Dirty Politics and the Misuse of Power

Currently, New Zealand has entered an election campaigning season, and a little over a month out from the election, Nicky Hagar published a book called “Dirty Politics”, based upon emails apparently hacked from Slater’s computer, in which he alleges the governing party has used, or more specifically, misused, its information obtained as government, including some of the work of the Security Intelligence Service (the government organization involved with countering espionage, terrorism, etc) to discredit opponents. For people in most other countries, what happens in New Zealand may not seem important, but it goes to the heart of the problems that I have highlighted in some of my futuristic ebook novels. These have various forms of governance, but the problem is invariably that someone in power finds the flaws of the system, either deliberately or occasionally accidentally, and exploits those flaws for nefarious purposes.

I have not read “Dirty Politics” so my remarks here are dependent on the media reports, nevertheless there are some points that seem to be undisputed. Thus in the previous election, a right wing blogger Cameron Slater used a connection to someone in the Prime Minister’s Office to obtain information hacked from an unsecure computer belonging to someone in the Opposition, and used the information to smear the Leader of the Opposition. The accusation is that people working in the Prime Minister’s Office, and apparently one or two senior cabinet Ministers or people working for them, have used information obtained as of right by government, including from SIS surveillance reports, to smear people they do not like by tipping off such bloggers. As an example, it is alleged that the Minister of Justice suggested to Slater that a specifically named senior public servant had leaked information to the detriment of the Government. There are several problems with this, not the least being that the man smeared appears to have been innocent, and worse, the priming was made without a shred of evidence of guilt. The culture appears to be, “I don’t like him so let’s wreck his life.” In this particular case, the Prime Minister denies responsibility, and in the most basic sense he is probably correct in that he was out of the country at the time. And this is the policy: the man at the top must appear Teflon Clean, while the dirty work is done a level below. Straight out of the Richard Nixon philosophy!

But worse than that is the fact that the Prime Minister denies knowledge of what went on in his own office. He may be speaking the truth, but he is not there to be ignorant. If he is truly is ignorant of what is going on in his own office, then in my view he is unsuitable to lead the country. Of course I don’t believe that he did not know, but that is not the point. If he claims not to know, then he is admitting dereliction of duty. If he does nothing to clean out the guilty, which, like Nixon, he shows no sign of doing, then he now takes on the guilt.

What these people seem to do is to enjoy the idea of wrecking other people’s lives. In other words, they are total slime balls. All of which suggests that the whole idea of government for the people is decaying. One of the dangers for governance is that as systems of governance age, people may start to forget the principles that were once held sacred. Little by little, the unscrupulous take advantage, to the detriment of all but themselves. Any form of governance can only work if the people make it work. Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, exposing the truth disinfects bad governance, but this requires the truth to be available. Too many parts of government seem to think that secrets are power, to be used as those with it feel free. I believe that the use of government power to smear and discredit those with views that differ from theirs is totally unacceptable.

The current Israeli/Gaza/Palestine conflict.

Over the past few days, like many, I have been concerned about what is happening in Gaza, I have posted comments on some web news sites, and it occurred to me I should explain myself more fully. According to both my fiction and non-fiction writing, problems should be able to be solved logically, and that may seem a rather strange thing to say, given the morass that is Gaza/Palestine, and there is a reason why it may fail. Logic depends on premises, and I feel part of the problem is that different people start from different premises.

While many people tend to think this specific conflict started when Hamas started firing rockets, for me, the problem started before the formation of Israel. There had been a Zionist movement for some time, but it probably got a boost in the mid 1930s when Germany tried to export Jews, and in particular, Reinhardt Heydrich promoted Palestine as a place for Jews with strong Zionist tendencies, in the hope that such Jews would embarrass Britain. These Jews did do that to some extent during the war, and then there were the strong terrorist groups, such as the Stern Gang. Many countries were embarrassed by the holocaust, and the UN voted part of Palestine to form Israel. The problem was, it was not theirs to give. Many Jews immigrated, consequently there was a housing problem, and this was followed by the Nakba, where, straight out of the Speer/Himmler re-housing textbook, about 600,000 Palestinians were ejected and their property confiscated. Since then, the Palestinians wanted to go back and various Arab countries have supported them, while the US and other countries have strongly supported Israel. The cold war became entangled in this, there were various Muslim-initiated fights, ranging from irritation to general war, and this culminated in the six-day war, when Israel thrashed its opponents and occupied a very large amount of territory. There followed UN resolution 242 in which it was argued that territory could not be acquired by conquest, and Israeli troops should withdraw from {} occupied territories to secure boundaries. There were two immediate problems: in the English version there was no definite article to replace {} but there was in the French version, so they argued, based on whether it was “the conquered territory” or just “conquered territory” about how much withdrawal was necessary, and seemingly ended with essentially none, then there was argument over “secure boundaries”. So, Israel remains in the occupied territories, but not Gaza, where it has withdrawn, not from charity but because it does not want the Palestinians in there. Since then there have been a number of UN resolutions drafted to reduce Israel’s occupancy, and the US has vetoed them. The rest we all know about. Basically, there is enough hatred here to spark endless wars. There has been even more incompetence from Palestinian leaders, but then the question arises, should the young suffer through incompetence of their parents?

