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One Day

Red 4 Down

I was really quite upset to hear Red 4 was down. I watched the news – flicking between Sky and BBC with little hope. I saw him a month ago in the skies over Southport. Alas, I have no photos. I used the last of my battery charge on XH-558. The Red Arrows go on forever of course – or so I thought. I have seen them before and I shall again. I should have saved some time but… Isn’t that life? And death.

I should have said something earlier but I wanted the dust to settle and didn’t really know what to say.

Then I picked up an old collection of sf stories called “Master’s Choice Vol.1″ I’d bought recently for pennies in a second-hand shop and happened quite by chance upon “Requiem” by Robert Heinlein – a story I had never read. It starts with this quote:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will!

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

- Robert Louis Stevenson

The story is about an elderly businessman who due to his personal passion invested early in space, made a packet from it and despite the better judgement of his company and his legacy-seeking family, employs two washed-up rocketeers and burns it all for one lonely impulse of delight – to visit the moon. Where he dies.

Flight Lieutenant Egging, it shall go on because you are not the only one to love the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Per ardua ad astra!

We just want to go home.

Let’s Rock!

I watched Ian Hislop’s “Age of Do-Gooders” on the telly a coupla nights ago. It alerted me to this chap…

In the late 1840s, Cruikshank’s focus shifted from book illustration to an obsession with temperance and anti-smoking. Formerly a heavy drinker, he now supported, lectured to, and supplied illustrations for the National Temperance Society and the Total Abstinence Society among others. The best known of these are The Bottle, 8 plates (1847), with its sequel, The Drunkard’s Children, 8 plates (1848), with the ambitious work, The Worship of Bacchus, published by subscription after the artist’s oil painting, now in the Tate Gallery, London. For his efforts he was made vice president of the National Temperance League in 1856.

We can all raise a glass to that miserable sod! Of course these Victorian puritans were… well, puritanical and never got invited to parties and that. They railed against music halls and such. I recall hearing recently about a late C19th variety star in London who wowed the crowds by performing a high wire act with no knickers on. She probably was injurious to health in terms of cricked necks. Hell, I’d like to see that! A lot more fun than that sourpuss professional quinoa eater and turd sniffer “Dr” Gillian McKeith not eating bugs for the amusement of Ant & Dec.

Nothing changes. I watched the finale of ITV1′s X-Factor over the weekend and apparently Christina Aguilera and her dancers outraged the morality of the Daily Mail. I just love this from the linked Mail article, “The images below have been published to show the fury they’ve caused”. Yeah, right! There is nothing like the heady cocktail of mild titilation and furious righteous indignation garnished with a dash of “thinking of the children” is there? Didn’t cause any fury round where I was. I liked it (apart from Aguilera who is beginning to look a bit like a real-life Miss Piggy) though the dancers did it for me. Why they didn’t like it is a mystery… Except it isn’t is it? Whether it’s “Onward Christian Soldiers” or Decembrow (Do read it, it’s the first use the phrase “power eyebrows” since Leonid Brezhnez kicked the samovar) it’s the same old dismal thing. It is the same assault on fun of any description. It is with us now because it has always been with us and it has been with us because some people are no fun whatsoever and therefore want to level that playing field (I recall invitations as an undergrad to certain Christian Union “does” like, “This Halloween we are holding a prayer vigil for the sins of the campus…” – oh, do fuck off) Wesley* himself, whilst reading divinity, was regarded as too pious for his own good. Probably because he was the miserable cunt.

Anyway back to Cruickshank…

Punch magazine, said in its obituary: “There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.”

Perhaps Punch hadn’t read his will by that point…

Upon his death, it was discovered that Cruikshank had fathered 11 illegitimate children with a mistress named Adelaide Attree, his former servant, who lived close to where he lived with his wife. Adelaide was ostensibly married and had taken the married surname ‘Archibold’.

Cruikshank provided financially for his mistress and their children in his will and also left them his considerable cellar that he kept at Adelaide’s house.

I cannot even begin to be surprised. Cruikshank’s magnum opus was “The Worship of Bacchus“.

