Trump Exposed

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I do wonder if Trump pulling out of the debate the other night had something to do with a Channel 4 documentary about him, which revealed some of the numerous skeletons in his closet, something that would inevitably have come up in questioning….Or it could be he’s just an narcissistic egomaniac.

Apparently, not only was he afraid of Megyn Kelly, but he wanted to be paid to show up! I mean if they guy can’t handle some right wing hack, how does he propose to deal with questions from international journalists, such as Jeremy Paxman…..or world leaders like Merkel or Putin? Never has somebody so unfit for high office actually stood for election.

And as the C4 show discussed you have people from his own party lining up to denounce him, literally running from Bill “neocon” Kristol to Glen Beck. Yes, Glenn “I see Nazi’s” Beck thinks Trump goes too far. That’s like the head of the Westboro baptist church calling someone a bible thumping nutter.

There is to say the least, a certain irony to the many blue collar, tea party Republicans flocking to Trump (or Cruz) because “congress lies to them and works for the rich”….so instead they want a rich, megalomanic, draft dodger who has only ever cared about himself and who has won awards for his skills at lying.

Four Bankruptcies and a bailout

As Carly Fiorina pointed out how can you vote for someone who has gone bankrupt not once, but four times. In most countries going bankrupt once automatically disqualifies you from high office. Why? Because it does sort of suggest you aren’t good with handling money and hence we really shouldn’t be putting such a person in charge of tax payers money.

Bankruptcy is supposed to be a matter of last resort, as the damage to ones reputation and credit is supposed to make people think twice, given that others (creditors, employee’s, etc.) will lose money too as a result. Trump has tried to portray it as a set of sound business decisions. But it meant that he reduced his losses, while throwing his employee’s and investors under the bus. In short it suggests he’s not the sort of person who will not lead from the front, but the sort who will hide behind women and children and screw over the very people supporting him at any opportunity. And running from a fight with Megyn Kelly, also doesn’t bode well.

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Also people who file for bankruptcy tend to have skeletons in their closet. In the death throes of their business prior to bankruptcy they may have borrowed money and favour from various shady sources. This leaves the candidate susceptible to possible blackmail in office. And some of Trump’s “shady contacts”, as the C4 program mentioned are extremely dodgy….Let’s just call them “good clean family men”.

That Trump, or his father, would have mob connections should not be a surprise. Back before the FBI crackdowns of the 80’s the mob practically ran many blue collar industries in New York, including construction. There is no way either of the Trumps could put up a building in the city without the nod from one or other of the New York families (whose “turf” it was being built on)….well unless he fancied winding up in the foundations himself!

Indeed one of the main concrete supplier to the Trump Tower complex, was a mob controlled company operated by two well known gangsters, Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno (then head of the Genovese family) and Paul Castellano (the don of the Gambino family, if his name rings a bell its because he was famously gunned down outside a NY steakhouse under the orders of future boss John Gotti).

If there’s one question I’d have liked to see someone ask Trump its “where is Jimmy Hoffa buried”. Because I cannot help but notice that he disappeared around about the same time they were building the Trump tower…..oh and he also frequently uses migrant workers on his construction projects which is sort of hypocritically given his stance on immigration (to those unemployed builders flocking to his rallies, its thanks to people like Trump that your unemployed).

And needless to say Trump’s involvement in Casino’s, notably Atlantic City (a mob haven since the roaring 20’s) should raise all sorts of red flags. Quite apart from the skim” racket (as portrayed in the film Casino), Casino’s offer the mafia various criminal opportunities, from rigged gambling games with high rollers, robberies, loan sharking, prostitution, drugs, etc. Indeed one of the reasons why many US states ban gambling (which does seem a somewhat Un-American thing to do) is precisely because gambling tends to attract “an unsavoury element”.

So needless to say, no way Trump would have built any of those Casino’s unless the local mob knew they were going to get their little suitcases every month. And its likely he’d have had to consult with them if he was going to let it go bankrupt…. not least because a well known mafia trick is to deliberately run a business into the ground while ordering stuff on the company account (which is sold on off the books). The Kray twins used to pull a similar trick with nightclubs and pub’s all the time.

However, many on the right in the US have felt the effects of the Great Recession, much like the rest of us. But rather than consider whether they need to re-evaluate their politics (now that they are the ones dependant on welfare, or in a low paid job) they have, rather typically, opted instead to blame immigrants, foreigners and Obama for the crisis. So they’ve followed the siren call of the loudest blowhard.

Which brings us to what I would argue is the really big issue with Trump – he doesn’t have any actual policies. Once you filter out the racism, the insane posturing and the obviously unworkable (e.g. build a wall and make the Mexicans pay for it….he does understand how dependant the US is on oil, manufactured goods, foodstuffs and other products imported from Mexico or countries further south?), there is nothing that resembles a coherent plan from Trump. Its no wonder Palin has endorsed him, as he’s basically copying her tactic of making a speech made up of a miss-match of folksy patriotic buzz words.

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So voting for him, is voting for government paralysis by an incompetent narcissistic megalomanic with known mafia ties. This will of course in all likeihood have the opposite effect of what his supporters want… not least because it makes it much more likely that Hilary (or Sanders) gets elected, likely because many moderate Republicans hold their nose and vote for her! In short Trump is a Frankenstein monster of the GOP’s own creation.

