Current Affairs – UK and Europe

Friday Round-up – 25th June 2021

  1. Brexit

Chris Grey’s blog post title is a wee bit apocalyptic for my liking, but the post is his usual careful analysis, focusing this week on the societal impact of Brexit, particularly on people who voted Remain.

His view is that this may lead to a new “brain drain” along the lines of the loss of scientists and technologists in the 1960s. I also expect to see a new “brain drain” from the UK over the next few years. Like the previous one in the 1960s, it will be led by technologists, scientists, joined by knowledge workers and creative artists (with professional musicians, whose ability to work in the EU has been decimated) at the front of the queue. As usual, by the time enough people notice, it may be too late.

As I have noted in the past, I have no intention of returning to live in the UK in the current climate, and I will only be visiting for essential family business. I do not know the extent to which my family understands the motivations and reasoning for that decision, but they can always read my other commentaries here if they want to know more.

Edwin Hayward (author of “Slaying Brexit Unicorns”) has a thread where he lists all of the upcoming changes that are going to impact the UK in the aftermath of Brexit. It’s a long list. The impacts are all likely to be negative.

Anecdotally, companies importing steel into the UK are reporting massive price increases per ton – in some cases close to 400%. World steel prices have risen in the last 2-3 months, but not by those amounts.

2. Eliminationism and the GOP

The Republican Party, when they agreed to let Donald Trump in through the door to lead them as the POTUS candidate in 2016, invited a malignant asshole with a corrupted and exaggerated business record. Everybody should already have realized that. Those who did not were insufficiently informed.

However, recent revelations show that by the end of last year, Trump was trying to embrace government by eliminationism.

The GOP supporters of Trump have no excuse. Their continuing support for him is an explicit endorsement of eliminationism as a philosophy. Politics is not a la carte. When you vote for a candidate, you’re going to get all the candidate’s policies. You don’t get to tick the ballot paper and say “Yeah, I like abuse of Trans people and discrimination against The Gayz, but I don’t want to execute Traitors”. That’s not how the system works.

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Round-Up – Monday 21st June 2021

  1. Poison Ivy 

Mary and I are suffering from Poison Ivy poisoning. We are covered in spots, welts, lines of spots and other symptoms, from when we unwittingly handled a plant 2 weekends ago. We both look like prime candidates for exclusion from a Middle Ages English town on the grounds of being “unclean”. Doctors tell us that it will take 1-3 weeks for the ugly rash to completely vanish. Mary is sleeping downstairs as I write this, because she has not slept properly for 2 nights due to discomfort and pain. I did not sleep much, mainly because the blotchy pink patches all over my torso arms and legs make it feel like I have sunburn. Plus, itching. We are both on anti-inflammatory drugs and creams to damp down the symptoms.

Stay away from poison ivy, folks. It ain’t going to be fun if it contacts your body.

2. Brexit 

Brexit continues to be a shambles, as predicted by many (and similarly ignored by many). However, the opinion polls seem to show that the previously large margin of people thinking that Brexit was bad has diminished recently. This is counter-intuitive for me, since the news continues to be bad. However, the government’s blaming of the EU for all of the problems may be finding a receptive audience. I suspect that the support for Brexit will continue to hold steady as long as the effects are largely confined to the professional classes or artistic communities. If essentials like food and medicine start to disappear, then things will change rapidly. People expect governments to assure the supplies of essentials.

Despite being beaten up by the EU, and pressured by the USA, Boris Johnson is sailing along as though all is well. However, on the other side of the Irish Sea, the DUP, the most hardline Protestant group, is in disarray, having forced out its new leader, Edwin Poots, after only 20 days in the job. Poots apparently alienated most of his supporters by nominating The Wrong Guy as First Minister (translation: somebody way too sympathetic to the Irish language). Poots came to office talking a tough game, threatening to get tough with Ireland and generally strutting his macho Protestant stuff. Now he is gone, and the DUP has to look for its third leader in 4 months.

