Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sailing Ships

For most of the maritime history of the world, transport of goods and people over long distances was invariably by water. The oar and the sail for millennia were the only possible power for propelling ships and boats until the middle of the 19th Century. Then steamships powered by coal - and later oil - began to take over world trade. Even the tall and elegant clipper ships carrying tea from India and China to London or guano fertilizer from Chile around Cape Horn to Hamburg faded away and were obsolete by the beginning of the 20th Century.The great disadvantage of the sailing ship was that it was always at the mercy of the weather, either becalmed for weeks or driven by off-course by storms - resulting in ships arriving weeks late or sometimes lost for ever. As long as coal and oil were available cheaply, sailing ships had had their day. Some may have thought that a wonderfully romantic era had gone for ever! But how efficient and cheap the wind still is when blowing in the right direction!We are now entering a new period of history where slowly but inexorably the cost of energy – certainly in the form of oil – is rising. A few years ago we talked of crude oil at $11 per barrel. Today in December 2007, the price of a barrel of crude oil is $80 and some think it will reach $100/barrel soon. There are those who say that even where energy supply and demand are in balance, geopolitics will invariably cause political upsets and capacity limitations (at vulnerable refineries) so that uncertainty will now be ever-present. It is clear that if the price of oil were to go to $100 per barrel over the next few years, the impact on global economic growth would be dramatic. Some countries in the developing world would be unable to keep their peoples happy or secure.This essay however suggests that even if the global reliance on cheap oil to drive economic growth fades, there are many ways to combat the problem - by combining old technology with modern scientific advances. It is often forgotten that until the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th Century, technology required to sail a ship and navigate it from port-to-port over thousands of miles was quite as complicated as understanding a computer. A sailing ship was the most complex technology known to man until quite recently. We will then soon be forced to return to transporting cargos over long distances by using sailing ships again.This idea is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Weather patterns around the globe can be forecast with some accuracy by satellite, and course changes made to take advantage of wind speed and direction and to avoid storms. Computers can be programmed to plot a course that optimizes the course sailed and minimizes the risk and the distance covered. The bridge of my modern sailing ship would hum with computers, constantly receiving meteorological and satellite information, plotting exact positions.There is always the question of what happens if there is no wind or how to manÅ“uvre quickly in and out of port under sail with a minimum of risk - in gale force winds or dead calms. The new style sailing ship would be equipped with two small diesel engines, one at the bow and the other at the stern, used only for turning, entering or leaving port, and  for those rare occasions of calm, bad weather, shallow water or avoiding other ships. For a very high proportion of any voyage, the motive power would always be the wind.We talk of “sails”. But the sails of a modern sailing ship would not be the spreading white canvass of the old days. Sails for the new sailing ship would be vanes, more like vertical aero-plane wings made of aluminum or titanium, which could be rotated mechanically for any wind direction. (We still would be unable to sail directly into the wind!)This combination of new sails, navigation by satellite and computer, and using small diesel motors would enable the new sailing vessel to keep up a high speed, which would minimize (fuel) costs and take advantage of weather patterns. The old Clipper ships were capable of speeds of 16 knots or more in ideal conditions, but were often driven off course or becalmed because the captain could not foresee the weather ahead. The new sailing vessel should be able to maintain high average speeds, be able to predict accurately voyage length and expected time of arrival at port.So although we may be drifting into difficult economic times as energy becomes more scarce and expensive, the new sailing ship is a solution to keeping world trade going in a way that avoids the cost of oil as a bunker fuel, and has the happy property of substantially reducing the pollution of the seas and air, a significant part of which comes from modern shipping burning future years, cruise liners also will carry sails and air traffic will become too expensive. We will then all return to a cleaner sea. Now is the time for serious forward thinking and planning. Governments and shipping lines must start to design and finance prototype sailing vessels, using all the most modern developments and technologies of the last 50 years. There is no need to be between the devil and the deep blue sea in planning energy futures!We do not need to build fleets! But I do suggest the time has come when a few prototype sailing ships should be constructed to prepare for a time when energy - in the form of bunker fuel  - will no long  be affordable.Perhaps in future years, cruise liners also will carry sails and air traffic will become too expensive. We will then all return to a cleaner sea. Now is the time for serious forward thinking and planning.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Latin and English

In a recent European survey on the use of English, foreigners thought that the people most difficult to understand speaking English were the English themselves, mainly because the English spoke a sophisticated language, depending on many original sources and with a very large vocabulary. At the same time, it was reported that in spite of Mandarin Chinese being spoken by the largest group in the world, English continued to gain ground as the business 'lingua franca'. Yet England and the English are slowly disappearing as immigration into the UK increases and the English disappear overseas.

