Climate Change and Dr Strangelove

If you listen to those on the right, they will tend to ignore all of the overwhelming evidence in support of AGW (that is that we’re warming the planet) because they argue the scientists producing the data are a bunch of liberal leftie hippie types. Ignoring the obvious flaws in this conspiracy theory (e.g. how in blue blazes would you get all those people keep quiet for so long and be able to fake all those scientific experiments?), but there is a more obvious flaw. You’d be forgiven for thinking that all of the climate data comes from guy in blazers who work in universities. You’d be wrong.

I happened across this video the other day (courtesy of climatecrocks.com) that pointed out the important role the US Airforce (you know, the guys with all the planes and the nukes, hardly the sort we can accuse of allying themselves with hippies!) played in the science of climate change .

While scientists had long speculated as to the fact that Carbon Dioxide was a greenhouse gas, as far back as John Tyndall in the 1850’s, with Svante Arrhenius even making the link between human carbon emissions and planetary warming as early as 1896 . However, much of this research was theoretical. Some of the first serious attempts at actual large scale field experiments to measure atmospheric greenhouse gas levels as well as clarifying its effect on the climate was performed by the USAF starting in the late 1940’s.

You may inquire why the USAF was studying the atmosphere, well its sort of because the atmosphere is where an Airforce fights most of its battles! And the heat absorbing properties of the atmosphere was going to have a major impact on new supersonic jets and heat seeking missiles that they were then developing for the cold war. It had nothing to do with forcing us all to give up cars and ride bikes everywhere, they just wanted their missiles to hit the target!

And least you think this is a one off, or a coincidence, well the US Navy has an extensive archive of Arctic sea ice data going back 40 years. Again, they weren’t doing this to keep Al Gore happy (in any event he was still in kindergarten at the time they started these studies). No, it was because the Arctic had become a crucial cold war battle ground. US and Soviet submarines often used the ice sheets to hide from aerial patrols and had reinforced conning towers that allow them to punch through the ice, thus potentially allowing them to fire missiles on their targets, potentially without warning from a direction of attack the enemy would not be expecting. This made it very important to know the extend and thickness of the ice sheets.

And again, these studies have consistently shown that the ice is retreating and thinning at a rate not far off what the climate scientists have long been saying would happen. This is having a devastating impact on wildlife in the region.

Indeed it was partially as a result of scientific studies of the oceans paid for by the military that made possible Revelle and Suess ground breaking 1957 study that all but confirmed that greenhouse gas levels were rising and that the oceans were not absorbing nearly as much of that as thought.

So if you want to argue that climate change is all part of some big commie conspiracy, some of the biggest supporters of that “conspiracy” are the not-so-lefty-hippies types with the guns and the megaton bombs!….Or maybe its just that reality has a well known liberal bias!

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Spending Review

The government’s spending review announced this week more or less confirmed what everyone outside of the Tory party (or UKIP) already knew – that the austerity measures have not helped bring down the deficit, nor has it put the country on the road to recovery, actually they’ve probably had the opposite impact.

Consequently this was something of a give away budget, the sort they’d have been criticising Gordon Brown for 4 years ago, as the Tories desperately seek to resuscitate a flat lining economy. Of course it is all too obvious that these budget giveaways are merely intended to create a small token of growth, then after the election and (god forbid 88|) if the Tories are in power again, upon which they’ll begin attacking the health & welfare budgets like an axe wielding manic. If you think the present austerity measures went too far, wait till after the election.

They also plan to cut alot of the budget by opting for that old Thatcher era favourite, privatisation of more public services. We tried that on the railways, universities, water and power companies. How did that work out…well the train service is an overpriced mess, we have the absurdity of “drought warnings” in one of Europe’s wettest countries (the French and Spanish find the mere idea of a drought in the UK highly amusing) and now there’s warnings of blackouts in future as the utilities haven’t built enough new generating capacity. Anyone care to hazard a guess what the next round of privatisation will bring?

As I’ve long been saying, the problem here is that the present Tory government is basically pursuing the very same policies they always have, right back to the days of Walpole. Namely, cut any form of welfare (paid for by taxes which they and their wealthy supporters increasingly don’t pay) that does not benefit them, even if its crucial to others on lower income. While simultaneously bashing said lower classes to keep them in place. The presentation may have changed, they might be using the excuse of “bringing down the deficit” (rather than the cold war, terrorism, miners strike excuses they used in the past) but like I said, its essentially the same stuck record at play.

More Welfare bashing

A good example of how out of touch the Tory’s are is their latest way of whipping those unfortunates out of work due to Tory austerity (such as all those soldiers they let go the other week). They want to make them wait a week before signing on. There logic is that they can use that week to try and find work and then not need to sign on.

