News roundup

Do panic

A few months back the brexiters complained that they wanted the Royal Mail to celebrate brexit by issuing stamps to mark the occasion. Well RM seem to have met them half way by issuing a set of “Dad’s Army” stamps. Clearly someone at RM is trolling the brexiters.

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Inevitably perhaps, others have been creating their own versions of potential brexit stamps.

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Our Brexit, hallowed be thy name

Meanwhile, back in the mad house, Saint Theresa of Maidenhead May suggested that an extra £20 billion would be available after brexit for the NHS thanks to the “brexit dividend.

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This was met with incredulity by many. At the time of the referendum when they made similar claims, it was pointed out that the UK only really spends about £8 billion on its EU membership, once farm subsidies, rebates, research funding, structural funds and other things Brussels pays for are taken into account. Of course the implication would be that, much as I warned might happen prior to the referendum, this could indicate that the Tories do not plan to pick up the tab for these bills. Farm subsidies will end in March 2019, the fishermen and deprived communities in Wales, Scotland and Cornwall will see their lifeline cut off and universities will see research budgets slashed, with a knock effect to the many high tech start ups who depend on that research funding to get them off the ground.

And there’s the not so small matter that the UK will be stuck, not with a brexit dividend, but a brexit deficit. There’s the exit bill the UK will need to pay, £40-50 billion net (depending on rebates and currency exchange differences, since its calculated in euro’s). And then there’s the economic cost of undertaking brexit (about 3-7% of GDP, best guess £72 billion).

Plus, what do you think the EU does with all of that cash? They spend it on hiring civil servants to administer all the EU regulations, that May is trying to squeeze into UK law. It was improper regulation on the British end that led to the Grenfell tower fire. In China, there’s a controversy over baby formula, leading to shelves being emptied in Australia because some mum’s don’t trust the Chinese stuff anymore. So regulations are something you neglect at your peril. And the three immediate areas that will need tackling are nuclear materials, medicines and food safety…..so no pressure then! And in any event the conditions of any trade deal, be it with the EU or other parties, will need to include a budget to account for paying for the regulation of that deal.

In short, never has a UK Prime Minster said something so inaccurate since Lord North told parliament that the Americans loved being part of the UK so much, they’d happily pay a bit more for tea. But as I’ve said before, brexit is now the state religion of the UK.

While May, perhaps sensing what she was implying, did backtrack and mubble something about a tax rise to pay for the extra money until the (non-existent) dividend kicks in. But even this is worrying. Basically what she said was that the Tory party is abandoning its manifesto and sacrificing it on the altar of brexit. And while more money for the NHS isn’t a bad thing, its almost certain that this new tax burden will fall on the middle and low income earners (this is the Tories after all, which is more likely, they give up smoked salmon once a week to pay for hospitals, or they get the plebs to pick up the tab?).

Brexit is now to the UK what Juche is to North Korea. The excuse upon which anything can be sold. A tax rise? Its for brexit (but don’t worry we’ll pay you back later). An end to farm subsidies? Privatise the NHS? Strip workers of their right to strike? Its all to make sure brexit works!

Of course the problem with this attitude is it means they just can’t understand why for example Rolls Royce or JLR would suddenly want to move thousands of jobs out of the glorious thousand year reich British empire mark II (because they are companies with shareholders perhaps?). Nor can they understand why the EU are being such assholes and threatening to cut the UK off from intelligence data and the European arrest warrant (because they have this thing in Europe called “rights” and “laws” and the UK will join Belarus and Kazakhstan as the only non-signatory to the ECHR). In other words, they are blind to the consequences of their actions. Like the suicide pilots flying their plane into the world trade centre they cannot see the obvious insanity of what they are doing and genuinely think they’ll be going to a better place.

Lock em up….by which we mean the kids

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In between picking fights with China, Trump has been busy locking up kids in cages after tearing them out of their the parents arms (what’s the bet he’ll put Roy Moore in charge!). Conditions at the facility where the kids are detained, referred to as the dog kennel, are described as inhumane and equivalent to a prison. Experts warn of the emotional scaring this will inflict. Parallels have been made to concentration camps and the detention of Japanese Americans during world II.

The day you know you’re living in a fascist state is the day you hear your justice secretary (soon to be named ministry for state security) deny he’s running concentration camps. The irony is one of the justifications of the Alex Jones mob for opposing Obama was that he was black was planning to set up FEMA concentration camps.

Oh, and for good measure the US is quitting the UN human rights council. Because clearly the words “human rights” and “America” should not be sharing the same sentence right now, even Trump can figure that one out.

