Peak Sand



An interesting video here from the Economist regarding a growing resource scarcity problem, that of a shortage of sand.

Sand is crucial for building projects, notably the production of concrete. Sand is also used for coastal defence to shore up beaches from rising sea levels (thus protecting property behind the beach from storm surges). And with a global boom in construction, as the world’s population both grows and becomes more urbanised, all this means that sand is being consumed at such a furious rate (demand has doubled since 2004, between 2011 and 2013 China used more cement than America used during the entire 21st century) that demand is exceeding supply. And in many parts of the world stocks are now being rapidly depleted.

sand-sales Qatar is one of the world’s leading importers of sand

Now at face value you might well say that this is ludicrous, how can the…

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The Hyperloop hyperbole

I discussed the hyperloop proposal sometime ago and I thought I would be worth updating on its progress. On the one hand, they have managed to build a test track and run some tests. However, the critics argue they’ve barely got started and still haven’t tackled any of the major technical challenges yet.


Figure 1: The first Hyperloop test track [Credit: Hyperloop one]

A structural engineer for example has pointed to a host of challenges hyperloop would face in terms of building the system, protecting it from seismic events, countering the effect of thermal expansion and dealing with NVH issues. The high speeds proposed would mean the system would have to achieve some extremely high manufacturing tolerances, which might not be possible on such a large scale. Certainly if it was possible, it would likely be very expensive. Economic experts with experience of civil infrastructure projects estimate it would cost at least ten times as much as Musk has proposed, perhaps as much as $100 billion, much more expensive than the CHSR project, yet with only 10% of the capacity.

And those NVH issues will make for a very uncomfortable ride. One physicist has suggesting it will be a barf inducing ride (Hyperpuke?). Another points to the enormous technical challenges of maintaining a partial vacuum over a 600 km vacuum chamber, particularly given the needs for thermal expansion joints. And heat represents a particular problem for hyperloop. Aside from the issues of thermal expansion, the compression of air inside the tube, all of that high voltage electrical equipment and even the body of occupants will conspire to create a major cooling problem.

Now while there are solutions to all of these issues, the problem is the complexity of making it all work, while maintaining the sort of tight engineering tolerances needed to do so is going to be a significant challenge, which its likely to take a long time to develop and likely to be very expensive. So when supporters of Hyperloop talk about successful tests being a “kitty hawk” moment, they need to remember how long it took to go from Kitty hawk to reliable long distance air travel.


Figure 2: Hyperloop’s “Kitty hawk moment”….so only 30-40 years to go then….

And then there’s the thorny issue of safety. Phil Mason (aka Thunderf00t) discusses a number of the engineering challenges faced by hyperloop, but also raises concerns, particularly about the consequences if the tube were to be breached. In such an event, a catastrophic implosion across a section of the tube is likely and the shock-wave released by this down the tube would likely destroy any capsules for a considerable distance in both directions (hence why I suspect the media will be calling it the deathcoaster after the inevitable accident).

Similarly, any stray nut or bolt could destroy a capsule, in much the same way a stray piece of metal on a runway destroyed a Concorde on takeoff. Its worth remembering that the most dangerous section of a flight for a plane is during take off and landing, because the aircraft is travelling at speed in close proximity to the ground and the pilots have no time to do anything should the encounter a major problem. Some of the most deadly aircraft accidents have occurred either on the runway, or just shortly after take off. And being in a pressurised cylinder travelling in a partial vacuum raises some safety concerns as well. Not only of asphyxiation if the capsule the de-pressurizes, but the damage that might do to the hyperloop system itself.

Again, while these issues are solvable (up to a point!), the expensive of maintaining a 600 km long partial vacuum chamber at aircraft level standards is going to be horrendously expensive. My take on this is to ask what is the rather obvious question I don’t think those behind it have asked – what specific advantage does hyperloop offer? And is it worth the enormous expense, time and effort needed to achieve this?


Figure 3: The concept of a Vac-train is not a new idea, its been promoted from time to time in the past [Credit: Economist, 2013]

Its supporters claim it will be faster than aircraft. However, given the engineering challenges I mentioned earlier, I would argue that’s far from proven. And the best way of solving those challenges would be to lower the operating speed down to more reasonable levels. Given the dangers mentioned earlier, its unlikely hyperloop can be operated more cheaply, particularly given that with aircraft we only have to maintain a plane and the runways, while with hyperloop we need to develop build and maintain one of the largest machines ever built.

You’d still need to go through some sort of security check in and the current proposal for hyperloop, from LA to San Francisco, won’t actually go city centre to city centre, but from the outskirts of both, so any time gained will be thrown away on a bus crawling into town (obviously city centre to city centre would be even more expensive and raise all sorts of planning issues, given the safety issues mentioned earlier).

And besides aircraft can theoretically go faster, Concorde remember went at about Mach 2. Aircraft manufacturers have tried to revive supersonic travel, coming up with new aircraft designs that fly supersonic but with a reduced sonic boom, or fly at high subsonic speeds. However, such projects tend to falter because the feedback they get from the airlines is that there simply isn’t a huge market for such aircraft. Yes there are some people who’d pay more to get from London to New York an hour or two quicker. But the majority of travellers would prefer to just bring a good book and save some cash.


Figure 4: One of a number of proposals for new supersonic passenger planes under development [Credit Boom, 2016]

So aircraft could theoretically match hyperloop for speed. The only difference is that aircraft manufacturers reckon that the few billion in costs to achieve that wouldn’t be economically viable given the likely small size of any market for such a service. Hyperloop is based on the premise that this market (for something a bit faster than conventional planes) is sufficiently big to justify expenditure in the order of a hundred billion or so. And that hyperloop can deliver on the levels of speed advertised. Neither is likely to be true.

Of course the major down side of planes is that there’s only so many people you can squeeze on them at any one time. Although that said, there are single class versions of the A380 and 747 which can seat over 500 people. But generally, there’s only so many people you can realistically move by aircraft without seeing a rapid escalation in costs. This is where trains gain an advantage. While trains come with large fixed infrastructure costs and high maintenance costs for the track and signal infrastructure, once those have been met, the costs of running trains on it is relatively small. So they are a great way to move lots of people aroundd. And as noted earlier, hyperloop will cost significantly more and yet still only be able to support a fraction of the capacity of the CHSR system.

