On “Green” Fuel

This does sound too good to be true, but I have checked it on various sites and it does seem correct. Audi, the German car maker, has succeeded in making a form of artificial diesel that will run cars from a) renewable energy, b) water and c) carbon dioxide harvested from the atmosphere.

This would be the cleanest, greenest fuel imaginable. The renewable energy is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The latter is mixed with carbon monoxide, which is derived from that harnessed carbon dioxide. You end up with long-chain hydrocarbons that form the so-called “blue crude” diesel.

Production is limited at the research facility in Dresden, but the fuel is already being used to run an Audi car owned by Germany’s minister of education and research, the regrettably named Johanna Wanka.

Yes really. She does exist – I looked her up. The announcement from Audi does not appear to have an April 1 dateline, so this is not some elaborate Teutonic joke. The fuel is said to be even more efficient than conventional fossil hydrocarbons. It is also claimed it can be produced cheaper than the same. So you can burn you way around the countryside content in the knowledge that you are actually reducing CO2 in the atmosphere rather than contributing to it.

Expect this one to be picked up by our papers fairly soon as the solution to all our problems. Expect the usual radical Greens to come up with a reason why it would be a Bad Idea and we would still be better off living in freezing yurts..


On Intellectual Theft

“Everything is free now/That’s what they say/ Everything I ever done/Gotta give it away.” Gillian Welch, American country singer.

Daughter has been complaining. I work for a national newspaper, and she sometimes needs to look up stories or features printed in it. She is unable to access our copy online because, as an impecunious student, she is unwilling to pay for it.

I have pointed out that the pleasant lifestyle she has enjoyed over the past two decades has been funded by said newspaper, and that if we did not charge for the fruits of my endeavours and others but merely gave it away free, that lifestyle would be severely diminished. Much good it did me.

We have raised an entire generation of thieves, teenagers and twenty-somethings for whom the idea of paying for someone else’s intellectual property (IP), for music, films or computer games, is unthinkable, almost indecent. This is an item of faith for techie websites such as boingboing, and for bearded, shaven-headed Clerkenwell hipsters in plaid shirts and ill-fitting jeans.

The attitude is either, surely everything should be free? Surely everyone should be prepared to provide their art, be it music, films or other IP, for nothing? (A bit like the hippie ideals of my distant youth. Funny how it comes around again.) Or alternatively, I’m only taking a little bit. They – film makers, musicians, whatever – are all rich. My few pennies filched from them won’t make that much difference.

When I was Daughter’s age, every album you bought had a note on the inside sleeve saying, Home Taping Is Killing Music. Makes me quite nostalgic to recall it. We bought cassettes and taped each other’s LPs. The music industry survived – indeed, it is one of the odd ironies that the company that sold us the necessary cassettes often owned one of the big record companies that said cassettes were said to be “killing”.

The industry is now whining piteously again about illegal downloading – a piece at the weekend suggested the UK music industry had seen its earnings almost halve since 2003. Most of the people who buy music these days are middle aged, like me, and even we hardly ever pay full price – I get most of my  stuff, excluding the recently released, from Amazon Marketplace. A mere fiver for The Individualism Of Gil Evans? A work of genius for the price of a pint of bitter?

I digress. The prevalence of illegal downloading has turned the economics of music industry on its head. Bands used to tour, probably at a loss, to promote an album, on which they made a profit. Now the reverse is true, which is why a decent couple of seats at an average venue will cost you a three figure sum.

What comes around, goes around. Daughter and her generation are paying through the nose for live music because they nick the canned stuff. It also means music companies are more cautious about who they sign, which probably explains the horrible blandness of most pop music today, the endless identikit singer-songwriters. You have to be able to fill those stadia with £50 or more bums per seat.

Alternatively, you distribute music through different routes, online, by word of mouth. Small gigs that lead to larger ones. A bunch of oiks in a transit van driving up and down the country building a grass roots fan base in sweaty clubs rather than being swallowed by The Machine.

