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!

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Christmas time news round up

I’ve been away for most of the Christmas/New Year period, so I thought I’d do a round up of somethings that caught my eye over the last month….

The block

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Roy Moore losing the special senate election in Alabama to Doug Jones was certainly welcome news. However the fact still remains that 650,436 voters thought having a kiddy fiddler as a senator was okay with them. Indeed such was the narrow margin of his loss, Mr Snowflake is now appealing the result and calling for a re-vote. One assumes the state motto of Alabama should really be “Pedo’s welcome” and the state mascot should be Pennywise from IT. If Gary Glitter ever gets out of jail, we know where we can send him.

And the bulk of those who voted for him would be self described “value voters” (try not to laugh), who also voted overwhelmingly for Trump who has spent millions digging himself out of sexual harassment lawsuits. So one assumes those “values” are much the same as those in Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Republican party is at every level now a morally bankrupt institution. Its less a political party now and more of a tribe or a corrupt cargo cult. Its guiding political philosophy is no longer “conservatism but more anti-liberalism and pandering to the wealthy donors who help to keep them in power. And to be fair, we can’t blame Trump alone for this, its a downward spiral conservatives have been on since the 1980’s.

As I recall someone joking a while back, Satan himself could be a GOP candidate, he could run on a policy of ripping out the hearts of the first born of anyone who voted for him and he’d still get at least 40% of the vote in any US election. And many republicans would vote for him and them blame the democrats, because they went and put that bearded hippy on the ballot paper (some guy call Jesus) and they could hardly vote for him (…I hear he was born in the Middle East).

So this is an important point to understand when it comes to trying to debate conservatives, particularly those from the alt-right. You are wasting your time. Any facts that don’t support their position will be ignored, or twisted and deliberately miss-represented….or they’ll just plain make sh*t up. They are basically immune to logic and facts.

It is simply not possible to run a democratic society if half of that society has basically decided to abscond on their civic duties and hand their democratic rights on to a series of corrupt tribal leaders. The lessons of history tells us that this will likely end rather badly, especially for conservatives.

Russia cables

Recently the head of the UK armed forces has raised concerns about the risk posed to undersea communication cables by the Russian navy. The concern is that they might resort to cutting these cables or eavesdropping on them.

Now where would the Russians get a crazy idea like that from? Probably from the CIA and NSA. Who, with the help of US navy subs, have supposedly been tapping into undersea cables for years. So this is very much pot calling the kettle black.

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Also it is starting to get to the stage where the Russians are getting the blame for every little thing now. That said, there’s no smoke without fire, but you do wonder if issues like this are being exaggerated by those in Western intelligence and military organisations trying to protect budgets. After all, given the allegations against Trump or the brexiters of Russian collusion, how would it look for them to cut the budget of something the CIA or MI6 were selling that was intended to counter Russian this or Russia that. Pretty darn dodgy one assumes. Hence why perhaps some in the intelligence and military community are constantly talking about Russia.

Trump hates Christians

One of the justifications for Trump’s policy towards the middle east is the defence of the Christian minorities living within the middle east. Well those Christians would rather he shut the hell up, as his actions are putting their lives in danger. In the wake of Trump’s announcement to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, Christian leaders refused to meet Mike Pence during his Christmas time visit and he ended up being forced to cancel it.

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It should be noted that Christians in the middle east tend to be pro-Israel, as that’s one of they few country’s in the region which isn’t actively persecuting them. But they also understand the danger inherent in provoking the anger of Muslims and the long term obstacle to peace that an Israeli capital in Jerusalem represents. And the recent history of the region tends to be a case of one side provoking the other with the Christians caught in the middle.

And on a related topic, the UN voted to condemn Trump’s actions over the Christmas period. Trump mumbled something about cutting funding to any country that voted against him (i.e. offended his ego). Again, this is putting your foot in a quagmire.

Firstly, if he doesn’t follow through with this threat, then everyone knows it was an empty threat and he talks the talk but can’t walk the walk. A long standing doctrine of US diplomacy has been not to make threats they aren’t prepared to follow through on (hence why US diplomats are usually very careful in their choice of words). Otherwise you risk being seen as toothless. And given that Egypt and Saudi Arabia were two of those that did vote against the US (and both receive a lot of funding from the US and host a number of Trump businesses), its going to be difficult for him to follow through without upsetting a lot of apple carts.

While its true that many country’s often used aid money as a way of currying favour with others and potentially getting them to vote this way or that at the UN, the general rule is not to bluntly state as much. Because now Trump has made it clear that those who voted with him are essentially entitled to a few billion in funding. While the others should just go and sell their vote to China (who will be more than willing to pay….in exchange for an airbase in Central America!). In short, he’s just put a few dozen UN votes up on E-bay.

So Trump’s actions here could not be more ill-judged.

Trump’s tweets

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And speaking of Trump, why is he still on twitter? Given he’s now openly and repeatedly violated twitter’s own policies against promoting hate speech and/or violence, surely his account should be shut down. And its not that they can’t do it, a disgruntled employee did take Trump’s account down for a few hours last month. So it is a matter of policy that the company is ignoring its own rules and keeping his account open.

And its not just Trump. Ask anyone running a blog or a vlog that is moderately left wing and they will tell you how they face harassment (false DCMA claims, a deluge of spam, etc.), trolling and more recently the demonetising of vlog posts on a pretty regular basis, often for no apparent reason. Yet right wing vlogers like Laura Southern or Jayda Fransen (head of Britain First….but born in Germany!…..so the party name should really be Britain second) can run their potty little mouths and not face any of these same issues.

We need to get away from the myth, a myth many on the left themselves seem to buy into, that social media has a liberal bias. It doesn’t, if anything the tech billionaires running these companies have a strong bias towards conservatives. Most are socially liberal but economic conservatives. They support and agree with republicans on many issues, if they could only get them to shut up about Benghazi or Obama’s birth certificate for ten seconds.

Of course, they are deluded. The real loser in the last US election was libertarianism, not the democrats or the centre left (who, as noted, have been doing reasonably well recently). 2016 was the best chance that libertarians have had in a generation to make their mark on the political stage and they flunked it. Gary Johnston’s vote collapsed and many conservatives voted for Trump, whose about the most un-libertarian candidate you could possibly get. In short libertarianism, as a mass political movement is now dead in America. Brexit (which amounts to a return to a nativist command economy) also killed such notions off here in the UK. But even so, the fact is that there is still a bias among many tech billionaires towards the conservatives. Although that might not last very long once they are confronted by the consequences of some of Trump’s policies.

