Conservatives say the funniest things

daryanenergyblog

I’ve long been amazed at conservatives ability to wander around in a bubble of self imposed delusion. While ignorance (and a certain level of stupidity) helps, inevitably when confronted by the facts, they are forced to perform feats of mental gymnastics that would leave Simone Biles feeling dizzy. And nobody is a truer master of this than Donald Trump.

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Firstly he ignored comments he made about Meghan Markle that were played back to him. Fake news now extends to anything that Trump actually says or heards. Even Laura Ingraham had to remind her audience to unhear something about Trump (and in other news Trump is also increasing the chocolate ration from 25 grams to 20 grams).

Prince Charles, perhaps naively tried to convince Trump about the dangers of climate change. He’d be as well off talking to a lump of coal. Trump responded by saying that climate change is…

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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.

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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!”.

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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!

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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.

Rural America under threat from capitalism, climate change and the GOP

daryanenergyblog

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Rural America, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, is under attack from all sides. As this article from the Guardian discusses America’s factory farming system has destroyed rural America, turning many into little more than modern day serfs. Trump’s “tax cutmight actually push up the running costs of many US farmers, as it eliminated various deductions that they benefited from. Quite apart from the economic blowback from his tariff policy and trade wars. And inevitably the rate of suicides is up in rural America.

US agriculture is now heading in completely the wrong direction, as such intensive farming methods are not only bad for rural communities, reducing the number of well paid jobs (in favour of low paid jobs filled by recently arrive immigrants) but they are also terrible for the environment. Carbon emissions are higher (there’s been some efforts to claim…

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Trump and the truth about taxes

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Some details of Trump’s tax returns leaked recently, which seemed to suggest that he hasn’t paid any taxes for ten years due to the fact he’s lost over a billion dollars over that period. So doesn’t look like he’s such a great businessman then. Trump (America’s court jester in chief) then preposterously claimed that this was a deliberate strategy to avoid payment of taxes (essentially all but admitting to tax fraud). However it does highlight a number of important issues with regard to tax and the wealthy.

Firstly it shows that most Americans, in particular republicans, don’t understand how marginal tax rates work. That even if the 70% Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposes was applied, it would only apply to top earners and only the portion of their income in the tens of millions. In truth they’d be paying closer to 20-35% on their overall income, particularly when you consider the various deductions that would apply. Which is about what the average American pays in tax, so it would more be about levelling the playing field. After all Warren Buffet pay less tax (as a proportion of their income) than his secretary.

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An example of a marginal tax in action, this person might be paying a maximum rate of 50%, but only pays 32% overall

But such is the naivety of many Americans that Trump can make a logical fallacy and many fall for it. What he’s essentially saying is that if you’ve got a 100 dollars and the government is going to take away half of it, your best strategy would be to not only burn the $100, but burn another $100 you’d borrowed from somebody else….whereas if you just paid the tax you keep $50, probably more like $75 once you account for the effect of marginal rates.

Another cause for concern is that Trump’s businesses just happen to involve several industries (construction, hotels and casino’s) where its remarkably easy to fiddle ones taxes. Which probably explains why he’s going to such extraordinary lengths to prevent any probes.

A building site for example will be a hive of activity, with hundreds of contractors and sub-contractors coming and going, as well as a steady stream of trucks pulling in to making deliveries. Its all too easy for a developer to simply award a contract to someone for work that never gets done or award a contract at a vastly over inflated cost (e.g. they claim it took a hundred guys a month, when it only took a few dozen a week’s work). Then the developer and contractor split the difference (with the developer writing it off as a business expense). Or buying your concrete and other supplies at inflated prices (or simply inflating the amount used). And its worth noting that some of Trump’s suppliers and contractors were mob connected firms.

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As for hotels and casino’s, there’s all sorts of ways you can fiddle the books to milk the joint dry, without the IRS or the investors getting wise. You could for example just order lots of booze and gourmet food in the front door on the company books and then sell it out the back door for cash in hand. Employee expenses can also be fiddled. And there is of course the infamous casino skim racket, which I’d say was almost certainly in play in Trump’s Atlantic city casino.

So there are many good reasons to go digging into Trump’s tax affairs. Not only could this see him in a cell wearing a number, but it could lead to a number of mobsters being brought to justice too. Keep in mind this isn’t a victimless crime, his investors, employees and Atlantic city all got shafted. And the mob might well have been using this operation to launder drug money (as that’s often the whole point of such rackets).

