The Brexit Conundrum

Before I start with this article, first a brief declaration: I voted Remain. I very nearly didn’t vote at all, because surely no government would be foolhardy enough to leave the EU without a Deal and they would clearly get the best possible Deal from the EU. A Deal that protects our rights to live and work in the EU and our ability to trade freely with the EU. So why did I vote to Remain? Mainly because of the same reason that so many voted to Leave, a £350M bus. Looking carefully at the Leave campaign it was clear that we were being sold a black box, the campaign was all smoke and mirrors. Misdirection, outright lies, and unachievable promises. We were told we would be able to give £350M a week to the NHS, but we were being told the Gross figures, not the Net. They neglected to tell us how much we got back, in science funding, regional development funds, in subsidies. The numbers didn’t add up, so I voted with my head, and not my heart, as it were. I voted Remain.

The Remain campaign wasn’t totally innocent in this either, but by voting Remain you knew what you were voting for, the status quo. A continuation of a democratic system designed to bring the countries of Europe closer together. The grand project, that has evolved over the last 74 years, to ensure there could never be another war engulfing the whole of Europe ever again. At first it was simply an economic partnership, designed to alleviate many of the stresses of post-war Europe, a way to make Germany feel welcomed back into the fold after the defeat of fascism. With the rise of the former USSR steps were taken to increase the political power of the members of this trading club and the EU was created, acting as a bloc in order to counter the threat from the East. Remember, David Cameron did not say that leaving the EU would cause World War Three, that was Boris Johnson who responded to David Cameron’s warnings of increased instability and risks to world peace. David Cameron’s actual words were “Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash to make that assumption.” Remember as well that this was said just 2 years after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsular by Russia, in an act of aggression against the Ukraine, a country within Europe, and one that is still fighting a civil war, a war in which Russia in an active participant.

Over the past few months our social media pages have been flooded with scare stories and myths. Many easily debunked. Others are wildly hyper-inflated, such as the claim that lorry drivers were planning on bringing the country to a standstill with rolling blockades that never actually happened. There was more disruption from traffic accidents than lorries, with a handful of protestors being arrested for inconsiderate driving. But no, the country was not brought to a standstill, and as with many claims that led to the Referendum result everything was blown out of proportion by the mainstream media.

The claim making the most traction, and again easily debunked if you were to simply check it, is the Lisbon Treaty. Most of the claims centre around clauses that are said to take effect in 2020, or in some claims 2022. These include the UK being forced to join an EU army, and the UK being forced to scrap the Pound and adopt the Euro. Firstly, the Lisbon Treaty does not take effect in either 2020, or in 2022. It is already in effect. And yet here we are with our soldiers still under Her Majesty’s leadership, and the Pound still struggling against the rest of the world’s currencies. The reason? As with many other countries in the EU who signed the Lisbon Treaty, we didn’t sign up to the whole treaty. We have exemptions, and vetoes. Yes, there is talk of an EU army, but it requires unanimous support from every member state. And given the current political climate with Russia, surely greater cooperation between EU member states for our mutual defence is a worthy goal? Remember we have seen 2 state sponsored assassinations by Russia committed on UK soil in the past few years, both reckless and brazen, putting the health of British citizens at risk. One using a radioactive isotope, the other a military nerve agent.

Another claim that has been spread far and wide, not helped by a handful of politicians, is that the public overwhelmingly wants to leave with No Deal. Further than that, that the country voted for No Deal. The problem with this claim is that without investigation it cannot be verified and allows those who want No Deal to justify their position. It enables them to be highly vocal advocates for a very dangerous and undemocratic hijacking of the Brexit negotiations. There is absolutely no evidence that No Deal is what the majority of people who voted Leave actually want. And it is certainly not what the majority of the public want, given that the majority actually voted to Remain or didn’t vote because a Deal that was promised to them or Remaining were basically a coin flip decision, they didn’t care which way it went. And yet we see people claiming that anyone who didn’t vote effectively voted for No Deal. Yes, people have claimed that because they didn’t vote their votes should be added to those who want No Deal, and that everyone else who voted to Leave should be seen as wanting No Deal. That’s where the majority claim comes from. The best we can do, unless someone was to poll the entire country, or we had another Referendum that actually asked the question everyone in Westminster has been ducking responsibility for, is to look at the recent petitions. I have always had a gut feeling, looking at how many of my friends have repeated this myth, that support for No Deal was around 10% and at the time of writing the petition to Leave the EU without a deal is sat on just under 600,000 signatures. The petition to revoke Article 50 is at just under 6 million. Ignoring the fact that the Revoke petition has been going for just a couple of weeks compared to the Leave petition’s 5 months and that does seem to agree with my 10% figure, that 10% of people who voted to Leave want No Deal. But the reverse of that means 90% of people who voted to Leave voted wanting a Deal.

So why has it been so difficult to get consensus on what the public wants from Brexit? This answer comes in 2 parts. Firstly, in the way the Referendum was conducted to start with, and a flaw in the way political campaigning is conducted. This is David Cameron’s fault, for calling a Referendum with a black box question, and for allowing the Leave campaign to perpetuate lies and myths as facts. When you ticked the box to Remain you knew what you were choosing. As stated above, the status quo, membership of an elite trading club, with special access to other members of that club. The collective bargaining power of every member state brought to bear in trade negotiations ensuring the best possible deal not for individual countries, but for the EU as a whole. When you ticked the box to Leave you voted for 17 million different interpretations of what you believed was inside that black box. The Leave campaign promised everything to everyone. You want to stay in the EEA? Done. Stay in the Common Market? Done. Leave, but trade on similar terms as Canada does? Done. No Deal, and trade as some sort of WTO superpower? Done. Give £350M a week to the NHS? Done. Everyone’s unicorn of a different size, shape and colour. Everyone voting Leave saw the Deal they wanted and voted under the belief that everyone else wanted the same Deal, because surely if I want to Leave for my reasons, everyone else who wants to Leave wants the same thing? And given that absolutely no one actually knew what exactly was being voted for, except a nebulous black box labelled Leave the EU, is it any wonder that nearly a third of voters felt unable to choose between the options? None of this was helped by the claims being made by the Leave campaign going largely unchallenged, even when clearly lying. What was needed was a clear plan before the Referendum detailing all the risks, both of Remaining and Leaving, independently fact checked, a vote that included a secondary ballot on what sort of Deal you would expect if we left. A Referendum that would have given the public the knowledge of what they were voting for, full consequences of that vote, and set a clear path for the government so they could achieve a Brexit acceptable to the majority of the public, including those who wished to Remain.

