Tuesday, 30 September 2003

Today's Brain Post

I've been blogging about Politics, about Serendipitous Intellectual puzzles, and about Space recently. But not much about Brains. Well, over at A Small Victory, I found .... Pork Brains in Milk Gravy. I repeat, Pork Brains in Milk Gravy.

Ponder on that for a while.

If you follow the link, and read the comments, you'll find a recipe for a dish I have a certain fondness for - Black Pudding. I eat it about once every 2 years or so, but have one in my fridge now.

But after looking at Pork Brains in Milk Gravy. Pork Brains in Milk Gravy. Pork Brains in Milk Gravy... suddenly I'm not particularly Hungry.

Pork Brains in Milk Gravy.


Why?! Why?! Why?!
You don't understand! I just finished a nice bowl of clam chowder and now......ooooh, I don't feel so good! Really!
How could you?! How could anyone write those words let alone...
:: Cara Remal

My sympathies. If it's any consolation, I was just finishing off some lamb chops when I got your e-mail in reply. Just being reminded of the article.... let's just say that our Dog was grateful.

Hey, with the high holidays this week, I was just wondering...do you think pork brains in milk gravy is kosher? could you check the can for me?


Kosher? Why, it's even more Kosher than Oysters Kilpatrick!

Let's see...
Fish without scales - check
Meat and Milk together - check
Meat from a non-ruminant - check
I think the Worcestershire sauce is OK though, so only 3 Ecclesiastical Dietary laws are not–so–much–broken–as–shattered.

As regards checking the cans...

I'm in Australia. That means that it's likely that the nearest cans of Pork Brains (with Milk Gravy) are at least 10,000 miles away from me, in the far-off USA, with the Pacific Ocean separating me from them.

You have no idea how comforting that thought is. Even though I'm not a Red Sea Pedestrian.

Turn of Phrase of the Day

From a mailing list I'm on, discussing the latest findings regarding probabilities of extraterrestrial life :
> The smart money is on the idea that bacteria [are] all over the Universe.
> What it has evolved into is anybody's guess.

This would explain a lot of things -- telemarketers, for instance.
-Chris Weuve

British Understatement

From the Grauniad :
Captain Byambaa Chinzorig is, perhaps not surprisingly, a little touchy about 1258 and all that. When Mongolian forces last came to Iraq, led by the great warrior Prince Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, they sacked Baghdad, killed an estimated 800,000 people, brought to a bloody end the Abbasid caliphate and destroyed a vast array of ornate public buildings and a sophisticated irrigation system. Today, 745 years later, their plans are much more modest.

"We all know the history of the 13th century when the Mongolian soldiers captured Iraq but this time is completely different," said Capt Chinzorig, 30, a proud graduate of the Military University of Mongolia, Ulan Bator's equivalent of Sandhurst or West Point. "Of course, we have a different mission."
Or so one hopes.

Monday, 29 September 2003

What's Mandarin for "The Right Stuff"?

Some breaking news from The Australian :
A pool of 14 Chinese astronauts has arrived at a base in northwestern China ahead of the country's first manned space flight.

The pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper said two instructors Li Jinlong and Wu Jie were among the 14, but it denied reports in Hong Kong that the two would be chosen to orbit the earth in the Shenzhou V spacecraft.

Speculation has mounted over when China plans to launch its first manned space flight, with officials on September 16 saying only that it would take place in the next three months.

However, other space analysts have said the launch could come as soon as October 1st.

Three astronauts could in theory man the space flight, but according to analysts only one or two of the 14 who have undergone a decade of training would be chosen.

Snippet from a Mate in Iraq

"Got a letter from JA, seems to be vulnerable to "the Bug". Was told he couldn't blow up the munitions they found as the last blast raised a cloud that the weather satellites picked up :)"

Taboo - A Quiz about Morality

From Butterflies & Wheels, a blog that Norman Geras highly recommends,, comes a quiz about personal morality. I came across as less permissive than most, (Moralising 0.53 vs average 0.25), Interference Factor 0.4 vs average 0.16, that is, more likely to stick my nose into other people's business, and a Universalising factor of 1.00 vs an average of 0.42, completely disregarding custom as affecting moral decisions.

I think the test is slightly flawed - there are questions involving both private and public matters that are intermingled in the evaluation section which are quite seperate when asked. I won't give the game away by giving concrete cases, let's just say that I believe that certain actions which are harmless when performed by consenting adults in private should be publically discouraged should society be forced to become aware of them. Without a smidgin of hypocricy such as this, privacy has no value. But more than a smidgin is too much. Example : Shouting "Whites should be exterminated!" in one's own home, with no-one to hear, harms none (except possibly the speaker, though I think it to be a symptom not a cause of self-harm). Yet if such actions became known, sanctions should be imposed. Not legal ones (IMHO, and in this case), just expressions of societal disapproval, because a purely private act has, by being published, become a public one, (a tautology, to state the bleedin obvious) and hence of a different character.

Note that last leap of logic in the last phrase : it assumes without proof that public acts and private acts are by their nature, different. Which sounds suspiciously to me like "begging the question", and I'm the one who wrote it. Still, it's what I believe, and I'm willing to listen avidly to reasons why I'm wrong, wrong, Wrong.

Matters of Ethics and Morality are important to me. I've been involved in the past with making "better ways to kill people", and carry the burden and responsibility for at least 2 enemy deaths in combat caused by the use of systems I've created. The same techniques used to make weapons are exactly the techniques used to make so–called "Safety Critical" systems, things like Railway Control systems and Avionics, which have to work to a certain minimum level 100% of the time or lives will be lost. When teaching people who make such systems, I always get them to consider their ethical and moral responsibilities. This is serious stuff, just one mistake can kill people, directly or indirectly. Screw up, and that "smart bomb" hits an orphanage, not the Uranium enrichment plant nearby.

Anyway, the quiz gives one furiously to think. Please go visit the rest of the site, it has some truly erudite (and sometimes hilarious) demolition of Fashionable Nonsense.

First, thanks for some time ago adding lots of much needed detail to a comment I made at Winds of War
about the Pauline in prison affair. Much appreciated.

Now: public and private acts and are they (always) different.

First, let's see if we disagree.

I came out with logically consistent views but a "tension" in my answers because I regarded the failure on the bad son go visit his dead mother's grave as doing harm.

Partly this is a point of religion: those who wrote the quiz assumed dead=nonexistent, whereas I take a more Egyptian view: dead but not nonexistent. (I would not regard an undiscovered tomb robbery as being a private or harmless act either.) And naturally I don't
expect agreement on that, so there's no point in arguing it.

But I do think the private (~> no harm ~> no evil except perhaps by violating the arbitrary dicta of the gods) vs. public (~> undesirable hedonic consequences ~> perhaps evil) division breaks down with acts to which there were living witnesses, but to which there are or will be no living witnesses.

If the bad son's promise to his dying mother is irrelevant because there are no living witnesses, I am going to tell a story about Jim and Joe in a lonely place, and how frail old Jim brought Joe's IOUs, and burly young Joe brought rope, a shovel and some heavy duty garbage bags. Whatever passed between Jim and Joe in that lonely place is now irrelevant: it is now a private act, and Joe never felt a bit bad about it as he enjoyed a life less burdened by debt.

I think this is what it may come to if you take the view that acts, including speech acts, involving the soon to be dead count as public (and are therefore stringently assessed in moral terms), until the witnesses are dead, at which point the accounting is redone on the basis that the non-living/nonexistent don't count.

While I do not see a logical flaw if someone says "that is right, I would disapprove of the act till there was nobody living who had been harmed by it, and then I would reverse my moral judgment on Joe and what he did and give them both a pass," I do not like it a bit.

For this reason, I think that the public/private distinction, which I agree is very sensible and necessary in most circumstances, hits an awkward patch here. And the awkwardness ought to be resolved in favor of the dead.

Which means that since the son's promise to his mother was not a solitary act when he made it, it still has its moral force, and he ought to be reproved for his conduct and pressed to keep his word, if it was possible to do so. And in my story, not only is Joe a
murderer, he still owes Jim his money, and on both counts, Joe should be made to pay.

Your opinion?

Or were your issue with public/private distinctions in the example cases different?