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Two things you can’t avoid: Tory lies and Stealth Taxes

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The Tories like to portray themselves as the party of low taxes, cutting the deficit and that they are less likely to bring in authoritarian laws than the labour party. However that is contradicted by there actual performance and in particular, by recent events.

The recent living wage is generally seen as a good idea by many. However, the Tories have been tight lipped about how they are paying for it. Well anyone who pays taxes will find out on in April when your NI contributions go up by anything from £150 to £300 per year. Now while generally I’m okay with this, correct me if I’m wrong but doesn’t this count as a tax increase?

Indeed, any time during the labour government Gordon Brown made any sort of a fiddle with tax rates the Tories and the right wing media would be accusing him of implementing “stealth taxes”. Indeed, Osborne actually promised to cut NI rates (again accusing labour of “stealth taxes”).

For this is far from a one off. Numerous sets of taxes have been increased by the Tories, from stamp duty to VAT. The estimate is that the average UK household will be paying £2,000 more per year in taxes. At one point they were even talking of taxing churches. So far from cutting such taxes, the Tories have been responsible for far more significant rises in “stealth taxes” than labour.

And that’s before we even bring up their planned raid on pension funds. Admittedly this will primarily effect higher earners, which is something of a rarity for the Tories as the bulk of their tax increases have hit middle income earners, rather than the better off. Indeed, they very famously cut the 50p tax rate shortly after coming to power. Meanwhile the poor are feeling the brunt of Tory cuts.

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But at least the deficit’s down ya? Actually that depends on what you classify as a “deficit, but certainly they cannot claim to have halved it. Indeed in five years of government they have borrowed more than labour did in 13 years.

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Now okay, the bulk of that spending in the early years was due to the recession. However, this was true of labour (who were running surpluses prior the recession!). The Tories were quick to exploit this rise in borrowing and one of the key promises they made back in 2010 was to bring it down. However six years later and we’re still along way from this. Any sort of deficit reduction now largely depends on a series of events occurring that work in the Tories favour, notably an upswing in the economy. Something that seems unlikely if you’ve been paying attention to recent economic data. And the IMF are worried that fears over Brexit might be behind some of this market turmoil.

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In short, the finances of the UK look little different from those of other nations, indeed they actually look a lot worse. Take the US, where Obama has managed to pull down the deficit while raising public spending and not imposing painful austerity on the US. Indeed its generally been the Republicans who, rather hypocritically, both opposed any cuts that impact on their supporters (such as the loon’s occupying” a Oregon bird sanctuary) or corporate sponsors. And much like the Tories, they also accusing Obama of not bringing it down quickly enough!

And as for more open government, while the rest of us were eating our Turkey, the Tories were sneaking various bills through without any scrutiny from parliament. This included many potentially unpopular measures such as the abolition of student grants, welfare and tax break cuts and yet further cuts to solar power subsidies.

And we also have the disturbing story of asylum seekers being made to wear coloured wrist bands at all times, by one of the private contractor’s the Tories appointed to look after them. I recall joking a while ago, that the way the Tories were carrying on they’d be getting migrants to go around with little yellow stars soon….just to be clear this was a joke, not a policy suggestion!

The reality is that the Tories are the party of spin and hypocrisy. If labour are the party of tax and spend, the Tories are the party of tax and don’t spend, just redistribute the nation’s wealth upwards to the already rich.

English Nation Anthem?

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What song best describes modern Britain?

There’s talk of coming up with an English national Anthem, or indeed even changing the British one. Although this would cause some issues in Northern Ireland. This has led to the media making a couple of suggestions.

Obviously Jerusalem is one option. However, its a very religious song (no way Richard Dawkin’s ever going to sing it!) and actually has a number of Luddite tones (it was a reaction by Blake to Britain’s “dark satanic mills”).

Of course if we want to keep “God save the Queen”, there’s always the Sex Pistol’s version….although that said, I can’t see Cameron singing that one…nor Corybn for that matter!

Then there’s the “always look on the bright side of life” by the Monty Python team. Quirky funny and exactly the song to lose on penalties to Germany singing. But, to quote the Monty Python’s, very silly.

I recall Mark Thomas suggesting Imperial March from Star Wars, as it would scare the piss out of people. You won’t need to drop bombs on ISIS, just play this one and they’ll run away.

Or my personal pick, Fat les – Vindaloo. Written for the world cup in 1998. Its got everything, cheddar cheese, vindaloo, drunks, yobs, makes fun of the French and wonderfully silly. Perfectly sums up modern Britain. And 100% guaranteed to confuse foreigners.

Corybn on defense & media bias

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Converting a ballistic missile sub into a launcher for conventional cruise missiles is not a new idea

This week labour under Corybn were trying to float various policies to address what to do with the Trident submarines if they were disarmed of nuclear missiles. One option which they put forward was to simply send them out armed with conventional missiles, but without the nuclear warheads. Needless to say, the media quickly lambasted this, quickly digging up some disgruntled labour MP’s to ridicule it.

However, is this such a silly idea? A liberally leftie peacenik paper tiger? well no! And you mightn’t want to mention that to the crew of the USS Florida ….at least not while they are within missile range! They operate a SSGN, an ex-ballistic missile sub (which the Americans disarmed of nukes to comply with the latest START treaty) and loaded with cruise missiles carrying conventional warheads instead. The sub carries an incredible 154 cruise missiles, more than enough firepower to really spoil someone’s day.

