Killer Whales are bad-ass enough to hunt Great White Sharks

Jaws earned sharks a place in the popular imagination as the ultimate predators of the sea. By contrast, Orcas most famous depiction on screen – at least until Blackfish came along – was as the loveable creature that needs liberating in Free Willy. This is ironic because Orcas can eat even the deadliest sharks for breakfast – literally!

The video below shows a pack of the Whales hunting down and killing a Tiger Shark.

Even the most formidable shark of them all. the Great White, isn’t safe from Orcas. There is a recorded incident of a Great White being held upside down in an Orcas mouth to prevent it using its gills properly until it suffocated, at which point the Orca ate its liver. They also been recorded hunting the largest species of fish in existence: the Whale Shark.

That they and not Great Whites are the sea’s top predator should not surprise us. So starters they are much bigger, with a top weight of 6 tonnes as against the Great White‘s 3.5. They are also more intelligent and most alarmingly for their prey they hunt in packs.

So let us be thankful that – assuming we’re not stupid enough to stick them in tiny tanks and try to get them to perform tricks – Killers Whales don’t seem to go after humans.

4 warnings for Scotland from Irish History

The experience of the last country to leave the UK contradicts many of the optimistic claims the Yes Campaign is making about the prospects of an independent Scotland.

When Michael Collins signed an agreement with the British government in 1921 to create the Irish Free State, a quarter of the world was ruled from London. Since then that massive empire has almost wholly disintegrated: India, Nigeria, Malaya etc. have all become independent. Yet none of them are quite the same as Ireland. It was not just part of the British Empire but Britain itself. Dublin is closer to London than Newcastle. Ireland even sent MPs to sit in the Westminster Parliament. It is, therefore, in many ways the only historical event comparable to the prospect of Scottish independence. It is not one that is flattering for Yes Scotland.

Here are some lessons Scottish voters would do well to bear in mind:

1. This is not a freedom struggle

Firstly, a point of contrast. When it looked like Ireland would leave the Union, the British government sent in soldiers. Traumatised WWI veterans committed atrocities and paramilitary death squads roamed Dublin’s streets.

Today there is no question that if Scotland votes for independence, London will deliver it – though not necessarily on the terms that Alex Salmond suggests.

The people of Ireland were shackled to a state and society that was institutionally racist against them. By contrast, Scots have the same civil liberties and democratic freedoms as the citizens of the rest of the UK. Whatever else it is, Independence is not a battle for Scot’s freedom.

2. Independence does not mean leaving the UK’s shadow

Just about the only time I’ve come across Ireland being mentioned in the Independence debate is to note the fact that until 1978 the Irish Pound were backed by Sterling. This is a point in favour of the Yes argument that Scotland could continue to use the Pound after independence but also illustrates a broader point they would be less happy with: even after having notionally obtained independence the Irish economy was so closely intertwined with that of the rest of the UK that it opted to continue using its currency.

And this interconnection applies to politics as well as economics. To this day the schism between Ireland’s two main political parties can be traced back to their differing attitudes to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. And of course, the conflict in the British controlled North was to reverberate South of the border.

We could expect that even after a Yes vote, Scotland would continue having to debate its relationship with the UK as it would have to continue to decide whether to pool its currency, armed forces and national broadcaster. And if it does the decisions about those institutions will continue to be made in London but by a government which Scottish voters would have no role in electing.

3. Don’t believe guff about nations having an inherently collectivist ethos

What we assume to be the fixed elements of national characters are generally just lazy and fickle stereotypes. For example, in the early nineteenth century, it would have been generally thought that the French were ruthlessly efficient (witness Napolean’s armies), while Germans were unwordly romantics who sat around listening to Beethoven. For this reason we should be very sceptical about the notion that Scots are more caring than the English. As I’ve already blogged about this week the empirical basis for this notion is weak. And the experience of Ireland should make us more dubious still.

