Category Archives: Links

Have we peaked?

This isn’t a terribly well organised or thought through post. I just wanted to get the idea out there, so please forgive the somewhat random nature of what follows.

I have come to the conclusion that our civilisation has peaked.

What do I mean by this? Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the progress of Western civilisation has been steady. Yes, it took bloodshed to give us the rights we hold dear, but conflict has also driven progress, particularly in the technological sphere.

A couple of centuries ago, the Industrial Revolution brought mass production of goods, massive improvements in transport and cities that began to grow exponentially. We began to explore our world, to learn about its limits, and—sadly—to exploit much of it. Natural philosophers discovered gravity, how light works, and made the first stumbling steps into understanding the very building blocks of our universe. We looked up and out, beyond our own planet and dreamed of distant places.

In the 20th century, two global conflicts drove technology. We could fly in heavier-than-air-machines, we could dive below the surface of our oceans. We could destroy cities instantly. After 1945, things began to change socially. Here in the UK we created a welfare state, so no-one would need for a home or food if they should find themselves out of work. A national health service, free at the point of delivery and paid for through taxation, meant illnesses and diseases of poverty were virtually eliminated. Life was still hard, but it was getting easier.

We lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation, it is true. A stalemate between two opposing forces, which came almost to blows on many occasions, yet which didn’t prevent society making progress. Civil rights, gender equality, all started in the years following the end of the Second World War. We put men on the Moon!

Yet, as I sit here, tapping away at this keyboard into the ether of another of mankind’s inventions, I can’t help feeling we aren’t making progress any more. Despite the evidence of science, religion is still here. Superstition still has a hold over many millions of our species. Diseases once thought extinct are making a comeback. A world population that’s grown by over four thousand millions since I was born half a century ago is beginning to take its toll on ecology and diversity of our home planet. We were warned about the harm we were doing to our planet, and now it’s virtually too late to stop its effects.

That was a bit depressing. Sorry about that.

I now think, despite iPhones and Internet and jet aircraft and microwaves and organ transplants and space stations, our society has peaked. I think the pinnacle was reached in July 1969, when three men left their home planet, landed on and explored another world, and came safely home to Earth. That, my friends, was the apogee of Western civilisation and Western science. Ever since, for better or worse, we have been in steady decline.

I don’t have an answer, even if I thought there was one. Was there even a question? As I said, this thesis hasn’t really been thought through.

The latest from the workbench

Life goes on here at Snaptophobic Towers. Despite the real world apparently collapsing at a rate of knots, work must go on. The latest to emerge from the workshop is this static model of a BR Western Region diesel-hydraulic loco D1042 Western Princess.

A 1/43rd scale JLTRT kit assembled to represent D1042 as the loco appeared, ex-works, around 1963. The model is static, and will be displayed in a case.

A 1/43rd scale JLTRT kit assembled to represent D1042 as the loco appeared, ex-works, around 1963. The model is static, and will be displayed in a case.

Close on D1042’s heels are three ex-GWR Collett bow-ended 57ft coaches. More on those shortly, I suspect. Another long-time workbench resident is a BR Mk1 RMB, which after a protracted gestation has finally got the roof fitted and painting under way. Hopefully, those builds plus one other will be cleared relatively quickly, helping the old bank balance, and leaving room for some new projects.

Don’t forget you can keep up with stuff on my web site, I’m on that there Facebook thing (Heather Kay Modelmaker is the search term of note), and I tweet modelling nonsense @HKModelmaker.

If there was one car I could own

If you have an interesting looking car, people come up and talk to you about it. My Citroën SM is now entering my 21st year or ownership so, over the years, I’ve got reasonably used to this, though my social grace occasionally lets me down. Sometimes the speaker is highly informed and might tell you something you don’t know. Sometimes they are like-minded enthusiasts who just want to make a pleasant comment or know a bit more. Sometimes they just want to ask the same pointless questions – constantly re-occurring are “is that the one that goes up and down / the headlamps turn / has a Maserati engine / Burt Reynolds drove off the dock in The Mean Machine?”. These questions all get a polite but terse ‘Yes’, but the two questions I find it more difficult to answer are “‘Is that a classic then?” and “How much is it worth?”