Which also btw leads one to be suspicious of his recent tariff policy. Suddenly imposing tariffs and sending the markets into freefall, silly idea right? Well not if you’ve got connections with some boiler room hedge funds, who know this is coming and position themselves to take advantage of the drop in advance. Its entirely possible that Trump is deliberately sending out messages on twitter to manipulate markets. Of course, the danger is that the Chinese, who aren’t in on the scam, retaliate and they do have a nuclear option, start selling off US bonds.

But I digress. Certainly however, Trump’s statements on tax do show the limitations of tax policy. Those on the left will often cite “tax the rich” as their go too solution to everything. But as Trump shows there’s all sorts of ways the rich can fiddle their taxes. Certainly yes there are good reasons why the rich should pay more in taxes. They have more disposable income. Asking them to pay a few grand extra a year amounts to a choice between the gold and the silver trim package for their super yacht. While asking a low income family to pay a few quid extra a month amounts to a choice between feeding the kids or heating the home in winter. So its only fair higher earners pay more.

But, even if we ignore the various tax fiddling options, the numbers just don’t add up, something I’ve discussed before. The rich are asset rich, but don’t necessarily earn as much in terms of taxable income as you think. Just because a billionaire is worth several billion doesn’t mean he makes that much money every year. In truth he might only make a few million. And much of that will be speculative wealth (e.g. the value of the shares he owns goes up, but of course if he sold the shares all at once they’d lose value). And again, a few fiddles can cut that down even further.

Hence even if you applied the 70% tax Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is calling for, you’re not going to pull in nearly as much money as you’d think. At best you’d be able to cut some of America’s deficit spending (or spend some money on climate change prevention). Or here in the UK you’d be able to reign in some of the worse of Tory austerity measures. Which would be a good idea, but not quite the effect many on the hard left seem to think it would have.

And, as noted, the big problem with the rich and taxes is just getting them to pay any in the first place. Personally, I’d settle for getting to just pay what they owe. Hence why I’d argue the focus should be on cracking down on aggressive tax avoidance and reigning in tax havens. But of course that requires strong international institutions (such as the EU), which some left wing populist oppose.

In truth however, if you want to increase tax revenue, you’ve really got to do it for everyone, although obviously the rich will get hit the hardest by such a rise. Putting them up on as much items as possible is a better strategy as this spreads out the impact and makes it harder to fiddle the system and avoid taxes. This is what the Scandinavians do. They also often charge a wealth tax, which means you pay tax on your net worth (typically about 0.1-1% per year) as well as property and land value taxes. But again, such taxes hit everybody. And putting taxes up for middle income voters (who tend to be the ones who decide elections) is easier said than done.

Hence the trick with tax rises is selling them properly. For example, the SNP recently put up taxes here in Scotland, with all tax bands rising (other than the very lowest bands), with the highest rises effecting the highest earners. This was sold on the back of avoiding the sort of austerity measures being applied down in England. Which I thought was fair enough. And if polls are to be believed, it seems most in Scotland agreed. By contrast in France, Marcon has gotten himself in all sorts of trouble with his tax rises largely because he didn’t sell them properly and introduced them too quickly.

This is the risk the left run if they plan on selling “tax the rich” as the snake oil solution which will cure everything. It will raise some money yes. It will help restore some equality to the system yes. But its not going to magically solve everything overnight. And it might well produce a populist backlash, that the right will exploit.

The BBC’s real bias

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Those on the right often like to portray the BBC as having a left wing bias, as most recently demonstrated by Ben Shapiro, in his interview with Andrew Neil. However the reality is, if anything, the opposite (Andrew Neil‘s for example is a former editor of Murdoch’s Times newspaper and about as right wing as they come).

Case in point, the BBC pulled an episode of the political sketch show “Have I got news for you on the grounds that Heidi Allen, the acting leader Change UK was a guest on the show. They argued that this was done to avoid bias before the EU elections. Which would be fair enough, if we were to ignore the fact that Farage (leader of the Brexit party) was on Question time on Thursday. So letting the leader of a pro-remain party appear on a light hearted Friday night comedy show (where the hosts spent most of the time taking the piss out of their guests) is “bias”. But letting Farage, an ally of the far right, onto a serious discussion show (and lie through his teeth and not be challenged on it) is okay. Oh and he has a regular weekly radio slot on LBC. Yep that’s the BBC’s bias for you.

