Saturday, 21 November 2015


I have tried not the write about Syria because I have never been there.  Sure, I am aware of its history, both modern and ancient.  How between the great wars it was a protectorate of France and how the Ottoman Empire ruled.  The Ottomans were smart.  They did not care which tribe one came from nor which god one worships.  All they cared about was service to be empire and that one did not rock the boat. Before that were Mamluks and Mongols, the Crusaders,  Ayyubids, Byzantines and Romans, the Seleucids, the Persians, Assyrians, Hittites and the Phoenicians.  

Syria is recent.   Only her people, their cultures and great cities ever existed.  As a nation, Syria never really existed: she was either the seat of empires or the subject of others.  After World War Two however, Syria the nation rose and fell; even briefly entering a union with Nasser's Egypt.  Under the Ba'ath Party and the rule of the al-Assad, father and son, some sort of heavy-handed normality was established.  Although non-aligned, many of your middle and upper classes received a secular Russian education.  Russia supplied your military but you did not cut links with the French either.  Despite US bans on technological transfers, French oil companies still were free to help develop your oil wealth.  I even hoped one day to visit you, to see ancient Damascus, whose roots go deeper into history that any other city in the world.  I would have also loved to have visited the site of the ancient rebel Palmyra, to see the temples and palaces that remained of Queen Zenobyya's oasis realm.  The city that fought the might of the Roman Empire and almost won.  Yes,  I would have devoted wished to have seen you.

All this was so until the Arab Spring.  Ah, what misery it is to have neighbour turn against neighbour, tribe against tribe.  To endure not only a ruler whose peoples' blood means nothing but also the malice of other nations who would do nothing to help one side or the other.  Instead the conflict was nurtured, and how eagerly the different factions suckled the sour milk of hatred.  The longer the memories of past wrongs,  the more bitter the hurt unleashed.  Did you not notice your only reward was the mirth of your enemies?

Now a new peril has emerged, ISIS, who wish to recreate the Caliphate that never was.  Between the power-at-all-costs fanaticism of al-Assad and the mono-cultural and murderous fanaticism of ISIS, where do the people go?  The choice is either to become a fanatic or to flee.  So many have fled now.  Your neighbours are either full of your people or their gates are barred completely.  Others, especially the young who still have hope, look further afield to Europe but here the welcome is mixed.  Some people and nations welcome you with an open heart.  Others would sooner throw you back into the burning fire that was your home.  Your war spills into the streets of Paris and beyond.  For what?  How will such cruel deeds extinguish the fires that now blaze?

For still Syria burns.  It has become a playground of Hell and a purse for profiteers.  More bombs seem to be the answer offered to a question that is now forgotten: how to bring peace to these lands?

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Thirty Nine Barrels

I was Christmas shopping with the wife when the mobile phone rang.  It was not a welcome call.
"Martin, I have booked you on a flight to Angola for the 20th."  It was my manager John.
"Oh. What?!  Steve covers Angola.  Where the hell is he?"
"Steve has just checked himself into hospital.  Back problems."
"That son of a bitch just doesn't want to go!"

Everybody knew that Steve was faking it.  Even I had heard that, during a base meeting in September, he had stated that if a job came up over the Millennium celebrations he wouldn't be available.  Pretty ballsy to say that in front of the regional manager.  Besides, the guy was in his late twenties and built like an athlete.  He was less likely to suffer with back problems that I was to overdose during a rave.

I tried to call Steve on his mobile but naturally it was turned off.

"Well, that's Christmas and the Millennium cancelled," I tell my wife.

At least the flight down to Angola was uneventful.  Stavanger to London.  London to Luanda.  On the previous occasion I had been routed via Nairobi in Kenya (for reasons I have never discovered) but fog meant I had missed the forward connection.  No such drama this time.  In fact I was even met at the airport and, once I got to the base, things had improved there as well.  While still located at the port (to this day they have not re-mettled the old dirt road leading to it), instead of the mosquito-ridden cesspool of old containers that existed previously, the new place was modern, shaded and with a tarmac yard to boot.  Very nice.
While having a hoke around the yard, I came across a set of seismic tools set up in a seven by one-and-a-half metre orange tool rack.  Noting that the cables between the tools were ten metres long, I asked somebody whether these were the tools assigned to me.  No, I was told.  Those ones were for another job out of Luanda.  Simon was doing that job.  My tools were already offshore Cabinda. Fair enough.

That afternoon, I, along with another engineer and the local manager, went to the Chevron offices in town to discuss the upcoming job.
"Ah, glad you are here Martin.  We have a question for you.  The MLR [the downhole seismic tools] tools, how are they in rugged borehole conditions?"

The thing is with any borehole seismic array is that each set of geophones have to be acoustically isolated from each other.  They are therefore not connected by solid bars but rather by long sections of cable which are usually of ten to twenty metres in length.  It is therefore impossible to push them down a hole without risking a god-awful tangle.

