Author Archive: graham

UK to withdraw from trade on Earth, negotiate inter-planetary trade deals

London, UK, 10th January 2022. The UK government announced today that it intends to formally withdraw from the World Trade Organization, and intends to only trade with other planets.

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, said in the statement, “the current rules of the WTO are not fair to the great Planetary power of the United Kingdom, and continue to be an unwarranted infringement on UK sovereignty. We believe that trading with other planets will ultimately prove to be more economically powerful for the UK, and will place us in a leadership role in the Solar System.”

The statement continued to say that the UK government hopes to conclude a deal with Mars sometime in the next 10 years. “We expect to make contact with Martian overlords in the next 10 years, either by radio or by a personal visit. We have reached out to NASA to see if we can use one of their Mars rovers to deliver a message to the Martian government. We are excited by the unparalleled opportunities that this strategy provides. We have vegetation and water, they have lots of iron, judging by the color of the surface of the planet. “

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2020 Epsom Derby shock – Serpentine

The Epsom Derby has a habit of throwing up shock results from time to time.

Epsom racecourse is not a regular oval, flat race track. It is undulating, culminating in the downhill sweep around Tattenham Corner, which is angled and cambered, and which often sees fancied horses changing lead legs, and becoming, gait-wise, crossed up. This robs them of momentum at a critical phase of the race. The final 3 furlongs to the winning post are actually on the side of a hill, which is not shown to any accuracy on TV angles.

Every year, a lone horse and jockey will try to lead from the front from the top of the hill to the winning post. Usually, it is an outsider, a horse whose trainer is confident will stay 1.5 miles, but lacking in speed. And normally, the lone ranger is swallowed up by the pack about 2 furlongs out, as his staying ability is trumped by the acceleration of higher-quality horses off of the final corner.

Once in a while, however, the lone ranger horse does cross the line first. In 1974, Snow Knight, a colt with next to no racing record, and a suspect temperament, was discounted in pre-race analysis, starting as a rank outsider at 50/1. He further dismayed everybody by dumping jockey Brian Taylor within a short period of time of him mounting in the paddock. This was SOP for Snow Knight, who was a fractious animal. Taylor swiftly remounted, none the worse for wear, and Snow Knight went to the start line, albeit still arguing with his handlers as he was led into the stalls.

Taylor slipped the field over half a mile out and went for home, confident that Snow Knight would stay the distance. He had run well in the Lingfield Derby Trial, a race at the same distance on a circuit that resembles Epsom. Everybody sat and watched, expecting Snow Knight to be swallowed up by the field, but around 2 furlongs out, the terrible truth dawned, both among the brains of the pursuing jockeys, and the spectators, that Snow Knight was not coming back to the pack. He accelerated well, and held off the pursuers to win by 2 lengths. He actually pulled away from his closest pursuer in the last furlong. He had speed as well as stamina.

Unlike some Derby fields, this was not a weak race. Snow Knight was not the second coming of Airborne. High-quality horses such as Bustino (who had won the Lingfield Derby Trial) trailed him home in the race. Snow Knight, it turned out, was a far better race horse than anybody expected. His record in the UK was spotty, mainly because after the Derby he was mostly entered in races where he was competing against older horses, but sent to race in the USA at age 4, he did very well indeed, despite still being a pain in the ass temperament-wise. At the end of 1975 he was voted Champion American Turf Horse.

In 1985, Steve Cauthen led for the entire race on Slip Anchor, and, in an enterprising Cauthen way, pushed Slip Anchor further into the lead 5 furlongs out, after noticing that Petoski, who was leading the chasing pack, was starting to tire. Slip Anchor stayed in the lead all the way to the finish line, extending his advantage in the closing 2 furlongs. At the time, Cauthen was convinced that Slip Anchor might just be the best horse he had ever ridden, but unfortunately he had an accident in his stall and was never the same horse on track afterwards.

Yesterday at Epsom, we had a repeat of the 1974 and 1985 races, when Serpentine, an unfancied outsider, was sent into the lead of the race a long way out. None of the other horses followed him, and kept tracking each other and running their own race. They suddenly found themselves with no chance, as Serpentine kept moving at the same speed, and they barely made a dent in his lead. He crossed the line 5+ lengths clear.

It remains to be seen whether Serpentine’s victory was a fluke, made possible by the introversion and collective observational failure of the rest of the jockeys, or whether he genuinely is a top-class racehorse. His breeding suggests that he may be the real deal. We will find out over time.

UPDATE 1 – Steve Cauthen, in an interview, pointed out the similarities between his win on Slip Anchor and the win of Serpentine. As he says, if you have a horse that handles the curves and undulations, and who likes to run freely, it is possible to lead from the front a long way out and challenge the rest of the field to catch you.

UPDATE 2 – At time of writing Serpentine looks like a fluke winner of the Derby, having done little of note since he won the race. He has been sold out of Aidan O’Brien’s yard to an Australian breeder and has a new trainer in Ireland.

 

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Bryony Frost Affair Part 3 – the fallout continues

This is Part 3 of a series of postings. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Following the verdict in the Bryony Frost case, some parties issued dumb and ill-advised statements. The PJA’s statements were very ill-advised, since, overcome with indignation, they essentially hung Bryony Frost out to dry, providing her with zero public support.

The PJA’s leader Paul Struthers has now elbowed other PJA spokespeople out of the way, admitted that their actions have destroyed Byrony Frost’s confidence in their capability to support her, and has apologized. He seems to fully understand that the PJA has now dug itself into a large hole over the affair. The PJA still has a horrible public perception issue to address, and many female jockeys have to be wondering whether an organization without a single woman in its leadership team can currently be trusted to properly represent their interests.

At the same time, Helen Sheridan has, unlike many people, fully parsed the submissions of the representatives for Dunne and Frost at the BHA inquiry. As she points out, the statement that the weighing-room culture is “rancid” was not an unconditional allegation made by the BHA. It was a conditional statement by the the BHA’s counsel.