Now if you’re a Tory millionaire cabinet member and you lose you’re job, I’m sure a week is more than enough time to toddle along to your gentleman’s club and get a new job via the good ol boys network. But for the rest of us in the real world its a little different.

These days getting a job does take a good few weeks (or months, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to find one!), when you factor in applying for one, waiting for the closing date, interviews, getting you’re application processed by HR, etc. While there are some casual jobs available more quickly (working in shops or bars sorts of thing) those jobs tend to be less well paid and more often than not part time, which is hardly much good for someone with a family to support i.e. the very people who are living pay cheque to pay cheque and cannot afford to be without an income for an extended period.

These days there is a considerable amount of red tape that the Tories have thrown at the unemployed, which involves endless form filling and attending interviews at the Job’s Centre, plus various mind numbing “presentations (the point of which seem to be to reinforce the Tory message that you are scum for allowing yourself to become unemployed…just what you need to build up one’s confidence before going for an interview!).

Consequently, many often opt to get all this paper work out of the way first, then start looking for work as this ensures that none of these Tory vanity schemes will clash with a potential interview date and you can get you’re dole money sorted out so that’s one less thing to worry about while focusing on the job search. This is particularly important to people such myself and others from EU countries, as our benefits entitlements are often not universally guaranteed. Thus if you become unemployed for any reason you have to sign on ASAP (even if you’re not planning on claiming unemployment benefit, you just want to keep you’re stamps up to date).

So in essence the likely consequence of this Tory plan is that it will actually delay by a week people’s job hunting efforts, and subject many families on the breadline to unnecessary hardship and cruelty. Where is the ivory tower that these guys live in and when do we get to knock it down?…oh ya on the 7th of May 2015! ;D

Big brother isn’t just watching!

As the CIA and the media play a game of “where’s Edward Snowden“, the phone hacking scandal, this whole CIA/MI6 “Prism” business and the Tories try to push through yet another attack on people’s privacy we have another round of allegations regarding the misuse of the authorities powers of surveillance. Last night’s Dispatches on Channel 4 described a policy of systematic police surveillance that would put many totalitarian regimes to shame.

Now the police would have us believe that they only use undercover officers or the powers granted to them by various anti-drug or anti-terrorism legislation in the most extreme of circumstances. But we now have allegations that the police tried to use undercover operations to cover up the Steven Lawrence affair. This is, to say the least shocking. Bad enough that they screwed up the investigation through institutional racism, but they then attempted to setup and entrap his family and friends whose only crime was to stand up for their dead son’s rights.

For years members of lefty groups, be they anti-racism, animal rights, climate activists or anti-capitalists have complained about how they were being victimised and spied on by the police. Or that the bulk of trouble orchestrated at demo’s was by agent provocateurs from the security forces. Now we have evidence to suggest that this isn’t just idle paranoia. It turns out that numerous undercover officers had indeed infiltrated many left wing groups. Many had sexual relationships with activists despite in some cases being married (this is what the rest of us call “adultery“….or state sanctioned rape!), even fathering children. It would seem that one of the original authors of the infamous London Greenpeace “Mc Libel” pamphlet was in fact an undercover officer.

And of course all of this comes on the back of the allegations previously aired surrounding Mark Kennedy. The whole reason why that trial of activists collapsed was because it became clear that the protesters were originally planning to cancel the direction action (or at the very least sleep on it) but were talked into staying by him and other under cover officers.

If this happened in any other country we’d call it political suppression and abuse of power. Is it any wonder we see the irony of Edward Snowden hoping from China to Russia, two countries hardly known for their commitments to human rights.

And of course there is a further issue of miss-allocation of resources. I mean those undercover officers, rather than wasting their time on a bunch of fluffy tree huggers, could have been doing something useful. Such as going after drug dealers or terrorists or how about infiltrating a few banks and getting people on the inside, so next time there’s a financial scandal we can put these guys away for a good long stretch. Indeed, speaking of terrorists, the (alleged) Woolwich murders were known to the police, but they hadn’t arrested them because they were trying to recruit them as spies!

Quite clearly the security forces have massively abused the powers granted to them. Indeed I would argue that giving such powers to the security services has proved entirely counter productive as it means there more worried about using them to cover spare themselves embarrassment than actually protecting the country from genuine threats. Therefore I would argue for a rolling back of many of these powers in response. I mean if we in the universities were granted a pile of money we could spend in private and it turned out we were using them to undertake “research” into beer and drugs, I think we’d have the cash taken off us pretty quickly and quite a few of us done for fraud.

It is true that there are people out there whom the state wishes to keep an eye on, but procedures need to be in place to prevent abuse of powers. Like the guards in a Stanford prison experiment the security services need to know that they will be held to account for any abuse of powers.