The problem here is two fold. Firstly the BBC is led by public school educated upper class types. And this gives many of them a very particular nativist and elitist political bias (and while Farage might claim otherwise, in truth he represents the elites, the hedge funds and the offshore banking). Brexit is an identity crisis rotted in the UK’s public school system after all. In fact the only difference between the UK’s public schools and a madrassa is that the madrassa’s try to give you a more balanced education.

Secondly is the fact that the BBC is heavily dependant on the government for its very survival. Its funded by the license fee, which in theory the government could withdraw at any time. The license fee isn’t popular, even the BBC seems to accept its a relic of the past and needs to be replaced (a tax on internet and TV advertising has been proposed). And the Tories have purposely avoided settling the question of the BBC’s funding while in office, as they understand that keeping it in limbo allows they to exert a certain level of control over it.

So while I do believe that some in the BBC do try to be unbiased, as an organisation it simply isn’t and its distinctly slanted in favour of both the right, brexit and the government.

Game of Thrones and the epidemic of bad writing

So the latest series of GoT is out and, much as I feared, it show’s all the signs of the same problems that have been afflicting the previous few series, or indeed TV and movies in general, for some time now.

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Night vision goggles to full power!

Dany & Jon’s high school reunion

Let’s do a quick synopsis, the first two episodes were basically a high school reunion up in Winterfell. Everyone reminisced about the time they tried to kill each other, or they time they killed one another’s father/mother/lover/first born. Either that or they whinged about Plot Armour” Jon’s swipe right towards Dany the Velcro Munchkin (I assume one of those Targaryen superpowers is velcro like skin, otherwise how does she stay on a dragon in a 60mph jet stream without a saddle). Oh, how terribly unfair it is that she’s come to rescue them, suppressing the North “freedom”….ah….you live in a feudal society, nobody is truly free, not even the lords or kings, as feudalism is essentially a series of overlapping obligations and responsibilities.

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The truth is its Stark’s and the North who made off like bandits and its Dany who got screwed on this deal. Plot Armour is still in charge of the north. The only change is that Velcro has a veto over his decisions (then again, she’d have that anyway when they get hitched). In return they gain the benefits of all of her military forces (and its difficult to see them beating Cruella Cersei or Frosty the Iceking without that). If she takes the Iron throne they get power and influence (as she’ll need to appoint a small council) plus land and title down south.

And the real benefits kick in with the next generation. Basically, the Stark’s and their offspring become the rulers of the seven kingdoms. After all, why do you think Tywin sunk millions into propping up the Baratheon’s for so long? Because he knew he was essentially buying seven kingdoms at a massive discount. The Stark’s are in the same position, but its not costing them a penny. How ungrateful are these people?

Inevitably the topic of the Tarly roast came up, which shouldn’t be an issue, if you understand medieval society. He broke his oath of fealty to his overlord and got thousands of Tyrells, including Diana Rigg’s character, killed. That’s pretty much you dead. In fact by medieval standards death by dragon for such a crime is practically a mercy kill.

Yes you could see Tyrion’s point, do it nice and legal, but the outcome would be the same. In fact the only thing strange was that Dany seemed inclined to let him off, if he bent the knee. Seriously? He does that, you forgive him (imagine how any surviving Tyrell’s or their bannermen would feel about that?), give him back his sword and hope he doesn’t bury it her back sometime?

So this should not have been an issue. Same way, as I pointed out before, any claim tying “Plot armour” Jon to the throne wouldn’t cut much mustard and would get him laughed out of the room. In a medieval world possession is 9/10’s of the law, its who’ll support you that’s important not who you are. This is actually referenced in GoT when Renly and Stannis meet in season 2. Renly admitted that Stannis had the better claim, but he had more friends, a larger army and thus a stronger claim.

The Iceman cometh

So okay that didn’t go so well and so next episode we got a big battle. But that’s it, the Night king gone, going out like a punk, no explanation no backstory, no idea who he was or what he wanted. For all we know Bran could have dropped his wallet in the three eyed raven’s cave and our skeletor tribute act was just returning it.

And why did they fight at winterfell? There’s an old military saying that you’re halfway to defeat when you let the enemy decide the terms of battle (where it will be fought and under what conditions). And holding it in a castle that’s literally build on top of a graveyard (when you’re up against someone who can raise the dead) does strike me as a little foolish.