We are also witnessing a classic “whispering campaign” by various people making allegations that Bryony Frost is “arrogant” and has a bad attitude. Funny that. This is exactly what bullies or supremacists always claim when called on the carpet about their bad behavior. Taken one step further, we will start to hear the familiar language of the abuser. (“If she had kept her mouth shut I wouldn’t have had to hit her”).

This affair, like a large bruise, will take a while to heal.

 

 

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Bryony Frost Affair Part 2 – the PJA train-wrecks

Bryony Frost is not a naif from outside of racing who is glad just to be in the weighing-room. She comes from a racing family. Her father Jimmy Frost is a retired National Hunt jockey who won the 1989 Grand National. According to Richard Pitman, who rode against him, Frost was a very good jockey.

Bryony Frost has a media career, due to her personality, which gives her a higher public profile than many jockeys. She has a management and PR company. That was obvious when she issued her public statement after the announcement of the results of the BHA inquiry. The statement thanked the public for their support, drew a line under the incident, and said “I’m moving on”. It was clearly written with help from a PR professional who understands media interaction and how to manage public perception.

The PJA’s reaction was, bluntly, disastrous. Instead of a short statement, where they could have expressed disappointment at the outcome, but reserved their position on appealing Dunne’s inquiry verdict and suspension (which is, in my opinion, excessive), they issued a 2-page rant on headed notepaper, complaining about anything and everything. The statement showed no awareness that a jockey had been found guilty of four (count them, four) different infractions. It read like angry and defensive ranting about perceived injustice, and pretended that the allegations by Bryony Frost had still not been proven.

Then, just to make matters worse, the PJA issued a similar statement purporting to come from female jockeys. It was yet another rant on headed notepaper, written in a similar style to the first press release, but it has one highly damaging credibility defect. There are no names attached to it. We have no way of knowing which female jockeys are supporting the statement, and my cynical side wonders if this statement was created by the PJA without any input from female members. Unless two or more female jockeys are prepared to publicly sign on to this statement, it has no credibility at the present time.

The PJA appears to either have not noticed that they are not dealing with a minor incident involving a run-of-the-mill jobbing jockey, or they decided that they can ignore that fact. They to appear to either have no PR consultants advising them, or they are not listening to any PR input, because if they were, they would never have issued either one of these statements.

Worse still, Jon Holmes, one of the leaders of the PJA, has shown up on television, essentially repeating claims in the statements, which include the horribly damaging characterization that Bryony Frost “felt bullied”. When one of your members has been found guilty of four counts of egregious misbehavior towards a fellow jockey, attempting to re-frame that as “somebody felt bullied” is a PR disaster. It screams “denial”. 

Any reputable PR consultant specializing in disaster management would be jumping up and down right now shouting “NO NO NO!” if shown the PJA document trail. This is a case study in how to not respond to a bad PR event. Seriously. It’s terrible.

Pretending that nothing bad really happened and attempting to pivot to Business As Usual is not going to work. The public is aware of this scandal, and is overwhelmingly supportive of Bryony Frost. The National Hunt racing system, and the UK jockey’s trade association, is being made to look misogynistic, tone-deaf and oblivious.

This has impacts, as I wrote yesterday, far beyond the involved jockeys. It impacts the entire public perception of the sport, and potentially reduces commercial opportunities at all levels.

UPDATEFormer jockey Ruby Walsh has commented on the whole affair. Paraphrasing, he believes that the originating incident escalated and spun out of control because the self-regulation process inside the jockey community did not work. Whilst I believe this to be true, it essentially confirms that the jockey working environment, at least inside the weighing rooms, is dysfunctional. The absence of a clear leader who could have told misbehaving individuals to “knock it off” may have led to escalating issues, but the fundamental problem of toxic behavior remains.

This is an excellent summary of the whole sorry affair from Graham Cunningham.

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The Bryony Frost affair – result and fallout

We are in the middle of a major kerfuffle in UK National Hunt racing.

The jockeys Bryony Frost and Robbie Dunne have been the central participants in a BHA inquiry into allegations by Frost that she was bullied over an extended period of time by Dunne, seemingly in and around jockey’s weighing rooms in the UK.

The BHA has found Dunne guilty of bullying and other unacceptable behavior, and has handed down a punishment of a 15 month suspension, with 3 months suspended, which, if implemented, is highly likely to end Dunne’s career as an English National Hunt jockey.

The affair has led to massive public interest, and impassioned commentary by a number of current and past participants in the sport.

It has also showed up a massive culture and comprehension gap between many jockeys, past and present, and the expectations of the outside world with respect to what constitutes acceptable workplace behavior.

The bottom line is the non-negotiable fact that bullying is not acceptable in any workplace. This should not even be a topic of debate. It is dysfunctional, divisive and destructive.

Not every person in a workplace is popular. History also shows us that new people entering a workplace who are seen by established participants in that workplace as “different”, for any reason, be it sex, religion, ethnicity, origins, you name it, are likely to be resented by existing workplace incumbents. This will be especially true if the new entrants start to be seen as successful, inside and/or outside the workplace.

When the workplace is part of a business where many of the participants do their jobs in public, which is definitely the case for jockeys, the stakes become higher. Behavior inside professional sports becomes potentially public, which increases the impacts of both positive behaviors and negative behaviors.

Any successful modern professional sport derives a significant part of its overall income from commercial relationships and sponsorships by businesses. Big businesses can provide large amounts of money to improve the conditions for all participants in a sport. (To use the old expression, a rising tide lifts all boats). However, big businesses have some non-negotiable principles that they generally stick to when deciding whether to support a sport. Among them are the sport’s reputation for equitable behavior, both internally and externally, and whether it is a credible sport with respect to how it operates. Big businesses like stability and, beyond short-term controversies based on sporting rivalries, they dislike controversy, particularly if it concerns the governance of the sport.