Trains can also make multiple stops, so that makes them much more useful for joined up journey’s. Hyperloop’s all well and good if you live in LA or the Bay area, but what if you live somewhere between the two and you’re destination is somewhere else between the two cities or further afield. For many journeys trains are better. Trains also bring economic benefits to the towns along their routes. Someone living in Milton Keynes can conceivably live there and afford a three bedroom house, yet commute into work in London. A small business who can’t effort the extortionate rents of the city centre, can base themselves out of a commuter belt town, yet still be able to get in and out of the city. This brings much needed business and tax revenue to communities along the route of a train line, which serves to counter the negative impact of having a train line in your back yard.

Hyperloop by contrast will offer no such benefits. Indeed, given the time county sheriff’s will need to devote resources to protecting it from terrorist attacks, it will likely cost communities along its route money. And given the performance issues I mentioned earlier, hyperloop will not have a lot of leeway to alter its route in order to limit planning objections (as it can’t climb slopes as steeply as a train can, nor undertake tight turns). So the likelihood is its going to be even harder to hammer through hyperloop proposals in the face of local opposition than it is to get a High speed railway line built. And ultimately that’s going to have a significant financial cost.

Would tunnelling solve some of these problems? Possibly, but it would greatly increase the expense. And it depends what we are tunnelling through. Some types of rock are porous and water leaking into the tunnel would become a problem, particularly if you are trying to maintain a partial vacuum (remember anything pumped out of the tunnel, including the air extraction to maintain a partial vacuum, must also now be pumped all the way up to the surface). Others types of rock are very difficult to drill through. Its difficult to seismically isolate a sealed tube buried underground, so it might not work in earthquake zones. Drilling tunnels underground is also going to have an impact on those living above the tunnel. And inevitably some will object and demand compensation.

Another disadvantage of planes is the high energy consumption. Hyperloop might be able to offer lower rates of energy consumption, but its difficult to say, given the thorny question of how much energy we expend making sure that air tight seal is maintained. And, as I discussed in a prior article, there are various ways the airline industry can be cleaned up. It is going to be far more technically feasible to convert aircraft to run on hydrogen or biofuels than it is to develop an entire new transportation system and built all of the infrastructure to support it. And of course, trains are generally the most energy efficient means of transport.

All in all one is forced to the conclusion that hyperloop seems to come with all the disadvantages of train travel along with all the disadvantages of air travel, plus a whole pile of other excess baggage, which does suggest it might not be a terribly viable idea. However for me what really gets my spidey senses tingling is the lack of any response to such criticisms from the designers of hyperloop. Now granted, if you went back in time and asked Wilbur Wright how he would deal with the issues of aircraft safety, he’d likely say well I’ll just let go of the controls, slide off the wing and do a tuck and roll the 4 ft to the ground. So its a bit premature to be talking about the nitty gritty. But equally, that means its a little early to be making inflated predictions as to hyperloops level of performance or costs.

But where hyperloop really jumps the shark for me, is in relation to how they plan to initially use the system for cargo delivery. I mean have these guys even done the most basic market research? You do know that freight is a highly competitive business with very tight margins?


Figure 5: Average freight revenue per ton-mile [Credit: National Transportation Statistics, 2009]

But I can order something on Amazon and have it delivered by hyperloop in under an hours its supporters say. Ya, if you’re willing to pay a small fortune for hyperloop delivery and if you live directly opposite the terminus at one end and the seller lives at the other end. Otherwise its going to have to go on a truck either end, which isn’t necessarily going to take a direct route. Likely it will take a circular route with multiple stops….so why not just sent it by truck all the way, save money and get it delivered to your door the next day. Indeed this is the whole reason why trucks are so cheap, they are flexible and can make multiple stops along a route. And aircraft can match hyperloop for speed (as discussed) but probably at a much lower cost.

Air freight is made cheaper these days by using the room in cargo holds on passenger flights for air freight. Its so competitive and cheap these days that some UK supermarkets will fly freshly picked groceries from Spain to the UK so costumers can have freshly picked fruit and veg….well until brexit happens anyway. But its difficult to see how hyperloop can compete with either. And of course for bulk cargo delivery, you can’t beat ships or trains. Its precisely why most of the major industrial areas of the world are built near waterways, ports or they are connected to them by railway lines.

So all in all, hyperloop does not live up to the hype. It doesn’t help that its achieved something of a cult following, particularly from libertarians, as they see a relationship between it and a key plot line in an Ayn Rand book. As with other technologies this is leading to a significant overselling of the proposal by those with an irrational and emotional attachment to it.

There is some potential merits to hyperloop no doubt, but at this early stage to even consider it as a realistic alternative to existing transport options is just silly. Certainly thought there is a need to resist the “grass is greener” syndrome associated with it, as there’s always a tendency to see new ideas as better than existing ones, simply because we don’t know what the real problems with the new proposal are.

Trump the African Dictator

We were warned by Trevor Noah, prior to the election, that Trump sounded a lot like an African dictator. Unfortunately, every day he and his regime are becoming ever more like one. The constant posturing for the sake of his ego, the lavish personal spending, the inability to accept criticism and of course the massive levels of corruption.


Your tax dollars hard at work….

Trump promised to “drain the swamp” but instead, he’s done the opposite, with his cronies and family members increasingly using the assets of state for as their personal play things, be it to go shopping in Europe, holidays, or business trips abroad. The Secret service is at risk of going bankrupt given the huge bill its run up guarding Trump during his trips to Florida every weekend (where the state pays the cost of putting him up in his own hotel) or protecting and providing transport for his relatives on business trips to sign deals abroad, something that is in clear violation of the constitution.

Again, this is all reminiscent of the sort of corruption African autocrats are famous for. However, there is another aspect of African autocracies that Trump demonstrates – his supporters. African dictators maintain their hold on power through violence and intimidation of voters (which least we forget, Trump supporters also engaged in last election), but that only goes so far. A key feature of their rule is the fact that they have a core group of supporters, typically 20-33% of the population who will back them no matter what.

