‘On the Shelf’

Flicking through my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (a reprint of an early edition), I came across the definition of ‘On the Shelf’:

On the Shelf.Passé, no longer popular, one of the “has-beens.” The reference is not to pawns laid on the shelf, but to books no longer read, and clothes no longer worn, laid by on the shelf.

Keeping stuff past its personal use by date is not a new phenomenon, but has been going on since at least the Victorians. Or longer…

Collecting ideas, cross-referencing thoughts

Quite recently, I came across the Zettelkasten system, an analog note taking system developed by Niklas Luhmann. A précis of the system, is that if you make the right sort of references of what you read, and the right sort of notes, you can easily process thoughts from reading into books.

I’ve also been reading a bit more about bullet journaling:

We can often have ideas, whose time or purpose isn’t clear yet. That doesn’t make them any less valuable. We can use our Index to remain aware of our ideas, and perceive them in a way our mind struggles to. The mind can be a jumble of ideas, because they come to us randomly. Our thoughts and ideas are separated by time and context. The Index can remove the distance between ideas by re-contextualizing them as clear list. Just like we use migration to thread the needle between thoughts to from ideas, we can use the Index to thread ideas together into creating the work.

Rethinking Creativity, web page by Ryder Carroll

The same theme, slightly different process: keep a track of random ideas, let them marinade for a while, and they will coalesce into something new.

The difficult bit, of course, is developing the system where they can connect and marinade.

On that Taste and Smell thing

From “Three Act Tragedy” by Agatha Christie, first published 1935

“Excellent,” approved Poirot. “There was something – ah, yes, your friend, Sir Bartholomew, he did not drink cocktails, but he did drink the port?”

“Yes, he had a particular weakness for port.”

“It seems odd to me that he did not taste anything unusual. Pure nicotine has a most pungent and unpleasant taste.”

“You’ve got to remember,” said Sir Charles, “that there probably wasn’t any nicotine in the port. The contents of the glass were analysed, remember.”

“Ah, yes – foolish of me. But, however it was administered – nicotine has a very disagreeable taste.”

“I don’t know that that would matter,” said Sir Charles slowly. “Tollie had a very bad go of influenza last spring, and it left him with his sense of taste and smell a good deal impaired.”

“Ah, yes,” said Poirot thoughtfully. “That might account for it. That simplifies things considerably.”

Covid 19 oral evidence session in Parliament

This morning the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee had an oral evidence session with various scientists and advisors about the UK’s response to the ongoing Covid 19 outbreak.

While I imagine the oral transcript will be available pretty soon, here are the main points I took away from the session:

1) No country has an exit strategy from lockdown. other than develop a vaccine.
2) A vaccine will take 12-18 months to be ready to use, if they collapse various stages (normally it’s 5 years).
3) UK developed our own covid19 test because WHO asked us to. Takes 14+ hours to run each test, and will be ramping up to 25,000 per day for patients, plus more for healthcare workers.
4) Peak of UK epidemic in 2-3 weeks. But there was also much discussion of a second wave.
5) Will be home-testing kits for antibody presence (ie to see if you have had it) within days.
6) Boris Johnson working on getting international co-operation with g7 and China: this was mentioned in passing, but it does seem to be a role he is well suited for.
7) Editor of the Lancet thought the evidence for the pandemic was there in late January: Patrick Vallance and Ferguson said seperately that actions were based on data eg from Italy and early UK cases.

Slow patchwork, 1970s style

I’m currently reading “A Stitch in Time” by Penelope Lively. It’s a child’s book, and I’m not quite sure why I have it in the house: the story is completely unfamiliar, and the edition is too old to have belonged to one of my children.

The book is about Maria, who is 11, an only child on holiday with her parents in Lyme Regis in Dorset. Given the original publication date and the age of the heroine, it is written and set in my childhood, with Maria only a little older than me.

There was one paragraph that stood out for me, a description of an afternoon, where they were staying:

“The Fosters spent what Mrs Foster called a ‘quiet’ afternoon in the garden (but our afternoons are never noisy, thought Maria, never never, we just don’t have that sort of afternoon . . . ). Maria read, her father alternatively read the newspaper and slept beneath it, and her mother sewed. She was making a patchwork quilt. She had been making it for eight years now: it was very large, exquisitely designed and sewn, and would surely be beautiful when finished. Maria, when she was younger, had sometimes felt jealous of the patchwork quilt and once she had taken some of the pieces of material that her mother was collecting for it and put them in the bottom of the dustbin under the tea-leaves and potato peelings. It was quite the worst thing she had ever done and she still went hot and cold at the thought of it. Nowadays she no longer had any emotions of any kind about the quilt, but it did sometimes occur to her that it was taking her mother almost as long to make it as it had taken to make her, Maria, and that people often showed more interest in the quilt.”

