Saturday, 31 October 2020

Government communications: more applesauce* than soy

 Peter Black has laid out in detail what was factually incorrect about government's gloss on the Japan trade deal and also on its attempted correction. Alex Thomas of the Institute for Government draws a general conclusion from this and other incidents:

The civil servant responsible for the Department for International Trade’s twitter account might in future pause before mixing baking and government messaging. As many trade experts rapidly pointed out, the department’s claim on Twitter, sent out during an episode of The Great British Bake Off, that soy sauce “will be made cheaper thanks to our trade deal with Japan” was not accurate. The following day, DIT issued a convoluted clarification that it “will be cheaper than it otherwise would be under WTO terms, on which we would be trading with Japan from 1 Jan if we had not secured the UK-Japan trade deal”.

The soya social media flurry was a trivial incident in itself, but it was the latest in a line of misleading messages from departmental twitter accounts. In August Matthew Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, publicly accepted that the description of “activist lawyers” who were trying to “delay and disrupt returns” of migrants should not have been tweeted from the Home Office account. The Northern Ireland Office, meanwhile, continues to maintain its assertion that “there will be no border in the Irish Sea between GB & NI”, convincing no-one of anything except an ability to dance on semantic pinheads, and despite officials on both sides of the Irish Sea working hard to implement an array of the checks necessary to cross what becomes a trade border between GB and the EU.

This increasing abuse of official communications is a problem which needs to be addressed.

One wonders whether it was a civil servant who tweeted the spin, or whether it was one of the centralised group of special advisers under Dominic Cummings. Either way, standards of honesty in government have fallen disastrously.

* noun

Slang. nonsense; bunk. Thanks to dictionary.com for confirming my memory of the term from US films and paperbacks of the last century

Friday, 30 October 2020

Varied media reporting of the Corbyn suspension

I posted my worries about a Starmer dictatorship yesterday based on the early reports on radio bulletins and the occasional Facebook message. Journalists are trained to personalise their reports so it was understandable that the reaction of the newspapers online was to ascribe the suspension to Starmer alone. Since then, Labour party sources were at pains on Radio 4's PM programme and on Channel 4 News to stress that the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from membership was not ordered by the new leader but by a disciplinary panel. One has to wonder about the quick turn-round time - was the panel selected, primed and ready to respond to a reaction to the ECHR report on the very day of publication? - but must take the party's word for it.

 However, even after the Labour briefings to the contrary during the afternoon, BBC TV News was in no doubt that the initiative was Starmer's. Why the difference? I can only surmise. The radio reporting was led by Chris Mason of the BBC's political staff and someone who is said to be close to the Labour party. The corporation's political editor, Laura Kuenssberg was clearly in charge of the TV reportage and may have had a different take on events or access to sources at a higher level. 

A further thought: who is next for the chop? Several Labour dissidents have in public either implicitly or explicitly shared Corbyn's view of the ECHR report. Will they be suspended? How about Shami Chakrabarti whose inquiry in 2016 was largely seen as a whitewash? One thing is certain: Keir Starmer's governance of the Labour party is not going to be all sweetness and light.


Thursday, 29 October 2020

Why Jeremy Corbyn's suspension is worrying

There is no need to give you a link to the news that broke earlier today: Keir Starmer has ordered the suspension from Labour Party membership of Jeremy Corbyn. It is all over the media. As a loyal Liberal Democrat member, I ought to be cheering. History shows that when Labour takes an authoritarian anti-socialist turn, Liberals and Liberal Democrats have benefited at the polls because Conservative claims that a Lib Dem vote is a vote for socialist Labour lose their potency. 

However, the news reinforces the feeling that Keir Starmer would be an even more uncomfortable coalition partner than Tony Blair. Peter Black has already drawn attention to the summary dismissal of two of his front-benchers for voting against the illiberal Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill. Peter summed up: "It appears that Starmer is trying to take Labour back to the authoritarian, centralising, illiberal days of Tony Blair." His  latest action confirms that impression.

