Saturday, 29 February 2020

Strikers, brawlers and the greatest ever comeback in sport

Another great feast of sport last weekend, albeit disappointing that Everton continued to fail to register a win away at a "big club", in this case Arsenal, where they haven't won this century, despite the Gunners long and steady decline. The Toffees started well enough with Dominic Calvert-Lewin scoring in the first minute to continue his rich vein of goal scoring form. DCL has registered seven goals in the nine Premier League games since Carlo Ancelotti took over, though his improvement started under Duncan Ferguson with 3 in 4 games if you credit him with forcing Victor Lindelhof's own goal at Old Trafford, which I do even if the official stats don't.

I went on record towards the end of last season saying that I was impressed with the improvement in DCL's all round game, the question was whether he could score enough goals to justify a starting position in the team. I had some hope but wasn't convinced as he just didn't seem to get into scoring positions often enough. Ferguson and Ancelotti seem to have told him not to allocate so much effort into putting himself about the pitch, where he was perhaps overdoing the effort for the team and certainly working a shift every time. He seems to be staying within the outer edges of the penalty area more (an old Shearer tip) meaning he's nearer to the goalmouth action when it happens. Goal hanging it was called when I was at school but you know strikers are there to score....  Anyway, it seems to have worked. I'm not sure he'll turn into a really big scorer but he already looks as reliable a striker as Graeme Sharp, who also came to Everton young and took a while to hit his scoring stride. As Sharp went on to become Everton's second highest ever scorer behind only Dixie Dean, that's a very good role model for DCL. Such achievements are a long way off yet but DCL looks to be on the right track at the moment.

The game against Arsenal revealed two poor defensive teams on the day and Everton's laxness cost them. Ancelotti's face was like thunder for at least one of the goals conceded as he looked around at his back room team in silent fury. The stats show Djibril Sidibe is one of the Premier League's most dangerous full backs going forward but defensively his positional sense is appalling and I can't understand how he got into France's World Cup squad. But although it was defence that cost Everton - and notwithstanding my praise above - Calvert-Lewin should have scored a hat trick on the day and, had he done so, Everton would surely have won.

The better quality entertainment came in the rugby and boxing. England rediscovered their mojo against Ireland and from what I saw of it the Wales-France game was a dramatic and titanic struggle, not always of the highest quality but in a way that added to the excitement. As was clear from their win against England, France have improved a lot and are serious contenders this year. The game was very tight and a bit fractious erupting in a large fracas involving most of the two teams' players on the final whistle. While many spectators would be appalled I confess I find such incidents add to the drama. Of course it's pretty much all handbags these days as, even with the red mist in their eyes, they know it's all being captured by camera so barging, grabbing and bad mouthing are the order of the day. It's a very controlled heat of the moment! But then I have always thought that red mist is actually an extremely brief phenomenon and that after even a second aggressors know what they are doing.

However, what I always find striking is that in rugby such scenes are greeted with a shrug whereas in football they are emblazoned across the media with headlines branding them disgraceful with comments about poor role models for the young etc. I'm not quite sure why this is the case. Rugby players seem to be excused because of the sport's higher physical contact but to me that's perverse: they're used to strong physical contact. It's in the lower or zero contact sports where I can understand a line being crossed producing a strong reaction. And just because they're highly paid celebrities why would anyone expect them to be role models any more than say, er, a prince in the royal family?

When it cuts up a bit rough I would always want to see my team piling in and supporting their mates: I don't think it says much for team spirit otherwise. Surely this can be explained to any youngsters watching - you fly in and support your team mates, let off verbal steam (always satisfying!) but don't strike out.

Which brings me nicely to the sport in which you do strike out with the aim of hurting your opponent, boxing. Mrs H doesn't understand why I have any interest in boxing and hates me pointing out a slow motion replay or still photo of a big punch landing. I try to explain that, whether you like it or not, boxing is one of the fundamental sports: who can run or swim the fastest, who can jump the furthest or highest, who can throw the furthest and who can win fights. Games in which you hit a ball or other object with your body or an implement hold the most interest for me but it's not where sport started. Naturally, I never win that (verbal) fight....

And no, of course I didn't pay 25 quid and get up at 5am to watch the Fury-Wilder rematch, I watched extended highlights on youtube the next morning. But that was enough to see how impressive Fury was. I also re-watched the highlights of the first fight. The comparison was stark. Even on extended highlights the first fight looked very even indeed and, while most pundits felt Fury won it, you could see why the judges scored it a draw. Both boxers got on the front foot a lot and pressed forward, both frequently had to step back and defend. The second fight highlights had hardly an instance of Wilder coming forward. Fury's victory, with 29 wins and the draw behind him stopping a boxer with 42 wins and the one draw, looked overwhelming.

