Friday, 17 February 2017

Global Population and Energy

I had not heard of Hans Rosling before I saw his 2013 programme Don’t Worry: The Truth about Population which the BBC re-aired after Rosling’s death this month at the age of 68.  It was really impressive: a great communicator and a first-class mind has left us.  My condolences to Rosling’s family and colleagues.

What Rosling has to say though about population growth is vital for all of us to understand if we care about humanity’s future.  The planet will be fine: over geological time it has seen many mass extinctions.  After a few million years there is always a flurry of evolution as descendants of surviving species exploit the available ecological niches and, in their turn, evolve into new species.  If this happens, then the chances are that humanity will not be around to see it.  No, it is what Rosling said about the population growth by 2100 that must concern us.

Before watching his lecture, I was led to believe that global human population would be capped by available resources at nine billion.  Apparently it is not so, as Rosling is predicting a population of eleven billion by 2100 and probably continuing to rise, albeit more slowly, thereafter. Currently the world is at seven billion - an increase of three billion during my own lifetime. Population levels have already stablished in the northern nations: Europe, North America and Russia.  Latin America and Africa will see a doubling of their populations but Asia will see the bulk of new people.  This growth is not led by large families either.  Rosling points out that even in 2013, the average family in Bangladesh only has 2.5 children.  No, it is through most of us living longer that the the numbers of humanity will continue to growth.  Failing some drastic cataclysm, the momentum is now unstoppable.

Today we are in a world where the first stresses of this population rise are being felt.  The northern nations are the first to be living longer and having fewer children so our populations are stable, if not falling slightly as the old start to outnumber the young.  On the whole, people are defensive when it comes to foreigners and it is that that is leading to the rise of nationalism in all parts of the north: Putin, Trump, May and Le Pen.  This will only be a phase though as the momentum of humanity will ultimately be too great for such barriers to withstand.  The more serious struggle will be that of resources.

In my own field, that of energy, part of the social-conservative backlash has been directed against the new technologies of renewable energy.  I recently put up a comment on Twitter pointing out that while there is nothing wrong with the government investing in a new centre to maximise the exploration of North Sea oil and gas, they have severely cut investment in renewable energy at the same time.  Responses I got back were “Good: anything that requires a subsidy is a waste of time” and, more succinctly, “Green crap.”  Both responses come from the same source: social conservatism.  Or as a Tea Party member once told me: “All we want is simple.  Leave us the hell alone.”  That is not going to happen but it is nothing to do with political ideas.  It would be through weight of numbers.

There is also resistance from developing nations too.  Many see that the North has built wealth on the back of fossil fuels but now a section of us are saying that renewable energy is the only viable future.  The suspicion is that this is just a cover for the North to keep the fossil energy for themselves and slow down the economic development of people in the South.  “Why cannot we use oil and coal to generate wealth has you have done?” they ask.

Although the demise of fossils fuels have been predicted for some time, they will eventually run out.  If Rosling is correct and the population will rise even further than the often-cited nine billion, this will inevitably happen sooner rather than later.  That is an obvious problem for us all.  For instance, there is not one scenario being offered to the UK government that does not involve fossil fuels.  That is including from Friends of the Earth.  Even they cannot see a society model that, by 2050, we have cut our dependency on fossil fuels by more than fifty percent from current levels of consumption.  What happens to human civilisation when we are literally burning up our last scraps of coal?  I do not know but considering out current state, there cannot be a good outcome.

How much do we have left?  According to my current lectures at Heriot Watt University, the planet has about 40 years of oil, 50 years of gas and 90 years of coal left to use.  This is based upon rising demands for energy up to 2035.

Perhaps at this point I should address the basic issue about finite fuels.  After all, we always seem to be able to find more of the stuff.
 
Coal, oil and gas comes from the buried fertility of life on the planet.  Soon after the first plants were able to leave the seas and colonise land, there was an explosion of life. (Remember what I said about ecological niches being occupied?).  The first forests formed about 360 million years ago, during the geological period known as the Carboniferous.  Although there are coal reserves from younger periods (such as the lignites of Poland), it is mostly the remains of these ancient first forests we are burning.  Dry gas is associated with these coal beds.  That is the source of the gas fields of the Netherlands and the Southern North Sea.

