Two Reasons for me to learn German

I’ve two reasons to consider whether I should learn German.

Firstly, I bought some beer the other day, labelled “Kindl” which I assumed referred to Crystal beer (i.e. clear). However it seems it meant “light“. Was pretty much beer flavoured fizzy pop!

The other, somewhat happier reason, is that my sister, who is living in Germany, has had a wee baby boy, making me an Uncle :D.

A good start to the year!

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Random Thoughts

A few thoughts on various stories that have been doing the rounds the last few weeks…

Banning Marmite
Canada has taken to banning certain UK products, such as Marmite, Iron-Bru and Ovaltine. A similar policy exists in the USA. Such products are imported in small numbers by expats looking for a taste of home. Haggis has also been banned, so any Scottish Americans/Canadians would have been forced to go see some dodgy back alley dealer for their burns summer.

The Canadians and Americans both claim this policy is necessary due to reasons of “safety” and “environmental grounds”…and guns are still legal in the US and Canada :no:. So you’re saying that a can of Marmite is more dangerous than an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle? And as for the environment, Harper’s government is currently presiding over the Tar Sands, the biggest environmental crime in history, as its being called.

It reminds me of a similar scenario where Ireland was suing the UK government over Selafield and the various nuclear waste leaks from the plant. The response of the EU? To have a go at Ireland over the environmental consequences of our food additives, specifically types used to make lemonade red (its an Irish thing!) and pea’s that right shade of green. Go figure!

Then again, they say with Marmite, you either love it or you hate it – clearly the Canadians hate it!

Right wing nuts
As I mentioned in a prior post, we have the story of a Tory MP who decided to hold a Nazi themed stag do in a French ski resort. Apparently it never occurred to him that this might be deemed offensive :no: …same way in never occurs to Tories that some people on benefits sort of need them to avoid starvation. I mean those on benefits just spend all the money on booze and drugs…which they also steal…that’s what that C4 programme showed.

Climate Trolls
Of course part of the problem with right wingers is they have a nasty habit of jumping on the band wagon, following trends, repeating myths they’ve heard from somewhere without first performing some fact checking. I’ve pointed to some of these, notably with regard to immigration, before.

A good example, being that story doing the rounds a few weeks ago about the Russian Icebreaker stuck in ice in the Antarctica. Deniers quickly jumped on this as evidence of global cooling. Despite the fact that all the evidence points to the fact the planet is still warming, that while there’s been a brief extreme cold snap in the US, overall its been an unusually mild winter in the Northern Hemisphere and there has been record breaking heat waves in Australia (so bad that some Tennis players in Melbourne were hallucinating).

However the Beeb has an article out by a journalist who was actually on the ship. He points out that the ship’s getting trapped in the ice was more down to a number of factors, such as the decisions made by the captain, prevailing weather conditions and a certain element of bad luck. Needless to say encountering ice in Antarctica is hardly unusual. Furthermore sea ice represents ice that has broken off the mainland, i.e. ice that is the process of melting. While this is perfectly normal at this time of year (it being summer in the Southern Hemisphere right now), the effects of climate change has been to create some unusual conditions in this region.

The Ice breaker ultimately strayed much deeper into the ice pack than would normally considered wise, largely because it was encountering relatively thinner than normal ice, only to realise when the weather suddenly changed that they may have bitten off more than they could chew and getting stuck. So all in all, this is more evidence which proves warming, than disproves it.

Tories cook the books
Aware of their reputation as “the nasty party” the Tories have been trying to put a brave face on things. This week the released economic figures which seemed to suggest that people were better off with wages rising.

My response to that is to point out to them that their figures fail to account for an all important thing – inflation. Yes wages have gone up, but that’s because the cost of living has risen, indeed they are rising much faster in the UK than other parts of the EU. In part this is due to normal factors outside of government control, but also due to factors directly tied to Tory policy.

For example, by cutting benefits this forces the burden of paying for certain things that were otherwise free onto the general public. E.g. someone with an elderly relative who now has to look after them or pay for a private care home because the Tories cut that budget. Or paying for police time in the event of an accident (whether or not it was you’re fault). This in turn leads people to need that bit more in wages from their employer just to stand still.

This is why despite lower rates of take home pay, people in other European countries are often better off, as they get all sorts of things paid for, be it cheap subsidised electricity or public transport, better health care, cheaper petrol, etc. in return for paying a bit more in tax.

Also there is the issue of Quantitative Easing, which the Tories have kept going far longer than was sensible. As someone who goes between the UK and Europe regularly it is obvious to me that my UK pounds don’t go as far as they used to, largely due to the inflationary effects of QE. This means that anything we need to import into the UK, such as oil, industrial goods, commodities, etc. is that bit more expensive, with a knock –on effect on prices throughout the economy. Quite apart from the impact on savings and pensions, which is that they don’t go as far as they used to, meaning people need to save that more.

Which effectively means people are likely worse off, even if this tiny rise the Tories point to is true.

Putin’s his foot in it
Putin is in trouble over his government’s recent anti-gay policies. Indeed it’s worth noting that the principle criticism of these laws is that they are so arbitrary as to be little more than a meaningless excuse for the cop’s to arrest anybody (and Putin’s passed plenty of laws like that in his time already).

His response to this international criticism, was firstly to stonewall on the issue. Putting pressure on the IOC for example to toe the line and not allow any hint of protest against this policy. This reached the absurdity in which in true soviet style a Swedish athlete was threatened with arrest for her choice of nail colourings as it was thought it might be seen as a protest. Yes, a women can’t even choose how to colour her nails under Putin’s Russia.

