Making a few points

Reckless talk
One of the problems with dealing with racists is their tendency to talk in code. All too aware of the reaction they’d get if they openly aired their views in public, they will instead use coded language, which will fly over the head of most people, but their fellow bigot’s will hear and understand (hence why its often referred to as “dog-whistle politics” in the US). For example, “Inner city youths” means the N word while “immigrant” means “no darkies”. And of course all that birther crap was code for “bring back the Jim Crow laws“.

Needless to say, UKIP have become masters at these tactics, but last night the mask slipped and Rochester UKIP candidate Mark Reckless :crazy: made the classic rookie mistake for a bigot politician and forgot for a minute his code words, suggesting (to the shock of many of his audience) that he thought all EU migrants should be deported.

Of course he was quick to backtrack, claiming he would be “sympathetic” towards those who work or have mortgages to pay. However he didn’t withdraw his original comment and furthermore his “sympathy” hints at a UKIP policy wedded to arbitrary law whereby some bureaucrat makes arbitrary decisions about this person being allowed to stay and another person not allowed. Keep in mind that many long term immigrants may have put down roots making it difficult to define who is British and who is not.

e.g. My granny never got a British passport, despite having lived in the UK longer than Farage has been here, worked all her life, paid taxes and Reckless would put her on a ship back to Ireland….in violation I might add of numerous Anglo-Irish treaties going back to the 1960’s (i.e. before the UK joined the EU). Conversely I have friends who came from Africa or Asia to the UK and do have British passports, or have married British citizens and kept their home passport. Obviously any sane person would realise that such a policy would be unenforceable and stupid.

Farage was of course forced to undertake damage control, claiming that this is contrary to UKIP policy on immigration…which was a surprise to me as I was unaware UKIP actually had a “policy” on immigration, other than a lot of lies and polemics about “Britain under threat”.

Indeed in a further development, another UKIP’s member (apparently their immigration spokesman) has suggested they want British only queues introduced (again for those who don’t speak bigot that translates as “why should I be forced to rub shoulders with a smelly dark skinned person”).

However, can you imagine if a politician from Labour, Lib Dems, the Tories or even the Greens made a statement this far from the party’s policy on a core issue? Clearly they would be expected to resign at once. Of course in UKIP, a party which doesn’t even have a proper ballot system for picking candidates (like North Korea!), this does not happen. A UKIP government would therefore be government by chaos and mayhem.

Unfortunately its likely Mr Reckless will soon be the MP for Rochester, making them the laughing stock of the rest of the UK. It reminds me of the time California made “the Terminator” Arnold Schwarzenegger governor, much to the cringing embarrassment of Californians forced to steer all conversations away from politics for several years.

Top of the Terror pops
There’s a report out by an anti-Terrorist think tank which reveals some rather ghoulish statistics. It would seem that 80% of terrorist related deaths can be traced to just 4 groups – ISIS, the Taliban, Al-Queda and Boko Haram. Somewhere in hell no doubt Jimmy Savile is doing a sort of perverted “top of the pops” for the the damned “moving up swiftly to number four its Boko Haram and their hit single Papa don’t teach….or we’ll blow up his school!” :no:

That said the report does make a few good points, notably that most of the situations where terrorism kicks off involved three main factors:
– High social hostilities between different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups
– The presence of state-sponsored violence such as extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses
– High levels of overall violence, such as deaths from organised conflict or high levels of violent crime

Eliminating these conditions is a far more effective way of defeating terrorism than through the use of smart bombs. Of course this probably falls into the category of “no s&it Sherlock” for most people. But it’s worth remembering that it might not be so obvious to many in the US or the present UK government. After all the UK, tried for several decades to defeat the IRA in battle. It was only the peace process initiated by Tony Blair that finally brought about peace however.

That said, these Wahhabist groups are of a different breed of terrorism. The IRA, like most terrorist group, had some genuine grievances that allowed room for negotiation. ISIS, whose party tricks include beheading aid workers, blowing up Mosques and banning colours aren’t exactly the sort of group you can negotiate with.

Water and dust
One of the big stories over the last week however was of course the Phillae lander bouncing down to a landing on a comet. This was a daring mission and the fact they got any data back at all is little short of a miracle. However the results do hint at the presence of organic material. This is to say the least, a significant development, as it does give some credibility to many long held theories about the origins of life.

Of course one can’t avoid the rather obvious fact that this mission was only made possible by EU wide co-operation, of the sort that UKIP would rather see less of. The probe, along with its Rosetta mothership were assembled in the UK, based on a European design, using European research funding. An EU exit would leave the UK out of the loop as far as future missions like this.

