Sunday, March 21, 2010

Drayson Racing at Sebring

Lord Drayson, Minister of State for Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform, and previously (as MinDES) the architect of the DIS has been racing again over the weekend in the 12 Hours of Sebring competition. This is part of the American Le Mans Series - endurance races in the spirit of 24 Hours of Le Mans, with durations of up to 12 hours.

Drayson Racing's car (LMP1 class) started in fourth place and finished fourth amongst the LMP1s and twelfth overall - a very credible performance despite engine troubles and two broken alternators.

The timings show that they were on the pace of the winning pair of cars from the Peugeot factory team - Emanuele Pirro's best race lap (beating his qualifying time!) for Drayson Racing was 1:45.550, compared to 1:45.704 (Anthony Davidson) and 1:44.972 (Sebastien Bourdais) in the Peugeot 1-2, making Drayson Racing's Lola B09 60/Judd the second fastest car on the grid. Sadly, they had to make 15 pit stops compared to 8 for the Peugeots and the mechanical problems meant they were 43 laps down at the end (324 completed vs 367 for the leaders).

Unless the points system has changed from last year, I believe this gives the team 20 points - almost as many as the 24 points the Drayson-Barwell GT2-class Aston-Martin managed in the whole 2008 season.

So, congratulations to Lord Drayson, Jonny Cocker, Emanuele Pirro and all the guys behind the scenes on a great start to the 2010 season!

- KoW

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Left Foot in Mouth

Will Straw's blog Left Foot Forward has posted an article (h/t Old Holborn) on the great climate-skeptic conspiracy. Apparently, some "research" conducted by a marketing agency - but not yet published - has shown that bloggers on the internet link to each other, and claims that this is part of an orchestrated plan "to have maximum impact on the Copenhagen negotiations".

Apparently this "research" was conducted for Oxfam. Anyone remember when they were a charity that cared about famine, not a political pressure group demanding Tobin Taxes and promoting global warming hysteria? How times change, eh? Ironically, Oxfam's current policies seem designed to exacerbate famine, but I doubt they care about that when there are political bandwagons to jump on - and policies which keep people starving and in poverty gives the "charity" a reason to keep existing.

The post claims that "the story was picked up by a wide range of media outlets, and went global – the culmination of a concerted effort to push it into the mainstream". That's not how I remember it. I remember the story being completely ignored by most of the media, despite UEA denials, Lord Lawson opening a global warming think-tank, and a scathing blog article from arch-climatista George Monbiot, until "climategate" became one of the biggest search terms on Google in a week and, eventually, the press felt they had to say something about the story people were already talking about. If there's a conspiracy, it looks rather more like it was amongst the BBC and Fleet Street soi-disant elite trying to ignore the story in order to push their own COP15 agendas.

He then goes on to cite some pseudoscience about the Overton Window and a linguist called Lakoff talking about "Framing" (straight out of NLP!) the debate, as if the public are simple-minded sheep who will believe everything they're told. No. People mistrust authority figures, and climate skepticism is deep-rooted in personal experience: no matter what the "global average temperature" figures claim, people over 40 can actually remember warmer and colder years and so the ever-greater catastrophes that are prophesied are in direct contradiction to experience. You've oversold it and now nobody is buying.

Then the author claims that "Oxfam’s study shows that almost no-one bothered to back [Monbiot] up in defending the integrity of the science" - which is largely because Climategate showed that there has been no actual science going on at the CRU: irreproducible "results" are nothing more than anecdote, no matter how many bent "reviews" they go through, how many times they're cited, or how pretty the graph looks.

So, co-conspirators, watch out for an organised pro-AGW propaganda campaign being directed through marketing agencies. Don't let them convince you that things didn't happen the way you remember them!

- KoW

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Polar bear trading

I don't know what the bid-offer spread would be, but I suspect the nicotine-yellow bastards wouldn't be happy about it.

Today's Metro (p30, can't find it online) has an article called 'Polar bear trade ban is rejected'. A UN meeting in Qatar rejected a proposal to ban trade of polar bear skins, claws and teeth.

All of the bleeding-heart eco-worriers, talking about how global warming is harming polar bears, seem to have missed a few facts. Polar bears are not endangered, they are not 'losing their habitats', they are not 'sad' or 'unhappy' or cuddly, they don't care if you drive a Prius, they are huge vicious predators who will gleefully kill and eat you for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Polar bears can (and do) swim to shore through arctic waters when they're finished playing on icebergs - they don't drown if they fall in, no matter what inaccurate films you watch.

