglomerate

Mark Zuckerberg increases his presence in India. Two things occur to me: although his stake is in a subsidiary of Reliance, Zuckerberg may well be straying beyond the pure provision of social media platforms. The other is that this heats the battle with China for the Indian market, with the UK (if only we would use it more) and America having the benefit of the English language.

2019 was Europe's hottest year

On the fiftieth Earth Day, it was revealed that 2019 had been Europe's warmest year since comprehensive records began. It also looks as if this month will turn out to the UK's driest April on record.

Floods in Tanzania

Northern provinces of Tanzania have been hit by floods and mudslides. In addition to the loss of homes and life, there must also be the danger of water-borne diseases.

Lesotho murder case drags on

In the meantime, the prime minister implicated in the scandal has been eased out of office.

Germany tries Syrian former officials accused of torture

This is not the first instance of a trial mounted by a third party nation on grounds of crimes against humanity, but it seems to me a major step by Germany.

India extends Kashmir high-speed internet ban

Anti-terrorist measures a cover for economic warfare? DW has the story.

Monday, 27 April 2020

More thoughts on Covid-19

Changing attitudes

It is not all that long ago that a disease with such a low mortality rate as Covid-19 would have been accepted as at worst a punishment from God which had to be borne. Measles was one such (though it could be more generally fatal in a susceptible population, like the victims of the conquistadores). Rubella and varicella did not merit separate descriptions until the age of science.  Even consumption (tuberculosis) was tolerated. Indeed, it acquired a certain cachet: witness the deaths of poets from Catullus to Keats and the subjects of Italian grand opera.

However, there were diseases which did engender isolation measures. Leprosy was probably the earliest, as we know from the Bible. Later, plague caused authorities to act as Mary Reid points out: - and, of course, the term "quarantine" derives from renaissance Venice's public health measures.

Smallpox probably came betwixt the two extremes. Fifteenth century China did endeavour to reduce the impact of the disease by variolation. The practice seems to have spread along the trade routes to Turkey, where Lady Mary Wortley Montagu learned of it and promoted its use in Britain. However, the use of a live virus was always a bit iffy and it was not until Jenner came along with his cowpox that the safer vaccination (from the Latin word for "cow") became common practice.

Although that remedy was pragmatic rather than based on scientific theory, it may well have marked the turning point. From then on, it became clear that, given the right method, many infectious diseases could be prevented. The identification of bacteria towards the end of the 19th century and of viruses later hastened the process. The outbreak of severe influenza at the end of the Great War, which was calculated to have taken more lives than did the conflict. was therefore intolerable.

The practice of deliberately spreading so-called childhood diseases by means of "pox parties" persisted into the twentieth century, but as the long-term dangers became known and safe vaccines became available, these are now unknown in the Western world.

The history of Covid-19

It is rare to find a clear time-line for the emergence of Covid-19. (It surely could not be that national media find it convenient to fog the issue because of their governments' failure to act in time? Perish the thought!) However, there is a very clear one here:

Note that, though it took almost a month for the Chinese authorities to realise they had a serious novel respiratory disease on their hands, by the end of December 2019 they had notified the World Health Organisation of its existence. Seven days later:
On 7 January, a new type of coronavirus is identified and isolated by Chinese authorities. Five days later, China shares the genetic sequence of the virus for countries to use in developing diagnostic kits.
- which gives the lie to those national leaders who blame their shilly-shallying on Chinese secrecy.

Note also that contact tracing was clearly in operation in both Taiwan (which started screening* from day 1 of the WHO notification) and New Zealand. Contrast that with the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities in Sussex who failed to inform the contacts of a businessman from West Sussex (who had returned from a known hot-spot, a French ski resort) including a NHS doctor who almost certainly passed the infection on to other GPs before she became symptomatic and succumbed to the disease. [Source: Phil Hammond, MD, in Private Eye] The Sussex man may not even have been UK's "patient zero".

What now?

New Zealand is beginning to relax her restrictions. In my (admittedly non-expert) opinion, this may be too soon before we know enough about the virus, even though PM Ardern believes Covid-19 infection has been practically eliminated there. But there is no excuse for governments who cannot be certain whether infection has even peaked in their countries to be talking about imminent transition to "normality".

