Sympathy Level: Zero

I hope HSBC gets fined out of existence:

Britain’s biggest bank helped wealthy clients cheat the UK out of millions of pounds in tax, the BBC has learned.

Panorama has seen thousands of accounts from HSBC’s private bank in Switzerland leaked by a whistleblower in 2007.

They show bankers helped clients evade tax and offered deals to help tax dodgers stay ahead of the law.

HSBC admitted that some individuals took advantage of bank secrecy to hold undeclared accounts. But it said it has now “fundamentally changed”.

Not that I have anything against British citizens opening offshore bank accounts (I have two myself, as the article makes clear they are not illegal and there are genuine reasons for having one), nor do I think the whistleblower was performing any kind of public service (indeed, I think he should be filled in), and nor do I care for HMRC or anyone engaging in illegal tax evasion.

But what pisses me off beyond belief is the pompous, self-righteous posturing of British high street banks who make normal people jump through umpteen petty bureaucratic hoops at their own expense in order to carry out ordinary transactions or to open an account, all in the name of preventing money laundering or tax evasion.  Most of what they ask you to do (e.g. present a notarised copy of your passport) is at their own discretion, and not a legal requirement.  Yet this doesn’t stop some spotty twerp in a flammable suit pompously telling you “it’s the law” when you query whether it’s really necessary to take a day off work and visit a random solicitor just to submit a mortgage application form to a bank with whom you hold an account already.

However, if you’re some dodgy Nigerian with a suitcase full of cash, a Mexican drug cartel, or what is being called “a wealthy client” then it’s “step right this way, sir”.

Lock ‘em up and throw away the key, bunch of fuckers.

Posted in Customer Service, Hypocrisy, UK | 6 Comments

Buying Beds in France

We are in the process of buying an apartment in the French Alps, and in anticipation of getting the keys sometime in late February I visited an outlet of one of France’s largest bed suppliers.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello, I’ve chosen two very nice beds for a total of 3,000 Euro and I would like to place the order right now. But can they be delivered in 3 weeks?

Salesman: 3 weeks?! Merde, that is too short! We don’t have the stock!

Me: Okay. So when?

Salesman: I don’t know. Maybe 5 or 8 weeks.

Me: Okay. Not ideal, but this is France and not the USA, so I guess I’ll just have to wait. So, see that bed there? Two of them, please.

Salesman: Oh, that one? Oh, that is an extra delay. We have problems getting that one.

Me: When?

Salesman: I don’t know…we would need to see. It is complicated.

Me: Okay, whatever. Complicated. As is everything here, it seems. So can we at least agree that it can be delivered on a certain date once we know it is available?

Salesman: Sure, yes.

Me: On a Saturday?

Salesman: Mais, merde, non! C’est compliqué! We have the transporter, and many deliveries, and you are not in Paris but a province, and….well, it’s complicated.

Me: So here I am with 3,000 Euros ready so spend *right now* on a product you have right there, and you can’t tell me when it will be delivered, you can’t deliver it on a Saturday, and everything is too complicated?

Salesman: Bienvenue en France, m’sieur.

To be fair, the salesman looked about two stages away from full-on suicide, and I did feel sorry for him.  And I did place the order, because there was a sale on and anywhere else would have given me the same story as it was exactly the same when I bought a sofa last spring.  On that occasion I ended up buying the one in the shop in order to avoid a 12 week wait.  Only you must pay the full amount up-front, naturellement.

The bed salesman called me back a couple of days later.  He surprised me by telling me they’d managed to find some in stock (seriously, this nationwide company is unable to check stock in real time from its sales outlets; they need to send a special request and wait a day or two) and could deliver them whenever I wanted.  But only on Mondays or Wednesdays.  Why only those days?  Because “you don’t live near Paris” and “the transporter needs to do other deliveries” and “it’s complicated”.  Bienvenue en France, indeed.

I am comforted by the knowledge that it would be no different in the UK.

Posted in Customer Service, France | 23 Comments

The March of the Impotents

Well, I’m glad I didn’t go on that march through Paris yesterday.

On Friday, French President Francois Hollande said in a public address:

“These fanatics have nothing to do with the Muslim religion”.

Which is a flat-out lie, and Hollande knows it.  These fanatics have everything to do with Islam.  Now it may be fair to say they are not representative of ordinary Muslims, and I would agree.  If may also be fair to say that these fanatics are operating on the extremes of Islam, and I would also agree.  But to say it is nothing to do with Islam?  Nothing?  Utter bullshit.

The problem is, this bullshit has been swallowed not only on a national scale, but a global scale.  The response – pretend to give a shit, but downplay the Islam angle – was utterly predictable, because we have heard the same bullshit time after time.  This is why I pretty much stifled a yawn last Wednesday, even whilst the attackers were still fleeing through the city.  I knew it would change nothing.

Of course, Hollande needs to choose his words carefully.  France is home to several million Muslims who are not murdering fanatics, and loose words from a president could easily pose a danger to innocent people.  But nobody is calling for retribution against Muslims.  Nobody is asking for mass deportations.  Nobody wants Hollande to introduce illiberal restrictions on Muslims.  It would be grossly irresponsible and unjust for Hollande, or anyone else, to come out and say Muslims are collectively to blame or that these attacks are the natural result of practicing Muslims.

But saying this is nothing to do with Islam is also grossly irresponsible: there is a real and present danger posed to citizens everywhere by an unknown number of well-organised, well-connected, and well-armed fanatical Muslims who genuinely believe they are acting in accordance with Islamic teachings.  Regardless of whether their intepretations are theologically correct or in accordance with other Muslims, this is what drives them to kill.  Unless and until Western leaders acknowledge this, it will happen again and again and again.

What we’re seeing here is politics, politics in the absence of leadership.  Hell, it isn’t even governance.  Modern day politicians operate under no principles whatsoever, save for that which makes their own lives easier (meaning, it makes their election or re-election more likely).  There was a time when politicians would make unpopular decisions because it was the right thing to do.  Nowadays these charlatans posing as world leaders do whatever they think might make them popular, and haven’t the faintest idea what is right or wrong.  It’s all about them, and nobody else.