Realising that these heavy handed tactics weren’t working, worried how it would look with the Winter Olympics coming up, and not wanting to do a dreaded U-turn, instead he tried his best to downplay the issue. He firstly suggested that gays would be welcome at Sochi…so long as they stayed away from children (i.e. falling for the long suggested stereotype that gay’s are more likely to engage in child abuse). Then Putin suggested that he likes gays, indeed some of his best friends are gay…would those be the ones he goes out hunting in the woods with his shirt off with! :))

Of course this comes across much like the classic line “I’m not racist or anything but I was reading in the Daily Mail the other day…”. |-|

The problem for Putin’s Russia is that his long standing policy of trying to use Soviet era polices to maintain order, a sort of “Compliant Despotism” is starting to come unstuck. His reputation as incorruptible, is being exposed as a bit of a porky thanks to various leaks, notably as regards the Sochi games in fact. At $50 billion 88| it’s by far and away the most expensive games in history…or the most corrupt! Then there;s the mysterious appearance of a massive palace complex near the Black Sea.

Also Putin’s regime have not understood that while the Czar’s and KGB could just sent dissidents away on a train to Siberia, in this era of globalisation and social media, that doesn’t quite work. The arrest of dissidents from the punk band pussy riot, Greenpeace activists protesting Artic drilling and Khodorkovsky all continued to make the news long after they’d been imprisoned. The original alleged crimes they committed were rendered meaningless as their imprisonment became the story, repeated across the world repeatedly, with Putin himself being confronted by this, either through the likes of David Cameron (who is not adverse to having a few tree huggers beaten up or arrested on trumped up charges) raising it, or through the businessmen for whom he depends on pointing to it as an obstacle to investment abroad.

He managed to avoid the embarrassment of the recent release of many activists by using the cover story that it was some sort of amnesty in advance of the Sochi games (ignoring the obvious that the last thing one does if you really believe these people to be dangerous is release them from prison before a major event). However I’m wonder how he’ll handle the next similar crisis.

Raining cats…literally!
In the UK its been raining pretty hard for several weeks now. Several parts of Somerset have been turned into mini-Islands due to the level of flooding (I didn’t realise there were that many gay people in Somerset! ;D). And in Surrey it would seem the weather has run out of rain and started resorting to raining cats instead.

A mini tornado is alleged to have lifted several feral cats off their feet and dropped them again. The reports are unclear as to whether said cats still landed on their feet, or whether any dogs also fell.

Creative punishment
A policemen is in trouble having been shopped by a suspect he was transporting for driving at 140 mph on a public road.

Rather than punish this cop, I’m wondering if this is the way to deal with speeders and other nutters on the road. Put ‘em in a car, not on a public road, but say a track, something like the Nuremberg ring and have a professional driver drive then around at +140mph 88|. We’ll see if they still want to go speeding after that! 😳

Tackling the London Vortex
The Today programme on Radio 4 briefly made mention of the so-called London vacuum, whereby London sucks in all the young people from across Britain to start their careers here, with the result that a disproportionate number of UK firms are based out of London, forcing others to relocate (or set up a London office), putting enormous pressure on London public services, housing and leaving other regions of the UK chronically short of skilled workers as well as taxpaying residents.

I see this myself, as there are several high-tech start up companies the uni has dealings with who are based out of London, even thought if you think about it an industrial estate near Birmingham or Manchester would probably be a better choice of location. However, they feel obliged to base themselves in central London, as so they can attract the right staff.

Anyway what was being discussed was various ways of encouraging de-centralisation and get firms to move to other cities. This is of course one of the justifications for HS2 .

My solution would be to employ meeter’s and greeters at London’s main train stations, preferably ex-cab drivers with a good cockney accent, whose job would be to approach anyone looking like they are moving to London (be it from Manchester or Belize), grap them and start smacking them about the head while say “are you flippin mad or wha” “move to London?” “Leave you’re nan back home with no one to look after her” “you’ll never own a house, not unless you’re some wanker who works in a bank or some pampered oil sheik” “spend the rest of you’re life payin half you’re salary for a shoe box in Chelsea” “never be able to afford to go out” “spend 2 hours a day standing on the tube”…Might get the message across!

Direction Easter eggs
Here’s something to try, go to Google maps (US site), set you’re destination as “The Shire” and destination as “Mordor”, indicate you plan to walk there.

Oddly enough there are places in the US called Mordor…Republican party HQ, NSA in Fort Mead, NRA HQ, etc. ;D

For once I agree with Farage

The political right has been getting themselves into all sorts of knots over the last few weeks. We firstly have the suggestion by a UKIP councillor that recent rain and storms wasn’t anything to do with global warming, but because of gay marriage :crazy:. Of course Nigel Farage, hardly known for avoiding controversy, pointed out that said councillor used to be a Tory, but the media choose not to publicise his similar lunatic statements back then…of course this lends the question as to why UKIP let him in the party in the first place if they knew he was off his trolley!

And just to show that UKIP don’t have a monopoly on right wing lunacy, we have the story of a Tory MP who decided to hold a Nazi themed stag do in a French ski resort! :no:

Also in an interview this week Farage suggested that the UKIP manifesto was, in his opinion, “drivel”. He claimed that despite being chairman of the party (and writing part of it, notably the foreword), he had very little input into it as he was too busy flying around with a banner attached to his plane and crashing into fields. He then adopted the standard UKIP tactic of “if in a hole keep digging till you hit Australia” by suggesting that a UK ban on handguns was “ludicrous”. Somehow, knowing there’s more people like this in his party in the country, I can see the value of a ban on handguns!