And we also need to realise that computers themselves may have a certain bias towards conservatism. Advertising revenue is increasingly being controlled by machine learning algorithms and they are going to favour the content consumers who are the easiest to sell to. And guess which side of the political fence that is?

Try the following experiment, turn off any trackers, browse anonymously and visit some random left wing sites (the guardian.com, climatecrocks, Huntington post, motherjones, etc.). The default ads that come up will probably be pretty generic ads, M&S, Sears, latest movies, etc. Now go to a right wing website (e.g. Newsmax, Alex Jones, etc.) and you’ll be bombarded with ads for gold/bitcoin or get rich/fit/bigger di*k quick scams. The fact is that its easier to sell to certain types of people. And given how dependant on advertising social media is, they will always favour one side over the other. Hence the inherent danger of ending net neutrality.

The EU on Tax havens

The EU has put together a list of the country’s it feels are acting as tax havens. While its good to see some progress on this issue, and again as I’ve said many times, its only through pressure from international organisations, such as the EU, that we’ll see action on tax havens. But equally one must be a wee bit skeptical of this list as its a bit “selective in who it labels a tax haven.

For example, Luxembourg isn’t on the list, even thought its one of the biggest tax havens in Europe. It is slightly ironic seeing faraway Islands, who actually do very little business with Europe on this list, when the EU’s most important tax havens are absent.

And of course the world’s largest tax haven isn’t on the list. That being London. And the brexiters would have us believe that the EU is anti-UK. Of course, given that its been made clear to Theresa May that she’ll be facing a choice between a Norway model (which means no immigration controls and having to pay into the EU budget, plus not being able to negotiate independent trade deals) or a Canada model, which will mean London loses some of its access to the EU, its possible the problem of the UK as a tax haven will just take care of itself.

Scottish tax rise

Speaking of tax, the SNP have recently announced they plan to increase the income tax rates for high and middle income earners while lowering the taxes of those on low incomes. They promise to spend the extra money on the NHS, schools and the police. Its going to work out costing me a few hundred a year (so a few quid a week, probably less than I spend on milk) but that seems fair enough.

Of course the tabloids are foaming at the mouth over it. What they seem to forget is that the Tories put up my taxes multiple times. The only difference is they were sneaky about it. They pushed up VAT, they put up NI rates and they put up VEI tax for small and environmentally friendly vehicles (such as a Prius or Golf), while cutting the tax on SUV’s. When I lived in England they cut funding to councils, leading to higher water rates, council tax and business rates, which ultimately fed its way through the system to see a rise in the cost of living (this is the real trickle down effect).

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And that’s before we consider the combined effect of austerity, stagnant wages and inflation which has cost everyone in the UK and average of 5.5% of their income (although its closer to -16% for younger workers and -20% for many public sector workers) and brexit will at the very least double that again.

So ya, I could have a moan about the SNP putting up taxes. But a few hundred a year, pales in comparison against the thousands the Tories have cost me. But listen to the tabloids, they’ll have you believe the Tories increased the chocolate ration from 30g to 25g’s and we should be patriotic and grateful for that.

The Scottish invasion of Ireland

I stumbled on this old BBC documentary about a long forgotten episode in Irish history, the Scottish invasion of Ireland in the 14th century. Not long after Robert the Bruce beat the English at Bannockburn, he sent his brother Edward to lead an expeditionary force into Ireland to help liberate the Irish from English rule and become the new high king of Ireland. This would have united the Celtic lands of the British Isles under one family, creating a united Celtic Kingdom.

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An alternative UK could have existed incorporating the Celtic nations of the British Isles

History is often decided by pivotal moments like this. An event that could have dramatically changed history. While the Scots were initially successful, defeating the English and their anglo-Irish allies in several battles, they received only limited support from the Irish. In part this was due to cultural differences (clan A was backing the Scots, which meant clan B who had been fighting with clan A refused to back the Scots, prompting clan C to attack clan B as they were too busy dealing with clan A and the Scots, who were then in turn attacked by Clan B, drawing in the Scots who found themselves fighting both clans B & C).

Plus the invasion happened to coincide with one of the worse famines in European history. This left the Irish in no real position to help, left the Scottish army starving and forced to forage for food off the Irish (read steal it, hardly a way to win hearts and minds). In then end ground down by hunger plus a number of tactical errors led to the Scot’s being defeated by the anglo-Irish and English reinforcements.

What’s perhaps interesting is how this incident was swept under the carpet and largely written out of the history books. For the Scots it was an embarrassment, for the English, it suggested that the united kingdom could have been a very different UK, with its capital in Carrickfergus and dominated by the Celtic nations. While for the Irish it makes them look kind of silly, the golden opportunity to get out from under English rule which they failed to take.

Then again, it would have never worked out, I mean we’d have to agree how to spell the word “whiskey” for one thing, and that’s never going to happen.

The graduate

An interesting story here from a few weeks back about an Oxford graduate who is suing his university over his grades. He claims that because he only got a 2:1, this put back his career and basically ruined his life. Now if that sounds a little far fetched, you ain’t heard the good part. He graduated over a decade ago and yet he still claims that 2:1 is haunting his career.

The reality for students is that the grade you receive in university is only really relevant to your first job. After that it plays a decreasing level of importance each time you go for a job interview, as your work experience will become more and more relevant. Having a 1st class honour might get you shortlisted a bit more often for interview, but unless you can back that up with a good interview and work experience, it won’t matter diddly squat.

I mean I got a 2:1 at uni which I was not happy about (we had a module in final year that was badly handled, if I’d gotten a higher mark in that I’d have had a 1st), but that’s life and I’ve overcome that and now I’m a lecturer. And I can all but guarantee you that if you asked my line manager what my grade in my undergrad degree was he won’t be able to tell you.

In fact, there’s a challenge, anyone here a line manager? Can you recall the degree (which uni, year & grade) of any recent hires you’ve made? I’m guessing you’d probably get only half of them right and it probably had little to do with the decision to hire them (unless they were a graduate with no work experience).

There is a point to be made certainly about inadequate teaching at UK universities, a consequence of the defacto privatisation of UK universities. And the problem is particularly bad at some of the Russell Group uni’s, where a lecturer actually teaching his classes (rather than getting his PhD students to do it) is seen by management as playing hooky. But this is more of a matter of whether or not students are getting value for money. Like I said, if you’ve learnt anything in uni its how to study independently and 10 years after graduation you should be over any issues you had with teaching.

So Mr snowflake here should be told by the judge to go suck on a lemon. A bad workman blames his tools. Anyone complaining about a lack of employment a decade after graduation, it ain’t the degree that’s the problem!