As I said before the march, this wasn’t a demonstration by a million people that enough was enough and something had better be done, or else.  No, this was called because Hollande saw the event as a way to nail French unity in the face of a national tragedy to his re-election campaign.  And people took part in it not to demand change, but to be assured that nothing would change.  People marched in support of free speech, did they?  Then what did they propose is done differently to protect it?  Nothing.  They just marched to say “Yes, we stand for free speech – just don’t expect us to do anything to protect it from another attack.”

Supposing a French politician proposed re-integrating the disaffected Muslim population in the banlieues by tearing up the stupid, outdated employment legislation which ensures they remain jobless for life.  You’d see those same people who marched yesterday out in twice the numbers to protest.  Or if the authorities proposed closer surveillance of Muslims in French prisons and those recently released on terrorism-related charges.  The human rights lawyers would descend like vultures, and half the people marching yesterday would be screaming “racism”.  Hell, they couldn’t even bear the prospect of somebody saying something different, so they stopped the National Front from joining in.

Now I don’t know what the answer is, or what the government should do.  I’m an engineer, not an expert in terrorism or the leader of a country.  But I know sticking our collective heads in the sand is not the answer.  Maybe once, in case such atrocities are an aberration.  But now, after almost 15 years of repeated attacks by Islamic headcases across four continents, a response of some sort is seriously needed.  But yesterday’s march wasn’t to demand a response, it was to demand there isn’t one.  Where the hell is the leadership?  All they’ve done is kick the can down the road another two years.

But we’re living in an era of non-action, easy decisions, and can-kicking.  Life has gotten too comfortable for most people, and few are prepared to take the necessary hardship to ensure our way of life continues.  Look at the western economies, FFS.  Two of today’s generations are utterly fucking over the next two or three, and congratulating themselves in the process.  How many of those marching yesterday are so scared of change that they won’t even consider a 10% chance they might have to get another job at some point in their lives in order to save their own country from bankrupcy?  The modern-day “manager” is no better: facing crippling mortgage repayments due in no small part to his own idiotic voting record, he cowers in fear of even a bad word being passed down by his superiors despite ironclad employment protection, and any decision he makes is either utterly spineless, solely in his own interests, or both.

Bush Jr. was a damned clown, but at least he went and kicked the shit out of the Taliban after 9/11.  Whether this was sensible or not is largely beside the point, something needs to be done when 3,000 of your citizens have been spectacularly murdered and mere words just don’t cut it.  “The pen is mightier than the sword” was the message of many cartoonists following the massacre last Wednesday.  Not if you’re shit scared of wielding that pen it isn’t, and especially not if some crazy cunt is running at you with a big fucking sword.

I am of the opinion we need leadership and action based on sound principles of liberty and justice, not more of the same lame speeches and empty soundbites.  It seems a million people marching yesterday disagreed with me.

Probably just as well I didn’t go, then.  See you for the next massacre.

Posted in France, Islam, Politics, Terrorism | 26 Comments

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I’d be lying if I said I was shocked or shaken by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris last week.  It may be different for the French, but I’ve gotten strangely used to this.  Indeed, the only thing which is surprising is how surprised everyone is.

9/11 was a shock, one I remember feeling shaken by even several days later, and waking up the morning after thinking it very surreal.  2002 saw the appalling bombing of the bar in Bali (with a less deadly repeat in 2005).  In 2004 came the train bombing in Madrid, which few outside of Spain seemed to care much about once the intial bang had faded from earshot.  Then we had 7/7 in the UK in 2005, which to me wasn’t much different from the IRA bombs only this time the perpetrators spoke English better and probably didn’t like Guinness.  In 2008 the Mumbai attacks took place, featuring Islamic gunmen massacring people in a hotel.  2013 saw the bombing of the Boston Marathon, the same year Lee Rigby had his head hacked off in a London street by two men shouting Islamic slogans.  Last month a headcase waving an ISIS flag took over a coffee shop in Sydney, killing two people in the process in an act which a lot of Australians seemed to avoid condeming.  In fact, these atrocities have become so common I’m sure I’ve forgotten several of them, not to mention all the smaller attacks and foiled plots such as Glasgow Airport, the underwear bomber, etc.

A murderous attack on the office of a satirical journal in France by Islamic lunatics is unique only in the specific target, the country, and the date on which it took place.  In all other aspects – including the wholly predictable response from the media and politicians – it is dreary business as usual.

At least that’s how I felt.  I heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights, and saw this on my way to work on Thursday morning:

I also attended the two-minute silence my employer organised, believing quite genuinely that the murdered deserved my thoughts.  The attacks are an outrage – a disgusting event – but shocking, at least to me, they are not.

And nor should they have been, at least to the French.  The list of attacks I have posted above notwithstanding, the French have been sitting on a timebomb of their own making for years.  In browsing the blog discussions following the attacks, I came across this article written by the splendid Theodore Dalrymple on the ghettos established outside of Paris to house immigrants from north and sub-Saharan Africa.  It is impossible to select any paragraphs to quote, so I encourage you to read it all.  Sadly, the article was not written in time to alert the French authorities as to the serious problem they have in the heart of their country, published as it was in 2002!!

There are many theories in place which seek to explain why such attacks happen, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that the politics that has prevailed in western Europe over the past two or three decades has greatly enabled the ability of Islamic nutcases to act, even if we charitably assume these same politics have not facilitated their creation in the first place.  Mass immigration followed by a combination of politically correct permissiveness, a soul-destroying welfare system, and no prospects of employment might not be responsible for people wanting to kill us for our beliefs, but they are sure as hell to blame for these people living in our cities with the freedom to arm themselves to the teeth and murder their fellow citizens again and again.  Each time the affected nation reacts with faux shock, before going back to reinforce the exact same policies which have led us blind into this situation.

I don’t expect anything will change as a result of this latest attack.  And if there is any change, it will be further curtailment of our freedoms and liberty enacted in a manner which will make not the slightest difference to the next atrocity.  Today there is an enormous march planned in Paris under the banner of National Unity.  I won’t be attending, mainly because I have something else to do but also because of this:

Despite the French president calling for “unity” in the light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, an almighty row broke out on Thursday after the National Front were not invited to Sunday’s Republican rally.

I hold no truck whatsoever for Marie Le Pen’s National Front party or their policies, but the exclusion of a reasonably popular party from a National Unity march on the grounds their politics are not welcome demonstrates that this march is more about maintaining the status quo and saving the faces and careers of the French establishment.  Would I join a march to recognise the attacks on Charlie Hebdo is one attack too many and things must change?  Yes.  Would I join a march in support of the establishment that has presided over this disaster in the first place, and shamelessly intends to continue with the same policies?  No.  So I’m not going.