So, what can be done? The first question we should ask is, do we want this situation to be there, or worse, in fifty years time, when for new generations, it is possible to have calmed the hatred? If the answer is no, there has to be peace, and soon. The right of Israel to exist has to be fundamental. It may have been wrongly formed, but we cannot do anything about that now. The Palestinians must accept an Israeli border, but have territory of their own, but that requires Israel to pull its settlers out of the occupied territories, where settlements have sprung up like a pox. Then Palestinians must also receive compensation for the Nakba, and it may be these settlements are the best way of doing that. It should be noted that when Israel pulled out of Gaza it destroyed Israeli-built housing and buildings, an act of spite that seems typical of both sides in this dispute.

The Palestinians also have to have an economy with some sort of hope for the future. All those who criticize that thought should go live in the Gaza ghetto for a while and see what it is actually like. Yes, they get a lot of aid, but that aid is merely to sustain some sort of existence. One of the more disturbing aspects about this problem is the number of people who say, the other Arab countries should take them in, or the other Arab countries should provide for them. Is it not wonderful how so many are so generous with somebody else’s wealth? Further, such resolution is urgently needed, now that Gaza has no electricity or fresh water. Now, is there a logic error in the above?

Do I think such a resolution is likely? No, it is not, and the reason is that the worst of the perpetrators of hate are too comfortable. This misery is what feeds the extremists on both sides. To get a resolution, first you need a leader on each side to see the value in reaching a solution and to accept the very basic requirements of the other side. Second, each leader has to either take the extremists on his side with him, or force them to follow. Then the external major powers have to use their influence to make it happen. I believe the third requirement is plausible, but there is little sign of the first two.

Peak oil and its consequences

What is your reaction to the term, “Peak Oil”? Most people seem to think this is merely yet another doom and gloom message, but I do not see it that way. Much of our current oil production comes from some really giant fields, and these are running down. Yes, a lot of fields are being discovered, but they are relatively small ones, and in any case, as I put it in my ebook Biofuels, An Overview, oil is not being created. Eventually we must run out, and the fact that we do not know when is immaterial. Suppose we were to replace oil with biofuels. As I show in my ebook, it is physically possible to get somewhere close, but there are problems. The first is that the infrastructure we now have in place for oil is the result of 150 years of investment. Admittedly, some has been written off, but a lot is still there. The investment has involved a huge amount of money, and we cannot find equivalent investment quickly. That means that we have to start replacing oil over a long length of time. Some will say we are doing this already with ethanol, but we have problems there too. Quite simply there is a limit to how much corn or sugar we can devote to that.

Suppose we fail? In my ebook novel, Puppeteer, I outlined a future in which governments had done little about finding replacements for oil, instead, relying on market forces to come up with solutions. Unfortunately, the market has no inherent “interest” in our well-being, as can be seen from the numerous depressions that have occurred. The market is nothing more than a means of making transactions. The plot of Puppeteer assumed the following had happened. That by relying on market forces, not enough was done, and as the demand for oil rose, the price rose faster. Oil will not run out, but rather its price makes it out of the reach of most. Thus in one scene I had a car fill up with gasoline, and pay $1,000. With that sort of price, and no public transport replacement, only too many people could not travel to work, therefore the economy fell into a major recession/depression. Now the tax take fell away dramatically, and governments that were over-leveraged were now in trouble. Debt is a great thing in a rapidly expanding economy, or in a highly inflationary economy, but it is very undesirable in a rapidly contracting economy. Debt default becomes inevitable, public service salaries are cut back and people are fired, including from senior military positions. What happens next is that only too many resort to crime to make do, the bitter resort to terrorism, officials become corrupt, and only too much money is in the hands of a few. That is the background to a fictional work, but what part of that are you so sure could not happen?

