Internet gangs of the 2020’s

I did a post a couple of months back about contrepreneurs & fake gurus selling doggy courses or get-rich-quick schemes (which of course are just scams intended to rob you blind). But if anything, I barely scratched the surface. There are now literally hundreds of these post-truth grifters selling “courses” (even thought you can just join a MOOC, many of which are free and give you an actual qualification from a university)…likely because about the only useful thing you learn on these fake courses, is how to scam people out of their money!

And these are just one of a long list of scams being perpetrated online. Cybercrime has proliferated massively over the last year or so. With so many people in lockdown and a decline in paper money it seems criminals have now moved increasingly online. To the point where we are witnessing a full on crime wave. Online scammers are to the 2020’s what the mafia were to Chicago in the 1920’s.

Praying on the vulnerable

An insidious feature of these scammers is how they pray on the vulnerable, often targeting older people (on the assumption that they may lack the IT knowledge to spot a scam) or the recently unemployed, divorced or anybody down on their luck. Case in point Jim Browning, a NI based hackvist has documented scammers targeting someone with depression (whom the scammers knew had been scammed before). Or, another occasion, a blind woman. And in many cases the victims find themselves swindled out of thousands of pounds (sometimes their entire life savings).

More recently Jim Browning teamed up with Mark Rober (a former NASA engineer and inventor of the glitter bomb) to catch these scammers in action. During this investigation, they observed money mules working in the US on behalf of Indian based scammers to collect packages of cash worth tens of thousands of pounds (yes they managed to scam people into basically posting them their life savings). This is the scale of the operations we are talking about here.

A history lesson

One thing to realise is that a lot of these scams aren’t necessarily anything new, many are old fashioned hustler tricks that have been used since at least the roaring twenties, if not the middle ages (e.g. the pig in a poke scam, aka a fake goods or sale scam, has existed since the 16th century).

The only difference is that in times gone by, the scammers had limited means to distribute their scam. Generally limited to those they could physically meet (think of the old fashioned snake oil salesman at a county fair). Or later on, those they could contact via print media, then with late night infomercials. But now, thanks to the internet, you can fire off hundreds of millions of phishing lines or internet ads in a few clicks, vastly multiplying the potential reach of these scams.

Buzzword bingo

Of course in of itself this also creates a line of weakness, as it means that many of these scams follow a series of predictable patterns, which can be easily spotted. For example making unrealistic promises of high returns (if this was legitimately possible, why isn’t everyone else doing it and why is the scammer advertising this, allowing rivals to get in on the act and saturate the market). Or using high pressure sales tactics (as they want you to pay up before you’ve had a chance to think it through). Or appealing to people’s emotions (e.g. fake charity scams, which will offer to pay for medical treatment overseas…when in reality its just a variation on the Nigerian prince scam).

Sometimes the best way to stay safe is simply to watch out for certain buzzwords or terms, e.g. “legal loophole”, “sack your boss”, “passive income”, “xyz hates this trick”, “xyz has been ripping of customers for years”, “did you know that xyz, so if you give me your money”….you’ll never see it again! And of course be very suspicious of the word “free”.

I think you get the message. Hell, I didn’t realise the extent to which these scams have proliferated because some years ago I programmed my email to just automatically mark as spam any emails with certain known buzzwords or phrases scammers use. So just being aware of these scammy buzzwords (or if you know someone who is potentially vulnerable, making them aware of it) can be a good way of staying safe.

Scamazon prime

A common scammer tactic is form of catfishing, where the scammer will pretend to be someone reputable, e.g. your ISP, Microsoft or Amazon and claim to be contacting you about some security issue, a refund or a problem with your payment. And, needless to say, the punchline is they want you to login into your account so they can steal your bank details or get you to send them money.

Its actually gotten so bad, my advice is that if you get any email or phone calls purporting to be from Amazon (or Google, Microsoft or any other major tech firm), I’d just assume its a scam, even if you actually have an Amazon account and are awaiting a delivery. Don’t click on the links in any email, no matter how legit they look, go to your account via the normal channels and login normally (using two-step authentication) and you should be able to verify what’s going on. And don’t call back a missed call, it will likely be to a premium rate number scam.

Case in point, there’s the Amazon prime scam doing the rounds, which takes advantage of Amazon’s unwillingness to let people cancel an Amazon prime subscription they accidentally signed up for. This is another of those tech support scams covered by Jim Browning.

Certainly one could argue that its hard for the authorities to keep up, including Amazon’s own security team. But in this case, their sales tactics for Amazon Prime have had catastrophic consequences for many victims of this scam, something Amazon need to own up too.

Get poor quick schemes

And this is why I’d argue these scams can be quite dangerous. For example Amazon has been trying to promote the sales of its own shares recently, as it seeks to exploit the pandemic and grow its market share. Of course, this doesn’t mean investing in Amazon is a good idea. Like any investment its a risk. Amazon pays dividends to shareholders about as much as it pays tax, other firms such as ebay are starting to catchup, and if Amazon have to issue more shares as the expand the share price will fall. But either way, Amazon’s success is being exploited by scammers.

For example, I’ve seen ads encouraging investment in Amazon promising returns in the order of several thousand percent. This has nothing to do with Amazon, its clearly a ponzi scheme (as that rate of return exceeds the actual performance of Amazon stock by an order of magnitude). The promoters behind it seem to be based out of Cyprus and it mirrors a similar scheme from a few years ago, which was shut down by the FTC.

But of course, like all scams, you can see how it prays on the unwary. They are trying to exploit FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. Most people will know Amazon is a very successful company, out of which many have gotten rich, notably Bezo’s….and his ex-wife. So an advert pops up and says sign up now and for just $250 we’ll make you rich, well, like I said, its easy to see how people can be fooled.

The lesson here is don’t trust something just because you saw an advert for it. After all internet searches and advertising can be manipulated. So much so that a sure fire way of spotting a scam is simply putting “is xyz a scam” into Google and if you only get positive reviews and see nothing negative, then its a scam (no product or service is that good that nobody will whinge about something, so this shows someone has gone to great lengths to scrub the internet of any genuine criticism).

Don’t take things at face value. If it looks to good to be true, then it probably is. Also make sure the story checks out and do some due diligence. E.g, someone says they are based in the US and they are actually based somewhere else, why are they lying about that? Probably because they’ve got something to hide.

Also why are they selling to you in the first place? Think about it, if its such a good deal why pitch it to dozens of amateurs online when a billionaire can cut you a cheque right there and then? Well because rich people, and their staff, will go over any business proposal with a fine toothed comb and it won’t take them long to spot a scam.

Case in point, the Brit method, that was doing the rounds a few years ago (or the Canuck method if you are in Canada, or the Aussie method in Australia and so on). This was another investment scam revolving around binary trading (now illegal, in part due to this scam). Again, as with all the others, it exploited people’s ignorance and greed.

My point is, if things don’t check out, or you get the slightest whiff of dishonesty (or nothing but cult like enthusiasm), don’t just walk away, run away, then report it. And frankly I’d sooner take financial advice from my neighbours cat than take it from some random stranger on the internet.

Crypto scams

My view on crypto is that they will take off eventually. But only after the major banks, governments and/or tech companies have decided to support one. However, they likely to be only interested in a type of crypto currency where they can exert some form of regulation and control. Which pretty much rules out most existing crypto. Some might well survive (for a time) as a form of digital gold, but most are basically digital tulips.

So with that in mind, crypto is by definition, a high risk investment. Yes some early adopters did make a lot of money, but equally that also means you can lose a lot of money. So I would urge caution. Not least because there have been attempts to scam people using the promises of crypto riches.

This includes pump and dump schemes using crypto currencies, people being defrauded out of their money (thinking they were buying bitcoins), or digital wallets being broken into and straight up stolen. And some of these cases have involved the likes of John McAfee and Elon Musk.

And that’s before we even bring up fake crypto currencies such as BitConnect or Onecoin, which turned out to be little more than ponzi schemes. Again, these seek to exploit a combination of people’s ignorance about crypto as well as FOMO. Don’t fall for it.

Wingnut welfare

Another type of scam to be wary of are attempts to exploit people’s politics. For example the we build the wall fiasco, which diverted money from Trump supporters into the pockets of the foundation’s organisers. Or how the NRA have been embezzling donations for many decades, often using donors cash to fund the extravagant lifestyle of NRA board members, or republican politicians.