Fury is a complex character but he's a skilful and intelligent boxer. He said that something clicked during the first fight, which he was quite probably heading to lose before it did. Remarkably he changed his trainer only a few weeks before the second fight. He told the world this was because he had decided he needed to be coached to attack much more. Fury of course is crazy - as in daft as a brush but also as in has experienced mental health issues - so his opponent might have felt this was a bluff. After all, surely it would be crazy for a boxer to reveal such a change in tactics before the fight. And to try to make such a radical change in such a short time. But that's exactly what he did.

Fury has always impressed with his movement, having an ability to duck and weave far beyond the flexibility of even much smaller boxers. Martin Samuel made an extravagant claim in his Daily Mail column a few days after the fight - that Fury has broken the mould for boxers in the way that Usain Bolt did for sprinters. In the case of Bolt the question was as follows. What if there was a sprinter who could burst out of the blocks like 5ft 9in Maurice Green but had the rangy stride of a man eight inches taller? If tall men could get into a sprint as soon as the pistol fired then all 100m runners would be 6ft 5in tall. The answer was they couldn't - until Boult. And once he started running he was eating up the ground at a rate impossible for any rival. Samuel went on to say:
"Suppose there was a fighter who could move like Ali but with the size of Nikolai Valuev? Fury is the Bolt of boxing. He has the whiplash movement of a small man and the power of a big man. To see Fury avoid danger belies his weight, height and build. Ali could dance too, but he was six inches shorter. Fury has redefined the heavyweight division. He is breaking ground as Bolt did by making us re-imagine the possible."

"I don't have massive legs or a big muscular body" said Fury in 2014. "I have the legs of a racehorse not a carthorse. I would have been successful at any sport". I'm not sure about the last point - some chaps are just too big and heavy to be great football players for example. But Samuel thinks Fury can be the greatest heavyweight, the way Bolt was the greatest sprinter, because he defies the limits of physiology. It's still a long way to go for Fury to assume the stature of a Muhammad Ali. In the modern world the distractions of too much fame and money, together with the longer gap between fights, might well make that impossible. But although Fury is already 31 he still has time to establish a legacy. Ali famously won the world heavyweight title back at the age of 32 (many of us vividly remember Harry Carpenter's incredulous commentary) and he won it a third time at the age of 36. Vladimir Klitchko was 39 when Fury beat him. The question might be whether Fury can keep his marbles together that long.

I heard another remarkable claim, this time on the radio: that Fury's comeback from his problems with depression, drug use and weight gain (he ballooned to over 28 stones) was "the greatest comeback in the history of sport". Many thought that came last year when Tiger Woods won his 15th major at Augusta at the age of 43 and after an 11 year hiatus during which he had his own serious mental health, private life and injury problems. Personally I'd say the Woods achievement was more surprising and difficult, particularly given the number and strength of the competition in a golf major.

But I'd stand by what I said last April*: neither of them are the greatest comeback in the history of sport. Based on what I've read I gave that to Ben Hogan, who survived a head on crash with a Greyhound bus resulting in a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collar bone, a left ankle fracture, a chipped rib, and near-fatal blood clots. His doctors said he might never walk again, let alone play golf competitively. Despite lifelong circulation problems and other physical limitations which meant Hogan subsequently struggled towards the end of an 18 hole round, he won the US Open within 7 months of returning to golf and went on to record one of the greatest seasons in the history of professional golf in 1953, winning 5 of the 6 tournaments he entered, including 3 majors.

Woods's comeback was undoubtedly remarkable but benefited from the skill of modern surgeons in repairing his back and knee injuries. Yes, he achieved some of the big victories in his career playing in pain, but Hogan won 6 of his 9 majors playing in pain. You get a sense of that achievement from the fact that Hogan only won 11 tournaments after his accident, compared with 53 before it.

So, of the two striking claims about Fury, my view is that Samuel's just might turn out to be right but I don't buy that his defeat of Wilder was the greatest comeback in the history of sport.

P.S.  Maybe post-accident Hogan is Brooks Koepka's role model: Koepka has a total of 7 PGA Tour wins in 5 seasons on the tour but 4 of them were majors and another a World Golf Championship event. Which makes me think - Fury was great and the rugby is entertaining but for me these are brief highs compared with the fascination of the golf season. Roll on the Masters!