The attacks revealed to many a yawning chasm between two belief systems, filled with mistrust, a failure to find a common language, and the lack of understanding of one another’s culture.  Obviously I’m talking about the French and the British.  Many of the British commentators referred to Charlie Hebdo’s output as infantile, childish, and unsophisticated.  Which indeed it was.  But France has long had a much different relationship with cartoons and comics than Britain, one that is probably unique to France.  Adult (in the sense that adults read them, as opposed to the content being sexual) comics are very popular here, similar to Japan.  Satire via comic stips and cartoons is as much a part of the French culture as Camembert, cafés, and strikes on the SNCF.  Our office sees the circulation of a satirical magazine (I have no idea who publishes it) which pokes fun at the company, CEO, and other board members.  One of the French unions produces a regular newsletter consisting mainly of cartoons and silly slogans which it hands out in the canteen.  A recent edition featured one of the newly promoted directors who looks a bit like Ken photoshopped to be lying in bed with Barbie discussing whether he should speak French or English.  I don’t think the concept exports well, with probably only the Asterix books being a success in this regard (mainly thanks to Anthea Bell’s brilliant translations), but it is very much a distinct aspect of French culture.

From what I can tell, it is more the fact that crude cartoons were attacked more than the message being conveyed.  Had they bombed Le Monde, chances are the reaction wouldn’t have been so defensive: every country has newspapers, but only France has deliberately offensive satirical cartoons.  Nothing highlights the cultural gap between France and Britain more than the uncomfortable suspicion that Charlie Hebdo would not have lasted more than a year in the UK before being hounded out of business by the state and its backers in one form or another, as this article makes clear.  Rather than go on a hypocritical jolly to Paris today, David Cameron might want to reflect quietly on that for a moment and ask himself where he thinks his country is headed.

For my part, I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attack, but I will make sure I buy a copy when it comes out on Wednesday.  Having browsed the cartoons that have been displayed online (no thanks to our brave and fearless MSM), I agree that they are infantile – but at the same time, very very French.  Although this one I thought made a very pertinent point regarding ISIS:

image.jpgHeadline: If Mohammed returned.
Mohammed (kneeling): I’m the prophet, idiot!
Guy with knife: Shut up, infidel!

We need more of this, not less.

Posted in France, Islam, Media, Politics, Terrorism | 13 Comments

Fallen Idols

A few nights ago a giant, 328-foot tall windmill came crashing down in a field in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.  To say that questions need answering is an understatement.  Take a look at the photos.

turbine-2_3153749b The failure mode here is buckling, but with my not being a structural engineer I can’t say much more than that.  However, I can say with some certainty that the root cause is either:

1. A poor design; or

2. Poor fabrication/installation.

(With  it being only 3-4 years old we can probably rule out maintenance issues.)

Let’s start with the design.  I would expect that lateral and other loads exerted on the structure to be more or less known, and design loads calculated (expected/actual loads plus a safety margin).  The whole structure would be modeled using a Finite Element Method, which would give the stresses present in the structure under the design loads.  The engineer would then compare these stresses with those allowed under the applicable industry standard (e.g. ASME, BS, etc.) appropriate to the material and application.  If the calculated stresses were within the allowable values, the design is sound.

Simply put, that’s how every single modern structure is designed and verified these days, and it is certain that this windmill will have been subject to the same process.  So either the design loads were wrong, or the allowable stresses were badly calculated: neither is very likely.

There is a possibility that fatigue is at play here, the phenomenon whereby cyclic loading of a structure (caused by vibrations around its natural frequency, which are commonly caused by wind especially around cylindrical structures in what is called a Kármán vortex street) results in cracking followed by catastrophic collapse.  But such effects have been known for the best part of a century and it comes as no surprise that vibration effects and how to avoid them are taught in the first year of a civil engineering course.

So if it’s not a design issue which caused the main tubular structure to buckle, that leaves fabrication or installation as the root cause.  The first step in the investigation will be to see whether the material was actually that which it was supposed to be.  It wouldn’t be the first time that substandard material has been substituted into a design which called for higher-grade stuff, either deliberately or by mistake.  It might be that the material is fine but the welding is substandard (although it doesn’t look to have failed along a weld).  But it might also be that somebody backed a forklift into the tubular section when it was in the yard waiting to be assembled, and with a bit of heat and a large hammer they knocked the dent back out again, painted over it, and told nobody but left it forever weakened.  Again, it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.

Somewhere along the line the quality assurance process has fallen down, and I doubt it will be long before the exact cause is found.  What will be more interesting is how the government reacts to it.  So far, from what I can tell, the wind power industry appears to be self-regulating:

Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety for wind industry body RenewableUK, said: “A thorough investigation is already underway into what happened in this extremely rare incident. The wind industry takes health and safety issues very seriously, and the lessons learned from this will be implemented as swiftly as possible.

“No member of the public has ever been injured by wind turbine operating in the UK. As the trade body representing the wind industry.”

So the industry body which promotes the growth of wind power is also responsible for regulating the health and safety aspects of windfarms.  This used to be the case with the FAA in the US, until the NTSB was formed to take over accident investigations; and it was also the case that the UK’s offshore oil industry was self-regulating with respect to health and safety until Piper Alpha, after which regulatory powers were passed to the HSE.  Quite sensibly in both cases, I might add.

The results of the investigation, and the frequency of similar incidents, will determine for how long this arrangement lasts.  Quality control and safety compliance is expensive, and if the groups promoting wind power take the same approach to safety and quality assurance as they do the economics, we might find that operating under an umbrella of political promotion and protection has generated a culture of complacency.  Maybe.

It is interesting that The Telegraph links to another story of two windmills falling over in February 2013, this time in Devon, with sabotage being cited as a possibility:

An investigation into the collapse of the first turbine in Bradworthy, Devon, during a 50mph gale last weekend has revealed that bolts are missing from its base.

The turbine was initially thought to have been brought down by the wind, despite being designed to withstand winds of up to 116mph, but the new evidence could suggest a case of foul play, councillors said.

Margaret Coles, the chairman of Bradworthy Parish Council, revealed that an examination of the turbine had found that a number of bolts were absent from its base.