* Taiwan's screening initially consisted of simply picking out the known symptoms of the disease - not as absolutely certain as identifying the virus in a lab., but a good practical first step, especially when combined with other measures.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Keep the Cambridge Centre for Computing History Museum going

Having taken so much effort to establish this invaluable record of Britain's pioneering work in the field of computing, it would be a pity to let the current lockdown jeopardise it. Sadly, the pandemic has meant that the museum has had to close its doors to all visitors, including the many school groups it usually hosts. It depends on these visits for almost all its income. If you visit their website at you will see that they are appealing for donations to help sustain them at this difficult time. They are trying to raise £38,000 and have made a good start, but there is still some way to go. If you have anything to spare after contributing to health-related funds, please help to make sure we do not lose this precious resource.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

A plea for asthma sufferers in the current pandemic

Thanks to the pioneering work of Sir David Jack and the British pharmaceutical companies which employed him, my asthma is now under control and, apart from seasonal common cold infections for which there is as yet no cure, gives me little trouble. However, there are more recalcitrant forms of the condition which do not respond to standard treatments. And we are all threatened by Covid-19 which lurks throughout the country.

Asthma UK runs a Helpline which is invaluable in normal times. However, in the present emergency it is receiving eight times the normal level of calls. Asthma UK's experienced nurses - working from home, it should be remembered - are struggling to keep up, even after working extra hours. There is a desperate need to increase capacity on the Helpline and in other services.

Timely advice may result in fewer hospital admissions and will clearly reduce pressure on the NHS.

Please contribute what you can at 

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Yet more evidence of warnings about pandemic danger

(Acknowledgements to JSTOR Daily)

In September of last year, that is, a couple of months before even the authorities in Wuhan realised there was a novel pathogen on the loose in their city, this report appeared. Entitled "Preparedness for a High-Impact Respiratory Pathogen Pandemic", it had been drawn up by a team at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University at the behest of that centre's monitoring board. The authors were careful to distance themselves from their commissioners and from the people they consulted, but the latter had international standing and the team of authors was high-powered. The gist of the report was:

This report examines the current state of preparedness for pandemics caused by “high-impact respiratory pathogens” — that is, pathogens with the potential for widespread transmission and high observed mortality. Were a high-impact respiratory pathogen to emerge, either naturally or as the result of accidental or deliberate release, it would likely have significant public health, economic, social, and political consequences. Novel high-impact respiratory pathogens have a combination of qualities that contribute to their potential to initiate a pandemic. The combined possibilities of short incubation periods and asymptomatic spread can result in very small windows for interrupting transmission, making such an outbreak difficult to contain. The potential for high-impact respiratory pathogens to affect many countries at once will likely require international approaches different from those that have typically occurred in geographically limited events, such as the ongoing Ebola crisis in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Numerous high-level reviews have been commissioned in recent years to take stock of global preparedness for infectious disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. These reviews have assessed current preparedness structures and capabilities, have identified existing gaps, and have proposed recommendations for strengthening outbreak prevention, detection, and response. But preparedness for a high-impact respiratory pathogen pandemic has received little specific focus in these high-level reviews. While there has been some focus on improving international and national capacities for pandemic influenza, specifically after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, there have been few (if any) high-level reviews or recommendations focusing on the possibility of other high-impact respiratory pathogens with pandemic potential. The lack of global attention on and consideration of this threat speaks to the urgency of addressing preparedness for epidemics and pandemics that might be caused by high-impact respiratory pathogens. While there is overlap between the systems and capabilities required to respond to any disease outbreak, a high-impact respiratory pathogen poses serious additional challenges that deserve special consideration.

The authors of the report even foresaw the threat posed by asymptomatic spread, though even they might well have been surprised by the long incubation period of Covid-19. They recommended many improvements to public health regimes and warned what would occur if those steps were not taken. (As we have seen in England and Wales, those predictions have also come true.) 

There is one frightening warning which has not yet been put to the test and must give pause for thought to those developing vaccines:
Many respiratory viruses possess RNA (as opposed to DNA) genomes [as Covid-19 does], which may also confer special status on this group in terms of pandemic potential. An RNA genome is often characterized by high degrees of mutability, some of which may confer vaccine escape, antiviral resistance, heightened viral shedding, or increased pathogenicity.