A UK Vanguard or Trident replacement sub would have seven cruise missiles per VLS, giving a warload of 112 cruise missiles. A fleet of 4 of them could thus launch 448 missiles at an enemy within a very short time period. This would not only do a heck a lot of damage to the poor saps on the receiving end, but they would overwhelm enemy air defences, as even the best defended countries (such as the US, Russia or China) simply do not have the capability to deal with that many missiles simultaneously, particularly if the initial target is in fact those very air defences (this is exactly what the US has used its SSGN’s for in the recently). Needless to say, this would provide the Royal Navy with a formidable capability, one which would be much more useful than the current Trident fleet.

Its a concept known as an “arsenal ship. This was an idea floated by military theorists who questioned why you would want to use an aircraft carrier (which costs billions of dollars) and risk the lives of its crew (in the thousands) to attack a well defended target. Instead, they argued you could simply sail a less expensive ship crammed full of hundreds of missiles (e.g. even just a cargo ship, its holds filled with VLS tubes, operated by remote control) and have it unleash all of them one after the other and devastate the target, all for a fraction of the cost and without risking the life’s of sailors.

Needless to say, once the military took up to the idea, they made a few changes. Using sub’s would allow an “arsenal sub” to stealthy approach an enemy shore, which would increase its chances of survival and decrease the warning to the enemy of impending attack. And, as noted, they were planning to decommission the sub’s anyway, so its not as if it cost them a lot of money. And it ensured that the sub’s were still in service, should the Russians break the treaty and the US decided to re-arm them with nukes.

I would note that there was some opposition to this plan in the US Navy, notably from aircraft carrier and air force commanders, who obviously feared the submarine force were about to eat their lunch. So some opposition from certain sectors of the UK military would only be natural.

An alternative plan would be to re-arm the Trident missiles with conventional warheads. A Trident missile carries up to 14 MIRV’s which can be directed at separate targets within the same geographical area (so 224 targets per sub, in theory). Intercepting a ballistic missile is very difficult, only a handful of states can do this and they would struggle to cope with 14 in bound warheads, nor indeed multiple missiles launched at once (that’s sort of the whole point of MIRV’s!). So again, even with conventional warheads (keep in mind they’ll be travelling at hypersonic speed when they hit) a trident missile is really going to spoil your day. The downside is, that at $37 million a pop, its a bit of an expensive way to take out a couple of ISIS bunkers.

A more serious problem with all of this however, is the response from the UK’s nuclear rivals. The Russians see a load of trident missiles (or cruise missiles) pop out of the North Sea, they don’t know who is launching them, they don’t know what kind of warhead they carry (nuclear, conventional, chemical, a large lump of lead). Indeed they won’t even be sure initially what’s the target. They may well conclude the worst and commit to a nuclear retaliation (against NATO and the US). This is almost what happened in 1995 when the launch of a sounding rocket in Norway was mistake by the Russians for a trident nuclear missile strike on Moscow. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, but that mightn’t happen next time.

In short, a genuine criticism of Corybn’s plan is that he is proposing not so much unilateral nuclear disarmament, but to adopt a nuclear policy midway between Israel (who have nuclear weapons, but are not a declared nuclear power) and Japan (who have the technical capability to become a nuclear power within a very short time period, but have consciously chosen not to do so…unless threatened with nuclear blackmail). Whether the world, or indeed the UK’s NATO allies, would accept this is far from clear. Certainly there would have to be some negotiation and ultimately what policy the UK can then apply to these sub’s will be determined by the outcome of those talks.

So there are some real concerns regarding Corybn’s proposal. What is clear however, is that the media, even the BBC, were very quick to rush to judgement. It would seem that rather than asking some expert (e.g. Jane’s defence for example…headquarters in London), instead, they rang round the usual suspects of Tory-lite labour MP’s or right-wing leaning retired generals (the sort who still think we’re fighting the Germans) and rushed off to print with whatever sound-bite they got, rather than fact checking to see if it was true.

The media simply aren’t willing to give Corybn a fair trial. They will not allow him to air new ideas and seem determined to stoke up rebellion within the labour ranks.

The erosion of public sector work

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With a junior doctor’s strike this week I heard various opinions being expressed (on talk radio or Question Time), mostly by Tory voters along the lines of suggesting that public sector workers should not have the right to strike. They expressed the view that public sector workers have better job security, better pensions and fixed working hours compared to workers in the private sector and should be happy for what they’ve got. I’m afraid that while this might have been true a decade or two ago, its simply no longer the case, as the “perks” of a public sector job have taken a pounding as a result of Tory austerity.

Let’s take the issue of job security. These days a permanent job in the public sector is as rare as hens teeth. Many new entrants to the public sector will be on a temporary contracts. I’d say in most universities for example I’d estimate about half of the staff are on such contracts (this article suggests its closer to a third tho so I suspect it depends which department you are in), representing, I’d estimate, about the majority of recent hires.

Now if your lucky and persevere (like me) and get a permanent contract, that’s not quite as permanent as you’d think. You can still get the sack if certain “targets” are missed, or if your post is simply axed as part of Tory austerity. And keep in mind that about 300,000 public sector jobs have gone since the Tories took power, with another 500,000 under threat. While I’d still argue that job security is slightly better in the public sector….its only that, slightly. And in some sectors its probably a good deal worse.

