Without a Paddle

“Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of madness.” Words along those lines are often attributed to Einstein, but then the internet is awash with things he didn’t say. Him and the Dalai Lama.

Anyway, the Labour party had a disastrous time in the UK’s 2015 general election. Since the party had won three successive elections since 1997 under Tony Blair, some people in the party believe that the way to win elections is to be more Blair-like. That is, more right-wing.

That’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of history. In 1997, John Major’s incumbent Conservative government was in disarray, widely considered to be corrupt and incompetent. Major himself was derided as weak and foolish. By the time of the election, many moderate Conservatives had lost faith in the party and were ripe for poaching.

I say “many”. But because of the UK’s peculiar first-past-the-post voting system, small swings in electoral support cause big changes in the representation in parliament. The Conservative share of the total vote fell from about 42% to 31% compared to the previous election, while Labour’s share grew from 34% to 43%.

If we accept the one-dimensional model of political allegiance, we might guess that Blair’s right-wing “New Labour” successfully attracted the votes of some disillusioned Conservatives, while retaining the majority of its traditional centre-left support.

By 2001, at the next general election, the Conservative party was in better shape — slightly — but the new leader William Hague was doing little to improve their electability. Blair’s New Labour won again, with a share of the vote only slightly down from 43% to 41%. But the real headline news of the election was the drop in turnout. In 1997, 71% of voters had participated. In 2001, it was only 59%.

What was happening? A general lack of faith in the political system? In politicians? Whatever it was, Tony Blair carried on doing what he was doing, even though his personal popularity was in decline. His decision to involve the UK in the Iraq war of 2003 was controversial and unpopular, particularly among long-standing Labour supporters. At the next general election, Labour’s share of the vote had declined again, from 41% to 35% and the turnout was only a little up, at 61%.

By the next election in 2010, the Conservative party had been under the leadership of David Cameron for five years. Cameron had worked to modernise his party and to some degree had managed to suppress the “swivel-eyed loon” faction. In contrast, Gordon Brown had become leader of the Labour party (and hence Prime Minister) but had little charisma and low popularity. His policies continued to follow the right-wing New Labour line.

Labour leadership candidates 2015There had been a huge global economic crash under Brown (first as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister) which had been caused by financial institutions trading recklessly in risky debt. The bankers had believed that their clever financial products protected them from risk, even though that was mathematically impossible. The crash was inevitable, but in spite of the clear evidence of bankers’ incompetence, the Conservatives claimed that the Labour government were to blame. (And have continued to do so.)

So Labour’s share of the vote declined again, from 35% to 29%, while the Conservatives became the largest party in parliament, having gained 36% of the vote. They didn’t have a majority, but formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. (The latter had 23% of the vote, a modern record for them, but only 8% of parliamentary seats, again a quirk of the first-past-the-post system.)

The new government proceeded to inflict “austerity” on the nation. That is, reducing government expenditure and cutting taxes. In effect, a strategy of “trickle-up economics”, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The argument for “austerity” is that it is required in order for the government to balance its books and not get into debt. In fact, it actually depresses the economy and reduces government income from taxation, making the debt problem worse. Few economists think that “austerity” is a smart idea. I suspect that even Conservatives don’t buy the logic of it, but they like the result: lower taxes for the rich.

You’d think then that by 2015 and the latest general election, the Labour party would be ideally positioned to inspire the electorate to reject austerity and vote for prosperity. After all, millions of people were financially worse-off after five years under the coalition government. But that wasn’t the approach the party took. Instead, the party leaders decided to campaign on the basis of “nice” austerity. Conservative austerity, but not being quite so nasty to the poor and disadvantaged.

It didn’t work. Admittedly, the Labour party’s share of the vote increased from 29% to 30%, but they lost 26 parliamentary seats. The Conservatives increased their share of the vote too, to 37%, and gained enough seats in parliament to have a small majority. The most sensational results, though, were the gains by the Scottish National Party, and the losses by the Liberal Democrats. In almost mirror fashion, the LibDems went from 56 seats to 8, while the SNP went from 6 to 56, but the causes were probably not exactly the same.