The Bryony Frost affair (if I can call it that) therefore has impacts beyond the two named participants, and even beyond the somewhat private and insular world of jockey changing rooms. If businesses see bad behavior inside the sport being tolerated, they can and will conclude that this is not a sport that they would like to be associated with. That is the main reason that fundamental breaches of the rules inside horse racing usually result in draconian punishments, up to and including life bans. The sport’s credibility cannot be maintained if, for example, cheating is shown to exist.

In fact, Dunne himself was involved in a breach of the rules several years ago, when he ended up being banned for 15 days after a weighing-out mix-up ended in him riding a winner at Chepstow carrying 0.4 pounds less weight than he should have done. Dunne was not to blame for the mix-up, but the assistant trainer for the horse then created the issue by attempting to sneak 0.5 pounds of weight into the weighing-in hidden in Dunne’s riding breeches. 

The dispute between Frost and Dunne seems to have unfolded over an extended period of time, in an environment that is very male-dominated. All of the signs exist that the male participants in the controversy failed to understand that what they might term “locker room talk”, uttered mano a mano, would be interpreted by female participants as both insulting and threatening. The male core of the sport regarded their approach as correct, and expected any new participants to conform to those rules or go elsewhere. When Bryony Frost refused to conform, and made it clear that she regarded the attempts to intimidate her as unacceptable, that male-dominated world operated in an utterly predictable fashion. It closed ranks and attempted to freeze her out by solidarity.

Many past and current participants in and around UK National Hunt racing have, quite simply, failed to understand that once you have people in your organization with different values, you are unlikely to be able to continue with the same values. That’s the fundamental result of increasing diversity, especially in the community of jockeys.

Since the announcement of the BHA verdict, a lot of the attempts to justify the events, unfortunately, read like the efforts of the tone-deaf to defend the indefensible. The BJA issued a lengthy statement complaining about the lack of what they termed “due process”, and an unfair focus on weighing-room culture.

The disciplinary processes in sports do not have to conform to the legal standards of the criminal justice system or the civil justice system. Participants in all sports usually have to sign legally binding agreements to submit to the arbitration and disciplinary processes of the sport. The BHA investigation was not a court of law, so complaints about “due process” are, strictly, a diversion. From what I can discover, however, the proceedings closely resembled those in a civil suit, with both sides being able to present their case and evidence, and cross-examination being allowed.

As the closest that there is to a trade union for jockeys, they presumably felt that they had to defend Dunne, possibly since a lot of jockeys might be thinking “if it can happen to him, it could happen to any of us”. In my opinion, they have a good argument that the punishment here is disproportionate. However, the robust defence of Dunne does rather beg the question: why? He was found guilty not once, but four times. This does not look like a grey-area “he said she said” kind of case. It looks pretty open and shut. The BJA is unlikely to get very far appealing the verdicts. The most they could do is to appeal the punishment, which is draconian. As a general rule, I worry that punishments like this one are formulated to “send a message”, which sounds suitably tough and dynamic in public, but often results in a single guilty person being over-punished, while other guilty parties go unpunished.

The idea of course, is that the hefty punishment for the one unlucky person will scare everybody else into behaving better.  However, in a situation where the behaviors are part of a deep-rooted culture, a single punishment alone is unlikely to promote change.

The statements issued by the BJA and the female jockeys (unnamed, which is always dangerous), are notable for their tone of shrill defensiveness, and general air of “there’s no real problem here, so stop picking on us”. Completely missing from the statements is any unforced admission that a significant problem might exist or might have existed. This is the position of participants who are in denial. The reluctance of the female jockeys to identify themselves speaks volumes about the overall atmosphere in the sport around this issue. They read like low-level hirelings for a Mafia operation attempting to deny that they witnessed anything.

The more astonishingly dangerous aspect of the affair has been the extent to which long-term participants and leaders in the sport have failed to understand the significance of the issues, and are busy attempting to minimize them. AP McCoy, whose voice carries a lot of weight because of his tremendous record in the sport, currently seems to be blocking anybody on social media who argues with him over his views on the affair. This is not the action of a smart person. It’s the action of a defensive and resentful person who fails to understand the wider implications of the internal culture of a sport being seen to be out of alignment with the modern world.

Bryony Frost’s position is now very similar to that of most whistleblowers who go outside of a corporation or organization to publicize dysfunctional, bad or illegal behaviors by that organization. Many people inside racing will probably regard her as a “snitch”, laying bare and publicising things that Should Not Be Public. So we can expect that she will be penalized, probably by variants of The Silent Treatment. She does have options, including relocating to Ireland, which might turn out to be a better medium-term move, since Ireland is still in the EU, so her riding opportunities may be wider. If she does relocate, that would be a pretty damning indictment of both the current culture, and its lack of willingness to adapt.

In summary:  a series of incidents of bullying and other obnoxious dysfunctional behavior occurred within the National Hunt jockey community, in a culture where silent acquiescence is the norm. Failure by a victim of bullying to accept the culture has led to an investigation, and a guilty party has been punished. Previously silent enablers are now lashing out, exhibiting all of the signs of both denial and guilt.

The pathologies and behaviors are obvious and familiar to me.

What is interesting is what happens next. When an organization is informed that accepted practices are no longer acceptable, there can be a variety of responses:

  1. Circling The Wagons – There is no attempt to introduce any change. The organization convinces itself that there is no real problem, and continues as before. Rationalizations like “isolated incident” fill the air.
  2. Lipstick On the Pig – a token attempt is made to introduce change, usually via expensive publicity-driven actions, without addressing or preventing the underlying dysfunctional behaviors. Gullible or credulous observers see the initial effort, and assume that all will be well.
  3. Half Assed – a sincere attempt is made to introduce change, but it suffers from lack of attention, resources, and follow-through, so the effect and impacts are limited. However, there is enough superficial change for the major players to declare victory and move on to other (hopefully less contentious) topics
  4. Proper change – a determined attempt is made to introduce change, resistance is avoided or crushed, and real change occurs.