A simple solution would be to extend the rights of Freedom of Information to include police or MI5 & MI6 surveillance operations. In short if the cops spy on us they can only do so with a court order and they only get to watch for a certain period of time (say no more than 2 months) before that surveillance comes under review by another judge. If its clear that those being spied on are not a serious threat (i.e. one that warrants the use of under cover officers or wire taps that could be better deployed elsewhere) or that there’s no progress towards an arrest, they have to stop. Furthermore after a period of, say 5-10 years, they have to disclose that fact that they spied on people and thus giving the public and the courts the opportunity to determine if they overstepped the mark.

If the officers described in the examples above knew there was a very real risk of their actions being made public, potentially leading to public ridicule, dismissal from the force, arrest and imprisonment, I suspect said abuses of power would never have a occurred and never will occur. Its only fair that if the police or spooks want to watch us that we get to watch them back in return.

Anti-science and Lysenkoism

A couple of weeks back, I came across this story about a marketing study in America. They had labelled low energy light bulbs with stickers indicating the energy saving (and thus cost saving) benefits of using low-e bulbs. But, even if they kept the energy/cost saving labels, but instead included a little logo that claimed the product to be “eco-friendly” they found that sales dropped among self-confessed Republicans. It would seem that Republicans would sooner spend money to destroy the environment rather than save money and help the environment.

In another example, a group of culture jammers “the yes men” pretended to be “Young Republicans” and went around Republican heartland states asking people to sign a petition calling for more global warming and more air pollution, etc. They found it disturbing how easily they could get people to sign up!

There seems to be huge distrust of science by many, again particularly those on the right, because they are suspicious that the guys in white coats are somehow out to get them. While for example 97% of climate scientists agree on global warming only 45% of the public seem to believe them.

Now granted, there’s been plenty of foul ups along the way (BSE, DDT, Windscale, Chernobyl, Bhopal, take you’re pick!) which hardly builds confidence, but we won’t have the wonderful scientifically advance world we enjoy if it wasn’t for science and technology and the scientific method that drives that.

Increasingly many Americans don’t only mistrust the science on climate change, but mistrust the science on vaccines, evolution, even physics and the physical sciences. When the scientific community comes out with a load of science (graphs, equations, computer models and peer reviewed journal papers) to support their position, the “anti-intellectual” camp will ignore it all (or grossly misinterpret it) and instead put their faith in some unqualified quack with a load of have baked woo-woo. Dara O’Briain, of Mock the Week does a very good piece on this sort of attitude.

Modern day Lysenkoism
This to me highlights what is a growing anti-science or perhaps more accurately growing anti-intellectual movement within society, particularly among those on the right. Recall for example how one of the main criticisms of Romney from within his own party was his ability to speak French!

In many respects this is a retelling of the tale of Lysenkoism. He was an anti-intellectual, barely literate communists bully who came up with various crack pot genetic theories in Soviet Russia. Because of his high position within the party he was able to force the scientists to ignore they’re carefully controlled scientific experiments and rely instead on his “theories” instead, helping to put back soviet medical science. One could draw a direct parallel between Lysenkoism and the behaviour of many Republicans in their efforts to suppress the science of global warming, or restrict stem cell research…of course ironically some on the right try to claim it’s the other way around, failing to understand the history (i.e. that it was an anti-intellectual like them trying to distort the scientific method not the other way around!).

Examples of “Woo”
For example, there is a crack pot theory that oil isn’t the remains of dead plant matter cooked and baked by geology over millions of years but is naturally generated by the earth, so called Abiotic oil. According to conspiracy theorist there is thus no shortage of oil or natural gas and “they” (the government/liberals/corporations/Roswell aliens take you’re pick) are restricting oil supply deliberately (why would they do that? Don’t ask me! conspiracy theorists rarely think that far ahead, just look at Alex Jones a few weeks ago).

Others argue that various “perpetual motion” type devices that violate the basic laws of thermodynamics can supply unlimited energy can actually work. They claim that Tesla, the famous 20th century “mad” scientist developed such a device (as someone who has read a few autobiographies on Tesla I can say this is wholly without foundation and is a rumour largely based on a few sensationalised tabloid stories from around the 1930’s & 1940’s that have since been embellished on).

Another prominent example is the “answers in Genesis” movement :crazy:. They claim that actually not only is science wrong about evolution but we can find plenty of evidence for “intelligent design” within the bible. Of course, ignoring all the scientific evidence to the contrary, as well as ignoring all the facts we know about the bible and its creation and how the book we read now is very different from that of the early Christian Church. In short to believe in such nonsense not only means rejecting science but requires a complete misreading and distortion of the bible and its message (what they used to call in the middle ages “heresy” >:-[).

The fundamental problem with ID is if goddunnit why did he make so many mistakes? What’s with Junk DNA? Why do humans have an appendix? Why do Whales still have leg bones? One has to conclude that if ID is true it means:
A) God is deliberately trying to trick us into believing in evolution
B) He’s smoking crack while he does the designing or
C) “God’s plan” involves humans going back to eating leaves and Whales flopping out of the oceans and walking around in future ;D…neither of which incidentally are mentioned in the bible!…..which would indicate the bible is wrong…which sort of puts these bible literalists into a bit of a pickle!