"Not good", I reply.  "What is the borehole deviation?"
"Fifty-five degrees."
"Hmm.  Are you intending to run casing?"
"Yes we are.  Can you shoot through casing?"
"At fifty-five degrees, it should be no problem.  A good cement job always helps but at that angle there will be enough casing touching the borehole so that there will be a bond with the formation."
"That's settled then", smiles the Chevron manager.  "We'll run the VSP once the casing is set."
"When will that be?" I ask.
"Oh, after the first week in January."

In car back to the base, one could not but reflect that that conversation could have been done over the telephone.

The following day, the 22nd of December, I flew up to Cabinda.  Expecting the base to be a dry zone, I left in the Luanda staff house a litre bottle of duty-free vanilla vodka I had impulse-purchased in Heathrow duty-free.  Upon takeoff, the airplane went out to sea and stayed there.  Angola was still in the process of moving away from a series of civil wars and it was better safe than sorry.  As we headed north, the blue South Atlantic could be seen lapped against the white beaches far below.  On approach to Cabinda the plane circled the runway before landing.  I was amazed to see people casually waling across the concrete landing strip.  By the time we landed however, the runway was clear.

The Cabinda oil base starts offshore with a series of small platforms and tanker mooring points, then at the head of shallow cliffs by the sea are a series of giant oil storage tanks.  Below the cliffs and set back from the white sandy beach, largely populated by white burrowing crabs, are a row of small yards and bases where the oil-service companies have set up.  There is a more substantial jungle-covered hillside behind these and at the top of it, is a series of chalet bungalows, very American in style.  Frankly, it was rather nice.  Food was taken in a  low multi-storey block which doubled as offices and cafeteria, which reminded me a bit of a town hall.

The emergency drill for the base was simple.  A constant siren means pack a bag and get down to the dock for evacuation by boat.  A warbling siren means dig out the heavy kevlar blanket from the wardrobe and lie underneath it: the place is under artillery attack.  I did ask whether this had ever been necessary.  Apparently in years past some Cuban troops had taken pot shots.
I never saw but I was told that Angolan troops surrounded the entire base, as did a series of minefields.  I did see the night spotter plane that constantly circled, without navigation lights, using heat-detecting technology to spot infiltration attempts.  Being of a curious nature, I asked if that had ever happened.  Apparently its major success was to spot a couple having illicit sex on the beach.

After lunch, I took the minibus down to the beach base.  It was the kind of short bus used in Britain during the late 1970s and into the 80s.  The base itself was small and the guys friendly: an American, Brit and Italian.  We had a company car too!  The most knackered VW Golf my eyes ever had the misfortune to look upon.  It still had seats, a steering wheel and four tires in each corner but most of the rest had gone, fallen either to rust or theft.  The door panels were completely empty.
The working yard was unpaved.  I found some seismic tools and decided they needed a bit of a clean up.  Naturally I didn't want to drag them through the sand after been cleaned either so it was little fun lifting a 67kg, 1.6m long tool and carrying it clear of the soft sand.

I got on very well with Jim, the American.  He was one of those larger-than-life characters, soon telling me of his teenage exploits of ordering hookers and drinks on his father's credit credit while staying at Las Vegas.
"Wait Jim," I said.  "Didn't you say that you are a Mormon?"
"Ah Martin," he replied with relish.  "That just makes the sin all the more sweeter."  Not that there was much opportunity for such sin in Cabinda.  Assuming the base was dry, I had left the duty-free bottle of vanilla vodka in the company staff house in Luanda.  That turned out to be a mistake as expat workers were allowed to buy a small quality of beer each day. A four-pack of small Heinekens does not go very far but it was better than nothing.  Meanwhile the local workers were allowed unlimited purchases, which they took fully advantage of: carrying out beer by the slab.  They would grin widely as us northerners would try to buy more than our allotted amount, only to be gleefully refused by the officious clerk.

That first day I went down to the beach and was amazed to see not only the white burrowing crabs but a family of rather scraggy-looking sea eagles: mum, dad and large fledgling.  The young bird amused itself by casually capturing and killing crabs.  Not much effort was made to eat them.  My sense of joy was added to when, as I was sitting looking at the sea-eagle's antics, a large dark back broke through the surf.  A nesting sea turtle hauled herself out of the sea and up the beach.  It was bright daylight; I thought that turtles only came out at night.  She came right towards me and only reacted with I stood up.  Hissing suddenly, it focused upon me with salt-filled eyes filled with displeasure and laboriously turned around and headed back into the sea.
I felt bad about disturbing the turtle,  Next day though I saw a local guy with a cloth bag slung around his shoulder.  He carried a long thin stick, taller than himself.  Apparently such men used the stick to probe the sand, with turtle eggs providing a welcome supplement to the family diet.
The tools went offshore on the 23rd and I followed on Christmas Eve, expecting to spend the rest of the trip there.  The helicopter itself was an ancient Bell, the kind of shopper made famous in various Vietnam war movies.   During the safety briefing, we passengers are strongly reminded again that in event of a crash landing over water, not to inflate life-vests until outside the chopper.  The week before one of these Bell's had gone down into shallow water.  A couple of Angolans on board had panicked and pulled the inflation line.  Despite the shallowness of the water, they could not be removed in time and their bodies eventually had to be retrieved by divers.