And we can see similar things with televangelists of the prosperity gospel, who literally brag about their private jets (ya I remember that bit from the Bible when Jesus got his supporters to put themselves into poverty to buy him a golden chariot so he could go to the temple in Jerusalem and congratulate the money lenders on the excellent job they were doing).

But others on the right want a piece of this action. Farage has been shilling on behalf of various half baked and doggy investment schemes (while humping the union jack and using many of the same conspiracy buzzwords mentioned earlier). Trump too has been accused of openly swindling his supporters money, using underhand tactics.

While this is more of a problem for the political right, its not like the left is immune to it. Recall how the Teamster union’s under Jimmy Hoffa ended up being controlled by the mob, who used that control to swindle supporters out of some of their pension contributions. Then there was the fake UK charity Kids Company that was closed down a few years back.

The lesson is, any badly run organisation, no matter its political goals, will be exploited by the greedy and the corrupt. Donate your money to more competently run organisations.

McMafia

the fact we now have evidence of criminal gangs, in different parts of the world, working together does raise the possibility of McMafia involvement in these scams. For those unfamiliar with the term, McMafia refers to how modern organised crime functions. Rather than operating in one geographical area, with a hierarchical structure (boss, underboss, caporegime’s, etc.), instead they now operate as more of a sort of lose international franchise (kind of like McDonalds, hence the name) of different gangs who will specialise in a particular type of crime.

So for example, we have these fraudsters in India running the phone and internet scams. Sitting behind them is likely another gang who acts as enforcers (in case any of the staff get cute), provide protection from robbery by rival gangs and arranging kickbacks and bribes to public officials, who allow them to operate. Another gang in the US organises the money mules who likely pass on the cash to someone else (for a cut of course).

This next group will either launder the money, or divert it towards other criminal gangs around the world, who will use it to fund crimes like prostitution, drug smuggling, people trafficking, etc, kicking back a cut to the all parties. I’d note that it is a common tactic for criminals to use rackets that yield ready cash (such as loansharking, illegal gambling, extortion, robberies or grifting) to then fund more profitable but cash intensive operations (such as drug smuggling, gun running, people trafficking, etc.).

Now I bring this up because there are some who see internet scams as a victimless crime. This is particularly a problem in India, where some see it as just rich westerners getting fleeced (revenge for colonialism). Well, the victims of these scams (who are mostly pensioners, the unemployed or blue collar workers, not the rich) would disagree. It can really be traumatic.

Secondly, its likely the proceeds from these frauds are being used to fund other criminal activities, which btw can include terrorism. In fact previous terrorist attacks in India have been traced back to similar McMafia operations, where the enforcers happened to be terrorists, which is a not unusual setup (here in Ireland there’s a similar dynamic with loyalists and republican paramilitary groups,providing protection in exchange for a piece of the action).

Just last month, while arresting an individual on money laundering charges related to BEC frauds, the FBI pointed to a link between cybercriminals and north Korea. And this not the first time north Korea has been implicated in cybercrime.

The crackdown

Finally, I will end with some positives, the authorities are starting to catch up with these criminals. Now that the thief in chief is out of office, a number of prominent scammers in the US are starting to get arrested, as well as a Teranos wannabe whose now on the run. Any fraudulent phone calls I’ve had recently were flagged up as fraud. So it looks like the law is starting to catch up.

But its a game of Whack-A-Mole for the authorities. As soon as they’ve shut down one outfit and gotten the word out to the public, the scammers have moved on to something new. Really the only solution is all of us to be cautious online, look out for one another and trying to stay safe.

And perhaps we need to re-discover the value of experts, as after all, alot of what these scammers are selling is the expertise many in the post-truth era have chosen to reject.

Posted in Amazon, Amazon 250 scam, crime, history, news, politics, scams | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pyongyang on the Thames

I came across a documentary from French TV about the North Korean “Ghost Fleet” of fishing vessels. Large fleets of North Korean fishing boats have been raiding the fishing grounds of neighbouring countries, most notably making intrusions into Russian waters, overfishing and using banned techniques such a drift netting. Which is causing all sorts of environmental problems. And as many of these fishing boats aren’t terribly seaworthy, there is believed to be a fairly high death toll from ships sinking, or their engines failing and ending up adrift and becalmed until the crews starve.

Anyway, it was interesting to watch Russians and Chinese fishermen complaining about how they have to follow all of these complex rules, yet the North Korean don’t. They seem to be allowed to do whatever the hell they like. Now why does that sound familiar? Because that’s what the brexiters want. They see brexit as their chance to get Singapore on the Thames. However, in reality what they are actually pitching for is Pyongyang on the Thames, where the UK becomes a Pariah state, who routinely breaks international law and gets by through a combination of criminality, intense propaganda and brainwashing (even now in UK schools, as if control of the media wasn’t good enough) as well as constant threats if they don’t get their way.

Consider that in the last week the UK government has broken international law twice, unilaterally reneging on parts of the EU trade deal, before the EU’s even had a chance to ratify it. And meanwhile many Tory MP’s and cheer leaders are urging for even stronger action, such as fighting a trade war with the EU, or banning EU made bottled water, or forcing people in the UK to eat more shellfish (I’d love to see these brexiters try that outside a Glasgow takeaway on a Saturday night, they’ll likely just get stabbed with a plastic fork).

Up in Northern Ireland the DUP are trying to undo the trade deal (which in December they’d been praising) by any means necessary, including simply not building the infrastructure to enforce it (so basically they campaigned for brexit, the results of which they are refusing to implement). They’ve also begun to use threatening language, including calling for “Guerilla warfare” against the EU, clearly a dog whistle to their terrorist allies. Which was received loud and clear, as shortly afterwards several loyalist terrorist groups announced their break with the Good Friday agreement.

And, as regards corruption and criminal behaviour, we have the health secretary being found to have acted unlawfully in the award of PPE contracts during the pandemic to his chums (of course he’s not going to resign, don’t be silly!). The prime minster setting up a charity slush fund to redecorate his flat and using taxpayers money to pay for fake news articles (adverts masquerading as real news) to sell brexit as a success.

Consider for a minute if anyone else behaved the way the brexiters behave. Imagine if a Muslim stood up and talked about launching Guerrilla warfare. How many seconds before they’d be arrested? Consider how the Tories were calling for Nicola Sturgeon’s head for the last few weeks, while ignoring the far greater scandals from within their own party. If labour had won the election and they heard Corbyn was going to use taxpayers money to fool Daily Mail or Telegraph into reading articles promoting his socialist policies, how would they have reacted? Likely by rolling around on the ground and chewing the carpet, then calling for him to be arrested for misuse of state funds. There is one rule for brexiters and another one for everyone else.

I recall a conversation I once had with someone who worked for the Brazilian government (under the previous left wing administration) who bemoaned the fact that any time the country implemented any sort of left wing policy, stronger environmental protections, raising taxes for the wealthy, better labour laws, the credit rating agencies in the west would cut the country’s credit rating. Yet whenever the right wing parties did something, such as lowering taxes for the wealthy or selling off state industries to the private sector, the credit ratings would be raised (even when the measures were clearly going to lead to higher levels of borrowing and a higher risk of default for investors).

So we now have the situation where the UK has essentially imposed sanctions on itself and its led by politicians who are deliberately trying to sabotage the UK economy, yet the UK’s credit ratings aren’t being cut. Again, one rule for one group and another for everyone else.

Of course there is a difference between North Korea and the UK. North Korea survives on the basis of the CFC gambit. Or Crippled (anyone attacking North Korea will be stuck with the bill for rebuilding a crippled country from scratch), Fearsome (as they have a vast arsenal of conventional, as well as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons) and Crazy (while they would be all but guaranteed to loose any war they are just about crazy enough to use this arsenal as an act of national suicide). In short, its better for its neighbours to treat North Korea with kid gloves….because Kim Jung un’s gloves are likely made from real kids!

In short, CFC works for North Korea because they are an impoverished nation whose leadership have nothing to lose by self isolation. Its a little different with the UK. The EU’s likely response will be targeted sanctions and tariffs. These will be used to cause maximum pain to the the UK and Tory politicians in particular, while minimising the harm to the EU. So likely measures could include heavy tariffs on fish or agricultural products, or a financial transaction tax on UK/EU trades (which would hit Tory voters and donors hard).

And while some cosmetic tabloid friendly retaliation from the UK might happen, the UK can’t really do much, given how dependant it is on things like food, medicines, electricity and energy supplies from the EU. In fact customs checks they should currently be undertaking, which they delayed till July (illegally), might be watered down even further due to fears of possible food shortages (so they wanted brexit so they can shut the border…but now they don’t want to shut the border WTF!).

