The Laki Volcano - the fourth great risk

I have just finished reading 'Island on Fire' by Witze and Kanipe. This fascinating new book is mainly about the 1783 eruption of the Laki chain of Icelandic volcanoes.  Many people in Europe remember the Eyjafjallajokull eruption in 2010 because it sent out a plume of dust particles that disrupted air traffic over Europe. There was a fear that the dust particles would get into jet engines and cause planes to crash.

The Laki eruption was far more deadly, not because of the force of the eruption or its dust emissions, but because it sent out a massive cloud of toxic fluorine, chlorine and sulphur dioxide [as much sulphur dioxide as 12,000 coal fired power stations emit in a year] that spread over much of Europe and probably killed tens of thousands of people. Its emissions may even have affected the flow of the Nile and caused  famines in Egypt.

In 1783 communications were poor and science primitive so the cause of Europe's distress was not understood. Divine displeasure was thought more likely than a volcano in Iceland. It is only recently that scientists have began to understand what happened [and become alarmed by their findings].

The public may not be aware of the risks of Laki type events but the UK Government is worried. The Cabinet Office publishes  a National Risk Register which covers the main threats to the UK [a copy of the 2013 edition can be downloaded from here].

The Register identifies four main risks.

1.  An influenza epidemic.

2.  Flooding.

3.  Catastrophic terrorist attacks [although the government adds that mass impact terrorist events are “unlikely”].

4.  Volcanic eruptions.

The 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland showed some of the consequences that a volcanic eruption far away can have on the UK. The NRR assessment is that there are two main kinds of risk from volcanic eruptions. The first is an ash-emitting eruption, similar to Eyjafjallajökull. This kind of eruption is economically dangerous because of the possible disruption of transport.

The second, which is slightly less likely than an ash-emitting eruption but which could have widespread impacts on health, agriculture and transport, is an effusive-style eruption on the scale of the 1783–84 eruption Laki eruption in Iceland. This second type could kill many humans and animals  and is now one of the highest priority risks. 

Laki today

The Laki eruption from Grimsvötn volcano in Iceland is the best understood large magnitude eruption of this type. In 1783–84 Grimsvötn erupted along a 27km-long fissure system (Laki). Significant levels of sulphur dioxide, chlorine and fluorine were released over a number of months, causing visible pollution across the UK and Northern Europe which is thought to have resulted in mass crop failure and thousands of excess deaths. At least 20% of the population of Iceland succumbed to famine and disease. Records suggest that mortality in England in the summer of 1783 was 10–20% above average and there are similar historical accounts of increased mortality rates and/ or respiratory disorders in France, the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden.  

Incidentally, Icelandic volcanoes are particularly dangerous. Not only because there are a lot of them, but also because it is easier for their output to get into the stratosphere and travel over large areas. At the equator the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere is 18 kilometres above ground. At the poles it is only 8 kilometres up.

Witze, A. and Kanipe, J., 2014. An island on fire: the extraordinary story of Laki.

Privacy v Security

Crimea - its time to bomb Moscow.

According to the map below the Crimea -

  • has 4% of the Ukraine's total land area.
  • has two million of the Ukraine 46 million population.
  • accounts for 3.7% of the Ukraine's GDP
  • has a population which is 78.8% Russian and 9.5% Ukrainian.
To my mind the case is clear. The Crimea must be returned to the Ukraine and if Russia does not hand it back [accompanied by a cringing apology] we must launch an immediate nuclear strike.

A five megaton bomb on Moscow would show that the West is really serious about wanting to take on all the Ukraine's financial liabilities, not just most of them.

Is the fuss over IRA immunities really a stunt to get immunities for Bloody Sunday paratroopers?

There has been a lot of fuss in the British media about former IRA men being given immunity from prosecution for acts committed during the civil war in Northern Ireland.

Since the immunities had obviously been given as part of the peace process in NI it was hard to see what all the fuss was about.

Now the other shoe has dropped with the suggestion that none of the paratroopers who took part in the Bloody Sunday massacre should be prosecuted.  The hope is obviously that the government will be able to say that since they are not prosecuting the IRA men we obviously cannot prosecute the paratroopers.

Soon we will get the establishment's media shills joining in the chorus of 'immunity for all'.

I wonder who is orchestrating this farce?

The Scottish Referendum: why Salmond wants to lose and Cameron wants him to win.

A referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country will take place on Thursday 18 September 2014.

Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party [SNP], appears to want a YES vote. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, appears to want a NO vote.

I suggest that, in reality, Salmond wants a NO vote and Cameron a YES vote.

