Friday, June 28, 2019


June can be a miserable month in the UK or it can be splendid. Or indeed, both. This week has verged towards the jolly nice end of the spectrum with settled blue skies and temperatures nicely in the mid 20s. However tomorrow we are promised a real heatwave and maybe something closer to 33 - we shall see*. In any case it will all be back to normal on Sunday.

It's a different story in continental Europe where a horrible burst of scorching weather has erupted from the Sahara and blasted intolerable heat from Portugal to Germany. Records are being set, with 45c in southern France today, for example. Looking back through the archives of this very column I see several instances that are similar (such as this one from 2 years ago and this from 2016) but this year is the worst yet. We seem to be getting away rather lightly with it.

Here is the temperature map on the BBC which I hope they won't mind me pinching republishing.

The colours make it look rather friendly but those deep reds are temperatures up and over 40. By contrast it is only (only!) 36c in Cairo and a rather pleasant 33c in Timbuktu. And spare a thought for firefighters in Catalonia, trying to combat forest fires whilst wearing all that heavy protective gear.

*update on Saturday. Yup, we got 34c in West London, the hottest part of the UK. The dryness of the air made it a little more tolerable than it otherwise might have been. And there were severe delays on the Metropolitan Line during the hottest part of the afternoon. Ah, it's good to see the old traditions being observed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Once more the chugging of pistons ...

Six years ago the Metropolitan Railway celebrated 150 years of operations. Steam trains hauling vintage carriages delighted our eyes. This past weekend it was the turn of younger sibling District to reach that venerable age and as usual we had the pleasure of watching the old trains once again.

Metropolitan number 1 was fortuitously saved from the wreckers yards when London Underground (shame on them) were trying to get rid of it some 50 years ago. It was built at the turn of the 19th century to haul the express services from Baker Street to Aylesbury, and beyond to Verney Junction. It led a preserved train of "Chesham" set carriages dating from 1890 and had the electric locomotive Sarah Siddons at the back in case a bit of extra puff was needed.

I loved the driver's enjoyment of his role - he waved nicely to us as he passed - and his bowler hat, waistcoat and red scarf.

The introduction of new signalling systems on the Underground means that there may be no more such runs (unless maybe they stick a modern S stock carriage at the front, which would totally ruin the effect). Indeed, this particular journey only went from Ealing to High Street Ken before turning round, so not a lot of real smoke would have got into the tunnels.

Quaint though the train may be to our eyes, a hundred years ago people really did commute into central London from way out in the countryside in just such a way.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Now we are 5

As each development in technology, over Man's long history, has moved from the conceptual to the implementation so, one can easily imagine, there would always be the same bemusement and scepticism. For example, consider the day that someone, perhaps lying on their back after a hard day's gathering in the late stone age and contemplating the smooth boulders in the stream nearby, thought "Hmm, I bet those would roll nicely, wonder if we could improve on them". And then, later that day, having to persuade his jeering friends that, yes, there was some real practical advantage to moving a dead mammoth on some little round stones rather than the traditional way of shoving it on to a sledge and letting the women pull it.

So it must be with the tech wizards of today. They pore over circuit designs and blueprints, millions of lines of computer code and tiny electronic components and think "Hmm, if we connected this bit to that bit and put a few micro-volts through it, it would be really cool, right?". And then they look out of the window of their glass towers over the teeming masses below and think "But how the hell are we going to convince those dumbos to buy it?"

Today we are at one of those fascinating moments. Today it is possible to buy a smartphone with 5G capability and to connect to a network (in a few cities, for now) that offers it.  Today, as I learn in The Guardian, you can at last achieve the undoubted Holy Grail of technology, download a movie in seconds using 5G.

The "download a movie in seconds" test has been one of these memes that haunt the smartphone age. Every time there is an improvement in network and processor speeds then the only thing that anyone can think about as to why it matters is how fast a movie can be sent from server to phone. You still have to watch it in real time, of course, but that small point is clearly irrelevant. Like a child screaming "I want it now" as it passes a sweet shop, the movie-consumer is, it seems, motivated only by the transfer time.

There are those of us, and, I suspect, perhaps a very large number, who actually don't care about either watching movies on our phones or, if we do like to watch, are not that bothered if it takes a few minutes or seconds to acquire them, or even if you have to set it up to download overnight (just like we did back in the dark ages of the internet for almost everything, all those centuries decades a few years back). We don't admire and use this technology to watch bloody movies. We use our phones to keep in touch, to check on transport and the weather, to look things up or just follow the news. Yes, once we all have 5G no doubt we will become used to it and start taking it for granted. But it is hard right now to summon up any excitement. And as to paying £60 a month plus for the right to download a film, that I will never have the patience to watch, a bit faster than I can do now ... well, let us return to our chums squatting over their roast mammoth and idly rolling roundish stones up and down the banks of the river.
"This, what do you want to call it, wheel thingie? I mean, it rolls around sure but what it's actually for?" ponders Og.
"What's it for?" replies Ug, sucking out the last of the marrow-bone and tossing it for the kids to fight over "Dunno. But tell you what, my old son - we could paint a totemic design on the side, sort of black and white pattern, be pleasing to the gods that will".
The light of inspiration reaches Og's shaggy-browed eyes. "You mean - a go faster sticker?"
"Yeah. And we could have races, you know, see which one hits the water first."
"With valuable prizes for the winner"
"Got it in one. And as this is my very first formulation of this vitally important idea, I'm going to call it - formulation one racing. Which I now own, by the way,"

