A possible counter the Fermi paradox

daryanenergyblog

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

Neil DeGrasse

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

53646f28512ed8d3103b87f3280dc61d Figure 1: Where’s ET?

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

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Brexit border troubles

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The Northern Irish border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

daryanenergyblog

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

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

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

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White house chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trouble with trade: Walmart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To shoot and terrorise

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The shocking murder of a Australian women at the hands of US police last week has highlighted the massive problem that American gun culture has created. If being killed by one of the millions of people with guns in the country wasn’t enough of a risk, there’s also the risk of being killed by the cops who are supposed to be there to protect them. The statistics speak for themselves, you are 70 times more likely to be killed by the police in American than you are in the UK and 28 times more likely than in Germany.

Of course, was this story about someone who was black, or a migrant from Mexico rather than Australia, it probably won’t have attracted this much attention. But at least the cops in Minneapolis are being consistent in their cover up (equal opportunities incompetence). The body cameras were suspiciously turned off at the time (as was the dash cam on their car). They’re claiming they heard a loud noise, then they said they feared an ambush (from a blonde woman in her PJ’s?), which all sounds a bit like the excuses Oscar Pistorius was making after he murdered his girlfriend. Next thing you know they’ll claim the dog ate the evidence.

There is in essence a fatal flaw in the right to bare arms mantra of the the NRA. Ya, you’ve got the right to bare arms, but those rights also give the cops the right to blow you away (or anyone else who looks suspicious). Tell the cops they can take your gun from your cold dead hands and they’ll say, well suit yourself, bang!

Now this is not to say there haven’t been deaths at the hands of police in the UK. For example the death of Jean Charles de Menezes at the hands of British police (they thought the Brazilian was a suicide bomber) or the death of Ian Tomlinson (which they initially tried to blame on anti-capitalist protestors). But you’re talking a handful of incidents every now and then, compared to what is a daily event in the US.

And again this is only a fraction of the 33,636 total gun deaths in the US per year, nearly a hundred a day. As the BBC recently reported (in a documentary), in one weekend back in 2015 there was 184 shootings and 87 deaths.

bi-graphicsodds of dying

In the US a gun owner is statistically 5 times more likely to accidentally shoot himself or be killed by the cops than he is to be killed by a terrorist

In short the carnage on the streets of the US is many times worse than that inflicted by ISIS in recent attacks across Europe. It is to say the least deeply ironic how the NRA try to use the fear of terrorism to justify mass gun ownership. In truth, it is no wonder there’s not been many terrorist attacks in the US, because ISIS knows they’d struggle to kill any number significant enough to feature as more than a blip on the total US firearms related deaths per year or even per day.

Of course the reason why US cops are so jittery is precisely because of this high gun crime rate. They know full well that right to carry laws and lax gun controls means every little incident they get called out too, be it a drunk being rowdy, a domestic incident or a cat up a tree in the wrong part of town could result in them facing a stand off against an armed attacker. Every hobo, kid or any sudden movement could be someone with an AR-15 looking to blow them away.

By contrast, police are less jittery in Europe because its a lot less likely they’ll encounter someone armed with a gun. Now while it is true that some European countries have very strict gun laws, Ireland or the UK for example, this isn’t true across all of Europe. Joerg Sprave discusses German gun laws on his vlog and as he reveals you can buy quite a lot of firearms in Germany legally, even things like the MP5 (which is banned in many US states!). Switzerland too has fairly liberal gun laws. The difference between these countries and the US is that there is no 2nd amendment, you have no right to bare arms, the state may allow you to do so (but its at their discretion), if you can prove you have a legitimate reason to want to own one (and saying you want to shoot people or for self defence will generally mean instant disqualification) and you’re not a criminal or insane.

There’s also few carry laws in Europe and how firearm incidents are treated is very different. In short, if you bring a gun into any situation, regardless of the circumstances, e.g. you caught a burglar in you’re own home and he attacked you, you’ll be going to jail unless you can explain how it is you happened to be armed at the time and why you had no other choice (in Germany guns must be kept in a locked gun safe and the ammo in a separate location, so the cops would legitimately question how you could find and load the gun in advance).

And keep in mind, as Joerg also points out in another video, German self defence laws are anything but liberal, they give you quite a lot of leeway to defend yourself, family, property or even your honour. But the one thing they don’t give you the right to do, is act like an asshole and run around with a gun, while drunk or stoned mumbling about your 2nd amendment rights.

Now granted the situation isn’t universal across Europe. In the UK you catch a burglar in your house you are practically obliged to invite him downstairs for some tea and crumpets. But my point is that while there are guns in circulation in Europe, they are more strictly controlled.