Traditional Liberal Democrat supporters probably deserted the party because of its part in the coalition government. The party leaders argued that their presence in government had “moderated” Conservative policies, again trying to make austerity “nicer”.

The situation in Scotland was more complex. Labour and Conservatives had campaigned against independence for Scotland in the 2014 referendum, which reinforced the impression that they were indistinguishable. I also suspect that Scots who had voted against independence on the basis of promises for more devolved powers were feeling betrayed when the new devolution proposals fell short of what they believed had been offered.

But the SNP also offered a clear, socialist, anti-austerity message. The result was their landslide, and 50% of the vote in Scotland. A party which could reproduce that result across the UK would end up with a huge majority in Parliament.

The Labour party has a choice now. Continue doing the same thing over and over; or adapt to the politics of 2015.

Οχι

Whatever the actual text of the referendum, the Greek people were voting on “austerity”, and rejected it. Greeks are probably the best-placed in Europe to judge the merits of “austerity”, given that they have suffered its full effects under previous governments.

And apart from the misery for the individual, especially the unemployed, the disabled, the sick, the young and the elderly; the Greeks have seen that “austerity” damages the economy and reduces government income, making it less likely that the government can repay its debts.

NO“Austerity” has little support among economists. In fact, even right-wing economists who previously favoured the idea are now claiming that they were misunderstood, misquoted, never said such a thing. You can’t get more concrete proof of an embarrassing wrong turn than that.

The people who are still plugging “austerity” are right-wing politicians, and, worse, unelected right-wing technocrats, and the idea with Greece was to force an elected government to adopt policies which it knew didn’t work. With the clear evidence of recent Greek history (and the UK: slowest recovery of the largest EU nations) I wonder why they stick to it.

The cynical answer is that “austerity” simply represents a rolling back of the welfare state, that vile communist idea that a country should care for all its people. The right-wingers would prefer that inequality of wealth is maintained and enhanced.

It’s not just fairness that demands that the rich should pay their share. It’s common sense too, if you look to the statistics which show that more equal countries are more successful.

And so with “austerity”. Superficially, it might look attractive to the wealthy and their political cronies, but it doesn’t work, and everyone ends up worse off.

A Day In… Pisa

Many people visit Pisa only to see “It” and miss some of the other interesting aspects of a town with a history as long and distinguished as its neighbour and rival, Florence. I’ll try to point out some features, although it will be impossible to avoid mentioning It.

Pisa’s Galileo Galilei aiport is the largest and busiest in Tuscany, and is often a starting point for tourists, so I’ll start there. The airport is very close to the town centre, which would be an easy walk if you didn’t have luggage.

As it is, there are two public transport methods. The airport’s own train station runs a shuttle service into Pisa Centrale (from where there are many onward connections) but even given the very short distance of the run, the frequency is low. If you happen to arrive near a departure time, it’s very quick and convenient, but usually you’ll get to town faster by bus. If you do decide to use the train, in one of those delightful jokes that airport designers like to play on passengers, the ticket office is exactly at the opposite end of the terminal from the train platform. Pisa Centrale

Buses depart from the front of the terminal and you can buy a ticket in the terminal or from the driver. The urban ones which will take you into town are orange, operated by CPT. If you were heading towards It, the destination to look out for is Pietrasantina.

If you are arriving in Pisa by train from either the Lucca and Florence direction or the coast at La Spezia, it’s worth knowing that the station one stop before Pisa Centrale, Pisa San Rossore, is closer to It  than the central station. However, I’m going to make the main station my starting point.Piazza Vittorio Emanuele

In recent years there has been a lot of work to tidy up the area around the station and the route to the old city centre, which had previously been seedy in the traditional Italian manner. If you depart the station on foot by the main road facing it, Viale Antonio Gramsci, you quickly come to the newly-landscaped Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. Admittedly, it’s basically a traffic roundabout with underground car park, but looks quite nice.