We will have to see what the BHA ends up doing, apart from punishing Robbie Dunne, in order to change the culture in the medium-term. Cultural change is always hard. My expectations, sadly, are for some combination of (2) and (3) above. I do not think that (1) is a credible position, but (4) may require too much effort and attention.

 

 

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Part of “The Withered Arm” rises from the ashes

On Saturday November 20th, a significant railway system event will occur in North Devon. Passenger train services will resume from Okehampton through Crediton to Exeter. The route from Coleford Junction, West of Crediton, to Okehampton will be re-opened for the first time since 1972.

The line from Coleford Junction to Okehampton was part of the original LSWR railway main line from Exeter to Plymouth, the rival to the GWR line from Exter to Plymouth via Dawlish. The route was opened in 1865, when competition between different railway companies was heating up. The LSWR route ran North-West out of Exeter, through numerous towns to Crediton, and then snaked around the Northern edge of Dartmoor, through Okehampton, then on to Lydford, through Tavistock, Bere Alston and down the valley of the River Plym into Plymouth. It was a steeply graded route, rising to 1000 feet above sea level at the highest point West of Okehampton.

The route’s main engineering feature was Meldon Viaduct, constructed to carry the line over the West Oakment valley West of Meldon. Meldon Viaduct is a wrought iron pier viaduct, an impressive structure, which is in reality two sets of viaduct structure bound together. The line, like so many routes in the 1860s, was originally single track, and when it became clear that it needed to be double track, the LSWR simply erected a second set of piers in the valley next to the original single-track viaduct, and created a second track platform at the top, tying everything together with string, tape, baling wire and Mrs Smith’s underwear.

The entire route from Crediton through to Okehampton became part of the Western Region in the post-war British Railways region re-shuffle. It also was one of the many hundreds of lines that appeared in the infamous Beeching Report as being uneconomic. The Western Region already had one main line to Plymouth. Why have two?

At around this time, the entire former LSWR rail line network West of Exeter was dubbed “The Withered Arm” by…nobody knows who, and the name stuck. The Western Region stopped investing in the former LSWR lines, since most of them were uneconomic, and axed all through services, including the famous Atlantic Coast Express, a unique train that ran from Waterloo, with coaches for the many Cornwall and Devon coastal towns originally served by the Southern Railway.

The Beeching Report listed nearly all of those lines and station for closure. Crediton through Okehampton to Plymouth was in the list, partly because local traffic was sparse, and partly because if it was no longer a through route, there was no compelling rationale for it to exist except as a diversionary line for the ex-GWR main line via Dawlish.

A complicating factor was the condition of Meldon Viaduct, which had not been constructed well, and used old-generation materials. The Heath Robinson nature of the viaduct caused problems, as locomotives became heavier. The viaduct was strengthened in the 1940s, but the lack of engineer confidence in the viaduct led to a speed restriction being imposed on all traffic. By the Summer of 1966, the line over the viaduct was singled to reduce the load. At the same time, since the line was slated for closure in the Beeching report, all through services were withdrawn, and single-car diesel multiple units served the stations, many of which were located miles from the communities they purported to serve because the original line engineers had tried to save money by straight-lining sections of the line.

One factor in the line’s favour was the existence of Meldon Quarry, started in the 1930s as a source of railway ballast for the Southern Railway. The quarry was built before the Dartmoor National Park was created, which meant that its extraction license was grandfathered to the present day. The current owners can still extract rock from the quarry in perpetuity. The stone traffic from Meldon required several trains a day.

The axe fell on the section between Okehampton and Bere Alston via Tavistock in May 1968. The entire section was closed, and grass grew on the tracks and weeds filled the platform crevices. Towards the end of 1969, the demolition crews moved in and dismantled the line. Stations were sold off into private ownership or demolished. Meldon Viaduct became a headshunt for Meldon Quarry, and the line from Meldon down to Crediton was singled. A 2-hour service with bad time-keeping, plus several stone trains a day, was not going to justify double track.

After much to-and-fro, the passenger services from Okehampton to Crediton ceased in January 1972. Stone trains continued to use the line, sometimes 4 trains a day would rattle down from Meldon, through the closed Okehampton station and down the gradient to Crediton.

I travelled the line in 1978 as part of an Atlantic Coast Express special train. At the time it was a well-maintained route, still with a 60mph speed limit, and Okehampton Station was still in good repair.

For several decades, the line saw regular stone trains. So much so, that British Railways eventually sold the entire line from just past Coleford Junction to Aggregate Industries, the owner of Meldon Quarry. In turn, Aggregate Industries allowed the Dartmoor Railway, a preserved railway group, to use the line alongside the stone trains, and they restored Okehampton Station and ran tourist trains using a variety of motive power. SouthWest Trains also began to run occasional weekend trains on the line from Okehampton to Exeter. However, the trains were not popular since the deterioration of the line meant that speeds were too low for the journey times to be competitive. The line had needed investment in the years before it closed to passengers, but no money was spent, and there had been no investment in new track or infrastructure since closure.

Meldon Quarry closed in 2011, as cheaper sources of stone were found in Eastern Europe, and the line was silent except for Dartmoor Railway activity at weekends. The Dartmoor Railway services only ran from Okehamption to Meldon, since the stations East of Okehampton were all in private ownership, and the rights to use the line stopped short of Coleford Junction, beyond which the line was owned by Network Rail, who were not interested in allowing interlopers to use the section into Crediton.

After the closure of Meldon Quarry, Aggregate Industries sold the line to a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific. That sale made no sense, and Iowa Pacific later lurched into bankruptcy. The line was no longer being maintained by professionals, the Dartmoor Railway volunteers doing essential maintenance to keep it open.

However, 2 years ago a lot changed, with the creation of the Beeching Reversal Fund, an implicit admission that many of the 1960s line closures under the Beeching Report had not been at all smart. The impetus came from the massive success of the re-opened Borders Railway, using part of the old Waverley Route. The re-opened line exceeded all traffic forecasts.

