Turkey enters Syria

The series of proxy wars going on in Syria got a bit more complicated last week when Turkish troops rolled over the border to tackle what Ankara is calling terrorists: both ISIS and Kurdish groups.  Turkey has suffered a wave of suicide bombings in the past few months, almost certainly carried out by ISIS or groups affiliate to their cause, and so have some justification in going after them in their strongholds.  But it’s also likely that Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan will use this as an excuse to deploy proper military units against their old foes the Kurds in their homelands, something which they could not have done previously without provoking an international outcry.

With the men and material at the Turks’ disposal, I expect they will prevail against the Kurds to begin with.  But the Turkish army has already taken its first casualties, and the longer they stay in Syria, the deeper they penetrate, and the longer their supply lines become the more likely they will be to incur more.  The Turkish military was stripped of much of its leadership in 2010 following the foiling of the alleged “Operation Sledgehammer” coup plot, and then last month subject to sweeping purges in the aftermath of the more recently bungled coup.  A military which has had its officer and NCO cadres purged for political reasons and replaced with loyalists tends to lose a lot of its effectiveness, and the degree to which this happens is dependent on how many key, competent personnel have been replaced by idiots.  The Turkish army hasn’t done any proper fighting in generations and few of its personnel will have seen real combat.  They are going up against Kurdish forces who have been doing nothing but fight for years, and unless they finish the job quickly they might find them a tough nut to crack.  The most viable Kurdish strategy would be to drag this out as long as possible, practice hit-and-run tactics on vulnerable Turkish supply lines and rear echelon units, and turn it into the sort of guerrilla war which has done so much damage to American units in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years.  But crucial to the Kurds’ success is to secure the backing of a larger power to keep them supplied with weapons, ammunition, medical equipment, and funds.  I suspect a major reason for Ergodan’s decision to kiss and make up with Putin over the downing of the Russian plane in November 2015 is to prevent Russia from fulfilling this role.  It will now be interesting to see who does back the Kurds (if anyone) and how Turkey’s newly purged military performs.

Ludicrous Indeed

Unsurprisingly, the BBC gives us a puff-piece on Tesla’s latest offering:

[T]his upgrade enables the Model S to travel from 0 – 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, giving it the fastest acceleration of any currently available production car … Like all electric vehicles, that more powerful battery delivers 100% of its dual-engine torque immediately, pushing the four-wheel-drive saloon past records heretofore the domain of million-dollar supercars.

Million dollars? Let’s first be generous and assume this car actually can do 0-60 in 2.5 seconds and will make it into production (visit Streetwise Professor to see why skepticism over Elon Musk’s pronouncements is warranted).  According to Wikipedia, the Porsche 991 can match this which, according to Porsche USA, costs about $188,000.  This isn’t so cheap, but it’s not a million dollar supercar.  And the Tesla is no bargain, either:

The Model S P100D saloon will start at £114,200 and the Model X 100D sport-utility vehicle begins at £117,200, and older Teslas can upgrade their battery packs for a mere £15,000.

£114k is about $150k in today’s money.  That would buy you an awful lot of Porsche.

That’s expensive, but Tesla is taking the Toms shoes model approach to your wallet. “While the P100D Ludicrous is obviously an expensive vehicle, we want to emphasize that every sale helps pay for the smaller and much more affordable Tesla Model 3 that is in development.” In other words, your need to go very far, very fast helps fund the electric vehicle needs of others less fortunate than you.

Hmmm.  As a business model, this doesn’t sound very sustainable.  You could probably expect some cross-subsidising between models in order to maintain a brand and market share, but this seems to be ass-backwards: it’s normally the high-volume margins on the cheaper brands which provide the cash for developing high-end niche products, not the other way around.  Are Tesla really going to be selling enough of these $150k supercars, and the margins high enough, to be able to reduce the cost of the mass-produced models?  I’d love to see the numbers on that.

