Yet More on the Wiretapping of Trump

About ten years ago, back in the days when I was flying between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Moscow (a flight of 9 hours) in economy class, I was involved in an altercation with a stewardess of either Aeroflot or Transaero, I don’t remember which. I was with my good pal and colleague Andrei and we’d just boarded and put our hand luggage in the overhead locker when the stewardess came to us and demanded we hand over the bottle of vodka we had brought on board. Andrei and I said we didn’t know what she was on about, and she told us she’s seen me in the airport putting a bottle of vodka into my backpack which I then brought on board, and this is not allowed. I protested vehemently and swore that she must have been mistaken because I did not bring a bottle of vodka on board and I most certainly didn’t have one in my backpack. She stopped short of insisting I open my backpack and let her inspect the contents, but the kerfuffle was enough to attract the attention of the senior steward. He listened to the stewardess and then turned to me, and once again I swore on all that is holy that I did not bring a bottle of vodka aboard. This seemed to satisfy him and he told the stewardess to drop it and leave us in peace. She went away absolutely fuming. Your humble blogger is not a pathological liar and he was indeed telling the absolute truth when he said he did not smuggle a bottle of vodka aboard the flight.

I did, ahem, smuggle a bottle of rum aboard, though.

I was reminded of this little incident when I read Streetwise Professor’s take on the Trump-Obama-Wiretapping accusations (I’ve linked to this before):

What Obama and his minions (and the Democrats and many in the media) say is likely to be correct, strictly speaking, but fundamentally misleading. In contrast, what Trump says is often incorrect, strictly speaking, but captures the fundamental truth.

When I said I’d not smuggled aboard a bottle of vodka I was, strictly speaking, telling the truth but my words were fundamentally misleading. The stewardesses accusations, while incorrect, captured the fundamental truth.

(Before I go any further, I might as well explain: Andrei had a mate who had a mother who worked at the airport and could get a bottle of something around the security check and hand it to him in the departure lounge. Fortunately Andrei prefers rum to vodka and so I was able to lie with a straight face. I don’t take any moral high ground here, but then I wasn’t looking for any: I was simply trying to make it through 9 hours of an internal flight across Russia in economy class. Andrei, being utterly shameless as many Russian men are, immediately called for the stewardess when we were airbourne and asked for two glasses, a bottle of Coke, and a lot of ice. Fortunately we got a different stewardess or I’d have died in my seat.)

Anyway, where was I? That’s right, the Trump wiretapping. I didn’t mention this at the time, but I found the GCHQ response to Trump’s claims to be rather revealing:

GCHQ rejected the allegations as “utterly ridiculous”. The unusual move by the agency to comment on the news came after Mr Spicer cited claims first made on Fox News earlier this week.

A GCHQ spokesman said: “Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense.

“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

At the time I thought “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”. If they weren’t hiding something, why break with precedent to comment? And why the outraged language? A simple denial would suffice, no? Commenter “Nemo” makes this remark at Tim Worstall’s:

GCHQ’s statement was a classic public sector equivocation that looked like a denial as long as you didn’t actually read it. Reduced to its salient points it said:

‘We were never asked to wire-tap the President-elect.’

So the US Government Party only had to ask for intel acquired at GCHQ’s own volition.

And as another commenter notes on the same thread:

“Wire tap” is indeed shorthand. It does however give an out, in the sense that they can say they weren’t wiretapped – and it would be true, technically, if you don’t make the sensible conclusion that Trump is using it as short hand for generic surveillance.

I say all this in response to a comment that Polkamatic left under my own post on the subject yesterday (his comments are more than welcome, by the way, as are everybody’s):

Trump claimed unambiguously that it was Obama who was targeting him with surveillance. How is this even remotely the same thing?

To which David Moore replies:

Do you think that in making that claim Trump meant that Obama was the one in the van with his ear to the headphone?

And also:

The Streetwise Prof was bang on the money with this one. Trump was, loosely, right and the Democrats/Media have been playing a game of semantics.

Indeed. Now I don’t credit Trump with some Machiavellian genius such that he chose his words carefully to entrap his opponents. I think he knew, probably from his own supporters inside the NSA, FBI, and CIA that his communications were being monitored one way or another and just hurled out the accusation against Obama to be annoying and, perhaps, get them panicking and off-balance. Whether he intended it or not, he’s now got the FBI Director, most of the media, and a whole load of others backtracking furiously. That’s not a bad effort for a single tweet.