The SNP is committed to a referendum on Scottish independence and Salmond has no alternative but to appear to support that. However, Salmond is a very astute politician and he must realise that independence would be economically disasterous for Scotland.

In addition to not being able to use the pound as its currency, Scotland would find it very difficult to join the EU.

'European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has said it would be "extremely difficult, if not impossible" for an independent Scotland to join the European Union. He said an independent Scotland would have to apply for membership and get the approval of all current member states.'

 There are several major EU states that are worried about parts of their own countries splitting off.  They would not want to encourage that by giving Scotland an easy entry. They would want to make an example of Scotland to discourage imitators.

Despite all the SNP blustering they must realise that even if Scotland managed to get EU membership it would be on disastrous terms. It would include none of the special deals that Britain has negotiated. It would have to take what it was offered, on tax and other matters.  Imagine the howls when independence enthusiasts realised that part of the deal included putting VAT on food and children's clothes.  Or when they realised that independence, whether in the EU or not, meant fewer jobs and higher taxes.

As Walpole said of another event, "they are ringing their bells, soon they will be wringing their hands"

The SNP is in government now but with a very slender majority [the Scottish electoral system makes it difficult for any party to get a big majority].   When the hoopleheads who had voted YES realised how much independence was costing them I suspect there would be a big swing away from the SNP and we would see the newly independent Scotland ruled by either Labour or a Labour/LibDem coalition. It might be a very, very long time before the SNP got back into office.  

Meanwhile, Cameron is in a 'win' or 'win big' situation.

If there is a NO vote then the threat of Scottish independence is removed and London can afford to be much more dismissive of Scotland. No more need for appeasement. The SNP would have shot its bolt. In fact, by going for a referendum the SNP has screwed itself whether it wins or loses the vote.

If there is a YES vote and Scotland becomes independent then there would be no more Scottish MPs in the Westminster Parliament. The Conservatives would lose one MP but Labour would lose 41 out of 258.  That could be enough to give the Conservatives a clear majority at the next election and much better prospects at all future elections.

Bad service at Amazon

This is from Cory Doctrow's latest Guardian column. It is about Amazon's new MP3 policy.

"A good example of this is Amazon's MP3 store. Until recently, it worked beautifully. I'd pay a reasonable price for my music, and Amazon would let me download it to my computer with as little fuss as possible. Recently, that changed. Amazon wants to promote its cloud drive services, so now it requires that you lock yourself into an Amazon-proprietary downloader to get your MP3s. 

The Amazon MP3 store started life with a lot of rhetoric about liberation (they made t-shirts that trumpeted "DRM: Don't Restrict Me!") that contrasted their offering with the locked-in world of the iTunes Store. Now that Amazon has won enough marketshare in the MP3 world, it's using that position to try and gain ground in the world of cloud computing – at the expense of its customers.

Lucky for me, MP3 is an open format, so MP3 investments fail well. The fact that I bought hundreds of pounds' worth of music from Amazon doesn't stop me from taking my business elsewhere now that they've decided to treat me as a strategic asset instead of a customer."

I have just had the same problem with MP3 downloads from Amazon.  I used to be able to easily download my MP3 purchases. Now I cannot without installing their cloud app. Since it is perfectly possible to download files using the FTP built into all browsers customers have to ask why Amazon has made the cloud app a compulsory download.  Those who are suspicious might suspect that Amazon has an ulterior motive and the the app contains  DRM [or spyware that will gather usage data from customers].

All Amazon has to do to dispel such suspicions is to make the app an option and issue a statement that it is not transmitting any private data back to Amazon if it is installed. 

Amazon is behaving badly.  I will not be using their MP3 store again.  Also, since big companies rarely get the message unless they start losing money, I have started buying elsewhere.

Amazon's behaviour is surprising. Usually they are very careful of their reputation for good customer service.  I am guessing that this has been done by some low level wannabe.

 Alternatives to Amazon

I have started buying books from Aphrohead Books and Speedyhen. Both companies sell through

They provided free P and P, quick delivery and lower prices  than Amazon. 


 I have now purchased five books from companies selling through  In every case at prices lower than Amazon's and with free delivery.

BBC's ad nauseam coverage of Mandela's death

So far the BBC has had over 2,000 complaints about its completely over the top coverage of Mandela's death.  He was for a time an important politician in an unimportant country. However, he was also a convicted terrorist.

Oh, you may say, that was just under apartheid.  No, it wasn't. Mandela would have been convicted as a terrorist under current UK laws and probably got pretty much the same sentence.