Ever since I was quite tiny I’ve had a crush on the Citroën SM. There is something about the shape that I just love. This excellent post at Driven To Write is an extended long term test drive (aka ownership and everyday driving) of the futuristic 1970s Citroën, and simply makes me want one even more than ever.

Sophie-puss

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In November 2013 we said goodbye to Penny-puss. Penny and Sophie were homed as a pair of rescue cats from our local branch of Cats Protection. All of our cats have come from CP. When Penny left us, Sophie became Top Cat.

We had originally thought both moggies were of similar ages, but it turned out Sophie was a bit younger than her chum. We didn’t know how many years we would have left to share with Sophie.

Penny was always the quiet one, but it was fairly obvious she kept Sophie in her place. With the Strong Paw of The Law out of the way, Sophie could fulfil her potential. That was to occupy any and every lap that came into the house, often times without asking permission first!

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Being a black cat, she always felt she should be the centre of attention, at all times, no matter how inconvenient. Cuddles came first, second and third, and more so once Penny had died. Sophie would be the one to get up to mischief, climbing onto wardrobes and disappearing behind settees. On one occasion, while we were having the central heating serviced, Sophie went to find out what was going on behind the hot water tank. She emerged, wreathed in cobwebs, looking like a feline Miss Havisham.

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Being a black cat, she was also notoriously difficult to capture in photographs. The best photos I have are when she was gallivanting on our large shed roof, where I was low enough to capture playful moments with her.

She had started calling plaintively and loudly, soon after Penny’s death. At first we thought it was just calling for her friend, but it soon became evident she was letting the world know, at volume and at length, what she had just been up to.

“I’ve just used the litter tray … I’d give it a few minutes if I were you … I even impressed myself with that one … No, don’t thank me, it was my pleasure …”

“I’ve just been out in the garden … it was a bit parky out there … I’m back in for a warm … any grub going?”

… and so on.

Cuddles and laps were the order of the day. Sophie and I would often end up having a bit of a tussle on the settee should I be so bold as to insist my lap be reserved for other uses.

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Old age catches up with us all eventually, and it was no different for Sophie-puss. When we homed her it was thought she might be eight years old. She’d been with us nine years, all but. That would make her not far off 18 years old, or around 70 in human years. A good age for a domestic moggie.

Sophie started having little collapses where her back legs gave out and she would soil herself. She would usually recover in a couple of minutes, and dash off to the food bowl as if nothing happened. The collapses started happening more regularly. Then she didn’t look well at all. Her breathing was shallow, and anything mildly strenuous would leave her out of breath for several minutes. We took her to the vet, fully expecting not to bring her home again. The diagnosis was heart failure—she’d always had a heart murmur—with the chest cavity full of fluid, and the collapses might be due to partial fainting, or possibly blood clots. The vet gave Sophie a vitamin injection, and prescribed some pills to help flush fluid out of her chest cavity and also help with the back legs.

That was about three months ago. The medication helped, when Sophie would eat the food containing it. In the past couple of weeks, her back legs had shown signs of some improvement. We had a new back door fitted in March, with a cat flap. After a little persuasion, Sophie decided she liked this innovation, and provided it was unlocked she would let herself in and out to her heart’s content. As the weather got warmer, she spent more and more time in the garden, following the sunny spots around during the day.

Accidents happened, usually involved missing the litter tray. We got used to cleaning up after Sophie. She was getting old, and we have to expect these things.

This week, though, things began to change. She was getting more confused. She managed to get herself on the garage roof, but couldn’t remember how to get back down. We had to effect a rescue with a ladder. Her eyesight wasn’t as good as it used to be, leaving her blundering into doors if she wasn’t careful. She didn’t want to sit on my lap at all—unheard of. Then she found a convenient low shelf near my workbench where she could curl up and sleep. That’s not usually a good sign. Cats are generally known to find somewhere they can hide when they think their time is nearly up. I made up a little nest of a blanket and some soft things for her.

Yesterday she barely moved. She did totter out to the kitchen for a drink, but tottered straight back to her little nest. She didn’t eat at all. She responded with a purr if she was stroked, but it was obvious she wasn’t really happy. We decided to leave her alone, monitor the situation and decide whether to make That Call to the vet in the morning.

