06 December 2018

Some random thoughts on Brexit #2

  • I think No Deal is very much off the table now. Parliament will not let it happen and the Government doesn't want it to happen.
  • Why couldn't the full legal advice be released on a confidential basis to MPs? If they can't keep a secret, then that's their lookout.
  • Deal May is pretty much dead and I think may not actually see a full Commons vote at all. I think a second referendum is getting increasingly likely - Norway for Now has many of the same problems as Deal May.
  • A General Election isn't going to happen - the DUP will back the government, so there is no way a confidence vote can succeed.
  • A second referendum would probably go for Remain, but I doubt they would get more than 55%. That will be a problem going forward.
  • I just want this to be over one way or another...

28 November 2018

Kumar Chameleon - A Star Citizen Story, Part Six:


Sunita’s arms flailed wildly as her head was held under the water. She instinctively tried to reach back with her hands to get her assailant off her but couldn’t reach to do so. She realised that she was the only person apart from this guy in the hot tub area. If someone saw her and managed to intervene in time, then she was probably going to stay alive… but if not…

She did not exactly have this thought in that depth. It was more a case of I’ve got to him off… I need help… blub… blub… blub… fight…

At that point, her head was released and gasping for breath, she looked up into the eyes of a Banu who looked at her face and turned his head slightly to his left.

“What is your name, wet human?” he asked, “And what have you done to have someone try to drown you in a hot tub at a party?”

“I’m… I’m…” she spluttered, “Sun… Sun… Sunita Kumar…”

“You’re not Liza Santiago,” a strong male human voice behind her said, as she turned around to see the man that she had come here to meet, “She’d have put up more of a fight than that for one thing.”

She was looking at another large man, this time of African descent, with long black hair in a ponytail and just enough beard to cover his chin without causing problems putting on an oxygen mask.

“I’m Mr. Jones,” he said, “That’s my usual handle. I have a real name, but I’m going to keep it secret from the likes of you.”

“The likes of me?” Sunita asked.

“You’re just a little girl playing pirate. My colleague here may not be able to tell you apart from Santiago, but it was obvious to me. She walks differently. She also does other things differently, if you know what I mean.”

“Hang on, weren’t you trying to kill her?” Sunita said.

“It’s business. It’s nothing personal.”

“It was pretty personal,” Sunita said angrily, “When you shot me.”

“It was dark, and I was on pain meds, which is also why I managed to not kill you. I am going to deeply apologise to you and then inform Captain Brown that Liza Santiago is indeed dead.”

He was talking about this, the deliberately cold-blooded taking of human life, like he was discussing a business transaction.

“That would be appreciated.”

“Now can I buy you a drink?”

****

“He’s surprisingly nice for a contract killer,” Sunita said when she was back on Tuskegee Airman, “Anyway, he wouldn’t be drawn on the identity of his client, except for one slip of the tongue at the beginning. Someone called Captain Brown.”

“That’s not going to be very useful in us going after this guy.” Daniel Grant said, “You’ve got some pretty big medical bills to pay. Your insurance will cover most of it, but the lost time and earnings aren’t included…”

“Hang on, darling,” Mary said, “I severely doubt this guy is going to pay Sunita compensation.”

“He might. Some honourable thieves out there.”

“Tell you what, let’s see if I can find out some more information about this guy before we make that call.”

****

Mary started to do a general search through some of the shadier corners of the web and soon found out quite a bit about ‘Captain Brown.’

Luther Brown, a brown-skinned man originally from Terra, was another rather notorious pirate, who had raided a few corporate vessels, stealing their cargo and killing their crews. He was wanted across the UEE and there was a handsome reward out for him. There was also a story that he had one of his treasure caches – which was untypical for a pirate as they usually fenced their booty as soon as possible then drunk away the proceeds when they weren’t using them to purchase other vices – raided by a Liza Santiago.

Mary called the crew together in the mess and presented her findings.