Upon arrival and much to my surprise, Derek the wireline engineer had set up the entire seismic equipment and checked it out too.  Until recently he had been a seismic engineer.  That was great.  I took the opportunity both to thank him profusely and recheck the equipment along with my recently-arrived downhole tools.  Not because I didn't trust Derek; it was just part of the job.  Having satisfied myself that all was in order, I asked what the lookahead plans were.  Open-hole logging was due to start in a few days and a full program taking at least five days.  After that the open section of the well would be lined with steel casing, the casing would be secured to the well-bore walls with cement and then it would be my turn.
Checking with both Derek and the Company Man - who is the head client representative on board, that it was okay, I booked myself a seat on the Christmas morning chopper.

As we are waiting to board, a huge American cementer struggles with his life jacket.  This guy is tall, yes, but the mass is mostly fat: he is easily over 160kg.  He sits by the starboard window and I mentally decide that if the chopper goes down, I'm out the other side.  There is no way he will be getting out and I was not eager to keep him company.  As the chopper lifts, I honestly expect it to be tilted on that side.  It didn't tilt of course but there is no way that a man like that would get medical approval to be offshore in the North Sea.

The Christmas lunch was worth the flight.  Eight huge turkeys had been laid out and the cooks stood proudly by, beaming in the praise they so well deserved.  It was rather strange eating a full Christmas meal when the temperatures are so hot outside, but the dining hall was well air conditioned.  The weight of the turkey, trimmings and pudding only made itself known once outside in the heat of a tropical early afternoon.  I walked down the hillside road to the base afterwards: a distance of just less than a mile.  With all the equipment offshore there was not so much to do and besides, it was Christmas Day.

It was a few days after Christmas when I first noticed the helicopter.  Not the usual crew change choppers but a small, bubble-domed two-man chopper; probably an early Bell, the kind thing they flew on M.A.S.H.  It was flying up and down, about a kilometre offshore.  Beneath it was suspended a boom arm which reminded me of a crop sprayer.  The next day came the smell.  A thick chemical smell that drove people indoors.  The day after that, the slick hit.

If you have every seen pictures of oil slicks hitting a beach, they are unable to do justice to reality.  The smell of oil and chemicals is horrendous.  The oil stands easily fifteen centimetres thick without support.  Everything is wiped out.  Crabs gone.  Eagles gone.  Turtles gone.  All replaced by a noisome black sludge.

Out of all the downs of working in the industry: the abuse, the sleep deprivation, being away from the family, the unsympathetic and even bullying management; none of these ever ever came close to having me quit the industry more than the experience of that oil slick wiping out a tropic beach.

What we we told?  How were the personnel instructed upon the situation?  What measures were issued to to protect us or the environment?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  The air we breathed could have been a very poison but Chevron said nothing to us.  In fact, they made sure that we said nothing.  A colleague who started to talk about the slick on the telephone had the line cut.  Emails did not make it through their destination.  Chevron did their best to ensure there was a complete news blackout.

While none of the employees of service companies were told a damned thing, of course word did leak out.  I was invited down one night to an annex off the main living quarters.  It was effectively a small village where the old regular service hands lived.  They got the supplies from the main canteen and did their own cooking.  They also did their own drinking and none of this four-small -tinnie-nonsense: a bottle of vodka per man was not unusual per person each night.  I can drink but never learned to keep up with that rate.

As the vodka and tonics flowed, the chatter increased.  It started innocently enough.  Small talk.   was introduced to what I was told was the hottest chilli sauce in the world.  One drop would season a cauldron of stew.  Two drops would spice it and three would kill it.  I was advised to wash my hands simply after holding the bottle.  I did so: why the hell would I not?  By the end of the meal the talk turned to the slick.

This is a summary of the story as I was told it.  The country was undergoing a process called "Angoladisation" which involves getting rid of the the ex-pat workers and bringing in local staff instead.  Some local guy was on night shift and it was his job to monitor the levels in the oil-storage tanks which are situated at the top of the low cliffs.   At about one o'clock in the morning, an alarm tripped.  He did what any local would have down: turned off the alarm and went back to sleep.  By eight o'clock in the morning between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of crude oil had been pumped into the sea just offshore.

Here's the rub though.  Corporate headquarters in Houston had declared that thirty nine barrels of oil had been spilt.  Only thirty nine as a forty barrel spill had to be reported to the international authorities.  Despite the local management trying to disperse the slick with what was locally available, they were overwhelmed.  Because it was only thirty nine barrels of oil however, no hope was sent from the outside.  We were on our own.

In all the years that passed since, that was the single most despicable and cynical decision by an oil company I have personally come across.

New Year's came and a group of us were on a hill top overlooking the local village.  At about half-past-midnight, a few fireworks fluttered up into the sky.  That was the Millennium celebrations done.

