Brexit….or how to lose friends and alienate allies

image

After six rounds the brexit talks are stalled. The Irish, frustrated with hearing Theresa May say one thing, Dave2 another and Boris something else, are threatening to veto any attempt to move onto trade talks unless they get a written guarantee of no hard border. Donald Tusk has given May a two week ultimatum to get Dave2 to pull his finger out of his butt and make some meaningful offer on the three core issues, citizens rights, trade and the divorce bill. Dave2 however argues that its all the EU’s fault. The EU he says is putting politics over prosperity, the UK has compromised enough now its the EU’s turn.

Well the thing is that the entire brexit enterprise amounts to putting politics over prosperity. And furthermore, the EU’s counter argument is that they have to stick to their guns, the short term hit they’d take from the UK leaving without a deal, would pale in comparison to the long term implications, both economic and political, of allowing the UK to gain an unfair advantage over its former EU partners. Never mind the political implications of failing to get an agreement on citizens rights and the Irish border.

And ultimately an uncontrolled brexit without a deal would hurt the UK more than the EU. A Dutch parliamentary investigation (and the Dutch have been among the most pro-UK of the EU nations) put this at a cost of up to 4% of GDP for the EU….although they also said the UK would take a +18% GDP wallop (ouch!).

I think there’s a failure of the brexiters to realise what sort of damage this whole process is doing to the UK’s reputation as an honest broker. Some of those who you would normally count as the UK’s friends in the room (such as the Irish and the Dutch) are becoming increasingly sceptical and critical. And this is all a consequence of broken promises, magical thinkingfrom the brexiters and unguarded comments from unruly ministers (given May’s complete lack of control over her own government). And from what I’m hearing from those abroad, they are looking on with increasing scepticism and are rapidly losing respect for the UK and its citizens.

cover-w300-5886760458ce6-chapeau-melon-et-bottes-de-cuir-1961-12-g

How the Brexiters see themselves…..

For example, this week a Tory minister stated that the Irish were only making a big issue about the border because the Taoiseach was coming under pressure from Sinn Fein (thus trying to make a dog whistle connecting the Irish government to terrorists). Suffice to say this went down like a lead balloon in Dublin. Varadkar despises Sinn Fein and won’t go near them with a barge pole (well other that to whack them over the head with it). And frankly with his Jerryness set to retire soon, I don’t think Varadkar could care less what a soon-to-be-pensioner thinks. So if you’re wondering why the Irish came out of the boxes fighting this week, this is what happens when a PM loses control of her ministers and they start making off the cuff the remarks to keep the tabloids happy.

And the message from the brexiters is hardly consistent. They’ve flip flopped more than John Kerry at a beach footwear convention. As James O’Brien at LBC has pointed out the message from the brexiters has constantly shifted and contradicted itself. For example, one of their core mantra’s going right back to the referendum itself was that they could rely on the Germans and Angela Merkel to pressure the EU to grant the UK a favourable trade deal for the sake of German industry. But this week they’ve turned a full 180 degrees and been arguing that Merkel’s difficulty is the UK’s opportunity. Sufficient to say, if you think such lunacy is going unnoticed around the world, think again.

Minder-was-shown-for-twenty-years-between-1979-and-2009

…….How the rest of the world sees them now

Let me put it this way, suppose a used car salesman sold you a motor, offered you a guarantee, but then when the car broke down after just a few days and he refused to pay you back, how would you feel? If a fed days later he offered to do you a great deal on an nice little runner, would you take him up on it? Probably not. The brexiters seem to think they can screw the EU over, refuse to pay their bills, make unreasonable demands. Then the day after brexit expect to be able to do business with the EU as if nothing has happened.

And they seem to be assuming that the rest of the world don’t have access to this thing called “the internet” and thus won’t realise what sort of incompetent arseholes they behaved like while negotiating with the EU, how they reneged on past UK commitments and promises. And that these other states (Canada, China, Australia, etc.) will then trust the British at their word and lavish them with gifts and a trade deal that puts them at a disadvantage too. Well no, that’s not how the world works. You develop a reputation for being disingenuous, as the UK is doing, then that label tends to stick. You’ll be lucky if anyone offers you any sort of deal at all.

I used to work in an engineering consultancy and there were some potential clients we won’t work for. Why? Surely the customers always right? Well not when he’s a pain to work with and keeps sending you bouncy cheques. And similarly there were contractors in the city whom we would never give work too. And I mean we’d ship people in from overseas or even get someone from Dublin to do it, rather than give the job to them. Why? Because they made such an awful mess of a previous job that frankly even if they offered to do the work for free, it still wouldn’t be worth our while having them on site. This is the consequences of developing a bad reputation. Nobody will do business with you, not at any price.

As a result, the UK is increasingly coming across as a nation of spiv’s and Arthur Daley types. In fact that’s not even accurate. Arthur Daley was at least street wise, what we’d call a cute hoor back in Ireland. The brexiters are not. They are a bunch of out of touch, upper class twits who have lived their entire lives in a home counties bubble. They are the sort of people who go to Paris or Rome and get conned by a street grifter (hate to break it to you Boris, but there’s no such thing as a wallet inspector, I don’t think he’s coming back)….which probably explains their hatred of everything European.

You do wonder if they should slip a line in the great repeal plagiarise EU law bill to change the national anthem of the UK to either the theme song from Minder or only fools and horses. It would be a more accurate representation of how the rest of the world sees the UK post-brexit.

Advertisements

News roundup

I have been away on business for a couple of weeks. I thought it would be useful to do an update.

Bloody pathetic woman

238_196612.jpg

Prior to the election Theresa May promised to be “a bloody difficult woman” in pursuit of brexit negotiations. I recall joking that given her behaviour during the election (basically hiding from public appearances and avoiding TV debates), her strategy would probably actually involve locking herself in the loo for the duration of talks and waiting for the EU to push a favourable agreement under the door.

Well I was sort of right. Her solution to dealing with the EU was to go to Brussels and turn on the water works. And the EU “conceded” something to her, just to get this blubbering wailing mess out of the room. Of course they didn’t really concede anything, they simply agreed to talk privately among themselves about what a potential transitional trade deal would look like, which they’d already agreed to do prior to the summit, the only difference was they made this public, giving May the illusion of having won some concession when in truth she’d won nothing.

And the early results of those talks aren’t encouraging for the brexiters. It pretty much states what we’ve long been telling them. You’ll have to pay the exit bill. A trade deal will take a considerable period of time to negotiate, not only long after March 2019 but probably extending past the next general election (leaving the country in economic limbo for a considerable period of time). Access to the EU market in any form will mean accepting all of those pesky EU rules they despise on the UK statute books. Plus we’ll either need to hire several thousand new civil servants to administer and regulate those rules or pay the EU a few billion to do it all for us….oh and you’ve a month to make a decision, so no pressure!

Oh and the latest word from the WTO regarding the UK’s future trading relationship isn’t positive either. The UK could face charges as high as 10-50% hit on the cost of its exports after March 2019, not just to the EU but to a host of other countries the EU has existing trade deals with. Yes, we could do a deal with the US, ditch EU rules. But you’re assuming that all the companies who are trading with the EU, who will then instantly lose access to their customers in the EU (as they will no longer be in compliance with EU rules and thus their products will be banned from the EU), can simply wave a magic wand and find new customers in the US and establish a supply chain to those customers on the other side of the Atlantic…and do all of that over night.

Of course the problem for the UK is that there is now an open civil war ongoing in the Tory party. Micheal Fallon, a May supporter has just got taken out, so in return she took the opportunity to take out leave supporter Priti Patel (although to be fair, suggesting international development aid should be given to the Israeli army for use in occupied territories the UK doesn’t recognise Israeli control over is a sackable offence for a minister in any circumstances).

In order to get the compromises the EU wants one or both of the main leadership candidates, Dave2 (the person whom the media tycoons have chosen to lead the party) or Boris have to basically take a big bite out of a shit sandwich (if you’ll pardon the bluntness of my language), because May’s already eaten all the crusts. They would have to sign off on paying the EU tens of billions of pounds (having promised in the referendum the UK would be £350 million a week richer), they’d have to accept some level of freedom of movement, recognition of the ECJ and likely leave northern Ireland half in and half out of the rest of the UK. Either of them does any of this and they can rule out wining the post-May leadership contest. And yet she can’t sack them and put someone more complaint into their jobs. So in short, the UK has become ungovernable .