And those who want to keep there jobs can expect to work longer hours and less regular hours. In many uni’s now lectures are increasingly being held later and later. My timetable stretches to 21:00 potentially (whether the students will show up at that hour I’m not sure!) and lecturing up till 18:00 is increasingly the norm (I’ve suggested 8am starts to compensate, but apparently getting students out of bed at that hour is seen as being impossible!).

This is a major issue, because often the whole reason why some people took a public sector job was because they wanted to fix their working hours. Imagine for example, you’re a single mum, you take a job with fixed hours so that you don’t have to worry about out of hours child care, even though the pay is lower. Then suddenly the boss turns around and tells you that you have to work after school hours and on weekends, how would you feel?

As for pensions, while many older public sector workers are on final salary schemes, most new entrants (such as me) are on less generous career average schemes, closer to the terms of those in the private sector get. And as part of the austerity, the Tories are talking about raiding the public sector pension schemes.

So given all these factors you can understand the frustrations. After all, the pay rates for public sector workers are generally lower than equivalent jobs in the private sector. If I left for a private sector job, I’d could expect at least 10-30% more on top of my basic salary, not including bonuses, company car or other perks.

Inevitably, you start treating public sector workers like private sector workers, take away all the historical benefits of being in the public sector and they are going to start demanding the same salary as private sector workers (with a similar level of experience and education). Or, as in the case of junior doctors, simply refuse such terms as not being what they signed up for when they joined. And its not as if junior NHS doctors are know for idleness or an unwillingness to work at odd hours.

And this is not helped by the fact that the Tories, under the cloak of austerity, are trying to impose a sort of stealth privatisation of certain public services, something that recent allegations involving G4S showed the dangers of. Often this can result in public sector workers having their jobs taken by less well qualified private contractors, who are often on higher pay! So you can imagine the reaction of workers isn’t likely to be positive.

Ultimately Osborne seems to think that just because 25% of the electorate voted for the Tories (once you account for 66% turn out on election night and 37% of votes) this somehow gives them the mandate to tear up contracts and alter the deal for public sector workers.

And speaking of mandate, consider that Hitler had a greater electoral mandate than the Tories currently enjoy (he got 44% of the vote out of a turn out of 88%, giving a mandate from 38% of the electorate v’s the Tories 25%). Did this justify his tearing up of the German constitution? well of course not! Similarly just because you win one election does not give a government the right to undo a raft of policy from previous governments (hence why I suspect a vote to leave the EU will probably face legal challenges), nor does it grant the right to renege on contracts previously signed. If this was a contract for work signed with one of the Tories wealthy donors, they would be sued for such an action and rightly so.

Inevitably, if the conditions for public sector workers worsen, its only inevitable that they’ll start to protest, or demand a higher salary. There is, as it were, a price to be paid for austernity.

Where’s his birth certificate?

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There is growing controversy in the US over the possible ineligibility for the presidency of leading candidate Ted Cruz and Tea party favourite. This is something of an ironic birther twist given what many Tea baggers were saying about Obama. This video from the Young Turks summaries the situation.

For those unfamiliar with the controversy, to be president of the US you have to be “a natural born citizen of the US”. However the constitution is vague about who qualifies. Some argue that just being a citizen born to a US parent counts. Others argue you have to actually be born on US soil. Nobody will dispute the fact that Obama’s mother was an American. And the president’s birth certificate lists his birth place as Hawaii. What the birther’s alleged is that A) his birth cert is fake and B) that you have to be actually born on US soil for it to count.

However what is not in dispute is that Ted Cruz was born in Canada. Hence rather than releasing his birth certificate, he released his mother’s birth certificate (his would be bilingual anyway, and we know how Republicans feel about foreign languages!). Obviously, this implies that even if the Birther’s were right all along, Obama would still qualify.

However, its now being alleged that Ted Cruz’s mother was on the electoral register in Canada at the time of his birth. This is important, because you cannot vote in a Canadian federal election without being a Canadian citizen. And you can’t be a dual citizen of both Canada and America. The implication is that she gave up her citizenship and was technically Canadian at the time she had Ted Cruz – disqualifying him from being allowed to become president. Indeed its worth noting that Mc Cain, Obama’s opponent in 2008, also wasn’t born in the US (in military base in Panama).

Of course what this controversy shows is not just the deep hypocrisy of the American right….such as how they can be pro-life but also pro-death penalty, or what to fight terrorism but not if it means some basic background checks on gun owners. It also highlights the inherent racism within the party. The reality is that all of this Birther crap was just code word for “we don’t want no N****rs in the White House”. And while the Tea Party will welcome Canadians with open arms, Mexicans or Syrians face the threat of being thrown out and treated like second class citizens. Not because they are a risk to jobs or security, but purely because their skin colour doesn’t match with the GOP colour chart.

Life and Death on Everest

I wrote this post sometime ago regarding the recent film “Everest”. It charts the tale of the 1996 disaster, which say twelve climbers killed on the upper slopes of the mountain, with several survivors left severely frostbitten.

