Nepal Trekking Disaster

Freak weather in Nepal recently led to a rash of deaths on the slopes of the Annapurna circuit, a very popular long distance trek for tourists. Most of the deaths seem to have been due to a combination of exposure and avalanches in the region of the +5,000m Thorung La pass. With nearly 40 or more dead (and that only seems to include the westerners, not locals!) this is one of the worst mountaineering disasters in history. This comes on the back of a pervious accident where an avalanche swept away many Sherpa’s from the slopes of Everest, leading to the equivalent of industrial action on the slopes of Everest. This tragedy raises many worrying questions.

Firstly, obviously unseasonal weather does tend to hint at climate change as being a factor. While as always, one can’t tie climate change to any specific weather event (difference between climate and weather) but inevitably such events are going to become more common. There have been several similar freak weather events in the UK as well over the last twelve months.

Secondly based on survivor accounts it sounds like many were first led up the mountain in fairly appalling conditions. This violates normal mountaineering logic which says in such conditions you’re safer going down and waiting out the weather lower down. Then when it became obvious that staying put wasn’t an option, they started heading down in conditions neither they nor their guides were equipped to cope with. Indeed some stories tell of guides leaving essential safety gear behind to lighten their loads.

A key factor in the 1996 Everest disaster was the commercial pressure on two competing teams. The guides (both of whom perished) felt that as their clients were paying for the summit, they had an obligation to get them to the top. For example, one of the guides, Rob Hall, had a golden rule about turning around by 2 pm even if within spitting distance of the top (to ensure sufficient time to descend and avoiding the late afternoon thunderstorms that can occur on high mountains). On this one occasion he ignored this rule.

Also the client and guide relationship saw the clients abdicating a lot of their responsibilities onto the guides on the assumption that they were suitably equipped and able to get them down in an emergency. Jon Krakauer, writer of the infamous account of the disaster “into thin air” noted how one of the guides was not only climbing without oxygen (thus rendering himself too weak to aid clients effectively) but had jettisoned his rucksack too (obviously by climbing without oxygen he had to lighten his load) and thus had no rescue or emergency gear. So we can see similarities here with events in Annapurna.

In the UK there was a period where climbing accidents by university clubs was exceptionally high. The mountain rescue teams, in coalition with the McOS and BMC set a system of training for clubs which sought to redress this. Firstly by providing training in key skills such as navigation, winter climbing, avalanche awareness, etc. But also to help the clubs develop a safety conscious culture.

Having one leader leading a group of barely proficient (and potentially unfit) students up a hill isn’t a good idea. The safety of the group is entirely dependent on the skills of the leader (and in Annapurna the experience of guides can be patchy at best). Also, what if the leader is the one who has an accident?

Instead it’s better to have a group more evenly skilled party, such that the main role of the “leader” is more organisational (e.g. book the minibus and accommodation, work out the route, etc.) and the party isn’t solely dependent on him. After all I’m pretty experienced myself but I have been known to “explore alternative destinations” :DD and its handy to have someone therefore also looking at the map willing to step in and double check what I’m doing, or looking out for signs of danger I might have missed.

Crucially by ensuring everyone is suitably equipped and trained it means that if someone becomes separated from the party (fairly easy in a white out), they have a good chance of making it down by themselves safely, without any assistance. And it’s also important not to let people exceed their own ability. The main job of a party leader in a well-run club is often to say no to people and discourage them from going uphill if it’s obvious that they aren’t suitably equipped (e.g. the types who show up in jeans and trainers with no rain gear! :no:) or aren’t fit or experienced enough to handle the route.

These sorts of rules need to be applied in future to trekking routes such as Annapurna . Many in the mountaineering community are also calling for better communication, in particular of weather reports, standardised training of guides, high altitude shelters and as noted a more safety conscious attitude from the trekkers. This could mean guides having to disappoint clients, by preventing them going further when it’s obvious they aren’t suitably equipped or fit enough or where the weather conditions just don’t make it safe anymore.

