13 September 2018

The end of the beginning: The Trump situation

Donald Trump is facing legal challenges on multiple fronts: the Special Counsel investigation (which has yet to fully report), the Cohen investigation where he is already a non-charged co-conspirator and the New York investigation. There is no way he can shut any of these down now without making the situation worse for himself.

In chess, this is called zugzwang, with any move possible making the player's position worse. Trump's only reasonable move is to resign in return for no criminal charges and Donald Trump is not a reasonable man.

With mid-terms less than two months away, a Democratic takeover of the House looks very likely and the Senate is up for grabs. If the former happens, an impeachment is certain and the Republicans will have no good options - they can force Trump to resign with the loss of much of their base or keep him in power, with the loss of much of their base. While Trump is somewhat compos mentis, the 25th Amendment is not a realistic option.

We're probably stuck with Trump for the rest of this year. 2019 is a different question.

03 September 2018

Armchair Time Traveller #2: 1963 East German International Timetable



The Electronic Reading Room of the Central Intelligence Agency's Freedom of Information Act wing is a source for a lot of very interesting data from the Cold War era. What I was not expecting when I was doing research for my 1960s set spy RP game Secret '67 was to find a number of train timetables scanned and uploaded within the archives.

Anyway, I managed to find a particular gem that has become a useful resource for the game; the Summer 1963 International and Domestic Timetable for Deutsche Reichsbahn, the East German state operator.

(Reich is a German word literally meaning 'realm' or more figuratively meaning 'nation'. While most English speakers would automatically associate the word with Hitler and the Third Reich, it is not in itself a negative term, but Germany does not use the term any more for official use. Therefore the name of the company is 'German National Railways')

The document, declassified in 2011 and uploaded in 2016 only ever bore a CONFIDENTIAL classification due to the (redacted) information on the front as to the sourcing of the document. The main timetable contains nothing at all secret; being a publicly purchasable document that would have been obtained from the DR ticket office at Berlin Zoologischer Garten station in West Berlin. That's right, you didn't even need to cross over the Berlin Wall to get one.

I will be focussing solely on the international timetable for the purpose of this article.

The historical context

The idea of the Iron Curtain being some fortified barrier that one tried to cross only at one's mortal peril was true... but mostly for the people who lived on the eastern side of it. The communist governments over time became increasingly keen for the tourist dollar - and I mean the tourist dollar. Certain goods needed for their economies - and their leadership - had to be imported from the West; with Western businesses not exactly keen on taking East German marks or Soviet roubles, actual dollars or pounds were needed.

So, they were keen to advertise their nation to Western tourists who could see the socialist system in action - the parts of it that they wanted them to see at any rate. With air travel still very expensive for most, long distance train travel or driving were the common ways to get between European nations. Western tourists and visitors would need to apply for a visa of course, although you could get a day permit for East Berlin just by turning up at one of the appropriate checkpoints, such as the one at Berlin Friedrichstrasse station - more on that later.

Furthermore, Eastern Europeans could, after applying for permission, go on vacation to other countries in the Soviet bloc. A popular destination for East Germans was Czechoslovakia, which happened to be next door for one thing...

****
East Germany itself was still very much a land of steam. The Soviet Union had taken much of the pre-war electrification equipment and rolling stock back home as war reparations, leaving a war-battered East Germany (there were still uncleared ruins in East Berlin) reliant on rolling stock dating back to the 1920s and beyond. Track maintenance increasingly fell by the wayside, speed restrictions popped up all over the system and with a literally captive passenger base (car ownership not exactly being very high in the GDR), there was little incentive to improve.

The contents

After a cover, literally the first thing you encounter is an advert for the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden. Founded in 1912 and still open today, it served at the time as much as a propaganda vehicle for the GDR as it did for health education; it had earlier done the same thing for the Nazis.


Other adverts for East German places to visit or things to buy also appear.

Handily enough, the explanatory notes on the timetables that follow are written in German, Russian, French and English, although the main timetables themselves are in the first language. The first part of these are bulk timetables for a particular cross-GDR route, followed by key routes in three other socialist states (Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary) and finally by individual timetables for the key trains running through East Germany.

The symbols are very similar to the ones found in modern international timetables, although notable standouts for this period include designations on a coach diagram for a mail carriage and a railcar.

In an age where far more correspondence went by post, railways were often the fastest means to transport letters and so it was entirely normal to add a mail carriage to the consist of an express train that was going that direction anyway; indeed, that carriage might have a letterbox for passengers to add items of their own. Indeed, British rail operators were legally obliged to take mail as required by the Postmaster General. There were dedicated mail trains as well.

Then there are "railcars" or as most people tend to call them these days "multiple units", whose main distinction was a more limited space for luggage if there was any at all. Mainline multi-carriage multiple units really started getting going in the 1930s, with the beautiful SVT 137 coming into service in 1935 running at speeds of up to 100mph. East Germany had produced a prototype version of its most famous DMU, the VT 18.16, later the Class 175, although series production would not begin until 1965.