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The upper slopes and South East Ridge of Everest

That morning two teams of clients, led by guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer had set out for the summit with their clients in tow. Initially the weather had been good, but several factors led to critical delays. Most notably there had been a failure to place fixed ropes higher up on the mountain, a crucial factor given the limited climbing experience of many of the clients. Some of the worse delays occurred high on the peak just below the South Summit. This is a subsidiary top to Everest about 500 vertical feet below the summit proper. However prior to gaining the summit one has to cross a heavily corniced ridge from the south summit to reach the infamous Hilary step (the most technically difficult part of the climb, just a stone’s throw below the summit proper).

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From the South Summit, the ridge and approach to the Hilary Step

The end result of these delays was that a significant number of climbers ended up stuck high on the mountain, gradually burning into their precious reserves of oxygen, within sight of the summit. The situation was made worse by the presence of a inexperienced Taiwanese team (whom the film fails to include at all) who added to the delay (indeed one of the Taiwanese had died the night before further down the mountain). Hence when the turn around time of 14:00 came, very few actually went down (indeed neither Rob Hall nor Fischer had actually reached the summit by that stage!). Many saw no reason why they should turn back so close to the summit, given that the weather was still fine. However failing to turn around by this time meant it was unlikely they would reach camp IV down on the South col before dark (and likely after their oxygen supplies had run out).

The guides also did little to dissuade their clients, perhaps because both of them had members of the media in their teams (climbing journalist Jon Krakauer on Hall’s team, socialite Sandy Pittman on Fischer’s team). Its probable the guides were reluctant to turn clients around for fear of looking bad for the cameras. And in such good conditions, it would have seemed a bit overly cautious. Also in the case of Rob Hall he was particularly taken up with getting client Doug Hansen to the summit. Rob had previously turned him around at the South summit the year before and was probably reluctant to do so again.

What happens next is a matter of conjecture, depending on whose story you believe, as there have been several accounts and the two people who could answer all these questions – Hall and Scott, died on the mountain. Indeed, this is part of the problem when reading any account of this story, one of the effects of high altitude hypoxia is it impairs brain activity. Its a bit like being drunk, but not in a good way. Imagine the worse hangover you’ve ever had, sit in an ice bath, then have a friend fire a sandblaster in your face and you’ve a pretty good idea what its like being on Everest at 29,000 feet. So all of these accounts is a bit like a group of friends waking up the morning after some mad party trying to figure out how they ended up in a strange apartment, hugging a traffic cone in a strange bed next to some guy called Crutch.

By way of example, there is the actions of Rob’s second in command, guide Andy Harris. While waiting above the Hilary step (to descend) Krakauer asked Andy to temporarily turn off his gas to conserve it for the trip back down. However, Andy instead cranked it to full, leading to the American running out of gas completely. Later on the South summit, while switching bottle’s Andy Harris seemed to be under the impression that all the gas cylinders stashed there were empty. Krakauer, Mike Groom (another guide on Rob’s team) and others in the team all found their oxygen working fine. With hindsight we have to conclude that Andy’s strange behaviour indicates he was probably in the grip of high altitude hypoxia (which is probable if his oxygen wasn’t working properly). And that he needed to descend immediately before he became more of a liability than a help. However it simply didn’t occur to anyone at the time (given their minds was also impaired by lack of oxygen) to do this.

The film itself paints a fairly neutral line, not really taking sides. But in summary, a storm below in. This made the already difficult job of descending off the mountain, all the harder. Indeed for those higher up on the hills any movement became impossible. Its believed that prior to the storm Doug had collapsed from exhaustion somewhere above the Hilary step. Rob had managed to lower his client down the step, but could not move him across the treacherous ridge. At some point Andy Harris had shown up and attempted to assist. It is believed that at some point during the storm, both Andy and Doug fell to their deaths off the ridge (either together or individually, Rob Hall never clarified what exactly happened in his radio calls before he died), leaving Rob Hall trapped alone just below the South summit.

Further down, Scott Fischer and his teams Sidar (lead Sherpa) Lopsang were trapped. The guide had placed a heavy work load on himself, weakening him. With Scott now immobilised, the Sherpa to abandon Fischer along with a Taiwanese climber (Makulu Gau) high on the mountain. Further down still a large group of clients and guides from both teams had managed to get off the slope proper, but the high winds and white out made it impossible for them to reach the tents, forcing them to stay out in the high winds and extreme cold. This resulted in frostbite to almost all those exposed and the death of client Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers being “left for dead” with severe frostbite (he would later stumble into camp under his own power the next day…only to be left for dead again, when his tent blew down in a storm the following night!).

One of the key bones of contention is between Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev and Jon Krakauer. The journalist would criticise the decision of the Russian guide to climb without oxygen that day. While Anatoli had climbed Everest without oxygen on previous occasions, several other experienced guides (who had themselves summit without oxygen in the past) felt that this wasn’t a good idea when guiding clients, as it left a guide weakened and unable to help much. Also (a crucial factor given the delays that morning) climbing without oxygen reduced the amount of time Anatoli could remain “on station” (as you are more vulnerable to not just altitude sickness, but also hypothermia and brain impairing hypoxia), forcing him to practically run down the hill ahead of his clients. Hence when the radio started crackling with word of Scott in trouble, Anatoli was already down at Camp IV.