So while police in Europe do need to be wary of the possibility of a gun appearing in any incident, it is a fairly rare event. Criminals in Europe, while they will have access to firearms, they will generally not carry them around on a routine basis because A) that would give the cops a reason to arrest them straight away and B) they can’t get a gun license (because, oddly enough, we don’t allow those with a criminal record to own a gun in Europe), so any firearm they acquire will be via the black market, which will be very expensive. Hence, the cops this side of the Atlantic aren’t as jittery as police in the US.

Yes, they will encounter the odd dump street punk who takes things too far (or a jihadi), but these are rare events. As a UK drug cop once told me, you can tell when your dealing with hardened criminals, because they will never get caught with anything incriminating, chill out straight away, not say a word (other than “where’s my lawyer?”) and co-operate fully. Its the angry young crack heads who start shouting and running their mouth (with the cop diligently writing it all down in their little notebook, while going ya, ya, sure mate as they searching him/his car/home and finding plenty to lock him up on) those are the ones you have to watch out for, as they can kick off at the drop of a hat.

So all in all, one has to conclude that the high rate of police deaths (if not gun deaths in general) in the US are clearly a result of America’s lax gun laws. And naturally incidents like this unfortunate event in Minneapolis simply breeds distrust in the cops and the authorities.

Worryingly, this might well be the entire intent of the extreme gun policy taken by Republicans. As this article discusses there’s been a long standing effort by some wealthy neo-liberals to destroy trust in US institutions, as this strengthens their hand. If nobody trusts the police, they’ll turn to vigilante’s and private armies, which means any billionaire becomes immune to prosecution, because there’s no way he can be arrested.

And Trump plays into this. His supporters, even though they are all too aware that he colluded with the Russians, is engaging in African dictator level corruption in the White house, simply don’t care, they’ll back him whatever happens. Which is exactly what the rich elites want. By undermining the office of the president, Trump ensures it will scarcely matter who is president in future, it could be Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders or Jeb Bush, they will essentially be a toothless figure head.

And the thing gun advocates need to realise is that sooner or later a crack down is going to come (not least because once these lax gun laws have served their purpose the Republicans will turn against them). People will tire of the carnage and they’ll vote for parties who will change things.

Its worth remembering that while the 2nd amendment is quite old, how it is interpreted now is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the US gun legislation, barely a decade or two old. Prior to this the situation was very different. So by wedding the 2nd amendment to this carnage, they are simply guaranteeing that if and when that crack down comes, it will be repealed, all of their gun rights will go and they will look on the “liberal” gun laws of Europe with envious eyes.

A review of Arcologies

daryanenergyblog

Bettery_Teaser_SciFi Figure 1: Arcologies could drastically reduce the environmental impact of cities

One concept for how to reduce the environmental impact of cities is arcologies. The word itself is a combination of the words “architecture” and “ecology”, which neatly sums up the idea of developing self sustaining buildings with the minimum of environmental impact. Such buildings would not only provide housing, public services, shops and businesses, but would also grow their own food within the building (or on the grounds surrounding it), even recycling all of the buildings waste and manufacturing much of its own goods. If you are unfamiliar with the concept this TEDx by Jeff Stein should help. Also I’d recommend this pod-cast by Issac Arthur.

trees3 Figure 2: China’s proposed forest city will use trees to help reduce air pollution and smog [Credit: BOERI, 2017]

In theory given that the plants inside such a structure could…

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Should Bitcoin be banned?

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One feature of recent cyber attacks was how the perpetrators behind these ransomware programs wanted to be paid in Bitcoins. This isn’t that surprising, Bitcoin has become the preferred currency on the dark web and the criminal underworld. It is increasingly used for money laundering, tax evasion, to buy drugs, prostitution, fund terrorism or to even hire assassins.

While there is some “legitimate” bitcoin activity, this mostly seems to be restrained to speculative trading of bitcoins, operating exchanges or mining” of new bitcoins. Indeed one of the flaws in the ransomware attacks is that its likely to prove very difficult for the perpetrators to recover these funds without being found by the authorities. And the evidence is that very few of those effected paid up. However, its possible they might not care, the whole point of the attacks might just be an investment scam, to create an artificial jump in prices, allowing them to sell high and buy low.

If bitcoin is a vision of a libertarian world, it shows everything that is wrong with that vision. Indeed, as we speak bitcoin is a war with itself, largely because without any central regulating authority, there’s nobody to make the important discussions about how it should operate. This has resulted in the speed of service slowing to a crawl, at one point recently people were waiting 3 days or more for a trade to go through (not exactly convenient if you’re buying a cup of coffee!).

