Blogging Catch up

As always, a busy time for me, had to go travelling for a bit to meet students on placement, one or two job interviews, some conferences, etc. So no time for blogging, so time for a catch up…

How can 4,352,251 people be so dumb?
Of course the big political story of the last few weeks was the European parliament elections. The results showed a jump in support for UKIP. Of course this had the tabloids (who are largely to blame for this given their tendency to blame foreigners for everything) both dancing a jig, but also having kittens over the obvious threat this poses to the Tories chances of re-election, given that the main loser to UKIP was the Tories.

Of course inevitably the result will be the Tories panicking and inventing more laws to clamp down on the perceived threat of “migration”. Of course as I pointed out in a prior post, its questionable if the UK has anything to fear from migration (the tabloid myths simply don’t stack up when you examine the statistics) and indeed that UKIP’s solution (leaving the EU) is unlikely to have any effect in curbing it.

One has to consider the negative economic effects. Migrants into the UK tend to be of working age who contribute more to the UK economy in taxes than they take out in the form of services, so the consequences if lots of them leaving is likely to be a drop in economic activity, tax take and inward investment.

And similarly the effect on the UK economy of the UK leaving the EU is likely to be negative. And far from this restoring powers to parliament, the result would be that the EU will continue to pass many of the UK’s laws, except now the UK government will have no authority to overrule or veto those laws, as it will have to implement them without question in the interest of maintaining a free trade agreement with the EU. And even before the UK was out the door, its likely the EU would have its pound of flesh by imposing “crippling” terms on such a deal to the detriment of traders in London (this probably explains why UKIP did so badly in the capital itself!).

And as I previously mentioned the integrity of the United Kingdom itself could be threatened by a “in/out” referendum. Euro-scepticism is a largely English phenomenon, its interesting to note the marked difference between polls in England and those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where UKIP did not do nearly as well. UK independence Party? They should call themselves the English Bankruptcy Party.

And of course, contrary to what the tabloids would have you believe there seems to have been no real change in Brussels. The EPP (centre right) will, looking at the results, likely form an alliance with the liberals and centre left and carry on regardless. Indeed given that the pro-EU parties (of both right and left) will now need to co-operate more rather than squabble, the chances of the euroskeptics or the Tories getting their way is actually reduced. The EPP is proposing to make a Federalist the new EU commission president.

In part this is because politicians in Europe understand what is going on here far better than those in Britain. A good deal of UKIP’s support is the usual anti-establishment populism which has been seen in other EU countries before. Generally such parties do well, until they get the slightest whiff of power….and then collapse! Obviously it’s easy to throw rocks when you’re the guy outside the glass house. Furthermore as I’ve illustrated many of UKIP or the other far right parties proposed policies are simply unworkable and would be hugely unpopular with the very people who support them (next time someone says we should have an in/out referendum point out to them that this means taxes going up, you’re mortgage or rent going up, cuts to pensions and the NHS, etc.).

Indeed one need only look at the drumming the previous flavour of the month that was the BNP took in this election (losing both they’re seats), to see what’s in store for UKIP longer term.

But in short the many who voted for UKIP perhaps need to take stock of their actions. Where you really voting for further xenophobia and bigotry? Did you really want it made harder for the UK to negotiate with the EU? And do you really want these sorts of nutters we see in UKIP as you’re local councillor? Already one’s gone due to racist remarks he made :crazy:.

We had the same thing happen in Ireland last election. Many didn’t want to vote Fianna Fail (the party in government) due to the mess they’d gotten the country into. So many went and voted for Sinn Fein. When asked why they didn’t vote for someone sensible like the labour party or Fianna Gael instead they’re response was “oh they’re too left wing”…so they voted instead for a party to the left of not just the labour party but many of the socialists instead !?! :??:

Cleg Phobia
Of course a perfect example of how this anti-government populism can backfire when said party gets into government can be demonstrated by the liberal democrats… although we should really now refer to them as the liberal democrat (note lack of plural!) as they’re down to just one seat in the EU now.

“Cleg mania” seems to have been replaced by “Cleg phobia”. There’s been calls from within his party to resign and even a very typically liberal attempt to oust him which amounted to fisty cuffs at ten paces.