“It seems that your doppelg√§nger rubbed this Captain Brown up the wrong way. At some point, one of his people saw you… Sunita of course… and thought that Liza was still alive, so hired Mr. Jones to kill her. He of course failed. We can’t safely get this pirate, but now that Mr. Jones is passing on the information that he got the wrong woman, you should be left a…”

There was a sudden explosion on behind them on the port side of the ship. All of them fell to the ground, including Sunita. When she got up, she saw that someone had blown a rather large hole in the side of the ship, red emergency lights were flashing, and the alert sirens were making an awful racket.
Daniel got to his feet.

“Or he could decide to kill us all to cover up his embarrassment!” he screamed, “Sunita, get out of here.”

Sunita moved towards the hole… and saw a pair of gunners taking aim at her, next to a smoking man-portable missile launcher that had clearly been the source of the projectile that had just breached their unshielded hull. Daniel yanked her back quickly.

“The other way! We’ll hold them off!”

Daniel directed her out of the mess and led her through to starboard engineering. He knelt and started to open an inspection hatch on the floor below.

“Give me a hand with this!” he called out, as he started to lift one end of the hatch. Sunita moved over and the two of them quickly lifted it up. Below her, she could see the huge starboard landing gear of their frigate, a drop of about twelve metres to the ground below. Daniel looked around and opened a case containing a safety line, which he passed to Sunita. She secured around her waist and stepped to the edge of the hatch.

“If I don’t see you again,” she said, “It’s been fun.”

She jumped down into the hatch as David let the line run out.  

One metre, two metres, three metres…

She could see the gunmen exchanging fire with the Tuskegee crew… A third one had just joined them. Hopefully they would be too pinned down to notice her.

Four metres, five metres, six metres…

One of them fell to the ground as two bullets struck him in the chest.

Seven metres, eight, metres, nine metres…

Then she felt the ship shudder again as another missile hit the landing leg opposite her. She didn’t hear the explosion, just the force of the blast smacking her against the nearest landing leg, knocking the wind out of her. Then there was a second explosion that she did hear.

The line had stopped moving. 

“David, what’s happening?” she called out once she had got her breath back. There was no answer. She looked up and saw that the compartment she had just come out of was now pitch black.

Power failure… oh…

Sunita didn’t even have time to mentally swear as she saw one of the remaining gunmen see her, take aim and let loose an entire magazine of automatic fire in her direction…

****

She closed her eyes and felt several bullets whistling past her body as the hanger reverberated with automatic fire. Then it stopped.
She opened her eyes and realised he had missed with every shot. He was moving to reload when she instinctively moved to release the safety harness.

She landed hard on her ankle, rolling onto her side, with yet more bullets being exchanged between the two sides. She got to her feet, concluded she’d merely sprained her ankle instead of something worse then started to hobble out of the hangar at a fast walking pace. Adrenaline was acting as a painkiller, but she knew that wouldn’t last.

In four minutes, she was back in her own hangar. Her MobiGlas allowed her to open the hatch to the Aurora remotely and she climbed up the steps to get on board as the man with bad fire discipline arrived in the entrance. She pressed the button to close the hatch and darted clear as he fired another magazine at the inside.

Then she was in the cockpit, starting the power up sequence. She wasn’t wearing a space suit, but that was the least of her concerns right now.

At that point, a man with a large assault rifle moved out in front of the ship, aiming his weapon at the cockpit.

“Stop right there, girlie!” he cried out, “If you come out now, we’ll be nice and gentle with you! Muck around, it’s going to go very badly for you.”

He’s standing right in front of my right cannon…

Sunita’s hand moved towards the trigger of her weapon and she flicked open the safety. Had she been in a normal station, the Armistice Zone controls would have prevented her from firing the weapons at all.

Instead, she found herself pulling the trigger. Bright energy shot out of the cannons, ripping small holes in the wall to reveal metal panels underneath.