The GFA is underwritten by the US. They will take a very dim view of any effort to undermine it. Measures they could take could involve, joining in with EU’s sanctions, ruling out any trade deals (or making it plain to other countries that they should drop their trade deals with the UK if they want to remain friends with Washington) or boycotting of international events (such as the upcoming G8 meeting).

Its also not clear how they will react to any resumption of violence. There were some Americans back in the troubles who argued for a more robust American stance (e.g. refusing to sell miltary hardware to the UK until it negotiated with the Irish), or an American led UN peace keeping force in NI (the unionist wake up one morning to find US Marines standing on every street corner). So its kind of up in the air what happens next, particularly if its seen as the UK provoking a unionist bombing campaign in the Republic.

So the brexiters are in for something of a rude awakening. And its clear they still don’t know what brexit means. And even if they do, they are plugging their ears. They want a fantasy brexit, where they still have all the benefits of EU membership, but (much as North Korea pretends they won the Korean war) they get to pretend they’ve also gotten their Empire 2.0.

Posted in crime, cults, economics, environment, EU, Global warming denial, history, Japan, news, politics, sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Boris burrow part II – the Boris bend, or more than likely the Boris bluff

So you if you thought Boris Johnson’s proposal for a train tunnel between Scotland and NI (aka the Boris Burrow) was crazy, well it would seem they are doubling down. Now they want not one, but 4 tunnels connecting the UK mainland with NI and the Isle of Man.

The longest of these would run from near Liverpool to the northern part of the Isle of Man, a distance of +130 km’s (that’s double the likely distance of a Scotland to NI route and over 2 and a half times longer than the world’s current longest tunnel). Straight away, this tells me that nobody who knows the slightest thing about engineering could be involved in this project.

Generally with tunnels the longer you want to build them, or the deeper under water you want to go, the harder it gets. You have to be able to maintain a water tight seal to resist the hydrostatic pressure of the water above. You need to have the right kind of rock to drill through (the channel tunnel was only able to be built because there was a layer of rock through which a water tight tunnel could be easily drilled through). The tunnel needs to be maintained at a suitable slope such that trains can easily ascend and descend. And you need to be able to circulate air into the tunnel and pump any water out. And the further you are from shore and the deeper you go the harder this pumping process gets.

Quite simply put, even with an unlimited budget and an unlimited amount of time (again it took decades to build much smaller tunnels) it might be impossible to build such a tunnel. Not least because a lot will depend on the geology of the Irish sea. I don’t know, maybe Boris thinks the fictional Island of Sodor from Thomas the Tank engine is real and he can just build the line across it.

As a quick aside, you may ask, why does it have to be a rail tunnel? Well because a road tunnel will need to be much bigger (to accommodate several lanes of traffic), you’ll have to supply air, not just for the people, but also the vehicle engines and pump out exhaust gases (trains can run on electricity). And to be blunt, trains are driven by professional drivers who are less likely to have an accident. As rescuing people from such a deep and remote location under the sea is going to be difficult at the best of times.

Anyway, the fat controller Boris big idea is to have a big roundabout tunnel under the Isle of Man linking everything together. Of course what he’s actually going to need is a series of vast marshalling yards. Go to google earth and look up the town of Ventimiglia in Italy (see below), you’ll notice the entire north end of the town of just 50,000 is dominated by a vast area of railway marshalling yards covering the entire north end of the town, of which only a small fraction is currently in use (with an even larger set of marshalling yards a few km’s to the North west). Why? Well because its on the Italian/French border. And before the EU’s single market came along every train passing between the two countries had to stop. All the passengers had to be offloaded and stamped out of one country and stamped into the other and customs inspections plus checks had to be undertaken.

Similarly, as NI is now a separate customs area to the UK, you’d have to stop and check every single train passing through. Quite apart from the break of gauge issues I mentioned before (as the UK uses standard gauge while the Ireland uses broad gauge). And, as the Isle of Man is also a separate customs area to the other two, you’d have to have a separate area to check goods and people in and out of the Isle of Man. Oh and speaking of breaks of gauge, the Isle of Man’s railway network is mostly narrow gauge. So you’re now linking together 3 incompatible railway systems.

For some strange reason there’s another tunnel leading to Scotland. And why would someone use this tunnel to get to Scotland when there’s a perfectly good road (the M6) and railway line running along side it that goes directly to the central belt? Furthermore, in the timescales for construction of this tunnel, Scotland might get independence. So you’d then need another large marshalling yard to check good into and out of Scotland. You’re going to be digging up half the Isle of Man and covering it with railway yards!

So why is such a crazy proposal being pursued? Well not because they actually plan on building anything (no doubt some Tory consultant will get a contract to waste a few million to prove the viability of the project). No, as always, Boris Johnson’s goal is to control the narrative. With the help of his media allies he aims to gaslight the public with propaganda and lies.

For example, the UK is on top for vaccinations you have likely been told. Well firstly that is largely down to the NHS (which the Tories want to sell off) not anything the government’s done. The only contribution to the vaccine made by the Tories was to try and insist on putting a union jack on the labels. Secondly, no, the UK is pretty high up the list but not on top, as the UK government is only issuing a single dose (then counting that as someone has been vaccinated) while most most other countries say you have to have the 2 doses within 4 weeks to count. And inevitably this means the UK is now slipping behind other countries.

Similarly we have the situation in NI where the DUP, aka the old testament with weekly bin collections, campaigned for brexit and are now upset with the consequences. Arlene Foster (who always seems to look like someone whose just swallowed a bee), back in December was touting the benefits of NI staying in the single market. Now they (with a little help from Kate Hoey, aka the Corbyn ally who pretends to be a labour supporter when she’s really a UKIP 5th columnist) are launching legal action, trying to have the NI protocol scrapped, even thought they know this would lead to a hard border with the rest of Ireland and likely a break down of the GFA.

Like the Tories, the DUP’s entire political position is based on lies and fantasy. They believe that they can have all the benefits of staying in the EU, without suffering any of the consequences of leaving, while ignoring the impossible trinity of brexit (CCP Grey has a good video on this here). And far from being worried about destroying the GFA, that’s their ultimate fantasy. They never wanted it in the first place and signed up to it only halfheartedly (Ian Paisley was famously known as Dr No for his tendency to say no, no, never… then maybe).

This was the problem with the GFA. The treaty was mostly negotiated by the moderates (John Hume of the SDLP and David Trimble of the UUP), with SF and the DUP (the political fronts for the terrorists) only supporting it because they’d have gotten frozen out of the political process if they hadn’t (and then likely all gotten arrested and sent to some US supermax prison). It should have been a condition of the Irish, British and the US that anyone who’d be previously involved in terrorism should stay out of politics (which still applies to quite a number of the front bench in SF and the DUP to this day).

Unfortunately, they naively assumed that the SDLP & UUP would take power…which ignores how elections work, how tribal the two communities are in NI and how populists can win by making outlandish promises they never keep. Consequently SF and the DUP have pretty much run NI into the ground, using Stormont as means to settle petty scores against one another while engaging in various money burning parties as they squander public money. NI receives far more tax payers money per head of population than any region of the UK, yet its GDP (per capita) is 80% that of the UK average and less than half that of the Irish republic.

And the situation in NI should serve as a warning for how the Tories policy, of basically running the country as a Chumacracy, could have serious long term consequences. The point is that this tunnel project shows that all the Tories have are their lies and empty promises. The UK has become a country where brexit is now the state the religion, ignorance is considered an asset and the truth is seen by the government as a threat.

Posted in aviation, cults, economics, environment, EU, history, news, politics, technology, transport | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Texas tantrums and anti-wind strawmen

Recently there’s been some blackouts in Texas caused by unseasonably cold weather. In fact its the sort of extreme weather we’d be expecting due to climate change (which doesn’t just lead to hotter weather, it can also cause shifts in weather patterns leading to more extremes of weather, such as more intense rainfall, hurricanes and yes snow storms). And predictably Republicans in Texas were showing the sort of leadership we’d expect of them, either by fleeing to Mexico (just as well we didn’t build that wall then!), or by blaming wind energy for the crisis.

