Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Why are you a Libdem?

Recently a email was sent out to members asking this question.  So why am I a Libdem?  Not for the naked quest for power and the high life: that is for sure.

Anyhow, below is my more considered response.

For me, being a liberal means being decisions being made at the most local level possible.  It means encouraging people to take an active role in our own communities and not being dictated to by central governments in either Westminster, Cardiff or Edinburgh.  That means getting involved: whether directly in politics or voluntary work with your local community.

At the centre of liberalism is you.  It's me.  It is every individual for government should be at the service of everybody.  If a family is trying to get good health care or education, then it is the government role to ensure that people are helped.  It isn't about leaving the vulnerable behind.

Liberalism is also about business.  We realise that while no one method if wealth generation is perfect, capitalism is the most effective way of generating a decent standard of living for all; only though if it is properly regulated.  People have to have a sense of ownership, of responsibility and successful risk should be rewarded.  Business too have responsibility to the communities in which they operate.

Government is responsible too: responsible for law-making, regulations, infrastructure, national and international relations and defences but also responsible for ensuring that our armed forces are not deployed in unjust and open-ended wars.  Working constructively with all our neighbours is the best way so despite its flaws, that is why most liberals support the work of the United Nations and the European Union.

This local-to-global outlook means that liberals also care deeply about the environment.  We see that with growing populations that our planet's ecosystems and wildlife are under great strain.  We go where the evidence leads us and that sometimes means hard decisions and having the courage to stand by them.

In summary, being a liberal means standing up, taking responsibility, accepting people as we are and working to get the best outcome for all.

To give your own reason why you are a Libdem, follow this link

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Sad Fate of Steadfast Gate.

Do you know how one often passes by without stopping and taking note?  For a year to and from work, I passed by the monument on Edinburgh's Steadfast Gate, which forms a junction on the cycle and walking paths between Victoria Park in Trinity and The Water of Leith.

Taking advantage of the fine weather ahead of Storm Frank, due here this evening, I was walking,  only to discover the scene below.

The benches have been vandalised and graffitied.  Cobbles have been ripped up and moss allowed to grown between those who remain.

The Stones from The Sinclair Fountain have been damaged by  burning plastic on them, and the fountain itself contains an empty can of Iron Bru.

This little monument and rest area is south-facing and offers nice views across Arthur's Seat and Carlton Hill.  It is a shame that it has been allowed to fall into such disrepair.

I will be forwarding my photographs on to Edinburgh Council.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the BBFC Rating

On the BBC's flagship film critic show this afternoon, the latest Star Wars film - The Force Awakens was reviewed.  A lot of the discussion was about the suitability of the bbfc (British Board of Film Classification) rating of 12A - children of 12 and under to be accompanied by an adult.  Mark Kermode considered this correct while Simon Mayo opined that a PG would suffice.  I think that both the bbfc and Dr. Kermode has the right of it.

The bbfc ruling can be read here: My own opinion is that not only is there brutality, which actually many key plot points revolve around, but the shear quality of the filming makes the violence more real.  In the tradition of such movies, damage seen is fleeting but the effects, while having to be digital, just make it is more believable because the main images are shot on 35mm.  At one stage in the movie I felt greatly saddened and actually felt like I had seen too much war.  Unbelievable I know because in real life I have been fortunate insofar that I have only seen war zones and not war itself, but such was the effectiveness of the movie.

The counter point to this is to ask whether a child be so affected?  Maybe not but frankly this movie is different from the previous films.  Oh yes, the battle scenes are fabulous, Stormtroopers still die in drifts but (and I think this is important) this time they are humans too.  The battles are no longer the mindless blast-fests of previous years.  Also I find that some of the disturbing images have stayed with me.  Make no mistake: this is a dark movie.

Would I recommend Star Wars: The Force Awakens?  Of course I would.  The lead actors:  Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are wonderful.  The real-feel to the filming gives the whole visual  experience and there is psychological intelligence to the plot.  Yet it maintains the pace and sheer excitement of the Lucas original movies.

With the direction of J.J. Abrams, Star Wars has indeed returned.  It is as if Parts I, II and III never were.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Fracking Under National Parks

One noted the care taken in the choice of words from the government spokesman when he talked about "horizontal shale layers".  This was in reference to the government vote today on whether to allow fracking underneath environmentally sensitive sites.  The spokesman went on to mention that the limit on measured hydraulically-induced fractures (or fracks, as I shall call them for the rest of the piece) is 600m, so that a safety limit of double that difference, 1200m, will be safe enough.

The aforementioned horizontal shale layers imagine the geology of the UK as some kind of layer cake, with one layer of sediment being deposited upon another.  There are such places on Earth where this does occur (Permian Basin in Texas is a good example) but the UK is not one of them.

The cross section above shows the structure of some of the geological basins that are potential targets for fracking in the north of England (Copyright DECC, 2013).  Even at this simple level, the potential complexity of the basins can be made out.  As one investigates on the local level, the complexity increases.

As always, the devil is in the detail.  Or facts, as they are otherwise known.  The fact is that every geological prospect is different and without having the geophysical data, and the knowledge of how to interpret it, it is not possible to know whether this 1200m safety limit is enough.  For example, if the fracks reach a porous layer of rocks above, there will be nothing to stop fluids reaching higher levels or even the surface.  This is where good surveying and the highest of standards come in.  In my long experience of working in the industry, most companies and individuals I have had the pleasure of working with have excellent standards.  Things can and do go wrong however, despite the best of measures.  This is why that, in the previous Coalition, the Liberal Democrats introduced the ban on fracking within national parks and under environmentally-sensitive sites.  It is this ban that the government is due to overturn in a Commons' vote today.  The 1200m safety limit is a barely minimum standard anywhere, never mind a national park.

Out of interest, what will the effect of drilling from outside the nation park actually allow?  Most people outside the industry may imagine that well bores go straight down.  This has long not been the case.  Drilling strings are steerable, allowing wells to be drilling even horizontally, should that be necessary.  The advantage to this, especially for fracking, is that a hole can be drilled along the target formation, maximising hydrocarbon production.
There are technical limits to horizontal drilling.  The longest wells rarely go past 8000m so, if one were to site a drilling rig just outside a national park and the geology allowed, this would be roughly the maximum extent of intrusion possible into the park.  However, if a combination of wells are used, it would be possible to set up network of interacting wells underneath a given target, allowing for large areas of fracking to take place under any given terrain.   This would effectively negate any benefit of national park protection if they become ringed with heavy industrial sites.

The government has announced that allowing fracking under national parks will "kickstart" the industry in the UK.  This is rubbish: what will kickstart any oil and gas exploration is the market price of energy.  That's it.  There is effectively nothing that any government can do to encourage fossil-fuel exploration while energy prices are low.  These prices are not due to recover until towards the end of the current parliament's term.

What are the Conservatives doing then?  They understand how markets work.  The measures are preparing the groundwork for when the oil and gas prices recover.   Oil companies obey the rules though: if they are told not to drill under a national park, they won't.  They will explore areas open to them.  Therefore by opening up the national parks to development, Conservatives are following another agenda, that of deregulation of the state over corporate action.

I have blogged before on the continued deregulation of the UK's energy markets by the Conservatives and it is disturbing that while they talk about energy security, in reality they are doing absolutely nothing about it.  The opposite in fact: by ending subsidies for renewable energy, they also prove that they care nothing for CO2 emissions or the resulting climate change.

I see nothing particularly wrong with fracking but it has to be regulated and monitored.  Instead the Conservatives are turning towards deregulation and free markets, regardless of the possible consequences for either the UK or the rest of the world.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Nissar Hussain and a Secular Britain

The case of Nissar Hussain and his continued persecution for leaving Islam and converting to Christianity has again resurfaced, with a recent demonstration in his support being held in Bradford on 5th of December.  This follows an brutal attack on Mr Hussain in November which left him hospitalised.  

I have usually supported Muslims in the UK and further afield in their right to practice their religion in peace but also must speak out when incidents like this occur.

As a spiritual person, I see the advantages of living in Britain's secular society.  We are all free to practice our religions, or no religion at all, as one chooses.  This cultural diversity is of great value because no person or group has an monopoly of wisdom.  By being active and free to contribute to society, we are all enriched and grow stronger together.