Science under attack
Now if we were dealing with a small lunatic fringe here I think we could laugh it off. But its more of a lunatic mainstream. Take this typical example of the sorts of views held by republican congressmen.

Consider also how Republicans are now trying to reshape how the US National Science Council operates. Notably, they want to get rid of peer review process, largely because they know that their crack pot theories can’t get past the process of peer review.

Now granted, if you gave me and most other scientists the choice between being whacked over the head with a 2×4 or going through peer review, most would opt for the 2×4 (less painful!). But peer review is rigorous for a reason. Granted it doesn’t always get things right, a few papers contradicting the mainstream opinion on global warming have snuck through (although they are vastly outnumbered by papers supporting AGW) and there’s that infamous Andrew Wakefield example.

However, I would point out that this proves that the peer review process is unbiased, i.e. it is not the duty of Journals or the NSC to “censor” what gets published, but act as facilitators in a scientific debate. And of course when a paper with a controversial position gets through, normally the effect is to stir other scientists into investigating its claims, either with a view of disproving it, or in fact proving that the original paper was correct and furthering the proof of this new idea. This is how science works.

And it is of course deeply ironic how the anti-science brigade can on the one hand point to these examples above as “proof” peer review doesn’t work…..but then cease on the mistakes made by peer review (such as Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited and withdrawn paper) as proof of their quack belief’s! :??:

In another example North Carolina, the state which tried to ban sea level rise due to global warming, have also for example recently tried to ban Tesla Motor’s electric cars!…I don’t know, maybe if Tesla tie a couple of dead baby seals to be the back bumper the Republicans will reconsider :no:

The Price
Now the danger apparent with these sorts of attitudes, is that it will becoming increasingly difficult if not impossible to make major scientific advances if we start allowing crack pot theories to override rigorous scientific research. The result will be a slow down, or possibly even a reversal of current technology levels. e.g. one of the reasons for tinkering around with stem cells and genetics is that antibiotics will no longer be effective if we don’t develop new versions or alternative ways of fight infection. This will of course have a detrimental knock on effect to society.

The history books are seldom kind to civilisations who allow themselves to stagnate technologically. Lysenkoism played a role in the disastrous mismanagement of agriculture within the Soviet Union, which was a major factor in the ultimate demise of the Soviet Bloc. For much of recorded history the Indians and Chinese were well ahead technologically (and culturally) of Western societies. However, in the 19th century both empires were easily beaten or subjugated by a handful of western adventurers, often using the very technologies (paper, printing, gunpowder, celestial navigation, mathematics) that the Indians and Chinese had themselves developed!

And in some respects its already happening. Before G. W. Bush came to power the US led the world in green technology research. Now they’ve lost that lead to both Germany and increasingly China. Both are not only manufacturing and installing solar panels, wind turbines and fuel cells in ever increasing numbers (while the UK hum’s and haw’s about a couple of turbines here and there the China have plans for 20 GW array of wind turbines!). But the Chinese are also working on the research to develop the next generation of these technologies. I’ve been working with fuel cells recently and I can tell you even the best stuff out of America now looks old fashioned. The really good high tech stuff comes from China or other members of the BRICS.

Often you find the people behind such research originally started their careers in the US, but when funding dried up, they left and took their knowledge overseas. Naturally this will in the long term have very heavy detrimental effect on the US economy and on its position as the world’s foremost super power (if indeed we can still make that claim given how beholden America is to the whims of China).

But also in Britain!
And lest anyone claim that this is purely an American problem which we don’t need to worry about this side of the pond, look no further than UKIP, aka the UK Tea party, a veritable den of anti-intellectual, anti-science, homepathic quacks. They’ve even made “screaming” Lord Monckton :crazy: their science spokesman (that’s sort of like the Church of England making Richard Dawkins their spokesman on religious affairs).

These very same trends we’ve seen happen to America seem to be spreading to the UK. And there is a need to recognize that and takes steps to prevent it – If that is, you don’t want to see homeopathy on the NHS in place of this stuff called “medicine” don’t vote for UKIP. Indeed UKIP’s own founder, Prof Alan Sked (yes I did say Professor, the irony!) has denounced his own party as going “completely fruitcake” and “gone anti-intellectual“.

Similarly those who are conservative, but are vaguely sane, and understand how science works, need to grow a spine and start standing up to these anti-intellectual bullies. Increasingly for example many prominent Republicans (notably Mike Bloomberg) have come out and spoken about the need to firstly recognize that global warming is a reality, but also work out how to deal with it within a Republican free market orientated policy. If they succeed then maybe the GOP can overcome its “cave man” image. If they fail then the long term prospects for them or the US are not good.