While some will grumble and complain, in the end they paying for safety and need to be realistic about their own abilities. As they say the golden rule of mountaineering is:

“going to the top is optional, coming back down is compulsory”

Ebola: A tale of health care systems

One could argue that many of the victims of Ebola in Africa are as much victims of poverty, due to the poor nature of health care in Africa. This is threatening to wipe out an entire generation of young doctors and nurses in West Africa. Hence why Western assistance vital, both to contain the virus and stop a global pandemic, but also to prevent any more serious long term damage to already impoverished states.

That said the health authorities in Nigeria and Senegal both deserve quite a bit of credit for their quick thinking and clever detective work, which help halt the outbreak in both countries. In both these nations initial cases were quickly investigated and a ring fence thrown around anyone potentially exposed. Both are on the verge of being declared disease free.

Of course one has to contrasts this with the events in Texas. If you believe the horror stories about US health care they will tell you about paramedics who are more skilled in finding credit cards and checking health insurance than actually treating patients. The tales coming out of the US reveal something of a farce. We hear stories about poorly trained and equipped health care workers, of a person running a fever and prior exposure to Ebola being allowed to board a commercial flight.

In many respects you do have to wonder how well the US health care system would cope with a serious disease outbreak. For as our libertarian tea party types would likely discover, disease does not respect economic boundaries. Indeed we have the irony of ex-US presidential candidate Rich Perry, blaming Obama and the federal government for being too slow. I mean surely Obama should have spent the last few years doing something about America’s chronic health care problems…oh wait he did only it was Republicans like Perry who tried to stop him!

As events in Africa have shown, once a virus takes root, it’s very difficult to stop. Perhaps they might want to think about then when next denouncing Obamacare.

Ebola’s only briefly appeared in any UK patients, generally those flown home for treatment. But it is perhaps topical to bring it up given the release last week of a report on the future funding of the NHS. These suggest that the chronic underfunding of the NHS in recent years now needs at least an extra £8 billion a year by 2020 to set right.

Clearly this means that something is going to have to give. Either cuts in other areas of the sort one doubt even the Tories would be happy with, or taxes going up. But I suppose it boils down to the question of what sort of health care system do you want. While Ebola might be a fairly minor risk to the UK at the moment, there are plenty of other things that are a more serious long term risk (pandemic flu, heart disease, cancer, etc.) and having a robust health care system is therefore essential.

Scottish labour party see’s sense

A few years ago I put up a post outlining why I did not plan to vote labour in the elections for Holyrood because there was no point in doing so. The Scottish labour party couldn’t tie its shoe laces without asking permission first from London. This undermines the entire point of devolution.

Hence they had all sorts of policies scattered into their manifesto, such as supporting nuclear energy or opposing independence/more devolved powers, which probably made perfect sense down in England, but not in Scotland. It’s a bit like setting up a branch of Mc Donald’s in India and then wondering why the local Muslims and Hindu’s were getting upset at your menu of beef burgers and pork sausages.

Well if there’s a positive to come out of the No vote its that the Scottish labour party seems to be realising this. Its leader Johann Lamont has just quit accusing her colleagues in London of being “dinosaurs” and treating Scottish labour like “a branch office”.

All I can say is good on her. Labour needs to learn the lessons of devolution. That means allowing the Scottish labour party to plough its own furrow. This, ironically is what the Tories have long done…and yes there is such a thing as a “Tory” in Scotland :)). This will allow the party in Scotland to develop its own policies appropriate to Scotland, in which case they have some chance of taking seats off the SNP, as well as countering the rise of UKIP.

Tory lies catch up with them

the last few years the Tories have been trying to claim that the recession is over, but this hasn’t quite jelled with the reality for most people. They’ve done this by pointing to economic figures which show the economy growing and the GDP going up. Critics however have suggested that this is an example of ENRON-esque accounting. For example, they’ve begun to include such activities as prostitution, drugs and illegal gambling in the UK GDP figures.

Of course inevitably the Eurocrats in Brussels heard about this apparent rise in the UK’s GDP and as a result included it in the annual review of the rates different states pay for membership of the EU. And unsurprisingly they’ve decided that the UK needs to pay more. This has of course set the Daily Mail UKIP mob off in a mouth foaming tizzy.

This has of course put Cameron in a bit of a pickle, as with a by-election underway and a general election in a few months he has to look tough by refusing to pay in order to placate the UKIP bigot brigade. But of course if he doesn’t pay, the chances of him getting any concessions out of his EU partners is somewhere between slim and nil.