 *Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright posted 18 April 2019

Monday, 17 February 2020

Who Are We?

As B - Day (bidet?) arrived and departed the government started to clear the decks by making some decisions which had been left hanging before the election. On infrastructure it's two down (5G, HS2) with one to go (Heathrow 3rd runway). All were made in principle already but not buttoned down. The government has also thrown in an accelerated target for banning the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles without any substantial plan for delivering it. And then immediately started talking about an even quicker timescale. I've already written about this pie in the sky approach (Wishful thinking without WYDIs, 8 February) so what about the infrastructure decisions?

I feel both the go ahead for HS2 and the decision to use but limit the involvement of Huawei in our 5G network were the only credible decisions from where we are. I've been critical of the HS2 project and made clear that I think it could be delivered at much lower cost by descoping the speed as it's the capacity that matters (Take the H out of HS2 now, 16 Sept). Admittedly that compromise might risk further delay: the trains are due to be ordered in spring 2020 and the shortlist of 5 companies revealed outlines of their designs months ago. Taking the expensive Euston terminal off HS2 Ltd, possibly as a first stage of kicking it into the long grass, makes sense. After all, Euston is not the place most people want to be after arriving in London. So, if you have to get on another pantechnicon anyway, why not do it at Old Oak Common? The experts don't agree on that, with some saying it's "blindingly obvious" that the new Old Oak Common station and in particular its link to central London (as well as Heathrow) via the Elizabeth Line (aka Crossrail) would get swamped. The Old Oak Common station architect disagrees, saying the station could act as the HS2 London terminus but it's not clear to me whether he is allowing for passenger volumes on Crossrail, as two thirds of passengers heading to London are expected to carry on to Euston rather than get off at Old Oak Common and jump onto Crossrail. One can understand the government hedging its bets on this at the moment while someone learns how to use an abacus. Setting up yet another body to deliver the northern part of HS2 along with NPR (Northern Powerhouse Rail, keep up!) seems less sensible to me, creating unnecessary interfaces with the risks that entails. The interfaces shouldn't be difficult to manage but this is the rail industry and its got form.

While eye wateringly expensive we shouldn't be surprised by the higher than expected cost. Apparently the guy who built many of New York's urban rail lines and roads said that politicians shouldn't be given the full cost at the outset as the projects would never get sanctioned. He recomended quoting the smallest credible price as the thinest end of a thin wedge which then needed to be driven in until it was unthinkable to cancel the project. So not much changes. And, while eye watering, the cost of over £100 billion is modest in comparison with overall public sector spending over the time HS2 is taking to build: 20 years of public spend is more than £14,000 billion in today's money.

But it's also worth bearing in mind that HS2 is almost irrelevant in terms of the country's overall transport strategy. Rail provides 11% of passenger km travelled (and only 3% of journeys) and 9% of freight km-tonnes* moved. The extra capacity provided by HS2 will make very little difference to that overall picture. I didn't always make myself popular when working in the rail industry by pointing out that not many people would notice if the railway wasn't there, other than commuters into London and a few other cities and frequent travellers to London.

Not only is it of marginal relevance, the railway costs an awful lot. The total public sector spend on transport is £32.5 billion, with 55% of it going on rail. But guess what? All of this is covered by road taxes, with fuel and vehicle excise duty raising over £34 billion. So, despite the eye watering cost of rail tickets, they are heavily subsidised by road users. These costs include capital spend of £8 billion on roads and £12 billion on rail. Yes, all those roads and those comparatively few rail lines and the figure is that way round.

So rail costs a packet and only serves some people and some of them only some of the time. But it's perceived as a "good thing" so politically HS2 had to go ahead. I discount the argument that the money should have been spent on increasing capacity on existing lines. Sure some of those projects should go ahead anyway but we've found many times that increasing capacity on existing road and rail routes is expensive and causes huge disruption. The passengers on those routes who suggested it would soon have changed their mind when they realised how many years of delayed journeys they would experience.

In the 1990s I risked upsetting my company's CEO, a great supporter of rail and a former British Rail director of engineering, by making what I thought was an off the wall suggestion: that it would be better to tarmac over all the railway lines and run convoys of lorries and buses along them. The disarming answer was that this had been suggested on many occasions and made a lot of sense economically. This was before I went to work in the company's rail technology division where I continued to occasionally ask provocative, devil's advocate questions.... But I'm going to park my suggestion while we decide how to operate all those lorries and buses without fossil fuels. If we could do that economically and with driverless vehicles then convoy roads would make a lot of sense, albeit not moving at HS2 speeds of up to 250mph.