We hoped nature might take its course overnight, but it didn’t. When she showed little signs of improvement, an appointment to have Sophie put to sleep was made for this afternoon. We went out to do our grocery shop, and when we got home, Sophie had died. We think she had either had a seizure or slipped and had a heart attack struggling to right herself. Either way, we hope she didn’t suffer unduly.

Sophie-puss has gone to join Penny-puss, and Snowy and Bootsie from next door. Perhaps even our old Tom and Misty will be there. Thanks for the cuddles and fun, Sophie. Yes, I shouted at you when you insisted on making a racket. Yes, you did like to land on my head if you felt it was time for breakfast. But we still loved you to bits, Charlie. You will be missed, especially on cold evenings when you warmed my lap while we watched telly together. Farewell, furry friend.

As has become traditional after the loss of a cat, we made our way straight to CP to see what new furry friends might want to make a home with us. We plan to go back on Sunday for a proper look, but we might have one likely candidate already. We’ll see.

 

While the sun shone

It was a nice day yesterday. While wondering how to spend my time, trying to relax for a change, I stumbled across my big camera. It was my fault for leaving it on the floor of the living room, I suppose. Anyway, dusting it off and checking the battery still had a charge, I wondered if I could remember how to operate it. Out to our back yard I went, and tried to find interesting things to snap.

I uploaded the selected best shots to my Flickr photo stream. Please go and have a look.

There might just be an inkling of a glimmer of interest in photography making an appearance. I must try to cultivate it again. I have got in mind a long term project, but I’m trying to get the enthusiasm together to get it started.

Are we sitting comfortably?

Then I shall begin. This is a story about a humble chair.

Read this article from the BBC, which adds little to what was broadcast on their breakfast show today. Then go and read this article, about the same chair, at the Guardian.

(The choices of source show my own biases. While I am not ashamed of this, you may want to check out the same story at other news outlets, just for the heck of it.)

My point here is that the BBC report implies the chair, originally owned by author JK Rowling when she was a lot less well off and famous than she is now, was sold at auction. The article implies the sale was by Rowling, tells us how much the chair made at the auction, but doesn’t really tell us who bought it or what the money made might be used for. Anyone that knows Rowling would guess she might donate some or all of the cash to a charity, rather than simply pocket the cash.

As it transpires, when you fill out the details from the Guardian version, Ms Rowling was not selling the chair. She sold it back in 2002, after she’d painted the various words on it. Now, didn’t the BBC article just imply it was Ms Rowling selling the chair? A supposedly impartial news broadcaster, as the BBC keeps telling us it should be, seems to be only telling half the story. Why hold back some of the information? Was it felt unnecessary? Who decided we should think Rowling was selling the chair, which ticks the “celebrity” box at least, when it was the second or third owner of the object selling this time, who made a fair amount of money on the sale and, it turns out, is donating 10 per cent of the proceeds to a Rowling charity?

While you mull that notion over in your mind, consider what other more important and grave news stories may be being moulded to an agenda before they are broadcast or published to us. My favourite parlour game is pointing out errors and omissions in reports which cover things I actually know about. It makes you really stop and wonder how much is missed out or erroneous in coverage of many other things.

Question everything. Believe nothing.

 

UPDATE (10/4/16): It seems the BBC article has been updated to clarify the chain of ownership. This is a good thing, and shows someone pays attention to how things can be, even accidentally, skewed. I feel my original point about media biases and how we should try to be aware of them still stands.

Ex-GWR 4200 Class 2-8-0T

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The latest commission build has just rolled out of the paint shop and had its official portraits taken. Hopefully this will be handed over to its owner next weekend. The 7mm Finescale model represents one of the fairly numerous class of 2-8-0T heavy goods engines designed by G J Churchward for the Great Western Railway at the start of the 20th century. The type was designed for the heavy coal trains from the South Wales coalfields. Many locos survived into the 1960s, and there are at least three in preservation or undergoing restoration.

The model was partially built from a Just Like The Real Thing kit by the client, but he got a bit stuck and asked if I’d take on the project to completion. It has been an interesting exercise, and I have become rather fond of the big beast of a machine. It certainly has some presence on the workbench, and in some ways I’ll be sad to see it go.