Even if the EHRC report lays the whole responsibility for Labour's antisemitism on Corbyn, it is surely not up to the parliamentary leader to decide on the man's membership. There must be due process within the party, surely? In fact, my impression during the antisemitism furore was that the worst one could say about Corbyn that he was complaisant about the failures of Labour's machinery to stamp out antisemitism within the party. It would be difficult to find anti-Jewish sentiment in any of Corbyn's utterances in recent years. To single him out for punishment is to pander to the received unwisdom of the media (and I include the broadcasters in that). It will also be seen as the first step ruthlessly to eradicate socialism from the party's agenda, whiich will be applauded in some quarters while being seen as a betrayal within many constituency Labour parties. One is reminded that Blair-Brown did not kick out John Prescott, the standard-bearer of the Left and the unions,  but embraced him in the fold.

I applauded the fact that Corbyn was put on the ballot for Labour leadership, albeit at the last minute. It was good that the current social democratic style was challenged by an out-and-out socialist and that the issues would be debated, but I fully expected Andy Burnham to win (though I would have voted for Yvette Cooper given the chance). In the event, for a variety of reasons, Corbyn was triumphant much to the delight of the Tory press. He immediately set about doing what Starmer is doing now, stamping his authority on the party. He had his moments at the despatch box, but was generally more unworldly than one feared and he failed to shake off the perception that he was the friend of all revolutionaries, whether or not armed. However, his failure as a leader is inufficient reason for expulsion.

Liberal Democrat leadership is quite rightly bound by the constitutions of the federal and state parties when it comes to matters of discipline. It may have felt uncomfortable when the press was baying for an instant expulsion of the hate figure of the moment, but it was right to stick to due process. I dread to think what would have happened to the party if Nick Clegg had had absolute power to expel anyone he believed had crossed him ...

PS Aggrieved readers will no doubt point to a couple of dubious expulsions in Wales. Unfortunately, even the most constitutional checks and balances can be manipulated if the wrong people come to dominate crucial committees.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The Gwent Levels

It had been expected that the threat to the Gwent Levels had been finally removed by the Welsh Government. However, it has been revived by the Westminster government under Boris Johnson who has a record of proposals for pointless environment-destroying schemes.  Let us hope the current one joins the Thames Estuary Airport and the Garden Bridge on the scrap-heap. WWF's Waterlife magazine's special edition on wetlands provides some positive ammunition on why we need more wetlands:

1 A CARBON STORAGE NETWORK

Wetlands fight climate change

With just 12 years left to limit global warming to safe levels, the UK is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Saltmarshes store more carbon, more quickly than any other ecosystem. [...]

2 A FLOOD PROTECTION NETWORK

Wetlands protect communities

Flooding is one of the top climate change risks, affecting five million households in England alone. Wetlands offer low-cost ways to manage the flow of water. [...]

3 AN URBAN WELLBEING NETWORK

Wetlands provide access to nature

Poor mental health affects one in four people each year and costs the NHS over £34bn a year. Wetlands are excellent for wellbeing, providing blue spaces on people's doorsteps.


Tony Wyn-Jones

 I picked up the Western Mail today in the hope of reading a fuller tribute to Kirsty Williams' work as a politician than the broadcast media gave yesterday. That proved not to be the case, though the paper did print a better photograph of Kirsty in a more typical pose than the unflattering official party hand-out. 

However, if I had not bought the Mail I would not have learned of the sad death of Tony Wyn-Jones, with whom I shared many a lively moment inside and outside of the meetings of Blaenhonddan Community Council. Although in different parties, we united in opposition to the then ruling group and its undemocratic methods. He cared for the community and the environment and even more deeply for his family. My heart goes out to them.

He will be best remembered not as a local politician but as a former DJ at the Top Rank (was it called that in his day?) in Swansea and on a pirate radio ship. I recall his being scornful of the portrayal of Radio Caroline in the film The Boat That Rocked, in particular the excessive use of bad language. They never swore that much, he asserted. I certainly believe that of Tony.


Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Kirsty Williams retires from Cardiff Bay

 Kirsty will not be standing in the Welsh general election of next year. She is one of the few remaining members of the Senedd who was there at the start. She was also an inspiration to many within and without the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Apart from her latter-day work as minister for education (and one trusts that the structures she has put in place will not be ripped up again) she has legislation maintaining a proper nurse-to-patient ratio to her name. 