In contrast, oil comes the biological productivity of ancient oceans.  The Northern North Sea oil comes from the Kimmeridge Clay, a carbon (fossil) rich layer of mud laid down only over a few million years about 155 million years ago.  Different areas of the world will have different sources but roughly similar mechanics.  The source rocks for the Gulf area (Saudi Arabia, UEA, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran) were laid down over a protracted length of time (about 80 million years!) during the formation and destruction of the an ancient ocean called the Tethys.  That is why about half the world’s oil reserves are to be found in this region.  As these muds, rich in the remains of marine plants and microscopic animals, are buried and heated, the chemical reactions start, over millions of years, to produce crude oil.  If that oil is heated further, wet gas is produced.  Heat it too much though and all the hydrogen is driven off, leaving only inert carbon.

Traditional drilling and oil exploration focuses upon finding the accumulations of this oil and gas as the fluids migrated and are trapped in rocks.  Fracking is only different insofar that the hydrocarbons still trapped in the original source rocks are freed up by mechanically breaking up the mudstones.   The point is about fracking is that after the source rocks have been exploited, there is nowhere else to go.  Fracking is a symptom that the sponge is starting to be squeezed in order to extract the final drops.

What of nuclear though?  Current power stations are based upon the fission of uranium.  This technology is problematic because of the weaponisation of byproducts.  Nuclear weapon technology is jealously guarded, even if that particular genie is out of the bottle.  However, this particular blog is about energy and not nuclear weapons.  Although there is plenty of uranium left in the planet, most of it is beyond the reach of human extraction. Only small quantities are trapped in the Earth’s crust and therefore mineable.  Current reserves are thought to be good for another seventy years.  Thorium is a far more plentiful element but there has been little investment in extracting the power contained within it.  Probably because its byproducts has far more difficult to weaponise.

In short, the world is not expected to have a single finite source of fossil energy expected to last beyond this century.

I haven’t even started to talk about what burning all these ancient reserves are doing to the climate.  The big question is:
Is mad-made climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, real?

Quick answer is yes.  Yes, it is real.

Climate-change deniers use the figure that “only” ninety seven percent of scientists claim that climate change is man-made and that they speak for the brave three percent.  Even this is a lie.



Have a look at this graph from jamespowell.org.  Climate change deniers have had zero impact on the scientific debate on the evidence.  This means that there is either a global conspiracy involving millions of scientists or, more likely, the evidence for man-made global warming is effectively unanimously accepted by those who consider the evidence.
 

Climate change deniers also point to natural climate change variation during geological time.  This indeed happens.  The next graph, from the University of Berne, shows the natural carbon dioxide level (CO2) over the past 60,000 years in terms of parts per million (ppm).  The ramp up from 20,000 to 12,000 years ago covers the period of glacier melting at the end of the last Ice Age.  The spike, right at the end, covers the last two hundred years up to 2004 - the period of the industrial revolution.  In 2016 CO2 have now past the 400 ppm.  As explained previously, the majority of fossil fuel energy which as been locked up in the planet’s crust is now being liberated into the atmosphere.  



CO2 is a vital atmospheric component for preserving solar radiation and keeping the planet warm and habitable.  Never in the course of geological history however has there been such a rapid and concentrated injection of CO2 into the planet’s atmosphere and all scientists expect the result to be rapid increases in global temperatures.  These changes in temperature will not be evenly spread but will see higher rises at the poles and more modest increases over the equator.  The effect upon habitats and ecosystems are also expected to be drastic as most species cannot react quickly enough to such rapid change.  Sea levels will also rise, mostly due to thermal expansion of ocean waters.


These are the challenges.  What is to be done?

If we do not do anything, human society is in for a very rough time that will effect us all, even social conservatives.  It is possible to do nothing to address the energy situation but then one is into a series of short-term military interventions, killing millions without any permanent solutions.  It is possible that in the face of huge population growth, usable energy will give out almost completely, leading to catastrophic problems in food production and supply. 

I tend not to be a doom-monger though.  Even without wilful negligence of current conservative thinking, solutions often still arise.  Again though, these tend to be short term and limited in scope, especially in democratic systems.  Authoritarian systems such as China do have an advantage when performing long-term planning.  The Chinese are indeed one of the highest investors in renewable energy technology.  This is perfectly understandable because their own history shows the negative results that social upheaval can have.  People tend to remember only the Second World War and the Communist revolution but they also remember events like the Taiping Revolution: one of the bloodiest civil wars in global history.  The challenge for Western nations is achieving desirable long-term outcomes without having to resort to dictatorship and the crushing of individual human rights.