I am a professional modelmaker, specialising in railway subjects. You can find out about the work I do on my web site, or you can find me on Facebook, where I post regular updates on commissions I’m working on.

Tax doesn’t have to be taxing

Readers of a certain age will recall the title of this piece was a slogan coined by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs for an advertising campaign some years ago. They were trying to explain that dealing with your tax affairs needn’t be a complex thing—and to an extent, over the past few years or so, this has proved to be the case.

I am self-employed. I’m a sole trader. I have been such on and off for the past 16 years or so. As one of this growing band of entrepreneurs I must fill out a self-assessment tax form each year. Should I be so lucky as to have had a good financial year and ticked over the minimum income tax threshold, then I dutifully cough up what I owe—as well as half of what HMRC think I might owe next year. Don’t ask.

Anyway, the current bunch of cretins in charge of this fair country decided it would be a spiffing wheeze if we “hardworking” [sic] self-employed types should perform the annual tax return ritual four times a year. You can type the words “tax returns four times a year” into your preferred search engine to find any number of stories about it. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot of we “hardworking” [sic] self-employed types were a little upset by the notion, and an online petition was started. Of course I signed it.

Anyway, this last week the signatories received the following email from the Powers That Be:

The Government has responded to the petition you signed – “Scrap plans forcing self employed & small business to do 4 tax returns yearly”.

Government responded:

Making Tax Digital will not mean ‘four tax returns a year’. Quarterly updates will largely be a matter of checking data generated from record keeping software or apps and clicking ‘send’.

These reforms will not mean that businesses have to provide the equivalent of four tax returns every year. Updating HMRC through software or apps will deliver a light-touch process, much less burdensome and time-consuming than it is today.

At the March 2015 Budget the government committed to transform the tax system by introducing simple, secure and personalised digital tax accounts, removing the need for annual tax returns.

At the 2015 Spending Review the government announced it would invest £1.3bn in HMRC to make this vision a reality, transforming HMRC into one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

One element of this vision will be asking most businesses, self-employed people and landlords to keep track of their tax affairs digitally and update HMRC at least quarterly via their digital tax account.

Many taxpayers have told HMRC that they want more certainty over their tax bill, and don’t want to wait until the end of the year, or even longer, before knowing where they stand with their taxes.

We also estimate that £6.5bn in tax goes unpaid every year because of mistakes made when filling in tax returns. These reforms will make it easier for taxpayers to maintain accurate and up-to-date tax affairs, reducing the scope for error.

With businesses keeping track of their tax affairs digitally, quarterly updates will be fundamentally different from filling out an annual tax return in a number of crucial respects:

  • Quarterly updates will not involve all the complexity of a full tax return. The updates will be generated from existing digital business records. In most cases, little or no further entry of information will be needed. It will be much quicker to complete than the current tax return.
  • As part of the process the business owner or individual will receive a developing in-year picture of their tax position, helping people have greater certainty about what they owe, allowing them to plan their finances more effectively. This differs from the current system where many taxpayers are caught out by their tax bill when it finally arrives.
  • In-year updates will not be subject to the same sanctions for lateness or inaccuracies as apply now to the year-end position. HMRC will consult during 2016 on what sanctions might be appropriate for a more digital tax administration.

The government has already announced that these measures will not apply to individuals in employment or pensioners, unless they have secondary incomes of more than £10,000 per year from self-employment or property.

The reforms will rely on businesses, self-employed people and landlords using software or apps that can connect securely to their digital tax account. The government will ensure that free products are available. The Gov.UK service will signpost taxpayers to the right product, with clear HMRC guidance about how to choose software.

HMRC will ensure support is available for people to get online if they need it. We will also provide alternatives for those who genuinely cannot use digital tools, like telephone filing. This will build on our Needs Extra Support service, which has gone from strength to strength in helping more vulnerable customers.

We’re introducing these reforms gradually. We’ve been in discussion with stakeholders since March 2015 and will be consulting on the details of the proposals throughout 2016.

We will use volunteers to test the new tools and processes and give us feedback. Quarterly updates will be introduced for some from 2018, and will be phased in fully by 2020, giving taxpayers time to adapt.