The second part is down to Theresa May. While the worst-case scenario is leaving with No Deal, the second worst scenario is leaving with Theresa May’s Deal. It was a Deal that was always doomed to fail, it kept just enough in to maintain basic trade relations, while forcing us to effectively remain with a toe in each of the EU’s institutions, but not actually being part of any. It was a Deal not designed with the country’s best interested at heart, but with her party’s interests. More specifically, aimed at bringing in line the hard-line Eurosceptics within the party. It was for this reason that all the different alternatives that would have been more palatable towards those who wished to Remain were removed from the table, her red lines in negotiating. Remain in the EEA? Red line. Remain in the Common Market? Red line. Right for travel to and from the EU? Red line. By setting red lines that only the hardliners would accept she created a Deal that the vast majority in government could not accept, and in trying to create a Deal the rest of Parliament could accept it was one that the hardliners couldn’t accept either. It was a Deal that was always going to fail because it fails for the same reason the Referendum failed. Only now instead of there being 17 million different Deals, there are 650 MPs each with their own different idea of what a Brexit Deal should be. This is why they have been unable to reach any consensus over what Parliament wants, and why the current Deal has been defeated now 3 times. The irony in all this is that Parliament, for possibly the first time in living memory, truly reflects the will of the people. The chaos, incompetence, stubbornness, and selfishness of our MPs in the way they are handling Brexit is a near perfect mirror for what the public wants.

Finally, I mentioned petitions earlier, and how they seem to be the only true marker of what the public wants at the moment. Another declaration, I signed one of the petitions mentioned. In case it wasn’t obvious I was one of the nearly 6 million who signed to Revoke Article 50, but possibly not for the reasons you might think. Another of the arguments I’ve seen repeated over and over again is that it would be undemocratic to hold another vote. Let that sink in, voting would not be democratic. This argument is increasingly being used by those who want No Deal, which as we’ve already ascertained is most certainly not what the majority wants. But apparently going against the wishes of the majority is seen as democratic, but only to those who are in the minority. What about the democratic rights of those who voted Remain who would now like a say in the sort of new arrangement we want with the EU? What about the democratic rights of those who didn’t vote because they believed it was a coin flip between staying or getting the best Deal possible? What about the democratic rights of those who have turned 18 in the near 3 years since the Referendum? You cannot state that your democratic rights are more important than another’s. When it comes to democracy we are all equal. But despite voting for Revoking Article 50 I also recognise that those who voted to Leave still have some valid reasons. This is why I firmly believe that there should be another Referendum, one that finally lets the whole country vote on what they now know, so that we can reaffirm if Leaving is truly what the public wants, but more importantly to confirm how we should Leave. In much the same way that our MPs have been trying to find consensus with indicative votes for a viable Brexit plan that the majority can support, I believe these options should be put to the public, along with a comprehensive, and independent, guide to what all those options actually mean. And it should be voted on as a ranked vote, so there is one clear outcome. In order, would you rather Remain, or Leave, with a Deal that keeps us in the EEA, or the Common Market, or a Deal like Canada has, or Norway, or Switzerland. Or even a combination. Yes, it’s messy, but the alternative is just another Black Box where no one knows what the public wants. What has this got to do with Revoking Article 50? Well if Article 50 remains in place, the default position is to Leave with No Deal, by April 16th. By Revoking Article 50 it gives the government the time needed to go back to the people and gain a mandate for a Deal that the public wants, and to show our MPs which Deal they should be pursuing. And given some control over what we want from Brexit who knows, maybe next time I might vote Leave, but I doubt it.

Is metal dead?

The last few weeks have been an interesting one in music. Over in the US one of the iconic bands of the 1980’s, the band that defined excess, announced that after their next tour they would be calling it quits. Hardly a shock, we’ve known about Mick Mars’ failing health for some time, but still quite a defining moment in heavy metal history. Dom Lawson turns his attention to the pretty boys of rock, arguing that the image created for a band is as important as the music (for working out which bands not to listen to). He has a point. So do Scott Rowley and Terry Bezer when arguing that metal bands are simply evolving and that the media are being too safe (respectively).

Firstly, as a music genre, metal has survived longer than any other recorded medium. That it has survived at all is a testament to it’s universal appeal. True that the father’s of metal do still exist in jazz and blues, both riding on a resurgence of popularity that has even seen Robbie Williams getting in on the act, but neither have existed as popular as ever through six decades. To go back to Scott Rowley metal is a continuously evolving beast, borrowing from every genre surrounding it. Look at some of the most popular songs in the last 60 years and you can find a metal god at it’s heart. One of the biggest selling country and western records of all time? Written by Alice Cooper. Don’t believe me? Look up the sales of “Only Women Bleed” to see the list of artists that have covered it. As a genre metal has borrowed from almost every style in existence. Aerosmith were doing nu metal while Linkin Park were still in school. Tarja Turunen was singing opera while performing with Nightwish and Courteny Love’s violinist, Emilie Autumn, plays classical violin when not acting out her role as a Victorian bad girl.

