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Jul 292017
 

There has been a lot of talk about how the USA pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord is stupid in various forms. Stupid enough that many US cities and states are trying to meet their climate accord obligations independently.

But one thing doesn’t appear to have been mentioned: That the USA made a firm commitment to follow the Paris accords, and then broke that agreement. Which makes the US government oath-breakers – an untrustworthy party when it comes to international agreements.

You can make all sorts of excuses for repudiating the Paris Accord – perhaps it wasn’t in the best interests of the US to take part, or that it was unfair to the US in some way.

But fundamentally, the USA made an agreement and then repudiated it. It is now less trustworthy than it was before.

Feb 042017
 

I could choose to criticise Trump’s stand in immigration from certain countries based on the rights and wrongs of it, because it’s certainly wrong. But firstly there has been plenty written and said about that aspect of it, and secondly those who don’t see how wrong it is are not likely to change.

But even those who do not see how wrong it is may well be able to see just how stupid this move is.

Just to remind ourselves, Trump has temporarily blocked all travel into the USA by anyone holding a passport issued by seven countries which were previously subject to heightened visa requirements. And for good reasons – the relevant countries have more than their fair share of terrorist activity – and it is more than reasonable to check on immigrants to verify that they are not known terrorists.

The first “own goal” is that the new restrictions blocks many people from travelling to the USA who have made their homes there including famous people like Mo Farah (although the ban may not apply to him). How much safer is the US by blocking Mo from entering the USA and going home?  Or all the others in his position?

And let’s be frank – there’s something less than honourable about issuing a visa allowing someone to travel, and then preventing them from travelling. There are people who have planned the holiday of a lifetime and arranged to visit Disneyworld or Disneyland, and all of a sudden they are prevented from travelling.

Now you could argue that if this action decreases the risk to US citizens it is worth taking. But even if it does significantly reduce the risk, I would argue that it is better to accept the increased risk to do the right thing. And in general if you do not accept a slightly increased risk to do the right thing, you are a morally bankrupt person.

But does this decrease the risk to US citizens? To assess that we need to assess how great is the risk of terrorist attacks to the USA, and specifically terrorist attacks from those seven countries.

In fact the risk attributed to terrorism is vastly overrated. Going through the Wikipedia list of terrorist incidents, I get a total of 5 incidents causing the deaths of 50 people (the perpetrators excluded), which includes the Pulse nightclub shooting. If you go back to 2015, the figures are 4 incidents and 23 deaths, and one of the incidents was a christian terrorist.

Working through a similar list of mass shootings in 2016, I get a total of 14 incidents causing the deaths of 56 individuals.

Which is basically saying that you’re about as likely to walk into a terrorist incident as into a mass shooting, and both are really, really unlikely. That doesn’t help much if you are caught up in such an incident, so taking reasonable and proportionate action to decrease that risk is worthwhile.

And targeting refugees fits into the disproportional category; of those 5 incidents in 2016, only one was perpetrated by a refugee (and nobody died).

And now onto the final bit of stupidity: Firing your legal adviser for telling you an executive order is illegal when it is being found so over and over again makes you look more than a bit foolish.  Particularly when you could accomplish almost as much (although in reality more) by simply stopping new visas being issued; especially when the decreased risk from terrorism is marginal at best.

Nov 112016
 

So Trump has been elected as the next president of the USA.

Now setting aside my disbelief for a moment (really? He actually won?), let’s look at some of the reasons why he may have won, and why the poll takers got it wrong.

First of all, the polls were not that far out – whilst they got the winner wrong, they did predict that it would be close. And it was close – Clinton got 47.7% of the popular vote whereas Trump got 47.3%. Yes, Clinton actually won the popular vote, but the US electoral system does not work quite so well when the result is so close. But not bad for a 200-year old system, but perhaps it is time for a long and careful review of the process in the light of modern communications.