Originally a painting (it’s in Tate Britain) – that’s a link to the print. Check it out at A3 size. Just have a look over it. Probably the first thing you’ll think is that it owes a bit to Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of “Earthly Delights” but with one key difference. Whilst Bosch (to modern eyes at least) is rather cryptic Cruikshank isn’t in the slightest. Cruikshank goes absolute “route one” to make his point. And what is that point? Well, obviously it is that booze is bad and indeed pretty much the root cause of every Victorian social ill (apart from those caused by masturbation, obviously) – note the signs on the buildings along the top of the picture for example. OK, so the demon drink is evil but there is another story here as well. I’ll illustrate it with a snippet from towards the top-left of the picture though I could have chosen many other little bits instead.

cruik

That little tableau is hardly difficult to decipher is it? At the bottom the officers are carousing in the mess whilst a sailor above is flogged presumably either for drunkenness or something done under the ‘fluence of the demon. An easy analysis of this is that the plebs can’t be trusted with the bottle but their “betters” can be. Certainly that would fit with Mr Cruikshank keeping his mistress and fathering bastards into two figures with the bed-springs heaving over a monumental stock of booze in the basement. Hypocrisy, thy name is George! But I dislike that line of attack. It’s too much of a “gotcha!” argument. It is true of course and undoubtedly has as it’s modern progeny in such things as minimum pricing per unit which might make a bottle of Lambrini cost more but won’t effect the price of a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape one iota. But it is even worse than the patronising attitude that it is only the lower orders who need protecting from themselves whilst the Philosopher Kings can drink their fine wines around Islington dining tables and set the World (or at least the North London of their own imaginings between the Waitrose and the organic deli) to rights. Yes, it is worse than that but this aside is I think worth it because it is exactly the same mentality that rails from a Conran chair after rather too many glasses of a particularly cheeky Merlot against the chavs getting pissed as had Cruikshank getting loaded on Claret and doinking his bit on the side whilst peddling his temperance schtick. It really is no different and neither is the post-modern sin of carbon emissions which sees the same later day bien pissants criticising EasyJet whilst recounting their eco-tour of Guatamala whilst their dinner party guests oh!!! and ah!!! about some frankly awful piece of “fairtrade” tat they picked up that was made “authentically”**.

No, it is worse because both Cruikshank and his current “intellectual” heirs think that the higher orders ought to set an example. To go back to the above picture snippet Cruikshank’s point is that not only can the “lower orders” not help themselves off their own bat but that they could if only the genteel “officer class” set a good example. That is horrendously patronising to everyone. I suppose I’m lower-middle class and fight urges to buy the Daily Mail and all that but… Should I set myself up as a beacon to the proles? Should I, in my turn, follow the doings of my betters (presumably up to and including their Royal Highnesses***)? No! I am Nick. I am me. I am whatever I can be bothered to be. So are you. So is everyone. I am not here to set an example because I just am [This is teetering on the brink of becoming a torch song - Ed]. So are you. Now I’m not going to get all Kipling (“Walk with Kings yet not lose the common touch…”) but I have met some right troglodytes of every social order and the same applies to good folks too. Essentially Cruikshank’s painting is classicist (bet you never thought you’d read that word on a libertarian blog…). It is saying that if only the higher-ups lived lives of abstemious virtue then so would the plebs. Tacit within that analysis (emphasis on the first syllable) is the idea that morality is inherited along with money. See ***. I didn’t give my bride a sapphire the size of a Vauxhall Astra but on the credit side neither did I fuck my mistress the night before the wedding. The heir to the throne did because he’s a twat.

Anyway, back to iDave’s house. Yes, our own dear Prime Monster. His very soul espouses the idea that those of good birth ought to be exemplars (If we ignore his Bullingdonian antics but that was OK because iDave is special). Why else in these carbon-fearing times does he have a fucking windmill on his house? It’s the same thing. Now, don’t get me wrong. The deck chairs have been re-arranged and the “look-up to class” might be Matt Cardle**** and not the Duke of Northumberland but it’s the same old…

Yes it is. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow I lead the revolution (weather permitting). Now I know this will not rally the troops but…

The ruling classes are not just hypocrites (though they are) but hypocrites who know they are but don’t care because they believe that their public persona (and their public) is enough to persuade the plebs to live socially useful lives.