The DUP continues to threaten the UK government over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the decision to put a logical border in the Irish Sea is starting to look more and more impractical and dangerous with each passing day. The problem is that the UK government cheerfully signed up to it, and it is now part of the Withdrawal Agreement. That, plus other conditions in the UK-EU trade deal, which have in turn led to The Sausage Problem (caused by an impending EU ban on the movement of chilled meats between the EU and third countries), have backed the UK government into a small box of its own making.

Boris Johnson can huff and puff and threaten the EU, but he has no real leverage, because the UK folded on a lot of issues in order to rush through a deal before the end of 2020. The negotiating style of “talk tough, then fold” is proving to be dangerous for the whole of the UK. At the present rate, Northern Ireland is likely to be more of a challenge than Scotland. Unlike in Northern Ireland, the Scots have not taken to bombing and shooting to get their point across recently.

3. Covid-19 

The UK continues to transition rapidly to being dominated by the new B.1.617.2 variant of the virus, which has, in the space of a month, taken over from the B.1.1.7 variant. This new variant is more contagious, and vaccines are slightly less effective against it, although if enough of a population is vaccinated or immune, herd immunity can still be achieved.

Prof. Christina Pagel explains the latest situation in the UK in this thread. Basically, unless there is a return to social distancing and lockdown, this new variant is going to trigger a large increase in cases and hospitalizations. The number of people testing positive is rising exponentially again. 

4. The Roman Catholic Church and Joe Biden

No, the Roman Catholic Church in the USA is not going to excommunicate Joe Biden. Many priests, including his own, and main of the laity wouldn’t tolerate it. The bishops are engaging in performative posturing.

5. Yes, the Republican Party has eliminationists in its ranks

Not exactly a surprise, but it is good to have conclusive proof. The GOP is now a profoundly anti-American party.

 

 

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HST2 UK project costs are now being adjusted for reality

The estimated price tag for High Speed 2, the next-gen flagship UK rail project, has now risen from £33bn to over £106bn. This, unsurprisingly, is leading to a lot of comment in the UK, most of it negative.

Every major project I ever came into contact with in I.T. has the same challenges. Somebody cooks up an initial estimate from Cloudcuckooland, then an approved project starts with an estimate from Lalaland. Then reality slowly intervenes. The final cost is usually a multiple of the initial estimate, sometimes embarrassingly so.

Infamously, the Confirm program, a first attempt to build a multi-partner travel industry booking system that I read about in the early 1990s was cancelled half way through, with the costs having multiplied by several multiples of the initial estimate. The project had multiple stakeholders with competing interests, which made actually completing an agreed solution specification almost impossible. As a get-out they blamed the technology. This is, incidentally, a classic excuse in I.T. when projects fail. This is seldom true. Whenever I hear somebody blaming the technology for an I.T. project failure, I immediately look elsewhere for the root causes of the failure.

I remember mentioning this phenomenon to a work colleague a few years ago. His (slightly cynical) response was “Well, if they were totally honest about the final likely cost upfront, most of these projects would never be started because you wouldn’t be able to remotely justify them”.

Now, High Speed 2 is not exactly your average I.T. project, and there are multiple considerations that come into play when creating benefit statements for it. The UK, a relatively small country, has become very dependent on road transport, which creates higher emissions than rail transport. The shrinkage of the UK rail network in the 1960s, which led to the abandonment and closure of one or two rail lines which would actually have been easier to upgrade today (like the Great Central Railway, built with larger bridges and tunnels), has been proven to be a long-term mistake, officially acknowledged by the government’s announcement of the Beeching Reversal Fund. Now money is being spent to re-open lines closed to passengers or totally abandoned. So, High Speed 2 can be partially justified on the grounds of environmental stewardship, although it is notoriously difficult to quantify those kinds of benefits in money terms.

Covid-19 certainly has impacted all projects which were up and running. The government has directly or indirectly had to pay money to keep project teams active in a difficult working climate. However, I doubt that this is the major contributor to the price inflation. The more usual inflation is due to the dreaded scope creep – the addition of new features to the solution, or the discovery of activities and deliverables that nobody realized were required when the original estimate was finalized.

