News roundup

I’ve been off on business for the last few weeks, hence the long silences. So, while I deal with the jet lag, I thought it would be a good idea to give a rundown of events that caught my eye while I was away….

The darling buds of May

So the big story has to be the most predictable, May’s resignation. She leaves office being widely acknowledged as the UK’s worst ever prime minster…although that said, give PM Boris a year or two!

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Now many will say this is unfair, it should be Cameron who claims the wooden spoon. After all he got us into this mess in the first place. To which my reply is that he’s certainly the 2nd worst (as things stand), but she’s in a mess of her own making. As one observer commented, it took her three years to learn the meaning of the word “compromise”. In fact, as RTE have pointed out, she was fully aware of the implications of brexit on the NI border during the EU referendum (citing it specifically as one of the reasons she was voting remain).

And she’s also the architect of the hostile environment that led to the Windrush scandal (and the impending scandal of EU citizens being stripped of their rights). Yes May was dealt a terrible hand, but as Owen Jones puts it, she was the one who decided to douse it in petrol, set it on fire and then try to play a game of bluff with the EU.

Of course the problem for the brexiters is that removing her doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change the parliamentary arithmetic. It doesn’t make the EU more likely to supply free unicorns. It doesn’t magically solve the problems at the NI border. If anything it makes all of these problems worse. And with Boris now being subpoenaed to appear in court over brexit, that’s assuming he doesn’t perjure himself and end up in jail rather than number 10!

Ultimately those who live in glass houses can’t throw rocks. They’ll have to now own brexit and bare its consequences. They can’t just rely on May to get it through and then blame her for everything.

Corruption in UK elections

Newspapers in the west are very quick to cast doubt on the integrity of elections in developing world countries (the recent Indian election being a case in point) but very slow to recognise the same issues in a western nation.

An example of this hypocrisy can be found in the recent UK elections. We have all sorts of reports coming out as regards the brexit party’s financial arrangements. And Farage himself has been directly paid large amounts from various (tax dodging) business associates, a clear violation of both electoral rules and the EU’s code of conduct as regards MEP expenses (so his pitch is, the EU is corrupt, so elect me I’m even more dodgy). There’s even been a raid against the brexit party HQ, and one of his aides was arrested last year for money laundering. Two stories most of the media (certainly the BBC anyway’s) ignored.

Farage Cottrell UKIP scandal

Meanwhile EU citizens who showed up to vote in the EU elections (as they are entitled too) were turned away by pro-brexit bigots running polling stations and told to go home and vote in their own country. They’d even systematically gone through the electoral registers and crossed off any EU citizens. And keep in mind a number of these EU citizens had shown up with polling cards or written proof from their councils allowing them to vote. Court cases are likely and the likelihood is the government will have to pay compensation (how would brexiters feel if the situation were reversed? Change UK or the lib dems did something and the government had to pay out millions, the Daily Mail brigade would be having kittens).

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Awkward

And this also on the back of a media that basically turned into Farage TV for several weeks, while pulling episodes of a light hearted comedy sketch show because the head of Change UK was on it. Again, imagine this was some African country and we were told how the ruling party and its allies were openly taking bribes, censoring the media and preventing those from ethnic groups who supported their rivals from even voting. Would we call that a free and fair election?

EU elections: all change?

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But inevitably the EU elections when they way I expected. While yes the brexit party finished first, add up the remain parties and they outperformed it by at least 10%. Chuck in the labour party votes (90% of whom support remain) and there’s a clear majority in favour of remain. But of course this is not the story that was reported. Instead the media fawned over Farage and his “victory”….which is considered getting 31% of the vote (dropping the bar a bit from the 37% with the EU referendum, next thing you know if he can get everyone in a pub to vote for him, he can become king).

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And what a gallery of ghouls we’ve seen elected. I mean one of the brexit party’s MEP’s is a Scot (who now represents a Southern English region) who lives in the south of France. They want brexit for everyone else, except themselves. Or Widdecombe who thinks science will be able to “fix” gays (well its an improvement from pray the gay away I suppose!).