In the Russian’s defence, he pointed out that climbing without oxygen lulls people into a false sense of security, leading one to climb too high, too fast and beyond what is safe. Indeed it is worth pointing out that the point where all the climbers trapped that night’s condition went from just plain bad to life threatening was generally when their gas ran out. Anatoli’s decision to descent quickly also put him in a position to attempt a rescue of those trapped on the south col, once the weather abated somewhat. Some argue that this justifies his decision, however I’d point out that this was more blind luck. Had the climbers been further up the ridge (rather than a 200m horizontal walk away), he’d have been unable to reach them, would not have been able to make any more than a single trip and would have more than likely become a casualty himself.

Indeed, as Krakauer himself points out, luck had a big part to play in these events. Had the storm struck just an hour later, its possible everyone would have made it down okay. However had it struck an hour earlier, the death toll would have been much higher (probably taking out Krakauer and most of the other survivors too).

Of course one cannot mention the 1996 Everest disaster without the daring actions of Colonel Madan “K. C.” Khatri Chhetri. With great difficulty Beck Weathers and Makulu Gau had been hustled and herded down the mountain as far as camp II by the combined effort of several climbing teams (notably the IMAX team led by Ed Viesturs). However, getting them any lower down would be next to impossible, given that it would involve passing through the notorious Kumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous parts of the route up Everest.

Thus it was decided to risk a daring rescue. While helicopters have flown much higher since then (the French claim to have gotten one to perform a powered touch and go on the summit in 2005) at the time the service ceiling of most helicopters was no higher than 16,000 ft (barely enough to make base camp!).

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The Helicopter rescue from Camp II, taken by Araceli Segarra (climbing with the IMAX team)

So the Nepali pilot was operating his machine well outside its flight envelope, in a valley where his French made AS350 B2 would have been battered by wind vortices in far from ideal flying conditions. Yet not only did the Colonel manage to land and take off in such conditions, he did so twice, picking up each of the two climbers individually (his helicopter had been stripped to the bone as it was, seats removed, co-pilot left back at base camp, barely enough fuel to get him there and back, hence he could only take them down one at a time) before flying them both to Kathmandu.

In the wake of the disaster many questioned the wisdom of guiding inexperienced climbers to the summit of high peaks. Others pointed out that most of the victims were the guides themselves and questioned the sanity of anyone attempting such a dangerous climb. Jon Krakauer even went so far as to suggest banning the use of oxygen on the mountain completely (somewhat ironic given his criticism of Anatoli!). Obviously, quite apart from the issue of how one would enforce such a ban (what are you going to do, put a Nepali soldier up on the south col with a metal detector and an x-ray machine?), statistically guided expeditions tend to have a much lower accident rate than those tackling the mountain according to more traditional lines. While it has to be said that a heavy toil from such teams is borne by the Sherpa’s, who ultimately take on most of the risks, the fact is that the death rate for guided teams is at worst 1 in 10 (likely more like 1:14 for all, but closer to 1:10 for Sherpa’s) while its roughly 1 in 4 for those climbing without oxygen.

Thus if you wanted to make Everest safer, you’d require everyone to climb as part of a larger team, with oxygen, following a single fixed line all the way from base camp to the top. Indeed, one need only look to the other side of the mountain for proof of that. At the very same time a team of Indian climbers were attempting to summit from the Tibetan side of the mountain. Three of them (two had turned back earlier) died at various points during the night. And over he proceeding weeks that summer several more climbers would die, almost all of them part of non-guided traditional expeditions.

So has anything changed since 1996? Certainly one thing did, people started to respect the idea of a rigid turn around time. Few clients need to be told and those who refuse are assumed to be in the grip of high altitude hypoxia and practically subject to a citizens arrest by their guides. But aside from that if anything things have gotten worse. The thirty or so going for the summit that day would now be considered a quiet day by Everest standards in the high season. Two years in a row, there have been mass casualties on the South side. While one can put this down to an element of bad luck, the fact is that a high mountain like Everest is a shooting gallery and the more people you throw at it, the more people will become casualties. Its worth noting that the death rate on Everest makes climbing it more dangerous than flying into space on the space shuttle.

Ultimately one has to watch this film and question why anyone would want to climb Everest. After all, there are plenty of far nicer and far more challenging mountains in Nepal that don’t have the same lethality (Ama Dablam, Jongsong Peak, Lingtren, Dhaulagiri or Cho Oyu). Far from being impressed by someone who claimed to have climbed Everest, I’d question why they went to all that trouble and risk just for some bragging rights.

Why rednecks need to learn some history…and maths!

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One story that the media seem to be missing out on over here is the occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon by a group of self-styled “militia who are threatening to remain there until some vague demands about “big government” are met….indeed they’ve not really been very specific about what their demands were.

Initially they said something about getting two people jailed for arson released (but both disowned any connection between themselves and this group) then they made some comment about wanted to see federal land returned “to the local community”. This relates to a libertarian myth that the government is bared from owning land (not actually true!) and that people can just take over land and ignore the government simply by choosing to do so.

And what do the local community think? They are in fact urging the FBI to go up the mountain and kick these inbreed redneck racist’s out. There two main industries in the local town, tourism and the various federal contracts that arise from managing the national and state parks nearby. Needless to say these “militia” threaten both businesses, indeed the main occupants of hotels right now are FBI agents and journalists, not tourists. Those who work in the refuge can’t return to their jobs, so you can understand local frustrations.