My mother too had a patchwork bedspread that she was making at the time, of hexagonal paper piecing setting a flower pattern style. My mother too spent years over it, but when it was finished it was rarely used. By the time it was done, my parents used duvets, and my mother had moved on to American patchwork.

The Bercow Arithmetic

OK,  I didn’t read the Laura Cox report on “Bullying and Harassment of House of Commons Staff” when it was published last week, and to be honest I still haven’t read it now, just seen some of the commentary. But one thing that came out of it was the divide between Labour and Conservative MPs as to whether the Speaker of the House of Commons should stay or go.

The Conservative MPs, and websites like Conservative Home and Guido Fawkes, seem to be unanimous that Bercow should step down.

In contrast, Labour MPs seem to be uniform in wanting Bercow to stay, at least until after Brexit. LabourList is at best neutral, merely reporting the views of Labour MPs. The New Statesman, in two articles, accuse Labour MPs of making a “grim calculation” but doesn’t express an opinion of its own.

While the media are framing the calculation in terms of Brexit, has no-one but me noticed there is a separate Parliamentary calculation to be made?

I used to live in the Buckingham constituency: the Speaker, John Bercow, used to be my MP, and I’ve met him a few times. So I can confirm he has neither a halo or a pitchfork: only a mace.

When Bercow stands down as Speaker, he will go off to the House of Lords, and a new Speaker will be elected in the Commons.

Tradition suggests that the replacement is an Opposition MP.  And that there will be a by-election in Buckingham to select a new MP.

So an existing Labour MP will turn Independent: and an Independent member will be replaced by a Conservative.  Whilst the Conservatives will still not have a majority in Parliament after that, even one extra MP will make the Government Whips job marginally easier, and the Opposition’s likelihood of overturning a specific vote slightly harder.

Except… HS2

It blasts through the constituency, at a huge environmental cost.  It’s made numerous people furious: it got me back into politics.

I had the interesting experience of going to a  local constituency Labour party meeting when the Shadow Transport Secretary was there:  there were perhaps six members, outnumbered by local Conservative types, with cut-glass accents.  I’ve also been to various Conservative and UKIP meetings, as well as getting to know some of the local LibDems.   So unless there has been a massive change over the last five years, I’ve got an idea about the local views of the parties: and it is not a place that will like Corbyn.

Without HS2, a new Buckingham MP would certainly be Conservative.  With HS2: who knows?

A by-election to replace Bercow in Buckingham would no doubt be bitterly fought, with both LibDems and UKIP having had some constituency machinery in the area, so no certainty for the Conservatives.

So my advice to the Government is that if they want a new Conservative Buckingham, ditch HS2.  You know you want to!

The Alex Salmond Show

A week is a long time in politics, so they say. And in three weeks a lot can happen as well.

Assuming there are no more changes to the schedule, by the time this comes out, I will have been broadcast on the Alex Salmond Show on Russia Today. If you missed it this morning, the show is repeated at 6.30pm and 11.30pm.

My part started on around Monday 20th August, when I was forwarded a request from Russia Today about a programme on HS2 which they were producing. They wanted someone from Stop HS2 to give an interview on Wednesday 22nd August. These are usually done by Joe Rukin, but he was on holiday. As it is important to use any media opportunity to tell people what is wrong with HS2, on Tuesday I agreed to go up to London for an interview on Wednesday afternoon.

I’ve done a lot of radio interviews, live and recorded, national and local. I’d done some outside broadcast recordings for TV, usually recorded. But I had no experience of studio interviews on TV, certainly not in this format, so if nothing else, it would be good practise for me.

Wednesday morning, I was literally getting on the train when I had a phone call from the producer. She was very apologetic, but Alex had had a personal matter come up and couldn’t do the interview that day. We rearranged it for Tuesday 28th August – after the bank holiday. My feeling at the time was that probably Alex was doing something with someone more influential, and my moment of TV fame had passed by.