Of course this just highlights the problems with UKIP, they are not a serious party of government. They will take anyone into the party without first establishing whether or not they are nutty as a fruit cake (which inevitably means most of the party are people to batshit crazy to be Tories). And UKIP will say anything that they reckon might get them some votes, even if said policies are, as I highlighted in a prior post, contradictory and unworkable. And that’s before we even start to knock holes in UKIP’s core policy, withdrawal from the EU, or “the quiet disillusion of the UK” as I call it. The idea that they could be trusted in power, even as a minority partner of government is pretty low.

In effect a vote for UKIP is a protest vote, sort of like voting monster raving loony party…difference is, the monster raving loony party don’t expect to be taken seriously!

How to loose friends and alienate people – the right’s problem with Europe

As I mentioned in a prior article around Christmas there was an explosion of stories in the right wing press about the impending invasion and take-over of the UK supposedly by Romanian immigrants. Of course, inevitably nothing of the sort has happened, current count is 30 new immigrants…hardly the tens of thousands the tabloids suggested were waiting for January the 1st).

However that hasn’t stopped the Tories from using this as an excuse to gut the welfare budget and begin reneging on its commitments to provide reciprocal welfare rights to EU citizens (for which in turn the other EU states do the same for other UK citizens, e.g. those living in Germany or retiree’s in Spain or Portugal for example). Recently the Tories have made further cuts which suggest they will only pay out for 6 months after which presumably said EU citizen can live on the street or rob or steal, oh and no housing benefits.

Of course there are three problems with these policies, firstly as noted, they are shadow boxing a phantom threat as there is no evidence what so ever to suggest that benefits tourism is a major cost to the taxpayer.

Secondly, they are opening a massive can of worms. The vast majority of EU migrants to the UK are here to work, during which they will pay National Insurance, i.e. they are in effect paying for services which you are now denying them. No doubt some crafty lawyer will be in a position to sue the government and some EU citizens shall be seeking a rebate on our NI contributions in the future (no point in paying for something you can’t use!). And if say, the Romanian government, is now expected to cover the welfare costs of its citizens working in the UK, shouldn’t they be getting said tax instead of the UK government?

Indeed it’s worth noting that there already exists a number of links between the UK and Irish benefits system. With the result that if I, say, go home to Ireland and apply for benefits there, the first thing the Irish government does (once they see I’ve worked in the UK) is check I’m not claiming benefits in the UK, then ask the UK government for my NI contributions. If I transfer to the UK and do the opposite (e.g. move to UK and retire), then the UK government gets my NI contributions in Ireland to help cover my benefits costs in the UK.

Of course if this were to occur for the rest of Europe, i.e. immigrants effectively stop paying NI related taxes in the country (or the UK being forced to hand over said contributions to other EU governments), that would leave the UK government with a large pension black hole which it has no means to fix.

Thirdly, this has annoyed many other EU states, notably the Germans. If the UK wants to see reform or harmonisation of welfare systems across the EU (which would go along way to addressing their fears) they’ll need the likes of the Germans onside.

And they should also be making new allies in Eastern Europe, not enemies. Many of the new EU states in the East are under the control of fairly conservative minded, and in some cases euro-skeptic, governments. However instead of praise for Tory policy we heard calls for a boycott of UK goods from officials in Poland, indicating that patience with the UK is wearing thin as a result of the recent outpouring of bigotry and racism against Eastern Europeans.

This should all be very worrying for anyone in the Tory party. The Poles carry a lot of weight in Europe these days. Eastern Europe has more votes in the EU parliament and many other EU institutions than Germany or France. The Tory plan, if they win the next general election (god forbid), is to go to Brussels and ask for a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU. I’ve previously discussed the impracticality of this policy, but at least its better than the one pursued by UKIP (currently in trouble over claims by one member of the party that recent flooding is the cause of gay marriage), i.e. the tidy disillusion of the United Kingdom.

However to even have a chance of the Tory policy succeeding they will need allies in the EU. Similarly, the UKIP policy (if we could dignify it as “a policy”) will only work if they can get a free trade agreement with the EU. Again such a treaty would have to be negotiated, and that also means having allies in the EU…oh! and the likely terms of such a deal would be a no quibble acceptance of all EU trade rules for which the UK will have no say in the setting of and will have to pay for the enforcement of (as the Norwegians already do).

So needless to say, what the Tories are all but guaranteeing is that when the time comes for said negotiations they will not be given priority nor taken seriously by the rest of the EU, likely drag on for so long that it will be well into the proceeding parliament before anything happens. Or indeed that the EU, incensed by recent Tory policy, will just turn them down flat and basically put it to the UK that they can either put up or get out…then imply they might be slow to getting around to a free trade pact (or that the UK will have to except that financial transaction tax the French are looking for).

Indeed I found it amusing a few weeks ago when the government claimed it had responded to “jitters” it had heard from the markets as regards to the financial implications of Scottish independence. Well why aren’t they responding to similar “jitters” regarding speculation on their policies towards the EU?

Recently the IMECHE journal did an opinion poll on Europe. Now we engineers have a reputation for being a fairly conservative bunch of people, but the poll showed support for the EU will into the 70%’s and any talk of leaving in the 20%’s. Why? Because most engineers realise the impact any thought of leaving the EU would have on trade, as I’ve previously highlighted.

And any time the Tories have received the opinion of foreign governments (such as Japan or the US) on such talk of leaving the EU it hasn’t been terribly positive, more along the lines of “are ye mad or wha?”