While it is true that yes some wind turbines stopped working during the cold, or were forced offline due to the failure of power lines connecting them to the grid (as neither were weatherised for cold conditions, as state legislation doesn’t require it). But they were not alone, indeed far more fossil fuel and nuclear capacity was lost due to the storm than wind energy (again due to a lack of legislation requiring proper weatherization).

And this is not exactly the first time a grid failure has occurred due to cold weather. There was the infamous ice-storms of 1988 in Canada which nearly caused complete power loss to several cities due to power-line failures. Indeed the lack of connection between Texas and the rest of the nation (something we have to blame on Texas politicians) is a much more plausible explanation for these blackouts. In fact federal authorities warned Texas state officials of the potential dangers ten years ago. So I’m afraid this one’s on them.

Part of the problem here is the tendency for opponents of wind energy to cherry pick. They will ignore situations where the failure of conventional power sources led to a black out, focusing instead on any situation where renewables can be blamed. For example on the night of 28th of October, 2013, the UK was hit by a large storm. This (as seen in the graph below) let to a brief drop in the output of some of the UK’s wind farms (some were forced to turn off for a few hours due to the high winds, although this was partially cancelled out by others operating at peak output in the high winds). As this was predicable event (the grid operators would have had access to weather forecasts a few days in advance) it could be dealt with, as other sources of power were on standby and picked up the slack.

Of course this isn’t what the media reported, focusing on how one small wind turbine in the kW range was blown down in the storm. And they almost completely ignored the more serious fact that Dungeness nuclear power station also went off line due to flooding. As nuclear power stations need to draw power from the grid to operate (run pumps, cooling systems, control systems and computers) they therefore have to shut down in the event of a loss of onsite power, or even the risk of it (yes there are backup generators, but you really don’t want to tempt fate by over relying on them).

So this left the grid with a massive hole pretty much straight away. This was filled using a combination of pump storage and hydroelectricity. And while wind energy was back to normal pretty quickly, Dungeness was down for over week.So a story which should have read “renewables help save country from massive black outs caused by nuclear power plant failure” instead we got “wind energy doesn’t work because of wind”. So we have to acknowledge there is more than a little bias in the media, particularly certain right wing outlets, against renewables. Which may have something to do with financial connections to big oil or simple ideological reasons (we’ll get to that).

Certainly yes a policy of wind, wind and yet more wind isn’t going to work, but nobody, other than opponents of wind energy, is actually making an argument for this. So either they are completely ignorant of how electrical grids work, or they are posing a deliberate strawman argument. Solar tends to make a nice fit (and Texas does get quite a bit of sunshine) as whenever its not windy, it tends to be sunny. Solar is also a distributed form of energy, so less reliant on power lines to distribute power to customers.

As noted in the examples above hydroelectricity is often used for load balancing, as it can be turned on and off as necessary and used to store energy for emergencies (particularly when it comes to pumped hydro). Biomass too can do load balancing and it can also work on the large scale. Two-thirds of the UK’s Drax power station’s 3.9 GW output (the largest power plant in the UK) is now fed by biomass, with it planned to eventually go over completely to biomass. While there is a big question mark over the carbon footprint of this fuel, as its sourced from the US, but this won’t be a problem in Texas. Not least because of all those cattle ranches in Texas, which would be an obvious source of manure and thus methane.

Another straw man is that you will need vast amounts of energy storage in the form of batteries to back up a renewable heavy grid. Some will even try to claim we’ll need 7-14 days supply. Okay, and where is the storage facility providing 7-14 days backup for all of the nuclear plants? After all, as we’ve just mentioned, they can be knocked offline for weeks by flooding or high winds. Surely that means we can’t rely on nuclear either?

And while there are stockpiles of fossil fuels in that range, the worse case scenario supply interruption would be repeat of the 1970’s oil crisis (which saw supplies disrupted for several months). So arguably you’d need the best part of a year’s supply in storage as a back up for fossil fuels. Do we have such stockpiles? My point is you are imposing requirements on a low carbon grid that exceed those of the existing grid. It seems that power cuts are only a problem when they can be blamed on renewables.

Certainly you would need some storage for renewables, but not nearly as much as many think. Assuming you have a fairly diverse grid, drawing power from a variety of different sources, the potential storage levels needed are a lot smaller. The exact amount of storage needed would depend a lot on your load profile (heavy industry, or mostly residential), your mix of renewables (a good mix of renewables or a heavy dependancy on one particular type), interconnections (can you get power in an emergency from your neighbours?) and ultimately your budget (you can have a super reliable grid than costs a lot to maintain, or one with lower costs where you have to cope with the odd brown out).

Recent advances in technology do mean large scale energy storage using batteries is now possible. Although I’d argue in favour of using smart grids. In a future with lots of electric cars you could offer car owners the option to charge their cars using cheaper off peak power and then sell power back to the grid (say 10-20% of the battery) during peak demand (topping up again during off peak hours).

Think about it, if you had 3.8 million cars (10% of the UK’s current vehicle fleet) each with an average 50 kWh battery, 10% of all of those batteries is 19 GWh’s, or about two thirds of the UK’s current entire energy storage capacity of 30GWh. In a crisis, such as the one in Texas, (when people aren’t going to be travelling long distance, hence you’ll have more cars connected and can do a deeper discharge and still leave enough for the owner to make a few supply runs to the store) you could up this to 30% of the fleet and say 33% of each car’s battery capacity, yielding 188 GWh’s, over 6 times the UK’s current electricity storage capacity. And better still, like the solar panels, this would be distributed power (the sort you need in an ice storm).

Other options for long term storage would be pumped hydro. While the capital costs for this can be high (essentially there is a price floor for such a facility), but they do scale up and there is essentially no upper limit to how large they can be built. Hence if you ever did need that 7-14 days of supply, this is how you’d do it.

Hydrogen stored in underground caverns is another option. In fact a facility in the US has been storing 2500 tons of Hydrogen (about 84 GWh’s worth) regularly since the 1980’s. An even larger facility was recently commissioned in 2017 in Texas (of all places!). I bring up hydrogen, in part because it shows how ignorant republicans are about what’s going on in their own state (maybe you should focus on fixing the power grid rather than banging on about the usual right wing talking points). But also because hydrogen tends to be a nice fit with heat demand, as burning it for heat is 2-3 times more energy efficient that using it for electricity production (due the difference in efficiency between a boiler and a power plant). And I’m kind of guessing that what Texans want right now is heat. In fact, the bulk of most of Europe and North America’s energy demand is in the form of heat.

Of course getting all of this to work together is perhaps the problem. A future low carbon grid is kind of a bit like an orchestra. Its only going to work with a conductor. This means there needs to be some legislation from government, notably to make sure the infrastructure that is built is fit for purpose and that customers don’t get ripped off. This doesn’t mean handing everything over to the government, in fact it assumes the private sector will do most of the heavy lifting and innovation (and be rewarded in return).

But naturally, this is the problem with right wingers as they are ideologically opposed to big governmentother than the bit that provides generous defence contracts, public highways, police, the largest prison population in the world and subsides to big oil. Some of them think an orchestra can work without a conductor. Others prefer their fossil fuel drum solo. And still others are in the pocket of the sort of conductor from whiplash (renewables aren’t quite their tempo), who want to retain their right to abuse their customers and protect their monopoly.

But either way, blaming renewables for power cuts makes no sense. If the republicans in Texas are looking for someone to blame for this crisis, they need only look in a mirror. This mess is entirely one of their own making. Had they focused the same effort on their policies as they are now focusing on PR maybe this crisis could have been avoided.

Posted in Biomass, cars, CHP, clean energy, climate change, defence, economics, efficiency, energy, environment, EU, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, history, housing, news, nuclear, Passivhaus, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Boris Burrow delusion

The UK is most definitely in the post-truth era. In that we have a government whose goal is to do nothing useful, but control the narrative and, with the aid of their allies in the media, delude and distract the public… while they get on with the merry business of robbing from the poor to give to the hard up billionaires. And we see no greater example of this than the proposed tunnel between NI and Scotland. Or “the Boris Burrow” as the media are already calling it.

Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that Boris Johnson has a habit of vanity projects that don’t go anywhere, yet cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Examples being his garden bridge (which cost over £50 million, in consultancy fees for a bridge that wasn’t built) or Boris Island (his proposed £50 billion airport in the Thames estuary, that would be built next to a wrecked WW2 munitions ship and on the wrong side of London). So he has form here. But just to show how stupid an idea this is and how utterly divorced from reality it is, let look a bit deeper.