Make no mistake, the supporters of African dictators such as Mugabe or Obiang Nguema are well aware of the corruption and abuse of power that goes on. But they back such dictators regardless of this, because they are a member of the same tribe. Indeed, some even see a silver lining to such corruption as they expect the dictator to “share the cake. They look the other way to him embezzling billions in state funds in the hope that a few crumbs fall from the table which they can scoop up. Indeed, a candidate who actually ran on a promise to “drain the swamp” would probably lose votes.

And this is the role many in the Republican party have now fallen into. Many still back Trump not because they are unaware of the corruption allegations, or because they don’t understand just how serious his abuse of office is. Actually quite the opposite. The GOP is now a tribe, a cargo cult and they see it as necessary that they back their leader regardless of how bad he gets or how big a cliff he dives the country off.

This in of itself suggests that the conventional wisdom, that we must merely wait for investigations against Trump to conclude and see him impeached, or wait for the next election and see the GOP devastated in polls, might not work. If he’s this bad now and a hard core of the GOP are still backing up, its not going to be that straight forward to unseat him. And don’t expect future elections in the US to be free and fair.

Instead, we need to start treating Trump the same way that any African autocrat is treated if he is to be removed from power. And that means recognising that the checks and balances aren’t going to work. It means refusing to recognise his office and refusing to do business with any firm that does business with him or his companies (a list here, TK Maxx and Amazon being the key ones in the UK, along with Uber of course).

Indeed a boycott of US industry as a whole (encouraging firms to re-register themselves abroad and thus threatening a collapse in tax revenue) is really the only way forward. Its exactly how they brought down the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Battle of Britain, myth v’s reality


One of the defining founding myths that drives many of the brexiters is the early day’s of world war II, “the Dunkirk spirit” and Britain’s victory over Germany at the battle of Britain. However the reality is that there are a whole host of myths surrounding this period that are simply not true. It is therefore important to debunk these myths, as doing so reveals a lot of hard truths that the brexiters seem anxious to ignore.

Dunkirk was a defeat

Firstly it has to be acknowledged that Dunkirk was a defeat and there’s no real way to sugar coat that one. While yes a significant number of British soldiers did manage to escape encirclement and get back to the UK, the British did ultimately lose large numbers of men, the majority of their heavy equipment, and quite a number of ships and aircraft. The word by which we would describe one side fleeing the battlefield while losing a significant quantity of its forces in the process is “defeat”.

Keep in mind that in military terms any losses greater than 10% is considered bad. Losing more than 25% in a single engagement is considered a rout. The charge of the light brigade saw 16% of the attacking force killed (with a further third of the force wounded or de-horsed), while Pickett’s charge during the American Civil war saw 22% of the attacking force killed (and again a further third of the attacking force were wounded). So by any yard stick, while yes a significant portion of the British army did escape, the losses they took were significant. Soldiers and their equipment doesn’t grow on trees, losing large numbers of either isn’t a sustainable strategy.

Its also important to acknowledge how the British and the French (who also were evacuated at Dunkirk) got themselves into this mess in this first place. Both went into the war assuming it would be fought under the same conditions as World War I. The French devoted the bulk of their forces to the Maginot line, so they looked to the British to take the strategic initiative. The British instead took up positions along the Belgian border waiting for Belgium to be attacked, upon which they’d rush into to stop the Germans.

What both sides failed to understand was that developments in combined arms tactics (i.e. the blitzkrieg) meant waiting to be attacked meant waiting to lose. Only a well fortified position could hope to halt the enemy and tank warfare allowed such strong points to be simply bypassed and outflanked. The Belgians (and the low Countries) also have to take some of the blame. It should have been obvious after the attack on Poland and then Denmark that Belgian neutrality would not be respected. And, as noted, it should have been obvious from the early battles of the war that there was no way the Belgian army could hope to defend the country. Hence Belgium’s options were to either join the allies and invite in the British and French forces prior to a German attack. Or conclude that if you can’t beat’em join em.

The German ruthlessly exploited this naivety with their attack through the Ardennes forest, which directly lead to the fiasco at Dunkirk. As one British tank commander confessed at the time, of the month or so his forces spent in France, they spend most of that time in retreat, barely got to fire a shot, other than the odd rear guard action. And his men spent a significant portion of the their time in France drunk. He was then forced to abandon his tanks on the beaches and in some cases the first use of the tanks ammunition was when the crews scuttled them.

Furthermore, the British were only able to evacuate because of a major tactical error by Hitler. Convinced by boasting from Goring that the Luftwaffe could finish them off, he halted his armies. Of course, as with most of Goring’s boasts, the Luftwaffe failed. That said, there was a certain logic to the Germans letting the British forces escape. If the British forces had been captured, then the Germans would have had hundreds of thousands of prisoners to look after, a drain on their resources. By all accounts it looked like Germany had won, the British would be forced to negotiate a peace deal.

And it should be remembered that the Nazis admired the British and their Empire. As they saw it, what Britain was doing in India or Africa (concentration camps remember were invented by the British during the Boer war), they were doing in the East. So even when it became obvious that a significant proportion of the British forces were going to escape, they probably thought no harm done.

Britain did not stand alone

The enduring myth is that Britain stood alone against Europe. Not really! As noted, quite a few French made it over to Britain, including more than a few pilots, crucial given that the British were desperately short of experienced pilots. Also many Polish and Norwegian pilots had made it to Britain, where they played a key role in the Battle of Britain.


A spitfire…..with Polish markings…damn Poles comin over here, defending us from the nazi’s…

The Poles also brought with them most of the their intelligence apparatus. Much of the Ultra code breaking set up at Bletchley park owes its origins to Polish code breakers. The Poles had come up with many of the very tactics the British would later utilise to good effect. Even the design of the first mechanical computers (the Bombe) was based on a Polish design. The problem for the poles is they lacked in terms of resources and had basically run out of time to complete their work by the time the Germans invaded. So their arrival would prove crucial to the outcome of the war.

And of course there’s the role played by the empire, notably Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And there was also the contribution of the Indians, something which is often forgotten. Quite apart from the direct support they offered in terms of men, machinery and supplies, they also took over roles guarding overseas bases, allowing more of the British forces to be moved back to the UK.