David Blue

Irrelevant afterthough: I remember once reading a philosophical argument, the details of which I cannot at all recall, that meant that you could not pre-empt, because you have no rights against merely notional or prospective violence, it is only actual violence against which you have rights. Put that together with some sound materialist view that only the living have rights, and you can conclude that Jim had nothing to complain about before or afterwards, but the full protection of moral philosophy at the exact moment the shovel smashed his skull. :P

::David Blue

Someone who believes in an Omniscient Deity would have to argue that no act is truly "private", as God Sees All. I'm an agnostic rather than an atheist, due mainly to various abstruse physical phenomena and the partly intuitive, partly rational evaluation that for an uncaring Universe, there's far too much good around us. Why are Auschwitz and 9/11 the exception rather than the rule? The main reason for not having faith in some Deity is because one is not neccessary, yet I find much in the world that can plausibly be explained by postulating the existence of one. I don't have enough faith to be an atheist, but nowhere near enough faith to be a deist. I said "plausibly", not "most plausibly".

But I digress.

Your point, if I understand rightly, was that given the existence of some individuality post-mortem, then both logic and intuition give the same results: killing people is wrong, regardless of whether someone lives to tell the tale. And without such existence, there is a mismatch.

The mismatch is more perceived than real though, if you assume that Evil is timeless - an act that was once Evil remains Evil despite future happenings. For in the long run, everyone dies. The Sack of Magdeburg in the 17th century remains a horror, despite there being no-one now alive who witnessed it.

I'll reply more and at length in a future post. But may I state my thanks for giving my ethics a good work-out, and I'm glad I was able to help a little with the details of the Hanson affair.

Memorable Phrase of the Week

Quoted on Mark Steyn, this from Rich Lowry :
Developing mass commercial aviation and soaring skyscrapers was the west's idea; slashing the throats of stewardesses and flying the planes into the skyscrapers was radical Islam's idea.

Sunday, 28 September 2003

The X-Prize

From Space.com :
In a race to achieve the first privately funded manned spaceflight, two teams of rocket engineers are poised to compete for the $10 million X Prize by launching people to the edge of space and bringing them back safely twice within a two-week period.

Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, said he expects that one of the two teams will launch within the next few months, using rockets and spacecraft that are already being tested and prepared for the daring venture. A Mojave Desert airport in California has already been approved for use as a launch pad for the suborbital missions.

``We expect to have a winner within the next nine to 12 months,'' said Diamandis in a presentation Friday to officials of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The first front-runner (in Alphabetical order) is Armadillo Aerospace, which is using a conventional but shoestring rocket A quote which gives you an idea of how "sealing-wax and bailing-wire" their approach is:
We did some more work on our Russian space suit now that the blown zipper has been repaired....
Nonetheless, I wish them well, and their chances of a safe flight aren't too bad. Probably the same as Gagarin's. After making allowances for the 2nd-hand gear, and the commercial-grade equipment, they're going about things in a professional way. Hell, Wehner Von Braun and Co did more with 1940's vintage gear, and today's standard commercial metallurgy and quality-control is far superior to the best they had then. It's better than the late-50's and early-60's too, which is what Gargarin, Sheppard and so on had to rely on. Glad I'm not riding it though.

The other front-runner is the same mob that built the Voyager, the round–the–world non–stop amateur–built aircraft. That project barely succeeded by the skin of its teeth, but suceed it did. The organisation is Scaled Composites, and they have an X-15–like concept : a manned rocketplane dropped from a Mothership. In concept, less ambitous, but in execution, rather more. I hope they take fewer risks than they did with Voyager.

I doubt the winner will cover their own costs from the prize itself. But commercial endorsements for both winner and runners-up will be worth far more.

Go have a look at the X-prize team list. Those two are the current front-runners, but unforeseen problems could mean that one of the others could get in first. And those are just the contestants who have made it through the entry criteria. UFOs R Us otherwise known as Gravity Control Technologies of Budapest didn't make the cut, despite having some very ambitious designs based on quite possibly valid physical theories. The problem is that, amongst other things, their designs require technologies and materials that don't exist, in fact wholesale leaps in the bounds of Science. And the bulk of it smells suspiciously like snake-oil. Robert Fisk is more credible (though John Pilger less so). If they ever make a series of working models, I'd be very interested. But I think the probability of that is approximately..oh..about..umm.. zero. Yes, zero. Pity. I like the idea of genuine Flying Saucers.

UPDATE : Rocket Man has an interview with John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace.

But the Greatest of these is Charity

Today I did a swift doorknock around the local street for the Heart Foundation. A terrific spring day, bright sunshine and a cool, crisp wind. Blossoms everywhere.

And I was stunned by the outpouring of charity and goodwill. I doorknocked about 30 houses, got about 20 at home, and only 3 of those didn't give a few dollars, despite being disturbed late on a Sunday Morning by a complete stranger.
"Good Morning, Good Morning! It's that time of day again, when all the doorknockers and scroungers try to get you to part with your hard-earned cash for worthy causes. This one's for the Heart Foundation, would you care to make a Donation? $2 and up is Tax deductible."
Of the three, one was a young bloke with a house full of toddlers (I felt like giving him money rather than asking him for some, he looked as if he needed it), one was an old Greek (by the accent) who was obviously "careful with his Brass" and not about to give it away to moochers, and one was an aging Yuppie with a case of the Irrits and possibly PMT. I don't blame any of them for saying 'No'.

Everyone else – Everyone – gave me something. Sometimes only what pocket change they had immediately available. Sometimes after spending several minutes looking throughout the house for some petty cash. Always after examining my credentials and ID, they weren't paying me to go away, they wanted to "give so someone else could live".

These are people who live on my street, but most of whom I've never met. Unbelievable that such kindness could exist around me without me being aware of it.

In addition to the money, they gave me a greater gift : a restoration of my faith in the common human decency of ordinary people.


From the Sydney Morning Herald :
Europe's first mission to the moon has blasted off aboard a European Ariane rocket, space officials said.
Minor nitpick : last time I looked, Russia was part of Europe. Their first probe was sent over 44 years ago.
The Ariane-5 rocket carrying the SMART-1 Moon exploration probe and two commercial satellites blasted off at 8.14pm today (0914 Sunday AEST) from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch centre at Kourou in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.

Forty-one minutes after launch, the rocket released SMART-1 into space to begin a 15-month journey to reach lunar orbit. The 370kg probe will scan the Moon for up to 30 months.
For more details, see a previous post.
SMART-1 would cover a distance of 100 million kilometres to reach the Moon with only 60 litres of fuel, Giuseppe RACCA, ESA Project Manager said before the launch.
Even better fuel consumption than my Daihatsu Charade, which gets 17 km per litre. And that's the thing about Ion Drives – they don't accelerate very quickly – it will take 100 days to get to lunar Orbit compared with the Apollo's 3 – but their fuel efficiency is truly remarkable. Closer to the Sun than the Asteroid belt, Solar-powered Ion propulsion is the way to go. Further than that, you'll need a nuclear heat source, but still an Ion drive.

And in other news, Nigeria's first Satellite has been launched successfully by the team at Plesetsk. Congrats to all concerned.

Saturday, 27 September 2003

Dr Who Fortieth Anniversary Celebrations

23rd November 1963...... a day of portent. Originally scheduled for the day before, but delayed because a bloke called Kennedy had gotten himself shot on the 22nd, was the screening of the first episode of "Dr Who".

To celebrate the upcoming fortieth anniversary, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) is showing the complete series. I've been told this includes some episodes long lost, and supposedly found in a shed in New Zealand, some 700 episodes in all, but can't confirm it. At 4 episodes a week, the series should be broadcast continuously till what, some time in 2006.

A snippet from a recent programme on the ABC, repeating a segment that must be decades old :
MOLLY MELDRUM: What's it like to be in Australia, considering you travel the universe and span 500 years?

TOM BAKER: Oh, good. Good.

MOLLY MELDRUM: Sometimes they say Australia's 500 years behind the rest of the world. I mean, what is your assessment of that?

TOM BAKER: Oh, I would have thought it's longer than that.

I was going to leave it at that. But there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, and music that should have never, under any circumstances, been performed or recorded. And two such objects appeared on my scopes when I did some research on the subject.

So if you have Broadband, or at least a 56K modem, I present 2 tracks, each of 2 Megabytes. One by the Punk Band "The Go-Gos", entitled "I'm gonna spend Christmas with a Dalek", and the other (inspired by George Formby of Happy Memory), by a group called "Dalek Beach Party", a track entitled "Exterminate! Exterminate!, a contender for the Anthem of Al Qaeda.

Friday, 26 September 2003

Dreams of Space

Courtesy of A Voyage to Arcturus comes a link to the literature and Artwork of the Space Age that never really was. The referring page has a heartbreakingly poignant title : "You Will Go To The Moon", something that it was possible for some of us born in the late 50's to believe, and with good reason. Still, an earlier post of mine has already covered that.