Alice Cooper dragged shock rock out of the 60’s, Black Sabbath dragged heavy metal out of the 70’s and Metallica dragged Thrash out of the 80’s. Today it’s the most vibrant and diverse genre on the planet. Even the sub genres have sub genres it’s evolved so much. For a true music fan there is something for everyone, be it the sanitised AOR of Nickelback, the heavy industrial power of Rammstein, or the soul crushing black metal of Darkthrone. From Gallic bagpipes, Scottish sea shanties, and sweeping orchestral fantasies. It has sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The fact that bands such as Metallica and Iron Maiden can still headline festivals is proof that it’s still very much alive as a genre. In 10 years time i expect to be hearing the same arguments that metal is becoming stale when Avenged Sevenfold and Bring Me The Horizon are headlining every other year. I also still expect to be hearing Black Veil Brides complaining about not having a number 1 album yet and being on the second stage, sorry but no one likes a dick head (even if the album isn’t actually all that bad).

Dom makes a good point about a band’s style in his post. While Scott argues that we should ignore what a band looks like and just listen, the look of a band is closely tied to their music. It’s a style generated to appeal to a particular audience and if I want to be honest that audience is not me in most cases. But I can look at a band and quickly make assumptions based on their look. Low necked t-shirts with tattoos on the neck? It’s a fair assumption that the vocals will be screamed into the microphone at such a high volume that I won’t be able to understand a word being sung. Face covered in white paint, upside down crucifixes and an abundance of black? Songs about death, Satan or Norse gods with guttural vocals that again I won’t have a clue about what is being sung. It’s a generalisation, but one that works in almost every case. By looking at the band you know what your ears are being let in for. However this is NOT new. In what way is this different to the bondage trousers and spiked hair of the punk era? Of the studs and leather of the NWOBHM? As a genre we have always tried to classify ourselves through our clothes and style and again it’s one that has continued to evolve. From Scandinavian metal to steampunk we define what we listen to through what we wear. Did fans of Slayer in the 1980’s suddenly stop listening to Iron Maiden? No, they didn’t. So go out on a limb and listen to all the different bands and use their look as a guide. But remember every guide is just a guide and not gospel.

Finally there is the argument that the media is playing it too safe. That because the media only wants squeaky clean the record companies are only promoting squeaky clean. That bands are too enmeshed in maintaining their image to take risks when metal is meant to be about risk and being the bad boys of music. I hate to say this but by definition that makes Justin Bieber the biggest metal act on the planet right now. While it’s always nostalgic to look back on the antics of Ozzy Osbourne, Slash and Nikki Sixx it should also be remembered that these very acts are the reason so many great musicians are no longer with us. Marc Bolan, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse. Who knows what music would have been produced had some of the greatest names in rock not died prematurely due to excess. It’s only due to incredibly good fortune that Nikki Sixx is still alive to announce the retirement of Motley Crue, by rights Girls, Girls, Girls should have been their final album. As a genre we shouldn’t celebrate the extreme, but celebrate the music created. After all, it’s the fusion of guitar, drums, bass and vocals that gets us hooked on a band, not how much alcohol and drugs the band can consume before going out on stage. As for complaining about the industry focusing too much on bands like Nickelback, Sleeping With Sirens and You Me At Six? They’re businesses, they’ll always promote what will sell, no different today than when Sigue Sigue Sputnik was created in the 1980’s. And yet despite decades of the media ignoring metal as a genre (with the rare exception of the occasional Radio 1 DJ) it’s still going as strong as ever and still has its bad boys. Just ask any owner of a Scandinavian wooden church.

Almost live.

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for quite a while but haven’t had the time until now to do so. There’s a disturbing trend amongst the music industry where bands are playing “almost live”. Fans of pop stars like Madonna may be aware that a lot of her concerts are performed to a prerecorded backing track. What is less known is that this trend is happening a lot more in rock and punk music too. When you go and see a band like Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath one of the joys of seeing them is knowing they’re playing live. Famously in Rush’s concert video from 1988, A Show Of Hands, you can see a change in the guitar used by Alex Lifeson part way through 2112. It wasn’t careful editing of 2 nights footage, despite the concert being recorded over 2 nights, it was the result of the fastest guitar change I have ever witnessed, live in front of me at the concert. Real music played live, with no gimmicks or tapes.

That’s not to say that some concerts shouldn’t have some prerecorded instruments. Emilie Autumn puts on a remarkable show where she blends recorded instruments with live music. As a classically trained violinist she certainly doesn’t need to use tapes for her own music but as a multi-instrumentalist it’s a bit difficult to play 2 instruments at once while also singing lead vocals. Another trick often used to good effect is loop taping, recording and playing back on the fly to layer music together. When used it can add a dimension to a live show where a single artist wants to expand on what otherwise would be just a single guitar and voice, allowing them to mix into their music a rhythm and bass line to an otherwise one dimensional lead guitar. These tricks all have valid uses in live music when done openly, without any subterfuge.

So it’s extremely disappointing as a fan of live music to hear increasingly of rock and pop punk bands resorting to tricks in order to preserve their “live performances”. At some festivals it has become almost impossible to tell if the band you are watching is actually playing live. The most common trick would appear to be to play along to an entirely recorded track, akin to an old Top Of The Pops appearance where the entire performance was mimed. Famously when asked to mime on a tv chat show the Red Hot Chilli Peppers swapped positions so none of the band members was actually playing their own instruments in protest at being asked to mime. In almost every case the bands will say they play live but “turn down” their instruments to half volume. That is not “live”. It was discovered that many of the bands on the Warped Tour favoured this method. Another trick that I have personally witnessed is that of the “session musician”, where one or more session artists are employed offstage to play the parts that the band should be playing. It’s even more disappointing that this trick was performed by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz’s pet project All Time Low, where for an entire concert their lead guitarist failed to play a single note, seemingly able to mimic the rhythm guitarist’s guitar strumming style while playing and even succeeding in playing a twirling guitar solo without even touching the strings of his guitar. If you look carefully at videos of the band playing at 2011’s Sonisphere Festival you will see at the back of the stage to the far left a much older guitarist who is clearly not a member of the band playing the lead guitar part for the entire concert. It is this complete lack of respect for the fans of live music that I find appalling. Many of these bands will tell stories of how they’ve worked hard playing gigs in small venues and building up a fan base from playing live. If that was true then have the courtesy to trust that your fans will still be fans even if your live show contains the occasional off note or out of key vocal. Not one person has ever said “I wish Ozzy Osbourne had mimed at Download so Black Sabbath could sound as good as they do after months of mixing and production on their album”. When we see a band live we expect to see them as they are. The blistering guitar solo by Alice Cooper’s guitarist Orianthi, Neil Peart’s YYZ drum solo, Pete Townsend’s thumping bass riffs. To have them on stage miming would be a travesty and I know no one who would not feel cheated and let down to find their personal heroes had actually performed “almost live”.