Part of belief is to face the challenge of doubt and, as an individual, each is ultimately responsible for their own spiritual path and relationship to God.  One is aware of the edicts in both the Bible and, I am led to believe, the Qur'an, on how to deal with those that leave the religion.  There is also the law of the land however.  The beatings and vandalism inflicted on Mr Hussain are criminal acts, regardless of their motivation.  Those who protect the perpetrators are protecting criminals.

Law protects both the rights of those who wish to worship in their traditions and also those who wish to go their own way.

Why do I feel so strongly about this?  It is because in childhood my own family went through similar experiences of intimidation and ostracism, if not to such a level of violence.  Growing up with an Irish and Catholic background and living in England during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland was not idilic.  Most people were prepared to live-and-let-live but it only takes a few bigots for that not to happen.  It is this reason I so sympathetic to minorities in the UK.  I see the same pattern of hatred being whipped up against Muslims in British society that Irish people previously underwent.

Extremism, religious or political, is contrary to British way of living.  That does not mean it does not exist but it should be challenged when it does arise.  One does not expect those of faith to rejoice when a follower leaves their religion.  Friendships are broken and networks are cut off.  Individuals though ultimately have the right to live in peace, without the fear of intimidation and violence.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Trump, Sanders and the US Republic

“We need a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States while we figure out what the hell is going on. We are out of control.”  

These are Donald J. Trump's unrepentant words and they are supported by at least twenty percent of Republican voters in the upcoming selection of the party's presidential candidate.

Much has been said since then: bigoted, un-American, Trump should be stripped on his honorary degrees etc.  I doubt much of this matters to the man in question for his eyes are fixed upon one target at this time.  Much print has already been spent on the wrongness of his comments and, for the record, I think they are pretty awful.  

The deeper question is, surely, what does this all mean for the US system of republican democracy?

Since the beginning of the US Civil War, the Democrats and Republicans have dominated US politics.  Yes, there have been independent movements and candidates: socialists, greens on the left and on the right characters like Ross Perot.  Overall though, the two huge party machines have, so far, overcome and endured. 

This election cycle feels different.  We have Donald Trump who is brilliant at self-publicity and outrage.  On the left, not getting the media attention but just as different from the mainstream, Bernie Sanders is soldiering on, drawing the crowds and continuing a quiet insurgency into the heart of the Democrat nominations.  Safe money may well be on Hilary Clinton but all the "moderate" would-be presidential candidates, whether Republican or Democrat, suffer from one major disadvantage: they represent a system that no longer represents the interests of the vast majority of US citizens.

US politics is designed to the a two-party system.  It is also designed not to be a democracy.  The Founding Fathers studied in-depth ancient literature but especially the Roman Republic which was, in its way, a representative democracy.  The higher orders set the agenda and made the decisions.  Their votes carried more weight so by the time the poorer (and larger) cohorts had their time to vote, usually it didn't matter.  Any of that sound familiar?  

Previously the popular vote did not really matter.  It does now.  Why is that?

Since late in the Bill Clinton presidency, the media has depicted a breakdown in communication between the US left and right wings of politics.  Whether this is an accurate portrayal of politics at the top is very doubtful but certainly at all levels of political coverage, there is no dialogue between supporters that does not eventually break down into insults and name-calling.  This is no way to run a nation.  After nearly two decades of this communication breakdown, it is little wonder that folk on both left and right are looking outside the centre for their answers.  People are no longer able to seek for, never mind find, any consensus with each other.  

The politics of Sanders and Trump are poles apart but both are similar in how they speak their mind, are not polished, are willing to take on received wisdom and do not suffer fools gladly.  These are qualities that are popular and rightly so.  People of all political persuasions are sick of fakery, false outrage and outright dissimulation.   Both Trump and Sanders are the real McCoy.

My own politics are much closer to Sanders' than to Trump's.   US politics is shifted so far to the right compared to that in Europe that even Sander's socialism is unremarkable here.  As an outsider though, it is clear that existing status quo of American corporate politics would be far more at ease with a victory for Trump than they would with Sanders, the latter representing far more accurately the role of tribune of the people.  Trump is a billionaire and from a monied background, although that should not be held against him.  Although very popular with blue-collar voters, he will only represent the rich.  He has no concern for little people; an example being his dealings with his neighbour Michael Forbes over the development of the Balmedie golf course in Scotland .  

It comes to pass therefore that on the right Trump is getting the headlines while Sanders is digging away on the left.  The question I have is whether the US Republic is able to adapt to this breakdown in communication, popular consensus and what it means for the long term outlook for politics in the USA?  

It is certainly an issue that is not going to be resolved any time soon. 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Root of the Problem

What follows below is a bit of a ramble but I have a big personal question to address: whether to stay with the Liberal Democrats.  As it turns out, as so often in life, one question evolves into another.

Have you ever thought about what the definition of a military superpower actually is?  Unless one is a student of either international politics or military global strategy, probably not.  I am a student of neither but I have from a young age have always been aware of the effects that superpowers have over us.  These are best documented in maps.  When I was young, I used to pore over maps, especially those parts which were barred to me.  Russia, the Black and Caspian Seas.  The vast steppes of the Soviet Union and the Russian Far East Pacific.  All these places would be forever closed.

Meanwhile my father travelled.  He was a marine engineer.  There were parts of the world to which he seldom went and others he would never go.  Russia, of course, was one of them.  It was the Cold War after all.  Surprisingly enough, America was another.  Not that he was ever barred officially but before he worked with what turned out to be his long-term employer, he did jobs for smaller companies wherever he could.  Thus in the 1960s he ended up in Mao's China and shipping supplies to North Vietnam.  After that, if the vessel he was working on won contracts to the USA, he would usually be transferred after the first trip, and definitely no more than two.

The Cold War was on a global basis and there were two superpowers: Russia and the USA.  They were given this label because both claimed to be able to fight two major wars, simultaneously, anywhere on the planet.  I say claimed because, thankfully, it was never put to the test.  One would think that ownership of nuclear weapons would be enough to make one a superpower but apparently not.  It is the capability to field forces simultaneously in different regions.  That is why Britain was a superpower before WWII and has never been since.

The US capacity during the 1960s was, on paper at least, to retain capacity to fight two and a half major conflicts simultaneously.  That is why Vietnam was such a shock the the American psyche.  How could the greatest superpower lose to a local army?  It was a lesson in losing through losing the people, and not just the Vietnamese.  America lost their own people too: at home through the imagines being sent back on the news reporting and in the war zone itself, where very often the conscript troops would simply refuse to obey orders of senior NCOs and officers.  This is a reality which has yet to be depicted in any Hollywood movie I am aware of.

It was Nixon that did away with conscription, moved away from the two-and-a-half major conflicts capacity, and also increased reliance on nuclear weapons, especially with ICBM missiles armed with multiple warheads.  As Vietnam wound down, hope that Carter would come to an accommodation with the Soviet Union during the SALT II talks were dashed with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  Carter himself was undermined by the Iranian Revolution and the taking of the embassy hostages.

Also during the 1970s, less publicised at the time, the Israelis achieved nuclear capacity with its (now ageing) Samson nuclear missile system.  This meant the end of formal wars between Arab states, such as Syria and Egypt, against Israel and more of war-by-proxy using guerrilla and informal forces such as the PLO its offshoot, the Abu Nidal organisation.  It is worth noting though that both organisations are secular, very different from that which was to follow.

A few things to remember about Afghanistan.  The Russians did not invade: they were invited in by the socialist government in Kabul.  True, the Socialists had themselves benefitted from a coup, and their reforms were unpopular with the old conservative landowners, who despite their apparent devotion to Islam were making a good living by charging interest on loans.
The Afghans themselves are made up of disparate peoples; each independent and with a turbulent history but often unified under a strong ruler.  When the central power weakens, often there is rebellion and this was the case several times during the 1970s.

