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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Now that's just showing off.........

Just Finished Reading: Future War by Christopher Coker (FP: 2015)

This was the last of my ‘Dark Future’ reads and the only one that didn’t turn out as expected. I was expecting speculation on robots and AI, the increased use of drones (and encounters with enemy counter-drones), wars in cyberspace and outer space and more besides – essentially geeking out on all things warlike. OK, there was some of that mentioned in passing that wasn’t really what this book was about. It was, primarily, about how to think about future war and less about the weapons that we will end up using in them.

This is, I think, for one very good reason the author spends some time on in the opening chapter – the difficulty (some would say impossibility) of predicting the future. Sensibly the author does not look too far ahead and, generally, restricts himself to the year 2035 – only 20 years in advance of the publication date. As technology accelerates forward and upward at an ever increasing rate this at least restricts the probability of deductive failure to acceptable limits. Speculating on the technology of, for example, 100 years hence is frankly silly in anything other than a science-fiction novel. One thing that the author does make a firm prediction on, and where I definitely agree with him, is that war will most definitely exist in a recognisable form over the next 50 years (and beyond) and shows no signs of going away as long as we can call ourselves humans. War and humanity are a package deal.

Before getting down to some detail – as much as you can in this sort of arena – the author speculated on some of the boundaries of future conflict up to and including a limited nuclear war which, some of his fellow futurologists speculate, could tip our overly complex civilisation into a crash scenario. He also points to some interesting studies which speculate that conflict and later organised warfare not only gave raise to our civilisations but deeply moulded our bodies and our brains effectively hardwiring war into our DNA. So much of our culture, indeed our very language, in derived from or centred around warfare (or its substitutes) that it’s hard to think of a world without it. War is a massive driver of our technology and is either directly or indirectly responsible for much we take for granted in the modern world from computers to international jet travel. War will also lead to another great technological breakthrough – the rise of intelligent robots. The author stresses here that robots will be used in their early incarnations as human assistance devices – to carry heavy loads, to protect or recover troops, to watch the skies. Only later, as the technology advances, will they go into combat themselves largely as human substitutes to help save lives in an increasingly dangerous environment. As machines start fighting machines there will be no place for humans on the battlefield – but then the question arises will whatever takes place still be war in any sense that we would understand?

What kind of war can we expect in the future? Will the Great Powers come to conflict? Will American eventually fight China for domination of the Pacific or are such direct conflicts a thing of the past? Will future wars be ‘cool’ wars fought through economics, the cyber theft of secrets, political manipulation and long-term sabotage and targeted assassination? Will war simply move into cyberspace leaving behind a seemingly peaceful world in reality (or hyper/virtual-reality) wracked by code wars? Will future conflict be non-linear, deniable, and sporadic even privatised or contracted out? Could future wars be the long anticipated corporate wars fought with hired mercenary soldiers over market share and resource acquisition? Or will future wars be fought between high-tech street gangs, drug cartels and state of the art para-military police forces is vast urban slums? Future wars will, inevitably, be multi-faceted and mutable in a world where technology can be downloaded, modified and used in ways its designers never envisaged and where the power to weaponise almost anything is in the hands of billions.

This is quite a hard book to pin down and an almost impossible one to precise adequately. It is primarily about the idea of war rather than the techniques and technologies of conflict. War is all too familiar but will it remain so? Can we predict how it will evolve so that we can shape the outcomes and prevent the kind of global catastrophes all too common in speculative science-fiction. If we are to survive the arguably inevitable future wars we need to understand them. This book attempts to aid that discussion and does a pretty good job too. Recommended.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Thinking About: Catalonia

The first word that comes to mind when I think about the Catalonia situation is: Crazy. It’s crazy because it’s so unnecessary. It’s also crazy because it’s been so badly handled. Indeed the whole situation is an example of how NOT to handle a political crisis. I’m sure that in years to come – no matter the longer term outcome – books will be written about it explaining how not to respond in similar situations if you want things to go well.

