News review

How to lose a country in one day

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Given that the fallout from the Catalan independence vote is still ongoing at the time of writing, its difficult to know which way its going to go, but in some respects the outcome of the referendum hardly matters now. Effectively by violently shutting down the voting process the Spanish government has handed a massive victory to the Catalan’s.

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Spainsh taxes at work, beating up old ladies

Usually when I talk to Spanish about Catalan independence, be they from the region or other parts of the country, the response is to laugh, then point out that its very different from the Scottish independence question. They also generally point out how support for independence has traditionally been only about 25-30%, the recent jump to +40% or so is a response to an unpopular right wing government in Madrid and its policy of austerity (now why does this sound familiar?). The assumption has been that once the right wing government in Madrid is forced from power and austerity ended, independence support will slip back to traditional levels.

However, given what’s happened in the last few days I’d argue that’s unlikely to be the case, everything has now changed. This police intervention will have hardened the minds of independence supporters, hence I’d call the +40% supporting independence a pretty solid support from now on, and it will probably grow rather than wane. As a result there are really now only two outcomes. That the Spanish government will have no choice but to run its own legally binding referendum at some point in the future. And with a +40% support level then it basically boils down to turn out (keep in mind that in the brexit referendum it took only 37% of the electorate to back brexit to get it passed). Or Catalonia will become independent in the near future, possibly within the next few days.

The Catalan government might well argue that given the low probability of them being able to hold a free and fair referendum while part of Spain they are now within their rights, regardless of the vote on Sunday, to simply make a unilateral deceleration of independence. The is a precedence here for that, Ireland never had a referendum prior to leaving the UK (although several were held afterwards) and Norway left Sweden first, before a referendum was held to confirm the seperation.

Now the question is, will such a decleration be supported by the people? If a significant portion of the Catalan population for example stopped paying their taxes, or a general strike were to be organised, crippling Spain’s most economically important region (which includes the headquarters of most of their major companies, notably their banks), the Spanish government would be very quickly forced to either grant a referendum or respect Catalan independence.

Fortunately for the Spanish government the Spanish constitution would likely require that a referendum would need a solid majority of support (e.g. 50% plus one vote must back it, as should have been the case in the UK brexit referendum). However, with the level of support behind independence as it now stands the Spanish government are not going to find it easy to win, even with such a rule. The previous plan, to simply get the no voters to boycott the poll, won’t work anymore. They’ll have to fight a campaign and in both the Scottish Indy ref and brexit vote a swing of more than the required magnitude was achieved over the course of the campaign. So its easily doable. And again, if a large block of no voters just don’t show up to the polls (perhaps turned off by the police tactics over the last few days) while the pro-independence lot get the vote out, then the vote could easily be won.

And the way the Tories won the indy ref, the infamous vow (which never really was fulfilled) isn’t an option. Firstly, because after what happened on Sunday, they won’t be believed. And secondly because they’d have to make the same offer to all the other regions of Spain. And once they start doing that there’s not a lot left for the government in Madrid to do. Plus if Catalonia goes, its likely other regions, such as the Basque country, will follow. So by cracking down on this independence movement the conservative government might just have put Spain on the course towards its own breakup. They have now destroyed the option for compromise, leaving the Catalan’s with basically only one alternative.

And there’s a lesson here for the UK. Some have argued that the response of Westminster to dealing with the SNP should copy that of the Spanish government. I would hope that events on the streets of Barcelona, or the quagmire that will now follow, should demonstrate why that’s just a non-starter.

The longest political suicide note in history

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At the labour conference delegates were told to prepare for power….is that a pig flying past? The problem is we’ve been here many times before. Take 1992. The Tory party were in disarray over Europe (again, sound familiar?), the economy was in the tank, labour were riding high in the polls, so much so that they made one too many promises to the far left. With the result that a big chuck of the electorate in marginal seats lost their nerve, voted Tory and labour lost to John Major. Let me repeat that, they lost to John Major, a guy so dull his Spitting image character was actually grey.

The problem with the labour manifesto is that much of what Corbyn is promising is going to be nearly impossible to deliver and he is the worst person you could pick to try and deliver it. If he’s in a coalition government, there’s no way the other parties will sign up to much of it, indeed they might well go over to the Tories instead. And even if he has a majority he’ll struggle to hold his party together to support such measures. The right of the party won’t support overtly socialist policies, the far left won’t want to do anything that stinks of compromise and they’ll face pressure from big business who will use the courts to slow things down to a crawl.

Good politics is about good compromise, but Corbyn isn’t good at that. People support him because they say he’s not like other politicians, he doesn’t lie. Really? What about that whole business with him sitting on the floor on a train when there were empty seats? And we all know he really voted leave even though he claims to have voted remain. The only difference between Corbyn and other politicians is that he’s bad at it. He could have deprived the Tories of a majority (even with the support of the unionists) if he’d only taken up the offer of an election deal with the other left wing parties not to stand against each other in marginal seats. Several of those key seats were won by a margin of a few hundred votes.

Just to take an example,, the issue of tuition fees. As a lecturer I see first hand the problems tuition fees are causing all the time. But no sooner had I written an article pointing out how the labour policy, while it would be expensive (but in the long run a cost worth paying), it was a good idea, only for Corbyn to chickened out of it and dropped the idea. So if he’s back pedalling on policies now, how likely do you think it is that he’ll actually deliver on promises once in power?

Re-nationalisation isn’t that bad an idea, given the mess public services are in. But there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way and Corbyn is clearly committed to doing it the wrong way. If he wants to simply buy back all of the assets held by the private companies they’ll demand he pay the full market price, which would be more than he could afford. And if he tries to set the price lower, they’ll take him to court and tie him up in knots with legal challenges. It would literally take the full length of parliament just to untangle the legal mess he’ll be getting himself into over this.

Oddly enough the very thing Tony Blair, or the Clinton’s, were good at was this ability to compromise, to negotiate and do deals. The trouble of course was he took this to its illogical conclusion by thinking he could get G. W. Bush to compromise over Iraq. But even so, you do need to be willing to compromise and negotiate if you want to get anything done in politics, that’s just the way it works.

My fear is that Corbyn’s government would quickly get stuck in the doldrums and become a lame duck administration, not unlike that of Hollande’s time in office in France. And what was the end result of that? The traditional left got wiped out and the Blairites took over with a new party.

And given that we don’t know who the Tory leader will be or what the terms of brexit are, then its a bit premature to be declaring victory. Not least because we don’t know how the public will react. They might well blame the Tories for the mess that follows, or they might recognise that Corbyn bares some responsibility too and vote for third parties, meaning another hung parliament, possibly one that might require the Tories and labour to work together (which isn’t going to happen with Corbyn).

And given that the economy will be probably taking a hit from brexit, there won’t be a lot of money to go on a spending spree (again this was the problem for Hollande, he had big plans to change things, but the French economy tanked and he couldn’t implement those changes).

So the danger is that those £3 tories, who joined labour and voted for Corbyn in the hope that he destroys the labour party, might well get their wish in the end. Its just they might have to put up with him in power for 4 years first! And see their own party destroyed as well.

Game of dolts

Meanwhile over at the legion of doom Tory party conference the knifes are already out. Not so much for Teresa May (she”s finished!), but the other leadership contenders are jostling for the top spot. To draw an analogy with game of thrones, the rains of Castamere is on a continuous loop throughout the conference hall, they are all gathered around Teresa and her supporters openly sharpening their knifes or loading crossbows and loudly arguing over her about how they are going to divide up the loot after they’ve knifed her.

Boris Johnson for example laid out his stall arguing for the sort of brexit senile swivel eyed bigots the Tory faithful would want, rather than one that’s practical. Clearly this was designed to box in his main rival David Davis. As he’s actually negotiating brexit he can’t propose something that’s simply not deliverable. Boris, who least we forget promised all sorts of nonsense in the referendum campaign, can promise whatever BS he wants.

Of course the trouble is that once Brussels realises what’s going on, they’ll stall. They know the longer these negotiations drag on the more desperate the UK will be to do a deal. And they know Boris is just the sort of buffoon to dig himself into a pit and they can then sell him the rope to hang himself with. So once again, the future of the country is being sacrificed for the internal politics of the Tory party.

Ni bombardier/ Trump trade

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And a perfect example of the mess the Tories have gotten the UK into played out recently with regard to Bombardier in Northern Ireland. The Trump administration, who are supposedly pro-brexit and will do a trade deal “very quickly” hit the Canadian company, which has manufacturing facilities in NI with a whopping 219% tax on its aircraft sales. And this was after the PM raised the issue with Trump personally.

Critics like myself have repeatedly warned that the UK will not get as good a trade deal outside of the EU as it would inside. And that the US will always prioritise looking after its own interests above those of the UK, especially under the administration of a populists like Trump. This serves to prove the point.

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The UK has threatened to retaliate by cutting military contracts with the US, but I suspect they are bluffing and the US will call their bluff. The UK has no choice but to buy those aircraft off the Americans, largely because of past Tory mistakes in aircraft procurement (dithering on buying essential equipment because they were too penny pinching, not holding a proper bidding process when in a blind panic they realised they now needed it, signing deals and paying for stuff in advance, etc.) and the obvious alternatives are made where?…in Europe!

And case in point, would the Americans hit the EU with a 219% tax on its aircraft production? Unlikely. A counter tax by the EU would inflict more damage to the US than they’d inflict on the EU. The main rival of Boeing, Airbus, has its own manufacturing facilities in the US, so they could make life very difficult for the US administration very quickly by threatening thousands of high tech jobs. Also while the Americans can laugh off the Tories feeble bluff on military contracts, the tens of billions of annual arms sales the US makes to EU nations is a different matter. These could credibly be terminated and the EU nations source from their own suppliers within the EU. So such a threat from the EU would have to be taken seriously.

But of course the brexiters will carry on regardless oblivious to the obvious warning messages.

Monarch and the brexit effect

And the collapse of the airline Monarch is another example of the sort of blow back the UK is facing. Now Monarch’s problems were multiple (caught in a price war, rising costs, difficulties securing routes, the impact of terrorist attacks on package holidays), however brexit was the final nail in the coffin.

Ultimately the brexit effect caused its costs to rise, notably the cost of fuel (always the Achilles heal of any airline). It could have been saved by new investers coming along. However, the terms of brexit are unknown, in particular the brinkmanship the Tories have been playing means there’s theoretically a chance of many UK airlines being forced to cancel routes or even buy back their own shares. So who in their right mind would invest in a UK based airline knowing any of that?

This is something we’ll likely see a lot of. Brexit is kind of like one of those hospital superbugs. If for some reason you end up in hospital, it can kill you off and there’s not a lot the doctors can do to save you, although it only takes those who by accident or illness have ended up in the hospital in the first place.

The world’s most powerful eight year old

And speaking of Trump, there was a worrying story this week over Trump and his tweets. He had very publicly backed a particular candidate to take Jeff Sessions vacated senate seat, only for that candidate to lose the republican primary. And his response was to start deleting the tweets he’d made in support (which might be illegal!).

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This is not the sort of behaviour we’d expect of a president, or indeed any grown adult. It would seem that Trump’s ego is so important to him that he can’t accept the embarrassment of defeat. It suggests he’ll do anything he can just to avoid looking bad…which is not good news when he’s in a pissing contest with another eight year old call Kim Jung-un and they both have nuclear weapons.

Lock them up

You remember all of that chanting during the US election, lock her up, lock her up! Why? Because Hilary used a private e-mail account to conduct official business. Now in the context of wikileaks, which was ongoing as she first took office, with it rather obvious that the Bush administration had left a series of massive security holes in the US intelligence apparatus (Chelsea Manning had simply copied the diplomatic cables off an unsecured server onto a fake Lady Gaga CD!), her actions have to be put in the proper context.

Well, predictably now several of Trump’s inner circle have been caught doing exactly the same thing. The only difference being is that while Hilary at least took some security precautions, they’ve been using the likes of gmail or yahoo accounts. I mean even in my uni, they they advise us and the students not to use such accounts for official university business. And I’m hardly handling state secrets. So are we going to hear calls for Ivanka or Jared to be locked up? Well of course not! Conservatives need to google the terms “hypocrisy” or “irony” because they might find they are a perfect example.