Building a new PC part 2 – The minimum spec

So the first question to ask before building a new PC is, does my current PC meet the requirements with a few upgrades? I currently have an old 3 GHz P4 with 2Gb of RAM and using the onboard graphics. The minimum spec for Bioshock Infinite (my requirements model) is the following:

  • OS: Windows Vista Service Pack 2 32-bit
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 DUO 2.4 GHz / AMD Athlon X2 2.7 GHZ
  • RAM: 2 GB
  • Hard Drive: 20 GB free
  • Video Card: DirectX10 Compatible ATI Radeon 3870 / NVIDIA 8800 GT / Intel HD 3000 Integrated Graphics
  • Video Card Memory: 512 MB
  • Sound Card: DirectX Compatible

I’m running Win7 and I have 2Gb of RAM. The rest however is below spec. Due to the AGP graphics slot slapping a new graphics card in there is out of the question so I’m back to square one. I need to build a new PC.

As I’m not just using the PC for gaming I’m making the decision now to add more memory and go with 4Gb of RAM. This is due to a very extensive music library and a lot of photo editing (see previous post).

Next I’m looking at the CPU. The question here is whether to go for a combined graphics CPU with Intel HD graphics onboard to save money or go for a separate graphics card. Looking at the benchmarks for the graphics cards the integrated graphics fall so far behind the discrete cards that it becomes a no-brainer. For gaming discrete is always better, even at the bottom end. With that in mind it becomes a straight race between the AMD and Intel processors. And this is where I get my first surprise. My preferred supplier has stopped selling the Intel Core Duo. The next Intel processor in the benchmarks is the Pentium G630T (£56.69), almost twice the price of the Athlon II 340 (£28.28). Another surprise is the fact that these processors are now only available in 64bit. Effectively 32bit computing is dead. Despite the cost difference the Intel processor is still in the running however as we still have the motherboard to factor in.

So next up, the motherboard. With 2 processors to choose from that means 2 different motherboards to choose from. We’re not interested in how great the board is, just will the processor fit and is it cheap. First up is the AMD processor, which requires an Socket FM2 board. Straight away I’m looking at a selection of micro-ATX form factor boards. I also spot in the list at the same price point the board for the Intel processor, again in micro-ATX form factor. The 2 MSI boards are thrown out straight away for not being compatible with the processor (despite being the right socket type) which leaves me with a pair of Gigabyte motherboards. The Gigabyte F2A55M-DS2 at £39.74 for the AMD processor and the Gigabyte GA-H61M-DS2 at £37.25 for the Intel. Both boards take DDR3 memory with the AMD board allowing for the faster 1600 MHz memory over the Intel’s 1333 MHz memory, both 240 pin.  For graphics they’re both the same with PCIe 2×16 slots on both boards.

So back to memory. Now we know what to buy it’s a simple question of whether to buy the slower memory for both boards (£44.88 for a Lenovo 4Gb stick) or go for the faster memory for the AMD board. At exactly the same price it’s another no-brainer, the AMD board gets the faster memory.

This brings us handily to the graphics card. And another minefield of differing specs, manufacturers and compatibilities. With the onboard graphics already out of the running it’s a straight race between nVidia and Radeon. Straight away I have a problem. The only nVidea cards available that are a high enough spec are all PCIe3 and much more expensive starting at £89. While these are backwards compatible it does mean hobbling the graphics card slightly down to the PCIe2.0 specification. That leaves us with the Asus ATI Radeon 6670 with 1Gb of memory (twice the minimum needed) at £73.81.

Going back to the processors I find another problem. The heatsink. For the Intel build I have the Hyper 212 EVO Processor Cooler from Coolermaster at £25.88. But the AMD processor is socket FM2. Some mixed information online but from what I can tell the same heatsink and fan should also fit the FM2 socket processors so that’s added to the build on both machines.

Knowing cases and PSUs can also have issues I decide to look first at the case and then choose a PSU. Thanks to the micro-ATX motherboards we can go for the relatively tiny Coolermaster Elite 343 at £28.15.

Being quite a basic setup there’s no real power consumption here (not even once I add the DVD drive) so we can get away with the Coolermaster Elite Power 460W at £36.90.

Hard drives surprise me. The only compatible drives are not only huge capacity, but also exceptionally expensive. Luckily I have a few other vendors to choose from and I quickly find a WD 500Gb SATA II drive for £45.67.

And as stated, we’ll need a DVD drive to play all those games that still require physical media to install. Again I have to go with one of my other vendors and quickly find a LiteOn iHAS124 DVDRW for £12.99.

So now time for the maths. During this I’ve assumed that somewhere you have a copy of Windows 7 or 8 lying around. This is a purely hardware exercise.

So for the Intel machine this brings us up to £362.22 and which also brings us to this:

When it comes to building a minimum spec machine for gaming you may as well not bother. The PC being sold above is a much better machine for pretty much the same price as it would cost to build your minimum spec. In short you’d be wasting your money doing it yourself. You’ll notice I didn’t price up the AMD machine. At less than £30 between them and with such a huge difference between the AMD machine that can be built and the one that can be bought there’s no point. In fact the machine being sold Is so close to the recommended spec for Bioshock Infinite it makes building a recommended spec PC obsolete as well.

Building a new PC

I’ve decided the main PC I have at home is no longer up to the job. As I write my PC has been processing some photos for the last 4 hours and look like they still have another 3 hours to go. This is before I load them into photoshop to play with.