Would the lib dem’s do better in the next election without Nick Clegg? I doubt it. The problem is that they are the victims of the Tory policy of using them as a shield against public opinion. Of course several years means that this shield has now been cut down to a small buckler.

If the lib dems are to survive the next election, they need to set out their stall and put clear blue water between themselves and the tories. I’d even consider, if I were them, challenging the Tories on some issue (say bankers pay or the 50p tax) and essentially either forcing the Tories into a climb down or walking out of government and triggering an early election.

Housing bubble
There is more evidence of a growing housing bubble within the UK. Prices are set to rise, which risks worsening already dangerous inequality within the housing sector, between the “have’s” who got on the ladder at the right moment and the “have not’s” who for various reasons didn’t. This situation will only get worse with new lending rules which make it harder for anyone without a fixed income, such as those on contract type jobs, to get a mortgage, even if they are actually better paid than someone on a regular salary. And of course if this bubble bursts the consequences will be another recession and a crash, except this time there will be no bailout.

And it seems likely the Tories are deliberately provoking this bubble in the hope of creating a spurt of short term growth to make their numbers look good before the next election…even if the whole economy crashes shortly after. While they’ve been keen to claim that their help to buy scheme isn’t contributing to the bubble, there’s lots of things they are doing which clearly are contributing.

A policy of very low interest rates and quantitative easing into infinity for example. This means that anyone putting money into savings is getting hammered. I was slow to set up an ISA this year and then realised I shouldn’t have bothered. I would have actually been better off just converting it all into Euro’s and putting it into my current account in Ireland. As the Euro is gaining value against the pound, this would have netted a better return than the interest on any British savings account. With these realities facing them it explains why many have been putting money into property instead.

The government’s options (labour, tories or the lib dems) unfortunately are either to be a little unpopular now or very unpopular tomorrow. They have to either interfere to try and stabilise the property market, even try and bring down the costs of homes (by for example mandating that a certain percentage of all housing developments in London must be either council flats or affordable homes sold off at a discount) or try and discourage the sort of “casino landlords” who now dominate the housing market. And of course, raising interest rates would help by both making buy to let’s more expensive and risky, but also encouraging savings.

The only other alternative is wait for the crash and face the situation we face in Ireland (or in places such as Spain and Greece), where many live in negative equity, tied to property they can’t sell (without losing hundreds of thousands) and can’t rent out without supplementing the mortgage from their own income….which means they can’t retire, even if they’re past retirement age!

More bad news for universities
One thing that gets to me as a lecturer is how universities have become ever more commercially orientated to the point where some are probably more corporate, greedy and money grabbing than many corporations, led by an increasingly unacademic corporate culture.

And one of the areas where we see this at its most ferocious is the issue of student recruiting. While most of my students are pretty good, I sometimes wonder where the university finds some of them. Some have dubious if not non-existent qualifications, can’t do the basics such as applied maths (critical for an engineering degree) and no motivation to work.

Well the Guardian has a piece out demonstrating some of the practices of recruitment teams at a London university. This includes recruiting people who can barely read and write, or have zero computer literacy skills or indeed hanging around outside job centres or tube centres like a bunch of spiv’s. A previous expose from the Guardian talked about lecturers giving classes to virtually empty classrooms (paid for by the taxpayer) as part of some elaborate student loan scam.

The student fees policy has had many negative effects. Its led to much inequality, with a divide between those who can afford to go to uni via the bank of mum and dad, those who will have to scrape by on a student loan (they’ll likely never repay) and those who can’t hope to ever go to uni regardless of how bright they are. But this corrupt commercialisation of universities is actually the thing that worries me the most, as it threatened to kill the golden goose which the UK’s universities have been for the country.

I’m sometimes tempted to invent a new sport, university executive fights. It works much like cock fighting, you put two university vice chancellors or recruitment agents in a cage, toss in a fiver and watch them tear each other apart for it! :))

Noah
I missed that film Noah the other month, although that’s probably just as well. The idea of Russell Crowe as Noah makes about as much sense as casting Bruce Willis to play Jesus (Die Hard with a Crucifixion? :>>) or Schwarzenegger to play Moses (Hasta la vista Pharaoh? :)) ).

