St Jude’s day storm

A little old lady called to say we had a storm coming….we’ll she was right in the end! However, while the storm would have more than rattled the curtains for some people (some of the pictures of damage look pretty scary!), but the bulk of the country wasn’t too badly shaken.

I mentioned that because the way the media went on you’d swear the whole country was going to get blown away. A student even tried to get out of coming to class, claiming that he was “following government advice” |-|…if he fails anything this year I’ll have to work that line into his feedback! ;D

Admittedly, just in case, I was careful where I parked my car (i.e. not under a tree or lamp post that looked a bit dodgy). But as always I think the media took things a bit too far.

One story that the right-wing media picked up on was the destruction of a small wind turbine (not the big commercial scale type) in the storm. This one had the anti-wind farm brigade practically collapsing in a catatonic orgasmic fit. However they failed to notice that despite the storm, the bulk of the UK’s wind farms remained in operation. A couple had to be “feathered” to prevent damage for a few hours, but the vast majority of them ran on through the storm generating power.

Indeed the anti-wind lot, who have a nasty habit of being pro-nuclear lobbyists, completely missed the fact that two of the UK’s nuclear reactors had to shutdown completely during the storm (and are expected to be down for a week or so) while several others had to de-rate during the storm.

I’m not saying wind power is without its disadvantages, but its important we compare like with like, something I recently discussed in more detail on my energy blog.

The Fifth Estate

I happened to catch the film “the fifth Estate” about Julian Assange and wikileaks. Certainly, if Assange has a motto, it must surely be “just cos you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!”. Part of the problem with the whole “wikileaks” events was that there was inevitably much media attention on Assange, Bradley Manning and more recently Edward Snowden, but the media chose to largely ignore the stuff they’d actually leaked.

For example we had evidence of that the NSA acquired the pager and text records of many 9/11 victims, then held onto them for years. Now whether wikileaks were right or wrong to release this information, but why in blue blazes would the NSA commit such a massively unethical act? The News of the World was shut down for hacking the phone of just one murdered teenager, yet it would seem the NSA can hack thousands of them and that’s okay.

Or we have video footage of American helicopter pilots committing war crimes. Again, one has to ask was this kept classified for reasons of national security?…Or as part of an attempted cover up of a crime? And consider that under the laws of most countries covering up a crime is considered as bad if not worse than the crime itself (this is why committing perjury or perverting the course of justice carries relatively heavy sentences).

In short one is forced to the conclusion that much of what wikileaks revealed was that the bulk of what governments say is “classified” for reasons of “national security” is in truth being withheld more for reasons of hiding from the public facts that are either inconvenient or prove criminal wrongdoing or gross incompetence by those in power. While yes, one can argue that the Snowden’s and Mannings of the world broke the law revealing these facts. But such crimes pale in comparison to the crimes of the state that they reveal. Why aren’t these agents in jail right now?

And furthermore there is also the criminal incompetence of the security agencies themselves. Tens of billions of our hard earned taxes are spend by the state on “national security”, yet it would seem one mental unstable 20-something with a lady gaga CD can steal several GB’s worth of highly sensitive government secrets. And what was a private contractor (i.e. not a government employee) PFY like Snowden doing with access to classified information?

I say, we ain’t getting value for our money, as I suspect my uni has better information security than GCHQ or the NSA. Then again we could get sued or sacked if information leaks out…unlike the mandarins who run these outfits. Clearly this needs to change and I would argue that everyone above a certain rank in these “intelligence” agencies, if they have a shred of professional decency, should resign at once…or be sacked!

In short what Snowden and wikileaks have revealed is that the security services have created a system that is not only a complete waste of tax payers money (given that they don’t seem to have caught a single terrorist, drug dealer or tax dodger despite wasting billions of pounds on this PRISM system), an affront to the very principles of democracy but has in itself build a massive security loophole that you could drive a bus through.

In short, all the enemies of the US need now do to spy on Americans is hack one website or infiltrate one agent into one facility in Utah and they’ll be able to unlock any information they so wish.

Back during the cold war, two of the most damaging and dangerous spies were John Walker (betrayed to the soviets much information about US submarine operations, which probably shifted the balance of power in sub operations over to the soviets) and Valdimir Vetrov (his activities revealed to the west much Soviet industrial espionage, the cutting off of which had a serious effect on the soviet economy). These two men revealed secrets so damaging that they shifted the direction of the cold war. But what a modern day John Walker could gain access too would make what either of these two did look like the idle ramblings of a gossip column.