Therefore I call upon all governments, but especially nationalist governments in the west, to first of all accept the scientific evidence and give no heed to climate change deniers.  The same can also to be asked of the mass media organisations.  Giving equal weight to the deniers is not upholding their right to free speech, it is simply propagation of a lie.  I am not going to stop people to state there is no such thing as global warming: it is just that they are simply wrong and are continuing to say so in the light of all available evidence.

Secondly, once the evidence is accepted as real, act upon it.  This does not mean leaving it to the market place.  Wise government is able to foresee trouble ahead and act in good time to minimalise the worst outcomes.  If this means having to subsidise prices from renewable energy resources and invest in energy storage research, then do it.

Thirdly, this appeal is to both governments and green activists.  We will need all the resources available to us over the next century.  This includes fossil fuels and nuclear.  Do not arbitrarily block  the exploitation of these reserves.  They will be needed.  Instead we need a long term policy approach to manage these resources, having them last as long as possible while taking measures to minimalise the effects of CO2 release: either through carbon capture or keeping the carbon in situ while releasing the hydrogen for energy usage.  We cannot have a position where hydrocarbons are bad: renewables good.  Yes, we need to maximise our investment and research in renewables but we will also still have to use fossil fuels.

By nature, I am not a pessimist.  These are huge challenges but, if we are smart, we as a species and civilisation, may be able to get through this next century.  We all need to wake up, look to the future and not harken either back to the past or some green nirvana that can never be.  We all need to accept and act upon the evidence.



Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Preserving Oilfield History

Last week I gave a lecture to a small audience of post-graduate students at Heriot-Watt’s Institute of Petroleum Engineering.  The topic was on an obscure branch of geophysics (known as borehole seismic) and the life of a oilfield service hand.  It is not my intent to write upon the topic here, you will be glad to learn.

While researching what is effectively personal history, I really found the limits of both my own records and that of the Internet.  The workhorse of Western Atlas for borehole seismic work was a tool system called an MRL - Multi-Level Receivers.  It simply does not exist online.  At least Google cannot find it.  As employees and contractors, we were never encouraged to photograph our work places.  Partly a safety issue - unrated electrical items can potentially cause a spark of radio transmissions trigger an explosive, but in the main oil companies simply do to encourage photography of their installations and business practices.  It is only when I was trawling through my old files and albums do I realise how diligent I have been in obeying such corporate edicts.

Since then, I have put out an appeal to colleagues to share their old pictures, especially those of older technology.  It is not that I have any strong sentiment attached to these tools: most are heavy and inferior to today’s offerings and I spent far too much of my life dragging the damn things around in tropical heat, North Sea gales and winter ice.  As a record of industrial history though, the records are already starting to fade.  They are already hardly known and will be lost completely if people like me do not organising and compiling their files.

Some of my friends have already been in contact and are willing to share their records, which is great.  I hope more of you get in contact.  This blog post has a wider appeal though.  If you work with specialised equipment, if might be worth while having a think now about the memory of the tools and the work practices are preserved for posterity.


Add caption
Photo credit: Alex Rennie.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

UK Politics, 2016.

A lot of people will be glad to see the end of 2016 and in the political sphere, it was indeed a bad year to be a liberal.  I am going to take this opportunity to get a lot off my chest so buckle up dear reader.

Where to start?  Brexit seems a “good” place.  There is a lot of lessons for the political establishment here.  For many, dislike of immigration was the main factor.  Listening to those who voted to leave however, I do not think that the central message was one of hatred.  It was a cry of desperation: the feeling that politicians do not listen to them and that the issues that matter most are not being addressed.  Instead of addressing these issues though, the blame was shifted on to the EU - the “unelected bureaucrats” who allegedly dictate our lives.  The lie was cynically sold to those people who are least informed of the issues.  The state of UK democracy is not the fault of the EU but rather of ourselves.  Westminster has a rotten voting system and local democracy in the form of town and county councils have been hollowed out systematically since the 1970s.  Leaving the European Union will not address any of this.  It comes down to decision-making on the local level and having the resources necessary so that local needs can be answered.  Leaving the EU will only worsen our economy for the foreseeable future.  One possible explanation put forward is based upon economic psychology.  It is claimed that is better for some to see everybody poorer rather than to see some better off.  Personally, I hope this is not the case as for my own personal politics is to encourage people to positive action, while understanding we all have negative passions too.  