The holy grail of EV range has long been 300 miles, which would bring electrics into the full-tank range of most petrol-powered vehicles. Now, 300 miles doesn’t make for a stress-free cross-county road trip, but there’s a lot to be said for enjoying a real meal while your Tesla charges rather than buying Slim Jims and Diet Dr Pepper in the 10 minutes it takes to gas up your petromobile.

If sitting and having a meal for a couple of hours is preferable to stopping for 10 minutes, why don’t more people do that already?  After all, there is nothing preventing owners of petrol cars doing so, is there?  What the article is doing is trying to make light of the biggest issue facing electric cars, which I’ve written about before:

The limited range isn’t actually the issue, as petrol cars also have a limited range.  The problem is the charging time, which renders the vehicle unavailable for several hours.  If you run low on petrol, you spend 5 minutes filling up and you’re on your way again.

The whole concept on which the current breed of electric cars is based will collapse as soon as there are more than a handful of stories of people being caught out miles from home – children in the back, howling – and having to wait at a charging station for hours before being able to continue the journey start to appear on the internet.

The author’s glib suggestion that people will be happy to sit and have a nice meal while waiting to continue their journey isn’t supported by people’s actual behaviour.  A decent journalist would have addressed this issue properly, but then this is the BBC: the entire article is simply a puff-piece for the latest darling of the political establishment:

Mr Musk is betting big on batteries. He’s going to make sure we get to the future  — and quickly.

This is what £3.7bn per year gets you.  Couldn’t they at least send Tesla an invoice next time?

The Bois de Boulogne

Following a June in which it poured with rain incessantly to the point I was beginning to feel nostalgic for Wales, July and August have seen some beautiful weather in Paris.  This week it has been in the high thirties, and everyone is complaining about the heat because Paris, being a city of mostly old buildings, doesn’t have much by way of air conditioning.  When the weather is nice on the weekends in Paris, people head to one of several parks in or close to the city: the Jardin du Luxembourg in the southern part of the city is particularly popular, as are the much smaller Square du Temple in the 3rd arrondissement and Place des Vosges between Bastille and Saint Paul.  In the sunshine these places fill up with people sitting on the grass drinking from bottles of wine in a highly sophisticated manner, and toddlers roam free as their parents ignore them.

But by far the largest recreational area in the western side of Paris, and the second largest in the whole city, is the Bois de Boulogne.  Despite suffering a reputation as being a place where prostitutes and transvestites hang out in the evenings, it still attracts thousands of people every sunny weekend, including enormous families with dozens of kids.  There is a  lot to see in the park: there are thick deciduous woods with miles of tracks for walking, running, and cycling; there are lakes and islands; there is a golf course, a hippodrome, tennis courts, and rugby and football pitches (I even saw a game of cricket going on there last year, played exclusively by people who looked Indian); and acre upon acre of grass to sit and do pretty much whatever you want.  I’ve spent two afternoons walking around it – one in June 2015 and another in July 2016 – and I reckon I must have seen a good two-thirds of it.  Anyway, this is all a preamble to my pointing you towards the photos I took on my more recent excursion.

The full collection is here.

The Decline of Australian Sport

Michael Jennings isn’t going to like me pointing this out, but Australian sport appears to be going through a rough patch at the moment.

In 2012 Australia was so confident of whipping Britain in the London Olympics that their sports minister made a wager with ours, which she went on to lose.  But the decline had started earlier, as the following tables show:

Athens 2004

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia4th17161750
Great Britain10th991230

Beijing 2008

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia6th14151746
Great Britain4th19131547

London 2012

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia8th8151235
Great Britain3rd29171965

Rio de Janeiro 2016

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia10th8111029
Great Britain2nd27231767

As Britain’s success grew, Australia disappeared into the ranks of the also-rans.  My guess would be that Australia pioneered a lot of professional sporting techniques – particularly in swimming where they used to do extremely well – and had world-class coaches who were ahead of their time, plus generous funding for their Olympic sports programmes.  Now that other countries have matched or exceeded the funding and adopted professional training regimes, as well as hire a lot of Australian swimming coaches, the Australians don’t have the edge and their small population isn’t producing enough talent to dominate like they used to.