A bit, then, like the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, punk, etc, etc…

On The Tube, And Public Safety

The other week a young commuter suffered horrific head injuries at Stockwell tube station, which I pass through twice a day.

A couple of weeks before a woman was badly injured a few stations down the Northern Line, at Clapham South,  when her coat was caught in the doors of a Tube train.

In both cases the authorities, Transport for London, rushed to reassure passengers that the platform was “busy but not overcrowded”, so the sheer number of people there was not the cause of the accidents.

Must have been a cold day in Hell, then, because as I say I pass through both twice a day and they are always overcrowded. As is the rest of the Northern Line. And the rest of the transport system. We have to believe the authorities, because they would never play down the danger to commuters from the absurd and chaotic overcrowding on most parts of the network. Would they?

It is pretty obvious to those of us using the capital’s transport network that overcrowding, especially when something goes wrong, the usual “signal failure” or “broken down train”, has got to a stage when those commuters are sometimes in actual physical danger. We have all been there, the sheer number of people trying to get onto and off the platform, and the realisation that if there is a serious problem, a fire, mass panic, then most of these people are not going to get out alive.

Overcrowding on public transport is one of those long-term crises that does not fit in with our five-year electoral cycle and so is quietly kicked into the future for some other administration to deal with. Likewise, the public finances and mounting debt, both on the part of individuals and the state. Likewise the looming lack of available electricity generation as old facilities are retired. Likewise the cost and shortage of housing.

One day there is going to be a serious accident on the Tube with a number of fatalities, and then those authorities will be faced with a real dilemma. Shut the whole network for an unaffordable upgrade, invest the money we should have invested decades ago? Or keep it running, and risk another disaster?

I would point out that this has already happened elsewhere. The rail crashes at Potters Bar and Ladbroke Grove at the turn of the century were followed by weeks of travel chaos, as it become obvious short cuts had been taken on safety. They were fixable – the overcrowding on the Tube is not.

Transport, power, housing, debt – all problems that can safely be kicked down the road rather than addressed now. And keep those reassuring messages coming.

On Christopher Bland, And Ireland

I have just finished Christopher Bland’s Ashes In The Fire, which charts the course of Irish history from the rising against the British through to the bursting of the Celtic Tiger bubble amid the banking crisis.

I first met Bland, now Sir Christopher, when he was chairman of London Weekend Television, working with Greg Dyke. He has since chaired the Board of Governors of the BBC and BT.

Lanky and occasionally amusingly brusque, he is engaging company, though I have only met him professonally. We once spent an enjoyable morning cooking at Leiths School of Food and Wine in west London, which he part owns. Nothing to do with improving my culinary skills – I was interviewing him about his career. His sardonic comments on said skills, or lack of them, quite made the piece.

Bland is by descent Anglo-Irish, of that deracinated breed of Protestants originally put into Ireland to run the place who found themselves between two worlds on the coming of the Republic. The book is a marvel – he writes with clarity and at times poetically. Yet another career beckons.

I had not realised just what a bloody affair the severance of our links with John Bull’s Other Island had been. There was a virtual civil war for several years before the British finally bowed to the inevitable. Then the Irish began a second civil war among themselves, between those that supported the accommodation that created Northern Ireland and those that did not.

(Someone once told me that to understand Irish politics, you have to appreciate who shot whose grandfather – today, probably great-grandfather. This is why Eire has been governed by two utterly opposed parties whose politics seem to outsiders identical.)

Bland drew on that family background, though he was brought up, I believe, in Northern Ireland. The castle that is burned down by the IRA near the start was built by an ancestor.

I also had no idea that conscription lasted until 1960, with the last of those drafted not returning to civilian life until 1963.

Read it.

On Unpaid Internships

Speaking as someone with offspring of the appropriate age, I am flabbergasted at the suggestion from the Institute of Economic Affairs, the right-wing if occasionally diverting think tank, that it might well choose to charge young people approaching it for internships.