The nature of how this information found its way to the press (a leak) has sent the conspiracy theory machine rolling. Some regard it as a shot across the Tory bow by the EU commission. Essentially warning Britain that loose talk about leaving will cost the country dearly. The hope of the Euro federalists is that this will split the Tory vote, leaving Miliband to take over. Others argue that the EU is conspiring with Cameron to allow him to look tough on Europe in the run up to elections.

My take on this, having had dealings with the EU commission on research projects, is that I would doubt any of the conspiracy theories. The fact is the EU commission just isn’t imaginative enough to come up with anything like these conspiracies. What this incident also proves is that the commission is somewhat inflexible.

And we have the likes of Nigel Farage and other eurosceptic’s to thank for it. Any time the EU has shown any sort of flexibility or bent its own rules, eurosceptic MEP’s have had a field day over it. So as a consequence the EU has practically bred an entire generation of eurocrats who are about as flexible as the old man of Hoy.

Certainly the message to be taken away from this is that if the UK wants to see changes in how the EU operates, this will only happen if the UK acts in an appropriate way, e.g. meeting with potential allies in the EU, establishing common ground, proposing workable compromises. Unilateral action, making Daily Mail friendly but general undiplomatic speeches and proposing policies that are clearly unworkable and unenforceable will just annoy the rest of Europe and result in the UK being ignored…then pretty much told to piss off! Any hope that the EU will cut Cameron some slack just to keep the UK in the EU, is wishful thinking.

And Farage’s entire strategy of leaving the EU hinges on him getting a free trade agreement from them, which there is no guarantee he will get. Much like how the SNP’s bid for independence fell apart as it hinged on them getting agreements (over currency sharing and immediate EU entry) which it’s clear they weren’t going to get, UKIP’s entire policy is based on fantasy. As I’ve said before, Britain’s biggest problem with the EU is the failings of current British “diplomacy”.

Beware of low flying parents

I’ve not been blogging the last few weeks as much as usual due to being busy dealing with Freshers. One of the problems is that some students these days don’t seem to have a lot of common sense. As I discussed in a previous post, we seem to be getting one to many more mummy’s boy’s, whose helicopter parents have gone around sweeping any obstacles out of their kids way, hence he/she has very little common sense.

The situation can be particularly acute with some foreign students in the UK, as some come from very privileged backgrounds and are used to having drivers and servants to call on. Hence it can be a bit of a shock to find themselves in a situation where people don’t run around wiping their ass on command. Where they have to wait in line with everyone else.

Let me give you example. I was on the train the other day and there was this young Asian fellow with bags (obviously a fresher on his way to uni). The announcer comes on and say’s we’re approaching his stop. Of course the train stops short of the station (as they often do on congested UK routes). He asks people on the train how to I get to the station. We tell him wait till we pull in, then push the button by the door. He immediately goes to the doors and pushes all the buttons, even the emergency one :no: (pissing off the driver though fortunately not to the stage where he decides to make a federal case out of it!).

Of course this sort of attitude means that we lecturers face all sorts of problems. For example getting students to pick up their various book and equipment packages (we give the stuff away for free to compensate for fees…and to avoid us having arguments with them over why they’ve not read such and such a book or brought along safety equipment to a lab). Some of the students still haven’t collected it, even thought they’ve had a good month to do so. Some seem to think we should bring it to them on a sliver tray!

Or getting students to showing up on time to class. If I say class starts at 9am. I do mean 9am, not 9:05 and certainly not 10! I might allow a few minutes grace for students to come in late, as some will take time to login or get their notebooks out (and again, I’m assuming they’ll have the good sense to bring notebooks, one student recently asked me if he could take home my notes to photocopy them!). If I’ve scheduled a lecture to take one hour, that’s hwo long it’s going to take, I can wait and I don’t want to be rushed into going faster (else they won’t be able to follow everything).