The proposed ban was backed by the US and all sorts of sunny places, and opposed by Canada, Greenland and Norway who actually have to live with the growing numbers of these things. Funny that.

Polar bears are not your friends.

- KoW

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Don't Cry For Me...

Today's Metro also has another story about the escalating tensions over the Falklands. Argentina is threatening to ban companies associated with the drilling for oil. As the article notes, this includes Barclays, who are shareholders in Desire Petroleum.

HMS Sceptre, the last of the Swiftsure class, and due to be decommissioned in December, has been sent to keep things under control. Presumably that means there's also a very small chance that she will follow HMS Conqueror's lead in returning home flying a Jolly Roger - this is presumable the last 'opportunity' for the Swiftsures to do so before being consigned to history. It seems (thankfully) extremely unlikely, though.

HMS York is there, as is a large RFA vessel (RFA Wave Ruler - 31,500 tons displacement, about six times the size of a destroyer), providing a visible deterrent. The Falklands are much better protected than they were in 1982: a permanent garrison of around 500 troops, air defences including four Typhoons (1435 flight) and Rapier FSC SAMs.

Enough to deter scrap-metal merchants from raising a flag, certainly.

The Argentinians would have to launch a full-scale attack to gain control of the islands, not just turn up and wait to be kicked out, which would not sit well with the Americans. It may work, it may not, but it would be a huge gamble and the attempt would likely result in significant Argentinian casualties, making it political suicide for Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

So, her only real option is trade sanctions. How effective are those likely to be? No idea, to be honest, but I don't think Barclays makes a particularly large proportion of their money from Argentina...

- KoW

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March Snippets

Striking Distance

Today's Metro (p23) has the story British Airways 'rushing through' strike breakers, with Unite claiming that the replacement cabin crew have had insufficient training. I don't buy that, they'll have had more than most budget airlines, though perhaps not as much as the usual BA crew - who are extremely competent but frankly overqualified for a glorified waitressing job. Yes, there are things that can go wrong on a flight, and the earliest stewardesses had to be registered nurses, but their safety impact is minimal on a modern airliner - so long as the pilot knows his stuff and the maintenance is correct, there's not much difference from a train: a bunch of bored people sitting around in cramped seats.

Striking resemblance

Meanwhile, this looks set to be the first international strike, with support from the US, Germany, France and (I believe) Australia for their Unite brothers and sisters. The BBC story contains:
US union leader James Hoffa said: "Whatever we have to do, we will do."
That's either a remarkable coincidence, or he's some relation to Jimmy Hoffa. Indeed, Wikipedia suggests that he's the only son of Jimmy Hoffa. It seems that even the most hardcore left-wingers are as prone to nepotism and keeping it in the family as the aristocratic capitalists they claim to provide an alternative to. Then again, we don't need to look much further than our own cabinet to see two brothers, a husband and wife and the son of Tony Benn as clear and present evidence of political dynasties - and let's not forget Jack Dromey (Mr Harriet Harman) being parachuted into a safe seat for the 2010 election.

Going off the rails

Next to the BA story in today's Metro, p22 is a full-page ad from Network Rail's Chief Executive - Iain Croucher - imploring the RMT to negotiate over signal strikes at Easter. I'm vaguely suspicious that the turnout multiplied by the voting ratio means that 50.05% of eligible RMT staff support the strike, but it could be a coincidence.

This is another rather daft strike. The RMT are claiming, as usual, that the Spanish Practices they've managed to accumulate since the age of steam is somehow conducive to running a 21st century railway. It beggars belief that rail maintenance workers are employed Monday-Friday when the work is done at night, on weekends and over bank holidays.

Plus ça change

It seems that the French TV 'torture gameshow' has ruffled some feathers. I don't know why. It's just a jazzed-up version of the Milgram Experiment - one of the key results from experimental psychology. Derren Brown re-ran the as part of his show The Heist and replicated the results. Starting in 1961, Stanley Milgram's work essentially proved that ordinary, good people could be made to kill by even extremely weak instruction from authority figures. Before the experiment, psychologists had predicted that <0.1% of people would go all the way; in reality around half did.