Let’s be clear if you voted for Trump (or voted for a third party in a swing state, which is basically the same thing under the US system) then this is what you voted for. And frankly it shouldn’t surprise anybody, its exactly what was warned would happen if Trump was elected. At least now when reading the history books and you wonder, how could the Germans vote for Hitler, well now you know how and why. And part of the reason why international pressure failed to contain him, wasn’t because Neville Chamberlain was a weak and naïve leader. It was because he was leading a divided Britain, which had more than a few (Daily Mail reading) fascists of its own, who couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

Trump, upon realising that this might not look so well, immediately tried to dodge responsibility, blaming the democrats, the immigrants themselves and pretty much anyone else he could think of. Its worth noting that something similar played out during the holocaust, the Yugoslav civil war and the Rwandan genocide, in which often those in senior roles were separated from the actual atrocities and generally tried to avoid taking responsibility for such things, leaving it to a handful of fanatical racist nut cases to do the dirty deeds. This of course made it so much easier to order more of the same and treat as mere bureaucratic exercise. Forget the lessons of history and they will repeat themselves.

The really big short

Trump’s tariff policy has sent stock markets crashing to the point where all of this years gains have been wiped out. And the main losers won’t be in Wall street, they’ll be ma and pa firms across the US, as well as many ordinary Americans who are about to see their living costs rise in response to these tariffs (you’ll be paying them, not the Chinese). It sounds like typical Trump. He’s not doing it because he thinks its a good idea, its an action driven purely by ego…..

Or is it? Given that Trump has not actually fully separated himself from his businesses (which is illegal btw), we need to consider the possibility that he’s colluding with others, and doing a little bit of insider trading. Its possible to profit from a falling market by shorting the market. If you can correctly guess that the stock of a particular company is going to fall, you can bet on the share price declining (by borrowing shares, selling them at a high price and then buying them back later after the price has fallen).

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However, shorting is a risky business. Its the equivalent of betting that Brazil or Germany were going to lose their opening matches. Now while this will happen occasionally (as indeed happened to Germany….guess they won’t be eating Taco’s for a while!), but the odds are you’ll be wrong more often than you are right. And to make matters worse its possible with short selling to lose more than your original investment if the market moves against you. Hence most traders will often hedge their bets (basically bet both ways, but slightly bet higher one particular way). This reduces the risk, but also the profit margin.

Of course if you have access to insider information, e.g. you are the president and you know there’s a big tax cut coming, or you’re going to impose tariff’s on the EU, then change your mind and then impose them anyway. A trader with advanced knowledge of this could easily adopt short positions and profit considerably from this.

But, not only is it illegal for a president to be in any way linked to these sorts of deals, but insider trading is also illegal and for good reason. Because if you get it wrong (and markets can be difficult to predict, even if you have access to insider information) things can go from bad to catastrophic pretty quickly. Consider how rogue trader Nick Leeson managed to lose over £800 million, wiping out Barings bank.

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Indeed one has to look at Trump’s real estate losses in a new light. People laugh and say oh Trump is such a loser he can lose money running a casino. How can you do that? I mean people literally walk into a casino and hand over their money!

Well, not if your running a casino skim operation. Its possibly that Trump, under pressure from his mob connections, was deliberately running the joint into the ground. Its just they miscalculated. Normally you skim just a little off the top, but not enough anyone will notice, nor that might risk bringing down the racket. But Trump was such a balloon head, or he and his co-conspirators just got too greedy, they managed to bleed the place dry. Which doesn’t bode well if this same lot are at the helm of the US economy.

Enabling fascism

Speaking of fascists, in Italy the populist horseshoe government is split because one of their leaders, looking to emulate Trump, wants to build his own concentration camps….sorry I mean happy camps (I’m sure they’ll come up with a more PC name!). He also wants to count Roma gypsies and presumably make them go around with little stars on them, I mean nothing bad ever happened from doing that. He’s also suggested that an anti-mafia journalist, who criticised him should have his police protection removed.

This has all come as a bit of a shock to a number of 5S voters. But what should it? You enabled a bunch of fascists and helped them into power, now they are enacting fascist policies. What did you think was going to happen? They were going to go door to door handing out milk and cookies?

Its possible that this might bring down the horseshoe government a little earlier than was expected. Which I’d consider a good thing…..if it weren’t for opinion polls suggesting a likely win for the Northern League and Forza Italia (Mr Bunga Bunga’s outfit).

The Glasgow school of art fire

In Scotland the Glasgow School of art burnt down. Designed by Rennie Mackintosh, the Mac, is to Glasgow what the Casa Mila is to Barcelona. This fire occurred just four years after another fire, which destroyed the college library, which was in the process of being rebuilt. Incidentally, lost in the story about the art school fire, was the fact that another important building, the neighbouring ABC theatre, had also burnt down after the fire spread to it.

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Two fires in the space of four years is more than bad luck. Clearly there’s something up with the building in terms of fire safety. My understanding is the contractors for the restoration after the previous fire were on site, so they’ll have some questions to answer.

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The library of the Glasgow school of art, prior to the fire in 2014

But clearly there’s some issues with fire safety that needs to be addressed. And this is not just a problem for the school of art. There’s been several large fires in older buildings in Glasgow and the basic problem is, they ain’t up to current fire codes and need to be modified accordingly. This article discusses some of the issues, although in the context of post-war era buildings, but much of the same policy should be applied to Victorian and Edwardian era buildings. E.g. fitting external fire escapes (as in New York) and sprinklers, fire resistant barriers, etc.