And recall that Walker’s motivation for spying was that he ran into financial difficulty. Are the NSA, CIA and GCHQ going to have me believe that in the last few years, despite the global recession, not one of the 100,000’s of their employee’s or outside contractors who have access to classified info, not one has run into financial problems?

Consequently, I suspect that when Snowden revealed all to the Russians or Chinese, or when the US diplomatic cables came out on wikileaks, this wasn’t news to the Russian or Chinese intelligence agencies. Given their capabilities and the obvious lax security, I won’t be surprised if they’ve been aware of this information for sometime.

Consider that a few years ago the Chinese revealed they were working on a new stealth warplane. This shocked most western military analysts as the long assumption has been that Chinese military technology is decades behind the West. Indeed some have suggested the whole thing is just an elaborate hoax by the Chinese. However I would argue that the clearly lax levels of security and the creation of massive databases of easily hacked information means it’s not beyond reason that the West’s most prized secrets have already been scooped up.

In short there is an urgent need to rethink how governments handle “classified” information. While accepting there are things that the government has to keep classified, it is clear that there is no proper oversight of this. Perhaps the solution would be to put a time limit on such laws and force officials to take responsibility for their actions. If the faceless bureaucrat can hide behind his anonymity, they will get up to all sorts of mischief. And in some respects the whole point of sites like wikileaks is to allow whistleblowers the same privileges (so its hardly fair for these agencies to complain if they aren’t prepared to be transparent either!).

I would propose for example a “grandfather” clause that requires information be revealed after a certain periods of time has passed (with certain obvious exceptions, e.g. the blue prints to a nuclear bomb, there is I would argue very little information older than 20 years the revealing of which would threaten national security). Furthermore, anyone seeking to have this information classified would have to give a justification for this and put his name on it. If subsequent investigations and reviews (e.g. every 5 years say, parliament or a judge would be asked to review the material and the reasons for its classification) it is questioned whether it was right and proper to withhold such information from the public (or retain information as part of some investigation), then the spook in question can be held to account.

Now if you know how jealously civil servants guard their job and the access it gives to that civil service pension (this is how we wind up with conkers being panned on grounds of “health and safety”), you’ll know that such rules would all but guarantee that governments would only classify the most vital and important pieces of information and would guard them to the best of their abilities.

What’s bugging Merkel?

And speaking of “the limits of government power” we had the spectacle this last week of the latest revelation from Edward Snowden which suggested that the NSA has been bugging the phone of the heads of state of its own allies, such as French President Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel.

First off, one has to question whether this is the best use of NSA resources. I mean isn’t there some terrorist or tax dodging banker they could be out trying to catch? And I suspect that the bulk of Merkel’s phone calls would have involved her crying and swearing every time the Greek or Irish PM called looking for more bailout money, long boring conversations with her husband about which brand of toothpaste she should get in the store and the odd prank phone call from Berlusconi. And of course the NSA, as far as Mr Bunga, Bunga goes, they may as well have phoned a 24 hr chat line and what they’d of heard won’t be that dissimilar.

Indeed if I was Merkel, I’d have taken advantage of this to yank the American’s chain from time to time. By for example pretending that she and the other European leaders all secretly spoke in Arabic to each other privately and subtly dropping hints about “operation Wolfenstein” (the secret European plan to invade the US and force them to start using metric, as well as spelling things like “metre” properly).

But jokes aside, if you feel the need to spy on your own allies there’s something seriously wrong with you (it’s like a husband or wife feeling the urge to spy on their partner, it sort of suggests that the marriage is on the rocks). And it is with good reason that there is such a furore about this. I mean how would the Americans react if it was revealed that the White House had been bugged by the Germans?

The Jihadiator and the trouble with liberty

A couple of weeks back I discussed how a group of US tea party types had created a plastic gun, then put the designs on the internet. They’re motivation for this was part of some warped effort to stop “the guv’mint” taking away people’s guns.

Of course as I discuss in a further post about 3D printing (and as the register mentions here) any such weapon would be at best a crude musket like weapon (i.e. unreliable and dangerous to use), which would be of little practical use (the idea that a couple of gun nuts could seriously take on the military forces of any country armed with these is simply absurd). Inevitably I concluded that the only people who would have any use in making such a weapon were criminals or terrorists. Indeed I suggested that rather than the “liberator” they should call it “the Jihaditor” or “muggers friend”.

Well it would seem I’ve been proved right. A recent raid by British police has sized what they claim are parts of a fire arm made by a 3D printer and they are working on the assumption that the weapons were being created for use by local criminal gangs.