Labour wants a four week limit to unpaid internships, to avoid young people being indentured into long periods of virtual slavery in the hopes of finally getting a job at the end of it. The IEA thinks this would limit the opportunities to come and work at its offices for free.

I would expect my offspring to gain any number of things from the weeks they work in vacation, not least an appreciation of the benefits of being paid a fair price for their labour. This is a principle you would have though a staunchly free market pressure group such as the IEA would also support.

Except that we are talking of something a little different here. Many young people, often students, accept short unpaid internships as a form of work experience, a chance to learn whether life in a solicitors’ office, say, would suit them as a career choice. Note that word short.

The sort of internships on offer from the IEA, which are common within the Westminster bubble, working for MPs, say, or such think tanks, are not designed to see if you would enjoy spending the rest of your life as a policy wonk. Or an MP. They are an entrée into the world of politics, a way of gaining contacts and a first step on the ladder towards a political career.

If the political world starts to charge for them, thereby putting up even more barriers to those without the financial support of Mum and Dad, then a few years down the line we are going to end up with a political class even more divorced from the real world than the one we have at the moment. God help us, we have enough politicians with no experience of anything outside politics.

That divorce is one reason why this country is increasingly looking ungovernable, as voters lose patience with the whole rotten show and plump for fringe parties.

Yes, that would be a real advance, wouldn’t it?

On Evolution

Great new website: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/. The name says it all, and there are some splendid pictures of animals. What more do you want?

The writer has an understandable loathing for pseudo-science  – his takedown of Rupert Sheldrake, the inventor of the theory of morphic resonance, is particularly worth reading. He pushes the line that religion is incompatible with proper science perhaps a little too hard for my liking. Still, highly recommended.

While on the subject, can I recommend Stephen Baxter’s Evolution to anyone with an interest. He is a science fiction writer, extremely prolific, but the book is a one-off among his work. It is a fictionalised account of the history of one strand of mammalian DNA, from tiny, shrew-like creatures creeping around at the feet of the dinosaurs, through to the development of modern humans…

Then through a massive extinction event, and a meditation on how the remnants of the human race might subsequently evolve. Much of the narrative is highly speculative, with Baxter trying to envisage what various missing links in the chain might have been like.

Not one for scientific purists, then, though the author is a biologist by training. And the eventual destiny of the human race is pretty bleak.

On Tax Exile

I have been engaged in a debate on Twitter with a Labour supporter, as I must assume, who has been finding reasons why non-doms will not necessarily flee these shores if their tax privileges are abolished.

He initially Tweeted a 2010 story on Bloomberg about the financier Guy Hands, who had set out in court documents the personal heartache that had been caused by his decision the previous year to relocate to Guernsey for tax reasons.

Hands, whom I have had brief dealings with over the years, explained then that he did not see his wife or school age children, visit his family home in Kent, fly through UK airports or even see his parents. Such were the travails of moving to a tax haven.

Non doms are entitled to huge tax breaks, even though they live in this country, for archaic and obscure reasons hard to justify in this day and age. The point being made on Twitter was that few would put up with such sacrifices just to keep their money out of the hands of the tax man.

This therefore means that those privileges can safely be withdrawn without cost to the Exchequer, which appears to be Labour’s line, though it has become somewhat muddled.

I suspect that is right. Hands is still, it is reported, a tax exile. He is worth, according to the last rich list, £250 million. Should he return to leafy, suburban Kent, it is not as if the tax man is going to take it all away. He will simply have to pay tax on any more money he makes at the same rate most of the rest of us do, on at least part of our salaries.

I cannot conceive why someone would put themselves through such heartache, just to save a little bit of tax. Families are worth more than that, surely. Still, that’s probably why I will never be rich.

I also think that the debate over whether we would lose gain tax income if those non dom breaks are swept away is an irrelevant one. Some things are simply unfair, at any level.