I am no theologian but it is my understanding that the original meaning of the term "jihad" means  a defence of one's own home against an invader.  It was this religious twist to the guerrilla armies that was introduced by the Americans and their allies the Saudis, when organising  resistance to the Soviet intervention into Afghanistan.  The Taliban arose in the brutality of the Afghan refugee camps of the Hindu Kush.  "The Students" is an ironic name: educational facilities in the camps were next to none and they were environments where the strong ruled.  It must have been relatively easy to recruit an army of young men, provide them with a version of warrior Islam and send them forth, armed with the latest technology in light American weaponry, in order to sweep their homeland clean of the godless Russian invaders.  It was not only the Afghan Mujahideen that arose, but their Arabic allies who were keen to fight against secularism.   One such faction was led by a charismatic rich kid from a major Saudi family: the bin Ladens.  Osama became the black sheep but where was the harm?  He was fighting Russians.  These Arab fighters started to define the modern meaning of Jihad - after all, they were not fighting in defence of their own homes but on behalf of those they identify with as co-religionists.

After the Russians withdrew, these new Jihadists found there were many other injustices to apply their energies to.  One tends to wonder now whether George Bush Senior was pretty smart in not overturning Saddam Hussain after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.  Saddam probably thought it was his just reward for waging a bitter, decade-long war against Iran.  Throughout this time he was supported by the West, even in the illegal destruction of international shipping destined for Kharg Island at the top of the Persian Gulf.  My father was running what became known as Exocet Alley at the time.  It was no idle threat: other vessels owned by his employers had been hit and colleagues killed.  As chance would have it, he was on board another ship which departed Kuwait a mere eighteen hours before Iraqi forces rolled into town.

At the time, many people asked "Why don't the Americans finish the job?"  It seemed that was not the mission.  The Republican Guard were not targeted and Saddam was allowed a free hand in brutally suppression of Kurds in the north and the Marsh Arabs to the south.  Both peoples had been promised support and liberation if they rose up against Hussain.  Having previously being head of the CIA, perhaps Bush knew more than most what would occur if Iraq was dismantled.  It seems the aim was to keep intact the borders established by the great colonial powers.

Post-Iraq War, things looked pretty hopeful for those of us in the West.  The so-called Peace Dividend was promised.  Thank God we could reel back military spending.  There was the Balkans Wars of course.  Europe was particularly ineffective in stopping that.  Intervention, which was used by Liberal Democrat leadership on this week's vote as an example of good military intervention, was probably the only way to finally halt the predation of Serbia.  All people of the region suffered but the maps changed.  Yugoslavia, created by the victorious Great Powers after the First World War, no longer exists.  The people of the region, through the combination of war and diplomacy, have created the border that exist today.  This is an important point.

Not that the Americans were dormant during this time.  Taking advantage of Russia's weakness, NATO was extended eastwards into the former Warsaw Pact nations.  When the Soviet Union fell, they had asked that the nations of central Europe remain militarily neutral.  It was agreed at the time but informally so.  Unfortunately for the Russians, a gentleman's agreement is worth even less than a non-binding UN resolution.  It was a lesson that will not be forgotten.
What is the big deal about NATO expansion?  In principle, once the Soviet Union fell, so did the reason for NATO's existence.  There was only one reason for NATO to expand and that was arms sales.  All the Warsaw Pact nations had plenty of serviceable military kit, mostly Russian-supplied but also home-grown.   Part of the conditions of joining NATO was that, in order to fully integrate with existing members, the newly independent nations of the east would have to buy western equipment.

There was a huge outburst of sympathy for the USA after 9/11.  We all understood when the Americans wanted revenge for the 3,000 murdered that day.  If they said that the bombers were trained in bases in Afghanistan, okay.  Perhaps, given the history of the place it may not have seem such a smart idea for a full invasion but hell.  This was no trivial attack.  America had been sorely wounded and they are our friends.

That genuine and heartfelt sympathy lasted approximately a year, until the world realised that America under George Bush Junior wanted to invade Iraq, using the September 2001 attacks as a premise.  The propaganda of the time would have had us all that the recently discovered Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussain were hand-in-glove.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Hussain was indeed a loathsome dictator but the Baath parties of Iraq and Syria were equally loathed by the modern Jihadist movements.  It was as likely a scenario as the Tea Party getting into bed with the Greens.  Hussain played up to his reputation as the Middle East hard man who stood up to the Imperial West.  When it came to it, he was a straw man.  This time the West (primarily the USA supported by the UK) unleashed it's full force and the armies of Iraq were blown like husks on a burning wind.  George W. Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under the banner that read Mission Accomplished.

I remember the build up to that war.  I was in Egypt in February 2003 and one could cut the atmosphere like a knife.  Everybody knew war was coming.  It was just a question of when.  When I got home the protests were in full flood.  Those of us, like the Liberal Democrats, who were against the war were called "wobblers" by The Sun.  I particularly remember a phone in on BBC Radio Scotland: it was the Lesley Riddoch radio slot.  It was never stated why she was not available that day but the reason soon became obvious.  The male presenter who replaced her was only there to whip up backing for the war.  It was the most blatantly biased bit of broadcasting I have ever heard, including the crap put out by Fox News.  Sky News were doing character assassinations on us "wobblers" too.  I was so proud that Charles Kennedy led the party against that war.  The legality of it did not matter so much.  It was wrong.  What the real worry was over what came after.  We were right to worry.

Today, after all the billions upon billions of dollars spent on that war, Iraq is still an open sore.  Following the Arab Spring, now too are Libya and Syria.  Notice that all three nations were ones that resisted the West.  Over a million are dead but, we are told, that the answer is more bombing.

During my previous blogs, Drones, and US, The Middle East and a Bar in Haifa,  I described encounters that showed me at least that currently the United Kingdom totally at one with the real politick of US policy: to integrate with US and Israeli armament technology and to further the aims of US policy, which is to continue the War on Terror.  The actions of the US shows that they are using the ongoing wars to destroy nations the West do not control.  I am not claiming that Cairo or Jeddah are controlled by the US on a day-to-day basis, but rather the US are propping up the current ruling elites through illicit subsidies of military supplies.

That is the UK's current position, without any shadow of a doubt.  What I need to know, really need to know, is that that also the position of the six Liberal Democrat MPs that this week decided the back the UK military intervention in Syria?  By voting with the government last night, they justified the continuing UK backing of the War on Terror.  Was this or was this not the intention?  Is this the kind of grown-up decision that it is necessary to take in order to be trusted with government?

The reason why I am asking these questions is that they are important to me and, I think, to a growing number of people in the UK.  The biggest change between today and, say, The Falklands War, is the development and expansion of the Internet.  In 1982, there was only the BBC, ITV and newspaper reporters available to us.  Unless one really made an effort to look outside the nation (and it was an effort in those day) it was impossible to have any other news source of a conflict.  That is not the case now.  Information is available in directions unimaginable thirty years ago.  While on the topic of the Falklands though, and this idea just came to me, is I wonder if some kind of deal was done?  Now I know that the British naval task force received help from the US Navy in term of refuelling en route to the South Atlantic.  Was there a deal that the UK would thereafter support America in whatever conflict arose?  If so, we are paying a high price after twelve years of constant engagement.
Back to the point however.  Not everybody has had the privilege that I have enjoyed of seeing the world (albeit by the back door) over the past twenty-or-so years.  I have been able to see such places and talk to folk first-hand.  You would not believe how much people talk. They are normal people, doing a job just as I was.  By bloody hell it was an education.  The truth is is this: there are no angels, no good guys.  There are plenty of good people but when it comes to real power the systems in place and the momentum of economics and vested interest makes change very difficult indeed.  Even more so in a liberal democracy where power is spread throughout the interested elites.  Individual people like you and me have very little real power and that is where political parties come in, or ought to.

With the introduction of the Internet, it is increasingly important that citizens are told the truth, or as much truth that can be released without endangering lives.  Now this directly contradicts Political Science 101 - that rulers lie to the citizens for both the good of the state and of the citizen.  Don't believe me?  Check out your Plato.  It is easy to see that since the beginning of time that this has been abused for the benefit of the rulers.  It is the most common complaint that politicians are in it for themselves.  For some that is undoubtedly true.  My experience of party politics is that people who put themselves forward for political activity are a mixed bunch but overall, like most folk, are good and decent.  No matter the intent though, the deeper one gets into real power the harder one finds it to achieve real change.  This is normal: in a democracy power is devolved to other bodies, the courts, press and media, trade unions, businesses to name but a few.  On the whole though, it is the politicians that carry most of the responsibility and almost all the blame.   Misleading the public is more difficult today because of the Internet, though that does not stop the mass media from trying and, often, succeeding.