So it is perhaps high time for government’s to consider whether they would be better off just banning bitcoin completely. Now Bitcoin bugs will tell us this is impossible, however by doing so they simply show how naive they are to how governments, currencies or the law works (which of course is exactly the problem with libertarians!).

While bitcoin is technically legal in most countries, this doesn’t mean itslegal tender. In most countries there is no obligation to use the legal tender for all trades. In the Northern Ireland for example, its not uncommon for shops to accept euro’s. Around a number of US airbases in the UK dollars will sometimes be accepted. And in Argentina, where I was recently, they’ll often take euro’s or dollars. Indeed, even barter is legal in many forms (e.g. part exchange of vehicles, companies accepting payment in kind, etc.). In short, so long as you pay any taxes that are due, the government doesn’t really care what currency you use. In other words, bitcoin is in most cases not legal approved, but its not illegal. There’s a very big legal difference between the two.

In fact banning bitcoin would be scarily easy. All that would need to happen is for a couple of governments to get together (say the EU and the US) and ban the sale or ownership of bitcoins, citing the numerous examples of its misuse I’ve quoted above. At this point all the “legit” bitcoin businesses will either have to fold or move overseas. And given that the currency will tank in value at the same time, my guess is most will either fold, or find a way of establishing a new currency that conforms to this new legislation.

This means the number of bitcoin trades will decline significantly. Now bitcoin advocates think they “the gov’mint” can’t trace them. Well law enforcement says no, we can trace bitcoin trades if we have to, but its a lot of hard work. Given that virtually all the remaining bitcoin trades will be criminal in some nature they’ll find things a lot easier as the number of trades will drop significantly. In effect the criminals will lose their cover. Indeed given that even owning bitcoins is now a crime in of itself, even criminals will want to offload them, else they could be prosecuted for simply owning bitcoins, in much the same way Al Capone was imprisoned not for racketeering and murder, but for tax evasion.

So while there will continue to be some trade in them after such a ban, outside the west, much of the network that supports those trades will vanish and the currency will probably become too unstable to survive, particularly if a legally acceptable (and government regulated) alternative that is better supported then appears.

Of course the message to bitcoin bugs is for them to realise that they are not invulnerable. If they don’t do something to tackle the criminal use of bitcoin, eventually national government will do it for them, likely by wiping bitcoin out of existence.

Why tuition fees have to go

I’ve long argued that exorbitant tuition fees English students are required to pay are a generally bad idea. I’ve described before the impact they’ve had on the running of universities and how they’ve turned universities into money hungry corporations. How it has resulted in students increasingly seeing their degree as a commodity to be bought, not something life changing they are earning through hard work. I certainly see the benefit of students making some contribution towards their studies, after all not everyone gets to go to uni and fees do make universities less dependant on the whims of government. However, the more and more I look on it, the more I feel that given the choice between the no-fees system of Scotland or the supermarket uni’s of England, fees are just not a good idea and should be scraped.

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The arguments put forward for fees are that they would give student better value for money in their education, more choice, it would increase funding to critical courses, such as medicine and engineering and it would cut student numbers. As these statistics show, in all three cases they have failed and the opposite has happened. Students, saddled with increasingly high levels of debt have becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their courses. Given that engineering and medical courses are more expensive to operate, the mercenary nature of some universities has seen them cut back on these course, as well as shutting down various specialised courses and restricting student’s choices (I don’t think I’ve worked in a uni where one course or another wasn’t in the process of being wound down).

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As for cutting student numbers, they’ve been going up until recently. This is just as well, for as I discussed in a prior article, we are entering into an increasingly technology driven age where its going to be harder and harder for anyone without some sort of qualification (a degree, college cert, trade, etc.) to stay employed.

However thanks to the brexit effect and Tory cuts to student grants they are now getting their wish and student numbers are down slightly this year, by about an average of 4%. Now within the meta data there are some alarming numbers, with a 23% drop in nursing, this on the back of a 96% drop in EU nurses coming to the UK to work. So this raises the risk of some serious staffing shortages in the NHS in a few years time.

Another impact of brexit, is that not only have lecturers and researchers begun to leave the UK, but UK universities too are looking to establish campuses in Europe. I recall suggesting that this might happen in the event of brexit a few years ago, and well, now its happening.

Meanwhile students in the UK are now looking at leaving uni with an average of £57,000 in debt. That is a lot of money to end up owing, made worse by the fact that the interest rates are now set to go up to 6.1%. Indeed this is sufficiently high that it for most graduates earning an average entry level salary they will will struggle to pay off just the interest on that loan, and will likely see the principal written off, which basically means the taxpayer pays it.