The whole report is worth reading.

For those readers who subscribe to the theory that Red China secretly weaponised Covid-19, I would point out that the Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, is an internationally-respected leader in the field of zoonoses.  Not only do they collaborate with Western laboratories, they also publish in the West. This paper, from 2015, is particularly relevant. It may well have set the ball rolling at Johns Hopkins.

Deadly Xylella

Yet another plant pathogen is increasing its range. Xylella fastidiosa threatens both commercial growers and gardeners who value ornamental shrubs. There is even a threat to Britain's iconic oaks and plane trees. The government has therefore banned the import of olive trees and lavender bushes, the main hosts of the bacterium.

BBC further reports:
Spread by spittle-bugs and other sap-sucking insects, the resulting disease has no treatment and it is said to have cut Italy's olive harvest to its lowest level in 25 years.

It seems to me that this is yet another manifestation of global warming, in that winter frosts are less frequent or severe than even a decade ago. Consequently both the bacterium and the insects carrying it are able to over-winter further north than hitherto.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Ffranc the Englishman in Aprils gone by

A couple of days late, here is my response to Jonathan Calder's look back over blogging on the date of 19th April in previous years:


On April 19th last year, I was confessing to my addiction to piling up books not all of which I got round to reading. I learned two new words: bibliotaph and tsundoku.


Welsh independence movements seemed to be springing up all over the place, recalling the Judaean insurgents in The Life of Brian.


Metal theft, like that from Network Rail property, was still a concern.


Electrical work on the Great Western main line extension to Swansea was on budget and on time, whatever the failings in other areas of the modernisation.


Postings were naturally concerned with the upcoming general election (at which the Liberal Democrats were to be punished for blindly following Nick Clegg down the path of increased cuts to the income of people who could bear them least). I re-posted a table showing that the party was second only to the Green Party in its manifesto commitment to the environment (this must still be true today). I also lent support to Ed Goncalves' campaign in Rugby, majoring on an attack on the expenses culture in Westminster (sadly the election literature is no longer accessible). Ed seems not to be active on the party political front now, but I guess he is the man who founded the campaign to ban trophy hunting


One posting was on a frequent theme of mine, that the Labour Party is more concerned about eliminating liberalism in the country than in attacking Toryism.  The other reminds us that even the Obama regime danced to Saudi Arabia's (and Israel's) tune over Iran.


There was nothing on Friday 19th, but the next day remembered the conductor Colin Davis.


 Jack Tramiel deserves a place in computing history, though he was no saint.

I trust that Wrexham council's housing department still makes use of the Nissan Leaf electric saloons acquired when the council was led by Liberal Democrats.


This day's posting drew attention to one of Mark Pack's heroes, the education pioneer H.A.L. Fisher whose work in Lloyd George's coalition government anticipated R.A. Butler's in 1944, only post-Great War austerity delaying much-needed reform.


Another posting about Labour attacking Liberal Democrats for Labour's own failings.

I see also that Neath Ales was founded round about this time. I hope they survive the next decade also. Their Facebook page is


A tongue-in-cheek instance of my obsession with Mercury Theatre actors and the dirty tricks of the Labour Party.


In the run-up to a historic Westminster election, there was an attack on the Plaid/Labour coalition in Cardiff going back (not for the first time) on an election pledge. Then there was a hardy perennial (sorry!) calling for more allotments to be made available.

Before that, there was a short but sincere appreciation of Gwyneth Dunwoody who had just died.


Before I had my own, I used to contribute to the local party's blog. This was one of mine from 18th April, on the subject of green (or not) campaigning.


I did not blog before winter in 2006, but I found this from CIX on 18th April:

"Land of the twitching curtain"

BBC Radio Wales is two-thirds of the way through a Milgram-type connection 
experiment. The target is a church minister in Caerffili (just north of 
Cardiff) and the source letters were distributed throughout Wales.

Not relevant to movie_trivia, but the results (due next week) should be 
interesting. I would expect the average degree of connectedness to be one 
less than the Milgram original, because his target was in a distant state 
(Nebraska IIRC).

The result? The following week saw this posting:
The final figure for the BBC-Wales experiment was an astonishing 3.2 
degrees of separation. (To put this in perspective, when Milgram conducted 
his experiment within the city of Boston, he achieved 4.4 degrees.)