As for the use of Huawei in the UK's 5G development, from where we were the decision was also probably the only credible course of action as a several year delay and cost escalation in the introduction of 5G was unthinkable after Johnson giving it large on "gigabit broadband" so many times.

I can get by on most IT subjects but have never pretended to know much about telecomms. Railway signalling sometimes interfaces with telecomms and some projects I was involved in were blighted if there was a need for new equipment to interact with legacy kit involving phone modems. I think there were only 3 people with any great technical knowledge in Network Rail and I wasn't confident they understood it very well. But I did spend a fair bit of time chatting to a senior BT executive a few years ago. He told me a bit about Huawei and why BT's relationship with them, which started around 2005, was so important to BT.

We now know that senior civil servants didn't tell ministers at the time about the implications of BT getting into bed commercially with Huawei. But I doubt anything different would have been decided - even if it could, BT being a private company. It was a commercial decision by BT. And why not? It gave us faster progress and more of it for the available money than we otherwise would have had. I'm sure we are much further on with broadband than we would have been without Huawei.

However, the implications of becoming more reliant for our communications on a company that is undoubtedly an arm of the Chinese state - because all large Chinese companies are** - have grown and are troubling, particularly as China has moved strongly towards an Orwellian type of surveillance society using IT, face recognition, etc. There are strategic implications for us. And, as an advocate of private provision of services, I accept that there are times when the national interest has to be decided by politicians, not business people in large companies.

But just what is "strategic" in this context? In business I always felt that anything described as "strategic" always meant something that couldn't be justified on cost grounds alone. That would certainly have been the case for switching from Huawei right now: it would set us back years as our current 4G system is dependent on their equipment.

The main reason the decision is tricky is the opposition from the USA. But they don't have the same issues that we do. Why not? I'm not entirely sure but I suspect it's because a very high proportion of their homes and commercial buildings are connected to their cable network, which is copper cable but not copper cable like our "last mile" for broadband: it's copper in the form of coaxial cable which can download at tens of MB per second so Americans can get their Netflix fix. Cable covers many remote locations. But broadband prices have tended to be quite a lot higher in the US than in Europe.

Trump offered to help the UK with 5G development if we ditched Huawei but it was an empty promise as they don't have it themselves: Americans have been heard to mutter that they may as well by pass 5G and work on 6G. The only companies with any international standing in this game besides Huawei are Ericsson, Nokia and another Chinese company.

I have seen claims that the Americans were leaders in 4G but that isn't consistent with their world ranking for 4G speeds: 4 places below us in 30th position in the world and below Albania***. That still means their cellphones, as they call mobiles, will work satisfactorily as smartphones for most applications. In any event, the Americans have a very different broadband environment from us. And both countries, in the forefront of the technology in the early 1980s, have been left behind.

I think Johnson is right to try to persuade the Americans that the risk is manageable, even if Trump's Veep, Pompeo, is sounding off about it. They probably see us as a "swing" country on Huawei: what we decide could well influence others. Of course, the Americans have much more money to throw at these problems. We have to manage some risks differently simply because we don't have the same level of resources. It's entirely possible that we can manage the risk. But is there a contradiction at the heart of our policy? If Huawei is not secure enough to be deployed near nuclear installations and military bases then isn't all the rest of our data, in particular the data belonging to most of our major companies at risk? I guess if companies are daft enough to send highly sensitive data on open links without encryption they are leaving themselves open and not just to the Chinese. And anyway, I've heard it said that if the Chinese wanted to hack our data they wouldn't start from intercepting stuff on the 4G/5G network, they'd just hack straight in. The most puzzling thing about the hoo-ha to me is whether the 5G network is relevant to information sharing with the Americans, which I had always assumed was by a more secure form of transmission. The leaks tend to come from people.

So, before we get to the non- argument about chlorinated chicken, Johnson has shown that he's not chicken and we won't be bullied by taking a pragmatic decision which risks pleasing no-one (the industry don't like the limit and the Americans don't like any Huawei involvement) but probably makes sense from where we are. However, this game has some way to run yet, as we start to make our own way in the world and show who we are.

But that isn't why I gave this post its title. The post is dedicated to all those tv and radio journalists, especially on the BBC, who haven't yet learned how to say Huawei. My BT friend had met many people from the company many times and it was quite clear from the way he said the company's name that there's no prominent "H" at the front and certainly no "oo-aarr missus" sound anywhere in there. So it's definitely not Who-are-way. There is the merest hint of a soft h at the beginning in "wah-way", said as one brisk word with no pause between or emphasis on either of the two syllables.  If the BBC correspondents want me to believe they are tech savvy they could at least learn how to say the company's name.