And while countries like the US or Ireland were officially neutral, it was a strange form of neutrality. The American blatantly favoured the British, openly shipping military supplies across, in some cases without proper payment. At one point, when the German U-boat attacks proved problematic, US sailors began dressing up as Canadians and served on ships escorting supplies across the Atlantic.

Similarly, while German pilots were interned, the Irish looked the other way while British pilots escaped. They supplied the UK with food supplies and took no action to stop thousands of Irish going to the UK to join the British military (one of my relatives actually came to the UK during the war and worked in an airfield as an aircraft mechanic). Weather forecasts were strictly controlled, with none broadcast over the Irish radio’s during the war, yet weather data was quietly passed on to the allies (a weather forecast from Valentia Island would prove to be crucial later in the war regarding the timing of the D-Day landings).

The Spitfire was, at best, a mediocre aircraft

For the British the spitfire is an almost mythical beast. The best fighter of the war, if not ever made. The reality was a little different. It was certainly fast, however it also came with a number flaws and quirks. The most notable of these was its engine was prone to cut out if the aircraft was inverted, a quite serious flaw to have in air to air combat, not least because the Germans soon figured it out and began exploiting this flaw, forcing the British to develop a quick fix.

The Spitfire design had evolved from a racing floatplane of the 1930’s (which only had to fly in a straight line, hence it had a carburettor engine and hence the problems with the engine cutting out), which made them fast but left them stuck with lots of legacy issues. Faced with a faster opponent, a Spitfire was in trouble. Fortunately, the German pilots were at the limit of their range during the Battle of Britain and could not use their aircraft to their fullest extent.

Also the obsession with the Spitfire ignores the fact that the mainstay of the RAF during the Battle of Britain was the Hawker Hurricane, which equipped the majority of RAF squadrons and accounted for the bulk of RAF kills. The Hurricane was a workhorse next to the Spitfires fancy dressage pony. It was simple and rugged, not particularly fast (but not exactly slow either) and surprisingly nimble for such an old aircraft.

So while the Spitfire wasn’t a bad aircraft, it certainly wasn’t any sort of wonder weapon and its role in the battle is somewhat exaggerated.

Radar wasn’t a secret weapon

Another myth is that the British had a secret weapon the boffins had come up with that the Germans didn’t know about – radar. This allowed the British to have their airforce in their air waiting for the German raiders, acting as a sort of forces multiplier. While the second half of this statement is true, the British did use radar to good effect, the idea that this was a secret is not.

The Germans were more than familiar with the existence of radar, they were working on it themselves. They were a bit behind the British, but by 1939 they had their first working units. They certainly knew the British had radar as well and one of the first things they attacked was British radar stations along the coast.

The problem for the Germans was that Hitler saw radar as a defensive weapon and he prioritised work on offensive weapons. So the technology was never pursued or deployed effectively during the Battle of Britain.

Hitler’s policy did have repercussions later in the war. It meant the Germans sought to miniaturise their radar such that it could be fitted into an aircraft, which they then used to equip night fighters. These night fighters would become so effective as a result that it meant being over Germany at night was just as dangerous as the American daylight raids.

Enigma code breakers played only a minor role in the battle of Britain

The cracking of the Enigma code (code named Ultra) proved crucial to allied victory in world war II, no question. However, its benefits would only kick in much later in the war, notably during the Battle for the Atlantic and the run up to D-Day. During the battle of Britain it played a minor role.

In part this was simply because it was early days, Ultra had limited resources and their successes were a lot of hit and miss. As noted, the Polish code breakers had only just gotten their feet under the desk and their British counterparts were still digesting all that they’d learnt. Indeed, they’d only succeeded in breaking the Luftwaffe code for the first time around the end of May. Also at this early stage, the penny hadn’t dropped with military high command as to just how valuable Ultra intercepts could be.

This debunks one of the great myths of World War II, that Churchill allowed the bombing of Coventry to go ahead in order to protect the secret of Ultra. This is contradicted by multiple sources and furthermore, it makes no sense. British commanders would consider an industrial city like Coventry as far more valuable than some boffin being able to read Goring’s e-mail….occasionally! Now granted, later in the war, when the true potential of Ultra had been realised, that’s a different story (which is probably how this myth got started). But certainly the impact of Ultra on the battle of Britain phase of the war was fairly limited. It had an impact yes, but it wasn’t decisive.

Churchill was not a great military leader…although he was a great drinker

If you believe the propaganda Britain won thanks to Churchill, who personally directed the battle from his war room under the the Treasury. This is simply not true, Churchill knew very little about aerial warfare so he wisely delegated this task to those who did, such as air chief Marshall Hugh Dowding.

And too be honest “great military leader” and Churchill are two things that rarely appear in the same sentence. Its more than usually “Churchill” and “military disaster”. In the first world war the fiasco of the British defeat at Coronel was largely Churchill’s fault, because he was too busy trying to help one of his aristocratic friends (a German) keep his job (for some reason someone thought it was a bad idea to have a German in charge of the Admiralty when the UK was fighting them). Then there was the small matter of Gallipoli one of the greatest military blunders of World War I, which was largely Churchill’s idea.

During the Irish war for independence, the Black and Tans were Churchill’s idea and they ultimately destroyed what support remained in Ireland for remaining part of the UK. And in World War II it is ironic that the defeat of British forces in Norway led to the downfall of Chamberlain and Churchill’s appointment, when it was largely Churchill’s fault things had gone so badly wrong for the British. So during the Battle of Britain Churchill instead did what he did best, he focused on keeping morale in the country up and basically staying out the RAF’s way.

Also it is difficult to avoid the topic of Churchill and not bring up the matter of his drinking, because he was a seriously heavy drinker. Now yes, it is true people drank more in those days that we do these days. And being Irish, me giving out about someone else’s drinking is bit of pot calling the kettle black. But he’d drink me under the table and probably a room full of my fellow Irish too. He’d have a bottle of champagne with his breakfast, beers with his lunch (not sure if that should be “with” his lunch or “for” lunch), and the best part of a bottle of Cognac in the evening, with several Whiskey and soda chasers throughout the day.