What these “militia”, or indeed most libertarians, don’t seem to understand is that with ownership comes responsibility. If the “local community” owned the land then they’d be responsible for it, and that means paying a lot of costly bills (road maintenance, flood protection and water management, wildlife protection, etc.) notably the cost of protecting it from forest fires (a costly bill, in the order of many million of dollars a year). This is the whole reason why the US has this thing called “the National Parks Service”. They manage large amounts of public land on everyone’s behalf. And crucially, the bill for their services is paid nationally (i.e. spread out across the country with everyone paying a fare share of it) rather than burdening a handful of locals with these costs.

One also has to mention the stand off in Oregon over various environmental issues. Ranchers and loggers want to be allowed to clear cut land, but both state and federal authorities oppose this. In part because of the obvious environmental concerns, but also because if the logging was allowed to continue, then they’ll eventually run out of trees and the industry will collapse anyway. And clear cutting forests also increases the risks of flooding downstream (a cost the government needs to pay for) amongst other things. So authorities have been trying to encourage more sustainable forestry in the state, but that seems not to compute with those who are allergic to the word “sustainable”.

Something that these “militia” driving around in their luxury SUV’s whining about “big government” don’t seem to get is that few are more dependant on welfare than those who live in rural areas (indeed many of this very group are ranchers who are in receipt of federal subsidies). As I mentioned in a prior post many Republican leaning states in the US tend to be net receivers of government money, with many democratic states being net contributors. Well we can iterate this down further. If you live in rural areas (where voters tend to lean to the right) the costs of providing public services tends to be a lot higher per person than in the cities (which tend to vote democrat). And of course wages (and hence tax revenues) tend to be higher in cities, than in the countryside.

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While its a bit of a generalisation, but in most western country’s there tends to be a movement of money from the cities to rural areas via the government. The logic is that we all use the countryside either directly (e.g. when you go for a hike or use roads in rural areas) or indirectly (water management, farm produce, etc.) and it would be ludicrously unfair to expect those living there to cover all the costs. And we only have to look at developing nations to see what the consequences of these libertarian policies would be.

You might well hear NGO’s who work in third world countries talk about “the rural poor”. This reflects that in the developing world, they don’t have a “big government”, nor a national parks service, nor a department of agriculture doling out farm subsidies. So people in rural areas tend to be exceptionally poor, even by the standards of a third world country. Many have a precarious existence, surviving via subsistence farming in living conditions little changed from the middle ages. And when their luck runs out, they end up being forced to migrate to massive shanty towns on the outskirts of the cities, often getting piss-poor jobs making things….such as those nice winter woolies these militia types are wearing!

So if I could think of any advice to these militia men, why don’t they go live in a Favela for a few weeks and then see how they like that? Or maybe they just migrate to Somalia. If libertarians were right Somalia, which has been without “big government” for decades would be the wealthiest country in the world. Instead its one of the poorest and most dangerous places in the world.

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And here in the UK we see the same thing playing out. You would think that anyone who works or lives in the countryside should vote to stay in the EU. The UK receives billions a year in farm subsidies, which we will lose if the UK leaves. Farming bodies have pointed out that this would likely lead to the end of certain types of farming (notably hill and cereal farming).

Well a number of euroskeptics are trying to con those in rural areas, all too aware about how they can push certain buttons with people here (as in the US the countryside tends to vote conservative in the UK and the towns lean towards labour), into voting for the UK to leave….even though this would devastate these communities.

As discussed before, stirred up into a frenzy by various right media pundits (who are also perhaps ironically dependant on a particular form of welfare) many on the right are gripped by the urge to “act out” their political fantasies….much like how serial killers get caught up with similar urges!

Is Star Wars racist?

And since we’re talking about Star Wars “The Space Show”, a US radio broadcast that deals with topic related to the space industry or space exploration and research, broke from its normally schedule to discuss the politics of star trek with Timothy Sandefur. It was quite an interesting discussion, which is worth listening too.

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The Politics of Star Trek

In the show they discuss how Gene Roddenberry and the production staff were mostly veterans of WW2 and of course writing with the back drop of the cold war and how these factors influenced the development of the Star Trek. The Federation is clearly modelled on some sort of alliance of democracies, a kind of hybrid of the EU and NATO that held at bay the Soviets. Of course in Star Trek the Klingons (based on Japanese warrior culture) were the main enemy.

In the second hour however, with the new star wars film on the horizon, they turned to the differences between Star Wars and Star Trek. Apparently one of the maxim’s of Gene Roddenberry was that everything had to be founded in science. He was willing to give the writers some leeway when it came to what was and wasn’t scientifically possible, particularly given possible future advances or technology available to a much more advanced species. But otherwise he would veto any script that seem to rely on a supernatural explanation. In other words, no space wizards and “using the force” like in Star Wars.

Of course there are many who would still classify Star Trek as not really true science fiction (as the science of Star Trek is a bit thin), but its certainly a word of a difference from Star Wars which is basically Arthurian legends in space. But one of the other differences was the politics. Star Trek had much firmer ideas about what and how a future society might work, which one can agree or disagree with (some libertarians seem to think the federation is communist) whereas Star war lacks this.