So I need a new PC. It’s been a few years since I last built a new PC so I need to research minimum specs for my requirements, etc. To help I’ve already decided it needs to be able to play the latest games. Bioshock Infinite has quite high specs for gameplay so I’ve decided to use that as my benchmark.

That’s enough concise writing, time to waffle on. For my purposes I’m not actually going to build my new PC just yet, rather I’m going to spec up 4 machines. The first will be BI’s minimum spec to run the game. The second will be the recommended spec. The third will be the spec required to run everything at it’s highest resolution and the final spec is what I would build given complete free reign over everything. The PC I actually build will be determined by my financial position in the new year since I know I won’t be able to afford any of the components until then.

So, with that in mind the research begins…

The truth about illegal logging

Today Cites delegates have made a bold move to protect endangered rainforests from deforestation. They’ve agreed greater protection for species of rosewood and ebony from South East Asia, South America and Madagascar. By protecting these rare habitats it also protects the many species of endangered animals that make these forests their home. However this doesn’t prevent illegal logging unless the international community acts on these restrictions. In the case of ebony and rosewood the primary market is China. For these restrictions to be effective the Chinese government must act to curb their growing black market in timber.

This is not as easy as you might think. An audit of Ikea’s timber usage revealed that 100% of the timber used for making furniture in China was illegal. On one side of the border in Siberia the trade in timber is controlled by the Russian Mafia, timber from illegal logging being added at all points from logging camps to export yards at the Chinese border. The practices of bribery and intimidation result in legal and illegal timber being indistiguishable from each other at the point of export. On the other side of the border in China the import yards are controlled by the Triad. Many factories cut their costs by buying their timber direct from the Triad, having it stolen from the import yards to order bypassing the import taxes paid by the legitimate timber merchants. In theory when you buy a new chair, wardrobe or table from any furniture supplier you should be able to trace it back using the bar code on the box. That barcode sits on a computer at the supplier’s main office and is tied to an invoice order at the assembly plant. The assembly plant can then tie that up with an order number at the timber importer which goes back to the timber exporter. This timber, usually in the form of cut wood, has a number that will be traced back to the log from which it was sawn, which can then be traced to the tree and the number on the tree can be traced back to the very stump that it was cut from using a GPS tag. But when a 30 foot tree suddenly becomes 300 feet of logs at the sawmill it quickly becomes clear that the wood being used is actually untraceable.

Other companies however have taken very stringent steps to ensure that their wood is legally sourced. From the point of tagging the tree to exporting the finished furniture they have put in place systems that ensure that the amount of wood used in their furniture matches the estimates from the initial felling of the tree. This is how the majority of our hardwood furniture is imported into Europe from Indonesia and Malaysia. By removing the ability for illegal loggers to sell their timber it protects the rainforests, but at the cost of higher prices in the shops in Europe. This is a system being deployed across the world but which is being perverted by one of the main supporters of the system. The US State Department. And the reason is very simple, money. As one of the major shareholders in opening up legal logging schemes in emerging markets the US State Department has actually made it easier to trade in illegal timber.

The prime purpose of the scheme deployed by the US State Department in partnership with the Liberian government is to collect tax. At every stage of the process from issuing logging licenses to export the timber is taxed. You pay a tax to buy the logging concession. You pay a tax to tag your trees with a GPS barcode. You pay a tax to convert the trees to felled lumber. You pay a tax to convert the lumber to logs. You pay a tax to sell the lumber to local markets and a further tax to sell the rest to the export market. At any point where the timber is converted from one form to another a tax is paid on that conversion, a proportion of which is paid back to the US State Department as shareholder. In theory this should prevent any illegal timber from entering the market at any point but for one thing. Under the rules of the scheme agreed between the US State Department and the Liberian government any logs or trees found by civilians in the forests of Liberia, rather than be destroyed, can be deemed legal if taken to the relevant point on the supply chain and taxed. The very fact of selling the timber to the logging yard and paying a fee back to the government has the timber declared legal. This has two effects. Firstly, it ensures that all timber exported from Liberia is legal, potentially the only country worldwide that can claim 100% of their exports are legally sourced. And secondly it creates a thriving black market that knows that all they have to do to sell illegal timber is pay a fee to the Liberian government.

In order to ensure that the planet’s forests are protected it takes a very simple and real step. The world must accept that there is only so much wood that can be harvested per year and accept the higher prices that come with it. Governments around the world must do more to protect natural forest, not just from illegal loggers, but from farmers using weak legislation to expand farmland and from emerging climate companies from converting rich biodiverse rainforest into palm oil plantations. You cannot protect this planet’s forests buy chopping them down. Schemes that can have a very real impact must be implemented with protection as the main goal, and not taxation.

Working title. What? I need a working title?

Something a bit different today. Thanks to some creative thinking from an over active imagination I’ve started writing a science fiction story. Some background: It’s now 2158 and humanity has started colonising the stars. It’s also 2 years since the city of Los Angeles disappeared into the Pacific ocean after the largest earthquake ever recorded in history. One of the few survivors from that earthquake has joined the “space marines” with a hope of qualifying for a life on another planet. This excerpt is from approximately a quarter of the way into the story and has Private James Parr meeting his fellow marines for the first time.

James entered the barracks that would be his metaphorical new home for the next 5 years. Training was over, he was now a US Marine, Exo-terrestrial division.

As he walked into the room he looked around. Twelve bunks lined the walls of the room, it wasn’t hard to tell which one was going to be his. As he walked over to his bunk the other marines nodded greeting until he got to a heavy built Lance Corporal with the name Blake across his breast pocket. His skin was as black as ebony and his imposing bulk towered over James until his face cracked open into a huge smile.

“Welcome to the Fifth, Private” he grinned at James. “This will be your new hell away from hell.” The grin never left his face and James found himself instantly warming to the huge man in front of him. Almost at once the rest of the squad stood up and faced the door. James turned to see a woman dressed in a Corporal’s uniform enter the room. Dropping his kit bag straight on his foot he clumsily raised a salute before she gestured for him with a gloved hand to relax.