The Irish have as a good a claim as any nation to be inherently collectivist as any. The central role of the Catholic Church and its social teaching should have provided the institutional and ideological basis for a society that looked after its members. It was even written into Ireland’s constitution that “justice and charity” must “inform all the institutions of the national life” and that the “state must protect the vulnerable, such as orphans and the aged.”

However, none of this stopped Ireland from becoming the site for a radical experiment in free market economics which turned the country into a corporate tax haven and created a massive property bubble. When the Credit Crunch burst it wrecked first Ireland’s banking system and then its public finances. That plunged the country into a deep recession and austerity.

4. Currency unions are horrible

Pretty much all Ireland’s warning for Scotland can be brought together in a single incident. In November 2011, the Irish government had to be bailed out not just by the IMF and its Eurozone partners but also by the UK.

As well as arising from a distinct lack of collectivist feeling on the part of the Irish and illustrating how tied to the UK it remains, it also showed the problems with currency unions.

That the UK was in a position to be bailing out Ireland rather than being bailed out itself was rather remarkable. It too had suffered a banking crisis and its government’s debt and deficit were almost as bad as Ireland’s.

What saved it was having its own currency. When the crisis hit the Bank of England slashed interest rates and began printing money to drive down borrowing costs. The value of the Pound also dropped making British exports cheaper and reducing the value of debts.

Ireland did not have this advantage. The Euro was also the currency of larger and more robust economies like France and Germany. Therefore, its value did not fall as far and the European Central Bank felt unable to take the kind of aggressive action the Bank of England did lest that stoke up inflation in the rest of the Eurozone. That left both its economy in worse shape and there being less money for the government to borrow.

However, what’s really damning for the Yes camp is not that a currency union didn’t work for Ireland after the crash but also failed it during the boom that went before. Ireland’s financial deregulation and corporation tax cuts initially worked. It drew in large amounts of foreign investment and grew at an impressive pace. That and high levels of inflation should have been a cue for a central bank to raise interest rates in order to prevent the Irish economy overheating. But the ECB had responsibility for the whole Eurozone and it was not growing anywhere near as fast as Ireland. Therefore, interest rates stayed low and there was nothing to stop Ireland going on a borrowing binge.

The cruel reality of currency unions is that they turn even success into a problem. If Yes Scotland delivered on its aspiration to “unleash Scotland’s great economic potential” then presumably Scotland’s economy would grow faster than the rest of the UK and it would likely find interest rates set too low. So even if independence does lead to a boom, a Scotland without an independent central bank would be liable to an Irish style bubble.

That a currency union with all its inherent flaws is Salmond’s “Plan A” – even with the Eurozone crisis still ongoing – does rather illustrate the bleakness of the options available to an independent Scotland.


Ireland’s history can seem like a litany of sectarian violence and economic misery but it is actually a prosperous and peaceful country. And Scotland starts with advantages Ireland didn’t. It would not be born in a civil war nor would it have to contend with an overmighty Catholic Church. So we should not expect Ireland’s history to track Ireland’s. But it does illustrate many of the structural problems that Scotland would face in the wake of a Yes vote.

Humans are far more deadly than sharks

The tragic death of a British man in Australia after being bitten by a shark means we will doubtless hear much in the next few days about the danger posed by these predators. Incidents like these do indeed demonstrate their deadly potential.

However, we should bear in mind that the number of humans they do actually kill are tiny. Especially when compared with the number of sharks that humans kill.

This matters because often the response to sharks attacking humans is to try and cull them: an action designed to soothe the nerves of anxious swimmers and surfers rather than keeping them safe.


sharks killed per hour

The myth of Scottish peculiarity

Go onto the website of Yes Scotland and you will find them promising a ‘fair and caring Scotland for all.’ This is just one example of a recurring theme of the Yes campaign: Scotland must separate itself from England because its people have more caring and progressive values.

This is mostly wishful thinking on their part. The graph below is taken from an article by Alisa Henderson in the Spectator. It shows how small the differences in political values are between Scots and the rest of the UK are on a range of different measures are.