One of the lines listed at or near the top of the list of lines to be re-opened was…Crediton to Okehampton. The plan was to reinstate services to Exeter. Network Rail spent 2019 and 2020 surveying the line, and estimated it would cost 45 million pounds to reinstate passenger services. Government approval was given, and in December 2020, work kicked off with large amounts of new track being brought up the hill from Exeter and deposited in Okehampton Station yard. No new track had been laid on the line since the early 1960s, apart from a section that had been replaced after a stone train derailment in the 1980s.

Network Rail bought the line back from its current owners (the receivers of Iowa Pacific) to take legal charge of the line for the first time in 20 years. A large percentage of track has been replaced with CWR (some of the track was 100 years old), bridges and other structures have been repaired or overhauled, drainage replaced, and a lot of other detail work performed. Okehampton station will be an unstaffed self-serve station initially.

There is a plan to build a new station East of Okehampton named Okehampton Parkway. The current station is not ideally placed, high on the hill overlooking the town on the South side, and more recent housing developments are to the East.

The closed section of line from Bere Alston to Tavistock has also been under review for reinstatement, the main issue there being that the site of Tavistock station is now a local government building. That project has been under discussion for years, but nothing has happened yet, mainly because until the Beeching Reversal Fund was created, everybody agreed that it was an excellent idea, but nobody really wanted to pay for it.

The key question to be answered is whether the reinstated Okehampton service will be popular enough to persuade the railway companies to invest more money in improving the line further, or even reinstating the section from Okehampton through to Bere Alston. The entire line from Crediton to Plymouth is in the Beeching Reversal Fund shortlist. There has been a lot of genuine interest in re-instating the entire Northern Route via Okehampton to Plymouth, mainly because the Southern route via Dawlish runs next to the sea for 4 miles in the Dawlish area, and that section of the line is vulnerable to storm damage. A section was washed away in 2014, and it took several months for repairs to complete. The big issue is Meldon Viaduct, which is now a Listed Building and is a cycle path. The viaduct is unlikely to be re-instated for train use, so a new bridge will have to be constructed across the West Oakment valley, and that carries a large price tag.

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R.I.P. Terry Moran

My brother-in-law Terry Moran passed away peacefully in the UK this morning after a short illness.

He and my sister met via a widowed persons forum on social media after they were both widowed many years ago in unfortunate circumstances, and they had been happy married for 10+ years. Terry was retired, my sister also retired from the restaurant business, and they played the doting grandparents role, and traveled a lot, mostly to the Greek Islands.

Terry was an interesting character. He was very much an Englander at heart, not much of a fan of politics or governments in general, which left him and me at opposite ends of the opinion spectrum quite often. He also had a deep hatred of all things Microsoft from his time in I.T., which meant that he was a Unix and Linux geek (nothing wrong with that, we need OS diversity now and in the future), and he was a fierce personal privacy advocate, which led to he and my sister using Signal for messaging. He had a typical dry, wry British sense of humour, heavily based on irony, mixed with sarcasm. He and I looked like physical opposites, he was tall and gangly, with the figure of a marathon runner crossed with a pro cyclist, I looked like Michelin Man by comparison. I could do with being a lot more like he was physically, I have to admit.

Sadly, Terry’s time came to an end quite rapidly, but he did not suffer. My heart goes out to my sister, who has to cope with widowhood for the second time in 14 years, and to his family.

2021 is not getting any better.

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A letter from a School District superintendent

Dear Parents,

As you reach the exciting day when your child starts to attend one of our schools, I would like to explain the philosophy that our school district adopts when dealing with you.

As local taxpayers, all paying your share of school taxes, you deserve to know about our philosophy when it comes to education. You deserve to know it because you need to feel confident that your child will end his or her time at one of our schools in a place where they are sufficiently educated to move on to their next phase in life.

You also deserve to know because you may determine, after hearing about our philosophy, that you do not want your child to be educated in one of our schools. In this fine country of ours, you do have other options. You can use private tutors, or you can homeschool your children. That is your right and choice.

Let’s talk fundamentals.

  • You are not our customers

Yeah. The big one.

No, you are not our customers. You provide funding for the district by paying school taxes (although I should point out that single people and people without children also pay school taxes, so don’t forget about them, they also have skin in the game), but we are not educating YOU. We are educating your children. If we do a bad job of educating your children, and (for example) they go to college and flunk out, because they were poorly or incompletely educated by us, and were unprepared for that next step in life, that is on us. We directly failed them, not you.

This means that we are not going to always take direction from parents. We will consult with people who are, surprise, surprise, experts on child education. We may also consult with the children themselves. No, that is not the same as letting the children run the show. Remember how annoyed you get when you’re not consulted about something by your family or partner before they may a decision or do something? How that feels? Think about that and apply it to the children. They may be small, but inside that sometimes-confused head of theirs is the brain of an apprentice adult, which often thinks and feels the same way.

  • Education is not just about teaching, and does not include obedience training 

Many of you seem to think that our primary  job (in some worldviews, our only job) is to ensure that your child passes all of the right exams, ticks all of the right boxes, and sails through essential education and on into life.

The truth, as many of you well know, especially those of you who did not pass a lot of exams, is that passing exams, to a fair extent, is a skill, just like learning to ride a bicycle or learning to read music. Some people just happen to be good at passing exams. (In my youth, jealous or resentful people who were not good at passing exams used to call those people “swots”). Some people are just not good at passing exams.

There is a more interesting truth hiding behind the obsession with exam performance, namely that all that matters is the information that we cram into your child’s head over a limited period of time.

We have a much more expansive view of the word “education”. It is not about your child being able to remember most of the 10,000 things that Miss Smith taught you in History. Sure, remembering stuff is important. But one day, your child will no longer be in school, and they will then need new skills. As in, teaching themselves new skills and self-learning, especially when those skills apply to the whole of their lives, and not a narrow area that fits into a box or zone covered by education systems.