Oddly enough this film was criticized by both the religious right and the atheists. Naturally the Richard Dawkins brigade were against anything remotely religious as a theme for a movie. On the other hand the religious right criticised the film for NOT mentioning God. They also felt that the film pandered to namby pamby environmentalism, which they are effectively allergic too.

Of course one has to bring up the matter of the Ark itself. As others have pointed out, the idea that you could get by with just two of every animal ignores everything we know about genetics and evolution. And the ship Noah would need to hold all those animals, insects, plants (trees wouldn’t survive being submerged underwater), fish (ditto fresh water fish) and birds would be colossal, bigger than any ship ever built to date (nevermind how they all got to the ark…trees and fish can’t walk and kangaroos can’t swim!).

Indeed even building the much smaller boat mentioned in the bible would have represented a serious engineering challenge. Wooden hulled boats like the Wyoming (largest wooden ship ever built), built with modern techniques, iron reinforcing and steam driven bilge pumps still foundered in far more timid conditions than any Ark would have endured (even though it was about 2/3’s the size of Noah’s supposed Ark).

Now the response of the believers in the Ark myth is to paper over these cracks by repeating the phrase “god dunnit” until blue in the face. But one has to consider that he’d have had to bend and twist the laws of physics and reality so severely that if all he wanted to do was kill off a few million naughty people he could have easily had a plague wipe them out, or got them addicted to junk food or something.

…Or perhaps a more realistic appraisal is to realise that at the time the bible was written allegorical literature was very common. One would often tell a tale which would make a good story in of itself, but which carried a moral point. Thus when Jesus brings up the parable of the Good Samaritan, he wasn’t making bigoted comments about Samaritans (in truth there probably was never any guy by the side of a road, no Samaritan nor anything else, it was just a story). It was a tale with a moral point.

However for bible literalists, accepting that the bible isn’t literally true isn’t an option. Thus they are forced to support utterly implausible propositions such as Noah’s ark or the world being created in 6 days or even a pre-Copernican view of the universe. Which is why I’d argue they aren’t really Christians to begin with as the simply don’t understand the point of the bible.

MH 370
With no sign of the missing Malaysian airways flight, the mystery of what happened to it deepens yet further. The latest from the searchers is that if there’s one thing they are sure of, its that the plane ISNT in the area where they’ve been searching.

I’ve talked to one or two colleagues who are experts on aviation and they can only think of a handful of scenarios that would explain this ranging from pilot suicide to a failure of the Aircraft’s air supply system (this would cause the crew to first turn around when they realised the danger, but also to act erratically, possibly turning off things they shouldn’t have before losing consciousness as the plane continued on autopilot till it ran out of fuel).

However they would be keen not to put too much weight to either theory. Past experience has seen many strange aircraft disappearances where the actual causes turned out to be radically different. Take the story of Air France flight 447. There was much speculation regarding this plane’s disappearance, which later turned out to be not true, once the black box was recovered. So it is like I said a mystery, one which may never be solved.

Glasgow Art school fire
It was sad to see one of Glasgow’s most iconic buildings going up in flames over the last week . I used to live around the corner from this Art school and would go past it often on my way to work. And spare a thought for the students. Many were setting up their final year portfolios at the time the fire started and saw their whole course worth of work going up in smoke.

Word is the building might be restored, but it is still a bit of a loss for the city.

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UKIP and its follies

UKIP and a number of their contemporaries (there seems to be practically breeding going on of new right wing loony parties) are campaigning in the European election on two issues, “unlimited immigration” and “we want a referendum now” on Europe. While I’m probably going to be repeating myself, but its worth putting up something to debunk this lunacy.

An EU “in out” referendum
So for starters what’s wrong with giving the UK a referendum on the EU? Well firstly as I’ve discussed before the reason why the UK didn’t get a referendum, but we Irish did (multiple times in fact!) is because the UK doesn’t have a constitution. So this is really a fault of the UK’s antiquated political system rather than some dark political plot from Brussels.