I must have been walking to work next day when a long convey of black limousines and SUVs rolled into the base and drove up towards the offices.  Official pennants fluttered from some of the car bonnets.  "Oh oh," I thought to myself.  "Shit is hitting fan."  It was about time.   Almost a week had gone by since the discharge had occurred.

It proved to be an eventful day.  On the way back up the hill, I was walking back up the hill when I heard a rustle from the jungle from about twenty metres to the right side.  Ahead of me and walking straight a large black-backed jackal emerged.  I judged the speed and distance and it seemed we were on a collision course.  It was also a jackal which was supposed to be timid so making a noise to draw his attention, I kept walking.  The jackal looked over, saw me and also kept walking.  This guy was not backing down.  So much for jackals being timid.  He was a big canine: almost the size of a German Shepard.   Our eyes locked and we both stopped simultaneously, no more than two metres away from each other.

There was no way I was going to turn my back on this fellow.  Still holding each other's gaze, we gradually edged around each other, me to the right and the dog to the left.  Holding my ground, I turned to follow his path into the bush.  All the time we held eye contact.  I only moved one was convinced he was gone.  I have no idea whether there was any danger and probably in the view of animal psychologists it may have been completely the wrong thing to do.  Stuck on that road alone with a quite a large wild predator, one can only do one's best.

That night down the old ex-pats' enclave there was a fair amount of racist banter going down.  Apparently the delegation had responded to Chevron's claims over thirty nine barrels with "We may be black but we are not stupid."
"Hang on a minute there," piped up an ancient Schlumberger hand, to general laughter.  Okay, that was witty but on the whole many of the white workers were just plain nasty about the Africans.  When challenged, the rationale of one individual was "You don't have to be racist because you don't have to work with the fuckers every day."  Although genuinely sickened by some of the attitudes displayed, from thereafter I kept off the subject altogether.

Finally, finally finally, it came time to get offshore again.

As the chopper lifted to about 1000 feet, the extent of the pollution could be seen.  For miles in both directions, the beaches were black.  The ocean was discoloured for a mile or so from the beach, with an obvious line marking the edge of the oil slick.  I did not see any evidence of oil booms or other forms of containment being deployed.

The job itself went well as far as the seismic was concerned but the Company Man seemed a mite ungrateful when I pointed out I thought there was no cement over the interval which the well was due to be perforated.
"What?" he almost shouted  "Schlumberger told me they did a good cement job."
"That is not what the seismic data is telling me," I replied.  "I recommend you run an SBT over the interval."   With bad grace the Company Man concurred.  The issue is that explosive charges are used to blow holes through the steel and cement so that the oil can flow into the well.  If there is space on the outside though, the oil can also migrate upwards and perhaps into formations above.  This would reduce production and in extreme cases even lead to oil seeming out on the surface.  Thus an acoustic cement bond tool can be run in order to find out the true state of the cementing job.

After the cement bond tool was run, the Company Man even had the nerve to come back to me to complain that the cement job was even worse than I had predicted.  The ingrate.

That was pretty much that.  Job done and processed.  I had a few moe days on the beach cleaning the equipment and packing it up ready for the next job.  Upon arrival though I had a panicked call from the operations manager in Luanda.

"Martin!  How long are the interconnects on your MRL?" [Translation: how long are the cables between the geophones?].
"Fifteen metres.  Why?"
"I want you to measure them."
"I know they are fifteen metres.  What is going on?"
"Measure them.  There has been another job where ten metre cables have been used and it wasn't noticed."
"Oh, was it using those tools in the yard in Luanda?  Yes I know they have ten metre cables."
"You knew?  How did you know?"
"Well," I said.  "I looked at them.  I saw they were short and there gathered they were ten metres in length.  I'm sure mine are fifteen metres but just for you I'll make sure when I'm cleaning them."

Then home.  The flight from Cabinda to Luanda was depressing.  The distance from the base to the mouth of the Congo to the south is about sixty miles.  Oil covered the beaches for every single mile.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Double Standands: Pharmacy Companies vs. the Individual Pharmacist

I'm sure that in your household, like millions of others, the Pharmaceutical Journal forms the bedrock of breakfast table reading.  One story (also covered in the obscure publication The Daily Mail) was about a company, Pharmacy2U, being fined £130,000 ( about $200,000) for the selling of over 20,000 customer records to anybody willing to stump up £130 per thousand records.

Quoted in tPJ, David Smith deputy commissioner of the Information Commissions Office said: "Patient confidentiality is drummed into pharmacists.  It is inconceivable that a business in this sector could believe these actions were acceptable.  A reputable company has made a serious error of judgement and today faces the consequences of that.  It should send out a clear message to other companies that the customer data they hold is not theirs to do with as they wish."

To be fair to the company, Pharmacy2U has accepted the fine and offered sincere apologies.  This is not enough though.  The computer systems in the NHS are still not joined up and under current rules cannot be owing to the risk to client confidentiality.  It is still not unusual for a qualified pharmacist having to take a trip across town to collect records of a new patient because she has no direct computer access to those records: a shocking waste of skill and resources.   The breach of patient (not customer) confidentiality by Pharmacy2U may well put back progress in having an integrated patient database available to health professionals.

