Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Midweek Reading: Ukraine; Legislating the Internet

Being somewhat too busy for writing, here are a couple of excellent reads for you.

Ukraine:  First, a caveat, I have absolutely no idea whether "Consortium News" is a website of good repute (as regards conspiracy theory etc etc - everyone has to rely on their own judgement, and virus protection etc).  Also, the article I'm linking to here - What War With Russia Would Look Like by seemingly ultra-well qualified former US marine Scott Ritter - definitely serves Putin's purposes, whether or not the author has any leanings that way himself or, as I hope we can assume, not.

That said, it's a really good analysis of the realpolitik in play just now - or kiddy-politik in the case of Joe Biden.  Sobering stuff.  It contains an observation you might have read here at C@W before

Russia has studied an earlier U.S. military campaign - Operation Desert Storm, of Gulf War I - and has taken to heart the lessons of that conflict.

Yes indeed it has - being deeply impressed, nay shaken, by how successful was NATO AirLand Battle doctrine on its first roll-out in earnest.  Russia had a ringside seat, and was watching intently.  Here's another good soundbite: 

Russia can survive being blocked from SWIFT transactions longer than Europe can survive without Russian energy.

Yes, that's Angela Merkel's enduring legacy.   A Russophile all her life, she did nothing to fix Germany's dependence on Russian gas.

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Internet:  Hey, we're a blog, and we don't much like the idea of our freedom of speech being curtailed.  That said, we are still bound by (e.g.) the laws of copyright and libel ... so obviously internet freedoms are on a spectrum.  Here's a great piece by my favourite practising American philosopher (and qualified lawyer), Brian Leiter: The Epistemology of the Internet and the Regulation of Speech in America.  (You can download the full paper from that abstract.)

No need to buy into all his conclusions to agree that (a) there's something very wrong with some of what gets pumped out on the www; and (b) the concept of "epistemic authority" is very powerful.

I'm guessing Dominic C agrees with the latter.


Saturday, 8 January 2022

Weekend: Homecoming of a WW2 Pirate's Ship

A very telling episode in British WW2 history is the remarkable story of Sidney Cotton and his associates.  If you don't already know it, a very brief summary appears below.  

Anyhow, the aircraft in which Cotton flew some of his most daring MI6-sponsored missions, a Lockheed 12A, eventually wound up in the USA and has recently been up for sale.

I have it on good authority (and you heard it here first, for sure) that it has been bought by an unnamed British interest and is being readied for return to the UK, restored to its original British aircraft registration G-AFTL.  For WW2 air buffs, if and when it happens, this truly will be a red-letter day.

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It is often said that when war breaks out, initially it is in the hands of the Gentlemen; but that things will only get properly underway when the Players take over.  If ever a man epitomised this, it was Sidney Cotton.  At the same time, consummate players like Cotton are often, how shall we put it, not always wholly reliable when it comes to things like, errr, facts.  Many of the accounts you'll readily find about Cotton are based on self-serving, highly embellished claims by the man himself and shouldn't be depended upon as regards details.  In particular, he was prone to laying claims to the deeds of others.  But the truth is more than exciting enough and, in very brief outline, goes as follows.

Cotton, an Australian, served with distinction in the Royal Naval Air Service in WW1.  In between combat missions he designed the 'SidCot' flying suit which protected pilots against the cold, wet and flying oil they encountered in the cockpit, a design which remained in production until the 1950s  Along with many early aviators he saw limitless opportunities in using aircraft for novel purposes, and was involved in many buccaneering commercial enterprises around the globe in the inter-war years.  Biggles had nothing on this man.

In the year or so before the outbreak of WW2 the RAF realised it needed to get back into the business of purposeful aerial reconnaissance, an activity and skill that for several reasons had effectively lapsed between the wars.  It commenced an extensive programme of quiet recce, mainly of Italian positions across the Mediterranean and North Africa, using regular RAF resources (mostly flying boats).  But by 1938-9, flying badged military aircraft missions against Germany itself, both for ourselves and the French, was not on.  So, sponsored by MI6 and its French opposite number the Deuxième Bureau, the word went out: can we find a civilian who'll be able to do it on a clandestine basis?  Cotton was "known to the authorities", eminently qualified, and only too happy to oblige.  With secret Anglo-French funding he acquired a couple of high-tech, all-metal Lockheeds and a smaller Beechcraft, along with a daring young co-pilot and a base at Heston.

Cotton at the controls
G-AFTL in particular was cleverly modified, James Bond-style, (Cotton and Fleming were friends, naturally) to conceal a suite of cameras behind sliding panels, in the underbelly and the leading edge of a wing root.  On spurious commercial pretexts, Cotton and his merry men flew an impressive series of flights across a range of target areas, most significantly across Germany - sometimes even with German passengers aboard.  One of their sorties was the first operational recce mission of the war - actually, just hours before war was declared - over the German fleet at Wilhelmshaven, bringing back vital photos. 