She said: “We know the bolts are gone but don’t know what caused it. It was a windy night – we do suffer lots of high winds but you would have thought the structure would cope with that.

“People that end of the parish were woken up by the crash it made when it came down. Some people think the bolts had been removed from the turbine which is why it was brought down.”

I’m a little skeptical of this.

Although the picture above supports the view that the bolts didn’t do their job (with the bottom flange appearing to be intact), I’m not entirely convinced somebody would go and deliberately undo the bolts.  For a start, these bolts are huge, and the nuts done up extremely tightly by a powered torque wrench, two of them per bolt – one on top of the other – then likely plastered in something to keep the rust off.  It isn’t simply a matter of turning up with an adjustable spanner and running off with the nuts in your pocket.  Also they say the bolts are missing, which is odd as I would expect them to be embedded in the concrete foundation and impossible to remove.  So I expect they mean the nuts.

It is possible that somebody decided to commit the necessary tools and manpower to undo the nuts on the foundation of a windmill, but it seems like an odd thing to do.  Were they subject to repeated vandalism already, then perhaps I’d be more ready to believe it.  But before I’d go hunting for saboteurs, I’d be looking at the quality control records of the installation: were the bolts properly installed, were they of the right material, were the nuts tightened to the correct torque.

The Tay Bridge didn’t need sabotage to bring it down.

Posted in Engineering, UK | 17 Comments

Should have seen it coming…

When he’s not abusing Sydney’s nouvelles riches ladies of leisure and snapping photos of Sydney’s sartorial disasters, The New Australian is fond of pointing out two things:

1. Like Brits, Australians have bought into the idea that property is a guaranteed, one-way bet to wealth; and

2. Australia has not experienced a recession in the last two generations, and is therefore going to get a colossal shock when the reality of the current downturn starts to bite.

In support of these positions is a telling article from the BBC:

After 23 years of growth, including one of the biggest mining booms in the nation’s history, tumbling iron ore and coal prices have put a brake on Australia’s economy – and mining towns are paying the price.

Peter Windle is a casualty of the mining slowdown. The New South Wales mining employee has lost a well-paid job, a company car and an annual bonus that in some years was as high as A$60,000 ($48,800; £31,300).

A termination package from the mining company he used to work for has helped soften the blow. But Mr Windle still had to sell his investment property to keep his head above water.

It’s not difficult to see what’s happened here.  Mr Windle failed to recognise that the recent period of high salaries and plenty of work was an anomaly and would not last forever, and so leveraged himself to the hilt buying a property which, in ordinary times, he couldn’t afford.  You can, well, put your house on the “investment property” that he bought was wildly overpriced and unlikely to break even unless the resource boom continued for another decade.  A quote from the article hints at this:

“It’s the worst I’ve seen it in 28 years in the mining industry,” says Mr Windle. “Everyone is getting out. Three hundred houses are for sale in my town, three in my street, and rental prices have collapsed on older weatherboard houses from A$1,000 a week to A$200,” he says.

Ah.  So what’s the betting Mr Windle has bought an “older weatherboard house” for a staggering sum of money and was relying on A$1,000 per week in rent for the next 10 years in order to pay if off?

If he’s been 28 years in the mining industry, he should have known better.  I am incredibly fortunate to have hit mid-career in the oil and gas industry in a period of unprecedented oil prices and salaries.  Several of the industry’s old hands have told me of the lean periods in the 1990s when there was no work, and one of them told me he worked a job for a year which paid less than he was spending: but at least it slowed the debt accumulation.  I remember in Sakhalin some of these same old hands telling us young pups that we should count our lucky stars and invest the money wisely, and know that this might not continue forever.  Few of my generation (and younger) missed this lesson.

Most of us knew that the good times would come to an end, which they did in 2008-9 but thankfully picked up again fairly quickly.  Everyone used the cash to buy property, which makes a sound investment if geographically diverse, a future permanent home, and/or is part of a portfolio of other investments.  But other than perhaps a few weeks after the initial purchase, few were daft enough to mortgage themselves to the point they’d be forced to sell if the prevailing boom came to an end.  For a short time I was a day-rate contractor, and the lesson dinned into me then was always have 6-12 months of salary stashed away in cash.  So if you lose your job, you have a cushion.  It’s a habit I still haven’t gotten out of even as a staff employee, keeping at least one, preferably two, year’s mortgage payments and living expenses in cash should the worst happen.

Obviously this isn’t feasible for most people working PAYE in civilisation in normal jobs, but for those of us who rode the oil and gas wave over the last 5 years or so, we were making hay while the sun shone.  I considered myself (and still do) extraordinarily lucky and privileged to have been able to benefit from it, but not a day goes by without having an eye on the oil price and the appreciation that in 3 months time I could be out of a job with a mortgage to pay, a wife to feed, and no home back in the UK.  I am grateful to those old hands I met in Sakhalin and Nigeria who told me not to squander the money made in the good times and be very aware that someday it will end: I learned to treat it as a bonus, not business as usual.

It appears there were not so many wise heads in the Australian mining sector:

It is poor consolation for Mr Windle, who is now contemplating looking for a job in another state.

“I’m 54 now, and I’ve had a hip replacement. I might get a job at an outback mine in the far north of Queensland but I’d hate to spend another year working away from home. And suppose they lay off workers too?” he asks.

It’s a shame for Mr Windle and others like him, but he should have factored all of this in when he bought his “investment property” and worked out his monthly cashflow.  Tough times, and it’s going to get worse.

Posted in Australia, Oil & Gas | 11 Comments

An Uber New Year

By coincidence, The New Australian has written a post about Uber, the app-based impromptu taxi service, and the outrage it appears to have caused in Australia.  I say coincidence because I used Uber for the first time last night, and I intended to write about why.  That bloke’s always nicking my ideas.

Up to now I have used an app called G7 to call licenced taxis in Paris (and the suburbs, where I live).  It’s remarkably simple, you just order a cab to your address and it selects a “nearby” car (more on that in a moment) and you can track its progress on the app, complete with details of car and registration.  It works very well, except for one detail: every “nearby” car it selects appears to be 6-7 minutes away, which turns into about 10-12 minutes by the time it actually arrives, hence the meter is already showing about 12 or 15 Euros by the time you even get in.  So on several occasions I have done a trip which, on the meter, costs about 10 Euros but I’ve ended up paying over 20 because, apparently, there were no closer cars around.