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Star Wars goes for the usual “bad” or “good” formula. Its fairly authoritarian, with only a handful of all the core characters making all the decisions (and that’s only the good guys!), includes lots of racial stereotypes….and it tolerates slavery. Think about it, the droids in Star Wars are capable of rational thought, they have feelings (we see one being tortured in Jabba’s palace) and yet they have no rights whatsoever and can be bought and sold like washing machines. Ultimately, star wars is authoritarian and racist!…..Although its not as racist as some other Disney movies.

Star Wars Review – the Profiteer’s Awaken

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I got to see Star Wars over the holidays and unfortunately it confirmed what I’d feared, J. J. Abrams has made an even bigger mess of the Star Wars universe than the mess he made of the Star Trek universe. How can he do any worse than blowing up Vulcan you say? Well let’s just say he likes to blow up planets! The plot was way too predictable, almost a remake of the first film….and by that I mean a New Hope.

And its not as if they were short of good material for a more interesting script. One key question for the fans was whether the new film would tie into the so-called “Expanded Universe”of star wars. This relates to a large volume of material built up by other projects, TV series, web series, computer games and the novels of authors such as Timothy Zhan which expands beyond the films. The Zahn novels in particular extend matters 25 years past the battle of Endor. In these novels he introduced a number of new characters, such as Han Solo and Leia’s children, Mara Jade (who initially starts off as an enemy of Luke, but eventually becomes his wife, making her a much more credible character compared to the “good/bad guy” template of most star wars characters) or Admiral Thrawn (a military genius and major villain in the post-Emperor era).

So clearly had they simply adapted some of the expanded universe material, or built on it, a much more compelling script could have been established. And in some respect’s I would argue that what they did was simply plagiarise the Expanded universe….badly! Kylo Ren is clearly based on Darth Caedus of the expanded universe, Rey is clearly based on Raina (oh! Spoiler alert, this means they may be shown to be related in the next movie!) and the “first order” is clearly based on the Imperial Remnant of the novels.

I can only assume the plan was to rip off the expanded universe to save them the bother of having to write a script, but change enough to save them having to pay royalties to the likes of Timothy Zahn. It is, to say the least, strange to be trying to avoid spending a little bit more on a script for a film with a budget in the hundreds of millions. Its like doing the Harry Potter films, but to avoid paying J. K. Rowling her cut, changing his name to Parry Hotter and his adventures in Doghorts university and his sidekicks Helminey Vixen and Dom Working-class-weasel.

This isn’t going to go down well with fans because one of the nice things about the expanded universe is that made some attempt to fill in the enormous plot holes in the movies (some of my favourite ones here). e.g. why did the Empire collapse so quickly just because the Emperor died?

Well in the expanded universe the Empire faced almost as many internal threats from rogue Admirals and corrupt Grand Moff’s as it did from the rebels. Recall the main reason the Emperor wanted the Death Star was to keep his own minions in line. At the same time as the battle of Endor, the aforementioned Admiral Thrawn was hunting down the rogue Admiral Zaarin who had attempted to usurp the emperor’s throne. So two of the Empire’s most elite units were too busy fighting each other to fight the rebels. Inevitably, with the Emperor and Vader gone, there was nothing to hold the Empire together and it gradually disintegrated. In the Expanded universe, it didn’t disappear straight away, it took the rebels several years to push them out of the core systems and a large Rump state called “the Imperial Remnant” still existed 25 years after Endor.

Okay, still a bit rusty, but better than the movie explanation, death star blows up… likely killing all the Ewoks (a primitive race of spear throwers who managed to take on an army with tanks and guns? don’t get me started!) and rendering their planet uninhabitable….empire over, cut to the after party.

But suffice to say that the new movie has opened up so many obvious plot holes its going to be impossible to fill. Once I saw Chewbacca it was obvious that the Expanded Universe had clearly just been flushed down the toilet (oh, spoiler alert, he’s supposed to have died 5 years prior to the events in a Force Awakens…so presumably he’ll be killed off in the next movie). And the plot of the new film is so formulaic and predictable I could pretty much tell you the plot of the next two films right now.

This is unfortunately the consequences of the modern mass media. Where the plot is altered for marketing purposes (why do you think they put all those Ewoks and Droids in? So they could sell toys!). Consider the changes already made to the original Star wars films. Indeed the reaction of Star Trek fans to J. J. Abrams first film has been to devote more efforts towards “fanfiction”, essentially the fans have taken over the story.

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Such films are getting ever more elaborate. A major Star Trek feature film called Prelude Axanar” is actually being produced via kickstarter funding, which the studios are trying to stop for violating copyright.

This suing your fans is generally a bad sign. It reminds me of the fate of TSR. They were a wargaming company whose products were very popular in the 80’s, but not very profitable. Anyway a number of suits took the company over and began to aggressively market their products, including sending out cease and desist notices to fans who published their own content for free on the internet. Needless to say they quickly alienated their best customers and eventually the company collapsed, being rescued by a rival, whose first course of action was to introduce an open gaming license on their products.

The Force Awakens is therefore another example of a script written by corporate marketeers and a triumph of style over substance….not that there was much substance in Star Wars anyway, which has always been more space opera rather than science fiction (hyperdrives? The force? Blasters? And don’t even get me started on exhaust ports!). But suffice to say the next two films will be more of the same, big explosions lots of CGI, until audiences loose interest.