The worst of both worlds
It was refreshing to read the report from the Higher Education Commission on the consequences of fees and the defacto privatisation of the UK’s universities. The report does not mince its words, declaring that student fees have resulted in the “the worst of both worlds” for both students and the tax payer. And with the majority of student loans likely to be written off, the report questioned the long term sustainability of this system.

The report makes clear what I and many in the profession have long argued – that the result is a case of lose, lose for everyone. Students wind up paying more, not just in fees but in other costs too. As they assume they’re effectively paying for a degree they put pressure on lecturing staff to pass them and making various demands of universities (e.g. better facilities), sometimes getting litigious (or engaging in plagiarism) if they don’t get their way. Of course the universities respond by spending more on facilities and staff, even though the money they get from the government in terms of teaching grants has fallen. And also arbitrary caps on student loan numbers have amounted to a defacto cut in the budget’s of many universities. And again ultimately when everything goes pear shaped it will the government picking up the tab.

The report does lay out a number of options, ranging from a cut in tuition fees or a graduation tax, although both of these options (and various others discussed) would still leave a fairly large hole in the finances of many universities, which would have to be plugged with government cash.

You only live twice
In a worrying development, it’s been alleged that the Russians have been testing a “Satellite Catcher” military satellite. The Americans report an undeclared Russian launch of an object that then began manoeuvring in a way that most conventional satellites do not. This is no doubt is a case of Putin ratcheting up things.

Of course there is some hypocrisy here, given that the Americans have been testing their own space spy plane the X-37, which is believed to have similar capabilities. Even so it represents a worrying militarisation of space.

Lunar scam
Speaking of space, another scam seems to be brewing in the Alt-space movement. As I mentioned in a prior post, there are quite a sizeable number who are fairly pro-space (possibly as a result of playing EVE Online for one too many hours or maybe too much Star Trek as a kid) and who inevitably have been targeted from time to time by those looking to cash in.

A few years ago the Mars One mission came up with the preposterous suggestion for a one way suicide mission to Mars, encouraging subscribers to submit an application to be one of the “lucky” people to go…for a small fee of course. Given that most of those applying would probably be physically incapable of undertaking the trip (quite apart from lacking in certain essential astronaut “skills”….piloting, astronavigation, ability to survive months in a tin can without an X-box, etc.) this led to accusations of the whole thing being a scam.

Anyway another group, Lunar One, are proposing to land a probe on the moon carrying essentially a memory stick. They hope to fund it using crowd source funding and for a fee allowing subscriber to upload data onto the “probe”. Again, this one had my spidery senses tingling straight away. I mean I’m not against space exploration, but equally one has to question what the scientific value of launching a memory stick at the Moon would be?

And what guarantee to we have that this group will carry out their plan? Do they have a detailed engineering assessment we could see…or even an engineering team? (Mars one had just one engineer! In its entire four person operation….Apollo redux I doubt!) How about a break down of their budget?…or even a simple Gantt Chart?

Climate of good will
One story you might have missed is that the US and China have struck a deal on climate change. Certainly the actual deal is something of a case of too little too late (it ignores the fact that the US is massively over it previously agreed Kyoto targets already and allows China to see rises in greenhouse gas emissions until 2030) and one has to question how Obama is going to get it passed by Congress.

And I’m guessing the climate deniers in the Tea Party are as we speak, rolling around on the ground and chewing the carpet! :##

However it represents an important milestone as it sees the world’s two largest polluting nations now recognising the fact that they need to limit carbon dioxide levels. This will strengthen the position of the Europeans and greatly weaken the opponents of climate change action (such as the Indians, Canadians and Australians). So while its something of an empty gesture, at least its something.

A fine place to stay
A hotel in Blackpool has managed to discover the unfortunate consequences of being on the receiving end of the so-called “Streisand effect”. The proprietors of the Broadway Hotel, which by all accounts sounds like a typical grotty little Blackpool dive, disgruntled by the continuous bad reviews they’d gotten on sites like Trip Advisor decided to introduce a policy of fining guests £100 if they left a bad review.

Needless to say, a couple showed up, didn’t like their stay, left a bad review and got fined. Of course this brought in trading standards, then the media and then the whole of the Internet. I noticed when this story broke yesterday the hotel had a mere ten reviews on Google, but now has accumulated some 126 reviews, nearly all of them negative, within a few hours.

Under threat of legal action and no doubt feeling the heat of media/internet pressure, the hotel “management” (which I uses in the loosest of ways possible) have now caved in, refunded the money and are presumably hoping the whole thing will just blow over. Incidentally, this mirrors a similar case in America.

The EU and trade

As I’ve mentioned before, the UK’s EU membership and open borders policy is crucial to trade. Restricting this, as UKIP and increasingly the Tories suggest, would have a disastrous impact on the UK economy.