Well fuck ‘em I say! Fuck ‘em with a calumny of greater or lesser fucks. It is well past time to raise the banner and set the tumbrils rolling.

I think Twisted Sister said it better than me…

Let’s rock!

Or you could listen to Chris Martin and Blandplay because he cares so much about beige causes he even fucked (word count hit exactly 1776 there!) Gwyneth Poultry (the unthinking man’s Cate Blanchett) simply because he’s the dismal and exceedingly well-chiselled twatter he truly is. There are things gurgling down plug-holes in abortion clinics that communicate more to the porpoise than that wretched cunt.

Your choice.

*That bugger got everywhere. You know the park where Forest Gump sits with his box of chocolates? I’ve been there – Savannah, GA. It’s got a statue of Wesley – he was a bishop there. The commuter-belt village I grew-up in had a “Wesley’s Mount” (Fnarr fnarr!) where he once preached. Nine hours across the Atlantic and I still couldn’t get away from the methodical sod!

**The computer I’m typing this on was made by me in a shed. Is that not authentic enough for them? No, of course not. The components were made in factories of course and me being English and not living in a hut with naught but a bucket to crap in I’m hardly “authentic” am I? Except you’re reading this so if neither this computer or the keyboard jockey are “authentic” you must be channelling some mighty big ju-ju or have your Tibetan birthing-rug aligned with the right chakras or some such shite.

***Such fine moral exemplars that they are.

****Heaven help us if it is Cheryl Cole who was only rehabilitated from being a talentless bint who punched a toilet attendant when she got married to Ashley Cole and found out he had a penchant for scoring during “away fixtures”. Married to that mooasaurus I am hardly surprised. Ye gods she’s thicker than industrial-grade pig-shit concentrate!

84 million reasons to be cheerful

I just heard some bugger scooped 84 Million quids on the Euro Mockery.

Wowsers! What would I do with that sort of wonga?

Decisions, decisions!

Obviously, firstly I would give a few quid to my family and ensure through wise investment that me, my wife and our little cat were set until the heat death of the Universe. But that’s only a small chunk of it…

What with the rest? I mean what about the fun stuff? A gaff in London and perhaps another in Florida on the coast. London gaff about 5 mill, Florida… Maybe 3 mill. Plenty still left! An Aston Martin (obviously) but that’s chump change so best make it two with steering wheels on opposite sides. Actually no, maybe a “tweaked” MX-5 perhaps. Anyway forget the motors. I’d have the cash for them in the back pocket of my jeans and though I am a natural scruff the service I would get in the dealership would be close to worship when they saw my Californium debit card. Yeah, forget the motors. With that level of wonga I could arrange to be carried in a titanium palanquin by Dave Cameron and Nick Clegg’s kids as part of the war on childhood obesity.

So what would be my fritterings? I would make some “punt” investments. Space travel, biotech – that sort of thing. I would definitely set-up a scholarship at my alma-mater for poor kids who are good at physics. But my real indulgence would be a plane.

Guess what?

Well, I could be tempted by one of the F-16s that will be entering the market when replaced by the F-35s (if that happens). It would have to be a two holer which means a D I guess. Not a B because that’s like buying an Austin Allegro. Except F-16 – great jet and all that but a couple of flaws… No flaps and a bugger to land because of that and I just don’t really like fly-by-wire which is frankly like tossing-off Peter Mandelson’s joystick – it’s that gay. And ex-Romanian MiG-21 Bisons could be available. Yeah, I’ll buy one of those the moment I decide to amputate my legs with a cheese knife. There can be only one. Now we are talking about me being seriously minted here so the Folland Gnat can go bite itself. I want a T-38 Talon. Handles like a good ‘un and climbs like a teenage rat up Angelina Jolie’s Grand Moff Tarkin on a Saturday night.

And I think I’d have enough on the side to have it fitted with a Mauser BK-27 for the straffing.

So if you had 84 million sponds, what would you buy?

Rolling Thunder

I will do such things -
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!

- William Shakespeare, King Lear Act 2, scene 4.

