Monday, 30 November 2020

Tom Lubbock

 In clearing out old papers, I came across reminders of how great a newspaper the Independent used to be. They were a set of double-sided full-colour posters dedicated to great artists. One side consisted of a reproduction of a key work of art by the painter concerned and the other comprised what we would now call thumbnails illustrating a pen-portrait of the artist and his work. These were practically all by Tom Lubbock, the writer and illustrator, who died far too early in January 2011. He was often outspoken - for and against - but always informative and readable. His critique of van Gogh's Chair began: 

Self-portraits have adopted many guises. Duerer painted himself as Jesus. Rembrandt painted himself as the apostle Paul. Courbet painted himself as a madman jumping off a cliff. But no one before Van Gogh had painted a self-portrait as a chair.

If you were a chair, what kind of chair would you be> That's the playful question to which this picture is a serious answer. It's staged like a portrait, the chair by itself centred, filling the frame.

He did not hold back of Rembrandt:

If just one painter had to be beamed out into the universe, to advertise to the alien empires what a deeply admirable life-form we humans are, who should it be? Leonardo? Michelangelo? Van Gogh? Picasso? No, there can be only one candidate: Rembrandt  Harmenszoon van Rijn. It might have surprised him. But this moderately successful  17th-century Dutch painter has matured, over the centuries, into the artist who represents the very best of us. Supremely humane, but only human, Rembraddt  is pretty well M Humanity, a kind of mortal god.

Over ,the years, I should have refreshed my knowledge of this part of our civilisation. Instead, they were stashed away when I moved to Skewen and now they will all have to go to recycling. However, it was good to renew my acquaintance with this marvellous series and the man behind it.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Two thoughts on the Sunak financial statement

 Presumably to anticipate objections to the high level of borrowing that he proposes, chancellor Rishi Sunak has thrown red meat to his more isolationist colleagues on the government benches and to the "red wall" voters who turned against Labour as well as the EU in the form of a cut in the proportion of international aid mandated by law. What he did not point out was that our overseas development fund would automatically fall as our national income falls. So the 0.5% is a cut upon a cut. Perhaps he did not want to draw attention to the impact which Brexit will have on out national finances next yeas and for a few years to come.

Sunak did not as had been trailed announce a cut or a pause in the application of the pensions triple lock which is probably the last remaining bequest of the Liberal Democrats in coalition. However, he is proposing a reformulation of the RPI (the retail prices index, though it now covers much more than retails). Commentators predict that this will result in the annual up-rating of company and other institutional pensions resulting in lower outcomes. Mathematicians tell me that RPI is flawed - there is apparently a built-in bug which exaggerates slight rises - and that the CPI (consumer prices index) is more robust. However, the latter does not include house prices. So, some overhaul is clearly necessary but against an inflation rate which will surely climb steeply next year, whether or not there is to be a deal with the EU, many pensioners are going to cry "foul!".

Friday, 20 November 2020

Is Johnson seriously green? refers.

Do not forget that Johnson's predecessors cancelled the electrification of main-line railways which would have reducd our dependence on polluting diesel and sold off the Green Investment Bank - both Liberal Democrat initiatives. Johnson himself wants to overrule the Senedd's concern for the environment by building a new stretch of the M4 over the Gwent levels, a scheme which would encouage more motor traffic.

Some have suggested that the apparent change of heart is down to Carrie Symonds, Johnaon's partner who appears to be exercising more control in 10 Downing Street. I incline to the more cynical view that this is just greenwash in advance of the Glasgow COP26 conference and will disappear as soon as green issues are no longer in the headlines.

Monday, 16 November 2020


 Posting will be intermittent until early December because of building work at my home.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Margam fatalities: Railways inspectorate report damns Network Rail

 The Railways Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) has issued a report which blames Network Rail for a decade of failure to apply obvious safety measures which led up to the deaths of two track maintenance workers near Margam last year.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Iran continues to enrich uranium beyond treaty limit

It was reported last month that Iran now had ten times the nuclear stockpile allowed under a 2015 treaty. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was agreed by Iran with the US, Germany, France, the UK, China and Russia. Until President Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions, Iran passed all inspections by the IAEA. Al-jazeera is now reporting that Iran has twelve times that agrred stockpile according to the IAEA.

