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Showing posts from July, 2009

Out of the Coverage Area

I am in darkest deepest France, where, unlike darkest deepest Estonia, there is no internet access, not even mobile phone coverage. Normal service will be resumed after I return to Tallinn and civilisation on August 8th.

Privatising the Moon

As a child of the space age, it is hard not to be disappointed in the fact that we do not have human beings in permanent Moon bases, and should have landed humans on Mars some time ago. On the other hand it is also easy to notice that space has been very largely the realm of state enterprises, whether that is American NASA, the Russian Cosmodrome, ESA of the Europeans or indeed the Chinese government. But, of course, various treaties have dictated that no part of space, including the Moon, may be owned in any way except, as the Outer Space treaty has it, in common benefit for all mankind- and if "all" own something it is the same as if no one owns it. Well, it is true that Columbus' expedition was a state enterprise, yet what brought the Conquistadors back to the Americas was the prospect of limitless wealth- albeit that this was wealth plundered from the native population. There is wealth on the Moon, but there is no population, yet still, "private ownership" o

Osborne's Arrogance

George Osborne does not know very much about the global financial system. He took an upper second in History before failing to become a journalist. The only non political jobs he has ever held are as a data entry clerk for the NHS and at a well known London department store. After failing in his ambition to become a journalist, he began to work for Conservative Central Office. With a short stint working as a special advisor to Douglas Hogg at the Ministry of Agriculture and then in the boiler room at 10 Downing street, he stayed with the Conservative central organisation until his election as an MP in 2001 at the age of 30. It is a fairly thin CV and not one that would get him much credibility if he were seeking work in a major firm in the City of London. However, with the arrogance that only the truly ignorant possess, he now presumes to inflict a whole new regulatory structure upon the London Financial system, by the abolition of the Financial Services Authority and the transfer of i

Forty Years

The Wright Brothers first flew their Kitty Hawk on December 17th 1903. On July 25th 1909, Louis Bleriot made the first aeroplane crossing of the Channel. On June 5th 1919, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown made the first aeroplane crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. On May 21st 1927 Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris. It was only 18 years from the 35 minute flight of Bleriot to the 35 hour flight of Lindbergh. From that time, the pace of technological change seemed to accelerate dramatically. The invention of the jet engine by Sir Frank Whittle saw the first jet aeroplane, the Gloster-Whittle fly on May 15th 1941. After the end of the Second World War, speeds became ever faster: the sound barrier was broken by Chuck Yeager on October 14th 1947. Finally, on 12th April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man into space. It was only 58 years since the first flight. In December 1968, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill And

A question of judgement

The political conventional wisdom in Britain is that the increasingly tired Labour government, bereft of ideas, is headed for an inevitable defeat at the next general election, whenever that election comes. The Conservatives are already considering the calibre of the large intake of new MPs that they expect to gain in the class of 2010- for May 2010, the last possible date for the election, now looks like the most likely date. The polls currently point to a sufficient advantage for the Conservatives to gain an outright majority and put David Cameron into 10 Downing Street as the fifty-third Prime Minister since Sir Robert Walpole took office in 1721. Under the circumstances one might expect that we could now be getting a much clearer idea of the kind of ideas that will underpin the ideology of any future Conservative administration. Yet there seem very few clear pointers. Since all but one of the prospective Conservative MPs opposes the ban on hunting with dogs, we may expect that this

Cameron, Coulson and a lot of writs...

The Conservatives still seem to be trying to hold the line that their Director of Communications does not have a problem with the growing scandal at the News of the World . Iain Dale points out that the Police will not be prosecuting Mr. Coulson and seemingly regards this as something that he can simply ride out. Frankly, I don't think he can, and I think that one of David Cameron's most commendable characteristics - his loyalty to his colleagues- is in grave danger of proving to be his greatest weakness. It was always going to be a risk hiring Coulson for the big - and very well paid- job of Director of Communications. The fact is that Coulson had indeed had to resign over the bugging of phones of members of the Royal household. That was a specific case and the Police decided that even though he was the editor, he did not have a case to answer. So only two, more junior, figures were sent to gaol. However, what the Guardian allegations reveal is that the operations were on suc