Scope creep is an issue that is particularly bad on government projects. In the military arena, scope creep helped to sink the entire Nimrod AEW program in the late 80s, which was cancelled in favour of the UK buying Boeing AWACS planes. The military kept changing the specification requirements for the radar, which took it beyond the design envelope of what was already a tightly packaged airframe and computing combination with little scope for expansion.

Another factor in government projects is lobbying by elected representatives impacted by the project, to get more “goodies” (“pork” here in the USA) for their constituents. Here in the USA, representatives would probably sell family members to the highest bidder if they could get a US Navy ship home-ported in their district, since that generates thousands of jobs. It is not clear to me if High Speed 2 offers members of parliament the same pork opportunities, but I would not be surprised if that is a factor behind the scenes.

Ideally, there would be a full review of the entire program to see if cost savings can be made, and a tough line taken on scope, as in No More Scope. However, government projects, which are often pursued for vanity reasons by the government, are notoriously difficult to rein in or cancel once started. The loss of face alone tends to lead to the government continuing. The Nimrod AEW program was very much an exception, with the government refusing to fall for classic fallacious arguments made by supporters and contractors (principally the Sunk Cost Fallacy) and taking an unsentimental approach despite the deployment of the “British Technology” argument. They saw only continued cost escalations and cancelled the program.

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GB News – misunderstandings

GB News, the new UK news network, launched this week.

There has been a lot of comment on social media, most of it based on witheringly negative assessments of the studio, the production values and other aspects of the channel. There is also already a campaign to persuade corporations to pull advertising.

The old era of media outlets being owned by corporations and hands-off old-money owners is over. The new generation of newspaper owners are not in it for higher ideals. They are a mixture of hedge funds, which expect a quick return on investment, or they will revert to slash and burn management, and oligarchs operating via front companies.

Oligarchs expect their media properties to be their personal mouthpieces. Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas-based casino mogul, bought his local paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, for $140 million in 2015 via News + Media Capital Group LLC, a front company. The newspaper promptly became his personal mouthpiece. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250m in 2013, which for one of the richest men in the world, was chump change. There is a pattern here.

In the current world in which we live, with the ease of creating internet-based TV streaming channels, a newly-minted oligarch with $100m a year to burn can easily afford to fund an entire operation the current size of GB News. As I am fond of saying, disinformation networks are a lot cheaper to run than an aircraft carrier with a squadron of F-35s. The real world war is the Information War, and the West is currently losing. Some of the oligarchs and plutocrats operating in the disinformation space are almost certainly acting as fronts for governments.

The funding for GB News should be a big Tell as to its intended positioning. The majority of the funding is from corporations not domiciled in the UK, and a lot of the funding comes from the “front” corporations of oligarchs and plutocrats. This is not a benign news channel, trying to thread the needle down the middle, or engaging in fearless investigate reporting. It was intended as a propaganda channel for pluto-populism. Its presenter roster is dominated by a combination of established UK tabloid blusterers, and newer internet-based provocateurs, long on mouth and short on information.

As for the crappy production values…the cynic in me says that GBNews doesn’t mind having YouTube production values, since it is appealing to people who mostly get their news from YouTube.

GB News is not competing with the BBC, Channel 4, Sky or any of the other established UK news channels. It is a propaganda outlet largely funded by oligarchs, designed to generate dopamine clickbait for nativists and fans of plutocrat-controlled fascism. Comparing it with those channels is tempting and easy, but misses the entire picture in terms of its underlying objectives and market positioning.

The campaign to pull advertising may well succeed. However, like Fox News in the USA, the funding model of GB News is not dependent on advertising. If all they have are gold and crypto-currency snake oil salesmen as advertisers, they won’t care. The purpose of the network is not to be a commercially successful news channel with blue-chip corporate advertisers. This is already obvious from the decision by the network to launch a smear attack on Ikea, one of the corporations that pulled its advertising. Ikea is a European corporation headquartered in an EU country. Attacking a European corporation ticks all the right boxes when your intended audience is nativists, and nationalists.

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