But yes, as I expected Change UK simply split the remain vote and acted as a spoiler, ultimately gaining no seats. This puts them at a cross roads, more so given that they seem to now have split in two. As I see it they have two choices. Firstly its a merger with the lib dems (the likely fate of the six who just left). Given how the UK electoral system works (i.e. most unfairly!), there’s no room for two centrist left leaning parties (nevermind three of them!). Every vote for Change UK is equivalent of a vote for the Tories. So it makes sense to form a single party with the lib dems, who are now clearly the go to remain party.

The alternative is to shift to the centre right. Think about it, most of Change UK are ex-Tories or ex-blairites (one of my relatives, a Tory voter, used to describe Tony Blair as “the best conservative PM the country ever had!”). It makes sense for them to be in a right wing party, rather than sharing the bed with a bunch of wishy, washy liberals. One also needs to consider what’s going on in the Tory party.

Its clear that the Tory plan post-May is to elect a hard brexiter and try to out UKIP UKIP. But this has been their strategy for the last ten years and its failed. There will always be someone at the extremes of the far right who will be able to outflank them (or willing to tell more outrageous lies). Constantly shifting to the right is what’s gotten the GOP into the mess its now in with Trump. Sooner or later something’s got to give.

Young voters are turning against the Tories (and the GOP) in droves (which explains May’s sudden road to Damascus conversion to support the abolition of tuition fees as part of a desperate effort to court young voters…recall how she told Corbyn there was no magic money trees to pay for that last election!). It might be mathematically impossible in a few elections time for them to ever win an election again, simply down to demographics. And brexit threatens to create a mess that will wipe the Tories out for a generation.

So while Change UK might not win any elections any time soon with a shift towards the centre right. A “sane” party of the right might have a good chance of becoming a major force long term. Although it obviously means I won’t be voting for them!

Crying wolf on a people’s vote

Meanwhile, after labour ended up in 3rd place behind the lib dems, Corbyn promised labour will now back a 2nd referendum….same as he’s promised dozens of times before. Recall he’s helped the Tories deliver brexit on dozens of occasions. Yet despite his repeated promises, he’s yet to do a single thing to actually push the country towards a 2nd referendum, contrary to what the labour party agreed at conference a year ago. I’d call it Corbyn crying wolf, but at this rate I’d be fearful of being sued for deformation by the wolves and shepherds union for unfairly comparing them to Corbyn. And predictably he’s now backtracked on his remarks since then.

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Actions speak louder than words, until we see some concrete action from Corbyn, we have to assume he’s not going to do anything to oppose a Tory brexit. And even in the absence of a further vote in parliament there’s lots of things he could do. For starters he punished remainers for backing a people’s vote (such as Hilary Benn or more recently Alstair Campbell, not one of my favourite people, but he was recently expelled from the labour party for voting lib dem as they back a people’s vote), yet ignored Kate Hoey (who voted and campaigned for the brexit party) John Mann or Laura Flynn-Bailey (both still on labour’s front bench despite defying a three line whip on brexit). So fairness would dictate he should could kick them all out of the party too.

And as leader of the opposition there’s all sorts of tricks in can pull on a Tory government who lack a majority (filibustering, repeatedly calling for votes of no confidence, refusing to let the most basic of legislation pass, basically shutting down the government until he gets his way). Until we see such action (which we won’t, Corbyn wants brexit to go ahead more than he wants to be PM, he showed that at the last election) then I’m sorry, its the same old BS from him as before, I’d ignore it.

Investigating the investigators

Meanwhile, in a move befitting a Kafka novel, Trump has responded to the efforts to impeach him by instructing the US intelligence community to investigate the investigators. He’s even now threatening allies that they must co-operate with this investigation/coverup. Again, imagine we heard a story about this in Putin’s Russia, or China, with said leader being described as acting like a mob boss by his closest advisor’s, how would the media react? Yet Trump supporters will just ignore this and cheer him on.