Once on the opposite side of the circle, you can depart via Corso Italia, which is probably Pisa’s most upmarket shopping street. (Including a branch of Feltrinelli, where you can buy English-language books.) By the time you’re about 500 metres from the station, you will have arrived at the river Arno, at the end of the “middle bridge”, the Ponte di Mezzo. To your left is the loggia of the post office where you can take a break in the shade. Ponte di Mezzo

Crossing the bridge, you’ll find yourself facing a statue of Garibaldi, hand camply on his hip. Carry on up the narrow street on the right side of him. It’s Borgo Stretto, literally “tight-fit village”, and it’s a very well-preserved medieval street, particularly atmospheric at night. (If you are there at night, there’s a very lively pub with microbrewery beers, Orzo Bruno, down one of the alleys to the right from Borgo Stretto. Go down Via Mercanti and look to your left at the first junction.) Palazzo dei Cavalieri

Borgo Stretto itself becomes Via Gugliemo Oberdan (still pedestrianised) and reaches a junction (you’ll see a Deutsche Bank dead ahead) with Via Consoli del Mare going left. Go left. In a very short distance you’ll emerge on the open area of Piazza dei Cavalieri, with Pisa’s second-most important set of buildings, of the Knights of St. Stephen. The last time I was there, the piazza was being re-paved. I’m sure it’s very nice now. The intricate decoration of the Knights’ palazzo is unlike anything else I’ve seen. Piazza dei Cavalieri

Exit the square to the left of the building with the arch, up Via Corsica, and at the end of that bear slightly left into Via dei Mille. At this point, you have a choice. You can go straight ahead, down Via Luca Ghini for about 20 metres and visit the botanic gardens, or turn right onto Via Santa Maria. In that case, straight ahead you will first see the dome of the cathedral, and then you’ll emerge into the open with It  dead ahead.

There is a complication if you want to ascend the leaning thing: you have to book your visit in advance, because the number of people on board is strictly controlled into separate time slots. In high season, you will probably have to wait at least three hours for a slot, but if you are super organized, you can book ahead on line, a maximum of 20 days prior at http://boxoffice.opapisa.it/Turisti/. It’s a pretty hefty €18 for the tower alone, and even 20 days ahead you might not get your preferred slot. From museum cloister

If you do have to wait around for your booked time, you can visit the cathedral, baptistery or the mausoleum, or the tourist market (which is surely one of the tackiest in Italy), or sit around on the grass and watch other tourists being photgraphed while pretending to “hold up” the thing. You can also buy a ticket to visit the museum on site, the Opera del Duomo, which has some interesting items (such as artefacts which show that some of the medieval builders were Muslim) but the best part is the museum’s cloister, which is peaceful and gives photogenic views of It  which most tourists don’t see.

Once you’ve had your fill of the “Field of Miracles” (I’ve knever known if the name is something religious or just that it’s a miracle that the slanted thing is still standing) you could depart on the east side down Via Cardinale Pietro Maffi. When you arrive at the little square of Largo del Parlascio, there is a good view of the old city walls to your left, and the Roman remains of Nero’s bath dead ahead. Santo Sepolcro

Bearing right, you can head back towards the Arno on Via Carlo Fedeli, but take a detour left onto Via Santa Caterina and then right through the park of Piazza Martiri della Liberta, after taking a peek at Santa Caterina’s church if you wish. Across the park, at Via San Lorenzo, you can take any of the streets toward the river. If you want to go back down Via Oberdan and Borgo Stretto, the junction is to your right.

The other antique sites in Pisa are mostly churches. Among my favourites are three which lie near the south bank of the Arno, Lungarno Galileo Galilei and Lungarno Gambacorti. If you cross Ponte di Mezzo, go left for about a hundred metres until you see an angular, pointy thing to your right. That’s Santo Sepolcro, which is octagonal and allegedly based on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and may have links to the Knights Hospitallers. Inside you can see a bust of Santa Ubaldesca and her bucket. Santa Maria della Spina

Going back to the Lungarno, and back past Ponte di Mezzo, just before you reach the next bridge you will come to the spiky gothic Santa Maria della Spina (St Mary of the thorn) which holds an actual thorn from Jesus’s Crown of Thorns (supposedly). The whole church was lifted from the riverside onto the embankment in 1871. sant'Agata

Carrying on, the road becomes Lungarno Sidney Sonnino after the bridge, Ponte Solferino. About 150 metres ahead, you will see the trees around the church of San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno. The church once belonged to the Knights of St. Stephen. Behind the church is a little pointy building, the Sant’Agata Chapel.