OK, I can kind of understand where Madrid are coming from. A prosperous part of their country, already with a fair amount of regional autonomy, talked about independence and actually tried (and mostly succeeded) to hold a referendum on that question. Madrid went in hot and heavy to stop it, rather ironically calling the resultant crackdown on people voting as protecting democracy. That, I think, was their first big mistake from which all else follows. Although the result looked like an overwhelming majority vote for independence now we’ll never actually know because the referendum was too disrupted to be valid. What the Madrid government should have done is said: OK, we don’t agree with you voting on the issue and any costs will be covered by the Catalan government. If you want the vote to go ahead we want independent (EU?) observers there to make sure that everything is above board. Then we’ll see what people really think about it. If the vote goes heavily for independence (or even significantly in that direction) Madrid should then have offered talks to see what should be done about it – either within Spain if the vote is significant rather than overwhelming or (maybe) in Paris moderated by other EU members if the independence vote is beyond doubt. Then they talk, and deal and sort it. But no, the Spanish government decided to push it, and then push it again until the Catalan government were essentially forced into a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Of course now Madrid feel forced into their response and have dismissed the Catalan government and will now (at least try to) run the regional government directly. Which, naturally, gives the Catalan government and its people just too options – capitulate or resist. I’m guessing they won’t capitulate. What Madrid will do next, well if the last few weeks are anything to go by they will force the issue then, if things were not messed up enough already, things could get really messy really fast.

The EU are not exactly helping by repeatedly saying it’s an internal Spanish issue. It’s actually a European issue and the EU should have mediators (and observers) both in Madrid and Barcelona before things get completely out of hand and to prevent that happening in the first place, a case of better late than never. They should be there calming things down and not simply sitting on their hands seconds just after they’ve washed them. All sides in the dispute need to be adults, realise that there is a problem that needs to be resolved and sit down in a room and work on its resolution. You do not solve problems in a democracy with the use of force. In a democracy you talk and talk and then talk some more until you come to a compromise that everyone can live with. The independence genie is out of the bottle and it’s not going to be easy to put it back. Madrid should face up to the possibility that eventually Catalonia will be an independent state within the national boundary of Spain. Really, what difference does it make? Would it really be the end of the world if more regions broke away and Spain became a federal country? Does the Madrid government really want to violently hold their country together and do they honestly believe that violence and the threat of violence can do that? Crazy.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Just Finished Reading: Stop This Man! By Peter Rabe (FP: 1955)

For three time loser Tony Catell it looked like a gift of a job, one that was almost too good to be true. A bunch of scientists where going to run experiments on a gold bar and took almost no precautions to keep it safe. Breaking into the lab was easy. Walking off with a fortune in gold was even easier – just an elderly guard to put out of action. Easy money. Except for one thing. Unknown to the guy who planned the heist there had been an accident and the gold bar was radioactive. So when Tony contacted the fence he was told that the gold was useless until the radioactivity had worn off. Thinking he was being double crossed – who had ever heard of such a thing as radioactive gold? – Tony used his contacts to set up a buyer in LA. But as he crossed the country with the FBI on his tail, Geiger counters in hand, and starting to feel strangely sick those unlucky enough to be around him begin to discover that both Tony and his loot are literally too hot to handle.

I remember seeing an old 50’s film noir that had a similar plot to this except the box of radioactive ‘stuff’ was far deadlier that a mildly irradiated lump of gold. It was an interesting idea obviously tapping into the understandable interest in and ignorance of all things radioactive (there’s actually a brief science bit that didn’t make a whole lot of sense). Tony is no hero – actually he’s a really nasty piece of work dealing roughly with his friends, his women (especially his women) and anyone who crosses him. Being of the age it is the violence throughout the book isn’t as graphic as it is today but there’s enough of it to go around. I’d say probably a good 25-30% of the main cast die in one way or another. It was a quick read though – only 221 pages in my edition – without much need to pause and think about much. The plot was simple, the baddies where suitably bad, the good guys where good (and not very bright) and the end was fairly predictable. Not exactly the greatest crime novel I’ve ever read but reasonable enough for a quiet relaxing weekend.