“At ease Private, I may be in charge of this sorry bunch but I’m still one of you. You’ll forgive me if I don’t shake your hand but something tells me I don’t need your pain.” Looking at the other men and women in the room she turned to leave. “Give him a proper welcome, we leave for the Swarzenegger tomorrow morning.”

James turned to the Lance Corporal. “The Swarzenegger? I thought he was an early 21st Century actor?”

Lance Corporal Blake looked at James with a wry grin on his face. “USS Swarzenegger, the newest starship in the fleet. Well okay, the only starship in the fleet. Named after President Matthew Swarzenegger, the actor’s grandson.” He picked up James’ kitbag and indicated towards his bunk. “Well you’ve met Corporal ‘Psycho’, time for you to meet the rest of us grunts. You can call me ‘Rhino’”

James looked confused for a moment. “Why’s she called Psycho?”

“Well it’s not for her charming bedside manner. Did you notice the gloves she was wearing?” James nodded that he had. “She’s a Psyker, every squad has one. Gives the marines that extra edge.”

This only served to confuse James more. “I’ve never heard of Psykers, what’s so special about them?”

“Oh good lord! Where the fuck have you been? She’s a telepath, you never tested for Latency?” Rhino stopped and looked more closely at James as he shook his head. “Oh shit, Quaker?” James just nodded. “Man, genuinely sorry to hear that. Lost some good friends in L A that day. And yeah, don’t ever shake her hand unless you want a head full of pain.”

Rhino introduced him to the rest of the squad. He was part of a team of four led by Rhino, along with Private ‘Ace’ Jones and Private First Class ‘Scotty’ McKenzie. By the end of the day the nickname ‘Quaker’ had stuck.

Liars and thieves? The reality of benefits in the UK

First, for legal reasons I cannot disclose where I used to work. In December, through reasons not entirely in my control I entered the realm of the unemployed. At first it was a bit of a relief, it gave me the first real break in 4 years after effectively being on call 24/7/365 for 4 years. Even when I was supposed to be on holiday part of me was at work due to being the only IT person in a company of over 200. The first thing I had to do was sign on, and for once this was a simple straightforward process. The DWP now allows you to make your claim online. It’s not the most straightforward of processes, but infinitely better than trying to apply over the phone. Another surprise, interview at the job centre was the following week, rather than the old “sometime in the next month”. Expectations were high, maybe after years of red tape and bureaucracy the new government had improved the lot of the newly unemployed? Housing benefit was applied for as part of the process, all centralised and for once the council agreed to pay housing and council tax benefits. As it was December another welcome surprise was the rebate from the council tax, incredibly useful given the now tightened budget over Xmas. Direct debits were cancelled where none essential accounts were concerned, a conscious decision meaning my now recovered credit rating takes a terminal hit again, but a quick budget shows that we just have enough to manage.

Then comes the end of January, and due to how I became unemployed the DWP informs me I no longer qualify until April. That means no money for food or heating for another 2 months [1]. This is despite full disclosure of the circumstances and recognition that it was out of my control. Rather than now being forced to choose between turning the heating down a bit or eating plainer foods (my time at University has shown me how to eat quite well for next to nothing) I’m actually forced to make the choice of having no heating and not eating anything at all. The only way to ensure my family has both a home to live in and food and heating is to walk out of the door and make myself intentionally homeless. A quick emergency meeting with the DWP and I’m told I qualify for crisis payments due to having a wife and 2 teenage daughters. Of 40%. Yes, I’m now informed I’m expected to feed, clothe, heat and house a family of 4 on 40% of the amount the government declares the minimum needed to live on. So now my option is do I feed my family or turn off the heating and electricity. My only saving graces in all this is that my eldest daughter is soon to be 17, so the new bedroom tax will not affect us. And by being generally in good health I’m not claiming DLA so I don’t have to deal with ATOS. And that’s really the big issue, all of these policies brought together and the way the unemployed and disabled have been demonised by this government and by the media.

It’s very discouraging after over 20 years of working and paying my NI that I am considered worthless now by the very government that is supposed to be helping me. The unemployed and disabled are labelled “lying, thieving bastards” by the people who are meant to help, while those very people who are meant to help take tax payers money for doing nothing. A government that lives a life of excess and luxury at taxpayers expense is guilty of forcing the poorest in this country into ever deeper poverty. Families who are declared as “under-occupying” homes because disabled children need their own rooms are seeing their benefits reduced. Disabled people who need mobility payments to ensure their independence are having those payments reduced or even taken away because they can walk 20 metres, but not 21 metres. People who are losing their jobs because the government has decided employers should be able to fire anyone they want and then hire cheaper foreign labour are finding themselves losing everything, their families, their homes and even their lives. This is the reality of living on benefits in this country. The myth of scroungers living a life of luxury, with plasma TVs, cars and exotic holidays is exactly that, a myth. For those who receive just the benefits they are entitled to it’s not enough. High profile media campaigns targeting the minority who abuse the system do nothing to help those caught in the benefits trap. Billions spent getting the long term unemployed into work do nothing when there are no jobs available and government policies are forcing more people into unemployment. Forcing the unemployed to work in jobs that pay less than the benefits they lose is immoral.

The unemployed do not need hitting with big sticks to find work, they need genuine training. They need real work experience programs that actually pay them, not providing free labour for large multinational corporations. They need the opportunity for education, without the fear that they are going to leave university with crippling debt, regardless of age. The unemployed need the opportunities to prove their worth in a workforce that has been indoctrinated into believing that the unemployed are simply the scum of the earth. The most valuable thing a person can have is their own self worth. Without that they have nothing left to lose.