And speaking of Scotland there are a number of unforeseen consequences of the present Tory/UKIP policies towards Europe with regard to “the Scottish Question”. The No camp in the Scottish referendum have been claiming that the best way of guaranteeing continued Scottish membership of the EU is to vote No. Alistair Darling has been going around saying that if your pro-European vote no.

However, this doesn’t account for the implications of a “in or out” referendum in the UK on Europe. The possibility is that the UK will be forced out of the EU and the Scottish who tend to be less prone to euro-scepticism than English, (as Nigel Farage discovered a few months back!) could be dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU.

If this is indeed the case that Scotland might be forced out of the EU by events down south, then clearly if you’re pro-EU the best advice would be vote yes. While this might lead to a temporary period outside the EU. But as I discuss in a prior post any Scottish independence bid will see some transitionary period, probably taking a lot longer than the SNP are bargaining for, plenty of time to re-gain EU membership…assuming the English don’t do the Scot’s a favour, vote to leave the EU in the next parliament and see the EU offer Scotland its seat.

Alternatively one could argue that any EU referendum in the UK should be held regionally, with the option for said region to remain in the EU and leave the UK if one or more other regions choose to leave. Of course this raises the risk of a sort of “double jeopardy option” for the Tories in Scotland.

And Scotland isn’t the region of the UK I’m particularly worried about. No, what about Northern Ireland? Of all the UK regions Northern Ireland, which as a deprived area, receives considerable structural funds from Brussels and shares a land border with a Eurozone country, would lose out more than any other to a UK withdrawal from the EU.

And of course the economy of NI is growing after decades in the doldrums during the troubles due to the peace brought on by the Good Friday agreement. However, there seems to be the implicit assumption in the fine print of the Good Friday agreement that the UK and Ireland will both remain EU members (open borders, right to abode either side of the border for Irish & British, close economic ties, etc). Thus it will likely have to be renegotiated, and that opens a whole can of worms.

Irish Republicans have an old saying that goes “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” i.e. Sinn Fein will almost certainly use any sort of referendum on the UK’s EU membership, to make their long cherished bid for a united Ireland.

Now while at the moment you’d struggle to get a majority either side of the border (even in the Republic!) to vote in favour of such a move. However put such a vote it in the context that many worry that the UK leaving the EU will cost them their job, And it looking likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to “colour in the map” as it were. Then there is, I would argue, at least a 50/50 chance that Northern Ireland leaves the UK.

Ultimately all the Tories are doing is succeeding in playing a very silly game of how to loose friends and alienate people. And the price the UK could well pay for their Tory/UKIP obsessions over Europe is the UK itself.

A license to Speed

It would seem that the UK’s spies will now have a license to speed to go along with the license to kill…or should that be a license to put a co-worker in a duffel bag in his bathroom in a house swiped clean of prints with the heating left on in summer and nobody in the media or justice system thinking anything odd about this…or a license to undo every single privacy law passed anywhere in the world and store all text messages and twitter content, #OMG#NSA# ;D

But I digress, it’s being proposed that MI6 agents will now be legally able to speed. This change in the law will also extend to those transporting organs for transplant, bomb disposal units and mountain rescue teams. Important because hard as it is to believe but certain Jobsworth cops with nothing better to do have been known to stop such people!

This will solve one thing that has never sat well with me about James Bond films. He comes out of a casino, after having polished off multiple Vodka martinis (anyone ever heard of drink driving laws?…indeed its suggested that Bond is actually a raging alcoholic) takes off down the road (often without signalling! i.e. driving without due care and attention), running multiple lights (dangerous driving), firing his gun or operating the rockets in his car (if using a mobile gets you a driving ban, I’d like to know what a judge would make of this!) and of course speeding at well above the speed limit…often on the wrong side of the road, in a vehicle that’s clearly no longer roadworthy (and while we’re talking about it, when was the last time that 1970’s Aston Martin was MOT’d?).

I mean if a real spy did this, he’d be spending the rest of his career filling out paper work or find himself reposted to Kazakhstan or something. But at least Bond won’t be breaking any speeding laws anymore!

Baldrick goes forth

One Christmas story I missed was a bit of a row between education minster Micheal Gove and Tony Robinson (of time team and Blackadder fame). Micheal Gove accused “left wing academics” of using programmes like Blackadder Goes Forth to “feed myths” about World War I, notably slagging off the British Generals, many of whom were of course members of the upper class. Tony Robinson has defended the Blackadder series, and questioned what the education minster was doing slagging off his own teachers.

This mini-row comes on the back of similar criticism from Jeremy Paxman (who when he’s not being an annoying arse on Newsnight or presenting University challenge is actually something of a historian who has published books on WW1) about the use of Blackadder to support history lessons in schools.

My response would be to point out that Blackadder was satire. And the best satire tends to be based on fact, but over the top exaggeration, e.g. in one scene Melchett (Stephen Fry) has a map brought out of all the territory they’ve gained (a sod of earth, scale 1:1)! Or Rick Mayall’s over the top cameo as a wolf whistling pilot. Outside of Blackadder the infamous Father Ted is another good example of satire at its best.

So teachers using Blackadder as a teaching aid sounds okay to me, so long as they make it clear to the students, that this is satire…although I’m pretty sure the students will figure that out for themselves!

And we can’t really blame “leftie academics” for a less than flattering portrayal of the generals of WW1, notably Field Marshal Haig. Even back at the time of the war or in its immediate aftermath many questioned the senseless slaughter and the generals who had sent so many to their death. Gove seems to be unfamiliar with the works of WW1 war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen, or the post war German novel, “all quiet on the western front”. Which leads one to question, why is this guy education secretary?