President Biden is expected to re-join the JCPOA, but will no doubt set the condition that the excess enriched uranium is disposed of before freeing the world banking system to deal with Iran again. I have previously suggested that the new President also opens talks with the Islamic Republic about its support for Shi'ite militias abroad, including that which is a party to the civil war in Yemen. But people are starving in Iran, so some relief is necessary immediately Biden takes office.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Germany, 1945 on

 It is good to see a series about World War Two that deals with the aftermath for not only the people of Germany but also the liberating forces. In the case of the Soviet forces, the nature of that "liberation" promises to be exposed by BBC 4's Berlin 1945.

It will be a necessary corrective to the jingoism of so much of the continuing programming of WWII footage - I see there is yet another "how we won the war" programme on Channel 5 tonight. However, we have yet to see a series on how Germany dragged herself out of Nazi subjugation and the wreckage of war to become one of the world's most liberal societies and also one of world's five leading economies. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

US authorities tougher on financial criminals ... somewhat

 ICIJ (the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) reported last week that .

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a landmark settlement with banking giant Goldman Sachs over its participation in a massive bribery scheme that syphoned hundreds of millions from Malaysian public coffers. As a part of a deal with prosecutors, the Wall Street firm agreed to pay nearly $3 billion to authorities in multiple countries, and agreed to have its Malaysian subsidiary plead guilty in a Brooklyn court to conspiring to violate U.S. bribery laws. The fine, the largest ever under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act followed the indictment of two Goldman executives who U.S. authorities alleged pushed the bribery ring. The scandal focused on a multi-billion dollar fund known as 1MDB, which was ostensibly devoted to developing the Malaysian economy. Instead, billions were illicitly syphoned from the fund, often via offshore accounts, to wealthy elites, politicians and Goldman bankers. Some of the looted money is suspected to have financed the film production of “Wolf of Wall Street,” the Hollywood feature starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

While the writer refers to prosecutorial timidity, it is notable that the US authorities have gone further than the UK financial invigilators have over our scandals of the last decade.

Monday, 9 November 2020

Biden/Harris day one

 The presidential team-elect has already signalled that protecting fellow-Americans from SARS/CoV-2 is top of their agenda for 21st January 2021 and their team has already started to be assembled. There are many other reversals of Trump policy expected. He will start to reverse the tax cuts introduced by Trump, though it will need all Biden's networking skills to get this through Congress.  He will almost certainly remove the restrictions on incomers from mostly Muslim nations. 

Slightly more concerning from the international point of view is the manifesto pledge to force federal agencies to buy only US-sourced goods and services. That will be more than made up for by returning to the World Health Organisation and the Paris agreement on climate change. 

Return to the negotiation table with Iran may take longer. Although Iran kept her side of the uranium enrichment bargain, and was independently certified as having done so in spite of Trump's fake reports to the contrary, there must be concern about the Islamic Republic's continuing subsidy of terrorist organisations abroad. One would hope that Biden will accompany the olive branch with conditions.

But there is one other urgent job to repair the damage from Trump: restore confidence in international trade. The World Trade Organisation is in stasis as a result of Trump's refusal to cooperate on the international stage. As the New York Times reported last year:

Over the past two years, Washington has blocked the W.T.O. from appointing new members to a crucial panel that hears appeals in trade disputes. Only three members are left on the seven-member body, the minimum needed to hear a case, and two members’ terms expire on Tuesday. With the administration blocking any new replacements, there will be no official resolution for many international trade disputes

This is of particular concern to the UK as the Johnson government lets the EU trade negotiations wither, throwing us back on WTO trading terms in 2021. It is essential that a WTO disputes procedure is in place. However, we are not the only nation affected and in the absence of a strong international body, it is clearly the weakest who will suffer. Surely Biden and Harris will not want that on their conscience, however concerned they are about US employment.

Yemen's ancient clay city under threat

 Climate change has another victim in the form of devastating floods which threaten an ancient city, including what is said to be the world's oldest skyscraper. 

Why, the person in the street asks, should funds be directed at saving buildings when what is needed is to save lives in the humanitarian disaster which is Yemen today? The answer is that we can, and should, do both. The needless proxy war, fuelled by weaponry and ammunition from the UK among others, should be brought to an end in order for reconstruction - social and physical - to begin.