Meanwhile the question now being asked is whether the art school can be rebuilt. Some suggest it might not be feasible, others feel it is possible. We’ll have to see. There will inevitably be a strong desire from the art community and the Scottish government to rebuild it, but some polls suggest there might be opposition from the public, if it costs too much money.

For the moment, given that its basically now a burnt out shell, the best that can be hoped for is facade retention. Which would have to be undertaken quickly, given that its on a hill and exposed to the winds (it probably won’t survive the winter in its current state). Even then if the building were rebuilt, you’d be rebuilding everything inside that retained facade. And as noted, you’d have to modify the design to account for modern fire codes, which would require considerable modification from the original. So it would be more of a replica, rather than the real thing.

The thinking wing nut’s troll

The Toronto academic Jordan Paterson has been in the news recently, largely thanks to an encounter on Channel 4 news earlier this year, which has made him something of an intellectual hero for the alt-right. However, in truth he’s just a slight better inform right wing troll, who engages in many of their same tactics (gish gallop’s, contrarian arguments, weasel words, etc.)

Take this example where he attempts to argue that much as the right is basically anti-liberalism ID politics (his alt-right followers only hearing what they want to hear will have no doubt filtered that out) that the left is basically the same. That many on the left for example only support social welfare programs that they’ll never benefit from due to a similar commitment towards ID politics.

This position combines a number of contrarian arguments based on a falsehoods. It relies on the myth that working class people tend to vote conservative, and its the “champagne socialists” who vote for left wing parties. However, data from both the last UK election and US elections show that those who are working class tend to vote for left wing parties. When those on right try to claim the opposite, they are often forced to use weasel words statements (e.g. focus on white men over 40 in specific states).

But certainly it is true that a certain portion of those on higher incomes do vote for left wing causes. As I happen to be one of those, although real ale socialist would be more accurate, I can tell Mr Patterson my views have nothing to do with ID politics. Its because I understand that I might end up needing that social welfare safety net myself someday. No matter how hard working you are, or how well paid, all it takes is one accident, cancer diagnosis, bankruptcy of your employer or misadventure and suddenly you’re in a world of trouble.

For example (and this is just one of many examples I could give), I know a guy back in Ireland, hard worker, used to lead scouting groups, took a fall at work one day. He seemed to be fine after a few days, but as the months and years passed he developed ever worse back problems (not unusual for these to take time to surface) and eventually he had to give up work. Now if we take the right at its word, he should be dragged to the side of the street and left to die just because he had the misfortune to have an accident that wasn’t his fault (should you wonder why he hasn’t sued, his employer went bust during the crash and it was only a small building firm anyway, there won’t have been any money to sue for).

That’s all it takes to ruin your income. I wonder if Mr Paterson has paused to consider what would happen to him if he, or one of his relatives, were to fall ill and need expensive medical treatment, which his HMO wasn’t willing to cover (pre-existing conditions and all that). In fact I know of a lecturer who found himself in this very situation. A relative got ill and he had to drop everything, give up his well paid job and fly home to Pakistan. Now while last I heard he’d gotten a part time job over there, but I’m going to hazard a guess its paid a lot less than a lecturing post in the UK. And given his likely outgoings I suspect he’s probably only just about managing. Voting in favour of social welfare is not ID politics, its basic common sense.

Indeed perhaps more the question is why is it that some, notably those over 40’s blue collar workers don’t vote for left wing parties. I would argue that this stems from a long instilled ideology of rugged individualism (you’re considered less of a man if you ask for help), as well as the usual right wing lies and propaganda. And more crucially this tendency does tend to be growing (while those on lower income tended to vote overwhelmingly for left wing candidates by at least 80/20, now its closer to 60/40). So its more a sign of desperation and frustration than meaning an increase in support for the politics of the right. Which perhaps isn’t surprising given how the right doesn’t really have a political philosophy anymore, other than “anti-liberalism”.

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The calm rational logic of Trump voters

But either way, the only real difference between Mr Paterson and Alex Jones (and they are both believers in the paranormal, living on wing nut welfare, which kind of makes his point regard social welfare more than a little hypocritical), is that Paterson knows how not to look and sound like a nut, even when he’s saying pretty crazy things.

The Wakanda conundrum

I came across an interesting little video on youtube, which discuss the Wakanda conundrum. For those who didn’t see the movies (Black Panther, age of infinity), or don’t read comic books, Wakanda is a small yet highly advanced African country which has kept itself hidden from the world for many centuries (for reasons we won’t get into right now). It owes its formation to the arrival of a meteorite from space made of a strange and nearly indestructible metal. As a result its now extremely wealthy and century’s ahead of the rest of the world technologically.