From St Agata, you will be separated from the river by a high brick wall. Follow it for a few metres and then turn right down Via della Qualquonia. This becomes Via Venanzio Nisi and leads you to a bit of greenery where it meets Via Nino Bixio. Turning left on Bixio will lead you back to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II near where you started. The railway station is off towards your right.

A Day In… Lucca

The railway station is on the South side, just outside the city walls. Some arriving buses will also deposit you there, but some come in to Piazza Santa Maria, inside the walls on the North side of the old city. It should be obvious which stop you’re getting off at!

If you are driving, don’t even attempt to park inside the walls. There are car parks, but always very busy. Better for the blood pressure to park just outside the walls: there are car parks at the NW, NE, SW and SE corners of Lucca.

If you’ve come by bus and disembarked in Piazza Santa Maria, you’re right next to the main tourist office (WC available), but there is also a smaller one at the railway station. Departing the station on foot, you’ll see the city walls right away, and you have a choice of pedestrian access under the walls (you’ll see the paved paths), or the gate, Porta San Pietro, further to the left.

Piazza NapoleoneThe heart of Lucca (although not dead centre) is Piazza Napoleone, yes, named after that Bonaparte, who conquered the Republic of Lucca in 1805 and installed his sister Elisa as ruler. The piazza is very large and regular and surrounded on three sides by shady trees. The fourth side is the Palazzo Ducale, which today is the provincial government office, so not accessible to the public. However, you can wander into the courtyards.

In July, the piazza hosts a music festival, with some big-name mainstream acts (2015 will have Robbie Williams, Bob Dylan, Snoop Dogg, Elton John and others) but unfortunately the seating and stage fill up the square and ruin the look in the daytime, and it’s all closed off except to ticket-holders in the evenings.

DuomoContinuous with Piazza Napoleone is Piazza del Giglio, facing on to the Teatro del Giglio. If you exit the piazza on the side opposite the theatre, theatre to your right, you are on Via del Duomo, leading to the Cathedral and Piazza San Martino. Take a look at the façade. It’s all wonky and asymmetrical.

In the portico of the Duomo is a nice Labyrinth carving, and inside is a famous wooden crucifix, Il Volto Santo, believed by some to be a genuine death-portrait of Jesus, brought to Lucca by mystical means in the eighth century. Actually, it’s mid-medieval.

In the crypt (admission fee) is a famous Renaissance tomb with a marble effigy of the young and beautiful Ilaria del Carretto, commissioned by her grieving husband.

Near the Duomo, or at least, in the nearby SE corner of the walled city, you’ll find the Botanic Gardens (admission fee) but just before you reach it you’ll cross over an ancient water-supply channel, Il Fosso. Remarkably for a city-centre water course, the water is clean and there are fish in it. Villa Bottini and its gardens lie alongside the water channel.
Villa BottiniIf you follow the water, you’ll eventually see an arch on your left, entrance to Via Fillungo, Lucca’s poshest shopping street (also the focus of the evening passaggiatta). About half-way down, it passes the Piazza Antifeatro. You can only see the Roman remains on the outside walls of the buildings, but of course, you have to go in as well.

On the opposite side of Via Fillungo to the amphitheatre is Piazza San Frediano and San Frediano church, the best feature of which is the gold mosaic on the façade. Although the church is dedicated to the Irishman Fridianus, who was an early bishop of Lucca, there is also a glass case holding the mummified body of Santa Zita, the city’s local saint. She is often appealed to in order to help find lost keys.

