Tuesday 31 January 2023

Regulations, Regulators & Grenfell: a disgraceful instance of misplaced laissez-faire

There's a utopian school of thought, perhaps most neatly summarised by Thoreau: "That government is best that governs not at all".  Well, he must obviously have dodged a fair few of the nastier contingencies of life, and had a *rather optimistic* view of the character of some of his fellow men.

Grenfell is in the news again, with Gove's latest statement that what he termed "faulty" government guidance was partly to blame for the disaster.  Well, indeed.  We daily depend for our lives on good regulations and good enforcement, whatever Thoreau thought from the comfort of his log cabin.  The leader of K&C Borough Council (whom I happen to know personally and he's a decent bloke) honorably felt the need to step down after Grenfell: but in the face of a lousy regulatory set-up, what more could he realistically done?  (Always assuming, of course, that it won't be discovered he presided over a council meeting where the officers said: "Members should be advised that out recommended cladding is crap, but it's cheap and we imagine you won't want to spend any more".)

I have fellow-feeling for him, not just from personal acquaintance but because during my time as Chair of Housing in a large London borough, we were pioneers in addressing condensation in tower blocks by the use of cladding.  We inevitably relied 100% on the officers - as an absolute matter of course - to ensure the materials under consideration were suitable, just as we relied on them to supervise the erection of scaffolding etc etc etc.  It worked, in every dimension, and our excellent cladding of many years ago is still there, working as intended.  But what could we have done if our officers were incompetent?  (Except hope to find this out on some innocuous matter, and get rid of them.) 

So:  good regs and good specs required.  But also, good and effective enforcement by competent and adequately-resourced regulators.  Hey, this is (sometimes) life and death; and we are surrounded - pace Thoreau - by crooks, idiots and lazy bastards on all sides.

The dreadful facts are - and George Osborne's laissez-faire regime as Chancellor ** bears huge responsibility for this, IMHO - that regulatory agencies everywhere are appallingly under-resourced.  In this I include incompetent staff, but also pure lack of staff and budget.  Almost every application procedure that I know of - and in my energy dealings I have frequent contact with Ofgem, the EA, the ONR etc etc - starts with self-declarations on almost everything; and when approval is granted, subsequent monitoring is almost always of the "mark your own homework" variety, with reporting by exception only.  

Perhaps the most visible consequences of this approach are in the shape of much-reported spillages of sewage, the EA being amongst the most resource-deprived agencies as well as sewage-spills being high profile events.  But let me also add that, far more disconcertingly, the regulatory framework around the nuclear industry is seriously creaking at the seams.   What EDF is getting away with on their intended new project at Sizewell (still in the planning stages) is pretty bad: and some of what happens at Sellafield is nobody's business, it seems.

Mark-your-own-homework suits a lot of people.  But some of them are crooks.  If Grenfell wasn't bad enough, some day there'll be something even worse.



** If someone can demonstrate that today's situation dates from pre-2010 I will retract that.  But I don't believe it was anything like as extreme back then. 

Sunday 29 January 2023

The C@W Probate Awards

I am just coming to the end of almost exactly a year's worth of resolving a family probate claim, which I tackled myself - seeing as how I reckon I can read & understand a form written in English  ...  and the solicitors candidly told us they'd inevitably be asking us to do almost all the legwork anyway.    

Forms?  Check the HMRC website!  Heaven help anyone who finds themselves dealing with some of the really complicated trust, and overseas-related, stuff.  Should these things take so long?  Well of course I know that a year isn't remotely unusual, so I can't and won't complain, trying though it is.  Inevitably these days, you find yourself dealing with a load of bots of greater or lesser "intelligence" - and sometimes real people too, ditto.  My dealings with various institutions (approx 20) have caused me to take names along the way; and so here are the top- and bottom-placing organisations on this sample of (let it be stressed) just one full process.

Bottom: Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, who were recipients of a legacy in the Will.  