Bombardier and protectionism

Some people don’t know when to quit. After the intervention of Airbus in the row over Bombardier’s C-series that should have been the end of it. But no, the US authorities have tried again. However, they don’t seem to understand its not just a few thousand jobs in the UK that are at stake. 20,000 workers in the US contribute to C-Series production. This is the problem with nationalistic protectionism, it sees the world in us versus them terms. It doesn’t reflect the fact that you might save a few jobs in Boeing, but result in many more workers in another factory in the US losing their jobs.

Similarly, restricting immigration its argued will mean more jobs for local people. However, this simply isn’t true. All it will mean is that companies find it harder to recruit and either they’ll find loopholes to get around such laws and hire who they want. Or they’ll automate those jobs or they’ll move them overseas.

In a globalised economy its not foreigners coming over here and stealing your job you need to fear, but foreigners staying at home and your job moving.

Catalan elections

The election results in Catalonia are in and the results don’t look great for the Spanish conservatives (the PP). The pro-independence parties were returned to power, with a slightly reduced majority, while the PP was more or less wiped out (getting only 4 out of 135 seats). Then again, sending riot police into polling stations is going to kind of end up doing that.

In short, if you think the Catalan crisis over, think again. They’re just getting started. While its doubtful the pro-independence movement will declare another referendum, they might start to take measures to break with Spain. They could call on Catalans to refuse to pay their taxes to Madrid, refuse to collect VAT, hold a general strike, and otherwise cripple the Spanish economy until Madrid has no choice but to yield.

One interesting feature of the results was that the largest single party is now the Catalan Citizens party, which is largely a single issue anti-independence party. It took 25% of the vote. With the population clearly split on this issue (25-33% anti-independence, 40-54% in favour roughly), one has to say that there are really only two alternatives. Further concessions and regional autonomy to placate the nationalists (including some level of “national” recognition, a state within a state sort of thing). Or have a legally sanctioned in/out referendum. The left wing opposition in Madrid have long favoured one or other of these options. However, that was when support for independence was much lower and before Rajoy stirred up a hornet’s nest by sending in riot people to beat up peaceful protesters.

But in the absence of some sort of concession, conflict and confrontation is inevitable. In fact its probably just a matter of time before some hot head on one side or other of the debate starts setting off bombs and suddenly the PP have got themselves a civil war.

Into the blue

The brexiters had an early Christmas present, in that they will be getting their blue passports back. This was an issue that came up during the referendum, the old foggies reminisced about how they missed the old blue passports, which merely suggests their reasons for voting leave were irrational.

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The Brexiters had many sensible reasons for voting for brexit, bring back hangin, blue passports, incandescent light bulbs, lb’s & oz’s, small things really

Not least because, its been pointed out since then that at no point did the EU ever compel the UK government into changing the colour of its passports. They did propose harmonising the design of passports in the 1970’s, as part of an effort to help speed up customs controls and improve security, but it was entirely voluntary. And it was a TORY government that went along with these proposals in 1981 (under Thatcher of all people).

Indeed, the UK going back to blue isn’t even a voluntary decision, the UK is being forced into doing so, as it will no longer be an EU member and thus not UK citizens will no longer be entitled to EU passports. Oddly enough Croatia, among others, opted to keep its passports blue after joining the EU, so its just going to make it easier for the citizens of certain countries to sneak into the UK and mean longer waits for UK citizens to get into Europe….plus them having to pay for the privilege. Meanwhile, me with my Irish/EU passport can sail through passport control both sides no problem.

An incorrect story related to this circulated that it was going to cost the UK £500 million to change the colour of its passports. This isn’t entirely correct (this is what the new passport system will cost, but its a cost the UK will have to pay anyway). In truth its going to cost £50 billion to do something we could do for free by staying in the EU.

No dogs or Polish men

As we know one consequence of brexit has been to embolden the racists and the xenophobes. As an example, the sign below showed up in rural Oxfordshire, effectively banning Eastern Europeans from fishing.

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Admittedly, some of my relatives back in Ireland have had problems with Eastern European fishermen. A pond, which is one of the few places you can catch carp in Ireland, is on land my relatives own. And we’ve had Romanians show up with no rod license (and a frying pan!) looking to catch them. However, a quiet word reminding them of the law general does the trick….and if it doesn’t, a quick call to the local Garda office (who will confiscate all fishing equipment and impose a heavy on the spot fine, noting that under Irish law they can do that even if you are merely caught with a rod near the pond, never mind if you are actually caught fishing).

So its not as if there wasn’t a solution to this problem that could have resolved the matter without going the full Daily Mail. But so emboldened are the racists now that they will resort to such things without a thought for how it makes them look.

Caravans

According the BBC there’s been a significant jump in the number of caravans being purchased in the UK since brexit. Of the many negatives associated with brexit it would appear more of being stuck behind one of these things is one of those negatives. No wonder Clarkson voted remain.

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What I dislike about caravanning (my spell checker whats to change this word to canning!), other than the inconvenience and lack of consideration they show anyone else on the road (at least those in Scotland, where narrow roads can mean there’s no where to overtake them and they rarely pull over to let people past) and the waste of fuel. Its that holidaying with a caravan amounts to being penny wise and pound foolish.

With a tent you can generally camp pretty cheaply (£5-10 per night), while with a caravan you’ve got to pay for the extra fuel you’ll burn, the parking/hook up fee, consumables, etc. Add it all up, say £20-30 a night grounds fees, extra £10 per day for fuel and another £5-10 for consumables your are looking at about £40-45 a night, which is towards the lower end of the cost of a B&B room in Scotland at peak season (so once you factor in the cost of the caravan and depreciation, you are unlikely to break even).

Normally the main advantage of caravanning over B&B’s is that you don’t have to book in advance. But in peak season in Scotland, sites can fill up pretty quickly, so typically you would be advised to book in advance. While with a tent, if the camping grounds are full, you can simply trek a few hundred metres in from the road (and off any farmland…else the farmer might release his prize bull into the field!) and wild camp for free for the night.

In short caravanning seems to come with all the disadvantages of camping, but none of the advantages. While it comes with similar costs and inconvenience of B&B’s. Its really a mugs game.

The Royal price

The Queen gets a lot of criticism for the amount of tax payers money it costs to fund her, about £82 million a year. However, it was recently revealed that the production costs of the netflix series “the crown” is running at around £100 million or so. This would mean that the actual royal family is cheaper than a TV series about them.

So here’s a thought, give Meghan Markle a selfie stick and a camera, get her to film the Royal’s Meet the Kardashians style, broadcast that, and the Royal family could pay for itself, indeed we might even be able to make money off the back of them!