BUFFs parked up in the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, AZ.

The devilment I could make with them does not bear thinking about. And I have a cat you know. The Mao suit, extinct volcano and improbably monikered but very fit birds in lab-coats with clip-boards are alas on back-order. As is the monorail and I’m going to have to chuck Bob Crow into the shark tank over that.

You are of course aware that the venerable B-52 is now being flown by the grandchildren of the original pilots. Yes, some of those magnificent machines have been flown by three generations of the same family. It’s almost Tolkienesque.

Apollo

More than four years before I was born we got to the moon. Forty years later we have the International Space Station which is basically two Russians and a Yank having a caravan holiday no further away from me than if they were doing it in Sussex. They should have booked that with Haven. It would have been a lot cheaper.

I dunno how I feel about Apollo in particular or NASA in general. The achievement was phenomenal and it certainly pissed on the Soviet barbeque from a great height (approximately 250,000 miles) but ultimately it was not the way to go technically. I’m not going to go into that now. As a recovering astrophysicist we would be here some time…

I was going to write about the cultural importance instead but the hell with that as well! I’ll just go personal.

It was simply magnificent. From Kill Devil Hills to Tranquility Base in two generations is an awesome achievement. From a couple of fellas in a shed in Ohio building something with less horsepower than a scooter to the folks in the VAB assembling something with more horsepower than God Himself in 66 years is astonishing.

I am struggling for words here mainly because it is hard to be original over something that everyone will be commenting on right now but also because I am just so awestruck. The sound of a Saturn V has a long echo… And maybe that’s the problem. Things like manned spaceflight might join Concorde and nuclear power in the legend bin to be recycled on the Discovery channel until they become not stepping stones to our future but almost myths. I know this is turning into an almost Tolkienesque lament about decline and fall but when I see through my misty eyes the video of the Apollo launches I see a tremendous hope for the future and a future we somehow lost about the same time we lost Vietnam and then descended into our the current miserableness that thinks building windmills to keep the sky from falling is a technological priority.

Anyway… Neil, Buzz and Michael you are the stuff of legend and I salute you but I so hope that will become literally a legend because you and every technician who merely handled a posidrive for your trip is worth about three trillion George Monbiots (or roughly five trillion Jonnie Porritts in old money) and that is only valuing those two sods as cat food and then only suitable for the hungriest and least picky of cats.

We are made from the stars and not the mud that Marduk heaped up or the dust that Allah did or whatever deranged process the Gaians believe in and we wanna go home.

Per Ardua Ad Astra!

Future Past

I have spent the best part of the last week rusticated in the Lake District sans net and with only sporadic Freeview (UK digital terrestrial) telly (is Freeview ever anything but sporadic?).

Anyway, I expect you’re expecting to be regaled with tales of the beauty of the English countryside and how it rained all the time. Well, it is beautiful and yes, it did rain quite a lot. But… I’m not going to go on about that now am I? No. You’ve all heard those sort of tales. To those that are interested in such things piccies of our greatest National Park will appear in due course courtesy of flickr or some such (and be flagged here).

Instead I’m going to write about one of Cumbria’s less well known attractions – Michael Moon’s Bookshop in Whitehaven. It doesn’t look much from the outside but it just goes on and on. It’s huge and packed to the rafters with old books, magazines and prints. It’s incredible and utterly perplexing because it is not well ordered which is quite annoying because whilst mooching there I’m sure there were loads of books I’d have loved to have bought but finding anything (or even just browsing) is utterly daunting – it’s biblio-overload. It’s a great shop though and the proprietor, Mr Moon, is the very model of an antiquarian book-dealer. Surrounded by grimoires and ancient paperbacks he looks rather out of place with his wifi Toshiba laptop.

Anyway, I did get a couple of things there. Here is one of them:

mw1

Reminders of how the future is an object of the past and the cities on the moon that were never built are poignant for me. It’s the full magazine and I shall frame it (and the other one about the British Army’s 1939 amphibious “wonder tank” – they cost two quid each – dreams are cheaper than spit) to always remind me… Well… I suppose we got Facebook instead.