He did well after he was released but nothing could justify the absurdly excessive coverage of his death. It was if the BBC has decided to put the rest of the world on hold [they are probably not doing anything interesting] and devote all its resources to just one story.

I would  have expected the BBC to have produced some insightful coverage of South Africa's current political situation. Instead most of items were very superficial. The kind of stuff a journalist might have produced in their hotel room just from reading the local newspapers and the government briefing packs.

This is yet another example of poor editorial judgement at the BBC. It is an organisation that is demonstrating over and over again that it needs major reform and a whole load of management redundancies. They also need to get rid of most of the burnt out overpaid hacks in their newsrooms.

The Vatican Bank's 30,000 private accounts

I have just been listening to a BBC podcast (The Report 28th November 2013) about corruption in the Vatican and the resignation of Pope Benedict. The programme's thesis was that Benedict resigned because he was unable to control the level of corruption by Vatican officials.

There was a bit about padding of contracts and other shenanigans.

The really interesting bit was about the Institute for the Works of Religion (aka the Vatican Bank). This was set up to allow the church to transfer money about the world for the purpose of doing good works.

However, it also has 30,000 private accounts. That's right, there are allegedly 30,000 people who have their own personal accounts with the Vatican Bank and because of the banks legal situation these accounts are totally immune from outside scrutiny. Even if used for tax evasion, money laundering and bribes.

Having such an account would be every crooks dream and being able to provide such accounts would confer enormous power.

Forget the Da Vinci Code. The real secret worth killing for would be a list of those account holders.

Habeas Corpus and the fat men

The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 is a landmark in English law, permitting a prisoner to challenge the lawfulness of his detention. But Parliament passed it through an absurd miscount:

Lord Grey and Lord Norris were named to be the tellers: Lord Norris, being a man subject to vapours, was not at all times attentive to what he was doing: so, a very fat lord coming in, Lord Grey counted him as ten, as a jest at first: but seeing Lord Norris had not observed it, he went on with this misreckoning of ten: so it was reported that they that were for the Bill were in the majority, though indeed it went for the other side: and by this means the Bill passed.

That account, by contemporary historian Gilbert Burnet, is borne out by the session minutes. The act remains on the statute book to this day.

Going along with the crowd

The Duke of Norfolk:  Oh confound all this. I'm not a scholar, I don't know whether the marriage was lawful or not but dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can't you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!

Sir Thomas More:   And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

The quotation is from Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons".  Sir Thomas More, the 16th-century Chancellor of England, refused to endorse King Henry VIII's wish to divorce his aging wife Catherine of Aragon, who could not bear him a son, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress. Henry VIII had him killed for his refusal.

HiQ and EU tyre labelling

In November 2012 the EU introduced new labelling for tyres.

The new standard gives motorists a way of comparing new tyres on their fuel efficiency, wet grip and noise.  Previously it had been hard for buyers to tell if one tyre was better than another. The aim of the new standard was to gives better consumer information and, in the longer term, provide manufacturers with  an incentive to produce better products.

Recently I went into my local HiQ tyre dealer. There were twelve tyres displayed and only one had a visible label showing its EU ratings. The other eleven had a label showing HiQ's own rating system. I was told that it was different from the EU standard.

I am not going to speculate why HiQ failed to display the EU standard information for all their tyres, but I will not be going to them next time I need a new tyre.

I would also suggest that the legislation needs to be changed to make it an offence not to clearly display the EU standard ratings for all the tires that are being offered for sale.

The missing word

I am searching for a word, but I do not know if the word exists in the English language. If it doesn't, it should. My missing word could be defined as follows

Definition - an action or policy, ostensibly undertaken for the public benefit, but actually done to protect officials [politicians or civil servants] from possible criticism. The public may actually be harmed by such actions or policies, in any case, any benefit they receive is incidental to the real purpose.

You can see how useful such a word might be. Think of all the security theatre that we have had in airports and elsewhere since 9/11. Think of the raft of oppressive security legislation that was introduced in the UK, the main purpose of which seemed to be to protect the Blair government from the possibility of criticism if another terrorist act occurred. Think of the  TSA airport scanner controversy in the USA.

We do have phrases that express the idea, but they are clumsy. We can refer to officials protecting their own backs. In the UK we talk of officials being more concerned with protecting their own arses than benefiting the public. both In cases the terms presumably derive from the idea of protecting backs or buttocks from a public whipping.