Australia is also going through a low point in Rugby Union, which I don’t think is a mere blip.  Following a strong showing in the 2015 RWC (where they avoided South Africa and rarely worried the Kiwis in the final), their Super XV franchises did spectacularly badly the following season:

Were it not for the wildcard system that ensures the playoffs are not dominated by the Kiwis, the Brumbies – Australia’s best side – would have finished joint 7th on points and miles adrift of 5 of the 6 New Zealand sides.  The Brumbies got dumped out of the knockout stages in the first round, and that was the Australian effort over for 2016.

But what made it far worse was that halfway through the season England toured Australia for a 3-test series and went back home having whitewashed their hosts.  For Australia to be beaten 3-0 by a Northern Hemisphere touring side was unprecedented, and it was especially perplexing because Australia had comprehensively beaten an England team made up of much the same players on their home ground in the Rugby World Cup the previous year.  Only in the intervening period the English Rugby Union had snaffled the wily Australian coach Eddie Jones who had made few personnel changes but utterly altered the mindset and gameplay to a degree Australia did not appreciate until it was too late.  And it that weren’t bad enough, the next time the Australian national team pulled on their jerseys they received a 42-8 thrashing on their home turf at the hands of an All Black side which seems to only get better with each passing year.

Traditionally Australia can turn to cricket to feel good about themselves sports-wise, but unfortunately they’ve just been beaten 3-0 in a test series in Sri Lanka: up until this tour, Sri Lanka had managed to beat Australia just once in test matches, back in 1999.  What must worry the Australian selectors and fans is not that this record has been broken, but that the players looked utterly clueless against a Sri Lankan side who had been all but written off with the recent retirement of three of their greatest ever players.  Today the news is that Australia’s captain Steven Smith is going home to “rest” with the ODI series sitting at 1-1 with 3 more to play, which is drawing a lot of criticism from fans who have been brought up on stories of Border, Taylor, and Waugh eating barbed wire for breakfast.  There is much discussion in Australian cricket regarding their apparent practice of using fast and bouncy drop-in pitches at home to guarantee success against visiting sides, which is leaving them hopelessly unprepared for swinging conditions in England or the spin of the sub-continent.  By contrast, England’s humiliating exit from the 2015 ICC World Cup resulted in the wholesale firing of the coaching staff and the appointment of the experienced and canny Trevor Bayliss – an Australian – who immediately turned the team’s fortunes around by winning the ODI series against the more fancied New Zealand.

I daresay Australian sport will pull itself out of this hole and start winning things again, but they might find they are going to have to work a lot harder than previously to do so: the rest of the world, particularly England/Great Britain, has caught up by adopting their methods and hiring their coaches.

Photos of People

Despite my saying in an earlier post that I don’t take photos of people surreptitiously, I have accumulated a neat collection of photos of some of the people I have met over the past ten or twelve years, with one or two pictures of strangers thrown in.  Some of these people I only knew briefly, some of them I’ve known for years, some I am related to, some I love, and some I don’t like very much at all.  I post their pictures not as a commentary on them as people, but because I think they are nice photographs and illustrate well the variety of people I’ve met along the road, such as my friend Kenny below.

The full collection can be viewed here.

Geneva: Still Dull and Expensive

Sometimes I wonder if the BBC is a bit like the Clinton Foundation and receives hefty bribes cash donations in exchange for favourable treatment, in this case puff-pieces on various trendy expat locations.  This week the city under discussion is Geneva:

For an affluent country once considered one of the most stable economies in the world, Switzerland is going through a rocky patch.

In the country’s financial hub, Geneva, a slowing economy and an investigation into the country’s secretive banking industry has led to almost 2,000 jobs being cut over three years, about 9% of the sector, according to the Geneva Financial Center.  In the coming years, more jobs could disappear following Brexit, since the UK is Geneva’s fourth largest trading partner.