In addition, there is also the embarrassment factor – if you had decided to vote for Trump, would you really admit it publicly? On a more serious note, when elections are particularly acrimonious, there is a good chance that a significant amount of the electorate will lie (or just keep quiet) about their choice when asked by pollsters.

Enough about pollsters though, how did he win? Of course everyone wants one simple answer to that question, and there isn’t one. There are many factors as to why he won, and each contributes a little.

The first thing to remember is that there are many stupid people in any population. Nothing wrong with being stupid; some of my best friends are stupid (that didn’t come out quite right!). Really! And it is a fact of life that there are many stupid people – it’s how intelligence tests work. You measure everyone’s intelligence, and those who are below average are stupid, and those who are above average are bright.

Besides, Trump won didn’t he? QED.

And stupid people are easily conned by anyone who tells them what they want to hear no matter how fantastical it might be. And Trump has been telling them what they want to hear – abortion is wrong, he can restore manufacturing jobs (presumably by overturning the laws of economics), making America great again (that one always goes down well, even if America is already great), that climate change is not man-made, etc.

Every time that he pushed one of those buttons, and pandered to every wing-nut grouping out there, he gained more supporters. He either didn’t care or didn’t know that he came across as a cretinous fool, as long as he got some votes.

The second big factor was that although Trump was nominated by the Republican party, he was the closest thing to an anti-establishment candidate of the two major parties (I’ll come to the other parties shortly). Of course he isn’t really not part of the establishment being a billionaire property developer, but he hasn’t previously held public office. And anti-establishment is very popular right now. Given that Clinton was very definitely old political establishment, this could very well be the most significant reason.

And of course there is the economy. Like the rest of the world, the US has just been through a huge recession where many lost their jobs or even their homes. And any ruling party suffers in the wake of a recession. Whether or not the Democrats were to blame, they were going to get blamed by the voters – or at least enough of them to make a bit of a difference.

Next there is of course the poor old sane Republican who has always voted for their party. This time around, they had a buffoon to vote for and although some couldn’t face voting for Trump, a good number couldn’t see any other options.

The reason that some people are blaming are the “other” candidates. Despite the media coverage implying that there are only two candidates, there were in fact nearly 30. If all those who voted for one of the others, had voted for Clinton instead, it might have made a difference, but it seems a touch unlikely that they would have all voted for her. Best guess? They would have divided more or less evenly just like everyone else did.

Having said that, it would be nice if the US had a transferable vote system whereby you could vote for (say) the Green Party, but have your vote go towards another if the Green party didn’t win.

I’m not going to bother mentioning those who couldn’t be bothered to vote. They didn’t vote so they don’t count.

So how about the reaction to Trump’s victory?

It’s almost as bizarre as the lead up to the election: When you’re in a room the morning the results came out, and the two embarrassed Americans both apologise for the US having voted in Trump, you know there’s something odd going on. The reaction has been extreme – not just the usual moaning about having an idiot in charge for four years, but protests, riots, and even a group in California that wants to declare independence. It is sort of understandable (after all, it’s Trump!), but the division in the US today may be almost as damaging as the idiocies that Trump will enact.

On the subject of which, Trump himself probably can’t remember all the rubbish he has promised all over the campaign trail. Of course there are those who will remind him of things he has promised, and probably a lot more besides. But how much damage will he actually do?

The worst case scenario (and there’s more than one) is that he brings about some sort of theocratic form of government (he certainly has supporters who would like to see this), and launches nuclear weapons (Trump with his hand on the launch button? Shudder!).

This is not that likely – there are too many obstacles in the way, including the constitution. And there is just the slightest hint that Trump might not be quite that bad.

His first reaction to the protests was typical paranoia – blaming them on paid activists. But his second reaction was quite sympathetic saying he was pleased that the protesters loved their country so much. Trump probably likes being popular, and there’s one obvious thing to do with a president like that – when he proposes some idiocy, protest. Don’t protest about Trump (however tempting it is); protest about his bad policies.