Lecturing on the breadline

A disturbing story here from the Guardian about how some Adjunct professors who are so poorly paid they end up living in their cars or resorting to second jobs or even prostitution just to make ends meet. This highlights everything that is wrong with higher education in the US, a model the Tories are effectively trying to copy over here in the UK.

Under this system universities are run like businesses with a strong emphasis on revenue raising and bringing in money, such that lecturers often don’t have a lot of time to deal with students. In some uni’s its getting to the stage where a lecturer who actually shows up to class to teach is considered by management to be playing hooky. As a result PhD students, Post-docs or Adjunct professors are hired on zero hours contracts to do that actual face to face teaching.

But even if you can ignore the plight of these people (as I’m sure the Tories can! Not exactly “people” persons), think about it for a minute. Students in the US are paying way more for their education than here in the UK. And who is the uni hiring to do the lecturing? Some homeless guy from down the street. If I was a student going to a US university, paying $30k a year I’d want someone to be a bit better paid. In short, if you are a UK student and you think you aren’t getting value for money out of your university, well its much worse in the US and it will be worse in the future unless fees are scraped.

Death penalty shot down?

Finally an interesting piece here about how some US states, all too aware of the difficulties they now face administering death sentences by lethal injection are contemplating switching to using firing squads instead. What is it with American’s and guns? If you’ve ever doubted the lobbying power of the NRA, here’s your proof. I’m surprised they don’t just change the American flag to have 50 bullets and switch the bars for profiles of different gun types.

Of course, the brutality of firing squads is likely to have a generally negative effect on public perceptions both of guns and on the death penalty. The reality is that there is no nice humane way to kill someone, because its not a humane thing to do. If there’s one positive one can draw from this, its that it will likely mean the eventual abolition of the death penalty in the US.

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A closer estimate on nuclear energy cost options

I stumbled across a tool from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, which purports to calculate the full cycle cost of nuclear energy. While it has its limitations, I think does highlight a few interesting points.

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Figure 1: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist (BoAS) costs, baseline & adjusted with various options compared to DoE estimates for renewables & fossil fuels

Firstly, the baseline cost they suggest for nuclear power works out at about a LCOE of $ 84.4 per MWh (the site quotes in cents per kWh, however, I’m converting to $/MWh because its what we usually use when quoting LCOE’s). This is a bit less than the DOE’s estimate of $95/MWh for nuclear. The DOE also quotes costs of $74/MWh for wind, $125/MWh for solar. By 2022 they expect costs in the range of $96/MWh for nuclear, $74/MWh for solar, $56/MWh for wind, with gas and coal between $54/MWh and $196/MWh depending on future prices and whether or not we are sequestering the carbon. Recall we are talking in terms of LCOE so this accounts for the intermittent nature of some renewables.

So first off this would suggest that nuclear might be competitive with coal, if there’s efforts to force CCS on the industry (i.e. no Trump, no climate change denial) and if fossil fuel prices go up. But that’s lot of if’s. It also suggests that nuclear isn’t competitive against renewables, and even if it is, that window is about to close. Indeed, we can use the Bulletin tool to get a better estimate on its current price, given that the cost of the Hinkley C project is known….well it will probably go up, but we at least have some ball park figure. The latest estimate for its overnight cost is £22.3 billion, which is $28.7 bn so that’s $8,696 per installed kWe, and its going to take 10 years and we assume 40% efficiency. So running that through our model gives a figure of $134/MWh, or about £104.6/MWh. You will immediately notice that this is well above the strike price of £92.5/MWh, suggesting that Hinkley C is going to lose money with every kWh it generates.

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Figure 2: UK new nuclear costs (E/MWh) compared to various renewable energy options [Source: The energy transition.de, 2015]

And by comparison at a recent strike price auction agreed to a price of £57.7 per MWh (approximately $76/MWh) for offshore wind. One of the arguments in favour of Hinkley C was that the high costs of off shore wind, even though many experts warned the government at the time that this would likely be wiped out by future advances in offshore wind technology (which was at a very early stage of development when Hinkley C was first proposed, the widely held assumption is that the price of offshore wind would fall rapidly, as indeed it has).

So okay, we’ve proved Hinkley C is a crap sandwich, well I think we all knew that one already. What I think is interesting about this tool is what happens when you start playing with the settings. For example, if we increase the efficiency of our nuclear reactor from the baseline of 33% (again industry standard for new build reactors would be closer to 40% these days) to 55% (the best you could possibly hope to get with a Brayton cycle) you only cut the cost of electricity by 2%. This confirms a point I made some time ago, there is no point spending a lot of money on some super expensive Brayton cycle kit, greatly increasing the construction costs only to make a tiny improvement in the plant’s electricity output.

However, if we decrease the capacity factor of our plant, from a baseline of 90% to say 70%, the price goes up by 25%. Pull it down to 60% the price goes up to +50% of the baseline price and at a capacity factor of 50% we are paying 74% more for our electricity. Its is often argued that nuclear can operate without any form of backup, but this ignores how grids work. But everything needs back up not least because demand is not constant all of the time. In the absence of storage, there will be times when some plants will see their capacity fall significantly. Load following power plants will typically operate at between 70-50% capacity factor, while peaking power plants can be less than 50%. At such cost levels it would simply be more economic to build energy storage than add more nuclear plants…so why not just do the same thing with renewables and save some money?

The model doesn’t appear to consider the costs of decommissioning or the clean up costs of fixed infrastructure related to the nuclear fuel cycle, which is something of an oversight. Keep in mind those costs aren’t small, its currently costing more to decommission some nuclear plants than it cost to build them. Including the costs of decommissioning Selafield the UK’s current bill is about £117 billion. That said, it is difficult to quantify this down to the level of an individual plant or MWh.

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Figure 3: UK Nuclear decommissioning costs breakdown

What they are able to do is estimate the spent fuel storage costs. Doubling the cost of that (as high as it will go) only increases the cost per MWh by 2%. Now okay, as noted there’s a whole raft of things we are leaving out. But even so, it does suggest that its not a linear relationship between clean up costs and electricity costs. There is a fixed cost we are stuck with regardless (i.e. even if we abandoned nuclear energy tomorrow, much of that bill would still have to be paid) and some small amount for every reactor year beyond that.

However, and here’s where it gets interesting, if we switch from the once thro fuel cycle to the fast reactor based full recycle option, the baseline price jumps by 64% to a whopping $139/MWh. And again, this baseline model, isn’t really accurate. For example, it assumes a capacity factor for the fast reactor of 90%, something that no FBR has ever achieved (most struggle to exceed 40%, the best is closer to 60%). Putting in more accurate values for both the LWR and FBR costs and performance, we get a price of $264/MWh.

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Figure 4: Estimated fuel inventories for different nuclear energy options, MOX reprocessing or fast reactor reprocessing means a modest reduction in HLW in exchange for a significant increase in LLW [UCUSA, 2014]

This confirms one of the arguments I’ve long made, fast reactors make no sense, unless you are allergic to money! They’ll end up greatly increasing the costs of nuclear electricity to well past the point where anyone would be willing to pay for it. Yes once-thro does mean throwing away most of the fissile material, but the cost of recovering that material is simply too high. This was essentially the conclusion of both the 2011 MIT report into the nuclear fuel cycle and the Harvard study of 2003. The only situation where either report thought fast reactors (or Thorium) would make the slightest sense would be if renewable costs failed to drop as predicted, energy costs skyrocketed and the cost of uranium soared. None of those have happened, in fact the opposite has happened in all three cases.

Finally, the baseline Bulletin model suggests that using the MOX recycle route will cost $227.5/MWh, although its closer to $254/MWh (£196/MWh) for my “adjusted” model. Some nuclear advocates see MOX recycling as a happy compromise. Yes, we know the fast reactor route isn’t really viable on a technical level, but we can at least get some reuse out the fuel rods via the MOX route and save some money in the process. Well this model suggest no, that’s not the case. Indeed, it suggests that for the UK we’ll be paying more than double the strike price for every kWh of Hinkley’s electricity. And when I say “we” keep in mind that at least half of those costs are being met by the taxpayer not EDF. Indeed, given that the strike price amounts to a subsidy rate of 68% per kWh (paid for by UK bill payers), the actual cost to EDF will be closer to 15% of the cost per MWh of Hinkley….and that still might be enough to break them!

So this model seems to confirm what I’ve heard from one or two in the nuclear industry, who see MOX as the hill on which the nuclear industry is going to die on. As they see it, if and when the dead certificate for nuclear power is written, we won’t be listing “Greenpeace” or “Hinkley” as the cause of death, no it will be “suicide by MOX”. Most of the spiralling costs we associate with nuclear are often those associated with MOX reprocessing (if you think Hinkley is bad, look up the fiasco of Throp or Rokkasho sometime!). Most of the recent accidents have been related to MOX reprocessing and most of the main flash points with protestors are MOX fuel shipments. In short MOX fuel reprocessing is a supersized crap sandwich with a side salad of BS. If the nuclear industry is to have any future this madness has to stop and MOX plants need to close and let us never talk of it again.

So all in all, what this model does show is that the nuclear industry does have some problems. But some of the proposed solutions doing the rounds e.g. making plants more efficient, building them quicker or smaller, FBR’s, MOX or alternative fuel cycles, they don’t make a lot of sense as regards the economics of nuclear energy. In many cases these would actually increase the cost of nuclear energy not reduce it. As I’ve pointed out before, the business model of the industry, that of large LWR’s with once thro fuel processing, might not look great, but there is a reason why the industry has stuck with it since the 70’s. And that because the alternatives are so much worse.

The Hyperloop hyperbole

I discussed the hyperloop proposal sometime ago and I thought I would be worth updating on its progress. On the one hand, they have managed to build a test track and run some tests. However, the critics argue they’ve barely got started and still haven’t tackled any of the major technical challenges yet.

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Figure 1: The first Hyperloop test track [Credit: Hyperloop one]

A structural engineer for example has pointed to a host of challenges hyperloop would face in terms of building the system, protecting it from seismic events, countering the effect of thermal expansion and dealing with NVH issues. The high speeds proposed would mean the system would have to achieve some extremely high manufacturing tolerances, which might not be possible on such a large scale. Certainly if it was possible, it would likely be very expensive. Economic experts with experience of civil infrastructure projects estimate it would cost at least ten times as much as Musk has proposed, perhaps as much as $100 billion, much more expensive than the CHSR project, yet with only 10% of the capacity.

And those NVH issues will make for a very uncomfortable ride. One physicist has suggesting it will be a barf inducing ride (Hyperpuke?). Another points to the enormous technical challenges of maintaining a partial vacuum over a 600 km vacuum chamber, particularly given the needs for thermal expansion joints. And heat represents a particular problem for hyperloop. Aside from the issues of thermal expansion, the compression of air inside the tube, all of that high voltage electrical equipment and even the body of occupants will conspire to create a major cooling problem.

Now while there are solutions to all of these issues, the problem is the complexity of making it all work, while maintaining the sort of tight engineering tolerances needed to do so is going to be a significant challenge, which its likely to take a long time to develop and likely to be very expensive. So when supporters of Hyperloop talk about successful tests being a “kitty hawk” moment, they need to remember how long it took to go from Kitty hawk to reliable long distance air travel.

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Figure 2: Hyperloop’s “Kitty hawk moment”….so only 30-40 years to go then….

And then there’s the thorny issue of safety. Phil Mason (aka Thunderf00t) discusses a number of the engineering challenges faced by hyperloop, but also raises concerns, particularly about the consequences if the tube were to be breached. In such an event, a catastrophic implosion across a section of the tube is likely and the shock-wave released by this down the tube would likely destroy any capsules for a considerable distance in both directions (hence why I suspect the media will be calling it the deathcoaster after the inevitable accident).