Monday, October 23, 2017

It’s all in the Negotiation…… (STILL catching up)

Labour's 'day one' pledge to EU nationals.

Labour says it would scrap Theresa May's Brexit plans and unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU residents before talks start, if it wins power. While accepting the UK was leaving, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Labour wanted a deal which prioritises jobs and workers' rights. He also said migration rules had to change and that the EU single market should be kept "on the table". The Conservatives said only they had a clear plan for exiting the EU. Ahead of a campaign visit to Wales on Tuesday, Theresa May said the Brexit vote should have been a "wake-up call for a generation of politicians who have taken the people for granted for too long", but instead other parties had "closed ranks". The Conservatives are hoping to take seats from Labour on 8 June in areas which voted to leave the EU, including the Midlands, the north-east and north-west of England and across Wales. Most Labour MPs backed Remain vote in last year's referendum.

Deutsche: Brexit risk to up to 4,000 UK jobs.

Deutsche Bank is considering moving as many as 4,000 jobs out of the UK as a result of Brexit - nearly half the firm's current workforce. The possibility raised by the firm's chief regulatory officer was the latest warning from a financial firm since the UK voted to leave the European Union. Currently, UK-based companies can conduct business throughout Europe, but could lose that right. However, Deutsche Bank has said it is committed to the City of London. Sylvie Matherat, chief regulatory officer at Deutsche, made the remarks on Wednesday. The positions in question include not just front office jobs, but also roles in IT and risk management, she said. "For front office people, if you want to deal with an EU client, you need to be based in the EU," she said during a panel at the Frankfurt Main Finance Conference in Germany. "Does it mean I have to move all the front office people to Germany or not? We're speaking of 2,000 people." She added that an additional 2,000 jobs linked to risk management could also face relocation. "So we really need clarity," Ms Matherat said. "We are the largest bank branch operating in the UK. We do have something like 9,000 people there, so I mean they [staff] do have real questions [including] where do I register my children for in the next two years at school? I mean that is a very concrete question." Despite the warning, the bank last month entered negotiations for a new London headquarters with a 25-year lease.

Barclays boss sounds Brexit talent warning.

Barclays chief executive Jes Staley has said access to talented workers after Brexit is "tremendously important" for the UK's financial sector. He suggested that immigration, rather than trade, would be the biggest issue for the City of London after the UK leaves the European Union. Banks are increasingly becoming technology companies and so they need the best engineers, Mr Staley said. Keeping that talent should be the government's top priority, he added. His comments signal a shift among City groups after suggestions last year that the biggest risk from Brexit was the loss of EU trading rights. Mr Staley told the BBC: "Making sure we have access to the best and brightest of talent around the world coming to London... is perhaps the most important thing for the financial industry, perhaps even more important than passporting." So-called passporting rights allow banks to serve clients across the EU without the need for licences in individual countries. They are considered by some to be vital to London's position as a financial hub. However, Mr Staley, who was speaking at a Brexit event in London, said the strength of the City came from the "intellectual capital" of its workers. For that reason, Google's decision to expand its presence in London was potentially "the most important economic announcement post-Brexit", the Barclays boss said. He added that banks would benefit from the calibre of workers that Google attracts after it made London its second most important development hub outside of San Francisco.

UK economy grows by 0.3% as service sector slows.

The UK economy grew by just 0.3% at the start of the year, the slowest growth rate since the first three months of 2016, according to official figures. The Office for National Statistics said that the slower pace in the January-to-March period was due mainly to the service sector, which sank to 0.3% growth against 0.8% at the end of 2016. In the last quarter of 2016, gross domestic product increased by 0.7%. Friday's figure is a first estimate and could be revised in the coming months. Economists had been expecting GDP growth to slow as consumers reined back spending in the face of rising inflation, but they had pencilled in a higher figure of 0.4%. Chris Williamson, chief economist, IHS Markit, said: "The message is clear: the start of the year saw the weakest pace of growth for a year as rising prices have started to hit household spending." The main drag on the service industry, which accounts for about 78% of the UK economy, came from the hotels, restaurants and the distributions sector, which fell by 0.5%, as increasing prices from rising inflation applied the brakes to retail trade.