The double standards though comes with how accountable a company is compared to an individual pharmacist working in the NHS.  Pharmacy2U sold the records of over 20,000 patients, has been found out and fined £130,000.  Beyond some damage to its professional reputation, that is pretty much it.  No individual is held to legal account.  Contrast this to a NHS pharmacist would takes an unauthorised look at a patient's records.  All data searches are traced to individual users so if the person searching does not have the right to look at the data, they stand not only to face disciplinary action and being struck off the register of practicing pharmacists, but also the criminal sanction of imprisonment.   This is not theoretical: pharmacists do get struck off for data breaches and prescription mistakes.

While individual pharmacists who breach rules are left without a profession and possibly with a criminal record, a pharmacy company takes a rap on the knuckles.  "Why?" one irate pharmacist asked me. "Isn't any of the directors being sent to prison?"

Even if it is decided that prison is too tough a sanction, surely it is right that those who have responsibility for patient data should face the possibility of being declared as unfit persons to hold a directorship, if that confidentiality is breached.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

A New Catherdral in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

[This blog was written in May 2015]

I slept badly.  It wasn't for the lack of practice but rather the jet lag.  Last time I was so far East, it was easier because the journey had been broken up: a couple of unexpected nights in Singapore and two more in Australia before hitting the well sites in deepest outback of Moomba.

This time though I was in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk ahead of another adventure - at least that's how I like to think about work when this far from home.  It's an nine-hour time difference and I travelled here in twenty five hours.  My body is out of sync.  The day-long safety induction (all in Russian) was nearly the death of me.  I'm not smart - I understood that tea, coffee and sandwiches would be on offer for the half-hour break for lunch.  The important stuff.  The rest went over my head: or would have if the slides had not been mostly straight interpretations from many in English I had already seen.  The guys who needed to see me the following day however, took mercy and decided a day of adjustment was in order.  Further meetings have been put back until the weekend.

So what does one do in a strange city on a day off?  The answer is obvious to any Brit: go for a walk.  On the way to the rather nice resort hotel on the edge of town where the safety meeting was held, I noticed a church, or rather a cathedral, under construction.  This is not an everyday event in the UK: after replacing and repairing several from bomb-damage in the 20th Century, our own church-building programme has hit a rather fallow patch.  So remembering the rough directions, I set off.

The first thing that struck me about Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is how Russian it is.  This may be a counterintuitive thing to state but think on it.  It is 6600km (4100 miles) from St. Petersburg but still in the same country.  If that is not amazing enough for you, the distance between New York and Los Angeles is a mere 3900km.  This is not even the end of Russia here: it goes further through another four time zones to the Bering Straits, where even Americans like Sarah Palin has heard of it.

For me to state therefore how Russian the place is is, to my mind is remarkable.  The faces on the street are a mix of Caucasian, Asiatic and Turkic, but the majority are white Russians.  Only a few times did I see faces that could hint at Japanese or Korean heritage.

The city itself feels like it is on the up.  In Spring, all Russian (and former Soviet Union) cities I have been to are dusty and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is no exception.  Plumes where sent up into my face when a large four-by-four pulled in to park.  As one would expect, most of the vehicles are Japanese brands.  It stuck me one evening that in most of the cars approaching, the drivers were close to me as I walked along.  Then it struck me: not only are the cars made in Japan, most of them are actually with the steering wheel on the right, and made for the Japanese market!  I can only imagine that it works out cheaper to buy a second-hand Japanese import than one made for the majority of the world's markets for driving on the right.
On the whole, the main street are clean, the pavements reasonable and the apartment blocks well maintained, even the Soviet-era buildings.  Poor roads and frost-damaged pavements seemed reserved for the residential zones.

This city is not so far from major geological subduction zones and earthquakes as strong as an eight on the Richter scale have been know.  Unlike Yerevan, which still showed the scars of major quakes when I visited in the late 1990s, I didn't see any such signs here.  Instead there are new blocks and still more going up.  All good, so I was keen to see the new cathedral.

At first it was as I remembered from yesterday.  It is not every day one sees the typical Russian onion dome cupolas sitting on the ground waiting to be lifted into place.

Then next door I noticed the field guns.  What?  Artillery? This was not going to be as straightforward as I though.

 As it transpired, the cathedral is only part of the story.  The whole complex is forming a brand new religious / memorial centre dedicated, as far as I can tell, to the seventh anniversary to the end of what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War.  World War Two to the rest of us.

The suffering and sacrifice of the Soviet people are constantly glossed over in the West.  As far as British and American public are mainly concerned, the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany started on the Sixth on June, 1944.  No so.  By that time the Russians had undergo three years of invasion and constant warfare on their own soil, had won the battle of Stalingrad and in the previous summer to D-Day had held the last great German offensive at Kursk.  After that the Germans had been thrown into retreat, ceding ground as in push after push and, in a story untold in the West, the Germans were steadily ground back towards their starting positions in Poland, Hungary and Romania.