This was hammered home to me last week when I was at a trade show in the NEC. As I walked around the stands, where much high tech stuff was on display, composites manufacturers, 3D printing of metal parts, Graphene, driverless vehicles, I couldn’t help but notice how much of this is dependent on three things – foreign labour (often the boffins behind such ideas aren’t British), foreign investment (ditto the cash paying for it all, you’d be surprised to learn how many firms in the UK these days are owned by foreign investors) and trade with the EU (about 75% of the cars made in Britain are built LHD for export, often using parts brought in from the EU, with many EU cars built with British made parts or designed by brits!).

Consequently if I was foolish enough to bring up the issue of the UK leaving the EU, the response would usually be either denial (:no: oh that would never happen, we’d be broke if it did) or a tirade. And not the usual tirade you’d get from Daily Mail readers of the “u see, the EU costs us 1 trillion pounds a day and wants to let 25 million Romanians claim benefits…”. No more along the lines of “are you mad or what? Do have any idea how many of our staff our European? How many of our customers are Europeans? Or our investors?” So think it was good Farage didn’t show up, unless he fancies being beaten to death by a load of angry engineer’s wielding British made 3-d printed composite crowbars. :))

Take for example an excellent presentation for Manchester University, at the conference on the topic of Graphene and its future applications. Well the lady giving the talk was French (possibly French Algerian or Moroccan I’d guess from her name). The two leading scientists from Manchester, who won the Nobel prize in 2010, neither of them are British. MU have just finished building a £60 million Graphene research centre, and have funding to the tune of a further £60 million. While some of this money is coming from the UK government, this is being matched with funds directly provided by the EU.

I didn’t torment the MU team about Brexit, but that was largely because, as a lecturer, I understand that I’d have been as well off asking them how they thought MU would continue functioning after nuclear war. A vast amount of the research funding that universities in the UK receive comes from the EU. Either directly (often to fund “blue sky” research) or indirectly through various schemes aimed at promoting business development via research. And a lot of our student finance is provided by foreign students (only 11% of students but about 30% of finance for teaching), either from the EU or beyond, which effectively helps subsidise the costs for UK students.

For example, a number of the research projects I’ve worked on have been funded under FP7. This grants money for collaborative research projects across the EU involving universities and businesses. Another research fund I’ve supported, provides direct research support to SME’s. Essentially the EU provides seed money which is matched by businesses and we lecturers provide our time to do the heavy lifting as far as lab work or research activities. It’s sort of a win, win for everybody.

And we are not talking small change here. The succession fund to FP7 for example, Horizon 2020 will dole out some 80 billion euro’s, mostly to academic institutions between now and 2020. Noting that UK universities have been one of the largest net receivers of FP7 cash.

Therefore, if the UK left the EU we would literally be going downstairs to the labs, locking the doors to many of them, and sacking most of our research staff and lab technicians. And keep in mind the universities that would take the biggest hit would be the elite research led universities, notably those in the Russell Group. While I suspect many would survive (most have a substantial endowment fund to rely on), some probably would be forced into radical reorganisation. Inevitably there will be mergers and even closures, with a knock on effect on the local area.

This of course would mean less university places and at higher rates of student fees. Already there is muttering (as a result of recent Tory antics against migrants, which has reduced foreign student numbers) that student fees will have to go up again. In short, the clock will go back 40 years and university education, crucial to getting a well-paid job in the UK, will once again become the preserve of the well off, educated in private schools.

And it won’t just be tens of thousands of unemployed researchers but this would have a knock on effect on the private sector too. As this conference I mentioned shows, the UK, like many EU states has been very successful in “reshoring” of high tech manufacturing technology over recent years. Indeed there seems to be a singularity forming between new manufacturing technologies (such as 3D printing) and topology optimisation with computer simulations, offering the possibility to design lightweight less resource intensive components.

However a lot of these companies are only here because they can access a well-educated labour market and to take advantage of research opportunities with the UK’s universities. Pull the EU rug from out underneath these companies and you’ll be burning an entire generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and engineers, who will avoid the UK like the plague from then on.

Indeed, there is history here. In my field of renewables you will often come across engineers from German or Chinese renewable companies, with North American accents. A little digging reveals they started out their career in the US or Canada, often on federally funded projects, only for the Bush and Harper administrations to pull the rug out from underneath them (for ideological rather than financial reasons). They subsequently left, got hired by a Chinese or German firm who are not profiting from these ideas, as the renewables business is now booming in many countries, even in the UK. So these German and Chinese profits are at the expense of research essentially paid for by the American and Canadian taxpayers!

This is why when the LSE suggests a 2.5 – 9.5% drop in UK GDP as the price paid for leaving the EU, I tend to believe the higher figure. The knock on effects, not all of which the LSE is probably capturing, will be significant. There will also be the fact that it’s sending out a message that the UK is not open for business. Can you see an Indian investor putting money into the UK if he gets the impression that the British are now so bigoted and xenophobic that they can’t get along with people twenty miles across the channel?

