Wanted: expert with no experience

According to the Times’ Michael Gove, rail privatisation in the UK was a great success. Indeed, on the metrics he cites, it was. Pre-Hatfield, punctuality was no worse than under BR, trains were cleaner, food improved, and the staff became a bit more customer-focused. Some new trains also materialised.

However, many believe the network’s collapse wasn’t due to Mr Gove’s communist saboteurs, but rather to the fact that the cash savings being made by Railtrack up to 2000 were at the expense of maintenance spending. As any engineer will tell you (come to that, as you’ll know if you’ve owned a house or car), you can get away with not spending on renewal in the medium term – but at some point, you’re likely to see a catastrophic systems failure.

It’s possible that this isn’t a good model to describe the 1996-2000 period in rail maintenance, and that Railtrack was actually spending more wisely on renewals than its predecessors, rather than not at all.

The problem in evaluating these explanations is that (+/-)everyone who knows enough about the rail industry to know whether Railtrack’s maintenance procedures were adequate has a strong incentive to believe that they weren’t. If you live in a culture where it’s drilled into you that “these procedures must be followed, and anything else is dangerous”, then you’ll tend to regard changes – especially cost-driven ones – as dangerous.

So while I’m strongly tempted to follow the common-sense view that the engineers share (that Railtrack woefully underinvested), I haven’t seen anything that convincingly sets to rest the counterargument. I’d very much like to.

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So it’s back to KaZaa then

Excellent CD grey import firm CD-WOW has, rather upsettingly, backed down in its case against the hopeless monopolists at the British Phonographic Industry. No longer will hapless Brits be able to pick up (genuine) CDs from Asia at £8 ($13) each; instead, we’ll need to pay at least £10 for European-sourced discs.

Grey importing – in particular, the Levi Strauss vs Tesco case – is probably the only economic issue about which I’ve ever had a vicious row with my girlfriend. But since she doesn’t read SBBS, I’m going to go with the position that any trade regime that stops grey imports is barely worthy of the name, that the decision in Tesco vs Levis was insane, and that exactly the same logic applies to the US banning Canadian drug imports.

Yes, if grey importing were legal and easy, the pricing differentials between Hong Kong and the UK for CDs, between the US and the UK for jeans, and Canada and the US for prescription drugs would collapse. However, this would be a Good Thing for all concerned, except the incompetent monopolists (if only because the final example would stop irritating rightwing Americans fron droning on and on and on about how they subsidise our socialist living experiments, making them Morally Right and us Terribly Bad People. And also because the second example would mean I could bring clothes to New York next time I’m on a work trip out there, instead of an empty suitcase).

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Truth in old Onion articles

Rather surprisingly, the Onion’s “Judge Rules Parker Brothers Holds Monopoly Monopoly” story is a fairly accurate reflection of the real game’s murky history. The game, designed by anticapitalist Lizzie Magie in 1904 (her patent is here) as a lecture on the evils of capitalism, was stolen by ‘official’ inventor Charles Darrow in 1935 and passed off as his own.

When Parker Brothers found out about the deception, they bought Ms Magie’s rights – and also bought out everyone else they could find who’d produced a Monopoly variant between 1904 and 1935. Since then, they’ve been trying hard to enforce their Monopoly monopoly through bluster and threats – but have always lost court cases against ‘infringing’ games.

Good news for the producers of highly amusing Thug Youth game Ghettopoly, that. (Is it racist? Only if you believe that all black people are pimps and playas, which strikes me as a moderately racist viewpoint in itself…)

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Almost enough to make you support him

If your paranoia about America’s slide to the right is getting intense, it’s worth remembering that at least the wacko, right-wing Christian nutjobs hate Bush almost as much as the Deaners. In particular:

The man George W. Bush claims to be a Christian. As listed in part below, Bush has repeatedly broken covenant with Almighty God, continually and unrepentingly violating God’s Commandments. Bush is NOT Pro-Life!!! Bush is NOT anti-sodomy!!!

Excellent news. Keep up the good work, Mr B… (by the way, how does anti-sodomy work – is it more like antimatter, or more like antipasta?)

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In defence of Tom Paulin

Tom Paulin is annoying. This is not in question.

However, the people who believe his comments on Israeli settlers are as racist against Jews as Robert Kilroy-Silk’s comments are against Arabs are either missing an obvious point, or deliberately ignoring it because it suits their political goals.

Robert Kilroy-Silk was sacked because he said that Arabs (in a context that implied Arabs in general, not specific Arabs) celebrated September 11, enjoyed chopping off people’s hands, and had never done anything of any worth to the world as a whole.

Tom Paulin claims that a specific group of Israelis – those who choose to live in land that he believes to be under illegal occupation – deserve to be shot. Under Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, where a power temporarily occupies land in the course of wartime, it is a war crime to move settlers from the occupying power onto the land.

While it’s debatable whether Article 49 applies in the Israel/Palestine context, it is not an extreme position to hold that it does. Nor is it a particularly extreme position to hold that war criminals should be shot.

For some reason, many people on the right seem incapable of appreciating the moral difference between a statement of contempt directed at an ethnic group based on the actions of some of that ethnic group’s members, and a statement of hatred directed at specific individuals based on their criminal behaviour.

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Joking about bombs at airports is not clever. Nonetheless, throwing people in jail for it is monumentally ridiculous: there are few better indications that someone isn’t a terrorist…

In more civilised times, we (that’s we the British, when the IRA and their like were still a real threat) used to take such people aside, probe them in unpleasant ways, rip their luggage apart, and let them get the next flight.

Then again, who’d volunteer to teach an American moderation?

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Surprising discovery

I took the Am I An Antisemite? quiz; my result was “You are a Jew, and you knew the result of this quiz before you even took it. Why did you bother?”.

This is odd, because to the best of my knowledge (and occasional dismay) I’m not. Oy veh…

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I’m almost certainly going to be too busy enjoying the delights of Europe to post here until next Saturday. Have fun while I’m away; don’t go throwing any wild parties…

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