Given this, I don't blame the Russian peoples for continuing to mark the anniversary of defeating the Nazis.  What I do find disturbing however, is the juxtaposition of war and church in such an obvious manner.  The cathedral is just the centrepiece of a complex where the state's victory is firmly anchored to Orthodox religion.  The irony of course is that although the church was briefly resurrected during the Great Patriotic War, it was on the whole subjected to the most horrible persecution under Communist rule.  Not any more.

Here is how the complex is expected to look:

The cathedral is to be the centre, with the war memorial on its right hand (left as we look at the picture) to have its own onion dome as a echo.  Now, I do not claim expertise but I have never seen this particular architectural feature on any Soviet war memorial.  It seems to express that while the victory was that of the people, it occurred under the sanction of God.  I wonder what the Soviet war veterans would have to say about that?

So, the question is, what does all this mean?  I have blogged previously on the rise of the Orthodox Church in Putin's Russia and it seems that the process is continuing. Putin is determined to recreate the rule of the Tsars.  Not in hereditary terms (at least as far as I am aware) but perhaps more on the model of the ruling elite, united with the full trapping of a state religion.  The model of state is not so far from that of the ancient Persians: one where regional governors (satraps) are appointed and can be replaced upon whim of the centre.  Or maybe it is not so fancy: just the nationalism of the Soviet Union, stripped of its affection of socialism, and sanctioned by God.

To me though, the thought of God glorifying any warfare, no matter how just the cause, is truly obscene.  This complex represents nothing less than Christ in the service of Caesar.

That is a part of the New Testament that I must have missed.



Saturday, 10 October 2015


In the past fifteen months, I have twice been made redundant.

The first one was actually easier to bear because I knew that my direct line manager had it in for me.  I was effectively working alone, not in an office so it was relatively easy for him to direct the flow of information.  Unlike others, I was not asked to reapply for my post but instead transferred across to a new cost centre within the company.  What I did not know is that was one due to be cut once the contract I was working on came to an end.  After what was to become my final job, I was called into the Stavanger office and by conference call my employment ended there and then.  No discussion or chance of appeal.

Working as I was, officially out of Italy, posted in Israel but for the last two years on secondment to Norway, I did not challenge the legality of the decision.  Which national court would I apply to for starters?   It was unpleasant but in a way okay because it was personal animosity on his part.  It was not my job performance: I knew what I did and did it well. I was the first out the door but soon many of my former colleagues were also unemployed and the industry started its decline.

Within seven weeks, I had joined a new company and I really enjoyed my time with them.  It was also convenient: usually one has to live within a major oil town to live close to such a job.  In was remarkable that I found one in Edinburgh less than a couple of  kilometres from the house.

Losing this last job is a lot harder to bear because I actually liked the people I worked with and I liked the work.  So to be judged as lacking compared to others who joined about the same time is a pretty bitter pill.  I guess at my age I am a slower learner on what are very difficult-to-use computer systems (we are not talking Apple or MS Windows here!).   I was partially hired for my previous industry experience but that does not seem to have mattered much when it came down to the crunch.

The worst thing about this time is that the whole industry is down.  As a noted in a previous blog, there are huge redundancies ongoing across oil and gas on a global basis - 65,000 around the North Sea alone.  The problems have been compounded here by the Conservative government's slashing of support for renewable energy.  An area that may have been natural for people in my position to transfer sideways into is also undergoing major jobs losses.

Unless something unexpected turns up, it looks like my time in the energy industry has come to an end.

Having undergone both the US-style same-day chop, and the British one-month staff consultation and selection process, which one is easier to bear?  Actually I think it is the American system.  It may be more brutal but the fact it is unexpected means the shock does not last as long.  Soon over and done.  The UK system of announcing upcoming redundancies, going through consultations and publishing the selection criteria may be fairer but it is unbelievably stressful for all those who even suspect they are in line to be axed.  The worst thing about it is the hope, the selfish hope that it won't be yourself but some other poor bastard.  I tried so hard to kill any hope but just could not.  As a society, we are expected to be positive and negativity is frowned upon.  It is almost impossible to stay positive under such circumstances.  Anybody who manages it simply does not care about the job they hold.

I was told yesterday afternoon that I was one of those who had been selected.  I wish I could have been more decent about it but that was beyond me.  Last night was pretty horrible.  It's the anger that is unable to express itself in some destructive outlet with is difficult to cope with.  Of course, it is this same anger when mixed with guns that leads to the explosive and tragic violence that is seen in the United States.  But it is the impersonal system that is at the root of the matter.  The people who sacked me are lovely - it would be better for my own sanity  if I could resent and hate them.  I have little doubt that their methodology was fair but the outcome is only for the company's benefit:  it does not feel at all fair to the people who have lost their jobs.  The whole process is easier on those who make the decisions and of course feels better for those who stay on.