Hindu fascism

Should you wonder what possessed Mrs Patel to go to Israel without authorisation, try to overturn a long standing UK (as well as US, EU and UN) backed position on the occupied territories and then propose her department give UK development aid money to the Israeli army. Well we need to get past the idea that racism and bigotry is something that only white men are responsible for. The crisis in Myanmar and the persecution of a Muslim minority (by Buddhists under Aung San Suu Kyi) being a case in point. Unfortunately a significant number of Hindu’s, such as Mrs Patel are also fanatically islamophobic to an extend that makes Nigel Farage sound like a moderate.

Now naturally I’m not saying all Hindu’s are bigots, but certainly some are. And while I’d like to say its few on the fringes (who’ve probably made the mistake of reading the Daily Mail), in truth were are talking a fairly significant number of them. The BJP, the ruling party in India, at present, is very much anti-Muslim and more than a little racist. Indeed they are basically an Indian version of UKIP.

Their policies have included such highlights as knocking down Muslim temples (leading to massive riots that killed thousands), trying to introduce astrology as a university degree, arguing that some ancient Hindu civilisation we’ve never heard of once existed (and even conducted nuclear tests) and professing a belief that cow dung can cure cancer. They also want to stop tourists visiting the Taj Mahal, which they argue is a Shiva temple (its a mausoleum for a Muslim emperor’s wife)…..Just to reiterate, these nutters are running India and have access to nuclear weapons (well if they put the astrologers in charge of missile guidance we’ve nothing to worry about I suppose!).

And Hindu fascists have also been very quick to find common cause with other similar groups around the world. More than a few thought that India was on the wrong side during World War II, notably Savitri Devi a British fascist and Hindu convert, who is revered by both Hindu extremists and the alt-right to this day. I’m going to take a wild guess and assume Mrs Patel kept didn’t mention this little fact of history to her Israeli hosts.

Catalatrophy

1410455469000-catalonia00001

The Catalan crisis is a crisis not so much due to the Catalan’s pursuit of a referendum (assuming any referendum had the proper checks and balances, e.g. the need for a full majority, i.e. 50% of the voters to back it, they’d have probably lost it), but the conservative government in Madrid’s refusal to allow it and the brutal crack down before and after.

They’ve now likely just succeeded in convincing many Catalan’s that Madrid can’t be trusted to stay out of the regions affairs. By suspending the regional government they’ve left Catalonia with two choices, full independence, or direct rule from Madrid. And by making martyrs of the leadership, they’re just going to provide a totem for independence supporters to rally around.

And there is history here. The reason why Ireland isn’t part of the UK is because of events during world war one (a war which had nothing to do with Ireland, yet we got dragged into it) and the crackdown by the British after the Easter rising. Both events convinced the Irish that even with the proposed home rule we’d been promised London simply couldn’t be trusted not to meddle in Irish affairs. And hence we were better off outside of the UK, regardless of what economic price we had to pay to get that independence. This is not far from were Catalonia is now.

Hence while the sensible solution would be to hold a proper poll on the matter, something the left wing parties in Madrid have been proposing for sometime I might add, the window of opportunity where that could settle the matter has probably now passed. Up until recently the assumption was that (as noted) such a poll would go against the Catalan independence movement, while now its 50/50 either way. Also even if such a poll were held and even if it was a firm No vote, I don’t think the Catalan independence movement will pack up and go home. Having been beaten up by the cop’s they aren’t going to give up until they get what they want, so in essence Madrid has radicalised them. And its only a matter of time before some hot head starts setting off bombs. As JFK said “those who make political change impossible make violent revolution inevitable”.

And some of those bombs will be going off in Brussels, for the EU very firmly backed Madrid when they should have stayed neutral. This pro-Madrid stance was probably what emboldened Madrid enough that they felt comfortable sending in the riot squads. The EU’s reasoning has been that they don’t want to encourage other separatist movements. However my suspicion is that all they’ve succeeded in doing is guaranteeing that if Catalonia does separate from Spain it will be a messy breakup of Spain and that the other independence movements around Europe will now be emboldened to carry on regardless. In short the EU has made life more difficult for itself not less.

So clear the solution here, given the impossibility of a pig headed Spanish PM changing course, is for the EU to act. They should put in place a contingency plan for what to do if a country who is an EU member breaks up. If Catalonia must leave the EU (as suggested) then so too must Spain (as the conditions on which it entered the EU have now changed as well). Or both are allowed to transition into EU members. If that offends Madrid, then tough. Otherwise Brussels could find itself facing violent attack from separatists from across the continent, which would create a crisis that makes brexit look like a storm in a tea cup.

Not so Trumped up charges

woman-flip-off-the-trump-motorcade-36f16d4e-a758-43d5-b776-99378164c67b

The first charges in the Mueller investigation into Trump’s Russia connections have been made and needless to say the reaction from him and his supporters has been similar to the reaction you’d get from a toddler whose hand you caught in the cookie jar, a combination of bawling and counter claims against his sister, or in this case Hilary.

There are allegations made that suggest Hilary may have gotten funds from a pro-Putin source and certainly there’s some smoke here, but not necessarily a fire. It should be noted that it is a known tactic of Putin to secretly give money to his political opponents, usually through back channels and anonymous allies, such that the opposition don’t realise what’s going on, only to then to allow this bombshell to be leaked to the media at a time when it is most inconvenient to those opponents. That he would play the same trick with Hilary would hardly be a surprise.

However, even if the worse case scenario was true, Hilary knew about this money, well two wrongs don’t make a right. Trump’s still in trouble, he can have the cell next to her. It is deeply ironic how everything he’s accused Hilary of, Trump and his administration have now also done. He’s had his own email scandal, his own Benghazi. Yet the GOP have launched no investigation, they are too busy investigating Hilary.

To draw an analogy, its like seeing a mafia don being dragged into court and on the way in he passes a hot dog stand and randomly accuses the owner of that stand of not paying his taxes. And as a response the federal grand jury suspends his case while they launch an investigation into the hot dog stand owner’s tax affairs. And again, its the sort of behaviour that one regularly sees play out in corrupt African dictatorships.

Perhaps more worryingly is Trump’s warmongering towards Iran and North Korea. Its been suggested that he might launch some sort of attack against these countries in order to deflect attention from the Russia investigation, which does actually sound plausible. And that’s very worrying because the likely consequences of such an intervention are unlikely to be pretty serious. Tens of thousands of dead and the destabilisation of the world, probably leading to a stand off between the US on one side and China and Russia and their allies on the other sort of serious. All to massage the ego of one guy.

Paradise papers

paradisepapers-740x419

The latest paradise paper leaks are oh so predictable. Some time ago I read a book called Treasure Islands about the offshore industry and many of the very mechanisms discussed in the book are identical to what these leaks reveal. I’m sorry but this is news only to the blind and naïve.

It also explains why when the brexiters threaten to turn the UK into a tax haven post-brexit, the response from Brussels is to start howling with laughter. As author Nicholas Shaxson puts it “the largest tax haven in the world is in London”. Most of the dirty work of tax avoidance actually takes place in offices within London itself. Offshore on the tax havens, they’ll have a few lawyers and officials to sign documents and that’s it. And to be fair to the UK, Delware in the US and Luxembourg in the EU means there are equivalent operations within both the US and EU.

It would be all too easy for the EU, UK and US to simply ban all financial trade with this regions, or slap some sort of financial transaction tax on all such activity. Or worse, adopt tax and salary transparency laws (meaning everybody’s earnings and tax payment records become public, meaning it’s very easy to work out who is paying their taxes and who is on the fiddle allowing tax dodgers to be easily caught). The fact is that it is an open secret that, as one billionaire put it “only the little people pay taxes”. The rich can avoid them not because there’s no way to shut down tax havens, but because the politicians are too scared to open that can of worms and try to do something about it.

Sparkling hypocrisy

In the US, the land of the free ain’t so free. You can’t for example buy Haggis, because the FDA says its unsafe (and if the brexiters have their way, those FDA rules might well apply in the UK too). Nor can you buy a kinder surprise. And fireworks are banned in some US states. Okay, fireworks are actually dangerous, but even in elf n’safety obsessed UK we’ve seemed to find a way of regulating that to a point that’s acceptable. But no so US states still say, no fireworks, they’re too dangerous, even sparklers are banned…..But a semi automatic rifle, oh they are perfectly safe! Go figure!

A matter of education

Before the EU referendum farmers were warned that subsidies would likely go, that they’d face the risk of rising costs, being cut off from the EU markets and losing access to seasonal workers from the EU. Well now we’ve seen how a cliff edge hard brexit and a sudden imposition of high tariffs could cut off that market access (and as noted earlier its not as if they can just pick up the phone and find someone else on April 1st 2019 who wants to buy several hundred tons of cheese). Farmers costs have risen rapidly and they are worrying signs that immigration controls could cut off access to seasonal workers, raising questions as to how they are going to harvest their crops post-brexit. And this is not just a problem for farmers, it will impact on food prices as well.

