A not so slow news week

Wikifreaks

Of course the big story over the last week was the arrest of Julian Assange and his removal from the Ecuadorian embassy. To be honest, the only thing that surprises me is that this didn’t happen sometime ago.

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There’s an accepted wisdom that if you are offered asylum by a country, you don’t make waves for them. After all they still have to have relations with the country whom you are fleeing from. And that’s assuming you are in the actual country, not in an embassy metres from cops who want to arrest you! And you especially don’t want to go interfering in the affairs of the state who is protecting you, that’s just common sense. One has to assume that the historic distrust of many Latin American countries towards the US (thanks to its past policies in the region) is why they held this off for so long.

Assange’s supporters claim the arrest was illegal. It wasn’t. Diplomatic immunity is a mutually agreed convention. If both parties opt to wave it (as often happens), then a protected individual losses their protection and can be arrested just like everybody else. Police can enter an embassy upon request. There’s also a claim that Ecuador has been bribed with several billion in funds. However, this likely refers to a loan granted recently by the World Bank and IMF. Many states contribute to these funds (including Russia and China) so this accusation doesn’t really ring true.

Assange also claims he only sought refuge because he feared being extradited to the US and facing the death penalty. It is illegal under EU law to do such a thing. In fact, by contributing towards brexit, he’s inadvertently made this more likely.

And that’s the problem. Julian has been very selective and applied political bias to the information he’s released. Wikileaks was rather quiet about anything damaging to Trump, but released those Hilary e-mails (which actually didn’t contain anything new) right at the time when they would inflict maximum political damage. By taking sides like this, its difficult for him to play the card of being the little guy against the machine. Because it looks more like he’s an enabler of the alt-right.

To be honest I don’t think the guy is the full shilling, even before he went into the embassy. As I’ve mentioned, several of his decisions were tactically stupid, arrogant and foolhardy. Even his decision to stay in the embassy is questionable. Given that his expulsion has been on the cards for sometime and the police outside were withdrawn sometime ago, why didn’t he make a break for it? The Colombian embassy is in the same building and there’s about a dozen other embassies in a 1km radius. If he was willing to risk a car or taxi journey he could be in the Australian embassy within 5-10 minutes.

And while yes some of these would have shown him the door, others would have had to apply a certain due process (notably the Australian embassy). This would have required the US authorities to declare their interest and make documents publicly available (which they probably won’t want to do). Also some of these embassies have underground car parks. Meaning they could spirit Assange into a diplomatic vehicle, drive to an airfield and put him on a plane out of the country.

So I’d argue these numerous blunders made by Assange suggest he’s might have some mental health issues. And obviously if that’s true then he can’t be extradited, either to Sweden, nor to the US. Thought I doubt his lawyers will be allowed to use that argument.

The black hole

Scientists have recently managed to photograph a black hole, where all matter and the fabric of spacetime breaks down. Its therefore the one place in the universe where you can escape news of brexit or Trump, hence NASA are planning a mission there as we speak and millions are ready to sign up.

Jokes aside, this is kind of a big deal. While scientists have long suspected the existence of black holes, the idea that vast amounts of matter could be compacted down to a singularity has never sit well with them. Even Einstein, while he accepted his own theories (worth noting that it was actually Karl Schwarzschild who first proposed the existence of black holes based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity), he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea (which probably explains his obsessions over quantum theory later in his career). But we cannot deny the vast body of evidence built up over the years. And now we have an actual image of one.

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And the heart of this story is an unsung hero in the form of a post-grad student from MIT by the name of Katie Bouman, who proposed the imaging method used to capture this image. Its an excellent example of how academia should work. A hypothesis is proposed and, regardless of who proposed it, its subjected to multiple layers of peer review and scrutiny. Assuming it passes, funds are sought, its implemented and we get back our results.

Inevitably the internet being the internet, and there’s people out there who resent anyone who is successful (particular if it’s a woman), Ms Bouman (we should probably should start calling her Prof Bouman, because if this doesn’t earn you tenure I don’t know what will!) has attracted a online few trolls. But then again, you can’t say you’ve had the whole internet experience until you’ve received at least three online death threats and attracted at least a dozen cyber stalkers. Maybe we can send them on the mission?

Brexit update – limbo until halloween

And speaking of black holes that nothing can escape, the UK has secured ANOTHER brexit extension till Halloween (insert brexit metaphor or joke of your choice!). But you have to kind of ask, what’s the point?

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The time allotted by the EU is too much for the brexit bigot brigade to bear (hence there will probably be a strong showing for far right parties in the upcoming EU elections). And yet too short to allow a 2nd referendum. It serves no real purpose other than kicking the can down the road and hoping the UK actually makes a decision.

I would also argue that the EU is being very naïve. Their assumption is that one of two things will happen. May will go and a Tory brexiteer will take over, who’ll leave the EU straight away and the EU just triggers its no deal contingency plans. Or there’s a general election, Corbyn gets in and he either asks for an even longer extension (to have a 2nd referendum), or negotiates a Norway+ style arrangement. However, neither is actually likely.

Firstly, while yes the Brexiteers are talking the talk on no deal, I’m not sure they are willing to walk the walk. Remember they want it to happen accidentally (either that or May’s deal is voted through by Corbyn). If they force it through, then they have to take the blame for it and that’s their career over. If some brexiteer like Boris took over, he’d also be faced with the same parliamentary arithmetic as May. Not enough support for either no deal or May’s deal.

So he’d probably try and sabotage the EU from within (much as Mogg recently suggested) in an effort to win a free unicorn off them and distract from his own short comings. We’d only leave when the EU basically voted to kick the UK out against our will, thus giving him cover to blame all that follows on them.

And while labour has been going up in the polls, that’s more a reflection on how badly May is doing and a strong swing to UKIP and other far right parties. The issue for labour in any election is it has no brexit policy and it can’t agree on one. A pro-remain policy is at odds with the views of Corbyn and his cabal. A pro-leave policy would anger the 90% of labour supporters who want a 2nd vote. And it won’t take that many of them to swing a few seats. As I’ve pointed out before, go through the article 50 petition signature stats, constituency by constituency and you’ll see that there’s more than enough who signed it to swing plenty of safe labour seats into marginals and put others seats they have to win beyond reach.

And even if he won, and that would take some doing, he’d be right back in the same position as May. Its some variation on May’s deal (which everybody hates), no deal (which would be a disaster) or no brexit (which nobody is brave enough to support). Corbyn can’t magically change anything. He’s not the 2nd coming. I suspect what those who vote for him would actually get would be more akin to this scene from the wizard of Oz.

How to infuriate the EU in 10 seconds

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The irony is that the UK has actually got some leverage over the EU. Threatening no deal was never going to work. The EU’s never believed the UK would actually be foolish enough to follow through. And, in any event, they’ve had three years to put in place various contingency plans to cope. And they are also aware how woefully inadequate the UK’s no deal plans are.

To draw an analogy, let’s suppose the Pope had a glass too many of the confession wine and went around waving a gun. You could quite safely call his bluff. He’s the Pope and a Jesuit, he won’t hurt a fly (mostly because the fly would probably win….that said I won’t bring up the whole pedo priest business!). On the other hand, if Chuck Norris did it….well you’d want to be careful (if Chuck Norris was the UK’s brexit negotiator, we’d be the only country left in the EU, because he’d have roundhouse kicked the rest out of the building, fact!).

No, the UK’s one trump card left is to threaten the opposite – revoking article 50, then have a 2nd referendum at some in-determinant point in the future. That would absolutely drive the EU, particularly the likes of Marcon, up the wall. They’d be rolling on the ground and chewing the carpet if that happened.

The EU is going to start its budget negotiations for the next seven years some time at the end of the year, which will carry on for about a year or so. The last thing they want is the UK to still be in the club, but the topic of brexit is unresolved. i.e. That the UK might trigger another referendum at any time. And, if that goes the way of leave again, another set of exit negotiations, right when they are squabbling over money and they need to know if the UK is out or in (else they don’t know how much everyone will have to pay).

But of course, nobody in the UK parliament will even consider that, as it would only work if they were willing to let this process extend will into the 2020’s (ignoring the fact its going to continue anyway into the 2040’s).

Worse out than in

The other issue with this long brexit delay is that it means that all of that stockpiling that went on, by the government, companies and individuals has been for nought. Yet, given that brexit (and no deal) remains a looming threat, such stockpiling will have to continue. No quicker than I’ve eaten my way through my stockpile of Tayto crisps, Irish biscuits and Irish tea, I’ll have to start all over again.

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But this is no laughing matter for industry, they’ll now be forced to keep a floating stockpile of spare parts and perishable items for the foreseeable future. What’s wrong with that? Well many UK companies operate on a system of Just In Time manufacture, which is simply incompatible with the needs for brexit related stockpiling. The whole point of such a system is to eliminate inventory. This saves on cost (as you don’t need to pay for a warehouse), improves quality control (any issues get spotted immediately and dealt with straight away) and reducing waste. Leaving the UK stuck in the brexit twilight zone for another 6 months is thus going to have a negative effect on the UK economy.

And another piece of brexit related news is that of how the UK is now officially worse off than if the referendum hadn’t happened. Even if we ignore the £1.5 billion spent on no deal planning (that’s now basically gone to waste), the UK has sacrificed 3% of GDP growth to not leave the EU. And recall back in the referendum when it was said brexit would cost every household over £4k by 2030. Well its already cost each household £1,500 already, which implies where ahead of the curve.

Yes, inevitably during the referendum Cameron told a few porkies. He implied for example that said £4k loss would happen immediately on the 24th of June. That there would be emergency budgets, etc. But the main threat of brexit, was always the brexit bear effect and that bear is very real and we’ve now seen its claws.

Norway minus

Given that soft brexit and the Norway model seems to be everybody’s preferred compromise, I have to ask, has anybody bothered to run this by Norway and the other members of EFTA? Because I think you’ll find the last thing they want (or need), is the UK coming in and demanding special treatment, like some spoiled toffee-nosed etonian.

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Why no deal is probably inevitable in one easy to follow chart

I was actually in Norway during the referendum (and I’d previously been in Iceland a year or two before) and they know why they aren’t in the EU. Its largely due to fish, which is 10% of Norway’s economy, 30% of Iceland’s and 50% of Greenland’s, but under 1% of the UK’s. And even these stats don’t do justice. You live in a village up north in these countries, you’ve got a steep mountain on one side (or a volcano!), the sea the other side and a small sliver of land on which to build a fishing port. Job opportunities in these communities involve A) fishing B) Tourism during the short summer or C) Marrying a puffin.

Thus these nations are all willing to accept being rule takers from Brussels, but not rule makers, so they can exert a bit more control over this one key issue. Their concern therefore is that the UK will try to push the sort of rhetoric we’ve heard from the brexiteers into EFTA. Or that the UK tabloids will just turn on them as their hate figure in place of the EU. And they just don’t want that in their little club house.

Now if the UK were willing to compromise, for example not bringing in any changes to immigration or welfare rules for some extending period, agree to some dilution of the UK’s voting power such that the other states can easily outvote it, that would probably work. But the UK is in this mess precisely because it won’t compromise.

So I’m not sure how that’s going to work. And single market membership won’t eliminate checks at the Irish border, we’d need a customs union as well. Like any of the brexit options, the Norway model amounts to accepting that the UK is worse off out than in and that’s the one unspeakable truth none dare utter.

Ourselves alone

There’s some who say that the solution is for Sinn Fein (which translates from Irish into “we ourselves” or “ourselves alone”) to come to Westminster and break the deadlong. Quite frankly, we’ve already got one bunch of terrorist supporting criminals in parliament (the DUP, aka the old testament with fortnightly bin collections), the last thing the country needs is another bunch. And I do not make these allegations lightly, Sinn Fein (like the DUP) have been recently linked to vigilante gangs, terrorists (obviously perhaps) and one of the largest bank robberies in both Irish and UK history.