The problem is that right in the middle of the Irish sea, between NI and Scotland (assuming a connection via Galloway to Larne) is the Beaufort Dyke, a rift in the sea floor about 300m deep. That means your tunnel has to go below that, which would make it one of the deepest tunnels in the world, or go around it. Going around is probably a better idea, since its filled with WW2 munitions that occasionally explode.

Incidentally crossing from the Mull of Kintyre, would mean a much longer journey for traffic (it takes about 3-4hrs to drive from Glasgow to Campbeltown, about the time it takes the ferries to currently cross). And this would be directed down a peninsula with very poor road infrastructure, and no railway lines, with the situation not much better on the other side around Fair head. Furthermore, you’d have to drive any new road or railway line through mountainous terrain, with several obvious bottlenecks that are prone to land slips (the rest and be thankful being a good example).

So while the Galloway crossing is only about 55 km’s across, accounting for the detour around the Beaufort Dyke and approach tunnelling under land, you are probably looking at a distance of about 75 km’s, about 1.5 times longer than the channel tunnel. That cost about £16 billion in today’s money, so this project would cost a lot more, particularly when you consider that the rock under the channel was soft chalk, clay and Limestone, while the route of this tunnel will have to go through is much harder volcanic rock. This would cost a lot more to drill through (or more precisely to blast through) and take a lot longer. A shorter tunnel in Japan took 17 years to build and cost about $15 billion in today’s money. So a figure of at least double the channel tunnel’s cost (say £30 billion) is probably a more realistic cost. I don’t know, maybe Boris thinks he can find some cowboy builder to do if for him over a long weekend.

And given that it would be the 2040’s or 2050’s before the tunnel would be ready, there’s every chance Scotland will have left the UK by then and NI will be part of the south. So given the lack of enthusiasm and cross party support from Holyrood and Stormont, it would be a wasted exercise.

But okay, suppose it gets built anyway and in 2045 the first train arrives into Larne….and immediately derails. Why? Because Ireland used a form of Broad gauge for its railways, while the UK uses Standard gauge. For those not familiar with the history, there was a bit of a format war back in the 1840’s between those advocating standard gauge and broad gauge (and various other sizes in between). While in the UK the standard gauge advocates won (largely by default as their network was larger and thus it was easier to set everything to standard gauge) but the opposite happened in Ireland.

Given that Ireland has a shared rail network, with most of the NI train lines essentially being a branch line leading up from Dublin’s Connolly station, you’d have to either have a break of gauge at the tunnel exit (meaning you need to stop the train, get everyone off, off-load all cargo and then load them onto new trains), which would delay onwards travel and largely negate the benefits of a tunnel. Or you’d have to convert the entire rail network in Ireland, all 2700 km’s of track, to standard gauge.

To say this would be a huge job is to put it mildly. The Tories seem to think they can send some navies out to move one line of rails over and pay them with potatoes (after all they live in some sort of Victorian era fantasy). Think again, there is no such thing as a quick or cheap job when dealing with such an old railway network. You’d need to remove the rails and replace the sleepers, which means getting heavy equipment and cranes into the middle of a farmers field. You’d probably have to re-pack the track bed to account for the change in load distribution. And while you are at it, upgrade (or reinstall) signalling, points, etc.

And you have to do all this on an active railway line that you can’t just shutdown for a few years. So you’ll have one train on standard gauge going one way, another on broad gauge going the other and a large network of replacement buses in between. You’d be talking of the mother or all train disruptions going on for several years. And of course the trains themselves would need to be refurbished, with the bogies set to standard gauge. But of course with some of the rolling stock it won’t be cost effective to refurbish (I know a lot of Ireland’s rolling stock is sourced from other countries with non-standard gauge networks, such as Spain or Japan) so they will have to be scraped and replaced.

Even if we were to assume an absurdly low figure of £5-10 million per km (which might seem high but its low compared to the £300 million per mile being charged for HS2), plus a couple of billion more for new trains and to cover the economic costs of disruption, that’s £15-30 billion, almost as big a job as the tunnel itself. And it would only be fair (as its a UK idea) that some significant portion of those costs would be met by the UK rather than Ireland.

And while we are at it, the transport infrastructure on the Scottish side in Galloway isn’t the best (better than Kintyre, but still not great). To get the maximum benefit from the tunnel you’d want to put in a high speed rail line and a dual carriage way connection to the central belt. Plus a dual carriage way across from the M74/M6 near Carlisle would also be a good idea, as that would avoid the need for travellers from England to follow a bunch of B roads (or take a 100 km detour up to Glasgow and back down again). Again, you’d be spend figures in the order of £10’s of billions on all of this.

So add it all up, tunnel and support infrastructure you are looking at total costs in the order of £50 to £100 billion and several decades worth of construction work. That’s £7700 to £15000 for every man, woman and child on the island of Ireland or £28000 to £55000 per person in NI. Do you honestly think the Tories are going to spend that sort of money on a part of the country where they have no seats and very few supporters (and what few they have were fishermen, who aren’t likely to vote Tory again any time soon). Nevermind the fact that as the UK lacks the expertise to build a tunnel like this you’d have to bring in outside contractors (or to put that in Daily Mail terms, give tens of billions of taxpayers money to foreign multinationals and allow tens of thousands of migrant tunnel workers into the country).

And why are we doing this? Because the Tories awful brexit deal has screwed over the country, most notably NI. There will still be border checks and controls at the end of the tunnel. It changes nothing. Hell at those sorts of prices it would literally be cheaper to just cut the Unionists a £100k cheque each and pay them to move to England and still have change left to afford a gold plated statue of Boris that rotates so that it always faces the sun.

But of course you aren’t going to get such analysis from any pro-Tory newspaper. War is peace and all that. They will put a positive spin on it, much as they’ve been doing with brexit. Some Tory donors will be given generous contracts to consult on and plan for this enterprise, which will simply become yet another Tory money burning party funnelling public money into the offshore accounts of the rich and non-tax payers. And we have the nerve to call other countries corrupt.

So this bridge is just another brexit fantasy project. Another step in the Tories attempt to Americanise UK politics with false controversies. Its a dark illusion intended to distract the public from covid, brexit and their dismantling of the NHS.

Posted in cars, economics, environment, EU, history, Japan, news, politics, scams, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sith calling the Jedi Darth

Reblogged from my other site

So there was a bit of a raucous over the last week when Gina Carano (who plays Cara Dune on the Mandalorian) was dropped by Lucasfilm over several ill-advised tweets she sent. These included, support for Trump, disputing the outcome of the election and references to the holocaust. She was also dropped by her talent agency.

This caused an immediate outcry as many accused Lucasfilm of censorship. Well, yes and no. There is expressing your opinion and then their is spreading rumours and lies (otherwise known as disinformation). So for example, its okay to express your opinion that climate change isn’t happening, but its a lie to say there is any significant disagreement among scientists into whether or not its happening. You can be upset that Biden won, but its a lie (and both undemocratic and un-American) to claim voter fraud allowed Biden to steal the election (if anyone was trying to steal the election it was Trump!).

As for this holocaust business, and where are the concentration camps to which all the Republicans are being sent? Where are the gas chambers? How many of them are dying a day in these facilities? Actually the only equivalent facilities in the US are Trump’s migrant detention centres and the leading cause of death in the US is currently covid due to his and the republican’s incompetent handling of the pandemic (more Americans killed in a year than died in the 4 years of world war 2). So this is just hate speech.

Its no different to the sort of tactics Islamic terrorists use to radicalise their followers into committing acts of terror. They feed people such lies, brainwash them into a frenzy, practically drive them to the front door of the target and then act all shocked and deny any responsibility when the run in and commit an atrocity. This is pretty much what went down in DC when Trump provoked a crowd to attack the capital.

And I bring this up because this was likely the concern for Lucasfilm and Disney’s lawyers. Suppose one of her hot headed fans runs off (with his gun) and shoots up a federal building? That gets back to us (and similar incidents happened during the Trump administration), we’re screwed. She’s going to end up in a big orange jump suit. And once the media and the FBI are through with us, we’re going to have to pay out millions in compensation and will probably never be able to make another star wars movie/TV series ever again.

Furthermore there is a case of the pot calling the kettle black here. The right are very quick to complain when its their rights being undermined (look at brexiters whinging because the border controls they asked for applies to them and not just foreigners). They want freedom of speech for themselves, but the right to censor anyone else.