The war having been declared, the RAF formally took over responsibility for air recce, using its carefully trained fleet of Blenheim light bombers, of which more later.  However, Cotton's "civilian" crews still had an important role.  Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland and Italy were all neutral at the start of the war, but of potential value to the Germans in one way or another.  So up-to-date aerial recce was urgently needed, to map them out accurately and from a military perspective.  The Lockheeds, again on spurious "civil" journeys, were ideal for the task.  They only became redundant in this role when Germany moved against the Low Countries and then France itself late in the spring.

It will be great to have G-AFTL back in blighty again.  Its new owners are being very coy about who, when and where - so, watch this space.

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So much for the Lockheeds: what of Cotton?  He was lobbying for a revolutionary idea.  First, some perspective.  The original use of aviation in WW1, right from the very first days in 1914, had been for reconnaissance.  The second use was for shooting down the enemy's recce aircraft!  Hence, the received wisdom was that recce results (at first, visual; later, photographic) had to be fought for.  So the RAF's plans before WW2 revolved around a relatively fast armed aircraft - the Blenheim light bomber, operated by Bomber Command, which upon its initial introduction was faster than any biplane then in service with the RAF.  From the very first week of WW2 they started flying Blenheims for recce against German targets, in ones, twos, threes, even in fives and sixes.

Bravely flown as they were, they were shot down in alarming numbers and, sadly, brought back precious few photographs (albeit occasionally of very good quality).   By 1939-40 the Blenheim was no longer up against slower biplanes; and the training of its crews and the cameras it carried were only geared to what would now be regarded as low-level photography.  They were sitting ducks.  Notwithstanding Bomber Command's legendary willingness to take casualties (and this was even before Bomber Harris took over), the Air Ministry at the top was less sanguine.  These casualties "were not to be borne".

They had before them an alternative concept, being pitched by Cotton and others.  Precisely whose original idea it was is open to debate (there are at least 3 main candidates) but the proposal was clear enough.  Instead of fighting for your photos, send an ultra-fast aircraft, at high altitude, with cameras of much longer focal length - and obtain your pictures unopposed.  Bomber Command strongly resisted this idea but, greatly assisted by the secrecy of Cotton's outfit (still officially reporting to MI6), work rapidly started on putting the concept into practice on a very small scale: one aircraft, to be precise.

Of the technical desiderata, the ideal cameras were not at first available; but urgent development work was put in hand to acquire what was needed.  Meantime, there was a really obvious candidate for the aircraft - a Spitfire.  (Needless to say, Fighter Command initially declined to hand one over, but they were outranked.)  Cotton stripped out the armament, ballast and armour, sanded the machine down, painted it blue, made various other clever tweaks to the airframe and engine, added more fuel tankage - and fitted cameras.  The result was something that flew faster and higher than a Spitfire had done before and, most importantly, was comfortably able to outclimb and outrun Me109s.  It was the first of several marks of recce Spitfire, getting progressively more advanced in every dimension as the months went past, that were operational before the fall of France.

Their success rate, both in terms of the photos they acquired and their survival rate, was vastly superior to that of the brave Blenheims, as was immediately obvious to all.  It should have been no contest; but Bomber Command mulishly and indeed deviously resisted the inevitable for many months of intra-service wrangling to come.  They were, however, basically bypassed** with the formation of a well-equipped "strategical reconnaissance" organisation at RAF Benson near Oxford, squarely based on Spitfires (and later Mosquitos, and later still with US personnel and assets).  This was complemented with a new science/art of "photographic interpretation", centred at Medmenham down the road on the Thames - as much advanced from WW1 photo analysis as was the recce itself, and developed just as rapidly; initially by maverick civilians who were the strong-willed equivalents of Cotton in their own sphere. 

The exploits and achievements of this entirely new strategic organisation had no parallel in Germany, and rival Bletchley Park for their importance in WW2.  Stories galore for another day.    

To start with, all this was under the highly resourceful and decidedly unconventional command of Cotton, now an RAF Wing Commander.  During its pioneering development phase, everyone recognised it couldn't be any other way: cameth the hour, and so cameth the man.  And the achievements of his revolutionary endeavour were extraordinary, in a very short space of time.  However, he was putting noses seriously out of joint, up and down the land and over in France.  The final straw came - and Cotton went - after he accepted money from French industrialists to spirit them out of Paris in RAF aircraft just before Hitler arrived.  That was Sidney Cotton for you.  Definitely a player.

Come home soon, G-AFTL ...