Similarly, any stray nut or bolt could destroy a capsule, in much the same way a stray piece of metal on a runway destroyed a Concorde on takeoff. Its worth remembering that the most dangerous section of a flight for a plane is during take off and landing, because the aircraft is travelling at speed in close proximity to the ground and the pilots have no time to do anything should the encounter a major problem. Some of the most deadly aircraft accidents have occurred either on the runway, or just shortly after take off. And being in a pressurised cylinder travelling in a partial vacuum raises some safety concerns as well. Not only of asphyxiation if the capsule the de-pressurizes, but the damage that might do to the hyperloop system itself.

Again, while these issues are solvable (up to a point!), the expensive of maintaining a 600 km long partial vacuum chamber at aircraft level standards is going to be horrendously expensive. My take on this is to ask what is the rather obvious question I don’t think those behind it have asked – what specific advantage does hyperloop offer? And is it worth the enormous expense, time and effort needed to achieve this?

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Figure 3: The concept of a Vac-train is not a new idea, its been promoted from time to time in the past [Credit: Economist, 2013]

Its supporters claim it will be faster than aircraft. However, given the engineering challenges I mentioned earlier, I would argue that’s far from proven. And the best way of solving those challenges would be to lower the operating speed down to more reasonable levels. Given the dangers mentioned earlier, its unlikely hyperloop can be operated more cheaply, particularly given that with aircraft we only have to maintain a plane and the runways, while with hyperloop we need to develop build and maintain one of the largest machines ever built.

You’d still need to go through some sort of security check in and the current proposal for hyperloop, from LA to San Francisco, won’t actually go city centre to city centre, but from the outskirts of both, so any time gained will be thrown away on a bus crawling into town (obviously city centre to city centre would be even more expensive and raise all sorts of planning issues, given the safety issues mentioned earlier).

And besides aircraft can theoretically go faster, Concorde remember went at about Mach 2. Aircraft manufacturers have tried to revive supersonic travel, coming up with new aircraft designs that fly supersonic but with a reduced sonic boom, or fly at high subsonic speeds. However, such projects tend to falter because the feedback they get from the airlines is that there simply isn’t a huge market for such aircraft. Yes there are some people who’d pay more to get from London to New York an hour or two quicker. But the majority of travellers would prefer to just bring a good book and save some cash.

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Figure 4: One of a number of proposals for new supersonic passenger planes under development [Credit Boom, 2016]

So aircraft could theoretically match hyperloop for speed. The only difference is that aircraft manufacturers reckon that the few billion in costs to achieve that wouldn’t be economically viable given the likely small size of any market for such a service. Hyperloop is based on the premise that this market (for something a bit faster than conventional planes) is sufficiently big to justify expenditure in the order of a hundred billion or so. And that hyperloop can deliver on the levels of speed advertised. Neither is likely to be true.

Of course the major down side of planes is that there’s only so many people you can squeeze on them at any one time. Although that said, there are single class versions of the A380 and 747 which can seat over 500 people. But generally, there’s only so many people you can realistically move by aircraft without seeing a rapid escalation in costs. This is where trains gain an advantage. While trains come with large fixed infrastructure costs and high maintenance costs for the track and signal infrastructure, once those have been met, the costs of running trains on it is relatively small. So they are a great way to move lots of people aroundd. And as noted earlier, hyperloop will cost significantly more and yet still only be able to support a fraction of the capacity of the CHSR system.

Trains can also make multiple stops, so that makes them much more useful for joined up journey’s. Hyperloop’s all well and good if you live in LA or the Bay area, but what if you live somewhere between the two and you’re destination is somewhere else between the two cities or further afield. For many journeys trains are better. Trains also bring economic benefits to the towns along their routes. Someone living in Milton Keynes can conceivably live there and afford a three bedroom house, yet commute into work in London. A small business who can’t effort the extortionate rents of the city centre, can base themselves out of a commuter belt town, yet still be able to get in and out of the city. This brings much needed business and tax revenue to communities along the route of a train line, which serves to counter the negative impact of having a train line in your back yard.

Hyperloop by contrast will offer no such benefits. Indeed, given the time county sheriff’s will need to devote resources to protecting it from terrorist attacks, it will likely cost communities along its route money. And given the performance issues I mentioned earlier, hyperloop will not have a lot of leeway to alter its route in order to limit planning objections (as it can’t climb slopes as steeply as a train can, nor undertake tight turns). So the likelihood is its going to be even harder to hammer through hyperloop proposals in the face of local opposition than it is to get a High speed railway line built. And ultimately that’s going to have a significant financial cost.

Would tunnelling solve some of these problems? Possibly, but it would greatly increase the expense. And it depends what we are tunnelling through. Some types of rock are porous and water leaking into the tunnel would become a problem, particularly if you are trying to maintain a partial vacuum (remember anything pumped out of the tunnel, including the air extraction to maintain a partial vacuum, must also now be pumped all the way up to the surface). Others types of rock are very difficult to drill through. Its difficult to seismically isolate a sealed tube buried underground, so it might not work in earthquake zones. Drilling tunnels underground is also going to have an impact on those living above the tunnel. And inevitably some will object and demand compensation.

Another disadvantage of planes is the high energy consumption. Hyperloop might be able to offer lower rates of energy consumption, but its difficult to say, given the thorny question of how much energy we expend making sure that air tight seal is maintained. And, as I discussed in a prior article, there are various ways the airline industry can be cleaned up. It is going to be far more technically feasible to convert aircraft to run on hydrogen or biofuels than it is to develop an entire new transportation system and built all of the infrastructure to support it. And of course, trains are generally the most energy efficient means of transport.

All in all one is forced to the conclusion that hyperloop seems to come with all the disadvantages of train travel along with all the disadvantages of air travel, plus a whole pile of other excess baggage, which does suggest it might not be a terribly viable idea. However for me what really gets my spidey senses tingling is the lack of any response to such criticisms from the designers of hyperloop. Now granted, if you went back in time and asked Wilbur Wright how he would deal with the issues of aircraft safety, he’d likely say well I’ll just let go of the controls, slide off the wing and do a tuck and roll the 4 ft to the ground. So its a bit premature to be talking about the nitty gritty. But equally, that means its a little early to be making inflated predictions as to hyperloops level of performance or costs.

But where hyperloop really jumps the shark for me, is in relation to how they plan to initially use the system for cargo delivery. I mean have these guys even done the most basic market research? You do know that freight is a highly competitive business with very tight margins?

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Figure 5: Average freight revenue per ton-mile [Credit: National Transportation Statistics, 2009]

But I can order something on Amazon and have it delivered by hyperloop in under an hours its supporters say. Ya, if you’re willing to pay a small fortune for hyperloop delivery and if you live directly opposite the terminus at one end and the seller lives at the other end. Otherwise its going to have to go on a truck either end, which isn’t necessarily going to take a direct route. Likely it will take a circular route with multiple stops….so why not just sent it by truck all the way, save money and get it delivered to your door the next day. Indeed this is the whole reason why trucks are so cheap, they are flexible and can make multiple stops along a route. And aircraft can match hyperloop for speed (as discussed) but probably at a much lower cost.

Air freight is made cheaper these days by using the room in cargo holds on passenger flights for air freight. Its so competitive and cheap these days that some UK supermarkets will fly freshly picked groceries from Spain to the UK so costumers can have freshly picked fruit and veg….well until brexit happens anyway. But its difficult to see how hyperloop can compete with either. And of course for bulk cargo delivery, you can’t beat ships or trains. Its precisely why most of the major industrial areas of the world are built near waterways, ports or they are connected to them by railway lines.

So all in all, hyperloop does not live up to the hype. It doesn’t help that its achieved something of a cult following, particularly from libertarians, as they see a relationship between it and a key plot line in an Ayn Rand book. As with other technologies this is leading to a significant overselling of the proposal by those with an irrational and emotional attachment to it.

There is some potential merits to hyperloop no doubt, but at this early stage to even consider it as a realistic alternative to existing transport options is just silly. Certainly thought there is a need to resist the “grass is greener” syndrome associated with it, as there’s always a tendency to see new ideas as better than existing ones, simply because we don’t know what the real problems with the new proposal are.

Blogging catchup

I’m just back from a trip overseas on business, so I thought it would be a good idea to catchup.

Trump pulls out of Paris climate treaty

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It was perhaps inevitable that Trump would pull out of the Paris climate treaty. He’s rowed back on nearly all of his campaign promises, as inevitably many of these policies were just unworkable or unenforceable. The Paris treaty was one of the few things he could actually change, largely because it will take until nearly the end of his presidency to complete the withdrawal (meaning a few months later his successor might well opt to simply re-enter the agreement).

However it has to be said the main loser is going to be the US. There’s a serious case of deja vu here. When G. W. Bush dropped out of the Kyoto protocol, making the same lame arguments about “jobs” and “growth” the end result was that many of the technical experts in fields such as electric cars, fuel cell research and solar panels all went abroad, mostly to Europe and China and helped investors there found companies that are now worth tens of billions of dollars and employ many tens of thousands of people. And inevitably they then exported this technology back to the US. In other words thanks to Bush America ended up having to buy its own technology back off the Chinese and Europeans. Hardly putting “America first” was it!

History will now repeat itself. If Elon Musk gets into trouble and has to start letting staff go, no doubt they’ll just head overseas and get jobs in Chinese or European renewable multinationals. He himself might well get bought out by some Chinese investors who move production overseas. So how exactly are Trump’s actions going to create jobs?….well aside from more jobs in China anyway!

Furthermore, the US hasn’t really got a choice in the matter. Fossil fuels are a finite resource. As I’ve discussed before, the shale gas boom is eventually going to run out of steam. And there’s already signs of a slow down. Climate change is a crisis that will hit the US hard. So regardless of what Republicans think the US will have to give up fossil fuels eventually. What most countries are opting to do is a slow gradual transition. This means that the positives of a renewables boom (i.e. more jobs, more stable energy prices) tends to cancel out the negatives (higher energy prices, the temporary disruption caused by installing renewables infrastructure). Germany is the poster child for this, but a similar policy is playing out in Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Norway, Scotland and Portugal to name a few. And yes, in all of these countries the renewables boom has largely been a positive that has greatly benefited the economy.

However, trying to undertake a crash course in fossil fuels phase out, which Trump has now all but guaranteed America will have to carry out eventually, will likely to be very disruptive to the economy. In short there’s a hard way and an easy way and Trump just committed America to the hard way. The country will be forced some day to undergo a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels, likely when supply shortages, high prices and the damage caused by climate change starts to bite. And they’ll be also forced to import most of the technology to do so from abroad. So Trump has more or less signed America economic death warrant.

Leader of the free world

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Indeed, during Trump’s recent European tour it became rather obvious what level of damage he’s already inflicted on America’s reputation abroad. The fact is that Trump is probably one of the weakest president’s America has ever had. Allegations regard him and his families ties to Russia (and the Saudi’s) have crippled his administration. Plus its all well and good making campaign speeches about how much America pays for NATO. However, around the G7 table it will no doubt have been pointed out that most of America’s military spending is on things nothing to do with NATO (while countries like Germany and Poland spend almost their entire military budget on NATO related activities).

And then we have the issue of Trump’s silence over the Portland murders of two men who came to the defence of a Muslim woman being abused by a Trump supporter. It would have been very easy for him to condemn this, but he did not do so until a good week after. And even then the announcement came from the official US government account, not his own twiter account. This could not be a clearer signal that Trump isn’t just saying racist stuff to curry favour with the KKK brigade, but he is actually a racist and a fascist himself.

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The resulting power vacuum means that someone else had to take up the mantle of leader of the free world. Given that May is leading the UK into self imposed exile (and economic suicide) that rules out the brit’s. So it now falls to Germany to lead the free world. This has both positives and negatives. On the positive side the Germans, even right wingers like Merkel, are considerably more sensible leaders than any recent American president. On the downside, Merkel is a bit risk adverse and not really the sort of person who is good at handling a crisis (as the situation in Greece proved). And the end consequence is a Europe and an EU that’s even more dominated by Germany than before.