As for the actual history, in fairness to Haig, Foch and Ludenorff, they were facing a very difficult situation. Military history is a story of an arms race in which any new technology or tactic giving an attacker an edge (e.g. a spear or cavalry tactics) is countered by another advance to the benefit of the defender (e.g. a shield or Schiltron’s of pikemen) and visa versa. However over the latter half of the 19th century and the first few years of the 20th century, a number of new technologies (e.g. machine guns, rapid fire field mortars & field guns, barbed wire, etc.) and tactics (e.g. trench warfare) had emerged that handed a massive tactical advantage to the defender.

Thus, with the right tactics and equipment, a small force of defenders could hold off against a much larger force, even if massively outnumbered. And just to make matters worse, mass production techniques allowed vast amounts of munitions to be produced relatively quickly. Thus while the battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles of the 19th century, led to about 8,000 being killed (out of a total casualty list of 46,000), by 1914 this level of casualties were being experienced in a single attack. In the battle of Marne for example in 1914 (before the horrors of Ypres, the Somme or Verdun) resulted in over half a million casualties.

So it would perhaps be unfair to blame these men for all the horrors of WW1. But that said they were certainly slow learners and failed to adapt quickly enough. I mean how many times do you need to march men into machine gun fire before you figure out that’s it’s a really bad idea!

WW1 for example, wasn’t the first outing for the machine gun. They had been used here and there since the American civil war inflicting terrible casualties…at least when they worked! (early such guns were expensive and unreliable). However during the British campaign in Sudan (of which Haig was involved in), machine guns were very effectively used to defend against the mass infantry and cavalry attacks of the Mahdi.

Unfortunately, the British never paused to think what would happen if they were the ones attacking the army with the machine guns! And the Russia-Japan war of 1905 had demonstrated the equally lethal nature of recent advances in field artillery and naval gunnery. And trench warfare wasn’t anything new, it had played a key role in the American civil war 50 years prior to WW1.

Thus the generals failed to learn the lessons of these conflicts, nor develop any form of countermeasures against them, until they were bogged down in trench warfare.

In another example, in 1917 General Byng and a number of other officers put forward an innovate plan to attack the Germans at Cambrai. Their plan, based on past experiments (both by the French and British), envisioned using tanks en-mass over a relatively small front. Supported by infantry, they would advance behind a creeping barrage aided by air support from fighters. In essence what was being toyed with was what we would later come to describe as “blitzkrieg” twenty years later.

However Haig, and many other officers, initially opposed the plan. Although Haig did eventually give his grudging approval, after the plan was re-branded as “tanks supporting infantry” rather than “infantry supporting tanks”, he failed to provide sufficient reserves to exploit any breakthrough at Cambrai. Consequently even though the attack pushed deeper into German lines than any attack had previously, the British lacked the manpower to consolidate these gains. The Germans quickly counter-attacked and retook nearly all the territory gained.

And in another example, the German’s successful counter-attack at Cambrai was based in no small part to their “stormtrooper” tactics which they had being toying with for the best part of three years. The British were aware of this but again Haig and others resisted any British attempts to copy these tactics. Probably because one of the key elements of such tactics is the delegation of battlefield control down to officers on the front line (as only a commander on the front itself can make the sort of minute by minute adjustments and decisions to allow such tactics to succeed). One has to wonder whether the resistance of Haig to such tactics was borne out of military logic…or an unwillingness to find himself up to his knees in the mud and exposed to daily hostile fire, like the rest of the British army.

It was only after the German’s last mass offensive in 1918 and near victory, that the British began adopting these tactics.

So while Paxman do perhaps have a point here, it’s also fair to say that such criticisms of the ruling classes and their shortcomings during World War 1 are not anything new, and predate the show Blackadder by many decades. Nevermind criticism that could be levelled at the aristocracy in the lead up to WW1.

i.e. Everyone does know that the British Royal family still called themselves “the house of Sax-Coburg, Gotha” up until 1917…when it occurred to them that being German, sort of didn’t quite fit in with the whole Daily Mail-esque propaganda of the time (fight for king and country against the Kaiser and his huns…on behalf of another German king!).

And as Robert Newman points out in his “alternative” history of the world’s oil use, the idea that World War 1 started because some upper class Fleisch-klop got himself shot in Sarajevo, isn’t entirely satisfying. Nobody is that popular! A more realistic explanation was that World War 1 was just another front in the massive chess game that the aristocracy of Europe we’re playing with one another.

But before Gove starts attacking teachers or “leftie academics” it might be useful for him to read a few history books!

A night at the museum

I was in the York Railway Museum over the Christmas period and I thought it interesting to see how science shaped the evolution of the train. For example they had a cut away of a steam train’s allowing you to see how it worked. One of the key breakthroughs in the development of a steam engine was the double acting piston system (which provided greater and more efficient capture of the energy from the steam) and the superheater.

The Superheater used heat recovery from the boiler exhaust to heat the steam up to much higher temperatures. This was driven by exhaustive experiments back in the 1700’s which had shown that by increasing the temperature drop across a heat engine (such as a Rankine cycle) you increase the overall thermal efficiency. Also when water boils into steam at 100’C not all of the water instantly vaporizes. You’ll still have small droplets of water suspended within the steam, which can potentially cause excessive wear (and rust) on components. So by drying out the steam, you eliminate this problem.

And of course higher temperatures, meant higher pressures, which meant bigger steam engines and indeed some of the engines the York museum has are massive, notably a Chinese KF series steam train, originally built in Britain to a American design.

And incidentally, the double acting cylinder relies on a complex mechanism of couplings the design of which is based on momentum equations and free body diagrams, something we can trace back to Newton’s laws of motion.

