Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Crowded skies or empty beaches?

So we're going to join the war to end all wars in the Middle East and it will definitely all be over started by Christmas. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, if the Fencer Down incident wasn't a big enough whack across the head with the clue stick,* some edited highlights from this article by Yossi Melman in the Jerusalem Post expand on how well it's all likely to work out if the UK joins in with yet another uncoordinated bombing campaign alongside the Americans and our Turkish and Russian frenemies, with everybody charging off in different directions after their various, mutually exclusive, targets and war aims:
In recent years Turkey, a NATO member, has proved to be the “weak link” in the West’s efforts to have a unified policy in the Syrian civil war.

Now after shooting down a Russia bomber on Tuesday, it seems Turkey has no inhibitions to embroil its NATO allies....

...It also signals ... how explosive the situation is in which too many fighters planes and bombers of various air forces are operating in the crowded Syrian skies close to neighboring borders...

...Russian President Vladimir Putin already said that Turkey’s action was a “stabbing in the back” and it is an “accomplice of terrorists,” referring to previous accusations that Ankara either turned a blind eye or even supported Islamic State...

... Russia has already called its citizens to stop visiting Turkey and a leading Russian tour operator canceled its plans to send Russian tourists to Turkey. In 2014, three million Russian tourists visited Turkey – accounting for nearly 20 percent of Turkey’s foreign tourists...

...If one of [NATO's] member states is threatened or attacked, the rest must rally in its defense. But already there are cracks in the seemingly unified front. Czech President Milos Zeman, known for his sharp tongue, denounced the Turkish operation and reminded the world of Turkey’s dubious past with Islamic State...

...For Turkey, the Kurds are the enemy and not Islamic State. And for achieving its goal every measure or risk is worth taking – even a brinkmanship with Russia and at the cost of a splitting-up of NATO.**
The upside is that the resulting mess might finish off the politicians who rushed in without a plan, but that will be cold comfort for those who pay with their lives, not just their careers.

For what it's worth, rather than bombing, my alternative plan would involve a leaf out of the Russian's book and fighting the Turkish government on the tourist beaches until they stop aiding and abetting the rest of the world's enemy #1. It would be rough on innocent locals and disappointed tourists, but the collateral damage would still be less than that caused by laser-guided munitions. And it's not as if there aren't other economies in the region in desperate need of a bit of tourist cash (I'm looking at you, Greece).

If sacrifices have to be made, isn't giving up a cheap fortnight somewhere like this sacrifice enough?
Nice beaches, shame about the football fans.

*How cunning will British intervention plan look when it's downed RAF Tornado pilots being machine-gunned by some warring groupuscule that never heard of the Geneva Convention?

** My emphasis.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Britain's most successful failure

Since first becoming chancellor in 2010, George Osborne has made it clear that his one, overriding priority in government was to reduce the deficit. Last month "British public finances recorded the worst deficit for any October since 2009." According to most pundits, it's the opposition, rather than George Osborne, which lacks economic credibility.

No, me neither.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


I rather like Michael Rosen's summary of a particularly lamentable piece of post-Paris-massacre punditry, when LBC's Iain Dale trumped the various points raised by callers to his radio phone-in by coming back to a rhetorical question about whether "Britain"/"we" had the "stomach" to take action against ISIS.

I've no problem with people stating that the UK should/shouldn't do thing x [insert specific course of action here] to stop, or hinder, ISIS. That would be an actual argument you could engage with.

I do have a problem with content-free responses to real problems. Wondering out loud whether "we" have the stomach to confront ISIS isn't a plan. It's not even a wish-list. It's just a bit of empty-headed mouth-flapping by somebody who who hasn't got anything much to say about anything, except how "tough" and "serious" he, personally, is.*

Honestly, guys, I think we can just take "stomach" as read in most situations and cut to the whys and hows. My stomach tells me that I'd like to go to the corner shop and buy a chocolate bar. The way to resolve this situation is to come up with a workable plan, involving things like getting my backside off the sofa and putting some shoes on, rather than telling everybody in the room how seriously determined I am to face up to the confectionery deficit threat.

If you haven't got anything to say, why not just keep quiet and leave some bandwidth free for people who might contribute something approaching a point? People like Colin Freeman in the Telegraph, who's been thinking about one specific element of the problem:
So how is it then, that weapons normally associated with the most violent parts of Africa and the Middle East find their way onto Europe's streets?

The short answer is that Europe is where many of these weapons were made in the first place, courtesy of the vast arms factories that proliferated in eastern Europe during the Cold War, and whose products spilled all over the Balkans during the civil war in the 1990s.