More on the Nigerian Space Programme

Updating my previous post on the subject comes an article from Space Daily :
A joint team from Surrey Satellite Technology, Nigeria and Turkey have completed the preparation, test and integration of three new spacecraft as part of the Disaster Monitoring Constellation and are scheduled for launch onboard a Kosmos rocket at 06:11 GMT on Friday 26 September 2003.

The three spacecraft are: BILSAT for Turkish customer Tubitak-ODTU Bilten, NigeriaSat-1 for Nigerian customer National Space Research & Development Agency and UK-DMC funded by the UK Government.

Each spacecraft has passed through a rigorous testing process covering all flight equipment to ensure that they remain in full flight readiness following their transit from SSTL at the Surrey Space Centre in the UK to the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia.

The joint SSTL, Nigerian and Turkish launch team have concluded tests on all payloads, gathering and analyising data to ensure that each system is fully operational and ready for launch.

Each of the onboard batteries have been trickle-charged to full power and the propulsion tanks filled with butane, having mounted each spacecraft on a special jig to enable the filling process.

Electro-initiators on each spacecraft to separate from the launch vehicle have been prepared and full checks carried out with the Kosmos launch vehicle to ensure that electrical interfaces are compatible to provide sufficient power for proper operation of the separation systems.

Throughout the three-week test and integration process, know-how training has continued for the four Nigerian and Turkish engineers at Plesetsk. Meanwhile, SSTL engineers will continue to train Turkish and Nigerian ground station engineers in Ankara and Abuja respectively as satellite commissioning commences immediately after launch.
Launching even a small satellite requires an awful lot of these steps, and each one absolutely, positively has to be 100% right. But once you've got a team trained up, the Sky's no longer the limit.
The DMC will provide daily imaging at 32m resolution and up to a 600km swath across the world, enabling rapid repeat imaging for regular updates of disaster situations - something not achievable by any other commercial satellite currently in orbit.

The DMC is a novel international partnership, brought together by SSTL and supported by the British National Space Centre (BNSC) MicroSatellite Applications in Collaboration (MOSAIC) programme, which has given financial assistance to small satellite programmes.

An enhanced DMC satellite for China, currently under construction at SSTL at the Surrey Space Centre, will join the DMC when it is launched in early 2005.
So much for the Economist's surmise that this is just some "Prestige Boondoggle by the Jungle Bunnies".

While the Politicians, Philosophers, Press and Pundits are playing paltry power-games, some of us Nerds are trying to do something concrete about a few of the world's problems. Though not all Politicians have recto-cranial inversion. Kudos to the UK Govt for financing this. Someone's got their priorities right.

You know in order to get this constellation up and running, there must have been intimate co–operation and trust between all parties. The Russian launch service providers. The Turks, Nigerians, Brits, and Chinese operators. Literally hundreds of people from very different walks–of–life, religions, ethnicities, cultures, all having to do their own bit 100% right, no less, in order to have a chance of success (Bad Luck can still cause failure, but Good Luck is not sufficient to succeed).

It was exactly the same with FedSat, a quite similar satellite. Everyone in Sweden (who provided the Star Camera), South Africa (who provided the Magnetometer Boom), Canada (who provided the Attitude Control System), NASA (who provided the GPS system), Japan (who provided the launcher), and all the Universities and Companies in Australia who did the rest had to work hand-in-glove, and did so. And let's not forget the Brits who did the basic design, or all the people at the European Space Agency who developed the telemetry and telecommunications protocols we used.

Maybe there's a lesson here somewhere...

To my British, Turkish, Nigerian and Chinese Brothers–in–Arms, Good Luck mates! May you too soon know the joy of being able to look up in the sky and know that you placed that star up there, and that it benefits in some small way all Humankind.

How Embarressing

From the ABC :
Northern Territory police say a tour guide has been attacked by a small freshwater crocodile in the Kakadu National Park.

The guide was swimming in Barramundi Gorge with a group of 16 tourists when the attack took place about 10am ACST.

Sargeant Sean Gill from Jabiru police says the guide tried to fend off the 1.5 metre crocodile but it attacked, leaving him with a puncture mark to his chest and a large cut to his hand.

"He's a bit embarrassed about the whole situation," he said."His injuries are non-life threatening, he's a bit sore and suffering as a result of the attack at the moment."
Being attacked by a 6-metre Saltie is one thing – but a piddling little 1.5m Freshwater Croc? He'll never live it down.

More from The Australian :
Unlike saltwater crocodiles, freshwater crocodiles generally do not pose a hreat to humans, Kakadu National Park projects manager Georgianna Fien.

"This is a very unusual incident," Ms Fien said.

"It's very unusual for a freshwater crocodile to behave in this way."

Authorities said the man was swimming with a group of 16 tourists at the Maguk plunge pool, at Barramundi Gorge, about 100km south of Jabiru, when he was attacked.

A person standing near the water hole saw the crocodile and yelled out to warn swimmers it was on one side of the pool.

"The crocodile has then submerged and attacked the man," Jabiru police officer in charge Sergeant Shawn Gill said.

"The man fended away the crocodile with his left hand, then warned others in the water to get out before doing so himself."

The man managed to walk back to the carpark with his group and drove to Cooinda, where he was taken by ambulance to Jabiru Health Clinic.

Sergeant Gill said the man was released from the clinic this afternoon. The tour group is continuing its tour of Kakadu with another tour guide, he said.


Earlier this month a 10-year-old girl was seriously injured when a 2.13m saltwater croc chomped on her leg as she swam unsupervised with several other children at a billabong at the Patonga Aboriginal community outstation.

And in April, former Kakadu tour guide Glenn Robless received a three-year suspended jail sentence in the NT Supreme Court for making a dangerous omission that caused the death of 23-year-old Isabel von Jordan.

Ms von Jordan was taken by the 4.6metre, 500kg croc during a late night dip in a billabong in Kakadu National Park with a tour group last year.

Kakadu National Park warns tourists against swimming at any of the water holes in the park, which is inhabited by up to 10,000 crocodiles.
Crocs have right of way. Even miniscule Freshwater ones you can fend off with a punch to the snout.

Thursday, 25 September 2003

General Wesley Clark

I've just posted a rather long article over on The Command Post. Long enough so that my opinions changed markedly between the beginning and the end, as I did more research.

It started out as a hatchet–job, born of instinctive outrage at seeing a photo of a man obviouslly palling–it–up with a Scumbag of the first order, a true War Criminal.

As I dug deeper, looking for the dirt, I noticed a disturbing pattern: the criticism of the man was always coming from people with decided idealogical axes to grind. Some of the juiciest bits I discarded as being all–too–likely to be "Sexed Up" or wholly fabricated in order to prove a point. My view of this guy changed, he was no longer the ambulatory offal that I took him to be, but a complex and contradictory character.

General Wesley Clark appears to be a man of overwhelming ambition. Personally brave, possessed of both charisma and charm, and with a keen intellect that is disturbingly superior to my own. The Ultimate Political Animal, willing to go to any lengths for personal power (all in a good cause, of course). These qualities, not often found together, might just make him somone who will be a truly competent power-broker. Such Fanatical Ambition is not always bad, in fact it's a positive boon under some circumstances, as is the ability to compromise ones principles, morality and ethics in order to avoid disaster. Utterly Ruthless, he has a worrying penchant for taking things very personally. He's quite willing to Lie shamelessly in order to advance his party's cause, and go to bed with the most raddled of political whores. But those qualities sometimes make good Leaders. Politics traditionally makes strange bedfellows, and Truth is so precious it must sometimes be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.

But (always with the Buts!)... I'd hate to have to serve under him. Because I know that if it came to a choice between doing what's right for his subordinates, or doing what's right for his own career, then the choice is no choice at all. He'd spend lives like so many rounds of ammunition if it infinitesimally increased the possibility of personal success. Now he's no coward, quite the contrary, he's been willing to put his own life on the line in order to advance his career. I have no reason to believe that he wouldn't employ the same methods in the service of his country, even to the extent of laying down his own life if need be. That could make him a great President, (great Leaders are seldom morally sound) except for one thing.

When put in a position where some kind of personal stand could be taken, he always did what was most politically expedient, even when the people whose policies he was supposed to be implementing really needed somone to tell them they were full of it, and say "NO!". A Politician to the end. His judgement is questionable, because he's never used it, except to say what he thought his superiors wanted to hear, and do what would he thought would give him the most brownie points. Even if it meant World War 3.

I guess I've changed my mind about him again. I will say this - he'd make a superb President. Of France.