Politics is notoriously destructive of family relationships yet Kirsty has managed to achieve so much in Cardiff Bay while remaining a farmer's wife and mother of three daughters who, one gathers, are on the brink of great things themselves. Jane Dodds has posted that Kirsty will not be lost to politics entirely as she will remain active in Brecon and Radnorshire.

Memories of those early days of Welsh devolution are gradually coming back and I shall no doubt muse on them at a later date. In the meantime, I wish Richard, Kirsty and family as stress-free a post-Senedd life as the current emergency allows.


We should fear more than biocide washes and steroid-fed beef

 The latest Which? magazine issues a warning about chemical additives to everyday products. To an article about what to look out for in labels on products in the bathroom cabinet, senior researcher Anna Studman adds:

The chemical content of cosmetics and toiletries is tightly controlled and regulated in the EU, but this isn't the case everywhere. The EU has banned more than 1,600 chemicals for use in personal care products; in the US, it's just 11. 

For instance, formaldehyde is no banned in the UK, but you can still find it in some nail varnih and hair-straightening products in the US, despite it being a known carcinogen.

[...]

In the context of Brexit, there are concerns that a trade deal with the US could see the UK market flooded with these harmful chemicals, and we want to make sure consumer safety is protected.

The CTPA [the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Perfumery Association which represents manufacturers] told us that it "has engaged with the government to stress that it is crucial that any potential free trade agreement secured with the US does not have a negative impact on the safety of UK consumers or our trading relationship with the EU".

But  as with anything Brexit-related, there are no guarantees, so watch this space.

There must be concern that headline success over meat-production standards - which will surely come about because of all the publicity - will mask concessions to the US on less obvious but equally health-threatening items like chemical additives in any trade deal.


Monday, 26 October 2020

Taiwan and Covid-19: an apology

 An earlier message may have given the impression that Taiwan relied solely on traditional methods to combat the virus. In fact, a sophisticated digital tracking system was soon developed as this article from May 2020 showed. 

However, what chiefly distinguishes Taiwan from the UK and US is that they learned from a previous epidemic by drawing up a plan for a future medical emergency, implementing it at the first sign of danger  and sticking to it. Their disease-control system was "oven-ready" when they needed it. Obama claims to have drawn up a pandemic play-book which Trump ignored. Hunt did worse. Not only did he not implement recommendations from an official inquiry, he actually ran down community health and a tried-and-tested contact tracing system.


Saturday, 24 October 2020

Peter Cheyney

Talking Pictures TV gives the following preview:

 Uneasy Terms (1948) on Saturday at 7.50pm sees Michael Rennie in the lead as private eye, Slim Callaghan. When his client is murdered, suspicion falls on the man’s stepdaughter, but Slim is determined to find the real culprit. Also stars Moira Lister.


It was a reminder of one of the almost forgotten figures of British crime fiction, Peter Cheyney. He was a successful writer of sub-Hammett hard-boiled thrillers in the 1930s and 1940s, which still sold well in the decade following his death in 1951. There was a dark hinterland. He had been an enthusiastic organiser of Oswald Mosley's bully-boys before the war. If I recall correctly, he passed himself off to his New Party colleagues as "Captain" Cheyney, a rank above that which he actually achieved in the army. His friend and fellow writer Dennis Wheatley is quoted as summing him up as "the greatest liar unhung but a magnificent story teller." 

He must have thought better of anti-Semitism after the war, because he wrote a sympathetic novel about a holocaust survivor.

Friday, 23 October 2020

SpAds

 The Institute for Government is worried about the way the Johnson government is changing the rôle of special advisers. I have always worried that their introduction by Wilson's first government was the thin end of a wedge whose thick end was the American system of changing officials wholesale with each change of presidency. Their numbers were bearable until Blair-Brown came in and swelled their ranks into the eighties. Cameron promised to cut their numbers but did not. 

The IfG does see a need for them:

Special advisers – or ‘spads’ – play an essential role in the UK government, providing ministers with the political advice that civil servants, as impartial government employees, cannot.

However:

Certain advisers in the current government, particularly Dominic Cummings, have attracted much public attention. But behind the headlines, the government has also been making changes to the recruitment and remit of, and relationships between, special advisers. Many of these changes are helping advisers to do their jobs more effectively, but others risk undermining advisers’ ability to provide support to their ministers. 