[1] For those wondering why I can still afford to write this blog given the financial situation this government has put me in the answer is simple. My next electricity bill is due on March 1st. [2]

[2] I’ve never been out of work longer than 2 months thanks to working in a high demand industry. I fully expect to be gainfully employed before this date. There’s also the matter of why I can’t disclose my previous employer’s details 😉

When space marines go to war

“Dronvire of Rigel Four in the lead, closely followed by Costigan, Northrop, Kinnison the Younger, and a platoon of armed and armored Space Marines!” – E E Doc Smith, First Lensman, 1950

Corporate bullying is usually the prerogative of the big American media corporations. While trademarks are important it is also important that they are used correctly. Warner Brothers famously sued a young girl when Harry Potter first came out for having a fan-site. In no way was the site intended to generate revenue from the Harry Potter franchise and eventually Warner Brother’s backed down, but only after the PR nightmare that ensued, both in the UK and America. Had the website been a commercial venture intended to create revenue the result would have been different, and quite rightly so. Trademark law extends further than the internet however. One area where it’s always been much harder to apply trademarks has been the written word. You cannot go into a book shop today without seeing shelves full of vampire and werewolf stories. The reason for this is because vampires and werewolves are not trademarkable. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in the C19th there was already a rich cultural history of vampire stories. Elves, dwarves and orcs are a staple of the fantasy genre coming as they do from mythology. You will only find hobbits in Tolkein’s Middle Earth. This however is not trademark law, but copyright law. There is nothing to stop me from creating a world filled with elves, fairies, angels, vampires or werewolves. Due to the limitations on copyright I can even write a vampire novel and call the main protaganist Dracula. But the moment I call my race of short hairy footed men hobbits or call my old grey haired wizard Gandalf I’m crossing a line as these are characters inextricably linked to one specific fantasy world.

In December 2012 Games Workshop forced Amazon to remove a novella by the author M C A Hogarth titled Spots the Space Marine claiming trademark infringement. It’s ironic given that Games Workshop started out creating a role playing game that borrowed so heavily from the works of Tolkein that they now feel obliged to defend the term “Space Marine”. In the world of board games and role playing there is only one Space Marine, that of the Warhammer 40K universe. And quite rightly Games Workshop must protect it’s gaming trademarks. Were I to create a game centred around a squad of soldiers flying around the universe killing aliens I would have to name it something else due to the real confusion having another role playing game called “Space Marines” could cause. It’s the same reason I cannot create a new board game called Monopoly, it already exists and is uniquely associated with buying and selling property while making your family and friends bankrupt in the process. And this is what is important, can my name for a game cause confusion, would people buy my game thinking it was something to do with the Warhammer 40K universe? The answer is yes, but only if what I am creating is a role playing game.

The term Space Marine in science fiction is so generic there can be no confusion. It’s the same reason you cannot trademark the words dragon or elf, it’s a science fiction trope. It is literally the idea of taking the US Marine corp and moving them into the science fiction setting. What else are they but Space Marines? Heinlen’s Starship Troopers, Haldeman’s The Forever War and E E Doc Smith’s Lensman series all use the idea of elite military forces in space. The film Aliens introduces us the the Colonial Marine Corp. The idea of a Space Marine is as generic to science fiction as an elf is to fantasy. One of the first uses in science fiction is the short story Captain Brink of the Space Marines by Bob Olsen, written in the 1930’s. Were I to see a book with the title “Space Marines” my first thought is to the authors above and not to the board and computer games of Games Workshop. It is for this same reason that the Dragonlance novels based on the Dungeon’s and Dragons board game clearly state on them that they are based on the game. Otherwise they are just another generic fantasy novel.

It is for these reasons that Games Workshop cannot claim trademark infringement for the use of Space Marine in a work of fiction. In fact the term is so generic it has already been used as a movie title resulting in Games Workshop’s own movie being titled Ultramarines instead. Given the internet’s ubiquity and the speed that causes can gain pace via social media it remains to be seen if they will back down quickly or if they will risk a PR nightmare such as recently caused by Applebee’s sacking of a waitress for embarrassing one of their more bigoted customers.

M C A Hogarth’s blog can be found here


Update (Feb 8th, 2013) : First, a big thank you to all of you who are visiting this blog, It’s relatively new and the response has been fantastic (okay, not huge, but this post already has the most views of any post I’ve made). In a strange way I must also thank Games Workshop, as a result of this PR farce they have highlighted everything that is wrong with the way trademarks are being enforced. Some news, while I’m yet to see anything from Games Workshop other than “no comment” it would appear Amazon have seen the light and realised their claim is baseless. Spots the Space Marine is back on Amazon’s website here

In love with the gun

It has often been said that America has a gun culture. Some would go as far as to say that America has a love affair with the gun. Recently though this gun culture has been highlighted and criticised on a worldwide scale due to what is an almost entirely American phenomenon, that of school shootings. To put this in perspective in the last 100 years Canada recorded 10 incidents of shootings at schools, with 26 fatalities. In the month of January this year alone America has recorded 8 shootings in schools with 5 fatalities. That is within a single month. For the year of 2012 this rises to 10 shooting incidents and a staggering 41 fatalities, more than the whole of Canada over the last 100 years. Since January 2000, just 8 months after the infamous Columbine shootings, there have been 63 shooting incidents, 138 fatalities and 131 woundings. The most telling statistic is that in almost every case the assailant was another pupil at the school, sometimes as young as 13.

Given then that the majority of incidents are not the random events such as the Newtown shootings in December 2012, where the assailant had no direct link to the school at that time it is therefore telling that the NRA’s response to school shootings is to advocate more guns in schools. In fact there are even some that issue permits to pupils to allow them to carry concealed weapons, notably the University of Utah. Several schools have also taken to hiring armed guards, with one school making the news when the retired police officer that they had hired famously left his pistol unattended in the rest room. Advocates of the armed school often cite the lower incidence of gun violence in other countries where teachers are allowed to openly carry weapons, such as in Israel. However, this argument is flawed by the simple facts that due to military training that almost every Israeli citizen receives by serving in the IDF every teacher carrying a weapon not only has had extensive training in handling firearms, but almost every person owning a firearm has received training on how to maintain and keep firearms safe and out of their children’s hands. Something America clearly seems incapable of doing.

To help understand this culture I have enlisted the help of one of my friends in America, ex US Marine Scott Floyd.