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

So the last thing that parliament needs is for John Bercow to find himself refereeing kneecapping and arson competitions across the chamber. If you think the UK is in a crisis now, wait till SF show up. They have a saying along the lines of “England’s difficulty is Ireland opportunity”. They will try to be as disruptive as possible. Far from breaking the deadlock, they’ll flip flop either way on every vote on every issue to make sure nothing happens. Hell given the state of the building, they’ll probably start drilling holes in the ceiling (or calling in false bomb alerts). After all, they and the DUP have shut down parliament in Belfast over some dispute over the Irish language, for two years running now.

Furthermore, while SF will claim they don’t want to sit in parliament because it would mean taking the oath of allegiance, that’s just a load of BS. No, the real reason is that they’d have to take a position on something. And like all populists, they don’t want to do that (because then something might get done and they’d have nothing to whinge about!). Take their position on brexit. They are eurosceptics who want Ireland to leave the euro (and thus the EU), they want out of the single market, yet they don’t want a hard border, they won’t support any deal that gives Westminster any say over NI or Irish affairs and they don’t want no deal. And you thought the Tory Brexiteers policy was convoluted and hypocritical!

And if you think that’s bad, SF’s policy on pretty much every other issue is the same. Don’t take a position, because then you’ll displease someone. Like all populists they are the party of protest. They are against everything and for nothing. Urinating into ballot boxes isn’t allowed, so voting SF is basically the next best thing.

So no, the worse case scenario is for SF to show up. Hell I’d even include a bit in the law just in case, that if they do show up now they have to kiss her mag’s feet and give her a sponge bath. The best we can hope for is they bugger off and be themselves alone.

Breaking faith

Within conservatives brexit has taken on something of a religious status, a class struggle (the toff’s screwing over the working class, but getting them to vote for it first!). Fintan O’Toole’s talk on brexit kind of illustrates this narrative well.

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So any conservative coming out and saying that they were wrong about brexit is thus treated like a heretic. And this is rather vividly illustrated by a recent case study. Peter Obrone published an article in which he admits that he was wrong about brexit. It has turned the UK into a laughing stock and its quite clear the idea that we’d get a better deal outside than in the EU is false. Needless to say, this hasn’t gone down well with his fellow brexiters, as this piece from C4 news illustrates. I’m reminded of this song from the 90’s.

This is the problem. The reason why so many brexit voters cling to unicorns, or dismiss any negative news about brexit as “fake news” is that the minute they accept that the UK won’t be better off out of the EU, even if its only slightly worse off, their whole world view falls apart. It means that they voted to make themselves poorer and make their country weaker. That Farage, Johnson etal lied and they were fooled by those lies. Quite simply put, this makes them look stupid (as well as selfish, racist and unpatriotic) and their ego can’t take that kind of a hit. So they grasp for whatever fairy story that will magically make it all go away.

And we see the same in the US with Trump supporters who do not live in the same world as the rest of us. There is literally something wrong with their brains. Just take this piece where the relatives of Fox news viewers lament what happened to their family members.

Which illustrates the problem with any 2nd referendum. This lot aren’t going to change their minds no matter what. I’d guess, at best you’d get 60/40 in favour of remain and that’s if you are lucky. Similarly a Democrat victory in 2020 is by no means guaranteed and it will probably be by a tight margin.

The Atlantic city shuffle

And speaking of Trump, here’s an interesting article about the mess Trump left behind when his casino collapsed in Atlantic city. When the Trump Taj Mahal opened he declared it “the eighth wonder of the world”. But within a year it had gone bankrupt….only to then go bankrupt again! Yes, Trump managed to go bankrupt with his casino twice! And its likely that this was solely down to the mismanagement of the casino’s finances. In a casino, the house always wins, the casino owners are the only real winners….unless Trump is running one of course!

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In fact, its difficult to believe that even Trump is that incompetent. The suspicion is that Trump’s mob connections, used the casino to run a money laundering racket. In fact he was fined $10 million for various violations of anti-money laundering laws related to his casino’s.

Fortunately for Trump going bankrupt multiple times or breaking the law doesn’t mean he goes to jail. Nor indeed does it mean he losses a penny of his money, nor is he disqualified from voting (as happens to many African Americans after a slight misdemeanour) nor is he bared from standing for elected office. Like in any feudal society (such as Westeros!), there’s one law for the nobles and another for the rest of us plebs.

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The fall of the Roman Republic: Lessons for the modern world

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I stumbled on this youtube channel, Historia Civilis which, amongst other things, presents the fall of the Roman republic in quite an interesting and entertaining way. Worth a look, if you are a history buff. It occurred to me however, that the downfall of the Roman republic presents several valuable lessons for us in the modern world. As one can see parallels with current events and those leading up to the fall of the republic.

At the heart of the matter were three men, Julius Caesar (who presumably needs no introduction!), Pompey (the veteran general, not the football team) and Crassus (the richest man in Rome and victor over Spartacus). These three men formed the a loose alliance known as the Triumvirate in order to help push their various political agendas through the Roman parliament, the senate.

Key among there demands was money. Pompey and Caesar needed financing to maintain their armies (Crassus was also keen on various tax reforms), but also there was the issue of looking after their retiring soldiers (after all if they didn’t look after them, nobody else would sign up and pretty soon they’d have no army and a lot of angry ex-soldiers gunning for them). There was also the issue of land reform, putting land the republic owned to better use (possibly by settling the former soldiers and commoners of Rome on it). Caesar was also keen on making northern Italy a formal part of the Roman republic (many of his soldiers came from here, which means they’d all become voting citizens and would likely give him control of a vast voting block).

So a lot of their demands, weren’t that unreasonable……unless you were a member of the Roman upper classes of course! They formed a conservative faction within the parliament, the Optimates (or conservatives, think the GOP), who were opposed by the Populares who favoured the commoners or plebs (think the democrats). The triumvirate really didn’t care who was in charge so long as they got their way. But there was a tendency, particular with Caesar, to favour the populists.

In essence friction caused by the conservatives attempts to block the triumvirate’s demands led to an increasingly hostile and partisan mood in parliament, ultimately eroding support for the senate. This eventually spilled onto the street, with political debate becoming increasingly tribalist, hostile and eventually violent. Then fighting began between the triumvirate members, which led Pompey to align himself with the conservatives.

Towards the end the two factions morphed from populists v’s conservatives to Caesarian’s v’s Pompeyan’s, with both sides effectively backing a dictator, while accusing the other faction of being autocrats tying to put a dictator in charge. After Caesar’s victory the senate basically became a rubber stamp facility for him to get his way. After his assassination by senators, things got even worse, leading to the rise of the first Emperor (Augustus, Caesar’s adopted son and chosen successor), upon which it eventually became little more that a debating club.

The “will of the people” can be used to justify anything, even dictatorship, slavery and genocide
Beware of anyone who cite’s “respecting the will of the people” as the justification for their actions….but then seems suspiciously reluctant to allow the people’s wishes to be confirmed in some sort of free and fair vote. This went on all the time in ancient Rome, where it was used to justify pretty much anything, murder, ignoring the law, violating parliamentary procedure, genocide, slavery, burning down of temples or public buildings, theft and ultimately dictatorship.

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Roman legions enact the “will of the people” by enslaving non-Romans

In short, the many checks and balances we have in society exist to stop autocrats doing this. Part of why the Roman republic collapsed was because many choose to ignore those checks and balances, in order that they could “respect the will of the people”.

And another factor was how populists manipulated the public. While the Roman republic was a democracy, it wasn’t a very fair one, it decidedly favoured the rich (even when we ignore the corruption and bribery that went on). Part of the reason why the plebs began backing extremists was probably out of a certain level of frustration with how the upper classes treated them (why does that sound familiar). They also backed Caesar, in part because some of his policies did appeal to them. But mostly because the Optimates hated him.

Beware of ideologues bearing grudges
Good politics is about good compromise. And there were several ways that the disputes between the populists and conservatives could have been resolved. But passions ran high on both sides and eventually the senate descended into partisan politics, where bills were passed more as a means of scoring points against rival factions, rather than any real purpose (such as you know like maybe running the country!). And needless to say, filibustering and numerous acts of skulduggery were rife. In effect the senate stopped governing Rome, which created a power vacuum and it was inevitable something else would come along to fill the gap. And the void was filled by the autocratic rule of first Pompey and later Caesar (then later on an emperor, important to note that at no point was Caesar appointed emperor).

Again, one can draw direct parallels with modern politics. On any topic, healthcare or gun control in the US, brexit in the UK, there are a number of ways a compromise could have been reached to resolve these issues. But the parties (notably the conservatives) have refused to compromise. Again, this leads to a government that doesn’t govern. One that misuses procedures to ensure nothing gets done (or railroad through legislation that clearly doesn’t have majority support). Parliament fiddles while Rome burns. As Lincoln said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

God is a busy person, he seems to be always on everyone’s side….and always against your opponents
Modern day politicians, particularly those on the right, are always banging on about religion. Being very quick to say how their policies are inspired by Jesus….which leads one to wonder how they managed to skip the bit in the bible about Jesus throwing the merchants out of the temple, or claiming that it would be easier for a richman to ride through the eye of a needle than get into heaven. Well, misusing religion to justify your policies aren’t a new phenomenon. It happened regularly in ancient Rome.

For example, at one point Julius Ceasar managed (by which we mean bribed) to get himself elected to the post of Ponitfex maximus, effectively the Roman equivalent of the Pope. He then set about exploiting this for political gain. And his opponents would do likewise, getting legislation they didn’t like or elections they disagreed with overturned on the basis of “bad omens”. Naturally this proved to be a major problem as it led to a general breakdown in the rules of the house.

Beware of “spontaneous” street protesters turning violent
Like I said, the tribal politics on the senate floor quickly spilled out onto the street and political debate took on a darker more tribal tone. While pushing, shoving and maybe the odd punch up were not that uncommon in Roman politics, gradually this fighting became worse and worse. Eventually, people started carrying weapons to political events. And it was only a matter of time before they started using them, leading to much violence and blood on the streets of Rome.

One can draw direct parallels with, for example the tea party types showing up with the guns outside polling stations, or the recent harassment of politicians in the UK outside parliament. Hence why its important that this behaviour gets nipped in the bud, presumably by making it illegal to use violence to pervert the political discourse (or the threat of it and I don’t see how showing up with a gun to a rival political rally, or a polling booth in a predominantly black distinct can be interpreted any other way). Its worth noting that under the laws of the Roman republic you could be executed (or banished) for showing up armed at political events (or so much as laying a finger on certain government officials). While that’s probably going a bit too far today, but some time in the clink to cool their heels would seem appropriate.

Not least because this violence in Rome wasn’t initially as random as it seemed. Its quite clear that many of these thugs were working on behalf of various members of the triumvirate. Similarly, call me paranoid, but I find it more than a little coincidental that the tea party’s stated goals just happened to meet those of plutocrats in the GOP (and its strange they seem to ignoring the fact they’ve reneged on a number of the tea party’s stated goals and nobody’s making a fuss about it). Similarly, are we to believe that these yellow vest protesters in France are a “spontaneous” anti-government protest….which just happens to align itself with the goals of the far right.

The problem in Rome was that this violence soon ran out of control. Which should hardly come as a surprise, that’s kind of what happens with a brawl. Its easy to throw a punch, what’s harder is getting everyone to stop. Those behind the violence were soon fighting each other, with Roman citizens, the senate and triumvirate getting caught up in the cross fire. Things came to a head with two factions, one led by Milo (from the conservative faction) and the other mob led by Clodius (of the popular faction) fighting each other in the streets of Rome. This violence eventually led to Clodius being murdered by Milo’s gang and Milo being expelled from Rome.