Playing chicken

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I need to do a more detailed update of the election situation, but suffice to say the Tory lead is slipping. This was always the risk, elections are fickle affairs, even with the massive lead the Tories had in the polls at the start there’s always a danger events will turn against them. Its possible the polls are wrong and that labour support is being overestimated. But of course its equally possible that the labour lead is being underestimated. While the probability is that the Tories will still win, that doesn’t mean a Tory win is guaranteed (I’d say its an 75% chance of a Tory win, 20% chance of a hung parliament and a 5% chance of a labour win). And all it takes is one scandal, one leak of something the Tories don’t want to reveal in the next few days and the outcome of the election could change.

Of course the Tories must also acknowledge that they are doing badly not because Corybn is some sort of popular political genius in charge of a united party. He’s been unable to get basic facts right and most election literature I’ve seen from labour candidates avoids even mentioning him (by contrast the Tory, lib dem and SNP literature does mention Corbyn, so he’s an electoral asset….for the other parties!). So the reason why the Tories are doing badly in the polls is because they are making a pigs ear of an election that they should otherwise win easily.

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Take the recent election debates, where the wicked witch of Maidenhead Theresa May refused to show up. This was a major miscalculation. Granted, given the risk of her reverting to her true form, showing up to a debate with “people” was always going to be a bad idea. But not showing makes her look weak, arrogant and too chickshit scared to face Corbyn. How exactly is she proposing to deal with the EU if she’s too afraid to face off against some bearded hippy? So this decision could well backfire badly. Although given that the main winner of the debate were the Greens and lib dems, so its likely labour will lose support as well as a result of the debate.

The fact is that unless the Tories win by a significant majority this will be seen by her party as a political failure on her part and I’m guessing there will be a move against her. Then again, I’ve a suspicion that the real reason for the election is that the Tories are hiding something, quite possibly that May will be resigning soon for health reasons (or that she’s about to get caught up in some major scandal and forced to go). So that might well be the case anyway.

Living in a different era

One of the problems with Brexit and any Tory election victory is how it has puffed up the bigot brigade, who feel they can now throw their weight around. For example, we have a slum landlord type in England who is now refusing to let property to “coloured people. We have a jobseeker who was dismissed as a “left wing loon tree hugger (in an e-mail sent to her) and the number of racist incidents reported countrywide has doubled since the vote with 1 in 3 minorities now reporting some form of abuse.

One is forced to conclude this lot live in a different world and brexit has allowed them to start acting out their insane fantasies. However, this puts them at odds with reality, which does bode well for the country’s future.

Take northern Ireland, a key potential flash point for the brexit negotiations. Any changes to the status of the NI border will have profound knock on implications both in Northern Ireland and the South and thus effect the peace process. On the other hand a lack of a hard border makes a hard brexit an exercise in futility. Any migrant can simply get on a bus at Dublin airport and be in the UK within two hours. And as I’ve pointed out before, its goods not people that the UK needs to worry about. An open Irish border with different tariffs either side of it would be mercilessly exploited by smuggler gangs, undercutting the UK economy and probably bankrupting the economy in NI.

However whenever this issue is discussed in the media, scroll down to the comments and you’ll get lots of the brexit bigots referring to Ireland by the historic term “Eire” and voicing their deluded fantasies that not only is there no risk of a border poll (and Northern Ireland voting to leave the UK) but that Ireland might actually vote to re-join the UK. That’s how far out of touch this lot are.

For those who don’t understand the controversy, shortly after Ireland’s independence in the 1920’s the UK adopted a policy of referring to the Irish Republic as “Eire” as they felt that using the English word “Ireland” could be interpreted as support for a united Ireland and they didn’t like using the word “republic” as they were peeved at how we’d rejected rule by the crown. The British stuck to this policy rigidly to the point of absurdity. During the 1948 Olympics in London while all the other nations paraded under a banner with the name of the country in English, Ireland was forced to parade under the “Eire” banner, the only time in Olympic history a country has paraded under its native language.

Of course the irony here is that “Eire” is the Gaelic geographical name for the Island of Ireland. So actually by adopting this policy the UK was arguably voicing support for a united Ireland. This explains why in 1949, presumably after someone had lent them an English/Irish dictionary, the UK did an about face and took to referring to the Irish state as “the republic of Ireland” (or ROI for short). So when I say Brexiters live in a different era, I am not joking, they are literally sticking to a UK policy that dates prior to the 1940’s. That’s the sort of attitude you’re dealing with.

Downgrade of Chinese debt

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One story that seems to have been missed by many was the downgrading of China’s debts by the rating agency Moody’s, blaming concerns over China’s growing private debts. This is the first time the Chinese have suffered a downgrade since 1989. This provoked a furious response from Beijing. Although arguably this less than measured and diplomatic reaction did more harm than the actual downgrade itself.

On the one hand I’d say the Chinese have a point. Its all too obvious that the rating agencies are biased. I recall someone from the Brazilian finance ministry once bemoaning the fact that during the Workers Party era they’d pass a new policy on something completely unrelated to Brazil’s ability to service its debts (e.g. health care or employment law) and the rating agencies would hit them with a downgrade. Even though the UK or US government might well have down something very similar a few months earlier yet they didn’t get hit with a downgrade. Consider that the US has elected a president recently who boasted about reneging on America’s debts. If China is in such big trouble that its credit rating should be cut, then fairness would require that America’s (and the UK) should lose its A rating altogether.

That said, there’s no smoke without fire. Interbank lending and lending to local businesses as well as growing credit card and mortgage debts in China represents something of an unknown quantity in the country, with it unclear how much has been lent to who and how safe those loans are and what’s going to happen when those loans are defaulted on.

Now some will react with glee to the news China might get into trouble. Think again. Alot of the debt buying going on worldwide, both private and public debt, is being handled by China. So if China catches a cold the rest of might get Ebola. Any change in policy in China, e.g. they stop buying bonds or raise interest rates, would have a amplified knock effect in the west. Mortgage rates would soar, inflation would skyrocket. A devaluation of the RMB would suddenly make many Western goods uncompetitive and could push Western states into recession. While its often pointed out how much of America’s debt’s (both private and public) is owed to China (and thus Trump supporters seem to feel they can just up and renege on that), they forget that two thirds of it is owed to other Americans, mostly pension funds. So any American default of its foreign debts to China would likely bankrupt the entire US pension system overnight.

So this is something that should concern us all. Anyone urging the likes of Trump or May to play some sort of “great game” with China needs to realise what’s at stake – namely keeping your job and not living out your retirement in a dumpster! The trouble is, as recent events have shown above, there’s more than enough people in both the UK and US who will cut off their own nose to spite their face.

The biggest corruption scandal in history

And speaking of Brazil, operation car wash, the investigation that brought down the presidency of Dilma Rousseff, continues and its quickly growing into one of the biggest corruption scandals in world history. Its becoming clear also that crimes of Rouseff or her predecessor Lula were actually fairly minor and that the main reason why she was removed was more because she refused to try and slow down or halt the investigation. So her impeachment is looking more and more like a de-facto coup.

And the current president Temer and his party have their grubby little paw prints all over this scandal. Its clear that they have been on the take far more than Rouseff’s workers party. And since coming to power, we’ve seen key persecutors fired and replaced with political lackies of the president, judges dying in mysterious circumstances, witnesses disappearing, etc. To say this stinks is to put it mildly. There is a very real risk this crisis could bring down the entire Brazilian political system or possibly lead to a coup.

Ruinair

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Given past experience with British Airways I purposely didn’t fly with them this time and avoided Heathrow like the plague. So I wasn’t entirely surprised by the news that BA had all sorts of IT problems (not that their recent penny pinching cuts have anything to do with that!), nor with news of them leaving passengers in the lurch.

The fact is that the only difference between BA and Ryanair is that Ryanair are cheaper and generally on time. In a crisis BA will just fob you off and abandon you just as quickly as the budget airlines. So you may as well fly Ryanair or Easyjet and save yourself a few bob. And I am by no means alone. I know lots of business traveller who won’t get on a BA flight, even if their employer is paying for it. I welcome the day when BA collapses, much as Alitalia is currently going bankrupt.

The Case for Space?

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Figure 1: Could space travel and eventual colonisation help solve some of the world’s environmental problems?

I’ve been doing a bit of speculation recently on my energy blog about who space policy and sustainability might interconnect. In short, can space colonisation offer a possible solution to resource shortages or over-population? I’ve broken the answer down across three posts below:

Space a sustainability solution? A critical review

In the first article I look at the goals of space colonisation as well as the technical obstacles involved, notably in terms of propulsion technology and launch vehicle design. And to be clear, we are talking about space colonisation here, not space exploration, that’s two entirely different things.

Is it possible to significantly reduce the costs of launching payloads into space? The answer I suspect is, yes, which could make exploration cheaper and easier, but probably not by enough to make colonisation possible any time soon.

Space a sustainability solution – Part 2: Living on the high frontier

Not least because, as discussed in this second article, the problems associated with getting into space are small compared to the issues that come with living in space. Certainly, its possible for humans to live for extend periods on world’s like Mars or the Moon. But its far from proven if permanent habitation is possible.

And its also far from proven that we can sustain life support off earth for any colonists without regular resupply from earth, so any such colonies wouldn’t be a “backup” earth, as they’d be wholly dependant on earth for survival.

And one also has to question the motivations. With the exception of low level extraction of rare earth or precious metals, its difficult to build a credible and economically viable plan for space colonisation. I doubt we’ll be moving large number of people off the planet any time soon.

The case for space – Part 3: Martian delusions

Finally, I look at the recent announcements from groups such as Mars One, the Mars Society and Elon Musk’s proposals for Mars exploration and colonisation.

In short, one is left to ask if Mars one is an outright scam or merely a textbook example of the Dunning Kruger effect.

Bob Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan has some merit, although there are some holes in it, notably as it relies on a number of untested elements.

Unfortunately Elon Musk’s plans, which are based on Mars direct (just on a larger scale) also has a number of possible holes and potential show stoppers. Its possible they might be able to overcome these issues, but my guess is that it will take a lot longer that he proposes to get such a program off the ground and cost an awful lot more. And again, the jury is out as to whether Martian colonisation is even possible, or even a good idea.

The greater fool fallacy and Trump

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There are some who support Trump even though they know he’s a bigot and a racist, but they support him despite this, because they think he offers the possibility of significant change (same goes with quite a few who voted for Brexit). That he can be manipulated into doing certain things other politicians won’t do. Other politicians would feel the need to run things by “advisors” and “experts” and worry about public opinion (or put the idea to focus groups), then realise its not going to work and hesitate. A shoot from the hip type president will do things others won’t, because he’ll act first without thinking things through.

Examples of those looking to exploit a future president include space cadets, the far right and even some elements of the far left (Bernie Sanders types who took all that anti-Hillary stuff way too seriously). I’ve even heard it argued by some Chinese that Trump would be better for China than Hillary because she’ll stand up to China, while he’s such a good business man (the sort that’s gone bankrupt 4 times?), he’d do a deal with them. At the very least Trump undermines the case for democracy, which Beijing likely sees as helpful. In all cases the assumption of these groups is a variation on the “greater fool theory”, in that they think he’s a bigger fool than them and hence can be manipulated. However as I will discuss, this is a dangerous fallacy.

By way of example, let’s take the space cadet brigade. Much of the pro-Trump rhetoric I’m hearing from them is more or less identical to the stuff I was hearing about G. W. Bush back in 2000. The assumption was he was more pro-space than Al Gore, largely because Bush was seen as an amiable dunce. How did that work out? Well within the first few months of office, he gutted the NASA’s science budget to pay for tax cuts to his wealthy donors. Several important projects were cancelled, from space missions to Jupiter (only recently resurrected and flown under Obama), the Helios solar drone project (as I discussed in a recent post), various shuttle replacement proposals and much more, all were defunded. This put NASA in an awkward position after the Colombia crash as they were left with no obvious alternative to the shuttle.