Yesterday I attended a party at a friend’s house in La Garenne-Colombes, two suburbs over from Puteaux where I live.  When I used the G7 app to call a cab, it selected a car which was in La Garenne-Colombes (my destination).  By the time it arrived the meter was showing 12 Euros.  By the time I got out and paid, it was showing 23 Euros.  So more than half the fare was the driver turning up. When we came to leave, the app selected a car in Puteaux (again my destination).  I followed his progress by GPS on the app, and he took a peculiar route to get to me, drove at a snail’s pace, and stopped for a few minutes for no discernible reason.  By the time he got to me, 20 minutes after I’d made the order, the meter was showing 14 Euros.  So I told him désolé, but this is a fleecing and I sent him on his way.

Unsure of what to do next, I remembered I’d signed up for Uber some time ago, but wasn’t sure quite how it worked.  So I fired it up, ordered a car, it arrived after 10 minutes and took me home, for the sum total of 7 Euros.

I doubt I will bother using the G7 app again.  What I think is happening is this (and this is just an opinion, I cannot prove it, so call the lawyers off).  The licence for a taxi in Paris is rumoured to be around 200k Euros per year.  The regulations prevent taxis from charging high rates, which makes Parisan taxis incredibly cheap compared to (say) London.  You can get from the centre to my suburb at 1am for about 2o Euros.  A London cabbie charges that for starting his engine at 1am.  But the problem is taxis can’t make money at night, with the result being you can’t find one.  It is simply not worth it for most Paris taxi drivers to work at night.

One way of offsetting the low fares is to allow the taxis to charge a fortune for the airport runs, particularly from Charles de Gaulle.  A taxi from CDG to Paris will cost you around 70-80 Euros, and it isn’t very far.  So the system appears to allow taxi drivers to fleece tourists but not charge a market rate for ordinary Parisians.  So far, so French.

What I think is happening now is the G7 app – which is basically a dispatch service – allows the meter to start running from the time the taxi takes the order.  Which is fair enough in theory, but there is no incentive for them to choose the closest car, or for the driver to make any special efforts in getting there as cheaply as possible.  What I suspect is happening is cars are being assigned that are 10 minutes or so away to guarantee a reasonable fare, instead of the closest car resulting in a much smaller fare.  I simply find it hard to believe – incentives what they are – that the nearest car is always 10 minutes away and simply had no choice but to put 12 Euros on the meter by the time it had arrived.  I further suspect that, were the taxis allowed to charge market rates, they would not engage in such practices.

It is little wonder the Parisian taxi drivers are going mental over Uber: they’ve been completely outflanked by a cheaper and more efficient service.  The driver who picked me up came with his name, registration, and review ranking sent to me in advance.  For all the fears of rapists and murderers, it would take a pretty stupid criminal think signing up to Uber as a cabbie will make life easier for him.  This being France, it wouldn’t surprise me if Uber does eventually get banned here, which will not help the country’s slow economic demise one jot.  They’d be better off reducing the licence fee, allowing the cabbies to charge market rates, and doing anything else they need to compete with Uber.  If they had any sense the cabbies would be getting their details into the Uber system and charging the premium for being licenced (in fact, I think some might already be doing this).  Then the customer can make their choice accordingly.

But, as I said, this is France.  Happy New Year!

Posted in France | 9 Comments

Beware of a Man in Search of a Legacy

Historical legacies are interesting things, offering as they do a chicken and egg situation.  Was Napoleon motivated foremost to secure his name in history and his deeds merely the methods he used to do it?  Or did he simply fancy taking charge of France and conquer large swathes of Europe by deploying astonishing military skill, and the legacy simply resulted from his actions?  I’m more inclined to believe the latter.  Not that great historical figures don’t have enormous egos and are unaware of the significance of their actions, but I don’t believe Peter the Great thought “if I want to be remembered in history I’ll have to do something big” and then after weighing up various options decided upon building a new capital and developing a Russian navy as the way to go about it.  No, I think he decided on building a new capital and turning Russia into a European-facing naval power and his legacy resulted from this decision.

Of course, the only people who succeeded in creating a legacy were those whose actions were both successful and significant.  History is littered with those who had grand ideas that never came off, and others whose actions changed little in the grand scheme of things.  What we hear even less of, thankfully, are those who, longing for a place in the history books, decided to create a legacy and then based their actions around this goal.  How do we know such people existed?  Because they’re still with us.

I remember during the New Labour years in the UK, people were always on about Blair’s legacy.  I think that’s the first time I was politically aware enough to see that somebody’s policies are being driven by what he wants people to say about him in the future, rather than what he actually believes.  Education Education Education was one mantra, that came to nothing.  Whatever the state of British education now, Tony Blair isn’t going to be remembered for playing any significant part in it.  Insofar as he has a legacy, it is one of a disastrous war in Iraq.  Those who supported the war don’t think he has a legacy at all.

Barack Obama is another modern politician in desperate search of a legacy, hoping to go down in history for something other than his skin colour.  He may well achieve it with Obamacare when the bills finally start coming in, although not for the reasons he thinks.  But that’s not enough: ill-advised peace talks with Iran and muddled overtures towards Cuba have followed, as Obama seeks a geopolitical issue on which to hang his hat in the history books.  Both are bound to fail.

Those who actively seek a legacy, rather than simply let it follow their actions, are doomed to fail largely because they lack the conviction to see their decisions through.  Historical legacies are not the results of popularity contests, in fact usually they’re the complete opposite.  Just ask Genghis Khan.  Those who succeed in pulling off great historical feats (both good and bad) do so from a position of absolute determination and self-belief in their actions, and will see them through regardless of the setbacks, or die in the attempt.  And the actions themselves are normally bold, brutal, and unprecedented.  This is in contrast to the modern politician seeking a legacy, who will be uncertain even on which path to take to achieve it, let alone the required actions.  At the first sign of trouble – an unkind editorial, an unfavourable opinion poll – most of them will backtrack and seek another way.  Abraham Lincoln didn’t suffer from this.  They also don’t think big enough: legacies are made by actions which affect millions for generations, permanently changing a country or continent, not tinkering with health policies or lobbing a few Tomahawks.