They are particularly worried about the centralisation of power in No. 10, the reduction in the power of ministers to appoint the advisers of their choice and the weakening of the relationship between minister and adviser. They want to see an increase in the number of advisers per minister to five.

That would further dilute the expertise available in the civil service, as these appointments are virtually all political, advancing young people with little knowledge outside their party allegiances. It would aggravate the silo mentality of government departments begun under Thatcher and Heseltine. The battle-lines between them have become all too obvious in the uncoordinated handling of the Covid-19 epidemic.
 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Kings and Queens

Anu Garg yesterday quoted the great Martin Gardner on his Word.A.Day page:

Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals, the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all. -Martin Gardner, mathematician and writer (21 Oct 1914-2010)

[In the US, of course, public really does mean public]

This side of the Atlantic, we were in my day at least taught about the people who forged the Industrial Revolution, the engineers and inventors, who certainly fitted Gardner's criterion of radically altering history. There was also a trend in the 1960s to teach more social history, I believe. However, recent election and referendum results lead me to believe that the teaching of the following generation must have reverted to the illusory patriotism exemplified by kings and queens.


Wednesday, 21 October 2020

US opioid scandal

 There is a reminder from the US today of the dangers of a predominantly commercial health service. For nearly thirty years, a once-respected pharmaceutical company, Purdue, made profits in the same way as Insys - commented on here last month - by pushing an addictive drug by criminal as well as legal means. Indeed, Insys may only have been following where Purdue led with its OxyContin. The US Department of Justice has closed a case against Purdue, extracting fines from the company and from those members of the Sackler family who control it. (The English descendants have dissociated themselves from the business.) However, the company is practically bankrupt so there will be hardly any compensation for the victims of the opioid scandal. The owners are barely touched.

This imperfect outcome may well have been aided by pressure from people close to president Trump, who wanted to see at least one of his manifesto promises fulfilled before general election date.


Tuesday, 20 October 2020

SARS/Cov2 "fire-break" in Wales

 The metaphor is unfortunate. An actual fire-break consists of clearing ground, often including controlled burning, ahead of a fire, not something one would want to extend to human lives. However, one must applaud the concept of a short but deep shock to the system while wishing that it had been applied earlier. 

Education minister Kirsty Williams has written:

As the virus has taken hold, I have said repeatedly that children would be our top priority and that education must continue.

As a result, I have tried to keep disruption to education to a minimum:

  • Primary schools and special schools will re-open after half term on Monday, November 2.
  • Secondary schools will be open for children in years 7 and 8, whilst other pupils will continue their learning from home for that week.
  • College students will also continue their learning from home for the week beginning November 2nd.
  • Universities will continue to provide a blend of in person and online learning.

We will be issuing guidance for the period which will include minimum expectations for learning. This will include teachers delivering online lessons from the classroom.


I would have liked to see an extra safety-first measure of extending the half-term holiday for a week, not for the sake of the children who it seems have more resistance to the disease the younger they are, but to protect teachers who are more vulnerable, not to mention any parents who have to meet. However, the eleven days when they will all be isolated from each other is probably enough to keep them safe.

When will the swithering government in Westminster take the same responsible decision for England?

Monday, 19 October 2020

Coverage of US general election

 I have complained in the past about the excessive coverage of the four-yearly American boxing match on domestic BBC TV. The issues are always domestic and personality-driven. There seldom seems to be a change of foreign policy when Democrat blue turns to Republican red or vice versa.

It does give work to the huge staff of BBC America, which does seem to be a staff benefit. BBC America does sell output to other stations round the world, but does it pay for itself? Why do we see around a dozen BBC reporters from the States, while Canada - a fellow Commonwealth member - receives little coverage and then from a US-based reporter? Why does the whole of South America merit only a couple of reporters, who do not seem to stay very long?

But this year is different. The nature of the contest and its outcome have implications for the UK.

Prime minister Johnson and his manager Dominic Cummings clearly draw their inspiration from the way the presidency was won and the style in which it is conducted. Trump's grotesque chauvinism and appeal to the worst aspects of human behaviour, especially his racism, have their echoes over here. Johnson also lies consistently and is happy to set different groups of the population against each other. Manipulation of voters' feelings via social media was a significant contribution to election success on both sides of the Atlantic, though the technology behind it was almost certainly applied to traditional campaigning also. If there is a decisive anti-Trump vote on November 3rd, so decisive that Trump cannot convincingly challenge it in the courts, it will show that US voters have had the scales lifted from their eyes. Those moderate Conservative MPs (there are some) who have so far gone along with Johnson on the sole grounds that he has been successful may well have second thoughts as a result. 