The Colombia disaster did give Bush the opportunity to reset US space policy. And he did come up with something a little more appealing to them. But his policy was completely disjointed. His proposals were a mishmash of whatever he felt would appease the space cadets and the corporate lobbyists, yet without any extra funding attached. The Ares 1 rocket was clearly one designed by lobbyists rather than engineers, whose sole purpose was to make sure the same contractors building and servicing the shuttle kept their jobs. As one commentator at the time put itNASA is being expected to carry out John Kennedy’s space program with Bill Clinton’s space budget”.

Within months critics were panning his plans as unworkable, I was even hearing rumours  of Bush’s plan being referred to as “project Cancellation” within NASA rather than its official title Constellation, as it was widely assumed that such an obviously unworkable project would not survive multiple president’s and multiple layers of congressional oversight. Indeed it was mostly all cancelled by the end of Obama’ 1st term. So Bush (again the supposed champion of the space cadets) score card would show that he ran NASA into the ground and essentially ended US manned space flight.

So what’s likely to happen with Trump in charge? Well my guess is that he too will initially gut NASA’s budget, to pay for tax cuts and various other vanity projects. And as a vain and insecure person who bears grudges he will cut not what’s cutable but what cuts will punish his perceived enemies. If California votes against him (as expected) he’ll likely shut down JPL or Ames. If Virginia votes democrat, what’s the bet that Langley will be closed? Naturally anything with the word “environment” in it will go too, which is a lot of NASA’s budget (often one of the best ways of learning how the atmosphere of Mars works is by studying our own).

While I suspect Trump could be eventually persuaded to back something like a mission to Mars (as a vanity project), he will only be doing so on basis of lining his own pockets. The contracts won’t go to someone sensible like Elon Musk (unless Musk bows before him and kisses his rings and slip him a few quid in the next few months), but to whichever of his cronies promises him the largest cut of the money they skim off the top. Who knows maybe he’ll do what he did with the Trump towers and give the contact to some Mafia front (Goodfella’s Rocket Company?). Which is probably rather fortunate because it will prevent him actually flying any hardware that might kill someone. Any proposal backed by Trump for a Mars mission will likely either be some sort of one way suicide mission (with Hillary and Elizabeth Warren slated as flight crew!) of the Mars one variety, or a two way Banzai charge of the sort the Mars society proposes.

As for those on the left, do you honestly think Trump a wealth corrupt buffoon is really going to promote a leftist agenda? Yes he may pull back from international trade agreements, but what he replaces it with will be written to suit the elites like him. And those on the far right, yes he might build a wall or do something about immigration, but he’s not going to end it or deport anybody. After all some of these Mexicans work in his hotels. Do you think he wants to end up having to hire a load of Americans instead? They’d be asking for minimum wage and paid vacation time, then keep bringing up their “rights”. Trump’s plan will be to control immigration for his benefit, not end it.

As for Brexiters, Trump is not going to sign up to a trade deal with a post-Brexit UK which would put those who funded his campaign or his blue collar supporters at a disadvantage. And as for the Chinese, while I suspect Trump would eventually leave China better off after launching a trade war (or worse an actual war) with China and losing, but this is hardly positive. Its like arguing that Hitler was an all American hero because his actions left America much stronger after world war II. For sure Hillary will be a pain in the ass, both for the UK and the Chinese. But she’s not going to do anything stupid. She’s not going to start a war for the sake of the Philippines (doubly so now they’ve elected their own version of Donald Trump).

And bringing up the matter of Hitler, its worth remembering that he too was a product of this “greater fool” fallacy. Many of those who helped him into power, notably those on the centre right of Germany at the time did so because they saw him as a useful idiot, who could be manipulated and controlled once in power. Of course they soon found out this wasn’t the case. Putin too came to power as a result of being seen as a puppet, who like his predecessor could be manipulated and controlled….just one who could stay sober for more than five minutes. But quickly Putin showed himself to be less a puppet of the Oligarchs and more the puppet master.

Voting for a madman like Trump on the assumption that you can control him is a bit like opening the gate on a lion’s pen and assuming you can control the lion, just cos you saw someone do it on the Discovery channel. Its a logical fallacy and amounts to a tacit admission that whatever you are advocating is basically unworkable. Any plan or proposal that is unable to withstand the rigours of conventional politics and requires a madman in charge to implement is by definition a bad idea.

Weekly roundup

Veto warning

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At a conference to discuss the post-Brexit future of the EU, the UK was warned that the EU would make leaving “very painful”, if any form of immigration controls were included. Indeed, the threat was made of a possible veto of any deal by four Eastern European countries, if the UK refused to guarantee freedom of travel. Its unclear if this applies to just current EU citizens in the UK or future arrivals. However, the message is clear, the Brexit position on immigration is not going to be allowed, it is not and never was a deliverable possibility.

But we do 60% of our trade with the EU the brexiters claim, why would the EU jeopardise that? Well because it might be 60% of the UK’s trade, but its only about 10% of the EU’s trade. And certain countries will bear the brunt of that. Others, such as the Eastern European countries making these threats, will not be seriously effected. There is no way the rEU or the UK can bully them out of a veto. So if the UK tries to stonewall the EU, as the three brexiters seem to plan on doing, they will be in for a rude awakening.

Keep in mind at the point where this veto will be made it would be at the back end of negotiations where the UK has likely just days or weeks away from essentially being chucked out of the EU and EEA if it doesn’t get a deal. In such circumstances a panicked climb down by the UK seems very likely.

As always my suspicion is that cooler heads will prevail long before we get to this stage. Some sort of horse trade will be done, EU citizens will have to fill out some forms and will not be entitled to benefits for a few years (although that could result in a rebate of their taxes back to their country of origin). The swivel eyed loons will be told they’d got immigration controls, but in truth nothing substantial will have changed.

 

Academic poaching

And as if to underline what’s at stake here, there have been warning about how much of the UK’s key science centres are now a risk of being poached. Either individual scientists, or the entire institutes themselves might well move in the next few years.

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As I mentioned in previous posts, a lot of the funding for these institutes comes from the EU. And they also get quite a bit of private sector funding too (often the EU funding is dependant on them raising matching funds from the private sector). And many research centres and university’s in Britain will have a small network of high-tech start ups around them, which will both assist and be dependant on the success of said institute at securing funding. Getting that funding outside the EU gets very complicated very quickly. Freedom of travel is also crucial to science and I can’t see how these institutes could function if that were to end.

So the price the UK could pay, is much of its very best and brightest, everything from Fusion energy research to graphene could potentially move overseas in the next few years. Then again, many Brexiters seem to be the anti-science troglodytes who’d rather go back to the 1950’s. Well be careful what you wish for……

 

ITT Tech

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Just prior to the Brexit vote the Universities minister issued two statements which caused great concern in academia. The first was his intention of allowing for-profit universities in the UK. The 2nd was his statement that “some providers may exit the market”, or in other words, the government is okay with the thought of universities going bankrupt.

Well we had a warning this month of what the likely consequences of such a policy would be. ITT Tech, the parent company of several for-profit universities across the US went bankrupt just before the start of term. This left tens of thousands of students out of pocket and with no university place to start or continue their studies at. Many of them have now been left in limbo.

And the reasons for their collapse? Poor standards of education, well below those of mainstream universities and accusations of predatory practices. ITT tech students were some of the the most heavily indebted students in America. And incidentally some of that debt was owed to the US government. Students are now refusing to pay back these loans, arguing the collapse is the fault of the government for failing to regulate ITT tech properly.

So I would ask anyone in the Tory party or any government minster, do you really want to see this sort of scandal play out in the UK? And before you answer that question, take out an electoral map of the UK, work out how many marginal seats are in (or near) a university town and after you’ve worked out how, estimate by how much you’d lose the next election, perhaps then you might decide to reconsider this policy.

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Tweeting twits in cars

cellphones-and-cars

There was recent talk about increasing the number of penalty points for mobile phone use in cars to 6 . In some respects I can see the point of this. Far too often I’ve seen people driving along, not just talking on a mobile held to their ear, but texting with it. And I mean sometimes when I’ve been cycling or walking along at night I’ve noticed drivers gliding along with their face down at the phone, trying to drive with one hand and half an eye on the road. You do have to worry about some people.

However, the danger with such knee jerk legislation, is that it can often lead to overzealous enforcement by the police. Keep in mind the cops have done people for blowing their nose at a traffic light or threatened to arrest a four year old child for riding a kiddies bike on the pavement. Given the cops an inch in the UK and they will take things to an illogical extreme.

What counts as mobile phone use in a car? For example, I’ll sometimes use my mobile as an Mp3 player. Now I’ll plug it in and set everything up before I start driving, but occasionally I might need to just hit the volume button or turn it on/off (without taking my eyes off the road of course and only when its safe to do so). Does that count? Should I get 6 points for that? Now okay, maybe you say yes it does count, in which case I suppose I’ll just listen to the radio instead, will adjusting the volume on the radio now get me 6 points? Because its essentially doing the same thing. Or how about adjusting the air-con, or the sat nav? Keep in mind that there are time you’ll need to adjust these systems for safety reasons (e.g. its night, the sat nav display is too bright so you turn it off or tap it into night mode, your coming up to a busy junction, you hit the mute button on the radio so it doesn’t distract you, windows start to fog up, you need to clear them, etc.).

And I bring this up because it has a legal bearing for me. I have an Irish license and while the Irish government does transfer points issued by the UK authorities onto Irish license, they don’t give the UK courts a rubber stamp. We have this long standing principle in Ireland of “rights” and “due process”. And any Irish court would likely take a dim view of saying doing such and such a thing with a mobile is enough to lose you your license, but doing the same thing with the car radio is okay. Indeed the Irish government has been having difficulty securing convictions for its own laws against in car mobile use.

And to go slightly off topic, but there’s a Brexit dimension here. While I suspect the transfer of penalty points across the Irish border will continue (its a bilateral agreement and nothing to do with the EU) I’m not sure about other EU countries. I suspect any such rules the UK has with the rest of the EU will end with Brexit. Meaning Polish lorry drivers will be able to not only use their phones while driving without fear, but speed as fast as they like and park wherever they like and there’s basically nothing that plod can do about it other than go whistle Dixie. Keep in mind I already know people from the continent who regularly just tear up parking tickets they get in the UK and put them straight in the bin. Such rules are difficult to enforce at the moment, post Brexit it will be impossible. And again its the tendency of the UK legal system to ignore the basic principles upon which any proper legal system is supposed to work that’s to blame.

But I digress. Clearly one has to wonder how out of hand such measures could get and how difficult it becomes to enforce. Might I suggest a more common sense approach. If you are so addicted to your phone that you can put it down for a few minutes while driving maybe you need to decide which is more important, your ability to drive safely or your phone? Keep in mind that if you travel by public transport instead not only can you text and tweet to your hearts content, but many buses and trains theses days come with free wifi. #OMG

And in much the same way that anyone stumbling out of pub with car keys is likely to be rugby tackled and subject to a citizens arrest these days, if you see someone in the car behaving recklessly with a phone (or turning his head away from the road and trying to tune the radio), point out to them how dangerous this is. #where_did_that_tree_come_from? #Sad face

 

Unsporting behaviour

There was some controversy this week when one of the Brownlee brothers helped the other across the line to win a bronze medal. The British media looked on this as brothers in arms, or good sportsmen ship. Ah, no! I’m afraid its what’s known as “cheating”.

The rules of individual sports like the triathlon are very clear, you cannot assist in any way another competitor, nor can they or should they except such help. Riders have been disqualified in the past just because a spectator (never mind another runner) was seen to push them. Until a few years ago triathletes weren’t even allowed to slipstream during the cycling stage of a triathlon. Giving or accepting aid like this isn’t just against the rules, it violates the very spirit of the sport itself.

Put it this way, if a Polish or Chinese athlete had done the same thing and a British athlete had been denied a medal, would the UK media be reacting the same way? Probably not. We can’t have one rule for those who are popular with the media (and have a good sponsorship deal) and another rule for everyone else. There’s little point in getting worked up about Russian doping, if were going to apply the full weight of the law to one group of athletes and ignore them for others.