Nigerian Space Programme

From The Economist, via Africa Pundit :
Later this month, Nigeria's first satellite, a box of gadgets the size of a washing machine,...
In Australia, we prefer to say the similar FedSat design is "the size of a Bar Fridge"
...will be launched into space from Siberia. It was built by a British firm for the Nigerian government, and will cost $13m. Such a sum would barely buy you a sandwich on the international space station, but to Nigerians, it sounds a lot, and many are wondering if the money is being wisely spent.

The satellite is the first step in a rather ambitious space programme. The president, Olusegun Obasanjo, wants to launch a second, for television and telephone communications, and hopes eventually to see Nigerian engineers building a satellite in Nigeria. All this, says the government, will “enhance the quality of life of people” and alleviate poverty.

How, exactly? Well, the first satellite will take photos of Nigeria and beam them back home.
So far, so good.
...Nigeria has entered a timeshare deal with six other countries. Each is to provide a satellite, which will form a constellation around the earth. When its own satellite is out of sight, Nigeria can download pictures from one of the others. This is a relatively cheap way of obtaining 24-hour surveillance.

But not the cheapest. Space agency officials admit that they could buy data from existing satellite operators for less. They hope to recoup money by selling images to corporations or other African countries, but sceptics scent a loss-making prestige project, of which Nigeria has endured several in the past. The government says the satellite will help Nigeria “leap-frog” from its present state (awful roads, telephones that rarely work), into the space age. But Sam Chukwujekwu, an engineering professor, thinks the money would be better spent on education. “You can't leap-frog from a mud foundation,” he says.
Which rather misses the point. This satellite is not so much to provide a surveillance capability (though that's a useful benefit too), as to teach Nigerians how to Do Space. At first, buying a "bus" or chassis built overseas, and installing a home-grown or overseas-built payload. This involves getting the managerial interfaces right with all sorts of groups, from International Telecommunications Unions (who allocate frequencies for the data links) to the British Satellite Manufacturer, to the Russian launch service provider. Then, step-by-step, having a greater and greater local content, often selling services to other Nations' space programmes. But that first step had better not be too ambitious, or the risks are too high. What they're doing sounds about right. It's similar to what we attempted to do with FedSat, though because SIL went bust ( most of their staff went to Surrey, and are now working on the Nigerian programme), we had to do most of it ourselves.

Australia has a requirement for lots of cheap microsats to do disaster-relief and other remote-sensing over our own region. We can buy some – not all, but most – of the data from third parties. If they'll let us, and don't ban us on the grounds we helped free East Timor or Iraq. And at their price. But we'd like to get all, not just some, of the data we need.

We may have to buy some expertise from the Nigerians, as they will have solved many of the problems we'll be faced with.

They may even end up making a profit, and making our own programme cheaper. I think the concept is called "International Trade". You see we don't believe that <sarcasm>"those Darkies"</sarcasm> are less intelligent than ourselves, nor that they're unworthy of being considered our equals. I may be completely wrong, but I detect a faint whiff of arrogance and even racism in the Economist article. Maybe I'm being over-sensitive. But maybe not.

Do as I say, not as I do

It's not often that you'll find me quoting our Esteemed Prime Monster, John Howard. Australians have a traditionally low opinion of all politicians – one often confirmed when they end up in pokey – and to quote one is like quoting a Lawyer or an Axe-Murderer.
But when someone, anyone, is right, they're right. Even Robert Fisk has been right sometimes. So in that spirit, here's John Howard's words, courtesy of The Australian :
"I hear the French and others complaining about the Americans and us on Iraq," he said on Melbourne radio 3AW.

"I might remind them that the bombing of Serbia and the action to help the people of Kosovo was not carried out by the NATO countries including France with the approval of the UN Security Council because the Russians said they would veto any resolution authorising that military action.

"So the relevant countries including France just went ahead and did it. In legal terms that is exactly the same as what happened in Iraq.

"It was a perfectly legal thing we did, but it's a bit hypocritical of others who, having themselves ignored the Security Council, now turn around and say 'You must never do anything which does not involve the Security Council'."
He also has views pretty close to identical to my own on the UN :
He said the five current permanent members would be left with the power of veto because realistically they would never give it up.

"Then perhaps you could add another five permanent members to reflect the geopolitical realities of the modern world and not the world of 1945," he said.

"That is to include countries like Japan and Indonesia and Indian and perhaps Brazil and perhaps Nigeria or another country in Africa."

Mr Howard said the UN did much good work in many areas and on many occasions provided the forum to broker an international peace deal

"But in the end the UN interventions are only effective if there are individual countries willing to be involved in that intervention and to lead it," he said.

"If Australia had not been willing to becomes involved in East Timor, does anybody imagine that other countries would have led that intervention? Of course they wouldn't.

"We should neither overstate nor understate the relevance of the UN."
A Polly with nous. And a PM at that. Whoda Thunk it?

Permalinks Back up

Internal links are now working again.

Wednesday, 24 September 2003

The History Wars

Janet Albrectsen in The Australian describes a recent phenomenon that is causing a quiet revolution in the study of History - and perhaps other fields of knowledge. It's probably no coincidence that it has happened at a time when academic empowerment has become Democratised to an extent never before seen on the planet. There are now literally hundreds of millions of people on the Internet - all with the equivalent of an unlimited library card with access to primary sources.
The study of History is now longer solely in the hands of the New Aristocrats - the Pundits who by virtue of lifelong study in an incestuous little coterie all tend to think along the same conventional, fashionable lines. Now oft-times this doesn't mean they are wrong. But it has meant that they've been unchallenged in their assumptions.
More than seven years of living in the nerdorium has produced a vigorous debate about issues once banished from the national conversation. Dare one call it a golden age? Under Howard, the nerds have started asking questions. And historians like Stuart Macintyre want it to stop. Yet he should be chuffed at how history is filling our newspapers, sparking debate, piquing our interest.

According to Macintyre's latest book, The History Wars (co-authored with Anna Clark), 1996 marks the official arrival not of the nerds but of the History Warriors. If we must persist with Macintyre's war-like imagery, the most you can call it is Revenge of the Nerds.

As new Prime Minister, Howard had the audacity to criticise "the attempt to rewrite history in the service of a partisan political cause". Macintyre takes great offence at this. It suggests historians have betrayed their duty to objectivity, he says. Yet Macintyre stakes out a deeply partisan position as he invokes the language of war.

Macintyre's partisan battleground ledger reads like this – Howard's "wedge politics" v Keating's "diversity and tolerance". Howard's "strategy of refusal" v Keating's "egalitarian generosity". Howard's "necklace of negatives" up against Keating's Big Picture.

By the concluding chapter, the History Warriors have become "neo-conservative ideologues", the "right-wing polemicists", the "Australian deniers" of the stolen generations, the bullies who "intimidate" and "impugn motives", the opinionated columnists (that's me), those who write with the ring of a Stalinist ideologue (Gerard Henderson), the History War Crusaders, the "fundamentalists" who hand down "arbitrary edicts" and "ridicule and abuse" their opponents. The History Warriors launch "pre-emptive strikes" and use "weapons of mass destruction". This is not the language of a dispassionate historian. This is political advocacy dressed up as history.

War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength
The problem is that much Historical Literature has been exactly like this - political advocacy that sees events through a distorting lens, one that colours the whole picture. Things have gotten to the stage where it has been claimed by the mainstream Post-Modernists that there is no "Reality" to perceive, all is bias, spin and cultural artefact, so there's no point trying to be "Objective" : Falsehood is Truth, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery, Bush = Hitler.

Such arguments are now most often adduced by the Left, but historically, it was the Moonbat Right that invented the concept. "The Triumph of the Will", the precept that all Reality is Malleable to the Ubermensch - or, slightly later, the New Communist Man. But the Gods of the Copybook Headings will not be denied, as shown by the Economic Tragedy in Zimbabwe.
Let this History Warrior suggest that conjuring up the imagery of war – an immoral war &ndashl; is misplaced. This is a healthy and long overdue exchange of views, sometimes heated, sometimes vitriolic, but a debate. Nothing more, nothing less.

If it feels brutal, like war, it is because in their antebellum world historians like Macintyre were free from real debate for too long. They have forgotten what it feels like to have your arguments probed and challenged and, in some cases, destroyed.

I'm not saying that the Leftist-Agenda'd Professional Historians are wrong: I'm saying that they should at least make a paltry effort to prove their case using objective fact, rather than presenting the comfortable, mainstream opinion as incontravertable Holy Writ, to question which is Heresy. They may well be right - but without proof, or even a good argument, how are we to know?
In Macintyre's history wars, the aggressors refuse to accept, holus-bolus, Ronald Wilson's claim about a stolen generation of indigenous children. They are aggressors for suggesting flaws in Wilson's Bringing Them Home report : flaws that were exposed when the Federal Court rejected the test cases of Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo.