I had read that this organisation has more money than it knows what to do with.  Well, it felt like that: and now it has more - and its delay between being asked for banking details and supplying them; & receiving the money and acknowledging receipt, were quite egregious.  Bear in mind that several other charities were also in the picture on exactly the same starting-timetable, so there's a comparison to be made.  (Quickest off the mark - which is entirely appropriate from every perspective - and very courteous with it, was British Red Cross, BTW).

Top: Barclays Bank.

Unfailingly prompt, competent, and in the early days actually quite ingenious in finding ways to make things go more smoothly, from a rather messy starting-point.  And pleasant, with it.  Thank you, Barclays.

These things are possible!


Tuesday 24 January 2023

China on Russia / Ukraine: as expected

Why is Germany playing silly-buggers over tanks for Ukraine?  If the answer is "no", then say so.

Readers will know I have long maintained that Xi is the spectator with most interest in what transpires in Ukraine - and that he will have marked Putin's card in no uncertain terms.

Owen Matthews in the Speccie seems to have it nailed.  This, from November (I missed it at the time) is a short, but great read - and may still have salience on the tanks issue.  After all, Biden isn't exactly rushing forward with the Abrams, is he? 

 Beijing and Moscow pledged to come to each other’s aid militarily in the case of a foreign invasion of their territory and if special conditions were satisfied concerning the cause of such an invasion. That extremely canny and prescient proviso, inserted at Chinese insistence, would effectively exclude territories recently annexed during wartime, thus releasing Beijing from any commitment to respond to attacks on annexed territories in Ukraine.  

But everything points to a new Russian offensive in the offing.


UPDATE:- seems I wrote just a few hours too soon.  And - it's Zelensky's birthday today !

Thursday 19 January 2023

Jacinda Ardern: not a record to be proud of

Let's assume Jacinda Ardern's drawing stumps is to be taken at face value: gotta admire a politico who resigns because they reckon they've had enough.  Most of them have never had enough - of power - and make spectacles of themselves (or worse) as they cling on.

That's just about as far as my charity towards her extends.  

So what has her 5-year rule encompassed?  Two truly shocking developments have worsened noticeably on her watch.

The first, and most strategic, is NZ's handing itself over to the Chinese.  You can readily research this for yourself.  Yeah yeah, we understand the geography: and plenty of others have taken the Chinese billion-shilling.  But NZ has completely sunk itself.  Is it recoverable?  I dunno: the revived combo of USA/UK/Oz might be able to offer an escape strategy, perhaps with Japan and a few other Asian countries that also don't enjoy Xi's ever-expanding colonial outreach.  I hope so.

The second is more subtle but, in its way, equally pernicious: the thoroughgoing intellectual surrender to government-enforced woke nonsense - possibly the worst in the western world (though somebody may have another candidate for that).  This includes the crazy business of insisting (and we do mean insisting, particularly in the education system) that "Maori science" is "true science", infecting even the NZ Royal Society.   In the spirit of open-minded curiosity, I'm all for obtaining the best available insights from traditional wisdom and holistic metaphorical world-views, which often give deeply worthwhile perspectives: but "true"?  In the context of science, only on the basis of successfully coming through the usual "western" intellectual scrutiny.  Not so many creation myths (etc) will pass that test.  Determined war needs to be waged on this rubbish.

Ardern herself may only have presided over these dreadful developments: maybe she bemoans them privately, I don't know.  But - it has still been on her watch.

An interesting insight comes from one of her responses to questions

Asked how she would like New Zealanders to remember her leadership, Ardern said “as someone who always tried to be kind”.

I often think that the only vaguely creditworthy sentiment associated with the mindless pandering to the more extreme demands of, e.g. "trans rights", is a well-meaning, if ill-considered desire to "be kind".  He thinks he's a girl - let's not upset him.  Well, kindness and consideration have their important place in human affairs.   Always worth revisiting Monty Python's Life of Brian on this: the way Reg's anti-Roman groupuscule tries to accommodate Stan's wish to be called Loretta - and have babies.  They're trying to be kind.  (And it's bloody funny.)

But kindness is sometimes not enough (and Reg's last word is still the last word).  Let's see if something better can follow at the hands of new leadership.


Tuesday 17 January 2023

For Dieselheads

 What do the bumper stickers say?