Unlike the Soviet Bloc's other deadly armaments legacy – nuclear weapons – Kalashnikovs do not quietly crumble with age or become obsolete. They are as durable as they are user-friendly, and an Ak-47 made in 1985 will be as lethal today as it was when it was used during the war in Bosnia.

Today, it is a commonplace to hear of these weapons being for sale in black markets across Eastern Europe, where many countries are still struggling with the gangster-smuggling militias that sprung up in the wake of Communism's collapse and the Balkans civil wars.
In Albania alone, for example, it's estimated that half a million weapons were pillaged from state depots following the collapse of the government in 1997. And in the likes of Serbia and Montenegro, a tradition still prevails in many rural areas that no home is complete without a gun.
Getting rid of all of those illegal guns may be still at the wish-list rather than than the plan stage, but at least it's informed, engages with facts, defines an actual part of the problem and communicates something more than the pundit's own self-importance. That, Mr Dale (and your fellow over-communicators) is what a useful contribution looks like.

*Unless, that is, what Iain Dale is signalling is his actual intention to display an out-of-the-ordinary level of personal stomach, such as putting on a tin hat and a flak jacket to go off and fight alongside the Peshmerga. In which case:
  1. I take it all back, you're a braver man than I am, sir.
  2. Good. Luck. With. That.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Zeppelin versus camels

Just look at this magnificent thing. A poster for one of the most insanely ludicrous movies never made, Hammer Films' unmade classic, Zeppelin V. Pterodactyls.* As a pre-pubescent kid, I thrilled to One Million Years B.C. and The Blue Max at an age when the heaving embonpoints of Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress were nothing but boring interruptions to the far more exciting business of stop-motion dino action and death-defying stunts in replica Fokker triplanes. My little head would have exploded at the sheer awesomeness of a planned film about dinosaurs** and daredevil flying aces ... AND Zeppelins, had I known of such a thing.*** It would have taken more than a few heaving embonpoints to rain on that parade.

This poster briefly popped into my head on holiday this summer, as I was enjoying a coffee and a waffle in a pavement cafe in Tønder, in the south of Denmark. Why? I'd seen a sign for a Zeppelin museum and was wondering, vaguely, what such a thing was doing in Denmark (albeit very close to the German border). We had other things to do that day and a long-ish drive back to where we were staying, so I never investigated at the time and forgot all about it. But just the other day, the thought popped back into my head and I googled it. It turns out that there was a very good reason for such a museum being there. Not only was Tønder once a home to Zeppelins, but  Tønder's Zeppelins were themselves the target of the world's first ever successful attack by aircraft flown from an aircraft carrier, carried out some 23 years before Pearl Harbour.

What were Zeppelins doing in Denmark? Well, that goes back to the interminable dynastic/territorial squabble between the Danish crown and the German Confederation, which Brits remember chiefly for launching Lord Palmerston's most quotable quip ("Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it"). Anyway, the Schleswig part of the business was settled - for more than half a century, anyway - by the Second Schleswig War of 1864, when Prussian and Austrian troops occupied the disputed territory. The subsequent Treaty of Vienna designated Schleswig as part of the German Confederation.

So Tønder, in North Schleswig became part of the German Confederation, then, from 1871, part of the new nation of Germany. And that's how it stayed until after the German defeat in World War One. Then, after centuries of people having their identity determined by the outcome of inhertance disputes between various monarchs and aristocrats, the people**** who lived there got a say. A plebiscite was held in 1920 and the locals of North Schleswig (or South Jutland, as the Danes call it), voted to return to Denmark (South Schleswig voted to remain German).

Anyhow, in 1918, the then German town of Tønder (Tondern in German) was doing its small bit for pan-European carnage by hosting a Zeppelin base with three airship hangers, run by the Imperial German Navy. By that stage in the war Zeppelins had been superseded as bombers by heavier-than-air R-planes, but were still being used for naval patrols. On the other side of the North Sea, the Brits had been doing their bit by adding a flight deck to the battlecruiser HMS Furious, so creating the world's first aircraft carrier. The Royal Navy chose the Tondern Zeppelin base as Furious's first target.
HMS Furious, complete with flight deck and U-boat-confusing dazzle camouflage

A first attempt to attack the Tondern Zeppelins, in June 1918, had to be called off due to bad weather. Furious and her escort set sail for the German North Sea coast again on July 17th. She was carrying a small contingent of Sopwith Camels, fitted with bomb racks.