Eh?  Geneva – located in a non-EU country – could see jobs disappear because Britain leaves the EU?  What’s the mechanism for that, then?  The BBC doesn’t say.

Yet the city (which is not the capital, that’s Bern) remains an incredibly popular place for expats to relocate to for work. Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Survey ranks Geneva among the top ten cities to live in, scoring highly for personal safety and quality of life.

Ah yes, we’ve been here before: these surveys tend to identify which cities upper-middle class wives with husbands who draw large corporate salaries most like to live and raise kids in.  The result is usually a list of cities which are clean, safe, expensive – and mind-numbingly dull.  Geneva, then.

One of these fans is Silvana Soldaini. After nearly 20 years working in Milan, Italy, Soldaini received a job offer to work in banking in Geneva. She arrived in March 2004 as a single parent of two.

Before she arrived in Geneva, she held some common preconceptions about it.  “Being an Italian, my stereotype of [the city] was that it was stiff, that it had a culture without much soul to it,” she says.

Twelve years on, she’s a convert. She lives in a spacious apartment a 10-minute walk from Lake Geneva and has no desire to move back to Italy. Her two teenage children speak French, Italian, German and English.

Okay, good for her.  But if you’re looking for somebody to disprove the stereotype of Geneva being a boring city, you might want to pick a 25 year old bachelor rather than a middle-aged woman bringing up two kids on her own.

Switzerland is one of those places where the 1% – that tiny chunk of the global population who are rolling in money – are conspicuous. Luxury watchmakers specialising in diamond-encrusted watch faces line the riverfront, and it’s not uncommon to see Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruising down the spotless streets.

So a bit like London, Paris, New York, Dubai, and Singapore, then.  With the possible exception of the spotless streets in those first three.

Initially drawn here by higher salaries, expats – especially those with families – often choose to stay for the year-round cultural events such as the Geneva Music Festival or Nuit de Bains, a contemporary art event, plus a wide range of outdoor activities around Lake Geneva…

…but mainly for the higher salaries.  And wifey’s ability to park the Porsche Cayenne without some brown oik nicking it.

While it used to be standard practice for multinational firms to fork out for housing and children’s school fees, this is not always the case today, says Laetitia Bédat, managing director of relocation agency Welcome Service. Now, most foreign hires will either get no allowances or they will only get relocation services, tax assistance and medical benefits.

Bless.  How will they cope?

According to research from global consultancy firm ECA International, Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, second only to Zurich. In other words, you will need good salary prospects to even consider living there.

For American Sarah Brooks, who moved from Washington, DC to work at a human rights organisation, she found her expenses comparable.  “There is more take-home salary,” Brooks says, “and I find I tend to spend it in different ways, like I don’t spend it on commuting anymore.”

Why a human rights organisation chooses to base itself in one of the most expensive cities in Europe is a question the BBC didn’t bother to ask.  But I’m glad those who work selflessly for the betterment of mankind aren’t having to slum it:

According to the survey, nearly a third of expats in Geneva earn more than $200,000 a year, second only to Hong Kong’s high-earners.

Which will no doubt bring comfort to those rotting in the dungeons of a third-world kleptocracy.

For Olivier Greneche, his reason for relocating from Paris in 2012 was simple.

He could finally escape French meetings?

Besides the job opportunity from a French bank, it was also for his two children who were toddlers at that time. Geneva’s access to nature and green spaces made it an easy decision.

“To understand Switzerland, and to fully enjoy Geneva, you should be keen on going to a chalet in the mountains on the weekends and the countryside quite often,” he says.

Similarly, to understand France, and to fully enjoy Marseilles, you should be keen on taking your yacht out at the weekends.

Soldaini’s family were much more city-centric, and state benefits – such as allocating 250 Swiss francs (about $260) per child to a family or the four public swimming pools within a 15-minute bike ride from her apartment – made life as a single working mother much more manageable.