Education, for us, is about giving a child the tools and processes so that they can teach themselves as they move through life. Many successful people have little in the way of a formal education, and they are largely self-taught.

We also regard an integral part of education tools as including skills such as logical analysis and critical thinking. As you know, the world out there is full of what might politely be called Bullshit. Separating useful information from bullshit is a task that we all have to perform on a daily basis. Giving your child the tools to perform that fundamental task is, we believe, rather important, which is why you will find it on our curriculum as its own learning stream.

One item you will not find on our learning stream is Obedience Training. We are not in the business of forcing children to behave like well-behaved domestic pets or chattels, obeying any order, no matter how asinine. As you will no doubt know, many bad events in human history occurred when large groups of people did Bad Things collectively, because they had been told to do those Bad Things, and they automatically obeyed. We intend to reinforce respect, politeness, and honest inquiry. We are not in the business of mandating unquestioning obedience. We use various words and phrases to describe those kinds of societies. The most commonly used word is totalitarian, and it is not intended as praise or as a compliment.

Your child is not simply going to be shuttling between classes, forever learning Stuff. The school is also a social system, and your child will be learning social skills, many of which we do not explicitly teach, although we can provide help and guidance. Those social skills also include fundamentals like how to not be an ass.

  • It is not our job to create a clone of you and your worldview

Your children are likely to be heavily influenced by you, because they will grow up in your household, and will spend more time with you than they do with us. For that reason, we do not consider our task as being one of ensuring that your child ends up as a clone of you. Education is not an a la carte menu where you get to choose which worldviews your child is to be exposed to, and which attitudes you wish your child to be taught.

Respectfully, if your desire is that your child exactly matches your personal worldview, preferences and behavior, then I would suggest that you consider home schooling.

  • We will not prioritize your parental rights over the needs and requirements of the education process

While we value input and feedback from parents, we do not structure our curriculum around their needs, collective or individual. There is a state curriculum that we have to adopt or adapt, and that is legally required. As I said earlier, you cannot choose your child’s education from some a la carte menu where you get to discard all the bits you don’t like or which you consider to be irrelevant. Some of what we teach is non-negotiable. Some of it is a matter of customer choice (i.e. the child).

if you consider the curriculum to not meet your needs, then I would again, respectfully urge you to consider home-schooling.

  • We will not tolerate anti-social behavior or bullying

Lots of school districts say this. They (and we) have to, because our lawyers demand it. Then we usually get down to the business of ignoring bullying, because it’s a rite of passage, right? Stand up for yourself etc. etc. Plus, it is messy. Too much he said she said, “he made me do it”, and all of those other bullshit excuses or evasions that children learn from their parents or from other children.

We actually have a different practical approach. We simply do not tolerate it. If a child is found to be bullying, we will apply any necessary and appropriate sanction, up to and including expulsion, and, if necessary, activating law enforcement. If your child is behaving like a jerk or an ass, they will be held accountable. That’s part of the learning process, otherwise known as actions have consequences.

  • We will not change policy or strategy based on public meetings

Having seen the horrible results when school districts try to implement policy changes or make personnel decisions based on the excited or angry rantings of a small number of parents in a public forum, I am informing you that we do not intend to practice decision that way.

The members of the Education Committee and the School Board are elected by the electors (who, I would remind you, do include taxpayers who may not be parents at this point in time) to represent the electorate in school district policies, strategies and decisions. This is not a direct democracy. The school board meetings are not a policy-making or policy-changing forum.

We will not be taking input on school board decisions and actions from people who do not live in this district. They may have interesting views, but if they are education professionals, there are other avenues for them to express those views. If they happen to be citizens, they should be paying attention to what is going on on their own school district, not ours.

We will treat attendees and speakers at meetings fairly and in an adult manner. That will involve terminating their involvement in the meetings if they cannot or will not behave like sensible adults. You wouldn’t tolerate an asshat crashing your meeting or gathering and disrupting it. We are not going to tolerate it either.

We owe it to you to treat your children as well as possible as they move through childhood and adolescents. We also require you to move beyond the limiting idea of you as customers, and us as providers, towards an enlightened partnership to provide an environment where your children can learn to be themselves in a socially advantageous way for them and those around them, while acquiring both the knowledge and the tools to allow them to make their own way in life. At some point, they will leave your home, and our oversight, and they have to be as ready as we can make them for that time in their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dear Grapevine-Colleyville ISD

Dear GCISD,

Well, my my my.

You seem to be in a bit of a hole.

No, I take that back.

You are in a big hole. A deep, big, embarrassing hole. It is, at the very least, a major PR black hole. It may also be a legal hole.

You have a school principal now suspended (albeit on full pay) because you may have been paying attention and listening to the wrong people.

One of the enduring myths of service in the USA (although the myth does exist elsewhere) is that the Customer Is Always Right.

Logical, huh? After all, without customers, many businesses would cease to exist. So, if they need customers to survive and thrive, then those customers deserve the best service and deserve to be treated well.

However, as you will discover after a while, there is a difference between treating people well, and obsequiously catering to their every desire, need or want, even when that desire, need or want is batshit crazy, stupid, or, worse still, damaging to your business.

That is not catering to needs, or engaging in great customer service. That’s called pandering.

If you do not understand the road you are heading down, pandering leads to spineless capitulation to increasingly stupid and dangerous demands from people.

Based on what I have read, you are in this hole partly because you have been pandering to stupid, racist and irrelevant demands, either from parents, or from people purporting to represent parents.

This is stupid on several levels.

Firstly, it is stupid, because your parents are NOT your customers. The customers are your students. Your parents may be paying the bills for your students, via their school taxes, but your primary duty of care is to the students. If they flunk out of college because you gave them a shitty high school education, that’s on you. The parents have flunked nothing. You failed to prepare their children for that next phase of their education. You might want to remind the next parent that storms into your office and starts ranting about some real or perceived injustice that they are not your customer, their children are. Will it shut them up? Probably not. Entitled parents usually only shut up when they are breathing in, or when they are gagged. But it might make them think for a wee second.