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Won’t it be a better idea to put all of these guys INSIDE the castle rather than outside it?

A more sensible strategy would be to use harassing tactics. This is something that light cavalry (such as the Dothraki who clearly are based on the Mongols) are good at, ride in, pepper the enemy with arrows (presumably dragonglass tipped), make ride by attacks, try to break up the enemy formation, then use their superior speed to get out of trouble (rinse and repeat). Such tactics would gradually thin out the numbers (with little risk to their own), such that even if there was one epic final battle (and maybe doing it in day time so we can see what’s bloody happening!), there be a lot less wights to deal with.

What you wouldn’t do is ride light cavalry into a large infantry formation. That’s a really bad idea, flaming swords or not (and aren’t the Dothraki fearful of magic? Strange they went along with this). Infantry formations, especially if they can form a shield wall, are pretty bad news for cavalry. The only difference between running into shield wall and running into a brick wall, is brick walls don’t stab you with long spears.

Hence the Unsullied, once they were attacked, should have mopped the floor. It should have turned out like the battle of Watling street, in which a handful of Romans destroyed a massive Iceni army led by Boudica…and the Roman’s didn’t have dragons to assist them…or a castle!

And speaking of which, even if you are going to fight the battle at Winterfell (after you’ve staked all the corpses in the crypt through the heart!), won’t it be better to do that from INSIDE the keep? And how about digging a moat or something? Even if all the troops won’t fit inside the castle, then expand it, much like Caesar did at Alesia, throwing up some 16 km’s of walls & defensive ditches in just a few days.

In fact, given that we know Frosty the smirking Iceman was basically a giant walking off switch, just throw the kitchen sink at him. They had two dragons, a large numbers of archers and war machines, taking him out should have been easy. Hell they could toss Lyanna Mormont strapped to a jar of wildfire at him, whatever it takes.

That said, as I pointed out in my prior post on this topic, undead are scary but not very effective enemies. They can help set the tone and have characters terrified every time they go to open a door. But they’ve far too many vulnerabilities and weaknesses. And this lot are even worse. Dragonglass, Valyarian steel, fire (well aside from the Gaffer obviously), water, they are harder to keep alive than a Screamapillar. So not really surprising that it ended on a bit of damp squib, but it could have been better written.

Dumb and Dumber

And perhaps this has been the problem for sometime, notably since they ran out of book material, bad writing, undertaken by people who are clueless as to how medieval society works, who aren’t familiar with the source material and likely working according to a tight deadline, probably with additional demands to include unnecessary fan service or battle scenes with lots of cool special effects and explosions. The end result is a mess, they painted themselves into several corners and then tried to use yet more bad writing to get out of it.

For example, allowing Daenerys to go on a bunch of Monty haul campaigns without considering the consequences of that. Much of the bad writing in GoT has stemmed from attempts to counteract these decisions, compounding the original mistakes. The worst example being the ridiculous episode 6 from last season, where they went north to capture a wight (honestly, less said about this episode the better, made worse when you remember that Alliser Thorne took the hand of a wight to King’s landing in season 1).

And the thing is, there’s been far easier way for the writers to contain their Daenerys/Munchkin problem, smack her down with a cold dose of reality. Okay, so she’s got this large army. How does she plan on paying, feeding, equipping and maintaining them? Maybe we can get out of paying them, but what exactly is the difference between a slave and a freed slave who works for her for free? And how exactly is she supposed to move this vast force to Westeros? And how’s she’s going to maintain them on a small rocky Island like Dragonstone?

Reality would force her to leave most of her forces behind in Meereen and bring only a token force with her. Oh and how do the dragons get there? Fly thousands of miles over ocean, staying in the air 24/7 for several weeks? We could be nice and have them mature slower, hence they are small enough to fit on a ship, else she’s got to travel by herself overland (risky!), in stages. In any event she’d also be heading for Dorne to link up with her allies there (in the novels Quentyn Martell was sent to bring her to Dorne), relying more on their armies than her own forces, as well as negotiation rather that combat (which is more in keeping with the time period, battles were actually rare occurrences).