It wasn’t that long ago that we had a future. I mean, we have one now; the world isn’t going to crash into the Sun or anything like that. What I mean is that we had a future that we could clearly imagine. The future wasn’t tomorrow, next week, next year, or next century. It was a place with a form, a structure, a style. True, we didn’t know exactly what the future would be like, but we knew that it had to be one of a few alternatives; some good, some very bad. The future was a world with a distinct architecture. It had its own way of speaking. It had its own technology. It was for all intents and purposes a different land where people dressed differently, talked differently, ate differently, and even thought differently. It was where scientists were wizards, where machines were magically effective and efficient, where tyrants were at least romantically evil rather than banal, and where the heavens were fairyland where dreams could literally come true.

That’s from this most excellent website.

One day I hope that that heaven shall be accessible and I still (at 35) have an outside chance of seeing attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Or something. I wanna (at the least) see Phobos and Deimos setting over Valles Marineris at the least from my nano-tech bath chair.

Because beautiful as it may be this planet is beginning to bore me.

Per Ardua Ad Astra!

Balls

Ed Balls is worried that the recession will result in a rise in support for the “far-right”. You just can’t make this shit-up. For ten years he was Brown’s chief economics guru. So, frankly, he is as much to blame as anybody. Yet he can say with a straight face that this is gonna be worse than the ’30s without falling to his knees, begging forgiveness and then doing the decent thing with a 9mm Browning. And just look at him there. He looks mad. He looks like a bloody fascist. He is a fascist. a fascist-lite but a fascist nonetheless.

Balls is right. We have seen a rise in the “far-right”. It happened in 1997. Mr Balls is the Volk’s Gauleiter for “children, families and schools” (what used to be “education”). Does that sound totalitarian enough already? What about Mr Ball’s boss rattling on about “British jobs for British workers”? fascist enough? Or Jacqui Smith banning a Dutchman from entering the UK because he might upset “community relations”? That fascist enough already? A Dutchman who has committed no crime and was invited by the House of Lords? Alas this upset one of their Lordships, Lord Ahmed (Labour, natch) who threatened to raise a rabble of ten thousand Muslims to stop the Dutchman getting to the Palace of Westminster.

So…

Utterly deranged politicos behaving with gob-smacking arrogance ….check.
Orwellian sounding government departments ….check.
Protectionism ….check.
Complete disregard for freedom and the rule of law*….check.
Politicians engaged in balls-out rabble-rousing ….check.

Sounds pretty fascist to me. Balls is right. It’s only his timing that is hopelessly out but then he isn’t just a git, he’s an incompetent git. Balls is worried that the barbarians will exploit the hard times to get ahead. What he doesn’t realize is that he sees a prime example of one every time he shaves. Or maybe he’s just terrified of carrying the can if the BNP get anywhere because unlike NeuArbeit apparatchiks those fellas can fight.

*I’m sure banning the Dutchman is in some way illegal.

Graphic Novel

Any of you junkies ever read The Probability Broach?

Whether you have, or you haven’t, try this.

Government can’t fight crime, government is crime.

“Illegitimate authority” is redundant.

The state is harmful to children and other living things.

I am not a national resource.

I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

Alpha Centauri Or Bust!

This sort of shit makes me mad as hell. I just, absolutely, cannot stand the later-day Wolfie Smiths of the Animal Rights fraternity. They’re not quite the most obnoxious of the assorted moonbats with issues that congregate in our city centres of a Saturday afternoon. That award, in my experience, must go to some very iffy “Palestinians” who haranged me outside M&S. I told them in no uncertain terms to “fuck off”. No, the animal rights mob are not the most obnoxious but they are certainly up there with the most deluded and detached from reality. I mean their heart is in the right place. It’s just unfortunately installed upside-down. The most deluded… Well, that was a bunch of pro-Castro/Chavez protestors I saw in Newcastle once. Jeez, I had to tell ‘em they were flying the Venezuelan flag incorrectly! Seeing as an upside-down flag is an international distress signal I probably should have just left them to it.