Liquid Gold

During my holiday’s in Scotland we had a brief wee discussion about the future of any Scottish currency, in the unlikely event of Scotland gaining independence. As I mentioned before, the SNP plan for some sort of shared currency arrangement with England would only really work as a short term solution, longer term Scotland would have to either join the Euro or form its own currency or possibly both.

One of the reasons why Scot’s would like to keep the pound is a lack of faith in a Scottish pound, which they believe would likely lose value relatively quickly, be prone to high rates of inflation and significant fluctuations in value relative to sterling. I would counter by pointing out that Ireland, for 80 years before joining the Euro, had the punt and despite our best attempts at screwing up our own economy, the value of the punt rarely moved far from that of sterling. And Ireland didn’t have Scotland’s natural resources, such its oil and renewables potential, to back up the punt with. So I would question whether there is any basis for these fears in fact.

However, one way to nip things in the bud would be for Scotland to back up its currency with some form of commodity, e.g. a Scottish Pound (or real fucking money as I suspect they’ll call it ;D) will in theory be redeemable for a certain quantity of some commodity, such as gold, sliver or perhaps oil (which the Scots have no shortage of).

While such a plan would make speculative attacks against the Scottish pound nearly impossible and it would guarantee that it would hold value, it would have the disadvantages that the value of the Scottish pound would float with the value of the commodity and it could ultimately inhibit economic growth as a result. The price of gold, silver, oil, platinum, etc. fluctuates significantly over time, which would have a knock on effect on the Scottish economy. It was for these very reasons why Nixon abandoned the gold standard for the US dollar in the 1970’s.

However my solution would be to tie the value of the Scottish pound to something a little more flexible – Scotch Whisky! In my plan a Scottish pound would be redeemable for a certain quantity of Scotch. After oil, Scotch is Scotland’s most profitable export. While the amount of Scotch produced and sold each year does fluctuate (due to supply and demand issues), given that it is typically matured for at least 5 years (more like 10 years for many single malts) this means there is always a vast stockpile of Scotch on hand to meet any demand. The Scottish government would essentially pay the distilleries a small annual fee (or simply cut their export duty) in return for which it gets to bank that distillery’s stockpile and count it against the Scottish pound.

Furthermore if any spiv wants to launch a speculative attack against the Scottish pound he would need to manipulate the sales of Scottish Whisky. Some simple controls on the Whisky industry would prevent this, although in all probability, it won’t be necessary. The Scottish Whisky industry is dominated by the large blended whisky makers, who are often owned by mega giant multinational drinks companies (who have a very specific agenda, sell as much booze to people as possible!) or smaller local run businesses behind the high end and expensive single malts. This lot tend to be fairly conservative and traditionalists (the sorts of people who still dress up and go to church every Sunday and believe hell is a very real place that people do go too…..if they head too far north along the M6! :)) ) and to be blunt they’d rather pour the Whisky into the Spey than let some shark in a suit from London get his greasy paws on it.

And the best bit? If the Scottish government ever did have to engage in “quantitative easing” the way it would do it would be to give everyone in Scotland a bottle of Whisky, so at least we’d be able to drown our sorrow’s :>>

Okay, the above article was a bit tongue in cheek and as you can imagine I came up with in a pub (I’ll let you guess what I was drinking) but I think it highlights some important points about currency to consider…..now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a wee bottle of Jura single malt to finish!

The Jaffa School of Marksmenship

I’ve been catching the odd episode of Stargate SG-1 on pick TV the last few months and I think I would rate the “Jaffa” (that’s the minions of the Goa’uld, the main “bad guys” of the series) as the worse and least credible of Sci-fi “cannon fodder” units.

I mean they have all the survival instincts of the “red shirts” of Star Trek (you know how Spock, Kirk, Bones and some guy in a red shirt called Ensign Ricky would beam down do planet and 5 seconds later ensign Ricky’s is “he’s dead Jim“). And the Jaffa have aim that is worse even that the Stormtroopers of Star Wars. It seems that below the “stormtrooper school of marksmanship” there is a grade called “Jaffa school of stupidity“.

Then again, I reckon the reason the Empire lost in Return of the Jedi was because the Emperor was a Tory. Think about it, he spends a vast fortune of many hundreds of Quadrillions on a death star but then goes all corner cutting, leaving out important things, such as an armored grille over exhaust ports, or hand railings around the edge of bottomless pits (its a elf’n’safety nightmare that death star!). He also clearly cut back on proper training and vital equipment for his gunners (there’s one scene in the original version of star wars where you can see a gunner holding his hands over his ears, clearly Palpatine was too penny pinching to buy him a pair of ear defenders) and the number of fighters to protect the death star was clearly cut back significantly (just 3 it would seem!)…kind of like the UK government’s current spending plans regarding the future carriers which apparently won’t have any aircraft operating off them and we’ll have to borrow the carriers off the French three weeks in advance if we want to have a war ;D.