And of course the message from the Tories to many professionals (engineers, scientists, etc.) from the EU and beyond, will be that despite many years paying taxes in the UK, they will now not be entitled to benefits, or the NHS and will have to apply for a work permit to stay here. While some lazy BNP voting Chav, whose never worked a day in his life, will be entitled to such benefits? That is about as far removed from a traditional right wing ideology (or indeed any ideology that rewards hard work!) as you can possibly get.

About the only positive for the Tories is that many in the HEI and manufacturing sectors seem to be in denial. They cannot bring themselves to believe the Tories would be dumb enough to risk Brexit. But sooner or later the penny will drop, and the result is likely that many of the very people who traditionally vote Tory will realise that they cannot vote for them now.

Tory promises on tax cuts ain’t going to matter squat if you’re business folds as you won’t be earning anything to pay taxes with anyway! One can only hope the truth dawns on them before the next general election.

Achtung, Bigots!

Last week began with a rather blunt warning from Angela Merkel the German chancellor that the UK might be going “point of no return” as far as remaining an EU member thanks to the antics of Cameron in attempting to appease the UKIP bigot brigade.

It would be useful for Cameron to walk a while in Merkel’s shoes (that way if he say’s anything that makes her angry again, he’ll be several miles away and he’ll have her shoes ;D).

Merkel knows that if she and the EU start conceding on things to Britain, then she’ll have every EU nation looking for this and a lot of the things they’ll want are the sort of thing Germany and Britain don’t want. Also Germany is a federal country. She needs to consider how this will play out in the federal regions of Germany. If she starts making concessions to a foreign country on say, this £1.7 billion bill the British have just received from the EU, and then not give similar leeway to say Bavaria, it would lead to the accusation of double standards…and much use of words such as “Scheibe” or “Arschloch”.

And Merkel’s views were echoed by other EU leaders, even those in Scandinavia who would normally be considered British allies. Conceding ground to the UK on immigration, human rights or this new bill of £1.7 billion is out of the question.

Even the Dutch, who will pay more per capita than the UK, are being clear that they will pay up (they are planning to go over the numbers and make sure its accurate, but they are clear that they will pay what they owe). They didn’t “summon” their EU colleagues, like some mafia don, to an “emergency” summit over a updated bill. I mean I assumed, they’d take this money out of the British rebate. That took my brain about 10 seconds to figure out. One must wonder what went on in this room, as this was pointed out to Osborne, who burst out of there thinking he’s won some sort of reduction, when of course he hasn’t…its just maths doesn’t seem to be his strong point…and he’s the Chancellor! :crazy:

And even here in Britain, Cameron got a frosty reception from the normally Tory friendly CBI. They recognise that immigration is crucial to maintaining a labour market and British membership of the EU is critical for trade. Recent reports from UCL make clear that immigrants from the “new” EU nations (who joined in 2004) represents a £5 – 10 Billion gain to the UK economy. If we count all migrants from the EEA the figure jumps to a gain of £25 billion.

Leaving the EU would (according to the LSE) would cost the UK between 2.5 – 9.5% of GDP (keeping in mind the Great Recession has “only” cost the UK 7% of GDP).

Merkel, like many EU leaders, is also of course a conservative and a believer in free markets. But unlike Cameron or Farage, EU leaders (and the CBI) understand what that means. Restricting immigration, would mean (to put it in economic language) the imposition of a substantial trade barrier. This would be incompatible with both EU common market rules and the normal rules of market capitalism.

And EU leaders know all too well what happened the last time politicians in Europe decided to appease a bunch of loud mouth, right wing national socialists. That ended very badly.

Also, I would argue that a major problem with Merkel, something that became clear during the Eurozone crisis, is that she is a fairly unimaginative politician. I for example would argue that there is a need for reform of the EU. That perhaps we need to get away from a one size fits all membership policy, something which is probably beyond the imagination of Merkel or many current EU leaders.

And most of Merkel’s core supporters are German retiree’s, terrified of anything that will affect their pension or devalue their fixed income. Naturally therefore, she doesn’t want to do anything that will tip the scales radically.

However part of the problem here is that what the Tories are demanding isn’t a negotiation, it’s a hostage taking. Cameron is effectively blundering into the EU with a gun and threatening the EU into doing something his way “or else”. The EU naturally will say no to such demands. A negotiation would involve some sort of quit pro quo. If Cameron is unwilling to concede any ground, then why should the EU help him out with, fears over benefits tourism to Britain?