Eventually this violence on the streets forced first Pompey and later Caesar to move armies into Rome to put down the violence….and maybe help them rigsupervise” an election or two. This is of course the danger. Look at any other country (recently in Brazil or Venezuela for example) and once the military start getting involved in policing protests, they get involved in the politics. And its difficult to predict the outcome of that. Because in the end the Roman senate, and its inability to reconcile its own differences, left them faced the choice between two dictators.

Cooler heads don’t always prevail, smart people do stupid things and never underestimate a dumb person
One of the things we often get told, is oh don’t worry, nobody wants a no deal brexit/Trump dictatorship, cooler heads will prevail. Why our leaders are smart people, they’ll come up with an answer. Well that’s not what happened in Rome. In fact very smart people did very dumb things, leading them to be out manoeuvred by street thugs (such as Milo, Clodius) and the less than intellectually gifted (such as Mark Antony). Largely because they were too caught up in their own ideology and too busy settling petty scores with their rivals.

Take the Roman senators Cicero and Cato. I’m guessing that even if you know little about Roman history, you’ve probably heard of them. They were two of the sharpest minds in the Roman world. Yet they committed various howlers during this period that I suspect even Trump could have seen coming. At one point for example, Cato got tricked into taking up a task in Cyprus, which put him out of the senate at a crucial time. While Cicero found himself on the run facing trumped up charges. They’re own arrogance became their undoing.

By contrast, the members of the Triumvirate weren’t exactly a bunch of heavy weight intellectuals. In fact some accounts suggest Pompey was kind of “slow” and not exactly the sharpest tool. However, they managed to command armies in battle and lead them to stunning victories. And they outmanoeuvred their political opponents on several occasions.

In fact, one could argue the most sensible of the triumvirate was the one you hear the least about, Crassus. He cashed out early, gaining control of the wealthy province of Syria. So he kind of made off like a bandit. It could have ended well for him….if he hadn’t made the crass decision to start a war with the Parthian Empire and dying on the battlefield.

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Crassus died on the battlefield fighting a pointless and illegal war in what is now modern day Syria….why does this sound familiar?

The frog in the saucepan isn’t true, but the political metaphor is correct
There’s the old saying that a frog put into boiling water will jump out, while you put him in tepid water and warm it up he’ll sit there and get cooked to death. Well firstly, its not true (yes somebody has actually checked!). But the political metaphor is correct. Like I said, the decline of the Roman republic was gradual. At no point did either Pompey nor Caesar declare themselves emperor (although they were made dictators). It would be difficult to put your finger on the exact point where the republic’s collapsed.

I would also argue that neither Pompey nor Caesar set out to become an absolute ruler. They were certainly greedy and ambitious men, but I don’t think they intentionally destroyed the republic, no more than Cato or Cicero intentionally hastened the decline of the senate. It just sort of happened that way. Because once they pulled the pin on the autocrat hand grenade, they couldn’t put it back in.

One of the reasons for example, why Caesar marched on Rome, was that he was facing the risk of prosecution for his actions as consul several years earlier. Just prior to his assassination he was made consul for life (which was one of the reasons why he was killed of course), because he didn’t want events to repeat themselves (he was planning to leave the city and go off campaigning again). And one can draw direct parallels with modern dictatorships. Castro in Cuba, Maduro in Venezuela, Trump in 2020 or Putin in Russia. In other words, the boiling frog applies to the would be dictators as well.

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The Ides of March, Roman senators express no confidence in Ceasar’s rule.

Of course, Caesar’s violent death at the hand of 23 senators, several of them his friends and allies (notably Brutus), was unfortunately to set something of a precedence for future Roman rulers. Indeed, a horrible histories fun fact about Rome was the frequency with which Emperors met their doom at the hands of the praetorian guard, the men who guarded emperors while they slept. And of course, we can draw similar parallels to many recent dictators (Gaddafi or Saddam for example). In short, being an autocrat can be hazardous to one’s health.

Beware the law of unintended consequences
Which brings us to the final and perhaps most important point, it is remarkably easy to break a democratic system. Many people in the west, having lived their entire lives in a democracy, having never witnessed the sort of civil unrest or break down of the social order seen in other countries don’t seem to be aware of this fact. Hence they just don’t have any concept of life without it. We’re not even aware of the idea. Hence how Francis Fukuyama can naively proclaim the end of history, without getting laughed out of the room.

After all, think how the Romans at the time of the republic felt. Their republic was many centuries old. From Rome they controlled a quarter of the world’s population and half the known world. No doubt, they too were supremely confident that the republic would survive anything, even a little political crisis, that seem to just drag on and on. After all they’d faced similar crises in the past. If there’s one lesson we can draw from the Roman republic, its that the surest way to kill a democracy, is probably to assume it will never fail.

Now this will be something that some will react with glee to, as truth be told, many on the right (and some on the left too) want to bring down democracy. But be careful what you wish for, as you are unlikely to have any control over what replaces it.

Like I said, neither side the Optimates nor the Populares wanted the republic to become an empire, but that’s what ended up happening. So similarly, Putin in his efforts to undermine the EU needs to think carefully of the consequences. Because while he might break up the EU, NATO (which is the thing that really worries him) remains as united as ever. Does he really want NATO forces on his border, run by various populist mini-Trump’s itching for a fight, while inviting other states, such as Ukraine or Georgia to join (and basically encircling him).

Or alternatively, I’ve heard it argued that the problem with the EU is its too decentralised. A federal state (not unlike the “united states of Europe” Churchill once argued for) with a democratically elected president, plus an upper and lower house might be the solution. So anyone committed to break up the EU needs to be aware the danger is that by provoking such a crisis, the very EU superstate of their nightmares might be what replaces it. And similarly, the Tories, in their effort to create a fantasy cartoon Britannia 2.0, might end up driving the country to the extremes (a far left or far right government) or even cause the UK to break up.

And plutocrats in the GOP who want to shrink the US government and drown it in the bath thumb, ya and what will be the end game after that? I see two possibilities, an authoritarian fundamentalist Christian administration (think handmaidens tale). And if you think Bernie Sanders is anti-business you need to read the bible sometime (some of the stuff in it would make Ocasio-Cortez look like Rand Paul). Alternatively, you might find the wealthier and generally left leaning parts (Eastern seaboard, new England & Northern states) of the US cede from the union, forming either their own country, or perhaps merging with Canada (Super Canada?).

My point is, be careful what you wish for. It might come true and you might find you preferred the status quo, but by then it will be too late.

Brexit madness and British delusions

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Ever since May’s defeat she, her cabinet and the right wing media, have been hinting about possible compromises from Brussels. They’ve suggested that in this stand off the EU will blink first. That the Irish will be up for renegotiating the Good Friday agreement, you name it. However the Irish have now put their foot down and made it clear there will be no compromise on the backstop, even if it means a no deal.

This doesn’t surprise me, for the last few weeks I’ve been reading the news on Irish websites (e.g. the Irish times or RTE news) and the British news and its like they are reporting on two entirely different things in different parts of the world. So either May and her cabinet (plus large elements of the media) are delusional, or they are wilfully deceiving both the public and parliament. Whichever it is, there is nothing to be gained by Ireland or the EU compromising, after all we could never trust the British to hold up to their side of the bargain.

And some of the comments coming out of the UK have frankly added fuel to the fire, hence why I’m not really surprised Dublin is taking such a firm line. For example, in a blatant breach of the BBC’s supposed impartiality radio 4 host John Humphrey’s preposterously suggested that the solution might just been that Ireland leaves the EU, gives up independence and becomes part of the UK. Ya and maybe the solution to a trade deal with the US is for the US to become part of the UK? Or, rather than a 2nd indy ref, how about we dissolve the act of union and go back to direct rule of the UK from Edinburgh castle? Or we could resolve the issues at Gibraltar by reversing the treaty of Utrecht?

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Why Ireland left the UK is still a mystery to many Brits

Unfortunately, what Humphrey’s betrays is something I’ve heard several times from those who went to posh boarding schools. They have a warped view of history that’s about as biased as the sort you’d get in a madrasa and comes with an equivalent fanatical zeal to match. They can’t for the life of them understand why Ireland left the UK in the first place, nor the Americans or Canadians. Nor can they understand the hostility that references to the British empire stirs up among many in Asia. Or why it might be a bit of a diplomatic faux paus to quote Imperialist poets in a Myanmar temple (yes Boris actually did this!).

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…Or why the Indians left the Empire? Its a baffling mystery!

And there are large elements of UK history that the British believe in which is just flat out wrong. For example, you’ll often be told that there’s been no successful invasion of the UK since 1066. Well actually, there have been dozens of them. Numerous ones by the Scottish (the Welsh even had a go once or twice), two successful invasions during the war of the roses, another which put William of Orange on the throne and of course the infamous raid on the Medway (the Dutch sailed down the Thames and burnt the British fleet at anchor)to name a few. Hell one wonders why the UK landing cards, don’t include under “reasons for visiting” the option “invade this wretched isle and reclaim my birthright”.

And this also warps their world view leaving many brits with a form of selective blindness. Its what drives their view of British exceptionalism (that the UK should be allowed to leave the EU and yet still enjoy all the benefits, without paying for the privilege). Which leads to an inability to spot the obvious hypocrisies of, for example, leading brexiteers loudly proclaiming how brexit is a great idea, while moving their firms outside of the UK in advance of brexit. Or availing themselves of an EU passport (a privilege that’s not open to those who can’t afford a 2nd home overseas, doubly so now that its been made clear british expats will lose access to healthcare).

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The Royal navy helps “negotiate” a trade deal with China. And you wonder why British talk of “exciting free trade agreements” worries many

But surely the UK will win against the EU? Its not as if they’ve lost numerous battles and economic wars in the past? Like I’ve said, that the EU would take the line it has, or that the Irish would react so strongly to threats against the peace process, should not come as a surprise to any sane individual, whose even remotely familiar with this thing called “history“. For there is also a long standing failure of the British government in taking ownership of EU policy that it had a hand in.

They’ll whinge about unpopular legislation that Brussels “imposed on them”…while failing to point out it was a proposal the British supported, overwhelming number of British MEP’s voted for and the UK government could have vetoed had they wished. And equally British governments will take credit for things that were an entirely EU proposal.

And this extends to the withdrawal agreement. After all the backstop was May’s idea to placate the DUP. Now she’s saying she wants to get rid of it to placate the DUP……WTF! So you can imagine the incredulity in Brussels. And frankly the last thing the UK wants to do now is unpick a deal, remember the EU will inevitably ask for something in return (likely a commitment to a permanent customs union and/or extended freedom of movement indefinitely). May is again prioritising remaining PM for a few more days over the best interests of the country.

Women might be from Venus, men from Mars, while brexiteers seem to inhabit a different universe entirely! Brexit is a right wing project born out of a deluded and warped view of history among posh upper class twits who all went to fancy lads school. Hence why they are blind to the fact that brexit, as I’ve pointed out before, is a choice between May’s (existing) deal or no brexit at all.

But unable to comprehend this, the brexiteers (and large elements of the British public, who’ve had the same warped education) are instead prepared to dive off the the no deal cliff. Now the thing is, I’m increasingly of the view that this is what’s going to happen (hence the wave of stockpiling going on in the UK by both companies and the public).

What’s that you say? A citizens assembly to sort out brexit? It would have been an excellent idea….3 years ago! But now, let’s just say there are easier (and cheaper) ways of organising a riot.

And while a no deal brexit would be generally bad news all around, but it would be especially bad for the upper classes. The likely outcome I suspect will be either some sort of hard left government, a fascist coup, the break up of the UK, or a revolt of the centre and a rapid push for a 2nd referendum to rejoin the EU (under the terms of a new member, which will mean the end of non-dom status and the UK’s offshore tax havens).

So in essence, should the upper class types come to their senses in the next 60 days, it is for them a choice between either backtracking on brexit (good luck with that one! I’ll have the popcorn at the ready), or facing the Russian roulette of either Corbyn, Tony Robinson or Vince Cable ending up in charge.