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So in effect the entire student fees system is little more than a tax on millennials to exploit the fact that they don’t vote, while pensioners (who either went to uni for free or paid a fraction of the amount) get an above inflation pension rise every year. Of course, increasingly, it seems the millennials aren’t willing to pay this “tax” and will vote for a party that promises to scrap it and the brexit voting pensioners can go spin on it (again I recall pointing out something like this might happen after a leave vote).

Also we need to consider a more fundamental issue, effectively by raising tuition fees Osborne and Cameron pulled an old fashioned accounting trick. The accumulated student debt in the UK now exceeds £100 billion, which we’ve established will mostly be written off, but the government won’t have to pay that off for a good few years. So in effect they set up a sort of buy now, pay later scheme and create the illusion that they were cutting the deficit.

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Now “only” £100 billion doesn’t sound so bad against the back drop of a UK debt level of £1,737 billion, 86% of GDP, noting that it was only 65% of GDP when the Tories took over (and the Tories were elected because they claimed that labour had let the debt get out of control). However given that student debt is rising at about 16% a year, so it will be closer to a figure of £300 billion in 2025 (not accounting for inflation). Add in the expected cost of brexit and its economic impact (another £100-200 billion depending on the breaks) and its not too difficult to see how the UK’s debt levels could exceed the critical threshold of 100% of GDP within a decade, worse than every European country, other than Italy and Greece I might add.

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If want to scare away your creditors, you can do it very easily if they discover that you’ve been playing silly buggers with them and there’s a whole block of off the book debts that you’re on the hook for. This is what happened to China recently. The rating agencies cut China’s credit rating due to concerns about debts run up by state owned companies. I was in China at the time and suffice to say, they were less than pleased about this, pointing out that its highly unlikely that all of these debts would go bad all at once and that China’s economy is in a vastly more healthy state than any western state.

Well the danger is that at some point the penny will drop, the rating agencies will apply a similar logic to the UK and we could see a ratings agency downgrade of the UK debts (again!), both public and private. A rating agency cut remember will make everything more expensive, mortgages will go up, personal loans, car loans and yes student loans. So its altogether bad news. Oh and since we are talking about it, as things stand the rating agencies are jittery, telling the EU to go whistle over the brexit bill, you might find its the Chancellor who is whistling if that provokes another credit rating cut.

Now the Tories will probably argue that this is the whole reason why they are trying to sell off student loan debts to the banks. However this risks making the situation worse. Firstly the whole reason for increasing the interest rate was to facilitate this sale. But increasing the interest rate on any loan will increase the default rate yet further. You are also selling off an asset which you know is going to be defaulted on. Its like sub-prime mortgages all over again. And you are creating a mechanism by which a contagion of debt can spread from one institution to another (or to the government). Again, the whole logic behind the Chinese debt downgrade isn’t that the rating agencies doubt China’s ability to pay, its their worry that a default on a loan in rural Gansu province, could lead to the collapse of one local bank and then ricochet through the system until it threatened the finances of the whole country.

Furthermore, saddling young people with an economic millstone and putting them under the thumb of the student loan company (who are known to “punish” students for disloyalty to the UK by ramping up their interest rate), leaving them living on baked beans for many years and putting off important spending decisions (such as buying a house) is not good for the economy. It could lead to economic stagnation (which would prompt another rating agency downgrade!). And why should banks get to profit from that?

So all in all, something has to give. In the first instance, if we don’t actually expect students to pay off this debt mountain, then why make them. Set up a debt forgiveness scheme and cut down student debts to more manageable levels.

As for fees, I still do think that students should pay something for their education, if they can afford to do so. A graduate tax is one idea, or some smaller, more limited level of fees. Alternatively, as pensioners will directly benefit from graduates (i.e. doctors & NHS nurses), maybe going after wealthy pensioners and taxing them (or breaking the triple lock on pensions) might be another solution.

But certainly the current system is just a recipe for disaster. It will lead to skill shortages in key areas, its creating a third level system that is increasingly unfit for purpose and could actually threaten the financial health of the country.

E is for Euratom, C is for post brexit chaos

daryanenergyblog

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When article 50 was declared, both the bill and letter sent to the EU clearly stated the UK was leaving Euratom (the EU’s nuclear agency) as well as the EU. I was slightly confused by this as it seems to contradict something I’ve long noted about the Tories, their illogical devotion towards nuclear energy. I did wonder whether this represented a moment of clarity (that nuclear power is a waste of time and money), or was it just another sign that they haven’t got a clue with what they are doing. I think we’ll have to conclude it was the latter.

Euratom is a European agency that has various responsibilities. They act as a single market for nuclear energy components, nuclear fuels (i.e uranium supplies), medical isotopes, regulation of the nuclear industry (notably its safe handling procedures) as well as research into long term nuclear projects such as the…

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