And standing in front of the starboard cannon was two legs and a smoking skeleton that made up the rest of the former body.

Sunita threw up onto the floor.

It was time to get out of here. She started the engines of the Aurora.

“Spider Control, this is Robert Holmes in Hangar Delta One-Six. Requesting permission for immediate take-off. Also, please send a cleaning crew there, because I just killed a guy. In self-defence.”

The voice on the other side responded as if fatal weapons discharge in a hangar was a weekly occurrence.

Robert Holmes, we are depressurising the hangar now. Thank you for visiting us…”

****

In two minutes, Sunita was lifting away from the floor and was soon out into vacuum. She needed to get clear of this station. Clear of this system. She had a look at her Quantum Drive fuel status…

Just enough to get to the jump point for Davien. Home of Aegis Dynamics, she’d be safe there. 

She turned her ship towards the Davien jump point and started to spool her drive up. It reached full power and activated, space whizzing past her as she sped towards her destination, the distance dropping rapidly.

She felt the engine power down as she reached the end of her run. Only 100 kilometres to go before she could leave this sorry…

“New contact”.

The computerised voice in her cockpit gave her some unwelcome news. This wasn’t what she needed now. She looked around for the orange contact on her helmet… then remembered she wasn’t wearing one. Her fighting ability had just dropped considerably.

She turned her ship to point at the contact. 

An F7C Hornet fighter. She’s agile, but I could probably take her with my missiles.

“New contact. New contact.”

She turned again. Two more ships. A P5G Gladius… and a Constellation.

Well, if I just fly casual like…

Robert Holmes, this is the one and only warning that you are going to get. Power down your engines, weapons and shields… and prepare to be boarded”, came a voice over the radio. It sounded treacly and snake-like, as if it was enjoying just the first stage of whatever this was.

Sunita knew that she was in deep trouble. There was no way that the Idris corvette could reach her in time, even if it had been working. Any serious attack would result in a hull breach and her quick death from a lack of air.

She had no choice.

Robert Holmes will comply,” she said and started to surrender.

TO BE CONTINUED

23 November 2018

55 Years of Doctor Who

So, I can't imagine that William Hartnell would have ever expected that he'd turn into a woman at some point...

55 years for the show. The first female incarnation has proven to be brilliant indeed, although some would like to see a bit more (Sheffield) steel in her. We'll get it at some point I'm sure. Chibnall may not be the best writer, but give him time - the second season will be better than the first in that regard.

Love the new theme and the new look of the show; not so keen on the new TARDIS interior, but I can live with that.

Anyway, looks like we'll be here for the 60th...

Happy Anniversary!

12 November 2018

Stan Lee 1922-2018

Getting to 95 is an achievement. Creating an iconic comic character is a major achievement. 

Creating iconic comic characters in their dozens makes you a complete and utter legend. 

So long and thanks for everything. Not least all the great cameos, which were a highlight of any Marvel movie.

Rest in Peace. 

11 November 2018

100 Years Since The Armistice

I was in time to see the moment yesterday where Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel were together in the replica of the carriage used to sign the Armistice in the morning of 11 November 1918, resulting in the guns falling silent at 11am that day. The end of that war started a very turbulent century for the latter's home country, something that she experienced all too well as she grew up in the former East Germany.

The world isn't perfect, not by a long chalk. There are threats to the international order from many directions. I won't name them, everyone knows who they are.

However, seeing that sight today showed us just how far most of Europe has come since the horrors of the two world wars. Because people didn't forget. They worked to build bridges and tear down walls, both metaphorical and literal. 

Today, German built high speed trains transport passengers from London to Amsterdam through what was once the land of mud and death.

Those who fought there are now all in the next world. It is our job to make sure that the events of the first half of the 20th century are not repeated in the 21st.

When all have gone, we will need to take up the torch of Remembrance and remember those who gave their lives.

We will remember them.