But I digress, how bad are the Jaffa? Well, in one episode a while ago a unit of them took off in pursuit of the SG team. This led them to a point where they walked across a large open field, bold as brass (fully aware that they were in pursuit of an armed enemy who could be lying in wait in the bushes and high ground) and when inevitably the shooting started they just stood there making the odd random off target shot back while they were easily picked off one by one :roll:.

I mean they could have A} not walking into an obvious ambush but gone around or used covering fire to flank the SG team B} fallen to the ground and returned fire from the prone position C} called in air support or heavy fire support….then again the fire support of Jaffa “death gliders” is pretty piss poor, they tend to perform worse (again randomly shooting the ground nowhere near the enemy), despite superior tech than a WW2 fighter. And despite their superior Goa’uld technology, they haven’t apparently used it to develop something like a tank or an APC or heavy support weapons (there are good tactical reasons why armies in the real world use these things, just ask any poor Squadie forced to drive around in an unarmored land rover through mine laden Afghanistan).

In other scenario’s the SG-1 team have easily infiltrated goa’uld ships/bases without any complications (pretty much knocked on the door and walked in!). I mean you would think they would have any entrances heavily guarded and monitored 24/7 by CCTV. You would also expect the most basic security measures, such as doors with controlled access on them (and alarms that go off when people fiddle with the locks), more CCTV watching all corridors, motion sensors, computers that require a login password to access, regular security patrols and alarms that go off when loud noises (such as gunfire) are detected or when a patrol doesn’t check in within a certain period of time. I mean my uni has better security than a Goa’uld mother-ship!

Okay, I’m taking this a bit too seriously, but the serious point I’m making, is that about when writing stories making sure you’re villains or heroes are credible. The “evil genius school of villainy” sort of wears thin after awhile, as most people recognise that it is fairly unlikely that any evil genius smart enough to build a mega death ray, would capture the hero, then rather than executing him on the spot, instead give him a ten minute powerpoint presentation of his plans, then leave the hero in a situation where he can easily escape from with plenty of time to thwart said plans :no:.

Similarly few real heroes match up to Raglan’s “the hero tradition (a system for rating heroes from folklore out of 22 points, father was a king, origins or birth unusual, fights an epic battle, etc, Oedipus gets all 22, Hercules 17, Robin hood 13 & Jesus 19 88|!). Just read the accounts of Victoria cross winners over the years.

By contrast in “proper” fiction, such as the “Game of Thrones” series (and the books its based on) or a number of the characters in Ian Banks novels (both the sci-fi and fiction), the line between “villain” and “flawed hero” is extremely blurred. And as a result its difficult sometimes to tell who is the hero and who is the villain, which makes such stories much more interesting, believable and engaging.

Let me give you a tip

The BBC News website has had an interesting wee discussion going surrounding the practice of tipping. As anyone who has ever visited the US will know this is the source of many awkward moments (especially when you realise you’ve run out of change!) as tipping in the US is not really optional but compulsory…well you can choose not to tip, but chances are the waitress will then choose to pour you’re coffee all over you and the taxi driver will “accidentally” reverse over your luggage as he drives away in a huff! ;D

Of course by contrast, in some other countries tipping is a serious social faux pas. In this article the beeb relate a few samples of people’s horror stories about what happened when they failed to tip sufficiently (and got it thrown back in their face) or indeed when they tipped someone in a country where tipping a waitress can get you into trouble (she might think you’re trying to proposition her or something!).

I was actually put off tipping somewhat by my experience in the US. As the beeb article highlights you have to tip everyone for everything under the sun. For example, I was on the train and bought a coffee for about a dollar, I didn’t leave a tip because in Ireland giving someone a 10-20% tip on such a small amount would be considered insulting. Anyway the guy gets into a right huff over it |-|.

My first day in NY I saw a waitress chase four blocks after someone who failed to leave an adequate tip (funny thing was, I’d been talking to her and she was Polish!). Another traveller told me how he failed to tip the barman in a bar, even though in his country (as in Ireland) you would not tip a barman for a single drink (again, it would be considered insulting, if you started buying rounds, you’d normally tell them to keep the change or add an extra 10% to the tip jar). As a result that was the last pint served to him that night in that bar! The bar man simply ignored him and refused to serve him another drink!

And as the BBC article highlights tip jars have started to proliferate both in the US and Europe. You can expect in some places to pay a tip to the person who hands you a sandwich, then pay a tip to another person at the till. And there seems to be no logic to who gets a tip and who does not. A taxi driver (hardly low wage workers) gets a tip, but the cabin crew on a plane or the driver of a bus does not. You’ll tip someone in a restaurant, or a barman, or the doorman of a hotel, but not someone in a fast food restaurant or an off license till nor the hotel receptionist.