Rather as Latin disappeared over the 1500 years since the collapse of Rome in 410 AD - although the Venerable Bede through to Sir Isaac Newton kept Latin alive in England until quite recently - only to reappear as Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese, the same is now happening to English. The English nation will disappear within the next 50 years, but English itself will reinvent itself as a universal language, spoken all over the world by new nations. It won't be English we speak today but it will still be English.

A visitor to England in fifty years time will find a people who have nothing to do with an Anglo-Saxon history. The dialect will be recognisably English but the Anglo-saxons will have gone forever from the land once called England.

A Roman from the Roman empire vanished long ago, and yet bring him back today he would recognise at once the patois the Roman soldiers left behind in Italy, Spain or Latin-America. So it is about to happen again. Just as the citizens of Rome dusappeared long ago, so it is that we live in a time when the English as a nation will also disappear, bequeathing to the world their language but disappearing themselves.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Resumption of Service!

I see that I have not made any comment since June 2007, and here we are at the end of November. I have been overwhelmed with activity which leaves me with little time of inclination to talk to the world. I will try to do better at least over the winter!
First of course was buying and selling flats and houses. It took much longer to sell the flat in the north of England than I had anticipated once a firm offer had been received. This seemed to be due to the UK bureaucracy where if an enquiry letter goes astray or someone just does not reply, then the process grinds to a halt. This is alway annoying as being abroad one tends to have an exaggerated pride in the efficiency of the UK civil service and one can quickly become disillusioned. This all delayed the purchase of the house (legally in my wife's name) in Manila by a month or two. Nevertheless the UK legal system working alone was quite impressive and helpful. I remember once criticising the Malaysian bureaucracy in 1986, and was immediately rounded upon by a local manager who enquired if I had ever worked for the UK Coal Board! We must compare oranges with oranges and not with apples, and are apt to forget how really terrible governments are as compared to efficient private companies. (I see the UK government has just lost the records of half the population!).
One interesting aspects of value and curency is that the tiny UK flat with two small bedrooms and a sitting room generated enough funds to buy a 7 bedromm house in Asia! WE also noted that the Philippine legal sytem was more xpensive than in the UK! How would anyone with a US$4 million house in London wish to stay in the UK when property is so cheap elsewhere - indeed it is said a significant proportion the UK population (with houses?) are already leaving for good. The risk of staying must be significant.
In the Philippines, foreigners are not allowed to own land so funds sent in become owned by the Filipino side of the family. A useful way of improving the balance of payements in the short term, but may dissuade many from investing here. One wonders how many Filipinos actually own property in the UK or USA.
The other confusion of the summer is that the college I act for as a consultant is introducing the UK BTEC HND system. This has involved a lot of extra work and understanding a rather bureaucratic system It is too really to comment adversely in any detail, but the system relies on us checking each other and reporting in voluminous detail. One fears this a British government politically correct system where every student will in the end pass. Whether this improves the quality of the teaching is not so certain as students are left to 'research'. The system seem to be vocational and the top UK universities are not involved. The advantage of an HND diploma means that students can go to many (but not all) universities in UK, USA and Australia for their final year when they can get a degree.
Well! That's a start for resumption of service and I must find out how to advertise one's own blogs!

Saturday, June 23, 2007


In recent years we have come a little closer to showing we can be immortal in a very broad sense. Scientifically it would seem the little bundles of chemicals that make up our DNA and genes do not get destroyed but survive in our relations and offspring - even in other species - for long ages or even forever. That is a sort of unconscious immortality, and in theory we could one day be reassembled. It is also interesting to note that clones will have their own separate distinct consciousness, but even so that will not enable them to know the thoughts of the other clone! Neverthless this is a real departure from the past when we supposed that we would be entirely annihalated.