If my missing word is not in the English language I thought it might exists in some other language and I turned to my copy of Rheingold [Rheingold, H., 2000. They Have a Word for it, Sarabande Books].  This is a lexicon of useful foreign words which have no direct English equivalent.

For example, we have adopted Zeitgeist and Schaddenfreude from the Germans because they express in one word a concept that would need an entire phrase in English.

Rheingold has other words we might adopt -

Bricoleur [French] - a person who makes things by random messing around and without following a plan.

Drachenfutter [German] - a peace offering from guilty husbands for wives.

Razbliuto [Russian] -  the feeling of affection that a person has for someone once loved.

Fisselig [German] - flustered to the point of incompetence.

Rheingold contains lots of useful words. Unfortunately none of them fitted my definition. Maybe there is a Latin word, or something from Strine. The latter must be a real possibility. The Australians have such expressive slang. For example

Bludger - lazy person, usually applied to one who lives on the dole and who doesn't try finding work.

Drongo - stupid male. Spangled drongo -  stupid female.

Lurk - something taken or done in an illegal or underhanded manner. Lurks and perks - illegal and legal benefits of an employment.

Shark biscuit - somebody new to surfing

Stickybeak - nosy person

For the moment the matter rests. If you can think of a suitable word please add a comment.  The world needs this word.

Information system

"A CEO with hotel chain A found himself having to spend a night in a hotel from hotel chain B. Naturally, he was very curious as to what kind of information systems they had, and resolved to keep an open eye for any competitive use of IT. As he approached the reception for first time, the woman behind it smiled at him and said "Welcome back, Sir".

Flabbergasted, he said ' is 12 years since I was here last! How could you know that I have stayed here before, what kind of advanced information systems do you have that can store and find the fact that I was here 12 years ago?'

'Well, it is really very simple', she said. 'When the doorman opened the door to your cab, he asked if this was your first stay with us. You answered no, and as you walked through the door, the doorman looked at me through the window and touched his nose. That told me that you should be welcomed back....'"

Plastic bags

From the BBC 'Costing the Earth' podcast.

UK plastic consumption is 120kg per person per year.

Only 8% of that is domestic consumption.

The rest is used by industry. Some in moving goods from factory to store. Some in the building industry [i.e. water, gas and sewage pipes in and outside homes and other premises].

Of the 9.6kg of domestic consumption about 9%  [0.86kg] is plastic bags [shopping bags, refuse sacks etc.].

So plastic shopping bags account for somewhat less than 0.7%  of the average persons consumption of plastic.

Plastic is produced from oil. Plastic production accounts for 8% of global oil use.

British politicians are doing their bit to cut oil consumption and reduce plastic waste by requiring supermarkets to charge for each plastic bag they supply.

Hallelujah, we are saved.

Peer to Peer lending in the UK

UK banks are offering very low interest rates to savers because the UK Government is giving them free money and they do not need to attract money from ordinary savers. Last year a UK bank was offering 2.5% on a one year bond. Currently it is offering 1.3%. Both rates are below inflation so anybody who has savings is seeing them shrink in real terms.

Given that many people with savings are past or potential Conservative supporters Cameron and Co. don't seem to be following a policy which will increase their votes. Savers appreciate what the Government is doing to them and look forward to repaying the Conservatives in the future.

Given this situation there is increased interest in Peer to Peer saving. ZOPA, Ratesetter and Funding Circle are the three main UK companies claiming to allow ordinary savers to lend to borrowers without involving a bank. They claim that their main advantage is that they pay higher rates of interest than the banks. Their disadvantage is that deposits with them are not guaranteed by the Government. That means you are risking up to 100% of your money for an extra 2-3% interest.

ZOPA used to look quite interesting [at least for a small punt]. When you gave ZOPA your money you could decide how much risk you were willing to take. The riskier borrowers paid an higher return. You take part in the lending decision. Now you cannot and ZOPA has become very dull. You just give them your money for 3 or 5 years and collect your interest. You have no chance to say who is lent your money and at what level of risk. ZOPA keeps all the decisions to themselves. That does not suit me at all. If I am taking a risk I want to decide how much risk. I want to be involved and interested.

They are also tediously bureaucratic. When I tried to open an account I got this response.

To continue creating your account, we simply need you to provide us with:

1    A utility bill OR bank statement.  This must be an original, not a copy, and less than 3 months old.

2    A copy of your passport OR photo driving licence.  This must be verified by a professional person, eg. an accountant, solicitor, nurse, teacher, officer of the Armed Services. This person cannot be a family member, live at your residence, or be retired. 