Similarly, Cersei can’t just blow up all her enemies and a church and still expect to be alive the next day, nevermind becoming queen (this, I’d argue is where GoT truly jumped the shark). I get the impression this was a Dynasty move by the show runners to kill off several leading characters so they could spend more money on special effects. But, as I discussed in a prior post, it ignores the fact that the two of the key pillars of a medieval society are the nobles and the clergy. Without the nobles a ruler has no money, soldiers, food or clout of any kind. And its the clergy’s job to keep the peasants (who vastly outnumber everyone else) in check and stop them roasting her and her knights on spits (and yes this sort of thing happened in medieval times when the clergy lost control). So she’s got to deal with her enemies through the normal means (which admittedly could involve a bit of skullduggery and intrigue).

And no, Euron (the show’s version being a hybrid of Euron and Vicarion from the books) can’t simply conjure up a vast fleet of ocean going ships from a group of barren treeless islands in no time at all. Nor can he teleport that fleet around the planet on a whim.

And we see exactly the same problem affecting several other series, such as star trek and star wars. The latest star trek film and all other projects have been cancelled other than one online web series, largely due poor reception from fans, leading to falling revenue from films, games and toy sales.

And star wars too is in crisis (falling revenue, particularly in the toy division). The proposed Rian Johnson trilogy (to follow on from the current one) has been cancelled, he’s been given his marching orders and aside from the final film already in the works, it looks like everything else is on hold or migrating over to Netflix.

And the cause? Bad writing by people who’ve no clue about the genre they are writing for, with a bunch of lawyers and corporate types with $ in their eyes, looking over their shoulders. If you’ve ever met a trekkie or a star wars fan and you wanted to wind them up and get them to burn their DVD collection, I’d say the best way to do that would be to pretty much do what’s gone on with both of these franchises recently. GoT seems to be following the same script (the more serious the fans, the more furious they seem to be). So probably just as well its the last season.

A spoiler alert for the EU elections

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The UK’s local election results (in England, Scotland wasn’t voting this time around) have shown a massive swing away from the pro-brexit parties, towards pro-remain parties. Now while it is certainly true that local elections tend to be fought over issues such as fortnightly bin collections and the cost of the Christmas lights, certainly there’s clearly something of a trend here that’s a bit too obvious to ignore.

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At the end of the day, even if you are voting on local issues, who do you want in charge of local affairs? The party that proposed brexit, got a deal and then voted against it. Or the party that backed remain, but voted in favour of article 50 and who has been sitting on the fence ever since, with the party leadership trying to come up with an excuses for why they should vote for a Tory brexit plan they all hate. Or maybe you’d rather put some grown up’s in charge instead? And its also worth remembering that as these elections didn’t include London or Scotland, its probable the swing on this issue is if anything understated.

This is exactly the point I’ve been making for sometime. Corbyn and May seem to think that if they can just sneak brexit through, that’s it done and dusted, all the 17 million or so who voted remain, many of whom can show very real personal loss and hardship brought onto them by brexit, will go away and shut up about the issue forever. Well obviously no, they won’t. As the economic impact of brexit takes effect it will mean that instead support for rejoining the EU will grow. Corbyn’s plan is to let brexit happen and then blame the Tories. But, as these results should make clear, the outcome of a Tory brexit is voters backing pro-EU parties, not other forms of euroscepticism.

So they’ve got the message loud and clear, we’ll be having a 2nd referendum then. LOL! Nope, both party leaders are arguing instead that a strong swing to remain indicates support for their policy. May wants a 3rd vote (or is it a 4th vote? honestly I’ve lost count!) on her deal (once she’s changed the font). Corbyn seems to think it means voters defecting from him to the lib dems and greens means they want labour to back May’s deal this time (brexiter logic, don’t even try to understand it!).

As I’ve said before, so long as Corbyn (aka Captain Ahab) is party leader, labour are a pro-leave party. He will prioritise getting brexit through over becoming PM or reversing Tory austerity. Even thought labour is overwhelmingly a remain party, labour voters need to remember you are essentially voting for a Tory brexit by voting labour. It doesn’t matter what you vote for at conference, or what’s in the party manifesto, Corbyn has consistently shown he will ignore both and push through his own agenda. And you can also be guaranteed, even when he does go, he’ll make sure his own hand picked successor (eurosceptic and clueless) takes over.

But, what’s really troubling me is the upcoming EU elections. I’d be inclined to vote Green party in these. While its claimed the UK’s EU elections operate on proportional representation, its a flawed version of PR, as it doesn’t include a transferable vote (and hence tends to favour the major parties). A party needs about 15% of the vote per seat in Scotland. And last time the lib dems and greens split about 15% of the vote between them (so no seats for either party).