Through coaches were very much the thing on international expresses. There was not exactly the demand for an entire twelve-carriage train from Paris to Moscow on a daily basis (there still isn't, hence why it only runs once a week), so you would have one carriage for the Soviet capital from Paris, another from Ostend and another connecting from Hoek van Holland, all part of a train mostly running between Paris and Warsaw.

This needs diagrams or a list to be fully understood and we have plenty of examples like below.


The travel times 

International train travel took a lot longer back then. One particular reason was border controls; while in-journey passport checking was common on sleepers and Trans Europe Express services, you'd still have checks when travelling within the EEC, let alone outside it. A 40-minute-plus layover when entering or exiting East Germany was not unheard as the Border Troops thoroughly checked papers and the carriages to make sure things that weren't supposed to cross the border were not present. This even applied to trips to fellow socialist countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia; remember permission was needed for East Germans to even go there for a holiday.

To take a similar route to my 2016 trip from London to Berlin, I would need to depart from London Victoria at 10am on one of the boat trains that connected with the ferry from Dover to Ostend in Belgium, arriving at the latter at 3.20pm; no need to change my watch as the mainland of Europe was not using Daylight Savings Time, while we were. A 4pm train, designated F 52 or the Oostende-Wien Express, depositing me at Cologne at 9.18pm. I would then have to wait for an hour to pick up D 105 as shown above, the famous Paris-Moscow service, where I could end up in one of three sleeper carriages heading for Berlin; one operated by Mitropa, the East German sleeper and restaurant car provider or the other two operated by Soviet Railways. The other option was a DR couchette car; Mitropa did not lower itself to those. Apparently the Soviet sleepers had net curtains...

Helmstedt on the West German side of the border would have been reached at 3.48am for a twelve minute stop to swap the locomotives. Then a 16 minute stop at 4.14am to 4.30am. The passport checks for the GDR would have done on route, but the need to get and pay for the transit visa would have probably meant I'd have been woken up... Hence why the Thomas Cook advice was to fly to West Berlin.

After taking 3 hours and 3 minutes (!) to travel the 118 kilometres to Berlin Zoo, I'd have arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I hope, at 7.33am. Journey time, 21 hours and 33 minutes. This has been much accelerated of course since then.

Going east, a whole string of long distance expresses operated. Some have disappeared into railway history, others have been contracted but one that definitely survives is Hungaria (EC 173); which has indeed expanded from Berlin-Budapest to Hamburg-Budapest with only one loco change at Prague. A 1963 journey time of 14 hours and 33 minutes for the former has now been reduced to 11 hours and 2 minutes, with the whole route taking under 14 hours.

Ex 154 from 1963 is described as a 'Triebwagen... mit Speiseabteil' i.e. a multiple unit with catering; the 1969 data from VagonWEB is for two Czechoslovak M 298.0 four-car DMUs, which were built from 1962-64, so one may well have run this service at the time. Today it's a locomotive hauled service using modern electric traction.

Conclusion

Train travel between countries in the communist bloc of the 1960s could be slow, bureaucratic and unreliable, unlike today's world of open borders and high speed trains. That said, the trains looked good (mostly) and you'd have been able to see steam engines in their natural element instead of pottering about on heritage lines. Just bring a good non-offensive book to read.

Can I recommend Sherlock Holmes?

28 August 2018

Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party

There is a real problem here for the party I am increasingly glad that I left. At any rate in terms of perception.

There is much criticism to be made of Israel, but to claim that they try to shut this down by screaming "anti-Semitism" via a shadowy network of paid shills (well, if there is one, they owe me money) is well, dodgy. It's using a lot of the same tropes in classical anti-Semitism, which is rather hard to do these days since the Holocaust. Some of the characterisations used are questionable at best: "Nazi" is ludicrous and "apartheid" may apply in the West Bank, but it certainly doesn't in 'Green Line Israel'.

Anti-Zionism is not in itself racist, but people misunderstand what Zionism actually is and arguing that Jews are not entitled to some form of safe haven is historically questionable. Many Jews do know their history - and they're pretty good at irony too.

The abuse directed against Corbyn's opponents is pretty vile and again using anti-Semitic tropes in the form of anti-Zionism. They may not know they're doing it, but they are and they should really stop.

Play the ball, not the person.

20 July 2018

Mystery Science Theater 3000 11.14: To the Earth's Core

This 1976 British adventure movie has an interesting concept that fails utterly in the execution. Peter Cushing, a man capable of a great deal more, phones it in. Doug McClure is silly. To be honest, Caroline Munro was never leading lady material. With cheesy dialogue and effects galore, it's a classic MST3K movie.