And in any event a recent Court ruling in Europe in Germany’s favour, could well render this whole thing moot. Of course anyone who followed the statistics would know “benefits tourism” always was a fantasy creation of the right wing media. Either way, it shows that working with the EU is better than the Tory tactic of trying to fight city hall.

There is little point in the UK asking for things the EU can’t deliver. Cameron’s requests regarding immigration and human rights violate not just EU laws but the rules of the Council of Europe, which is a separate organisation to the EU (even Norway, Switzerland and Russia are members). The EU naturally, can’t change the CoE rules, other than the rule that EU members must be members of the CoE (which they would be reluctant to do for what should be fairly obvious reasons). And as I pointed out before, the UK leaving the council of Europe (which would be the only way to satisfy the current Tory/UKIP demands) would put the UK into the same category as dictatorships such as those in Belarus and Uzbekistan.

And recall that the UK either downgrading its EU membership, or leaving altogether would actually play right into the hands of the Eurocrat federalists as it would amount to the taming of the British shrew, as I discussed in a prior post.

Ultimate the British problem with the EU is this insular closed minded xenophobia of some British towards anything foreign. For example I recently sent an invoice to our purchasing department from a European company, for them to pay. After it sat on their desk for several weeks they threw it back at me because they wanted certain “details” from the company…all of which I got from the original invoice! While it contained some French e.g. the address (which would hardly be a surprise, a Belgian company based in Belgium, what are the chances?), the term “lettre” (means letter), but it it was fairly obvious what they were charging for (they put that bit in English!) and it was clear where they wanted the money paid too (BIC, IBAN number’s all clearly labelled as such) and in what currency (speaking of which why don’t the keyboards here have the “euro” symbol on them?). But the finance people seemed to have gone “oh foreign stuff, scary!” 88| and gone into some sort of total brain lock.

Another time, at a different university, I told them I was going to Lithuania for a conference. They started quoting me foreign office advice that was clearly about ten years out of date (i.e. when it was still behind the iron curtain!), which suggested I take dollars and try to barter with locals. I took a wad of Euro’s and waved them at the first taxi driver I met, who took me to a cash machine where I got some of the local currency for my shopping (taxi driver was happy to be paid in euro’s), then paid all the bigger bills with my credit card. Again, there’s this insular attitude that everywhere east of Dover is almost Injian territory.

This I find is all too common of British when they deal with foreigners, notably those from the continent. It’s not the 1500’s. You don’t even have to learn French or German these days (just have Google babelfish handy!). It’s a matter of taking 5 minutes to try and understand other people and not asking for something that can’t be delivered.

Cameron and UKIP remind me of this drunk I saw on a Glasgow street once, having a fight with a bus shelter. He’d keep running into it, swearing at it for getting in his way. Run into it again, fall down and start swearing at it, rather than simply walk around it.

Blundering up to Merkel and saying “eh you fritz, do things our way or else!” and “fritz” will respond by suggesting one should “Verpiss dich”.

No way Pedro?

This weekend a referendum is being held on Catalonian independence. While I certainly respect the view that the Catalan’s should be allowed to choose their own fate. However I do worry if this referendum is more a reaction to austerity policies from the right wing government in Madrid, rather than due to an actual desire for independence. At the risk of sounding like Alastair Darling, but independence is for life not just till we kick out the right wing penny pinching ba$£ards! :))

One cannot help but notice that while Scottish independence has enjoyed support in the region of 30 – 40% for quite a few decades, Catalonian independence rated at less than 30% until the last few years.

And what derailed Scottish independence was the fact that it became clear the SNP hadn’t worked out the basics, such as what currency Scot’s would use or how they would join the EU. Similarly one has to ask the Catalonian independence supporters, if you get independence what currency do you plan on using?

Please don’t say the Euro, because I think you’ll find you have to be an EU member for that. To join the EU would take time, years at the least and that assumes the rest of Spain co-operates. And the noises coming out of Madrid suggest they will not. In the mean time Catalonia would be in economic limbo…or possibly economic freefall. No sane bank nor financial institution could base itself here knowing there was no lender of last resort and the government in Catalonian lacked even the most basic controls over its own economy. Keep in mind here that the services sector is 67% of the Catalonian economy.

Then there’s more fundamental problems, e.g. who will pay the pensions of retiree’s or unemployed persons in Catalonia? The SNP, to their credit, had worked out a plan for this one, but I don’t hear anything from Catalonia. One assumes Madrid would be pretty quick to turn off the tap and that’s going to be hugely disruptive to many people’s lives (as in old dears living on charity and eating cat food sort of thing) and would probably lead to rioting and unrest pretty quickly.