It is probably a good thing that today’s world doesn’t readily allow the actions that bring about the sort of legacies historical figures have left, given that most of them involved death and destruction on an industrial scale.  But the problem of those seeking a legacy, rather than simply doing their job, remains.  This brings me onto the current state of Russia under Vladimir Putin.

There is no doubt that Putin was very good for Russia in the early years: young, fit, and sober he was probably the best leader Russia has ever seen, although I should add that the bar is set extraordinarily low.  Russia in the ’90s was a terrible place, and Putin provided much needed stability and a reining-in of the oligarchs and gangsterism that plagued the country.  How much of this was down to him personally is debatable, but under his reign the currency stabilised, the economy grew, violence declined, and living standards rose as a new middle class of moderately wealthy Russians appeared.  The decade between 2000 and 2010 probably represented the best period Russia has ever seen (although again, the bar is set astonishingly low) and Putin deserves considerable credit for presiding over it.  Given what Russians lived through in the USSR and its aftermath it is not difficult to see why Putin was, and remains, so popular with his people.

Now we can argue that Putin should have done more, but I don’t take that view.  What he had achieved up until around 2006-7 had surpassed all expectations, and I don’t think anything more should have been asked or expected of the man.  That’s not to say there was not an awful lot left to do in Russia: there was.  It is to say that Putin was not the man to do it.

There are limits to what people can do in office, and that is often driven by time.  A two-term president in the US is usually in charge of a very tired administration in the final couple of years, regardless of how good they’ve been beforehand.  Even New Labour’s supporters were glad to see the back of Tony Blair after 10 years as Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street a tired shadow of the vibrant woman who had entered almost 12 years previously; and despite the economic boom and rise in living standards Australia enjoyed under 11 years of John Howard, the population felt they were in need of a change when they kicked him out.  The optimum period in office for a leader in a modern democracy is approximately 7-8 years, after which their administration is plagued by various scandals, stumbling policies, tired rhetoric, and a population that has gotten tired of seeing the same damned face on the TV every night and could use a change.  Even the Soviet leaders eventually departed, unable to fulfill any more promises or bring about change in the way they could when they first took over.  With the exception of Stalin, few missed them.

By this measure, Putin’s time was up around 2007.  Having taken over as President in 2000, he was required to step down in 2008 when his two-term limit had expired.  This would have been a good time to usher in a protégé and retire from politics, having achieved so much and leaving the country in far better shape than he found it.  He would have been universally admired both at home and abroad, and gone down in history as a truly good, if not great, Russian leader.

But unfortunately, he was having none of it.  With the idea of amending the constitution to allow him to remain President floating around in the final years of his second term, he sidestepped the issue by installing a puppet President in Dmitry Medvedev, and slotted effortlessly into the Prime Minister’s role transferring his previous authority to his new office until it was time to return to his old job four years later.  Starting around 2006, buoyed by high oil prices that had brought enormous wealth to him and his friends and unprecedented wealth to many ordinary Russians, Putin started to strut his stuff at home and abroad.  A new wave of Russian nationalism took hold, taking the form of increased anti-western rhetoric, a re-positioning of Russia as the victim of foreign exploitation, and a desire to get more involved in global affairs in order to protect Russia’s perceived interests.  It was during this era that the Russian government intervened in several major oil and gas projects operated by western oil companies, citing legal or environmental irregularities as justification for bringing them back under state control.  At the same time, Russia decided the operatorship of the giant Shtokman project in the Barents Sea would remain with Gazprom, the state-owned energy giant.  In September 2007 I wrote that the policy of resource nationalism that Russia had pursued the previous summer could one day be seen as a turning point in the country’s development, the time at which the Russian leadership decided that the production of oil and gas by state-owned behemoths in an otherwise unreformed economy was the route to future prosperity.

For a while it was looking good for Russia.  The country was rocked by, but ultimately survived, the global financial crisis thanks to an oil price that quickly rebounded after an initial tumble.  But crucially, once he’d decided to remain in power, Putin failed to reform the economy beyond the Soviet-era export of natural resources, primarily oil and gas.  As I said earlier, given everything Putin had done to stabilise Russia I don’t think the onus was on him personally to reform the economy: such a daunting task would have had to fall to somebody else.  But by staying on, unless he was willing to double-down on his efforts and likely expend whatever energy and political capital he had, such a reform was postponed indefinitely.

It is not just the case that Russia is too dependent on oil and gas exports, it is that it is almost impossible for individuals to develop and grow a profitable business unless they are well connected to a rich and powerful entity in the locality.  For all practical purposes, this means being pals with the mayor or FSB of the local town, or the bigger politicians in the larger cities.  Otherwise, your business simply won’t be allowed to develop.  It is no surprise that most Russian towns feature one giant shopping mall owned by a local bigwig who also owns a nightclub and a few restaurants, with another one or possibly two smaller “empires” making up the bulk of the remaining local business portfolio.  If an enterprising but unconnected person decided to develop a small patch of land beside the river and turn it into a waterside restaurant, and by some miracle obtained the permits to get it up and running, within days of turning a profit (or even before) he would lose his business.  He would be forced out: either by a never-ending stream of regulatory authorities ranging from fire safety to health inspectors, all of whom would demand a cut of the proceeds to “allow” him to stay open; or simply by a gang of thugs working on behalf of a local bigwig who fancies co-opting the business (now that somebody else has done all the hard work) into his own empire.  In my discussions with Russians, this is something which is absolutely beyond dispute: the number of parasites that descend on private, independent businesses makes running a successful enterprise near-impossible.  In Russia, you may run a business only with the approval of the local power chiefs, and tribute must be paid.

This situation is a product of the enormous bureaucracies that govern Russian business life, coupled with the corruption that infests almost every corner of them.  Overhauling this is a mammoth task, and in all likelihood impossible.  But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried, and the starting point would be to strengthen the country’s institutions – particularly the courts and justice system, and insisting that governmental authorities everywhere follow the rule of law.  However, that would require giving them independence and devolving centralised state power over a much wider area, and neither the Kremlin nor the regional powers were prepared to do this.  Like a lot of leaders who have enjoyed unopposed power a while, Putin began to see himself as indispensable.  Far from state institutions being granted more devolved authority and independence, Putin centralised Russia’s powers further, notably around himself.