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However, now Change UK threaten to split a pool of about 20% of the vote 3 ways. This means that when you add that to the SNP’s 40%, 60% of Scottish voters will likely vote for pro-remain parties. Add in labour’s 14% (Scottish labour is very much a remain party, even more so than in England) that works out at support at 74% for remain. However, thanks to Change UK’s spoiler action, its possible the seat allocation will split more like 50/50.

Why didn’t Change UK do an election deal with the other parties and run on a joint ticket? And worse still, while no lib dem or greens got elected in Scotland last time, several did get elected in English constituencies. Change UK spoiler action now threatens to cost these MEP’s their seats (in fact one of their candidates recently pulled out for this very reason, she doesn’t want to stand and help brexiters get elected).

Looking at the UK wide polls add up the pro-remain parties and they do have a lead (although a narrow one at that) and again you add in labour and support for remain represents a majority. But inevitably the media won’t report that. They will focus on seat allocation (which will likely split 70/30 in favour of leave) or which individual party got the most votes or seats (which will be Farage and his gallery of ghouls).

So my advice to anyone in the UK is don’t vote for Change UK. Check your local results and opinion polls and back incumbent pro-remain MP’s (in Scotland that would be the SNP, in England Greens and lib dems, in Wales Plaid Cymru). And whatever you do, don’t vote for labour either (the media will count that as a pro-leave vote). Certainly if there’s a big shift in support in Scotland, whereby the green’s stand a chance, I might well vote for them and I’d advise everyone else to watch the polls closely and do the same. But the priority this time is maximising the number of remain supporting MEP’s who get elected. Particularly when you understand what’s going on in the rest of Europe.

I appreciate what Change UK is trying to do. They know that the Tories are now just enablers of fascism and xenophobia. The nasty party. That Corbyn is a pighead numpty, who hasn’t changed his views on anything since 1970 and hasn’t got a clue how to win an election. However simply compounding the main parties mistakes while waving a pro-remain flag isn’t progress. A hard defeat might snap them back to reality and force them to change tactics (such as doing forging an alliance with the lib dems).

The populist threat to the Good Friday agreement

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that Ireland is some sort of democratic utopia right now. However, its more about the fact that relative to the UK (with Brexit), the US (with Trump) and Europe (with various far right populists), we come off a bit better, the best of the bad lot as it were. We still have all the usual issues of incompetent politicians wasting public money, corruption scandals (more recently regarding police whistleblowers) and sooner or later we’ll have to have a tribunal about all of the tribunals.

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Aftermath of a vigilante raid by SF supporters in Co. Roscommon

But its not as if Ireland has escaped the racism, bigotry and populist upsurge of other parts of the world. In fact recently there’s been some very worrying developments. We’ve had the murder of a journalist in Northern Ireland, a rise in vigilante activity (linked to Republican groups) and even an unauthorised Saoradh parade of provo’s on O’Connell’s street. As events in Sri Lanka recently showed, terrorism can just bubble below the surface, then erupt without warning. And while brexit is certainly part of the problem, it would be unfair to blame it alone. The rise of extreme politics, the DUP and Sinn Fein, at the expense of more rational parties is clearly part of the problem.

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A paramilitary parade in O’Connell street….taken this Easter, not 30 years ago!

Sinn Fein have of course gone through their usual dance of condemning all of the above, without condemning it. Yes its terrible that those bullets choose to hit that journalist…rather than the cop they were aimed at, but clearly that’s not SF’s fault. I recall there was something of a stopped clock element to how Ian Paisley would often refer to “IRA/Sinn Fein”. As he saw it they were both two sides of the same coin…course he failed to mention how closely aligned the DUP was (and still is) to loyalist terrorists. But either way, inevitably the rise in support for these parties, combined with brexit, has embolden terrorist groups.

And least we forget, NI terrorist groups are also linked to a significant proportion of the crime both sides of the border. We are talking about crimes such as smuggling (drugs, booze, cigarettes, guns, etc.), racketeering, counterfeit goods, robberies, kidnappings, bank raids. You name it NI terrorists, and their political allies, have their grubby finger prints all over the place. After all, running a terrorism campaign is expensive, Semtex doesn’t exactly grow on trees. And given that the terrorists are marked men, they need their political allies (SF & the DUP) to run errands for them from time to time.