Do the maths and that’s at least ten times the recommended daily limit. If I drank that much in one day, I’d need a week’s detox to recover, nevermind doing it every day. They must have had an entire brewery going just to keep Churchill well oiled. Of course this means Churchill likely spent much of the war in a constant state of inebriation. I always thought his slurred speech was a speech impediment, but its more likely that its because he was permanently shitfaced. Which means that his infamous “fight them on the beaches” speech was basically a drunk roaring into a microphone for ten minutes. How very British.

So why did the British really win?

Well, as noted the British were better organised than the Germans. While radar wasn’t a huge secret, the British used it to good effect. They used home advantage, ensuring any pilots shot down were quickly picked up. Any RAF plane that got shot up, so long as the pilot could make it back down, the airfields had a pretty good system in place for repairing battle damaged planes and getting them airborne again pretty quickly, generally (according to my relative) within 24 hrs or less. By contrast German fighters faced a perilous journey back across the channel. And if they made it (and many of them didn’t), they could be waiting several days for spare parts to show up.

And while the nazi’s considered women to be little more than breeding machines for the master race, the British recruited many women (including the current Queen) into a wide variety of roles, land girls, the RAF wren’s, factory workers and transfer pilots (who flew planes from the factory to the airfield). This meant that the Germans neglected 50% of their work force.

So how is it that the Germans were so un-Germanic in their organisation? That was largely the fault of certain fat Prussian meat ball by the name of Goering, proof of everything that is wrong with the German diet. The only way he was going to kill a British airman was by falling on him. I have my own personal theory that Hitler became a vegetarian not long after meeting Goering for the first time. Suffice to say that even when Churchill was laying on his office floor nursing an empty bottle of Cognac he was still doing a better job than Goering was doing awake and sober.

First of all, you’ll recall what I said about the limited range of German fighters. They only had a range of about 700 miles, while a range closer to 1,000 miles (which the spitfire and hurricane’s had) is more appropriate for a cross channel battle. This meant that the German fighters had only a few minutes of combat time over England before they had to turn around and head for home. And they’d have been constantly watching the fuel gauge. And inevitably if the pilot miscalculated, they’d end up in the Channel. And as it was Goering and his air staff who specified the range for those fighters, when they were ordered them one has to wonder why they didn’t consider ordering a fighter with a longer range.

Also many German aircraft were just not up to the task. The attacks on radar stations was handled by Stuka’s, an excellent attack aircraft….so long as the enemy doesn’t have an airforce! The RAF inflicted dreadful losses on the Stuka’s, forcing them to be withdrawn. The Germans did have one long range fighter, the twin engined BF 110. However it had all the grace and manoeuvrability of a large brick. In the end they would suffer the indignity of needing single engined BF 109’s to escort them.

And Goering interfered with the tactics his pilots would like to adopt. Their preferred tactic was to try and catch the British fighters as they were climbing, ideally ambushing them by diving out of the sun. However Goering insisted they stick close to the bombers. Doubly disastrous given the range issues they were faced with.

Its worth noting that when the Allies were fighting for air superiority over Germany they were very quick to realise that needed to hit the German fighter forces while they were still climbing, or even still on the ground. Famously, when American General Doolittle arrived in the UK, on a tour of a base he noticed a sign saying the fighter squadron’s job was to protect the bombers. He ordered the sign taken down and made a new one which said the fighter’s job was to destroy the Luftwaffe.

In short he was saying to his pilots that this wasn’t an aerial jousting match between gentlemen, it was a dirty mean back alley brawl. He was telling his fighter pilots to use every underhand below the belt bastard trick they could think of, such as (as noted) jumping enemy fighters while they were on the ground or still climbing, following wounded fighters back to base and shooting them up as they landed. Or, as the British did during the battle of Britain, shooting down rescue planes as they picked up German pilots in the channel, even thought they had red cross symbols on them (which was against the Geneva convention).

Despite it all, the Germans were gradually wearing the British down with attacks on RAF airfields, by the end of August they were perilously close to succeeding. However, at this point they changed tactics and began focusing attacks on UK cities. There is debate about why Hitler ordered this change in tactics. Some argue that the German attacks on the airfield simply weren’t being effective and they Hitler sought to win through shock and awe tactics. Others content that he was angered by attacks by the RAF against Berlin.

However, what is often forgotten is that the Battle of Britain (or Operation Sealion to the Germans) was a two phase operation. Phase one was to win air superiority over the channel. Phase two was for the German army, with the aid of the Navy, to cross the channel and invade England. Now while the general consensus is that had the Germans stuck to their guns they should have been able to complete phase one. However, a cross channel invasion is a different matter entirely. Many German generals thought it was a silly idea and openly predicted disaster. Amphibious assault is one of the most difficult of all military manoeuvres to pull off. Recall what I said about 10% casualties being bad and 25% being a disaster. With an amphibious assault if you “only” lose 20% and achieve your objectives, that’s considered a success.

For the D-Day invasion the allies assembled a vast armada of nearly 2,000 ships, with lots of special equipment such as landing craft of various types, swimming tanks, obstacle demolition equipment, even a pair of portable harbours and a self assembly oil pipeline. The Germans in 1940 had only a few hundred leaky canal barges that they’d robbed off the French. So throughout the air war there had been quiet lobbying by some generals for the whole operation to be called off. Because even if the Luftwaffe could win (and few had confidence in Goering’s ability to do that), it won’t matter, an invasion in 1940 was impossible, they’d need time to prepare. So in that context, this change in German tactics doesn’t quite seem so crazy. And recall that the allies were also bombing cities, so nobody can really claim moral superiority at this point.

Of course the picture that emerges from a more realistic appraisal of the battle of Britain is very different. It portrays how the British only ended up in this mess because of past military failings and amateurist political dithering. That they were aided by allies and friends from abroad. And that had they done a brexit and gone it alone, they would have likely lost pretty quickly. That if any “boffins” and their secrets were responsible for victory, it was probably Polish immigrants rather than the engineers behind the spitfire. And it shows the allies as being a good deal more brutal and underhand than they’d like to think, and the British won largely because they were willing to fight a dirty war.

The dangers of Trump on Korea


Prior to getting caught by his lies as regards protesters at Charlotteville, and thus being exposed as the racist that he is, Trump was busy trolling the North Koreans. Which isn’t so much a case of waving a red rag at a bull, its walloping the bull across the nose and then calling it gay. Its worth reviewing the situation here, as it reveals the dangers present in having the likes of Trump in the White House.