The choice of target - a non-conformist minister - may have influenced the 
result. There could be a greater degree of connectedness within the church 
community in Wales.

A worrying feature is that a large number of packages went missing.


19th April saw this dig at New Labour:
I'm saying that (apart from the tax credits and a few other 
odds-and-ends) Labour has not been more redistributive than the Major 

There was a one-off act of redistribution by Michael Heseltine, when he 
accompanied the introduction of council tax with large grants to councils.


A posting on CIX, pointing out a practical loophole in the secret ballot:

It is not easy to find out how an individual voted, but finding all 
the voters for a particular ticket, especially a non-mainstream one 
like the Socialist Workers Party or the Democratic Left, is another 
matter. The bundles of ballot papers (which are in party order after 
the count) are usually just gathered up, as they are finished with, 
put in sacks and stored in the town/county hall basement.

Monday, 20 April 2020

More news apart from Covid-19

Mass gun killing in Nova Scotia

Canada has stricter laws regarding possession of weapons than south of the border, but even so an apparently crazed former Mountie was able to take 16 lives in a rare killing spree yesterday.

105 insurgents killed in Nigeria

Government officials reported that the Nigerian Army killed at least 105 insurgents last week in counter-terror operations against Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP).

Floods in Kenya

Following previous inundations last month and in November before that, there have been devastating flash floods in Kenya.

Hail in Australia

Golf-ball-sized hailstones pelted the coast of Queensland yesterday.

Canberra moves to force Facebook and Google to pay for news content

Australian government spokesmen cite the damage caused to local media.

Wildfires near Chernobyl

Pollution drifts to Kyiv, but so far there has been no measurable radio-activity above background levels.

Control of Ebola outbreak lost in Democratic Republic of Congo

Just when it seemed that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and local health organisations were getting on top of last year's major outbreak, it is reported that a man diagnosed with the disease absconded from the facility where he was to be treated and cannot be traced. 

This is no time to be withdrawing funds from the WHO, considering the effects on public health round the world of conflict and of other diseases than Ebola and Covid-19. Dengue has erupted again in Latin America and there must be a threat to several African countries which have suffered floods recently from water-borne infections.

Nor does it reflect well on USA that without her contribution, the largest two contributors to the WHO are both non-governmental bodies. Next come the UK and Germany, while, according to this briefing by India Today, China - which is supposed to wield an unhealthy influence - weighs in at just 0.21% of total inflows.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Basic face masks do not protect the wearer

To be sure of complete protection, one should wear a medical mask, but these are in short supply and are quite rightly reserved for professionals at the sharp end of treating Covid-19. They may however protect other people from the wearer, if he or she is shedding bacteria. As a Euronews corona virus briefing puts it:

No matter where you are on planet Earth, people are increasingly covering their faces, whether that's with a medical mask, or simply a piece of cut cloth. It has been made compulsory in New York and similar schemes are being operated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Both Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have hinted that, as part of the easing of their countries' confinement measures, people will be advised to wear a mask in public.

Today, Germany announced it will make 10 million masks per week from August. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is asking the UK government to make covering your face while travelling in the capital compulsory. But so far, the British government doesn’t agree.

Even the advice from the World Health Organization isn’t terribly clear. It says that medical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers, not the general public. But it has suggested a more widespread use of masks will become the norm as the world adjusts to living with the novel coronavirus.

Detailed arguments are being made on both sides of the debate. To some, a face mask is a barrier: the coronavirus can be spread through coughing or sneezing, and so by covering your mouth and nose you are less likely to infect others. But others argue that most people won’t use them properly: the obvious example – which I’ve seen – is people pulling them down to have a smoke or a chat. Even touching them at all can make the masks utterly useless.

Frankly, there is both a lack of evidence and a lack of good advice. Donald Trump recently said that the US government would start recommending that people wear masks, but he personally would not be wearing one. The ongoing discussions about face masks are a reminder that, although sometimes decisions are not clear cut, they will still be made.

It looks increasingly likely that, when manufacturing capacity is fully up to speed, most of us will have to wear face masks. Governments might simply conclude that it's better to be cautious, every little could help, and maybe wearing them will make us all feel a bit safer.