If the ALF (and chums) are correct then biomedical scientists are all deranged lunatics with a Frankenstein-complex and a lab-assistant called “Igor” cowering behind the Tesla coil. They are all doing ungodly, sinister, unspeakable things in labs in Bavarian Schlosses in between cackling inanely. The problem is that they’re not like that at all. I have met a lot of them and they’re not depraved sadists torturing fluffy bunnies for giggles and fits. They are scientists wrestling with diseases like Alzheimer’s. Anybody with a vestige of humanity who has seen the progress of the destruction of reason, personality and, ultimately, of self that that terrible disease brings about yet values a few critters above research into it must be thoroughly disconnected from reality. Either that or they’re just gits so wedded to a principle that they just can’t see the world around them.

We live at a privileged time. For centuries, as the physical sciences forged ahead, the biological sciences consisted of counting the hairs on the back-legs of grasshoppers and classifying them. Not anymore. It is finally coming together and the deep complexity of life is just beginning to consist of tractable problems. Cool. Let us not fuck it up folks! There is a profound roller-coaster of discovery ahead and everyone but woolly-noggined atavists is invited along for the ride.

This is our revolution. A load of gents with steam engines did the same sort of thing a coupla hundred years ago and then there was electricity, industrial chemistry, internal combustion, jet engines, computers, the internet. Let’s keep it going!

The use of threats, intimidation and violence against such scientists is utterly unacceptable in a civilized society and total anathema to a society which is actually trying to go somewhere. It is good to see that a stand is being made by these folks. It is even more heartening that the ball was set rolling by a 16 year old. Good work Laurie!

Hell, the Victorians, those alleged exemplars of staid conservatism, embraced profound and rapid change. Let us hope we can be as radical because the alternative is a civilisation drifting into decadence, precaution and senescence. Fuck that. I wanna see science with the lid off. I wanna go paragliding over the methane seas of Titan on my 300th birthday.

I don’t think the daft bastards of the ALF (and chums) constitute a direct threat. They are merely a speck of grit in the vaseline we are using for the righteous buggeration of Gaia. But they, along with all sorts of malcontents, (stand-up Greens, stand-up religious loons, stand-up the content and unimaginative) are involved in creating a metaculture in which we are conditioned to worry that we are going too far, too fast. The. Hell. With. That.

The Hills of the Chankly Bore

                             I

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, ‘Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

This is the start one of my wife’s favourite poems, The Jumblies by Edward Lear. I rather like it too. There is something so optimistic and joyful about the Jumblies’ quest against the odds. One day that’s how I hope we spread through the solar system and then the Galaxy, in our metaphorical sieves, ignoring the prognosticators of doom.

Of course it worked out fine for the Jumblies as I hope it does for us…

                                 V

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

                                VI

And in twenty years they all came back,
In twenty years or more,
And every one said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore!’
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And every one said, ‘If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,—
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Space-Consciousness

Well, we’ve all been somewhat underwhelmed by space since Apollo. There have been some highlights like the Viking landers and the Martian rovers and of course Voyager and Hubble but in nearly forty years that seems a poor return. Oddly enough all the things I’ve mentioned have been unmanned. Manned ventures such as the Shuttle have largely been white elephants. The cost of refurbishing the Shuttle between flights means it costs more to shift payload than good ol’ fashioned rockets like the Soviets use. Rockets that Yuri Gargarin would still feel at home around.

Of course the whitest of white elephants is the thumping great $150,000,000,000 heffalump that is the International Space Station. What does that staggering sum buy you? It buys you three people 217miles above your head doing pretty dull research. In any case a lot of the planned experiments have been cancelled. None sounded too exciting either, so never mind about that because it’s really about politics anyway. The Russians recently put the first Malaysian in space as a sweetener on a deal for fighter jets.
Nothing about the ISS has a wow factor. If anything it’s slightly depressing, really. So many years, so much moolah and all just to get three folk with PhDs about as far away from me as I am from Edinburgh. As an ongoing project the vastly cheaper (about $5 billion) Hubble Telescope has been of much more public interest. It’s also been very important scientifically – vastly more so than the ISS – but that isn’t what I want to type about now. It’s its impact upon the popular imagination. I’m sure it’s encouraged millions of kids to take an interest in the stars and people just love those pictures. People with no interest in science buy glossy coffee table books of the pictures. It’s been a massive success and will be replaced by the even bigger James Webb Telescope in 2013 or so.