Please ask them to: Write 'I certify this is a true copy of the original shown to me today' on the back of your passport/driving licence.  
Print their name, profession, address and phone number of the company/practice/employer for whom they work, using an official stamp if available.
Sign and date it.

'We simply' ?  That sounds like a lot of trouble for a dull but risky investment and a couple of extra percentage points interest. I do not think I will bother. 

I have not tried Ratesetter but this article suggests it is pretty much the same deal. Both ZOPA and Ratesetter lend to Joe Public.

Funding Circle is different. They lend to small businesses. This is something the banks are neglecting but the Government is very keen on promoting. So much so that they have given Funding Circle £20 million to lend. Funding Circle is also much more fun and gives lenders the chance to decide which borrowers they want to lend to. Or, a lender can use a tool which splits your money up and lends it to a wide range of borrowers. TO start with I decided to use the tool and lend to 100 different borrowers.

Borrowers are graded from higher risk to lower risk and you can choose which ones you want to go with.

I have tried a small investment with Funding Circle. If it goes well I shall increase my investment.

Watch out for future reports on my adventures in business lending.

Library of Birmingham

Birmingham is England's second largest city and the hideous building below is their new public library. It was built at a cost of £190 million. Birmingham claims it is the largest public library in England.  It is the kind of building that architects call iconic and everybody else calls crap.

I had a look around the library recently and I have to say I think the Brummies wasted their money.  In the age of Google and ebooks I don't think building a big book box was a good use of their money.

Its a big building, but it seemed to be a bit short of books. There were empty shelves and empty spaces were there could have been more shelving [if they had the books].

The library had lots of computers and there were about 10 to 20 times as many people using computers as reading books.  The library seemed to be more like a large internet cafe than a library.

Birmingham might have been better advised to spend a great deal less than £190 million digitising the important books in their collection and making the information available online.

There is a nice roof garden with good views of central Birmingham.  However, since Birmingham is one of the most hideous cities in the UK this is not as delightful as it might sound.

Catching egg stealers in a surveillance state

Catching egg stealers in a surveillance state.

'At the time, the R.S.P.B. was receiving about one report of nest theft per day, some from wives bitter about their husbands’ all-consuming hobby. All tips were kept on file. Collectors were mostly English, and most of the U.K.’s rare-bird nests were in Scotland. Surveillance cameras on the two main roads between the countries were programmed to log the license plates of cars that passed by. Thomas noted two patterns: cars belonging to suspected collectors appeared with greater frequency between March and June, the breeding season; and many of them were registered to members of the Jourdain Society.'

These number plate logging cameras are all over the UK [its just to keep us safe].

Iron Mountain hideaway

From this article on the Iron Mountain storage facility.

'In the sixties and early seventies, Mesick said, people sometimes slept in the mine: it contained fallout shelters, built and maintained by Iron Mountain for executives from Exxon, Shell, and other big companies. 

One especially elaborate shelter, he said, had sixty-five hotel rooms, each with a private bath, and a large cafeteria with a commercial kitchen; in the mid-century-modern bedrooms, curtains obscured the concrete. According to Mesick, in the event of nuclear war, some executives, along with their families, would have been evacuated by helicopter from New York City. “They’d hired local folks to tend to them, to cook for them, to clean for them,” Mesick told me. “Their idea was to wait out the storm while the debris and radioactivity were going on overhead—then they were going to come out and sell oil to everyone who was left.” 

Every now and then, Mesick recalled, the executives would run a “live exercise”—essentially, they’d come and hang out for the weekend.'

It's good to know that the really important people would have been safe.

David Dale’s Cotton Mills

David Dale was a Scottish entrepreneur who was instrumental in establishing Scotland’s cotton milling industry. He was born in Ayreshire in 1739. In 1783  he met Sir Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the spinning frame, at a dinner in Glasgow. Next day the pair went to the Falls of Clyde to see if the power of the Clyde could be harnessed to power a cotton mill.

Their visit led to the building of New Lanark, with four mills and housing for workers. The mills operated very profitably. Later they became famous because of the social experiments conducted there by Robert Owen, who was Dale’s son in law. They closed in 1986. New Lanark has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Dale was involved in a number of other mills.

Blantyre Mills were established in the 1780’s by David Dale and  James Monteith.  The mills continued in operation until 1904. Now, all that remains is a single housing block. This was the birthplace of David Livingstone and the building now contains the David Livingstone Centre and some reconstructed mill workers accomodation.

Catrine was a small village in Ayreshire until Dale and Claude Alexander built a cotton mill there in 1787[see the separate post on Catrine].