The obvious solution would be, bring in a UK constitution. A constitution effectively limits the power of both the courts to make up the law as they go along, and it limits the government’s ability to pass arbitrary new ones without consulting the people first. This would incidentally solve a number of problems ranging from ridiculous health and safety paranoia, to making it easier to kick Islamic extremists out of the country.

Of course politicians, notably those on the right do not want this to happen, as they realise that if we start having referendum’s about this and that (for example the Tories latest welfare reform or banking policy or making the wealthy pay more in tax) they’ll probably loose and laws will be forced through that they absolutely do not want to see passed. And as noted a constitution effectively limits the power of parliament, and as you can imagine this is something that all politicians, even UKIP, want to avoid.

As for the idea of holding a retrospective vote on EU membership, well that represents heading down a very slippery slope. There were lots of decisions made by the UK Parliament which the public also didn’t get a vote on. The Trident nuclear missile system for example. Or the decision to privatise the railways, electricity and water companies. When did we get a vote on that? Will we be holding referendum’s on these policies too? Because I’ve a sneaking suspicion that if you offered most British commuters a choice between a referendum on these issues or a referendum on the EU most would say sod the EU, and pick a referendum on re-nationalisation of these essential services (or at the very least a re-running of the privatisation franchise processes). And the result would probably be a resounding defeat for the Tories and effectively much of Thatcher’s legacy ripped up.

In short what the Tories and UKIP want is to hold a referendum on the one issue where they reckon they can con the electorate into voting a way that suits them, but they have absolutely no intentions of giving the public any such rights to vote on a host of other issues. It is political hypocrisy at its worse.

“Stop unlimited EU immigration”
This is one I see a lot in election posters. The UK border is under attack as the great unwashed hordes stream across. Farage thinks that 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians are due to descend on us, no doubt speaking funny languages on trains as they plot against us :crazy:…

…actually recent figures suggest that if anything the number of migrants from Romania into the UK has actually fallen since January the 1st, somewhat debunking much of the xenophobic bigotry we’ve seen from UKIP and the tabloids. Of course as I pointed out a while ago, this should not come as a shock to anyone…at least those that keep an eye on Euro-stat’s (which as a UK MEP is kind of supposed to be Farage’s job! Perhaps he should stop hanging around in pubs). The Romanian economy is doing well, there are actually labour shortages in the country and indeed it’s being speculated that Romania will shortly be a net recipient of migrants.

But I digress, even if we imagine that the UK does have something to fear from immigration the implication of UKIP policy is that by leaving the EU the UK can solve them. Farage might want to run that by the Swiss. Despite not being a member of the EU, in some Swiss cities, native borne Swiss are now a minority of the population. I was in Iceland last year and had to stay in a hostel near the airport (early morning flight). A large proportion of the hostel residences were refugees from all over the world. According to the locals this was a growing problem in that part of the country, with large numbers of refugees and economic migrants moving in. And in Norway recall that the euroskeptic climate change denying serial killer who shot all those people a few years ago was reacting to Muslim immigration into the country.

So on the face of it I don’t think the non-EU EEA countries are in anyway in more control of their borders than the EU nations. And this should hardly come as a surprise. They are bound by many of the same international laws that the EU is, ranging from UN conventions on refugees (which means if someone shows up claiming to be a refugee you have to let them in), the Schengen agreement, the Dublin treaty and various pacts with they’re European trading partners or indeed other nations (such as the US).

As for work permits and visa’s as I’ve applied for jobs in the past, I know that I don’t need a work permit to go and work in Iceland or Switzerland. I’m not suggesting that I could simply show up at the border and ask the way to the nearest welfare office. There would be legal hoop’s I’d have to go through first. But then again, if I moved back to Ireland or moved to Germany I’d also have to do a bit of form filling, at least if I wanted to be sure my taxes contributed towards my pension, and that I got access to healthcare or welfare (if I lost my job or ended up unable to work for some reason).

While on paper the non-EU EEA nations do have a bit more wriggle room yes, but not nearly as much as UKIP fantasize they have. Indeed so desperate are the Swiss to control immigration that they recently voted in a quota system to try and control immigration. Inevitably the EU and its lawyers have questioned how this will work. And with good reason, after all how many refugees/migrant workers end up in Switzerland is largely influenced by policy in neighbouring EU states and the Swiss have no say in those affairs.