What Companies (Don’t) Want

Via Adam, this article:

Surveys of the key skills employers seek in graduates continue to place so-called “soft skills” – like verbal and written communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively in teams and to influence others – in the top ten. But a 2016 report found that other skills – such as critical thinking, problem-solving, attention to detail, and writing – top the list of missing skills among job-seekers.

These skills are rated as being important across all jobs and industries. And employees not having these skills costs businesses thousands of dollars per year.

A US survey has found miscommunication costs businesses with up to 100 staff an average of US$420,000 per year. Even more staggeringly, in another study, 400 businesses with at least 100,000 employees each claimed that inadequate communication cost an average of US$62.4 million per company per year.

I can well believe that having employees with the ability to explain themselves clearly, write a concise and understandable email, and prepare properly-structured and well-written reports is of great benefit to a company. I can also believe that such skills would make the top ten in a list of what employers desire.

What I don’t believe is that such “soft skills” are considered in the least bit important when it comes to recruitment, retention, and promotion. Sure, they might make the top ten but one must bear in mind that Mecca Cola probably makes it into the top ten best-selling cola products. There will be two, possibly three, key skills that companies require and the rest are largely irrelevant. For all the talk about the important of “soft skills”, they only ever get mentioned when an HR department is talking up its own importance, someone is peddling a training course, or you’re getting a bollocking for upsetting somebody. A look at the average email or report will tell you that written communication skills aren’t considered very important in the modern business world.

I have my own experience to offer up in support of this statement. I don’t think I’m getting too far above my own station when I say I have pretty good writing skills, and I have the ability to convey quite complex information in a structured, logical, and clear manner. There are better writers around than me, far better, but not many of them are engineers. Back when I was doing my A-levels my chemistry teacher told me I was rather uncommon in that I was a scientist who could write, and advised that I make use of that. I can honestly say that being able to write quickly and accurately has helped me a lot in my professional life, but insofar as it has been recognised by any employer over the past 17 years I might as well type with my fists when drunk. There have been one or two occasions, three at the most, where my writing abilities have been recognised in passing but they’ve certainly not contributed in any way to the positions I have been offered or the tasks I have been assigned. I might be a very, very average engineer who rubs people up the wrong rather too often but I would bet that I’ve been one of the best writers of English in any of the companies I’ve worked for (yes, even the big ones). Out of the technical staff I reckon I’d win that contest hands-down. Nobody even noticed, let alone put it to use.

In short, I’d not pay much attention to what companies say they want; I’d instead look at what they actually do. Revealed preferences, I believe these are called. And they’re not in the least bit interested in whether you can write.


There’s a thread over at Tim Worstall’s about sheep breeding, and I’ve thrown in my contribution as usual. The thing is, I know a bit about this (I grew up in Wales, after all) and this isn’t the first time I’ve described it. So just for the hell of it I’ll turn it into a blog post.

Firstly, to get sheep to breed you need both ewes and rams. With me so far? Good. A flock of a hundred or so ewes can be serviced by two or three rams, no bother. If you ever see a ram you’ll notice it has enormous bollocks for such a small animal. There are reasons for this. Normally you’d keep the ewes in one field and the rams in another waaaaaaaaay over the other side of the farm, otherwise your lambing season is going to be somewhat lengthy. When the right time of year comes around (autumn, I think) you send the rams in and they get to work. But before you do that you strap a large, rectangular crayon to their chests using a nylon harness, with each ram getting a different colour. This is for keeping score. When the ram mounts a ewe and starts humping the crayon leaves a mark on her back. At the end of a few weeks the farmer can see which sheep have been humped and which remain un-humped, and see which ram has been putting in the hard yards and which has been loafing under a tree snoozing. If a ram isn’t pulling his weight, chances are he’ll be replaced for the next season with one a little more enthusiastic. So if ever you wake up captured by aliens with an odd crayon strapped to your belly, you’ll have an idea what is expected of you to survive.