The next aggressor in Macintyre's war is Windschuttle, who challenges the orthodox view of genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines and the extent and nature of frontier warfare in Fabrication. How astounding that Macintyre, the historian, offers only a passing nod to Windschuttle's profound contribution in checking sources and uncovering serious errors of fact that for too long have shaped the teaching of indigenous history. Admittedly that nod is more than academics such as Robert Manne can manage.

In response to Windschuttle's expose, Lyndall Ryan admitted to Channel Nine's Sunday program on May 25 that "historians are always making up figures". Why is it war to expect that, if historians are going to make guesses about events and the number of Aboriginal deaths, they tell us they are guessing? Watson told The Weekend Australian: "Windschuttle should be put in a bag and thrown in the Murray." So much for free debate. John Stuart Mill would hand out F grades to these intellectuals.

Macintyre is surely entitled to think us nerds for the views we have, but he is not entitled to try to close down debate by casting it in terms of an unjust war. Indeed, he'd better get used to it. The nerds are here to stay.

And we'll fact-check your asses. Some of us will even have the guts to publish the results even when they contradict our own long-cherished prejudices and misconceptions. Sadly, some of us won't - bloggers in particular tend to read opinions they agree with, and fractionate into the same cosy little insider's clubs that have been the bane of Academe. And those on the Right are just as prone to this - maybe even more prone - as those on the Left. We all need our views to be challenged. Not by Propaganda and Unsubstantiated assertion, but by facts. The peril is not that the Covens of the Cognoscenti will snatch back the control that they have lost; they've already lost, although they don't know it yet. The great danger is that we, the Nerds, will become what we're fighting against - a groups of like-minded, closed-minded arrogant and proudly ignorant punditocracies. As Nietzsche said :
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

Permalinks Broken

All the links internal to the site don't work at the moment. Quelle Bummer.

Upgrade Your Brain to Wireless

From ZDnet Australia :
It could well be the ultimate in hands-free adaptors: A researcher claims that in a decade, people will have wireless networks in their heads.

This will enable direct mind-to-mind and mind-to-machine communications, claimed University of Reading cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick, who specialises in artificial intelligence and robotics. He is best known for his work in cybernetics, the study of control systems, especially systems that blend human nerves with electronic networks.

In a talk to students yesterday, he said that he plans to surgically implant a radio chip in his brain in about a decade, when such cybernetics technology becomes available. He is so keen on the idea that he claims the worst part of the process will be removing the device after the experiment.

An augmented brain will get so used to its powers--for example, being able to switch on a light by thought--that it will not be able to cope without the implant, he said.

"It will be such a trauma to remove it, the brain might not live. The implant goes in and stays in," Warwick said.

The brain implant will remain in his brain and will be permanent. In a widely-publicised experiment--some said stunt--a probe that was implanted in 2002 to link Warwick's nervous system to a computer and was removed after a few months.

He said that humans have limited capabilities to understand the world in three dimensions and communicate very slowly through speech, and hopes to use machine intelligence to expand human senses and to communicate through thought.

However, Warwick has yet to find a serious candidate to undergo the brain implant with him due to the possibility of operating-room complications and other life-endangering problems.

The U.K.-based researcher first implanted a chip in his arm that transmitted information to a computer in 1998, and claimed to be the world's first true cyborg, or cybernetic organism. This experiment allowed Warwick to be tracked as he moved about the department of cybernetics at the university.

In February 2002, Warwick implanted a probe into his left arm which allowed signals to be transmitted between his nervous system and a computer. The purpose was to investigate the transmission of movement, though or emotion signals from one person to another.
That's all we need: Telepathic Spam. Or a Hacker who wants to take control of your new and permanently installed "Sixth Sense". Although I'm all in favour of the idea in concept, I'd want a really good encryption on the communications protocols and fail-safe anti-jamming circuitry. This needs some careful thought before implementation - but implemented it should be. I'm not greatly worried about the Ops room dangers or medical complications : I'm terrified that the security measures will be less than first-rate, and probably tenth-rate like most of our communications infrastructure. Danger, Will Robinson!

Tuesday, 23 September 2003

Roo Nominated for award

Further to the previous post, comes this from News Corp. :
A Pet kangaroo that saved the life of a farmer who had been struck by a falling branch may receive a bravery award.


The family's pet kangaroo, Lulu, stood over Mr Richards' injured and unconscious body, barking for help for about 15 minutes.

RSPCA president Hugh Wirth has urged the Richards family to nominate Lulu for an RSPCA National Bravery Award.

"From my point of view, it's a darn good story, and I would hope that Lulu is nominated," Dr Wirth said.

Monday, 22 September 2003

Weird Wide Web

From the ABC :
A man knocked unconscious by a tree branch during the weekend's storms in north-eastern Victoria has been rescued, reportedly, by a Morwell family's pet kangaroo.

The kangaroo kept banging on the door of the family's house in Tanjil South, then led it to the man lying unconscious about 150 metres away.

Authorities have allowed the family to care for the kangaroo since it was little, because it is blind in one eye and thinks it is a dog.

Rural Ambulance Victoria paramedic Eddie Wright says the man was taken to the Austin Hospital with serious head injuries.

He says he could have died if he had not been found until later.

"The kangaroo alerted them to where he was and has gone and sat down next to him and that's how they found him," he said.

"Especially when you consider it's not a pet as such, it's just an animal that's adopted them over the years and comes and goes as it is free to, they were lucky yesterday it was in the area."

Sunday, 21 September 2003

Space Shuttle Economics

From Tech Central Station comes some unpleasant truths about the US Manned Space program, the Shuttle, and the Great White Hope that is the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) :
Depending on how you do the accounting, it costs around three billion dollars per year to operate the Shuttle, almost regardless of launch rate. That's simply the annual cost of maintaining the logistics and engineering "tail" that supports the space "tooth," as represented by actually putting people and hardware into orbit a few times a year. Because the only mission for the Shuttle now (particularly since we learned the danger of sending it to non-station orbits) is to support the station, and the station has so little purpose, the number of flights required is low.

This is a problem because of average versus marginal costs.

Average costs are the total annual program costs divided by the number of flights. For Shuttle, because of the high annual fixed cost, and the low flight rate, this results in a cost per flight of hundreds of millions of dollars -- over half a billion by even conservative estimates.

The marginal cost per flight is the part of the cost that has to be incurred in order to fly the next flight, given that the system is already operating. It's computed by adding up the total annual costs for N flights, and subtracting that from the total annual costs of N + 1 flights. It basically consists of things that are expended, or have to be replaced or maintained each flight, such as propellants, external tank, etc., and mission-specific crew training. This cost is more like a hundred fifty million per flight or less.


Unfortunately, OSP will not significantly reduce costs, and may even increase them, at least if one does normal (as opposed to governmental) cost accounting.

First, a mission that could have been performed with a single Shuttle launch will now require at least two, and perhaps three flights of a still-expensive expendable (probably on the order of a hundred million per flight). One to deliver the OSP, providing delivery/return of the crew, and one or two to deliver the payload that the Shuttle would normally carry in its payload bay.

Second, consider the cost of operating the OSP itself. Let's be generous and assume (improbably) that NASA will actually reduce the work force at the Cape and in Houston currently devoted to maintaining the Space Shuttle and training astronauts (it will be hard to do that, because of Congressional pressure to maintain the jobs). Let's be wildly optimistic and assume that they can cut it by two thirds. That's probably still several hundred million dollars per year.

That means that, given NASA current trivial plans (four annual flights to space station), the average cost of processing an OSP flight will be on the order of a hundred million per flight. So now our "Shuttle replacement" is up to three or four hundred million dollars per equivalent Shuttle mission.

But wait, there's more!

Estimates to develop and build the fleet of OSPs range from a few to a dozen billion dollars, and history teaches us that even NASA's high estimates often turn out to be low. That money will be spent mostly up front, before the system even flies. It will have to be amortized over the number of future flights.

As a simple sample calculation, suppose that it costs nine billion dollars, and we spend one and a half billion per year for the next six years. Let's say further that it will fly first at four per year for several years, then at eight per year out to the year 2030, for a total of 144 flights. One can build a spreadsheet to determine how much must be charged per flight for that amortization for various discount rates (i.e., the fact that future dollars are worth less than present dollars, reflecting the very real cost of money).