Emotionally in old age I have come to realise that we survive in other ways too. One of my wife's remarkably intelligent grandsons has attached himself to me, and he has shown a most remarkable care, sweetness and consideration for me. When he sees me busy, he will say "let me do it", and I do. At the age of three, he will appear without being asked with a glass of iced water for me, and recently in the evening on my arrival from work, he immediately asks if I want a cup of coffee, which he also makes all by himself from a packet of powder and hot water. He now feeds the dogs and mixes their biscuits and meat in a very business like way. He likes to be picked up, and will demand my using two arms rather than one.
He likes to sit with me and start-up my laptop. "I want to sit with you". "Where"."On your lap". "Why". "Because I love you", he says. "I don't like you going to work" he says "I miss you". Well, yes! He has some tantrums when I won't pick him up.
He tugs at my heart strings and he is a little angel for my old age. For the first time in my life I am alarmed that I may not be around for much longer and my concern is all for him and not for me. Most of us cannot remember much from before the age of five, and so it is quite possible that he will never remember me. There might have been a time when that would have worried me, but now I see very clearly that what I am giving him will be a foundation for the rest of his life - whether he remembers me or not.
And perhaps in seventy years time, he will unconciously take one of his own grandchildren - or someone else's - on his knee and pass on advice of how to live a good life for another generation. If I leave soon - as I will have to - I must shuffle off quietly, leaving him happy with his prospects in a changing world.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


After 40 years working in international business and on retirement, I started teaching in Asia courses related to business, environmental science and English. Although I have a degree from Cambridge taken in 1958, I have tended to assume that since this was 50 years ago, that qualification must have very little relevance or meaning to 2007 conditions. However that is not the way academia works, and it seems to be the case that a teacher with a PhD is supposed to be a better teacher than a mere BA. I do not see myself why a good teacher has to have a high academic honour! And that may explain why education is not entirely well-thought of! Does possession of a piece of parchment really demonstrate teaching ability?

In fact I have studied Medieval History and Theology more than science over the last 50 years: But no! My ability to teach was indeed measured on an exam that I had taken half a century ago - almost as if nothing I had done since was worth very much! It also seems to be the case that a degree from Cambridge somewhat outweighed any paltry English qualification! It is odd that I took a degree in sciences, which might suggest to some I cannot write English well. I think I can! The overall, result is that I teach, but not in the UK where I suppose the standard of teaching must by now be of a very high standard!

About ten years ago for fun in Riyadh, I took a theoretical course in teaching English from a Scottish college and passed with an 'A' grade. They liked the philosophical content of my essays! Subsequently I failed in 2001 a practical course on teaching English in Brighton, which was very far from being academic. It was slightly annoying to be told that my English was archaic and that the use of 'whom' was obsolescent. More lately I see that the Americans still teach the use of 'whom'!

I also have the impression that I would not be allowed to teach in the United Kingdom as I do not have a Bachelor of Education degree! This is all the more puzzling when one reads that many undergraduates at University in the UK cannot read or write well. I think I could teach almost anyone to read and write given ten years to do so, but I am told that might be forbidden as my methods might be out of date or even cruel!

To be fair, it has taken me five years to learn how to teach. At the beginning I just lectured and told my students what I knew. Five years later, I try and get the students to learn by doing - a distinct change from merely purveying knowledge. Nevertheless, there does seem to me to be a tendency in the teaching world to aim for passing exams and getting a piece of parchment showing that one has a degree. What happens to a graduate beyond the age of 23 seems of little interest to the teaching profession. I noticed in my 50 year career when nterviewing new young employees that I took a degree as evidence of a smattering of intelligence and not much more. Their overall performance in work was a combination of many other skills; some of which are social, diplomatic and political - not academic or technical - and always related to an ability to communicate whether by writing or by speaking.

Teaching also seemed to have rules! Appearance often seemed more important than intellectual ability. I am not too sure that our best brains care much for mere appearances, but I suppose we are training most of the population to obey orders and to be socially/politically correct.

There seems to be a hierarchy in teaching - professors, deans, faculty, academics, tenure - fearsome words which at first rather intimidated me. Words from the distant past when academic authority was to be feared came back to haunt me. I have never been very good at obeying orders from on high and found much in teaching that might not help students - and they knew it. There does seem to be a gap between people who do practical things and people who teach! I hear in the UK that the teaching profession is chiefly in the hands of women these days and that this is producing a generation of boys who see themselves as inferior. All my teachers at school were men! Does that make a difference. I can see it may do.