And inevitably a report has now come out suggesting farm subsidies should be scraped. They point to New Zealand as a model for British farming, ignoring the fact that New Zealand has a tiny population where their costs are lower and their farms are massive. The small holdings of the type we see in the UK either don’t exist or don’t produce the same things as we do (most smaller farms are vineyards producing wine or grow fruits….not a really an option for UK farmers!). The NHS was also warned that it would face staffing shortages, which again predictably are starting to come true.

brexit-demographics-1

One has to question where brexiters are maybe a little thick. And actually since you mention it, polls do show a link between education and which way people voted in the referendum. Those with a high level of education voting largely remain, those with no education beyond GCSE’s were the most likely to vote leave.

So now you know what happened to the farmer who didn’t pay attention at school. He voted for brexit, lost his farm and ended up as a poor cotter on the estate of some laird with no healthcare or pension in his old age.

The centenary of violence celebrated

The wheel of violence that has ground over the middle east for decades rolls on. While ISIS looks like its now more or less beaten, fighting has broken out between the Kurds and the Iraqi government forces around the oil rich town of Kirkuk. The Kurds (some 30 million strong) are the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland of their own.

So we can see how this cycle of violence will just continue, the Kurds get radicalised, they start a four way war with Turkey, Iran, Iraq and what’s left of Syria, who btw are also starting to turn on the US backed free Syrian forces. 5,306 days since G. W. Bush declared mission accomplished, the fire he lit in the middle east continues to burn and it will likely continue to do so for decades more.

Indeed, strictly speaking it wasn’t G. W. Bush who lit the fire in the middle east, but the British. One hundred years ago a UK diplomat made the Balfour declaration, something that was recently celebrated in Israel, as they see it as the first acceptance of Israeli statehood. To be honest, its not the sort of thing I’d celebrate. As you are celebrating a hundred years of violence, which has seen more than a few Jews as well as Muslim’s killed btw.

And the thing is that what the British were proposing to do was use the Jews as their colonial stooges. A long standing British policy of colonisation was to drive out any disloyal locals, steal their land and “plant” some convenient lackies on that land, who were generally people they wanted out of the UK for some reason or another (the convicts sent to Australia, the Presbyterian’s in Northern Ireland, the Puritans in North America).

And it wasn’t even the local Muslims whom the British were worried about. At the time they were fighting world war one (where Germany was backed by the Turks and a number of other actors in the region) and the middle east was a key battle ground, given the Royal Navy’s dependence on oil. The first unit of British troops deployed overseas during world war one went not to Belgium but Basra to defend the oil fields. And the British, all too aware that post-war they’d face competition from their long standing rivals the French, wanted someone in the region loyal to them, rather than the French. So in essence Israel is celebrating how they became pawns of the British Empire.

And there is a further cruel irony to the Balfour deceleration. This British policy of both divide and rule (which one of the reasons for the violence and bigotry in India I referred too earlier) and planting of loyal supporters on someone else’s land was greatly admired by the nazi’s. In essence what they were doing in Eastern Europe was simply trying to copy what the British had been doing for centuries in other parts of the world (in a slightly crueller way, but same basic principle). So that’s hardly the sort of thing we should be celebrating, least of all the Israeli’s.

And so this wheel of violence will not only roll onwards, but we literally have some in the region celebrating its centenary.

La la brexit land

DMWWwg2WsAE6DoL

Post-brexit, the UK now has lower growth than Italy and a higher inflation rate than Sweden

I happened to catch the movie La La Land recently and it occurred to me that the brexiters seem to inhabit more of a fantasy world than the characters in the movie. A fantasy world that should have by now been shattered as the cold hard realities of brexit sink in. An interesting Guardian article here about the folly of the brexiters and how all of their promises have come to nothing. Which is exactly what everyone told them would happen before the referendum.

The brexiters promised “new and exciting trade dealsin “emerging markets (what on Pluto?), which they could sign up to quickly. The EU, faced with the prospect of losing trade with the UK would agree to let us have our cake and eat it. The Americans under Trump would lavish gifts upon us, some even envisioned British Empire 2.0, with the UK at the heart of a new trading hub to rival the EU, US and China.

Well its becoming obvious now that any new trade deals, even those with the US, Canada or Australia will involve long and protracted negotiations, not least because the UK simply doesn’t have the staff to negotiate these deals in any sort of a hurry. And with a 220% tariff imposed on Bombardier imposed by supposed UK ally Trump, even despite the direction and personal intervention of the PM, its clear that the US will (surprise, surprise) put its own interest first.

And who is the white knight riding to Bombardier’s aid? It would appear to be Airbus (no doubt acting with the blessing of the EU). Although its worth noting they are taking a 50% stake in the company for which they will not pay a penny…..which is kind of metaphorical for the whole brexit process. The Brexiters get themselves into an awful mess and the Europeans lend them a rope with which to help themselves out of the quagmire….for a price!

Certainly the UK can get a trade deal with the US or its other trading partners reasonably quickly, if you don’t mind conceding heavily to the other side. Or in other words if you’re okay with the idea of UK farmers being driven to the wall, chlorinated chicken, growth hormones in beef or GM grains being sold on supermarket shelves unlabelled and the NHS ending up owned by US HMO’s.

And a key step in the UK’s future post-brexit trading relations is to rejoin the WTO. The brexiters have assumed that this will merely be a formality, they can just self-invite themselves along to the first post-brexit WTO meeting, joining on the same quota terms as the UK currently enjoys via its EU membership. However, that position has been rejected by several WTO member states, including the US, New Zealand and Canada. So it would appear Empire 2.0 is a non-starter.

But then again, why should anyone be surprised. If you represented these governments wouldn’t you try to negotiate the best position possible, particularly as for all three countries it is their farmers who would stand to gain the most (or lose the most) from any WTO quota agreement with the UK, farmers who represent a key political demographic. Its ironic how so many neo-liberals, such as the brexiters, who talk a lot about rational self interest can fail to appreciate that others will put their interests first and the UK’s second.

But we’ll be able to grow more food after brexit, the government says (although in the same breath the minster in question also said we would import more, so obviously he doesn’t understand the concept of supply and demand), right? Utter tripe” is the response from farmers, who live in the real world and understand that with their costs going up and likely to prove difficult for them to hire staff, not to mention trade deals that will see them wiped out, the opposite is more likely.

And the brexit talks are deadlocked because the UK is intentionally playing brinkmanship with the EU. The assumption is that German industrialists worried about the implications of a hard brexit with no deal will put pressure on the EU to back down and allow the UK to cherry pick what it wants. However the actual word from German industry is that they don’t want the integrity of the single market threatened by the UK being allowed to cheat the rules. And they are already advising any firms doing business with the UK to start preparing for a hard brexit. Which, to be fair, is the sort of thing you’d expect a German trade body to say (the Germans are well known for their dislike of unfairness and wanting everyone to stick to the rules, if you don’t believe me try to give away a free train ticket at a German railway station sometime!).

Now I suspect that behind the scenes one or two CEO’s of the companies directly in the firing line (e.g. Airbus, BMW, the financial services industry) are having a quiet word with the EU and Angela Merkel to try and limit the damage to themselves of a hard and messy brexit. But given the UK government’s position at the talks, the best way for the EU to cushion the blow would be to offer a carrot to these companies to relocate out of the UK, as is already starting to happen.

And the EU has to represent everybody, one man’s loss from brexit will be someone else’s gain. For example, UK based car makers, who are already laying people off, will see their tight Just In Time manufacturing process ruined by any sort of border controls at Dover and facing potential tariffs on exports back to the continent. But there’s plenty of companies with no UK manufacturing bases who will do rather well out of this. And even those that will suffer the worse, such as BMW (who own Mini and have a stake in a number of other UK car makers), can simply scale back production in the UK (sacking thousands of British workers in the process) and move production to Europe.

The airline industry will also be severely effected by a hard brexit. Already the bankruptcy of Monarch makes the UK owned airline functionally extinct (BA are already registered in Spain and Easyjet are applying to become Austrian). Certainly those airlines based in the UK will face disruption, regardless of where they are registered (which includes Ryanair). But its unlikely to bankrupt them, they’ll just sack a load of UK based staff and move their main hubs to European airport. I don’t know, maybe the Brexiters never realised it but airplanes can fly!