We want to work with all stakeholders to ensure these changes work for them. For more information about the proposed reforms please search for ‘Making Tax Digital’ on Gov.UK or use the following link:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/making-tax-digital

HMRC

That’s a lot of words effectively saying “stop your whinging and just get on with it”.

In case you glazed over, the important bit—for me at least—was this: “Making Tax Digital will not mean ‘four tax returns a year’. Quarterly updates will largely be a matter of checking data generated from record keeping software or apps and clicking ‘send’.“.

Oh, okay. So what they’re saying is I will have to actually start keeping proper accounts with proper software, rather than maintaining a simple spreadsheet and a box full of receipts which has hitherto been quite adequate. Am I expected to spend money on this software?

“The reforms will rely on businesses, self-employed people and landlords using software or apps that can connect securely to their digital tax account. The government will ensure that free products are available. The Gov.UK service will signpost taxpayers to the right product, with clear HMRC guidance about how to choose software.”

Fair enough, I suppose. However, this still expects me to sit down every bloody quarter and punch in some figures to an online account of my taxes. Just so you know, I haven’t managed earned enough to pay income tax for several years. I don’t find an annual return at all burdensome, and doesn’t actually take me more than a couple of hours with my accountant and about 20 minutes online to complete.

Incidentally, who are these “stakeholders” that have been consulted? I’ve not been asked my opinion on this.

Rather than cutting red tape and the burden of the state, this government seems intent on doing exactly the opposite. (Surprise!) Far from a “light touch” I think it’s going to cause more annoyance than anything else. I’ve got better things to be doing than submitting quarterly updates on my lack of tax-earning ability. Why the hell would I want to keep up with my tax affairs like that anyway?

I guess it’s going to happen whatever we do. My ranting about it isn’t going to change it, so in five years I shall be grumbling about it again as the free software fails to connect to my digital tax account for the umpteenth time because I haven’t updated it or because I’ve had to dig out an old PC to run it because Mac OS or iOS aren’t supported. My guess is it’ll be like every other government IT scheme. It’ll crash and burn, and cost billions to implement, saving nothing in the long run.

This rant is brought to you by HMRC’s web site’s failure to recognise Best Beloved’s online account this year, requiring a postal password reset because he doesn’t have a registered email address with the system. It bodes well, doesn’t it?

On a brighter note…

After a couple of morose postings from me, here’s some good news. A finished model, delivered and paid for, with one happy new owner.

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Riddles WD Austerity 8F 2-8-0 No 90643. This loco ended its days at Aintree Shed, and is depicted in model form as it was photographed at some time in the mid-1960s. For its kind it is remarkably clean, probably not long from an overhaul.

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The model is built from a Just Like The Real Thing 7mm scale 1/43rd kit, with detail additions.

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The crew figures were from Andrew Stadden.

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The weathered finish has been kept to a minimum, with signs of rust, dust and grime beginning to appear.

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I don’t mind admitting this build taxed me at times. It is my first big locomotive, and it taught me quite a few lessons, as well as a few new choice phrases when things weren’t quite going to plan!

There’s room on the bench for another couple of builds now.

Another comeback?

I’ve been a fan of the Electric Light Orchestra for decades. I don’t think I am missing any of their recordings, aside from one or two obscure or rare tracks. I find ELO is the music I turn to when I need a boost, or want to relax for a while. I also love a good—or bad, actually—singalong when I’m on my own.

The last album, Zoom, was released over a decade ago. Jeff Lynne had managed to bring some of the old band members together for the recording. I felt it was Jeff’s swan song, a last fling, going out in a high. 

Last year, though, Jeff was persuaded to come out of retirement and front a tribute to ELO in Hyde Park. It was a fabulous celebration of his music, and I think he was genuinely surprised at the overwhelmingly positive reaction to it. There are, it seems, still an awful lot of ELO fans out there.

So it was with a great deal of pleasure that I discovered Jeff has been producing a new ELO album. You can hear a preview track on the American NPR web site. The new album, Alone In The Universe, is due out in November. I can’t wait. While the records are branded as ELO, it isn’t the old band. Sadly, we have lost one or two of the original members, but as the ELO sound was really Jeff’s baby, I think we can still think of the new tracks as “proper” ELO. It really does sound like classic late Seventies ELO to me, and that warms the cockles of my heart.