Thoughts of a fly on the bar wall

It is 50 years since I started visiting bars, since then I have sat in more bars, in more places than I want to remember. I have worked behind, cooked in, served in, and managed pubs. I have conversed and argued with painters, Pakis (Ladies and Gentleman from Pakistan if you must), parasites, Parisians, parliamentarians, peers of the realm , perverts, players, pleaders, plebs, plumbers, Poles, poofters, prime ministers and prostitutes. I have written and broadcast about far cities, elegant restaurants, bordellos and mismanaged disasters.
I have heard absolute rubbish, absurd claims, downright duplicity as well as much good sense and enormous doses of reality.
Put it all these conversations together with my last few years thinking, reading and writing about the way we live, about our governance, our mistakes and our future and you get to this blog.

Sam Worthington

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Have Google restarted star wars?

There was a news item this week that made me think about the potential it had to cause strife. On the face of it Google’s takeover of Titan Aerospace appears to have no serious ramification until we understand one of the reasons why Google bought that company. The fact that Facebook was also looking at it adds to the implications. Both companies are interested in getting as many people as possible onto the internet. Ideally they want the net available in to every person in every house in every country in the world. That aspiration has often been frustrated by infrastructure problems. Essentially somebody has to run a piece of wire into all buildings – of course there can be wifi and mobile links but they can be expensive and getting the signal to the point required still needs millions of dollars of satellite dishes, microwaves or the same dreaded cables – and even when it is there it is controlled by the internet service provider. Titan Aerospace drones can supposedly fly around using solar power and provide wifi access to people of the ground
And that is where it gets interesting – some countries simple do not want their citizens to have access to the web; and if they do that access has to be filtered – censored some might say. So North Korea – for example - is going to be less than impressed if suddenly there is Google drone at 90,000 feet offering internet access.
The next point that caught my eye was a suggestion that people like Google are looking at launching satellites to do the same thing. So not just drones, way above the ceiling most aircraft can operate at, but satellites which are even more difficult to get at. It is very difficult to censor the internet as it is – but in a few years’ time it could be impossible. Of course Google are commercial and will want a return – advertising is not going to be a big revenue stream in North Korea but Google have already developed an operating system for smart phone – it would not be difficult to add a function, that can access Google wifi where ever it is in the world, for an annual fee or even a add on to the purchase of the original software – there are plenty of ways the monetise the service.
Needless to say a commercial provision of wifi, for all, may create access for millions of people whose rulers would rather they did not have such access. However the strategic implications are even bigger. Interestingly the house I was bought up in was the centre for black communications ops during WWII. One of their wheezes was they knew the Germans turned off radio stations as a bombing raid developed – because they thought the bombers were using the radio station signals for guidance – so the guys in black ops managed patch in so, that as the German radio station was switched off, they took over the programme. They did not try and spread big rumours but they tried to undermine German moral with small items. So if Google can hijack internet access in certain circumstances governments could too. It would not be difficult to use the same concept developed by Sefton Delmar – people would think they are accessing the world wide web but it would be a carefully selected and filtered WWW. For instance an exact copy of the BBC site could be created and updated so when somebody logs on, via a satellite, they get the wrong site. That maybe a little farfetched but the ability to control information is always important in a combat situation. On top of that Edward Snowdon has demonstrated how paranoid even Western governments are about communication and, these days, whoever control the internet controls communications.
There is already extreme unhappiness that the USA owns the GPS system – it does not matter that nobody else has developed such a system and there are even doubts they know how to. The EU – they would; would they not – started on an alternative and gave up after wasting billions of Euros. The idea that American companies have the ability to provide wifi to anywhere in the world is going to gravely concern authoritarian regimes.
So stand by for China, among others, to start developing weapons to discreetly remove satellites and very high flying low profile aircraft. That is why I started off by saying have Google restarted star wars!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Is Putin to be admired?

A comment by the leader of UKIP – the UK’s strident anti EU party – has evoked the fury of politically correct (PC) politicians. He had the temerity to say he admired Putin most among contemporary (I presume) politicians. This is as all other western politicians are comparing Putin to Hitler and Crimea to Sudenland. Farage went on to suggest the whole Ukraine crisis was, in part, due to the EU. A jolly jape indeed by Farage who is certainly not publicity shy – and for outraged of SWI (where the Parliaments buildings are) it is even worse – many people agree with him. Just read the comments under this article by Malcolm Rifkind a formerminister of defence who I always thought was one of the better guys. On top of that Farage never said he thought Putin was right – what he admires is the way Putin is standing up for Russia, and what he believes is in the best interests of Russia. Putin is not about to apologise for something Russia did a century ago, or avoid confrontation if he believes it is in Russia’s best interests. Putin is actually proud of his country’s victories; which is at odds to many European politicians. That all means Putin is a nationalist; this is at a time when leaders of the EU are trying to persuade all and sundry that nationalism is over – it is about Europe and not countries. If you do not believe that read this article by Daniel Hannan - the quotes, at the end, are particularly revealing. So the juxtaposition of Farage – who like Putin believes in his country above the EU - and western leaders is diametrically contrary – barely surprising they jump on anything he says!
The question I posed is should Putin be admired? I believe the place to start is 1999 when he first became prime minister under Yeltsin – he was not expected to survive for long – and Russia was in state of turmoil after the end of Communism, the coup against Gorbachev followed by the erratic rule of Yeltsin – Russia was going downhill fast. There is similarity here to Hitler who essentially came to power because the state was failing – Putin leapt into a similar situation and over the years has stabilised a waning country. Of course Russia is a vast country and it still has a significant military; not to mention an enormous nuclear arsenal. Thus it is barely surprising that a population bought up in the USSR -which they were led to believe was (with Russia at its heart) the greatest nation of Earth - deplored the decline of that country. They wanted it back as a significant force in the world. That is what Putin has done – he has restored Russian pride and, whilst democrats may deplore his methods, the majority like the result. It could be said that Putin has bought Russia back from the abyss of a lawless state run by local strong men – the wealth and the number of oligarchs is evidence of what was happening.
Needless to say it is on the foreign stage that Putin has come into our lives – jailing a few punk singers got publicity but stopping the west from bombing Syria and annexing Crimea has changed the way Russia is perceived in the world. Ironically there was little democratic support for intervention in Syria; western politicians may have wanted it but few outside politics did. And having looked at the mess the Arab spring has created I understand why. Putin’s motives may not have been altruistic but he may well have saved the west from yet another messy entanglement in the Middle East.
So on the plus side Putin has saved his country from anarchy – which given its nuclear weapons is not something anybody wants to even think about – and he has stopped the west getting into yet another unnecessary war.
The annexation of Crimea is understandable – it does contain Russia’s only warm water port – even if it broke several international agreements. But the west takes a cavalier approach to such agreements when it does not suit them. However you dress it up the annexation of Kosovo is about as legal as annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine is a mess – it never took on the market reforms of the rest of Eastern Europe and was in a limbo land partly supported by Russia whilst looking wistfully to the west. In reality Ukraine needed to get off the fence and it found itself as the rope in a tug of war between Russia and the EU – and neither side was playing by the rules. In the end one has to quietly admire Putin for taking the initiative and grabbing Crimea whilst he could.
I, for one, have always said beware of the Russian bear – because like all bears Russia will take what it can get when it can get it. Putin has simple embolden Russia with his highly nationalistic attitude – and make no mistake he is dangerous and the west ignores Putin and Russia at their peril. And again the comparison with Hitler is there – many in the US and Britain admired Hitler – they thought he had repaired a great nation. And that did not end well.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Corruption in Asia– why it will never be eradicated.