Indeed, another interesting story, Easyjet recently teamed up with Lufthansa to try and take over the Italian national carrier Alitalia, one of the world’s most in-efficient and incompetently run companies. Yes, they could have used the same money to rescue Monarch and buy it for a fraction of its current value. But instead they decided, in the context of brexit, Alitalia looked like a better deal.

So in short the people who are going to get royally shafted by a hard brexit, isn’t the EU, its UK workers, in particular those on lower incomes. Much as was predicted and warned about prior to the referendum. So it begs the question, why are the brexiters still committed to a policy that clearly isn’t going to work? Given their public school education and decades of xenophobic bigotry they’ve been exposed to in their little privileged home counties bubble, that they didn’t realise any of this would happen prior to brexit is perhaps understandable (although not forgivable). But they have no excuses now, they have literally been told to their faces (or been laughed in their faces) by the EU and foreign governments that their clever little plan is a deluded fantasy. So they have now got no excuses.

One is forced to assume its one of two possibilities. They really are that stupid. A bunch of idiotic black knightesque morons who think that if they never give up they can never lose. Or alternatively, they know their plan isn’t going to work, but they don’t care. To them chaos is a ladder, the whole reason why Boris, Davis and Liam Fox are pursuing it is solely for the goal of career advancement. They don’t care how much of the country they have to burn down to get to the top in the process.

Hyperloopy

daryanenergyblog

hqdefault (1) Musk gives a technical briefing on his latest big idea

I recently looked at the hyperloop system proposed by SpaceX founder Elon Musk and highlighted a number of problems with the proposed system, notably its likely very high costs, the technical challenges involved in building it, the barf enduing ride and the safety issues. Recently vlogger Thunderf00t (aka Phil Mason) paid the hyperloop prototype track a visit and I thought it would be interesting to review some of his findings.

Firstly he noted that several of the brackets on the hyperloop system are absent and levelling rubber pads have been used here and there to prop up the brackets that remain. He also got out a thermal imaging camera and noted a temperature variation between the top and bottom of the tube. I suspect these two factors are related. Basically the tube is buckling due to the differential…

View original post 1,281 more words

Game of Thrones review: Jumping the shark

game-of-thrones-season-7-episode-6-post-10

One of the features of the Game of Thrones TV series, based on the J.J. R Martin’s novels, that I find most interesting is its attempt to create a medieval high fantasy, but one grounded in a bit of realism. A flaw often made within fantasy settings (such as the Tolkien novels, the D&D gaming system of Gray Gygax or computer games, notably the World of Warcraft series) is to a failure to consider the consequences if you start to introduce magic or dragons into, say a medieval world.

For example, as this vlog post from Shaduniversity points out, if you end up in a world with dragons or wizards who can melt castle walls (or dimensionally travel inside them) then, unless a counter measure can be created (e.g. blocking dimensional travel, defences capable of resisting such attack), castles become pretty much useless and nobody would bother to build them. Similarly if an army has to face off against dragons or spell wielding wizards, it would be suicidal to do so using the sort of tightly packed infantry formations commonly used during the medieval period. And magic would have an impact on the economy, to the point where the feudal system wouldn’t really work any more. In short a medieval high fantasy world with magic won’t exist, because this ignores the essential reasons of how the medieval world worked.

GoT and J. J. R. Martin’s books do attempt to try and address this by toning down the magic element a lot (spell casters are so rare many doubt they even exist), aiming more for “low fantasy rather than high fantasy genre. However, that said, the GoT series has kind of gone off on the odd tangent which I feel which does kind of let itself down, particularly in the latest series.

How to loose allies and alienate your subjects

Let’s start with a major plot hole, how is Cersei still on the throne after blowing up the great Sept of Baelor with a large numbers of the nobility inside? A feudal society is held together by its religion, so such a blatant attack on the church, as well as the nobles and the common folk, would generally guarantee immediate overthrow. Part of the role of the church is to get the peasants to accept their place and not roast the nobles on spits (as did happen more than a few times in our history when the church was unable to restrain them). Even if Cersei could pin the blame on some outside force, in medieval times people interpreted misfortune as proof that the divine mandate rulers relied on had been withdrawn.

Peasants_Revolt_-_SoundSet_Art_-_SMALLER_for_Website

Sometimes the peasants can be revolting in more ways than one!

So if something like that ever happened in an actual medieval society, there would be a massive uprising shortly thereafter. But Cersei could just put that down with army right…..which army would that be? Medieval rulers did not maintain large armies, they might have a few hundred knights, maybe a thousand or so men at arms at most. This was kind of the whole point of the feudal system. Without all the labour saving technology later societies enjoyed, it required massive amounts of manpower to harvest crops, manufacture goods and keep the wheels of the economy going.

Instead rulers looked to the nobles to administer their lands and raise troops for them, with each noble typically commanding a few dozen to a few hundred full time troops, as well as being able to raise larger armies from among their peasants on a temporary basis as and when needed (and usually only on a seasonal basis). In short, feudalism was just a giant protection racket, which the church legitimised.

This has two consequences, firstly raising armies is expensive, simply because by taking people away from the fields you are making labour more expensive, which means everything else in the economy gets more expensive, which means sooner or later a ruler runs out of coin to pay them (and no, a foreign bank isn’t going to be able to bail them out, as the issue here is we are trying to defy the laws of economic gravity).

And secondly if the nobles withdraw their support, that ruler is screwed. The nobles (the made men in our medieval world) wouldn’t support Cersei in this a scenario because she’s broken the code (you can’t kill your fellow nobles, they’d worry she might have them killed on a whim as well). They’d also fear the consequences of their own people rebelling if they backed her. And, all to aware that her goose was basically cooked, why back a lost cause? Better to sit on their hands and do nothing and then pivot behind whoever comes out on top later. This happened time and again throughout medieval history. Most of said rulers military strength will simply disappear (or worse turn on them in the middle of a battle) along with most of their finance.

And to make matters worse in a large city (such as King’s Landing) they’d rely on local militia (basically the medieval equivalent of community support officers) to keep the peace, who would not be reliable in a scenario such as this (most would join the uprising and the rest would stay out of the mob’s way).

So balance of probability is that in such a scenario, there would be an uprising, she’d lose control of not only the city but the entire country and while she could barricade herself in the Red Keep, that would be a risky strategy as she’d be trapped when her enemies showed up. So her best option would be to flee.

Meanwhile the nobility would rally around some obvious challenger. And in GoT that likely be the surviving Tyrell’s or the Dornish houses (incidentally, a major plot hole in season 7 being how they can go from having an army of at least 100,000 one episode to both armies vanishing the next) who would advance on the capital, picking up allies as they went and arrive to essentially find it an open city. The Queen would facing a toss up between being handed over to them on arrival (then executed), killed by her own guards (fun fact, one of leading causes of death for Roman emperors was to be killed by the Pretorian guard, there’s been plenty of Kingslayer’s throughout history) or hunted down afterwards.

In a high fantasy setting, where the ruler is for example a powerful magic user, or perhaps a dragon rider (such as Daenerys) then they can get away with things a normal medieval ruler couldn’t do, simply because overthrowing them isn’t as easy. However, even they would be limited in what they could get away with as they would be bound by many of the same limitations as any feudal ruler. This actually something that GoT did cover rather well in the 5th and 6th series where Daenerys tried to do the right thing in Meereen, but soon found that this wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Right to rule

A significant plot hammer element of series 7 was establishing Jon Snow as the rightful ruler of the Iron throne, presumably because he ends up on it at the end of season 8. Because the person with the best credentials always ends up on the throne, don’t they?….ummmm…no!

As this BBC article discusses, ya he might well have the most credible case, but as its experts also point out that might not matter diddly squat in a medieval world, where possession is 9/10 th’s of the law. The Lannister’s and Baratheon’s have almost no credible claim, yet they’ve been on the throne for 7 seasons and there’s plenty of similar examples in history.

Take Queen Matilda. After the white ship disaster killed her brother she became next in line for the English throne. Her father went out of his way to ensure her succession won’t be challenged. He arranged a strategic marriage, got all the lords and nobles to pledge to her….only after the king died those pledges were broken before rigamortis had even set in and his bastard brother Stephen of Blois, a French noble who barely spoke a word of English, ceased the throne. That said, William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne was also fairly dubious.

As I mentioned above, the likely outcome of Cersei’s actions in series 6 (if the Lannister/Baratheon’s had managed to last that long, i.e. the nobles hadn’t ousted them after the red wedding) would be to unite the whole country against her, allowing the surviving Tyrell’s and Martell’s to take over. They might well invite in Daenerys afterwards with a suitable marriage pact to legitimise their claim (this was a theme explored in the novels). But either way, they’d be the ones calling the shots.