But my point here is that even back in the 1700’s we were using the results of laboratory experiments and the scientific method to drive onwards the development of society and our technology. This is why I tend to get a little ticked off with the anti-science antics of climate change deniers, or anti-vaccine campaigners or creationists. Indeed scary poll from the US, suggests 33% of Americans don’t “believe” in evolution (which is actually a slight improvement on previous polls 88|). Where would be now if those of the Georgian era had adopted a similar outlook…probably I won’t be typing this on a computer but hammering it into clay tablets!

Accidents don’t just happen
Another exhibit also dealt with rail accidents, for the era of the mass Georgian railway building was also the era of many horrible accidents. Some of these accidents were the consequences of greed and cut throat competition between the early rail companies, which lead to legislation to regulate the industry.

However others were the consequences of engineering failures, the Tay bridge disaster being an infamous example. Such accidents led to engineers discovering many crucial issues, such as metal fatigue or creep. While the limited materials science and atomic physics of the era made it difficult for them to identify a root cause for these problems, they could work out where such problems were likely to occur and how to reduced the risk of such failures. This, as I discuss in a prior post, led to the development of the so-called “precautionary principle” whereby engineers altered their design process to prevent future accidents by adopting a “fail safe” attitude . And again by ignoring issues such as climate change, we are essentially ignoring this industrial revolution era principle. We are going backwards in scientific terms it seems.

High Speed rail
Another train on display was the first generation of the Japanese “bullet” trains. Yes, the Japanese have been operating high speed railways for so long that some of these trains are now museum exhibits and the UK’s still humming and hawing about building one line up the West Coast!

One can only wonder how it looks to a Chinese, Japanese or German executive coming to Britain to look at investing here, gets off his plane and after paying through the nose for a ridiculously overpriced ticket, he/she is then crammed into to an overcrowded train on a system that so old and antiquated it looks like it was designed by the fat controller from Thomas the tank engine. I mean, Mallard (another exhibit, a 40’s era steam train) was capable of a higher top speed than all but a handful of the UK’s existing train network runs at today. To say the UK’s railway network is a national embarrassment is to put it mildly!

So while I support High speed rail, as I discussed in a prior post this doesn’t necessarily mean I give wholehearted support to HS2. The devils in the detail, and the one detail I’m concerned about is the sky high costs. As I pointed out in a post on my energy blog, HS2 is going to cost the UK about 12 times per km ($182m per km by my calculations) more than the French (who quote a figure of $15m/km) are paying for their latest TGV lines and substantially more expensive than anywhere else. Even the Californian CHSR system, which will pass through mountainous and Earthquake prone terrain in a nation which has very little recent railroad building experience is quoted at a cost of $89m/km).

My worry is that the Tories are up to their old tricks. They’ve either got a load of country lairds who’ve strategically bought land in the path of HS2 who will charge over the odds for it, or that are assuming that by inflating the price of it to such a ridiculous level nobody will support it, which given there pathological hatred of anything with the word “public” in it, would suit them perfectly.

Blogging catch up

Not been blogging for a wee while due to the Christmas break, so I thought I’d do a quick catch up on some issues I haven’t commented on.

Weather cuts
You may have noticed that the weather is a little stormy at the moment, as we’ve seen a succession of storms hitting the UK. Indeed I had to fly back to the UK through one of them and it was something of an “Indiana Jones” flight. Oddly enough the nipper a few rows up stopped crying and seemed to enjoy all the bumping and jumping around as the plane landed, ignorance is bliss!

Anyway, you would think the government would be looking at bolstering spending to ensure less disruption next time the winter weather turns nasty. Actually the Tories are looking to make significant cutbacks into the budget of the environment agency and “hundreds” of those who gave up their Christmas to see the country through the crisis will be getting a pink slip as they’re new year’s gift.

That said, its long been known that the Tory party was a den for loony climate change deniers, so one wonders if this is them hoping that by shooting the messenger, the message won’t arrive. Presumably their “big society” will magically clear the roads of fallen trees and rescue people from rising flood waters.

Did anyone say climate change?
Of course whenever weather events like this occur, many turn to the issue of climate change as a possible explanation. While I would be the first to note the difference between “weather” and “climate” and the unreliability of linking any event between the two. Certainly a long term prediction of climatologists was that climate change would lead to the UK’s weather becoming more stormy and wetter.

This is inevitable, as warmer water’s further south in the Atlantic is the engine that drives most storms, leading to increased rainfall in our part of the world. Or indeed rather ironically, more snow in winter (if that rain happens to arrive in the UK the same time as a cold snap from the east).

Indeed as I’m either travelling between the UK and Ireland at this time of year or trying to climb mountains. I have to say that my experience is that stormy weather this time of year isn’t that unusual. What’s different this year is the storms seem to be that much worse than normal and while typically its my experience that most miss the UK and either head off into the North sea or scrape across Scotland (meaning the media never report it) every single one this year seems to have gone bang across the middle of the country. Although this is hardly a scientific anaylsis I’ll admit.

However, as pointed out in the Spectator magazine (of all places) we can’t just pass the buck and blame climate change for this one, even if it is just part of a long term trend. Cuts, both those already made and planned (as mentioned) have to be blamed for the disruption. After all scientists have been warning of such weather events for some time and it’s not as if this is the first time we’ve had flooding in the country.

The whole point of governments the Tories don’t get is that they are supposed to be there and keep the lights on as it were, even if this means spending money which it appears to be wasteful (by for example having all these gritters ready to go, even if we get a run of winters without much snow).

