Planes and Boats and TRAINS. . .

Squirrel is very fond of boats—you may have guessed—and trains. Especially trains. Ever since the Chunnel opened, I’ve really been missing crossing the Channel on the ferry; though the dismal hanging around for a train at Calais Maritime, which always had the most abominable coffee and the stalest croissants I’ve had anywhere, I haven’t missed at all.

My regular trips to the south of France I make by train now, as I did for several years between London and Brussels. I’ve given up planes. OK, it takes a couple of hours to get to Paris, and another 5 to get down to the south, and it costs a bit more. But then, it takes me only about half an hour to get from home to St Pancras instead of three times that to get to one of the airports. And I don’t have to be there a couple of hours in advance to make sure I can get through the usual checking in and security farragos. And while it’s not going to be easy getting across Paris from one station to the other with a wheelchair as I shall have to do one day (let alone on and off the damn trains, since they’re built for continental platforms that are lower than the UK ones, which means steps) it’s likely to be a damn sight less frustrating and anxiety-inducing than trying it on a plane. You read an awful lot of horror stories about what baggage handlers—especially for budget airlines—manage to do to wheelchairs. One of the London Paralympics teams arrived at Heathrow to find practically all of theirs wrecked.

So, as I was saying, I like trains. So does ‘best friend’, who, having more or less commuted between London, Brussels and Paris for years on the Eurostar (and even succeeded a few years ago getting a train from Damascus to Jordan, even though, she said ruefully afterwards, hiring a donkey would have been quicker though with a lot less conversation) thought, when visiting San Fransisco, she might take a quick trip to Los Angeles by train. People there looked at her in amazement, but she didn’t entirely comprehend why until she tried to get a ticket. There was only one train a day, and it takes nine hours. (Or thirteen, three hours or so of which is, bizarrely, should you inspect the timetable more carefully than any European would expect to, by bus.) Cue a pic of a famous English train:

Coronation Scot 1

 

Which regularly did the broadly comparable distance in the 1930′s in six hours or so. You can do it in four and a half now. I always loved the look of that train, and I kept asking Father Christmas for one, but I never did get it.

I’ve been trying to follow the ‘high speed rail’ thing in the States. Such as it is. There’s a bit of a qualification here; over here, we do not really think of a train going at 100-125mph as ‘high speed’, more, well, sort of normal. That’s the speed of the trains between London and Edinburgh, which we’re stuck with because of lots of awkward bridges, tunnels, and—once you cross into Scotland—very bendy bits, left over from the days when a driver or third class passenger could barely stand up without his stovepipe hat being knocked off his head when the train went under a bridge or into a tunnel.

I write ‘trying’, because it seems to have got increasingly difficult to get a real picture of what’s going on. Or not. As far as I can tell, all that’s left of the original ‘grand design’ for real high speed trains all around the US (i.e. those that go at least at 180-200mph) is the California one. And that seems to have got mired in the usual Republican Party “anything Obama likes we’re against” palaaver. Even though they seem to have forgotten that way back in 2004 they thought a nationwide network of TGV’s was a really good idea. And even more muddied by litigation all over the place.

The upshot appears to be, as far as I can make out, that this year work will start on a whole 29 miles of ‘high speed railway’ which will, in another five years expand to a hundred-and-odd miles between Fresno and somewhere else, whose name I’ve forgotten. Around 2018, apparently, Amtrak trains (the one that now takes nine hours or more to get from San Fransisco to Los Angeles) will be able, hopefully, to travel that whole hundred miles at a staggeringly shocking speed of between 90 and 120mph. So at a rough guess, it might only take eight hours, or maybe 12,  to make the trip. It won’t even be electrified ready for a real high speed train until around 2022.

Possibly like one of these, which are replacing the now rather tired original ones, and I expect I’ll be taking across the Channel in the autumn:

 

siemens-velaro-e320-eurostarfuer-674134

Some looks don’t really change that much, do they? Just add a little chimney and a plume of steam . . .