So what’s the problem? Well there’s simply no way such a society could exist. No matter how valuable this resource is, without trading with the outside world (and thus sharing ideas and technology) they’d struggle to figure out how to exploit it. And without trading this resource, they’d never be able to earn any cash from it and thus never be able to buy in the stuff they’d need to exploit the resource and develop their economy. In short the economic policy of Wakanda is basically the same as that of North Korea, and they ain’t exactly the richest country in the world, nor the most advanced (I’m sure Trump would tell you differently tho!).

And speaking of which, the government of Wakanda is an absolute monarchy, with kings picked by barbaric fights (okay, if you’ve ever seen a bunch of politicians fighting over whose in charge, its not that much different maybe). The problem with such a system is all it takes is one bad king to ruin everything. And essentially, that’s the plot of the Black Panther film, but they ignore the consequences of that.

Then there’s the matter of the so-called “resource curse”, which means that small countries with valuable resources can sometimes end up worse off than countries without any. While this doesn’t apply in every situation, Iceland and Norway or Bahrain, for example. But generally countries tend to only avoid the resource curse so long as they’ve got open borders, good trade and a reasonably free society and competent government. Inevitably Wakanda would hit the buffers sooner or later and descent into a corrupt, autocratic mess.

And the other problem with having resources is it tends to draw attention to you. African dictators surrounding Wakanda, not to mention western colonists (notably the Belgians), would soon learn of it and be very quick to swoop in and try to take over the country. And given how in the last film the Wakandian army got the snot kicked out of them by a large pack of dogs, I doubt they’d be able to hold off an invasion, regardless of how advanced their technology.

Uber scooters

A number of silicon valley based firms have begun to set up dockless bike and scooter hire schemes. The logic is, rather than the traditional bike hire schemes, where bikes are picked up and dropped off at designated spots (which can mean trucks rolling around transporting bikes from docking station to docking station). Instead, the system is more free flowing. You pick up the bikes wherever you find one (a mobile phone app directs you to the nearest one) and then leave it wherever you are when you’re finished. Simple!

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So what’s the problem? Well many of these schemes are being set up by companies without the support of local governments and councils. This is causing all sorts of problems, from people riding bikes and electric scooters on pavements, then abandoning them in the middle of the pavement, where they represent a trip hazard, particularly for blind people.

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I think this is a good idea that needs to be developed more, indeed I’d be curious to see if its possible to marry this idea with current car sharing schemes. However, clearly there needs to be some sort of regulation. Frankly the operators of these schemes are lucky councils didn’t just classify all of their scooters as litter and bin them (then fine the company for waste disposal), which is actually what happened in China. No doubt these rules would specify where the bikes and scooters could be used and that where they can be left (if not at designated docking points, then off the pavement and parked neatly). Presumably a system of fines imposed (and/or penalty points) on those who break the rules might bring some discipline to the situation. So it would be a good idea for these firms to start working with local authorities, rather than trying to go the whole uber.

So long and thanks for all the fish

The one shining reason for brexit we were told was the fish. The fish, dear god will someone think of the fish! Those poor fishermen, Farage said as he cried crocodile tears. Well, aside from the fact that this ignored the realities of how trade deals work, and that the Tories have already screwed the fishermen over, there’s a more specific problem – the fish are moving.

As a result of climate change North sea cod and north Atlantic cod are migrating northward out of UK waters and into Scandinavian waters. You would think the Scandinavians would be delighted about this, but they aren’t. Their preferred fish is the Arctic cod and the increasing presence of North Atlantic cod is not only making fishing difficult for them, but threatens the long term viability of their industry. While I’m not much of a fish eater, I’m told by those who do that there’s a distinct difference in taste between the two types and that as a result, the Arctic cod is considered a more valuable product. So you can see the problem. Its issues like this that underline the need for action on climate change.

One possible temporary fix would be for the Faroese, Greenland, Norwegian and Icelandic governments to agree to let EU boats into their waters (for a fee of course) to catch the North Atlantic cod and basically take em back down south. Of course given that the UK is leaving the EU, its inevitable we’ll be cut out of any such deal. Given that all are part of the single market, its going to make a lot more sense to deal with the EU than the UK. So it looks like the UK isn’t even going to get a smoked kipper out of post-brexit fishing deals.

Free range parenting

I got into a discussion on another blog recently about how parents are becoming increasingly controlling of their kids, so called helicopter parenting, and how this wasn’t a good idea. Well now its official. A study from America suggests that overly controlling parents can lead to behaviour problems.

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I’d argue the problems go much further. We end up with students in university, who are used to having every little obstacle swept out of their way and thus haven’t learnt how to strike a work life balance or think for themselves. Its long been my observation, as both a student and a lecturer, that students from the strictest parenting background tend to be the ones who become complete tear away’s in uni.