Gas is for cleaning parts, alcohol is for drinking, diesel is for POWER

Black smoke don't mean it's broke ...

Anyhow, if you've noticed an ever increasing price differential between diesel and petrol, it's about to get worse.  A Euro-ban on importing Russian diesel starts on 5 February; and Russia has for a long time been the major supplier, its oil industry being disproportionately geared to diesel production (having less cracking capacity than most modern fleets of refineries, natch).  All this has been obvious for ten months, since it became clear the EU was digging in on sanctions, so many enterprises will have bought forward: but it'll work its way into retail prices (and inflation) quite soon. 

The whole diesel thing is odd.  I've never heard an explanation as to why the UK government "encouraged diesel" some decades ago (does anyone know?) - but everyone knew it stank.  A very long time ago - the late '70's - I visited an advanced motor engineering research facility and was told they were pouring considerable effort into improving diesel engines, in order to make them acceptable for the ordinary motorist.  The bloke said then that it was a matter of historical accident that petrol engines were (at that time) so vastly superior for cars, since both petrol and diesel were alongside each other on the starting-line at the turn of the 19th century when ICE vehicles were in their infancy: but for some arbitrary reason over the following 70 years, all the effort had gone into petrol engines.   This alone (they said) accounted for why diesel engines were fit only for taxis at that time: because petrol had no intrinsic advantages, aside from the smell.  

Particulates didn't trouble people much in them days ...   Let's hear from you, dieselheads!


Friday 13 January 2023

So much easier, being a conservative

 ... as opposed to being a typical leftie, permanently bemused and worried about how the world is.  Here's the Grauniad's Zoe Williams - by no means the worst of her tendency, writing under a typically Graun click-bait headline, and it's almost as bad as the banner suggests.  It's on the subject of that old feminist worry - Fat.  Oppressive body images and the "body disgust that girls experience".  And the best she can come up with?  It's all the fault of capitalism. 

The over-riding message to young girls from the mainstream – advertising, agony aunts, teachers, parents, the acceptable face of their peers as represented in culture – is a set of platitudes about body positivity: come as you are, love your body, love yourself ... So you have this tripod effect: the explicit message to girls is “don’t try to be thin, try to be healthy”; the implicit message is “thin is actually better than beautiful, thin is beauty, femininity and discipline combined”; and finally the high-pitched screaming of our collective lizard brain: “Fat is disgusting and undignified.” ... I’ve thought about this for years, on my own account and now in relation to my teenagers, and I don’t think tackling our self-loathing is a matter for individual resilience or self-belief. It’s essentially a function of capitalism. At its most mechanistic, you create panic around cellulite, you sell more tights ... Anything innate to humans that you can make into a problem will create a market for the solution. More fundamentally, mass markets rely on homogeneity, the Fordist formula, any-shape-so-long-as-it’s-thin. You can’t really monetise desire unless everyone’s desires are the same, so you have to create quite a narrow physical ideal... It’s a mistake, made constantly, to characterise girls and young women as “vulnerable”. They don’t struggle with their body image and mental health because they’re fragile or weak. It’s an absolutely rational response to a world that hysterically, ceaselessly bombards them with contradictory demands. I don’t have a better answer to all this than “anarcho-feminism”. 

If we want to be generous to this cri de coeur, we should probably just note the "I've thought about this for years / I don't have a better answer", and leave her to her misery.  But hey, she's accused capitalism: so we are entitled to have a little think about it, too.

As a piece of analysis, Williams' is slipshod in the extreme; though she does at least start with something sensible: "blaming a timeless patriarchy is too general".  It's downhill from there, however.