* All the transport stats including costs and taxes are from Transport statistics Great Britain 2018 available on

** not just large ones. I was chairman of a Chinese company which was a joint venture between the British company I worked for at the time and part of the Chinese nuclear industry. The smoke detector you should have in your house is more likely than not to contain a small radioactive source made in the company's factory in Shenzen, as we had more than 60% of the global market for these sources, with a higher share in Europe. What do you mean you didn't know you had a radioactive source in your house? It's a very small americium source in a gold foil, which means should you decide to eat it it shouldn't be absorbed in your body (I still wouldn't recommend it though). The company imported americium from Russia - from multi-use plants which switched periodically between making weapons grade plutonium and by-products like americium - basically as brickettes which we wrapped in gold and rolled out into a wafer thin film. So of course we had a communist party minder on our board (not officially, but we all knew it). He was very partial to rice wine I remember. But conversations indicated that just about all companies of any size or sensitivity had a party minder keeping an eye on them. When we nearly ran out of americium on one occasion I wasn't at all sure I believed the story we were given and did wonder where the stock had actually gone. But that wasn't a time or place for asking provocative, devil's advocate questions as long as the issue got sorted. Which it did.


P.S. June 2020: to give some scale to the issue if BT were required to strip out Huawei kit, it's present in about 12,500 of their 19,500 mobile phone masts

Sunday, 9 February 2020

The data to back up my scepticism on battery powered vehicles

I said yesterday that the government's 2035 target for banning petrol and diesel vehicles was Wishful Thinking without WYDIs. In part of his Sunday Times column today Dominic Lawson has provided hard data to back that up:

Last June a group of scientists led by Professor Richard Herrington, the Natural History Museum’s head of earth science, warned the government that to replace all cars on British roads with EVs, UK demand for the batteries needed would require almost twice the world’s current yearly supply of cobalt, the total amount of neodymium produced globally every year, three-quarters of the world’s annual supply of lithium and at least half its copper supply. No prizes for guessing the effect of this (even if it were feasible) on the prices of these minerals, and therefore the ultimate cost to the consumer. And what about the CO2 emissions generated by this vast excavatory process (chiefly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to most of the world’s cobalt reserves)? According to Tim Worstall, a former trader in rare elements: “VW has released the comparative numbers for its new electric Golf against the diesel version. The all-clean, all-climate-friendly version must do 120,000km [75,000 miles]” to break even, “given the emissions required to make the thing.”
I’d add that the bulk of the next generation of electric cars are set to be made in China, where coal is still the largest element in the energy used for industrial production. This will be a continuation of the process in which the UK claims “global leadership” in the reduction of COemissions, by not taking account of the fact that we have been offshoring our manufacturing. As Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford, told the BBC’s Today programme last year: “Global emissions have actually increased as a result of our de-industrialisation . . . There are no plans in the net-zero carbon target which address that.”
One can't help thinking that the government's answer to "what you do is" is to make up another arbitrary target because the PM is about to appear with St Attenborough and needs to appear to be sufficiently woke and right on.

Which doesn't make it remotely credible or actually move us a millimetre further forward.

PS I know Dieter Helm from when I worked in energy economics in the 1980s and we were both young whippersnappers. He's a good guy and I'd back him to be right on just about anything and everything in this subject area.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Wishful thinking without WYDIs

The government has announced it is bringing forward the date at which new petrol and diesel vehicles can't be sold in the UK to 2035. But they remain tight lipped about what the transport system will look like by then. Oh, apart from chunks of HS2 still being a few years away from running. If this was a classic free market Tory government a la Thatcher (which it very much isn't) then it might take the position that the market will provide the means. But not many people think that is realistic for such a long term major change. Businesses will certainly give thought to the opportunities and threats they face but major investments over that time frame with such uncertainty pose too much commercial risk.

So is there a vacuum at the heart of this announcement? I would expect that government departments, including whatever the one for climate change is called this week, will have written loads of position papers over the last few years about how we are going to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. We've seen some very limited evidence of that, for example in stories about extending the number of electric vehicle charging stations. What we don't see is any analysis on a big picture which you can look into for more detail. I've been expecting to see stuff on:
  • the implications of orders of magnitude greater battery production on mineral resources availability and prices. (Spoiler alert: a part written blog post on lithium batteries may eventually follow but for now I just note that most of them aren't recyclable which doesn't seem very Greta)
  • the electricity generating capacity we'll need and how it will be provided. After all 2035 is sooner than the time it is taking us to build Hinkley C nuclear power station and some other technologies such as tidal barrages wouldn't be built quickly either
  • what the charging infrastructure will look like and how it will be financed and built.
All of which is just part of that big picture, other bits including heating our buildings without using gas boilers, for example.