As to foreign affairs, the world needs a president of the US who honours treaties and realises that he does not know better than the experts. One expects less interference in others' affairs from a Biden presidency. We should expect a Democrat presidency to be at least as tough to negotiate a treaty with as any; Democrats are traditionally less keen on free trade than Republicans. However, one can count on Biden to negotiate in good faith and be consistent. His record suggests that he listens to expert advisers. Consequently, there would be a serious attempt to reverse policies which potentiate global warming under Biden. One trusts that he would also restore America’s contribution to the WHO – indeed, also cooperate more with the UN in general.

Of course, as is entirely possible, voters who turn against Trump could give a consolation vote to the Republicans in the Senate and Lower House. There could be deadlock in Washington.



Sunday, 18 October 2020

The Roche limit

 Also the Roche Lobe and the Roche Sphere owe their names to Édouard Albert Roche, born on 17th October 1820. He was pre-eminent in the field of celestial mechanics. His bicentenary does not seem to have been marked here, presumably because he published only in French.


Saturday, 17 October 2020

Death of the last Liberal newspaper

 I was reminded by a post on Liberal Democrat News that this is the sixtieth anniversary of the Cadbury family's forced merger of the News Chronicle with the Daily Mail. There is nothing to add to what I wrote on the fiftieth anniversary or to what Michael Meadowcroft has to say about the socialist Guardian.


Friday, 16 October 2020

Verdi's second thoughts

 Thanks to urgent party business and difficulty connecting to the Internet yesterday, I missed my usual weekday blog post. The suspicion grows that each successive Windows 10 update adds code to the connect sequence so that older machines like this one time out at busy times.

Anyway, Covid apart, nothing much caught my eye recently except this report from euronews. It seems that Giuseppe Verdi originally wrote around 100 bars more music for his grand opera Aida than was performed at its gala Egyptian opening. Verdi, a man of the theatre, probably judged that the shortened version played better, but enough people were interested in the material unearthed from the composer's archive to warrant a premiere performance. Not that Verdi let it go to waste himself, incorporating much in his Requiem.

I was never a great opera enthusiast, but the Grand March became very familiar in the 1950s because it was used as the station ident. for the English language output of Egyptian State Broadcasting. 


Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Old people die

Charles Walker MP, who clearly feels that Harold Shipman was misunderstood, claims that the threat of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been overplayed. “The fact is people in their 80s and 90s die”. he told the Radio 4 Today audience,“we just can’t save every life, because the cost to the living is too high.” 

Declaration of interest: I am only a few years short of the median age of death from Covid-19, 82.4. I make no special claims for myself, but I look around and see men and women of my generation still making great contributions to the public good. Besides, we tend to forget the ordinary people, the much-loved grannies and granddads in their 70s and 80s (note that word "median") who, apart from a depressed immune system, are in good health, playing a full part in family life.

Further, it is not only old people who die as a result of this virus. They are most at risk from casual infection, but adults in the prime of life can fall victim if they are exposed often enough and for long enough.  The prime example is Dr Li, the Wuhan optician who first blew the whistle on the virus. He was only 34 when he died. We have seen the same pattern in our NHS and care services, with BAME workers most at risk. The median age here seems to be 54. Also at risk were drivers of one-man-operated buses. It seems to me that closing bars and restaurants protects the staff rather than the patrons; closing schools aids the teachers rather than the pupils. 

SARS-CoV-2 is not like a dose of the 'flu. It is more lethal - possibly ten times more so. Moreover, those who survive infection, even if they do not require hospital treatment, may suffer long-term effects. Breathlessness, fatigue, mental disturbance and kidney and liver function impairment are among reported symptoms even when all trace of the live virus has gone. What is more, it is not yet obvious which patients will incur what after-effects and who will be apparently unaffected. Dr Adam Rutherford, a fit 45-year-old workaholic until the virus struck in March, shared his woes in a recent Radio 4 documentary

We still do not know enough about this virus to adopt the laissez-faire attitude of Charles Walker and his like-minded friends. That is not to approve of the crude centrally-directed methods of the government in Westminster, still not cognisant enough of local interests and knowledge, but they are still preferable to continuing to let the virus rip.