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And this is not an idle point. I’d argue now that it almost doesn’t matter what’s in the unredacted Mueller report now (and it certainly doesn’t exonerate him, even without the bits blanked out, interesting break down of it here from an actual lawyer). The cover up and these efforts to prosecute the prosecutors is far more serious. Keep in mind that under most legal systems charges like conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perverting the course of justice often carry a far heavier sentence than the actual crime itself. And for good reason, as otherwise you’ll end up with a flawed justice system.

And that flawed, biased justice system seems to be what the Republicans are aiming for, as vividly demonstrated in their efforts to overturn Roe v’s Wade. This goes way beyond the abortion debate. If Roe v’s Wade can be overturned, then so too can pretty much anything else, equality laws, environmental legislation, workers rights, due process, etc. Even gun ownership and property ownership laws can also be overturned (somehow the GOP seem to be forgetting that!).

Trump might not be a dictator (yet) but he’s certainly setting things up such that a future president could become one. And that should be as worrying for a republican as a democrat. Consider that any future democrat need merely point to climate change or a series of spree shootings or the excesses of Wall street, invoke the Trump rule and declare a national emergency and effectively rule by decree.

Huawei

One of Trump’s recent outbursts was directed at the Chinese firm Huawei over allegations that it might be building in “back doors” into its hardware which would allow the Chinese government to spy on people. Now there is some cause for concern here, but the US government has literally acres worth of computer servers which it uses to spy on US citizens and it has a world wide network of spy bases. So this is pot calling the kettle black territory. America’s position seems to be “you can’t spy on people….that’s our job!”.

Tempest-Echelon-

America’s Echelon spying and eavesdropping network

Also some of the specific allegations against Huawei, that they can bury a chip onto something that can somehow create a backdoor and do so while remaining completely undetected, that all seems somewhat dubious. Some suspicious software has been found on their devices in the past (described as “NSA style” spyware, irony meter to maximum). So its not impossible, but the very fact it was detected pretty easily should show how hard it is to do undetected. In fact it would not come without risks to the Chinese. If such “backdoors” were discovered (and there’s lots of IT nerds out there who spend their time breaking down hardware) then they could be used to attack Chinese government computers. And if you know how paranoid they are about IT security in China, you’d realise its highly unlikely they’d be willing to take such a risk.

So while there are some legitimate causes for concern here, they go well beyond one company. I’d be just as worried about what Facebook, Google and the US government are up to as I would a Chinese company.

British steel collapse – the blame game

British steel has now entered into insolvency. This is a key moment in the UK’s industrial history, as British steel (whom I used to work for) has long been something of a canary in the coal mine for the UK’s manufacturing sector. When its been doing well, the rest of manufacturing has been doing well. Its doing badly, bad news is coming. And now that its collapsed…..brace for impact is all I can say!

British-Steel-Sign

And of course, the blame game starts. The brexiters blame the EU for its pesky environmental laws, which stop them from just polluting as much as they like. While it is true part of British steel’s woes have come from EU carbon credits, this ignores the fact it had a surplus (which it sold) and much of the problem here has been down to the Tories dithering on brexit (which saw the company’s carbon trading position suspended, hence why the government had to provide compensation, another of those hidden brexit costs). Furthermore, the UK is supposed to be sticking to the Paris climate accords post-brexit. And given that the UK will be well behind as regards its carbon commitments post brexit (we kind of get a pass at the moment because other EU countries are doing so much better), its inconceivable that British steel could avoid being forced to cut emissions drastically.

Corbyn and the lexiters blame the EU’s competition rules that would prevent nationalisation of the company. However that’s not true, the EU’s rules don’t prevent the UK government providing emergency loans or a temporary nationalisation. That’s allowed, so long as you can prove the company can sustain itself long term without any state aid (that is effectively the EU’s squeal point, when you start pouring public money into a bottomless black hole).