Spinningdale was a small mill built by Dale, in partnership with George Dempster, in around 1790. It was intended to relieve local unemployment but the highlanders employed in the mill kept going off to work on lambing, harvesting and cutting peat. When the mill burnt down in 1806 it was not rebuilt.

Stanley Mills had been built in 1784 by Richard Arkwright to harness the power of the Tay. Dale only became involved later and supposedly lost a lot of the money he invested in the mill. Stanley Mills continued in in business until 1989, latterly as a jute mill. The buildings are now being restored. See my post on Stanley Mills.

All the mills had three things in common.

Highlanders - At the time that Dale was building his mills people were very reluctant to work in factories and a lot of Dale’s workers were highlanders who had been dispossessed by the The Clearances.

Water Power - The situation of the mills emphasises the importance of water power. New Lanark and Blantyre were built by the Clyde, Stanley by the Tay, Catrine by the Ayre.  Spinningdale harnessed a burn. With the exception of Spinningdale all the mills were inland and in remote locations. Raw cotton would have had to have been shipped to a Scottish port, unloaded and carted to the mills. Then the finished products who have to have been carted away, some back to ports for export. The shipping costs must have been enormous, but insignificant compared with the benefits of water powered milling.

At New Lanark and Catrine reservoirs were built to store water so that the mills could continue in operation even in summer. Long tunnels were cut through rock at New Lanark and Stanley to carry  water to the mills.

Social Conditions – The conditions in some cotton mills were appalling. Many employed child labour and treated the children very badly. There were high death rates. Dale cared about his workers and provided good accommodation and decent working conditions. New Lanark had particularly good housing, the first working class school in Scotland and The Institute for the Formation of Character.

Dale's mills started the industrial revolution in Scotland.   They also introduced the factory system and changed the ways in which people lived and worked.

Eli Whitney and his cotton gin

In the late 18th century America had a lot of land which was suitable for cotton growing but the only plant variety that would grow in America had a serious disadvantage, a lot of seeds were mixed in with the cotton. So much so, that plantations had to employ fifty people on seed extraction for each person who picked the cotton.

Whitney invented a simple but effective machine which stripped out the seeds so readily that one person could complete the work that had previously required fifty. [read more]

Cotton growing suddenly became very profitable and the South went from exporting 487,000 pounds of raw cotton to England's mills  in 1793 to exporting almost 128 million pounds in 1820. This availability of cheap cotton lead to a great expansion in cotton milling.

A side effect of the cotton gin and the expansion of  cotton growing was an increase in the demand for slaves to work the plantations.

Margaret likes to listen to her iPod as she prepares dinner.

The porticoes of Bologna

Venice is beautiful, but it is full of thieves. Bologna is  honest, beautiful and my favorite Italian city.

One of its most attractive features is its miles of  porticoes. There are 38km of porticoes in the historic centre and another 7 km elsewhere.

I don't know why more cities don't build porticoes. They are an attractive and useful architectural feature. They protect people from sun and rain. They also provide more floor space for property owners by allowing them to build over payments. The UNESCO World Heritage committee is considering adding the Porticoes of Bologna to its list of World Heritage sites.



Bologna  has many fine museums and buildings.

It also has the best gelaterias [gelato is not the same as ice cream] in Italy.  Try reading this post  about Bologna's gelaterias.

A few nights in Madrid

I recently spent a few nights in Madrid. A place I had never visited before.

Madrid has one of the best city centers I have seen, with many fine and very well kept buildings. The city obviously exercises close control over the design and upkeep of buildings. It also restricts the number of advertising hoardings that can appear. Something that other cities could copy.

 We were there as tourists and tried to visit some of the palaces, monasteries and museums. This was made hard by all the museums closing on the same day [Monday], and having very short opening hours on other days. This makes it difficult to see as much as one might like, and makes Madrid poorer value as a tourist destination.The ones we did try to see were

Reina Sofia – a modern art museum in the centre. I was very unimpressed. A nice building but a poor collection.

Prado – I did not visit the Prado but my companion did and was very impressed. Be prepared to queue for a long time.

Palacio Real – the royal palace.  It costs 8 euros to visit. Our tickets were not checked for the two most interesting parts, an apothecaries museum and an armory. They were checked for the royal quarters. These were very dull. Lots of gold paint but poor internal design and mediocre furniture. My advice would be to either skip the Palacio Real or just visit the [free] apothecaries museum and armory.

Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales – this is where  the Spanish aristocracy dumped inconvenient daughters. We would have liked to have visited but you can only go around in a guided party and these soon book up.