Christmas news

Panto politics

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Christmas time is panto season in the UK and that was on full display. Corbyn might (or might not) have called May “a stupid woman” (I could call her much worse things!…and he’s a fu*king moron since we’re talking about it) prompting the Tories to waste an entire day of parliamentary time playing “oh yes you did, oh no I didn’t” arguing. And recall May recently had an argument with Junker because he called her policy “nebulous” (again I could come up with worse descriptions, fu*king retarded for starters).

I mean seriously, one of the most important decisions in the UK’s recent history and they are wasting time because of  playground name calling. Are they grown adults or kids in a school yard?

In part this has to be blamed I’d argue on the UK’s broken political system. The first past the post voting system tends to lead to choice between Tweedledum or Tweedledee. And given their virtual monopoly on both the right and left it means they can waste time on silly things (panto debates like this, or in the US trying to ban abortion), without fear of losing votes.

Contrast that with the situation in many other European countries with proportional representation. Here the government generally ends up as a coalition. Its argued that this makes government’s less stable. I’d argue the opposite. Basically, such antics won’t happen in a coalition, because the coalition partners will just walk away, either forcing an election or crossing the idle, joining the opposition and forming a new government (as happened recently in Spain). This enforces a certain code of behaviour on the major parties.

The sort of open warfare we’ve seen in the Tory party over brexit, for example, just won’t happen in a coalition government. Not least because there would probably never have been a brexit vote in the first place. Furthermore, such two party systems are much more vulnerable to cyber attack, as we saw in 2016. So to my mind, if there’s anything we can learn from recent events its that need to reform UK politics and ditch the first past the post system.

Army to deploy for brexit

And as if to provide another example of everything wrong with British politics, we have the government’s no deal planning, which they were proud to announce includes deploying the army….who will presumably parachute in and distribute food….stuck in a queue in Calais (so what are they going to do, invade France!), or medicines (which presumably they’ll make themselves). And while they are at it, I assume they’ll be picking crops in the fields, taking up nursing and doctors jobs to meet NHS staff shortages. Hell, brexit’s left us short staffed in my uni, maybe we could get a few squadies in to give a few lectures.

What is it about the British and the army? I presume some politicians played too much with their action figures as a kid. In Ireland a politician calls out the army and the media spend the next few days taking the piss out of him. Deploying the army is expensive (hundreds more per soldier per day than it costs to keep them in barracks) Trump’s recent deployment to the US border for example, cost between $200-300 million in the space of a few weeks. And the army are kind of busy people, what with training, various ongoing security operations, aid missions, search and rescue, not to mention the small matter of protecting the country.

The whole doctrine of Western countries hinges on the fact that they have a smaller force of well trained full time soldiers, rather than a large force of poorly trained and badly motivated conscripts (read young boys and old men), as for example is Russia’s policy. This creates a force multiplier effect. That is to say a professional army can do a heck of a lot more damage with less troops and less equipment. Quite apart from the fact that a repressive regime can’t deploy its full strength at any one time (they have to hold back a significant number of troops to deal with the possibility of unrest on the home front).

Of course this military doctrine falls apart when politicians start using the army as their own private goon squad. So what the headlines should read is that the government has essentially admitted that no deal will be a disaster, which they’ll have to fix at great cost and by compromising the country’s national defence.

Nine lessons for brexiters

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The UK’s former EU ambassador, Sir Ivan Rogers, has unleashed a blistering attack on the UK government’s brexit policy. Its worth listening to the full podcast of his speech, nine lessons brexiters need to learn. One could roll out the standard counter argument, a point made about Stephen Fry’s recent podcast on brexit, that such intellectual discourse, with its reliance on “facts” might go down well in a lecture hall, but you try repeating that in a pub. Where no doubt some red faced gammon will shout you down with “brexit means brexit”….

….Which, oddly enough, is the first point he makes. Brexit does mean brexit. Out means out. The UK can’t leave the EU and expect to enjoy all the benefits of membership, not without paying some sort of price. This is something brexiters seem unable to grasp. The Irish backstop has been such an obstacle for the UK largely because they were blind sided by it. They didn’t expect the EU to back Ireland over the UK. But Ireland is in the EU, the UK is leaving. And, when during the trade negotiations, and Spain brings up Gibraltar, or the French bring up fishing, or the Poles immigration rights, guess whose side the EU will take?

On which point, as Rogers points out, brexit is a process not an event. And it will be a decade or two before its all sort out. If you don’t like the withdrawal agreement, you ain’t going to like the trade deal much either. And forget about “shutting the door” to migration, or having single market access which the UK doesn’t pay for. There is, as Roger points out, no possibility of a deal such as Norway+ or super Canada (well okay, I’m sure there’s a cocktail or something that a bar in Toronto sells called that), nor a “managed no deal. Inevitably the UK will be forced to make further concessions during the trade negotiations, more so again if they go for a no deal option.

And speaking of no deal, there is an obvious hypocrisy between claiming the UK can function just fine on WTO rules with its largest trading partner. But that they somehow needs to negotiate some sort of extensive trade deal with South American or African countries (which it already has trade deals with, which it loses at the end of March), nations the UK does significantly less trade with. And obviously other countries, such as the US, will prioritise their own interests in any trade talks over the UK’s. The idea that they’ll cut the UK some sort of special deal that screws themselves over is ludicrous.

However, its his final point which I think is most noteworthy, that of a lack of transparency with the whole brexit process. The brexiters have yet to be straight with the public. They’ve mostly focused on a few pro’s of being outside of the EU (many of which they are unlikely to actually get, and some which are just fantasy), yet they have steadfastly refused to acknowledge any of downsides (dismissing them as project fear). Hence the shock horror when many were confronted with May’s deal. And if, as noted, the trade negotiations go the same way, the anger among the gammon brigade is going to just build and build.

In short, if brexit is to continue, brexiters need to tell the public the awful truth and prepare them for the inevitable. Its ironic that one of arguments against a 2nd referendum (or abandoning brexit) is the fear it would enhance the far right. The opposite is true. A brexit, sold to the public as a short pleasant unicorn ride to sunlight uplands, that instead turns into a long hard unending trudge, during which the many issues that led people to vote leave get worse and worse, is exactly the sort of breeding ground in which the far right will flourish.

Economic hitmen circling

If you are looking for a book recommendation over the holidays, I’d suggest “confessions of an economic hitman” by John Perkins. It details how corporations would exploit the fact that so many developing world countries were (and still are) run by chest puffing populist autocrats, who could be manipulated into doing foolish things with the state’s finances, bankrupting the country and giving the corporations extraordinary leverage over these states.

Well I was reminded of it recently when I was talking to someone who works in stocks. Because, given that we’ve started to elect similar populists, who often either don’t understand how politics works, or are on the take themselves, corporations are simply copying these tactics and applying them in western states.

Dave Simonds cartoon on London's economic dominance

Case in point, the reaction of many traders to brexit was to immediately draw up a list of UK firms and start shorting their shares. They had to be selective about who they went after in the early days (some companies would carry on despite brexit, others were doing badly for reasons entirely unrelated to brexit). But with the current political turmoil they go just as easily toss a dart blindfold and still get a bullseye.

The UK high street for example, has seen drops in footfall and a general slow down in trade. And with online retailers also suffering clearly its something more fundamental that changing tastes. In fact one study suggests that even despite all the closures we’ve seen over the last 18 months, only about half the shops the UK currently has are actually needed. Brexit has in short, presented the short sellers with an open goal.

Which is ironic given how many voted leave as some sort of a two fingered salute to the elites. But, to draw an analogy, imagine you live in a block of flats and hear your neighbours, who are angry with the landlord, plotting to burn the building down. Well the economic hitman’s reaction to that is to take out a massive fire insurance policy on the building….then provide the residences with cans of petrol and a box of matches.

This is the unfortunate reality. Angry ranting and raving just to make yourself feel better is counter productive. Because once you’ve finished bouncing off the walls you’ll likely find those who you were angry with have simply used the distraction to get even wealthier and more powerful.

UK firms seek post-brexit EU regulation

And to further the point above, May has told UK companies to prepare for a no deal brexit. And the reaction of many of them? Well aside from crapping their pants, some have stepped up their efforts to register their companies in EU states. Hundreds of UK manufacturers, in particular aerospace, airlines and other manufacturers are seeking EU jurisdiction before the UK leaves the EU. This means that they will be regulated by the EU rather than the UK.

Why? Well because the EU is their biggest customer and if they aren’t in compliance with EU regulations, they can’t sell into the EU. Furthermore, there’s also the matter of legal action. Let’s suppose you are a UK airline, or a manufacturer of aircraft parts. A plane crashes and you get sued because it is claimed the plane was unsafe. Now at the moment you can claim that your aircraft was fully complaint will all EU regulations and safety standards. This reduces the odds of the case going against you. And furthermore, even if it does, there are legal limits to how much you can be sued for per passenger. Outside the EU (and your aircraft could well crash in some distant country not just in the UK, hence UK law is no fall back in this case), this defence doesn’t work and the claim limit is unlimited (which means nobody’s going to insure you or give you a line of credit!).

Of course this immediately contradicts one of the key points made in the referendum, that corporations would be flocking to the UK, to escape the EU’s burdensome regulations (you know laws that stop flammable materials being used in buildings or prevent toxic paint being used on children’s toys). Instead the opposite is proving to be true. And it also means many UK firms will now have one foot out of the country. So if things do go to pot, its going to be very easy for them to simply relocate.

Cinque merda

You may recall that tragic bridge collapse near Genoa (which in fact I’d passed under a few months prior), which the Italian Horseshoe government of 5-star and the League promptly blamed on the EU. Well I stumbled on this article which reveals that a report back in 2013 warned that the bridge was a risk of collapse, only for that report to be dismissed as a “fairy story” by the 5 star party, who were then in opposition.

This is the problem with populists, its easy to say no to bridge repairs as a waste of people’s taxes and gather popular support in the process, but actions have consequences. And those consequences include bridges collapsing due to lack of repair and people dying. The irony is that one of those 5 stars is transportation….and this is the same party who also can’t get the buses to run in Rome because they keep catching fire!

In fact, very few of those 5 star promises are being met. Human rights have inevitably gone to pot, thanks to their decision to go into government with a bunch of fascists. Their anti-vaccine tendencies has resulted in a measles epidemic breaking out. Renewable energy? Word is they are negotiating a deal involving Russian gas and a new pipeline to carry it. Corruption? Their Mayor in Rome has been battling allegations of corruption and cronyism for some time now.

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In seems to be that anything positive they try to do, they screw it up. You wonder if they should just change the party’s name to “cinque merda” (five turds) instead.

That sinking feeling

On of the problems with climate change is that we can’t really predict its consequences. Yes we know that its going to get warmer, which will have various consequences (more heat waves, melting polar ice and thus sea level rise, possibly colder winters). But the real danger is the X factor. The unexpected consequences of climate change, the stuff that will just come out of left field. These are problematic given that we can’t really predict them and hence can’t plan ahead.

Case in point, this story from the UK. The recent hot weather and drought sparked a large number of claims for subsidence. Subsidence has many causes, but a not uncommon cause is a change in moisture level in the soil. If the soil gets too dry, it can soften and crack. And naturally the long dry summer we’ve just have, particular worse given that it was followed by very heavy rain, has let to this rash of claims. Yet another example of the economic price we’ll pay for climate change.

The Heist

Finally an interesting video here on the most important unsolved robberies, you’ve probably never heard about. In March 1971, several anti-war activists managed to break into an FBI office and made off with a large number of files. They were suspicious that the FBI was (illegally) spying on the peace movement. And not only did they find evidence of this, but they’ll also exposed COINTELPRO a secret FBI surveillance programme, of the sort we’d normally expect from the KGB.