So, what should we do? The first thing, in my opinion, is not to get too deeply into debt, because paying a high percentage of one’s income as interest when things go wrong takes away too many options. The second thing, if you want to produce fuels, is to carry out the necessary studies to work out what we have to do, and how to do it, now. I have worked in this area on and off for decades, the “off” periods usually being due to a decreasing lack of interest, and hence a lack of funding. One of the unfortunate aspects of chemical processing is that there is a very long development lead-time. It may take a week or so in the lab to get lucky and find a way to make a reaction go, although it often takes longer. However, then it may take a year or so to iron out all the wrinkles, because it is one thing to make something with carefully controlled pure materials, and another to do it under conditions that are desirable for other engineering reasons on material that can have a wide variety of compositions, such as biomass. The next step is to build a pilot plant, and run that for some length of time, because one needs to know how certain parts will behave under prolonged usage, one needs to make enough material under various conditions to test it for value, and one most desperately needs to find out about all the minor byproducts so that clean-up procedures can be designed. The next step is to design a demonstration plant, which will take some undefined time to find the finance (because we start to talk money in the hundreds of millions of dollars) design the plant, then build it and run it for several years. Under normal scenarios, this takes at least ten years, and it will often lose money for most of that time because it is still not big enough. It is only then that you can start building plants that will hopefully make money. As you can see, all of this is very time consuming, and money consuming. 

Now, some of what is being done does not have to go through this route, e.g. making ethanol from sugar. That technology has been around for thousands of years, so we know how to do it. The problem here is, it is highly unlikely that energy from ethanol will even exceed 1% of oil energy because the raw materials are agricultural, and we have to eat. In my ebook, I suggest that there are a number of possibilities like ethanol that will make a useful contribution, and we should pursue them, but we still need to sort out something that will make a really significant contribution. Some will say there are such technologies, and we are putting these into practice. Certainly, there are a lot of encouraging brochures out there, but if you think all is under control search the web for “Range Fuels” and see what can go wrong. Yes, some things are being done, but is it enough? Really think about the size of the problem, and maybe you will agree with me that we need to put in more effort now. Remember, thinking is cheap; running out of fuel is expensive.

World War 1: Stupidity and Luck

The fourth of August was apparently the anniversary of the opening of World War I as far as Britain was concerned, and also New Zealand, which, together with a number of other countries in the Commonwealth, joined in to help Britain. Thus started one of the most depressing episodes of weird luck, stupidity and criminality, possibly for ever. First, stupidity and criminality. I argue various generals committed very serious war crimes. You haven’t heard of them? No, you wouldn’t, because they committed them on their own troops! For New Zealand, the worst two were at Gallipoli and Passchendaele. The concept of Gallipoli was ill-conceived, but even then it was hopelessly executed. They landed in the wrong place, and when one landing actually could have brought success, instead what happened rated a chapter in the book “Great Military Stupidities”. Passchendaele had terrain unsuitable for tanks, weather unsuitable for artillery or any form of vehicle, so they sent in the infantry into waste-deep mud. Simple target practice. A simple strategy would have been to attack further east with tanks and artillery, which was known to work, and cut off the German army there, but that sort of strategy, known at least from the time of Tutmoses III (see the battle of Meggido), and probably earlier, seemed to lie outside the comprehension of these “professional Generals”. As the anniversaries of various battles come to pass, I shall post a few more stupidities and acts of criminality.

What about luck? The first New Zealand casualty in the war was a young soldier who was apparently the target of a long-range shooter, perhaps an early sniper. The bullet hit his rifle and ricocheted off it, into his neck and thence to spine and killing him. That has to be unlucky, although some may say he could have taken better cover. However, in war, you cannot spend the whole time taking cover.

Our History Channel has just offered a program that showed some quite remarkable aspects of luck. How true these are I do not know, but for what it is worth, two that struck me were as follows.

The first involved a British advance. The bulk of the action went somewhere else, but a lone British soldier was walking along when an unarmed German stood up. The British soldier raised his rifle and ordered the German to stop. The German faced him, then, when the soldier did not fire, and apparently did not know how to order him to surrender, he turned his back on the Briton and walked calmly away. The Briton did not fire. The German was Adolph Hitler. Think of how history would have changed had that British soldier pulled the trigger. The second involved an Italian soldier who came across three enemy, presumably Austrians. He calmly shot each of them as they turned and ran. Taking cover or shooting back did not occur to them. The Italian was Mussolini.