1. You served as a US Marine. What rank were you when you left?

I was a Marine for twenty years. I got out as a Gunnery Sergeant, E7.

2. Given your military training and background would you consider yourself pro gun ownership?

Even without it I would still be pro gun ownership.

3. Would you consider America’s obsession with the gun to be a healthy or harmful one?

I don’t consider all American’s to be obsessed with guns. I own five firearms, but I am not obsessed with them. Some people are, it’s like a hobby. Some people like stamps, some like coins, some like guns. If someone is obsessed with guns and likes to hunt or target shoot, I would not consider it harmful in any way.

4. The NRA used to be pro gun control, at least to a degree. Since December 2012 their rhetoric would certainly seem to suggest that the answer to gun violence is more widespread gun ownership. Is the NRA right in your opinion?

I believe they are right to an extent. If you plan on going on a shooting spree, are you going to choose a place where you suspect people are armed or unarmed? If there is a psychopath threatening you or your family with a gun, you better have a gun. Would you rob someone’s house if you knew they had a gun? Probably not. You would choose a softer target.

5. Most gun related violence in America is crime related, with guns being the weapon of choice in robberies and gang related crime. Many of the gun controls being advocated are aimed at making it harder for criminals to obtain guns, such as a ban on unregistered sales at weapons conventions. Should all gun sales be registered?

Handguns and assault weapons are registered I believe. You can still go into a Walmart and purchase a .22 or a shotgun with just an ID saying you are of age. The majority or crimes that are committed with firearms are not the ones purchased at Walmart. Criminals will use guns for violence or crime that are usually stolen so the weapon cannot be traced to them. So no I do not believe you should have to register your shotgun for rabbit hunting.

6. It is estimated that there are more guns in private ownership in America than there are people living in America. Given how prevalent gun ownership is and the protections the constitution affords American citizens do you think the gun lobbyists arugument that gun control is about removing guns from private ownership is a valid one?

No I do not. I hope I understand this question correctly. If guns are lawfully removed from private ownership, then who will have these weapons? Criminals and Law Enforcement. We all know that when you need a cop, they are never there, so you have to protect yourself. Otherwise the cops will be photographing your corpse and interviewing your raped wife. Removing firearms from private citizens would start a crime spree unlike this country has never seen.

7. Many of the most famous gun related crimes in the last century have been committed by the mentally ill. In the last few weeks we have seen a school bus driver murdered and a child kidnapped as well as a decorated war veteran murdered by another ex-soldier who was being treated for PTSD. Should part of gun ownership be proof that you are mentally stable enough to own a gun?

Well, it is. Before you purchase a handgun, you have to obtain a permit. To get this permit you have to go down to the police station for a background check, fingerprints, etc. Then after you get the permit you have to wait a certain amount of time before you can make a purchase. Mentally ill people do not go through that process. They will steal, borrow, or obtain their weapons any way they can. I have never heard of a case where a mentally ill person committed a crime with his own legally owned gun

8. School shootings are almost always perpetrated by one or more students from the school. Should more be done to ensure children have no access to weapons outside a controlled environment?

Of course. In my state you can serve between 5 and 10 years in prison if you store a firearm within access of a child. The parents are just as guilty if their child commits a tragedy with their parents gun.

9. What, in your own opinion, is the one thing that America can do to help reduce the incidents of gun violence within its educational establishments?

We have had metal detectors and armed guards in schools for years. It may sound far fetched, but I have heard suggestions to arm the teachers. I can see this. We certainly can’t arm the students. If teachers are armed and some kid brings a gun to school and starts shooting. A shot from a teacher’s gun can end the killings and possibly save lives that might have been lost. In all school shootings, by the time the police arrive, it’s too late. Arming the teachers may not be the best idea, but no city has enough cops to guard schools, nor is there any money in the budget to hire enough security guards. The teachers are already there, and underpaid. Pay them a bonus for being armed?

When I decided to write this article I started looking at the gun culture in America from a British standpoint. Gun control is almost a none issue here because so few people actually have them. It’s seen almost as an upper class pastime, played out at weekends by the idle rich or by farmers supplementing the pot with pheasant and rabbit. It’s quick and easy for those who sit this side of the pond to state the answer is to remove guns from those that abuse them. What I’ve found is that the argument for gun control is flawed. In almost every case where gun control has been advocated it has been as a direct response to a shooting in a school. The guns used have been legally owned and even with stricter gun controls in place would most likely not have been prevented. Instead we have a media hysteria polarised between two camps, one saying we need to remove guns from private ownership and another saying we need to arm everyone who isn’t a criminal. What is not discussed are the facts. Statistically you are still more likely to die from being shot if you own a gun. This is simple logic, when someone robs your house, they don’t know what weapons you own. If they find any, you have armed them, and knowing you have one gun they are more likely to shoot first than find out if you have any others. Arming the entire nation is not an option, but in a nation where every burglar could be armed it is also hard to argue against owning a weapon for self defence. The flaw in owning a weapon for defence though is what happens when you shoot the wrong person. Only last year a home owner, believing he was protecting his family’s property, shot and fatally injured his own son when mistaking him for a burglar. Even in self defence it must be seen as a last resort.

Arming teachers cannot be the answer either, in doing that you are asking that teacher to make the impossible choice. You are asking them to be prepared to shoot and kill a child, one who for years they may have been teaching. Since January 2000 over half the school shootings in America have been committed by children under the age of 16, the youngest being aged just 6 years of age. In almost every case the assailant has been male. No amount of gun control will prevent the parents of these children from owning a gun. Instead of advocating stronger controls that will do nothing to limit the number of weapons that are already in private ownership what I believe is needed is stronger controls on storage. Quite simply no weapon should ever be accessible to someone who is not the permitted owner of the weapon. Nothing can be done to prevent the next Columbine or Newtown without first ensuring weapons are properly controlled in the home. Any parent who allows through their own carelessness a child to gain access to their own weapons is in effect culpable for the actions of that child. And any parent who allows their child to possess a gun must also be ultimately responsible for that child’s actions.