Which is great, until you learn that:

Eating out could terrify frugal newcomers. Lunch in a low-key restaurant will generally cost more than $20, while a mid-range restaurant can quickly surpass the $100 mark with wine.

Does having free stuff offset ludicrously high prices?  I’ve generally found it doesn’t.

As for their schooling, Geneva is spoiled for choice. Public schools are free, and generally considered very good. Due to the large number of expats, there are plenty of international and private schools, although tuition fees can hit 30,000 CHF ($31,200) a year, says Greneche.

I think that tells you just about everything you need to know about the type of people who show up for expat positions in Geneva and the taxpayer-funded international organisations that are based there.

Much of the residents’ social lives revolve around stunning Lake Geneva, a pristine, freshwater lake measuring roughly 21 sq km.

Tim Worstall is forever bemoaning journalists’ lack of grasp of orders of magnitude: Lake Geneva covers 580 square kilometres.

So Geneva sounds awesome.  Only:

Often, residents cross the border into France at weekends to buy groceries, to avoid Switzerland’s higher prices. Produce is generally double supermarket prices in France, while meat generally costs triple.

What the article doesn’t mention is how many people work in Geneva but choose to live over the border in France, getting the best of both worlds with high salaries but lower living costs in a place which doesn’t shut down and go to sleep at 6pm.  This practice is so widespread that the canton of Geneva and others deduct French taxes from your salary. Yes, there is a reason why Annecy and its surroundings are so popular, and it’s not just because of the lake.

Ban Polish apples, get a new road!

Browsing through Twitter I came across this story which is so very Russian:

Gangs smuggling goods into Russia have secretly repaired a road on the Belarussian border in order to boost business, the TASS news agency reported Monday.

Smugglers have transformed the gravel track in the Smolensk region in order to help their heavy goods vehicles traveling on the route, said Alexander Laznenko from the Smolensk region border agency. The criminal groups have widened and raised the road and added additional turning points, he said.

Vital infrastructure being provided by fruit smugglers.  Who needs government?

As to why this is happening:

A convoy of trucks was recently stopped on the road carrying 175 tons of sanctioned Polish fruit worth 13 million rubles ($200,000). The produce was subsequently destroyed, TASS reported.

Local border guards, customs and police officers have checked over 73,000 vehicles entering Russia from Belarus this year, Laznenko said, claiming that the number of heavy goods vehicles crossing the border from Belarus has increased dramatically in the last year, he said.

To be fair, nobody could have predicted this:

We can also expect “businessmen” in Kazakhstan and Belarussia to do well out of this.  These two countries have not adopted the Russian sanctions yet are in a customs union with Russia.  Therefore, in theory, these countries can import as many EU goods as they like and re-export to Russia without interference.

I expect these two re-routing options to meet the bulk of the demand for goods banned by the sanctions, at a cost to Russian residents of somewhere around 10-30% in price and reduced freshness of the produce itself.  Where the Russian government intervenes with price controls, we can expect those products to disappear from shelves almost entirely and a healthy black market springing up.

Saint-Lô and the Mausoleum of La Famille Blanchet

I first visited the old mill near Campeaux mentioned in the previous post in August 2014, two years ago.  When I was there I took the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Saint-Lô, where I went to the cemetery and then spent twenty minutes or so locating the mausoleum of the Blanchet family.  Readers are entitled to ask why, and so I shall duly explain.

There is not much to see in Saint-Lô.  It was destroyed to the tune of 97% during the battle for its liberation in July 1944, causing one American solider to remark “We sure liberated the hell out of this place”.  It was rebuilt, as Wikipedia puts it, as follows:

The dominant style was a neo-regionalist functionalism which was dominated by concrete. Its dated and monotonous character was soon criticised.