This, apparently, is because that stretch is to be used as a ‘testbed’. Why California should need a ‘testbed’ 29 miles long—or, OK, maybe a hundred—and for several years is a bit of a mystery. The Coronation Scot up above got a speed record of 114mph in 1937; its rival the LNER’s Mallard got up to 125mph the following year. Even a train (though a specially short and light one) in the US, the Burlington Zephyr, had managed over 100mph in 1934. And these were steam trains that needed someone with plenty of muscle to do a lot of coalheaving. We’ve had 125mph trains running here regularly since 1976. And the French, of course, were doing it well before. Their current record is 357mph, though the TGV’s running around Europe regularly now only get up to between 200-240. There are hundreds of them, and thousands of miles of track for them to run on, complete with all the wires, electricity sub stations, power stations, signalling, and even wi-fi . . .

What on earth is there to ‘test’? You can buy all this stuff almost like picking it off a supermarket shelf ready wrapped for you to take home. And if you’re a bit short of cash, you could probably take Eurostars’ old ones off their hands for nothing, though they’ve probably got another 20 or 30 years in them. Anyone from California who wants to give them the once-over just needs to look up North Pole on Google maps and come along. North Pole, London, England, I should say. They don’t have any high speed trains at the other one.

It’s obviously going to be a long time before my friend is going to be able to hop on a train in San Francisco and have a day out in Los Angeles like people in London, Paris or Brussels regularly do between their cities, because the trip only takes a bit more than two hours.* 2029, they say. But given the persistence of the ‘anti’ politicians and what seems to be an ever-increasing number of litigious pressure groups against it, you have to wonder. By which time, of course, there’s a good chance that the rest of the world (except probably for the UK, and that’s a sad bloody story, too, now) will be travelling not on ’21st century’ trains (as the California Authority calls them, though they are actually 20th century ones)  but 22nd Century ones at twice the speed of Californians and three times faster than anyone else on any train in the rest of the country. . . .

* Actually, given the number of proposed stations in between, only direct through trains  will be able to achieve anything like that anyway;  the most likely duration looks more like 3 1/2 to 4 hours or more. Just one additional stop between London and Paris, or London and Brussels, means those trains take 20 minutes longer. The official site looks a bit disingenuous; for the last few miles into both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the trains will be limited to the same maximum speed as local commuter trains are now. Which actually is lower than the Crossrail trains that will be crossing London underground in four years’ time. That’s exactly what bedevilled the Eurostar for years until they finally built a high speed line straight into London. There’s nothing more dispiriting than to have spent a couple of hours belting through the countryside at 180 miles an hour only to spend the last thirty minutes watching your super-train trundling along only a little quicker than the cars on the motorway alongside. (Though I used to rather like the train brushing against bushes and trees and having time to admire the flowers on some of the stations.) But that was still faster than the last legs into San Francisco or LA look likely to be.

That’s not really going to convince Angelinos to take the train instead of the plane, I suspect. But that’s the point. One reason that high speed trains are popular all over Europe is that while a journey may take longer than a flight, on many you save time at both ends because you’re in the middle of the city you want to get to. And even if it takes twice as long, the seats are more comfortable, you have more space, and you can wander along the train and have a beer or glass of wine and a sandwich. And you can keep your luggage near you. I would have said you also avoid the security hassles you now get at airports, though that doesn’t quite hold for the Eurostar of course. Even so, you get through that very much faster and with a lot less hassle at St Pancras or the Gare du Nord than any airport. I’m usually through the security and passport control at St Pancras in no more than five minutes. But unfortunately, tucked away in the California High Speed Rail Authority’s documentation is a proposal that takes even that pleasurable advantage away. They intend, it seems, to implement ‘airport style security screening’ at the stations . . .

Oh dear. Oh dear . . .

That new Eurostar train (the same as many running in Europe already)  btw, will take 750 passengers; the same as two Boeing 747′s. About fifty per cent more than they do now. The TGV I take down to the south of France is two ‘Duplex’ double decker trains together when it’s going on to Barcelona: that’s nearly a thousand if it’s full, and it often is pretty much in summer. That’s between 300 and 500 cars that aren’t on the roads for every train. I’m hoping, too, that Eurostar will do what the French do: mobile phones are banned in the carriages. You’re only supposed to use them in the corridors between them; there are a couple of little seats there for people who can’t live without them. There have been trips where I’ve heaved a huge sigh of relief and gratitude as we hit the tunnel where they don’t work.

 

 

 

evolution – part 3

Or maybe it should be devolution. You tell me;

It was not so much how hard people found the challenge, but how far they would go to avoid it that left researchers gobsmacked. The task? To sit in a chair and do nothing but think.