And if the Catalan government plans to pick up the tab, where’s the money going to come from? Can they afford it? Presumably they’ll borrow in the short term, then rely on taxes, but who would lend them money? Scotland had its oil and high value exports to rely on, neither of which are options for Catalonia. It would be likely paying the sort of credit card interest rates Greece was being charged during the height of the Eurozone crisis, which would be unsustainable.

And what about power, water, transportation? Many of these things are administered by companies or state bodies based outside of the region (again, not the case for Scotland), what if the rest of Spain decides to just turn all these services off? One assumes a rather thirsty Catalonian PM will emerge within a few days with a white flag and his tail between his legs.

There are two nuclear power plants in Catalonia, although I can’t help but notice that they are owned by companies based outside of Catalonia. Now in theory, there’s nothing to stop said company exporting power from these plants to Spain (assuming the Spanish pay for it with their Euro’s of course) while Catalonians sit in the dark. One assumes the Catalonians could cease control of the plants and nationalise them, although that in itself opens a can of worms.

One of those “issues” regarding Scottish independence was the topic of nuclear waste. My assumption was that the rUK would agree to take responsibility for such waste. As a nuclear armed state, the UK is obliged by various international treaties to take care of its nuclear material, particularly anything that could have bomb making potential. And given the issues surrounding Dounreay, that would more or less oblige the rUK to do the right thing.

However, Scotland also has four commercial nuclear power stations. One assumes that while the rUK would take over the waste from these plants as well. But it would only be fair and reasonable to expect the Scottish government to pay some, if not most, of the decommissioning costs of these plants (about £2 billion per plant!). As well as paying some additional amount to the rUK to cover its costs for long term disposal and storage costs of said waste. One of the things I was always curious regarding Scottish independence is how the SNP, and their generally anti-nuclear supporters, would react to the dropping of this Lead balloon! 88|

However in Catalonia the situation is very different. Spain is not under the same obligations as the UK and has very limited capabilities to handle its own nuclear waste (which is one of the reasons the country has stopped building reactors) let alone that of what would now be a foreign country. There are btw no waste handling facilities within Catalonia (meaning they couldn’t even operate the plants, nor even safely shut them down without help from Spain!). In theory the Spanish might well just toss the keys to the plant at the Catalonians, tell them it’s you’re plant now…oh and FYI don’t open the doors to the warehouse out back unless you fancy earning an instant suntan! Can the Catalans handle/manage a sizable pile of nuclear waste? What are they going to do with it? How are they planning on paying for its disposal?

Again, I’m not saying Catalonia isn’t entitled to independence. I’m merely asking the awkward questions that I fear nobody in the country is asking. Because if they can’t come up with some answers they’ll either find themselves unable to gain independence, or forced to rely so much on the rest of Spain it will render their independence practically moot.

Rocket Plane Roulette

The crash of Virgin’s Spaceship2 has dealt a profound shock to the so called “Alt-space” community of pro-space activists and companies. It has brought a lot of questions from the mainstream media as to the long term viability of the concept of “space tourism”, which Richard Branson has been trying to promote.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given my engineering background, I tend to be fairly pro-space and think that exploring and utilising space is something our civilisation should be doing. Space exploration has delivered numerous direct benefits, be it GPS navigation systems, satellite communications, weather & earth observation satellites as well as trying to tackle the more fundamental questions of our universe (as Hubble has been very successful in doing). And that’s just the direct benefits. Many indirect benefits range from mobile phones, the internet, solar panels, plastics and other new materials to such things as freeze dried food and dry-flo sportswear can all be traced to research originally conducted by aerospace companies, space agencies or universities in pursuit of space exploration.

But this doesn’t mean I’ve drunk the space cadet Kool aid. I’m pro-space but up to a point. That point being where something productive is being achieved, at a cost that is justifiable. So for example, I have no problem with Mars rovers, but I would question whether sending astronauts to Mars is worth the expense and risk. What exactly are they going to do there that the rovers aren’t doing that justifies such a mission?

And similarly the idea pursued by G. W. Bush in his “project Constellation” to go to the moon and repeat the stunt flights of Apollo, why would we want to do that? This is why from the very beginning some had begun referring to it instead as “project Cancellation”, given the likelihood that a future administration would decide it was unsellable politically and cancel the whole sorry mess (which is of course exactly what Obama did).

Alt-Space has therefore taken the view that space tourism and the private sector would be a better way of funding space exploration. However many have cast doubts on this approach. Given the likely high costs of getting to space, the risks involved, the health and fitness requirements plus the time off to train (most of those who can afford to go are very busy people) it’s questionable how big a market there is for space tourism and its dubious to suggest it could replace the tens of billions that are received each year from governments.

Stratospheric space tourism, of the sort (the perhaps unfortunately named) Virgin “Galactic” and their engineering partners Scaled Composites, are pursuing, was therefore seen as a stopgap measure. Which could then serve as a stepping stone to a wider industry. However even here there were doubts, not least about safety.