What is the game plan of those who led the Brexit campaign?  It varies, depending upon which end of the political extreme one is on.  We currently have a very right wing government in office, led by Theresa May.  Make no mistake: these people are both social and economic extremists.  Even Farage himself mused upon the possibility of rejoining the Conservative Party, as they now occupy UKIP ground.  In order to appear more central, there has been an accommodation in the press of the Far Right.  This is evidenced not only by the continued presence of Farage, but Marine Le Pen of the Front National has been making several appearances on the BBC.  My antenna first twitched when on the World at One (BBC Radio 4) Le Pen was introduced as a “right wing” politician.  Note, not extreme right as in previous years.  Later on she and her nationalist right party featured on Newsnight (BBC 2) and The Marr Show (BBC1).  We have to import fascists for it is impossible to go further right than UKIP and the current government without stepping into Britain First, one of whose members murdered Labour’s Jo Cox MP on June 16th, 2016.

The far economic right agenda is starting to surface.  It had to start with the repeal of a lot of the previous legislation laid down by Liberal Democrats while part of the Coalition.  During the summer recess of 2015, the Cameron government cut the majority of support to the renewable industries and weakened the framework set up to strictly regulate fracking in (onshore) England.  Previously no exploitation would have been allowed under national parks and similarly protected areas - such as Sherwood Forest.  Now it is just about the location of well sites.  Deviated and horizontal well technology is now allowed to drill under areas previously off limits.  Since the Brexit vote, a lot of effort is going into deregulation.  Large corporations are looking at London in the hope of benefitting from an extreme low-tax regime, without having to go to all the fuss of setting up shell companies in far-flung tax havens.  Working rights, already weakened in negotiations with UK governments, will be further attacked.  Farmers who supported Brexit will be looking to grow GM crops and import US-style animal husbandry practices in order to boost profits.  Basically, the whole of the UK is to become a giant deregulated Free-Trade Zone, even more extreme than what exists currently in the USA.  The Right will be looking keenly at the moves taken by President Elect (at the time of writing) Trump, along with the Republican Congress and Senate. 

Enough of the Right, what of the Left?  Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (remember him?) has been mute on holding this government to account on Brexit.  In fact, a lot of Labour spokespeople have been making very supportive noises on limiting future immigration.  Some say that this is Labour running scared of their own electorate and pandering to the prejudice on display.  I cannot help but wonder if there is a deeper motive in play.  It is pretty clear that Corbyn is no fan of the EU and in this he follows in the Bennite tradition.  The idea being is that the EU is primarily a regulated trading zone with large corporations being the major beneficiaries.  Since a sincere and dedicated socialist is against capitalism, one must also be against the EU.  There is more.  Corbyn and his Momentum acolytes must know the Conservative plans for the economy.  Why are they not vocally opposing them now?  One wonders if the reason is because they have read their Marx, and that in order for true socialism to come about, capitalism must be allowed to go to the worst possible extremes.  Only then will us proletariat rise up and overthrow our masters.  Overall, the EU has been quite successful in curbing the worst excesses and allowing many citizens to have reasonable lives.  It is a stumbling block on the way to the Marxist paradise.  The Conservatives on the other hand are offering the path to corporate excess and thus to the inevitable people’s revolution. Only speculation one understands, but otherwise there is no accounting for the silence of Labour leadership.

What of UKIP?  The whole point of the referendum was for the Conservative party to address the schism within their own ranks: UKIP is a renegade party created by former Conservatives after all.  This they have done, even at the cost of pulling the UK out of Europe (Brexit means Brexit) and dividing the nation pretty well down the middle. Seldom British history has a prime minister laid down the future of an entire nation for the sake of his own party, but this is what the Conservatives under David Cameron has done. Since the vote went the way of Leave, there is little point in UKIP existing any more. Sure, they might have a revival if the Conservatives do not deliver but at the time of writing, UKIP has won and the membership might as well return to the mothership that is the Conservative Party. 
As UKIP is reabsorbed however, one may find that some choose to go their own way.  Look out for “independent” candidates, using the language of the US ALT Right; offering to “Drain the Swamp” near you.  In previous years they would have wondered off and joined the National Front or the BNP.  They are still the same old fascists and racists, just using a new label.