Palazzo Pfanner gardenPassing the church on Via San Fred, and then taking a left at the end, onto Via Cesare Battisti, the first on your right is Via degli Asili where there’s the entrance to Palazzo Pfanner. (They usually have a billboard outside which you can spot from the end of the street.) Pfanner was a rich brewer from Austria who bought the former home of the Controni family. You can choose to buy a ticket either for the classical garden alone, or for house plus gardens.

San Michele in ForoWhen you come out, follow the Via degli Asili in the same direction you were going, taking a left bend, then stright on, and you’ll come to Piazza San Michele and the most striking church in Lucca, in my opinion, San Michele in Foro. It gets the “in Foro” epithet because it’s supposed to be the site of the Roman forum. The square is a nice place to idle in as well. (For more Latin lingo, there is another church called Santa Maria Foris Portam, Santa Maria Outside The Gate. It was outside the Roman walls, but is now enclosed in the later ones.)

Torre GuinigiFrom San Michele, follow the line of cafes to the left of the church and turn left up Via Santa Lucia. Take the first right, Via Buia, which becomes Via Sant’Andrea. You’ll come to the entrance to Palazzo Guinigi, which has the famous tower topped by oak trees. A lot of steps, and there is an admission fee.

I’ve not yet mentioned visiting the most conspicuous feature of Lucca: the city walls. At least they are easy to find. From anywhere in the city you’re near a gate with ramps or steps up to the “Passeggiata delle Mura”. It’s six kilometres round the complete circuit, so a walk will take around an hour. However, it’s very cheap to rent a bike for an hour, and you could zip round the walls and have extra time to explore elsewhere.
Lucca WallsThere are a couple of bike places on Piazza Santa Maria on the North side and one on Corso Garibaldi on the South. They take your passport or driving licence as security, and you pay on return. There is a variety of machines available as well as normal road bikes, including tandems and side-by-side designs.

Apart from the circuit of the walls, shaded by chestnut trees, there are arrow-shaped bastions every few hundred metres, which provided the defenders with vantage points to view (and shoot) along the line of the walls. They all follow the same basic design, but there are a couple of oddities. San Frediano, in the middle of the North side, was never finished, and is cut off short. You can see the foundations of the planned arrow-head in the grass opposite it. San Columbano (Columbanus, Irish saint) in the centre of the South wall still has its gun turret, which has been turned into an expensive restaurant.

UnderworksSeveral of the bastions have pedestrian gates cut through, but San Martino, on the North, next to Piazza Santa Maria also gives access to that section of the defensive underground works within the walls. (The similar part of San Columbano bastion is sometimes open for special exhibitions.) From the litter and extensive graffiti, I guess there is an active underground night life, but it’s peaceful in day time.

What I’ve described so far would easily fill a day or more, and of course, you’ll be spoiled for choice for lunch or dinner, but I have a couple of suggestions if you have more time, or you just want to get out of the city, leave the people there behind.

TempiettoRunning from the South side of the city there is a substantial aqueduct, built in 1822 to supply fresh mountain water to Lucca. To find it, exit the city from Porta San Pietro and keep straight on until you reach a footbridge over the railway. On the far side of the tracks, bear left onto Via Lorenzo Nottolini (parallel with the railway). There’s an S-bend, but it’s still Via Nottolini. At the same junction as Via Porsicchi on your right, there’s another little road, Via Tempietto, at the end of which you will be able to see the “Tempietto” itself. It looks like a round Roman temple, but it’s actually the terminus of the aqueduct.

Unfortunately, the Tempietto is in bad repair and is boarded up and fenced off pending works, but you can still hear water running. The aqueduct itself is attached to the back, and there is a grassy footpath alongside. Very very soon, you’re among gardens and vineyards and it’s peaceful and quiet, even though you’re so close to the city.

I’ve followed that path twice, once on foot and once by rented bike, and I’d recommend the walking. On a bicycle, you have to follow a narrow tyre rut, or else concentrate hard on avoiding it. On both occasions, I only went as far as the A11/E76 motorway, where Mussolini’s engineers brutally chopped the acqueduct in two to allow the road through. There is an old footbridge, and you can rejoin the aqueduct and follow it all the way to Monte Pisano (where there’s another Tempietto, apparently).