Of course I might be overly optimistic.

stack-of-coins-p1

Oct 302016
 

Of course it isn’t; it’s England (I’m English).

It’s all very patriotic to claim your country is the greatest on earth, but it also indicates an immense level of smug complacency. If you live in the greatest country on earth there is no reason to look at your country and see what to do better.

Some questions to ask yourself about your country :-

  1. Where does your country fit in the list of infant mortality?
  2. How free is your country according to the Press Freedom Index?
  3. What ranking does your country get in the list of life expectancy?
  4. How evenly is wealth distributed?

Now you might not agree with my list of how well a country is doing (and mine isn’t necessarily the same as the one above), and I may well disagree with your list vehemently. But that is beside the point – choose your list of what you think is important in a country, assess your country’s level, and then decide if your country is the greatest, or whether it could do better.

stack-of-coins-p1

Jul 172016
 

As seen from afar, the USA seems to be having a problem with racial tensions – police shootings, protests, “Black Lives Matter“, etc., and racial inequality such as found at Facebook. Nobody with any sense doubts that there is racism in the USA – everywhere there are bone-headed bigots worrying about the colour of the dead stuff that keeps the squishy bits on the inside.

But we may be too quick to assume that it is simply racism; many of the symptoms could well be caused by wealth inequality and relative poverty.

The wealthy (and their children) are more like to succeed because of a number of factors :-

  1. They are more able to afford private education – either to supplement state education or to replace it with presumably higher quality private education.
  2. They are more able to afford higher education; even though it is possible for those who cannot afford it to get loans to pay for higher education in the USA, this will leave those in debt at a disadvantage.
  3. Social networks (the “old boy network”) that the wealthy have access to includes greater opportunities at internships at organisations that give their children greater opportunities.
  4. And internships themselves seem designed to favour the children of the wealthy – unpaid work in the hope of getting a better job at the end of it is something that is only a suitable option if you already have money to live on.

There are those who point at people from relatively poor backgrounds who have “made it”, and there’s certainly no doubt that exceptional people can succeed whatever their background. But most of us are not exceptional.

Relative poverty and lack of opportunity can easily lead to frustration with the system, and amongst the criminally inclined a tendency to resort to crime – those with more wealth or more opportunities will not resort to crime to the same extent.

So does the USA have a racism problem or a wealth inequality problem? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I would not be at all surprised if the answer is both.

2012-05-19-sheep standing guard.small

Apr 052016
 

During a recently on-line rant about anti-abortion terrorists, I happened to trip over some statistics on the rate of mortality during childbirth (the “Maternity Mortality Rate”) from the WHO. And being the kind of person that statistics interest, I spent some time looking into them; indeed I got so interested I transcribed some of the raw figures to generate a pretty graph :-

mmr2

This obviously excludes many countries – what we could call the developing countries. The countries included (which you’ll have to peer closely in order to see – sorry about that) are all rich. At least relatively speaking.

Just look at the USA! Down with the also-rans amongst what could be called the relatively dysfunctional countries at the fringes of being considered “developed”. Now you could argue that there is something special about the reason why the USA doesn’t have a single-digit MMR like the overwhelming majority of developed countries. I can think of a few possibilities myself :-

  1. Perhaps the USA is the only country in the world to tell the truth about it’s actual MMR and all the other countries are lying. Perhaps. I am not going to argue there isn’t a bit of shady practices going on with the figures in some cases, but these figures are produced by statisticians and as an overall group statisticians don’t like lying about numbers. Yes there is the old saw about “lies, dammed lies, and statistics”, but the source of that distrust is the twisting that politicians apply to statistics to support their lies.
  2. Perhaps the USA didn’t read the instructions from the WHO properly about what kind of deaths to include in their returns and they’re including deaths that other countries wouldn’t include. But whilst I’ve not read the instructions from the WHO about this, I have read other instructions on statistics and they usually go into excruciating detail about what should and should not be included. It’s possible that the USA handed this little job over to a complete dumb-arse, but it doesn’t seem very likely.
  3. The WHO is anti-American and decided to inflate the figures. This is just laughable – the WHO isn’t going to risk getting called out by doing something so obvious even if it really was anti-American.