So, you can imagine my delight when I read about the possibility of something really big. The Moon is a perfect observing site (better than Earth Orbit) and pictures from a 50m dish would be staggering. Astronomers would be killing each other to get time on it. But hey, blood on the carpets of the Academy isn’t what bothers me here. The modern environmental movement is often traced back to the images taken of Earth by the Apollo astronauts. The images from this ‘scope might trigger a similar shift towards “space-consciousness”. Remember this isn’t a one shot deal like a lunar landing, those pictures would just keep on coming. And what images they would be. This ‘scope could…

…record the spectra of extra solar terrestrial planets and detect atmospheric biomarkers such as ozone and methane. Two or more such telescopes spanning the surface of the Moon can work together to take direct images of Earth-like planets around nearby stars and look for brightness variations that come from oceans and continents.

Now that’s stuff to excite anyone. What if they were to find an habitable planet a reasonable distance away? What would that do to this planet’s space-consciousness?

Much more I’ll wager than two Yanks and a Russian and a tank of tadpoles in a collection of surreally over-priced ISO  shipping containers the equivalent of a 4 hour drive away. Oh, and if they really want to foster international relations might I humbly suggest that $150 billion would pay for a heck of a lot of student exchanges and the like.

Post singularity II

Yep, I got to agree to at least some extent with Nick, we have already hit, passed and survived one Singularity. I had thought about the discontinuity in the past, but had never before thought of it in those terms.

Right up to the eighteenth century a Roman engineer would, on sight, have had no trouble understanding nearly any device or mechanism produced, for any purpose, no explanation necessary. Then we hit the nineteenth -

We get what? Steam? any problem here? Said engineer could, with a bit of disassembly, have understood steam power, no explanation of principles needed. But even the first part of the nineteenth threw up some doozies – the battery, the arc lamp, photographs, electro magnet, electric dynamo, refrigerator, telegraph, fuel cell, nitroglycerine. How could our hypothetical Roman have understood any of these things without a few lectures in physics or chemistry? He would not have. He had entered a world where nothing he had ever seen or learnt would have been of assistance in understanding what was now being created.

Since then, what did we get? Just in the rest of the nineteenth? Still plenty of things he could have understood, but we also got the glider, rayon, plastic, telephone, internal combustion, electric light bulb, metal detector, photographic film, coca cola, AC motor,motion picture projection, and our Roman is visiting a world transformed.

By the nineteen twenties the whole world becomes incomprehensible to him. Nothing he looks at can be understood in terms he is familiar with and it took what? One hundred and twenty years, and he had crossed an horizon and encountered a singularity. Now? Eighty eight years later each and every one of us exercise powers he would have reserved to his gods. On this, Nick is right.

Whether this rate of change is continuing is a different matter. Until not long ago a tour of Europe was a once in a lifetime experience, and only for the rich. Today, a dirty weekend in Prague is a prosaic experience for all but the very poor, and that change has occurred over fifty years. Is it continuing? Well, how about this – I own somewhere between fifteen hundred and two thousand books, collected over a lifetime, and they cover all sorts of topics. History, philosophy, science, and all of them tending towards out of date before I even purchased them. Still, I love books, and I love having access to the knowledge in them. Even sixteen years ago, if I wanted to find some snippet of information, I might have to spend hours trying to find it at home, or visit the local library, or go to a university library and try to find it there. Or it could just be too damned hard and I would give up. Today? I have instant access to more information, learning and knowledge than even the richest man in the world in the world could have commanded just that sixteen years ago. And I have it on my desk at home and when I am out travelling. Is that not a staggering change? Today, we still try and repair human bodies by cutting them open and slicing chunks away; medicine is still about gross interference. However, we’re now learning to conduct surgery on a cellular level. We are learning how to re engineer organisms and construct them from scratch. We are taking atoms apart and scooping out the energy, we are learning how to construct devices by the placement of individual atoms and molecules. Soon, food from vats in factories, and within my lifetime we may see the elimination of physical scarcity by cheap energy and almost costless manufacturing. And if not? Well, programmable logic will still be as cheap as specks of dirt on your shoes, and about the same size. Intelligent fabrics, construction materials incorporating nanotubes and logic circuits, near infinite communication capacity, and these are just the known knowns. What the unknown unknowns will be, well, we just don’t know, do we?