And for this reason there is very little worth seeing in the town.  One thing of interest, however, is the monument to Major Thomas Howie, who was the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division after the D-Day landings.  As the story goes:

On the morning of July 17, Howie phoned Major General Charles Gerhardt, said “See you in St. Lo”, and issued orders for the attack. Shortly afterward, he was killed by shrapnel during a mortar attack. The next day, the 3d Battalion entered Saint-Lô, with Howie’s body on the hood of the lead jeep, at Gerhard’s request, so that Howie would be the first American to enter the town.

After the war, the town of Saint-Lô erected a monument to Howie, shown below.

However, Thomas Howie wasn’t the only US army major fighting around Saint-Lô on that day.

One of the most influential books I have read, at least insofar as it made an impact on me, is Colonel David Hackworth’s About Face.  During his development as an officer, Hackworth was greatly inspired by the wartime exploits and soldiering abilities of one Glover S. Johns, Jr who would lead the vanguard of American troops sent into West Berlin by John F. Kennedy in 1961 as a show of strength as the wall was going up.  In his book, Hackworth refers to Johns’ own book, The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô, an account of his day-to-day experiences as the commander of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division over a period of one month leading up to the liberation of Saint-Lô.  Hackworth praised the book’s extremely well written descriptions of each military operation and action the battalion undertook, and believed the book should be required reading for all infantry officers.  Having never forgotten its name, eventually I ordered myself a copy and read it for myself.  As a story of the Battle of Saint-Lô it isn’t much good, but as a highly readable account of what life was like for an American soldier fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy and the day-to-day role of a battalion commander in a major war, it is probably the best out there.  In other words, it’s for military nerds but not for the casual reader.  One thing is for sure though, it gives you an idea of the horrendous casualty rate the American infantry suffered while up against a German army that even on the back foot was still highly capable.

Towards the end of the book, as Major Johns’ unit is entering Saint-Lô, he found the place he had chosen for his command post was too dangerous and he was losing men at an unacceptable rate, and so he sent one of his subordinates off to find a better one.  Quoting from The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô:

Half and hour later the S1 came up to lead him back to his new home in St. Lo, which turned out to be an imposing mausoleum in the cemetery!  On the facade were two words Johns would always remember, “Famille Blanchet.”  He balked at the idea of moving in with the Blanchets; but when he looked inside he decided it was the best command post he would ever have.

The walls were of polished marble blocks 18 inches thick, with a heavy door set back under a small but equally solid portico.  There were no windows to be blown in, so that only a direct hit on the front steps by something big would have any chance of hurting anyone inside.  It would take a bomb to damage the building itself.

Inside, on the ground floor, was a small chapel.  Though the room was only about 10 feet by 15 feet in size, it would hold everyone who had legitimate business there.  Furthermore, there was plenty of room outside for the runners to dig foxholes so there would no longer be any excuse for bunching up.  Under the chapel was a crypt, reached by a narrow flight of stairs leading down from one side.

The vault was largely occupied by an enormous stone sarcophagus.  The thing sloped upward towards the entrance, the high end having a flat surface on top which was at an awkward height but would do better than nothing for maps.  A small stone tablelike affair was set into the wall opposite that end, with barely room for one straight chair.  The crypt was cramped, but it would do.

Space around the sarcophagus itself was limited.  A man could walk by without touching, or lie down full length and be comfortable, but two men could never pass one another.

The Germans had used the vault too.  Empty wine bottles lay about, and a half loaf of hard, dry bread took up space on the little table.

Remembering this passage from the book, I decided to find this mausoleum for myself given I was in the area, and take a look at this obscure little piece of military history.  When I did, I looked inside and poked my head down the stairs into the crypt and found it exactly as Major Glover S. Johns had described it having been there 70 years before.

The broken cross on the top bears witness to the mausoleum’s past, as does the shrapnel marks on the exterior walls.  But a small scrap of paper in cellophane off to the side marking it out as a waypoint on some sort of military tour was the only indication that anybody else knew about this tomb’s role in the liberation of Saint-Lô and the battle for Normandy.