They’ll show up in the first week of term dressed like a Mormon, or in full islamic dress, but by the end of the first semester they’re complete party animals (for whom breakfast consists of peeling last night’s pizza off their face before eating it), who start missing classes and falling behind. By contrast those from more “liberal” backgrounds (who’ve already learnt how to manage their time and say no to a night out) are able to maintain focus. And they tend to be the ones more likely to drop out, not least because it can sometimes turn out that their parents picked the course and uni for them, which turned out to be something (or somewhere) they didn’t want to study.

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In contrast to this is so-called free range parenting. Rather than for example, walking the kids to school, parents take the view, well he/she knows what time classes start, they know how to get there, so its the kids responsibility to get up on time and get there. If they don’t, its going to be a steep learning curve. While there are merits to this, there are problems with it, not least of possible legal issues.

But my view is that parents need to think of the long term impact of what they are doing. While you have to have some rules and boundaries with kids, if you don’t give them some level of independence, they’ll never learn it. Then you are stuck with them living at home and you have to get them evicted. Birds won’t leave the nest if they don’t learn how to fly.

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Game of Thrones review: Jumping the shark

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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.

Blogging Catch up

As always, a busy time for me, had to go travelling for a bit to meet students on placement, one or two job interviews, some conferences, etc. So no time for blogging, so time for a catch up…

How can 4,352,251 people be so dumb?
Of course the big political story of the last few weeks was the European parliament elections. The results showed a jump in support for UKIP. Of course this had the tabloids (who are largely to blame for this given their tendency to blame foreigners for everything) both dancing a jig, but also having kittens over the obvious threat this poses to the Tories chances of re-election, given that the main loser to UKIP was the Tories.

Of course inevitably the result will be the Tories panicking and inventing more laws to clamp down on the perceived threat of “migration”. Of course as I pointed out in a prior post, its questionable if the UK has anything to fear from migration (the tabloid myths simply don’t stack up when you examine the statistics) and indeed that UKIP’s solution (leaving the EU) is unlikely to have any effect in curbing it.

One has to consider the negative economic effects. Migrants into the UK tend to be of working age who contribute more to the UK economy in taxes than they take out in the form of services, so the consequences if lots of them leaving is likely to be a drop in economic activity, tax take and inward investment.

And similarly the effect on the UK economy of the UK leaving the EU is likely to be negative. And far from this restoring powers to parliament, the result would be that the EU will continue to pass many of the UK’s laws, except now the UK government will have no authority to overrule or veto those laws, as it will have to implement them without question in the interest of maintaining a free trade agreement with the EU. And even before the UK was out the door, its likely the EU would have its pound of flesh by imposing “crippling” terms on such a deal to the detriment of traders in London (this probably explains why UKIP did so badly in the capital itself!).

And as I previously mentioned the integrity of the United Kingdom itself could be threatened by a “in/out” referendum. Euro-scepticism is a largely English phenomenon, its interesting to note the marked difference between polls in England and those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where UKIP did not do nearly as well. UK independence Party? They should call themselves the English Bankruptcy Party.

And of course, contrary to what the tabloids would have you believe there seems to have been no real change in Brussels. The EPP (centre right) will, looking at the results, likely form an alliance with the liberals and centre left and carry on regardless. Indeed given that the pro-EU parties (of both right and left) will now need to co-operate more rather than squabble, the chances of the euroskeptics or the Tories getting their way is actually reduced. The EPP is proposing to make a Federalist the new EU commission president.

In part this is because politicians in Europe understand what is going on here far better than those in Britain. A good deal of UKIP’s support is the usual anti-establishment populism which has been seen in other EU countries before. Generally such parties do well, until they get the slightest whiff of power….and then collapse! Obviously it’s easy to throw rocks when you’re the guy outside the glass house. Furthermore as I’ve illustrated many of UKIP or the other far right parties proposed policies are simply unworkable and would be hugely unpopular with the very people who support them (next time someone says we should have an in/out referendum point out to them that this means taxes going up, you’re mortgage or rent going up, cuts to pensions and the NHS, etc.).

Indeed one need only look at the drumming the previous flavour of the month that was the BNP took in this election (losing both they’re seats), to see what’s in store for UKIP longer term.

But in short the many who voted for UKIP perhaps need to take stock of their actions. Where you really voting for further xenophobia and bigotry? Did you really want it made harder for the UK to negotiate with the EU? And do you really want these sorts of nutters we see in UKIP as you’re local councillor? Already one’s gone due to racist remarks he made :crazy:.

We had the same thing happen in Ireland last election. Many didn’t want to vote Fianna Fail (the party in government) due to the mess they’d gotten the country into. So many went and voted for Sinn Fein. When asked why they didn’t vote for someone sensible like the labour party or Fianna Gael instead they’re response was “oh they’re too left wing”…so they voted instead for a party to the left of not just the labour party but many of the socialists instead !?! :??:

Cleg Phobia
Of course a perfect example of how this anti-government populism can backfire when said party gets into government can be demonstrated by the liberal democrats… although we should really now refer to them as the liberal democrat (note lack of plural!) as they’re down to just one seat in the EU now.

