Francis’s news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It’s updated once a week.

June 15, 2019

The stupidity of the railway workers union and Brexit by Goatchurch

Someone who works on the railways told me that his Union, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) was one of the big unions in the UK that supported Brexit.

I wanted the check why, having recalled doing some research about railway policy and the EU (reported in a blog entry from May 2016) following some crappy speech from Boris Johnson about the nasty EU using an ECJ ruling to run their freight trains on our national tracks in preference to our patriotic privatized passenger trains.

The problem is that if a factory in Hungary wants to send 5000 tonnes of cheap sausage meat to the UK, they can put this into 200 lorries and drive them all the way to their destination on our roads, causing lots of pollution, and traffic jams getting in the way, and Boris doesn’t complain. But lord help us that they might possibly put this load onto a more efficient train and expect it to get through to its destination unspoilt.

You’d think that railway unions would be in favour of legally binding international agreements to increase the guarenteed capacity of the railway. But it turns out that Brexit stupidity is not all on the Conservative Party side.

In a Press release on 21 April 2016 the RMT wrote:

The European Parliament’s decision this week to back the opening up of all rail routes across the EU to more competition for private operators was just one more reason to vote Leave on June 23, transport union RMT said today.

Under the proposals in the EU’s so-called Fourth Railway Package, train operators would have complete access to the networks of member states to operate domestic passenger services.

The European Council had already agreed that mandatory competitive tendering should be the main way of awarding public service contracts.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said that the failed Tory privatisation of rail over twenty years ago using EU directive 91/440 was now being imposed on 500 million people by EU diktat without a mandate.

“This rail package is designed to privatise railways across Europe and its proposals are remarkably similar to the McNulty report on the future of GB railways, imposing further fragmentation and attacks on workers.

“McNulty, the Tory government and the EU share the business-led mania for privatisation and agree on the need to jack up fares and attack jobs, pay and pensions to pay for it, no-one has voted for that.

“It is impossible to make changes to this privatisation juggernaut inside the undemocratic EU so the only solution is to get out by voting Leave on June 23,” he said.

None of this makes sense.

How can we believe that the EU — every other country of which runs a nationalized rail service — is going to impose privatization on the UK whose railways are already privatized?

Also, I do recall that we had a Labour Government for thirteen years post-privatization, who carried on with the private railways policy at vast expense of money and political capital, only nationalizing the trackways themselves after a series of lethal accidents and a bankruptcy when it had no alternative. Now there were serious issues as to the democracy within the Labour Party during that time, which resulted in the RMT breaking from the party in 2004. This history needs to be remembered, because it indicates that the EU is not the source of our problems.

Later that year, after the referendum, the RMT wrote in November 2016:

MEPs have a critical vote on the future of our railways taking place on 12-15 December 2016. Privatisation of rail passenger services could be imposed on all member states if new EU regulations are passed into legislation. Even though the UK is leaving the EU, regulations in the Fourth Railway Package could still apply to the UK for years to come…

The Fourth Railway Package must be stopped. Please email your MEP before 12 December to let them know that you want them to vote against the Fourth Railway Package.

Oh yeah, what was that bit about the undemocratic EU?

It’s so bad and incoherent.

A fact checking organization looked at the case in June 2016, three days before the referendum, and concluded:

The pending changes to EU rail regulation, known as the fourth railway package, don’t require member states to privatise any aspect of their rail networks. Neither do they require any member to break up its national operator.

There was an initial proposal for rail infrastructure and services to be split into separate organisations, which would have meant breaking up national operators, but the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, directly intervened and it was dropped…

The new EU regulations promote competition for the market between rail operators irrespective of ownership structure, but not privatisation. As far as renationalisation is concerned the reality is that, unless the rules are interpreted in an extreme way, they do not make it any easier or more difficult than the structure in place at the moment.

The RMT did support a No2EU party that ran in the 2009 and 2014 EU elections garnering about 0.3% of the vote in the second poll, so was quite a waste of time.