The revelation of COINTELPRO had a significant effect on the FBI and US politics in general. Indeed, it wasn’t until post-911, under Bush that the US federal agencies ever dared to do anything similar again. Anyway, what is perhaps interesting is that the people who pulled this off (and got away scot free) weren’t Russian trained agents, or sleuths of some kind, they were just a bunch of highly motivated amateurs. Yet they managed to outwit the FBI for decades, only revealing their involvement recently, well after the statue of limitations had run out.

News roundup

Back from an overseas business trip, thought it would be time for a catchup…

The not so big blue wave

So the results of the US mid terms are in and it turned out much as predicted. The democrats took control of the house, but the GOP still hold the senate and hence can block impeachment and keep nominating supreme court justices.

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Missing big blue wave, if found please forward to the DNC

While one has to call it a victory for the democrats, not that you’ll ever get Trump to admit to that. But at the same time, its pretty clear that any idea that the GOP voters will rebel against their party was wishful thinking. The fact is that the Republicans are less a political party and more of a cult, a cult of anti-liberalism. They don’t have any real policies, other than to opposite whatever it is the left are calling for….and of course doing some favours for their corporate donors along the way.

What is clear from this election is that republicans know exactly what they were voting for back in 2016. They know Trump is incompetent and not fit for the job, but they’d rather have an incompetent fascist than a competent democrat. They don’t support him despite his racism, his unchristian like behaviour and the fact he stands for everything the GOP has opposed since the civil war, but because of it.

Thus the democrats need to quit taking the moral high ground and grow a spine. My advice would be to pull every dirty mean trick they can to now shut down Trump’s and wait out the rest of his time in office. Its basically what the GOP did to Obama, so its only fair the democrats do the same.

And when they get back into power, then what goes around comes around. He’s going to appoint a couple of pro-lifers to the supreme court, we’ll just appoint a dozen 20 something members of the ACLU and the Brady foundation (then make any further changes to the structure illegal without the unanimous approval of every member of Congress).

Similarly if the GOP are going to cut welfare programmes, then once in power the democrats need to make clear they’ll be doing the same. An end to farm subsidies (which predominantly benefit republican voters), reforms to military spending and government contracts (which benefit the 1%) and ending the practice of democrat voting states effectively subsidizing republican voting states all needs to be on the table.

Only when confronted with the threat of such measures will the republicans be brought to heel.

 

The not surprising October surprise

The election also included the usual “October surprise, which is basically something completely irrelevant to the campaign (e.g. Hilary’s e-mails) which the right wing media will blow out of all proportion. In this case it was a immigrant caravan…which is still hundreds of miles away from the country.

And you’ll notice how they only started talking about it to deflect attention from right wing terror attacks…sorry I mean a Trump supporter getting a little too carried away. Because when a white guy goes and shoots people (or mails bombs) that’s not terrorism apparently. And the immediate aftermath of such an attack is not the time to talk about new gun legislation, or the remarks made by Trump that inspired such an attack. But if a Muslim doesn’t anything…..

 

Wheels coming off in Italy

For me it was always a case of how long before the wheels started to come off the populist 5S/league horseshoe government rather that if. And it looks like we’ve not had to wait long.

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In Rome (under the control of a 5S for several years now) there’s been protests as regards the collapse in public services, notably public transport (with bus fires still a major problem) and rubbish collection. The irony is that one of those stars of the party is access to good public transport and public services. So they can’t even get this right!

Now it has to be acknowledged that one of the difficulties that 5S faces is the enormous levels of corruption that exists within Italy, notably the public sector. However, the fact that 5S has gone into coalition with the very people behind that corruption (the league and their ally Berlusconi, not to mention members of 5S itself) doesn’t exactly help. And it highlights just how naive and inept 5S actually are that they didn’t anticipate that this would be a problem.

Meanwhile 5S’s fascist allies have been busy, well, doing fascist things. For example, one of them recently compared a black politician to a monkey. And not only did he not face any sanction over this, but when she called him out over it, he sued her. Yes this is Italy under a horseshoe government, its okay for politicians to be racist, but its illegal to criticise them over it.

You go into power with fascists, they’ll do fascist stuff, shock horror. I mean did any supporters of 5S really think this won’t happen? You did at lest google the term “Liga Nordbefore voting to approve this coalition?

About the only thing that unites the two parties is their hatred of the EU. And inevitably their budget proposals have been rejected by the EU (in part because they know most of the extra cash will simply go straight into the pockets of the mafia). So it looks like they’re going to fight city hall and inevitably lose.

 

A sign of the times

The other week some racist brexiter nutter was caught on a Ryanair flight making racist remarks to a fellow passenger (an African granny). What I thought was interesting was how the Irish media made a federal case out of it (which seemed to be more along the lines of why didn’t Ryanair land immediately and sling Mr Gammon straight off the plane).

However, the British media (and it was a brit involved) largely ignored it. Post-brexit, racists making racist comments in public falls into the “dog bites man” category and just isn’t news worthy. Which I thought was an interesting contrast with the Irish media’s response.

 

Leave means LEAVE!!!!

The British, with just months to go, still don’t seem to understand the consequences of brexit. There’s even an organisation with the passive aggressive name leave means leave (or presumably that should be leave means LEAVE!!!!), which it will come as little surprise to learn is almost entirely made up of greyhaired old white men with sweaty red faces (like our racist in the previous story). But the thing is they don’t seem to grasp what leave actually means.

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Spot the leave voter…..

For example one of the more serious consequences of leaving, as I mentioned before, is the UK’s decision to leave the ECJ at the same time. There have been test cases in Ireland which have seen people getting away with crimes, even in one case murder. It would appear that what leave means is that if you break British law and make a break for the border you can literally get away with murder.

And the British solution? Refer the matter to the ECJ! Yes the very body they are now leaving is being asked to pull their ass out of the fire. It would appear that the British think that just because they are pals with the Irish they can have some sort of associate membership of the ECJ (which presumably they aren’t going to pay for). And is not as if giving the Irish (or any other EU state) that sort of leverage over the UK won’t come back to haunt them later.

The real world consequences of this are not good. Basically if you live in the UK and someone from the EU owes you money, after March 2019, you’re stuffed. You’ll have to go to a European court, which means hiring an English speaking lawyer in the relevant country (which won’t be cheap) and waiting a long time, as the wheels of justice in some EU states are very slow to turn (as in years), especially when it comes to civil cases (they prioritise criminal cases, assuming that the longer they leave a civil case, the more likely the parties will settle out of court).

Should you be wondering at this point, why isn’t their a body to get around all of these problems? Well there is. Its called the ECJ! And it was set up because the British and Germans were sick of having to deal with the courts in countries like Italy or Spain (oh and in some EU states the law often varies depending on the region, a court in Catalonia cannot command local officials in Andalusia).

And this brings up the political fallout too. Take the position of the DUP. While one understands their opposition to the EU’s proposed backstop (that Northern Ireland remains part of the customs union), it at least settles the issue. That’s a far better alternative, where there’s a hard border that cripples the Northern Irish economy. The more people effected by brexit, the more will vote in a border poll to join the south. While previously you’d struggle to get a majority of Catholics to support a united Ireland in the North, now the polls show an overall figure with a margin of just 3%. Some that a bit of economic disruption will easily overturn. In short, if there’s ever a united Ireland, we’ll have the DUP to thank for it, rather than Sinn Fein.

I’m reminded of an ex-flat mate of mine. He decided he was spending too much money on nights out, so his solution was to cut back on expenses….which didn’t include his nights out. Instead he decided he didn’t need to pay his share of the gas bill any more (because he never turned on the heating), nor the TV license (ditto). He was also a member of a sports club and cancelled his membership. But given that all his friends were members he kept sneaking in and using the facilities, or going to social events.

That’s kind of where the brexiters are with the EU. They want out, but they still want all the benefits of being a members, just without paying for it. In short, it seems to me that many brexiters don’t seem to realise that leave actually does mean leave.

 

News flash – the UK is an Island

Dominc Raab gets a lot of stick for being…well a little bit thick. But to be fair he’s only been in the job as brexit secretary a few months and he’s doing better than his predecessor, who spent a grand total of 4 hours negotiating with the EU in the space of a year and a half. Then again, part of the price we pay for brexit is that fact that a lot of idiots have jobs in cabinet, simply to maintain the delicate balance that props up the PM.

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Well anyway, Raab’s returned to the UK with news of an important revelation that he was unaware of. Apparently Britain is an “Island and therefore needs these things called “ships” to trade with the rest of the world. This means Dover getting clogged up due to a no deal brexit might be kind of bad.

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Dominic Raab…life is like a box of chocolates and he certainly doesn’t know what he’s going to get!

I mean who could of known. I remember going to Dover once and thinking I might walk to France, but then I my feet got wet. Well now I know why. Expect the Daily Mail to claim that the English Channel is moat dug by the French to punish the UK for brexit.

And if you think that’s a joke, consider that the head of HMRC (a lowly customs official) received death threats from angry Gammon’s when he pointed out the potential costs of leaving the customs union would cost businesses £20 billion a year.

 

So long and thanks for all the fish

But at least brexit will benefit the fishermen. That the one line you keep on hearing, the fishermen, the fishermen, deer god will someone think of the poor fishermen….who are going to get royally shafted by brexit.

Of course the people who own the fishing boats and fish quota’s, well that’s a different story. And who are these people? well a recent survey discovered that a small group of wealthy families control much of the UK’s fishing quota’s.

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The UK takes control and goes from being able to fish in all of these waters, to just some of them

Just five families on the Sunday Times Rich List hold or control 29% of the UK’s fishing quota. More than two-thirds is controlled by just 25 businesses or families (half of whom are linked to criminal activities). And in England alone nearly 80% of fishing quota’s is held by foreign owners or domestic Rich List families. Half of Northern Ireland’s quota is held by just a single trawler.

This is the reality of brexit, the only real winners will be a handful of the very wealthiest, whose wealth and offshore assets leave them immune to the negative effects of brexit.

 

Trust gone

Another brexit related story was that of a phone conversation between the Irish PM and the British one. Almost as soon as he put the phone down, the Irish PM rushed out a media statement explaining what was said. Why? Because he’s all too aware that he’s dealing with a bunch of deluded manics back in London, who will have only heard what they wanted to hear and that the UK media will just make stuff up about what was actually said.

And the EU is now saying they won’t even consider holding a summit until the UK has basically decided what they want, written it down on paper and signed. That’s how low the trust between the UK and the EU is now. They don’t even trust the British to remember what was said over the phone a few minutes before and report that honestly.

 

The people’s will

Universities minster (and Boris Johnson own brother) Jo Johnson has just resigned, calling for another referendum. Which of course ain’t going to happen.

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I mean consider that for months now, you even remotely question the wisdom of brexit, you’ll be told its “the will of the people”, ignoring recent polls suggesting the people are rather sick of it and would rather call the whole thing off.

In short, the “will of the peoplehas become the people’s last will and testament. A national suicide pact that only about a quarter  of the country voted for, without knowing that this was what they were voting for.

 

University bankruptcies loom

Brexit has made for choppy waters in universities. We lost a number of staff, through either redundancies or the fact they decided to tunnel out of the lunatic asylum and escaped back to Europe. Research funding has been cut and EU student numbers are down. But the thing is my uni don’t have it that bad. A recent report suggests that several of the UK’s universities are “one policy change away from collapse”.

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Some have lost hundreds of staff through redundancies and the non-renewal of rolling contracts. And while the loss of a few students and a bit of research funding hasn’t exactly helped our situation, spare a thought for some other uni’s in receipt of hundreds of millions a year of EU R&D money, with courses almost entirely made up of fee paying foreign students. And remember we’ve not actually even left the EU yet, the real bad news is yet to arrive.

So with several universities literally circling the drain, it is time to address the question I asked sometime ago, what happens when a UK university actually goes bankrupt? The government seems to think, it won’t matter, it will serve to scare the rest straight, the magic of the market will fix everything. My fear is that opposite will happen.