“Cleg mania” seems to have been replaced by “Cleg phobia”. There’s been calls from within his party to resign and even a very typically liberal attempt to oust him which amounted to fisty cuffs at ten paces.

Would the lib dem’s do better in the next election without Nick Clegg? I doubt it. The problem is that they are the victims of the Tory policy of using them as a shield against public opinion. Of course several years means that this shield has now been cut down to a small buckler.

If the lib dems are to survive the next election, they need to set out their stall and put clear blue water between themselves and the tories. I’d even consider, if I were them, challenging the Tories on some issue (say bankers pay or the 50p tax) and essentially either forcing the Tories into a climb down or walking out of government and triggering an early election.

Housing bubble
There is more evidence of a growing housing bubble within the UK. Prices are set to rise, which risks worsening already dangerous inequality within the housing sector, between the “have’s” who got on the ladder at the right moment and the “have not’s” who for various reasons didn’t. This situation will only get worse with new lending rules which make it harder for anyone without a fixed income, such as those on contract type jobs, to get a mortgage, even if they are actually better paid than someone on a regular salary. And of course if this bubble bursts the consequences will be another recession and a crash, except this time there will be no bailout.

And it seems likely the Tories are deliberately provoking this bubble in the hope of creating a spurt of short term growth to make their numbers look good before the next election…even if the whole economy crashes shortly after. While they’ve been keen to claim that their help to buy scheme isn’t contributing to the bubble, there’s lots of things they are doing which clearly are contributing.

A policy of very low interest rates and quantitative easing into infinity for example. This means that anyone putting money into savings is getting hammered. I was slow to set up an ISA this year and then realised I shouldn’t have bothered. I would have actually been better off just converting it all into Euro’s and putting it into my current account in Ireland. As the Euro is gaining value against the pound, this would have netted a better return than the interest on any British savings account. With these realities facing them it explains why many have been putting money into property instead.

The government’s options (labour, tories or the lib dems) unfortunately are either to be a little unpopular now or very unpopular tomorrow. They have to either interfere to try and stabilise the property market, even try and bring down the costs of homes (by for example mandating that a certain percentage of all housing developments in London must be either council flats or affordable homes sold off at a discount) or try and discourage the sort of “casino landlords” who now dominate the housing market. And of course, raising interest rates would help by both making buy to let’s more expensive and risky, but also encouraging savings.

The only other alternative is wait for the crash and face the situation we face in Ireland (or in places such as Spain and Greece), where many live in negative equity, tied to property they can’t sell (without losing hundreds of thousands) and can’t rent out without supplementing the mortgage from their own income….which means they can’t retire, even if they’re past retirement age!

More bad news for universities
One thing that gets to me as a lecturer is how universities have become ever more commercially orientated to the point where some are probably more corporate, greedy and money grabbing than many corporations, led by an increasingly unacademic corporate culture.

And one of the areas where we see this at its most ferocious is the issue of student recruiting. While most of my students are pretty good, I sometimes wonder where the university finds some of them. Some have dubious if not non-existent qualifications, can’t do the basics such as applied maths (critical for an engineering degree) and no motivation to work.

Well the Guardian has a piece out demonstrating some of the practices of recruitment teams at a London university. This includes recruiting people who can barely read and write, or have zero computer literacy skills or indeed hanging around outside job centres or tube centres like a bunch of spiv’s. A previous expose from the Guardian talked about lecturers giving classes to virtually empty classrooms (paid for by the taxpayer) as part of some elaborate student loan scam.

The student fees policy has had many negative effects. Its led to much inequality, with a divide between those who can afford to go to uni via the bank of mum and dad, those who will have to scrape by on a student loan (they’ll likely never repay) and those who can’t hope to ever go to uni regardless of how bright they are. But this corrupt commercialisation of universities is actually the thing that worries me the most, as it threatened to kill the golden goose which the UK’s universities have been for the country.

I’m sometimes tempted to invent a new sport, university executive fights. It works much like cock fighting, you put two university vice chancellors or recruitment agents in a cage, toss in a fiver and watch them tear each other apart for it! :))

Noah
I missed that film Noah the other month, although that’s probably just as well. The idea of Russell Crowe as Noah makes about as much sense as casting Bruce Willis to play Jesus (Die Hard with a Crucifixion? :>>) or Schwarzenegger to play Moses (Hasta la vista Pharaoh? :)) ).

Oddly enough this film was criticized by both the religious right and the atheists. Naturally the Richard Dawkins brigade were against anything remotely religious as a theme for a movie. On the other hand the religious right criticised the film for NOT mentioning God. They also felt that the film pandered to namby pamby environmentalism, which they are effectively allergic too.

Of course one has to bring up the matter of the Ark itself. As others have pointed out, the idea that you could get by with just two of every animal ignores everything we know about genetics and evolution. And the ship Noah would need to hold all those animals, insects, plants (trees wouldn’t survive being submerged underwater), fish (ditto fresh water fish) and birds would be colossal, bigger than any ship ever built to date (nevermind how they all got to the ark…trees and fish can’t walk and kangaroos can’t swim!).