Further convinced of his own indispensability, in no small part due to genuine feelings of support for the idea from the Russian population backed by crushing election victories, Putin became yet more assertive in his dealings with the rest of the world, determined to restore what Russians consider to be their rightful place in global affairs, with himself in the role of saviour of the nation.  Somewhere along the way, Putin seems to have sniffed an opportunity of one day being held in the same esteem as Peter the Great, Katherine the Great, and maybe even old Joe Stalin.  Sometime after 2012, the ageing Putin perhaps thought time was running out for him to establish such a legacy, and so stepped up his efforts.  Confused mumbo-jumbo regarding Imperialist Russia and Soviet history underpinned much of his foreign policy, with vague ideas about manifest destiny thrown in for good measure.  Having trampled all potential domestic opposition and removed any dissenting voices from within his own circle, Putin fell into the trap of all long-serving authoritarians: he started believing his own bullshit, hearing nothing but rapturous applause every time he spoke.  So when the opportunity to reclaim Crimea for Russia presented itself, Putin moved quickly to take it.

Now regardless whether you believe the Russian claims that the annexation of Crimea was necessary to prevent the Americans establishing a base there, the fact is that in 2006-7 and again in 2010-12 Putin faced the choice of either reforming the economy by overhauling the state institutions and rooting out corruption, or improving Russia’s position with regards global affairs and its near-abroad with himself as the figurehead of Russia’s resurgence.  It is almost beyond question that doing both was impossible, and completely beyond dispute that he chose the latter.  In my view, he did so for two reasons: it was much easier for him, coming more naturally; and he thought this was the best route to establish himself in the history books alongside other great Russian leaders.

With that choice, any hope that the Russian economy could free itself from local strongmen and the national giants was lost.  The government remained dependent on a high oil price to balance its budget, while the rest of the economy remained unreformed, unreconstructed, and hopelessly inefficient.  As a result, Russia in 2014 found itself still heavily dependent on imports and produced little of value domestically: even the foreign car assembly plants set up in western Russia are dependent on imported parts, for which they must pay in Euros.

So long as the oil price remained high, none of this really mattered.  But with its collapse, and the western-imposed sanctions, the Russian economy has nosedived.  This article by Tim Worstall explains just how grim things are looking for Russia, but does not tell the whole story.  The middle-class consumer boom which took place in Russia over the last decade was driven mainly by personal debt: people borrowing from banks or credit card companies.  With the real prospect of incomes drying up and jobs being lost, a lot of households are going to struggle.  But what makes it worse is that credit in Roubles was being offered at interest rates of around 15-20% but consumers had the option of taking loans in Euros or USD which only attracted interest rates of 5-10%.  Many Russians took the latter option, and now face paying household debts in Euros or USD at a time when their Rouble salaries are worth half what they were.  Even those who borrowed in Roubles haven’t escaped: according to my Russian friends, banks are “renegotiating” the interest rates with their customers, which means higher monthly repayments.  Coupled with the rapidly increasing price of food (not helped one jot by Putin’s ban on imported products), we could see many households going into bankruptcy for the first time since 1998.  And this is before one considers the effect of the Rouble’s decline on the country’s main employers.  The head of Renault-Nissan in Russia recently came out and said manufacturing in the country is facing a bloodbath.

What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but a return to the grinding poverty and economic instability of the 1990s is looking increasingly likely.  Putin remains as popular as ever, having successfully dumped the nation’s economic woes squarely at the feet of the United States and European Union.  But as the economic reality starts to sink in, and increasing numbers of people with no jobs go hungry, issues such as political leadership and the inequality between the elites and the rest are going to become more pronounced.  Even if the Kremlin successfully manages to deflect the questions by piling on the anti-western rhetoric, this will not solve the underlying economic problems.

The trouble now is that it is too late.  The economy cannot be reformed with the sanctions still in place and the Rouble so weak, and so they have no choice but to ride it out until the oil price rises again, which on current forecasts could be a while.  Russians are facing the very realistic possibility of returning to the 1990s: empty shelves already line supermarkets, companies running package holidays abroad are going bankrupt by the dozen leaving local vacations as the only affordable option, and photos on Facebook show mass crowds buying TVs, video cameras, Ikea furniture, and other household items they don’t need in an effort to swap Roubles for something with a chance of retaining some value.  If this keeps up, it may be fair to ask exactly what progress has been made in Russia in the past 20 years.

Putin had the option of stepping down in 2008, his job well done, and handing over to a successor.  He chose not to, and instead opted to pursue what he hoped would become his legacy, which would be underpinned by the self-development of Russia’s vast hydrocarbon reserves.

The worst part is they didn’t even get that right.  The last major oil and gas development in Russia was the Shell-built Sakhalin II LNG project, which started up in 2008.  The Gazprom-led Shtokman development ground to a halt amid spiralling costs and disagreements between the partners.  Rosneft has been in the news mainly for its deals with BP, its appropriation of Yukos and Bashneft, and its staggering corporate debt rather than concrete development plans bearing fruit.  Umpteen grand announcements ranging from Nigerian gas deals and far-east LNG plants to Arctic developments and Chinese pipelines have come to nothing (or remain stuck on such details as pricing).  As of 2014, Russia remains as unpredictable, risky, and dangerous for an oil company – even a Russian one – to do business as it was in the 1990s.  For a country that picked hydrocarbon development as the sole political-economic strategy in lieu of reforming the economy and engaging with the west, this is a shockingly poor performance.

So what of Putin’s legacy?  If Russia hangs onto Crimea, which it probably will, it might warrant a note in a history book somewhere (offered as much prominence as Khrushchev’s transfer of the peninsula in 1954, which few knew about until recently).  But it’s hardly the stuff to warrant a mention alongside Katherine the Great or Ivan the Terrible.  As I said at the beginning of this post, the modern-day politician (of which Putin is one, no matter how much he wishes he belonged to another era) just doesn’t think big enough to create a proper legacy.  In the grand scheme of things, the annexation of Crimea is mere fiddling, and expensively at that.

The irony is that if he had stood down in 2008, he would have left a legacy of quite some merit.  Had he decided to stay and expended his considerable political capital in ramming through the economic and institutional reforms Russia so desperately needs, he would have created a legacy even greater (albeit one that carried a lot more risk of failure).  Instead it is looking increasingly likely that his early work will be completely undone, and his legacy will be one of having progressed Russia precisely nowhere since he took over, having gone the full circle from crisis-ridden poverty to stable wealth and back to crisis-ridden poverty in just 15 years.  Putin’s is a story more suited to Africa than Russia, with a legacy more akin to Robert Mugabe than Peter the Great.  What a terrible waste.  What a terrible shame.