13 October 2018

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Jodie Whittaker has hit it out of the park at the first attempt. The 13th Doctor's era presents a new twist on the Time Lord while still remaining recognisably Who, with stunning new cinematography and music.

Let's be honest, much of it is down to the new lead. Jodie just inhabits the part from the get go, with a strong charisma and presence that dominates the scene, but not in a bad way. The new companions aren't bad either.

Very much looking forward to tomorrow's episode.

9/10.

06 October 2018

Brett Kavanaugh

I'll just say that there is something truly rotten in the culture of American politics, especially in the Republican Party.

22 September 2018

Some random thoughts on Brexit

  1. The EU27 cannot allow a half way successful Brexit because it undermines the entire project by giving a massive boost to other anti-EU movements. Some Eurosceptic groups would move to full 'Exit' if it worked for the UK.
  2. The EU similarly cannot compromise freedom of movement if it is to survive in the medium term. In the long term, FOM may be what does it in. Goods quickly disappear. People stay around for decades and while immigration may have a positive effect on the UK overall, many people do not see it that way.
  3. Accepting freedom of movement would be seen by many British people as a betrayal of the referendum result.
  4. We should have come up with a more acceptable plan before triggering Article 50.
  5. A No Deal Brexit, if it is bad as people predict, cannot hold for more than a few months without a climbdown or a compromise. We have become too tightly integrated for No Deal to work.
  6. Brexit will harm our economy and Vote Leave should have the intellectual honesty to admit that.
  7. May's failure to gain an overall majority in 2017 has cost her big time - if she'd gained a majority of 100+, she would have a lot more political capital.
  8. Remain need a better argument for staying in the EU than Project Fear... because if it is in anyway better than they predict, then their main weapon loses its use.
  9. Our WW2 myth is badly affecting our decision making. Most of those involved in the war are now dead, so people have this not entirely correct view of what it was like and how we won.
  10. Don't troll people you're negotiating with. That means you, Mr. Tusk.

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.

11 May 2018

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' 11.12, "Carnival Magic"

So, Kinga wants to marry Jonah as a ratings stunt... anyway, that's a lot better of an idea that Carnival Magic, which involves a magician trying to save a carnival with a talking monkey. Wacky hi-jinks ensue and they're not very good ones at that; the movie drags badly, the plot is unconvincing and the music is just bizarre. Also, there's a rather creepy subtext in places and what is supposed to be a family film has a lot of adult themes.

It's a source for some quality riffing, with some excellent skits (Mark Hamill's cameo tops the lot, but it's a close race), some lovely callbacks to past classics and great deconstruction of the relative lack of talking monkey in this. I enjoyed it a lot and it may in time become a fan favourite.

9/10

03 May 2018

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' 11.11, "Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II"

Yes, I know it's been a long while since I've done one of these...

****

A sequel in name only (the connection with the first movie is pretty much non-existent); this 1989 movie has a rating of 1.9 on IMDB, which says something. The movie tries to be funny with one-liners that wouldn't be out of place in Guardians of the Galaxy... but Guardians is a much better movie for any number of reasons. The fight choreography is atrocious, the characters pretty annoying from top to bottom of the bill and the plot would be rejected for even a campy Dungeons and Dragons movie. It's also pretty sexist as a film, even if the scantily-clad female leads (including the late Lana Clarkson, who was murdered by Phil Spector at the age of 40) actually get some of the better lines.

A steady stream of riffs provides a good deal of laughs and helps one get through the awful movie - which even the bots find is past their tolerance level. Also, the skits are all pretty good.

8/10


22 April 2018

Armchair Time Traveller #1: January 1958 ABC Railway Guide

In this series of posts that I'll doing over 2018, I'll be reviewing, so to speak, some of the old railway timetables that I have in my possession or have managed to locate online, giving a general view of how things have changed for better and worse. The plan is for a total of six of these posts, but that may well change... and drag on into 2019.