What we’re seeing is an unreasoned, illogical, incoherent, counterproductive hatred of the EU from a large union who has a lot of sway with the current Labour Party. I can’t see where it comes from, because from the point of view of railways and transport, the EU and its structures are beneficial. They bring in a semblance of order, integration, interoperability, purpose and reliability that is essential for any transport infrastructure to serve society’s needs.


Where We Are by The Planetary Society

The last quarter has seen few changes in the roster of planetary exploration spacecraft. SpaceIL’s lunar lander Beresheet is now on the lunar surface. Its descent on 11 April seemed to go nearly perfectly. Unfortunately, a cascade of events shortly before its planned landing caused it to hit the ground too fast, and it did not survive.


The June Solstice 2019 Issue of The Planetary Report Is Out! by The Planetary Society

Two feature articles bring you the excitement and science of exploring two very different representatives of the solar system's smaller worlds.


Your Impact by The Planetary Society

The first of two new columns rounds up all the ways Society members are making a difference for space.


Treasure Hunting With Hayabusa2 by The Planetary Society

IN THE EARLY hours of 22 February, light was just beginning to brighten the campus of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS) in Kanagawa, Japan. It should have been a quiet time, but the Hayabusa2 control room was packed with people. We were about to land on an asteroid.


Rosetta’s Ancient Comet by The Planetary Society

Rosetta is a European Space Agency mission with contributions from its member states and NASA. Operating such a complex mission with its 11 instruments and Philae lander is a success story in itself, but Rosetta’s greatest success is the science it delivered.


Apollo 11 Little West Crater Panorama by The Planetary Society

Apollo 11’S landing on 20 July 1969 was the day humans first set foot on another world. For the risky, challenging endeavor, NASA sought a smooth landing site, one lacking craters or mountains.


June 14, 2019

Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool. by Feeling Listless


Art When New York artist Keith Harring exhibited at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1982, true to form and in keeping with his belief that art should be as accessible as possible, he turned the space into a night club, with florescent lighting, break dancers and his partner DJing in the corner.  Such an approach was not unusual for Harring.  He first became noticed for his subway works, in which he'd masking tape a piece of black card to the curved wall of a pedestrian access tunnel and draw his images free hand in white crayon.  He was arrested several times for this, but he presumably knew that if he was able to draw a crowd then with his images, symbols and themes that he was on the right track.

For their retrospective, Tate Liverpool have created a black light room in order to give us a flavour of what it must have been like in that gallery in 1984.  Inside are a number of his fluorescent paintings, shining brightly under ultraviolet light, his familiar mix of three eyed faces, barking dogs, pyramids and headless beings accompanied by a speaker stack pumping out 80s disco from a compilation available in the gift shop.  The effect is transportative, representing one of the key achievements of this exhibition, much like the Warhol show a few years ago and Glam before that, of placing the artworks within their chronological context, heralding those of us who lived through these times backwards in both memory and emotion.

There was only one reaction I could have to this.  I danced.  On entering the space during yesterday's press preview, throwing caution to the wind and entirely forgetting about my latest hernia, I began to shift my legs about in time with the music.  Slowly at first and then slightly more pronounced.  The image was probably hopeless and at the age of forty-four could quiet correctly categorized as Dad dancing despite me not having any children.  I shifted around in circles like a demented George McFly letting the images and beats flow over me.  A visitor wandered through and smiled as she took photos the paintings.  She asked if I was enjoying myself.  I nodded. I was.  I could quite happily have stayed there all day.

Except there is so much more to see.  Unlike some recent shows, this Keith Harring retrospective fills the whole of the fourth floor.  Although his career barely spanned just over a decade, he was incredibly prolific.  Beginning with his aforementioned early work from his time at the School of Visual Arts on East 23rd Street, to his street art, his activist works protesting apartheid and nuclear arms to his part in the Club 57 scene, onward to his drawings then his more commercial works and finally the material he created around the HIV/AIDS epidemic as he watched his friends die, Harring following in 1990 at the age of 31, not slowing his workflow down at all.