Naval Museum – this is in the same building as the Spanish Armada [or Naval Department]. It is a real gem, with the best collection of naval artifacts I have ever seen. We British think of ourselves as the lords of the sea, but the Spanish were going around Cape Horn and up the coast of Chile whilst we were still trying to master rowing. I visited the museum twice and would have liked to spend longer there each time.  Entry is free but you have to show your passport [WTF?]. There is a small shop with some excellent prints and souvenirs at very reasonable prices.There is a brochure in English but it would have been nice to see some  exhibits with captions in English. Unfortunately photography is forbidden.

In addition to the super clean city centre there is an old quarter with lots of narrow streets, and bars, restaurants and shops. This is not so clean but is more interesting. We went in search of the Tapas lifestyle. Supposedly the Spanish do not get as drunk as we British when they go for a night out because they go from bar to bar, eating tapas with each drink.  Well, perhaps this is true, but I saw very little evidence of this happening, or even of many bars serving tapas.

Spanish coffee is very good and cheap. Why is it weak and expensive in Britain?

Thanks to Gordon Brown's mismanagement of the British economy the value of the pound against the euro has fallen by one third. The euro countries are now damned expensive.  If you go to a euro country take a banjo. You may be able to raise some money with a bit of busking.

We stayed at the Hotel Agumar. I would stay there again. It is close to the centre and the main railway station. Our room was nice, the staff spoke English and were helpful, and it was reasonably priced. Our room had very good air conditioning [Madrid gets seriously  hot in summer]. However, they overcharge for internet access.

Living in Svenborgia

Years ago, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I was taken to a nomenklatura shop in Moscow. The nomenklatura were the ruling party elite in Russia and they had their own chain of stores that stocked stuff you could not find in ordinary Russian shops.

These nomenklatura shops were well hidden, no shop windows or signs to advertise their presence and arouse envy in the proletariat. My companion and I entered a nondescript office building and went down a grubby tiled corridor. A plain wooden door gave no indication of what was within. The person I was with showed a special card and we went into the nomenklatura store. To me it looked like a typical Western department store but it would have been wonderland to the average Russian, full of stuff they could never buy, no matter how long they queued.

I was reminded of this experience whilst watching a recent episode of 30 Rock [S02E01]; the one with Jerry Seinfeld.

Jerry tells Jack Baldwin’s character that he has just been vacationing in a European country that only the rich know about. Jack asks if Jerry is referring to Svenborgia.

Though you will not find it on a map there is a Svenborgia and it is a country occupied by the very rich. It is not a contiguous area but a series of islands spread over the world.

Monaco is part of Svenborgia, so are tax havens like the Channel Islands. Private islands in the Caribbean are part of Svenborgia, and so are many large private estates dotted across the world. Large yachts and luxury hotels are Svenborgian territory.

Svenborgia has its own school and university system. In the UK it includes schools like Eton and Harrow, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Concierge medicine and private clinics provide the Svenborgian health system. Private jets move Svenborgians about the world, delightfully remote from the rest of us.

In the past a nation’s rich had to stay home so they could manage and protect their wealth. That meant they had a vested interest in keeping their country a reasonably safe and habitable place. If the country went under so did they and their money.

Now they do not need to stay home. Modern communications mean that the very rich can manage their empires from anywhere in the world, including from aboard their private yachts. They can easily move their money about the world and pay tax nowhere. The rich have gone to live in Svenborgia and they no longer need to worry about the country of their birth. It is just another place to be exploited, as their ancestors exploited colonial empires.

The recent financial crisis is an example of this. The people who pillaged the finances of Iceland, Ireland, the UK, the USA and other countries have taken their money and gone off to live happily in Svenborgia.  They have not faced criminal sanctions or had to worry about what happens to their victims. We pay for politicians but the Svenborgians own them. They have no need to fear retribution.

Britain, the USA or any other country can sink or swim for all they care [unless there is a profit in having it sink]. They are safe and happy in Svenborgia.

Note - the photograph at the start of this post is of Hamilton Court, a gated community in India. It has its own water and power systems, its own schools and shops, and, most importantly of all, a security force to keep out the poor.   More on Hamilton Court in NYT article

More on Svenborgia in The rise of the new global elite


If you thought a WWII German Panzer Division just had tanks take a look at the graphics below. They show the equipment of the 1st Panzer Division in 1940. The division was formed in 1935 and had its headquarters in Weimar.

The division fought in Poland, France, Russia and many other places. It surrendered to American forces in Austria.

