President Biden doesn’t want to provoke WW3. But hasn’t it already started? Is the USA going to be a late arrival, as it was in 1917 and 1941? The parallels with WW2 are so close that, if I were writing the story of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a novel, I would be open to a charge of plagiarism.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Mentally lay the history of WW2 out on a table. Now erase ‘Czechoslovakia’ and write ‘Crimea’. Erase ‘Poland’ and write ‘Ukraine’. Erase ‘Stalingrad’ and write ‘Mariupol’.
Turn your attention to the characters. Erase ‘Hitler’ and write ‘Putin’. Erase ‘Mussolini’ and write ‘Lukashenko’. Erase ‘Roosevelt’ and write ‘Biden’. Erase ‘Churchill’ and write ‘Zelenskiy’. Erase ‘Hirohito’ and write… well, Xi Jinping hasn’t yet decided if he wants to audition for that part.
We already know how to deal with fascist dictators because we did it 80 years ago. We know they can be beaten – by force of arms and with the kind of heroism that the people of Ukraine are showing us, not with half-hearted economic sanctions.
Am I a war-monger? I consider myself a realist. War in one form or another is mankind’s natural state. In good times we engage in cyber-warfare, propaganda, economic competition and sporting contests. In bad times we have to kill people.
One of my favourite radio shows is called “What the Duck?”. The host is Ann Jones, a naturalist, and every week she addresses odd, extreme and downright quirky things in the natural world. In her most recent show she investigated whether any of Aesop’s Fables were scientifically as well as morally sound. Could, for example, a tortoise really win a race with a hare?
This moved me to pull down my copy of the book and browse at random. I came across the fable of The Wolf and the Lamb, which I offer below in condensed form. The moral is “Any excuse will serve a tyrant.” How apt at this moment!
The good guys (to lump a multitude of countries into one geopolitical category) have not reacted to Putin’s invasion very cleverly or courageously. The Ukrainian people’s own ferocious defence of their national sovereignty stands in stark contrast, as does President Zelenskiy’s leadership.
But I am appalled by recent reports of Western institutions’ “cancelling” Russian books, music and art. Putin and his coterie are our enemy, not the Russian people and certainly not Russia’s rich contribution to the cultural life of the world.
Putin has lied to his people and to his own army. True, he is mining a rich vein of nationalism and fear born of past invasions from the west, but few Russians would have supported the brutal assault on peaceable fellow-Slavs if they had known the truth.
THE WOLF AND THE LAMB (CONDENSED)
A wolf is drinking at a brook and sees a lamb paddling a little way off. Wanting a reason to eat the lamb the wolf says, “How dare you stir up the mud while I’m drinking?!”
The lamb replies, “But I’m downstream of you.”
“Huh,” said the wolf, “I bet it was you saying bad things behind my back a year ago.”
“A year ago I was not born,” said the lamb.
“Then it must have been your father, which comes to the same thing!”
And the wolf leapt on the lamb, killed it and ate it.
That was in June 1936. The League of Nations did nothing. Mussolini created his colony of Italian East Africa. Fast-forward to April 1945: Mussolini’s corpse was hung upside-down in a public square in Milan, and three days later Hitler shot himself. But during those nine years unimaginable crimes against humanity were committed; millions died; and much of Europe and Japan lay in ruins.
The day after 9/11 I emailed George W Bush urging a moderate response. I was expressing the consensus view of my Saturday morning English conversation class in Bishkek. President Bush ignored that advice.
Yesterday I emailed Joe Biden with very different advice – too late for it to influence his State if the Union Address. Here’s what I wrote:
I am an Australia/British citizen with many friends in Ukraine and no rancour towards the Russian people. I understand the strategy of putting economic pressure on Russia’s businesses and population in the hope that Putin will be disempowered from within. But as we learned in WW2 the Russian people have the ability to withstand great hardship – as do the Ukrainians – and Putin has successfully mined a deep deposit of nationalism and perceived historical grievance.
Therefore I do not believe that sanctions alone will be enough to save Ukraine, the Baltic states (notwithstanding NATO Article 5) and perhaps other former members of Russia’s sphere of influence.
Like Hitler, Putin has made his wider intentions clear. If we choose to believe that he’s bluffing, or will be brought to his senses by non-military means, we are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Eventually we will have to fight him, just as we had to fight Hitler. Now is the best time to do it, while a significant part of his military machine is engaged in Ukraine.
I spoke to a German colleague yesterday, who said that any military intervention to save Ukraine could precipitate WW3. I replied that it’s already started. Putin fired the starting gun. If we (the ‘good guys’) dawdle he will only get stronger, and Xi Jinping will feel increasingly comfortable supporting him and fulfilling his promise to subjugate Taiwan.
My German colleague also pointed out the vulnerability of Europe to a nuclear attack. The logic of that argument is that we should allow Putin to do whatever he wants, because he’s the only leader mad and bad enough to make a first strike. That would mean that the MAD strategy has failed and we are living in a new world order in which freedom, democracy and the rule of law have no place.