If these pictures were being painted I would expect journalists to pick up on them and write articles about how brilliant, useless, revolutionary or deluded such plans were. But those articles aren't appearing. Though I haven't particularly looked for them, I can only assume that there aren't many of any substance, given the importance of the topic and the amount of interest in it.

I did see a technical article in a professional engineering journal written by a consultancy company that offers advice to small countries on how to reduce their carbon emissions. No Leo Varadkar, not small countries like the UK, more like Malta or maybe Ireland. For electricity production they take the starting point of the present generating capacity and how it is operated in terms of load factors etc. They get their client to set a goal - reducing CO2 from generation by 50% by a specified date, for example. They assess future growth in demand and what actions are available, at what cost, to reduce energy consumption.  They look at options for replacing generating capacity with non-fossil alternatives, how it can be funded and when it would come on line. They then show a rather traditional graph of generating capacity over time, revealing whether the target can be met or whether there is an "enegy gap" to recycle a phrase from the 1970s. If there's a gap they look at options to close it, including flexing the target.

This fairly conventional approach could of course be applied, with a fair amount of uncertainty to a larger, more complex system such as the UK's. I suspect it would show a whacking great capacity gap yawning open as our ageing nuclear power stations reach the end of their generating lives and renewables reach their limitations - driven by the operability of the grid rather than the quantum of energy that could theoretically be drawn on.

In the 1980s it used to be thought that the maximum amount of intermittent capacity the grid would take was around 20% without causing instability. This was presumably a guess from the Book of Bollocks as we've already gone well beyond it. Around half of our generating capacity is renewable - mainly intermittent wind power - and it now generates more than a quarter of our electricity.  But there will be a limit to the amount of intermittent renewable capacity without other measures. The base load and the peaks still have to be met. Sure you can pump water up hills to let it run back again; we've done that at Dinorwig in north Wales for decades but the 2nd law of thermoydynamics means that is a very inefficient way of doing it and even wind power is far from free in terms of cost. Yes, some renewables are more predictable but while the practicality of a 100% renewable powered system is doubtful the cost would certainly be enormous. Which is why nuclear power and renewables are complementary and provide the most obvious route to a fossil free electricity generating system.

I realise many folk think the future will look much more disaggregated and the role of the national electricity and gas grids will be a much smaller part of the picture. Or that the grid will flow both ways as the enormous reserve in all those charged up vehicle batteries is drawn on to meet the peaks in demand. Or that we'll all have batteries in our houses, factories and offices so there won't be peaks in the first place.

I'd be very interested to see the analysis of all that, if only to allay my scepticism about the grid that runs both ways. I recall in the 1980s that the area of Oxfordshire we lived in was very prone to short power drop outs. A senior executive in the electricity supply industry explained to me that, as we lived near the huge and now decommisioned Didcot A coal fired power station and it was used to meet peaks and surges in demand, partly because it was located at a point where the power supply was roughly in balance (the flow being generally towards Didcot from both north and south given where the power stations and population centres were) then the grid was intrinsically less stable in our area. When Didcot A fired up the direction of flow suddenly changed from towards Didcot to away from it which tended to cause issues. Once the Didcot B gas-fired station was built some years later it operated steadily as it was cheaper than coal, so when the A station fired up it made for smaller swings in the local grid and our drop outs ceased.

The point of this is to illustrate that the grid is quite sensitive. So I wasn't at all surprised when, in August, the almost simultaneous crashing of two generating sources, a gas-fired plant and the Hornsea offshore wind farm, caused problems for the grid and blackouts across much of England. The initiating event was a lightning strike but a software fault on Hornsea's system tripped the wind farm, which will be the largest offshore wind farm in the world when all three phases are completed around 2025. Phase one has a capacity of 1.2GW; the eventual capacity may be as much as 6GW. To give that figure context most of our current nuclear power stations have capacities of around 1GW, the "huge" coal fired Didcot A was 2GW and the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station under construction will be around 3GW. Anything more than 1GW suddenly tripping out is likely to crash the grid as the frequency fluctuates locally and the grid has limits beyond which it trips out to protect itself. The operators of Hornsea - and the gas plant - are paying £4.5 million for their part in the fiasco, which they blamed on an "extremely rare sequence of events". The thing is, as I correctly predicted (ok, mansplained) to Mrs H what had probably happened at the time of the outage, there are a large number of possible rare events which means something putting stress on the system may not be that infrequent. And lightning striking the grid somewhere won't be at all rare, though usually it doesn't show up an as yet unrevealed software fault, though the latter may not be very rare either.