In this first post, I'm going to look at the January 1958 ABC Railway Guide.


Published monthly from 1853 to 2007 (the name has been revived for an enthusiast's guide to rolling stock and locomotives) and a rival to the Bradshaw's books that have featured in Michael Portillo's long running TV series, this book's main function is to provide an alphabetical list of all the railway stations in Great Britain and tell you how to get there from London, with timetables for the major routes at the back.

Costing 7 shillings and sixpence (37 and a half pence in new money), this tome can be considered pocket sized if you have a garment with large pockets; it's 21cm by 12.5cm by 3.7cm. Coming in at 918 pages counting the covers and weighing 682 grams (1lb 8.1 oz in old money) this is more an object one would keep in the study for reference rather than lug around on a commute.

The contents

This has adverts. Quite a lot of adverts. Firstly on the cover for the Motor Union Insurance Co. Ltd, (which I believe is now part of the AA) and also for Gestetner, whose duplicators were the predecessors of the modern photocopier - you would create a master copy something of a form or leaflet, then use this to make as many copies as you needed, at least until the master degraded.

The main adverts, however, are for hotels. 252 pages of them, arranged by town so you can be find what is available in your planned destination. Some of the things advertised for these hotels are things that one doesn't tend to see advertised in modern hotels because they're kind of taken for granted:
  • Central Heating
  • Private bathrooms, often for many of the rooms
    • You may mock, indeed you can mock, but the Orient Express and other luxury sleeper trains operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits didn't have en-suite toilets. Which means it was entirely possible for you to be waiting for Audrey Hepburn or Burt Lancaster to finish up, well, delivering a sit down performance, on Le Train Bleu or an American equivalent.
  • A lift
  • Gas fires
  • A television lounge - that is one television for the whole hotel
  • Interior sprung mattresses


    Also quite a few are quoting weekly rates. This was a time where holidays were much longer and care homes fewer; an old person of means might well move into a hotel as they'd be looked after. The Major in Fawlty Towers is one example.

    We then have four pages of tables for sleeper services and these were a lot more numerous back in 1958. Taking a typical Monday night, a Londoner could get:
    • 5 trains from Paddington (2 to Penzance, 1 to Plymouth with seating to Penzance, 1 to Carmarthen with seating to a station called Neyland in Pembrokeshire which would close in 1964)
    • 8 from King's Cross
    • 12 from Euston
    • 3 from St Pancras
    Some of those had multiple portions, a restaurant car and "improved type 2nd class accommodation". The last of these probably refers to the British Railways Mark 1 sleeper carriages that were being introduced at this time; these were replacing Grouping era sleepers with four-berth compartments that lacked a washbasin.. Not many of these survive; they had a lot of asbestos in them for one thing.

    The main section of the timetable provides an alphabetical list of stations in the mainland UK with listings ranging in detail from a list of all the trains from London for main stations (with departure and arrival) to times from a major hub for branch lines. For example, Ashton in Devon is 40 minutes from Exeter St. David's and served on weekdays only... although less than five months later, it lost its passenger service entirely.

    Each station has its distance from London (184 1/2 miles) and single fares for 2nd class or 1st class (30s 6d and 45s 9d) respectively at a time when railway fares were fixed per mile; 14s 7d for every 100 miles. Why this was abandoned, I don't know...

    Pages 416 to 652 contain 122 full timetables for the London suburban routes, the Underground and finally boat trains to mainland Europe.

    The historical context


    British Railways had just turned 10 at this point and was still building steam locomotives; while simultaneously constructing new diesel and electric traction, the last for lines that were about to be electrified or had already been. All this was going on under the aegis of the 'Modernisation Plan' published in December 1954, back when you didn't have a fancy title designed for Twitter hashtags for this sort of thing and social media was a group getting together to watch a television show.