And its also important to understand how people are drawn into these terrorist/criminal gangs. Often they live in fairly deprived areas, that have seen little inward investment and depleted public services. A situation not helped by Tory austerity, the current power vacuum in Stormont, or the uncertainty over brexit putting a freeze on business investments. So with nothing better to do and few prospects, they get drawn into these gangs.

With many new entrants to politics (the usual angry populist voters who just want to vent their fury) Sinn Fein and the DUP have tried to distance themselves from this criminality and terrorism, much as the far right parties in Europe try to distant themselves from the skinhead gangs. But like I said, they are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. There are plenty of other parties, both sides of the border, with the same basic political goals (although they tend not be single issue parties). Its not as if these views are under represented. The whole point of Sinn Fein or the DUP is to be a mouth piece for the gangs. So long as these parties exist, there will be the threat of terrorism and visa versa.

And there seems to be a failure of many to recognise this, both among voters, but also the politicians, particularly those in the UK. After all, May’s government (if you could call it that!) is propped up by the DUP. Meanwhile Corbyn (while busy denying he’s a dictator oh and labour’s in favour of a 2nd referendum now….maybe…maybe not, we’ll see) has been busy courting Sinn Fein.

And even US politicians don’t seem much better. The surprise announcement of Trump’s UK state visit probably has something to do with events in the US congress and Nancy Pelosi’s recent fact finding tour of Ireland. The British are all too aware that any threat to the Good Friday agreement will rule out any possibility of a US/UK trade deal. And this is a position that enjoy’s cross party support in Congress (such is the strength of Irish/American voters).

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The Nancy Pelosi recently visited Ireland for talks about brexit and the GFA

The UK’s only hope is to play their Trump card, the joker in the pack and hope to get the ball rolling on any trade deal before he leaves office (which could be as early as next year, depending on the election or any impeachment). Hence the urgency of his visit. Granted, doing a trade deal with the US in a hurry would basically mean conceding everything to the US, but its not like Tory MP’s care if farmers, fishermen and factory workers lose their jobs, or they have to privatise the NHS (actually they would see those as positives in any trade deal!).

But what policy did their ally Trump recently announce? He’s withdrawing from an international arms control treaty. Which will now make it easier for terrorists to buy weapons, not unlike those recently used in shootings. And yes, it is a proven fact that both the IRA and UVF have acquired weapons in the past via the US, by taking advantage of its lax gun laws.

So all in all we have a very dangerous situation developing. There is, unfortunately, a very strong risk of a break down of the GFA and a return to the bad old days. And consider that such a campaign would be far worse that it was in the old days. Technology as it were has moved on.

Back in the 80’s the IRA couldn’t hack into key computers and shut down the financial markets. Or buy a few drones, fit them with explosives and fly them over airports and other large public events (or merely threaten to do so). In fact one weapon the IRA are known to have acquired (but not used) was surface to air missiles. The only reason they didn’t was because that would have been a significant escalation at a crucial point in the peace process. One assumes that if things kicked off again, this could be the opening salvo.

Like I said, I won’t blame it alone on any one factor (such as brexit), clearly there are multiple drivers here. Angry voters who vote for these parties (because urinating into a ballot box is illegal so this is the next best thing), without considering the consequences. Tory austerity. The fact that both of these parties currently see them as benefiting from the impasse in Stormont. Establishment politicians who see nothing wrong with doing deals with the allies of terrorists (if they wore turbans and prayed to a different god, can you imagine the outcry?). US politicians who don’t understand what’s going on this side of the pond. Something needs to give, if we’re to see off this threat.

The environmental impact of space Junk

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5ab950de821646d6378b4707-750-500 Figure 1: Its not just the oceans where the earth has a garbage problem

We often think of environmental problems as something that only effects the natural world and things back on earth, but there’s a growing environmental problem in space, which could have very serious consequences if it isn’t contained. The issue of orbital debris from expired satellites and spent rocket stages, which is gradually building up in space, making operations in space increasingly difficult and dangerous.