The problem with Jon‘s claim, as outlined in season 7, is its meaningless. His only evidence revolves around a vision his brother Bran had (which is a bit like saying, the bloke down the pub told me). There is some documentary evidence of a marriage annulment, but no mention of him, nor any living witnesses who can verify any of it (which is the problem with GoT’s murderous habit of killing people off). Its a medieval world, its not as if they can take him down to a clinic and run a paternity test.

Indeed, the likely outcome of such a plotline would be that the Southern lords would laugh him out of the room, pointing out that by breaking with the seven kingdoms he’d invalidated any claim to the throne (it would be like Nicola Sturgeon getting Scottish independence and then a few years later trying to become PM in Westminster). Meanwhile the northern lords upon hearing he’s a Targaryen and not a Stark at all, would kick him out and he’d end up back at the wall. And we know what happened last time he was there.

Defensive architecture

One rather annoying feature of GoT is that they don’t seem to know what a moat is, something that Shaduniversity also mentions in this video with regard to Casterly Rock.

f75cf480bbf138809e36985eb715bcf4

Moats are kind of important

A moat is kind of essential around any keep because you want to keep attackers away from the base of your walls. Otherwise a bunch of guys with sledgehammers can just stand there and pound a hole in it. Note that a moat doesn’t have to be filled with water. Any sort of defensive ditch will do. In some parts of the world they’d just fill it with lots of large polished boulders ( or dragon’s teeth or wooden stakes), the whole point is to stop the enemy approaching your walls in any sort of organised formation.

And this becomes doubly important when we are in a high fantasy setting with magical beasts, wizards or giants. You absolutely want to keep such creatures as far away from your castle walls as possible, given the enormous damage they could inflict if they get close enough. If anything, the likely response (if, as noted, we still bother to build castles at all) would be to make moats even larger or wider. Or add further layers of defence (as was the case once cannons appeared).

Perhaps the worse offender of these rules is “the wall” in the North. Without any sort of a moat or defensive ditch all the Wildlings (or undead) need to do is basically pile timber at the bottom of it and light a fire. The Night’s watch, 300ft up on top of the wall could not effectively target them or defend the wall from such a distance. So in addition to a moat, you’d want a second set of battlements further down, close enough that they could target the attackers below.

800px-The_Wall

The undefendable wall

Also the gate out of the wall into the north, the obvious weak point, has no gatehouse or barbican. Normally in a medieval castle you’d include such a structure, as this creates an additional set of barriers between an attacker and the gate. They now have to overcome a moat and at least two sets of gates and portcullises, all the while they’ll be coming under fire from the troops inside the supporting towers and on the walls above.

Oh and when winter does come, Winterfell is screwed.

Anti-dragon defences

In GoT large crossbow’s are used to defend against dragons (in the novel’s this is how the Dornish were initially able to hold off against the Targaryen’s). Now if we were to put several of those on the tops of a castle, in well reinforced positions, where they could mutually support one another (i.e. provide covering fire while one or other is being reloaded) then that could work, as they’d effectively function much like a flak tower from World War II, creating a zone of immunity from dragons, or flying enemies, around the castle.

However in an open field its not going to work as well, as there’s various way’s it can be countered. Simple combined arms tactics (where dragons and ground forces mutually support one another) is one option. In world war II pilots would fly a figure of eight attack pattern over targets, often pairing up with a wing man. It was hard enough to defend against such tactics with anti-aircraft guns, with a crossbow (which is going to require a crew sometime to reload after each shot) it would likely be impossible (unless, as noted they were built into a well reinforced structure). So in short, Bronn should have gotten fried.

…And since we’re talking about Jamie should have drowned (while armour isn’t as restrictive to movement as many think, the one thing you can’t easily do is swim in armour)….. And also since we’re talking about it, how is Daenerys supposed to be able to hang on to a dragon while its cruising along in a 60 mph jet stream? Or is one of those Targaryen superpowers having Velcro like skin? Presumably she should be using a saddle.

Jokes aside, in any high fantasy setting this would drastically change how battles would be fought. Unless an army had its own magic users (or dragons) to counter the enemies, they would not engage in large field battles, preferring instead to fight from well defended keeps (with moats presumably!).

And in a high fantasy setting with magic users, defending against flying enemies does become a lot easier, as those magic users will be able to sling spells at a dragon at a considerably longer range than it can engage them. One of the most effective tactics probably being to use mind effecting spells to confuse, stun or paralyse the dragon while its in flight, hopefully causing it to crash.

Just one guy

A common trope in high fantasy which isn’t realistic is where you have one guy who is so hugely strong or so brilliant in battle that they can single handedly take on an entire army. Now while this might apply for someone with an unnatural advantage (e.g. a dragon rider with three two large dragons or a very powerful wizard, etc.), otherwise its a bit silly. One guy is still one guy. I would argue the D&D gaming system is mostly to blame for this (and I suspect you’ll find a large number of high fantasy writers have played this system before), as its possible under the game’s rules to create ubra powerful Munchkin’s, which wouldn’t be realistic, even in the context of a high fantasy setting.

munchkin1

Munchkins….complete with a +12 chainsaw

The mountain”, or whatever he’s called these days, would be a good example of this. The thing is, its easy to overcome such an enemy. Just have a dozen guys rush him all at once, knock him off his feet and then basically sit on him. Its essentially how prison officers deal with some out of control crack head and how the whole sport of rugby works. Okay, unless they catch him off guard, he might get his sword out and maybe take down one or two of them, but that’s about the best he could hope for. A suitably determined bunch of attackers (e.g. the faith’s militant) would still be able to overcome him. Its certainly a better strategy than attacking him one by one while the rest hop around him in a vaguely threatening manner.

Indeed, the D&D system compensates for itself by including overbearing” rules to counter this very problem, giving a mob of relatively weaker attackers an opportunity to rugby tackle an stronger individual and pin him down.

Undead are kind of crap at fighting

It worries me that series 8 seems like it will be entirely based upon the fight against the undead attacking from the North. If GoT hasn’t already jumped the shark, this certainly suggests it will in series 8. And that’s even before we consider the debacle of episode 6 of series 7 (okay, so you want to lead a banzai charge north with the goal of abducting an undead creature made of ice and take him south to somewhere warmer, hope he doesn’t wind up as a glass of water on the way, to convince a queen, who by all rights is wholly untrustworthy and cannot be relied upon, to send her army north, hoping that said undead doesn’t break free in the process and create more undead out of the 500,0000 people in King’s Landing, I mean what could possibly go wrong!).

39a074ec4840396b6dcf8650acca711e

Episode 6 season 7 in a nutshell

The reality is that while undead might seem scary, but even in the context of a high fantasy setting, they are kind of crap. The key feature that has led us humans to dominate this earth is our intelligence. The idea that undead, who share all the essential features of a human except our intelligence are going to someone win is just plain silly. In fact, even within the confines of the D&D gaming rules its not going to happen. Indeed back during my DM’ing days I’ve saw one or two scenarios where large hordes of undead got beaten fairly easily, usually because those fighting them adopted clever tactics (e.g. such as those deployed by the Romans used during the battle of Watling street) or took advantage of any known weakness or vulnerability they had.

Okay, having the Night King on a dragon does kind of change things (of course he only has one of those because of “banzai” Jon’s charge up north), but not by much (one guy is still one guy, indeed, it suggests a strategy of throwing the kitchen sink at him, a combined attack with dragonglass crossbow bolts & two dragons, take him out and then his army is literally toast).

Breaking the wheel

Daenerys (Ms Velcro) & Tyrion spend quite a bit of time talking about “breaking the wheel, essentially breaking the feudal system. Reading between the plot lines the implication is that of having some sort of democratic system afterwards. However, that would be a bit implausible, democracy won’t really work in a feudal world where most people can’t even read or write. The likelihood is the people would vote for some Trump like figure, who promise to rebuild the wall (and make the night king pay for it), then blame liberal bleeding hearts like Jon Snow or Wildling migrants for it falling down in the first place.

As I discussed in a prior post, one of Plato and Scorates arguments against democracy was that it only works if the voters are well educated and put some serious thought into their decisions. The minute voters start voting for someone “for a laugh” or start using ballot boxes as a urinal in which to vent their personal frustrations (e.g. voting for brexit to get back at Tories for austerity), you quickly end up with a system which isn’t much better. Indeed, given that kings are two a penny and can be easily overthrown, while a president with a democratic mandate is a lot harder to overthrow (even if the public now realise they were lied too and hate his guts), you could end up with something worse (as Trump may well be in the process of proving).