 With all this madness going on, the SNP up here in Scotland must think that things are going rather well.  In May they won their third term in government, albeit as an minority this time around.  The problem is with the SNP is that they are a pressure group for independence rather than a political party with thought-through and costed policies.  Yet again in 2016, we had the farce of the delayed publication of the party manifestos.  In 2011, the other parties realised that for their own manifesto, the SNP shamelessly cut-and-paste policies into their own manifesto and simply increases the pledges.  For example, after an in-depth report from a party committee, in their manifesto the Liberal Democrats might pledge to build 40,000 houses in Scotland over the five years of a parliamentary term.  The SNP leadership think “Oh, that’s shiny, we’ll have that” and ups their pledge to 50,000 for good measure.  It is not just the Liberal Democrat manifesto that is pillaged in this way: the SNP does it to all the other parties.  This time around Labour held out and were last to publish with only days left before the vote.  This could not have helped with postal voting and may have contributed towards their third place.  By representing themselves as Unionists rather than Tories, the Conservatives came second.  On the street and doorstep, one could not even make out any sign of Conservative logos or name tags: the print used was so small.  During the election Ruth Davidson successfully de-branded themselves as Conservatives and even now distances herself from her Westminster colleagues by this week restating her EU-Remainer sympathies.

None of this really matters to the SNP.  The only policy they have is independence and the only method of government they do is the centralisation of power to Holyrood.  This year’s bill on forestry will not devolve power to local communities but instead takes power from the Forestry Commission and gives it to government ministers.  The SNP will continue to concentrate all policing in the hands of government by absorbing Scottish-based British Transport Police into the already discredited Police Scotland.  They shamelessly use the language of the progressive left while practicing economic right-wing policies.  Look out for the predicted cut in air transport duty, due to be delivered in 2018.  This isn’t based upon any progressive or green policies but rather at the demand of Gordon Dewar, the chief executive of Edinburgh Airport.  The SNP has not altered the burden of income tax so it weighs heavier on the better off.  All they have done in not pass on the Conservative tax cut to higher earners made by the Westminster government.  When it comes to renewable energy, the Scottish government has passed on the Westminster cuts to small-scale generators and now their emphasis is on large-scale projects, just as it in the south.  Our hospitals and care services continues to be cut, as does our education services.  Right now that they are claiming in an online meme that the NHS is thriving outside England, at a time when both hospital and care services continue to be cut here in Edinburgh and Dundee has problem filling vacant positions.  This is a new definition of thriving.  What really gets me is not just that the problems exist, it is the constant denial that there are any problems at all.  Things will inevitably worsen while the Executive continues to deny that there is problems in public and the main thing they demand of their membership (and even MPs and MSPs) is unquestioning faith rather than intelligent criticism.  As a society we cannot continue to hang time while the party in charge waits for its opportunity to hold a second referendum.  Problems we all face need addressing now, otherwise the nation’s future prospects will worsen, whatever capital city is ultimately in charge.


What of my own beloved party, the Liberal Democrats?  As Paddy Ashdown graphically put it (after dining upon his own hat following the 2015 election), politically we were “roadkill”.  Slowly though we are less roadkill and more on the road to recovery.  Safe to say the party did not enjoy power.  Better being in power though - after all we were able to deliver seventy percent of our manifesto commitments and beat down the excesses we warned you all about with the Conservatives and are now all-too-evident.  Freed from the shackles of Westminster coalition (which incidentally I did highlight in a pre-election blog post in 2010), a weight has been lifted off our shoulders and the old campaigning mojo is back.  This is evident by performances in the 2016 Scottish elections, winning two seats (thanks to teams led by Willie Rennie and Alex Cole-Halmilton) directly from the SNP and avoiding the predicted wipeout.  Further evidence is the net gain of 28 council seats in by-elections across the UK.  The cherry on the (still admittedly small but growing) pie is the victory at Richmond Park, with Sarah Olney overthrowing a massive Conservative majority.  Yes, Goldsmith was standing as an independent and yes, the Greens showed true generosity in standing aside in the fight.  Goldsmith was supported by the Conservatives and UKIP also stood aside to give him a better chance.  A win is a win and it shows that liberalism is not forgotten.  Indeed, liberalism is proving to be the only effective antidote against extremism and popularism.  I have faith in people, but only when they also have the facts.  That is one reason why power is best delivered locally and not centralised in either Edinburgh or London.  Democracy is also too valuable to be bought by corporations following what is effectively a constitutional coup by the economic far right.