Hodoring the door and nuking the fridge

Speaking of TV, I’ve heard of the odd supposed “leak” of the Game of Thrones season 8 script online. It is reasonable to assume, after they royally screwed up last time, that HBO are being extra careful as regards leaks this time, so most of these “leaksare likely to be hoaxes from obsessive fans. The odd time I’ve bothered to read one, generally only when I need a bit of a giggle, its all too obvious that its not the real thing. Because these “leaked” plots make sense, don’t include a load of obvious howlers and were clearly written by someone whose read the books – which means they can’t be the real script!

When the season 7 plot leaked most people ignored it, dismissing it as a hoax, as it seemed unlikely that HBO would commit to spending tens of millions of dollars filming something this badly written. Well the leak turned out to be about 90% accurate (likely an earlier draft of the script actually filmed). Frankly if HBO wanted to save some money, they could go along to a GoT convention, grab the first bearded fanboy they see, stick him in front of a laptop, keep feeding him beer and bar snacks and in an evening he’d probably churn out something far better than what’s actually being filmed right now.

As I discussed in a prior post, GoT is now little more than expensive fan fiction, written by people who have little love for the novels and are bound by other requirements put in place on them by producers and company exec’s. Anyone hoping for a great season 8….wait for the books….although you might be waiting a long time! Its even been suggested that since G.R.R. Martin might not live long enough to finish them, we might need to create an AI to finish them for him.

But here’s the problem, much like Star Wars or Star Trek, even after a series has clearly jumped the shark (sometimes called nuking the fridge, or hodored the door as I suspect we’ll be calling it in a few years time), the series keeps going, simply because the producers (with dollar signs in their eyes) know they can get away with it and millions will still pay to watch whatever crap they churn out. As I recall one fanboy lamenting, George Lucas could film himself taking a shower, call it episode 7 and still expect to pull in a few hundred million in its first week.

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So long as money can be made, they will not learn the consequences of bad script writing and bad production and keep churning out crap. Hence why I won’t be seeing the latest star wars film, nor did I see the last two star trek films, nor will I be watching GoT series 8. Only when the movie industry sees their profits take a dent will they do anything.

And speaking of the latest star wars film, there’s actually a petition from hardcore fans for Lucas to disown it, as they disliked it that much. In essence it seems that Disney has decided to disregard the fans and focus on selling a generic sci-fi movie with lots of CGI & explosions to the masses. And for the record, I’m not giving the films a miss because I necessarily support this petition, but because I have better things to do over Christmas than go see a generic sci-fi film with lots of CGI and explosions.

Now the problem with this strategy is that making money out of the fantasy or sci-fi genre is difficult at the best of times. Its where movie studios go to die. If a producer/actor/director wants to ruin their career, or a studio wants to set $200 million on fire, make a sci-fi or fantasy movie. Any movie library will be littered with many such career ending box office bombs, e.g. the 13th warrior, In the Name of the King, Dredd, Pluto Nash, John Carter to name a few. While some of these films were dire, others on the list weren’t that bad. Its just that with such large sunk costs its very difficult to make any money with these sorts of movies.

The reason why the LOTR, star wars, star trek or GoT series stand out from the crowd is that they can rely on a legion of fans to show up (often going multiple times, or buying expensive DVD box-sets) and basically meet the overhead costs. The movie then makes its profits off the back of the general audience (i.e. those who couldn’t tell you the name of the reptilian bounty hunter seen for 5 seconds in Empire strikes back, nor tell you his entire character bio).

So the danger is that by screwing over their own fans, the studios might well find audience numbers tank and they end up making a loss.

Game of Thrones review: Jumping the shark

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

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

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

How to loose allies and alienate your subjects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right to rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive architecture

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

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Moats are kind of important

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

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

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

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The undefendable wall

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

Oh and when winter does come, Winterfell is screwed.

Anti-dragon defences

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

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

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

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

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

Just one guy

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

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Munchkins….complete with a +12 chainsaw

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

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

Undead are kind of crap at fighting

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

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Episode 6 season 7 in a nutshell

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

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

Breaking the wheel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running out of steam

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

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

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

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

Star Wars Review – the Profiteer’s Awaken

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I got to see Star Wars over the holidays and unfortunately it confirmed what I’d feared, J. J. Abrams has made an even bigger mess of the Star Wars universe than the mess he made of the Star Trek universe. How can he do any worse than blowing up Vulcan you say? Well let’s just say he likes to blow up planets! The plot was way too predictable, almost a remake of the first film….and by that I mean a New Hope.

And its not as if they were short of good material for a more interesting script. One key question for the fans was whether the new film would tie into the so-called “Expanded Universe”of star wars. This relates to a large volume of material built up by other projects, TV series, web series, computer games and the novels of authors such as Timothy Zhan which expands beyond the films. The Zahn novels in particular extend matters 25 years past the battle of Endor. In these novels he introduced a number of new characters, such as Han Solo and Leia’s children, Mara Jade (who initially starts off as an enemy of Luke, but eventually becomes his wife, making her a much more credible character compared to the “good/bad guy” template of most star wars characters) or Admiral Thrawn (a military genius and major villain in the post-Emperor era).

So clearly had they simply adapted some of the expanded universe material, or built on it, a much more compelling script could have been established. And in some respect’s I would argue that what they did was simply plagiarise the Expanded universe….badly! Kylo Ren is clearly based on Darth Caedus of the expanded universe, Rey is clearly based on Raina (oh! Spoiler alert, this means they may be shown to be related in the next movie!) and the “first order” is clearly based on the Imperial Remnant of the novels.

I can only assume the plan was to rip off the expanded universe to save them the bother of having to write a script, but change enough to save them having to pay royalties to the likes of Timothy Zahn. It is, to say the least, strange to be trying to avoid spending a little bit more on a script for a film with a budget in the hundreds of millions. Its like doing the Harry Potter films, but to avoid paying J. K. Rowling her cut, changing his name to Parry Hotter and his adventures in Doghorts university and his sidekicks Helminey Vixen and Dom Working-class-weasel.

This isn’t going to go down well with fans because one of the nice things about the expanded universe is that made some attempt to fill in the enormous plot holes in the movies (some of my favourite ones here). e.g. why did the Empire collapse so quickly just because the Emperor died?