Brexit: Tusk says UK trade deal not a priority.

European Council President Donald Tusk says agreement on "people, money and Ireland" must come before negotiations on the European Union's future relationship with the UK. Mr Tusk's message came in a letter to 27 other EU leaders - not the UK. He will chair a summit of the 27 in Brussels on Saturday to try to adopt a joint negotiating position on Brexit. The UK government has said it does not want to delay talks on future trade relations. The EU issued draft guidelines on Brexit on 31 March. Official talks will not begin until after the UK general election on 8 June. Mr Tusk's letter - calling for a "phased" approach to Brexit - echoed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's priorities, which she set out on Thursday.

"Before discussing our future, we must first sort out our past," he said, listing three priorities:

On EU citizens living in the UK, he called for "effective, enforceable, non-discriminatory and comprehensive" guarantees

The UK must fulfil all its financial obligations agreed as an EU member state

A deal must be reached "to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland"

"We will not discuss our future relations with the UK until we have achieved sufficient progress on the main issues relating to the UK's withdrawal from the EU," he said. EU officials estimate that the UK faces a bill of €60bn (£51bn; $65bn) because of EU budget rules. UK politicians have said the government will not pay a sum of that size.

All details above from BBC News website.

[The so-called ‘negotiations’ going on – haltingly – at the moment would be comical if they weren’t so bloody tragic. Still nothing has actually been agreed but apparently progress is being made and the Tories (obviously) want to jump straight to the end and wrap up the trade negotiations in double quick time. Well, I’m sorry to say that Canada took 7 years and I think the quickest ever trade talks took 4 years…. And we’ve got about a year left and 27 other nations (some of which don’t like us very much) all need to agree on it. The odds of that happening? Erm, zero.]

Saturday, October 21, 2017

'Big, bad wolf' image flawed – scientists

By Helen Briggs for BBC News

16 October 2017

New research casts doubt on the idea that dogs are naturally more tolerant and friendly than wolves. In tests of cooperation skills, wolves outperformed their domesticated relatives. Scientists say the findings challenge assumptions about how dogs were tamed from wolves and came to live alongside humans. Previous evidence has suggested that the domestication process may have given dogs a more tolerant temperament. "We still have very much this idea of the big, bad wolf and the cuddly pooch on your sofa," Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, who led the research, told BBC News. "But, I think the simplest message is that the story is not quite as clear as that."

Wolves are highly social animals. They live in close-knit family groups, raise puppies together and hunt in groups. This sort of behaviour is not seen in modern dogs, despite the idea that domestication selected for dogs that were more tolerant and friendly, both of each other, and humans. To test whether cooperation comes naturally to wolves and dogs, scientists carried out a classic behaviour experiment. Known as the rope-pulling test, it involves two animals simultaneously pulling on a rope to pull a tray towards them to get food. The animals are rewarded with a chunk of raw meat only if they pull the rope together. The scientists found that dogs succeeded at only two of 472 attempts. Wolves, however, managed the task 100 times during 416 attempts. Dr Marshall-Pescini of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna said wolves "did pretty well" at the task, performing on a par with chimpanzees. "[Wolves] are incredibly cooperative with each other and they form very strong social bonds," she said. Dogs almost never worked together on the rope task, possibly because they wished to avoid conflict. The experiment took place at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria, where wolves and dogs are raised from puppies in the same environment. This gives an insight into the natural behaviour of both animals, away from the influence of humans.