    The Modernisation Plan would have decidedly mixed results in terms of traction; while it gave us much-loved units like the 4CEP and the burly beast of a locomotive that is the Class 47, many of the diesel classes were rushed into production by people with limited experience in building diesel locomotives, with a result that some didn't last much longer than steam locomotives. Ultimately, its goal to eliminate BR's operating deficit was a failure, mainly due to the plan being more 'replace steam' than 'update the railway for changing patterns of transport'. The next step was Beeching and all that entailed.

    Electrification therefore was decidedly limited at this point outside London, where all the Southern Region suburban lines had been done before the war, the Liverpool Street to Shenfield suburban service just after it and the long process of getting the wires along the West Coast Main Line was yet to start. Steam was still very much king at this point in time, with pre-war and wartime classes joined by the post-war 'Standards'. Some of those could reach 100mph on a good day with a highly competent crew and a decent run or downward gradient; they certainly could not sustain it.

    British Railways had started to introduce the frankly superlative Mark 1 coaches (in timber veneer and not laminate) from 1951 onwards, but they were by no means universal. Grouping era stock was still running until the early 1970s, such as the 4COR EMUs out of Waterloo and various non-corridor suburban stock. Some of the Mark 1s themselves were 'closed compartment', which wasn't the most pleasant of things on a late night.

    Many services were what was known as a 'through carriage'; a number of carriages attached to one particular train, detached along the way and connected to another service when they didn't form one of their own. Getting in the wrong coach was not a brilliant idea.

    Lines had been being closed for a while and would continue to be; the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway line in North Norfolk (now partly served by the heritage North Norfolk Railway) would be recommended for total closure in May 1958 and go the following year; in January it was served by a decent number of long distance trains running from King's Cross and Liverpool Street. However, Beeching had yet to arrive and swing the axe still further.


    One final thing is safety; the AWS system was finally being made mandatory across the network following the 1952 crash at Harrow and Wealdstone, although main lines had priority, which was too late to prevent another crash at Lewisham in 1957 that killed 90 people. Those fairly common events are one thing that enthusiasts definitely do not miss.

    The travel times 

    As mentioned, steam is a good deal slower than diesel or electric traction and this shows in the journey times:
    • London King's Cross to Edinburgh Waverley was generally at least 7 hours; the Flying Scotsman came in at two minutes under that mark. It was also possible to go from St Pancras, in which case, you'd be looking at 9 hours 37 on a 'through carriage'.
    • London Paddington to Cardiff Central was just under 3 hours; the average today is around 2 hours 4 minutes. It could be less, but the High Speed Train proved so successful, more stops are required for all the passengers.
    • London Euston to Manchester London Road (renamed to Manchester Piccadilly in 1960) is around 3 hours 45.
    • London Victoria to Brighton could regularly be done in an hour flat using electric multiple units; today this is doable in 54 minutes.
    • London to Shenfield: 37 minutes on a semi-fast. It's an average of 24 minute today.
    Conclusion

    Things were a lot slower under steam, but you might have wanted it that way...
     

    30 March 2018

    The world isn't great, but it could be a good deal worse

    It wasn't a particularly good Friday for Jesus or his followers and the only mercy is that he died relatively quickly - three hours as opposed to one or two days. However, the Easter story, where our Lord came back from the dead, our path to heaven secured, had a lot more positive impact.

    There's a lot of bad stuff going on in the world and with climate change, the return of authoritarian rule and an increasingly uncivil discourse, it's likely to be worse before it gets better. However, without the positive impact of the loving message of Jesus (when properly applied), things might well be even worse. Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, William Booth and others (there were women, but I've forgotten their names) were inspired by their Christian beliefs to work for positive social change. If it hadn't been for Christianity, the world might well be a less caring place, with more rules-based religion excluding or killing those who were different. Sure, we've mucked up a lot over two millennia, but I think our system of freedom through Christ's blood has been a good thing for Earth.

    Have a good Easter everyone.