So unbearable did some find it that they took up the safe but alarming opportunity to give themselves mild electric shocks in an attempt to break the tedium.

What. The. Fuck?

The report from psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities is one of a surprising few to tackle the question of why most of us find it so hard to do nothing.

Well I’ve never felt like I belonged in the “most of us” group at any time at all, and crazy shit like this is one of the reasons for that. I love doing nothing.  Actually, to be precise, which is never a really bad idea, it’s completely impossible to do nothing. At the very least, assuming you’re still actually alive, you’re busy circulating blood, but of course we’re conditioned to think that’s something that’s just kind of happening and not something we’re doing.tumblr_m577mmPayT1qkkyq0o1_500

But let’s be fair. Sitting in a bare laboratory room could be off-putting, I suppose. Oh wait;

In case the unfamiliar setting hampered the ability to think, the researchers ran the experiment again with people at home. They got much the same results, only people found the experience even more miserable, and cheated by getting up from their chair or checking their phones.

Damn. Onward.

But the most staggering result was yet to come. To check whether people might actually prefer something bad to nothing at all, the students were given the option of administering a mild electric shock.
They had been asked earlier to rate how unpleasant the shocks were, alongside other options, such as looking at pictures of cockroaches or hearing the sound of a knife rubbing against a bottle.
All the students picked for the test said they would pay to avoid mild electric shocks after receiving a demonstration.

To the researchers’ surprise, 12 of 18 men gave themselves up to four electric shocks, as did six of 24 women.

Well then, there you have it. The question of whether we have finally decoupled from the enlightenment completely is answered. We’re moving toward a willingness to stick sensitive body parts in a fucking light socket rather than be stranded with uninterrupted thoughts for a few minutes.

I swear, I can’t make any sense out of this at all. As someone who has had more than their share of electric jolts from spark plug wires and cattle fencing, and who finds that they put me in a foul humor for some several minutes afterwards, I can’t identify with any of this.

In fact, the static belt one often gets around here (super low humidity, you see) from a metal portion of an automobile door, or sometimes the handle on the supermarket cooler doors, is enough to piss me off briefly. What the hell is the matter with these people?

Life on Mars?

Got to share this one:

“I don’t want to get into the debate about climate change, but I will simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There are no factories on Mars that I’m aware of.”

Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, Kentucky; who said, more or less, “You have your data, we have ours . . .”

In fairness, to Mr Smith, the mean average temperature of Kentucky is between 53-60 degrees F while at the Martian equator in mid-summer, it can reach 70. But it goes down to   –100 at night . . . (The lowest recorded in Kentucky is —37 F, the highest 114. The average summer temperature is around 87, the average winter one around 25.  So, if you take a hot summer day and a cold winter night in Kentucky. . . )

But we don’t know there are no coal mines on Mars, do we? How did they get their boats along all those canals? Stands to reason they must have had coal for the steam engines, doesn’t it? Especially with the weight of all those dinosaurs they had to carry about.

Who actually tells them this sort of stuff in school or college?

Own Goal?

Actually, Squ here has very little interest in football. (Or ‘soccer’, if we must.)  The Squ memories of it at school are mostly of getting very cold, very wet, and very muddy. So, after far too many attempts by my school to build the squirrel character with the wretched game, as soon as I could, I chose to go swimming instead. Where maybe you get wet, but not cold, belaboured by howling gales, and you do not get encrusted with mud up to your knees.

Why, without reasons like those to dislike football, the American Right nutjobs seem to be trying to make a fuss about it, is something of a puzzle. I read, casually, the first one, by a ‘psychiatrist’ (or maybe a ‘psychologist’) somewhere a week or so ago, can’t remember where * , and thought it was just some sort of attempt at a casual bit of silly controversy-mongering by someone who hadn’t yet grasped how to write a satire, and forgot about it.

But now the noxious Ann Coulter has got hold of it.

The argument against football seems more or less to run along these lines:

1) It goes on too long. (Up to twelve hours, I recall the first article saying. There seems to be some confusion with cricket, here. It’s my understanding it’s American Football that can take up an entire evening one way and another, whereas most actual football games are over in an hour and a half. It’s the commentary afterwards, especially if England loses an international, which always happens, that can go on for days and days.)

2) It’s not ‘manly’ enough. Because no-one gets badly injured or there isn’t a long death-roll from concussion. Yes, well . . .Maybe getting bitten doesn’t count.