Well in the expanded universe the Empire faced almost as many internal threats from rogue Admirals and corrupt Grand Moff’s as it did from the rebels. Recall the main reason the Emperor wanted the Death Star was to keep his own minions in line. At the same time as the battle of Endor, the aforementioned Admiral Thrawn was hunting down the rogue Admiral Zaarin who had attempted to usurp the emperor’s throne. So two of the Empire’s most elite units were too busy fighting each other to fight the rebels. Inevitably, with the Emperor and Vader gone, there was nothing to hold the Empire together and it gradually disintegrated. In the Expanded universe, it didn’t disappear straight away, it took the rebels several years to push them out of the core systems and a large Rump state called “the Imperial Remnant” still existed 25 years after Endor.

Okay, still a bit rusty, but better than the movie explanation, death star blows up… likely killing all the Ewoks (a primitive race of spear throwers who managed to take on an army with tanks and guns? don’t get me started!) and rendering their planet uninhabitable….empire over, cut to the after party.

But suffice to say that the new movie has opened up so many obvious plot holes its going to be impossible to fill. Once I saw Chewbacca it was obvious that the Expanded Universe had clearly just been flushed down the toilet (oh, spoiler alert, he’s supposed to have died 5 years prior to the events in a Force Awakens…so presumably he’ll be killed off in the next movie). And the plot of the new film is so formulaic and predictable I could pretty much tell you the plot of the next two films right now.

This is unfortunately the consequences of the modern mass media. Where the plot is altered for marketing purposes (why do you think they put all those Ewoks and Droids in? So they could sell toys!). Consider the changes already made to the original Star wars films. Indeed the reaction of Star Trek fans to J. J. Abrams first film has been to devote more efforts towards “fanfiction”, essentially the fans have taken over the story.

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Such films are getting ever more elaborate. A major Star Trek feature film called Prelude Axanar” is actually being produced via kickstarter funding, which the studios are trying to stop for violating copyright.

This suing your fans is generally a bad sign. It reminds me of the fate of TSR. They were a wargaming company whose products were very popular in the 80’s, but not very profitable. Anyway a number of suits took the company over and began to aggressively market their products, including sending out cease and desist notices to fans who published their own content for free on the internet. Needless to say they quickly alienated their best customers and eventually the company collapsed, being rescued by a rival, whose first course of action was to introduce an open gaming license on their products.

The Force Awakens is therefore another example of a script written by corporate marketeers and a triumph of style over substance….not that there was much substance in Star Wars anyway, which has always been more space opera rather than science fiction (hyperdrives? The force? Blasters? And don’t even get me started on exhaust ports!). But suffice to say the next two films will be more of the same, big explosions lots of CGI, until audiences loose interest.

weekly roundup

Been ill with a cold and now the flu :oops:, tiss the season I suppose! Anyway, a round up of a few of the week’s stories.

Syriza
Its worth reflecting on the victory of Syriza in the recent Greek elections. Radio 4’s John Humphry‘s, who has a son in Greece, has done a number of pieces on the hardship of ordinary Greeks in recent years. If you’re wondering why so many Greeks voted for Syriza, its worth having a listen.

As I’ve been saying since the beginning of this crisis there has been a distinct lack of leadership within the EU. The EU’s one shot solution to all ills has been, until very recently, austerity with much tightening of belts and privatisation of public services. The end result is that listening to the ECB has tended to remind me of that scene in father Ted where they organise a disco and play the same record over and over again. Needless to say the Greeks have decided the time has come to change the record.

In part this has to be blamed on the German Chancellor Angel Merkel, who is a fairly risk adverse and unimaginative politician. To Merkel doing something radical would involve changing her brand of toothpaste, living dangerously would count as having cornflakes for breakfast rather than porridge! Also there has been a tendency to not consider the economic and political consequences of austerity, which has seen much hardship for ordinary Greeks and a rise in support for many radical parties.

Ultimately, the concept of solving Greek’s debit crisis using austerity alone was flawed from the beginning, as this assumed that Greece would one day be in a position to pay off its debts. As Syriza have been pointing out there seems to be no economist in the world who believes that was ever going to happen. This was an unspeakable truth that nobody in the EU, nor the Greek government would say , because they feared the consequences.

It is for example worth reflecting on the differences with the Greek bailout and, say the bailout in Ireland. In Ireland, it was never the Irish governments debt that was the issue. It was the huge amounts that Irish people had privately borrowed (approximately ten times Ireland’s GDP! as compared to an Irish government debt a tenth of that!) from banks and international lenders to fund the property bubble. Prior to the crisis the Irish government had been posting surplus budgets year on year, even when Germany and the UK were reporting deficits and doing so despite a string of tax cuts over the course of the boom.

In essence the Irish bailout was a case of a bridging loan to tide the Irish government over until it de-toxified the private debt mountain, and got people working and paying their taxes again. In theory, this should enable the Irish to pay off its debts, although the crash has left a lot of Irish in a precarious financial situation.

The situation in Greece however was very different. And given that the Greek debt has actually increased since the bailout its quite clear that austerity isn’t working and never was going to work. If this was an individual or a company, then this is the point where bankruptcy proceedings would start. Creditors need to realise that lending money involves an element of risk, after all why else do they get to charge interest? So in such a situation, Greece would settle its debts to the best of its ability, paying off what it realistically could, with the rest of the debt being written off.

However, this hasn’t happened in Greece, there’s been some debt write down, in the form of a “debt swap” back in 2012 , but that’s about it. Previous Greek governments feared heading down this road as it could lead to them being kicked out of the Euro. While the rest of the Eurozone feared that it would undermine the credibility of the currency, quite apart from the fact that the bulk of those euro’s are owned to other parts of the Eurozone.

So in short, anything Syriza does can’t be any worse that what the prior regimes have done. My concern however is that I’m worried if they understand the risks they are taking, or the consequences of engaging in what will effectively be the negotiated bankruptcy of a country. Particularly as Syriza has made various populist, but outlandish promises, ranging from creating hundreds of thousands of jobs to free electricity to cutting property taxes (the sort of thing left wing governments are usually imposing!).

How exactly the Greeks will be able to afford these measures isn’t explained. They could only do so by borrowing money, at least in the short term. But in the event of a debt write down, nobody, not even their eurozone allies, are going to be willing to lend them money. This again, is normal in any bankruptcy proceedings, nobody is going to lend you money (other than Wonga) if you’ve a pile of CCJ’s to your name. That’s why you should generally avoid going bankrupt at all costs! As Robert Peston at the BBC points out, the speed at which the Greek economy could collapse, if the ECB cut off the life support, is pretty swift.

The Greek’s could leave the eurozone and return to the Drachma, then simply print money, but that would wipe out the pensions and savings of most Greeks, as well as bring down their entire banking sector, quite apart from the normal problems caused by hyper inflation. I don’t want to have to be avoiding Ryanair flights to Greece because I can’t squeeze all the Drachma’s I’ll need for the taxi to my hotel into my hand luggage!