It is perhaps worth reading a somewhat prophetic article from 2007 by a Dr Jeff Bell (a space scientists and noted critic of the “Alt-Space” community) titled “Rocket Plane Roulette”. As Dr Bell highlights a major flaw in the concept of stratospheric space tourism is this issue of safety.

The fact is that flying rocket powered planes to high speed is an inherently dangerous thing to do. As an engineer I understand this, but I wonder if many non-engineers realise it. To get an aircraft to attain this level of performance means it’s often pared down to the bone in terms of its superstructure (to the point where it has a very narrow safe flight envelope), loaded with large quantities of highly explosive fuel, and then used to perform flight manoeuvres that are intrinsically dangerous.

As Dr Bell points out the failure rate for such rocket planes in the past was about 1:57. This is actually worse than the combat loss rates for any US aircraft during World War II (with the exception of those flying daylight bombing raids over Germany!). If we eliminate certain classes of accidents less likely to strike a future space tourist flight or unlikely to threaten the lives of passenger, which would include ground accidents, such as a prior Scaled Composites fatal accident in 2007 (which killed 3 people) during an engine test, this still puts us at a fatal accident rate of 1:114.

And before anyone starts ranting about how most of these planes were built in the 50’s and 60’s, yet we now have modern materials such as carbon fibre and new hybrid rocket motors, think again. As Dr Bell points out a hybrid rocket comes with a serious safety flaw in that the pilot can’t perform a complete fuel jettison during a mission abort and therefore would have to try and land fast and heavy, probably beyond the limits of his airframe. In another article, Dr Bell points to the fact that when the design of the sub-orbital DC-X was swapped from an Al-li body to a one made of composites, the result was only a 2% reduction in weight which developed a tendency to catch fire.

In short Dr Bell asked the rather obvious question as to whether you can build a viable business knowing you’ll blow up a plane load of punters every 114 flights. Which if we were to assume say one flight every week, that’s roughly a fatal accident every two years! How many customers are going to be willing to take those sorts of risk? And how costly is it going to be for the operator these repeated accidents?

Of course the pro-space advocates will point to various waivers that those boarding a space tourist flight will have signed beforehand. Dr Bell counters by pointing out that:

“….anybody rich enough to pay $200,000 for 5 minutes in space will have rich relatives, rich business partners and greedy heirs who will not have signed releases. In many cases these associates will not share the passenger’s mania for space and will have opposed the passenger’s decision to fly. Many of them will be able to demonstrate financial or emotional losses from the passenger’s death and will be able to afford good lawyers”

Indeed the libertarian inspired health and safety vacuum that the Alt-space community have lobbied for could become its own undoing. Airlines operate knowing that there is a limit to how much they can be expected to pay out in the event of an accident, limits set by international agreements. Airlines also have insurance policies which help cushion the financial blow of an air crash. Aircraft makers can point to government regulations and standards that they design aircraft to meet.

Space tourist plane makers can’t do any of this. And already Branson, whose only lost staff members not fare paying tourists, is facing questions about the risks being taken with this rocket plane. It is being alleged that rocket experts have, since the previous accident in 2007, been warning about risks inherent in the design of this vehicle, which appear to have been ignored.

That said, I’d argue it’s a little too early in the investigation to start apportioning blame. Anyone familiar with air accident investigations will know it’s dangerous to jump the gun and focus on the first bit of evidence/internet rumour that come by.

Of course it is perhaps this “libertarian” streak within the Alt-space community that leads them to see government as part of the problem. In truth, we wouldn’t have space flight if it weren’t for governments. The vast majority of payloads launched are paid for by governments, commercial space launches are but 21% of the current space industry. The rest are launched by government funded space agencies, research institutes, military or intelligence agencies. Some of these Kool aiders even go so far as to blame the government and its funding of space research for holding them back. Making perhaps unfortunately analogies to “how the west was won“.

Unfortunate because, least we forget, Columbus was in fact operating in the pay of the Spanish crown (of inquisition fame!). As was John Cabot a few years later operating on the pay cheque of Henry the VII. And much of the technology of navigation and seamanship that allowed such journeys, as well as the creation of the Portuguese trading empire were the consequences of funding from “Henry the navigator”.

Also the history of exploration involved several large gaps and false starts. If we consider Eric the red his generation’s Neil Armstrong, then there was a 500 year gap between his exploits and Columbus arrival and a further 200 years before colonists arrived on Plymouth rock.