Ship's Camels on board Furious

In the early morning of July 19th, seven Camels flew off Furious's flight deck, in two waves of three and four aircraft, bound for Tondern. Bombs from the first wave of three aircraft hit the largest airship hanger, setting Zeppelins L.54 and L.60 on fire. The second wave's bombs destroyed a captive balloon in another hanger.
Zeppelin L 54, outside its hanger in Tondern/Tønder

Although this was a hazardous operation which destroyed two Zeppelins, casualties on both sides were light, especially when compared with the numbers being routinely slaughtered in this conflict. Total casualties consisted of four Germans injured and one British pilot dead. None of the planes was able to return to Furious and land (the ship had an aft flight deck for landings, but these hadn't been perfected and pilots were expected to ditch in the sea and await rescue); one pilot experienced engine trouble and never made it to Tondern, but was recovered after ditching his plane near the fleet. Three pilots judged that they hadn't enough fuel to make it back and landed in neutral Denmark. The other three headed back for the fleet. Two of them ditched near the fleet and were recovered but one, Lieutenant Walter A "Toby" Yuelett, DFC, was never seen again and probably drowned after running out of fuel and being forced to ditch early.

It all sounds terribly primitive and quaint now, but it was deadly serious and high-tech at the time. A modern equivalent would be killer drones with Hellfire missiles (although your modern drone operator doesn't face the same physical dangers that killed Lieutenant Yuelett). In fact, the Tondern raid would have seemed even more cutting-edge - in 2015, the military has been using armed drones for nearly a decade and a half, but the Tondern raid came less than year after the first ever successful flight of an aircraft from the deck of a moving ship (the Furious). Rather than old-hat killer drones, the modern analogue would be something really novel, like the drone-based biryani delivery system currently being trialled in Milton Keynes (or its weaponised equivalent), which may, coincidentally, be the wierdest high-concept idea since Zeppelins V. Pterodactyls.

*First seen (by me, at least) here. Bless you, Internet.

**Yes, I know pterodactyls and dinosaurs are different things. OK, were different things. Shut up.

***Easy with the nostalgia, though - having just taken the Offspring to see Inside Out, I have to admit that the sort of family entertainment that got me going at his age was a good deal less nuanced, sophisticated and thought-provoking than some of the stuff that's being specifically made for kids today.

****I presume that people of both genders got a say, as - according to Wikipedia - Danish women got the vote in 1915 and their German sisters were enfranchised on the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1919.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Amateur police would totally stop mass shootings...

... claims amateur politician:
"Isn’t it interesting that the tragedy in Paris took place in one of the toughest gun control countries in the world?"

It was crassly insensitive enough to Tweet this after the Charlie Hebdo attack, regardless of whether or not this individual, or one of his his staffers, actually intended to repeat the wisecrack after Friday 13th, but let's not think about the hurt this loud-mouthed pig has caused.

Let's think, instead, about the implication that gun controls get in the way, because to stop the bad guys with guns running amok, you need the proverbial "good guy with a gun." How's that theory been working out in practice?
Attempts by armed citizens to stop shooters are rare. At least two such attempts in recent years ended badly, with the would-be good guys gravely wounded or killed. Meanwhile, the five cases most commonly cited as instances of regular folks stopping massacres fall apart under scrutiny: Either they didn't involve ordinary citizens taking action—those who intervened were actually cops, trained security officers, or military personnel—or the citizens took action after the shooting rampages appeared to have already ended. (Or in some cases, both.)...
...For their part, law enforcement officials overwhelmingly hate the idea of armed civilians getting involved. As a senior FBI agent told me, it would make their jobs more difficult if they had to figure out which of the shooters at an active crime scene was the bad guy. And while they train rigorously for responding in confined and chaotic situations, the danger to innocent bystanders from ordinary civilians whipping out firearms is obvious. Exhibit A: the gun-wielding citizen who admitted to coming within a split second of shooting an innocent person as the Tucson massacre unfolded, after initially mistaking that person for the killer, Jared Loughner.

James Follman

Short version. There seems to be no evidence that having some random "good guy with a gun" on the scene stops armed bad guys. There is evidence that having a "good guy with a gun" running around during a shooting spree can hinder the armed professionals who are trying to stop the bad guys and puts potential victims at even greater risk.

Take a few moments to think about it and the wise guy doesn't sound so smart (not that mere thought will stop members of the insane clown posse impressing people with Twitter-sized attention spans with this kind of nonsense).

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Elf and safety

Spotted by my wife, earlier today at Stadium MK. A fire drill in progress, featuring a multitude of trainee Christmas elves, in full dress, flooding out of the building, under the watchful eyes of designated hi-viz-wearing persons. Good to see the elvish hordes working to keep the magic alive.

Unlike, say, the Coca Cola company which has SNUBBED Milton Keynes by not including it on the itinerary for a seasonal visit from its iconic red Coke truck, it says here. Because Christmas just won't be Christmas if you can't take a seasonal selfie with a truck covered with fizzy drink branding outside the Asda superstore in  Milton Keynes.