3) There’s not enough rioting of teams of ‘real men’ on the pitch with half of each team being stretchered off. Like hockey. Yes, well . . .A lost football match once started a war. Beat that. American Football!

4) You can’t use your hands. And therefore footballers are wilfully and sacreligiously  disregarding God’s wonderful gift of opposable thumbs. This seems a bit odd to me, but there we are. See the possible confusion with cricket; these people apparently don’t know what happens when a goalkeeper saves a goal, for example or when you throw the ball in from the line; or perhaps these days, players have their thumbs tied behind their backs, which would explain why England loses so often.

5) If you get hit by an American ball, it hurts. (You can tell that these people have never played our kind of football. Especially not in the rain.)

6) Often nobody actually wins, ‘cos some matches end in a draw. Sometimes no-one even scores a goal! What’s the good of a game where you don;t need to count up to 148-79? (See ‘confusion with cricket’.)

7) Girls can play. Instead of wearing very short skirts, jumping up and down on the sidelines, and yelling strange phrases.

8) It’s played mostly by Dagoes, Wetbacks, Spics and the French. And blacks. And probably Libyans. In Benghazi.

9) And it came from England, and we fought a revolutionary war to keep all that British monarchical crap out.

10) Obama’s been photographed watching it on telly.

(Can’t remember whether that actually got in or not, just put it in to get to ten. But it figures.)

 

* I looked it up; it was in Politico magazine.

Clash of Symbols

Kayak Danger symbols smaller

Part 1 of Squ’s (largely unavailing) effort to forget about the general horribleness going on. The Red Squirrel Navy’s latest addition to the fleet came with a whole gamut of EU warning symbols. The Party convened a Red Squirrel Admiralty Symbol sub-committee to try to explain them, and here are their tentative preliminary conclusions, but any other input (especially answers to ‘Why?’) would be appreciated, since they have left a number of furrowed squirrel brows.

From left to right:

1: Men float face down.*

2: Do not argue about whose drink is left on the bar.

3: Do not attempt to escape from Alcatraz.

4: No Hokusai prints allowed on board.

5: This is not a flying boat.

6: Pine trees can be dangerous**. Paddle away quickly.

7: Reading Tintin comics on board is forbidden to under-fourteens.

* The alternative “If you see someone drowning, leave them to it” was rejected by unanimous vote of the committee as being totally contrary to Red Squirrel Party ethics. The young sub-lieutenant squirrel who came up with that has been disciplined by being made to drink a whole butt of malmsey. Upside down.

** Foreign highly territorial squirrels may hurl pine kernels at you. This may cause injury.

 

 

Kayak Warning symbols 2

 

1: Your book may get wet.

2: No more than two pink gins/cocktails to be drunk on board when sun falls over yardarm.

(Or possibly ‘before’; opinion in the sub-committee was divided and the final decision has been deferred pending consideration of the First Lord of the Red Squirrel Admiralty, i.e. Squirrel.)

3: When boat sinks under you, swimming lessons are advised.

4: Use contraceptives when on board!

5:  Maximum weight of body (including concrete and chains) to be thrown over the side.

6: When planting flag on unclaimed island, paddle away quickly before natives decide they do not want to be colonized.

isis photos?

I don’t have the time today to track this down all the way to wherever it goes, but yesterday those images of people loaded into trucks and then laying in a ditch as they were supposedly shot by a bunch of religious fucking nutters were everywhere. isis-execution-photos

The Guardian had an above-the-fold piece, Huffpo had the story as their main headline all day long.

Then this morning? Nothing. The Guardian’s piece was no longer to be found linked anywhere on the front page, though the piece still exists. Ditto Huffpo, the NYT and just about everywhere one looked.

No explanations, no followups, no nothin’.

IBT has a short piece speculating that the photos are faked, or perhaps staged is a better word, which is a thought that crossed my mind in the beginning. Several photographs show people lying down with their hands held behind them in a posture that would result from having the hands tied or handcuffed back there, but there was no sign of any bindings of any kind. And they’re photos too, by the looks of things, not clips from a video, and the composition strikes me as conveniently tidy.

If the photos actually do represent what they purport to represent, or even if the media had confidence that they do, would this whole issue have departed the front pages like this?

A quick google search yields not much in the way of newly published pieces anywhere—they’re all 18 or so hours old or more. I have no clue what’s actually going on, but something ain’t quite right. Somewhere.