Even being fair, and discounting the development costs as well, a discount rate of five percent (meaning that a dollar this year is worth only ninety five cents next year and that in ten years its value has been reduced to sixty three cents) would require a per-flight charge of over a hundred and thirty million dollars. Seven percent yields a hundred seventy million, and a ten percent discount rate requires a whopping quarter of a billion dollars per future OSP flight just to amortize its development and construction costs.

Some might say that I've got an unrealistically low flight rate, but you'll be hard pressed to find anyone at NASA projecting a higher one, partly because they know that the marginal cost (the cost of the expendables needed to support it) is always going to be high, and not within any predicted budget projections. Only a truly fully reusable space transport has a chance of getting its per-flight costs down to the point at which elasticity of demand (the fact that when the price of something goes down, the demand for it goes up) can reasonably be assumed to kick in, thus permitting a high enough flight rate to make the amortization costs reasonable.

Add this to the operating costs already described above, and it's clear that this is at the very best a break-even proposition. Note that we don't have to worry about amortizing Shuttle development costs -- they're already, in accounting terms, "sunk," and unavoidable, whereas the development costs for OSP are entirely avoidable, given a little fiscal sense.

That, in a nutshell, is why the government has never funded a Shuttle replacement -- we simply don't plan enough activity in government manned spaceflight to justify it.
He's right regarding the problem. The US must either leave it to the Chinese (as the remaining Shuttles wear out or crash) or spend a lot more on a much more ambitious programme than the one they've got.
As regards the criticism of NASA in the article - my own experiences of NASA have been limited to co-operating with them on the GPS system on FedSat. Solely from that evidence, I have the highest respect for them.

Let's Go Fly a Kite

Carmel, Andrew and I attended the National Kite Flying Festival on the lawns of the National Library today. I don't know if the World Record (676 kites in the air simultaneously) was broken - though if not, they must have come close - but that didn't matter.

Do you have any idea what it's like taking a 2-year old boy Kite Flying?

Life just doesn't get any better.

Native Australian Degustation Menu

Taking a break from the Deep and Meaningful - and the Shallow and Meaningless but fun - I attended the wedding of my Sister-in-Law on the weekend. It took place at Edna's Table, a decidedly upmarket but unconventional Restaurant in downtown Sydney. Here's the Menu:

Fantastic FoodEven More Fantastic Food

Seared Scallop, Lemon Myrtle Miso Beure Blanc
Morgan Semillon 2001, Hunter Valley NSW

Cheesefruit Tartlet
Red Hill Pinot Grigio 2002, Mornington Peninsula Vic

Crocodile & Nori Parcel, Hot Sour Broth
Chapel Hill Unwooded Chardonnay 2003, McLaren Vale SA

Thai Style Emu Salad & Enoki Mushrooms
Tamar Ridge Pinot Noir 2001, North-east Tasmania

Grilled Kangaroo Fillet, Warm Beetroot & Kumera Salad, Ponzu Dressing
Hand Picked by John Reynolds Cabernet Merlot 2001, Orange NSW

Trio of Dessert ( Riberry Icecream, Rosella Tart, Wattleseed Creme Brulee)
Bethany Late Harvest Riesling 2002, Barossa SA

As some of the menus state, the Restaurant is a glimpse of alternate history: the French explorer La Perouse was only narrowly beaten to Botany Bay by Captain Cook. Had New South Wales been settled by the French, as perhaps Nouvelle Normandie, then this may have been the cuisine.

In any event, the dishes were the equal of anything I've ever tasted anywhere in the world. BTW the price for the above is rather less than $80 US per head. And we had a rambuctious 2-year-old in tow, who the staff treated with every consideration and lavish affection, despite having a full house. I've travelled the world, and to find such a treasure in my own backyard was a very pleasant surprise. Very Highly, Recommended.

Friday, 19 September 2003

End of an Era

R.I.P Slim Dusty, 1927-2003. May the Pub where you are never lack Beer.

Here be Ye Turn of Phrase o' th'Week, me Lads. Arr.

From Power Line :
I'd feel sorry for Gilligan if it weren't obvious that he acted out of malice rather than incompetence.
Keelhaulin' be too good fer the Bilgerat I say, Hang him from the Yardarm, or make him Walk the Plank to Davey Jones's Locker. Arr. First a Taste O' th'Cat, then a good tauntin'. Arrr.

Find your Inner Pirate. Arrr.

Or at least, find your Pirate Name.

Avast there ye swabs, there be a Blog for ye to be visitin' today, says I. Arr.

And finally, there do be help available for ye landlubbers and scurvy dogs who can't talk like Pirates. Arr.

Thursday, 18 September 2003

Arr, this be a short Reminder, matey

Graphic from Cafeshops

Weird Wide Web

More tales too strange to be false. From "A Voyage to Arcturus", thence the Kansas City Star : Toynbee Tiles.
When you look at it closely you can see that it's some kind of epoxy or super hard plastic that's actually inlaid in the asphalt itself. To do this would require a lot of prep. You'd have to heat the road surface. You'd have to have special equipment. An operation like this would take some time and if you wanted to avoid being seen while you were installing something like this it would require some planning. Whoever did this has fairly sophisticated know- how."

Detective Butler nods. "Maybe. But he's still psycho."

Wednesday, 17 September 2003

Counterblast to "Grumpy Old Men"

From John Carter McKnight :
This gripe began as ironic nostalgia when 21st Century reality paled in comparison to the projections of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lately that claim has devolved into a favored lament of grumpy old men in the space community, whose stubborn refusal to acknowledge society's priorities threatens any real effort to advance our presence in space.
Count me in with the Grumpy Old Men then.
A full-bore cranky-geezer rant was delivered recently by science fiction writer Spider (not to be confused with Kim Stanley) Robinson at the World Science Fiction Convention, and adapted as an op-ed article in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Spider's a good mate of mine - he still has the Atrax Robustus paperweight I gave him many moons ago. He's quite capable of defending himself, so I won't comment on the phrase "cranky geezer rant".
The article gives voice to those in the space community who long for a future that never was. Whether in fiction or in policy, many are selling the unwanted solutions of a failed past. They find themselves baffled by their loss of market share, but rather than identifying society's concerns and offering credible solutions, they blame us for our crass refusal to buy their old whine in new bottles.
As opposed to the Chinese, who find that particular vintage quite palatable.
Robinson argues that science fiction is in a critical and financial decline because "[i]ncredibly, young people no longer find the real future exciting. They no longer find science admirable. They no longer instinctively lust to go to space. SF's central metaphor and brightest vision, lovingly polished and presented as entertainingly as we know how to make it, has been largely rejected by the world we meant to save."
What is it, 2 million of the US population people claim to have been "abducted by aliens". At least one US Presidential Hopeful wants to ban Orbital Mind Control Lasers and Chemtrails - the insidious DiHydrogen Monoxide spread by airliners. Yes, Science has been rejected by a large proportion of young and not-so-young people.
He is indisputably right about our rejection of the mid-20th Century view of the future. Contemporary culture cannot be understood without a firm grasp of this key truth. But by no means does it follow that a rejection of 1950s "conquest of space" visions means a rejection of science fiction, or a closing of the door to space.
But the wholesale rejection of rationalism that is post-modernism et al has had many casualties. The environment. Space Science. Free Trade. The abolition of Dictatorships so that something better can take their place.
Science fiction has long been what the Western once was: adventures idealizing the values and technologies at the forefront of the newest, most interesting realms. In the Fifties, that meant space, and engineering, and the customs of the technocrat and megaproject engineer.

What typical Cold War-era sci fi produced was a linear extrapolation of technological development while assuming culture as a constant.
Hence such typical sci fi as Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" (which explores the sociological implications of voluntary service required for the franchise), Asimov's "The Caves of Steel" which deals with a society wholly agrophobic, anything by Ursula K. LeGuin, anything by Harlan Ellison, in fact... pretty much anything. Exploring the sociological implications of changing technology was always the staple fare of "Sci Fi". The rest - Star Wars et al - was rather sneeringly referred to as "Space Opera", good for entertainment value (and therefore to be prized), but not of great worth and moment.
The future we chose, while keeping us planetbound longer than anticipated, has been much more complex. Technology branched into unexpected directions, stifling heavy engineering while innovating in communications at lightspeed. And, most profoundly, culture itself transformed just as rapidly.
As predicted by the "Grumpy Old Men" who wondered at the long-term implications of easily-available Birth Control, or declining standards of education, or the tendencies towards a Talibanesque Theocracy in Heinlein's "Revolt in 2001".
The reason we - and I mean I - chose computers as a field of study was because Space was dead in 1976. I had to look inwards, because my way outwards was blocked. In a small way, this "Old Geezer", like many "Old Geezers", made much of the world we live in today. Everything from the Internet to Smart Bombs, we take the credit and the blame. And what killed the US Manned Space Program? As Mark Whittington said:
... the Apollo Program, born of the Cold War politics of the early 1960s, perished of the Vietnam era politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Neil Armstrong had barely lifted his foot from the surface of the Moon when people began to decide that we now needed to spend more money on social programs and less on space adventures. We had beaten the Soviets, now it was time to help the poor, clean the environment, and so on. Liberal politicians and the media encouraged the attitude. Some did that because they believed the proposition that every dollar spent on space was food taken from the mouths of the hungry. Others, with more sinister motives, saw an irresistible issue. Then Senator Walter Mondale expressed the latter very well, in the wake of the Apollo Fire, when he said, "I don't give a hoot in hell for the program or your future. I intend to ride this thing for all the political advantage I can get."
Well, look at the vast improvements the money has bought us. Is the plight of the poor in Kenya or Zimbabwe any better now than it was then? The decliining longevity and per-capita-income says emphatically "NO". What about the Urban Poor in the US? Or the environment? How about Dr Martin Luther King's vision of a day where Race meant nothing, an end towards Racial Quotas and preferences based on skin colour?
The end of the 1960s saw a rejection of technocracy, for many valid reasons.