Overseas students (from the EU or further a field) will flee the country (taking their money with them), R&D money (from the private & public sector) will disappear and banks will start cutting off lines of credit. So one collapse will probably be followed by several more. And in the context of brexit, its the larger more prestigious uni’s (basically any dependant on large EU research grants or with a large intake of foreign students), which are potentially in the firing line, not just the ex-polytechnics.

In many cases the local uni is the main local employer in its area and supports many tens of thousands of jobs (those student take-away meals don’t cook themselves!) and props up local property prices. So the political fallout of such a bankruptcy is going to be massive. And once one goes down, and others looking wobbly, this impact won’t be restricted to that constituency.

So the political price the Tories will pay if they allow such a thing to happen is going to be massive, more than enough to potentially swing an election Corbyn’s way. Hence why the question is are they actually prepared to pay that price? Or will they, as has happened so often when a privatised company gets in trouble, just be forced to step in and prop the universities up, same way public money is being used to prop up the failings of the privatised energy, water and rail industry?

Because that’s the reality of Thatcherism, make a mess of a perfectly functioning public service, let the private sector run it into the ground, then skip town with all the money, forcing the government to step in and pick up the pieces.

 

Moorside nuclear plant cancelled

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Hinkley C is increasingly looking like the hill and which the UK nuclear lobby are going to die on. This ridiculous boondoggle has so poisoned the well, that it could well be the last nuclear power station ever built in the UK.

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Case in point, we now have news that the proposed Moorside nuclear project in Cumbria has been cancelled. This shouldn’t come as a huge shock. As I reported before, the bankruptcy of Westinghouse last year meant this was probably inevitable. However, it does highlight how bad the situation is for nuclear energy.

Consider that Toshiba would not have taken this decision lightly, its going to cost them about £125 million just to walk away with nothing to show for it. And there were efforts to try and get someone else (notably a South Korean firm) in to take over the project, but inevitably they weren’t interested in polishing a turd. Of course this highlights all the problems with the Tories unhealthy obsession with nuclear, lavishing money on expensive boondoogles that the private sector won’t touch with a barge pole, while punishing renewables for their successes.

 

Mars colonisation nixed

Elon Musk’s plans to colonise Mars may have taken a bit of dent due to a recent study published in Nature. Its behind a paywall, but the gist of the report is that in order to terraform Mars, you’d need to heat the planet up. That would involve releasing lots of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to bring up the atmospheric pressure and temperatures. Well the researchers did an inventory of available CO2 resources on Mars and concluded there isn’t nearly enough of it available to do the job.

And since we’re talking about it, the “heat the planet up” part of terraforming would be the easy part. Creating a stable oxygen rich atmosphere would be the harder part (this process took billions of years on earth). Along with stopping the solar wind eroding away the atmosphere again, much as happened to the original Martian atmosphere. And as Mars lacks a magnetosphere, colonists would still be vulnerable to things like solar flares even with an atmosphere.

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So this seems to suggest terraforming Mars might well be impossible. However, it doesn’t rule out the option of para-terraforming, whereby you build a large dome over a deep Martian valley or crater and terraform the atmosphere within that dome.

 

No dogs, disabled or poor

A survey by the housing charity Shelter has revealed that 10% of rental property ads in the UK include the phrase “No DSS (this is the scheme through which disabled and the unemployed get their housing benefit). In essence its the equivalent of putting up a sign saying “no working class scum need apply” or including a skin colour chart saying you must be this white to get a flat.

Now the only thing I find surprising about this is that its only 10%. I suspect its in truth a lot higher than that. Under UK law it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or economic background. But the shocking thing is that while you could probably pull some of these landlords up for putting such a thing in their ad, under the current law prosecuting them for actually discriminating against people (even racial discrimination) is nearly impossible.

This is the problem with the UK, its property laws are like something out of a Dickensian novel. For too long UK law has favoured landlords over tenants, which is perhaps not surprising in a country where parliament is made up of the landlords rather than renters.

News roundup

The Pedo party

Is it just me or does it appear like the major qualification you need to get ahead in the Republican party is to be a pedo, kiddy fiddler or sex offender of some form or another? Since Trump took over we’ve seen a long line of dirty old men going into the white house. I mean they even set up a dating site (for straight blue blooded republicans) and the male model they chose in the ads turned out to be a sex offender. Its like Trump is some sort of magnet for this sort of thing.

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Consider that evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote GOP, have gone from being 80% likely to say that a president should resign for having an affair (and quote a bible verse), to being 80% likely to say, ah it doesn’t matter, the bible? Well that says lots of things, I mean its not as if we have to take it literary!

At least it does go to prove my theory of conservative flip flop syndrome. In essence the Republicans, much like the UK Tories, aren’t really a political party anymore. They have no actual policies, no direction. They are just a cult devoted to follow which ever random nutty sex offender/tax cheat happens to be in charge at the time. And once he loses power in disgrace, they’ll shrug their shoulders and say so what, then forget about him. Recall how back in the Bush days, or Romney in 2008, they were the true messiah, failing to support them was treason again the US….until they criticised Trump! Of course, like any cult, the GOP needs funding, so they’ll happily sell their services to whichever random billionaire can afford to bribe them.

What this shows is that the democrats need to take the gloves off. The GOP won’t fight fair and you won’t win a fair fight when they’ve stacked the system against you. I’d propose that as soon as they get power back, prioritise shoring up the checks and balances. I’d federally mandate how electoral districts are organised (the states draw the line, but according to rules set by the federal government, overseen by non-partisan officials) and introduce proportional representation. Both would guarantee that the party that wins the most votes gets the most seats (the only reason why the GOP get so many seats is gerrymandering). It would also open up the possibility of smaller parties getting representation.

As for this Brett guy, once a democratic president is in charge, I’d give him and any other Trump justices a choice, resign or we stack the supreme court. There’s nothing in the constitution that stops a democratic president/congress either setting term limits on supreme court justices (which would force all but two to resign and be immediately replaced) or say appointing a few dozen twenty something women (and card carrying members of the ACLU) to the supreme court (this incidentally is what FDR threatened to do). Suddenly its likely he’ll remember some important yard work in needs to catch up on and retire.

Jacinda and the peacocks

At the UN there was controversy when some delegations showed up with babies, but at least the NZ PM’s baby didn’t make a speech and crap all over the place….unlike America’s baby (who got laughed out of the room).

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Much was made of the NZ PM’s speech and the contrast between it and Trump’s. She spoke of unity and fixing global problems, he spoke mostly about himself and blaming others for his problems. I was reminded of something a military officer once told me about the traits that the military look for in a good officer (good judgement, leadership, team player, etc.) and there are red flags which signal that this guy should never be given command, as he’s likely to become a dangerous liability (who’ll march his unit into a minefield and get them all killed).

Well we see a lot of those red flags on display at the UN summit. Selfishness and putting oneself first is always a worry (note to Trump, there’s no “i” in team….although there is a “u” in c*nt!). An officer like this is likely to send in his boys, then take off in the other direction when the shooting starts. I recall Oliver Stone once mentioning that on his first day in Vietnam his officer put him out on point!

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Other worrying red flags include impulsive behaviour (Trump again, he who dares….usually walks straight into an ambush), or equally bad, indecisiveness (Theresa May). Its important for a commander to be aware of what’s going on around them, so a detachment from reality (Trump or the brexiters) is very dangerous. And a good commander needs to listen, a bad one ignores advice (Trump again) or even punishes (Corbyn) those who offer it.

However of all of the traits you want to avoid in a commander, its one who blames others for his misfortune (such as foreigners). He berates his own men for disloyalty (have you given them reasons to be loyal, or plenty of reasons to question everything you say?). Or worse, blaming the enemy (if the enemy isn’t co-operating with your plans, well that’s kind of supposed to happen!). In short, the buck stops with the commander and any who is unwilling or unable to accept that is unfit for command.

All in all, this populist wave has left us a world led by strutting chest puffing peacocks, all of whom won’t be so much as put in charge of anything more dangerous than a stapler if they joined the military. All we can do is hope there isn’t some sort of crisis in the next few years, because I have very little faith in the majority of the world’s leaders. And its no wonder NZ is becoming the bolt hole of choice.

Hilary would have been worse

How different it would have been if the person who got the most votes had won. Mention this of course to Trump voters (or the Bernie or bust brigade) and they’ll mumble something about “Hilary would have been worse”. Really?

Would Hilary have appointed a long list of sex offenders to senior positions? (granted she’d have had to lock Bill in the basement or put him in a chastity belt). Would she have appointed a bunch of incompetents (purely on the basis of loyalty rather than ability to do the job) to senior government positions? Would she have left hundreds of important posts vacant? Would her aides have to brief her using cue cards and take stuff of her desk in case she did something stupid? Would she have gone to Russia and buried her tongue up Putin’s a*s?. Would she have started rolling back environmental protections and workers rights, or given a massive tax cut to the super rich? Would she have started a trade war for no good reason? Would Chelsea Clinton be jetting around the world acting as the defacto foreign secretary? Would she have started to use the US treasury as her own personal piggy bank, striking deals with countries on the basis of what most benefited her personal businesses? Would America have fallen from the world’s most respected nation to the butt of the world’s jokes?

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As I said from the beginning, Hilary would not have been my first choice as President. But in the election you had a choice between her and the pus*y grabber in chief. I know which of those two is the lest worse scenario. This is why I do worry about the mid terms. The democrats seem to be at war with themselves. The only condition that should apply is are you willing to oppose Trump and if possible get him impeached? Anyone who meets that criteria gets my vote.

On which point btw, I strongly advise voting for republicans, even the moderate ones critical of Trump. As recent events have shown, they can be leaned on by the party and made to toe the line (probably because having had their snout in the feeding trough for so long the GOP and its donors have a lot dirt on them that they could easily leak to the media).

To draw an analogy its like the US was this town out in the old west and the position for sheriff was open. The choice was some guy in a black hat, who had a English accent (despite being German), a large scar and an evil laugh (and when he laughs birds drop dead out of the sky). Or some other guy (the man with no name), who while not being necessarily a good guy, he clearly ain’t the baddie. But no, some of the town want to vote for old man Bernie, despite the fact he’s been pushing up the daises up on boothill for the last couple of months. Well now they’re getting bull whipped by the black hat, while he burns down the church (with the preacher inside) and they are trying to console themselves that might have been worse.

Musk out at Tesla

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So Musk managed to get himself banned from running his own company. Well to be honest this was a train wreck that was going to happen sooner or later. There’s a certain discipline that comes with being a CEO, not unlike some of those qualities I mentioned earlier. However, they are really only optional. There is in fact one key skill which a CEO must have above all else – keeping your big mouth shut!

A CEO is the face of his company. Anything he says is going to have an impact on the share price. This is why most tend to be fairly guarded about what they say, often taking the view that if you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything. Hence why some of the statements from CEO’s regarding brexit should be setting off alarm bells.

Musk got himself in trouble thanks to his efforts to stop short sellers driving down Tesla’s share price. Yes, this was unfair, but on the other hand, he was kind of making it easy for them. What with calling a British diver a pedo, refusing to answer questions at a press conference because “they weren’t cool” or smoking pot live on the internet. As his downfall should show, the markets are decidedly unfair. They are a bit of a wild west. Yes the corrupt sheriff can send out his one spurs to rob your farm. Yet when you set out to take revenge its you who ends up swinging from a rope, regardless of whether or not you shot the deputy.

Which is slightly ironic given his, and other tech billionaires, affinity for libertarianism. In a libertarian world it would be even worse. Ford and GM would in fact have likely crushed him along time ago, same as Standard oil would destroy its competitors. So I suppose what goes around comes around.