Firstly its worth looking back at North Korea’s history, or more precisely the North Korean propagandists version of its history. They say, we didn’t start the Korean war, nobody knows which side started it. The controversy over who started this war is only a controversy in North Korea. All other sources agree that it started after Kim Il-Sung, acting under orders from Stalin, sent his armies north.

Stalin calculated that he could achieve a quick and easy victory here and score first blood in the cold war. The regime of Syngman Rhee was not popularly supported, given that he was every bit as brutal as the regime up the north (if not worse). Also there weren’t that many American troops in the South prior to the start of the war because Rhee and the Americans didn’t trust each other. Incidentally, the North Koreans also try to claim that the Rhee & the US were planning to hand Korea back to Japan. The idea that Rhee, who had been implicated in plots to kill the Japanese royal family, would go along with that is obviously absurd.

So by all accounts it looked like a slam dunk, all Kim needed to do was kick down the door and the whole rotten mess would collapse before the US could do anything. There’s an old military saying that all plans survive until first contact with the enemy and this was very true in Korea. Firstly, the South Koreans by and large resisted (they disliked Rhee, but they disliked the Communists even more), costing the NK army valuable time. Secondly, the Americans pulled off an amazing feat of logistics, moving troops first into the path of the NK army to halt its advance, then undertaking a sea borne invasion deep behind enemy lines.

Thirdly, seeing the UN as just League of Nations 2.0 (a talking shop where nations left passive aggressive notes on the fridge for one another), Stalin underestimated the blow back he’d get as a result. The Russians were at the time boycotting the UN (over issues related to Berlin and Taiwan) and thus were unable to prevent the US getting a resolution passed which authorised military force against North Korea.

Now while this UN resolution was clearly taking liberties with the UN, equally it was a corner Stalin had painted himself into. If there’s one positive we can draw out from the Korean war (there ain’t many), it was how countries started to take the UN a little more seriously afterwards. Either way, this put Stalin in a tight spot, as he couldn’t directly assist North Korea, as that would be going against a resolution from the UN (which Russia had helped to found). So as the NK army was routed in the South and forced to retreat, Russia was forced to rely on the Chinese to repel the Americans.

This is perhaps the tragedy of the Korean war, it amounted to two superpower blocks basically blasting the crap out of each other and the Koreans, both north and south, getting caught up in the cross fire. Its a bit like one of those movie scenes where the two protagonists getting into a gun fight in someone else’s home/place of business and basically thrash the place, then move on and leave him to clean up the mess (if he’s still alive).

If North Korea has a motto, it would have to be “with friends like ours, who needs enemies”. Its “allies” have repeatedly screwed the country over, so it probably explains North Korea’s isolationist policy of Juche. The trouble is, that Juche doesn’t work. Consider that prior to them adopting this policy, back in the late 1970’s the North Korea economy wasn’t in that bad a shape, there GDP was significantly higher than in neighbouring China and not that far behind South Korea. Since then the Chinese economy has grown eight fold while the North Korean economy has contracted (with a slight recovery in recent years). North Korea has gone from a net food exporter with good modern farming methods, to one which can’t feed itself and is dependant on welfare from abroad. It merely serves as a poster for everything that is wrong with isolationist economics of the sort Trump or the brexiters peddle.

The other major policy of North Korea is what CIA agents refer to as the crazy gang” gambit, often expressed using the acronym CFC for Crazy, Fearsome and Crippled. The logic is that nobody will attack them because, while there is little doubt the NK army can be defeated, the cost of that victory will be high and the winner will face the enormous costs of essentially rebuilding the country from scratch.

However there is a fatal flaw in this combination of Juche and CFC. It means the North Koreans, have to be constantly playing brinkmanship with their neighbours. THey need to do this for reasons of domestic politics and to ensure that the supplies that China sends that keeps the regime going continue to roll in. And they must be careful not to be seen to back down as that could leave the regime vulnerable on the domestic front. The trouble is that this is simply not a long term sustainable strategy as it requires everyone else to be the grown ups and naturally with Trump, that’s unlikely to be the case.

Also the danger with Trump is he might intentionally try to start a war with North Korea to distract from domestic politics (his impending impeachment for example). However, as I discussed in a prior post, this could escalate very quickly and end very badly. The Republican’s concept that they can safely leave Trump in charge and then quietly knife him at a time when it is convenient for them to do so is simply not a sensible strategy.

A possible counter the Fermi paradox


If we were made of some rare isotope of Bismuth you might have an argument for us being alone in the cosmos

Neil DeGrasse

One of the things that often comes up when discussing topics related to space or future technology is the Fermi paradox. Quite simply put, this begs the question that if the universe has been around for billions of years, where are all the aliens? There’s been ample time for them to evolve and either travel to our planet, or for the radio traffic they generated (perhaps millions of years ago) to reach us and be picked up by the likes of the SETI institute.

53646f28512ed8d3103b87f3280dc61d Figure 1: Where’s ET?

As a result the Fermi paradox is often cited by those who favour the rare earth hypothesis (REH). This states that the chances of a planet evolving life, never mind intelligent life, are so rare…

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Brexit border troubles


The Northern Irish border

I’ve discussed before how much of the Tories rhetoric regarding brexit falls apart if they want to keep an open border with southern Ireland. The Irish government has pointed out that this will be unworkable if they UK ends free movement and has therefore suggested that the border posts are moved to all entry ports onto the Island of Ireland, effectively turn Northern Ireland into a British overseas territory, which happens to share a land border with the EU.

They are prepared to help the British in some way with border control on the Island of Ireland, which it has to be acknowledged is a major concession by the Irish (they are in no way obliged to do anything), but there’s a limit to what they can do. If a Polish migrant shows up, we can take a photo of him, scan his passport, etc. tell him sternly not to go to Northern Ireland, but if he goes outside the airport and hops on a bus straight to Belfast, well there ain’t a lot we can do about that.