It is  perhaps word-association that led me to think of James Cameron's movie The Terminator.  I had never thought of it as an allegory before but really it is.  Human beings develop a system that turns against them with an implacable and relentless logic.    Humanity is no longer necessary to the system and thus they are subjected to termination.  It is our creation of systems that have their own logic, without regard for the human impact, that necessitates the need for such a concept as "fairness".  Within the terms of the industry, my former employers are being very fair and above board.  It is the system as a whole that is not easy on people.

One thing that is definitely not fair is the government extending the period where new workers have no employment rights to two years.  I have invested over a year in this job and effectively have no rights whatsoever.  Six months is probably enough to see whether an individual is on the right track for a given job; a year is ample time.

I have to admit I did freak out a Texan friend when on Facebook last night I put up the status: "I finally understand The Terminator".  Her reply was "Wow.  Stay gold Ponyboy.  Stay gold."

I'm trying Shannon.

Oh, and if anybody would like to offer me employment, please get it contact.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Conservatives and Their Lack of Energy

If one looks at the government website on low carbon technologies, from July one will find a flurry of activity.  All of this can be summed up in the government claim of controlling the cost of renewable energy.

You have probably heard that the power supplier Drax has announced yesterday morning they are pulling out of the carbon capture scheme, only one of two large-scale experiments (the other being in Peterhead), as a response to government cuts on renewable energy - in this case biomass fuel.

Likewise, support for small scale (less than 5MW) solar electrical generation are being withdrawn, and feed-in tariff support (that is the payments made for solar-generated electricity by small-scale suppliers) are being slashed and ended early.  Hundreds of small firms, importers and thousands of households that have already installed solar PV, and who were relying upon the goodwill and constancy of government policy have been ruthlessly betrayed.

Add to this also the Conservative's decision to block all onshore development of wind turbine technology and cut support for offshore wind farms, one can only conclude that it is all-out war on renewable energy itself.  Pretty much every green policy introduced by the Liberal Democrats during the last parliament is under attack.

That being the case, let's instead see what the Conservative's favoured technologies are.  Fracking and nuclear.

Now, I am not against fracking per se, as long as high standards and correct oversight are put in place.  In that, as I have blogged before, the Collation record was not bad at all.  That has changed since the Conservatives has returned to single-party rule; reversing decisions to protect national parks for instance.  No matter: Unfortunately, especially for those of us who work in the oil energy, the bottom has fallen out of the market.   The oil price has literally halved since last year.  This is good news for energy consumers (aren't we all) but at these times it means that the industries invest nothing into exploration.  Last week the Telegraph reported that in the North Sea - and I am taking this to mean for the entire basin (UK + Europe), 65,000 jobs have gone.  This would be about right.  For example: yesterday it was leaked that major oil service company Halliburton will be announcing a second round of cuts within the next two weeks; this being in addition to the 14,000 jobs they have already shed.  I am still in the industry but hanging on by the fingernails: my employer are cutting staff by thirty percent and there is no guarantee this is going to be the end of it.   OPEC is predicting the oil price will return to eighty dollars a barrel but not before 2020, while the great vampyre squid, Goldman Sachs, is now in bear mode, predicting that the oil price will remain low for the next fifteen years.  Frankly I don't believe that though.  Goldman have always played their own game.

One should also note that the fall in the fossil fuel price means lower consumer prices, therefore the burden of the renewable fuels levy is lessened as prices fall overall.  Since the Conservative cuts were announced in July after the price has fallen, it rather goes to show that the claim of reducing the burden upon the consumer is a red herring: the markets are making it happen anyway.

The last bit of the jigsaw is nuclear.  On this the Conservatives have sought to buck the market by guaranteeing the £2billion investment by the Chinese, This is only part of the total £24billion that the new Hinkley Point C power station, led by French company EDF.  All this is done with guaranteed (and high) prices for the electricity due to be generated.  Hinkley Point is just one of the  sixteen new nuclear power stations planned, all open to foreign investment.  One must assume that the government is also willing to underwrite other shortfalls in investment, plus allow for artificially high prices once the electricity is being produced.  Remember that a government underwriting  an investment means that any profits remain private, while losses are address from the public purse.

Both nuclear and renewables address needs just for electricity. Although it remains to be seen whether the Volkswagen diesel scandal will result in a profound change in direction, I cannot see electric cars dominating within the next fifteen years.  Some form of hybrid fuel use is more likely.  This is just for personal transport: long distance vehicles and marine transport will still be reliant on the sticky black stuff.

So what have we got?  Any form of local, small scale, renewable energy will soon no longer have support from the government.  Onshore wind turbines farms are out, and this effects the offshore market as well.  If their policies are allowed to continue, the Conservatives will kill the renewable industries in Britain.  Scotland has the political power to continue but is pretty well on course to be self-sufficient in renewable electrical generation anyhow.  In order for the process to effectively continue, England really has to be committed to it.

Similarly in oil and gas, fracking is not going to happen, at least for now, because of the low energy prices.  One might think that with the cutbacks and the low cost of exploration at this time, that now would be an excellent time explore.  It does not seem to work that way.  During downturns, energy companies just concentrate on the basics: cashflow and dividends first, maintenance after.  The cost of exploration and expansion comes out the surplus generated during high oil prices.