I am sure you all have plenty of your own examples.  Below I'll cite one of my own examples, which also returns us to the question of warfare.

These things always seem to take place in bars.  I had just come off a rig in Norway.  The hotel, some way from the airport, was dead.  Besides, one appreciates the luxury of walk after several weeks on any rig.  Ending up at the SAS Radisson, I took a beer and a bar meal.  Across the way was a large group of British oil workers and for want of anything else I found myself tuning into their conversation.  One guy was talking about his son who was in the Finnish special forces.  Ever notice that piracy around the Horn of Africa seems not to be in the news so much nowadays?  There is a reason for that.  According to this person, all the northern nations special forces were invited to do tours of duty at the massive east African military base at Djibouti.  From there they would undertake missions which was basically search and destroy.  Anything that looked like a pirate vessel, or in other words anything local and floating was sunk.  Usually from helicopter gunships.  The idea that any nation who wanted their special forces troops blooded would be welcome to book a place and take part.
Now I didn't even know there was a western military base at Djibouti.  So I did what everybody else would do and Googled it.  Sure enough, up it came.
So, what do we have?  A military base, no more reporting of piracy on the media and a plausible explanation as to what caused the piracy to stop: the pirates had been killed, probably along with a whole load of innocent fishermen.  How was this reported?  A few months ago s BBC journalist, speaking on From Our Own Correspondent, referred to the reduction of piracy in the region and attributed that it to increased naval patrols.  I swore at the radio.  Somebody in that position must know what really happened but chose not to tell us.  To my mind, increased naval patrols conjures the picture of warships ploughing through the waves escorting merchant shipping and deterring piracy through their presence.  I don't think it is me being particularly naive; this image would occur to most of us.  Given the circumstances, would the public understood the actions taken if reported?  The region had become unsafe, vessels captured and ransomed, along with their crews.  Some of the crew had been murdered.  There was no effective law enforcement on land.  The situation could not have been allowed to continue.  Perhaps the extreme military response, after years of naval patrols failed, was necessary.

War is never good but sometimes justified.  Which allows me to return to the question: what is politics for and what is my role in it?  Am I to stay with the Liberal Democrats?  If so, is it the intention of the party leadership to back the US War on Terror?  To my mind is an unjustified war designed to be open-ended.

I have been asked to stay by some in the local party.  Which is nice.  Of course, I have to ask myself what the options are for me if I were to leave the party.  Emotionally, now is not a bad time for me to leave.  The current downturn in the oil industry is probably going to be long-lasting.  While it is possible I may still find work, one must face the probability that my time in the industry has come to an end.  I joined the Liberal Democrats a few weeks before I stumbled into the industry; leaving would have a pleasing symmetry to it.
What to do afterwards?  Would I join another party?  Another friend said that any party would be lucky to have me.  The vote on Wednesday showed some parties united against the war but I do not share their other aspirations.  Perhaps I am deluded but I like to think that I am not a political chancer.  It did also show me that other parties were split on the Syrian intervention, which goes to show that understanding of the situation is across the political spectrum.  Besides, it would feel like a betrayal to move to another party.
Another option is not to join another party at all.  If somebody paid me to write on politics and world affairs, that would be a tempting option indeed.  Like my politics though, I have never earned a penny from my writing.

What is it to be?  I am minded to stay but I need to know the answer to that question.  Is the leadership signed up to the US-led War on Terror?  That is what they voted for on Wednesday night but was that their intention?

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

UK Involvement in Syria and the Libdem Vote

Below is my letter, written last night, to all Liberal Democrat MPs.  I was going to hold off publication until after the vote that is seems that all of them are posting on social media, justifying mlitary intervention.  There is therefore no reason to delay publication.

Below is also published a reply by Alistair Carmichael, who very kindly took the trouble to address the issues I raised.

Dear Gentlemen,

Some of you will know me, some may have heard the name and others won't have a clue who I am.  Thus a brief introduction is in order.

I joined the party in 1989 and apart from a break in the late 1990s when I lived abroad, I have been a member ever since.

Since my first signing on, I have considered myself a liberal and a Liberal Democrat.  We are the party who thinks things through, who considers the evidence available but also listens to our principles and go where they lead and not where others lead us.  It is true that makes for a party that is sometimes akin to a cat rodeo; that we are not passive and can appear to be disrespectful of the leadership.  This goes with being a liberal: an absolute belief that power ultimately is there to serve the individual.  We are all individuals.

My first count was 1989, where in the European elections we came fourth to the new Green Party.  I have stuck with the party, through thick and thin, even through the darkest days of the Coalition.  With no hope of victory, I stood for the party in this year's Westminster election because it was the right thing to do.  I have disagreed with policy (especially the tuition fees Nick) but I have stuck together.  I took the time to thank Nick for his leadership after he resigned.  When you were campaigning for the leadership, you said that you would get the Liberal Democrats into government within two elections.  You did it in one.  Fair play.

This evening though, I am in the greatest of difficulty.  It is my understanding that our MPs, you, will support David Cameron when he intends to take the Commons vote on UK military involvement in Syria.  During my professional career I have often worked in the region.  My experience has led me to the conclusion there is no just war in the Middle East that Britain can actively take part in at this time.  

This morning I sent you all a link to my latest blog.  Of course, I can but ask you read it.  My experience of the region is that our biggest ally, the USA, is neither actively seeking peace nor democracy in the region.  Thus no matter what the persuasion brought to bear by the government at this time, it does not matter if the whole game is crooked.  Thus we should not be playing it.

Charles Kennedy led us against war in Iraq and he was proved correct.  This war in Syria is a continuation of that conflict so it is not possible what was correct then is now false.  It was also one of my proudest moment of being a Liberal Democrat.

Gentlemen, it is my hope that you shall uphold the memory of that time by voting against the UK's involvement in what is a crooked conflict.  

Let me reassure you: I am not a peacenik.  Yes, I am against nuclear weapons and their ownership by the UK (or any other government) but I would also happily use the money saved to improve our conventional forces.  Alistair, you once said that you would support a just war.  There is no problem with that: it is just I cannot see any justice in Cameron's approach.  He wanted to bomb Assad in 2013.  Now he wants to bomb for Assad in 2015.  Our PM reminds me of the three-headed knight from Monty Python's Holy Grail, who wants tea and biscuits but not until they have killed somebody first.  On that all the heads can agree.

We Liberal Democrats are better than that.  Even by your five tests Tim, there is not the grounds to be involved.  Please don't make this a party-political issue by hoping to woe disaffected right-wing Labour MPs into our fold.  Let Labour self destruct instead.  They will come to us in the end.

As for myself, if you do back the war then I genuinely don't know what I will do.  This is hard.  I love being a Liberal Democrat.  Don't worry, this is not a threat: I know the party doesn't need me and the crazy kids of the Liberal Democrats will continue to have fun, without me or not.  I am not important; I just have a lot of thinking to do.  It is something I seem to be rather good at.

I have thought this matter of Syria through gentlemen.  There are other ways: working with the UN for example.  Using Britain's undoubted diplomacy and intelligence assets.  Not bombing does in no way mean inaction.  We should be active in this.  Our actions though should be towards a lasting peace, and not the continuation of war.

Please do not support David Cameron in tomorrow's vote.

Your sincerely,

Martin Veart
Edinburgh North, East and Leith.

PS.  After the vote tomorrow, I will put this letter up on my blog.  It is what I do.  MV.


As one of those  amongst the addressees who, I think, probably knows you best I wanted to reply to your message.  I know how long you have been part of our party and I hope you will, therefore, understand the reasons why we have taken the decisions that we have.

Like you I was proud of the stand that Charles Kennedy took as our leader in opposing the war in Iraq.  I actually did not find that to be nearly as difficult decision as the one which we have reached today.   It was quite clear that there was no legal basis for our participation in it and it was equally difficult to see where the UK national interest lay in our participation in it. 

I was, however, also proud of Paddy Ashdown when he led our party in calling for intervention in the Balkans conflict in the 1990s.   Week after week he made the case, shouted down by Labour and Conservatives, and ultimately he was shown to have been correct.