Sunday, 8 November 2020

Swansea Council election results May 1992

 Sorting old papers, I came across the Evening Post's local election report for 1992. In the hope that they might be useful (there does not seem to be another online record) I have entered their summary of results here. Names in bold are those of successful candidates.

Fred Hughes (Lib Dem)*                  949
Mabel Matthews (Con)                      486
Maj. 463. Turnout 52%

David Watkins (Lab) *                     884
Trevor Warden (Lib Dem)                 224
Maj 660.  Turnout 20.5%

Dereck Roberts (Lab) *                1,365
Robert Simmonds (Con)                   590
Bob Taylor (Lib Dem)                      110
Ben Grigg (Green)                            119
Maj 775. Turnout 24%.

COCKETT (three seats)
David Anthony (Lab) *               1,432
Walter Dyer (Lab) *                    1,365
Glenn Draisey (Lab)                    1,336
Mary Davies (Con)                          631
Phyllis Goulding (Lib Dem)            371
Ted Spooner (Lib Dem)                   336
Ken John (Lib Dem)                        326
Turnout 22.5%

Peter Black (Lib Dem)  *              2,065
Bernard Pitson (Lab)                         507
Maj 1558. Turnout 40%

Jim Kelleher (Lib Dem)                600
Gerald Davies (Con)                       365
Wayne Beard (Lab)                         175
Maj 235. Turnout 50%

Richard Lewis (Con)                     836
Shirley Osborn (Lib Dem)              638
Maj 198. Turnout 51%

George Gunn (Con) *                   432
Shirley Davies (Lab)                      144
Stephen Evans (Lib Dem)              144
Maj 288. Turnout 30%

Peter Williams (Con)                   390
John Bushell (Lib Dem)                324
Maureen Mahoney (Lab)               154
Maj 66. Turnout 42%.

Alan Ayres (Lab)  *                      871
Mervyn Williams (Lib Dem)         219
Peter Jones (Green)                         59
Maj 652. Turnout 23%

Laurence Bailey (Lab)  *           1,004
Alec Boothroyd (Con)                  351
Kevin Parry (Lib Dem)                131
Maj 653. Turnout 19%

Bob Lloyd (Lab)  *                    1,772
Bob Morgan (Lab) *                 1,741
Micha Cunningham (Lib Dem)     897
Janine Vaughan (Lib Dem)           518
Jonathan Bidmead (Con)            492             
Turnout 23.5%.

Audrey Clement (Res. Ass.) * 1,553
John James (Lab)                       1,025
Barbara Phillips ('Labour')             38
Maj 528. Turnout 33.5%

Howard Morgan (Ind)  *        1,077
Tyssul James (Lab)                     408
Michael Taylor (Chr. Soc. Dem)  23
Maj 669. Turnout 50.5%

June Burtonshaw (Lab)  *    1, 157
Byron Owen (Lab)  *              1,003
Phillip Gilasbey (Lib Dem)      317
Turnout 16.5%

June Stanton (Ind)  *            2,272
Huw Rees (Con)                    1,354
Brian Cainen (Lab)                   905
Janet Evans (Green)                   99
Maj 918. Turnout 41%

Dick Phllips (Con)  *          1,910
Sonya Morris (Con)           1,716
David Phillips (Lab)            1,471
Jon Townley (Lab)              1,419
Kellan Scott (Lib Dem)         317
Alan Webb (Green)               302
David V Phillips ('Labour')   199
Turnout 35.5%

Martin Caton (Lab)  *     1,119
Mark Cainen (Con)           1,111
Eric Scargill (Green)           120
Maj 8. Turnout 41%

*asterisked names are those of existing councillors successfully re-elected

Saturday, 7 November 2020

SARS/CoV2: what to do next?

The UK has the worst of both worlds. We did not stop the virus entering the country and the two crude attempts to contain it have damaged the economy, not to mention social and family life. Those Conservative MPs and members of the Senedd who opposed all restrictions do not seem to have an alternative, apart from the Swedish model. This, as I understand it, involved minimal legal restrictions but plenty of public health advice and an appeal to civic responsibility. But Sweden, faced with a death toll higher than in neighbouring Norway, has had to back-track.