So I remain fascinated to hear from the government's experts how we are going to get to this fossil fuel free future and how it's going to be made to work. Because it seems to me they are still at step 1 of imagining this future.

A consultant my last company used a lot to facilitate some of our board strategy sessions had a disarmingly simple but powerful approach to what used to be called brainstorming, until that term became politically incorrect. The first step would be to discuss what we wished for, with no constraints. "No fossil fuelled vehicles on sale by 2035" would be a classic example. So how to get there? The next step was to postulate what you would have to do to make your wish materialise. He called these "WYDIs", which he pronounced "woodies". As in what would you do to make that wish happen? What You Do Is.....

Some of these WYDIs could be major projects or tasks in themselves. So for each of those you would have to figure out - you've got it - What You Do Is.... Until you get a list of projects and activities to deliver the goal. If any of these prove to be unaffordable or, perhaps, breach the laws of physics then you have to go back round again with a modified objective. Many iterations might prove necessary to get your definitive list of WYDIs. But once you've got that you have the template for your programme director's plan and you can measure your progress towards the sunlit uplands of your objective.

I see no sign whatsoever that anyone with anything to do with our climate change goals (or anyone's climate change goals come to that) has the faintest clue about the package of actions that need to be taken to make their wishful thinking come true. They've made their wish but they haven't really started on their WYDIs. So at the moment it's pie in the sky. Or, if you prefer, empty gesture politics.

PS we'll know when the government rumbles that the targets can't be achieved. They'll switch the goal to inventing a time machine. Why? Because, of course, it then doesn't matter how long it takes or how much it costs. Because once you succeed you can take that knowledge back in time and do it quicker and cheaper and change whatever else you want. Either that or they'll say nuclear fusion is the answer. Fusion was 50 years away when I first visited the UK's fusion research establishment in 1977. What, that's 43 years ago? Yes, and fusion's still 50 years away.....  What do you mean, Boris Johnson's been bigging up fusion? Oh yes, so he has.....
It'll be the time machine next!

PPS I also learned in the 1980s that, if the electricity grid were to completely crash no-one knows how to restart it. When power stations are brought on line they synchronise to the grid frequency. If there ain't nothing to synchronise to....
One would have thought this wasn't an insuperable issue (just start one supply and bring the others on one by one?) but no-one alive has ever had to do it. But I guess that's why it takes many hours to get everything back working again even when there's a problem short of total failure.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Small country can go and do one

A PS to my piece Small Country Goes It Alone (2 Feb). I am indebted to Democracy Man for drawing my attention to a wonderfully hubristic piece in the Irish Times to mark Brexit day. Referring to a "senseless act of self harm" by the Britain (I accept I've used similar phrases by the way) the diatribe made many tendentious claims,  including Britain's "voice in the international areana will be weakened". It's not at all clear why that should be the case. For example, the UK will have its own seat at the WTO so its voice will not be diluted with the compromise position of 27 other nations and will be able to speak up for the interests of its businesses rather than the makers of German cars, French wine and Greek, er.... yoghurt I suppose. The UK retains its seat on the UN Security Council which it might well have come under pressure to give up to an EU bod one day in the future had we stayed in the EU.

Another prediction was that the UK's "reputation as an open, forward looking country will be diminished". This is a frequent and totally mistaken suggestion made by opponents of Brexit. I agree it could happen but only if we are daft enough to go against our own interests and allow it.  On the contrary, it is the EU that was set up to be a bastion of inward looking protectionism - it is a customs union above all else, designed to protect German car makers, French vintners and Polish, er plumbers I guess. Britain can be as open for business as it wants to be, the more so the better in my opinion and certainly more so than the EU.

The IT went on to note that the Brexit negotiation process in which Ireland had "more power than its neighbour" had been "a useful reminder of the EU's genius". Quoting the Dutch foreign minister it said "there are two kinds of EU states, small states and those who don't yet realise they are small states".