So for example, we have had supporters of BLM being punished by their employers for showing support for the cause. Then there were the athletes who took the knee against racism. Did the right support these actions? No they wanted them all fired. And then we have the stark contrast between largely peaceful BLM protests being met by heavy handed force, sometimes by unidentified federal agents (literally a secret police force), yet right wing protesters can wander around with their guns, or even shoot people, or invade the capital building and face a more muted police response. If they face any police response at all.

As for online activity, well its been quite normal for those from on the left to face censorship. Which is a bigger problem given how massively bias the media is towards the right. Case in point one youtuber made a video pointing out the historic activities of the CIA and how such actions would now be considered support for terrorism. This not only prompted a take down of the video (although he’s managed to get it re-instated, it now comes with a warning about it being inappropriate content) but a visit from homeland security. Another youtuber made a science video questioning the claims of various right wing anti-mask advocates. And again it was taken down. I didn’t hear any complaints from the right about any of this up until the point where Trump and the far right started getting banned.

In short the message to the right is, this is your bed now lie in it. You were the ones who decided that an employee’s employment can be terminated over their political views. You decided that there is basically no limit on police brutality and government surveillance. You decided that its okay for the tech giants to censor their websites as they please. This was your idea, grow a pair and own it (there’s a certificate below for you to fill in and keep).

If you truly believe these polices should be reversed, then you should not be supporting the republican party (they are and always will be the party of the plutocrats) and you should be calling for Trump (and his officials) impeachment and prosecution.

Have you ever heard the tale of Darth Kennedy the woke?

Of course the other factor here is the civil war ongoing within Lucasfilm and Star Wars between the factions loyal to Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy and those loyal to Jon Favreau the producer in charge of the Mandalorian.

Many of the Favreau faction accuse the Kennedy faction of being too woke (and when you go woke , you go broke, or so they say). I’ve had a go at woke myself (there are inevitably extremists on the left who will abuse such things as much as those on the right), but I’d argue that actually the problem with the Kennedy faction is that they are sh*te at making movies. Seriously, I’ve only paid to see one movie in the new Star Wars franchise and that was the Force Awakens (or maybe it should be called this forces me to fall asleep). I may have caught the odd other one on a long distance flight (which I would have typically fallen asleep in the middle of), but that’s about it. If anything, this woke business is probably a desperate attempt by her and her minions to give some reason for audiences to attend their increasingly boring and plotless movies.

The problem is that Kennedy has a Sith power of her own, she might be crap at her job but she’s very good at office politics. She’s achieved this by hiring writers and producers more for their ability to strengthen her position rather than their ability to make good movies (as they are loyal to her but otherwise useless at everything else…bit like the Trump cabinet really). And where their knowledge of star wars is limited to whatever they managed to google on their way into to work on their first day.

Normally this would mean that anyone in Kennedy’s position would either be fired pretty quickly or have the good sense to quit while they were ahead. However Disney, aware that ousting Kennedy is going to get messy, haven’t done so. Equally she doesn’t want to go because she knows how sh*te she is. And, after the mess she’s made in Lucasfilm, she knows that no other studio would dream of hiring her for so much as a mop job.

So Star wars and Lucasfilm finds itself in this strange situation where anything the Kennedy faction proposes gets vetoed by Disney, as they fear it will be another Hans Solo (as in the audience will consist of one guy on his own called Hans). While anything the Favreau faction proposes tends to get green lit, even thought he’s technically her junior.

This has let to many star wars fans taking sides. And perhaps falling for the ways of the dark side. You are either with Gina Carano or you are with Kennedy (or visa versa). Well, need I remind you, only a sith thinks in absolutes. The reality is you can be appalled at the awful job Kennedy and her minions are doing, but equalled respect the fact there is a certain stopped clock element to them firing Gina Carano.

And if you think this is censorship then you need to look beyond a single case in isolation. The day Fox News and the WSJ gives Bernie Sanders his own show/weekly column is the day I’ll believe the right aren’t just massive hypocrites.

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The great vaccine gamble

I forgot to reblog this from the other week. Worth noting that since then evidence has emerged to suggest that some of the current vaccines might not be effective against emerging strains of covid.

Within the row over nationalistic hoarding of vaccines that’s been going on, there is wider problem being missed. How the vaccines are in many cases being squandered and how some politicians don’t seem to understand the purpose of vaccinations. Most notably, the UK Tory government. Who, much as with brexit, have a nasty happen of placing good PR and friendly news headlines over reality.

To be effective the vaccines have to be given in two doses, spaced 3-4 weeks apart. This is what the vaccine manufacturers recommend and what most countries are doing. But some, notably the UK government, is leaving a 12 week gap between vaccinations, while reporting anyone who has had the one dose as being vaccinated. In truth, during that 12 week period the vaccine is only about 50% effective (in other words a coin toss odds of picking it up). And that’s against the older strains of the virus, not the newer ones that have emerged recently. By contrast, with the 2nd jab immunity jumps to 90% (you are now ten times less likely to get infected, fives times better protected than with one jab).

Given these facts, you can understand the distress of NHS England staff who have only had the one dose and are still expected to treat covid patients. Meanwhile up here in Scotland, while it appears that Scotland is lagging behind England, in truth this is because they’ve been focusing on giving people (including all NHS staff) both jabs and as well as focusing on vaccinating in places like care homes in order to prevent possible superspreader events.

Consider that there is a version of the coronavirus that effects dogs (different to the current strain of course, which is a human to human virus). Fortunately, there is a vaccine, which it is recommended be administered in two doses to puppies (as the young are more likely to get infected) no more than 4 weeks apart, with a further booster doses every 3 years. In some countries this schedule is mandated by law. Yes, the UK’s covid vaccination policy for dogs is better than the one for NHS staff!

Now you might well say, but 50% is better than nothing. Yes, in an ideal world populated entirely by sensible people. However, there is a risk of luring people into a false sense of security. I’ve long noticed a tendency of older people to not follow the quarantine rules properly (e.g. nose sticking out of their mask, if they are actually wearing one of course), well give them the vaccine and tell them they are cured and what do you think they’ll do? Socially distance? LOL! In fact quite a number have been trying to book foreign holidays!

Also, the point of vaccination does introduce a small risk of infection, as you are bringing lots of people together in one place (its still worthwhile vaccinating people, but we have to acknowledge the risk v’s reward trade off, a tiny risk for a ten fold increase in protection). Case in point, I’ve heard from my relatives of a care home in Ireland which has managed to get through this crisis without a single case of covid….until a few weeks ago…after the vaccines were administered (it could just be a cruel coincidence, or it could be that somehow the virus slipped in with one of those administering it).

This is the problem with the Boris Johnson ‘s government, they are more interested in looking good for the cameras than actually dealing with problems. Their brexit policy amounts to hiding the problems and telling UK companies to get around the brexit red tape by moving to the EU (British jobs….for EU workers! and brexit was supposedly justified on removing red tape!).

Last week Boris ran up to Scotland, in violation of Covid rules in order to elbow his way into a photo op regarding a new Scottish made vaccine, before anyone Scottish could take credit for it. He then complained (with no hint of irony) about how a 2nd indy ref won’t be fair as people won’t know what they are voting for. If I was to go back in time and write a work of fiction about Boris and the Tories it would be rejected as too outlandish to be believable.

But this has been the problem with him from the start. He’s not a details person, but a pathological liar and that can be very dangerous. I had a boss like him once, also a public school boy, and his management style could be described as a mix between seagull manager (comes in, makes lots of noise, craps on everything and then leaves) and Monty python’s black knight (as in he doesn’t give up even when its clear he’s lost). He’d propose policy A, “consult” with the staff (in much the way Kim Jung-un “consults” with his people), we’d tell him it can’t work because of X, Y and Z. He’d conclude A was a great idea and instruct us to implement it. We’d point out that’s impossible (again because of X, Y and Z). He’d still insist and demote or remove anyone who refused to go ahead with it. Then when it failed, blame others for why he was never told about X, Y and Z. Rinse and repeat.

My guess is that Boris and his cabinet are much the same. They got it into their heads that the vaccine is some sort of silver bullet solution to the crisis, which its not. Its another tool that can be used to slow the spread of infection. Nothing more, nothing less. Its worth remembering vaccination doesn’t grant permanent immunity, it only works for about 6-12 months in all probability and new strains will emerge which the vaccine doesn’t work against (this is why you have to get a flu shot once a year).