Personally, I shall resist to the last what amounts to no more than virtue signalling, especially if it turns out that the government wants us to wear masks manufactured by a contributor to Conservative election funds.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

More stories crowded out by Covid-19

On top of their other troubles, the people of Yemen have been hit by flash flooding

Yemen and Libya are among the countries where the UN's call for a general cease-fire seems to have been heard. However, there have been breaches before. It remains to be seen whether the additional threat of Covid-19 clarifies the thinking of the belligerent parties.

Myanmar gets away with genocide by proxy. In addition to the camps for Rohingya refugees being breeding-grounds for many dangerous diseases, lives are lost at sea. This is just the latest instance.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Trump's attack on WHO is basically racist

By taking US funds away from the World Health Organisation, Donald Trump is reducing the international organisation's ability to fight not only Covid-19, but also Ebola, poliomyelitis, malaria and other infections which endanger the poorest and mainly non-white people of the world. The threat to the West from Ebola has been stemmed, but it is still a threat in central Africa. There is a realistic prospect of eliminating poliomyelitis, which is still in the wild in Africa and Asia. WHO has already had to fight for contributions to be paid on time; this new attack threatens its viability. It is all part of a pattern of white supremacy, intent on keeping the third world poor and uneducated. Thatcher withdrew the UK from UNESCO, which the UK had helped found, following a similar move from president Reagan in the US. President GW Bush pulled US support for family planning in Africa. Is it any wonder that China is winning support in the Third World?

And of course Trump's reason for withdrawal is specious. The WHO may have been a week or so late in doing so, but by the end of January the organisation had recognised the potential dangers and recommended preventative measures to national governments. As late as the end of February, Trump was still downplaying Covid-19 and blaming the Democrats for hyping the emergency for political reasons. Moreover, the WHO warnings came in time for Taiwan and Greece to prevent Covid-19 taking hold there. This posting gives links to data from other nations which took faster action than Trump - and Johnson - preventing many deaths.

Monday, 13 April 2020

Further thoughts on the current affliction

How soon can we get back to normal?

The media seem to be whipping up a campaign for a swift return to business as usual, whereas the public, if opinion surveys are to be believed, take the common sense view that it is too early to relax the curbs on travel and assembly. Sky and its imitators must be chafing at the lack of spectator sport from whose broadcasting they derive much of their income. Conventional newspapers bemoan a loss of sales during the current emergency.

It seems to me that a total return to normality will have to wait on the general availability of a vaccine against Covid-19. However, reliable testing kits are just over the horizon. Thus, having ensured that NHS workers are picked up early in their infection and thus one hopes saving their lives, the government can adopt a gradualist approach to the rest of the workforce. Those who have antibodies to the virus and are not shedding live virus particles may be allowed to resume normal duties. There will surely be clusters of such people so we could at least see some small businesses restarting. This seems to me to be a more sensible approach than a "big bang" abolition of all restrictions.

The grim scorecard

While Presidents Trump and Macron, and Prime Minister Johnson, are congratulating themselves on how well they have handled the crisis, they should look at the pages on Our World in Data relating to Covid-19. The rate at which infection rates increased from the date of the first case is particularly sobering.

Then what for me is the most significant figure, the per capita death rate. One may disregard the anomalous figures for Libya (where administration of public services has broken down) and some third-world countries where health services are under stress and data-gathering is hardly a priority.

At the time of writing, on a seven-day rolling average, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Greece, have a death rate of less than one in a million. Why do we not hear much about Taiwan's success? Could it be that, as President Trump suggests, mainland China has too much influence with the World Health Organisation? Why is Greece not celebrated? I suggest that within the EU the contrast with core members  Belgium (26.54), Italy (9.48), Spain (13.91) and France (13.82) is too shaming. In the UK, Greece is a favourite example of eurozone failure; Brexiteers are quiet about Greece now.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Sunday constitutionals resume

The spell of warm weather enabled me to restart my ritual of a walk through the Highlands to Longford Farm of a Sunday morning. No guilt is attached, because even in normal times one can count the joggers and dog-walkers on the fingers of one hand. What was missing this morning was the sight of ponies or a string of horses being exercised. Clearly the stables had shut down for the purposes of recreation, and indeed the warning sign made me turn round short of my destination.