Sometimes the most obvious reason is the real reason – and here the most obvious reason is that the US health care system sucks.

There is additional evidence to show that – the WHO figures cover years other that 2013, and the US figures are consistently bad and getting worse.

But how can this be? The USA is one of the wealthiest countries in the world that spends a ridiculous percentage of it’s annual GDP on health care. It also produces many healthcare innovations and undoubtedly has improved maternal care at some point with some new technique. The really rather obvious (although it really needs to be tested) is that healthcare in the USA is divided into three.

There are those who have full insurance, and this group probably gets pretty good healthcare.

There are those who are covered by government schemes and this group probably gets reasonable healthcare.

And there are those who fall between the cracks – they’re not covered for various reasons – and their care is abysmal and probably limited to emergency care only. Which can sometimes be too late.

But when you come down to it, if you are pregnant it may be worth avoiding the USA until you’ve given birth. And if you’re already in the USA, it may be worth thinking about a long break somewhere where they have a healthcare system that doesn’t suck.

Apr 142014
 

It’s a bit ridiculous to compare the two, but if you look at the number of casualties involved, the 9/11 terrorist incident which caused around 2,900 casualties is very roughly comparable in size to The Troubles (with some 3,500 casualties). Of course the troubles consisted of many small incidents over a period of 30-odd years.

During that time, one of the IRA‘s (the “Official IRA”, the “Provisional IRA” and the INLA) principle source of funds were the groups NORAID and Clan na Gael. Which were based in the USA, and raised funds from supporters in the USA.

Or in other words, some US citizens were helping to fund a 9/11.

What’s more anyone who reads the history of the IRA is made very aware that the IRA regarded the US as a safe haven for their “soldiers”.

It’s interesting to contemplate using some the war on terror’s weapons against some US citizens :-

  • Extra-ordinary rendition of US citizens to concentration camps excluded from the protection of the law – so they could be tortured.
  • Freezing of the assets of some US citizens suspected of helping to fund terrorism.

It is perhaps a useful tool to consider whether certain counter-terrorism tactics are a step too far.

 

Feb 222013
 

There has been a lot of discussion on how top maths students in schools in the UK, don’t keep up with students in schools in Asia. Funnily enough the difference is much smaller for British Asian kids. Which is an interesting thing given that people are concentrating on what the schools should be doing.

Now it’s not wrong to say that schools could do with improvement; no matter how well the school system is doing, it could always do with improvement. In particular for this particular report, looking at the top performers in a class is worth doing – it is natural, but unfortunate that the top performers in a class are often left just to get on with it. They are after all performing well enough even if they could do better if pushed.

But as can be seen from the performance of British Asians, it’s more than just the schools. Things may well have changed since I was at school, but back then there was this weird cultural thing.

Those of us who were seen as being good at maths were always thought of as a little odd — geeks, nerds, swots, and the like. Of course if you were good at other subjects you got it too, but it wasn’t as bad as being good at maths. Not really as bad as genuine bullying, but it generates an atmosphere where it’s ok not to try too hard at maths.

Does this still go on? If so, it would explain these results.

Dec 112011
 

David Cameron has officially put the UK into the slow-lane of Europe with the other 26 countries all in the fast lane – including not just the 17 members of the Eurozone, but also those other countries that do not use the Euro. The excuse for doing so is to protect the banking industry – specifically the City of London from a transaction tax.

There are of course the Euro-sceptics whose mindset is stuck in the 19th century who are celebrating and suggesting that we should go further and have a referendum on leaving the EU and ‘going it alone’. Fortunately even the majority of Tories (whose instincts lie in that direction) realise this is a step too far and realise that whatever minor annoyances there are, the membership of Europe is a good thing for us.