Minister for starvation

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Its difficult to avoid talking about brexit. Firstly we have the story than given the difference between where the UK would be if we hadn’t voted for brexit and where we are now, the UK is now 500 million a week worse off (you’ll recall those ridiculous promises of an extra 350 million a week!). The UK has been forced to appoint a minster of starvation supply (for the first time outside of a war).

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Meanwhile, back in fantasy land, at the Tory party conference, they were trying to outdo each other with their different brexit fantasies. It was less a conference and more of a unicorn horn measuring contest. Brexit to the Tories is more about who they want to be the captain of the Titanic as it sinks and whether or not they should burn the lifeboats before anyone can use them. Meanwhile, a bunch of young Tory activists got caught with racist and classist slogans on their T-shirts, but of course that’s allowed, yet a labour supporter did it, the newspapers would be wanting Corbyn to be hung.

On a positive note, it was noted that Theresa May never mentioned her Chequers plan in her speech, which could hint that she’s going to roll over and accept whatever the EU offers her….Or it could be because she knows that if she so much as mentioned that word, it would be like playing the rains of Castamere at a wedding. Within seconds they’ve have all started stabbing one another. So probably more of a survival instinct than anything.

Increasingly it looks like we’ll just have to wait for all the brexiters to die off and vote to re-join the EU….which probably won’t take too long, ironically thanks to brexit. The NHS (which again the bus ads promised would be better off) is already in crisis, with a Breixtus of EU staff leaving, not surprising when brexit threatens to turn them into 2nd class citizens. The government’s solution? Oh, we’ll just have the nurses train as doctors or shorten their training time. I mean its not as if people die if hospitals make a mistake or something.

Making rent

Housing The Homeless

I’ve come across quite a few stories over the last few months about homelessness in California, one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world. And we’re in many cases talking about people with jobs who are homeless, as its become difficult if not impossible to make rent in California, to the point where some are sleeping in their cars or living out of campervans. Let me repeat that, we’re talking about people with jobs, who work hard, who have kids and a family living in their cars. Welcome to Trump’s America.

Now too be fair, this is part of the hangover from the financial crisis. And we really have to pin the blame for that on past US presidents (notably G. W. Bush). And of course Obama’s recovery was a rising tide that didn’t lift all ships. Governors of California (who have come from both parties since the crash) also have to take some share of the blame. That said, Trump has cut federal housing aid, and who did he appoint in charge of housing? Ben Carson (the first person to conduct brain surgery on himself).

So there’s plenty blame to share out, the question is how to fix it. Well clearly a lack of rent control is part of the problem. If you let landlords charge $2000 a month for a flat (with a two month deposit on top), then nobody except the better off will be able to pay that. And there’s a lack of good affordable social housing. In Europe for example, try to get planning permission for a hundred luxury condos and you’ll be told nope, not going to happen, unless you add in a few dozen affordable homes or council houses.

Of course there’s an elephant in the room here we’re ignoring, one you can clearly see if you’ve ever flown over California and looked out of a window – urban sprawl and low density housing. While we’ve got problems with urban sprawl in Europe yes, but never to the same extend as it occurs in the US. Developments that would be refused in Europe are routinely approved in the US.

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In fact, government policies intended to promote car ownership are a major contributory factor, by for example legally requiring large parking lots everywhere. By contrast, getting planning permission for car parks in Europe is tricky and will often be refused (we’ve a long standing issue in my block with parking, long story but the bottom line is the council will routinely turn down applications for parking lots, unless you’ve got a damn good reason for having one and even then they’ll insist its underground).

The end consequence of this is vast spread out cities where you need a car to just get around. Case in point, the population density of LA is around 1,000 per sq km, while in London is closer to 5,000 and Paris 21,000. If the oil ever runs out LA is going to starve to death, given in some LA neighbourhoods you can literally get picked up by the cops for just walking. The US has legally mandated a country full of vast parking lots, now its got them filled with homeless people rather than apartment blocks.

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And, as always, this highlights the shortcomings of the libertarian politics of the tech billionaires. Their lassie-faire approach amounts to them amassing vast fortunes and living in huge mansions, while the serf’s who toil away making all that money have to steal food from work, then find a quiet parking lot to catch some sleep in and hope they don’t get mugged. This is what a libertarian world looks like.

A real magic money tree, scientific publishing

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An interesting article here from George Monbiot about the racket of scientific publishing. If you are an academic, in almost all cases you have to publish your research in a peer reviewed journal. Many academics will in fact have it in their contract of employment that they must publish a certain number each year, often in specific journals.

However these journals are owned by private companies, notably Elsevier, which was the brain child of Robert Maxwell. So in essence we academics use public funds to generate intellectual property that we are then obliged to hand over to a private company, who then charge our own university library a small fortune to be able to access it. In essence we are being contractually obliged to participate in a wealth transfer scam from the public sector into the pockets of media billionaires.

This situation could be solved relatively simply. Either the government just nationalises these firms and makes their data publicly accessible free of charge. Or it puts in place a rule prohibiting uni’s from setting targets for staff based on for-profit journals. This would mean we publish in open access journals more frequently. Faced with the risk that the intellectual property they own would quickly become worthless (scientific data tends to get obsolete pretty quickly), the private publishing houses would then likely be forced to go open access themselves……

Comcast buys Sky, Murdoch on suicide watch

.So why you may ask, aren’t governments trying to move towards open access journals? Well because they don’t want to upset media tycoons like Rupert Murdoch of course. The media is something of a closed shop, a forbidden lawn onto which politicians dare not tread….or the Sun will publish an article calling them gay.

However, in amongst all the other stories recently, a little story slipped through that’s actually of significant importance. For many years now Rupert Murdoch has sought to take full control of UK broadcaster Sky. However, while the UK’s politicians are a spineless lot, they ain’t stupid enough not to see the danger with letting him have full control of all the newspapers and half the TV audience. So they’ve been obstructing that process, although more about going through the motions than any real opposition.

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Well the phone hacking scandal forced those plans to be kicked into the long grass for a while. Brexit provided good cover to resume the process, but the chaos it unleashed slowed things down somewhat. However now at the moment of truth, what’s gone and happened? A rival firm, Comcast, has swooped in and bought Sky right out from under Murdoch’s nose. And if to make matters worse, its CEO while republican, is more of a moderate (read a greedy rich as*hole, but at least one whose vaguely sane). So its likely he’ll start to shift Sky more towards the centre ground of politics, rather than constantly supporting the Tories.

Keep in mind that for much of recent UK politics this has been going on in the background. Murdoch has supported this candidate or that and got his newspapers to sing their praises regardless of how nutty or ludicrous what they were proposing was. He’s more responsible for brexit or Trump than probably anything else. And now suddenly, in no small part thanks to Trump and brexit, he’s been pipped at the finishing post. Well, what goes around, sooner or later, it comes around. Karma can be a bitch!

Not so cool news

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I had a bit of a rant before about Game of Thrones season 7. However my main bone of contention was with I’d call the “cool dude” school of film making, that seems to have taken over. This brand of film making views the plot and the script as secondary and merely a way of stitching together various epilepsy inducing CGI sequences (the point of which seems to be to get the audience to say “this is cool dude”).

The trouble is that this is a style of film making that gets boring very quickly. And as its necessary to throw away much of what makes any particular genre appealing to its fan base, it tends to piss off the fans. A situation not helped by hiring directors or producers whose knowledge of say, star wars/trek is limited to whatever they managed to google while in the cab on the way to the studio.

Well it would appear the wheels are starting to come off. On the back of poor box office and bad reviews several leading actors in the latest Star trek film have quit, reportedly over pay disputes (if the film ain’t making as much they need more of those dollars for the CGI budget, which the actors seem unwilling to accept). Its possible the next star trek film might be cancelled. There’s even a crazy rumour going around that the studio is so desperate they’re going to hand it over to Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Romulans? The hateful Klingons? Vulcan fiction? Kill Kirk?).

Also on their way to the job centre are the actors playing superman, batman and Cpt. America. Meanwhile, the star wars franchise is in such disarray after the Solo movie flop (that was a train wreck you could just see coming!), that it looks like any further movies (bar the ones too far into production to halt) are also going to get canned.

In short, the customer is always right. Piss off your fans, they’ll vote with their feet. I mean I’ve not been to say very many of these movies recently because, to be blunt I’d be as well off shining a strobe light in my eye for two hours.

Ultimately the problem is these major studios have a monopoly on the story lines, nobody else can make a star trek film without the risk of being sued, even though its a genre that’s over fifty years old and its original creator has been dead for twenty years. If you left any other company (cars, laptops, washing machines, etc.) with the exclusive rights to produce a product and they’d never innovate, their products would become increasingly bloated and over priced.

So this is probably one situation where we should let the markets sort it out. Let anyone who wants to make a superhero/sci-fi movie do so. Yes some will be dire and laughably bad (the Russian film Guardians for example), but others might well be much better than anything the mainstream studios can come up with.

Katla is isn’t going to blow….for now!

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If you are a tabloid reader, you might have heard that the Icelandic volcano Katla was about to erupt. For those who don’t know, Katlia is the bigger brother of the big E volcano (I ain’t even going to try and get its spelling right!) that erupted in 2010 and disrupted all of those flights. Well Katla is many times larger (with a Caldera 10km’s across) and it erupts about every 100 years. When was the last eruption? About 100 years ago! So an eruption from Katla would be far worse and could last for much longer (possibly months).

However, before you start digging a shelter or stockpiling food (a sensible idea perhaps, but for other reasons!) no, that’s not what the scientists studying the volcano actually said. In fact they pointed out they could see no signs the volcano was in imminent danger of eruption. The study did reveal a lot more about the potential impact of its eruptions. For example, in one past eruption it created a flash flood with a flow rate the Nile, Mississippi, Amazon, and Yangtze combined.

So while its unlikely to go off tomorrow, the warning is that we probably won’t get a huge amount of warning prior to any future eruption. Which given how disruptive this could be, it would seem to make sense to put in place some contingency plans for how we are going to cope, if say transatlantic flights had to stop for a few months…..so not really something the British have to worry about after March 2019 then!

TSR2 – the (not so) little plane that couldn’t

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Get any British aviation enthusiast drunk and they’ll inevitably bring up the TSR-2. This you will be told was a “world beating” British plane design of the 60’s that would have put British aviation on the map, if it hadn’t been shot down by its own government.

However in truth, had the TSR-2 programme not been cancelled in 1965, it would have probably crippled the UK aviation industry, becoming the hill on which it would have died on. As one aviation blogger contemplates, the likely outcome, if the programme had continued, would have been an RAF in the 2000’s entirely equipped with US made aircraft, with no indigenous aircraft manufacturing industry left in the UK.

The TSR-2 is merely an example of everything that was wrong with the UK, both in terms of its industry and politics, in the pre-EU days. Given that we’re on the verge of returning to those days it might be worth reviewing the project’s history, as it represents one of the founding myths of those prompting British Empire 2.0.

Certainly it is true that the proposed TSR-2 design was pretty innovative when it was first proposed…..in the 1950’s! However, over a decade later, with the first flights underway, it was a design that was already showing its age. Case in point, right behind the cockpit was an avionics bay which included a fridge freezer sized compartment for all of the planes electronics. Necessary, given how bulky electronic components were in the 1950’s.

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But of course by the 1960’s it was a different story, as they’re been major advances in the miniaturisation of electronic components. And the aircraft’s overall performance was by now barely equal to that of a number of competitor aircraft that were either already in service or on the verge of entering service in the 1960’s, such as the F-111, Mirage IV or the Su-24.

And contrary to the myths, no the TSR-2 was nowhere near entering service in 1965. Only two prototypes had actually been completed and only one of them had actually flown by the time of cancellation. And those early flights had revealed a number of technical problems, ranging from dangerous vibrations, engine problems, landing gear issues (multiple issues actually), etc.