Young men apparently rushed to enlist, and in Britain at least, instructors in the army camps also rushed to get to the front. Apparently they believed this would be over by Christmas, and they wanted their medals. This had the effect of leaving the newly enlisted essentially untrained, although given the way the Generals used troops, it may not have mattered that much. The war was terrible, but even worse it set the scene for even worse. The war to end all wars failed miserably in that objective.

Biofuels and fossil oil replacement

Today, I am publishing an ebook entitled “Biofuels An Overview”. So why do I think I should write that? Basically, because this is an area in which I have actively worked and published on and off over the last 35 years. The reason I got into this research was that early in my career, while working for the main New Zealand government chemical research lab, I was given the job, and a useful travel budget, to try to survey what were the possibilities, and to unravel what the more promising (if any) options were. As a consequence of that, I have now repeated the exercise (without the travel budget!) and put my conclusions into this ebook.
The first question is, why do we need biofuels anyway. My answer to that is, there is only so much fossil oil on this planet and the planet is not making more at anything like the rate we are using. There are also issues with climate change and ocean acidification, and of course we have to eat. We also have to get around, maybe not as much as now, but we have to get to work, get groceries, and have a social life. We may not have to make biofuels to compensate for our current oil usage, but I try to show we have to make a lot of them.
What I felt was important was that such a book must explain why it is important to develop biofuels and to do that, numbers have to be put on the assertions. I feel that is the biggest problem with most other writing about biofuels. The objective of most writing on this topic is to advocate something, which in itself is laudable, but somewhere along the lines we have to form some sort of a plan for the long term. It is true, and I conclude this in the ebook, that there is no single ‘magic bullet’, and that a very large number of resources will have to be used, and there is no harm in using resources that are available, even if, by doing so, you will be doing something that is not general. But it is also important to end up with a limited range of fuels. There is no point in having 120 different fuels on the market, when a given motor can only reasonably operate on one. Now, if you put numbers on resources, you very quickly find that if you want to eat, and you want to retain something of the natural land-based environment, you cannot replace oil from the land. There is simply insufficient area that is reasonably useful. Accordingly, I conclude that eventually we have to utilize the oceans. Now the problem here is that we have very little truly adequate technology to do this with. On the other hand, we know that in principle we can grow the algae. Problems include getting past “in principle”. There have been clear demonstrations of growing macroalgae in deep water, but the experiment by the US navy started in the 1970s got wrecked in a storm, and when, at the time, the price of oil collapsed, the project was stopped. That does not mean it cannot be restarted, but it will require more work to solve the obvious problems. Similarly, it is reasonably easy to grow microalgae at sea, but very difficult to harvest them at a reasonable cost.
Accordingly, any survey of resources comes up with a variety of different resources, each of which shows different problems. The issue then is, how do we convert those to fuel? The book shows the limitations and advantages of a variety of potential methods. For those who say, use electricity, we still have to make that, and a quick survey of battery technology shows that will not be the answer to all of our problems any time soon. That may change, but I think we shall always need liquid fuels. My preferred option is hydrothermal liquefaction, primarily because it can process any biomass and with some reservations, it succeeds with only minor adjustments to the methodology as one changes resources. (In fairness, this is also the area in which I worked, so I may be biased!) It then produces a mixture of drop-in fuels, and fuels than need a little more processing, however, once one gets to the liquid state, it is much easier to transport the “pre-fuel” to a refinery for upgrading.
Can we totally replace oil? Probably not. Probably we shall have to reduce the wasted travel, but in principle we can come reasonably close. And while I most certainly do not claim to have all the answers, I am putting what I have out there. If you have any questions about this, or any alternative views, please feel free to contact me.

MH 17: finger-pointing and points-scoring.

Further to the rhetoric about MH17, it is of interest to note the logic behind many of the comments. For example, take this quote from David Cameron: “For too long there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine.” Well, David, what are the implications? The item from where I took the quote did not give any discernible ones, although in fairness that may merely mean bad reporting. We then see only too many leaders telling Putin that ‘he must take responsibility’ for what has happened. You are responsible for what you control, so is this a statement that Eastern Ukraine is really part of Russia? What does, “take responsibility” mean? Go stand in the corner with a dunces hat? Or is everyone just trying to score points to raise their local poll ratings? I rather suspect there is a lot of the latter.

Then there were protests about pillage, and accusations that passengers’ property was stolen by Eastern Ukrainians. Now, pillage is bad, right? Yes, it is, but it happens. Note the pillage of Iraq’s national treasures after US troops entered Baghdad, and the amount that ended in America. Everybody holding those treasures is guilty of pillage, because they know they were stolen. But who objected to that pillage?