And then the news that Salmond was seeing the Scottish government broke on Friday, and I concluded that actually it probably had been a personal matter that led to the interview’s cancelation. But as a feminist should I refuse to do the interview?

I asked some friends, all women, and the agreement was unanimous: I should do it, and whatever Salmond was accused of, it was still merely accusations. There were no changes to the interview schedule either, so on Tuesday I went up to London.

As a pre-recorded interview, you get a chance to repeat answers, but also the editors of the programme can skip over bits they don’t like. It was ever thus. Many decades ago, I was on a magazine’s readers’ panel discussing an issue: when the magazine came out, my thoughts were unrecognisable. This is the risk you take, agreeing to anything that will be edited.

After the interview, Tasmin, Alex and I sat in an office, having a discussion about non-political stuff. This was unusual – most senior politicians don’t hang around talking about trivialities. I didn’t know at the time that Alex was about to (or possibly already had) resign from the SNP. The news came out later that evening.

Even more recently, there has been discussion of Russia Today as a news outlet, and praise for people who refuse to do it.

In particular Alex’s show came up in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. Theresa May herself said “Decisions about appearing on Russia Today are a matter of judgment for each individual”.

I’ll go with her. It’s up to everyone to decide where they draw the line. If you are thinking ‘career in broadcasting’ then you might make one set of decisions, just as someone pondering left-wing politics might decide not to write for the Telegraph or the IEA. The criteria must surely be based on one’s long term aims.

For me, the Alex Salmond Show on Russia Today came into the same set of choices as doing Radio 4’s Moral Maze. Could I use it to talk about HS2? Am I good choice for the broadcast? Will I find it interesting? The answer to all of those was yes. So I did the Moral Maze. And I did the Alex Salmond Show.

HS2 Price Hike Brewing

Even without the latest news  that some HS2 contracts are coming in up to 40% over their target price, a hike in the HS2 budget has been on the cards for a while – in fact this is an article I’ve been meaning to write for weeks.

The first clue was an article in Construction News, in which it was reported that HS2 chief executive, Mark Thurston, told a conference that HS2 will look at using private funding models for Phase 2.  Whats more, Construction News reports that he said “Mr Thurston said: “The thing we can do through phase one is get a much better understanding of what it actually costs and what the demand will be, so we can start building that into the model for phase two; it’s very much a question mark for us, it’s a good challenge.”

Reported separately by This is Money, Thurston also told the Transport Times conference “We are confident that we will build it within budget, we wouldn’t say anything else in a public forum.”

These statements rather beg the question of how the government can be so certain that HS2 will come under budget if they don’t know what the costs are, and what is being said behind closed doors about the HS2 costs.

And then there was another oddity, in that staff salaries were being accounted for with a negative cost. City AM reported in May that the data published by the DfT shows “The total monthly cost of contingent labour, classified as agency (clerical and admin) staff, interim managers and specialist contractors for HS2 in February comes in at -£740,766.97.” Both the DfT and HS2 Ltd refused to give the actual figures or explain why it was negative.

And a few days ago, the Canary spotted that the Chris Grayling announced that the government would be underwriting at least £12m of risk over the HS2 rail project. They are also unhappy that not only did he give a multi-million-pound guarantee to a private rail company, but also he sneaked the announcement out without consulting parliament first.

Another factor was the publication of a report by high speed rail lobby group, Greenguage 21. This talks about a whole load of possible new railways (not all high speed) to add cross country connectivity and links to Heathrow and move away from the “hub and spoke system”. Whatever one thinks of their proposals, the publication of the report seems timed to say good things about HS2 before negative publicity. (I had rather wandered if a budget increase for HS2 would be sneaked out when the Heathrow third runway was announced.)

All of those were already public before the New Civil Engineer article on the 12th June, in which they report that the interim contracts submitted are coming in significantly over the budget for this phase of work of £6.6 billion. The NCE says ‘one source said that the collective price was coming in at “around £1.2bn” over budget, another said that some bids were “as much as 30% to 40%higher” than their individual target price.

The NSE adds that some contractors are being told to “go away and sharpen their pencils”.

Of course, we’ve been here before, when David Cameron appointed David Higgins as chair and ask him to reduce the price.  The resulting HS2 Plus document dropped some elements of the project and said the existing budget was right: no price reductions possible there.

So it seems increasingly likely that there’ll be a HS2 price rise at some point over the next few months. An ever more costly white elephant when there would be so many better ways of spending the HS2 budget.