Similarly getting them to submit coursework on time can be a problem, as some don’t seem to understand that a deadline is a deadline. And some students these days seem unable to accept the possibility of failure. I’ll be marking the first few lab reports soon and I know from experience that they probably won’t be that good (inevitable, nobody gets it right the first time!) but I’ll be facing students used to getting +80% who are then told no, this is at best 50% because of XY and Z. Naturally the result is usually howls of protest. And that’s the ones who submit on time. The others who miss the deadline (and get zero!) are needless to say even less happy. I mean they had a busy weekend partying and playing X-box, why am I insisting that they hand in stuff at the agreed deadline! ;D

This, along with tuition fees, is all part of a trend that we seem to have imported from America. In America, parents can actually login to a website and check up on their kids progress in school (i.e. what assignments they’ve due, attendance record, marks, feedback, etc.) and often now in university. Here some parents have actually transcended “Helicopter parenting” and reached what’s now referred to as “snowplough” parenting, whereby parents seem to think it’s their job to push all obstacles out of their (now adult) offspring’s way.

I’ve heard horror stories about parents ringing up the President of an American university to complain about noisy/messy roommates in halls :crazy:. I’ve heard of more than a few cases of parents contacting senior staff members in the university to complain about marks and try to have pressure applied to lecturers to change them. Or even hiring lawyers to challenge marks. This of course reflects a lack of understanding of how marks are calculated, i.e. a marking criteria rather than opinion and multiple layers of mark moderation by other peers, including usually an external examiner.

Even here in the UK we’ve seen similar things happen. For example we catch a student committing plagiarism, only for the parents to show up at the resulting academic conduct hearing…and it very quickly becomes apparent that the cheating might well have been the parents idea to begin with.

Of course we have to blame fees and the defacto privatisation of universities in part for this. Many parents and students now seem to think that they are essentially buying a degree. Unfortunately, that doesn’t negate the need to work hard and study to achieve it, just because you’re paying fees.

This can be made worse in courses such as engineering or medicine, as you will occasionally get some students who’ve been pressured into taking up such courses by pushy parents who reckon it will be a good career move. Failing to understand that if the student simply isn’t capable or motivated to complete the course he/she isn’t going to do very well (or indeed drop out and fail) and would be far better off studying something they’re interested in, and likely to do better at.

But certainly this problem of over-parenting is another issue. What parents don’t seem to realise is that by constantly sweeping obstacles out of your child’s way all you’re doing is destroying their capacity to problem solve and function independently – all crucial skills in both university and the real world of work. Hence why some of the students I teach, despite being very bright, seem to have little capacity for independent thought or creativity. Shielding them from failure or hard work, means that when they have a reduced capacity to cope with such things in real life (wait till they start applying for jobs and get dozens of PFO’s in response!). Ironically this in of itself can lead to more stress and undue pressure on the student to perform. And of course students who feel themselves to be under pressure are more likely to try and take the short cut of plagiarism.

And students are also more likely to do what we usually associate with Fresher’s week, getting more drunk than an Irish saint on an all expenses paid pilgrimage to Munich in October :oops:. Inevitably students under pressure feel the need to let off a bit of steam. And free from the yoke of their parents, unfamiliar with how much is too much or used to dad’s taxi to bring them home, its no surprise some get themselves into trouble.

While I would encourage parents to be involved in supporting their siblings university education, but only up to a point. The stabilisers have to come off the bike and he/she must fight their own battles and learn to be independent. This is after all part of the whole point of going to college. By preventing this, a parent is destroying the whole college experience, not to mention jeopardising the very education they are paying for.

Immigration paranoia

With a by-election in progress, inevitably the Tories have been trying to out-UKIP UKIP, by coming up with increasingly insane policies on immigration.

For example, Cameron, on the back of ridiculous suggestions regarding the issue of human rights, is now talking about withdrawing from EU rules regarding freedom of movement. He also claims to have a “strategy” for negotiation with the EU that involves refusing to issue National Insurance numbers to EU citizens as a way of capping EU migration by the back door.

When I first heard this, I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April the 1st. It’s such a silly idea, it merely shows how desperate the Tories have become. As the outgoing EU president Manuel Barroso discussed today, if Cameron had been foolish enough to bring up such proposals with other EU countries they’ve have likely laughed him out of the room. Such proposals would be in all probability illegal (both under UK law and EU rules) and amount to the imposition of arbitrary law, as it involves someone in a welfare office having to decide who is an immigrant and who is not, e.g. technically I would not count as a migrant given the time I’ve been here, but a recently returning Brit with dual citizenship might well count and be denied a right to work.