 On a personal level, we have just spent the weekend in Cambridge, where Daughter is at college. I remarked as we came away that the weekend had cost a fair bit. My wife pointed out that it was time spent with the family, creating memories we would all share. What else was money for?

On Gaudier-Brzeska

Staying in Cambridge at the weekend, we visited a small exhibition of the works of the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. This is a fixture at Kettle’s Yard, home of Jim Ede, the art lover and collector who wrote Gaudier-Brzeska’s biography, Savage Messiah.

The sculptor, with his spindly, attenuated, vaguely primitive figures, is one of those artists who seem perched on the divide between the coming of modernism and When It All Went Wrong. When artworks ceased to be understandable, consumable by ordinary people and needed a priesthood of “critics” to interpret their meaning and intercede on their behalf. See Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, to which I have referred here before.

One wonders what direction Gaudier-Brzeska would have taken had he survived into the 1920s and 1930s, rather than being killed on the Western Front in 1915. Would he have stayed a figurative artist or headed into the impenetrable avant-garde?

Ede bought a lot of works from the sculptor’s lover, Sophie Brzeska. The house, which is well worth a visit in its own right and has been preserved largely unchanged, was donated to the University when Ede retired.

Many will know Gaudier-Brzeska from the film of Savage Messiah made by Ken Russell, one of the latter’s four or five great works. He turned out a fair few turkeys as well. The actor who played the sculptor, Scott Anthony, was barely heard of again, though he had a subsequent career as a film maker.

The film, of course, features a scene with Helen Mirren that, if seen by males of a certain age, can  never be forgotten. If you’ve seen the film, you will know the one I mean.

On Bismarck, And Pensions

Yesterday, April Fool’s Day, was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Otto von Bismarck. Monday, April 6, is Pension Freedom Day, when we in the UK are freer to do what we will with our pensions.

The connection? Bismarck was the first statesman to introduce a universal pension. This was payable when citizens were 70, the date subsequently reduced by five years, so 65 became the norm everywhere.

In Bismarck’s day, you were lucky to get to 70, so it was not that generous. One of the reasons for Pensions Freedom Day is that we are all living longer, into our nineties not unusually. This has made, on any rational measure, retirement at 65 for most people unaffordable.

That fact, combined with the low interest rate environment, has meant that the returns on our pensions offered by City professionals, from fixed return investments such as annuities which are almost entirely risk free, are nowhere near enough to live on.

The Government’s assumption is that if people are handed a large lump sum at 65 and told, go away and invest this yourself or find someone to do it for you, they will do better than those City professionals and their low risk investments. It is a bold experiment and the consequences, some decades down the line when enough people have retired and invested and we can see the results, will be interesting.

To say the least. I tend to err on the side of letting people do what they want with their own money. Still, some warn of an entire generation impoverished by bad investment decisions. Whatever happens, the current crop of politicians won’t be around to blame.

Bismarck, a product of the German upper classes and not much inclined to trust the lower orders with anything, would have been appalled.

On Making Sport Less Boring

I have very little time for sport and know little about it – though a working knowledge of cricket is a useful survival mechanism in a house where the person in charge is obsessed with the game. So I have no particular argument with attempts to make cricket and football more interesting.

We learn that FIFA, the world football governing body, wants to make the goal posts higher and wider because people are becoming bored with goalless draws, especially Americans. That is, according to an apparently serious piece on R4’s Today programme.

On the same day the new boss of the England and Wales Cricket Board wants test matches to run over four days, rather than five. Again, Americans have difficulty getting their heads around matches that last five days and end in a draw.

Yes, yes, I know, the first is an April Fool. The second appears to be serious, and is on the ECB’s official website. Both seem eminently sensible to someone like me, who cannot conceive of sitting through a five-day test match and can’t see the point of watching 22 people kicking a ball around a field to no great consequence. Who cares which one is the April Fool?