And the likely effect of this? Will the UK government now legalise firearms (as the tea party types propose) and introduce a right to carry in the UK? Ah…no! The likely outcome is more guns and weapons in the hands of criminals and that the police will use this to request that more of them (who are currently unarmed) should be issued with Tasers or firearms. And no doubt they’ll start abusing their stop and search powers all the more on the pretext of “searching for firearms”. No doubt security will get tighter at airports and pretty soon everyone will have to go through the “smut booths” and be body scanned.

On a similar theme, I discussed a few weeks ago how a similar effort of another group of libertarians to introduce new currencies free from government bureaucracy was also being used by criminals to launder money, buy and sell drugs, as well as even paying for the hiring of hitmen.

Ultimately what both these incidents do is prove, in a rather ironic manner, that libertarians more than anybody need government, if only to protect themselves from themselves! We can debate what form that government should take, what the limits of its powers should be and what its priorities should be (just look at the Tories for an example of what happens when a governments gets these things badly wrong).

A few random comments

The usual early term madness has kept me from blogging, but here’s a few stories that came up.

The US government shutdown…sort of, still on
The media, particularly in the US have been pulling summersaults over this one. As I mentioned before this “shutdown” which still involves the very bits of the US federal government that spend the most money up and running, is not democrat v’s republican, but Tea Party birther v’s the rest of the GOP.

There’s talk of some sort of deal being done at the 11th hour, which doesn’t surprise me. Remember that this is the Republicans standard party trick, we’ve been here a couple of times in the past already, they did it all the time under Clinton. While the Republicans will claim that they are shutting down the government as part of a strategy aimed at imposing Fiscal restrain, the reality is different. Often the details of any deal will reveal a couple of sweat heart deals done to ensure pork being directed towards the districts of certain key GOP seats.

Ron Paul used to pull this trick all the time. He’d take a bill that he knew was going to pass anyway, stick a rider onto it (which awarded money to his district), pull his best Tea Party pose and vote against it or try to Filibuster it, leaving the rest of congress with the choice between voting it down or passing the amended bill/slush puppy.

Of course if the Democrats even thought about pulling a similar tactic to block Bush and his tax cuts or war budget, they’d immdiately be labelled “un-patriotic” and accused of “hating America“.

Of course the danger with this tactic of the GOP is that it’s a bit like playing Russian Roulette, sooner or later that gun is going to go off. For the last few weeks markets have been jittery. While more experienced watchers assumed they would always sort something out in the end, it won’t take anything drastic during such a future shutdown to send things into a tailspin, e.g. a terrorist attack (or indeed some new terrorist video showing…whosever running Al-Qaeda these days blowing his nose), geological event (earthquake, flood, etc.) oil rig exploding, could easily combine with such a shutdown to create a right old mess.

Consider that while many economists did correctly recognise that a massive property bubble had built up in the late 2000’s, few predicted the financial crisis, as most always assumed some sort of “soft landing”. Such market panics can take on a life of their own and once started are very difficult to stop. I doubt the US government could halt another such slide, even if they offered to tar and feather the tea party and parade them thro time square for people to hurl fruit at them. The end result would likely be China stepping in and the American’s become officially China’s bitch for the next 50 years.

The Snowden factor
There’s been more waffle as regards Edward Snowden, with him being accused of doing the worst damage to the UK’s intelligence network since the Cambridge spy ring of the cold war. The assumption now being that the Chinese and Russian intelligence are going over the data supplied by him.

My response is to say bull! This assumes the Russians and Chinese intelligence weren’t already aware of this PRISM network, which given the scale of the operation I’m doubting. Furthermore, PRISM itself, not Snowden, has created a massive vulnerability within US intelligence. Now if the Chinese, Russians or anyone else wants to spy on the US all they need to hack one server (that big data base sitting in Utah) or sneak in one spy to that facility (and they’ve gotten plenty of spies into vulnerable places during the cold war) and they have access to every e-mail, dropbox and web data in the US.

The real reason why the intelligence service are so angry with Snowden (or Bradley Manning) is because they exposed the stupidity and incompetence of these services as well as demonstrating how lax their own security was, and thus how easy it would be for a bunch of foreign spies to get in.

Legally Dead
An interesting story from the US about a man who disappeared for a few years, was declared legally dead and then reappeared and is now trying to get the courts to recognise that he is in fact alive and well. But a loophole in state law prevents the court from overturning this declaration.