Indeed one could argue that Britain leaving the EU would actually make any problems with immigration worse. The country would, as noted, still be bound by a host of international treaties and would probably have to maintain some free movement of immigrants from the EU for the sake of any free trade agreement with the EU or indeed other members of the EEA.

Of course any “problem” migrants (the sort who we actually do want to keep out of the UK) that make it through the EU to the UK, cease to be an EU problem’s as soon as they are across the channel. Hence if the UK leaves, the EU would now have absolutely no incentive to stop these people making their way to Dover. I can even see them offering free shuttle buses from across the EU direct to Calais in the genuine hope that they’ll abscond. And recall a UK outside of the EU will probably share at least one land border with the EU, either across Ireland or at the Scottish border (if the SNP have their way).

The UK would need to do a lot more than withdraw from the EU to achieve UKIP’s aims. No, the country would also need to renege on numerous international treaties, which would cost the country dearly (political isolation) as it would mean anyone entering or leaving the UK would now need to apply for a visa, likely destroying trade and ruining the tourist industry. Plus the border would need to be protected (i.e. fences put up, patrols with sniffer dogs, etc.). In short, UKIP would pretty much have to turn the country into North Korea to achieve their goals.

To be blunt, if you do feel the UK has an immigration problem, the worse thing the UK could do is leave the EU.

But therein lie the problem. UKIP and its supporters have a pre-globalisation, if not pre-war world view. They still think we leave in a world where nations play a nationalistic great game against one another. Where we need to be suspicious of “the hun” or the “frogs”, least they invade (or make rude noises in our general direction), rather than co-operate. Where’ you’re not British unless you eat bully beef every day, drink real ale and came over with William the conqueror (who btw was a French nobleman who didn’t speak a word of English). And that immigration to the UK is a new and dangerous phenomenon. Actually the UK has seen many waves of immigration, Farage himself is of Huguenot stock (i.e. French!). Where would he be if we’d had some bigot at the border stamping passports back in the Middle ages?

Those tempted to vote UKIP due to fears of immigration are in short not so much racist as ignorant and stupid. Too dumb to be allowed to vote or indeed go out in public without their carer.

You’ve been Paxo’ed

Really busy at work these days but can’t help but comment on a few stories emerging.

Notably the news that Newsnight presenter (and star of spitting image) Jeremy Paxman is scheduled to leave the flagship programme. While he’s not exactly one of my favourite people, there’s nothing like see some politician getting “Paxo’ed”. He’ll be missed!

Exactly what he’s going to do I don’t know. Possibly do history documentaries (when not shoving red hot pokers up the rear of politicians he does write books on political history), University Challenge one assumes or maybe he’ll go back to academia (can you imagine the poor student who has to do a viva with Paxman as one of the examiners!).

UKIP Xenophobia

Of course speaking of political extremists, no election would be complete without a look at the looniness of UKIP. In the European election, UKIP aren’t so much playing the race card, but the xenophobia card, trying to portray the UK as being invaded by millions of nasty evil foreigners from strange sounding far away places like “Paris” or “Dublin” :))

Indeed UKIP have even forgone the need for people to be foreign to be vilified, even Lenny Henry isn’t British enough for them it would seem :no:

They had to withdraw one poster after it turned out that the actor they’d hired to play an unemployed British builder turned out to be Irish! This reminds me of the mess the BNP got into displaying a Spitfire from WW2 on a poster…only for it to turn out it was from a Polish squadron!

Of course given that Farage has previously employed his German wife on his EU salary, I suspect he’s used to hiring foreigners to work for him. But it is a little hypocritical.Of course the reality is that UKIP are copying verbatim the playbook of the Nazi’s, creating a complete myth that Britain is somehow under siege from some scary ill-defined enemy.

For example, why didn’t all those Romanians show up in January as the tabloids and UKIP suggested? Perhaps it might be because the Romanian economy is doing rather well, growing at a healthy 5% with falling unemployment, low inflation and rising wages….while in Britain while the GDP is going up (the only number the tories seem to care about) inflation is still rising faster than wages and house prices have started going up again.