With memories of WW2 still recent, this all but demolished the notion that the Germans were "bad people" - they were, as Eichmann's defence claimed, just following orders, and everyone else would have complied in much the same way.

Of course, that's an uncomfortable notion for most people, and a typical response to cognitive dissonance is to shoot the messenger. Bad luck, France2.

- KoW

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

KC-X and the Sky-high Cost of Sky-high Fuel

EADS' (Airbus' parent company's) annual report, about a week ago, contained an interesting note that slipped by many observers. It caught Lord Mandelson's attention and got a bit more ink, but still was largely ignored. That note was that EADS has pulled out of the KC-X bidding.

There's quite a story behind that, and I shall tell it as well I can remember.

The KC-X is the replacement for the old - ancient - KC-135 Stratotankers, the US military's air-to-air refuelling capability and key to global operations. They were adapted from Boeing's 707 airframe - the forerunner of the 747s, 767s and 777s that we see at airports today - and built in the 1950s and 1960s. The youngest ones are 45 years old, and some a decade more than that!

The story of the bidding process is rather unusual. The USAF issued the RFP (i.e. call for bids) in January 2007. The process began in an unusual way by stressing that this was an urgent requirement, and that delays in procurement would put lives in jeopardy. The two bids submitted were from EADS/Northrop-Grumman using a version of the Airbus A330 to be assembled in Alabama using US workers and imported parts, and from Boeing with a modified 767.

A mere 13 months after the bidding process began, in February 2008, the selection was made: EADS/NG had won. Again, in an unusual move, the USAF made a point at the press conference that, due to the age of the equipment being replaced, delays would cost lives - a not-too-subtle warning. This didn't seem to bother Boeing, though, who filed an appeal against the decision. That appeal was upheld in June 2008, bidding re-opened in July following the forced resignation of the head of the USAF - and then the project was put on hold in September. A year later, September 2009, bidding started again.

The project, particularly the un-selection and reopening of bids, has been dogged by allegations of jingoism amongst the US players: a feeling that letting a foreign company win would be unAmerican. This, despite the fact that Northrop-Grumman is at least as American as Boeing, that a significant proportion of the work would be undertaken by Americans in America, and that Boeing were - in 2003 - accused of corruption and stripped of $1bn of government contracts.

EADS has apparently realised that the deck was stacked against it, and pulled out in March this year, leaving this whole sorry mess as nothing but a historical note. KC-X is still on the drawing board. The US is still flying the creaking half-century-old tankers it was trying to replace. The UK MoD is trying to buy a couple of those rusty old KC-135s, refitted for electronic battlefield surveillance - the RC-135 'Rivet Joint'.

Hey, if you wanted a happy ending, you should have gone to a "massage parlour".

- KoW

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Spring of Discontent

Yeah, it's been a while since I updated. So, we missed out on the Autumn of Wrath, but we're definitely now on for a Spring of Discontent.

Unite - Labour's life-support - have announced strike dates for BA cabin crew, and are apparently trying to arrange potentially-illegal secondary picketing from the Teamsters. The strikes have been (belatedly) condemned by Lord Adonis and even Gordon Brown, but are going ahead anyway.

A comment on the BBC's 'Prime Minister's questions' coverage says:
Tory support scabs nothing has changed. They need to support the workers nothing has changed since the 70s for the Torys
Mark McQuade, Hamilton
which is certainly an interesting view of the world. I'm happy to say that it's one which the vast majority of the population does not subscribe to - even in the 70s, "up the workers" was an anathema to the general public. The Carry On films parodied industrial relations at the time and it's very much clear that Sid James' ordinary working-class factory foreman was the hero, not the shopfloor firebrand with his NUCIE rulebook.

The public, including the vast majority of the working class, dislike unions.

Workers used to join them "just in case", to protect themselves from being victimised, but then found themselves being forced out on strike for causes they didn't really care about in order to further the political ambitions of, well, half of Labour's front bench. As a result, union membership has plummeted in the private sector: the law gives workers protections that once required a union. It's still over 60% in public sector and former-public-sector organisations, like BA, though.

Every Red Robbo wannabe in those unions should bear something in mind, though: we, the voting public, hate you. You abuse us on a whim to favour your own agenda, holding us to ransom to give your members a bigger share of our earnings. No more.

Collective bargaining has been effective for you for a few years, but there's a flip-side to that: there's a much bigger collective whose pockets you've been picking, and we're fed up with it. There are no more abusive employers, only abusive unions, and the time has come to rid ourselves of these dinosaurs once and for all.