Dr Krishna Veeramah of Stony Brook University in New York, who is not connected with the study, said wolves are the only big carnivore that has been domesticated. ''It is possible that their social behaviour was key to this process, and thus studies like this help piece together more of the puzzle,'' he explained. The story of how dogs came to be tamed from wolves is complex and hotly debated. Some time around 30,000 years ago, wolves moved to the edges of human camps to scavenge for leftovers. The long process of domestication began to alter the behaviour and genes of wolves and they eventually evolved into the dogs that we know today. Dogs and wolves are similar in physical appearance, although they have different instincts and temperament. The research, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggests there is more to learn about the effects of domestication.

[Although I’m definitely a cat person I do like dogs very much too. This liking easily transfers over to wolves who, I believe, have many admirable qualities. How wolves became domesticated dogs is a fascinating question which we are slowly piecing together. We clearly have a strong bond between us which obviously goes back a long way. Humans and dogs ‘fit’ together on a deep level. We ‘get’ each other I think probably because we’re very similar creatures deep down.]

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Blowback – How the West f*cked up the Middle East (and why it was a bad idea) by Michael Luders (FP: 2017)

This is an example of one of those rare books that I buy and read within weeks of purchase. The rather unusual title helped along with the fact that it was a slim 151 pages. Being so thin the author had little time to waste building arguments and honestly went at it with a rather breathless gusto. In fact there’s so much going on here, and so much to follow up on, that I’m going to need to revisit the region on multiple occasions to ‘catch up’ with the authors obvious deep understanding of the history of the Wests involvement in such a volatile region.

The question of what made the Middle East so volatile is easily answered (although I think the subtitle kind of gives that away). Yes, it was us – particularly Britain (with the French as associated co-conspirators) and, naturally, the US who, the author maintains, started the ball rolling in 1953 when they deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran – Mohammed Mossadegh – and installed the Shah in his place (the irony that the Shah had been previously overlooked by the Americans because of associations with the Nazi’s in WW2 was not lost on me) supposedly to stop the country falling into the Soviet sphere. The rest, as they say, is a long and bloody history. Oh, and of course, that blowback is an unforgiving bitch. The whole stability of the region wasn’t really helped by the creation of Israel (that would be our fault) and the continued ‘get out of sanctions free’ card every time they shell the Gaza strip or attack any of their other neighbours in ‘self-defence’. If that didn’t make things bad enough we have the great western ally Saudi Arabia promoting hard-line Islam and with its wealthy citizens directly funding fundamentalists throughout the world – again ironically protected by a country that spends a great deal of time, effort and money tracking down and killing those same Islamic groups that regularly hit the global headlines.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete mess and somewhere the West finds difficult to leave alone. A good part of that is, of course, oil as it has been since before Britain and France created and then partitioned Iraq as part of their empire projects. The other part is, as we all know, the problem of Israel that, seemingly, cannot even be talked about without someone somewhere playing the ‘off-side’ Jewish card. Until that happens settlements will continue to be built, Palestinians will continue to be oppressed and killed with impunity and tensions will simmer and occasionally boil over and the whole region will remain dangerously unstable.

Luders certainly isn’t brave enough to propose a magic bullet to solve the areas problems but he, rightly, says that we need to look at the area from all sides and not just from, or not just prioritising, the Jewish side. Gaza is an open wound that needs to be healed (or at the very least its obvious haemorrhaging needs to be reduced to more humane levels) and Israel needs to agree its borders like every other country in the world. The problem of Saudi Arabia needs to be looked at too – and, again, not just given a ‘free pass’ as the friend of the West in the region. Finally, when we’ve started to clean up the mess we’ve made we need to walk away and stop meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. We cannot be seen as icons of democracy whilst deposing democratic governments that don’t happen to support us and replacing them with brutal dictators who do. This is most definitely not a book for the faint hearted. There’s some horrible and shocking stuff in here and the author pulls few punches as he directs his criticism at those responsible for fucking up the Middle East. Most of my knowledge of the region has so far been from the news over the last 40+ years. I think it’s about time I learnt a great deal more of what’s really going on out there. This was a pretty good start and there will be far more to follow. Highly recommended but be warned it could give you some sleepless nights…. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Walkies..... Sit..... Beg.... Roll over..... and make it snappy!