We may have had a singularity already, but there is another still to come.

Post Singularity

I have to disagree with my co-conspiritor.

I think we had our singularity. It happened in the late C19th. Think what we achieved then in such a short space of time! We got internal combustion, usable electricity, telephones, moving pictures, powered flight, recorded sound, radio. In short we got almost all the basics of the technologies that define our lives still.

Now it can be argued that what has happened since has changed things. The Wrights alone didn’t make it possible for me to fly safely and at low cost anywhere and Alexander Graham Bell did not put a phone on my desk but we are still playing with C19th dreams. And somehow, maybe, that’s as far as we will ever get.

What I see is quantitative improvement, not qualitative. I also see an end to real progress. I see stagnation in many fields (and that’s not just ’cause I live in the sticks and am currently walking like John Wayne because I had to dig a load of weed out of a pond and it nearly killed me). I am 34 and in my lifetime we have done precisely nothing on the high frontier. My holiday home on Titan is further away than it was when I was born! There will be no cure for cancer either. There will be better treatments for sure but in that, as in so many things, as you expand the perimeter of knowledge you also expand your ignorance even more rapidly.

I suspect we’re stuck where we are. Oh, there’ll be new stuff along but essentially I guess if you want to discover Quantum Mechanics or Evolution by Natural Selection or something similarly epoch-making then forget about it. It isn’t going to happen.

Or I could be wrong. I could be wrong about this too.

But I don’t think I am wrong. Tell ya what ‘Cats. If I am (and we should know soon) I definitely owe you a cold one. Your place or mine? Could you find the time to get to Titan?

I hope I am wrong. Sometimes it’s worth the price of a beer to be wrong. I want to be wrong. When I played Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri I always went for victory by transcendence and we’ve had enough buggeration with the gas boiler so can I have a controlled singularity already? yes, that kind.

Growth

A discussion over on Samizdata about regulation and its effects on science, technological growth and industrial change.

Yeah, regulation interferes with scientific research, technological change and industrial growth. We could be a lot further advanced in bioengineering if it were not for idiot media studies graduates scaremongering by labelling GM foodstuffs ‘frankenfoods’, and encouraging government regulation.

However, science and tech development is a bit like squeezing a half filled toothpaste tube with the cap still on. If you constrict it in one place with regulation people will just go work in some other area, causing something unexpected to pop up. Of cause, if you relieve pressure somewhere else, by, say, shovelling in loadsamoney, you will get a lot popping up. Look at the massive strides in understanding climate that we are now seeing, research made possible by the hysteria generated by Gore and his mates, but producing results which are so inconvenient to the hysterics.

Is growth slowing down? In fact, I am convinced we have reached the takeoff point. Over the next ten years we will see as much technological change as we have seen in the past twenty five.

The low hanging fruit has been picked, but India, China and East Asia are adding their populations to the pool from which researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs are drawn, adding TWO THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED MILLION people to the roughly one thousand million in Europe/USA/Japan/others who currently support the tech backwork. Hell, imagine what the world would be like if Latin America, Africa and the Middle East were to join in as well? We would all be able to afford Nicks holiday home on Titan*.

If biotech is restricted in the west, for ethical reasons or because some people say yuk, it will just move to China and we will do something else. Over the next couple of decades we are in for a really wild ride. I hope you are up for it.

*Actually, I would prefer a small house and garden in an O’Neill habitat in Saturn orbit. The views from the local pub would be to die for.

PETA Prize

PETA, the People who Euthanise Thousands of Animals, have noticed this matter, the potential of meat being grown in bioreactors from stem cells.

They have offered a prize of one million dollars to the first person/organisation to produce factory grown chicken meat as a commercially viable product. Given their conditions, I guess a million will be a small contribution to the development/marketing/distribution costs, but still, any contribution will probably be welcome.

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