And worse still, in a high fantasy setting where magic can be used to influence the outcome of an election (and inevitably the greedy and corrupt will do so), democracy could become downright dangerous. Furthermore, if you are familiar with the novels there’s already a system in Westeros to deal with a succession crisis democratically, by calling a great council and the lords electing a new king.

Looking back at human history, one would argue that a far more effective strategy would be to create an independent judiciary. Once the law is out of the hands of nobles and in the hands of magistrates it means the days of fighting and pillaging are over (because the aggrieved party will just go to a magistrate, get a court order, the property will have to be handed back and the perpetrator gets a to serve time at his majesty’s pleasure for his trouble). Promoting education, science and medicine will generally better society, but it also means the more people who can read, the more know about their rights and how to exploit them.

And science means developing new technologies to increase productivity, meaning more can be spared from work in the fields to take up the increasing number of new jobs which require an education, which means you’re starting to create a whole new class of people between the nobles and the peasants. Democracy and elections would presumably come much later.

And sooner or later in such a society one of these newly educated people is going to invent a printing press and then its game over, because now every new idea can be copied and distributed thousands of times over in the space of a day. The process from this point onwards becomes unstoppable, any attempt by the nobility to push back would likely result in a violent revolution. Not unlike the French revolution, which was started not so much by the peasants, but by the third estate (i.e. the educated, merchants, minor nobles, etc.) who had done rather well out of earlier reforms and worried about the nobles rowing things back.

Running out of steam

In short, GoT started off well but they’ve painted themselves into a corner by killing off characters who were kind of important to the plot and its thrashed their storyline. A situation not helped by missing out key characters from the books (e.g. Arianne Martell, Quentyn Martell, Aegon (who didn’t die in the novels, oh that might be a spoiler) or Victarion Greyjoy) meaning the story doesn’t really tie together very well.

And other characters, who probably should have been killed off, are still in play, generally because there’s nobody left alive to replace them. Case in point we have Qyburn acting as a regular Mr Haney from Green Acres effectively running multiple government departments and being Cersei’s doctor, spy master & general sidekick/ass licker in his spare time.

I remember reading that originally J.J. R Martin considered making dragons very different more akin to Wyvern’s with all the fire breathing just being Targaryen trickery or smoke and mirrors. That might not have actually been a bad idea, because giving Daenerys an exclusive monopoly on such a powerful resource massively unbalances things, as in effect we are introducing high fantasy elements into what is a low fantasy setting.

Many of the implausibilities and absurd plot holes seen in season 7 are largely borne of the need to get around the issue of an overpowered Daenerys and the fact that so many of the original characters critical to the story are dead.

News review

How to lose a country in one day

people-take-streets-banner-reading-independence-during-protest-greater-autonomy-catalonia.jpg

Given that the fallout from the Catalan independence vote is still ongoing at the time of writing, its difficult to know which way its going to go, but in some respects the outcome of the referendum hardly matters now. Effectively by violently shutting down the voting process the Spanish government has handed a massive victory to the Catalan’s.

pri_55106446-e1506844903167

Spainsh taxes at work, beating up old ladies

Usually when I talk to Spanish about Catalan independence, be they from the region or other parts of the country, the response is to laugh, then point out that its very different from the Scottish independence question. They also generally point out how support for independence has traditionally been only about 25-30%, the recent jump to +40% or so is a response to an unpopular right wing government in Madrid and its policy of austerity (now why does this sound familiar?). The assumption has been that once the right wing government in Madrid is forced from power and austerity ended, independence support will slip back to traditional levels.

However, given what’s happened in the last few days I’d argue that’s unlikely to be the case, everything has now changed. This police intervention will have hardened the minds of independence supporters, hence I’d call the +40% supporting independence a pretty solid support from now on, and it will probably grow rather than wane. As a result there are really now only two outcomes. That the Spanish government will have no choice but to run its own legally binding referendum at some point in the future. And with a +40% support level then it basically boils down to turn out (keep in mind that in the brexit referendum it took only 37% of the electorate to back brexit to get it passed). Or Catalonia will become independent in the near future, possibly within the next few days.

The Catalan government might well argue that given the low probability of them being able to hold a free and fair referendum while part of Spain they are now within their rights, regardless of the vote on Sunday, to simply make a unilateral deceleration of independence. The is a precedence here for that, Ireland never had a referendum prior to leaving the UK (although several were held afterwards) and Norway left Sweden first, before a referendum was held to confirm the seperation.

Now the question is, will such a decleration be supported by the people? If a significant portion of the Catalan population for example stopped paying their taxes, or a general strike were to be organised, crippling Spain’s most economically important region (which includes the headquarters of most of their major companies, notably their banks), the Spanish government would be very quickly forced to either grant a referendum or respect Catalan independence.

Fortunately for the Spanish government the Spanish constitution would likely require that a referendum would need a solid majority of support (e.g. 50% plus one vote must back it, as should have been the case in the UK brexit referendum). However, with the level of support behind independence as it now stands the Spanish government are not going to find it easy to win, even with such a rule. The previous plan, to simply get the no voters to boycott the poll, won’t work anymore. They’ll have to fight a campaign and in both the Scottish Indy ref and brexit vote a swing of more than the required magnitude was achieved over the course of the campaign. So its easily doable. And again, if a large block of no voters just don’t show up to the polls (perhaps turned off by the police tactics over the last few days) while the pro-independence lot get the vote out, then the vote could easily be won.

And the way the Tories won the indy ref, the infamous vow (which never really was fulfilled) isn’t an option. Firstly, because after what happened on Sunday, they won’t be believed. And secondly because they’d have to make the same offer to all the other regions of Spain. And once they start doing that there’s not a lot left for the government in Madrid to do. Plus if Catalonia goes, its likely other regions, such as the Basque country, will follow. So by cracking down on this independence movement the conservative government might just have put Spain on the course towards its own breakup. They have now destroyed the option for compromise, leaving the Catalan’s with basically only one alternative.

And there’s a lesson here for the UK. Some have argued that the response of Westminster to dealing with the SNP should copy that of the Spanish government. I would hope that events on the streets of Barcelona, or the quagmire that will now follow, should demonstrate why that’s just a non-starter.

The longest political suicide note in history

1822

At the labour conference delegates were told to prepare for power….is that a pig flying past? The problem is we’ve been here many times before. Take 1992. The Tory party were in disarray over Europe (again, sound familiar?), the economy was in the tank, labour were riding high in the polls, so much so that they made one too many promises to the far left. With the result that a big chuck of the electorate in marginal seats lost their nerve, voted Tory and labour lost to John Major. Let me repeat that, they lost to John Major, a guy so dull his Spitting image character was actually grey.

The problem with the labour manifesto is that much of what Corbyn is promising is going to be nearly impossible to deliver and he is the worst person you could pick to try and deliver it. If he’s in a coalition government, there’s no way the other parties will sign up to much of it, indeed they might well go over to the Tories instead. And even if he has a majority he’ll struggle to hold his party together to support such measures. The right of the party won’t support overtly socialist policies, the far left won’t want to do anything that stinks of compromise and they’ll face pressure from big business who will use the courts to slow things down to a crawl.

Good politics is about good compromise, but Corbyn isn’t good at that. People support him because they say he’s not like other politicians, he doesn’t lie. Really? What about that whole business with him sitting on the floor on a train when there were empty seats? And we all know he really voted leave even though he claims to have voted remain. The only difference between Corbyn and other politicians is that he’s bad at it. He could have deprived the Tories of a majority (even with the support of the unionists) if he’d only taken up the offer of an election deal with the other left wing parties not to stand against each other in marginal seats. Several of those key seats were won by a margin of a few hundred votes.

Just to take an example,, the issue of tuition fees. As a lecturer I see first hand the problems tuition fees are causing all the time. But no sooner had I written an article pointing out how the labour policy, while it would be expensive (but in the long run a cost worth paying), it was a good idea, only for Corbyn to chickened out of it and dropped the idea. So if he’s back pedalling on policies now, how likely do you think it is that he’ll actually deliver on promises once in power?

Re-nationalisation isn’t that bad an idea, given the mess public services are in. But there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way and Corbyn is clearly committed to doing it the wrong way. If he wants to simply buy back all of the assets held by the private companies they’ll demand he pay the full market price, which would be more than he could afford. And if he tries to set the price lower, they’ll take him to court and tie him up in knots with legal challenges. It would literally take the full length of parliament just to untangle the legal mess he’ll be getting himself into over this.