At some point later on, I forget when, the farmer may enlist the services of a guy who, for a per-sheep fee, uses one of those ultrasound machines you find in antenatal wards to determine how many lambs are inside each ewe. I’ve watched somebody do this and how he can determine anything from the grey mess that appears on the screen is beyond me, but we wrote down his predictions against the tag number of each ewe and his predictions were bang on. At this point the farmer will be paying close attention to which ewes are not “with lamb” and what colour mark is on their back. If too many ewes with red crayon marks are not carrying lambs, then that particular ram is out of a job for next season. If all the ewes with a red mark are carrying lambs except one or two, then those ewes might be barren. We’ll see next year.

Lambing season starts sometime in spring and you prepare a lambing shed which is warm, dry, and divided into pens. You keep your flock in a field nearby and when any is showing signs of imminent birthing (I have no idea what the more subtle signs are, but forelegs sticking out the back of a ewe is not unheard of) you catch them using a pickup truck and a young, fit, and slightly idiotic local boy who for some reason likes farms and get them into the lambing shed. You then wait for them to give birth, and this can take a while so sometimes the shed is rigged up to CCTV and fed back to the farmhouse. I should point out that all of this is what went on back in the early-mid 1990s, so perhaps things have moved on now and there is an iPhone app for all this. Anyway, when a ewe starts to give birth it usually needs human help.

This is particularly the case with multiple births: most ewes carry two lambs, three is common, four less common, and occasionally five. Single lambs are common enough but a little disappointing from the point of view of the farmer. Ewes often struggle to give birth and so somebody must assist by grabbing hold of the protruding forelegs and giving them a yank. If the lamb is facing the wrong way around then somebody must roll up their sleeve, wash their arm in soapy water up the elbow, reach in, grab the legs, and yank it out. I have never done this myself but have held the animal when this was being done many times, and I was about 12 or 13 years old at the time. No city boy, me.

Sometimes when you pull a lamb out it is not breathing, and you need to try to revive it. First you tip its head back and clear its airway of mucus, and then you stick a piece of straw up its nostril. This will sometimes cause it to sneeze and it will start breathing. If that doesn’t work you grab it by its hind legs and swing it in an arc (taking care not to smack its head against a wall or something) so that its head is flung back and air forced into the airway. I swear I’m not making this up, but don’t take this as a manual for what you should do: ask a vet. You do that a few times and then massage its heart. Sometimes it will cough into life, other times not. If not, you get the corpse away from the mother ASAP: you want her attention focused on the lambs that survived.

Even distribution of the lambs is important. A ewe may feel overwhelmed by more than two or three lambs and you’ll notice straight away if one is lacking attention. If so it stands a high risk of being abandoned, and ewes are prone to lying on top of their unwanted young and smothering them. So any that is looking like an outcast is taken away and an attempt is made to wean it onto a mother with only one lamb of her own. This is done by taking the afterbirth of the adopted mother and wrapping it around the foster lamb immediately after she has given birth in the hope that she will smell it and be tricked into thinking it is one of her own. This works surprisingly often and the lamb is adopted and looked after. If she doesn’t fall for it then you have an orphaned lamb, which is immediately thrown to a pack of hungry dogs you keep outside just for this purpose. Nobody has time or patience for orphaned lambs.

I’m kidding, you don’t do that. The orphaned lambs – nicknamed “mollies” on the farm I used to play around on – are kept in a separate pen under a strong heat lamp, and cared for by hand. If you have a farm dog that is female, chances are her mothering instincts will kick in and she’ll lie in beside them. When kids come around wanting to see the lambs, these are the ones you show them because there are no protective mothers and they are used to human contact. You might have to wrap them in towels for a while, and two or three times a day you feed them warm milk from a bottle of the exact type you use on a baby. These things are as cute as you can imagine and feeding them is a lot of fun with lots of “Aaaw!” sounds being made. You can put milk on your fingers and get them to suck so hard you can almost lift them off the ground (they don’t have teeth yet), and they are still so small you can pick one up in each hand easily. They can stand up within about an hour of being born, but they are very unsteady on their feet at the beginning. This only makes them cuter.

When the weather gets warmer and the lambs a bit stronger, they’re kicked out into the field where you see them playing and my experience with lambs converges with that of everyone else. I did a lot of this sort of stuff when I was a kid, and you don’t forget it.