Then there is the call for retribution. Impose sanctions! Stick it to those Russians. The fact that the Russians probably had no real input to this event is beside the point. But what about precedent? The nearest precedent I could find was IR655, which was shot down by the USS Vincennes, which had recently (then) been bullying Iranian gunboats. Now, here we had the most sophisticated equipment then available and a highly disciplined crew (or so we were led to believe). These were not a bunch of ill-trained separatists, and they had not been recently subjected to aircraft bombing, yet they pulled the trigger. If they could, why could not someone else? And who suggested sanctions on the US? Nobody, because they would lose money and achieve nothing.

One of the more interesting quotes I have heard was on a TV item where a leading Ukrainian rebel was told that he should show more contrition and respect for the bodies, and he responded something like, “In the same way you showed concern for Eastern Ukrainian bodies?” He was referring, of course, to the outcomes of the Western Ukrainian shelling and bombing. The same could be said for Palestinan civilians, or Iraqi civilians killed due to “shock and awe”. I have heard some say that Putin must be responsible because he supplied the missiles that brought down the aircraft. The same could be said for the US Presidents at the time of the deaths of Palestinian civilians, because Israel has received huge amounts of US funding. And, of course, the US was clearly responsible for deaths due to “shock and awe”, and the subsequent Iraqi collapse

No, I am not on a major witch-hunt. What I am saying is that politicians should at least be consistent, or as they say, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If supplying arms is bad, and perhaps it is, let he who makes arms and has never supplied dissidents cast the first stone. I suspect there would be an absence of stone throwing.

What is the alternative to the rebels not having such missile systems? Either the Russian air force defends Eastern Ukraine, or Western Ukraine has free shots at killing Eastern Ukrainians. Of course some will say, that is OK because it is “them”. The problem with this aircraft is, “It could have been me on it.” It might be natural to feel more for your own citizens, but the Iranians were still human beings, exactly like us, with the same faults, the same virtues, and the same desire to live amongst their friends and families and enjoy their life. As are the bombed eastern Ukrainians. Time to be fair! Of course we want this sort of thing not to happen again, but you do not achieve that by throwing ill-considered insults at someone else?

Malaysian flight MH 17 shot down.

First, my sympathy for the victims of this tragedy. It should not have happened, and now the blame game will start. For those who have read any of my fiction, you will guess that I have two ways of approaching a problem like this: first, use logic, and second, put yourself in the position of the person you blame, just to make sure that he is blameworthy. The question then is, what can we learn from this tragedy by doing that?
The first thing we can be fairly sure of is that this aircraft was brought down by a surface to air missile, probably either a Buk SA 11 or a BUK SA 17, with the former more likely. These are Russian-made systems, so they came from Russia. So we blame Russia? Just a minute. These systems were also inherited by Ukraine at the break-up of the old USSR, they are more suitable for using at a border (i.e. first shots) so Ukraine deployed a number of them along the Ukraine/Russia border, which happens to be territory taken over by the rebels. They may well be technically Ukrainian missiles.
Who would fire it? My guess is it is almost certainly from the Ukrainian rebels. The only other possibilities are Russian or Ukrainian forces, but neither of those options makes sense. Both have nothing to gain and an awful lot to lose, and worse still, both have the ability to tell it is a civilian aircraft, and both can tell it is harmless to them.
Why would the rebels shoot down such a plane? First, assume it is an SA 11, which is a mobile launcher with relatively primitive radar. The correct way to use such equipment if you do not have air control is to move to a site, light up the radar, select a target (or don’t), shoot (or don’t) turn off the radar, and MOVE. Once that radar is lit up, YOU become a target for enemy anti-missile launcher defences, and the last thing you want to do is to give yourself a radar channel to attract enemy missiles. Now, put yourself in the position of whoever had this missile. Your home city has been bombed, maybe someone you know has been killed or injured, you are angry, you light up, you see a jet heading to Donetsk, you have no means of determining what it is, but if it is close to the city, you do not have much time. If you have a timetable of expected civilian flights, there should be none then, because unfortunately, MH 17 was half an hour late. You shoot.
So, who is to blame here? I believe the air traffic controllers, and to some extent, the airline. It would have been a simple matter to divert the fight so it did not cross that territory, and there is no reason to believe the relevant governments would not have accommodated a change of course. They should not put aircraft over a war zone. As another example, suppose you have to walk from A to B, and half-way there, you find your path crosses a live-fire rifle range. Now, you could walk across, on the basis that the shooters will see you are a human, and won’t fire. But would you risk it? Me, I would divert and walk around the back. What do you think?