I remain both a liberal and a Remainer.  Brexit has given us Liberal Democrats not only a further reason to exist but have provided us with a mission that the public can easily understand.  I don’t respect the outcome of the referendum.  When we had our debate over Scottish independence, the time taken allowed everybody a rounded view before the vote.  Two years felt long: it was long but it proved necessary.  Three months is nothing.  In fact it was just six weeks up here in Scotland, owing to the Scottish Parliament elections being held in May.  When I wrote my blog giving the reasons I was voting No, I made the commitment that whatever the outcome, I would honour it.  We never had that kind of debate over Brexit, it was rushed and frankly was only ever held to settle the schism in the Conservative Party.  Internal party reasons to hold the referendum of such huge consequence are is the worst possible motive and we need a second referendum.  Not so the correct result can be achieved - although obviously I do hope for a different outcome - it is so that a public decision can be reached with all the options and facts being explored.  A rushed, railroaded decision is worse than no decision at all.  The alternative to another referendum would be a general election.  On that, I would be very happy to see the Liberal Democrats stand as the party dedicated to remain within the European Union.  As part of a genuinely progressive coalition, it might even be possible to overturn Brexit and thwart the extreme right.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Fake News and the Age of Cynicism.

We live in an age where knowledge has never been so widely or cheaply available.  The results are all around us: the computer device you are reading this on, the artificial fabric which keeps most of us warm either in the house or on the street, the car or bus that most take to work.  All fruits of knowledge and the labour of teams of experts who wrought this knowledge into material goods.  Knowing and doing is how most people earn their living.

There is one area of life however where knowledge seems to be unwelcome and that is the public sphere.  Especially in Anglo-Saxon society, it can be considered rude to show off one’s education outside an academic or applied setting.  On one level this is fine: it is an attempt to put others’ at ease who, through whatever circumstances, may not have shared in the advantages of a good education.  In another way, it is also a defence against any bad feeling that may result from excessing erudition.  “Know-it-all”,“too clever by half” or “too clever for his own good” are peculiarly British insults for those deemed boorish or precocious thought the use of too many big words.

It seems though that this suspicion of knowledge and those who possess some (for long gone is the age when anybody can claim to know everything), has moved into a new higher level.  This did not come about by accident but instead has been long in the making.  
The media have had a long history of skewing the news to fit their particular agenda.  When it comes to newspapers that has been long accepted as people are free to purchase the news that appeals to their own sensibility.  As for state-run media, the free-to-air stuff where most people get their daily news, it is more dangerous.  If the facts are tailored to fit the government view, this will work while the the media outlets are still relatively limited.  In the age of the Internet though, that is no longer the case.

Obviously the Internet changed everything and what the world is seen since is a constant struggle for control.  Some nations like China have been particularly heavy-handed with the setting up of the Great Firewall.  Others like Russia have more relied upon monitoring of internal consumers and  that for the majority of the population, English is still not widely spoken or read.

What happens though in the West?  It is impossible to suppress the news completely.  Facts can be challenged and checked.  So the answer is to attack the facts themselves.  This is not a competition between facts so that a path ahead can be mapped out based upon some reason, but rather the undermining of facts by downright contradiction, making it less possible to see reason at all.  

Contradiction and outright lying in politics has of course a long history.  It’s theoretical basis is outlined in the beginning of Plato’s Republic: rulers occasionally have to lie to the population, concealing a current truth in order to bring about a beneficial outcome.  

What happens though when the desired outcome is not beneficial to most, but rather to a narrow clique?  In order for this to be achieved, the last thing that most people should be told is the truth. Instead people will have their prejudices pandered to.  Something going wrong?  It cannot be Our fault can it?  We are wonderful!  It must be Their fault.  It doesn’t really matter who They are, as long as there is a recognisable difference.  The point is that it is Them that are holding Us back.  There might be too many of Them here.  Their culture does not fit with Our culture and ways.  They are a burden on society.  If it wasn’t for Their rules, we would be free to do everything better.   Even worse, the Elite is on Their side!  Elites cite Facts in order to bamboozle ordinary folk like You and Me.  Unless You are one of those who go around citing Facts?  Are You an Expert?  In which case You are a member of the Elite and thus either one of Them or, even worse, a traitor to the rest of Us.