When Food Poisoning Isn’t

Sometime commenter Bloke in Spain makes the following remark at Tim Worstall’s:

I suspect that “food poisoning” is a lot less common than reports of it would suggest. I’ve lost count of the visitors down here who reckons they’ve suffered “food poisoning” eating much stuff as the rest of us.

I concur.  When I was a kid we had things called “stomach upsets” that would make you vomit and give you diarrhea for a day or two and (in our household) would see you confined to bed on a diet of dry Ryvitas and lemon squash until you got better. We’d also be given kaolin and morphine, a brilliant medicine which is now hard to find and has been replaced with Imodium which just bungs you up like concrete and does nothing for the pain.

Anyway, everyone got these upset stomachs from time to time and in my adult life I get one about once every two years.  However, as part of a general trend towards irrationality, ignorance, and increased use of hyperbole among the general population I noticed some time ago that most people now think a regular stomach upset is food poisoning.  The first time I heard this was back in my catered halls of residence in Manchester University around 1997 or 1998 when a female student got sick after eating the grub that was served up in the canteen.  She claimed it was food poisoning, whereas the chef – who wasn’t student and hence had some sense – pointed out that several hundred other residents had eaten the same food and had not fallen sick.

I remembered this when I was in Sakhalin in 2008 and I ate a meal in the canteen at the LNG plant that had me throwing up in the snow on the drive back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  I felt ill the minute I’d finished eating and the pain only got worse, and I wondered if the baked beans with bacon strips that I’d covered my mashed potato with (hey, this was on site in Russia) had been bad.  The illness barely lasted 24 hours and when I inquired two days later I found there was no mass outbreak of food poisoning among the staff and contractors so I concluded it was just a stomach bug.

Food poisoning is fucking serious.  I’ve fortunately never had it, but I have spoken to people who have and aside from being easily capable of killing you it is something which lasts for several days and makes you wish it would get on with it and kill you.  Just like a migraine is not a headache (another false equivalence people draw), and a cold is not ‘flu, an upset stomach is not food poisoning.  So whenever I hear people say they were off work for a day with food poisoning, I mark them down as a hysterical idiot or an ignoramus.

A few years ago I was flying back to Lagos from Phuket and felt a surging pain in my stomach on the flight between Phuket and Bangkok.  I tried wishing the pain away and pretending it was indigestion but on the transfer bus from the plane and the terminal I felt so nauseous I almost passed out.  I found the nearest toilet and threw up mightily, making a right racket as I did so.  I then spun around 180 degrees and emptied myself from the other end.  You know how it is.  I had an hour or so to wait until my connecting flight to Dubai, and so took some Imodium and Alka-Seltzer hoping these would settle my stomach.  I kept these down for a few minutes and then threw the lot up again.  In such situations I simply stop eating believing, correctly or not, that if you don’t eat then the bug has nothing to feed on and will starve.  Even if this is bollocks I have found that eating nothing for a day will cure any stomach upsets I typically encounter.

By the time I came to board the flight I was feeling a bit better, and so took my seat.  Only when we started rumbling down the taxiway I began to feel queasy.  I was sat with the window beside me on my right side, an empty seat beside me (thank God) and a middle-aged man was in the third seat beside the aisle.  As the engines roared for takeoff I felt the pain in my stomach flare up and for the first time in my life I reached for the air sickness bag, into which I threw up just as the nose wheel parted company with the tarmac.  I mentioned before I made a racket being sick, and for some reason I do.  Something to do with the air being pushed past the vocal chords, but I sound like I’m roaring like wounded bull.  I made so much noise that I could be heard by everybody on the lower deck of an Airbus A380 over the noise of four General Electric jet engines on takeoff mode.