Is it too late? Phil Hammond, in the article cited yesterday, opines:

Taiwan has a third the population of the UK so copying its suppression strategies would be more complex. However, Great Britain and Ireland are islands, and so could enforce Taiwan style border quarantines but have chosen not to do. New Zealand and Australia have much stricter border conrols which allow citizens far more freedom within them. Local outbreaks still happend, but [the State of] Victoria managed to suppress 700 new cases a day to less than a case a day. As they go into summer, the virus should be easier to control. 

The UK let the virus simmer over summer, rather than suppress it, with patch testing and poor public compliance. So the second wave is much bigger than it needed to be. Hence the fears of NHS winter overload and another lockdown. But lockdown is like doing urgent heart surgery with a chainsaw. Don't do it and the patient dies quickly; do it and the patient still dies, but a little more slowly. [...]

Suppressing a highly infectious virus that spreads without symptom in sudden waves is extremely hard, and probably not possible without border quarantines to keep new outbreaks at a traceable level. Across Europe, [track and trace] systems have failed to suppress a second wave. In the UK, £12bn has been spent on a largely outsourced system, but the message that local tracing gets better results is filtering through.

More that 100 local authorities in England now have "tracing partnerships" with Public Health England. Blackburn with Darwen went live at the start of August and reached nine out of ten cases that the national system couldn't get through to; Calderdale council reached 86 percent of cases that otherwise wouldn't have had their close contacts identified.

These partnerships should help provide financial and social support, and access to food or medicines. Local authorities know where their pockets of hunger and poverty are and urgently need the resources to tackle them. 

Local tracing is funded from a share of £300m government funding plus £8 per head of enhanced tracing and enforcement in areas in higher-tier restrictions.  But it's a fraction of what the private sector has been given. Local authorities must be fully funded to trace and support, with the help of local NHS and GPs, so when the numbers come down to a manageable level, we can keep them there. Next time, we have to suppress, not simmer.

And there will be a next time. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, in his announcement about extending the furlough scheme, referred to a "once in a century event". He is profoundly mistaken. He has not learned from the warnings issued by experts before SARS/CoV2 emerged, that zoonoses will become more common. There is time to rebuild the community health and contaact tracing structures, so short-sightedly run down by recent governments, which successfully suppressed traditional infections like TB, so that they are primed for the next SARS if it should evade our hopefully more efficient border controls.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Taiwan, a SARS/CoV-2 success story

 Buy, borrow or steal a copy of the current Private Eye magazine. You may not care for the way it attacks politicians (of all stripes) and institutions, but you can throw away the rest of the magazine if you wish. It is worth it just for page 8 which contains Phil Hammond MD's rounded portrait of what I have merely touched on in previous posts: the success of Taiwan in overcoming Covid-19. He details the "route map out of the pandemic" which avoided "lockdowns, excess deaths and economic carnage".

The Sars-Cov-2 virus may be rising again across Europe and America, but Taiwan hasn't had a locally transmitted infection for more than 200 days. This is all the more surprising givn it's a crowded democratic island of 23m people off the coast of China, with direct flights to Wuhan and many densely populated cities. Many residents live close together in apartments. In Sars 2003, it was the third worst affected country; yet in 2020, it has had only 555 confirmed cases and seven deaths, with no lockdowns and no second wave.

Equally impressive, GDP is predicted to rise by 1.56 per cent in 2020 and life is near to normal.

Nor is Taiwan run by a totalitarian or even a socialist government. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party is a full member of Liberal International.

Hammond lays out how Taiwan achieved its enviable figures with the active compliance of the population and confidence in the health system overall. "Citizens do not live in fear of accessing medical care in case they pick up Covid," he writes. Perhaps he had a certain Welsh group of hospitals in mind?

Thursday, 5 November 2020

An iconic computer design


The Grid Compass

Nearly forty years on, Brit Bill Moggridge's design for what must be the world's first lap-top has been recognised as a classic. At a fraction of the original selling price and with umpteen times the memory and processing power, your smartphone may be more convenient, but will it withstand being dropped from a helicopter over a military invasion area?