** Such is the bizarre nature of service politics that Bomber Command was allowed to carry on using its own costly recce in parallel to the new purpose-built strategic setup for more than a year.  One of the Command's motives was to ensure that only its own people carried out Bomb Damage Assessment - they were determined to mark their own homework.  Eventually they were called up on this too, much to their disgust - as it was proved conclusively that their bombing was not even remotely as accurate as they claimed.  Though his Command's relations with Medmenham were often strained, to his credit Bomber Harris personally came to value its accurate output.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Holland's energy commitment for the new year - a practical guide for UK energy policy

"The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails." William Arthur Ward

The huge natural gas reserves in Holland have meant that the country has been a petro-state for a while, just a very quiet one. There is a reason here as to why it is such an agreeable country, even if my personal business experience of dealing with the Dutch is they are as tough as nails when it comes to negotiating. 

However, as with all of Europe, they have been prone to green-virtue signalling about their energy for a long time. Given the pre-disposition for windmills, you would expect nothing less. However, as is typical across Europe, a lot has been spoken about but not much done. Since 2015 they have though moved electricity generation from green power from 5% to 15% of the Dutch grid. Oh well, I am sure the climate will be thankful for this. 

All the rest is gas, all 85%. 

So of course the recent shift in gas prices has a strange dynamic in Holland, on the one hand the huge Groningen field can still produce a huge amount of taxable profits, on the other the citizens re very exposed to the huge prices increases. 

So, making a sane decision for once, the Dutch have decided to double the output of Groningen field this year, making Exxon and Shell very happy. This will actually wind down the field, maybe even causing a few earthquakes. No matter, desperate times (and profitable ones) and desperate measures. The domestic supply will be sated, profits made and, err, problems kicked into the future if the Russians continue to ignore their customer base. 

Meanwhile, in the UK, we still have politicians wittering on about the need to go green at all costs. The Liberal Democrats are actually suggesting windfall tax on Oil and Gas businesses now, to help the consumers - just as they need funds to open up capacity. The Scots have already cancelled the huge Cambo filed development off Shetland, incredible; the Tories are considering subsidizing the retail energy sellers to help them hedge the market - not thinking at all about supply or the further downside risks of hedging in a volatile market. 

The solutions to the crisis are actually within our grasp, but the politicians we are led by will suggest anything but the obvious and practical solutions. The UK should still be an energy exporter with certainly no domestic shock - indeed, it should be windfall times with our gas reserves. It is totally stunning how stupid and badly advised they are collectively. 

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!" (Sir Walter Scott, 1808)

Monday, 3 January 2022

Predictions game 2022

 So for this year, more free form for the predictions game.

The four topics for consideration are UK Politics, Global Politics, Macro Economics and Covid.

Make a prediction for the development of each of these, plus one bonus as a tie breaker.

Get started in the comments!

For me, in UK politics Boris will survive the year somehow, in global politics Russia will not invade Ukraine directly but engineer a civil war of some sort and perhaps then take a police action. In macro economics inflation will fade in some products as goods and trade recover, but remain high as energy costs drive it like the oil crisis of the 1970’s. Covid will be with us, Omicron signalling the end for a nice spring and summer but the autumn will see a new variant. As my bonus, Northern Ireland will cause huge Brexit issues and a desperate Boris will invoke Article 16 as a way to try to drag both the EU and the US into a new round of negotiations. 

Friday, 31 December 2021

How did 2021 Predictions go and our annual winner

The questions were; the price of  Tesla, the price of Bitcoin, would Biden still be President, when will the Tier system use end and the FTSE price.

Quite finance focused but let's see what the real-world results are...

FTSE: ending at around 7400 - up from 6500 at the end of last year, so a decent recovery back to levels of, err, 20 years ago. 

Tesla  - up from 700 to 1090 - wow. a mere 50% gain. 

Biden is still President. 

The Tier system ended in June.

Bitcoin has gone from $30,000 odd to $50,000 odd. 

So if we had all bet our money quite simply we should have made a bundle. Sadly, I was contrarian and as usual missed all of this!


Electro Kev:

FTSE 7500 (just following the crowd here, really)

TESLA £733.25 (because that's $1000 at present exchange rates and TESLA is technically diverse and trades on myth and legend status.)

Tiers end - 2022, Spring. (They're using the Spanish Flu handbook.)

President USA - Harris (a few senior moments will see to that. He should avoid wearing white trousers in public)

Bitcoin - £32,000 (I just looked at the trajectory on a graph and I think major investors will hold out - also drug dealers are the only people travelling on public transport and are making a killing in this crisis... the stench of cannabis is everywhere.)

A very good effort there from Kev. Most entries were very out on Bitcoin - Kev nailed it. He also nailed Tesla and was only two percent out on the FTSE. 

This must be the best ever performance in the 15 years of the competition!