So it would seem you’ll tip to ensure “good service” the person who carries you’re Burger the 10ft from the kitchen to you’re table, but not the postman who carries a parcel several miles, nor the person responsible for you’re safety at 30,000ft nor the person who handles you’re finances, even though many of these jobs are also fairly low wage :crazy:.

Welfare tax?
As one American lamented to me the tipping rate in the US has also been gradually creeping up. It used to be that 10% was sufficient. Then it went up to 15%, now even 20% will get you sneered at. Of course there is a very obvious explanation for all of this. The minimum wage in America is too low. Indeed often in jobs where tipping is expected workers can be paid below the minimum wage, some less than $3 an hour (that’s IDS and his Welfare Chain Gang sort of rates!). Waiter’s and barmen rely on those tips to make it worth their while showing up for work at all!

But of course as living costs have risen (due to inflation, etc.) yet the minimum wage has not risen as quickly the resulting shortfall that tips need to meet has increased, hence why you need to leave a larger tip. So in essence tipping in the US is essentially a sort of welfare tax as a consequence of America’s low minimum wage rates. Which sort of makes a mockery of many of America’s claims to be a “low tax” economy (once you factor in this 20% “tipping tax” you suddenly find you’re paying a lot more in tax in the US than Europe!).

Of course, I would argue that this completely undermines the whole argument behind having a minimum wage to begin with. It would seem more sensible to raise the minimum wage, make tipping purely optional (for good service) and the expectation that someone being paid to do a job will actually do it and get sacked if they perform badly or throw a tantrum in front of customers.

Tipping is also somewhat unfair and discriminatory, not all tips are equal. As the Beeb article points out there is statistical evidence to suggest that if you are white, female and particularly young and pretty you can expect more from you’re tips than someone who is older, male or worse – black or Hispanic (even from other customers from an ethnic minority!). On the other side of the table, those with mental heal issues find the whole social awkwardness of tipping quite stressful, particularly if they get their sums wrong, fail to tip adequately (or simply are faced with a greedy waiter who expects over the odds in tips) and get abused and slagged off (which they are mentally ill equipped to cope with).

Ban tipping?
Indeed some US restaurants seem to be acknowledging the problems that this policy causes and have been trying to get around it. Some US restaurants will now calculate your bill with an optional 15-20% extra service fee included on the bottom, which you can choose to pay or not. Others have simply banned tipping of staff, raised the staff wages and slapped a compulsory 10% service charge on all bills to compensate. There’s even a website up calling for tipping to be banned outright.

Now Americans would counter that the point of tipping is to ensure good service. But I would struggle to rate the service in the US as being any better than in the UK, even though here tipping is far from compulsory. Furthermore, in cultures where there is no tipping (such as Singapore or Scandinavia) I would actually rate my experience of service there higher than in the UK (or US)…which probably has something to do with the higher wages paid to staff!

And of course I would argue that the “penalty” for poor service shouldn’t be the waiter’s tip is withheld. It’s that the manager gets called and the waiter gets a pink slip and a boot out the door.

So while I understand the reason behind America’s tipping culture and I’m not going to go all Mr Pink on the subject (I still do tip). But I’d argue it’s a system that’s ad hoc, generally unfair (if not a tad racist & sexist) and low paid staff are better served by just being paid a higher basic salary rather than having to rely on social peer pressure to pay the rent.

Park Life

In Turkey protests continue in an around Taksim Square. One would be forgiven for asking as to why a park and its occupation by couple of treehuggers has become such an emotive issue.

Well its because to many in Turkey it was the straw that broke the camels back. They’ve seen increasing efforts from the Islamic conservatives to roll back Turkey’s long cherished secularism, from curbs on the sale of pork and alcohol, to further government censorship. Now the government wants to take away a park where young people, of both sexes, like to go and hang out (something which conservatives are of course against).

One could compose an Islamic version of the Blur song “Park Life” to explain it all:

I get up when I want except on Friday’s when I’m rudely awakened by the Imam’s call to prayer…..Me and the girl friend go to Taksim, sometimes we hold hands….the Islamists come and beat us for it, it seems to give them an enormous feeling of well being and satisfaction… :))

Jokes aside, what these protests perhaps represent is Turkey at the cross roads. They can opt for further “de-secularisation” which will likely lead to further isolation from the West and quite possibly (when you consider what a patchwork quilt of ethnic groups Turkey is) the break up of the country. Or they can continue down the path of secularism, which will likely lead to entry into the EU (not any time soon mind, I think Turkey’s still some way to go and one can only imagine what the UKIP brigade would say!).

And of course the message from Iran, a country that originally choose the Islamists route suggests there is good reason for Turkey to do a U-turn. In Iran the people have just elected a reformer, clearly sick of the same tired dogma from the Mullah’s and fed up with people playing word association with “Iran” and getting “pariah“.