This summer I was immensely proud of Tim Farron as he championed the cause of unprecedented numbers of refugees coming to Europe, many of them fleeing the fighting in Syria and Iraq, especially the brutality of ISIL/Da’esh.  I hope you will agree that our response this summer was a liberal one.  It demonstrated the compassion and concern that is at the heart of our politics.   Compassion alone, however, only takes you so far.  If you are not prepared to do the difficult decisions when offered the opportunity (NB opportunity – not a guarantee) to tackle the civil war from which these people have fled, then your compassion, in my view, is devalued.   That is at the heart of the decision that we have taken today.

You are right to point out that some of the causes of the civil war in Syria date back to our mistaken involvement in Iraq – but there is an awful lot more to it than that.  The Iraq war did not make a despot out of Assad.   Even, however, if you were correct in your assertion that the conflict in Syria is a continuation of that in Iraq that does not absolve us of acting if an opportunity presents itself, as I believe it has done.  Arguably it increases our obligation to do so.   We have pressed the government hard to get commitments that if the UK continues to be part of this process then we shall invest heavily in the post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction.

Let us not lose sight of the differences with Iraq :

Iraq had no basis in law – This action is supported by a UNSC resolution that CALLS ON nations who have the capacity to act to do so.

Iraq was an American-led enterprise with little regional support – the Vienna process has the active participation of 63 states and 2 international organisations.   Russia (themselves the targets of a recent ISIL/Da’esh attack and a long standing barrier to progress through the UN) allowed resolution 2249 to pass.   We seek to act at the request of our neighbour, France.   Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark have all already committed to answer that request positively,

There is a direct UK interest to act here.  We are already vulnerable to attack in this country as well as seeing the number of refugees coming here from Syria.

You are right that the government in 2013 wanted to see the removal of Assad.  The Commons, however, voted against the process that MIGHT have led to that.  As a result President Obama lost his resolve to act and the civil war in Syria has continued since then.  As a result of that war we have seen thousands of people killed and thousands more displaced internally and becoming refugees.   The Vienna Process has as one of its stated aims establishing within six months, “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”; a process for the drafting of a new constitution and free and fair elections within eighteen months.   The future of Assad, therefore, will be part of the political and diplomatic process on which we are embarked.

Finally, you ask that we should work with the UN and use our diplomatic and political influence.  As I have said already, the UN resolution calls on us to act and our diplomatic and political efforts are complimentary to this not exclusive of it. 

I note that you are intending putting your letter on your blog.  I would be quite happy if you wanted to put my reply up too.

Yours ever,


Monday, 30 November 2015

US, The Middle East and a Bar in Haifa

I have sat on this blog for a long time.  With renewed calls for British military campaigning in the Middle East, perhaps now is the time to tell the story.

It was late 2012 and work must have been heavy that day for I fancied a beer straight after.  Not in the hotel bar though.  I would inevitably be joined by colleagues, one beer would turn into two, three and I would be lucky to get out of there by nine o'clock for something to eat.  True, when compared to the UK, many restaurants in Haifa do open late.  All I wanted was one beer.  Slipping away, I walked around the corner and popped my head around the door of Charlie's Bar.  Apart from a single customer, whom I did not recognise, the place was empty.  Wonderful.

Charlie's Bar is the narrowest of strips so there isn't a lot of choice when it comes to seating.  Parking myself a few stools away from the stranger, I nod to him and order a Carlsberg.  It's true, a prospect of an Ice Cold In Alex can keep a guy going.

A bit to my surprise, the stranger starts talking.  He asks my business and I tell him that I am part of the team for gas exploration offshore Israel.  He seems satisfied.  I ask him who he is and what bring him to Israel?

The guy hesitates then asks the question "You are not anyone are you?"

The question sends me a bit sideways.  If I was just being polite previously, now he has my full attention.  But I don't show it.  After all, I had just told him what I do for a living.  Really, I am not anyone.  I therefore pull a long face downwards.

The gentleman is an American.  He asks me what do I know about the US forces in Afghanistan.  Not a lot but I know that the troops are there.  He then tells me that his ship is in the harbour and it is part of resupply convoy destined for Turkey.  I tell him that I have heard that supplies used to go via Pakistan but the Hindu Kush had been closed by the Taliban.  He seems a little disconcerted but agrees.  So I ask if the supplies now go overland from Turkey.  He says that this is the case.  The Silk Road has effectively been reopened.

Then I make the observation. "But we are not in Turkey are we?"
"No," he agrees.  "We are not in Turkey."
There is a tension in the room.
I shrug.  "Friends will help friends." I say.
He relaxes.  "Yes."  He takes a pull of his beer.
"Before I wasn't here, I wasn't in Egypt either."

Now my mind reeled.  Earlier in 2012 Muhammad Morsi had been democratically elected president of Egypt.  I knew that instant that if the Americans were still secretly supplying the Egyptian military, the Arab Spring in Egypt was screwed.  Morsi was indeed overturned in a military coup the following year.

During 2004, I turned forty and was on a beach in Bulgaria with the family.  My choice of reading that summer was Robert Fisk's Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of The Middle East.  In 1982, during Israeli invasion of Lebanon, a Hellfire missile was flown into the back of an Lebanese ambulance, killing six people.  Local people gathered the fragments of the rocket and brought them to Fisk, who lives in the country.  He did a routine check on the serial numbers and was surprised to find that instead of being issued the the Israeli Defence Force, the weapon belonged to the US Marine Corp.  The question was therefore how was a Marine Corp Hellfire missile come to be launched from a IDF gunship into the back of Lebanese ambulance?
His research showed that the US military task forces active in the Persian Gulf was sail home via the Suez Canal.  Instead of turning left and heading straight home through the Mediterranean, there would be a slight detour to the Northeast.  Unused consumables, including weapons, would be offloaded in Haifa.  The warships would return to their bases empty and would be resupplied at the expense of the US taxpayer.  The process was a secret subsidy to Israel.

I knew that my encounter in Charlie's Bar not only confirmed Fisk's story but enlarged it.  It seems that Israel is not the only nation to benefit from American largesse.  Arms and supplies officially bound for US forces in Afghanistan were instead being sent to Egypt, Israel and goodness only knows what other US-backed nations en-route.

We come to today.  The UK is facing calls to take part in the bombing of Syria.  After the murderous outrages in Paris, the French have little choice.  In the UK, we do have a choice.  My experience in Israel has left me deeply cynical about the whole of the Middle Eastern wars.  It seems that the US is backing, either openly or in secret, many sides in the region.  Therefore adding to destruction will not in any way create peace.  It seems to me that the wars are a profit-driven venture.

Britain could instead start to genuinely act as an honest broker in the region.  This however would need a complete reversal to the policies currently being pursued.  Make no mistake here: as I outlined in my previous blog Drones, Britain is deeply embedded into arms research with Israel and the US.  This is wrong.

As such, I call upon my all friends and colleagues in the Liberal Democrats to have nothing further to do with these wars and not support the bombing of Syria.

Saturday, 21 November 2015


I have tried not the write about Syria because I have never been there.  Sure, I am aware of its history, both modern and ancient.  How between the great wars it was a protectorate of France and how the Ottoman Empire ruled.  The Ottomans were smart.  They did not care which tribe one came from nor which god one worships.  All they cared about was service to be empire and that one did not rock the boat. Before that were Mamluks and Mongols, the Crusaders,  Ayyubids, Byzantines and Romans, the Seleucids, the Persians, Assyrians, Hittites and the Phoenicians.  

Syria is recent.   Only her people, their cultures and great cities ever existed.  As a nation, Syria never really existed: she was either the seat of empires or the subject of others.  After World War Two however, Syria the nation rose and fell; even briefly entering a union with Nasser's Egypt.  Under the Ba'ath Party and the rule of the al-Assad, father and son, some sort of heavy-handed normality was established.  Although non-aligned, many of your middle and upper classes received a secular Russian education.  Russia supplied your military but you did not cut links with the French either.  Despite US bans on technological transfers, French oil companies still were free to help develop your oil wealth.  I even hoped one day to visit you, to see ancient Damascus, whose roots go deeper into history that any other city in the world.  I would have also loved to have visited the site of the ancient rebel Palmyra, to see the temples and palaces that remained of Queen Zenobyya's oasis realm.  The city that fought the might of the Roman Empire and almost won.  Yes,  I would have devoted wished to have seen you.