So while I hate to be mean, but both brothers should have been disqualified for this. And should another “hand of god” like moment happen in a future football match, I don’t want to hear any English whinging about how unfair it all is. You’ve gain just as much, if not more, unfair advantage in sports as everyone else.

 

Not so fancy bears

And speaking of sports there were more revelations about the medical records of British athletes. Now to be fair, if the Russians are trying to tar everyone with the same brush, they are failing. What these records show is that the sort of massive state sponsored doping isn’t going on in the UK or US. However, that’s not to say all of the UK’s athletes are angels. The revelations do flag up some worrying questions.

Quite a few appear to regularly be benefiting from what’s called TUE’s basically an excuse to use a banned substance for medical reasons. The problem is that known drug cheats like Lance Armstrong were known to use these as a way of getting around tests, when they realised (or feared) they might fail a test. So an athlete regularly getting these, while it doesn’t prove anything, it certainly doesn’t look good. In short, anyone who believes doping begins and ends with Russian, think again.

 

The Empire club

A restaurant in Australia is in hot water after calling itself the Colonial club, a sort of colonial themed restaurant for public school boys who are ignorant of history. Naturally this is causing much offence and there are calls for it to be closed down. One wonders if they do a Jallianwahla Bagh cocktail, or an Irish Famine potato salad or how about the Hola special?

What is it about Empire that the Brit’s don’t get? One of the Brexiters put up a tweet (in reaction to another one showing the EU top of the medal table at the Olympics) claim the British Empire “won” the Olympics. British need to understand that to some people this is the equivalent of going up to a Polish person and saying how much better they were under the third reich. There are only two occasions where bringing up the British Empire isn’t going to get you in trouble:
A) You’re Prince Philip (we sort of expect this stuff from him!)
B) At a memorial for the victims of a British empire massacre, explaining why it was so terrible

 

The joys of Hitchhiking

A French hitchiker in New Zealand went beserk this week after spending 4 days by the side of the road and not getting picked up. To be honest, I think if you are hitch-hiking, you need to have a better strategy. And in a remote area, you need to have a plan B in case you don’t get picked up, e.g. walk to where you want to go and if you don’t get picked up along they way, you’ll get there anyway. Or have a public transport option you can call on.

One of the issues I take with this story was how he was called “a spoilt millennial”. First of all, Millennials are really an invention of marketeers who like to segment people into neatly defined groups. An many of those qualities they ascribe to “millennials” don’t actually gel with the facts, as this Adam Conover video discusses. I teach a lot of “millennials” and I know of just as many who are spoilt selfie takers with a sense of some sort of god given entitlement, as I know similar people from previous generations. It certainly does not fit the description of the average Millennial I know. Indeed it was mostly baby boomers with there sense of entitlement who voted for Brexit, not millennial’s (whom the baby boomers screwed over).

Sunday service

A few stories that caught my eye over the last week……

Blackouts & Newspeak

With Hinkley C now hanging in the balance, the National Grid seem to be waking up to the realisation that its unlikely we’ll be getting any new power infrastructure in time to offset the likely decommissioning of the UK’s ageing coal and nuclear plants. So they seem to be putting their faith in energy efficiency measures instead.

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Keep in mind a few years ago, I was scoffed at for making such a suggestion at a conference by someone from NG, who felt such measures were unnecessary or that they won’t work (he was trying to argue the case for Hinkley C and how the ground would open and swallow the country if it isn’t built). And these very measures were part of the so-called “Green crap” Cameron cut to keep his allies in the fossil fuel and nuclear industry happy, just a few years ago. So there’s a certain “newspeak” element to this whole story as a result.

Now, I’m all for energy efficiency measures. I have long argued they are a big part of the solution. If we can’t build renewables quickly enough (nor nuclear for that matter) to meet the growing need for power and reduce carbon emissions, then we need to cut consumption. However, this road to Damascus conversion ignores three crucial points.

Firstly, there’s a law of diminishing returns in play here. You can make some big drastic savings early on (if you build the right infrastructure of course), but beyond a certain tipping point, you’ll be scrapping the bottom of the barrel. Energy efficiency, by saving people money, can actually encourage further energy use. Think about it, if I could double the fuel economy of your car, you’d probably drive it more regularly won’t you? Ultimately you still need to be producing power, and you will need to build some new power plants (be they renewable, fossil fuel fired or nuclear). This whole crisis is a result of the UK government’s failure to adopt a long term energy policy, throwing one industry under the bus after another, to the point nobody in their right mind would invest in a power station in the UK (renewable, nuclear or otherwise) unless you basically bribe them.

Secondly, a lot of the better energy efficiency measures require changes to how the grid works. They will not go ahead unless the government gives firm signals that it is adopting an appropriate long term energy policy. For example, the most obvious way of cutting carbon emissions is to switch from a handful of centralised thermal power stations, to a network of smaller decentralised CHP plants. Even running on fossil fuels, this cuts carbon emissions by at least 25%. Some European countries get 40% of their electricity from such power stations. They can also effectively backup intermittent renewable energy sources. But again, without building the hardware, you can’t implement it. And they will only work as part of a coherent overall strategy.

And thirdly there’s the ticking clock. Any energy plan for the UK needs action to be taken now. There are no quick fixes, no easy short cuts. Those boats sailed some time ago. The government has to take action asap and put its money where its mouth is, or any energy plan no matter how well meaning it is, will fail.

Irish apple…..and not the fruit!

For years Apple had been playing the double Irish tax dodge, only to recently get caught out. The EU’s just tapped them for 13 billion euro in back taxes. To put that in prospective, that’s about Ireland’s health budget for a year.

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Oddly enough rather than Leinster house cracking open champagne bottles and starting to work out what we’re going to spend all this money on (that’s enough to buy every adult in the country about 900 pints of the black stuff…now there’s a thought…), they are thinking of appealing. Why? Okay it does hurt Ireland reputation a bit, but so what, if Apple was here for the reasons it claims (i.e. to take advantage of a well educated workforce, I know they do a lot of co-funded research with Irish uni’s), then this ruling shouldn’t change anything.

If they were here for the tax dodge then feck em. They want to piss off back to California, fair enough. The Brexiters were dancing a jig about how Apple might move to the UK. That’s unlikely as the rate of taxation in Ireland is still lower than the UK’s. And lets be clear about what the Brexiters are proposing, they think that British tax payers should subsidise the profits of one of the world’s largest and most profitable companies. Seriously? Try selling that one in the middle of the next election! Voting for Corbyn suddenly starts to sound like a good idea.

So I say hang’em out to dry!

Olympic hijackings

And speaking of which, Brexiters have been trying to talk up how great everything is post-Brexit. They’ve picked up on everything from the Olympics, ignoring the fact how most medal winners are mostly young people, i.e. the people who voted remain, plus quite a few are from immigrant families and won’t be here if the UKIP brigade had its way, doubly so if lottery funding was ended, as some on the right have been long calling for. UK sports also receives money from the EU btw.

Speaking of which, Trump has been unusually quiet about the Olympics. Probably because it doesn’t fit into his narrative of a “broken” America, when they are finishing top of the medal table. And if Mexico isn’t sending the US their best, how about those Mexican American medal winners? Or what about the American Muslim and Jewish athletes? How unamerican of them to train hard and win medals! I particularly like Libertarian Gray Johnson’s tweet, he questioned if Trump was only watching the Olympics to see how high the Mexican pole vaulters could go.

Oh and incidentally, while many athletes didn’t want to talk about Brexit or Trump, those that did ain’t exactly supporters.

Brexit blues

But I digress, Brexiters have also jumped on the slightest hint of good economic news, ignoring the fact that things like factory output or employment figures often reflect conditions several months ago, i.e. before Brexit was announced, or can be thrown off by seasonal factors.

The real threat from Brexit was, and still is long term trends. As the saying goes its the bears that get you in the end, not the stags running for cover. Brexiters might want to spare a thought for example to the workers at Catepillar in Northern Ireland, who were told this week, hundreds of whom were losing their jobs. Further job losses appear to be imminent in ICL. Its possible they may follow in Ford and Nissan over the next few months and years, with other car makers likely to follow. Lloyds of course axed 3,000 last month over Brexit.

Solent News

Indeed recruiters argued that they were seeing a slow down in recruitment levels even before Brexit, as companies brought in hiring freezes in advance of the referendum. In some sectors recruitment rates are now “in freefall, as many companies have held onto those hiring freezes since then. Also even if you’ve been given leave to recruit, as my uni’s been finding, its next to impossible to hire new staff. Think about it, if you’ve got a job already would you risk changing jobs in the present climate? If you move jobs and your new employer decides to start down sizing, it will likely be last in first out, so who in their right mind would want to move? They only way we can recruit now is by hiring people on contract and paying them exorbitant day rates.

And yes, I’m aware there are employment laws meant to prevent LIFO type layoff’s, however I think you’ll find the fine print says they are EU laws. And the chances of a Tory government protecting the rights of employees is somewhere between slim and none.

Now all of this was inevitable. As I’ve pointed out before, UK manufacturing is going to take a hit and Northern Ireland is going to have it the worst post-Brexit. Companies aren’t going to rush for the exits, but they will slow down investment in the UK and stop hiring. Of course this will leave UK factories uncompetitive, meaning any time things are looking lean, they will inevitably pull production in UK firms first, particularly those in Northern Ireland. So let’s not kid ourselves people are losing jobs, or the opportunity to get a job as a result of Brexit. And if you think things are bad now, wait a few years!

Ambushed on Brexit

Indeed Theresa May appears to have been ambushed at the latest G20 talks, by both the Japanese and Americans, who are starting to put the squeeze on the Brits. As I mentioned in prior posts a UK government post-Brexit is going to come under enormous pressure, from international leaders, business, the army and even the government’s own civil servants. This means Brexit, actually might not mean Brexit, or it might just mean the UK becoming a sort of side kick to the EU (sorry, hero support!).

A winter of discontent?

The doctors are threatening a 5 day strike, so I hope everyone’s feeling fit and healthy and not planning on getting ill for a while. And southern rail is still in the grip of industrial action by disgruntled staff…while announcing a £100 million in profit! In both cases the employers are blaming the workers for the strikes…or even Jeremy Corbyn! Which is a bit like overloading a donkey with stuff and then getting angry with the donkey when it collapses from exhaustion.

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The fact is that the government’s policy of squeezing doctors isn’t working, its creating major problems for the NHS. And their policy on privatisation (health care or the railways) is inherently flawed. So their solution is to paper over the cracks and pretend they aren’t there. And likely thanks to Brexit, make strikes harder to hold in future. Will this means things improve post-Brexit? No! Doctors will likely move overseas, we’ll find it even harder to recruit new ones and similarly the situation on the UK’s trains will get even more strained.

You could argue that both junior doctors and the southern rail company are the canaries in the coal mine for problems the rest of the NHS and the rail network will experience further down the line.

Corbyn caught out

And speaking of trains, Corbyn claimed to have sat on the floor the other week all the way to Newcastle, as the train was “ram packed”. But Virgin revealed that actually that wasn’t how things had panned out. Clearly this was a half arsed attempt at the sort of political street theatre other parties engage in all of the time. The trouble is that Corbyn is such a hate figure for many that he can’t pull something like this off. He seems to drive people to a level of maddening hatred. He’s less a party leader and more of a punch bag.

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Consider that I once lost my bag on a Virgin train. I reported it, but they were never able to relocate it. They knew the train, the carriage and the seat number I was in, how much trouble would it have been to go through the CCTV and try to trace the bag? But instead they were quite happy to look at the CCTV footage for several carriages on likely more than one train for several hours to see what Corbyn got up too. This should show you how far Corbyn’s opponents will go to stick the knife in….and how little Virgin cares about its customers.

SpaceX explosion

SpaceX the upstart rocket company founded by Elon Musk suffered a serious technical failure the other day, with a rocket exploding on the pad. They’ve not said why yet, but I could not help but notice that the explosion seemed to start at the upper stage. This suggests some sort of malfunction with the rockets controls (e.g. the upper stage motor fired early), or perhaps a flash fire further down precipitating upwards (think of a champagne bottle…just one filled with rocket fuel).