Friday, 10 April 2020

(The Secret of )Dorian Gray

There was this curiosity shown on Talking Pictures TV last night. The full title was Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray (shortened for US release and adapted on translation, presumably to avoid copyright trouble, for the UK market).

The presentation was book-ended by American International Pictures, the independent merchants founded by Samuel Z Arkoff  and James H Nicholson and of whom Roger Corman is the most well-known director. However, the film's own credits show that it was a Towers of London production, from a time when Harry Alan Towers was clearly able to acquire funding easily. One wonders under what circumstances AIP acquired the rights.

Updated to the swinging sixties and thereafter in London, the money showed on the screen. It starred Helmut Berger, Richard Todd and Herbert Lom along with names better-known on the continent, including Maria Rohm aka Mrs Towers. The dialogue was stilted, presumably translated from an original German or Italian. However, Herbert Lom rose above it - one suspects by interpolating his own lines in the English version, informed by the Wilde original. Did he also produce the portrait used in the picture? Painting was his main relaxation in later life.

Very tame now, the film was clearly aimed at the exploitation market (something of which Richard Todd claimed he was unaware). There was fairly explicit - or would have been if carefully-placed curtains had not obscured the view - sex scene early on. Another question is: did Marie Liljedahl who made her name in such soft port go on to better things on the stage? Her acting ability, in spite of the dreadful dialogue, was clearly above that of the average schlock nymphet.

Its appeal may well have been of a more homoerotic nature. There was plenty of Berger's flesh on display.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Pensions under threat again

I have started reading "The Blunders of our Governments" by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. It is a dissection of "the numerous blunders that have been committed by British governments of all parties in recent decades". The detailed research, probably backed up by personal contact with many of the players, has already enlightened me as to the roots of the poll tax and why the Thatcher government persisted in spite of growing warnings from within the Conservative party as to its malign effects.

The current Private Eye magazine came through the door mid-way through my reading of Chapter 5, "Pensions mis-sold". That title in itself strikes a prophetic note, given the way that the steel-workers of Port Talbot have been exploited. The blunder in particular though was the way that the 1979 Thatcher government introduced personal pensions, in order to encourage job mobility. Early leavers lost the benefits built up in company schemes; opting for a personal pension whose pot could be topped up from job to job would prove remunerative upon retirement. However, the change would not be risk-free, even though government promotions implied (and less scrupulous pension salesmen asserted) that it was. In spite of warnings from the Labour opposition and some industry insiders that personal pensions would be mis-sold, no investor protection mechanism was written in to the legislation.  As a result, more than a million people:

many of them old, poor and/or ill, had been adversely affected. [Salesmen] lied or failed to divulge relevant information about the size of their own commission fees and their firms' often exorbitant charges. They frequently neglected to point out to customers that their splendid new pensions were no longer effectively guaranteed, as SERPS and most occupational pension schemes were, but instead depended on the value of investments that might, or might not, produce a good return.

Private Eye draws attention to the current popularity of private equity funds.

The private equity sector has more than doubled to an estimated $5m in assets, which include more than 3,000 companies in the UK alone.

Pension funds have been among the biggest investors in private equity funds, along with assurance companies, banks and asset managers. So any problems in this asset cla will mean potential losses to pensions and investors.

The private equity model is based on paying high (often too high) for listed or private companies, then loading the acquisitions with debt to refinance and fund expansion while cutting costs and looking to exit by sellling or listing the companies within five years - in the meantime extracting large sums in management fees, interest and dividends.

Overleveraged private equity-owned companies can quickly be unable to meet interest or debt repayments. 

A global economy brought to ground zero by the Covid-19 pandemic sabotages this model, PE points out. There could be trouble for pension funds.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020


Elaine Fine writes about Passover, which begins at sundown today:

Why is this first night of Passover different from all other first nights of Passover?

Because all over the world people will be celebrating in their own private spaces, unable to share the meal and the ritual with family and friends. Because our connections in isolation are made possible through the magic of the internet and cell phones (who could have imagined this a few decades ago?), we can reach out to one another (around the world!) and communicate asynchronously or in real time. We can all share the pain of the plagues, both physical and psychological, that are literally (and I mean literally) infecting different parts of our world at different times, and with varying degrees of acuity as they move from place to place.