And both the Tory and labour brexiters fail to mention that the reason why the EU has those rules is because of WTO rules (you know they ones they want to trade on post brexit). The problem for the EU would be that if the UK (or any other EU nation) nationalised its steel industry, other countries (notably the US, Japan & China) would kick up stink and open a trade dispute, which the EU would then have to settle. Post-brexit, the only difference here is it will be the UK who’ll directly have to deal with these countries, rather than the EU.

Of course inevitably, while it would be unfair to entirely blame the companies collapse on brexit, certainly brexit and in particular the uncertainty factor has to be blamed. British steel’s woes are largely down to a drop in demand for its products, notably from the car industry (citing similar woes about brexit uncertainty) and fears about future tariffs should the UK leave the EU without a deal. So the blame for this lies squarely at the door of number 10 and its constant dithering.

GoT – hammer me a plot

So we’ve had the ending for GoT, not that I actually watched it (one reason I’m glad I was away). I’ve long since given up on it. I’d rate series 5 passable, 6 bad, 7 terrible and 8 unwatchable. I mean what with coffee cups popping up in frame its clear the production crew & cast had given up caring, they were just going through the motions.

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Well at least Velcro girl got her coffee, while Plot armor hangs out with his mates!

But any way’s, so the North gets its independence…even thought one of the Stark’s gets to rule the other 6 kingdoms (including Dorne, which is supposed to be semi-independent). This is equivalent to Scotland getting independence but then insisting that Alex Salmond gets to be PM in Westminster. Or wanting out of the EU, but with all the benefits of staying in, as well as insisting on having Farage as EU president for life….of course the scary thing is that this is pretty much what the hard brexiters DO want.

But either way, my point is that the problem here was clearly bad writing by show runners who do not understand medieval politics, warfare (e.g. repeatedly armies were deployed in front of castle walls rather than on top of them!) or medieval society. And who also clearly weren’t familiar with the source material (I’m guessing they didn’t even bother to read the books). Hence they painted themselves into numerous corners and then plot hammered their way out of the mess, creating another one, which they then plot hammered their way out of that.

Case in point, the ultimate storyline seems to be that the true villain of the story was Bran (no wonder the night King wanted to ice him! He was bad but he wasn’t Bran bad!). Bran must have foreseen everything in this and last season and could have prevented it by telling people (Jon all your battle plans are crap, Dany FYI, don’t fly your dragons north of the wall, Night King’s on the white walker’s javelin team, oh that pirate bloke’s going to ambush you so watch out for that, Cersei’s put pots of wild fire everywhere in KL, oh and she sleeps tonight in the 4th floor of the middle tower, fifth window along). The only obvious reason why he didn’t warn anyone was because he wanted these things to happen (and millions to die) so that he could take over. Merely one example of the consequences of such terrible lazy writing.

Fans apparently have a petition out looking for a do over (ya, like that’s going to happen!). However someone is already writing a more competent ending. You might have heard of him, he’s called GRRM. Now his ending might be very similar (hence if your problem is that you fundamentally don’t like the ending, you might not like his either). But I suspect his will be better written, more detailed and make a lot more sense. Although that said, he has changed his mind about the ending he’s planned in the past, so he might change it again.

Some worry he won’t live to complete such an ending. I say they are being fatalistic. He’s only 70 and I’ve had relatives who lived will into their 90’s and they smoked and drank heavily. He’s got some time left. And no doubt he’s got some competent understudy who can take over.

So my suggestion to fans is that you consider all of the GoT episodes since series 5 (which is about where they ran out of book material) as essentially non-canon. Star wars legends stuff or the Kelvin timeline equivalent in Star Trek. If it makes you feel better imagine that the last scene in the last episode in season 8 shows Tyrion waking up from a deep sleep. He realises he’s still in Meereen (under siege from the slavers alliance) and he’s just had a rather long and lucid dream.