Inevitably there’s going to be a need for compromise. The Troika need to realise that holding Greece over the fire is not going to result in them paying anything, when they clearly don’t have the means to do so. There is a need for a little bit of European solidarity here. But equally, a need for a bit of realism from the Greeks. They can hardly be expected to see money lavished on them at the same time their creditors are having to take a fairly hefty hit.

My concern is therefore, what happens if one or either side refuses to compromise. The consequences are likely to be Grexit. And while I tend to doubt the more extreme UKIP fantasies of what happens after that, it is likely to have a pretty disastrous effect on the Greek economy (out of the frying pan and into the fire) and a knock on effect on the European economy, including the UK.

Syriza also have this strange thing about Russia and Putin, which is not entirely explained.

Rise of the Populist parties?
The victory of Syriza has also had the media speculating that this might signal a radical change in European politics, whereby new parties populist parties begin to take over from the old guard of politics.

I think its important to remember however, that there is nothing new about Syriza. They are pretty much saying the same things they’ve been saying since before this crisis even began, its just the presentation is a little different and given the massive mess Greece is in, more are willing to listen.

Similarly, as I discussed recently, there is nothing new about UKIP. Their message isn’t that much different from that of the likes of the BNP or the EDL. The presentation might be different, they tend to prefer talking in code, rather than being more openly racist. But essentially dress Enoch Powell up in a cheap suit, put a pint in his hand, make him laugh occasionally and you’ve got Farage.

And Sinn Fein, who have gained a lot of support recently, as I discussed in a prior post, haven’t changed their message or core policies since 1920. The reason for this upsurge in support is driven by a lot of angry and confused people, taking it out their frustrations on a ballot box.

So yes its possible we’ll see populist parties figure in future governments. But its worth remembering that they are advocating polices that are actually quite old and not very new. So anyone expecting instant miracles is going to be sorely disappointed.

Election debate
Cameron and the Tories appear to be running scared from any debates in the run up to the next election. It started off quite amicably, once they learnt UKIP would be invited, they insisted the SNP would be included. Okay, makes sense, would be silly to exclude the ruling party of Scotland, particularly if the debate was held in Scotland, or the topic of Devo Max is likely to feature.

Then Cameron insisted that the Greens come along. Again, fair enough, they represent an obvious counter to Farage. While I won’t expect them to feature in every debate, but then again I’d be against the SNP, UKIP or the lib dems being invited to all of them either. But its reasonable to include them to some degree.

However now Cameron wants ALL the major parties to be invited, the Unionist, Sinn Fein, SDLP, the Welsh Nationalists, etc. I mean while we’re at it why not invite the Monster raving loony party, or how about George Galloway? By the time they all introduce themselves the debate will be over. I also have this vision of Galloway getting Farage in a headlock while Nicola Sturgeon tries to give him a Glasgow smile, as Miliband and Clegg take it in turns to give Cameron wedgie’s and the Unionists try to march their “traditional route” past the podium of Martin McGuinness, while the Welsh and the Greens sit in the corner discussing rugby and minted lamb :)).

The reality is that debates run counter to the Tory election plan. To those on the right they plan to point out that Farage is an insane racist and a fan of Enoch Powell. And to those who don’t read the Daily Mail, the Tory message is to point out that Cameron looks much better while eating bacon rolls….assuming they put some caviar in it first!

The danger with a TV debate is, that there’s likely be many “I agree with Miliband/Farage moments” and as a result they are very likely to lose support, no matter how the debate goes.

Education woes
One of the battle grounds in the election could be education. This doesn’t bode well for the Tories, as there is a growing view that their policy of favouring academies has not had the benefits that the Tories claim.

This is important, given that the Tories policy is to push any school that is “failing” into the category of an “academy” or “free school”. This robs the school from any local government control and hand that control over, more often than not, to various Tory party cronies and public school boy chums. It kind of makes Thatcher’s great milk snatch pale in comparison, given that they now seem to want the entire school.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has also been proposing a cut in tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. I would dismiss criticism of this policy from various overpaid “Jonty De Wolfe” types in academia, who are clearly more worried about the gravy train they’ve profited from coming off the tracks, than student welfare. Much as we can ignore the opinions of a tax dodging head of Boots.

However the BBC’s Sean Coughlan has a more intelligent criticism of this policy. He points out that its the issue of student loans to pay for maintenance, plus the fact that said loans seldom cover all a student’s living costs, that is the major cause of stress on household budgets. In other words, cutting fees may not deliver all the benefits that Labour, or their supporters in student unions, suggest.

Not an issue
Those on the right have been making hay out of the brutal beating of a university law lecturer by POLISH criminals 88|. However, if you’re wondering why the Daily Mail hasn’t been interviewing him, its because he doesn’t agree that this the attack on him should be seen in that context, that it has little to do with immigration. There is a need yes, to deal with criminals crossing borders. But the solution to this (as he sees it) is more co-operation with EU partners not less.

Churchill
Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the funeral of Winston Churchill….and no I’m not talking about the dog from the insurance ads! ;D Inevitably, the Tories, who have a nasty habit of excessive hero worship, tried to make a big deal out of it.

Such behaviour is dangerous as it often leads to a warped tabloid style view of history. To say that Churchill had his flaws is to put it mildly. He was, as some critics have pointed out, a racist who considered non-white races (or Catholics) as inferior. The first gassing of the kurds may well have been launched by the British in the 1920’s, not Saddam, acting under orders from Churchill, who endorsed the use of gas to put down rebellions in Afghanistan and Kurdistan, as well as against Russian forces during the civil war.

It is perhaps ironic that he is known as a great war time leader. In the first world war, his actions led directly to the disaster at Coronel. This occurred because Churchill vetoed the sending of reinforcements to the British forces in the Falklands, against the advice of the admiralty. Churchill seemed to be more worried at the time in preventing a German born aristocrat friend from loosing his job at the Admiralty than fighting a war. Fortunately, after the battle, the RN was able to rush several ships south to save the Falklands before the Germans could attack the Islands directly. Churchill was also involved in planning of the mess otherwise known as Gallipoli.

And he only became PM in 1940 because of the British military mess in Norway ….that again had Churchill’s finger prints all over it! This would be a bit like G. W. Bush resigning in the middle of the financial crisis only to be replaced as President by Alan Geenspan!

And above all else, there was his role in Ireland. As I discussed in a prior post, he was involved in undermining the case for Home rule by loudly proclaiming that Westminster would renege on its pre-WWI commitments to implement it after the war was over (playing right into the hands of the IRA). The Black and Tans who terrorised Ireland were also his idea.