- KoW

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

What a hung parliament really means

Today's Metro (p5) has an article titled 'Hung vote' polls spark pound panic - which is only slightly different to the online version.

The pound has fallen from $1.60 to $1.48 in just a month. Two years ago, it was trading at $2.00. The stack of $20 bills on my desk, bought a little under a year ago, is now worth 12% more than I paid for them - even with the foreign ATM fees and the bid-offer spread, that's a healthy profit.

The falls would have been even worse if it weren't for the problems facing the Dollar (Obama's spending, particularly the healthcare issue) and the Euro (Greece...) - the Yen is now trading against Sterling at a rate I'd have expected for Dollars five years ago: 133¥ per!

That is the cost of Labour's fiscal policies and of quantitiative easing. We've lost 20-30% of the value of our money and Sterling-denominated assets.

We're all 20-30% poorer than we were a couple of years ago.

And the markets know that, and fear it continuing. A hung parliament with Labour as largest party is the worst of all possible outcomes: no power to make changes, and no desire to, either. Unless there is a clear Tory victory, we're about to become a third-world country. Yes, it is that bad. Guido has already noted that as has the FT. The bond markets are already pricing us as AA, even without a formal downgrade, and uncertainty could easily drive that to A+ or below. If the government can't borrow £180bn/year, it either has to slash and burn spending by something like 20-30%, or devalue Sterling by printing yet more money: we could have lost half of our wealth in just three years.

I predicted double-digit inflation at the start of the year (well, actually in November 2007), and the last month has added upwards of 7 percentage points to the cost of imported goods. Green beans from Kenya, Egyptian potatoes, Korean plasma/LCD TVs, German or Japanese cars, oil, gas, Brazilian "British" beef, all likely to be several percent more expensive this year than last. Prices are therefore going to be growing a lot faster than the feeble GDP recovery we're seeing: the dreaded stagflation of the 1970s.

The current war on bankers could well destroy 30% of GDP - so, around 60% of private-sector production, given our bloated public-sector - which would be crippling. As much as people might hate the banks, we simply cannot afford to lose them. The riots in Greece could, and probably would, happen here if the necessary public-sector cuts were forced (by market action) to be taken quickly - 2m jobs lost overnight, if a debt auction is refused.

Brown must go, it's that simple.

- KoW

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Climbing Mount Improbable

I've touched on this before, but Mark Thoma has another sound reason for why we need a new Glass-Steagall act - the evolutionary pressures on banks. The argument is quite elegant, really.

Given a choice between a retail-only bank and a bank that's 99% retail but has a small investment-banking arm, the latter will (in the boom times) show greater profits and dividends, hence will be preferred by shareholders. This encourages them to play the markets, rewards those who do, and punishes those who do not. Similarly, a highly-levered bank will turn greater boom-time profits than a less-leveraged one - so anyone not using as much leverage as possible will turn lower profits and hence be less "fit". Thus banks are encouraged to do ever-riskier things with their money.

In nature, what stops risk-taking behaviour is death and serious injury: we've been conditioned by millennia of evolution to have various rational (and irrational) fears precisely because heights and snakes and fire and dogs are dangerous, and fear is nature's way of codifying that hard-won knowledge for the benefit of the species.

But that doesn't apply to banks now: they're too big to fail, the governments have implicitly (and explicitly) guaranteed their survival. Risk-taking no longer has any risk, so leverage to the hilt and trade whatever instruments offer the greatest upside - there is no downside, thanks to the taxpayer! Departments will keep on growing, as more people and more trades means more profits, making the banks bigger and hence securing their existence.

Whether this is a conscious decision to pursue short-term profits at all costs, or just organic growth of companies and teams who the markets reward for their success, is largely unknowable and almost completely irrelevant. The lesson from evolutionary biology is that a species without natural predators will specialise to an alarming degree, even to the point - like the dodo and the kakapo - where their survival is threatened by even the slightest shock, and a mildly-bored housecat can decimate the population. With no predation, and financial gravity repealed by governments, banks will maximise their profitability by becoming huge and fragile: exactly what we saw in the 1920s and in the 2000s.

The cure is simple, and was correctly enacted in 1932: separate the retail banks (who must be saved) and the investment banks (who can take risks... but who might be killed by them).

- KoW

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