River SerchioThe other way to get to the countryside is to go North from the city to find the river, the Serchio. This involves walking out of Porta Santa Maria and crossing the roundabout. The road, Borgo Gianotti, runs through an unremarkable modern part of Lucca, but once you’ve crossed the major junction you’ll see a car park to your left, which give motorists access to the river park (the big structure on the right side of the road is a farmers’ market). You might first want to carry on to the road bridge to get views up and down the river. It’s impressive; wider than the Arno in Florence.

Actually, you can walk along the river on either side, but access is easier on the South, Lucca, side. On the North bank is the village of Monte San Quirico and turning left at the end of the bridge, you can either find a gap between the riverside houses, or go beyond them to the official Via delle Piagge footpath.

If you wanted a longer walk, you could carry on down the river on the San Quirico side to the footbridge, which is about two kilometres away. At that point, you are West of the old city and would have to go South and East; about another two and a half kilometres. In my case, I simply retraced my steps, returned to civilization, and had a gelato.

A Day In… Florence

Whether you arrive in Florence by bus or train, your disembarkation point is Santa Maria Novella station. (The train timetables and departure boards say “Firenze SMN”.) The station is large and ugly and the locality a little seedy, but don’t worry. The historic part of the city is a short walk away.Santa Maria Novella from stationSanta Maria Novella
The church which the station is named after is visible from the station steps, and makes an easy target, although the rear view is not too impressive. But if you walk down the pedestrian Via degli Avelli, which runs down the side of the church, you catch a sight of the black and white marble arches which hint at the fine façade you’ll see when you come to the front. There are market stalls along Via degli Avelli — mostly clothes and leather goods.

There are famous paintings and frescos in the church, its chapels and cloisters. The green cloister is open only in the mornings and there is an admission fee. Look out for the genuine Egyptian obelisks in the piazza outside.Duomo

There are two other important churches in the vicinity. The Via dei Banchi, from the East side of Piazza Santa Maria Novella, runs directly to the Cathedral, or Duomo (passing the medieval church of Santa Maria Maggiore on your right). To get into the Duomo, you need first to go to the ticket office near the rear of the left side (left if you face the front). At peak times, there are long queues both to buy tickets and then to get inside. On my last visit, the Baptistery could be visited without a ticket and there were no queues. It’s also possible to get a ticket only for the bell tower. The queue for entry to that seems always to be shorter.

Apart from the cathedral itself, there is a museum, “Opera del Duomo” (“opera” means “works”) with tools and displays about the building of the Duomo, and a number of “spare” statues which either were on the church or never made it there.

San Lorenzo CloisterIf you take the road which runs North from the back of the Baptistry (now might be a good time for a gelato), Borgo San Lorenzo, you soon arrive at the third church of the group, San Lorenzo, which has at least four features of interest: the church itself, the Medici mausoleum, the library designed by Michelangelo, and the cloisters with orange tree. On my last visit, the cloister was still free to enter, and still blissfully peaceful.

If you return down Borgo San Lorenzo to the Baptistry but carry directly on, you go down Via Roma to the Piazza della Repubblica. Big square. Fancy restaurants. Artists selling their wares.

PorcellinoCarry on in a straight line and you’re on Via Calimala, which passes the Mercato Nuovo and its bronze boar, or “Il Porcellino” – “the Piglet”. Keep going and it becomes Via Porta Santa Maria, which leads directly to the Ponte Vecchio. After having seen it, and taken your photographs, you have a choice. You can either cross the river Arno to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, or save that for later and go to the historic hub of the Piazza della Signoria.

If you’re doing the latter, follow the river by going through the arched arcade. You’ll soon see the long, thin courtyard between the wings of the Uffizi. (If you really want to visit the Uffizi, you should book tickets in advance, or you’ll be queuing all day.)