I am now eagerly awaiting the arrival of 6G. A system so fast, so clever, so well-attuned to our needs that it will stream the movies straight into our brains for us to watch at our leisure later.  The fact that 99.99% of them will be worthless American dross need not concern us. It certainly doesn't seem to bother anyone wandering London right now marvelling at how fast they can download them.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Khan: It's me or else

From our correspondent lurking around the bazaars in Karakorum in the hope of not being seen

President Genghis Khan of the Mongolian Republic formally opened his campaign for re-election last night at a gathering of clans near his pleasure dome at Xanadu. Although the president does not, strictly speaking, have to go through the process, since anyone declaring themselves a candidate is automatically classified as a Chinese-loving foreign devil in league with the sinister western powers of the Holy Roman Empire and the Aztecs, and hence disqualified under the Head Chopped Off By Scimitar Act, nevertheless he likes to keep up what he calls the "quaint traditions of the morons who voted for me".

The President began his address by tossing the freshly severed head of an opponent into the arena with the exultant yell "There's more where that came from". He followed it up with a blistering attack on the Pope, the Shogun of Kobe, the priests of Angor Wat who refused to let him knock down the temple for a new camel-racing track and anyone capable of reading or writing on the grounds that sooner or later they would write something about him that he didn't like.

Under the slogan of Let's Make Mongolia Greater By Destroying Everyone Else, Khan led his tribesmen in the chanting of "What do we want? A Horde" "What colour shall it be? Golden" before announcing that the result of the first opinion poll was:

       G. Khan (Progressive All-Mongolian People's Slaughter 'Em All Party) - 100%
       Everyone else - 0%.

He said that despite the encouraging results, he was not complacent and still needed campaign funds. The basis of donation was simple, he went on, everything you own plus what you can steal from your neighbours. These funds were needed not only to counter the lies of everyone else in the entire world who seemed to think he was no more than a blustering lying tyrant but to build another ten stately pleasure domes, one for each wife, as well as the long-awaited Great Wall of Mongolia to keep out the Chinese.

When an advisor pointed out that the Chinese already had a Great Wall of their own to keep out the Mongols, Khan was not ruffled. Playfully severing both of the hapless official's arms, he joked "I wanna build another wall on top of the first two and then put a few pleasure domes on top of that. That's what the Mongolian Hordes want. Or, if it isn't now, it damn well will be once I've shown them what the alternative will mean for their families. "

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Khan: Prince John's son would make an excellent king

President Genghis Khan, the leader of the Mongolian States, has intervened in English domestic politics ahead of his controversial state visit to London. writes our correspondent (who had been found hiding in his cellar in Genoa and was shipped back in a galley to complete his posting in Karakorum). Khan, who we last covered in these columns a while back, was quoted as saying "This John is really an excellent leader, his skills at diplomacy, his popularity amongst the nobility, his passion for justice and fair treatment of the peasants all make him the sort of man I can do business with. And when the time comes for him to leave office, say with a few arrows in his back or being drowned in the Wash or having a surfeit of lamphreys, then I'm sure his son, John's son, will also be a fine leader who will do everything my son Kublai tells him will work harmoniously with my successor to glorify the Mongol empire to strive for world peace.  See what I'm saying here, feller? No? You want to go to on seeing or would you like to beg for alms at the Dung Gate for the rest of your life? Hey, now you're getting it"

Whilst in England the president is expected to enjoy his favourite sport of playing golf with the heads of anyone he has fallen out with as well as a state visit to Wales to burn a few Welshmen. Suggestions that England become a vassal state of the Mongol Empire have been played down, Khan merely observing that "If we need somewhere to sell our chlorine-washed camels then I think we all know who's gonna be buying them, know what I mean?".

Asked about the former ruler of England, King Richard, who has been struggling to hold onto power for several years, Khan said "I hear he's still in jail somewhere in Europe. Best place for him. I told him to come to my summer palace at Xanadu to kiss my feet in total submission and the bastard refused. Now, I never hold a grudge, I have total respect for my fellow rulers but let me just say this: if he wants to be ransomed then there ain't gonna be a whole lot of cash coming down the Silk Road to bail him out, no sirree"