Mickey mouse degrees

One other story which slipped under the radar, is that of a UK graduate successfully suing her university over the quality of its degree. This could have some very damaging potential. As the graduate points out, her university experience failed to live up to the expectations (reduced contact hours, staff on temporary contracts who then left in the middle of a course, etc.). Given that universities are increasingly being run like a business (something also cited in this case) that means that they have to bare the consequences of false advertising and failing to deliver the quality of the degree promised.

A public body (who doesn’t charge for its services, or certainly not the full cost) can get around this to some extend, as it can cite government policy. But a business can’t do that. If you promise an undergraduate X, Y and Z and don’t deliver, then potentially (not always) they can sue for compensation. And this graduate got £61,000. It won’t take many more to do the same to start bankrupting universities.

So this should serve as a warning to UK universities, they desperately need to change policy. Not only are treating students like commodities, but they are also doing the same to staff. You want high quality teaching, you have to pay for it and give the staff the long hours needed to deliver modules effectively. Instead what’s happening is lecturers are often recruited on the basis of their research profile (so you could be crap at teaching or not even able to speak English and they’ll still hire you over an experienced lecturer).

HR will often skip over a candidates teaching qualifications and only focus on recruiting on the basis of research publications (which is bad metric as often a lot of that research might have been done by PhD students, with the professor just adding his name to it). The new lecturer will then be given some massive unrealistic research target, on top of their teaching load, knowing that they will be assessed more on the basis of research than teaching.

What happens next? They dump the teaching load onto some post-grad student (who knows even less) and the students have to fend for themselves. And btw I’ve heard of lecturers, who were knocked back for promotion (on the basis of not hitting research targets), who say they were advised to do as much by management. Inevitably you treat lecturers who show up for class or give two hoots about their students as playing hooky, then teaching quality is going to nosedive. And such a policy will henceforth prove costly.

And universities need to be more upfront with students about their funding and staffing problems. i.e. that they are being squeezed from multiple directions right now and the brexit impasse (which is causing research funding and student numbers for the EU to fall) is hardly helping. I often find students are a lot more accommodating if you are up front with them. In fact they’ll often propose solutions.

Congestion charge

Finally another story doing the rounds was a spate of deaths on Everest, which are being blamed on overcrowding including two Irish climbers. There’s been a number of deaths over the last few days, in fact they’ve now exceeded the numbers killed in the infamous storm in 1996, catalogued in numerous books and movies (notably Jon Krakauer “Into thin air”). What was seen as an oddity then is starting to become routine.

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Those who aren’t climbers might find this one difficult to understand. Why don’t they just agree a schedule at base camp to make sure summit attempts by the different teams don’t clash? Well the thing is, they do. The main weather window for climbing Everest is between the end of May and early June, between the end of winter and the arrival of the Monsoon’s. So typically, before this weather window opens, the teams at base camp will all have a sit down and plan out who is going when (and who is going to lay the fixed ropes at different sections, who is going to manage the Kumbu Icefall, etc.).

The trouble is that those plans tend to fall apart upon contact with the mountain. Teams get delayed ascending (due to weather, avalanches or illness), or they get stuck at high camps and miss their planned summit date. Note once you are in the death zone, even if you are running on oxygen (and they’ll sleeping breathing it too), you’re on the clock. You can’t acclimatise to those sorts of conditions (in essence you’re gradually dying, this is why its called “the death zone”) and that O2 supply ain’t going to last forever (and its probably taken the sherpa’s several weeks to haul all of those cylinders up from base camp). In short, you either go up or you go down for good. So inevitably you can see how a plan cooked up at base camp can quickly go to pot up on the south col. And of course, there being two main routes up, teams on one side might not be party to the plans of teams on the opposite side of mountain.