In the corporate world, if a company cuts back its budgets too much to the point where it gets overwhelmed by a sudden crisis and goes bankrupt, this is part of the normal business cycle. But when the instruments of state fall apart (e.g. the roads/rails get blocked, the power goes off, the mail doesn’t arrive, hospitals shut, etc.) the whole country stops and we can’t very well shut the UK down and reopen the country under a different name!

And if the climate scientists are even half right then what we’re now seeing could be the new normal in a few decades.

Snow trolling
Speaking of weather, tis the season for that favourite right wing pastime – snow trolling. This is where climate deniers come out with statements along the lines of “its snowing outside, thus global warming mustn’t be happening”. Or “there’s ice in the Antarctica, thus global warming can’t be happening”.

The following post from climatecrocks addresses these points. But in short, as noted, there is a difference between “weather” and “climate”. And cold weather in the Northern hemisphere is not by any means unusual this time of year, nor is ice in Antarctica at any time of the year.

There are charts and data available which tracks global temperatures, and the thickness of ice both in the Arctic and Antarctic and all show the thickness of ice sheets, particularly those onshore in the Antarctic (crucial as melting of these will lead to sea level rise) are thinning as well as recent rises in global temperatures (and no warming didn’t “stop” in 1997). Notably another record high in Australia.

In short all that deniers succeed in demonstrating is their own ignorance of the subject, their inability to do something as simple as draw and correctly interpret a graph and why we’re best left leaving this matter to the experts….well at least until Cameron sacks um all!

Nick Griffin bankrupt
It would seem that “nasty” Nick Griffin of the BNP has recently declared bankruptcy. While he and his mob of thugs party are trying to keep a brave face on it, it would seem that this bankruptcy is in part due to a variety of issues, ranging from financial mismanagement and the cost of litigation related to the party’s “white’s only” policy.

Of course one could argue that the BNP has been morally bankrupt for quite some time!

Previously, an MP (or MEP) who fell into bankruptcy was automatically bared from standing for office (the logic being that such an individual had clearly demonstrated he couldn’t be trusted with public funds and of course the possibly his financial position might make him susceptible to bribery). However those rules were changed recently, so in theory he could stand for election again.

But certainly it does push the BS barrier the likes of him suckling off a fat EU salary (Nigel Farrage too) while complaining about the EU and immigrants when it’s the latter two who pay his salary! And naturally this bankruptcy crisis within the BNP doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their ability to handle money properly.

Thatcher’s Legacy
Speaking of right wing nut cases, we have revelations about what was really going on under Thatcher’s government.

One of the thorny issues regarding the miners strike has always been to what extend did her government plan to close down pits. When Scargill claimed that the Thatcher government planned to closed down nearly all of the pits, even in areas that currently seemed to be safe, many thought he’d gone a bit potty and was merely using the risk to a small number of uneconomic pits as an excuse to stir up trouble. Thus even within the mining unions, he did not enjoy universal support.

Of course hindsight would suggest (indeed the bulk of UK mines did close down under Thatcher and Major governments) that he wasn’t far wrong. But we now have confirmation that indeed, yes much of what Scargill said at the time was accurate, Thatcher did plan to close far more pits than they claimed at the time. Had this been known back at the start of the strike, it would likely have received much greater support, both within the coal mining unions as well as others unions and there’s a good chance it would have succeeded in its goals, quite possibly bringing down Thatcher’s government, much like the previous strike in 1974 brought down the Heath government.

Evidence has also emerged that Thatcher planned to deploy the army against miners and that the police may have falsified evidence against the miners.

Also we have revelations regarding Northern Ireland. Generally it is the view in Ireland that a major obstacle to peace was Thatcher, largely due to her ideological commitment to the unionists (or indeed her outright stubbornness). Thus, the peace process was essentially put on hold until John Major took over. Even though, quite ironically, he depended on Unionists votes to maintain the Tory majority

Thatcher by contrast provoked an escalating tit-for-tat war with the Republicans, with her not giving in to the hunger strikers, which provoked retaliation in the form of attacks on the UK mainland, including an attempt to assassinate her by the IRA (which to be fair was hardly likely to endear her towards a peaceful solution). Indeed, its likely she would have gone a lot further (she once talked about emulating Cromwell’s actions) had she not been restrained by the mechanisms of governments.

Blatter problems
The corrupt egomaniac head of world football, is upset with the amount of diving going on in football. Certainly sometimes many a match reminds me of a ballet performance with many “swanlake dives” being performed, the guy rolls around on the ground and is practically being given the last rites, yet as soon as he’s carried to the edge of the pitch or the person who put in a tackle (miles away from him) is booked, he’s back to life in manner of recovery unseen since Jesus did his party trick many Easter’s ago.

Anyway the proposal is to include some sort of time penalty. That if a player goes off injured he has to stay off until a certain period of time has passed. As its hoped this will discourage diving.

I’ve an alternative proposal – the sugarplum fairy award. This will be a prize for the best diver of the league. The “winner” of this award will be required to play the following season dressed in a ballerina costume complete with a pink dress and slippers and give an acrobatic twirl at the request of away fans. That’ll learn’em! Here’s a couple of nominee’s for the first award.

But seriously, here’s a proposal, why not go after the root cause? The reason why there is diving is that with so much money riding on the outcome of a football match, its all too tempting for players to want to cheat. So why not put a wage cap on the premier league players.

The Italian league shows where things are heading. It started off with diving and harmless theatrics, and now a few years later corruption has reached such epidemic levels that some are talking about suspending the Italian league for a few years.