We will still have to deal with Covid years from now, but having a vaccine, combined with a strong health service (which the Tories want to sell off) and an effective track and trace system (which we still don’t have in the UK) means outbreaks will be easier to control. It will just be like any other disease we have to cope with outbreaks of from time to time (the flu, west Nile virus, cholera, etc.). Although that said, given that it can easily spread from country to country there is little to be gained by one country (or the west) hoarding the vaccines and leaving large parts of the world un-vaccinated. This just guarantees further outbreaks and pandemics of covid into the future.

So there is a real danger that the vaccine will be squandered. Which will have pretty serious implications. There’s already a whole host of plandemic” conspiracy theories going around, as well as anti-vacciers and inevitably if they start to hear cases of people who got the vaccine (i.e. only the one dose that’s not really effective) who then got sick and I think you can see where this could end up going.

To paraphrase a saying, when you prioritise good PR over reality you accrue a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt must be repaid.

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Gamestop, reddit, Musk and why in Wall Street, the house always wins

Reblogged from my other site….

So there’s been a bit of a fiasco over the fact some hedge funds have been trying to profit from a likely fall in the share price in Gamestop, here’s a nice summary of events from a neutral prospective. And a bunch of redditors from wall street bets (a hang out of Trump supporting amateur investors known for doing catastrophically stupid things with their money), along with Elon Musk, are angry with the hedge funds for short selling, which they say is unethical. Seriously?

So its okay for Elon to make outlandish claims (something that has gotten him into serious hot water) and jack up the stock price of his company. And its also okay for this lot on reddit to manipulate a stockprice (white privilege and all). But somehow its not okay to try and counter balance this by profiting when a stock drops in value. Short selling, by bringing down an overly inflated stock price can discourage investors from pouring money into a company whose stock price is ultimately doomed to collapse (Theranos, Carrillion, Enron, the CDO’s of the financial crisis all being good examples where short sellers played a role in popping a dangerous bubble). This is a little more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow.

Now I can understand why Bernie Sanders or AOC might not be fans of the hedge funds. They, after all, are sceptical of unregulated free markets. But if you are on the political right, such as Ted Cruz (and most of the democrats!), I’m sorry you can’t do that. Hedge funds and short selling are not a perversion of the market capitalist system, they are a natural consequence of it and the neo-liberal free market policies governments have pursued over the last few decades. If you don’t like what they are doing, you obviously need to re-evaluate where you sit on the political spectrum. Either that, or dive in to the pit of snakes that you have helped create.

Frankly its a bit like getting a cat and then complaining when he starts playing with live mice or bring dead birds inside and leaving them around the house. The cat isn’t the problem. He’s doing just what a cat’s supposed to do. The problem is you clearly don’t know a lot about cats and should have done your research before getting one.

I know one or two people who work in finance and suffice to say there is a lot of disinformation here that needs setting straight. Firstly, ignore anything the hedge funds say about how they’ve lost money. How do you know a hedge fund manager is lying? Are his lips moving? Anything they say is going to be be a distraction intended to get others (the media, the redditors, regulators, etc.) to do their bidding. In truth, they’ve probably made a killing out of this and its going to be the reddit brigade who are going to get hosed.

What puts the hedge in hedge funds is that they will typically bet both ways on any stock. That is to say, for every $10 they invest, they will have bet say $4.5 on the stock rising and $5.5 on it falling. The point of this strategy (and obviously this is a vast oversimplification of the process) is that when they get it wrong, they lose small. But when they get it right they can win big.

In all likelihood, the hedge funds either unwound their short position at the first sign of trouble (or they are simply paying the costs of sitting on it, given that the stock is all but guaranteed to now collapse) and began speculating on the stock price rising, which would more than cancel out their losses and could net them huge profits. This is why the aforementioned lefties don’t like wall street. Its like a Las Vegas casino. Occasionally yes the punters get lucky, but in the end the house always wins. Because its a system that favours those with the cash and the credit to buy their way out of trouble.

Then there is the small matter of insider trading and stock manipulation. Yes its true that hedge funds have been accused of doing this themselves (we’ll get to that), but two wrongs don’t make a right. Furthermore, its kind of a bad idea to go and commit such crimes on the internet, on an open forum, with the SEC and the FBI watching. Indeed one has to consider whether it was some hedge fund traders with ghost accounts, aware of how dumb this wallstreets bets lot are, who put them up to this in the first place (and are likely busy laughing their asses off at how these morons have helped them make a fortune).

Which brings up to the position of Robinhood, the trading platform used by many of these amateur traders, who stopped all trades of Gamestop shares once they knew what was going on. This is not a surprise. They are the professionals who execute the trades (and thus are expected to be the grown ups in the room), they are the ones who could lose their license and potentially get sued or go to jail over this.

Its like hiring an Uber and while in the car announcing over social media that you are going to rob a bank and live stream it. Unsurprisingly the Uber driver is likely to either stop the car and order you to get out, stop and run away or drive to the nearest police station and let them sort the matter out (I used to live opposite a police station in Glasgow and this sort of thing used to happen occasionally with late night buses or taxis, hence why I didn’t have a TV in the flat, if I wanted to see police camera action, all I needed to do was look out my window). You can’t really be angry with him for not wanting to be involved in a crime.

The reality, or so I’m told, is that most traders are honest and stick to the rules (which sort of contradicts the right wing talking point that the slightest hint of regulation and they’ll all move to Dubai and learn to live without Bollinger). After all why would you want to risk a lucrative well paid career? But the problem is that the markets are a bit of a wild west. There’s a lot of people who get jobs or promotions for all the wrong reasons (your typical frat/public school boy whose family connections gets him a job) and quickly find themselves out of their depth. There’s also lack of regulation and a lack of enforcement of those regulations. Hence those who cheat all to often get away with it.

And inevitably those that do get caught, more often by their employer rather than the authorities, they are often not punished severely. Either they are shielded by their status, or the government worries about scaring off investors, or the company doesn’t something this embarrassing to become public. So the whole thing gets swept under the carpet (at worst a slap on the wrist fine or a reprimand). Consider how after the financial crisis only one banker went to jail…who just happened to be one of the few non-whites involved.

So tighter regulations would be part of the solution. Most notably the fact that certain financial instruments such as derivatives aren’t adequately regulated. A financial transaction tax would also help (as this limits the amount of profit per trade it would make certain types of trades, including some short selling plays, unprofitable). As would making company’s financially responsible for any outlandish promises they make (If a CEO promises to buy back stock at a certain price, as Musk did, well guess what now you have to do it, even if it bankrupt’s you).

Perhaps more importantly, back those regulations up with some enforcement. The police will devote vast resources and thousands of hours of police time just to catch some low level criminal, yet they won’t lift a finger to go after white collar criminals who steal billions and whose crimes can directly impact many millions of people. I’d argue a minimum sentence of say 10 years per million stolen/defrauded (in a real prison, not one of the nice soft prisons they normally send rich white collar criminals too) and a fine of double the amount they stole (which they can’t write off, hence it will follow them around for the rest of their days, even their rich friends or relatives won’t be able to buy them out of this one).

If there’s one thing the rich fear more than anything else, its ending up poor (or stuck in a jail with lots of poor people), as they know full well how catastrophic their policies have been to those at the bottom of the economic tree. You won’t have too catch too many of them to scare the rest straight.

But in the absence of such measures, all that this Gamestop business is going to achieve is a lot of hot air and yet another scenario where the rich will just get richer.

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The post-brexit options for Scotland

One of the outcomes of December’s brexit talks (aka the brexiters surrendering to reality) was how Gibraltar managed to secure a deal with Spain. This deal saw them join not just joining the single market but also Schengen (the EU’s open travel zone, i.e. johnny foreigner can now come and go as they please), as well as surrendering control of all of their ports, airport and border to Spain.

Think about it, Gibraltar, a colony that the brexiters have threatened to go to war with a NATO ally to defend, is now so deeply embedded in the EU that while Spanish and EU citizens, like me, can show our burgundy passports and be waved through, UK citizens with their blue UK passports (made in Poland) will have to queue in the 3rd country lane, fill in landing cards and customs declarations and be asked by Spanish border guards (in Spanish one assumes) about their business and reasons for visiting a British colony. And that’s if they aren’t turned around and told to go home, as is the case right now due to covid restrictions (UK and non-EU citizens are essentially bared from travel to the EU until the covid crisis is over unless they have an essential reason to travel).