I am not even going to pick a side here to attack.  There are so many to choose from nowadays.  Once political debate is reduced to the Them versus Us, facts and reason no longer matter.  The people who buy into whoever version of this are lost to both.  Instead their opinion is putty in the hands of whoever feeds them dialogue.  It is not even news.  It does not even have to be a version of reality because the motives of anybody who contradicts the dialogue must be acting from the worst of motives.  People have been trained to be cynical.

I will leave you with a suggestion.  If you automatically dismiss everything said by somebody you identify as an opponent.  If you are in the habit of branding certain parties as evil.  If you object to certain people simply by their presence. If you call for freedom from dictatorship without having any clear idea or knowing solid examples of what form that oppression takes.  If you only use facts to further your cause. 

If any one or more of these points rings a bell with you, ask yourself these questions:

Who is doing the thinking for me?  
What do they hope to achieve?  

Why am I not getting the all the facts so I can make up my own mind?

Then go and get those facts and be careful of those who would have you disbelieve that it is possible to do so.  The Internet is here: use it well.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Take the Time

When the World feels like sanity 
Is in short supply 
And reality is a commodity 
That most people 
Has called “Sell” 
Rather than “Buy”. 

This is the time 

When one looks deep 
Into one’s heart 
When self-belief 
Plays its part.
Take the time though 
Take the step back 
From the brink. 
Take that breath 
And look afresh 
At what you know.  

Or what you think you know. 

Consider again the facts 
Consider returning 
Back to the state of unknowing; 
Of admitting that one 
Might be wrong. 
Look at the facts anew: 
Humility is the rarest virtue.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Royal Yacht Britannia: an Appeal to Boris Johnson

The Rt. Hon Boris Johnson Esq.
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Downing Street West
London SW1A 2AL 25th September 2016


Dear Sir,

It has been reported in the media that you intend to launch consultations on whether the Royal Yacht Britannia should be recommissioned for use as a floating embassy and, possibly, resume her role as a royal yacht.

As a person who has often visited the yacht and can actually see her from my front window, I wish to register my objection to this scheme.

First of all sir, I understand you have some reputation as a historian.  Then you will be aware that current Britannia is serving out her retirement as a museum and she is a beautiful one at that.  On the surface one would expect the exhibits to focus solely on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her family.  There is far more on offer.  It is not often that a slice of society from the mid 20th Century can be served to the general public in such a layer-cake fashion.  Her Majesty, family and honoured guests at the top, through the officers and ranks, with the poor bloody marines and laundry crew deep in the bowels of the vessel.  

Britannia as a museum is a confection for which the public has great appetite: she is the top tourist attraction in Scotland.  In Leith, where Britannia is moored, there is still areas of great deprivation.  More can be done to make Britannia relevant to the local population but, if she is taken away, so will be jobs and incomes.  One is not solely talking of those directly employed by the company.  Britannia is the centrepiece of the Ocean Terminal shopping mall which is on its way to recovery after the recent economic crisis.  Hotels, restaurants and businesses all benefit from tourism that Britannia brings.  A quick check on accommodation websites, such as AirBnB, shows that in Leith alone there are over 300 rooms being let out by households in the area.  Removing Britannia will be a blow against Leith, people who are trying to make an honest living from hospitality and those who depend upon them.

A recommissioned Britannia will need considerable upgrading.  The oil-fired steam turbines in the engine room are a magnificent museum display and they should remain as such.  My father, who was a chief engineer, was scornful of the technology even in the 1970s.  In marine engineering, one of the greatest advances has been with engines, with their physical size being reduced substantially over recent decades.  Having previously worked with graduates of naval architect schools, it is also certain that the science of fluid dynamics and therefore ship design has seen recent improvements too.  

In a very fundamental sense, Britannia is a ship of her time.  Nowhere more so is on the automation side.  In terms of computation power, a tourist’s average smartphone has far greater capacity than anything designed for Britannia, even in her later days of service.  With recommissioning, the whole pre-digital nature of the vessel will be irrevocably and forever lost.  There are very few complete historical artefacts that can show pre-digital, industrial-era technology at the zenith of design and manufactured quality.  I have not even touched on the necessary upgrades which would have to be performed on the security side and whether they are even feasible in light of today’s threats.