Oddly enough the very thing Tony Blair, or the Clinton’s, were good at was this ability to compromise, to negotiate and do deals. The trouble of course was he took this to its illogical conclusion by thinking he could get G. W. Bush to compromise over Iraq. But even so, you do need to be willing to compromise and negotiate if you want to get anything done in politics, that’s just the way it works.

My fear is that Corbyn’s government would quickly get stuck in the doldrums and become a lame duck administration, not unlike that of Hollande’s time in office in France. And what was the end result of that? The traditional left got wiped out and the Blairites took over with a new party.

And given that we don’t know who the Tory leader will be or what the terms of brexit are, then its a bit premature to be declaring victory. Not least because we don’t know how the public will react. They might well blame the Tories for the mess that follows, or they might recognise that Corbyn bares some responsibility too and vote for third parties, meaning another hung parliament, possibly one that might require the Tories and labour to work together (which isn’t going to happen with Corbyn).

And given that the economy will be probably taking a hit from brexit, there won’t be a lot of money to go on a spending spree (again this was the problem for Hollande, he had big plans to change things, but the French economy tanked and he couldn’t implement those changes).

So the danger is that those £3 tories, who joined labour and voted for Corbyn in the hope that he destroys the labour party, might well get their wish in the end. Its just they might have to put up with him in power for 4 years first! And see their own party destroyed as well.

Game of dolts

Meanwhile over at the legion of doom Tory party conference the knifes are already out. Not so much for Teresa May (she”s finished!), but the other leadership contenders are jostling for the top spot. To draw an analogy with game of thrones, the rains of Castamere is on a continuous loop throughout the conference hall, they are all gathered around Teresa and her supporters openly sharpening their knifes or loading crossbows and loudly arguing over her about how they are going to divide up the loot after they’ve knifed her.

Boris Johnson for example laid out his stall arguing for the sort of brexit senile swivel eyed bigots the Tory faithful would want, rather than one that’s practical. Clearly this was designed to box in his main rival David Davis. As he’s actually negotiating brexit he can’t propose something that’s simply not deliverable. Boris, who least we forget promised all sorts of nonsense in the referendum campaign, can promise whatever BS he wants.

Of course the trouble is that once Brussels realises what’s going on, they’ll stall. They know the longer these negotiations drag on the more desperate the UK will be to do a deal. And they know Boris is just the sort of buffoon to dig himself into a pit and they can then sell him the rope to hang himself with. So once again, the future of the country is being sacrificed for the internal politics of the Tory party.

Ni bombardier/ Trump trade

UKs-Prime-Minister-Theresa-May-opps

And a perfect example of the mess the Tories have gotten the UK into played out recently with regard to Bombardier in Northern Ireland. The Trump administration, who are supposedly pro-brexit and will do a trade deal “very quickly” hit the Canadian company, which has manufacturing facilities in NI with a whopping 219% tax on its aircraft sales. And this was after the PM raised the issue with Trump personally.

Critics like myself have repeatedly warned that the UK will not get as good a trade deal outside of the EU as it would inside. And that the US will always prioritise looking after its own interests above those of the UK, especially under the administration of a populists like Trump. This serves to prove the point.

DKtq-DAXkAAXQin

The UK has threatened to retaliate by cutting military contracts with the US, but I suspect they are bluffing and the US will call their bluff. The UK has no choice but to buy those aircraft off the Americans, largely because of past Tory mistakes in aircraft procurement (dithering on buying essential equipment because they were too penny pinching, not holding a proper bidding process when in a blind panic they realised they now needed it, signing deals and paying for stuff in advance, etc.) and the obvious alternatives are made where?…in Europe!

And case in point, would the Americans hit the EU with a 219% tax on its aircraft production? Unlikely. A counter tax by the EU would inflict more damage to the US than they’d inflict on the EU. The main rival of Boeing, Airbus, has its own manufacturing facilities in the US, so they could make life very difficult for the US administration very quickly by threatening thousands of high tech jobs. Also while the Americans can laugh off the Tories feeble bluff on military contracts, the tens of billions of annual arms sales the US makes to EU nations is a different matter. These could credibly be terminated and the EU nations source from their own suppliers within the EU. So such a threat from the EU would have to be taken seriously.

But of course the brexiters will carry on regardless oblivious to the obvious warning messages.

Monarch and the brexit effect

And the collapse of the airline Monarch is another example of the sort of blow back the UK is facing. Now Monarch’s problems were multiple (caught in a price war, rising costs, difficulties securing routes, the impact of terrorist attacks on package holidays), however brexit was the final nail in the coffin.

Ultimately the brexit effect caused its costs to rise, notably the cost of fuel (always the Achilles heal of any airline). It could have been saved by new investers coming along. However, the terms of brexit are unknown, in particular the brinkmanship the Tories have been playing means there’s theoretically a chance of many UK airlines being forced to cancel routes or even buy back their own shares. So who in their right mind would invest in a UK based airline knowing any of that?

This is something we’ll likely see a lot of. Brexit is kind of like one of those hospital superbugs. If for some reason you end up in hospital, it can kill you off and there’s not a lot the doctors can do to save you, although it only takes those who by accident or illness have ended up in the hospital in the first place.

The world’s most powerful eight year old

And speaking of Trump, there was a worrying story this week over Trump and his tweets. He had very publicly backed a particular candidate to take Jeff Sessions vacated senate seat, only for that candidate to lose the republican primary. And his response was to start deleting the tweets he’d made in support (which might be illegal!).

20170417edloc-a

This is not the sort of behaviour we’d expect of a president, or indeed any grown adult. It would seem that Trump’s ego is so important to him that he can’t accept the embarrassment of defeat. It suggests he’ll do anything he can just to avoid looking bad…which is not good news when he’s in a pissing contest with another eight year old call Kim Jung-un and they both have nuclear weapons.

Lock them up

You remember all of that chanting during the US election, lock her up, lock her up! Why? Because Hilary used a private e-mail account to conduct official business. Now in the context of wikileaks, which was ongoing as she first took office, with it rather obvious that the Bush administration had left a series of massive security holes in the US intelligence apparatus (Chelsea Manning had simply copied the diplomatic cables off an unsecured server onto a fake Lady Gaga CD!), her actions have to be put in the proper context.

Well, predictably now several of Trump’s inner circle have been caught doing exactly the same thing. The only difference being is that while Hilary at least took some security precautions, they’ve been using the likes of gmail or yahoo accounts. I mean even in my uni, they they advise us and the students not to use such accounts for official university business. And I’m hardly handling state secrets. So are we going to hear calls for Ivanka or Jared to be locked up? Well of course not! Conservatives need to google the terms “hypocrisy” or “irony” because they might find they are a perfect example.

Lecturing on the breadline

A disturbing story here from the Guardian about how some Adjunct professors who are so poorly paid they end up living in their cars or resorting to second jobs or even prostitution just to make ends meet. This highlights everything that is wrong with higher education in the US, a model the Tories are effectively trying to copy over here in the UK.

Under this system universities are run like businesses with a strong emphasis on revenue raising and bringing in money, such that lecturers often don’t have a lot of time to deal with students. In some uni’s its getting to the stage where a lecturer who actually shows up to class to teach is considered by management to be playing hooky. As a result PhD students, Post-docs or Adjunct professors are hired on zero hours contracts to do that actual face to face teaching.

But even if you can ignore the plight of these people (as I’m sure the Tories can! Not exactly “people” persons), think about it for a minute. Students in the US are paying way more for their education than here in the UK. And who is the uni hiring to do the lecturing? Some homeless guy from down the street. If I was a student going to a US university, paying $30k a year I’d want someone to be a bit better paid. In short, if you are a UK student and you think you aren’t getting value for money out of your university, well its much worse in the US and it will be worse in the future unless fees are scraped.

Death penalty shot down?

Finally an interesting piece here about how some US states, all too aware of the difficulties they now face administering death sentences by lethal injection are contemplating switching to using firing squads instead. What is it with American’s and guns? If you’ve ever doubted the lobbying power of the NRA, here’s your proof. I’m surprised they don’t just change the American flag to have 50 bullets and switch the bars for profiles of different gun types.

Of course, the brutality of firing squads is likely to have a generally negative effect on public perceptions both of guns and on the death penalty. The reality is that there is no nice humane way to kill someone, because its not a humane thing to do. If there’s one positive one can draw from this, its that it will likely mean the eventual abolition of the death penalty in the US.