All this was so until the Arab Spring.  Ah, what misery it is to have neighbour turn against neighbour, tribe against tribe.  To endure not only a ruler whose peoples' blood means nothing but also the malice of other nations who would do nothing to help one side or the other.  Instead the conflict was nurtured, and how eagerly the different factions suckled the sour milk of hatred.  The longer the memories of past wrongs,  the more bitter the hurt unleashed.  Did you not notice your only reward was the mirth of your enemies?

Now a new peril has emerged, ISIS, who wish to recreate the Caliphate that never was.  Between the power-at-all-costs fanaticism of al-Assad and the mono-cultural and murderous fanaticism of ISIS, where do the people go?  The choice is either to become a fanatic or to flee.  So many have fled now.  Your neighbours are either full of your people or their gates are barred completely.  Others, especially the young who still have hope, look further afield to Europe but here the welcome is mixed.  Some people and nations welcome you with an open heart.  Others would sooner throw you back into the burning fire that was your home.  Your war spills into the streets of Paris and beyond.  For what?  How will such cruel deeds extinguish the fires that now blaze?

For still Syria burns.  It has become a playground of Hell and a purse for profiteers.  More bombs seem to be the answer offered to a question that is now forgotten: how to bring peace to these lands?

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Thirty Nine Barrels

I was Christmas shopping with the wife when the mobile phone rang.  It was not a welcome call.
"Martin, I have booked you on a flight to Angola for the 20th."  It was my manager John.
"Oh. What?!  Steve covers Angola.  Where the hell is he?"
"Steve has just checked himself into hospital.  Back problems."
"That son of a bitch just doesn't want to go!"

Everybody knew that Steve was faking it.  Even I had heard that, during a base meeting in September, he had stated that if a job came up over the Millennium celebrations he wouldn't be available.  Pretty ballsy to say that in front of the regional manager.  Besides, the guy was in his late twenties and built like an athlete.  He was less likely to suffer with back problems that I was to overdose during a rave.

I tried to call Steve on his mobile but naturally it was turned off.

"Well, that's Christmas and the Millennium cancelled," I tell my wife.

At least the flight down to Angola was uneventful.  Stavanger to London.  London to Luanda.  On the previous occasion I had been routed via Nairobi in Kenya (for reasons I have never discovered) but fog meant I had missed the forward connection.  No such drama this time.  In fact I was even met at the airport and, once I got to the base, things had improved there as well.  While still located at the port (to this day they have not re-mettled the old dirt road leading to it), instead of the mosquito-ridden cesspool of old containers that existed previously, the new place was modern, shaded and with a tarmac yard to boot.  Very nice.
While having a hoke around the yard, I came across a set of seismic tools set up in a seven by one-and-a-half metre orange tool rack.  Noting that the cables between the tools were ten metres long, I asked somebody whether these were the tools assigned to me.  No, I was told.  Those ones were for another job out of Luanda.  Simon was doing that job.  My tools were already offshore Cabinda. Fair enough.

That afternoon, I, along with another engineer and the local manager, went to the Chevron offices in town to discuss the upcoming job.
"Ah, glad you are here Martin.  We have a question for you.  The MLR [the downhole seismic tools] tools, how are they in rugged borehole conditions?"

The thing is with any borehole seismic array is that each set of geophones have to be acoustically isolated from each other.  They are therefore not connected by solid bars but rather by long sections of cable which are usually of ten to twenty metres in length.  It is therefore impossible to push them down a hole without risking a god-awful tangle.

"Not good", I reply.  "What is the borehole deviation?"
"Fifty-five degrees."
"Hmm.  Are you intending to run casing?"
"Yes we are.  Can you shoot through casing?"
"At fifty-five degrees, it should be no problem.  A good cement job always helps but at that angle there will be enough casing touching the borehole so that there will be a bond with the formation."
"That's settled then", smiles the Chevron manager.  "We'll run the VSP once the casing is set."
"When will that be?" I ask.
"Oh, after the first week in January."

In car back to the base, one could not but reflect that that conversation could have been done over the telephone.

The following day, the 22nd of December, I flew up to Cabinda.  Expecting the base to be a dry zone, I left in the Luanda staff house a litre bottle of duty-free vanilla vodka I had impulse-purchased in Heathrow duty-free.  Upon takeoff, the airplane went out to sea and stayed there.  Angola was still in the process of moving away from a series of civil wars and it was better safe than sorry.  As we headed north, the blue South Atlantic could be seen lapped against the white beaches far below.  On approach to Cabinda the plane circled the runway before landing.  I was amazed to see people casually waling across the concrete landing strip.  By the time we landed however, the runway was clear.

The Cabinda oil base starts offshore with a series of small platforms and tanker mooring points, then at the head of shallow cliffs by the sea are a series of giant oil storage tanks.  Below the cliffs and set back from the white sandy beach, largely populated by white burrowing crabs, are a row of small yards and bases where the oil-service companies have set up.  There is a more substantial jungle-covered hillside behind these and at the top of it, is a series of chalet bungalows, very American in style.  Frankly, it was rather nice.  Food was taken in a  low multi-storey block which doubled as offices and cafeteria, which reminded me a bit of a town hall.

The emergency drill for the base was simple.  A constant siren means pack a bag and get down to the dock for evacuation by boat.  A warbling siren means dig out the heavy kevlar blanket from the wardrobe and lie underneath it: the place is under artillery attack.  I did ask whether this had ever been necessary.  Apparently in years past some Cuban troops had taken pot shots.
I never saw but I was told that Angolan troops surrounded the entire base, as did a series of minefields.  I did see the night spotter plane that constantly circled, without navigation lights, using heat-detecting technology to spot infiltration attempts.  Being of a curious nature, I asked if that had ever happened.  Apparently its major success was to spot a couple having illicit sex on the beach.

After lunch, I took the minibus down to the beach base.  It was the kind of short bus used in Britain during the late 1970s and into the 80s.  The base itself was small and the guys friendly: an American, Brit and Italian.  We had a company car too!  The most knackered VW Golf my eyes ever had the misfortune to look upon.  It still had seats, a steering wheel and four tires in each corner but most of the rest had gone, fallen either to rust or theft.  The door panels were completely empty.
The working yard was unpaved.  I found some seismic tools and decided they needed a bit of a clean up.  Naturally I didn't want to drag them through the sand after been cleaned either so it was little fun lifting a 67kg, 1.6m long tool and carrying it clear of the soft sand.

I got on very well with Jim, the American.  He was one of those larger-than-life characters, soon telling me of his teenage exploits of ordering hookers and drinks on his father's credit credit while staying at Las Vegas.
"Wait Jim," I said.  "Didn't you say that you are a Mormon?"
"Ah Martin," he replied with relish.  "That just makes the sin all the more sweeter."  Not that there was much opportunity for such sin in Cabinda.  Assuming the base was dry, I had left the duty-free bottle of vanilla vodka in the company staff house in Luanda.  That turned out to be a mistake as expat workers were allowed to buy a small quality of beer each day. A four-pack of small Heinekens does not go very far but it was better than nothing.  Meanwhile the local workers were allowed unlimited purchases, which they took fully advantage of: carrying out beer by the slab.  They would grin widely as us northerners would try to buy more than our allotted amount, only to be gleefully refused by the officious clerk.

That first day I went down to the beach and was amazed to see not only the white burrowing crabs but a family of rather scraggy-looking sea eagles: mum, dad and large fledgling.  The young bird amused itself by casually capturing and killing crabs.  Not much effort was made to eat them.  My sense of joy was added to when, as I was sitting looking at the sea-eagle's antics, a large dark back broke through the surf.  A nesting sea turtle hauled herself out of the sea and up the beach.  It was bright daylight; I thought that turtles only came out at night.  She came right towards me and only reacted with I stood up.  Hissing suddenly, it focused upon me with salt-filled eyes filled with displeasure and laboriously turned around and headed back into the sea.
I felt bad about disturbing the turtle,  Next day though I saw a local guy with a cloth bag slung around his shoulder.  He carried a long thin stick, taller than himself.  Apparently such men used the stick to probe the sand, with turtle eggs providing a welcome supplement to the family diet.
The tools went offshore on the 23rd and I followed on Christmas Eve, expecting to spend the rest of the trip there.  The helicopter itself was an ancient Bell, the kind of shopper made famous in various Vietnam war movies.   During the safety briefing, we passengers are strongly reminded again that in event of a crash landing over water, not to inflate life-vests until outside the chopper.  The week before one of these Bell's had gone down into shallow water.  A couple of Angolans on board had panicked and pulled the inflation line.  Despite the shallowness of the water, they could not be removed in time and their bodies eventually had to be retrieved by divers.