She concludes:
Once this pandemic has run its first course, and once we have a vaccine to prevent it from ever returning, will the experience of it change the way we live our lives and run our government? Will the professions of public service ever progress (at least in the American Republican party) towards something akin to what the words are supposed to stand for?

When we say, "Next year in Jerusalem," I hope that we, in America, will we be looking forward to a politically-reorganized country involved in the complicated process of healing.

Amen to that. And let us hope that the long-suffering people of Israel finally get a stable government dedicated to public service.


We have lost many stars in the last few weeks whose passing would normally have been given more attention if it had not been for the burning topic of the moment. Kenny Rogers and Bill Withers may have been given due recognition by the BBC, but surely Honor Blackman warranted more coverage. I would also like to think that even the London media would have given more space to Peter Walker.
If most of this post is dedicated to Julie Felix, it is mainly because of her personal impact. She was on the bill of the Beaulieu "world" folk festival of August 1966. I went down for the first evening if I recall correctly as part of a trip organised by a Ministry of Transport social club. I remember a  clear warm day and an unseasonably cold evening and night. Also on the bill that night were the Dubliners (whose lead singer put away a prodigious amount of alcohol between sets), Phil Ochs, John Renbourn, Dave Swarbrick and Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Julie Felix had just started to make it on the national scene and the guy introducing her emphasised how she had served her time touring the folk clubs, sleeping on friends' floors and so on. The LP issued that year (back cover below) contained a number of the songs she sang at Beaulieu, with the bonus of her version of "Changes" by Phil Ochs. It also included a couple of her own compositions and the co-written mysterious "Brain Blood Volume".  (Another bonus of the LP is that it does not contain Tom Paxton's Zoo song, which she hated, as her friend and agent confirmed on Last Word last Friday.) 

The linking in the public mind with Joan Baez also irked Felix, though she admired Baez (as I do). There was a superficial resemblance (dark hair, ethnic background) but their voices were distinct. Baez's pure soprano is virtually unique in the folk world but so were Felix's warm tones in her lower register. That warmth came across on that cold night in 1966 as she expressed her sympathy with us shivering on the Beaulieu lawns.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

EU's response to communists' fake news

Examples of false narratives trending on social media

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) initially concealed information about the spread of the virus. Research suggests that they thereby delayed measures to alleviate the spread of the disease. At the same time, the CCP launched far-reaching efforts to silence domestic criticism.
The CCP’s efforts to restore Beijing’s tainted image both at home and abroad include attempts to export the blame for the virus via a wave of conspiracy theories, in a move that seems to be inspired by the Kremlin’s well-known tactics. At the same time, Beijing has launched a highly visible global aid offensive, providing expertise, test kits and other essential medical equipment – not all of it for free, contrary to the CCP’s media offensive – to a number of countries, including in Europe.

Both Moscow and Beijing seem to be driving parallel information campaigns, conveying the overall message that democratic state actors are failing and that European citizens cannot trust their health systems, whereas their authoritarian systems can save the world.
Meanwhile, the EU – which has taken significant steps to help citizens both in the EU and beyond – has acknowledged the geopolitical components in what has been dubbed the ‘politics of generosity’, and is preparing to protect Europe against the next stage in these influence operations.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Peter Walker

A cricketing great has died. If he had played for a more fashionable county than Glamorgan, or had a more reverent attitude in his prime, he would surely have gained more than a handful of caps for England and MCC.

There is a tribute on Glamorgan Cricket's web pages.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Travel, pollution and climate change - Polluter Pays Principle

Keith Melton of the Green Liberal Democrats writes:
Another area where I think we should pause for a while before allowing things to "go back to normal" is the issue of travel and transport. We have become entirely hooked on the ease of travel these days and large proportions of people in the highly developed (over-developed?) world assume easy travel is a human right. So much so that many of those who think nothing of catching airplanes or hopping on cruise ships, have never really considered their responsibilities for the pollution such trips create. For a long time, Liberal Democrats (and Liberals before them) have adopted the fundamental position that there should be a responsibility that the "polluter should pay".
In other words, if, by our actions, we cause pollution of some kind somewhere, then it should be our responsibility to ensure that pollution is cleaned up. The fact that we don`t and that most business models do not allow for such responsibilities, leads to what economists call the cost of "externalities". A truly circular economy - or, better yet, a truly doughnut economy - would treat the non-payment for externalised costs as "selfishness" and penalise accordingly.
Rishi SunakJust as a matter of interest, it struck me that the chancellor was being rather brave, for a Conservative, when he said that airlines should "... find other forms of funding and not turn first to the government for help getting through the coronavirus crisis." He may just have been being a Conservative free-marketeer (?) or he may have seen the kudos he might garner from the Green Lobby (including GLD, of course!) by seeming to be green as well as careful with our tax monies!