A closer estimate on nuclear energy cost options

I stumbled across a tool from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, which purports to calculate the full cycle cost of nuclear energy. While it has its limitations, I think does highlight a few interesting points.

boas_doe_model_2017

Figure 1: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist (BoAS) costs, baseline & adjusted with various options compared to DoE estimates for renewables & fossil fuels

Firstly, the baseline cost they suggest for nuclear power works out at about a LCOE of $ 84.4 per MWh (the site quotes in cents per kWh, however, I’m converting to $/MWh because its what we usually use when quoting LCOE’s). This is a bit less than the DOE’s estimate of $95/MWh for nuclear. The DOE also quotes costs of $74/MWh for wind, $125/MWh for solar. By 2022 they expect costs in the range of $96/MWh for nuclear, $74/MWh for solar, $56/MWh for wind, with gas and coal between $54/MWh and $196/MWh depending on future prices and whether or not we are sequestering the carbon. Recall we are talking in terms of LCOE so this accounts for the intermittent nature of some renewables.

So first off this would suggest that nuclear might be competitive with coal, if there’s efforts to force CCS on the industry (i.e. no Trump, no climate change denial) and if fossil fuel prices go up. But that’s lot of if’s. It also suggests that nuclear isn’t competitive against renewables, and even if it is, that window is about to close. Indeed, we can use the Bulletin tool to get a better estimate on its current price, given that the cost of the Hinkley C project is known….well it will probably go up, but we at least have some ball park figure. The latest estimate for its overnight cost is £22.3 billion, which is $28.7 bn so that’s $8,696 per installed kWe, and its going to take 10 years and we assume 40% efficiency. So running that through our model gives a figure of $134/MWh, or about £104.6/MWh. You will immediately notice that this is well above the strike price of £92.5/MWh, suggesting that Hinkley C is going to lose money with every kWh it generates.

get_6a9_price_of_new_nuclear_higher_than_wind_solar_l

Figure 2: UK new nuclear costs (E/MWh) compared to various renewable energy options [Source: The energy transition.de, 2015]

And by comparison at a recent strike price auction agreed to a price of £57.7 per MWh (approximately $76/MWh) for offshore wind. One of the arguments in favour of Hinkley C was that the high costs of off shore wind, even though many experts warned the government at the time that this would likely be wiped out by future advances in offshore wind technology (which was at a very early stage of development when Hinkley C was first proposed, the widely held assumption is that the price of offshore wind would fall rapidly, as indeed it has).

So okay, we’ve proved Hinkley C is a crap sandwich, well I think we all knew that one already. What I think is interesting about this tool is what happens when you start playing with the settings. For example, if we increase the efficiency of our nuclear reactor from the baseline of 33% (again industry standard for new build reactors would be closer to 40% these days) to 55% (the best you could possibly hope to get with a Brayton cycle) you only cut the cost of electricity by 2%. This confirms a point I made some time ago, there is no point spending a lot of money on some super expensive Brayton cycle kit, greatly increasing the construction costs only to make a tiny improvement in the plant’s electricity output.

However, if we decrease the capacity factor of our plant, from a baseline of 90% to say 70%, the price goes up by 25%. Pull it down to 60% the price goes up to +50% of the baseline price and at a capacity factor of 50% we are paying 74% more for our electricity. Its is often argued that nuclear can operate without any form of backup, but this ignores how grids work. But everything needs back up not least because demand is not constant all of the time. In the absence of storage, there will be times when some plants will see their capacity fall significantly. Load following power plants will typically operate at between 70-50% capacity factor, while peaking power plants can be less than 50%. At such cost levels it would simply be more economic to build energy storage than add more nuclear plants…so why not just do the same thing with renewables and save some money?

The model doesn’t appear to consider the costs of decommissioning or the clean up costs of fixed infrastructure related to the nuclear fuel cycle, which is something of an oversight. Keep in mind those costs aren’t small, its currently costing more to decommission some nuclear plants than it cost to build them. Including the costs of decommissioning Selafield the UK’s current bill is about £117 billion. That said, it is difficult to quantify this down to the level of an individual plant or MWh.

nuclear-decommissioning--pl

Figure 3: UK Nuclear decommissioning costs breakdown

What they are able to do is estimate the spent fuel storage costs. Doubling the cost of that (as high as it will go) only increases the cost per MWh by 2%. Now okay, as noted there’s a whole raft of things we are leaving out. But even so, it does suggest that its not a linear relationship between clean up costs and electricity costs. There is a fixed cost we are stuck with regardless (i.e. even if we abandoned nuclear energy tomorrow, much of that bill would still have to be paid) and some small amount for every reactor year beyond that.

However, and here’s where it gets interesting, if we switch from the once thro fuel cycle to the fast reactor based full recycle option, the baseline price jumps by 64% to a whopping $139/MWh. And again, this baseline model, isn’t really accurate. For example, it assumes a capacity factor for the fast reactor of 90%, something that no FBR has ever achieved (most struggle to exceed 40%, the best is closer to 60%). Putting in more accurate values for both the LWR and FBR costs and performance, we get a price of $264/MWh.

ucsusa_reprocessing_fast

Figure 4: Estimated fuel inventories for different nuclear energy options, MOX reprocessing or fast reactor reprocessing means a modest reduction in HLW in exchange for a significant increase in LLW [UCUSA, 2014]

This confirms one of the arguments I’ve long made, fast reactors make no sense, unless you are allergic to money! They’ll end up greatly increasing the costs of nuclear electricity to well past the point where anyone would be willing to pay for it. Yes once-thro does mean throwing away most of the fissile material, but the cost of recovering that material is simply too high. This was essentially the conclusion of both the 2011 MIT report into the nuclear fuel cycle and the Harvard study of 2003. The only situation where either report thought fast reactors (or Thorium) would make the slightest sense would be if renewable costs failed to drop as predicted, energy costs skyrocketed and the cost of uranium soared. None of those have happened, in fact the opposite has happened in all three cases.

Finally, the baseline Bulletin model suggests that using the MOX recycle route will cost $227.5/MWh, although its closer to $254/MWh (£196/MWh) for my “adjusted” model. Some nuclear advocates see MOX recycling as a happy compromise. Yes, we know the fast reactor route isn’t really viable on a technical level, but we can at least get some reuse out the fuel rods via the MOX route and save some money in the process. Well this model suggest no, that’s not the case. Indeed, it suggests that for the UK we’ll be paying more than double the strike price for every kWh of Hinkley’s electricity. And when I say “we” keep in mind that at least half of those costs are being met by the taxpayer not EDF. Indeed, given that the strike price amounts to a subsidy rate of 68% per kWh (paid for by UK bill payers), the actual cost to EDF will be closer to 15% of the cost per MWh of Hinkley….and that still might be enough to break them!

So this model seems to confirm what I’ve heard from one or two in the nuclear industry, who see MOX as the hill on which the nuclear industry is going to die on. As they see it, if and when the dead certificate for nuclear power is written, we won’t be listing “Greenpeace” or “Hinkley” as the cause of death, no it will be “suicide by MOX”. Most of the spiralling costs we associate with nuclear are often those associated with MOX reprocessing (if you think Hinkley is bad, look up the fiasco of Throp or Rokkasho sometime!). Most of the recent accidents have been related to MOX reprocessing and most of the main flash points with protestors are MOX fuel shipments. In short MOX fuel reprocessing is a supersized crap sandwich with a side salad of BS. If the nuclear industry is to have any future this madness has to stop and MOX plants need to close and let us never talk of it again.

So all in all, what this model does show is that the nuclear industry does have some problems. But some of the proposed solutions doing the rounds e.g. making plants more efficient, building them quicker or smaller, FBR’s, MOX or alternative fuel cycles, they don’t make a lot of sense as regards the economics of nuclear energy. In many cases these would actually increase the cost of nuclear energy not reduce it. As I’ve pointed out before, the business model of the industry, that of large LWR’s with once thro fuel processing, might not look great, but there is a reason why the industry has stuck with it since the 70’s. And that because the alternatives are so much worse.

Peak Sand

daryanenergyblog

3323246388_f37539ac38_b

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…

View original post 417 more words

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.

754156_main

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.

aHR0cDovL2Nic25ld3MxLmNic2lzdGF0aWMuY29tL2h1Yi9pL3IvMjAxNy8wNy8xMi9lNDU3NWE5OC00Y2JlLTQ0ZTEtOTQ5OC04OWFkOGE5YzgzMGIvcmVzaXplLzYyMHgvMDY3ODY2MjE0ZjRmOTY2N2QyMWMyOWRkN2JmNzA1NTgvaHlwZXJsb2

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?

20130817_STP001_0

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.

landscape-1476460782-screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-115940-am

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?

figure2

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.

_97476408_louiseandsteve

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.