This is incredibly accessible artwork, visually legible and also incredibly profound.  Harring didn't like to offer explanations and most of the paintings are untitled and the Tate have declined to give contextual labels.  Instead as you enter the space you'll find a small visual dictionary which provides some background to his repeated symbols, the baby, flying saucer, figure with a whole in his stomach, nuclear, tv, computers, robots, religion and money.  The meaning behind the juxtaposition of these shapes is rarely cryptic.  A man riding on the back of a leviathan with a Commodore Pet like computer for a head stomping on what look like police murder outlines of decapitated corpses is probably about the dangers of rampant technology.

Obviously I'm most drawn to the apocalyptic images of flying saucers bringing about the destruction of humanity, his simplistic representations of people escape through rooftops only to be exterminated by death rays raining from above, joining the piles of corpses below.  Sometimes robots are involved just to add to the misery.  Along with the grotesquely portrayed many breasted hermaphrodites accompanying by what look like nuclear reactors in the shape of mutant rabbits, it's like witnessing a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape drawn in the style of an early nineties Nickelodeon cartoon, The Garden of Earthly Delights starring Ren and Stimpy. 

What's perhaps most impressive about Harring's technique is that he created these drawings and paintings freehand, mentally planning the structure rather than, as might be inferred from just looking at photographic reproductions, filling in pre-draw pencil outlines.  Much of the time he'd paint on the floor in acrylics, base colours first then the lines of his subjects on top blurring the lines between painting and performance art, especially when creating in public.  One of his largest pieces, The Matrix, spans an entire wall at the Tate, ten metres of dense imagery, almost all of his usual symbols, structurally improvised in front of an audience.

Due to work commitments, yesterday was my first Tate preview in a while so it helped that it was an artist I'd (a) heard of and (b) already liked.  Harring's bold creations helped to define the 1980s and inspired plenty of the design work of the era.  Although I was a teenager then and would not have known he was the source, stepping into the space took me right back to then, leafing through Smash Hits Magazine looking for Kylie interviews.  That we didn't get to see how Harring's work would have developed in subsequent decades is a great loss.  But the crises he highlighted back in the eighties continue to surface and it's up to us to heed his message and act accordingly.


June 12, 2019

Production Design. It's Complicated. by Feeling Listless

Film Short piece in The Guardian about Nancy Meyer's comments at a Producer's Guild of America meeting about the double standards her films have endured at the keyboard fingers of predominantly male critics, especially about production design:

"I don’t love when a journalist or critic will pick up on that aspect [of the film’s design], because they’re missing why it works. It’s never done to male directors who make gorgeous movies, or where the leads live in a gorgeous house."
Damn right. Films like Grand Budapest with their overt production design do tend to be recognised at awards more than as might be the case in a Nancy Myers film, even though they both offer similarly complex design challenges.

In the case of even It's Complicated, a designer has to decide exactly why a character lives in this house, has decorated it in this way, all the fixtures and fittings, from wall art to dishes and how they express that character.

Frequently films do have a generic interior thrown together on the quick and it strikes the wrong note undermining the suspension of disbelief. That's never the case with Nancy Meyers films and too often this is held against her.  God forbid that she'd want to control the whole image.

 Meyers is superb at what she does and the fact that she's only made one film in the past fifteen years is an utter shame.  And before you start, The Holiday is a classic. Yes, it is.


June 11, 2019

Destination TARGET: Barnes Common. by Feeling Listless


Books Having completed a full watch of the television of Doctor Who up until that date in 2013, the second most important pilgrimage for a "we" seems to be read through the whole lot again in the form of the prequels to the era. To that end for the past few years I've been slowly collecting the TARGET novelisations and although there's plenty more to find, and indeed afford since some of them are really quite expensive for what they are, yesterday, just for now, I began with the first chapter of Doctor Who and the Daleks.