Indeed even building the much smaller boat mentioned in the bible would have represented a serious engineering challenge. Wooden hulled boats like the Wyoming (largest wooden ship ever built), built with modern techniques, iron reinforcing and steam driven bilge pumps still foundered in far more timid conditions than any Ark would have endured (even though it was about 2/3’s the size of Noah’s supposed Ark).

Now the response of the believers in the Ark myth is to paper over these cracks by repeating the phrase “god dunnit” until blue in the face. But one has to consider that he’d have had to bend and twist the laws of physics and reality so severely that if all he wanted to do was kill off a few million naughty people he could have easily had a plague wipe them out, or got them addicted to junk food or something.

…Or perhaps a more realistic appraisal is to realise that at the time the bible was written allegorical literature was very common. One would often tell a tale which would make a good story in of itself, but which carried a moral point. Thus when Jesus brings up the parable of the Good Samaritan, he wasn’t making bigoted comments about Samaritans (in truth there probably was never any guy by the side of a road, no Samaritan nor anything else, it was just a story). It was a tale with a moral point.

However for bible literalists, accepting that the bible isn’t literally true isn’t an option. Thus they are forced to support utterly implausible propositions such as Noah’s ark or the world being created in 6 days or even a pre-Copernican view of the universe. Which is why I’d argue they aren’t really Christians to begin with as the simply don’t understand the point of the bible.

MH 370
With no sign of the missing Malaysian airways flight, the mystery of what happened to it deepens yet further. The latest from the searchers is that if there’s one thing they are sure of, its that the plane ISNT in the area where they’ve been searching.

I’ve talked to one or two colleagues who are experts on aviation and they can only think of a handful of scenarios that would explain this ranging from pilot suicide to a failure of the Aircraft’s air supply system (this would cause the crew to first turn around when they realised the danger, but also to act erratically, possibly turning off things they shouldn’t have before losing consciousness as the plane continued on autopilot till it ran out of fuel).

However they would be keen not to put too much weight to either theory. Past experience has seen many strange aircraft disappearances where the actual causes turned out to be radically different. Take the story of Air France flight 447. There was much speculation regarding this plane’s disappearance, which later turned out to be not true, once the black box was recovered. So it is like I said a mystery, one which may never be solved.

Glasgow Art school fire
It was sad to see one of Glasgow’s most iconic buildings going up in flames over the last week . I used to live around the corner from this Art school and would go past it often on my way to work. And spare a thought for the students. Many were setting up their final year portfolios at the time the fire started and saw their whole course worth of work going up in smoke.

Word is the building might be restored, but it is still a bit of a loss for the city.

More random thoughts

As usual term time, been very busy, too busy to do much blogging but over the week I picked up on a few random stories.

Immigration is good for the economy
A group of London economists have conducted a study that has concluded that immigration provides a net benefit to the economy. Immigrants are substantially less likely to claim benefits than UK citizens and contribute more in taxes while ultimately costing the taxpayer less. In short, the current strop the tories are pulling about “benefits tourism” is a myth and in all likelihood it will cost more in admin costs to the country than it will actually save.

There where one or two specific groups of immigrants who did claim more in benefits than they paid in taxes, but this probably relates to working tax credits for families with children. As I’ve pointed out before working tax credits (to everyone in the UK who works, foreign born or otherwise) represent a substantial portion of the welfare budget, far more money is spent on them than on job seekers allowance (just 3% of the welfare budget is spent on jobseekers allowance (to all claimants, foreign and UK) which represents just 0.7% of the entire UK budget).

And this study is far from the first such report to reach this conclusion. Indeed anybody whose even vaguely glanced at the relevant national statistics would quickly reach a similar conclusion. Then again, right wing nuts aren’t exactly known for their skills at “reading” and doing basic arithmetic. This is how we end up with global warming denial, creationism and anti-vaccine woo.

Ultimately I would argue that what this study shows is that if anything the government needs to change tactic. Tell the UKIP bigot mob to get lost and encourage immigration. Or indeed try and get more of the UK’s unemployed into the labour market. And no, cutting benefits won’t or putting them into welfare chain gangs in Poundland ain’t going to help.

Many on benefits are a mix of genuine hardship cases or people who would like to work, but realise that with a family to keep or the high rents and transport costs demanded in some UK cities, they simply can’t afford to work at the rate of pay offered by many employers. Instead I’d consider increasing the minimum wage as a way to encourage the latter group into employment. And of course, rather ironically, the government were themselves berating some employers for not offering a living wage to employees. Well why not force the issue and raise the minimum wage?

Actually he is smoking crack
And speaking of right wing nuts with a poor grasp of reality. I’m often known to accuse some of the more extreme voices on the right, be they UKIP types or the US Tea party types or the Tony Abbott (Australia’s newly elected climate change denying PM…when do we take back the colony?) or Steven Harper (Farrage’s evil Canadian twin) of being on crack or something.