My advice to him is, are you mad or what? Stay legally dead. After all he now cannot get arrested or prosecuted, never has to pay taxes again, indeed he’s a one man walking tax haven. Indeed if he wants the Fed’s to declare him alive again, just do something to really cheese them off…such as not paying taxes!

Bad science
Some scientists have way too much free time. I came across this attempt to calculate the size of the nuke needed to blow up the asteroid in Armageddon. The conclusion is pretty damn big! Greater than the energy output of the Sun.

Royal Mail strike
The Tories were accused of selling Royal mail short. However, with a strike now looming its obvious nothing is going to be rosy in the garden. The fact is that the Royal Mail sell off is kind of like those scams the Kray twins would pull. Set up a company or shop, buy in loads of stock and sell it off cheap, then take off before the suppliers or the loansharks showed up. Its basically just a massive pump and dump scam.

Of course, for the majority of us that’s a problem. While the Tories can get their butler to deliver their messages, the rest of us need the Royal Mail to deliver stuff like, well exam results, passports, court summons, etc.

Power shortages paranoia
The Royal Academy, who’ve essentially turned themselves into a lobby group for nuclear and fossil fuels over the last few years, began warning of power shortages this week as a possibility in future winters. Now while, I happen to agree that there are risks of future power shortages, I fail to see how committing to building a nuclear plant that will take 10 years to build will solve an energy crisis in 2014.

And in the event of the UK grid coming close to shutdown its worth remembering that the first plants in the grid to turn off will be the nuclear plants (as they can’t risk damage to their systems they are legally required to disconnect from the grid and go into shutdown mode if the frequency falls outside of certain parameters) and they will also be the last bit of the grid to come back on line afterwards.

The real reason for any future energy crisis is the Tory policy of privatisation and a complete failure of both parties to come up with some sort of reasoned long term energy plan, and indeed the long obsession of both parties with nuclear, which has served to prevent anything else being built on the grid. Assuming that you can just wait for things to go tits up and then fix it with a sticky plaster does not work with energy grids.

The Suicide party

The US government shutdown is having some interested results, as the BBC discuss. Oddly enough the very things that the budget dispute is about are not being suspended. The PRISM system carries on spying. America’s vast military continues to bomb/invade other countries. Obama care and social welfare payments continued to be doled out. No, only the bits of the US government that Americans actually like have been shut down. :no:

The US shutdown also has the rest of the world somewhat bemused. How can you just shut down a government? And raise the risk of a default on government debt for the 3rd time in two years. If any other state did this they’re would be a market panic, a run on its banks and the credit rating of that state would drop so quickly that even Wonga would turn them down for a loan. The mere “risk” of a Greek default once led to the interest rates it was paying hit 20%.

The Republicans have been trying to put a brave face on things, with their media attack dogs trying to blame it on Obama, a claim easily dismissed by the fact that 2nd term presidents tend to be more worried about their legacy than partisan politics (given Obama essentially doesn’t need the Democratic party anymore to get elected and he doesn’t want his legacy to be economic meltdown).

However, ultimately the problem boils down to a split within the republican party between the “old-GOP” and the Tea Party. The Tea party could be described as a bunch of swivel eyed UKIP loons…but with guns, who’ve drunk way too much right wing kool-aid. As I’ve long discussed, they (or UKIP) are the inevitable consequences of decades of Murdoch ultra-right propaganda, which has served to create a lunatic fringe within the right wing parties both sides of the Atlantic.

For many years the GOP have talked the talk about issues such as the deficit or the three G’s (guns, god and gays). However, what the mainstream republicans understand is that the real reason for doing this is part of long term bait & switch tactic. Given that much of the US budget deficit was run up by the GOP (tax cuts under Bush and Reagan, the war in Iraq, the financial crisis) they are hardly in a position to preach (indeed the only US president in recent history to present a balanced budget was Bill Clinton!).

Similarly, as I’ve discussed before, there are many countries with a strong transition of gun ownership, but which regulate those guns carefully. And given that the founding fathers of the US came to America to flee religious persecution and the wars of religion being fought in Europe, the last thing the US wants to do is breaking the separation of church and state.

No, the reason for the GOP adopting these talking points is to prevent the political discourse moving onto terrain they don’t want it to move onto…such as why if Brit’s live longer than Americans and pay half what Americans do for health care (nice wee discussion of the pro’s and con’s of both health care systems by an American who lived in Britain here), Obamacare just doesn’t go far enough. Or doing something about climate change? Or is the best way of cutting the deficit to perhaps for the US to stop spending half of all the money the world spends on defence?