1200px-Debris-GEO1280 Figure 2: A NASA radar image of the objects currently in orbit around the earth

A couple of weeks ago India was criticised for destroying one of its own satellites. This test produced a large cloud of debris (some 400 pieces) flying around the earth at twenty times the speed of sound (to put that in prospective that means a small 1g speck of debris has the same destructive energy as…

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Varsity blues

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I’ve meant to comment more fully on the Varsity blues” case for sometime, where rich parents have been paying middle men to get their kids into university. This has involved faking documents or claiming athletic merits (in sports they didn’t even partake in), bribing of admissions tutors and the rigging of exams. We’re talking corruption here on a level that would cause even the most corrupt governments on earth to blush. I’ve heard of helicopter parenting, but this is ridiculous.

Oh and it turns out one of the students in question, going to USC (I assume that stands for the University of Spoiled Children), is basically using her time in uni (bought at such a high price) as little more than an opportunity to party, rather than study. Those millions were well spent then!

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Yet the thing is that this is simply the tip of a corrupt iceberg. There’s all sorts of shady practices that go on in US universities. From how universities disproportionately take on students from wealthy backgrounds (presumably just a coincidence!), or how whites are vastly more likely to attend a top tier uni than anyone else. To academics farming themselves out as paid experts to anyone who offers them enough cash.

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And while academic standards in Europe are usually enforced pretty well (if you fail you fail, see you again next year, no exceptions), in the US, there’s all sorts of shenanigans, with the jocks from the football team being given extra tuition or the opportunity to earn extra credit (what we call in my uni “cheating”) just to allow them to pass.

And if the dodgy recruitment policies weren’t bad enough there’s the sky high fees, which immediately put academia beyond the reach of so many Americans (if you think fees are high in the UK, ask an American sometime about how much uni costs, I’d advise having something soft nearby to faint onto). Plus you’ll need somewhere to live on campus. Which could well mean joining a sorority or frat and go through hazing. Aside from the issue that they have been labelled as “hot beds of racism and sexism”, they are also the epitome of the term “white privilege”, as they are largely for the better off. In corporate America its not what you know, but who you know. You could be top of the class at Yale, but some rich jock who struggled to pass (and only did so with generous use of contract plagiarism) gets the job ahead of you, just by waving around his fraternity ring.

But at least by going to UCLA or Harvard, I’ll be taught by Nobel laureates? Think again, most students in the US (even the top universities) are taught by teaching assistants who are overworked, on minimum wage and struggling to get by. To the point where some are living in their cars. The only way you’ll get to see an actual professor is if you bump into them in the lift, or get a 2nd job as a cleaner.

Now okay, you may say I’m being unfair. There are some examples of good teaching and world leading research at US universities. Take for example, the recent imaging of a black hole. But this is the problem with US academia, the standards are extremely patchy, both in terms of teaching and research. For every Katie Bouman, I can point you to some woo pedaller, such as some of her colleagues at MIT who were pushing that water woo stuff I talked about awhile ago.

Go to a US uni and yes its possible you might get a professor who actually gives a crap, shows up to class and tries to help you learn. Or might get one who sends one of his PhD students to do the teaching, as he’s way too busy prostituting himself to some corporation, or ripping off his own PhD students work and passing its off as his own.

And as I’ve said before, the direction of travel here in the UK is to copy the US academic system. Both in terms of the high fees, the unequal recruiting policies to the dodgy financing and shady deals with corporations. In fact only this week we had the revelation that UK uni’s have spent £90m on staff gagging orders, in just two years.

And the thing is there is a straightforward way of fixing the US admissions system – centralise applications through an independent, government regulated, third party. In Ireland for example, we have the CAO system, whereby you apply to the CAO rather than the individual universities. The CAO system assigns every student a number and only the computer knows which number corresponds to which name, with selection on the basis of merit (i.e. you only get to go to the best university if your grades are high enough). There’s also separate programmes for students from a disadvantaged background (where it might not be fair to solely judge them on grades alone) and well as various schemes for mature students.

Furthermore, fees in Ireland are largely covered by the state. And while universities are independent and self governing in Ireland, as they are financed by the state, they are also regulated by the government. which tends to cut down on the sort of funny business we see in the US. And the EU also supplies various research funding schemes for universities, so they aren’t necessarily dependant on compromising their academic standards just to get funding.

So its strange how in the wake of this scandal, both sides in Congress aren’t pushing for these sorts of policies. One has to conclude its because they WANT a university admissions system that is unfair and benefits the rich. These issues I raise are not an unfortunate side effect of the commercialisation of US academia, they are the deliberate intention. The purpose is to game the system in favour of the better off against everyone else. And like I said, this is the route of travel for academia here in the UK.