Upon arrival and much to my surprise, Derek the wireline engineer had set up the entire seismic equipment and checked it out too.  Until recently he had been a seismic engineer.  That was great.  I took the opportunity both to thank him profusely and recheck the equipment along with my recently-arrived downhole tools.  Not because I didn't trust Derek; it was just part of the job.  Having satisfied myself that all was in order, I asked what the lookahead plans were.  Open-hole logging was due to start in a few days and a full program taking at least five days.  After that the open section of the well would be lined with steel casing, the casing would be secured to the well-bore walls with cement and then it would be my turn.
Checking with both Derek and the Company Man - who is the head client representative on board, that it was okay, I booked myself a seat on the Christmas morning chopper.

As we are waiting to board, a huge American cementer struggles with his life jacket.  This guy is tall, yes, but the mass is mostly fat: he is easily over 160kg.  He sits by the starboard window and I mentally decide that if the chopper goes down, I'm out the other side.  There is no way he will be getting out and I was not eager to keep him company.  As the chopper lifts, I honestly expect it to be tilted on that side.  It didn't tilt of course but there is no way that a man like that would get medical approval to be offshore in the North Sea.

The Christmas lunch was worth the flight.  Eight huge turkeys had been laid out and the cooks stood proudly by, beaming in the praise they so well deserved.  It was rather strange eating a full Christmas meal when the temperatures are so hot outside, but the dining hall was well air conditioned.  The weight of the turkey, trimmings and pudding only made itself known once outside in the heat of a tropical early afternoon.  I walked down the hillside road to the base afterwards: a distance of just less than a mile.  With all the equipment offshore there was not so much to do and besides, it was Christmas Day.

It was a few days after Christmas when I first noticed the helicopter.  Not the usual crew change choppers but a small, bubble-domed two-man chopper; probably an early Bell, the kind thing they flew on M.A.S.H.  It was flying up and down, about a kilometre offshore.  Beneath it was suspended a boom arm which reminded me of a crop sprayer.  The next day came the smell.  A thick chemical smell that drove people indoors.  The day after that, the slick hit.

If you have every seen pictures of oil slicks hitting a beach, they are unable to do justice to reality.  The smell of oil and chemicals is horrendous.  The oil stands easily fifteen centimetres thick without support.  Everything is wiped out.  Crabs gone.  Eagles gone.  Turtles gone.  All replaced by a noisome black sludge.

Out of all the downs of working in the industry: the abuse, the sleep deprivation, being away from the family, the unsympathetic and even bullying management; none of these ever ever came close to having me quit the industry more than the experience of that oil slick wiping out a tropic beach.

What we we told?  How were the personnel instructed upon the situation?  What measures were issued to to protect us or the environment?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  The air we breathed could have been a very poison but Chevron said nothing to us.  In fact, they made sure that we said nothing.  A colleague who started to talk about the slick on the telephone had the line cut.  Emails did not make it through their destination.  Chevron did their best to ensure there was a complete news blackout.

While none of the employees of service companies were told a damned thing, of course word did leak out.  I was invited down one night to an annex off the main living quarters.  It was effectively a small village where the old regular service hands lived.  They got the supplies from the main canteen and did their own cooking.  They also did their own drinking and none of this four-small -tinnie-nonsense: a bottle of vodka per man was not unusual per person each night.  I can drink but never learned to keep up with that rate.

As the vodka and tonics flowed, the chatter increased.  It started innocently enough.  Small talk.   was introduced to what I was told was the hottest chilli sauce in the world.  One drop would season a cauldron of stew.  Two drops would spice it and three would kill it.  I was advised to wash my hands simply after holding the bottle.  I did so: why the hell would I not?  By the end of the meal the talk turned to the slick.

This is a summary of the story as I was told it.  The country was undergoing a process called "Angoladisation" which involves getting rid of the the ex-pat workers and bringing in local staff instead.  Some local guy was on night shift and it was his job to monitor the levels in the oil-storage tanks which are situated at the top of the low cliffs.   At about one o'clock in the morning, an alarm tripped.  He did what any local would have down: turned off the alarm and went back to sleep.  By eight o'clock in the morning between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of crude oil had been pumped into the sea just offshore.

Here's the rub though.  Corporate headquarters in Houston had declared that thirty nine barrels of oil had been spilt.  Only thirty nine as a forty barrel spill had to be reported to the international authorities.  Despite the local management trying to disperse the slick with what was locally available, they were overwhelmed.  Because it was only thirty nine barrels of oil however, no hope was sent from the outside.  We were on our own.

In all the years that passed since, that was the single most despicable and cynical decision by an oil company I have personally come across.

New Year's came and a group of us were on a hill top overlooking the local village.  At about half-past-midnight, a few fireworks fluttered up into the sky.  That was the Millennium celebrations done.

I must have been walking to work next day when a long convey of black limousines and SUVs rolled into the base and drove up towards the offices.  Official pennants fluttered from some of the car bonnets.  "Oh oh," I thought to myself.  "Shit is hitting fan."  It was about time.   Almost a week had gone by since the discharge had occurred.

It proved to be an eventful day.  On the way back up the hill, I was walking back up the hill when I heard a rustle from the jungle from about twenty metres to the right side.  Ahead of me and walking straight a large black-backed jackal emerged.  I judged the speed and distance and it seemed we were on a collision course.  It was also a jackal which was supposed to be timid so making a noise to draw his attention, I kept walking.  The jackal looked over, saw me and also kept walking.  This guy was not backing down.  So much for jackals being timid.  He was a big canine: almost the size of a German Shepard.   Our eyes locked and we both stopped simultaneously, no more than two metres away from each other.

There was no way I was going to turn my back on this fellow.  Still holding each other's gaze, we gradually edged around each other, me to the right and the dog to the left.  Holding my ground, I turned to follow his path into the bush.  All the time we held eye contact.  I only moved one was convinced he was gone.  I have no idea whether there was any danger and probably in the view of animal psychologists it may have been completely the wrong thing to do.  Stuck on that road alone with a quite a large wild predator, one can only do one's best.

That night down the old ex-pats' enclave there was a fair amount of racist banter going down.  Apparently the delegation had responded to Chevron's claims over thirty nine barrels with "We may be black but we are not stupid."
"Hang on a minute there," piped up an ancient Schlumberger hand, to general laughter.  Okay, that was witty but on the whole many of the white workers were just plain nasty about the Africans.  When challenged, the rationale of one individual was "You don't have to be racist because you don't have to work with the fuckers every day."  Although genuinely sickened by some of the attitudes displayed, from thereafter I kept off the subject altogether.

Finally, finally finally, it came time to get offshore again.

As the chopper lifted to about 1000 feet, the extent of the pollution could be seen.  For miles in both directions, the beaches were black.  The ocean was discoloured for a mile or so from the beach, with an obvious line marking the edge of the oil slick.  I did not see any evidence of oil booms or other forms of containment being deployed.

The job itself went well as far as the seismic was concerned but the Company Man seemed a mite ungrateful when I pointed out I thought there was no cement over the interval which the well was due to be perforated.
"What?" he almost shouted  "Schlumberger told me they did a good cement job."
"That is not what the seismic data is telling me," I replied.  "I recommend you run an SBT over the interval."   With bad grace the Company Man concurred.  The issue is that explosive charges are used to blow holes through the steel and cement so that the oil can flow into the well.  If there is space on the outside though, the oil can also migrate upwards and perhaps into formations above.  This would reduce production and in extreme cases even lead to oil seeming out on the surface.  Thus an acoustic cement bond tool can be run in order to find out the true state of the cementing job.

After the cement bond tool was run, the Company Man even had the nerve to come back to me to complain that the cement job was even worse than I had predicted.  The ingrate.

That was pretty much that.  Job done and processed.  I had a few moe days on the beach cleaning the equipment and packing it up ready for the next job.  Upon arrival though I had a panicked call from the operations manager in Luanda.