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Some have started to question if this accident now threatens the future of SpaceX. Well it shouldn’t. Rockets are the very definition of extreme engineering. The most reliable rockets in the world have a success rate of 92%….or put it another way they blow up 1:12 of the times they are launched. SpaceX’s record, if we count this explosion as its 2nd failure out of 29 attempts counts as a 1:14.5 failure rate, well below the best the rest of the industry can manage. Its just that most of the other rockets tend not to fail so publicly, so the media don’t notice.

And SpaceX has pointed that even if the rocket was manned, its escape rocket system would likely have saved the crew. So rumours of SpaceX’s demise are perhaps greatly exaggerated.

Pulling power

One of the first things you notice state side is how much bigger cars are there. There seems to be lots of people who opt for some outrageously large SUV or pick up truck. The perfect thing for towing the boat they don’t own up the mountain they don’t live near. I’ve always felt skeptical of these behemoths feeling they are more pony and less draft horse. Well now I’ve got proof.

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Consider this video of a tug of war between a British Land Rover defender, with a 2.5L engine (at most 160 hp) and a kerb weight of about 1.6 tonnes (they do aluminium bodied versions that weight even less than this, I’m assuming this is the standard steel bodied version) against a Dodge Ram 3500 (Cummin’s Diesel version) with a 5.9L engine and weighing in at closer to 3 tonnes. Who wins?

Well if you watch the video, you’ll see its the Land Rover. Which is not that huge a surprise if you know anything about power to weight ratios. The Land Rover might be smaller and lighter, but that just means its got more power to devote to pulling the Dodge backwards. Driver skill and a manual transmission (with I assume a low torque selector and a diff-lock) also probably makes a big difference.

Plus a lower kerb weight means for lower ground pressure, an important feature in a 4×4 given the need to drive across muddy fields. Hence why real farmers or off road drivers use a Land Rover (or a range of other similar and more practical vehicles, the Toyota Hilux for example). While things like the Dodge Ram are aimed at men, with Trump like small hands, seeking to compensate for something else that’s very small.

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Non Rio news

Brexit guarantee

Reacting to the wide scale dismay over possible funding cuts, the UK government has committed about £6 billion a year to guarantee post-EU funding in areas such as farming and scientific research. But critics argue it doesn’t go far enough. Indeed, I would argue its very worrying as it suggests the government simply does not get the message.

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The UK receives billions in research funding from the EU

Take research funding. A clause in the government guarantee implies it only applies to research funding contracts signed before the autumn statement comes out. Given that many of those grants went in the bin on the 24th of June it is highly unlikely they could be resurrected between now and then. That’s not how academia works.

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For UK farmers subsidies are their main source of income

I’ve been quite busy the last week with resit exam marking, I’ve got viva resits coming up and the start of term. It would be mid-October before I or anyone else in academia could get around a table. And it would then take a few weeks or months for the EU to then okay everything. Keep in mind most of the EU research at risk involves collaborative research projects, across multiple states, so even with Brexit it will involve the EU. And typically the EU will only provide a portion of the funds, we then source the rest from private industry. Naturally the private sector, worried about the economic impact of Brexit might still say no.

And what about freedom of movement? A leave supporting MP only recently realised Brexit might leave EU citizens in limbo, nah you think! If I need to recruit a PhD student or a Research Assistant with a specific and narrow set of skills, its questionable if I can do that if I’m only restricted to the UK. Any doubt about my ability to recruit and the other partners (public and private) in the EU will still be asking me to take my name off the application. The fact that the government doesn’t realise any of this just shows you how out of touch they are.

More importantly this announcement more or less confirms what I’d warned before the referendum. That you can forget about that £350 million a month. The UK will still need to pay the EU for access to the single market. Keep in mind Norway pays something like 90% per capita of what they UK pays, we’ll suffer the drop in tax revenue that comes with leaving the EU (due to reduced trade) and we have to come up with several billion more a year extra too.

In short the UK is already worse off and we’ve not even got to the tricky parts of the negotiations yet (where we have to agree to call Cheddar “reconstituted lard” and English wine as “Du Vin Roast beef”).

China warns the UK over Hinkley C

The Chinese have issued a strongly worded warning to the UK over the threat to the Hinkley C deal. As always, this goes way beyond a simple nuclear power plant. It shows what sort of pressures the UK will face post-Brexit.

Chinese President state visit - Preparations

China unveil’s its prototype reactor at Hinkley point

Leave campaigners, will argue that they can get a trade deal quicker off other countries than the EU can, which often takes years or decades to negotiate a deal. This is true, in much the same way I could buy a car tomorrow in ten minutes flat….if I didn’t mind going to a dodgy Arthur Daley type and taking whatever cut and shut banger he offered! Getting a good deal means haggling and much arm twisting. The EU can do this because they are one of the world’s largest collective economy’s. The UK can’t because the Chinese (or US) will have the UK over a barrel. Its their way or the highway.

Hence, I suspect Hinkley C will still go ahead, regardless. Its an offer the British can’t refuse.

Leave turf war

Speaking of international trade, there’s a bit of a turf war going on between Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. Both argue that they are entitled to negotiate future international trade agreements. I’m wondering if Theresa May has, rather ghoulishly, taken a leaf out of Hitler’s book. In that he would often put people he didn’t like in departments with overlapping responsibilities and then sit back and watch them squabble.

In short one has to wonder if a number of the Brexiter’s are being set up to fail. Hence when the article 50 business is kicked into the long grass and ignored until after the next election, nobody can complain, and its the Brexit camp who will get the blame.

Norwegian…based in Ireland?

I travelled to Scandinavia over the summer. One thing that I found surprising to learn that the budget airline Norwegian is flagged in Ireland. Why? Well simple, because Ireland is in the EU. Norwegian has big plans to expand across the Atlantic and they know how protective the US is of its businesses (land of the free…but only if you contribute to my congressional campaign!).

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Norwegian Airlines…..flagged in Ireland

Indeed the Americans have raised concerns about how European budget airlines operate. Its also alleged that Norwegian plan on using air crews hired in from Asia for its Transatlantic operations. While I would tend to agree, budget airlines are pushing things a bit too far, but this is clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black. American airlines have become notorious for squeezing the margins and pushing their pilots way too hard. There have in fact been several air crashes in the US that are blamed on pilot fatique.

So the reality is, all of this is just excuses, because the Americans realise that Norwegian is the thin end of the wedge. What they really fear is Ryanair bringing its not inconsiderable network and low cost model across the Atlantic (they have plans to do so, although they are currently on hold) and driving their airlines out of business. Who knows, if Michael O’Leary has his way, American cabin crew might have to stop being so rude and bossy to passengers!

But obviously the point is that if Norwegian wasn’t based in the EU, the Americans would have just told them to hit the road. But because they are based in an EU country, they have to at least negotiate. This explains the dilemma faced by Easyjet. Its probable that Ryanair will follow Norwegian and expand into the US market. Easyjet will face the choice of being a short haul British based company (hoping that any restrictions on migrant and travel doesn’t mean a dwindling market share). Or leave the UK, likely register in Ireland themselves, and become an international airline.

Yes, Ireland a nation of 4.5 million could well have more airlines in a few years time than the UK a nation 11 times larger! All thanks to Brexit.

When the generations fall out

An interesting article I came across regarding baby boomers, from another blogger. They enjoy a remarkably good deal. Many managed to buy a large house before such things became expensive, they’ve retired on a final salary pension in their 60’s, when most younger generations (or the generation before them) retired on a less generous settlement later….if at all! And a triple lock on their pensions, plus the ring fencing of certain elements of the NHS budget means they’ve been spared the harsh austerity the rest of society has had to endure.

baby_boomers_housing_affordability

And to cap it all we have the Brexit vote, where baby boomers overwhelmingly voted to leave, a final two fingered salute to succeeding generations. Indeed, its worth noting that baby boomers are also the worst generation for environmental damage and the most likely generation to be climate change deniers…..and likely to be Trump voters.

In short, there’s a very serious risk of the generations falling out. Many of those flocking to labour and Corybn are young (and angry) millennials. While its unlikely they will win this time around, as the baby boomers die off, its inevitable that the younger generations will gain control and suffice to say there will be a day of reckoning.

Recall, as I pointed out in a prior article Brexit does complicate matters as far as national debt. Any default or “haircut” on national debts will hit pensioners, baby boomers in particular very hard. Many could see their income wiped out. The chances that the millennials will see their incomes squeezed yet further to pay off these debts (run up paying for baby boomers cosy life style and a failure of past governments to tax baby boomers more while they were working), after this generational betrayal, its slim to none.

Italian banks

And speaking of which, the trigger event for a sequence of sovereign debt defaults could be about to strike. There’s been further concerns expressed about the health of Italian banks. Italy is at risk of economic turmoil if a referendum goes against the government.

Now any Brexiters who feel smug and say this is why we need to get out of the EU, well no. The entire global economy is interconnected. If Italian banks go down and risk bringing down Italy, the impact will be felt worldwide. And its pensions and savers in the UK who will have to take a hit.

Ultimately, the world’s governments will face a difficult choice, bailout Italy (not an easy thing), or risk a contagion of debt spreading through the whole economy. A default of Italy would of course leave investors worrying about who is next and whether “safe as the bank of England” is really that safe. Which could make things very difficult for governments dependant on credit (such as the UK).

First contact?

Another interesting story revolves around a mystery object exo-planet hunters have discovered. They’ve concluded there’s something odd about a star some 1,000 light years from Earth. Some are arguing that it could be signs of an alien mega structure known as a Dyson’s Swarm. While unlikely, the very fact its being seriously considered is of interest (no scientists wants to be a member of the “I saw a flare” club, so they won’t announce this unless they’ve evidence to back that up). Its good to know there might be intelligent life in the universe…because there’s bugger all down her on Earth!

Trump’s minions

How can you not mention Trump, he’s like a sort of virus. However its more his minions that I want to talk about. Being a spokesman for the cult of Trump has got to be a pretty awful job (worth seeing Trevor Noah’s take on this here). Your boss says the most insane batshit crazy stuff, you have to try and row back on it, no he didn’t say that…..okay he did (after being confronted with a video of him saying it), but that’s not what he was trying to say….Only, for Trump to come out and reverse course again two minutes later. Its likely he’s killed the career of Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich.

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However, another tactic of Trump’s minions is to try and out Trump Trump. Take his chief Spokesperson Katrina Pierson. She’s an ex-Tea party candidate who proved to be a little too crazy even for the tea party (she’s wears a necklace….made from bullets!). She’s regularly gone beyond Trump in craziness, recently blaming the US invasion of Afghanistan on Obama (leaving TV journalists speechless). When the insanity of what she was suggesting was pointed out, she tried to blame her microphone (an excuse both she and Trump have used in the past…perhaps we should start a kickstarter fund for her and Trump to buy a hearing aid?).

And Trump has recently announced changes to his campaign team. His campaign chief Paul Manafort, under pressure over payments to him linked to Putin, has been pushed aside. Instead Trump’s brought in the boss of Breitbart (a man referred too as “the most dangerous political operator in America”) and allegedly also ex-Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Which incidentally does raise some awkward questions as to what was going on over at Fox News during that whole Trump v’s Megyn Kelly saga (keeping in mind, Ailes was Meygn’s boss).

One has to worry what sort of fruitcake’s Trump will dig up to form his cabinet, in the increasingly unlikely event of him being elected. Its no wonder some are arguing that Trump doesn’t actually want to be president, he only did it to further his TV career and is now deliberately sabotaging his own campaign.

Let me draw you a picture

One of the problems with climate change deniers is that they will waffle along, making spurious contrarian claims at such a rate one can’t debunk them all, or quote misleading information (often doctored or deliberately misinterpreted). In a recent debate in Australia Brian Cox managed to outwit climate denier and member of the neo-fascist “One Nation”, Malcolm Roberts, by bringing along a graph of the data that he claimed didn’t exist.