This probably all explains why Space-X, one of the few Alt-space companies who seem to have their heads screwed on properly (which probably has something to do with its chairman Elon Musk’s habit of hiring ex-NASA staffer’s), has pursued the course they have. They’ve gone for a more conventional liquid-fuelled expendable booster and plan on making the bulk of their money launching satellites for both commercial operators and government agencies. They’ve also secured a contract to launch payloads and possibly later astronauts to the ISS. Technology which could be used to launch a few fare paying space tourists in any spare seats. But clearly Space-X seems to view space tourism as a side business rather than its core business strategy.

In short, if the space cadets genuinely think that space colonisation is a viable possibility (and at present I would question whether we have the technology to do something like this), then they need to come up with a more compelling way to fund and justify it than space tourism. For the reality is that even if space tourism takes off, it will always be a niche industry. The pursuit of a (declining) number of eccentric people with more money than sense, who probably watched way too much star trek as a kid!

Meanwhile, across the pond….

If there’s one thing that worries me about some of the dangerous rhetoric coming out of the UKIP (aka the UK Tea Party) and the Tories these days it’s that we can see all too clearly the corrosive effect that similar rhetoric has had on US politics.

It used to be that Americans were Americans first and politics came second. A friend was telling me how he used to work in an office with two yanks, one Republican, one Democrat and despite this they were good friends, sitting down every Friday afternoon to debate politics back home. Now, thanks to the Tea Party, such debate is impossible. If you’re a democrat then you’re assumed to be in favour of FEMA death camps and Obama’s death panels. If you’re Republican you hold the three G’s – Gun’s, God and Gay’s as sacrosanct. It’s like members of the two parties are from entirely separate species.

Take this story of an employee of a coal company who claims he was fired because he won’t make campaign contributions to the same party of his boss….I’ll let you guess which one!

Or how about the Republican candidate for the Governor of Colorado state Bob Beauprez. He’s so anti-big government, he’s proposed that if elected he’ll cease control of federal land and national parks with a view to selling it to oil and gas industry developers. It was of course pointed out to him that if he ceases such land then that would make him and the state responsible for it rather than the federal government, and the fire protection bill and land management bill for Colorado’s national parks is currently running at about $300 million per year! :crazy: Furthermore I doubt the many tourists who flock to Colorado are going to come all that way to see a coal mine or a no trespassing sign.

Bob’s greatest hits also includes anti-Immigrant policies that make Farage seem vaguely sensible. He’s proposing to deploy the National Guard to the Mexican border. Of course as the less geographically challenged of you will realise, Colorado doesn’t have a land border with Mexico. So in essence he is committing himself to a policy of invading the neighbouring state of Arizona! :no:

So clearly we have a commitment to political policies that are unworkable, unenforceable and would likely have the opposite effect of what is intended. Furthermore it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the top ten employers in the Colorado springs (the state capital) are all government related in some way (Army, federal government, state and county, teachers, etc.). If “big government” gets off Colorado’s back, then that means a lot of this city citizen’s out of a job!

And the term “liberal” is practically an insult in some parts of the US now (if you want a good laugh check out the conservapedia page on “liberal”). And the old assumptions about religious tolerance in the US are a thing of the past, as there is now open bigotry against either Atheists or Muslims. Recent polls have suggested that 40% of Americans would vote against a presidential candidate purely for being Muslim and 43% would not vote for an atheist candidate.

It’s now gotten to the stage where the religion of many American conservatives isn’t Christianity but sticking to utterly insane political positions. There is in truth probably more than a few in the GOP who would privately concede that Obamacare included a few good ideas, that the US needs to tackle climate change and start breaking its oil addiction. And that the anti-science antics of young earth creationists is not doing America’s reputation as a progressive nation any favours, making it hard for the country to hold onto its scientific lead.

Of course were any GOP candidates to actually state any of this in public, they’d be tarred and feathered by the Tea Party. They expect as a given that any Republican candidate will be a pro-gun, climate change denying, creationist who despite probably having been a government employee for most of his life, will be in favour of getting rid of the government altogether.

Similarly back in Britain, can you imagine a Tory candidate who openly suggested that remaining in the EU was a good idea? Well I seem to remember Margret Thatcher, John Major and practically every Tory member of the cabinet in both regimes thought so. Thatcher campaigned in favour of a Yes vote at the last UK EU referendum.

And there are many business leaders who worry about the consequences of any lurch for the EU exit door. Some business leaders have even rated an EU referendum as being “more disruptive to business than a Yes vote in Scotland”. However despite many of these business leaders being conservatives, they dare not speak up for fear of being lynched by the UKIP bigot brigade.

Increasingly the sort of corrosive, insane and polarising politics of the US is taking over UK politics. And in particular this extends to the Conservatives. There is an urgent need for this to be opposed, in particular by those still in the Tory party who haven’t completely lost the plot…and unfortunately if the statements of the last month are anything to go by that no longer includes Cameron, who seems to have drunken the UKIP kool-aid!