To exaggerate the scale of things somewhat, Britain is a country playing in the playground of 900-kilo behemoths – China, the USA, and right next door to us (and we’re effectively part of it … sometimes) the giant of Europe. And it is a giant, although people often underestimate the power of Europe – all those funny Europeans, surely they can’t add up to much can they ? Actually they do – the GDP of the European Union as a whole is larger than any country in the world including the USA and China; admittedly only marginally larger than the GDP of the USA (a trifling 2 trillion dollars larger). This is because we usually rank countries in order of GDP, but miss larger blocks.

It is essentially an “accident” of history that Europe has remained a grouping of 26 independent countries whereas China became a huge land empire, and the USA became a federal union of “nation states”. The accident is of course a complex series of events throughout European history that is beyond the scope of this blog entry!

This could all be an example of short-term thinking – whilst staying out may protect the financial industry (although it is interesting to note that the Financial Times wasn’t entirely positive about this), it may well harm Britain’s prospects in the longer term. And increased regulation and taxation of the banking industry may be what the leaders of banking oppose, but it could well be that people in the UK actually would quite agree with it.

By staying out, we will have less influence over the core of Europe with less say on how Europe progresses. Whilst some people may welcome this, it does seem unwise to risk losing any amount of influence over what is our largest trading partner. And losing any influence with an organisation to which we belong seems unwise.

For some strange reason – perhaps because we seem to like bad news better than good news – the news about the European Union always seems to be bad rather than good. Some of this is merely down to how it is presented – we always hear about draconian regulation of business from Europe, but rarely stop to think that perhaps the regulation was called for by consumers because of abuses by businesses (such as international roaming charges by mobile phone operators), or that the European regulation merely harmonises regulation across Europe – would that business rather have 26 sets of regulations to work with, or 1 ?

There is also a bizarre myth that the European Union is less democratic than the national governments. That all EU power is controlled by unelected European Commissioners. That is a myth put about by politicians who are in danger of losing their cushy jobs if the people eventually device that with the EU parliament in place, there is no more need for expensive national parliaments. In fact, it is entirely possible that the EU is more democratic than national governments.

We often take the earlier accomplishments of the EU for granted – the ability to travel across Europe without visas at every turn. Who has not sailed through the fast lane at airports pitying those from outside the EU who are stuck in the slow lane ? And what about peace across Europe ?

Nov 192011
 

The interesting thing about what has been happening in Syria over the last few months is that people are just about beginning to ask why the West (as in the UK, France, USA, Germany, etc) are not taking the lead in doing something about Syria. There seems to be an assumption that we only did something about Libya, because it was easy and somehow in our interests to do so (i.e. “oil”).

Well perhaps, although Libyan oil reserves are hardly big enough to risk that much over.

But there are plenty of other reasons why the West isn’t taking the initiative over the Syrian situation.

First, on several occasions those opposing the current Syrian regime have made it clear that they do not want foreign intervention. So intervention could risk making the situation worse.

Secondly if you accept that there would be no Libyan-style intervention, you are pretty much limited to applying for and imposing sanctions of some kind. And the West has been doing that for some time – the EU has been imposing increasingly draconian sanctions since at least May this year, and the US has been imposing sanctions for far longer although in their case this has little to do with support for democratisation and more to do with punishing Syrians for having a government that supports Hezbollah. Yet despite all the talk, the Arab League has yet to impose sanctions. So who is taking the lead here ?

Lastly, it is all very well expecting the West to take the lead in opposition to noxious regimes, but where else in life do you find a situation where nothing happens, because the one who usually takes the lead in a community of equals has nodded off? If the Arab League feels the West isn’t making a strong enough stand, there is no reason why they cannot take the lead here. The West is distracted at the moment with economic problems – in particular the Eurozone crisis; maybe it should be pushing harder for something to happen in Syria, but when it isn’t doing enough (and some people might argue that it is), the Arab League could push itself.

 

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