Import charges killing purchases from

I recently bought something from a seller on eBay in the USA. The item cost $41 [£26] but I had to pay another $20 [£13] in import charges, made up of £5 VAT and an £8 admin fee to Royal Mail.  These charges added 49% to the cost of the item.

Under current rules VAT is due on items valued at over £15.01 [if the value is over £135 additional charges become due]. Then there is the killer fixed charge from the Royal Mail.

This didn't use to matter because customs and excise never bothered to collect trivial amounts. Now that the UK is bankrupt they must have been told that every penny counts.

The problem is that the £15.01 limit is ridiculously low, and it is killing eBay purchases by UK buyers.

If eBay wants the business of UK buyers it needs to lobby to get the limit raised.

Police pay £660,952 in music licence fees

A Freedom of Information request by Robert Foulds, the clerk of Bramley Parish Council in South Yorkshire revealed that in the past year police forces in England and Wales paid £660,952 for licences so staff could listen to music in their offices. 

The Performing Right Society (PRS) collects the fees and pays royalties to artists.

The highest expenditure came from the Metropolitan Police which paid £246,297.
Four forces paid nothing, while 17 spent more than £10,000.

Something to remember when you hear these clowns whining about being short of money.


Cameron and the vote on Syria - delighted to lose?

The UK Parliament voted against military action against Syria.  This is being presented as a defeat for Cameron and Hague, his Foreign Secretary.

I wonder if that is so. Attacking Syria is a crackpot idea. It can only make things worse. Cameron and Hague know that. They have never shown any enthusiasm for getting Britain involved in Syria's civil war. I suspect they engineered a House of Commons defeat and after the vote would have been found skipping merrily about Cameron's office, delighted with the success of their cunning plan.

If they wanted to lose why did they even float the idea?  I think they had no choice brcause they were under pressure from several groups.

The Israel Lobby - Israel's supporters give a lot of money to the Conservative Party. Were there threats that the money would be cut off if the UK did not join in an attack on Syria?

Profiteers - people who made a lot of money from Iraq and Afganistan and now need a new war.

The Blimps - people who think they are living in 1913 and believe that Britain's prestige [and their dicks] will be shrunk if we don't join in any war that is going.

Saudi Arabia

I think Obama is under pressure from pretty much the same people and is equally unwilling to do their bidding, but cannot afford to openly defy them. I think he was so taken by Cameron's  cunning move that he decided the try the same trick. Can you think of any other reason why he should have suddenly decided he needed a vote from Congress before starting the war?

I suspect he is now praying that Congress will give him the thumbs down.

Kids getting you down?

Are the  domestic chores getting you down? How about a shot of Dexedrine?[Brand name for dextroamphetamine].  The advertisement claims that "Many housewives -- are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue...Dexedrine will give them a feeling of energy and well-being, renewing their interest in life and living."

Maybe the kids are the problem. don't worry, there are ways of rendering them more compliant.

How about a shot of morphine?

It's good for all kinds of problems.


If Mrs Winslow's magic ingredient does not work perhaps a shot of cocaine might keep the little darlings quiet.

Are the little bastards sweethearts still not getting the message. Maybe a good dose of Nembutal up the ass will slow them down.

Still not 'tranquille'?  Why don't you take a dose of  Nervine?


Maybe the kids have set the house on fire but after a good shot of potassium bromide you will not  care what they do.

The Machines of the Isle of Nantes (Les Machines de l'île)

In earlier post I described encountering the Elephant of Nantes.  After seeing the elephant we went to its lair. This is in part of an old shipyard. For just over eight euros you can look around a gallery containing many other machines and the workshops of Les Machines de l'île. 

This organisation built the elephant,  a giant spider [shown clinging to a building in Liverpool] and a very tall diver [neither of these two photographs are mine].

I had seen items on the net about these machines but had no notion of their backstory.  Apparently, the Les Machines de l'île organisation is owned by the City of Nantes and some other public partners. I guess it is part of a scheme to regenerate the city. If so, its a very clever and creative idea.  The French are so good at these projects. Unlike the Anglo-saxons they look at the idea first and worry about the Balance Sheet later.

Inside the workshop

Most of the machines have seats inside and controls to allow them to be manipulated.

You can see the two drivers seats on the back of the squid.

In the photograph below you can see the workshop where the machines are made.

We really liked the Les Machines de l'île. It was the high-point of our visit to Nantes. It is one of those places [to paraphrase Samuel Johnson] that is not only worth seeing, but worth going to see.

There is also a nice shop with lots of very reasonably priced goodies.