One of the modern success stories of British manufacturing is in luxury yacht design.  As a nation, we have the capability to deliver a brand new, top-class vessel that would serve as a floating bill-board for what our manufacturers are able to deliver today.  If the government should decide that we do need a moveable embassy (which might also double as a new royal yacht), then we should avail ourselves of what we are currently capable of.  Compared to some modern super yachts, while Britannia is undoubted regal, she is also modest in capability.

Time moves on and some things, because of the unique history and perspective that they offer, should be preserved for posterity.  Britannia is one such artefact.  Since I first voiced my opinions on social media, some people of nationalist persuasion have contacted me.  Their perspective is concentrated upon the symbolism of the vessel and what it represents to them in terms of Britishness and royalty.  The attitude is very much “let it go and good riddance".  Frankly it is an attitude that shocks me.  My retort was to point out that even in the Soviet Union, the Russians were smart enough to preserve their royal palaces.  They even painstakingly restored those which were gutted during the Second World War.  I view Britannia as a floating palace whose time of greatness has passed but should be preserved as she is now: at the height of her glory.  

After reading this letter, I hope you will agree with me that the grand old lady that is Britannia deserves the honourable and useful retirement which she currently enjoys.


Yours faithfully,


PS.  I write a blog which covers current affairs.  As such, I will be posting the above letter online and any reply you may make.  MV. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Grammar Schools and My Father's Education

I have been listening to the radio over the past few days with increasing fury.

Theresa May’s speech, standing on the steps of No.10 Downing Street, spoke of social inclusion and mobility.  I never believed it.  One’s cynicism seems to be borne out with her announcement  on the reintroduction of new grammar schools in England and increased powers for religious schools.

My father was born in 1935 and died in 2001.  He was from Hartlepool in the northeast of England and from a poor background.  He is no longer around for me to check the details but what follows is what can be recalled of his educational experience.

My father must have started school in 1940 and he enjoyed it. Apart from the threat of sudden death from the Luftwaffe and the near constant hunger, he said it, in general, was a great time to be a child.  All the children were covered in a substance called gentian blue - used to treat the resulting sores and general poor skin conditions resulting from the poor diet.

As a child, as he continued to be for the rest of his life, my father was bright.  He did very well at the junior school, that is until the age of ten.  It was then that the class got a new teacher.  For the next academic year, progress stopped completely.  Then the class sat the Eleven Plus exam.  Not one of them passed.

In the autumn, all those who failed went on to the local secondary modern school.  That was not quite true.  As a member of a different class in the school, the headmaster’s son had also failed his exam.  Nevertheless his uniform was bought, he attended the local grammar school and nothing more was said.

At the secondary modern, some pupils continued to get an education.  My father was among those who did not.  This even went as far as sporting activities.  One Wednesday afternoon, cricket was being taught to the selected.  The rest of the pupils were literally being ignored.  My father went up to the pile of spare equipment, got a couple bats, ball, wickets etc. and set up an alternative game.  One of the teachers noticed.

“What are you doing Veart?”
“Playing cricket sir.”
The teacher turned around and continued to ignore the group.

At the age of fourteen, my father left school without qualification and worked in an office as a gopher - go for this, go for that.  At seventeen he worked his day job and attended night school.  The lecturers was also the maths and and science teachers at the local grammar.  They used to say stuff like “I wish my pupils worked as hard as you lot do!”  Graduating with an Ordinary National Diploma, it was enough to get a job as an marine engineering apprenticeship.  This led eventually to a chief engineer’s ticket and a life at sea.

There wasn’t many people who had cars in the 40s and 50s.  My family certainly did not own one.  The observation was made that in Hartlepool, if the family had a car, any children went to grammar school.

To return to today, I simply do not understand May’s argument that the reintroduction of grammar schools will lead to greater social mobility.  Those who are better off will always find ways to preserve their privilege.  To an extent, that is human nature.  We should not be setting up new systems that allows privilege to be so easily preserved at the taxpayers expense.  

I am the first in my family to go to university and gain a degree.  An opportunity my father never had.


Liberal Democrats have already stated we will oppose these moves.  The reintroduction of English grammar schools is a retrograde step and should be opposed by any with a progressive outlook.