A lot of fun is had by all the SOL crew, with a new addition to the team, Growler, who appears to be staying for a while. The riffs come thick and fast, especially in the climax, with a lot of laugh out loud lines as the stuff they throw sticks.

Speaking of climaxes, Season 11's narrative arc comes to an end with Jonah and Kinga's wedding. While not the greatest event of all time, it does end in a suitably MST3K way, with a cliffhanger ending to boot...

Not perhaps the best episode, but a decent enough ending.

8/10

****
I have to say that the revival has been very good. There's a nice selection of films that have been made with plenty of great riffs and callbacks. I've had a good time and that's what matters to me.

One thing that's not quite worked is the timing of some of the riffs. They arrive slightly too early, ahead of where a natural response might be, so they

Looking forward to Season 12.

11 July 2018

Mystery Science Theater 3000 11.13: "The Christmas That Almost Wasn't"

This saccharine-filled Italian Christmas movie tries to be charming but just ends up being dull, when it isn't being illogical, namely involving a very unconvincing lawyer among other things. It's not bad enough to be a truly great MST3K film and most of the material is forgettable.

What saves it is a very funny final twenty minutes with Joel Hodgson playing Santa Claus and an excellent final skit mimicking the movie's own photomontage.

Just one more episode of this run to go.

8/10

22 June 2018

US immigration policy under Donald Trump...

Is utterly vile when it's not being an utter waste of money:
  • Wanting to spend $25bn on a wall when most illegal immigration is people overstaying visas
  • Comparing countries to toilet pits and then not wanting people coming from those countries to seek a better life
  • Putting children in conditions that you wouldn't keep convicted murderers in; with no books, toys or anything like that
  • Not actually doing anything to improve the lives of peoples in countries like Honduras and El Salvador
  • Making dog whistles about MS-13
  • Not realising that without these people, the US is going to have a labour shortage
Also, "womp womp" is just a whole new level of sick. That guy should never be allowed back on a TV show until he apologises and donates a big sum to a refugee charity.

31 May 2018

Going or staying: US TV upfronts 2018-19

ABC
  • ABC's order of Take Two, essentially a female-led Castle by the same creative team, is a gamble I think won't pay off. That show really captured lightning in a bottle, but the way it ended means I'm reluctant to re-watch it.
  • Agents of SHIELD took a bold step in a new direction and the ratings held up just enough to get it renewed - as a 13-episode run in summer 2019. That may be the last season there, time will well.
  • Designated Survivor turned into a fairly generic political show with its Season 1 arc completed; Season 2 will be its last and it's hardly been must-watch TV this run.

CBS
  • All the shows I watch on this network were renewed in the bulk renewal - even some shows that seemed to have doubts over their future.
  • NCIS will likely go on until Mark Harmon, who looks way younger than his 66 years, decides to call it a day, and probably beyond that.
  • Scorpion was canned after four seasons. Not that I care in the slightest.
  • Criminal Minds got a 14th season. How many serial killers are there in that universe?

The CW
  • All the DC shows were renewed - Legends of Tomorrow has really hit its stride now.
  • An expansion to six nights a week of original programming means a lot more quality can come through. So can a lot more rubbish.
  • Is Charmed's sole appeal attractive female magic users?

FOX
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine's axe after five seasons wasn't a surprise. What did surprise me was the sheer outpouring of support for the show after the axe dropped... and the acquisition by NBC before breakfast on Saturday. Cue a lot of triumphant reactions and 'name of your sex tape' jokes on Reddit.
  • The Orville was renewed early due to the lead time needed to make Season 2. The 13 episode length proved just right for a show that turned out to have much more of a drama aspect than the initial trailer suggested. A funny and loving homage to Star Trek, Seth MacFarlane will likely be captaining the ship for a good while yet.
  • I'd never heard of Last Man Standing, so I don't really care about its revival.

HBO
  • While Westworld can most certainly be a very confusing show at times with all the jumping about of timelines, it looks spectacular and has some things worth saying about our society. Its early season three renewal was no surprise.
  • Veep will end after seven seasons, its finale delayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss getting breast cancer.
NBC
  • The Blacklist has taken an even darker turn as Liz Keen has started casually dissolving bodies in acid and luring crooks into lethal traps.
  • Timeless would have been better as a summer show. The fact it's still in limbo after May has ended suggests it's dead.

Showtime
  • Homeland, which at times found itself overtaken by reality in the crazy department (a common theme in the political shows this season), will get an eight and final season in late 2019 once the superlative Claire Danes comes back from maternity leave. It's probably best to end the show on its own terms.

Other
  • Syfy's cancellation of The Expanse, along with Dark Matter going earlier in the season, is probably a sign that their move into space shows hasn't worked out for them financially. Earth-bound works tend to be cheaper. Amazon has the money to make it work.