Screenshot 2014-09-07 15.12.54


Much the same is true of individuals issues and on many of them SNP voters actually more closely resemble Conservative than Labour ones.

Which does rather suggest independence is a solution in search of a problem. Scotland and the rest of the UK share not only values but also a language, a political system and a religion, as well as of course being geographically contiguous. What then justifies them becoming separate countries?

The jihadis who read “Islam for dummies”

In an article for the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan relates the following tragi-comic fact:

Can you guess which books the wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed ordered online from Amazon before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May? A copy of Milestones by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb? No. How about Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama Bin Laden? Guess again. Wait, The Anarchist Cookbook, right? Wrong.

Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric – think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war” – but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”, the newspaper said.

It is far from being the only study to reach this conclusion:

According to the Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, which accounts for all suicide bombings committed in the Middle East between 1981 and 2006, it is politics, not religious fanaticism, that leads to terrorists blowing themselves up. The study shows that:

“…though religion can play a vital role in the recruitment and motivation of potential future suicide bombers, their real driving-force is a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.”

The findings of the Flinders University study are supported by the research conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, which was partly funded by the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Agency. The authors, Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, examined more than 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to present. Their research reveals that more than 90 percent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force. Of the 524 suicide terrorists carried out in the past 30 years, more than half of the attackers were secular. Let that rock your worldview.

More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks have a strategic goal in common—to compel an occupying force to withdraw from territory the terrorists prize. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to the West Bank to Chechnya, the central goal of every suicide terrorist campaign has been to resist military occupation by a democracy.

The upshot of both pieces of research seems to be that the motivations of jihadis are sectarian rather than religious. They strongly identify as Muslims but that identification doesn’t arise from faith or theology.

This doesn’t only apply at the level of individuals but also whole movements. The earliest incidents of contemporary terrorism like Dawson’s Airfield and the Munich Olympic massacre were perpetrated by Palestinian groups like the PLO and the PFLP. There ideologies were respectively nationalist and Marxist. They have of course now been largely supplanted by groups with Islamist ideologies like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But as I suspect that despite this divergence the reasons that people joined the PFLP then and Hamas now are fundamentally the same: opposition to the Israeli occupation.

Very often religion does not create values but provides a justification for those the believer already has. And religious terrorism seems to work the same way.

Mental illnesses are also physical

We make a distinction between physical and mental illnesses, and too often that means making a distinction between illnesses that are ‘real’ and those that ‘are all ‘in someone’s head.’

Obviously this way of looking at the distinction doesn’t make sense but does the distinction itself? I’d argue that in a very meaningful sense mental illnesses are physical conditions.

In fact, distinguishing the mental and the physical in any context is dubious. What we call thoughts represent physical changes in the brain and humans only experience the physical world through our thought processes.

Even if we get past this philosophical problem there are still problems applying the divide to mental illnesses. Let’s take depression as an example. As the video below makes clear, while there is little consensus about what causes it, there does seem to be a physical component, be it a chemical imbalance in the brain or changes to its structure.

What is more it actually has physical symptoms. NHS choices lists the following examples:

  • moving or speaking more slowly than usual
  • change in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
  • constipation
  • unexplained aches and pains
  • lack of energy or lack of interest in sex (loss of libido)
  • changes to your menstrual cycle
  • disturbed sleep (for example, finding it hard to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning)

As a final kicker there are physical conditions that have the same symptoms – both mental and physical – as depression. For example, it is quite normal for Doctors to administer a blood test to someone they suspect might have depression in order to rule out the possibility that they have anemia.

Which all begs the question, why there is an additional stigma around mental illnesses when they are ultimately not that different from other conditions.

China: rich country, poor country

So we all know that China is getting richer at an impressive pace. And that’s made some people phenomenally wealthy: China now has more than a hundred billionaires and the average income in the coastal city of Macao is now around $90,000. However, this is a rising tide that has not lifted all boats: the average income in the Southern region of Yunnan is less than $1,000.