1969 is probably a more realistic date for entry into service, although it won’t be entirely delivering as promised by that date. One of the key elements of the TSR-2 was going to be its advanced terrain following radar system. But they never really got this to work properly. Indeed, they eventually used a Texas Instruments supplied set in the first generation of Tornado’s (its likely the TSR-2 would have had to do the same in the end). Meaning it won’t be until the mid-1970’s before it was in a position to deliver on its original design spec. At which point all TSR-2’s would have been completely obsolete and probably not really fit for purpose.

By contrast over the same period the Americans developed the aforementioned F-111, a similar but arguably more innovative aircraft (given its variable geometry wings and Crew escape capsule). It went from a sketch on the back of an envelope in 1961 to first flight in 1964 and an entry into service in 1967. This means the Americans (despite all the issues with US military procurement I highlighted in a prior post) were able to develop the F-111 about three times faster than the British could manage with the TSR-2.

The message was clear, there was no way the UK aviation industry could compete with the American aviation industry (or the Soviets for that matter). And this is merely one of dozens of examples one could point too. The failure of the Bristol Britannia against the Boeing 707, or the Blue streak missile program being others. All pointed to the fact that the one small island couldn’t take on the world. If Britain was to have any future making planes, it had to pool its resources with its European partners and work with them.

And in the wake of the TSR-2 cancellation that’s what happened. Firstly with the Jaguar, then with the Tornado, which is still in service to this day. Both not only ended up in the service of European air forces, but were sold to a number of foreign buyers (one of the reasons for cancelling TSR-2 was a lack of foreign orders). And more recently has come the Eurofighter. And on the civilian front co-operation with Europe led to Concorde and later on Airbus. One could argue that the cancellation of TSR-2 give the UK aviation industry the nudge it needed to modernise and thus in effect saved it from itself.

But was there a certain level of skulduggery by the 1965 labour government in the process of cancelling the TSR-2? Probably yes, that’s kind of how politics works! It is an unfortunate fact of history that British governments have a tendency to flog dead horses and pursue projects (defence projects in particular), well beyond the point where other governments would see sense and cancel them. And they also have a habit of then mishandling the cancellation badly. Often because one side or the other in parliament is trying to save face….or jam the knife in the back of the opposition, with the long term interests of the country coming pretty low on the list of priorities. The cancellation of the RAF Nimrod aircraft, which I previously covered, being a good example of this.

So TSR-2 is not an example of “world-beating” British innovation, but a cautionary tale of what happens when a small country gets in way over its head. The truth is the TSR-2 should have been cancelled much earlier and its cancellation probably saved thousands of aviation jobs in the UK, because it led to greater co-operation with Europe.

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.

The bursting of the London property bubble

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Property prices in the UK are now clearly on a downward trend, notably around London. Since the brexit vote, they’ve fallen by 15%. With Europeans being attacked on the London underground for daring to speak a foreign language, and even some of the windrush generation, who came to Britain over fifty years ago being told to go home by the government, its perhaps no surprise that this will have a knock effect on house prices. The expectation is that this is not a blip but we’ll see a slump in prices lasting at least five years.

At face value this would appear to be the one bit of good news you could draw from brexit. Property prices in London are massively inflated, largely because of investors (from home and abroad) who’ve been buying up London properties and using them as gambling chips in a casino. In some cases they don’t even bother renting the property out. And some of the money is almost certainly of questionable origins, the spoils of criminal enterprise, or money stolen from the state coffers in various countries around the world. Its one of the things that makes London the money laundering capital of the world.

However, prices would have to drop by rather a lot to make them affordable to first time buyers. To even have a chance of getting a mortgage in the UK you need to be able to put up a 10% deposit. So for the average UK house price of £200,000, or closer to £500,000 in London, it means you need to have between £20,000-50,000 in savings. This is well beyond what many first time buyers can afford. And furthermore, that is the MINIMUM amount that stops the mortgage broker laughing in your face (then having his goons roll you down the stairs), and actually given you a chance of getting a mortgage. To give yourself some leeway when buying and to get a good mortgage deal (plus leaving an overhead to allow for home improvements) you’d really want at least double this £40k – 100k or about $55k – $140k in cash.

And that’s assuming you can find a house where the broker is willing to wait around for you to go and get a mortgage. One of the problems with the UK property market, particularly around London, is that properties can go very quickly. I’ve seen ads for houses which state that those looking to pay with a mortgage need not apply, as the broker would rather just sell it quickly to an investor to use it as a gambling chip, rather than Mr Joe public to use as a home.

So while the crash has helped a little bit, for most first time buyers it hardly matters. And of course if you are selling your home for some reason, then this is all very bad news. For example, let suppose you bought a London flat at the peak of the boom, but now need to sell it (as you’re moving overseas for example). You put down a £75,000 deposit on say a £500,000 flat. Well that flat will now sell for closer to £425,000 meaning that once the bank’s been paid off you’ve lost all of your initial deposit, plus all the various fees on top that (and several months of mortgage payments, about £24,000 a year for a flat like this). So we’re talking fairly significant losses here, more than your original investment. And spare a thought for those with Grenfell tower style cladding, who’ve now been told homes they bought for hundreds of thousands of pounds are now worth a mere fraction of that.

While brexit is at least part of the trigger for popping the bubble, others argue that recent changes to stamp duty are also responsible. However, those changes were brought in to try and bring some sanity to the property market and get out of the scenario of them being kept empty and unused. And in that regard the plan does seem to have worked. Indeed a committee of MP’s recently even suggested the radical step of taking flats off rogue landlords.

And even if it were true, like all bubbles the UK property bubble was going to pop eventually. To draw an analogy we have a warehouse made of timber crammed with oil soaked rags and one night a mouse dislodges a bolt which causes a spark, which burns the place to the ground. This is the equivalent of blaming the mouse for causing the fire.

The immediate losers of this crisis are likely to be estate agents, the least liked and most distrusted profession in the UK (after politicians). The high turnover and high fees they are used to are now evaporating, so quite a few of them will be on the way down to the jobs centre. I suspect few tears will be shed.

The wealthy overseas property investors are unlikely to lose out immediately, as they bought some time ago, so prices would have to fall quite a bit to mean they hit their squeal point. And also the whole reason why they are investing in UK property is because if they cashed out and took the money home they’d get themselves arrested. So its not really their money that’s at risk in the first place. Either way, a property bear market is more likely than a sudden sharp correction. Meaning that we could be waiting sometime for any recovery.

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Abandoned building sites are starting to become a feature of some British cities

The exact scale of the problem is difficult to judge as we simply don’t know how much money was committed to UK property speculation and by whom. There are several high profile projects where construction has ground to a halt. Someone who works in the city told me about a pitch event she attended where they were selling London property bonds. Naturally, she fled the room pretty quickly (after helping herself to the free booze of course!) when she realised they were basically selling unhedged commodity speculation, which is generally illegal because its possible to lose more than your original investment (as the example I gave earlier illustrates). However, such funds did take in quite a bit of cash and its unclear where the blow back for this will emerge.

Keep in mind that last year China’s credit rating was downgraded when it became clear similar schemes existing in China and it was unclear how much money had been gambled and who was going to get to left without a chair when the music stopped. Of course, the real reason why China got downgraded is that they didn’t go to the right school, or know the secret handshake. So its unlikely the UK will be downgraded. But that just means that any crisis that emerges from this mess will be all the more sudden and damaging.

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The real reason for the housing crisis? The UK basically stopped building affordable homes in the Thatcher era

So it is difficult to see any positives out of this mess. If past events are anything to go by, we’ll see rents go down for a few years (until the expected rise of interest rates works its way through the system and pushes them back up again). But in the mean time home owners will struggle to sell. The main buyers will likely be corporations looking to build up a large portfolio of property to rent. With builders getting burned, there will be a halt to further construction of homes, which means that further down the line once the crash has run its course, there will be a shortage of housing. All in all the UK housing crisis will just get worse.

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What this crisis shows is that a laissez-faire approach to housing, relying on the magic of the market, isn’t going to work. The old policy of urban planning, possibly wedded to new ideas of how to design urban areas, needs to be pursued again.

Taming the Trump

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The decision by the North Koreans to seek “peace” with the south and meet with Donald Trump, isn’t quite as unexpected as the media will have us believe. Actually, its a pragmatic solution to tame the Trump….at least until he’s impeached or leaves office by other means (his Russian employers have something of a firm “no witnesses policyas we’ve learnt recently in the UK).

The standard play book for most Republican presidents is crash the economy with a massive tax cut to their billionaire buddies. Then boost one’s poll numbers by bombing some 3rd world dictator. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Trump has been banging the war drum, hinting at a show down with North Korea, for some time. Its quite clear that he’s chosen the DPRK as his Iraq.

Of course there’s plenty of good reasons why previous presidents haven’t intervened in North Korea, or indeed why the South Koreans haven’t used their military superiority on the peninsula to take over the north. It would be a bloody mess that would make the chaos of Iraq or Vietnam seem tame by comparison.

And the North Koreans for their part have long adopted a tactic to deter invasion, what the CIA refer to as the crazy gang” gambit, often expressed using the acronym CFC for Crazy, Fearsome and Crippled. The logic is that nobody will attack them because, while there is little doubt the NK army can be defeated, the cost of that victory will be high and the winner will face the enormous costs of essentially rebuilding the country from scratch.

However, the CFC gambit only works so long as everyone else in the room are the grown ups. So with the boss baby in the White house, the threat of millions of deaths aren’t going to stop an egomaniac from starting a war. Hence they’ve had to change tactics. And the South Koreans, also don’t want a war. Much as they dislike North Korea, their long standing policy has been one of containment and wait for the inevitable collapse. This has largely worked, the North is increasingly isolated and estranged, even from China. But they could not run the risk of Trump intervening unilaterally and screwing everything up. Hence, the plan on both sides is to start “talks” even though they know those talks will go nowhere. They then bring in Trump, massage his ego and tie him up in dialogue until his time in office times out.

Will these talks achieve anything worthwhile? Probably not. What both sides want is so far removed from what the other would consider acceptable, its difficult to see a compromise that would please both parties. North Korea wants to be left alone to putter in its sandbox. However, that means the South Koreans (and the west) tolerating them running several of the biggest Mc Mafia outfits on the planet, selling missile technology to 3rd party states as well as pointing thousands of artillery pieces at Seoul.

The North giving up its nuclear weapons is one possibility, however its important to remember why they have those in the first place. Its a legacy of the Iraq war. 5,427 days since G. W. Bush declared mission accomplished (yet the war continues, now the longest & costliest in American history) with WMD’s yet to be found, its pretty obvious the reason for this war wasn’t that Saddam HAD WMD’s. No it was that he DIDN’T have them, but he did have oil. The lesson that Iran and North Korea took away from that war was, if you want to avoid a US invasion, build a nuclear bomb.

But of course, nuclear weapons are only a deterrent to sane people who will place the lives of millions above their own ego. However, giving up its arsenal would leave it open to attack by a future US president, who while vaguely sane, is also republican and looking to boost his poll numbers.

They could do what Iran has done and retreat under the protective umbrella of another nuclear armed state. However, that assumes they trust their neighbours, in particular the Chinese. As I mentioned in a prior post, if North Korea has a motto it would be “with friends like ours, who needs enemies”. And from the South Korean prospective it means instead of them staring across the border at a half starved army equipped with 50’s vintage equipment half of which probably doesn’t work. They’ll instead be facing off against the world’s largest land army equipped with the latest weapon systems that almost certainly do work. So hardly an outcome that they’d go along with either.

So my guess is these talks will be long and drawn out. They might produce some meaningful discussion on key flash points and thus de-escalate the border. The North might even offer to think about giving up its nuclear weapons over a lengthy period. The South might ask the US to withdraw its troops.

But on the whole, the main point of these talks is to prevent Trump from starting a war to save himself from impeachment. Once he’s out of the picture, its possible the talks will break down and normal service will resume.