 

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Cocaine trafficking hit by virus

The travel restrictions imposed as a result of the current pandemic have hit the coca trade harder than all the enforcement action of the last forty years. It is reported that it is now extremely difficult to transport cocaine to the most lucrative markets in Europe and as a consequence the price to the traffickers and growers has plummeted. 


Friday, 9 October 2020

Covid-19: what should have been done and what is to be done

This list of failings is not just being wise after the event. All but one of the measures have been applied elsewhere in the world or even belatedly in the UK.

General principles
Make sure that the National Health Service can not only cope with seasonal emergencies but also can gear up quickly for the sudden unforeseen. There were warnings with the swine 'flu pandemic of 2009 and later bird 'flu epidemics, so much so that the Cameron government commissioned the Cygnus exercise. The findings were virtually ignored. A strategic stock of personal protective equipment for health service and social care workers has to be maintained and any time-limited items replenished. The English stock was run down.

Learn from others' experience
If an exotic disease emerges elsewhere and its symptoms are known, test incomers for those symptoms. Do not wait for the perfect specific test. As we know now, asymptomatic victims will be missed but the most obviously infectious cases can be identified and possibly hundreds of lives saved. This is what Taiwan, with justified suspicion that they were on the edge of a new SARS, did from January 1st.
Do not wait for the World Health Organisation or the European Centre for Disease Control. They are worthy bodies good at organising public health campaigns but because of bureaucracy, move slowly. 

Protect people most at risk
In addition to providing PPE to health and social care personnel, press retail outlets and public transport organisations to do the same for their staff who have to interact with the public. Do not force hospital staff to work overtime - stress increases the risk of infection. And the one original suggestion I would make is to stand down over-50s, given that this is the cohort most at risk.

Use existing techniques and facilities
Identify hot-spots and apply quarantine ruthlessly. New Zealand did the latter. Use the existing contract tracing arrangements for notifiable disease, "boots on the ground" and encourage local community coordination and action. In addition to China, Italy, France and Spain soon emerged as spreading centres of the disease, but the UK delayed quarantine measures until  July. Do not stake all on new technology. South Korea achieved wonders with a smartphone-based track and trace system, but this is probably the most connected and tech-savvy country in the world. Ceredigion has shown the way with traditional methods and common sense. Although infection figures have risen with the influx to Aberystwyth of students for the new term, the county maintains the lowest infection figures in Wales. 

Take the public with you
When you say you are consulting people before imposing control measures, really consult. Listen to people and, when you reach a decision, inform them before you release it to the media.

There is more that can be done, no doubt
 - but surely if the measures above had been applied swiftly, there would have been no need for a general lock-down, with all the implications that had for the economy. Local clusters of infection would spring up but they could have been identified swiftly and dealt with.

Herd instinct is an illusion. It is based on the experience with the MMR vaccine, which does give practically life-time protection. Documented reinfection cases show that Covid-19/SARS2 behaves more like other corona viruses, such as those that cause common colds. 

Cummings and Johnson continue to make mistakes. There is not just one alternative to draconian lock-downs; Phil Hammond MD writes in the current Private Eye:

"No one sensible is suggesting the virus should be allowed to run free.
But plenty of sensible people are wondering how other countries are
controlling the virus without the need for more lockdowns.

"Wild spread of Covid-19 is slowed by doing the basics: hands, face, space
and indoor ventilation. Because so much spread is asymptomatic, it is
vital to stamp on symptomatic infections as soon as they occur. The UK's
test and trace system cannot cope. It has rationed tests so thousands
can't get them, and delayed contact tracing of more than 15,000 positive
tests by up to 10 days because of a 'computer glitch'. So up soars the
wild spread.

"Countries with a grip on the virus without lockdowns have ruthless test
and trace systems. Testing, reporting, tracing and quarantining are all
done at high speed, with high efficiency. The poor are supported to
isolate. There is a focus on breaking chains of transmission. Each new
case is treated as if it were the first. And levels of public trust and
compliance are high because the public services are efficient."