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Naturally this led Mr denier to claim the data, collected by NASA, was “doctored”, leading Brian Cox to question Roberts whether he also believed NASA hadn’t landed on the moon. While this might seem a bit of an unfair jibe, but as I’ve pointed out before the idea that dozens of agencies around the world, universities, NASA, ESA, the Met Office, the Tyndall centre, Scripp’s institute, the US military, etc. could all independently conduct studies (often relying on different data sets gathered in different ways) and reach the same conclusion. This leaves one only one of two alternatives, a) the evidence supporting climate change is rock solid, or b) all of these agencies worldwide are engaged in one massive global conspiracy, that makes faking the moon landing seem simple. So if you believe the climate data is doctored, then it is legitimate to question whether said individual is a tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist.

Also deniers need to realise that they’ve been “found out”. The website “Skepticalscience.com” now has an easy to browse list of many prominent climate contrarians, listing their favoured climate myth and the information to debunk them. They also have a complete list of all climate denier myths along with the counter arguments, filed at a range of different levels (e.g. a simple quick explanation, or the hard scientific one). So in truth all you need to do to combat a climate denier these days is have a smart phone or I-pad and this website open on it.

The future of work

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Many from working class areas of Britain voted for Brexit because they fear their jobs are under threat from migrants. Similarly support for Trump has been growing in parts of the US rust belt. And there’s a major divide, both sides of the Atlantic, when it comes to education. If you have a college degree, you are very unlikely to be a Trump supporter and less likely to have voted leave.

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Now it has to be said that the argument that migrants are taking jobs isn’t backed up by the facts. A strong leave vote was seen in the parts of the UK with the lowest number of migrants, while places like London with very high rates of migrant tended to vote for remain. Similarly, major US cities, where migrants tend to concentrated tend not to be the places where there is strong support for Trump. So either these migrants are holding down three of four jobs (and presumably being rapist, drug dealers and claiming benefits in whatever limited free time this busy schedule allows them), or the risk they pose is being vastly overestimated.

When I hear the story about how, oh I can’t get a job because the company down the road just hired a load of Poles/Mexicans who will work 60 hours a week for 3 bucks an hour, my response is A) don’t you think you should report that to the proper authorities? because its kind of illegal! B) leaving the EU ain’t going to help, you do realise Switzerland and Norway have more migrants per capita than the UK? C) In a globalised world, restricting the movement of labour will result in jobs moving overseas, so its foreigners staying at home and taking your job we need to worry about (far more jobs have moved overseas than have been taken by foreigners moving here) and D) do you have these guys number? cos I’ve got this bit of decking…..

But there’s an elephant in the room here that I think both sides of the debate are missing – automation and technology. In short, even if it were true that you’re in competition with Poles or Mexicans working for £3 a hour (which you aren’t, its just a neo-fascist myth), how do you expect to keep your job when you are competing against a machine that will do the job 24/7 for nothing?

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Like the frog in the saucepan, technology has crept up on us and we’ve not noticed. And yes it is changing the workplace as we know it . Think about it, when was the last time you rented a video? I’m guessing you get your video fixes from youtube or netflix these days? In fact when was the last time you saw a video store? Are there any young people reading this who need me to explain what a video store is? How about booking a holiday or flight in a travel agent? And I mean in an actual office, not online? Same with car insurance or other financial products. What about paying your taxes online? don’t tell me you actually take a day off work so you can go down the tax office and do in manually (obviously you’ve way too much free time!).

Online shopping is now much more common. And in shops these days various tasks are becoming more and more automated. We have those self service checkouts. Its conceivable in the not too distant future that shelves could be stacked by machine (we have machines that can do that already) or even provide customer service (yep, they’ve prototype machines that can do that).

Automated cars are now being developed and while I reckon it will be some time before they become a day to day reality (not because the machine’s aren’t smart enough, but because they have to share the road with dumb humans). But they are probably going to happen eventually, which will have numerous implications…. and meaning a whole host of jobs disappearing or changing radically. And there are similar plans to automate entire ships, cargo planes or trains.

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Could the Johnny cabs of Total Recall become a thing of the future?

In short technology has changed the world of work and it will continue to do so. There will still be jobs available, but many traditional jobs will disappear, and the skill set you need to get those jobs still available (or the new jobs created by technology) will continue to rise. This is the problem facing certain segments of society. As they see it, the bar keeps going up, they can’t get over it anymore, so they have it in their heads that we can somehow lower the bar again and keep everything the same, but we can’t, not without reversing many recent technological trends and isolating ourselves from the globalised world.

In manufacturing engineering for example, we are well ahead of the curve. There’s still plenty of people working in UK factories and the UK still makes lots of stuff. Prior to the Brexit vote the UK was on course exceed its 1970’s peak in car production by the 2020’s, even though the work force is a fraction of what it used to be (i.e. automation has made a smaller workforce more productive). However, nobody gets a job these days in a factory without some sort of qualification. The days when, like in Bruce Springsteen’s “the river”  (or Jimmy Nail’s “big river) , your dad could have a word with the guys down at the plant and you could walk straight into a unionised job for life are long gone.

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Many traditional jobs will increasingly disappear in future

And my prediction is that this will now roll out across the entire economy. The blunt message I’d give to people is that if you don’t have some sort of third level qualification (a degree or professional qualification of some kind) you will probably struggle to remain employed in future. So for those who voted Brexit, or are thinking of voting Trump, I’d say leave migrants alone, they are not the main threat to your employment, you need to get educated.

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And to be honest, you won’t want to be employed in future if you don’t have a qualification. What few unskilled jobs that remain will be increasingly the really crappy jobs that nobody wants, with the highest levels of job insecurity and the worst pay. The sort of jobs which will only be taken by students (who will take anything while they pay their way through college), recently arrive migrants (who just want some cash while they settle in), or those suitably desperate who can’t find anything else. Indeed, the employees of Sports Direct will argue this is already reality for them. You could argue that quite a number of those who voted Brexit (or Trump) are the canaries in the coal mine, as they are already seeing these effects.

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Feel worthless at work sometimes? Others have it worse

However, their actions are likely to prove counter productive. Restricting migration does not mean locals will find it easier to get work. What’s likely to happen is employers will just move jobs overseas, or you’ve just given them a very strong financial incentive to find a way of developing a machine to do those jobs instead.

So clearly such a future of work means some profound changes for society. Obviously the costs of third level education means its beyond the reach of many. Hence why I think of all the proposals from Bernie Sanders that Hillary needs to endorse, its reducing college tuition costs. Yes, I realise that won’t be cheap (i.e. can she afford it and still reduce the deficit?), but I suspect it will be a necessity in future, if a massive level of social stratification is to be avoided.

And in the UK far from putting up fees, we need to start cutting them. Is it any coincidence that in countries like Germany where higher education is free, there is less unemployment and less people whinging about migrants?

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And this is not just for the benefit of those who don’t have a degree yet. Even those of us who have one will likely need to return to university to learn new skills from time to time. A recent trend in academia has been a move towards what are called massive online learning courses. And these are mostly aimed at post-grads (rather than undergrads) looking to learn a new skill. I won’t be surprised if a few years from now, the main job of universities is supporting courses like this, rather than teaching degrees to undergrads in RL.

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The future of work will likely be a future where we need to accept the fact that change is good, its normal. We need to be intellectually curious and willing to learn new things and try out new ideas. Of course if you’re a conservative voter, changes are you’re not intellectually curious and you don’t want things to change. You are also more likely to reject ideas like global warming and evolution. The roller coaster of technology is going too fast, they want it to stop so they can get off.

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In the future all of us will need to re-train and change careers from time to time

But getting off the roller coaster would mean giving up what we have. Given that I can’t see us banning the use of the internet for commercial purposes (I mean how would you even police that!) or introducing soviet style jobs for the boys policies (you join one queue and then another), I don’t see how these future trends can be halted. Technology has created many problems for our society (e.g. global warming) and often as not, the solution to these problems is more technology (e.g. renewables, electric cars). So the “getting off the roller coaster” option that conservatives are aiming for would come with a price and I don’t think they understand that this price is probably more than they are willing to accept (you’d have to live sustainably without fossil fuels or renewables…. so basically become Amish!).

Another question we have to ask is whether full employment is a realistic goal for future society. Our entire economic system assumes that anyone who can work will work, but that may not be true in future, there might not be enough jobs to go around in the future.

Now in theory this shouldn’t be an issue. Technology merely means making a smaller pool of workers more productive. In Germany and Scandinavia, yes the manufacturing sectors are smaller than they were a few decades ago. But they avoided the wholesale decimation of working class areas seen in the US or UK, with some districts being reduced to little more than welfare colonies. This I would argue is because the bulk of these job losses were due to miss guided neo-liberal economic policies in the US and the UK. Reversing these policies would seem a sensible solution, although voting for Trump or Brexit amounts to asking for a double helping of more of the same.

So in theory, full employment is still a possibility. But we need to remember that more productivity often means more energy and resource consumption. Now with good recycling policies and a 100% renewable energy grid this shouldn’t be a problem, but we don’t have that yet. So its possible that full employment will not be possible in future (at least for some period of time). Which means some profound changes to society. Given that already the number of workers is falling in Western states thanks to an ageing population, this means even less and less people having to pay more and more of a nation’s taxes to fund the welfare for those who aren’t working.

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Migrants are increasingly needed to help fund retirement for an ageing population

And incidentally curbing migration, which means less young people coming into the workforce and paying taxes to fund the pensions and healthcare of retirees, is likely to prove entirely counter-productive. It could well be a recipe for national bankruptcy.

My view is that we may need to change how the entire tax system works. This is one of the reasons I’ve long favoured a system of carbon taxes, or taxes on things that are generally bad for society (e.g. high VAT on alcohol or fatty foods), a Tobin tax (i.e. a tax on financial transactions) and of course higher rates of corporation tax. In all cases, the goal here is to spread the tax net away from simply funding everything off of income taxes and pushing those rates up every time the state coffers run bare. Which of course tends to provoke much whinging from the fewer and fewer workers stuck paying incoming tax.

And as for distributing welfare, well one alternative to the current system is that of a basic national income paid out to everyone. This would be enough to fund housing and keep people out of poverty. You want more money, you want the luxuries, get a job and work for it. No more whining about lazy people on benefits, everyone is on benefits, indeed presumably this system would come with the clause that such payment would be withdrawn if anyone commits anti-social behaviour (e.g. petty crime, dodging taxes via your offshore account, the usual!). Just this year the Swiss at a referendum on implementing this. Now while it was rejected, I think this was because many didn’t understand the underlying issues. So I won’t be surprised if such ideas don’t catch on in future.

So in essence our society is at a crossroads. I’d argue that we are at the end of a 2nd gilded age. Like the first gilded age, this was a time when neo-liberal capitalists ran wild, we all had a big party and nobody complained a lot because everyone was doing rather well out of it (as this moment of Zen from the film Margin Call summarises). But now, like in the 1920’s we’re stuck with the hangover. And like society in the 1920’s we face a choice.

On the one hand we can opt for a new deal of continuing down the path of social and technology progress. And let’s face it, progress is good. The factories of past era’s, yes there was full employment, but they were awful places to work. Repetitive backbreaking labour while being exposed to extremes of heat, noise, toxic chemicals and rotating machinery. Many had to retire from such jobs in their 50’s because their job ruined their health. Technology means that cars and other products these days are safer, more reliable (used to be the best way to make money from TV’s was selling warranties to fix them), more energy efficient and more user friendly. I mean is anyone reading this seriously suggesting that they hate Microsoft/Apple/Google so much that you want your old Commodore 64 back?

Or, as some societies did in the 1920’s and 30’s, we may end up taking the regressive path of fascism, blaming foreigners and other convenient scapegoats for all of our ills, restricting trade, reversing past policies, going backwards and focusing inward….until said leaders realise they need a war to prevent national bankruptcy and likely end up starting world war 3 in the process!