At the end of that courtyard, the town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio is on your right, and the Loggia dei Lanzi on your left. The Loggia is a good place for a sit down, but remember that eating is forbidden, along with a number of other activities. Look at the statues instead. And in front of the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy of Michelangelo’s David, in the position the original was comissioned for. You can see the inside of the town hall for a fee, or their courtyard gratis.Loggia dei Lanzi
Santa Croce
Depart the piazza by taking a right turn at the Neptune fountain, down the left side of the town hall. This is Via dei Gondi, which becomes Borgo Dei Greci, leading you directly to Piazza Santa Croce. Santa Croce is the church with all the dead famous people in it, but don’t miss the Pazzi’s chapel, designed by Brunelleschi (who did the dome on the Duomo). The chapel is a perfect cube, with a perfect hemisphere on top. Renaissance notions.

You can reach the Ponte alle Grazie, known for its coypus, by exiting the Piazza Santa Croce at the opposite end to the church, rightwards if facing it, down Via de’ Benci. Once across the Arno, there are two ways to get up to Piazzale Michelangelo for some great views. The easier one to follow is to walk down the riverside to the square tower of Porta San Niccolo, and then up the steps and hairpin road.

map - Finding StepsThe other route is harder to find, but I think it’s nicer to walk, because it uses the shady steps of the Via San Salvatore al Monte. But to find the steps from the riverside, you turn right after the small park of Piazza Demidoff, down towards Hotel Silla. At the hotel, turn left, then first right (Via dell’Olmo). At the end of it, go right, down Via San Niccolo until you see the arch on your right. Via San Miniato goes through the arch and becomes Via del Monte alle Croci (phew). A short distance along it you’ll see the start of the steps up to Piazzale Michelangelo.

You can even go a little higher than Piazzale Michelangelo to visit the church of San Miniato. If you haven’t yet been to the Pitti Palace, it’s a matter of going back down to the river bank and turning left until you reach the end of the Ponte Vecchio. That gets you back to the centre as well, of course.

Piazza SantissimaMy only favourite bit of Florence which I haven’t yet mentioned is Piazza Santissima Annunziata, with the church and the foundling hospital, which still has the wooden turntable where unwanted babies were “posted” anonymously through the catflap. To get there, you need to go back past the Duomo and find the narrow road that runs diagonally out from the dome end. It’s the Via dei Servi and it runs direct to Piazza Santissima Annunziata. There’s a bronze chap on a horse. I think it’s Frederick the Great.

Return down Via dei Servi to the first junction, with Via degli Alfani, and turn right along Alfani, which then becomes Via Guelfa. When you come to the junction with Via Nazionale, turn left along it and you will arrive back at the train station.

I Do

Careful NowChurch marriages in the Middle Ages were only for aristocrats and royalty, and the main incentive was that a priest (or better, a bishop) was a credible witness for the vows. Ordinary people made their vows in front of their community.

Around 1520, Martin Luther confirmed that marriage was a “worldly thing”: no business of the Church, but in 1563 the counter-reformation Council of Trent declared that a Roman Catholic marriage must have a priest. Protestants throughout Europe continued to have civil marriages, but in 1753 the Marriage Act made a church ceremony mandatory in Great Britain. (for Anglicans. Some other Christian sects and other religions were allowed to carry on with their own practices.) That was how it stayed until 1836, when a new Marriage Act provided for civil ceremonies in all cases. At this date, the Act applied to Ireland.

So the idea of the Church being involved in marriages was at one time “a new thing”, something that the clergy had just invented.

But somehow, the new nation of Ireland incorporated a Church-defined definition of marriage into its constitution. (I say “somehow”, but we all know exactly how it was. Tentacles of doom, infiltrating every sphere of life.)

The people of Ireland voted today to change the constitution. Actually, it’s arguable that marriage isn’t even a constitutional issue (it isn’t in the UK; just regulated by Acts of Parliament) but no matter, the situation is better than it was before, and two-thirds of the voters made it so.

linux, elephant, penguin

Something Rotten In The State Of Linux

I can’t remember how SunOs 4 startup worked, but it’s certain that I was first exposed to the “System V” system with SunOS 5, marketed as “Solaris” from its release in 1991.