The problem with such arbitrary rules of course is that it leaves people in limbo land, already a problem with recent legislation on immigration. Furthermore such ill-conceived rules can easily be bypassed by anyone with a crafty lawyer…or a bit of cunning!

For example, if a polish builder wants to work in the UK and the government refuses to give him an NI number he has various options. He could simply work in the black economy and save having to pay any tax (and given the likely illegality of the government’s stance, he’d probably not have anything to worry about it if the tax man caught him as the worse they could do is ask him to pay back taxes…although they’d have to issue him with an NI number first! :))). Existing rules, which predate the UK’s EU membership allow the use of Irish RSI numbers instead. So our Pole goes first to Ireland, registers there, takes his RSI number to the UK and starts work (or claims benefits!). Or our builder simply sets up a shell company in Poland and sub contracts it (i.e. himself!) to do a building job in the UK, with him paying his taxes and wages back in Poland.

In short the only thing such a rule would do is deprive the UK of much needed tax revenue and the only migrants it will stop are the lazy ones. Indeed the obvious way around these rules is to just apply for UK citizenship (and I know quite a few who’ve already done this to get around the Daily Mail antics of the present government)….then presumably staple their British passport to Farage’s big dumb forehead! :yes:.

There are many myths about immigration, which the Guardian recently tackled. For example, much of the recent system of free movement actually predates the UK joining the EU. Such ideas start back in 1958 and have been expanded on since then. Although the EU played a role in this, keep in mind that several non-EU countries have adopted similar policies.

Also the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the UK work and pay tax, only a tiny fraction of the benefits bill goes to migrants. And indeed as many are relatively young, the burden they place on the UK public services is minimal at best and represent a net contribution to taxes. Most are not here to stay permanently, but do eventually plan to return home after earning a bit of money, building up some experience and/or improving their English.

And as I’ve previously discussed the argument that Britain “is full” is not borne out by the facts. The pressure on public services is coming about because the Tories are not increasing spending on public services to compensate for both a growing population (and increased life expectancy and birth rates are the main drivers of population growth, not immigration) and an ageing one.

And of course there is little point in having harsh immigration rules without the border agency staff to enforce such rules. Universities, as I’ve mentioned in a prior post, have come under all sorts of pressure to “monitor” foreign students (the UKBA seems to fear that despite paying tens of thousands a year for a uni place they’ll feel the urge to run off and work in a chip shop, or commit terrorism/benefits fraud in their spare time :no:).

Well about a six months ago one of my students got herself chucked off the course (failed everything!), which meant the withdrawal of her student visa and us reporting this fact to the UKBA. Needless to say I was a little surprised to bump into her on a bus the other day. And based on where she got off (close to a hall of residence) I’d guess she’s probably still living where she always did.

Why hasn’t the UKBA beaten down her door and kicked her out you may ask? Well I suspect because they don’t have the staff to follow up every single lead they get (even those that pretty much tell them the exact street address, mobile phone number, bank account and personal details of the offender!). Indeed I doubt anyone in the UKBA actually bothers to read our e-mails. And even if they did, they’d realise that they have little to worry, as most tier 4 students who flunk out of uni will generally hang around the UK, living the life of Reilly for a couple of months, spending the last of their student grant money (from their home government or rich family) on Gucci bags or night’s out, before going home.

So obviously enough passing yet more silly rules for people to ignore isn’t going to do any good. There is little point in the Tories coming up with new immigration rules if they aren’t prepared to put up taxes and hire the staff to police them.

More worryingly is the message this sends out. I know quite a few people from the EU or beyond who are working here in the UK and some are getting quite nervous. The idea that despite being here for ten years that they will now have to apply for a work visa strikes them as insane. The idea that despite paying taxes for over a decade they are now not entitled to benefits or the NHS, yet some Chav whose never worked in his life is entitled to these services is just downright insulting (and I might add a policy we’d more associate with national socialist parties rather than a supposed centre right party).