While one can understand why some Romanians what to travel abroad, as many young people do at a certain age, inevitably many of them will probably find they’re way back home to Romania, after a few years. Indeed given that Romania has a falling population (not due to immigration abroad, but the legacy of Communists policies and its effect on demographics) there is high demand for skilled workers, such that Romania is becoming a destination for migrants rather than a source of overseas immigration.

Either way, my point is, that UKIP and their tabloid allies have completely miss-representing the facts, either because they don’t understand them…or because they are deliberately attempting to mislead the public.

And its worth remembering, that like the nazi’s, while on top they have their fluffy anti-establishment front man, underneath the party is backed financially by those very establishment types. Only this time the ones who are too extreme (or corrupt) to be allowed into the Tory party. Again, if you think current politicians are bad, do you really want a pack of racists liars in the pocket of shadowy billionaires as an alternative?

Gerry Trouble

Gerry Adams, aka his Gerriness the baron of Northstead, has had his IRA past finally catch up with him, having been arrested for the murder of Jean McConville. This incidentally is one of the reasons why Gerry Adams did not take up the post of first minister after the good Friday agreement. And why he has been trying to worm his way into politics down south in Ireland. Sinn Fein have long feared this day would come.

Of course, Sinn Fein have been quick to call foul, claiming that these allegations being made on the eve of an election indicate this arrest was politically motivated. While I would tend to agree that the timing is a little more than coincidental. It doesn’t get around the fact that Gerry Adams, and indeed many in Sinn Fein, have more than a few skeletons in their closet…and in some occasions I do mean that literally!

It is something that the many young people in Ireland who vote Sinn Fein (often for the very reasons people vote UKIP, as a protest vote) need to consider. We may think politicians are crooks, but by voting for Sinn Fein you are in fact literally voting for a bunch of criminals.

UK is a tax haven

An interesting discussion from Robert Peston divulging what he hears from his banker friends, who admit that they see the UK as “the world’s biggest, most developed tax haven.

Now given the Tories constant moaning about how much tax billionaires have to pay (which for some of them doesn’t even include council tax) and hence why they dare not raise it any further (or perhaps crack down on tax avoidance and get them to pay the taxes they are legally supposed to) this might seem a little odd.

After all if a billionaire wants to avoid tax altogether, as I’ve pointed out before, he need only go to somewhere else in the world and pay almost no tax, like Russia or Dubai. Indeed the tax rates in Ireland just across the water from the UK are actually lower than in London. Of course the real reason why such billionaires are here is because they see London as a safe haven. They dare not store their wealth in a country like China or Russia, because they know that if they fall out of favour with the regime that will be the last they ever see of they’re money…before being invited to lunch with Putin in a sushi bar! 😳

Of course equally I would argue that if there are other reasons why they are here, taxing them a little more heavily, e.g. bring back the 50p tax or altering council tax such that property investors pay it also. Indeed we have the hypocrisy of the Tory bedroom tax on working class londoners, while many mansions are left empty for years in London with not a penny paid in tax. I’ve long argued a local income tax or a property tax system would be fairer anyway. Either way these and various other measures would not necessarily drive many of the rich away, but it would net a substantial quantity of much needed cash for the exchequer.

Hangin Yousef

One of those stock fiction characters, particularly in Westerns, is that of the hanging Judge who sends anyone who comes before him off to the gallows for the slightest thing. The Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles even had one not only hangs everyone, but horses too. However what is not funny is the behaviour of one Egyptian judge who has exceeded even any fictional or satirical portrayal of a judge.

One Judge Joussef in Minya Egypt has over the course of two days sentenced 1,200 to death mostly based on fairly flimsy evidence linking them to a protest that had turned violent leading to the death of police officers. I mean one of those sentenced to death suffers from polio and is in a wheelchair (what did he do, run over the cops? Did they find tire tracks one wonders!). One worries in the UK what sort of a judge you’ll get when going into court, but one can scarcely think of a worse loony psycho to end up in front of.