It is odd to be teaching business courses after I have retired. What was it I knew for a business career og 40 years that I had no written qualifications for? The perception of the business world as to what is needed for a successful career may be rather different from a dry academic approach.

Teaching English brings one to the threshold of what is politically correct and what discrimination means! I am told a have a clear speaking voice employing the accents of southern England - the only place in the world where I shall/we shall is used instead of I will/we will! Many seem to like the accent which is often better recognised in Pakistan, India, Hong Kong and Malaysia than in England these days. I have Chinese students who deliberately want a British accent instead of an American one. When some UK English teachers are teaching the accent of Newcastle, Liverpool and the East End of London instead of the Queen's English, we begin to get into problem areas. I am always surprised how many foreigners are employed by the BBC and CNN who speak a British English when American ought presumambly be the dominant accent. I teach British English too but I hope with a sense of humour that recognises the cultural differences!

So perhaps what I am saying is that the world is full of wonderfully skilled people who don't possess parchments that confirm they have degrees. These I see as merely a ticket to get on the fast train of life. Education should be honoured for making us civilised and much less related to what money we can earn.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Benedict Arnold/ Tony Blair

I felt quite a feeling of revulsion on reading in a recent Economist that in September 2001, Tony Blair in a speech had said “ Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war”. If nothing more, that shows a lack of prescience and judgement to say such a things as a national leader and then a year or two later reverse that opinion with a vengeance. It looks in 2007 as if Blair has become responsible for many deaths and casualties in Iraq, which may not cease for many years to come, and without any obvious benefit to people in England or indeed Iraq! His latest argument is that we should contemplate 'liberal intervention' in the affairs of other nations overseas. I am not quite sure how this policy is different from old-style colonialism and implies a certain arrogance in a leader. I would hope whatever the policy a politician espouses, there should be some consistency and ultimately a measure of success, that we can all recognise.

It is quite understandable that the Americans should denigrate the name of Benedict Arnold (1741 – 1801) best known for betraying the United States forces and plotting to surrender the American fort at West Point to the English during the American Revolution. He is the most famous traitor in the history of the United States.

However the English probably took a different view and thought Benedict Arnold a loyal subject of King George. We had until recently supposed Tony Blair's responsibility was to safeguard the future of England and pursue policies that would benefit his own country - not the USA. While the Americans may feel happy that Tony Blair made what appears to be a 'personal' decision to support the USA, it does seem to be against the better judgement of the English people. However much Tony Blair may admire the USA, nevertheless one cannot help wonder whether there are not some other parallels in history, which need to be considered!

Monday, May 14, 2007


I have had servants at home since arriving in Venezuela in 1961, 45 years ago. I am not even sure one should admit it! Servants are wonderfully useful, and truth to tell I could not now live without someone to do my daily laundry and cooking. You could argue that it frees me to do other important and useful things in life such as writing! Servants are so cheap! You may pay a servant only US$100 per month plus food and lodging. A real bargain for a soul. It is lucky that populations continue to grow so fast, thus providing surplus labour which will eventually swell the pool of available servants!

It is not all cakes and ale! I cannot find things that only yesterday I put down in a safe place I know of. A continual tidying-up process goes on leaving me a stranger in my own house. When asked, the servant denies all knowledge of any artifact put down. Food that I buy disappears, and I am left eating 'laing' and rice when I had hope to be eating cakes and ale!

I get my own drinks from the kitchen - as Welsh ploughboy ought to - instead of calling for them on a tray. I still feel a sense of shame why I cannot do these things for myself, and no doubt a lot of people reading this essay will dislike reading my admission or even my truthfulness. Before retiring years ago, I even had a driver! Perhaps it stems from the day in 1944 when I came home for the holidays from my expensive school, and raised my cap politely to our gardener. My mother roundly ticked me off for raising my hat to an inferior. I still do not quite understand why in a world where equality and democracy are said to be important, very little effort is made by governments - and the international great and the good - to change to the status quo.

Some of us wonder why the world is not a better place, and I have slowly come to the conclusion that the elite from the ruling classes in every country of the world like it that way. However poor a country may be overall with people subsisting on US$2 per day, having surplus labour makes life so much easier for the ruling classes and elite, who may represent only 10% of the total population. Anyone who is anyone does not wish to see much change in the availability of servants. Change takes place but hopefully oh so slowly.