Well I might need to be more careful about that in future as Rob Ford, Toronto’s notoriously right wing Mayor (notorious for being a blow hard buffoon of epic proportions) has admitted to smoking crack.

Well there’s a surprise! And it does explain a lot of things. Then again if you believe certain rumours G. W. Bush was snorting coke on the Oval office table, so I think this isn’t an uncommon practice among those in power.

The real price of drugs
Which brings us to the issue of where Bush’s or Rob Ford’s Charley comes from. Which is generally from somewhere in South America but via Mexico (possibly by submarine) with a substantial profit for the transaction going to some psychotic drug lord in Mexico. And I’m not just tossing words around, a few weeks ago there was some controversy over Facebook censoring a Mexican drug cartel death video’s.

However lost in that story was the wider story about Mexico’s drug wars. The demand for drugs in the US has led to vast corruption within the Mexican police and political system (hence why nobody in Mexico has been able to, or is willing, identify the victim in these videos). It also means that there is a defacto war going on within the country between rival drug gangs, the military and the few honest cops with many innocent bystanders getting caught up in the conflict. Estimates are that over 90,000 people have been killed in this conflict to date.

This is the very real price to be paid by certain peoples (and generally we’re talking the better off, such as Wall Street traders) cocaine habits. Like blood diamonds, the ethics behind such a habit is morally reprehensible.

And indeed one has to note the obvious parallels between this story and the history of prohibition in America in the 1920’s. Then US religious conservatives (the sort who would now be members of the Tea Party) succeeded in getting alcohol banned. The result was to unleash a massive nationwide crime spree and the root of organised crime to take hold. Even though prohibition was repealed within a decade, it was the 1980’s before the major criminal gangs set up on its profits (notably the Italian Mafia) were finally brought down to their pre-prohibition levels.

The only difference now is that this present era of prohibition has led to history repeating itself on an even vaster scale worldwide. The global narcotics trade is now believed to be a $320 Billion a year industry. Indeed the corruption within Mexico is a common problem across South America. Many of the nation’s here are hampered in their development by their own internal struggles and corruption often fuelled or sustained in one way or another by profits from drug trafficking.

And ultimately what’s driving all of this is demand in the West. Or more to the point the hypocrisy of us on the one hand banning drugs, but then quietly accepting that many of the rich and powerful can and will use them, just not in public. Inevitably, given that present policies are failing, one is forced to question whether it might be worth trying a policy of decriminalisation instead.

Certainly however I would argue that if we’re going to keep drugs like cocaine illegal the only thing that will work is to choke off demand. In other words start arresting the rich and the powerful caught doing drugs and making examples of them (such as Toronto’s Mayor).

Indeed I recall hearing of some US Police forces who came up with the tactic of rather than arresting (predominately black) drug dealers on the streets of working class neighbourhoods, they started sting operations in more affluent areas to catch the drug consumers. Within a few weeks the result was usually significant drop in drug consumption across the city with the gangs really feeling the pinch (they can replace dealers and the drugs but not customers!). Unfortunately political pressure has often halted such as it seems city hall doesn’t like the image of mainly white upper class professionals being perp walked into court.

The ultimate hoarder
German police made a startling discovery recently of a vast collection of art that had originally been confiscated by the nazi’s and had long been assumed lost. Indeed records of the existence of some of the paintings had been lost and forgotten altogether. The result is a treasure trove of a billion euro’s worth of modernist art.

Oddly enough it was in the process of investigating tax fraud that the paintings were found. They were searching a cluttered apartment looking for evidence in this case when they located the paintings under piles of rubbish and other odds and ends. Turns out one of the guy’s relative worked for the nazi’s and had built up this collection during the war.

Ironically it was the fact that the nazi’s considered such modernist art “degenerate” that has created something of a demand for it and hence the high value of this collection…not that its “owner” will be seeing much of that!

Indeed these paintings are just one of a handful of lost or stolen works of art, notably Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt and The concert by Vermeer, both stolen along with 13 other dutch paintings from a museum in Boston in 1990.

The Burka Runaway
Then there was the story of a “terrorist suspect” who went on the run, evading the cops by dressing up in a Burka. I recall seeing the photos in the newspapers and even before I read the article my thought was, what’s that guy doing wearing a burka? I think those UKBA agents should consider a career as a referee!

Inevitably this story has the usual suspects calling for the Burka to be banned…So he’ll just have to dress up as santa claus next time!

The end of Britain?
I came across this add for some right wing rag which talked about “the end of Britain”. It turned out to be the usual libertarian disaster porn. However I also came across this blog by an economist who picked it apart.

Ultimately the UK economy is not exactly in a healthy state, the Tories can dress mutton up with lamb all they like and policies like QE are probably counterproductive in the long term. But comparisons with the Weimar republic or Mugabe’s regime is just childish paranoia.