And the impact of the altitude on decision making has to be considered. With people’s brains getting a fraction of the oxygen needed rational thought goes out the window. Case in point, many have pointed to inaccuracies in Krakauer’s book and have written their own….which others then criticize for also being inaccurate. In truth its a bit like a bunch of drunks with a screaming hangover trying to remember the events of a 7 night booze and drugs bender. Nobody up there was thinking straight, nobody’s memory is going to function with 100% accuracy under such conditions. This is half of the problem with climbing Everest.

Which leads to questions about how to solve this overcrowding. Krakauer himself floated the idea of banning the use of oxygen except in emergencies. This would theoretically place the mountain outside of the limits of all but the most elite climbers. However, climbing Everest without O2 drastically increases the risk and greatly limits ones ability to assist others. So I don’t think that would be practical and how would you enforce it? You going to have cops with a x-ray machine searching people’s bags up in the death zone!

Limiting the number of permits is another idea, but consider that you’re basically asking a poor country like Nepal to cut off a vital source of foreign currency. And climbers would just switch the Tibetan side of the mountain anyway (and visa versa). One idea being floated therefore is some sort of assessment of climbing ability. That you’d have to climb a certain number of other peaks first before being allowed a permit on Everest. Again, makes sense, but how do you enforce it?

It is ultimately very difficult to envisage a solution that will work at 29,000 ft. Hence such statistics will just have to serve as a ghoulish reminder that climbing Everest is less of a feat of mountaineering and more one of being extremely, wealthy, stubborn and reckless. Which is perhaps the solution, turn climbing Everest from bragging rights to a badge of stupidity and suddenly you’ll probably find a lot less wanted to climb it.

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4 thoughts on “News roundup

  1. Commenting on Huawei: I appears to me that people in the west only support capitalism when the west wins. When a Chinese company, like Huawei, becomes the next Nortel, then ridiculous conspiracy theories are invoked. IIRC, Huawei was one of many companies that bid on the sale of intellectual property, as did Apple, Google, Blackberry and others so they purchased the IP. People claim that Huawei steals IP but this ignores the fact that Apple is constantly in court for stealing IP (witness Broadcomm – Qualcom). Other western companies are no better and their CEOs tell us that this is the way business in done in the west (???). In truth, Huawei equipment is nothing more than a special purpose programmable computer made in China which is almost always installed with a CISCO firewall. Firewall transactions are almost always logged so someone would need to show me proof that spying packets were seen going back to China (or show how packets could flow from China back to the west for any nefarious purpose). On top of all that, Apple manufactures their equipment at Foxxcon in China. Same place where Microsoft manufactures their Xbox One and Sony manufacturers their PlayStation4. HP desktops are manufactured by Megatron in China. So why is Huawei being singled out? Shouldn’t Trump block the imports of all these companies as well? Heck, many of these consumer appliances are not even protected by firewalls.

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    • Good point about Huawei and the tech industry. I mean if you’ve ever worked for a tech company you’ll know they are kind of paranoid about security, because they know that they steal IP off each other all the time. I mean they aren’t even subtle about it. Apple never even invented the Mac, they stole the idea off of Xerox. Microsoft stole DOS off some poor guy who didn’t know any better, the ripped off Mac’s OS for windows.

      I think its pretty clear that singling out Huawei is racially motivated. The danger is that China retaliates (e.g. by selling off its US bonds or an embargo of rare earth material).

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      • The rare-earth embargo is the most likely response. I think it was Deng Xiaoping who once said “The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth”. Speaking of Deng for a moment, in the mid-1980s I was attending school in the Boston area and Chinese students were everywhere. Apparently, Deng was sending a million Chinese students to the USA every year to receive a top-quality western education paid for by China (one of my more-gifted class mates was accompanied by two minders who were there to ensure that he returned to China). Unlike Mao, Deng saw great value in education and realized that this was the best way forward for China. Thirty five years later, China has moved more than 350 million Chinese citizens into the middle class. This number is greater than the current population of the USA so is it any surprise that China is doing well? Meanwhile, there is a movement in the west to label an educated person as “an elite”. It seems to me that the world has flipped.

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