Video killed the TV star
Charley Brooker‘s look at the history of video games was an interesting watch over Christmas. One theme that was all to present was the issue of violence within video games. Certainly, I would question whether it’s gone beyond the limits of taste in some cases (never was a fan of Carmgeddon or GTA).

However these modern day Marry Whitehouse types take the biscuit. Such as the irony of the NRA trying to link violent video games with spree shootings. After all in the Korea or Japan video games are practically the national sport, yet they don’t have a trend of spree shootings. One would be forgiven for asking if the real reason has something to do with the easy availability of guns.

The Romanians are coming!

Back after Christmas now. A good break, but back to the grind stone tomorrow. Weather played havoc with my plans for mountain climbing, but you have to expect that this time of year. Had a few interesting presents. e.g. I got this book called “William Shakespeare Star Wars” which is basically the star wars script edited with a Shakespeare-esque tone “is thou a lightsaber I see’ith before me…” 🙂 Very amusing!

Anyway, not so amusing was the constant headlines I noted in the UK tabloids that suggested that on January the 1st we’d be overrun by hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians over here to live on our generous benefits system…perhaps forgetting that they’d have to pass through Germany and France (both of whose benefits systems pay out considerably more than the UK’s) to get here. Then they’d steal all our jobs, and presumably commit terrorism and butcher horsemeat in their spare time. :crazy:

The government responded with increasingly insane ideas, such as charging people for using the NHS. So you’ve got an unconscious man in A&E and you’re going to start asking for a credit card first, how’s that going to work out? How long before a tragedy like the one I reported on before Christmas occurs? :no:

Also what will be the response of health authorities throughout Europe? Currently UK citizens receive free or heavily subsidised treatment costs if you fall ill within the EEA thanks to the EHIC system, which is based on the fact the UK provides reciprocal healthcare rights to other EU citizens. Now that the UK appears to be reneging on this commitment, what’s to stop, say Spain charging all the UK pensioners living in Marbella for the full costs of their medical care? Or Germany to start demanding UK citizens pay for A&E treatment? To say this policy is stupid and its implications have not been properly thought through is to put it mildly.

I’m expecting next that they’ll have IDS and his welfare chain gangs out to beat up new immigrants and scream “go home” at them at Heathrow. As it happens yesterday there were more MP’s and journalists at Heathrow than Romanian immigrants.

Personally, I’m not that worried (at least about the migrants, the NHS policy change has me very worried). Ireland went through a similar phase where many Romanians, notably gypsies somehow decided that Ireland was a good place to go (we didn’t apply the same controls as Britain when Romania joined the EU), because we have our own indigenous gypsy population, good benefits system (which again pays out more than the UK), plenty of jobs with a high minimum wage.

Well that trend petered out once they realised why the Irish benefits system pays out so generously and why the minimum wage is so much higher – because Ireland is (or at least was) a ridiculously expensive place to live!

I recall some slight amusement seeing a Polish guy in a university canteen (i.e. subsidised food prices) discovering that a chicken and chips wt coke was going to cost him 6.50 euro’s (double that if he went outside to an unsubsidized restaurant) about 3 times the price of the same in Poland 88| (at a non-subsidised price!). A pint in Ireland will still cost you the best part of 4-5 euro, more like 6 euro in temple bar v’s about 1.5 to 2 euro in Eastern Europe. Yes, if you’re a fan of the black stuff, you’d probably get it cheaper in Bucharest than in Dublin!

Then there was a story at one point during the boom, of a clan of gypsies living in the middle of a roundabout near Dublin airport. They only got as far as there, because when they tried to get into town they couldn’t afford to get a taxi (getting a taxi from Dublin airport is notoriously expensive), and realising their error in coming to Ireland decided to camp out at the airport until they could figure out how to get back home. The Irish government eventually helped them out with a free one way ticket home to move them on.

I suspect the same thing will happen the first time these new Bulgarian and Romanians go to buy a rail ticket and realise how ridiculously expensive rail travel is in the UK ( when I was last in East Europe I was paying about 4-10p per mile, while its 85-40p/mi here in the UK!). They might even what to change the ticketing machines menu to include an option allowing one to buy a return plane ticket back to Romania after you realise that this would be cheaper than a single train fare to Manchester! ;D

The Streisand effect
That said, despite what I’ve said I expect we will see some influx of immigrants from these regions. Some, like the Polish before them, will be looking to work here for a few years before returning home (although inevitably some will put down roots and stay). There will probably be some who will come for benefits tourism, something I will put down to the so-called “Streisand effect” whereby the Tories/Tabloids efforts to highlight the issue and scare away perspective immigrants will instead have been reported on Bulgarian and Romanian television (as it was mentioned over Christmas in the Irish media) and many who otherwise won’t have come to the UK, will now do so!

Solutions
Certainly, one cannot deny that certain parts of Europe, notably rural areas of Eastern Europe, have not benefited from EU membership as well as say the middle classes in Bucharest or Sofia. Hence its probably not surprising that some feel compelled to immigrate. To me the solution here isn’t draconian controls on the UK’s borders, but lobbying within the EU for the sort of structural funds to be applied via the EU to ensure more even economic growth within Eastern European countries.

Least we forget, Ireland was hardly the wealthiest place in the EU once upon a time. We used to joke about being a small drinking country with a farming problem ;D. Or that we raised cattle for export…same as the children! :)) Now our GNI/per capita & GDP/per capita exceeds the UK’s even despite the recent downturn. There is no reason why the same thing can’t work elsewhere.

And again this ulitmately highlights why, even if you’re against inward migration into the UK its still better to be a member of the EU than not.