Now the Tories tell us, oh we’ll rig the border with cameras and electronic monitoring equipment. Ya so you’ll get a picture of our Polish migrant’s bus going North as it always does at that time every day. Short of the Polish guy stick his head out the window while holding his passport, this electronic border won’t work. And he can always just live in the South and commute by car to work in the North. And the Tories do realise there’s at least 200 crossing points and that’s just those on the main trunk roads, some of which cross the border multiple times in a few miles. And as the picture above shows, much of the border is simply open hillside, or a farmers field.

And if our Polish migrant gets to a ferry port keep in mind there are no customs controls, nor border guards. You need photo ID to board a ferry, but there’s no passport control. There’s some British transport police and some rent-a-cop security guards on duty. But regardless of how suspicious they are that someone with a Polish driving license might be a fence jumper, they can’t really do anything. And anyway, I know plenty of non-British people with a British driving license (all you need to do is request one and so long as you’ve a European driving license they’ll give you one) and similarly you can easily get an Irish one if you are from the EU. So there will be no way to stop these migrants getting into the rest of the UK.

So what the Irish are basically saying is that the proposed UK immigration controls won’t work, they’ll be just window dressing to fool the bigot brigade into thinking they’ve got tight border controls. This perhaps is where the Irish are being a little naïve, Theresa May and co probably know they won’t work because they don’t actually want to restrict immigration, they just want to pretend they are. But either way the Irish solution does kind of make sense, doesn’t it?

Well not if you’re the DUP (who are debating whether next they should have traffic lights set up so that orange means go and green means stop, or whether they should ask for the Giant’s causeway to be extended to Scotland). They naturally worry that this will loosen the ties between them and the UK, and thus be a step towards reunification. And this is where Theresa May’s decision to go into coalition with the DUP was very foolish, as she’s now likely to be forced to either give in to the Irish, and then potentially see her government collapse, or concede to the DUP and have no effective border controls post-brexit (and once the bigot brigade catch her at that, they’ll stop voting Tory and start voting UKIP or BNP).

The Irish have already indicated that if they don’t see some movement from the UK on this issue, they might not co-operate with the British post-brexit, potentially leading to a breakdown in policing along the Irish border. Which is bad news, because as I’ve pointed out before, its not people we should be worrying about as regards the Irish border, its goods and contraband. The smugglers will have a field day. Those cameras will get nice lovely pictures of lorries filled with cigarettes, booze, petrol and even meat or milk heading North.

And with the UK outside of the free trade area and 10-30% tariff on all sales, plus tax rates up 20-30% on top of that they will make a killing. And speaking of which, many of these smugglers are associated with terrorist organisations, so most of that funding will fill the coffers of various dissident groups in the North. The drop in tax revenue and a flood of cheap goods will bankrupt the northern Irish economy and undermine the economy of the rest of the UK (once “washed” in Northern Ireland it will be impossible to stop this contraband making its way on to ships and into the UK mainland), making reunification a matter of when rather than if.

And its not just cheap fags and booze that the smugglers will be shipping, but drugs as well and weapons. The rough and rugged terrain of the Irish west coast, with its thousands of bays and inlets is impossible to police. So the focus instead is mainly on going after the dealers in the major cities and the smugglers shifting it off the Island. Without co-operation with the Irish police about the only thing that will get cheaper in the UK post-brexit is the street price of crack cocaine.

There are essentially only three ways this can end 1) The UK goes for a soft brexit and remains in the single market with free movement. 2) A hard border likely leading to the troubles reigniting and the British army gets to referee IED bombing contests between the different factions….forever….while the northern Irish economy implodes, this will likely lead to…..3) Northern Ireland unites with the South and leaves the UK. The Brexiters have to pick which these three options they want.

Fusion power always 30 years away, now its more like 50 years away


When it comes to dealing with global issues like climate change or peak fossil fuels, I’d argue we’ll need to focus technology we already have, or what can realistically be developed in the near future. Relying on more fantastical high tech solutions, such as fusion power, LFTR’s, space solar power or biofuels produced by synthetic biology, is risky because we simply cannot predict when these technologies will become available, if ever! There’s no harm in continuing research into them, but life is about priorities and clearly arguing that we should go slow on renewables, in the forlorn hope of something new emerging would be a risky strategy.

Iter_tokamak Figure 1: DEMO, a key step on the road to fusion powerplants is now likely to be delayed until the 2050’s

And we have yet more evidence now as to why waiting for a technological holy grail to be…

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White house chaos


There’s a story I missed picking up on a few months back, as I was away at the time, concerning Trump’s mental state and whether he is fit for office. Given recent events, I think this needs to be discussed.

As David Pakman outlines, it has been commented that Trump’s behaviour, his erratic speaking style, constant gaffes and flip flops, memory loss, cartoon like racist views, his difficulty with stairs could all be symptoms of the onset of dementia. This could well explain for example, why he insists on having his family members around him, as part of their job is to support him given that he’s essentially not able to function in the job by himself. And several leading experts have voiced concerns, although they do point out that without a personal evaluation its difficult to say for sure.

And if true this does change everything. When we say Trump could be removed from office by the Republicans any time they feel like it, this is literally true if these stories are correct. Under the terms of article 25 of the US constitution, the cabinet (many of them hand picked Pence loyalists) could vote to remove him from office, citing the above factors and that would be that. Congress would have to endorse it, but obviously one assumes they’d quietly run it by congress first to ensure their little coup was going to succeed.

And we’ve been here before with Reagan, who is now known to have been suffering from the early symptoms of dementia during his presidency (which would eventually become full blown Alzheimer’s), which severely restricted his capabilities to function as president. It also left him dependant on his wife (and her astrologer!), creating a massive security risk. And it was widely rumoured that a contingency plan was in place to remove him from office under article 25 if there was ever a major crisis.

I have to say, having had relatives with dementia, it does kind of make sense this theory. But equally, I don’t know what he was like before. It could be he always was an dumb narcissistic racist, whose gotten a little dumber and more racist as he’s gotten older. You’d need a proper medical evaluation to tell either way. But here’s the thing, the fatal weakness of the US constitution is that it places opinion above fact. If enough of the cabinet believes him to mentally unfit to hold office, that’s all that matters.

Now one assumes that when it came to congress, they’d probably insist on some sort of medical evaluation. Assuming Trump refuses, or gets that quack hair doctor of his to do it, they’ll take that as defacto confirmation, because again, facts don’t matter to congress, only opinion. If they are of the opinion he’s mentally unfit (i.e. they reckon they’ll get re-elected if they oust him) that’s all that matters.