Asia is notorious for corruption – and that is not an unfair perception. So why is it so hard to eliminate?
I suspect the main reason is because it is genuinely endemic – in the end it effects far too many people and to an extent it works both ways. Somebody wants a permit and the rules will specify the requirement – very often those rules are badly drafted – often to abet corruption – thus the exact interpretation can be subject to manipulation to make them stricter, or laxer, so the applicant comes to an arrangement with the person who issues the permit – there is a lax interpretation of the rules and the permit is issued in double quick time. In the end that little piece of corruption has suited both the issuer of the permit and the person who needs the permit.
Police corruption is well known and documented and of course that again suits many because misdemeanours can be overlooked for a consideration – in the West a drunk driver killing somebody is likely to end in jail for a few years – in Asia a quick payoff of family and police will clear the matter up very quickly. And the police will broker the whole deal. How many erring motorists would prefer to slip the police a few notes rather than go to court and risk having their licence suspended?
But these little examples have little to do with the vast sums of money syphoned off by the guys at the top – that is where the poor of the country are really disadvantaged. You will not find a poor Asian politician. Of course getting elected is expensive – votes need to be bought – in part by patronage – which costs money – but also by buying head men and in many cases paying for individual votes. A Thai politician was quoted as saying, “When it cost a Volvo to get elected I could afford it – it now costs a high end Mercedes.” And the point about the people running the country is they that like it exactly as it is. Political dynasties are very common in Asia – son often follows father into politics and this goes on for generations with same constituency staying in the family. This builds up a strong local following that is difficult to dislodge. Why on earth do anything to endanger the family business?
The saddest point about this state of affairs is the people who might do something about it – the average voter – do not because they are badly educated – on purpose maybe- and invariable sell their vote or vote as instructed. On top of that there is apathy as nobody believes their vote matters - they do not believe it will change anything. And it is a sad fact that when a poor person gets richer and joins the next layer up; they too get on the gravy train of corruption.
Salaries in government departments are very low and the numbers employed are invariable far more than really needed – but those salaries are topped up from the corruption pool. The logical way to rid the system of corruption is to double salaries and halve numbers employed. The wretched reality is that that suits nobody!
Corruption can be an enormous problem for foreign investors – getting to grips with it and being properly advised is never easy – not to mention the fact that many have to get round anti-corruption legislation from their home domicile. Taxes cause problems as most Asian tax departments prefer to ‘negotiate’ the level of taxation with the final figure being an arbitrary one as a result of those negotiations - trying to fix tax by the book of rules increases the tax bill dramatically.
Needless to say everybody knows about corruption and there will be much talk of eradicating it; but when there is a change of government nothing alters. Quite the contrary: all too often the biggest anti-corruption campaigners are much worse than those they take over from – even if change is bought about by a revolution the new guys simple want to get their snouts into the same trough. There are plenty of stories of arrests and crackdowns – as ever the biggest crime is getting caught, that is closely followed by upsetting your peers. In such cases the fall force of the law may be applied – just to make certain everybody understands the rules of the gravy train as well as a sacrificial lamb to convince voters something is being done about corruption!
If corruption is discussed with an old Asia hand it will be quickly suggested that corruption is just as rife in the West as it is in the East – but it is a different type of corruption. Generally it is corruption at the highest levels – particularly within the political system. People are bribed with unnecessary jobs often at absurdly high salaries – think quangos, research organisations and public corporations. And I always suspect that the more petty rules and bureaucracy created the greater the chance of corruption at lower levels – having suffered at the hands of public health officials I know that many would be very tempted to pay up to get the necessary permits rather than go through the hassles of box ticking and expensive maintenance and upgrades.
That really is the point; once people are used to corruption, and can use it to their benefit, they kind of support it. They seldom look up and realise quite how much of their wealth is being stolen by the guys at the top. They never consider how much better their life could be if their government spent all the money it receives on its peoples rather than its leaders.