There are many compelling arguments against the death penalty, one of them of course being that courts and the police do make mistakes (e.g. Birmingham six, Guilford four) or indeed can be corrupt enough to cover things up and fake evidence (Stephen Lawrence, Plebgate). And that’s in the UK, police in some other countries can be corrupt to the core. Adopting a pro-hanging point of view is to accept that innocent people will be sentenced to death (roughly 4% of the time), which is about as immoral as one can get.

Still another argument is that fact that killing people is often a messy grizzly business (as Charlie Brooker points out in his typically dark take on the topic). America has played around with various ways of trying to sanitise this process (most recently with lethal injection), but as recent events in the US showed (another botched execution), it is simply not possible to devise a way of executing someone which is guaranteed to be humane.

But as events in Egypt show one of the main reasons for prohibiting the death penalty is that it can very easily be turned into a tool of political oppression. Is it quite obvious that these death sentences in Egypt are politically motivated. Elements of the military regime trying to kick the Islamists while they are down…which will inevitably mean a return to events of the past. And this is by no means a one off. Look at the French revolution or the Red Scare in the US during the 50’s or indeed most totalitarian regimes. Indeed I would argue that as a result the death penalty is simply not compatible with a democratic system of government.

Beeb coins

Getting back into blogging after a long break, holidays, marking, usual!

I’ve covered the issue of bitcoins and virtual currencies a few times before. One of the arguments I would make is that while I can see a possibility of such currencies being used as a trade currency (e.g. a currency you use to buy sandwiches and coffee), but I cannot see bitcoin or any other virtual currency becoming a reserve currency (a currency you store you’re wealth using or invest with).

This is an important distinction, particularly as much of the speculation surrounding bitcoin has generally come from libertarians who are trying to use it as a reserve currency and go head to head with the dollar. Of course quite apart from the obvious fact that there is little chance of them convincing markets to abandon the dollar (even the Euro has failed to do that, despite the fact it is holding its value far more effectively than the dollar recently, despite all Europe’s woes), there is the more serious problem of ensuring that a virtual currency holds its value. And this is something bitcoin has largely failed to do. Not least because bitcoin has known deficiencies, which has led to competing currencies being established.

Indeed Mark Ward of the BBC has shown how easy this is by establishing his own currency “beeb coins”, using the same technology…well its one way to pay off the TV license!

Clearly however, if anyone can just set up their own currency (and in theory can print vast reams of the stuff to the point where the currency is worthless) then you would have to be a fairly brave person to invest a substantial portion of your savings into it. While the dollar, the pound and the euro do have their problems, the whole reason why such currencies are considered a safe haven is that it is accepted that these governments will do whatever is necessary to defend these currencies, while libertarian bloggers are powerless to protect bitcoin.

Again, I can see some role for such currencies for trade purposes. Some smaller communities have already issued they’re own local currency, hoping to encourage local trade. One could see such virtual currency technology being used for these purposes, particularly as it eliminates the need to actually print bank notes. But I don’t see much usage beyond this, as there is simply no way for any virtual currency to compete with an established currency with a central bank behind it.

Everest woes

There is trouble brewing on the slopes of Mt Everest. A few weeks ago there was a large avalanche which killed 16 Sherpa’s. The avalanche apparently happened in the middle of the Kumbu icefall, a notoriously dangerous part of the standard route up Everest.

In the wake of this tragedy there has been an outpouring of first grieve and then anger by the Sherpa’s about their treatment, and the low levels of compensation paid to the victims families. As a result a defacto strike of Sherpa’s has now occurred. Given that the optimum time to climb Everest is within the next few weeks, this has led to several team abandoning their attempts to climb.

It is something a dilemma for climbers. Catering to climbers and trekkers has led to the development of a substantial cottage industry along the Everest trail. This has provided many Sherpa’s with a good income, far more (and more dependable) than they can earn from farming or other activities. It’s also worth noting that the only way to get anything from the road head at Jiri (about 14 days walk from Everest Base camp) or Lukla (an airfield about midway between Jiri and base camp) to anywhere else in the Everest region, is either on someone’s back (I once saw a chest of drawers walking along the path from Lukla up to Namche! Only to realise there was a porter carrying it!) or on the back of a Yak.