There seems to be a new kid on the block: meaningless slogans. At first sight they may be thought to constitute a subset of meaningless twaddle, but they differ in one crucial respect. Meaningless twaddle has its origins in ignorance, sloppy thinking, or simply a disregard for truth or meaning. Meaningless slogans, on the other hand, are carefully thought-out arrangements of words designed to bypass the reader’s cognition and evoke emotional responses.
Here are two examples that I came across and had the presence of mind to photograph. I saw one at my local shopping centre and the other on my TV screen. I have the feeling that I have seen many more, but without recording them or consciously noticing the goods or ideas that they were sneakily promoting.
By way of contrast, to shine an even brighter light on the deficiencies of meaningless slogans, I offer a quotation from the boxer Mike Tyson – an example of direct, unambiguous language conveying a simple truth.
Sometimes I suspect that a piece has been written with the sole aim of winning the Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle, which would be cheating of course. But I have no reason to believe that this year’s winner has even heard of the Stroppy.
The opposition was blown out of the water by 11 words of such elegant twaddle, devoid of all meaning, that it could have been crafted by Spike Milligan himself with satirical intent:
“Joint client-focused growth teams drive revenue synergies in key sectors.”
Hard to beat, eh? It’s even more impressive because it was produced by an engineering company – Jacobs, based in Dallas Texas. Congratulations, Jacobs!
Another feathery raider! An avian invader! Leave our nect’rines alone, Or you’ll promptly be shown I’m as nasty as Darth bloody Vader!
I love to share the road with fellow-cyclists, but not if they overtake me while I’m struggling uphill in first gear. Likewise, I love to share our garden with the colourful, tuneful birds that abound in South Australia – but not if they eat of the fruit of the nectarine tree! As soon as Mrs SG and I noticed beak-marks in some of the ripest-looking nectarines we flung a net over the tree and secured it at the bottom. But the tree had grown since last harvest season and the net wasn’t quite big enough, so there were some gaps. Too small to worry about; or so we thought.
Later the very same day as I passed the tree I saw three very small birds, smaller than sparrows, inside the net! What to do? I grabbed the hose, turned on the water and directed a fine spray over the top of the tree, hoping to drive the little sods down and out the way they must have come in. The water rattled them, but they just kept flying from side to side, hanging on to the netting.
Not to be beaten, I brought out the stepladder and sprayed downward with greater force. No result. Then I remembered making cardboard cut-outs in the shape of a hawk’s silhouette many years ago, and mounting them above the driveway where we parked the car, to deter aerial faecal attack. I brought out the bright red lawn-rake, resumed my position on the stepladder, and waved the rake over the tree in what I hoped was a hawk-like motion.
Two of the birds cottoned on quickly, flew to a low branch and eventually swooped out and away. The third was either thicker of much smarter, but as my rake-waving arm was beginning to ache he left as well. Then I put away the ladder and rake and crisscrossed string across the opening that had afforded access and egress. I took one of the nibbled nectarines, trimmed it and ate it. Good!
This morning I was admiring the tree and saw something fluttering… Aaagh! Another one! Or quite possibly a recidivist, because after a couple of bursts with the hose he took the hint and went home. Now the hole is crisscrossed with Christmassy silver tinsel that glitters in the sun and moves in the wind.
But I can’t help feeling guilty. The birds are just trying to make a living and have no idea that our garden is our territory, where only we have rights to hunt, forage, mate and nest. We, on the other hand, can expect to harvest 5 or 6 kilogrammes of fruit at best, and at exactly the time when the supermarkets are flogging them off at A$2.99/kg.
Am I behaving like the Selfish Giant? The thought disturbs me. Please, someone out there, reassure me that I’m a decent human being!
I’ve blogged before about the coy use of asterisks and other non-letters to write a rude word without actually write a rude word. This habit gave birth to “the F-word” and “the C-word” and “the N-word”. I decry this. If you want to write “fuck” just do it. If you want to use less coarse language, write “copulate” or a more precise and acceptable word to substitute for one of the ocean of other meanings that “fuck” has acquired.
I came across a new alphabetical euphemism in a recent Guardian Weekly: “the P-word”. It was in an article about racism in English cricket, specifically in Yorkshire. There was no glossary or footnote to explain this neologism. Can you, dear reader, explain it to me?
On the other hand there are some highly objectionable words that seem to pass muster. I am a fan of Judge Judy (deep down I think we all are) and I just finished watching an episode in which a plaintiff referred to the defendant as “white trash”. This manages to be doubly objectionable:
It reduces an individual and a whole social class to the status of rubbish.
It implies that all non-whites are trash, so a modifier has to be applied only if the person being insulted happens to be white. “Black trash” would be a tautology.
It takes flair to insult so many people with only two words; or stratospheric stupidity; or mega-misanthropy.
Another such word in “bogan”, which exists only in Australia I think. It is defined as “an uncultured and unsophisticated person; a boorish and uncouth person.” No-one’s sure of the origin of the word, but there’s a Bogan River in New South Wales. Anyway, there’s no way of using the word in a non-derogatory way. Thus it is different from “larrikin”, “rascal” or “Pommy bastard”.