Posted in Economics, Oil & Gas, Politics, Russia | 11 Comments

Never Truer Words Spoken

In August I wrote a post, the central point of which was Russia ought to tread carefully in its dealings with the west because they might not be as forgiving the next time should Russia find itself once again in a very weak position:

By historical standards Russia, as part of a collapsing empire which had been defeated after a long and often bloody struggle against an ideological, military, and political enemy that remained strong, got off awfully lightly.

Russians might do well to appreciate this, and consider that should a similar situation arise again they might get treated somewhat differently.  History is littered with examples of enemies not being finished off when the chance was there; there are not so many examples of an enemy being forgiven twice.

I envisaged a scenario whereby Republican voices in the US and like-minded politicians in Europe take advantage of a crisis in Russia to ensure another showdown with a government in Moscow cannot happen, i.e. by taking steps to severely hobble the country or dismember it.  It’s unlikely, but nevertheless possible.

Today I came across this article reporting Vladimir Putin making a statement in October which I suspect might be interpretted differently from how he meant it:

“The Cold War has ended,” Putin said yesterday. “But it ended without peace being achieved, without clear and transparent agreements on the new rules and standards.”

Indeed.  And the lesson drawn by some will be that next time around peace will be imposed unconditionally and Russia will be left in absolutely no doubt as to the new rules and standards.

In completely unrelated news, the Russian rouble has suffered its biggest fall since 1998.

Posted in Politics, Russia | 9 Comments

RIP Phil Hughes

At the risk of this blog turning into a series of obituaries, I feel I should say something about the tragic death of Australian cricketer Phil Hughes, who has died two days after being struck on the head with a cricket ball during a Sheffield Shield match at the SCG.

That this is a terrible tragedy doesn’t need repeating by me; at 25 years of age and with a talent that the Australian selectors didn’t fully appreciate, it is a dreadful shame.

But there are two things that I would like to say.  Firstly, among the outpourings of sympathy on social media – which is in danger of turning Diana-esque – few people have mentioned that a year ago Australian cricket fans and media were roaring with enthusiasm at Mitchell Johnson when he was bowling extremely fast bouncers at the English batsmen, with many wishing them physical harm and squealing with delight every time a ball thudded into English flesh or bone.  Not that I blame Mitchell Johnson: he did what anyone with that sort of pace would do, but given how the whole country were happy for him to do it to English batsmen I’m finding it a little hollow that the dangers of aiming bouncers at batsmen’s heads is only now being seen as a problem.  Naturally the Sydney Morning Herald chooses to illustrate an article entitled Time to ban the bouncer? with a photo of Stuart Broad hitting Chris Rogers in the last Ashes and not the snarling Mitchell Johnson close-up that dominated the media at the time.  Hypocrisy, much?

Secondly, I was extremely surprised that a batsmen could suffer such an injury, let alone a fatal one.  Broken noses, smashed ribs, rattled jaws yes; but a fatal blow to the head is something I thought was barely possible.  But then I read that Hughes had attempted to play a hook shot and been hit by the ball – a bouncer – as it rose off the pitch.  And then I read that the ball had struck him on the side/back of the head, behind the side guards which cover the ears.  I suspect he went for the hook, swivelled, and was facing away from the bowler when the ball struck him.  Everyone mis-times strokes, but to mis-time this badly is incredible at Sheffield Shield level: I am still wondering if the video of the incident (which I’ve not looked for, but investigators will have a copy) will show he didn’t even see it coming.  The reason the helmet didn’t protect him is that it is not designed with the expectation that the back of the head will be exposed to the ball; it assumes all impacts will come from the front or angled at the side.  I have no idea why Hughes would attempt to play such a clearly unbalanced and mis-timed shot, but the Australian batting style of recent years seems to be to smash anything and everything out of the ground regardless.  Aggressive bowling is probably what everyone will focus on here but fast bouncers have been part of the game for decades.  What is new is the expectation that such deliveries can be smashed with a haymaker that unbalances the batsman and leaves him facing the wrong way when the ball arrives.  Over-aggressive batting, in other words.

Finally, spare a thought for the bowler Sean Abbott.  There is not a soul on the planet who will blame him for this accident, but he will surely blame himself for the rest of his life.  I hope he does okay.

UPDATE

As TNA points out in the comments, the media coverage of this in Australia is turning into a circus.  This article by 9 News is a case in point:

Michael Clarke has often been the man for a crisis but never before has he stood so strong.

The Australian Test captain has earned plaudits for leading like never before, in a situation so removed from his post, while grieving himself for his close friend Phillip Hughes.

Clarke was singled out for praise by Australian team doctor Peter Brukner for being a rock of support for Hughes’ parents – Greg and Virginia – and siblings Megan and Jason in the bedside vigil at St Vincents Hospital.

It was Clarke who read a statement by the devastated family to a packed press conference at the hospital late Thursday, before having to walk away as emotion overcame him.

Dr Brukner then fought back tears as he credited the captain for providing strength and loving support desperately required in a time of need and sadness.

“Phillip has always been a little brother to Michael,” Dr Brukner said.

“Michael’s efforts over the last 48 hours to support the family; the family was obviously going through a difficult time but I’m not sure they would have coped without Michael’s assistance.

“I was just enormously impressed at the work he did and the genuine care and love he gave to the Hughes family.”

Look, Michael Clarke is a good bloke, a great captain, and a fantastic cricketer.  That is well known already, and if his close relationship with Phil Hughes was not already obvious to some and needed to be highlighted, his role in support of Hughes and his family during the last few days is worthy of a solemn mention, not reams of gibbering tripe like that above.  This is little more than an attempt to put Clarke on a pedestal as some sort of guardian angel to the Hughes martyr, driving on this “nation united by grief” meme which has been in vogue since Diana’s death and is peddled by an unattractive combination of a population desperate to show they “care” and a media desperate to shift more copy.  Clarke doesn’t need to be put on a pedestal: he is doing his job well, both on and off the field, as is expected.  Note this by all means, but spare us the soap opera.

Posted in Sport | 9 Comments