Secondly, it is stupid, because, by essentially terminating the career in GCISD of the first African-American principal in the district (let’s not be cute here, by suspending him, you have made it impossible for him to continue in his role), you are begging the asking of all sorts of awkward questions. Question #1 is Why. Absent a compelling, legally viable answer to that question, Question #2 will show up really quickly. Question #2 is “how come this just happened to the first African-American principal?”.

As politicians are fond of saying, amidst their massive collection of in-group cliches, Question #2 has terrible optics. You and I both know what the subtext is, and it is a bad subtext. Really bad.

So what is the answer to Question #1?

Well, that is where you start to look even more stupid. Based on what I have read, (and here is an article from NBCDFW), in 2019 you decided to criticize the principal, based on the discovery of pictures of him and his wife on the beach…on social media. This was not a nude beach, both the principal and his wife were wearing clothing, and several of the images, clearly taken by a professional photographer, seemed to comprise a re-enactment of the famous beach seduction scene from the movie “From Here To Eternity“. A movie that these days is regarded as classic, good old fashioned entertainment.

The word seemingly used in communications about the photos was “questionable”. If that is what you think, then OK. What questions do you have about them?

I think you should have to answer. You don’t get to use ambiguous words in a statement and not have to explain them. That’s not how the world works. You’re accountable to the citizens of Grapevine and Colleyville.

But, since the photos were clearly taken in the principal’s private time (on vacation), I think I already have a question for you. Whose damned business is it anyway?

You employ (or in reality, you did employ) James Whitfield to lead and manage a middle school. You do not own him. He is not a slave or an indentured servant. You have no control over his life outside of school time. You do expect him (as is your right) to uphold the standards of the district in his life, but photos of him with his wife on vacation cannot be said in any way to be a bad reflection on the school district.

So, my question stands. Who in the school district leadership thought this was any of your damned business? Because from where I am viewing this, any admonishment to him about the visibility of the photos was irrelevant, vexatious and way out of line. It was, quite simply, an abuse of power.

But continuing with Question #1 (Why?), it now seems that you suspended James Whitfield, not for this supposed infraction, but possibly because some parents, in July 2021, accused him of teaching Critical Race Theory in the school.

This is even more stupid. First of all, as a principal, I would be surprised if he actually does any significant teaching. So if Critical Race Theory was (or is) being taught, he probably wasn’t teaching it.

Secondly, your job is not to pander to the curriculum demands of a few parents. They are not your customers (remember what I said earlier?) There is also an old saying that empty vessels make the most noise. If you did not poll all of the parents at the middle school (and no, you do not ask parents from other schools, and you especially do NOT listen to people with no skin in the game, like non-residents) to determine if these parents are at all representative of the views of all of the parents, you were professionally negligent.

A few loud, yelling parents does not mean anything in the grand scheme of things. You know as well as I do that there are always unhappy parents, for many different reasons, and you cannot please everybody all of the time. That is NOT your job, partly because it is impossible, and partly because it elevates the loud whinings of the few to a higher level of importance than the quiet of the many.

You also should not be paying attention to and readily accepting hyperbolic claims being made by former candidates for School board positions, like Stetson Clark. Hyperbole is a poor basis for credible argument. You should also be putting accusers on the spot. If you were an observer in a court room, you would expect to see prosecution witnesses being cross-examined in order to validate or expose flaws, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in their statements or testimony.

If an angry parent gets up in front of me and accuses one of my leaders of teaching Critical Race Theory, I am going to want to see if that person can answer one or two fundamental questions:

  1. What is your definition of Critical Race Theory (HINT: A lot of people cannot define it, because they are using it as a weaponized slogan)
  2. What compelling evidence do you have that it is being taught in a school in this district

Answers to (2) that are hearsay or speculation, like “some people told me that they think that the school might be teaching it” need to be filleted up and tossed back on the ground. Preferably buried underground where they belong.

You have to perform due diligence, otherwise you start to look credulous, gullible and professionally negligent. If you didn’t do that sort of due diligence, shame on you.

Oh yes. You should have gaveled Stetson Clark off the podium immediately, the second time he violated the meeting rule by mentioning Dr. Whitfield’s name. You warned him once, he ignored the rule and the warning, which showed that he was not acting in good faith. That cancels any obligation on your part to let him continue speaking. The rules are there for a reason.

The fact that you suspended James Whitfield with no explanation is just…optically bad. There is no good way of explaining that event. You suspended him on full pay, which suggests that you currently lack any case to terminate him for cause, or presumably you would have already done so.

Your failure to articulate any reason for the suspension, given the fact that he is African-American, is, given the recent allegations and other past events, the equivalent of sending up a large hot-air balloon with “pandering to race-based fear” stenciled on the side of it in very large letters. Optics. Abysmal. There are good legal reasons for staying silent, but that is not a good place for a school district to be for any length of time.

If you had evidence that the school was teaching Critical Race Theory, where is it? If you had any other evidence of malfeasance, where is it? You should have, at the least, had all of this sorted out before the news leaked out that he has been suspended. Instead, right now James Whitfield can play the aggrieved party. He is actually being very restrained, probably because he is already being advised by lawyers.

The prior abuse of power over his family images means that, in my humble opinion, James Whitfield is probably sitting at home right now, trying to decide exactly which prestigious firm of employment lawyers will represent him in his upcoming lawsuit against the GCISD. I suspect that your options, unless you have a compelling non-public reason for action, might center around how many zeroes to the left of the decimal point his compensation check will prevent him from dragging you all the way through discovery. Discovery would result in the reasons for his suspension becoming public domain.

There is going to be collateral damage. Like appearing at the top of Google Search for the wrong reasons. Instead of your glorious football teams, the search results will show lines like “terminated principal wins settlement after suspension following Critical Race Theory allegations”.

You could have avoided this mess, if you had actually engaged in proper dialogue with ranting parents, and then thought long and hard before reacting. Parents are not always right, and you should not be pandering to their worst behavioral impulses.