To see how the UK is doing in comparison with other countries, CNN and Johns Hopkins University provide figures here.


 

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Nightjet

This is the brand name for Austrian Railways sleeper trains, as The Man in Seat 61 explains. Now there is to be an expansion. Railway Gazette reported this summer:
Austrian Federal Railways held a groundbreaking ceremony on August 21 to launch the construction of a €40m facility at its Wien Simmering depot for the maintenance of its Nightjet overnight train fleet. The project includes construction of a 235 m x 24 m building with two tracks, equipment for removing bogies, movable platforms for accessing the train roofs and a train preheating system. Completion is planned for early 2022. The Nightjet network currently comprises 19 routes. Speaking at the groundbreaking, Federal Minister for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation & Technology Leonore Gewessler said Wien was already the EU city with the most night train services, and ÖBB CEO Andreas Matthä said the new depot would facilitate further expansion of the services.

Two things occurred to me when reading this article. First, why cannot a UK minister hold a portfolio which specifically includes climate action and environment along with energy and technology? Secondly, the time is ripe for a thriller set on a state-of-the-art train in succession to The Lady Vanishes, Murder on the Orient Express or The Narrow Margin. Perhaps Austrian Rail will sponsor one.

According to Railwatch magazine, president Macron of France has announced a rail expansion programme which will include two new night train routes to be launched in 2022. In the same year, Sweden has plans for sleepers to Brussels and Hamburg.


Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Neglected Composer

 Radio 3 has incorporated a thread of neglected composers in its afternoon programming this week. This is a very worthwhile exercise to restore to the repertoire music which for various reasons has been forgotten. However, the BBC continues to turn its back on Alan Bush. The original objection to playing his music was clearly his Marxism, though no doubt his use of folk melodies alla Vaughan Williams would not have endeared him to the R3 chiefs devoted to the Schoenberg revolution. Now that the threat of Soviet communism has disappeared, and there has been a return to accepting all schools of music, there is surely a case for restoring Bush.

When anti-Semites like Wagner and many French composers, including the Nazi collaborator Canteloube, continue to be aired, surely Bush's communism is no longer an obstacle?


Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Capitalism has not failed

 No matter what Extinction Rebellion or even the Pope may say, capitalism has not failed. It has brought human civilisation to its current high pitch of development. It has been and continues to be a driving force through virtually all civilisations since man discovered the benefits of the exchange of commodities. It even flourished underground in supposedly socialist states.

What has failed is civil society (in the end, us as voters) in curbing its excesses and regulating it. The warnings of Adam Smith have not been heeded, that the state was in danger of capture by merchant elites.

According to an article by Paul Sagar on Aeon's web pages,

The context of Smith’s intervention in The Wealth of Nations was what he called ‘the mercantile system’. By this Smith meant the network of monopolies that characterised the economic affairs of early modern Europe. Under such arrangements, private companies lobbied governments for the right to operate exclusive trade routes, or to be the only importers or exporters of goods, while closed guilds controlled the flow of products and employment within domestic markets. As a result, Smith argued, ordinary people were forced to accept inflated prices for shoddy goods, and their employment was at the mercy of cabals of bosses. Smith saw this as a monstrous affront to liberty, and a pernicious restriction on the capacity of each nation to increase its collective wealth. Yet the mercantile system benefited the merchant elites, who had worked hard to keep it in place. Smith pulled no punches in his assessment of the bosses as working against the interests of the public. As he put it in The Wealth of Nations: ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’

Up until the cementing of universal suffrage in democracies in the twentieth century, the barons of industry needed to lobby powerful chief ministers and appointed officials. They now have to buy representatives to achieve their aims or, in the latest twist, buy votes via social media.

Their aim was and is to concentrate capital in the hands of as few people as possible, to the detriment of common humanity. In this they are almost as inimical to the power of market capitalism as the most totalitarian socialist state. 