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

US general election

At the time of writing, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. The presidential race is too close to call and will almost certainly come down to the count of postal votes, possibly lasting until Friday. Media have assumed that the postal poll in Pennsylvania will favour Biden, but results  on the day so far suggest that the proportion of Democrat votes there may not be enough to put the state in Biden's pocket. 

I am disappointed that there has not been enough UK broadcast coverage of the Congressional races. However, it seems that the Senate will remain Republican and the House of Representatives Democrat, so whoever is in the White House, US government is in for at least two more years of "co-habitation".

Stock markets do not like uncertainty. So the recent surge in exchanges round the world, based on opinion polling that there would be a decisive result today, is going to be checked. I would also expect the currency market to be volatile for the next three days.

[Update at 8:50 GMT: BBC World Service has just come through with an update on both Congressional results so far and on a few interesting propositions. It seems that language in the Nebraska Constitution permitting slavery as a punishment will be removed.]

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Wales again a victim of flawed privatisation

 The National Grid for electricity was privatised under John Major in the mid-1990s. There was never any public interest in privatising natural monopolies, as many of us complained at the time. There was no market pressure to raise efficiency, the major justification for removing consumer-facing bodies from public control.  This also made it more difficult for the power distributors to be compelled to take account of sensitive environments, for instance by undergroundng power lines in AONBs.

Now another drawback, which could have been foreseen, has come to light. There has been a failure to develop the grid network to match the growing generation capacity  of Wales, in particular of renewable energy. There has clearly been poor coordination between the several different private generators in Wales, the plc controlling the grid and Western Power Distribution. If still in public hands, the grid could have been directed to achieve that. The Welsh Government has stepped in to the gap, though with little power it seems to me to force matters. (What are the UK's Department for Business and Ofgem doing about it?)

This is not a problem for the rest of Britain where the reduction of economic activtiy due to Brexit will reduce pressure on the electricity supply. It is a pity that one of the few growth areas in Wales, rebalancing the electricity supply because of renewables, should be hampered.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Robert Fisk

 I have just learned from BBC World Service that Robert Fisk has died at the age of 74. 

He was one of the cadre of great journalists which made the original Independent newspaper such a pleasure to read. As time went on, one realised that he had his obsessions, though, contrary to the impression that the hard-liners in the Israel government and their supporters in the West put about, he was not anti-Semitic. Rather he was anti-colonial and anti-imperial, the American empire being a prime target. He never let his sympathies get in the way of the facts, though. Latterly he backed up his reports with his  own photographs. He was particularly keen on collecting physical evidence in the form of spent munitions of the assistance which the US gave to client states committing war crimes. 

Sunday, 1 November 2020


This is an edited version of a David Frost/Joe Biden interview in 1987 which was nearly lost. As explained by Wilfred, one of David's sons who took over their father's company, the original was nearly lost. In 1987 David Frost had set about interviewing all the probable contenders for the presidency for a TV series. In the event, Biden had dropped out of the Democrat race before the series was broadcast. Much material was discarded by the brothers in rationalising Paradine after their father's death but later out of the blue came a message from a hitherto unknown resource that they had, among other things, the master - and sole surviving - tape of over two hours' worth of Biden interviews.

The headline moment comes towards the end, when Biden quotes Neil Kinnock - by name - approvingly for his "first Kinnock in a thousand years" speech. If he had been as honest in his later platform speech about the source of his text (which he clearly sympathised with) Biden might not have been driven out of that year's presidential race for his plagiarism. On the other hand, the pause allowed him to have diagnosed and remedied the brain aneurysms which might have killed him.

Current TV portraits of Biden mention his record of achieving cross-party consensus as a young senator. His pride in doing so comes across in these interviews. In 1987, he also aspired to bring America together as a community. A generation on and after four years of Trumpism, that is going to be more difficult to achieve.

One revelation was that Biden took pride in his attention to detail in preparing papers for the Senate and in his earlier legal career. He would not like to have been thought of as a technocrat, but, while inevitably losing that fierce concentration one has when younger, one would expect him to become as expert as he need be in dealing with the problems which face a president. 

There were touching personal moments, too, as Frost probed Biden's feelings about recovering from the death of his first wife. His second wife, Jill, joined him for these.

The podcast is well worth listening to.