And the idea that scaring EU citizens into leaving is going to create jobs for British people only works if you have an economics reading age of five. In the real economy it means that unable to hire staff to get a particular job done an employer is forced to offer a high enough salary sufficient to attract an employee away from a rival firm, leaving them short staffed. The result is a bit like a game of musical chairs, except every round a person leaves rather than a chair and those remaining have to try and fill more and more chairs.

And of course the real danger is businesses, unable to hire the staff they want, will simply move work to overseas subsidiaries. Or indeed relocate out of the UK altogether. In the globalised world we live in it’s not “foreigners coming over here and stealing our jobs” we need to worry about. No its “foreigners staying at home and stealing our jobs”. After all far more of the UK’s manufacturing jobs have been lost to places such as China or India than have been lost to Indian’s or Chinese coming over to work in the UK.

Indeed given how many of the UK’s firms are owned by Indians or Chinese I’d argue that immigration has increased employment. Indeed a recent academic study reports found that immigration from the rest of the EEA alone has benefited Britain to the tune of at least $25 billion.

And the danger is that the rest of the EU will retaliate. Consider all those British living in Europe, what if the EU adopts similar rules? What if the EU starts clamping down on British “benefits tourists” using EU health care, such as the Asha King case, or the many British retiree’s living down in Spain…or indeed many British retiree’s in Ireland?

In short such arbitrary rules risk creating a large amount of uncertainty and that will almost certainly impact on trade, as companies and individuals put off major spending decisions until they figure out wants going to happen.

There are certainly issues with regard to immigration. The many migrants from around the world hanging around in legal limbo in Calais for example. There is certainly a need to hammer out some sort of a deal that means that one EU state isn’t paying the benefits bill for another nation’s citizens (noting that Britain probably counts as an offender here than a contributor). However the solution to these problems generally amounts to yet more European cooperation, not less. Leaving the EU would not solve these problems, indeed it might well make the situation worse.

Yet again Cameron and the Tories are playing with fire, just to score a few minor points with the BNP bigot brigade.

What have Borat, Lukashenko, Kim Jung-Un and Cameron got in common?

Well the answer is that none of them seem to like the European convention on Human rights. The brain child of a certain Winston Churchill (who if we believe UKIP must have been some fluffy lefty who obviously hated Britain), this convention protects people from such things as “torture” or “cruel and unusual punishment”…which is probably why UKIP don’t want it as the thought of any of em in Parliament has to count! 😳

Jokes aside though this is a bonkers policy that is so silly it has the rest of the EU baffled. Obviously enough it would mean the UK being chucked out of the EU. It would also mean Britain being relegated to a rogue’s gallery of nations that includes the likes of Kazakhstan and Belarus. This would of course have a wide host of legal implications, notably for example making it impossible for the UK to arrange the extradition of suspects…so all any criminal needs to do is make a break for the border and he’s home free!

Consider for example Abu Qatada, recently cleared of charges in Jordan. Well if the UK decided to try and get him back here for trial, we could well face the absurdity of the UK’s lack of commitment to human rights being used by his lawyers as reasons against his extradition back to Britain! This after the big legal battle to get him out of the UK while protecting his human rights.

To say this would be embarrassing and damaging to the UK is to put it mildly. Somewhere in Russia I suspect Putin is pissing himself with laughter at the field day he’s going to have if Cameron has his way. It could not just cost the UK a place in the EU, but numerous other bodies, such as the UNHCR as well as effected Britain’s continued membership of the UN.

And it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the main opposition to Qatada, wasn’t the European courts, but those right here in the UK. The problem is that the UK lacks a constitution, a rare thing for any country in the 21st century. The UK’s arcane justice systems also places too much emphasis on the ability of judges to essentially make things up as they go along, but still be bound by decisions made previously by other judges. By contrast in most EU states, the constitution effectively takes precedence (up to a point of course!). All Cameron will succeed in doing is relocate the problem from Strasbourg to the UK.

The solution to the UK’s woe’s here is simply to bring in a UK constitution, something I’ve been saying for a while, but which was recently echoed by none other than the head of the UK supreme court. And incidentally a constitution would also protect the UK from any fears of an EU super state, as any further EU integration would require a constitutional change and thus a referendum in the UK to approve it.