  1. She acknowledges from the start that mainstream advertising (inter alia) is woke nowadays - she even dates this back 20 years - and, along with "agony aunts, teachers, parents, the acceptable face of their peers as represented in culture" pushes a body-positive message:  "a worthy agenda endorsed by right-thinking people everywhere".  That's, errr, capitalism at work, no?  Following "right-thinking" trends. 
  2. So the "implicit message" she identifies is clearly, therefore, coming from somewhere else nowadays.  Is she suggesting there's some extraordinary, devious-capitalist double-bluff going on: the body-positive ads are understood by everybody to be a hilarious spoof, or something?  Or is this "implicit message" coming from society as a whole?  Or indeed, from the "lizard brains" (which sometimes signal something worth paying attention to)?
  3. The jump from subtle, "implicit message", to "creating a panic" is a complete non sequitur: she's a lot more work to do if she wants to establish anything about "created panic".
  4. If the "Fordist" formula for business success is to deal with as few categories as possible whilst sweeping up as many customers as possible, to focus on something unattainable in practice would seem to be a really dumb idea - unless it corresponded with something "innately" there already in society.  Capitalist businessmen are nothing if not keen to follow the herd: it's pretty rare (Bill Gates, maybe Steve Jobs) that anyone attempts to educate the herd to want something entirely new.
Contradictory demands?  That would be: lefties versus human nature.  There are several strong hints that Williams really does blame human nature all along; human nature that exists quite independently of capitalism, as a little journey back into pre-capitalist history would reveal.  

It would also be interesting to hear Williams on, for example, the triumphant England women's soccer team: but it doesn't look like she wrote about it at the time of their great 2022 successes.  Only one body shape in evidence** at the women's Euros, though; and we are all supposed to get behind the Lionesses in no uncertain terms.  Aren't we, Zoe?  Or is sport once again problematic for lefties?

There are social problems aplenty that any person of good will can be keen to address.  But blaming them lamely on capitalism won't get us very far.  Lefties, being intrinsically at odds with human nature, aren't well placed to make progress here.  It is conservatives that recognise and attempt to understand the grain of human timber, and work with it.



** As ever, Rugby Union is much more catholic on this score!  (So: which of RU and soccer is more, errr, populist, eh?  Oh, the ironies ...) 

Tuesday 10 January 2023

How the media (still) works: princes and pressure groups

A report out today ...

How far back do we date the phenomenon of vested interests putting out spurious press releases masquerading as news?  It definitely pre-dates the 1980s because I can remember instances of it back then quite clearly.  Commercially, the 'launches' of books, films, new products etc have been doing it forever, to amplify their advertising efforts.  Pressure groups muscled in on the act, and made it their own: the ghastly phrase "a report out today ..." is always the giveaway.

Why are they indulged?  That's easy: the media are bone idle.  In the case of, for example, local newspapers, they are and always have been grotesquely understaffed, and rely to 95% on stuff being handed to them on a plate: sometimes you can tell they've barely read what they've been sent.  But ... shouldn't MSM which have the slightest pretensions to, errr, standards of reporting, be above that crap?

Here's a wonderful example from the Grauniad.  (Did I say pretensions ..?) 

Labour MPs to lobby Keir Starmer to put green policies at heart of manifesto

This lengthy piece is completely devoid of news and, for afficionados, is a gem of its kind.  The press release / briefing that the Graun has swallowed whole, is from a new groupuscule that hasn't even launched yet!  So everything is about what "they" (assuming anyone joins the group) might do in future.  Classic stuff.

Which brings us to poor Prince Harry.  As an old mate of mine (a Tory MP) used to say, you can always get on the front page if you're willing to take your trousers down in public.  Was there ever a neater illustration of this maxim?  Put it away, son, everyone's laughing at you.


Wednesday 4 January 2023

New Year Prediction Game 2023

 So last year the predictions were somewhat poor as we nearly all over-egged Boris. Under estimated Putin and thought covid was awful!

Everyone except Caesar Hemera - blimey he nailed it. Well done that man! 

This year let’s make it simple for us all? 5 yea or nea- 

Will the war in Ukraine end?

Will Oil average over $100 a barrel?

Will Elon Musk’s fabled moon trip happen?

Will Sam Bankman-Fried get Jail time?

Will the UK be in recession still in Q4 2024?

Bonus answer for tiebreak has to be a sport related prediction. Mine is for Emma Radacanu to win Wimbledon. 

Tuesday 3 January 2023

Iran in 2023: Opportunity?