Unsurprisingly, once we’d achieved the altitude at which the stewardesses can take off their seatbelts and stand up, they all came running through the cabin asking “Who the fuck was that?”, only using slightly more polite language.  I put my paw in the air and ‘fessed up (before handing them a lovely bag full of sick) and then somebody showed up with a clipboard and started bombarding me with questions.  They asked if I was airsick, and I said no, I have an upset stomach.  They asked if I was feeling ill before boarding, and I lied and said I merely felt queasy.  They asked me whether I’d eaten anything before, presumably thinking there was a possibility I’d gotten to my age on a diet of fresh air.  I told them I’d eaten part of a pizza back in Phuket, but those who’d eaten the rest of it were fine (I’d called them and asked).  The stewardess with the clipboard looked at me and said “Okay, we’ll put it down as food poisoning from eating a pizza, then.”  She then told me I ought to have seen a doctor rather than get on a plane sick, which was sound advice if I’d fancied spending 24 hours in the airport hotel at my own expense because any doctor would have yawned and said “nope, don’t fly” because it’s no skin off his nose.  I then got a bollocking for getting on the plane with “food poisoning” because we might have had to make an emergency landing, and there aren’t many places that an A380 can do that.  That was a good point in general, and an A380 being severely restricted in terms of where it can land in an emergency never occurred to me, but it annoyed me because I obviously didn’t have food poisoning.  Apparently there is no such condition as a stomach upset which can be put on the forms the cabin crew have to fill in every time a passenger gets sick.

As it happened, I ate nothing and drank only water for the rest of the flight and by the time I was in Dubai I felt well enough to eat a little soup.  By the time I caught the next flight and arrived in Lagos, I was feeling fine.  That would not have been the case if I’d had food poisoning.

Cubans in Angola

A good piece on Fidel Castro from Bayou Renaissance Man, who is originally South African:

I was standing in the Angolan bush, along with a group of UNITA rebels.  They were cleaning up after a firefight – which meant leaving the enemy bodies where they had fallen, but stripping them of their weapons, uniforms and supplies.  Everything would be washed, cleaned, repaired if necessary, and reissued to new owners, who would use it to kill more of the enemy.

Among the dead were two very young Cuban conscripts, some of the tens of thousands of troops sent by Fidel Castro to prop up the brutal pro-Communist regime in Angola. They were probably well under 20 years old.  They hadn’t even finished growing;  they still had that gangling, slightly disjointed look of late adolescence.  Both looked as if they didn’t yet need to shave every day.  They never would, now.  Their AK-47’s were still half-slung.  They hadn’t even managed to raise them to a firing position before the RPD bullets found them.

A grizzled NCO looked down at them, and an odd look came over his face. He spat to one side, very expressively, and murmured, “Just one more. That’s all I ask.  Just one more.”

I looked at him, and my eyebrows rose.  He caught my expression, and nodded.  “I want the bastard who sends kids like this over here to die.”

It makes you wonder how many of those who complain about American forces deployed around the world had no problem with Fidel Casto sending his army to Angola.  The fact that Cubans had no choice in the matter makes it that much worse.

A Post About Boilers

Commenter Alex M. chimes in under this post on the subject of boilers, and I thank him for that:

My plumber has a handy sideline reselling perfectly good boilers than people replace because they fall for all the guff about modern energy-efficient equipment. New boilers may use slightly less oil but the savings will never cover the cost of replacing an old serviceable boiler, never mind the much higher maintenance costs and the fact that new condensing boilers are only designed to last around ten years. A bog-standard 20th century non-condensing boiler will last fifty years or longer with regular servicing.

It is probably not surprising that I never owned a property with a boiler until recently.  My employer has always been generous enough to supply me with accommodation wherever I’ve been posted, and the place I bought in Thailand back in 2009 has nothing more than a small water heater for showers and washing up, for obvious reasons.  That changed when I bought a property in Annecy a couple of years ago, a modern apartment which was fully electric (i.e. no gas) and independently heated (i.e. unlike the older apartment complexes, there was no centralised heating system for the whole development).  The boiler was new, so the previous owner told me, and he had receipts to prove it.

When II collected the keys I didn’t even have a place to sit down, and so after looking around I switched off the water and the power and went back to Paris.  That’s one of the advantages of an apartment over a house: you can drop the shutters, switch everything off, and just leave it unattended for months.  Do that with a house and you’ll find things have gotten inside and taken up residence.  Anyway, I made a habit of visiting the place every few months and then switching everything off when I wasn’t there.