Just Finished Reading: The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn (FP: 2012)

England, 1593. Court astrologer and (quite possibly insane) wise man Dr Dee has been kidnapped in an act of desperation by Irish spy Red Meg. Without him in place the magical defences protecting the realm begin the fail. Once secure from the Unseelie Court even Queen Elizabeth herself is vulnerable to attack. Sent to retrieve him at all costs is England’s greatest spy Will Swyfte. But Will has his own agenda which may put the country he loves in even greater peril. For Will has learnt that Dee intends to travel to the New World – a place of great mystery, great opportunity and even greater terror – where the Fey hold court and plan the destruction of humankind. If Will and his friends can stay one step behind Dee they could do uncounted damage to the plans of the Fay and, more importantly, recover the woman Will loves stolen from him over a decade ago and taken away to a land far more foreign than anything imagined by mere humans. Will is willing to chance everything, his life, his friends, and his country, for the opportunity to see Jenny one last time before he dies. But can even the greatest agent of the age stand against the supernatural armies who face him. Will a sword, a pistol and natural intelligence be enough against a race that has plagued mankind since the very first days and what if he fails and darkness falls – for ever.

This was the third and last instalment in the Swords of Albion series. Unfortunately it was also, I believe, the weakest of the three. All of the elements I enjoyed so much in the first two novels were there but something I felt was missing. There was a breathless pace to it but the regular as clockwork cliff-hangers started to grate after a while. No matter what the problem, with many pages to go, you just knew that something would turn up to save the day and, just as regularly it did. There was a ‘creep’ factor especially when the Fey began their attack on London but the long section in the New World went on too long and just wasn’t weird enough to add much tension. It’s hard to put my finger on it except to say that this volume didn’t really have the “heart” of the other two. Maybe it was because it was the last book and many of the threads had to be tied up neatly? This is not to say that this was a bad book or even a poor fantasy novel. It was, at the very least, a more than reasonable read and often head and shoulders above some of the previous fantasy novels reviewed here. It was a credible ending to a very good trilogy but instead of, as I had hoped, going out with a bang left me thinking more fizzle than boom. Reasonable, but I’d definitely start the series in sequence rather than jumping in at the end. More fantasy to come as I feel it’s a neglected genre in my life.   

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Ultimate DIY......
Asteroid close approach to test warning systems.

By Rebecca Morelle Science Correspondent for BBC News

12 October 2017

An asteroid the size of a house is passing close to Earth. The space rock will hurtle past our planet at a distance of about 42,000km (26,000 miles), bringing it within the Moon's orbit and just above the altitude of communication satellites. NASA scientists say there is no risk of an impact, but the flyby does provide them with the opportunity to test their asteroid-warning systems. A global network of telescopes will be closely monitoring the object. Paul Chodas, manager of Nasa's Centre for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told BBC News: "We are going to use this asteroid to practise the system that would observe an asteroid, characterise it and compute how close it is going to come, in case some day we have one that is on the way inbound and might hit."

The asteroid, called 2012 TC4, was first spotted five years ago. It is estimated to be between 15m and 30m (50-100ft) in size, which is relatively small. However, even space rocks on this scale are dangerous if they strike. When a 20m-wide asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk in central Russia in 2013, it hit the atmosphere with energy estimated to be equivalent to 500,000 tonnes of TNT, causing a shockwave that damaged buildings and injured more than a thousand people. NASA scientists who have spent the last two months tracking this new rocky visitor say their calculations show that it will safely clear the Earth and poses no threat. Instead, they will use this close approach to rehearse for future potential strikes.

More than a dozen observatories, universities and labs around the world will be watching 2012 TC4 as it flies past. This will help them to refine how asteroids are tracked and provide a chance to test international communication systems. Dr Chodas said that while the risk of an asteroid hit was small, it was prudent to plan ahead. "Nasa search programmes are getting better and better at finding asteroids," he explained. "It's been a priority to find the large asteroids first. So far the NASA surveys have found 95% of the asteroids that are one kilometre and larger - these are the ones that could cause a global catastrophe. Now we are working our way down to the smaller ones - 130m in size and larger - and we are around 30% on that. This little one - we are not trying to find all of the ones of this size. It is just a convenient asteroid coming by that we can practise our tracking techniques on."