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking the Tories would be up in arms about this. But actually no, they are cool with it, no complaints from London, lets talk about fish….actually second thoughts let’s talk about unicorns instead. Perhaps because they understand that their crappy brexit deal left Gibraltar with the choice between doing a deal with Spain or breaking with London altogether.

Of course it raises the question, well if Northern Ireland and Gibraltar can stay in the EU’s economic area, or indeed stay within Schengen (which is sort of EU+), why can’t Scotland? After all it would be good for Scotland, given its high value exports (Scotch whisky, Smoked salmon, Angus steaks, banking, etc.) and it would be good for the rest of the UK, as businesses could set up in Scotland (rather than in Ireland) and benefit from its easy access to the EU single market (paying their taxes to the UK exchequer).

Also it makes the NI protocol more likely to work long term. The issue with supplies right now in NI is that its a very small place. And its questionable how long it can survive by itself. Take for example UK supermarkets in NI, They now have to produce food and other items for NI separately in NI and label it appropriately or else move production to Southern Ireland. Many simply won’t do that as it doesn’t make any economic sense. However, add 8 million Scottish customers into the mix and it becomes a viable proposition, particularly when you consider that Scotland produces a lot of the ingredients that go into those food items itself.

But of course no matter how good an idea this is, Westminster won’t agree to it. For England’s relationship with Scotland (or NI and Wales) can be equated with that of an abusive and controlling partner. Maintaining their power over Scotland is the primary goal, even if it means sacrificing Scotland’s freedom, their joint prosperity and likely laying the seeds for the day the Scots make a bolt for the door and do anything to get out of this toxic relationship.

But won’t it mean customs checks at the Scottish/English border? Well yes and no. Goods destined for the Island of Ireland and the rest of the EU could just be waved through (ironically an electronic border would work well in this regard), as it would be more a matter of spot checks at Dover just in case someone pulled a fast one while the truck passed through England (e.g. loaded it up with Chlorinated Chicken and other items banned in the EU). Of course if there is a direct ferry link from Scotland to the EU (much like there now is from Ireland) then those checks can be bypassed completely.

For goods being exported to England from Scotland/NI checks need only be applied if there are items banned in the EU which England allows the sale of (again Chlorinated chicken or US made Cornish pasties and Scot Whisky) or visa versa (e.g. a US trade deal will likely require drugs be restricted to the price gouging US versions, while Scotland/NI will keep access to low cost medicine). Also, given how dependant the UK is on goods brought in from the EU (which includes most of its food), such border controls will apply anyway to Scotland (just down at Dover instead). The whole point of being in the customs union would be to remove or limit the scale of these checks and the billions in economic damage to Scotland.

In truth this is really a English problem, as its basically be a case of England imposing sanctions on itself. Now granted they are crazy enough to do more of that (after all, they just did it!). But it becomes a lot less likely if Scotland can exclude itself, as brexit is more about perceptions than facts (its not going to look so good for the English have to lose their consumer rights and pay through the nose for stuff when north of the border the Scot’s can get it for free on an NHS prescription).

In short its Tory sadopopulism at its worst. But there is a sneaky way for Scotland to get its way. Its widely expected that the SNP will top the poll in the upcoming Scottish parliamentary elections and then propose a referendum on Scottish independence.

However, I’d propose an alternative referendum. Ask two questions, the first says that Scotland should stay in the UK and attempt to join the EU customs union via a reverse Greenland option or on similar terms to NI or Gibraltar. However (and here’s the sneaky bit) there is a second question which says that if this isn’t possible (perhaps because Westminster blocks it or an EU country like Spain decides to play silly buggers), then do you wish Scotland to instead be an independent country. My guess is that given the mood right now in Scotland you could easily win a yes vote for both those questions with a reasonable majority.

This would put the cat among the pigeons down in Westminster. If they block a Customs union move, they will be triggering a constitutional crisis and essentially bouncing Holyrood into making a deceleration of independence. Now the Tories will say that’s illegal, but that doesn’t matter (who is going to arrest Nicola Sturgeon? She pays the cops salaries up here! Scot’s law remember is a different legal system from English law). It was also illegal when about half the countries on the planet declared their independence. The real question will other countries recognise it. And there’s all sorts of mischief the Scots can engage in to more or less force the English to kick them out of the union (e.g. have workers go on strike and cut off gas supplies to England, ask all taxpayers to stop paying taxes to Westminster and start paying them to Holyrood instead, printing off massive amounts of Scottish bank notes and devaluing Sterling).

Hell I could declare my house the independent republic of daryanistan and make the neighbour’s cat the king (he seems to think he is anyway!). The issue is that nobody would recognise it, the postman would refuse to show his passport and fill out a landing card when he came to deliver mail and the cops won’t recognise my diplomatic immunity when I try to buy a Main Battle Tank off Korea (for duck hunting, I swear!).

The danger for the Tories is that if it looks like they forced Scotland into an impossible position, countries might start to recognise its independence and you get a snowball effect (starts off with Ireland and a few smaller states, then some of the bigger ones until eventually someone like the US under Biden joins in) at which point the Tories are stuffed. It would be too big a gamble. They’d be better off accepting the outcome of the first question and running with that.

The same goes for EU states like Spain, they don’t want to make it easy for Scotland no (as that might encourage break away regions in their country), but they equally don’t want to give the SNP the pretext to unilaterally declare independence. It would be far better to focus on the trade negotiations.

On which point, I’m not suggesting they would be easy or quick. In much the same way the EU tried to steer the conversation in the UK/EU trade deal onto fish and goods (and away from services) the EU will do the same in any trade negotiations with Scotland. Now I doubt the SNP would be foolish enough to fall for that. But equally it will take sometime to negotiate a treaty. And much how the Tories couldn’t really afford to be patient when they knew the swivel eyed loon brigade were in a hurry (to get out of the EU so they could see their grandkids future destroyed before they died), the same is true of some SNP supporters (and as noted, the longer this goes on, the worse the economic damage).

So I’m not saying it would be easy, but it could be compromise that keeps everybody happy.

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The all too predictable outcomes of brexit…or we told you so!

This is a post from my other blog….

So we’ve started to see the effects of brexit. Gaps are starting to appear on shelves, notably in the Fresh food isles (I’ve been able to get everything I need, with a bit of shopping around, but there’s clearly a reduced level of choice). Northern Ireland is particularly badly effected with job losses and food shortages seen as inevitable, and some UK owned stores within the EU are struggling and may have to close completely.

Meanwhile there has been some chaos at ports, with people showing up with the wrong paperwork (fortunately as many truckers shunned the ports this last week, this has avoided any lengthy tailbacks), but traders have warned it will get worse once the volume of lorries increases. In fact the problem with incorrect paperwork has gotten so bad, one courier has simply stopped delivering across the UK/EU border for the time being. Meanwhile some people who need access to certain medicines have seen their supplies cut off.

And ironically, give all the talk about fish, some fishermen in Scotland have been told to reduce their fish catch, or in some cases, had to stop fishing completely. The problem is that the infrastructure to allow them to export their produce just doesn’t exist. And given the potential for delays transporting the fish to Europe (who wants to buy 2 day old Scottish fish when freshly caught French fish is available), it doesn’t make sense to export (and if it takes longer to get the fish to market you are going to need more trucks to match the same demand and currently there is a shortage of trucks)….but I’m sure those unicorns we were all promised are on the way.

And speaking of Scotland, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that support for independence is surging, now at 58% and rising (that’s +13% rise since the 2014 referendum, most if it in the last year or so). Plus a poll from NI (just one for now, but clearly indicates a shift in opinion) has come out showing a majority in favour of re-unification for the first time.

Oh and, much as I predicted, the media have been papering over the cracks and hiding the impacts of brexit. When they mention them at all (e.g. the shortages in British owned supermarkets in the EU) they spin it as an opportunity for some nativist points scoring (as they see brexit as a re-run of the Italian job where we get to add up the scores and see who won, when in truth its a lose lose scenario for everyone). Or we have this piece from the BBC (the Brexit Bullsh*t Corp.) talking about thesurprising” and “unexpected” impacts of brexit (such as truckers having their sandwiches confiscated at the border).

Ya, surprising only if you’ve had your head in the sand for the last 5 years. Hell I wrote an article 9 years ago warning of the possible impacts of brexit. People were warned, they choice not to listen. If you don’t like the consequences (e.g. the UK now breaking up) well you are just going to have to accept them, its a little late in the day to start complaining. Its a millstone that leave/Tory voters are going to have to wear around their necks for the rest of their days.

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