Predictable change is rarely on offer; and conversely, predicted change often doesn't happen.  (China becoming more liberal as a consequence of trade being perhaps the stand-out example of the latter in recent times.)  But something seems to be afoot in Iran, n'est-ce pas?  Is it too much to hope that 'western powers' are ready, willing and able to respond to it adroitly?

Iran / Persia is a deeply interesting case, in a fundamentally pivotal geo-political position.  Always resistant to foreign domination, since the 15th century it has been essentially independent, unlike many neighbouring states that have much less political continuity - the Arab states to its west and south, the 'stans north and east.  Of the foreign 'influences' over the years, Russian interests are a recurring theme - and never more so than today.  But only the British effort really stands out as clever and (by some lights) constructive.  When oil was discovered there in 1908, the Royal Navy was immediately interested.  How best to get British hands on it?  In an era where many people's first imperial thoughts would have been inclined towards something fairly expropriatory, wiser counsels prevailed, and a broadly commercial arrangement was struck instead.  Development of a huge oil industry followed, and the British connection was strong for more than 40 years.  It all ended in nationalisation, of course: and subsequent British, and then American efforts from the 1950s onwards can certainly be faulted.  Recent Iranian history begins, of course, with the revolution of 1979** and its near-complete severing of any normal relations with the west.

Iranians bridle at being grouped with Arabs in the ignorant western mind, and have a solid history of learning, education and native science, notwithstanding that dogmatic clerical rule is rarely consistent with reaping the full benefit of that learning.  Western influences have been very strong, certainly in the middle classes, many of whom traditionally sought further education in England or France.  (Indeed, for many years the French might have been thought to have had the greater cultural influence, with French being widely spoken: but they were slow off the mark back in 1908.  Nonetheless, Paris was always where the major Iranian exiles of all political stripes hung out - and were sometimes eventually buried, as a trip to the cemetery at Montparnasse will attest.)

And after 43 years, it seems the educated Iranian middle class has had enough of 'morality police' and the rest of the clerical excesses.

Is this a happy ending just waiting to happen?  Is Russia's new supplier of drones and potentially worse about to step back from its baleful role in the Near East?  Well, not necessarily.  Although you won't find this on Wikipedia the current Supreme Leader Khamenei is widely rumoured to have studied in Russia: there is a critical gap in his biography, and some years ago his name featured on the list of alumni claimed by the infamous Moscow "Peoples Friendship University", a.k.a. the Patrice Lumumba.   Being too closely associated, education-wise, with the godless Russians wouldn't suit him nowadays, of course: but it's noticeable how closely he tacks to Russia just now, to put it mildly.  (PS, these rumours started more than a decade ago, i.e. they are not to be laid at the door of some current disinformation campaign.)  There is a current rumour, however: that he has cancer and is not long for this world (like, errr, Putin, Xi, Kim etc etc etc: so maybe not worth entertaining too optimistically).

Suppose that 2023 is indeed the year that a counter-revolution breaks out in Iran.  Any new regime will want to restore prosperity in short order - that's the way Khomeni worked his trick in 1980-81.  So they'll want an early end to sanctions ... but will they also continue to want nukes as well?  

Seems to me there's an obvious role here for adroit and subtle western diplomacy.  What wouldn't we give for Iran stepping back from Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah etc etc - and from Russia?  Well, errr, maybe we wouldn't give nukes ...  But China ..?

I don't know what the solution is here.  But if we just let a revolutionary moment pass without making a creative & intelligent effort, the west will be regretting it as much, if not more, as other nations did when the Brits stepped smartly in to the oil opportunity.  We (UK) are no longer up to it.  Macron will probably throw Total into the frame, but he's no Apollo, whatever he thinks.  And I greatly fear that the USA doesn't see Iran at all clearly; but rather - how shall we put it? - through a very darkened and steamed-up glass. 


(Unusually, in this case I may be forced to moderate BTL, so choose your words carefully.  If the anticipated trolling does indeed materialise, before deleting I will keep notes for readers' future edification)


** This was not, as is widely supposed, initially a wholly clerical matter.  But Khomeini, recalled from his exile in Paris, was determined to make it so - and he succeeded in just a couple of years, with a strategy Lenin would have admired.