My message to the School board:  Those of you who supported this train-wreck have dragged down the name of the entire GCISD, and have sent the message to the outside world that both Grapevine and Colleyville have dysfunctional school districts, where scurrilous rumors and abusive speculation can override sound, ethical and visionary leadership. The school district and the cities now look like repositories of casual suburban racism. You’re culpable for helping to convert the school district to a poster child for that, a place where no sensible leader is going to want to work. If there is any justice in the world, you need to be voted out of office at your next election.

My message to the School district leadership that made these decisions: If you worked for me, I would give you all 24 hours to resign, or I would terminate all of you for cause. The causes would be: abuse of power, gullibility, pandering, and total failure of leadership.

My message to the parents who did not want James Whitfield removed:  This is what happens when a loud and malevolent minority seizes control of the dialogue. The school district leadership and the school board did not represent your interests, and you need to be much more vigilant. Crackpots and wackaloons can easily be elected to or influence school boards. You will have to make sure it does not happen in future.

UPDATEThe school district has issued this statement which seems to list all of the reasons that were not causes for the suspension of Principal Whitfield.

I am not sure exactly why they did this, but I have to assume that it is part of a legal CYA process for them. It would have been better for them to have said absolutely nothing. The statement cannot answer the question of why they suspended him. The reasons will not be revealed unless the district has no choice, but if he decides to sue the district, and there is no settlement, that will end up being revealed in discovery.

I would bet that any lawsuit, if there is one, will be settled confidentially. The complaint, if there is one, will probably be some form of hostile work environment complaint, based on the abuse of power over the photos and the failure to defend him and his school from the rush to judgement on the allegations of the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

UPDATE 2A Twitter user who thinks that Principal Whitfield is playing the race card and whining about white fragility directed me to this website.

This website is new, having been created on or shortly after April 7th 2021. The domain creator is hidden, and the site, superficially, tries to look like a non-partisan site that covers events and policy in the school district.

That only lasts until their page on Critical Race Theory, which is a distorted strawman collection, pushing all of the white fear and resentment buttons. It contains the usual slew of allegations, with several cut-and-paste polemics, including one from the Heritage Organization, containing lines like “Critical race theory is an ideology which maintains that the United States is a fundamentally racist country”. It is the usual theme of “people need to stop talking the country down and instead talk it up, and stop trying to make us look and feel bad”.  The writer of the web page even shows the cover of the book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo at the top. I am not sure how they think that makes their complaints about CRT any more credible, because to my reading eye, what is on the rest of the page kind of proves most of the point she was making in the book. (Not that the book is that good, since, as many reviewers pointed out, it is long on diagnosis and short on suggested solutions).

UPDATE – The GCISD board has, by unanimous vote, proposed not renewing Dr. Whitfield’s contract, which expires at the end of the school year. Based on this article from CNN, it seems that the board, aware that violation of due process will likely result in legal action, are attempting to obey a formal administrative process of asking Whitfield to respond to the allegations against him.

The meeting was, by all accounts, dominated by supporters of Dr. Whitfield, who all spoke in his favor in the public comments period. Dr. Whitfield was also there and spoke briefly. The list of accusations against him does not look substantive. When I read that the allegations against him include claims that he was “insubordinate”, “unreasonable” and “disrespectful”, my BS detector is triggered. I have heard these phrases used in the past in a post hoc justification of terminations. They are allegations largely based on perceived style, and without specific examples, they end up sounding to many neutral observers like “we didn’t like the person on a personal level”. To an African-American person, this also reads like a variant of the classic complaint of white racists about AA people being “uppity” and “not knowing their place”. Whitfield has apparently requested that as much as possible of the process be held in public. This, to me, suggests that he intends to try and put the school district in a hole of their own making over his imminent non-retention.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram points out the obvious; that the public falling-out with Dr. Whitfield is going to have a negative impact on the district’s ability to recruit teachers and administrators.

 

 

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Shevlin Media – rules for interviewees

Dear politicians,

Here at Shevlin Media, we are seekers of the facts. Not polite or impolite fiction, bullshit or other forms of evasion, deflection, ducking and weaving.

We know that for many of you, those forms of interactions have always been collegial and pleasant, an opportunity for you to show up with pre-baked talking points that you then get to repeat over and over again. Then we thank you for allowing us to question you, and you keep being invited back.

Those days are gone.

In future, all of our guests will be operating to a new set of rules. As follows:

  1. You will stay on topic and answer our questions

When we ask you a question, we expect you to answer that question. Not a different version of the question, or a completely different question.

So if you show up intending to recite a collection of talking points that bear little or no relation to the questions we intend to ask, we will stop you and remind you that you are not answering the question. if you persist in not answering the question we will remind our viewers that you did not answer the question. And we will keep reminding our viewers of this, just to ram the message home.

2. You will not interrupt the questioner or other guests 

Interrupting somebody else in a question-and-answer or debate dialogue is at best discourteous, and at worst is a form of bullying. We will not do that to you, and we expect you to not do it to us or other guests. We will operate to a three strikes rule. If  you violate the rule more than three times, the interview will be terminated.

If you persistently refuse to obey these rules, we reserve the right to immediately terminate an interview, and ask you to leave the studio. If you will not obey the rules and you will not answer our questions, you’re wasting our time, and that of our viewers.

If you show up and don’t play by the rules, don’t expect another invite. We are under no legal obligation to invite you online. There is no Fairness doctrine governing our guest appearance policies, so if you decide that you will not appear on our network, that is your call, but we will probably then have a lot more airtime to give to your opponents, and non-politicians, who tend to be a lot better at answering questions in any case. We will be casting our guest net a lot wider in the future.

If you don’t want to come on to answer our questions, because you only want to answer your own questions, so be it. We might invite actual experts on instead, to talk about important topics. We will invite anybody who agrees to appear according to these rules, and we will be happy to invite people back if they show that they can operate according to these rules.

 

 

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