While we’re on the subject of the injuries sustained by the English language, don’t forget to submit your entry for the 2022 Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle (aka The Stroppy). Closing date: Saturday 15 January (noon GMT). Announcement of the winner: 17 January.
The English language is rich in words that allow for nuance, subtlety, shades of meaning and ambiguity. One of these words is ‘Respect’.
In Australia it has been attached to the fight against domestic violence: the hotline for victims is 1800 737 732, or 1800 RESPECT (I suppose the T is redundant).
Children are supposed to respect their parents and teachers.
In traditional societies, old people are automatically respected irrespective of their personal qualities.
After centuries of humiliation China is demanding respect from other countries, while doing all in its power to be undeserving of it.
In the Britain that I grew up in it was a middle class aspiration to be respectable.
As a boy I was taught to raise my cap to a woman as a mark of respect, even if I had no knowledge of the woman’s character.
We are all enjoined to show respect for the dead; to respect other people’s opinions and beliefs, however much we may disagree with them; and to respect the sanctity of a holy place.
But we also use phrases like “with respect to” meaning “in relation to” or “having regard to.”
And a sentence that begins “With all due respect” always ends with criticism or an insult.
I had a quick look at my copy of Roget’s Thesaurus (Old Boys’ Public Speaking Prize, 1962) and found ‘Respect’ listed under the following headings: Deference, Fame, Salutation, Observe and Reference. ‘Respectable’ scored mentions under Repute, Upright and Tolerable.
According to the Bible (Acts 10.34) the apostle Peter said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.” This was explained to my RI class to mean that God pays no heed to a person’s status – confusing to a classroom of boys who were forced to show respect to teachers merely because they were teachers.
All this is meant to demonstrate that one should never assume an understanding of what someone means simply from the words they employ. I might even say that words are increasingly being used to distort and blur meaning.
I say, what a great segue to a reminder to start hunting your nomination for the 2022 Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Drivel! Deadline: 10 January.
Mrs SG and I are big fans of green energy. We have as many PV panels as we could cram on our roof, and they generate an average of 18kWh/day. That varies a lot through the year, of course. At the moment they are managing 10kWh/day, but the midsummer record is 31. As it happens today is the 9th anniversary of the panels’ installation and their total output has been 60,831kWh. I estimate the financial return on our investment to have been 8.8%pa – not taking into account depreciation (the system will probably outlive Mrs SG and me), the public subsidy or the value of carbon credits that we had to sign over to the installer.
We don’t have a battery though. When we have surplus production we sell it to our French-owned supplier (on average 6kWh/day) and when we’re running our centralised heating/cooling system we buy to make up our deficit at more than three times the price at which they buy from us.
Some people talk glibly about large-scale battery storage to solve the problem of intermittent output from solar panels and wind turbines, but the cost of this strategy is not sidely understood. AGL (an Australian company that generates and distributes electricity, and has been characterised by Greenpeace as the country’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases) has commissioned a huge Li-ion battery to be built on Torrens Island, South Australia. It will have capacity for 250MWh and cost A$180M (US$130M at the present rate of exchange). The capital cost is therefore A$720/kWh (US$520/kWh). Feel free to check the maths in case I’ve made a mistake.
Our car – an average-sized petrol-driven sedan – has a fuel tank that holds 51 litres. 1 litre of petrol contains 8.8kWh of energy. Therefore the cost of a Li-ion battery with the energy capacity of our fuel tank would be 51 × 8.8 × US$520 = US$233,000. This is an order of magnitude more than we paid for the car.
So how does AGL think it can make money from this huge battery? The answer lies in the magic of the free market, which now prevails in Australia thanks to the fragmentation and privatisation of what used to be a publicly-owned monopoly. According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) the average wholesale price of electricity in 2020-21 ranged from A$0.045/kWh in Tasmania to A$0.072/kWh in NSW. At these prices AGL would have to fully charge and discharge its battery at least 4 times a day to turn a profit.
But, due to wildly mismatched supply and demand profiles, on 22 occasions last year the market price of electricity spiked about A$5/kWh. That’s not a misprint: five dollars per kWh! So AGL will keep its powder dry until there is a sudden extreme shortage and then sell the contents of its battery to the highest bidder. If the whole battery is emptied at A$5/kWh (which is nowhere near the maximum price, mind) AGL will receive a windfall of A$1.25M. At its maximum discharge rate the battery will empty in an hour. Great for price spikes and short-term outages, but it’s not like having a hydro-electric dam full of water. Hence the need for:
Snowy Hydro 2.0 – pumped storage for 350GWh (1,400 times more than AGL’s battery) that’s expected to take 8 years to build and cost at least A$5bn. That’s equivalent to US$10/kWh, about midway between our petrol tank and AGL’s battery on a logarithmic scale.
Back-up dispatchable power (available at the push of a button) from some other source. The Government favours natural gas, of which Australia has an abundance; green voices propose biomass; some contrarians suggest nuclear power, which is a political no-no at the moment.