But of course, climbing on high mountains like this is extremely dangerous. And inevitably because Sherpa’s have to make multiple trips equipping camps in advance of the western clients, this means multiple passes through dangerous territory such as the Kumbu Icefall. Which is a bit like running across no-man’s land on the Western front, sooner or later you’re luck’s going to run out. Thus, the Sherpa’s end up baring an fairly heavy part of the risk. And part of the problem has been that certain climbing companies have emerged in the last few years who can all but guarantee to get anyone who is moderately fit to the top of Everest…for the right fee of course!

And it’s also worth remembering that a good deal of the revenue for trekking permits doesn’t go to the locals or the Sherpa’s but to the Nepali government, hence the current anger. Which is more a dispute between the Sherpa’s and the government rather than the Sherpa’s and the climbers.

After the 1996 disaster it was suggested that the use of supplementary oxygen should be banned on Everest, as this would effectively put the summit out of reach of all but the most accomplished climbers. However, one has to raise the question as to who exactly is going to hang around and enforce such a policy at 8,000m. And as noted there is very little prospect of the Nepali government giving up the revenue it makes from allowing wealthy climbers essentially buying their way to the top.

But clearly these events do show the dangerous consequences of this attempt to commercialise Everest climbing. The crowds moving up Everest make the commercial expeditions of 1996 look tame in comparison. Inevitably, putting lots of people up on top of a mountain that dangerous, is going to result in fatalities and there is no real way to avoid that. Unless the industry of selling the summit of Everest to punters is curbed, large death tolls like this are just unavoidable.

Cameron’s wind bagging hypocrisy

The Tories have let slip that indeed they will oppose onshore wind farms after the next election, cutting subsidies and encouraging councils to block such developments. Cameron was explaining this decision on the basis that after a decade or two of subsidy, surely wind power should be able to get by without subsidy?

A fair point I’ll agree, but equally he is proposing to provide a massive subsidy to nuclear power…an industry that has been dependant on massive government subsidy for the best part of 50 years (not just to building nuclear plants, but also costs such as the £73 billion and counting to dispose of nuclear waste). If subsidies to renewables are to be cut, then surely we should cut all nuclear subsidies too? Won’t that be the free market response?

Also its worth remembering that part of the point of subsidies to renewables (or nuclear for that matter) is to get around the fact that fossil fuel use is also in receipt of significant subsidies. Indeed as I discuss on my energy blog, the grand total for these actually exceeds renewable and energy conservation related subsidies by a significant margin. So will he be cutting those subsidies too?…noting that it includes things like the winter heating allowance (that will make him popular!).

Indeed Cameron, who is keen on fracking for shale gas, has been talking about effectively subsidising this process (by bribing cash strapped councils into accepting such schemes), so clearly those subsidies and incentives towards shale gas will have to be dropped too.

And let’s not even begin to consider the subsidy that involves dumping climate changing gas into the atmosphere free of charge, even though it is the state who usually gets stiffed with the bill for cleaning up the mess after a storm. The fact is subsidising renewables has always been part of a messy compromise to get around the fact that governments are reluctant to make the public pay the true cost of our fossil fuel use.

And the political reality, as Chris Huhme discussed recently, is that despite whatever Cameron says the real thing driving this policy is Tory election fears regarding UKIP, a party well known for its climate skeptic leanings (to the point of wanting to ban the teaching of climate physics in schools…as well as evolution and this thing called “science” one assumes!). The Tories are in essence playing politics with the UK’s energy supply…again!

Indeed its entirely possible that such attempts to cut back on onshore wind will fail anyway. There’s numerous ways such a cut could be challenged both in the EU or WTO, given that it would amount to unfair competition. Already the government’s subsidy towards nuclear is under scrutiny by the EU commission, and this is in the context of an assumption that renewable subsidies would continue. And the fact is that energy companies actually like wind farms. Not just because of subsidies (though of course they help level the playing field with other energy sources), but as they can be a useful hedge against future rises in wholesale gas prices. Thus the industry might well decide to just defy the government and carry on regardless.

Yet again, what the Tories really need to do is grow a spine and confront UKIP.