The low oil prices will also accelerate the decommission of the North Sea fields.  If the cost of maintaining the fields outweigh what they are earning, they will simply be shut down.  At this time, 140 (yes, one hundred and forty) fields are up for decommission.  This reflects the running down of the North Sea.  For both oil and gas, production levels are now under thirty percent of their peak levels in the late 1990s.

All this could be explained by the Conservatives perverse and short-term addiction to free-market economics.  It certainly does not add up to any dedication to the much-vaunted term "energy security".  Britain is already a net importer of oil and gas and under current policies that is only set to increase.

Why is it that nuclear is different?  What is so special about Hinkley Point C that those arch free-marketeers that are Cameron's Conservatives, feel the need to set aside up to £2billion of our money to ensure it goes ahead?  One cannot help but wonder if it has nothing to do with energy security,  for which the government seems not to care two jots about, and more to do with defence.

In 2010, David Cameron and President Sarkozy signed the Lancaster House Treaty, which provides for cooperation and close integration, not only between the two nation's military forces, but also joint supply and manufacturing.  The treaty is in force for fifty years so effectively by its end, UK and French military will be totally interchangeable.  Part of this process is nuclear forces.  Everything has a shelf life and nuclear weapons are no different.

Perhaps Hinckley Point C is to be part of this nuclear supply chain.  Who knows? We might even get some electricity out of it as well.

What is clear though, is that as far as energy supply and climate change, the Conservatives are content to leave all that to the free markets.  They simply could not care less.

No more pictures of Dave with huskies.  Given recent revelations with his interactions with other species, perhaps that is not a bad thing.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Liberal Democrat Conference 2015: Scrapping Trident.

The Motion.

Scrapping Trident

1 Conference notes that the go-ahead for building Successor submarines
2 for the Trident system is scheduled to be decided upon in 2016.
3 Conference believes that British possession of nuclear weapons is
4 inappropriate and unhelpful to today’s needs.
5 Conference rejects the projected spending of £100billion on the system
6 over its lifetime, believing the money could be better spent.
7 Conference therefore calls for the plans to renew the Trident system to
8 be scrapped, and for the earliest decommissioning of the existing Trident
9 forces.

Amendment One
14 conference representatives
Mover: Baroness Jolly (Defence Spokesperson) Summation: Rt Hon Sir Simon Hughes
1 Delete lines 3–4 and lines 7–9.
2 After line 6, insert:
3 In line with our existing policy as set out in policy paper 112, Defending the Future – UK Defence in the
4 21st century (2013), and our recent General Election Manifesto, conference resolves to oppose like-for-
5 like replacement of the Trident system as proposed by the Conservative government.
6 Conference believes that the ‘Maingate’ decision to proceed with Trident replacement is such a
7 fundamental question affecting the UK’s national interest that it should be subject to a binding vote in
8 Parliament and not simply a government decision; and calls on Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians to vote
9 against any such proposal should it come before Parliament.

Two things are obvious.  The majority of the party are against the continuation of the Trident system.  The leadership, in whatever incarnation it takes: Ming, Nick and now Tim, are determined to keep it, despite anything said to the contrary.  It sincerely pains me to write that but one has to go on the evidence.

Okay, let's do the common ground stuff.  There is not a Liberal Democrat that likes nuclear weapons.  Where the party is split is between those of us who follow a multilateral approach: seeing a global lowering of all nuclear weapons, verses those (myself included) who wants to get rid of Britain's nuclear missiles.

The key to the motion above is:
"conference resolves to oppose like-for-like replacement of the Trident system as proposed by the Conservative government."
In other words, the parliamentary party would be pretty much free to decide whatever they like, short of supporting Conservative and (until recently?) Labour policy of replacing four Vanguard-class boats with four Successor-class boats.  This is so fundamentally against the will of the majority of the party that the amendment deserves to be, ought to be, rejected out of hand by conference.

The original motion has been criticised by Tim as it does not specify what comes next.  That is intentional for leaves room for further debate within the party whether to continue with some form of nuclear deterrent or whether we should recommend that Britain should not continue with the ownership of nuclear weapons.

I think that Baroness Jolly's motion and, I am sorry to say this, Tim's support, is based upon the fear of looking weak or irresponsible with the nation's defence.  I am sorry folks but as a party we have been the epitome of responsibility for five bloody years and look where it has got us.  In today's politics, we have to stop fearing what other people might think of us and just be ourselves.  Saying what we think and acting upon it has worked for the SNP and it has worked for Jeremy Corbyn.  Why cannot it work for us?

For what it's worth, here is what I think:

Nuclear weapons do nothing to add to the UK's security.  While multilateralism is good in theory and showed some promise in the past, the major nuclear powers have taken the decision to renew their primary ICBM systems.  Britain looks set to follow suit and with eight MPs, we are powerless to stop it.  We don't have to be a part of it though.  Let us take this opportunity to stand up and stand against it, here and now.

I urge all those attending conference to support the motion and reject the amendment.