I arrived at the property on 22nd December last year, intending to spend Christmas there, and found the boiler leaking.  It wasn’t a bad leak and fortunately there was no damage to my property or that of my neighbour, and I could even still take showers, but something had gone wrong with the boiler.  I found it odd that the leak wasn’t coming from the bottom, but about halfway up.  I couldn’t see any hole but I could feel that below the leak the casing was warm, but above it was cold.  The water was dripping down the inside of the casing.

My first reaction was to swear loudly.  This was 3 days before Christmas, remember.  And plumbers are known to be cheap and readily available, especially with foreigners close to a major holiday, oh yes.  My second reaction was to pull out the warranty.  I called the service number and as I was on hold a passage in the warranty terms caught my eye: the warranty is void if the power has been off for more than 24 hours.  Mine had been off for seven months.

I’m an engineer, mechanical according to the certificate.  Not a good one, but an engineer nonetheless. I know about corrosion and how it works.  I’d suspected the leak was caused by corrosion, but was struggling to figure out how the hull had been breached so fast.  Now I knew.  Modern boilers are made from paper-thin steel to save costs, make them lighter, and make them more energy efficient.  This is inherently sensible.  The problem is corrosion: even the slightest degradation of thin steel will cause a hole to appear.  All boilers deal with corrosion by using sacrificial anodes, but they need to be replaced every few years increasing servicing costs.  You can avoid this by using a powered anode, which does not deteriorate with time but – as the name suggests – needs to be powered.  When I pulled apart my boiler I found a small 9V battery underneath: that would be the emergency supply when the main power is switched off for whatever reason.  The anode wouldn’t need much power, but a 9V battery is not going to keep it working for seven months.  As such, the anode stopped working and the boiler itself corroded in short order.

This all came as a surprise to me.  The house in which I grew up in rural Wales had a boiler, which from memory was made of steel an inch thick and probably needed a crane to install.  If the anode lost power there would be enough allowance in the steel to withstand months or even years of corrosion before springing a leak.  But modern boilers have no such margin, they will be made using thin steel and will become useless at the slightest sign of physical degradation.  So you have to keep the damned things powered up.

I was fortunate enough to find a decent plumber in Annecy who replaced it on 23rd December with a better one for 1,200 Euros including installation, taxes, etc.  It was a bit of a dent in the wallet, but it didn’t mean Christmas was ruined.

This isn’t a rant about disposable boilers, though. Old-style boilers might last forever, but that comes at a cost too: you need a strong floor to put them on, and you certainly can’t hang them from a wall like you can the modern ones.  You also can’t install them with one person and another one helping, you’d need some serious kit to move them in and out.  And they’d also be more expensive to run.  There is a reason why modern French apartments are all electric: heating technology and insulation has gotten so good that you no longer need a heavy, industrial central heating system or a gas-fired boiler, and all the equipment you need can be bought from a DIY store and chucked in the back of your car (just about).  In the long run, I suspect the savings on heating costs would easily pay for replacing the boiler once every ten or fifteen years (though perhaps not every seven months).

But there’s another point, which as an employee of an oil company I understand well: CAPEX versus OPEX.  Most people would rather pay for a cheap boiler and replace it every ten years – $700 up front, then two $1,000 payments at year 10 and 20 respectively, totalling $2,700 – than pay $2,000 up front on Day 1 and not pay anything for the next 20 years.  What do economists call it?  The time value of money, or something.

And that’s the real benefit of modern boilers: they are cheap according to the price tag hanging off it in the shop.

System Files

James Higham has also written about Hillary’s email scandal:

In a nutshell, Huma Abedin [allegedly] hid thousands of emails in a folder called #LifeInsurance.

Which reminded me of something.

Back in early 2009 I went on a skiing trip with three friends to Japan in what turned out to be one of the best holidays I’ve had, and by far the best lads’ holiday I’ve ever been on.

This was in the days before iPads and hence only one of our number – which one I won’t say – had brought along a laptop, and all of us would use it once per day to check emails, etc.

Then on one occasion somebody was using the “communal” laptop and noticed something.

“Hey!” he said, addressing the laptop’s owner.  “What’s this folder called System Files”?”

“Oh, erm, um…well, yes,” came the mumbled reply.

“And why is it on the Desktop?” persisted the first chap.

I joined in the fun.  “System files on the Desktop?” I queried.  “What OS are you running there, then?  Let’s open it up!” I said.

We did.  It didn’t contain system files.