Industrial-age organizational methods - standardization, hierarchy, bureaucracy, mass movements - were rejected as dehumanizing and immoral. They were supplanted by better methods - networks, customization, niche marketing - made practicable by technological revolutions in communications and production.

Industrial age attitudes - seeing the environment as a storehouse of resources rather than as our home, nature as a thing to be conquered rather than protected, body-count approaches to warfare - were rejected as well.
As these were all products of our fathers' era - the era of World War 2, Macarthyism and the Depression - we rejected them, not you. We didn't and don't reject technocracy, we want to see all people, not just the fortunate few in Western countries gain the benefits of clean water, female sufferage, and the choice to adopt or reject Democracy. And how many of those "better methods" - such as the improvement of global communications - were direct outgrowths of what little Space Programme we had? And how many other advances have we missed out on by not taking Space seriously?
Industrial age politics - governmental control of industry, the choice of state-glorifying megaprojects over the health and welfare of the country's citizens - also met with rejection. Nuclear testing near civilian areas ended. Construction projects that poisoned the air and water were successfully opposed.
Which is why we have all those Space-based solar powersats instead of greenhouse-gas-producing fossil-fuel powerstations, right? And why all nanotech and biohazard research is performed on the Moon instead of in our own backyard. And why we de-orbit chunks of nickel-iron instead of raping the landscape. And...
When human spaceflight stopped being the newest, most interesting realm, science fiction stopped telling so many stories about it. When computer science and communications technology became the new frontier, science fiction developed a new sub-genre, cyberpunk, that took its information technology as seriously as space opera ever took thrust-to-weight ratios.
Ummm. Space Opera was all about Handwavium and Doubletalk-generators, not Specific Impulse and Physics. And today's Information technology (did you you know that the PERT chart was invented for the Polaris Missile program?) is a direct outgrowth of that dreadfully wasteful Space R&D that could far better have been spent on, say, a bigger advertising budget for the latest Detroit behemoth, or homeopathic medicine rebates for the disadvantaged.
When cultural change became at least as interesting as technological change, science fiction discovered that engineering and physics weren't the only disciplines about which stories could be told: sociology, psychology and political science found a home in the literature.
As in a book I mentioned before about the dangers of Right-Wing Christian Fundamentalism, "Revolt in 2100", first published in its final form in 1954. Or perhaps another of Heinlein's, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", (1967) which dealt (among other things) with Political Philosophy, Artificial Intelligences (Adam Selene is dead ringer for Max Headroom BTW), and an expanding UN sending multinational "peacekeepers" in dubious causes. Oh yes, an a perfectly reasonable mass transport system for getting Lunar resources back to Earth. Another one I've mentioned, "The Caves of Steel deals with a society gripped by both Agorophobia and Technophobia. Published in 1954. Why not read some of the stuff that was written before your parents were born?
Robinson couldn't be farther from the mark in condemning science fiction readers for rejecting the "real future." The "real future" of the Jetsons era died a generation ago, along with Camelot and the Baby Boomers' lost youth. Even the cyberpunk "real future" is now our present, and its great authors are showing gray in their goatees.

Yet there's no Next Big Thing, no hot trend in science fiction, no vision of the future spreading like a virus through the zeitgeist.
Apart from Vernor Vinge's Singularity. A whole heap of technologies, from an increased understanding of the way the Human Brain works, through to Genetic Engineering and Nanotechnology, might just mean that there are kids today who may become effectively immortal - if they choose. And if some Rock or Iceball doesn't give practical confirmation of the solution to the Fermi Paradox - that the Universe is a Dangerous Place.

Hmmm... this is getting too long.
For those who believe that space is a viable solution to contemporary problems, what can we do?

The answer's very simple: prove it.
....as Queen Isabella's advisors told Christoforo Columbo...
For engineers, prove it: build affordable civilian space transportation. However small a start, however humble an effort, prove the concept.
Fair enough. We're working on it. I've done some of my bit. What about you? If you want everything handed to you on a silver platter, tough. Those who make the stuff might not be willing to share - unless you learn Mandarin first. Oh yes, and we're supposed to do this for you without payment, right? Yo sho' nuff is mighty generous, Massa.
For advocates, prove it: make the case without assuming we're all suddenly transported back to the Fifties, or supplied with zillion-dollar budgets or barrels of unobtanium. Leaders don't whine about how lame their troops are: they train them, educate them, inspire them, and lead.
Us "Old Geezers" can remember the days when there were no Communications satellites, no Meteorological satellites. Things like "Hurricane Isobel" did not give us days to prepare, sometimes they didn't give us minutes. Mariners at sea sometimes got many miles off course because they didn't have GPS, were out of the range of LORAN or other radio beacons, and cloudy weather meant they didn't have a good sun sighting. If you haven't been convinced of the need for a Space Program, it's because you take it all for granted. It's a bit like making the case for a better power grid before the blackouts happen.
For storytellers, Spider Robinson included, prove it: if nobody else is writing space fiction that that reaches us where we are, write some. Tell a better story than the fantasists are doing. Show us how a movement into space can give us back our liberty, individuality and power. Make us believe space is the answer.
You can lead someone to knowledge, but you can't make them think. If what you want is easy answers, a "Royal Road to Space", then find out what some even Older Geezer than I said about it.
Or just take your rocking chair out onto the porch and complain there. The rest of us have work to do
Like what? Another Video game? Or perhaps a book on Alien Abductions? Or the Power of Pyramids? Sorry, getting Grumpy in my old age after all... :-)


As reported in a previous post, the Chinese Manned Space programme is proceeding apace, with a launch scheduled for some time after early October.

From AFP, via Space Daily :
China is making final preparations for its first manned space flight and the launch of the Shenzou V craft could come anytime in the next three months, a senior space official said Tuesday.

But Sun Laiyan, Vice Administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), declined to reveal the exact launch date or confirm reports it would occur in mid-October.


China has so far launched four unmanned spaceflights, the last of which, Shenzhou IV, successfully returned to earth on January 5 after a 162-hour mission and was seen as the final dress rehearsal before a manned spaceflight.


Meanwhile, space officials said China hoped to launch a space probe capable of orbiting the moon by 2005 or 2006, which would be the nation's first lunar mission and would eventually lead to an eventual landing on the moon by an unmanned Chinese lunar space craft.

"As far as the launch date, it is not very convenient to say too much. We are just saying that the launch will come in the latter half of the year," Sun told AFP.

"Right now, we are actively making all preparations, following our four successful unmanned space flights. We are feeling very confident."

Black Hole Life Preservers

From Tom Siegfried of the Dallas News :
Dr. Gott, of Princeton University, and Ms. Freedman, of Harvard, have calculated a way to prolong your life, or at least reduce your agony, as a black hole's gravity sucks you in and rips you to shreds. You just need to surround yourself with a gigantic electrically charged doughnut.

If you fall into a black hole unprotected, gravity draws all parts of your body toward the center of the black hole. So your left side will be pulled to the right and your right side to the left. If you go in feet first, the gravitational pull will be much stronger on your shoes than your head, tending to make you instantly thinner and taller.


"... beyond 10 G's, the tidal acceleration will cause pain and dismemberment," the scientists write in their paper, available on the World Wide Web at xxx.lanl.gov/abs/astro-ph/0308325.


Anyway, the good news is that the time of torture passes pretty quickly. In fact, from the start of the pain to getting crunched out of existence altogether comes to less than a 10th of a second, the scientists calculate.