Not the Actions of a Friendly Nation

Picture: MOD The picture is a recent one and shows an RAF Typhoon intercepting a Russian Tu-95 Bomber, NATO designation "BEAR". This is skirting British air space after having overflown Norway. It is a deliberate military incursion by the Russian Air Force: it is an entirely hostile act. It is also far from unique. According to the House of Commons Defence select committee there have been at least 18 such unauthorised military incursions into British air space in the past two years. The point of the RAF releasing this photograph is, however a pointed one. The Tupolev 95 may not be as primitive as it looks, it has turbo prop- not piston- engines and a very long range. However the weapons systems on the Typhoon could have shot down the Russian craft well before the Russians were even aware that a Typhoon was in the area- after all the Typhoon only came into service less than two years ago and carries highly advanced systems. Comparing the 1960s era Bomber and the latest fighte

Andy Coulson: Smoke and Mirrors

It is illegal to tap phones in the UK. Even when matters of urgent state security are involved, the authorisation to tap phones can only come from the Home Secretary - and even that under strictly limited circumstances. So today's allegations from the Guardian that News International has sanctioned widespread illegal phone taps against a large number of individuals, including cabinet ministers, are truly shocking. These appear to be simple fishing expeditions with no public interest defence possible. This is straightforwardly criminal activity. The Conservatives have found themselves in a certain amount of trouble on this: Andy Coulson, the Tory Director of Communications, was the editor of the News of the World before he was forced to resign over some specific allegations of phone taps against members of the Royal Household. David Cameron has said that he is "very relaxed" about the issue. The point being that the out of court settlements that News International were fo

150,000 singing their freedom

It is not easy to find a crowd in a country as small as Estonia. The population of the whole country is only 1.4 million and there is the general solitariness of the Estonian character to be taken into account. Yet, every five years the whole country gathers together with a common purpose: to sing. The Song festivals of the Baltic countries are an astonishing spectacle. Not only do people gather together on an epic scale, but the singing that emerges from choirs of twenty or thirty thousand people is glorious, with subtle harmonies and counterpoint. These performances of beloved and ancient tunes are watched by a substantial fraction of the rest of the country. Yesterday a choir of 25,000 at the Tallinn song festival was watched by well over 120,000 in the audience. As a spectacle it was impressive, but it was the emotional impact that soared above all else. The songs were mostly gentle evocations of the land and people of Estonia- patriotic yes, but celebrating the light, the land and

Vilnius transfer

I have come down for a few days to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. I am here to participate in the Lithuanian World Economic Forum an event which last took place 17 years ago, but has been revived in conjunction with the celebrations of the Millenium of the Lithuanian state and the reign of Vilnius as European capital of culture 2009. It is a very Lithuanian affair, and the several hundred delegates have all been selected as "foreign Lithuanians". It is in fact an outreach to the hundreds of thousands of sucessful Lithuanian ex-pats. I suppose it is a tribute to the longevity of my relationship with Lithuania that I am one of the very few non-Lithuanian speakers to have been invited. I am, apparently, a Lithuanian ex-pat, resident in Estonia. The fatted calf has certainly been slaughtered in honour of these particular prodigals: yesterday the outgoing President, Valdus Adamkus hosted the first session at the Presidential Palace, and several of the most prominent members of

The coming Russian implosion

The narrow cabal of four KGB officers that controls Russia under Vladimir Putin has a brutally Manichean view of power. They do not believe in mutually beneficial negotiations, but only in the effective wielding of control. Thus they are a dangerous factor in the international community since any success for the West, by definition, must imply a loss for Russia. Even worse, Putin has a grievance against the current world order: he explicitly laments the fall of the USSR and intends to reconstruct the old power relationships whether using the power of Russian resources and money or- as in Georgia and Moldova- using Russian military power. Having acquired power by underhand means- planting bombs that killed 300 people - it was always clear how ruthless the Putin clique was. Yet, in the end this very ruthlessness was part of his attraction to the Russian people. Putin acquired respect, precisely because of his KGB heritage. He projected competence, in sharp contrast to the last years of

A Parliament of Hacks

The hot dog days of Summer bring an even greater ennui to the fetid business of politics. Flaming June gives way to a muggy July and few in the political world are doing more than look forward to the escape from Westminster. John Redwood argues that this exodus amounts to Parliament being part time . In his occasionally populist way, he argues that the sessions of Parliament should be longer. Most MPs, especially those in marginal seats might argue that they have plenty to do in their constituencies, and most constituencies are a long way from London, unlike leafy Wokingham. But actually is Mr. Redwood's fundamental idea actually right? Actually I think he is dead wrong. Parliament is- or ought to be- a council of the nation, bringing individuals with wider experience and differing interests together to control the public purse and pass legislation as required. Until recently the idea of a full time, professional politician would have seemed ridiculous. Political figures were those