This behaviour had many long term implications, Irish independence became a matter of time rather than a possibility. Britain’s credibility was undermined in many corners of Empire, which probably played a role in the break up of the Empire later. Irish neutrality in WW2 was largely a consequence of the Irish seeing an alliance with the man responsible for the burning and looting of Cork as being little different from that of an alliance with Hitler.

Churchill has his high points but its also important to remember he had his flaws and certainly made many mistakes, as is the case for many historical figures. There are, for example, many Irish who hold up De Velera in the same light as Brits look on Churchill. However, to describe Dev as a “flawed” character is to put it mildly. One could argue the Irish civil war was largely a consequence of him putting his pride before country (he refused to sign the oath of allegiance…until it became politically convenient to do so!). He also often seemed to be more interested in scoring political points against his rivals (such as Churchill!).

If you want to promote a one sided propaganda version of history, then I recommend you watch the film “Churchill – the Hollywood years”….with Churchill played by…Christian Slater….well its got a good song!

The Fat Dictator

The big pre-Christmas story is of course the distinct lack of Christmas cheer coming out of North Korea. The hermit state is accused by the US FBI of instigating a politically motivated hack attack against the Japanese company Sony, in order to pressure Sony into halting the realise of the satirical film “the interview”.

The situation has now brewed into a full blown political crisis, with insults being traded by both sides and North Korea making its trademark threats of “terrible consequences” if the crazy little cheese munching dwarf in Pyongyang doesn’t get his bottle. Unfortunately, while Pyongyang denies it, the facts do tend to stack against them, notably given that the language used by the hackers, sounded suspiciously like the stuff we’re used to hearing out of the NK propaganda ministry.

Of course Sony, a company not exactly famous for brilliance in cyber-security, has hardly escaped criticism. The information leaked by hackers included e-mails which revealed Sony’s policy of unequal pay, less than gratifying comments about leading celebrities and mismanagement of employee’s personal details, something that’s likely to lead to class action lawsuits.

Sony claims that they cancelled the film due to fears over “safety” and that theatres were refusing to show it. But this is contradicted by a number of independent cinemas. Not only were they prepared to show the movie, but when Sony showed reluctance, they proposed showing instead “Team America – World Police, in order to give the two fingered salute to “the young general” and his cronies…only for Paramount (owner of the copyright) to close ranks with Sony and effectively censor a film that’s been on general release for nearly a decade.

In short, its very probable that, Sony’s real motivation for cancelling the release of the interview was simply a way of making all these negative stories just go away. As the vulture put it “The Interview was no longer the hill that Sony wanted to die on”.

Indeed, some of the leaks revealed Sony were nervous about the film, even before the hacking started. Leaked e-mails show back and forth exchanges between Seth Rogen and Sony management, regarding the final death scene of Kim Jung-un, something Seth has himself commented on prior to the hack. It seems that Sony wanted him to tone it down a tad.

Unfortunately, Sony didn’t count on this act of intellectual cowardice provoking an even bigger backlash. Making fun of vane dictators is a tradition that goes all the way back to the day of Charlie Chaplin’s “the Great Dictator”. Kim-Jung-il was himself mercilessly satired as a platform shoe wearing, ronery, alien coachroach in disguise. Saddam was the main object of ridicule in the Hot Shots films, Frank Drebin took down the Ayatollah and Gorbachev in “Police Squad: the Naked Gun”. And the satirical puppet show Spitting Image was well known for mocking many dictators (notably Gaddafi) as well as western politicians (notably Gaddafi’s nemesis, Ronald Reagan).

Sony’s climb down, along with prior backtracking and self-censorship by newspapers over the whole cartoons of Mohammed fiasco, means that now all any totalitarian dictator needs to do is issue some random threats via some anonymous e-mail account and criticism of his regime will be swiftly silenced. In effect the reach of police states such as NK and Saudi Arabia now extends right up the White house lawn and across the grass of parliament square.

Indeed another film about North Korea has also been cancelled by another Hollywood studio as a consequence. It is thus for good reasons that this incident has to be seen in serious light, as it represents a roll back of artistic freedom to a pre-1930’s level.

Fortunately Sony, realising they’ve vastly worsen their position by acting so cowardly, are talking about releasing the film on “other platforms”. As a consequence Kim Jung-un might be on course to learn a lesson in the so-called “Streisand effect”, whereby a film that would have probably been overlooked by many, will now gain a wider audience.

And that’s bad news for him, as there were many reasons for North Korea to want to suppress this film, not least of those being that Kim Jung-un is not in as a secure position as his predecessors. There would be a certain irony of course if the Kim regime were brought down by a mere movie, given how enthusiastic his predecessor was in his support for NK’s film industry.

That said, NK has long engaged in a policy that the CIA insiders often refer to via the acronym CFC – Crippled, Fearsome, Crazy. Knowing they could never win a conventional shooting war with South Korea, let alone the US and its allies, the Pyongyang crazy gang have long embarked on a strategy for survival which involves appearing to be dangerously unhinged, thus convincing the west to leave them putter in their poverty stricken sand box.

So while its possible, they tipped their poker hand bluff a little too heavily this time, it might be worthwhile considering this incident along those lines.

Blogging Catch up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jaffa School of Marksmenship

I’ve been catching the odd episode of Stargate SG-1 on pick TV the last few months and I think I would rate the “Jaffa” (that’s the minions of the Goa’uld, the main “bad guys” of the series) as the worse and least credible of Sci-fi “cannon fodder” units.

I mean they have all the survival instincts of the “red shirts” of Star Trek (you know how Spock, Kirk, Bones and some guy in a red shirt called Ensign Ricky would beam down do planet and 5 seconds later ensign Ricky’s is “he’s dead Jim“). And the Jaffa have aim that is worse even that the Stormtroopers of Star Wars. It seems that below the “stormtrooper school of marksmanship” there is a grade called “Jaffa school of stupidity“.

Then again, I reckon the reason the Empire lost in Return of the Jedi was because the Emperor was a Tory. Think about it, he spends a vast fortune of many hundreds of Quadrillions on a death star but then goes all corner cutting, leaving out important things, such as an armored grille over exhaust ports, or hand railings around the edge of bottomless pits (its a elf’n’safety nightmare that death star!). He also clearly cut back on proper training and vital equipment for his gunners (there’s one scene in the original version of star wars where you can see a gunner holding his hands over his ears, clearly Palpatine was too penny pinching to buy him a pair of ear defenders) and the number of fighters to protect the death star was clearly cut back significantly (just 3 it would seem!)…kind of like the UK government’s current spending plans regarding the future carriers which apparently won’t have any aircraft operating off them and we’ll have to borrow the carriers off the French three weeks in advance if we want to have a war ;D.