We see a similar thing in the UK with UKIP. Anytime the Tories have been under pressure, they and their tabloid allies will play the xenophobic’s card and complain about Europe or those nasty evil immigrants. Of course, the Tories don’t actually propose to pull the UK out of Europe (that would be economic suicide). And some of those immigrants happen to be their golfing buddies who help finance the Tory party or the guy who cleans their pool. The last thing they want is to throw either out of the country.

I often find it significant how poorly the Tea Party types poll amongst US business leaders. Largely because, while many free-market advocates in the US might well talk the talk about “small government” and deregulation, they recognise that “big government” happens to be their best customer and greatest ally. And the value of market regulations was vividly demonstrated by the recent financial crisis (largely a consequence of lax regulation and A Bush Adm. asleep at the wheel) and the bailout. It makes poor business sense to drown your customers in the bathtub.

But the Tea Party (or UKIP) don’t get it. They’re policy amounts to a sort of suicide pact. It’s the political equivalent of strapping on a suicide bomb vest, running into congress and becoming a martyr for the cult of Ron Paul. The political damage being done to the GOP by this shutdown doesn’t seem to register. Nor the economic damage being done to the US. From there point of view they’d rather destroy the US economy and public trust than live in with Obamacare.

And what they also don’t get is the political damage they are doing. The polls do suggest that the bulk of the US voters blame Congress for this shutdown and a prolonged shutdown will have an impact next election. And while the Tea Party may complain about Obama being “a socialist”, the reality is, looking at his political record, that he’s more of a centrists.

In effect the message that the Tea Party is sending to liberals is that Obama’s tactic of bi-partisanship is failing and if they ever get control of both houses again (which they could easily do if the Republicans go to war with each other in the up-coming mid-term elections) they need to do a re-run of FDR’s 100 days, as well as select a candidate in the next presidential election who is even more left wing than Obama.

Who really “hates Britain”

There was a bit of a flap this week with the Daily Mail accusing Miliband’s father of “hating Britain”. Of course, they seem to have forgotten that Ralph Miliband was World War II veteran (ya, he “hated Britain” so much he volunteered to be dropped behind enemy lines!) who participated in the D-Day landings.

Then again, we need to remember that the Daily Mail is otherwise known as “the newspaper that supported the third Reich”, given the paper’s view that Hitler was a wonderful chap. So its easy for them to get confused! ;D

Ralph Miliband did oppose UK military involvement in many wars, however this hardly counts as “hating Britain”. There are many reasons to oppose a war ranging from the obvious moral issues, to questioning whether a war is in the strategic interest of the country.

In the case of the Falklands many questioned whether it was sensible sending a large UK military force all the way down to the Southern Ocean to reclaim a midge invested bog. Particularly as it was then the cold war, and the Falklands operations meant moving much of the UK’s key strategic assets (attack sub’s, carriers, Vulcan bombers) to the other side of the world, leaving the UK virtually unguarded (if the soviets ever did plan on starting WW3, one can scarcely think of a better time for them to have done it).

Similarly many military veterans both sides of the Atlantic opposed the Iraq war or the Vietnam war. Not because they “hated America” but because, unlike Rumsfeld or Lyndon Johnson, they could add and subtract. A couple of back of the envelope calculations showed them that to occupy either Iraq or Vietnam would require hundreds of thousands of men (the Bush Adm. once prosperously suggested that Iraq could be occupied by just 40,000 troops) stationed there for at least a good few years (in the end both wars lasted longer than World War 2). Assuming even a low rate of losses for any deployed force, the result would be tens of thousands of casualties.

There is nothing unreasonable or unpatriotic about questioning the wisdom of leaders who propose throwing away many thousands of your own citizens lives needlessly for a mosquito infested strip of Asian jungle or so the God ol’Boys can rape a country for its oil. If the Daily mail doesn’t realise that, then they clearly don’t understand how democracy works.

However, I suspect the real reason for this attack is that at the heart of the Daily Mail is the mentality of a playground bully. Ed Miliband proposed rolling back several Thatcher era decisions. Given the cult of personality long built around Thatcher (despite the fact we can blame the Falkland’s war on her decision to cut military sending, which convinced the Argentinian junta that they could attack without fear of UK reprisals) they saw this as an insult to their ego. But rather than responding with a rebuttal criticing his policies (I ain’t exactly hot on some of them either for that matter), they instead lashed out and basically resorted to name calling and picking on his father.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….although in the case of the Daily mail, if Miliband does get in, I suspect that press reform bill he’ll be bringing in will hurt rather a bit! :>>