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.

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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.