Right from the beginning, I thought it was absurd. I was OK with the concept of “run levels”, representing “single user”, “multiple users”, “graphical interface”, and so on, but each run level was implemented by a set of scripts accessed by symbolic links, the name of which defined its activation and order of execution.

As an example, if I look at this current Linux laptop wot I’m typing on, /etc/rc3.d/S13networking does whatever is needed to get the machine’s network working. But that isn’t a real file, it’s a link to /etc/init.d/network but the init system needs to know to start it before /etc/rc3.d/S15nfs-common (a link to /etc/init.d/nfs-common) because network files can’t work before the network is up.

The same real file /etc/init.d/network is also linked to /etc/rc1.d/S13networking and /etc/rc5.d/S13networking in order to start the network in these different run levels. That means you need to remember that changing the real file to fix something affects all run levels, or changing the prefix because something else needs to run first will have to be done separately for all run levels.

It’s a rats nest, and many people don’t like it, so there have been many ideas for different schemes. But the fact that my Linux machine in 2015 still uses the same system is evidence that none of the replacements was significantly successful.

Until now. An init system called “systemd” is beginning to be implemented in most major varieties of Linux.

And it’s an abomination, worse in many ways than the ancient System V init. All software has bugs, but some software is designed wrong, and systemd is one of those, because the thinking behind it is wrongheaded. A key strength of Unix-style operating systems has always been the loose coupling of functions, encapsulated in the idea that programs should “do one thing, and do it well”.

Systemd tries to do many, many things. From a developer’s perspective, that inevitably makes it big and complex and difficult to maintain. And some of the things it wants to do are actually operating system functions. It’s clear that what the originators of systemd have in mind is an operating system on top of an operating system. Systemd will control users. Systemd will control devices. Systemd will control security.

linux, elephant, penguinThe thing is, a Linux system already has all of those functions. Loose-coupled, with software that “does one thing, and does it well”, so that any bug is localized, and easy(-ish) to isolate and fix.

So why has systemd been widely adopted if it’s obviously not fit for purpose? Well, it’s actually one of its worst flaws which has propelled it to success. The monolithic nature and lack of separation mean that you can’t have just a bit of systemd, you have to eat the whole elephant.

The Gnome project, for example, has adopted the “logind” part of systemd to manage the different users logged in, thus making systemd what developers call a “dependency”: you can’t easily have a recent version of the Gnome desktop unless you have systemd installed. (“Wait a minute,” you may say, “Different users logged in? I have a laptop with one user: me.” Well, exactly. The dependency on systemd is to handle a situation that doesn’t apply to the majority of users, but you still have to have it, or else the whole thing won’t work.)

Another project with a dependency on systemd is udev, the Linux process which looks for hardware changes and makes the device available to other software. For example, plugging in a USB hard drive will allow the folders in it to be accessed. Part of that process is handled by udev.

It’s udev which is bending my brain at the moment. I was lying when I talked about the whole elephant; or, rather, being foresighted. The current version of udev only needs one software library from systemd, but the project development has been merged with systemd, and it looks certain that the whole elephant will return, angrier than ever.

My current Linux systems use udev, and thus are contaminated by systemd, even though I don’t use it as the init system, and never will. The basic graphical interface, xorg, depends on udev to tell it about mice and keyboards (which means you can plug in, say, a second mouse and have it work immediately. But how often do you do that?) but I’ve discovered how to configure xorg to use separate drivers, and that’s working fine.

The other essential thing that isn’t working yet without udev is network devices, ethernet and wifi, which will take more work. And not absolutely essential, but nice, would be the USB drive thing. It would be easy to set it up as a fixed device, but having it appear and disappear will require some programming.

If you found this blog by desperate internet search, wanting to get your Linux system working properly and efficiently, well, I’m only a seeker too. I have no definite answers, but what I do may well incorporate the “mdev” element of busybox, or maybe “eudev” from the Gentoo project. Go search.