"Martin!  How long are the interconnects on your MRL?" [Translation: how long are the cables between the geophones?].
"Fifteen metres.  Why?"
"I want you to measure them."
"I know they are fifteen metres.  What is going on?"
"Measure them.  There has been another job where ten metre cables have been used and it wasn't noticed."
"Oh, was it using those tools in the yard in Luanda?  Yes I know they have ten metre cables."
"You knew?  How did you know?"
"Well," I said.  "I looked at them.  I saw they were short and there gathered they were ten metres in length.  I'm sure mine are fifteen metres but just for you I'll make sure when I'm cleaning them."

Then home.  The flight from Cabinda to Luanda was depressing.  The distance from the base to the mouth of the Congo to the south is about sixty miles.  Oil covered the beaches for every single mile.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Double Standands: Pharmacy Companies vs. the Individual Pharmacist

I'm sure that in your household, like millions of others, the Pharmaceutical Journal forms the bedrock of breakfast table reading.  One story (also covered in the obscure publication The Daily Mail) was about a company, Pharmacy2U, being fined £130,000 ( about $200,000) for the selling of over 20,000 customer records to anybody willing to stump up £130 per thousand records.

Quoted in tPJ, David Smith deputy commissioner of the Information Commissions Office said: "Patient confidentiality is drummed into pharmacists.  It is inconceivable that a business in this sector could believe these actions were acceptable.  A reputable company has made a serious error of judgement and today faces the consequences of that.  It should send out a clear message to other companies that the customer data they hold is not theirs to do with as they wish."

To be fair to the company, Pharmacy2U has accepted the fine and offered sincere apologies.  This is not enough though.  The computer systems in the NHS are still not joined up and under current rules cannot be owing to the risk to client confidentiality.  It is still not unusual for a qualified pharmacist having to take a trip across town to collect records of a new patient because she has no direct computer access to those records: a shocking waste of skill and resources.   The breach of patient (not customer) confidentiality by Pharmacy2U may well put back progress in having an integrated patient database available to health professionals.

The double standards though comes with how accountable a company is compared to an individual pharmacist working in the NHS.  Pharmacy2U sold the records of over 20,000 patients, has been found out and fined £130,000.  Beyond some damage to its professional reputation, that is pretty much it.  No individual is held to legal account.  Contrast this to a NHS pharmacist would takes an unauthorised look at a patient's records.  All data searches are traced to individual users so if the person searching does not have the right to look at the data, they stand not only to face disciplinary action and being struck off the register of practicing pharmacists, but also the criminal sanction of imprisonment.   This is not theoretical: pharmacists do get struck off for data breaches and prescription mistakes.

While individual pharmacists who breach rules are left without a profession and possibly with a criminal record, a pharmacy company takes a rap on the knuckles.  "Why?" one irate pharmacist asked me. "Isn't any of the directors being sent to prison?"

Even if it is decided that prison is too tough a sanction, surely it is right that those who have responsibility for patient data should face the possibility of being declared as unfit persons to hold a directorship, if that confidentiality is breached.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

A New Catherdral in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

[This blog was written in May 2015]

I slept badly.  It wasn't for the lack of practice but rather the jet lag.  Last time I was so far East, it was easier because the journey had been broken up: a couple of unexpected nights in Singapore and two more in Australia before hitting the well sites in deepest outback of Moomba.

This time though I was in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk ahead of another adventure - at least that's how I like to think about work when this far from home.  It's an nine-hour time difference and I travelled here in twenty five hours.  My body is out of sync.  The day-long safety induction (all in Russian) was nearly the death of me.  I'm not smart - I understood that tea, coffee and sandwiches would be on offer for the half-hour break for lunch.  The important stuff.  The rest went over my head: or would have if the slides had not been mostly straight interpretations from many in English I had already seen.  The guys who needed to see me the following day however, took mercy and decided a day of adjustment was in order.  Further meetings have been put back until the weekend.

So what does one do in a strange city on a day off?  The answer is obvious to any Brit: go for a walk.  On the way to the rather nice resort hotel on the edge of town where the safety meeting was held, I noticed a church, or rather a cathedral, under construction.  This is not an everyday event in the UK: after replacing and repairing several from bomb-damage in the 20th Century, our own church-building programme has hit a rather fallow patch.  So remembering the rough directions, I set off.

The first thing that struck me about Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is how Russian it is.  This may be a counterintuitive thing to state but think on it.  It is 6600km (4100 miles) from St. Petersburg but still in the same country.  If that is not amazing enough for you, the distance between New York and Los Angeles is a mere 3900km.  This is not even the end of Russia here: it goes further through another four time zones to the Bering Straits, where even Americans like Sarah Palin has heard of it.

For me to state therefore how Russian the place is is, to my mind is remarkable.  The faces on the street are a mix of Caucasian, Asiatic and Turkic, but the majority are white Russians.  Only a few times did I see faces that could hint at Japanese or Korean heritage.

The city itself feels like it is on the up.  In Spring, all Russian (and former Soviet Union) cities I have been to are dusty and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is no exception.  Plumes where sent up into my face when a large four-by-four pulled in to park.  As one would expect, most of the vehicles are Japanese brands.  It stuck me one evening that in most of the cars approaching, the drivers were close to me as I walked along.  Then it struck me: not only are the cars made in Japan, most of them are actually with the steering wheel on the right, and made for the Japanese market!  I can only imagine that it works out cheaper to buy a second-hand Japanese import than one made for the majority of the world's markets for driving on the right.
On the whole, the main street are clean, the pavements reasonable and the apartment blocks well maintained, even the Soviet-era buildings.  Poor roads and frost-damaged pavements seemed reserved for the residential zones.

This city is not so far from major geological subduction zones and earthquakes as strong as an eight on the Richter scale have been know.  Unlike Yerevan, which still showed the scars of major quakes when I visited in the late 1990s, I didn't see any such signs here.  Instead there are new blocks and still more going up.  All good, so I was keen to see the new cathedral.

At first it was as I remembered from yesterday.  It is not every day one sees the typical Russian onion dome cupolas sitting on the ground waiting to be lifted into place.

Then next door I noticed the field guns.  What?  Artillery? This was not going to be as straightforward as I though.

 As it transpired, the cathedral is only part of the story.  The whole complex is forming a brand new religious / memorial centre dedicated, as far as I can tell, to the seventieth anniversary to the end of what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War.  World War Two to the rest of us.

The suffering and sacrifice of the Soviet people are constantly glossed over in the West.  As far as British and American public are mainly concerned, the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany started on the Sixth on June, 1944.  No so.  By that time the Russians had undergo three years of invasion and constant warfare on their own soil, had won the battle of Stalingrad and in the previous summer to D-Day had held the last great German offensive at Kursk.  After that the Germans had been thrown into retreat, ceding ground as in push after push and, in a story untold in the West, the Germans were steadily ground back towards their starting positions in Poland, Hungary and Romania.

Given this, I don't blame the Russian peoples for continuing to mark the anniversary of defeating the Nazis.  What I do find disturbing however, is the juxtaposition of war and church in such an obvious manner.  The cathedral is just the centrepiece of a complex where the state's victory is firmly anchored to Orthodox religion.  The irony of course is that although the church was briefly resurrected during the Great Patriotic War, it was on the whole subjected to the most horrible persecution under Communist rule.  Not any more.

Here is how the complex is expected to look:

The cathedral is to be the centre, with the war memorial on its right hand (left as we look at the picture) to have its own onion dome as a echo.  Now, I do not claim expertise but I have never seen this particular architectural feature on any Soviet war memorial.  It seems to express that while the victory was that of the people, it occurred under the sanction of God.  I wonder what the Soviet war veterans would have to say about that?

So, the question is, what does all this mean?  I have blogged previously on the rise of the Orthodox Church in Putin's Russia and it seems that the process is continuing. Putin is determined to recreate the rule of the Tsars.  Not in hereditary terms (at least as far as I am aware) but perhaps more on the model of the ruling elite, united with the full trapping of a state religion.  The model of state is not so far from that of the ancient Persians: one where regional governors (satraps) are appointed and can be replaced upon whim of the centre.  Or maybe it is not so fancy: just the nationalism of the Soviet Union, stripped of its affection of socialism, and sanctioned by God.

To me though, the thought of God glorifying any warfare, no matter how just the cause, is truly obscene.  This complex represents nothing less than Christ in the service of Caesar.

That is a part of the New Testament that I must have missed.