As you can surmise from the photo, in order make this even more worthwhile (!), I've decided to read each book in a place with some kind of thematic or actual connection.  This will not stretch very far.  The Himalayas seems like obvious setting for a thumb through John Lucarroti's Marco Polo, budget and time suggest this would be about as practical as visiting Marinus making somewhere in Chinatown a more feasible setting.  Lorks knows where I'll end up for Terminus, but World Museum Liverpool will probably be seeing a lot of me.

To the point: when the first three Doctor Who novelisations were published in the 1960s, author David Whittaker didn't know that a decade later such things would become a publishing sensation, so his interpretation of Doctor Who and the Daleks notoriously begins with a rewriting of the origins of the series.  Quite why Whittaker decided to offer such a radical rethink of Terry Nation's script surely someone reading this will know and enlighten me via Twitter (Jim?).

Instead of two teachers tumbling into the TARDIS from the junkyard after following one of their students home, we have the first person account of Ian Chesterton, scientist on his way home from a disappointing job interview stumbling into Barbara Wright who has just survived a crash with an army truck on Barnes Common as she took her pupil Susan home, still out of curiosity as to her living conditions.

With the flexibility of prose, Whittaker takes the opportunity to increase the atmosphere of his opening, the sinister shadows and noirish light sources suggesting the opening of a Hitchcockian thriller from his British period, with Ian as a more dynamic, cigarette smoking figure in the style of Richard Hannay or Adolf Verloc.  Barbara is referred to as "the girl" for much of the chapter and a problem Chesterton is semi-reluctant to solve.

As Mark Gatiss recognised when he gave it a nod An Adventure in Space and Time, the setting for this revised opening, Barnes Common, has become a particularly jolly in-joke and since reading the book many, many years ago (possibly as much as a decade), I've wanted to visit and see how close the locale is to what's the described in the book.  Was Whittaker familiar with area when he wrote the piece or did he simply select it from a copy of the A-Z because it sounded right?

The main destination for my monthly visit to London on Monday was the Wallace Collection (home of The Laughing Cavalier and Poisson's A Dance to the Music of Time), but that's small enough (for someone not that interested in porcelain wear, guns and armour) that something would be needed to fill the rest of the afternoon and Barnes is only about twenty minutes outside of Central London via a change at Clapham Junction. 

As you can also see from the photograph, quite quickly after leaving Barnes station, it became clear that Whittaker's description of the place refers to the general area around Barnes Common rather than the parkland itself.  It's mostly woodland and shrubland with patches of grass whereas the book suggests a space consisting of larger fields away from civilisation.  Barnes Common is framed with housing on all sides.

Barnes Common is also on the tourist trail for rock fans as Marc Bolan, some ten years after the publication of the book in 1977, was the passenger in a purple Mini which rammed into a tree killing him instantly in an odd parallel to the events in this parallel version of Who's origins.  For decades, the tree on which this occurred was decorated with scarves and keepsakes from fans until a memorial bust was erected recently.

Now, what I'd really like to describe is finding a spot, perhaps near the memorial, and reading through this chapter, soaking up the atmosphere and wondering if seeing the very space where the crash is supposed to happen.  I'd like to say that.  But yesterday, the rain around Barnes Common was persistent enough that some of the pavements disappeared beneath the terentials.  There was nowhere dry enough to stop and sit and take in the view.

So here's a photograph of somewhere I could have sat if the weather and been dryer:


And another:


Some large wooden balls (Jim?):


Instead, I waited until the train home:


The book will now return to the shelf until I've completed the collection (fifty pounds for The Wheel in Space?!?) and decided on the most relevant venues for the rest of the books.

The fate of that Kit-Kat is another story.


June 08, 2019

Back to powerful FI by Retirement Investment Today

6 months after taking the FIRE (financially independent retired early) leap I can confirm that (for now) I’ve reverted back to FI (financially independent) mode.  That’s right, we’ve left Cyprus, are back in the UK and I’m working and/or have a job.  More on that in a minute. It’s been a long time between posts and a lot has happened so to try and get the story out in a succinct manner I’ll


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Updated using Planet on 15 June 2019, 04:48 AM