But I digress, how bad are the Jaffa? Well, in one episode a while ago a unit of them took off in pursuit of the SG team. This led them to a point where they walked across a large open field, bold as brass (fully aware that they were in pursuit of an armed enemy who could be lying in wait in the bushes and high ground) and when inevitably the shooting started they just stood there making the odd random off target shot back while they were easily picked off one by one :roll:.

I mean they could have A} not walking into an obvious ambush but gone around or used covering fire to flank the SG team B} fallen to the ground and returned fire from the prone position C} called in air support or heavy fire support….then again the fire support of Jaffa “death gliders” is pretty piss poor, they tend to perform worse (again randomly shooting the ground nowhere near the enemy), despite superior tech than a WW2 fighter. And despite their superior Goa’uld technology, they haven’t apparently used it to develop something like a tank or an APC or heavy support weapons (there are good tactical reasons why armies in the real world use these things, just ask any poor Squadie forced to drive around in an unarmored land rover through mine laden Afghanistan).

In other scenario’s the SG-1 team have easily infiltrated goa’uld ships/bases without any complications (pretty much knocked on the door and walked in!). I mean you would think they would have any entrances heavily guarded and monitored 24/7 by CCTV. You would also expect the most basic security measures, such as doors with controlled access on them (and alarms that go off when people fiddle with the locks), more CCTV watching all corridors, motion sensors, computers that require a login password to access, regular security patrols and alarms that go off when loud noises (such as gunfire) are detected or when a patrol doesn’t check in within a certain period of time. I mean my uni has better security than a Goa’uld mother-ship!

Okay, I’m taking this a bit too seriously, but the serious point I’m making, is that about when writing stories making sure you’re villains or heroes are credible. The “evil genius school of villainy” sort of wears thin after awhile, as most people recognise that it is fairly unlikely that any evil genius smart enough to build a mega death ray, would capture the hero, then rather than executing him on the spot, instead give him a ten minute powerpoint presentation of his plans, then leave the hero in a situation where he can easily escape from with plenty of time to thwart said plans :no:.

Similarly few real heroes match up to Raglan’s “the hero tradition (a system for rating heroes from folklore out of 22 points, father was a king, origins or birth unusual, fights an epic battle, etc, Oedipus gets all 22, Hercules 17, Robin hood 13 & Jesus 19 88|!). Just read the accounts of Victoria cross winners over the years.

By contrast in “proper” fiction, such as the “Game of Thrones” series (and the books its based on) or a number of the characters in Ian Banks novels (both the sci-fi and fiction), the line between “villain” and “flawed hero” is extremely blurred. And as a result its difficult sometimes to tell who is the hero and who is the villain, which makes such stories much more interesting, believable and engaging.

The Force, George, but not as we know it

I haven’t been blogging for a while, as I’ve been mega busy workwise. Anyway, one of the stories this week was the purchase of Lucasfilm (the company behind Star Wars) from TcF by Disney with the view to making more Star Wars films.

While this has sent some Star Wars fans into euphoria about another trilogy of films, others do worry. Will Star Wars be star wars without George Lucas at the helm? Although he is penciled in as a “creative consultant” it is unclear what direction the new films will take the Star Wars franchise.

Some fans may well hope that the films take on the post-Endor story line as covered in the Timothy Zahn novels (Thrawn Trilogy or the Dark Empire novels). Already, I suspect some fans are speculating about who will play Mara Jade (Luke Skywalkers future missus). However, these novels are probably a little too dark for the Disney company and younger audiences, so its possible they may try and reboot the franchise with a new film. That will probably be not to the liking of fans, no more than the whole business of Stallone taking his helmet off in Judge Dredd. Alienating the fans could easily kill the franchise.

Also there is the commercialism. Many fans felt that Lucasfilm overplayed that with the new films way too much (or indeed with Return of the Jedi). Indeed interesting aside, Fox had such little faith in star wars that they signed over most of the merchandising rights to Lucas….was this the same exec who cancelled Star Trek by any chance?

Star wars fans, as I mentioned in a prior post (Hans and Silent Darth Strike back), were also none too pleased with the editing of the original series to make them more commercially pleasing. Naturally, we can assume that this will apply doubly to a Disney film.

In the future Star Wars film will Luke skywalker be using GE brand lightsabres and eating Soylent Green in Mc Donald’s?

I sense great danger ahead!

Hans and silent Darth strikes back

Those with a “real life” who don’t really care who Luke Skywalker’s old man is might want to skip this article. But there has been an interesting summary on the Beeb arts page regarding the fight between Star Wars fans and George “tinker’in” Lucas.

When the digitally re-mastered version was released, some fans just groaned a little, but they were outraged by it when they realised that GL had altered the critical confrontation when Hans Solo shot Greedo (the funny looking alien bounty hunter he shoots in the Cantina). The new version has Greeto shooting first. GL’s position is that he was trying to emphasis that Hans had no choice but to shoot Greedo. Fans say that he’s lay’s it on way too thick and is tinkering with a movie classic. The cultural equivlent of drawing a smily face on the Scream.

Anyway, it now seems he’’s at it again. A key scene in which Darth previously remained silent, now the Blue-Ray disk version has Darth Vader screaming like a sissy girl. Naturally the fans are appalled at this turn of events.

My take? Well I know what I saw when I saw the film the first time and that’s what counts. And I’’ve a copy of both the original and re-mastered at home so GL can ruin the film to his heart’s content, I’’ll just not be buying a copy of that Blue-Ray disk. What I’m not going to do is put on a tinfoil hat.

What I will say is that there’s now a huge amount of “fan fiction” out there and thus fandom has moved well beyond that of the original film.

Update!
Also I would note that there is nothing strange about an artish returning to a work and producing several versions of it. There are for example multiple versions of “the Scream” and Van Gogh’s “sunflowers“. What is uncalled for, is George Lucas attempt to rewrite history and suppress the previous versions of his work. I mean he could make a ton of money if he was smart selling the alternative versions of the SW Hexalogy to fans and Blue-ray provides the perfect means for him to do it. Although I do understand his desire to suppress all knowledge of the “star wars holiday special” :oops:. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to see it you’ll understand where he’s coming from. I include a link to it here, but with a health warning, it really is very, very bad, and I mean bad enough to make people ill, so don’t blame me (or GL) if you’re foolish enough to click on the link above.