We need genuinely to "drain the swamp" - not of public servants of integrity, but of placemen and lobby groups which have embedded themselves in the government machine. We need transparency and fairness of elections overseen by a genuinely impartial Electoral Commission with genuine power of enforcement. That should produce governments prepared to lead in the public interest.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Cambridge Analytica messed with your minds

Channel 4 News obtained a copy of the voter database used by the Trump campaign in 2016 and seemingly being mined again for the current presidential contest. In broadcasts last week they showed how the well-endowed social media campaign targeted BAME voters with the aim of deterring them from voting  and white voters appealing to their basic instincts. The importance of Facebook to this strategy was highlighted. It seems that in spite of protestations to the contrary from Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg, FB had permitted to circulate on the platform fake videos attacking Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the time of the first presidential debate of 2020. (One of these videos superimposed an earpiece on the image of Biden, implying that he received outside help or direction during the debate; another showed Biden and Harris laughing and cheering against a background of black riots.)

The black arts of voter dissuasion are nothing new. Indeed, the nastiness of campaigners for the two big parties in door-step canvassing (all oral and non-attributable, of course) has put off many Liberal Democrats and independents  from standing in local elections after just one effort. What has changed is their potentiation by the application of technology.

GDPR was supposed to have put a stop to voter-profiling via collection of personal data as an aid to targeted political messages. These techniques were exploited ruthlessly to the full by the Tories between 2010 and 2015 to erode Liberal Democrat support particularly in the south-west of England, using mail-shots, in a campaign which the Electoral Commission surprisingly ruled as legal. All GDPR has done is to militate against the aggregation of data by political parties. But why build up your own voter database when the likes of Cambridge Analytica, mining existing resources via the Web, can do it for you? As a consequence, movements funded by rich corporations or oligarchs have an advantage over traditional political parties.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Did she get round to the bass player?

Is it really fifty years since Janis Joplin died? It seems so. She once said that there was nothing wrong with Texas if you wanted to settle down. Texas could not cope with the outrageous, and she was outrageous. Of her free-and-easy sex life and touring with her band, she is quoted as saying "I'm saving the bass player for Omaha".

Friday, 2 October 2020

Hollywood migrates to New Zealand

 In another place, I mused about the possibility of Radio 3 making up for the lack of live music broadcasts by relaying concerts from New Zealand. As we should all know by now, NZ led by Jacinda Ardern and her expert advisers has not seen a Covid-19 epidemic. Consequently, it has been possible for live performances for a full concert hall audience to return in the depths of the antipodean winter. Classic FM has a link to a YouTube of that first celebratory concert.

Hollywood has latched on to the possibilities of low-level virus precautions in state-of-the-art production facilities. Radio New Zealand reports that "more than 200 film and TV production workers will have arrived in New Zealand by the end of the year, despite border restrictions.".  

The New Zealand Film Commission said the productions would do many shoots on location, which would help spread the benefits around the country. But head of international screen attraction Philippa Mossman said it was not just about the money.
"We speak a lot in economic terms but it's also very uplifting I think in hope for everybody to see this exciting activity going on and see New Zealand reflected back on those screens when those productions are finally released into the world."
[...]
The policy had its critics, though.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway accepted it must be hard for those who could not get back into the country at the moment to see these crews given a green light.
"I just want to acknowledge that it is a very, very difficult situation for thousands of temporary visa holders who have been asked to make that sacrifice in the interests of keeping the virus out of New Zealand and maintaining that status we have held for quite some time." 
 Lees-Galloway said the exemptions were made with the economy in mind. "The film crews that are coming here, it's not just them that will be working. They are creating jobs for people here in New Zealand - New Zealand citizens and residents plus potentially some people who hold work visas that are here in New Zealand as well. So people who meet those criteria are able to come because they offer that significant impact for New Zealand."

Me, I am hoping against hope that The Brokenwood Mysteries will continue in production.


Thursday, 1 October 2020

National poetry day

 This is a day for the enjoyment, discovery and sharing of poetry as the organisers' web site puts it. For me, it is a time for recalling favourites, not all of which are by the great names. As we are approaching winter, autumnal themes come to mind. J.D.C, Pellow's "After London" in these days when great cities are having to adjust to life after pandemics is particularly apt. 

One of the few poems I can still recite by heart is by Walter Savage Landor, known in these parts for his favourable comparison of Swansea Bay with the Bay of Naples. It is good to learn from the wikipedia entry that he was a Whig and an influence on Charles Dickens and Robert Browning, two more of my heroes.

Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.