Now this made me look up some stats. Ireland's economy has done fantastically well since the financial crisis, when the effect of joining the euro and the resultant experiment of cutting interest rates in a booming economy led to a property bust and one of the hardest finacial crashes anywhere. A big reason for its recovery was that, unlike us, their choice on austerity was deep and hard (they didn't have much choice actually) rather than mild and prolonged. Ireland's GDP is about a seventh of the UK's putting it 27th in the world compared with our 5th or 6th depending whose stats you favour. But there is a startling corollary which reveals the other reason for Ireland's improvement. Ireland's GDP per capita is a whacking 70% higher than the UK's! Check for yourself but it was $78.8k in 2018 compared with our $45.7k. Ireland's GDP per capita is in the top 10 in the world, more than 25% higher than the USA's and more than 50% higher than Germany's.  I know, you hadn't noticed Ireland being such a wealthy place, on a par with Brunei. Of course, it isn't. Ireland's business model of low corporate taxes together with, ironically, it's use of the English language has encouraged countless large multi-national corporations to set up offices to offshore their profits made in the EU to tax havens. Ireland's people get some benefit from this but if you measure by gross national income per capita they are no wealthier than us. Ireland's average salary is less than half its GDP per capita and Ireland has the highest proportion of low wage jobs in the OECD countries.  Basically it's money laundering, known in business as the "double Irish" (Google it if you wan't to know why, after all they're one of the companies that have used it).

One has to reflect that Holland or Ireland telling the UK that we are both small countries is a bit like Middlesborough saying to Arsenal "you haven't qualified for the Champions League for several seasons, why don't you admit that you're just a small club like us?" (Of course I didn't choose this example at random, Middlesborough's turnover in 2018 was about a seventh of Arsenal's. But given that Ireland's GDP is artificially inflated Bristol City might be a better comparitor).

The Irish Times article concluded on a conciliatory note: "as two small states go their different ways our friendship can and must endure". Don't bet on it, chums. To be franker than I probably should I've had enough of two-faced Irish folk handing me a pint of Guinness (which I hate by the way) with a smile while bad mouthing Britain and all its works behind my back. I'm willing to be friends but not on those terms. You look after your interests and we'll look after ours, ok?

What will make me give you an insincere Irish smile will be when your "genius" EU finally tires of allowing you to purloin their taxes and hubris brings nemesis through  tax harmonisation to end your money laundering scam. Irish eyes won't be smiling then.

That's the problem with siding with a bully, Leo and chums. You never know when the bully will turn on you.

* The Irish Times view on Brexit Day, Britain's Great Leap Backwards, 30 January 2020

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Small country goes it alone

Leo Varadkar, resuming his smirking demeanour that I love to hate, has upset me again with his small minded talk about the UK being a "small country" now we have left the EU. Oh dear, how are we going to manage? Well, Leo, you see:

  • the UK has four of the top ten universities in the world, according to the listing on  (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL if you were wondering). On a quick scan of the list I could see only one EU university in the top 50, the Delft Institute of Technology in the Netherlands. And that's at number 50. The top French and German institutions are ranked 53 and 55. There is one European uni in the top 10 but that is non-EU Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology. It makes you wonder why our academics are so distraught at us leaving behind this bunch of mediocrity!
  • The UK ranks second in the world for its number of Nobel prize winners, with 132 to Germany's 108 and France's 68. Ancient history I hear you say? Well it's more interesting if you take a more recent period. The listing I found covered 2000 to 2016 in which period there were 16 UK winners, 7 from Germany and 5 from France. A bunch of other EU states like Denmark, Swden, Ireland, Poland, Italy and Spain have one each, so all of the EU put together barely scrapes past the British total.
  • UK registered HSBC is in the world's top 10 largest banks by asset value and is larger than any EU based bank
One could look at excellence in all sorts of other fields such as business, entertainment, the media and so on. I could go on but the point is made. The UK provides a more dynamic environment for excellence of all kinds than the EU. There is no reason why that should cease to be the case as we move forward.

We'll be fine, Leo. Ireland? Well you might, in time, succeed in getting hold of the north, but I doubt you'll find that sink for pubic money will do you much good. 

What we have now and you never will is a greater degree of control over our own destiny. Just like lots of other, normal countries including Canada, Norway and Japan.

I've read a few gloomy columns about Britain finding the world a lonely place populated by bullies, in particular the USA, China and the EU. I don't get that logic in the context of Brexit. For a start, that's no reason for putting yourself under the control of one of said bullies. But secondly, the EU is a crap bully: just look how well it stands up to Putin.  Cowers would be a more appropriate description.

Keep smirking, Leo. It reminds us about the downsides of the old days when we were in the EU!