Syria – Another Yugoslavia?

It is difficult to find anything positive to say about the awful situation in Syria. All one can say is that it is starting to resemble a re-run of the conflict in Yugoslavia.

In Yugoslavia, we had a country that, like Syria, was a patchwork quilt of different ethnic groups and religions. In Yugoslavia the west was very slow to react to the growing crisis. Had NATO stood up to the likes of Milosevic earlier (notably during the early stage of the conflict, when it was just Croatia and Serbia) then its possible things could have been nipped in the bud. Instead the conflict spilled into Bosnia with scenes and events reminiscent of nazi occupied Europe played out in the country.

And as in Yugoslavia, one of the reasons for western dithering was a fear of upsetting the Serb’s Russian allies. Similarly in Syria, there was a brief window of opportunity where western intervention could have had an effect. I suspect that if, during the initial shelling of Homs, NATO had acted, that this would have had the desired effect of making sure the Syrian military stepped back from the abyss.

Indeed it is possible that some in the army may have calculated that Assad was now more a liability than a help, ousted him from power and tired to negotiate with the rebel forces. While there’s no guarantee such negotiations would have succeeded, the natural pause they would have created in the conflict would have perhaps spared Syria the wider ethnic conflict now on-going.

But, like I said all of this is hypothetical scenario, because the window of opportunity where western intervention would have had any positive effect has now long since passed.

Arming the rebels is something I’m dubious about, given the not unrealistic probability they’ll end up in the hands of Islamic extremists or ethnically cleansing death squads on one side or the other. Indeed exactly how a couple of rifles and bullets are going to allow the rebels to take on an army with access to tanks and aircraft I do not know. That is unless the west is prepared to give the rebels the sort of fire power that would actually make a strategic difference (e.g. anti-tank or anti-aircraft missiles, heavy weapons, GPS units, satellite phones, etc.) which would probably not be to the liking of Israel.

As far as the proposed peace talks, I hate to sound all negative but this was tried in Yugoslavia and it didn’t work, largely because the Serb’s knew they had the Russians backing them up. Similarly does anyone honestly think the Syrian government is going to take any peace talks seriously when they know the Russians are supporting them. The only time Milosevic took such talks seriously was after NATO launched a bombing campaign against them.

And of course we all know how Yugoslavia eventually finished, with western peacekeepers in on the ground. As things stand this is the fate I see for Yugoslavia, a combination of peacekeepers from NATO (likely Turkish led) backed up by Western friendly Arab nations and Russian peacekeepers inside Syria, probably for a decade or two.

Indeed perhaps this serves as an obvious way for us to, as it were, scare Putin straight. Point out to him that the rebels aren’t going to pack up and go home, nor is the Assad regime (that’s the problem with civil wars, they are at home!) and the likely outcome of further conflict is eventually going to be Russian troops spending the next couple of years refereeing suicide bombing competitions.

The Russians need to not only get the Syrian government to commit to peace talks, but to lean on them to take them seriously…and make sure part of that process involves Assad “retiring” in some capacity….before someone else “retires” him “with extreme prejudice“.

Army redundancies

Today saw many redundancies announced within the UK army, about 5,000 of them a few hundred of which were “involuntary” (“Attention men” “Prepare to open pink slips” “get ready” “wait for it….” “….and…FIRED”).

Now with tens of thousands of people loosing their jobs, including those in supposedly “ring fenced” area’s such as health care, few will feel much sympathy for a few unemployed squadies. But it does set a dangerous precedent.

The “deal” the UK has long made with its army has been that if you sign on for twenty years service, the state will compensate for danger levels so high they would give elf’n’safety types a coronary, long hours and pay so poor, even IDS and his “welfare chain gangs” would look well paid in comparison. In return the government guarantee’s them employment, gives them food and lodgings and at the end of service, an army pension.

So in essence the government has now reneged on that deal. One has to hope there’s not another war or anything, for what fool would sign on as a soldier now, knowing that its likely you too will probably loose you’re job in a couple of years time.

Which is troubling for anyone hoping to claim a pension off the government, whether that be the state pension or a private pension fund which the state is the guarantor for.

And indeed they are already at it. One of the things that upsets me about the current welfare reform, aside from the fact that it seems to assume that everyone on benefits is some sort of criminal, even the squadies they’ve just made redundant, but the principle of it. The whole point of paying National Insurance is so that if you end up unemployed or unable to work in the future, those funds will be available to pay for you’re benefits. And again, the government is reneging on its commitments. I would therefore argue that I’m entitled to a full or part refund of all my national insurance contributions and the newly redundant soldiers are entitled to a couple of years worth of back pay.

So the upshot of these army redundancies are that I would advise a strategy of not planning on stopping work….ever!