He added that if an asteroid was discovered to be heading for the Earth, scientists were looking at different techniques to avert a disaster. "If we had enough warning time - five or 10 years - then we could do something about it, especially if it's on the small side. We could go up and move it, change its velocity years ahead, and that would be enough to move it away from a collision course."

Asteroid TC4's closest approach to Earth on Thursday will be over Antarctica at 05:42 GMT (06:42 BST; 01:42 EDT).

[Of course giant rocks falling from the sky made us what we are today. But imagine if the Chelyabinsk event had happened at the height of Cold War tensions. Would the Soviet Union fired missiles at the US in retaliation? Hopefully with 5-10 years warning we’d be able to do something about it. If we saw it 5-10 weeks or even 5-10 days out we might be able to evacuate an area or a city but that’s probably be our best response. With luck we’ll never need to find out how we’d cope with an asteroid strike in a populated area. It really doesn’t bare thinking about…]

Thursday, October 12, 2017


Just Finished Reading; Clydebuilt – The Blockade Runners, Cruisers and Armoured Rams of the American Civil War by Eric J Graham (FP: 2006)

It was the last thing the Confederacy wanted – a long war. With a limited industrial base at their disposal the only way that they could clothe and arm their armies in the months or years ahead was to import countless tons of merchandise from Europe and beyond paid for by exporting cotton. The Union knew how vulnerable this made the Confederate war effort and they had the navy to enforce a blockade – or at least so they thought. Whilst both British and French merchants and Governments protested at the restriction of trade Confederate agents had slipped out on fast ships crossing the Atlantic to set up deals especially in Britain for the building of armed cruisers used for commerce raiding and, most especially, fast blockade runners capable of delivering arms and returning with vital cotton to fund the war. With potentially vast profits to be made it wasn’t long before private companies, explicitly set up to run the Union blockade, either bought or commissioned the building of some of the fastest ships in the world – the world famous Clydebuilt steamers built on the river Clyde in Scotland. With full order books unable to fill the growing demand even pleasure steamers crossed the Atlantic to take up station in the Caribbean ready to make the run into Charleston harbour, Wilmington or Mobile. The risks were high, of capture or destruction, but the potential profits made it more than worth it. With a newly constructed ship paying for itself after a single successful voyage both entrepreneurs and sea captains would be crazy not to chance everything on a clean hull and an efficient steam engine driving it at speeds in excess of 20 knots. Some captains became addicted to the chase and ran the blockade again and again even after being captured and expelled as an undesirable alien. Fortunes where made enough to finance the building of new dock facilities and start family empires that still exist today. For a few short years there was everything to play for. But the runners did not have it all their own way. As some were captured they too became part of the blockade and helped run down their previous speedy brethren. Meanwhile diplomatic efforts tried to shut the runners down and The Union even threated England with war over the matter. The two great nations only avoided war due to the snail-like pace of news crossing the Atlantic allowing tempers to cool. Nevertheless when the war was over relations were sour enough for the reunited United States to demand astronomical damages from Britain for her part in prolonging the war.

My regular readers will remember that I investigated Britain’s role in the American Civil War some time ago in my reading about UK built Confederate commerce raiders. Here was another aspect of that building programme this time covering non-combatant vessels. Told with a great deal of local knowledge this was a fascinating insight into the rather strange activity of gunrunning for profit attempting to undermine a country that we now regard as our closest ally. The Confederacy hoped that the blockade would bring both France and Britain on their side and help them defeat the Union or, at the very least, force them to concede their demand for separation. It’s actually surprising just how close they came to achieving this aim. The European involvement in the American Civil War definitely demands some more investigation. More to come. Definitely recommended to anyone interesting in the Civil War or, indeed, the rapid development of paddle steamers!