And coincidentally, this 100 facts is trumped by someone else’s opinion extends to impeachment proceedings. An impeachment trial is no more a proper trial than one held before Judge Judy….and that’s being insulting to day time television! If impeachment was determined with the same standards of a proper legal trial they would have impeached G. W. Bush and Reagan (although he might have gotten off on the basis of diminished responsibility), Nixon would have been perp walked out of the White house in hand cuffs and Bill Clinton would have gotten off Scot free. So in theory if enough republicans and democrats decide to oust Trump, he’s gone.

Another possibility, one that is perhaps more scary, is that the GOP are well aware of Trump’s mental incapacity. Indeed, this is the whole reason he’s in the job. Which is better, a competent president, or one who is easily manipulated into doing the things they won’t dare do (such as the recent business regarding transgender soldiers), whom they can blame for everything that goes wrong and who is so dogged by scandal, corruption and suspicion that he can be removed from power at the drop of a hat.

And again, this was the accusation made regarding the Reagan presidency. For the duration of his term, America didn’t have a president, they hired an actor to play the role of president, while the Republicans got on with the job of running the country.

And scarier still is the half and half possibility, which I actually think is closer to the truth. Yes Trump isn’t the full shilling, he probably he shouldn’t be president, but he’s sufficiently in charge of his faculties to see the danger, as are his family and loyalists. He knows that a move against him will happen sooner or later. This in itself probably explains the recent efforts by Trump to purge the cabinet of Pence loyalists, as part of of an effort to stack his cabinet against an article 25 push. However, this will probably result in political paralysis. It could ultimately have the opposite effect, if cabinet members fear he might remove them, they are more likely to back Pence if and when the time comes.

And Trump was also apparently trying to see if he could pardon himself or his family even before any trial has taken place. Well firstly, no he can’t pardon himself and furthermore this is a tacit admission that they’ve done something wrong. In the UK, one of the conditions of a pardon is that you drop all legal appeals, which was one of the issues with the Megrahi case. As the law sees it innocent people don’t want to be pardoned, certainly not prior to their trial, as that denies them their day in court and the opportunity to clear their name.

Furthermore, by pardoning people to stop an investigation, this could be seen as obstruction of justice. Now while yes, it has happened in the past that a president has pardoned those close to him who had been prosecuted, notably in the Scooter Libby case. But on those occasions everyone on both sides of the aisle just wanted to draw a line under the issue, so they pushed some leaves over it and tiptoed away. The problem for Trump is they won’t drop the matter, he’ll have just signed his own political death warrant by issuing such a pardon.

So with Trump and the GOP starting to fall out out, its going to make for interesting times…I hope nobody’s going to expect anything useful out of America sometime soon… a trade deal. Trump might not be making America great again, but its making politics more interesting!

The trouble with trade: Walmart

One has to worry about the consequences of a US/UK trade deal. As I’ve said before, getting a trade deal isn’t the problem, its the concession the UK will inevitably be forced to accept as part of that deal.


This week Liam Fox tried to argue that on the one hand they’d ban chlorinated chicken from the UK and in the same sentence so what if we do allow it. Well if you adopt the first position, banning US food products and cars (many of the larger SUV’s will fail current UK/EU environmental standards) the Americans will respond in kind and what exactly will we be trading with the US? On the other hand, if you allow Chlorinated chicken or steroids in beef, you’ll be cutting yourself off from the EU market.

A case in point of everything that is wrong with the US is Walmart. For those unfamiliar with Walmart they are a large supermarket chain known for engaging in fairly unethical practices. Quite often they’ll move into a town and quickly put all of the local business out of business very quickly, turning a once thriving high street into a ghetto. Walmart often offer a full comprehensive range of services. You can get groceries, firearms, fast food and have your car’s wheel’s balanced while you wait. So when I say all of the business in the high street goes, I mean all of it.

As the company is run and operated by a family of staunch neo-conservatives, they have been known to use their companies de-facto monopoly on sales to censor content of  books, CD’s or videos solid in their store. So while they’ll allow you to buy Die Hard with vengeance (despite is sex and violence), they’ll rate anything from Michael Moore as “non family friendly” and ban it from their shelves.

And they achieve their monopoly by vastly undercutting the competition, something they can do by squeezing their suppliers mercilessly. They squeeze their staff salaries so far that many are dependant on welfare. Of course this means indirectly Walmart are in receipt of subsidy from the state and they are often able to pressure counties and towns into offering them tax breaks or free highway construction in return for them setting up in an area (big government get off my back…accept when its propping up my monopoly). And they have a harsh anti-union policy. Any time a union has been successfully established in a Walmart, they’ve shut the store down.

But the problems with Walmart get worse when they decide to leave. After having milked a community dry, destroyed the town centre and devastated the local business community, they are known to just up and leave, often simply because of a slight drop in sales, usually because the local economy is struggling through some temporary problem.

Of course this means the largest employer in said town disappears overnight, making a bad situation much worse, while leaving locals with a long drive to the next town over to get basic groceries. In short it can lead a once vibrant town to basically die, all some very rich people with more money than they know what to do with, can get that little bit richer.

Now granted, the UK has its fare share of problems with aggressive supermarkets and town’s desperate for cash willing to bend over backwards to help them, even when they should really tell them to piss off. For example in Oxford they have a wonderful covered market, which the council (desperate for cash due to the austerity) has raised the rent on local traders by 50% …..twice….leading many to fear for its survival. Meanwhile they’ve been offering tax breaks to the likes of Starbucks to set up in town and paying for road infrastructure to the benefit of Tesco’s.

The difference in the UK is that there are laws limiting the size of supermarkets, protecting small business from monopolistic pressure and employees from union busting companies. Now, I would argue the trouble is that these laws don’t go far enough and are sometimes broken by the supermarkets (who know they can get away with a lack of enforcement). But post-brexit there is a very real risk that all of these protections will disappear as part of any trade deal. So we could well see ASDA (owned by Walmart) pursuing a Walmart like reign of destruction across many of the UK’s small market towns. So if you voted for brexit, congrats, because this, like so many things, this is what you voted for.