For clickbait like this to suddenly disappear not just from the headlines at places like Huffpo, but also from the homepage entirely, is pretty damn unusual.

 

evolution, part 2

The story so far; we established that yeast are stupid and don’t have much in the way of imagination and are utterly incapable of grasping the concept of exponential functions.

Meanwhile, there seems to be increasing doubt (here at 9000′ if nowhere else, and since that’s where the rent gets paid there is no chance of this issue going away) as to whether current scientific understanding can give a helpful context for dealing with why humans, who do have imaginations and are perfectly capable of understanding exponential behavior  some good while before graduating from high school (not that they do of course), are  exhibiting behavior so relentlessly yeast-like.

In this next thrilling installment, we introduce a reminder that evolutionary dynamics are as busy as the Invisible Hand, that is to say constantly, with all our relatives, not least this one who performs a task over and over that I couldn’t do even if you held a gun to my head. Seriously, I would be unable to do this, with nine numerals viewable for a mere 1/4 of a second, one single damn time.

Could you?

Discuss.

(via kottke.org)

Happy Anniversary (War is Over)

Sub-titles: Heroes and Villains; MASH; Men in black (or white) Hats; SNAFU .  . .

There was this American Sergeant I met once. He was dressed as the perfect English Country Gent, apparently his habitual off-duty (and he did appear to be off-duty rather a lot) dress. Tweed jacket, cavalry twill trousers, cravat, brown brogues, pipe. Plump. The very picture of a retired major in some home counties village in a Miss Marple episode.

I was never quite sure how old he actually was. He looked in his forties, but on reflection later, it occurred to me he might have been more a decade and a half short of that. Or, maybe, just maybe, US army-issue razors gave a very much closer shave than any I’ve ever had since I was about sixteen.

He had even gone so far as to develop a plummy English accent weirdly reminiscent of 1950′s newsreels. I was fascinated: it was actually achieved quite literally with his tongue in his cheek, which, of course, made him look plumper. I wondered if he watched Mary Poppins a lot.

He hung around the Brits on the base quite a lot, I heard. They treated him with, I suppose, a kind of pleasant indulgence. Far too polite to laugh, fortunately for him, either in front of him or even behind his back. ‘Fortunately for him’, I think, because he was never actually going to be whatever it was he had in mind: mascot? An English eccentric? In fact, he was more of a sort of military garden gnome. A kind of decorative base ornament.

There might have been, I thought, a dark night of the soul or two. He offered me drinks. (Single malt whisky, cut glass tumblers and decanter, of course. I refused ice.) But there’s a hierarchy of accommodation in the military, which I must admit, though logical, I found odd.

My friend, married, but without children, as a senior officer had a ridiculously large three-bedroom bungalow with a study and garden front and back. A sergeant had a one-bedroom flat in an apartment block, not even a wide enough window sill for a window box, a little more cramped and much boxier even than my own in London.

I was rather expecting worn leather armchairs, one at least with a sagging seat, oak bookcases, maybe even anti-macassars and an old rug with a couple of holes and a lot of dog hairs. It wasn’t; it was all institutional G-Plan of the kind I was furnished with as a student in hall. The illusion, I thought, must have been rather hard to keep up at home.

Why, you are probably wondering, have I been reminded of this? Well, it’s because Rolling Stone has just re-published an article about a currently somewhat controversial sergeant.

Devout Calvinists, they [Sergeant Bergdahl's parents] taught the children for six hours a day, instructing them in religious thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. “Ethics and morality would be constant verbiage in our conversations,” his father recalls. “Bowe was definitely instilled with truth. He was very philosophical about perceiving ethics.” ‘ In Afghanistan, he had “an introductory ethics handbook with writings from Aristotle, Augustine, Kant and Hume.”

I hear loud alarm bells ringing . . .”Constant verbiage. . .?” Oh dear.

I don’t know what ‘my’ sergeant read. Kipling? Rupert Brooke? Alfred Noyes? Baden Powell? Agatha Christie? But it’s easy to step from illusion to delusion, as, one suspects, the French Foreign Legion was well aware. It might have been wise to employ some of the other ranks to stare at goats. 

(And I do wish commenters and journalists in the US would stop writing ‘the war is over’. Just because one army withdraws from one doesn’t mean it’s finished.)