Friday, 3 April 2020

Weird and dangerous

What happened on 2nd April, 1997:

• Craig David Button (Nov. 24, 1964-April 2, 1997) was a U.S. Air Force pilot who died when he crashed an A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft under mysterious circumstances.
• Button was on a training mission with two other A-10s from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona.
• Button flew hundreds of miles off course without radio contact. Near Gila Bend, Arizona, after being refueled in-flight, Button unexpectedly broke formation. He flew in a northeasterly direction toward Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah come together. His jet was spotted numerous times by observers on the ground. The Air Force determined that Button was flying his aircraft manually and purposefully.
• He crashed into Gold Dust Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness.
• He did not attempt to eject before the crash.
• It took three weeks to find the crash site, and all summer to clean it up. For years, a sign at the Gold Dust Peak trailhead warned that hikers might encounter 30 mm ammunition.
• Button’s $9 million single-seat A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft was armed with four Mk-82 bombs, each weighing 500 pounds, 60 magnesium flares, 120 metal chaff canisters and 575 rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition. This training mission would have been the first time Button dropped live ordnance.
• The Air Force concluded the jet probably had two to five minutes of fuel remaining when it crashed. Debris scattered over a quarter-mile-square area.

Sources: U.S. Air Force and media reports

It took two-and-a-half months to clean up the mess.
For the heroic details, see∑/.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Covid-19: Wales doing worse than Scotland, UK worse than Greece

Some time in February, the Greek government recognised that their national health service, depleted as it was because of austerity after 2008, would not be able to cope with a novel Coronavirus epidemic. The health budget had been slashed to a quarter of what it was before the credit crunch and there had been a flight of doctors to more secure* and probably better-remunerated posts elsewhere in the world.

Accordingly, having the same information as other European governments (as well as Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet), they took action. They cancelled mass gatherings and closed bars, restaurants, playgrounds and gyms. By the third week in March, they had also shut all shops apart from supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, petrol stations and food delivery services, and put anyone arriving from abroad into quarantine for two weeks. It worked. To date, there have been only 51 fatalities due to Covid-19 and not all the health service's ventilators are in use. John Psaropoulos, a freelance journalist based in Greece who reports for the FT and al-Jazeera reckons that, allowing for the difference in population, if Italy had been as quick off the mark she would have seen only 751 deaths instead of over 13,100. (Italy has four million fewer citizens than the UK, so our tally would presumably be around 780 instead of 2,921 - a figure which may well rise exponentially as we are behind Italy on the infection curve.)

There is a lesson here for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, too. Both have claimed that China withheld information about Covid-19 which accounts for the delay in mposing strict control measures. But, as we have seen from Greece, South Korea and, especially, Taiwan, early action saved many lives and life-impairing infections, even though Chinese suthorities were slow in permitting the publication of the relevant papers in Western journals.

A total of 126 patients have died in Scotland after testing positive for the virus. The corresponding figure for Wales is 117. The population of Wales is only half that of Scotland, so one would expect the toll to be between 60 and 70 here. The proximity to hot-spots in England is clearly a factor, but one must also wonder about the semi-detached nature of GIG and consider whether the full independence which Scotland has would enable the Welsh government to be more proactive in serving its citizens.

*No doubt that included the health services in the UK. They were not to know that Brexit would drive them out again.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020


Visitors to my mansion have often admired the trophy case of stuffed water-fowl above my mantel-piece. They ask if I shot the bird myself in the days before such affronts to ecology were made illegal or whether it resulted from road-kill. I have to confess that I took advantage of an auction of the fittings of one of the too many recently closed local public houses.

Yes, I bought it in a bar coot sale.