But a life preserver - er, death delayer - can prolong your pain-free travel time and make the torture time even shorter.

It has to be big ; about the size of one of Saturn's rings and the mass of a large asteroid. But when diving into a black hole with this huge ring surrounding you, the pull of the ring on you will cancel the pull of the black hole.


To keep the ring from collapsing under its own weight, it must be electrically charged (electrical repulsion counters the ring's self-gravity). Unfortunately, the electrical fields would fry you, so you need to encase yourself in a protective container known as a Faraday cage. But that's pretty simple compared to making the giant doughnut to begin with.

If all works well till then, the ring can keep you comfortable up to 6,760 G's. After that you'd be tortured for a mere three one-thousandths of a second.

"You really wouldn't know what hit you," Dr. Gott and Ms. Freedman write.


The calculations in the Gott-Freedman paper can be grasped by a bright high school student; these death-delaying scenarios offer insights into the basics of Einstein's general relativity and fundamental principles of physics. Analyzing such seemingly silly situations can give students - and scientists - a more tangible grasp of what nature is really like in realms outside earthbound experience.

Besides, there really could be practical applications someday, when interstellar travelers want to explore black holes or perhaps neutron stars. Maybe some sort of doughnutlike death delayer would help keep you alive when encountering such objects.

"An adjustable-radius, actively oriented life preserver might enable you to venture closer than would otherwise have been the case," the scientists write, "and still return safely home from the adventure."
All you need is a handy Faraday Cage and an electrically-charged doughnut the size of one of Saturn's rings. Don't leave home without one.

FedSat earns local award

From Space Daily :
If everything had gone according to plan, Australia's FedSat satellite project would have been a stunning engineering achievement. That it succeeded despite the collapse of its foreign prime contractor made the achievement even more remarkable.

Left with little more than an incomplete shell, unassembled pieces and unfinished software [90% unfinished - AEB], the engineering team from the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems hastily revised their plans. Instead of having the satellite bus (its structural framework of solar cells, power and control systems) completed in Britain, the team relocated to Canberra, taking the pieces with them.

And instead of facing only the difficult enough tasks of integrating the satellite's four complex payloads [ actually 5 including the last-minute addition of the Star Camera, 6 if you include the untried Attitude Control System - AEB] with the structure, and testing the completed satellite, the team was now confronted with the need to first complete the platform, while simultaneously dealing with increased project costs and the rapidly-approaching launch deadline. Winning an AusIndustry Innovations Access grant was an important step towards the project overcoming these problems.[i.e. we needed the money!]

Drawing on the combined resources of its twelve participating organisations, the Centre for Satellite Systems assembled a fifteen-strong team of predominantly young and inexperienced engineers - many still at university - under the supervision of two senior engineers with extensive experience in space projects.

Training and education are among the key ambitions of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program, and along with helping to develop Australian space industry were the primary purposes of the CRC for Satellite Systems.

Successful space missions require a combination of ingenuity, high standards of work, and the application of sound engineering practice and principles. Satellites have to operate for years, in a harsh environment and without the possibility of maintenance.

For that reason, the FedSat team emphasised high standards of quality control, documentation and test procedures. The outcomes of this careful systems engineering are the 14 December 2002 launch and the operation since then of Australia's most successful and complex satellite to date.

World-class engineering excellence, confirmed in the harshest of environments, and inspiring a new generation of engineers to cultivate the highest ambitions - these are the lasting results of the FedSat satellite project.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems' success with FedSat was recognised last week by an Engineering Excellence Award of the Canberra Division, The Institution of Engineers, Australia. The project will compete in the national awards later this year.

Tuesday, 16 September 2003

More on the Hanson Debacle

Further to a previous post, from The Australian :
Pauline Hanson is still in prison after losing her second bid for bail, but a panel of three judges believes her lawyers have mounted a strong case for her conviction to be overturned.

The Queensland Court of Appeal, in a judgment handed down yesterday, also suggested the former One Nation leader's three-year sentence for electoral fraud was too long.

The panel's judgment said the argument against Hanson's conviction in a submission to the court by Hanson's counsel, Cedric Hampson, "appears sound, appears in parts actually conceded in argument by the Crown" and "would appear to destroy the basis for Ms Hanson's conviction on any count".

But the judges found neither Hanson nor party co-founder David Ettridge had produced the "exceptional circumstances" required for them to be released on bail pending their appeals, expected to be heard in early November.

The court also dismissed appeals by the two party founders against judge Richard Chesterman's decision to refuse them bail on September 1.
Let's see... even the prosecution now admits that the people-who-weren't-actually-party-members in fact are probably party members in law. And the court believes that the sentence was probably far too high in any event. But the distinguished court and the Law supposes that's no reason to grant bail before the next election...

To quote Charles Dickens:
'If the law supposes that,' said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, 'the law is a ass — a idiot.'

Cartoon by Nicholson of "The Australian" newspaper: www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au. Peter Nicholson has a very enlightened attitude to re-use of his artwork, and deserves thanks.

A Journalist in Baghdad

From John F. Burns, sometime writer for the New York Times:
Terror, totalitarian states, and their ways are nothing new to me, but I felt from the start that this was in a category by itself, with the possible exception in the present world of North Korea. I felt that that was the central truth that has to be told about this place. It was also the essential truth that was untold by the vast majority of correspondents here. Why? Because they judged that the only way they could keep themselves in play here was to pretend that it was okay.

There were correspondents who thought it appropriate to seek the approbation of the people who governed their lives. This was the ministry of information, and particularly the director of the ministry. By taking him out for long candlelit dinners, plying him with sweet cakes, plying him with mobile phones at $600 each for members of his family, and giving bribes of thousands of dollars. Senior members of the information ministry took hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes from these television correspondents who then behaved as if they were in Belgium. They never mentioned the function of minders. Never mentioned terror.

In one case, a correspondent actually went to the Internet Center at the Al-Rashid Hotel and printed out copies of his and other people's stories -- mine included -- specifically in order to be able to show the difference between himself and the others. He wanted to show what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state. He was with a major American newspaper.

Yeah, it was an absolutely disgraceful performance. CNN's Eason Jordan's op-ed piece in The New York Times missed that point completely. The point is not whether we protect the people who work for us by not disclosing the terrible things they tell us. Of course we do. But the people who work for us are only one thousandth of one percent of the people of Iraq. So why not tell the story of the other people of Iraq? It doesn't preclude you from telling about terror. Of murder on a mass scale just because you won't talk about how your driver's brother was murdered.

Monday, 15 September 2003

Depleted Uranium : A Perspective

From Steven Den Beste :
I know that if the inside of my home was lined with DU foil, then my exposure to radiation would decrease because it would reduce my exposure to cosmic rays without contributing any significant radiation of its own.
Well, yes.

But some people prefer Tinfoil Helmets if it suits a particular political agenda.

A human body is more radioactive than an equal mass of depleted uranium because a human body contains carbon-14 and potassium-40, whereas U-238 has such a long half-life as to be almost non-radioactive.
I'd have to check these figures, but they sound about right.

That's not to say that Depleted Uranium is entirely non-radioactive. But it does put the issue in perspective.

Sunday, 14 September 2003


From a japanese site illustrating examples of Optical Illusions : Rotating Snakes.

Answers to Quiz

In a recent post, I posed the question:
Name the movies, and the thing they have in common.
"I hate all wretched people! I feel disgusted with them!"
"But who made us the way we are, huh? Men with guns."
"I'm from Earth. Ever heard of it?"

Well, I've received... no entries. None. Nada. Zip. Tiddly-Squat. 3/5 of 5/8 of Blogger All.

Here are the answers, anyway.

The Movies:
1) Shichinin no samurai, in English Seven Samurai, originally titled in the USA "The Magnificent Seven".
2) The Magnificent Seven
3) Battle Beyond the Stars

What they have in common: Identical Plot. A Poor Japanese Farming Village / Poor Mexican Farming Village / Poor Agricultural Planet is threatened by an attack by Ronin / Bandits / Space Pirates. A youngster is sent by the Village / Village / Planet Elders to find *Hungry* Samurai / Gunslingers / Mercenaries to help defend them.

Of the three, "Battle Beyond the Stars" has the worst script, but the best characterisation. The Special Effects are technically good, just deliberately very cornball, and the film as a whole is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Robert Vaughn plays exactly the same role that he did in "The Magnificent Seven", but does so rather better. George Peppard's role as a rather decadent Cowboy from an ancient and ruined place no-one has heard of called "Earth" is a minor gem.

"Seven Samurai" has the best Cinematography - but you'd expect that from Akiro Kurosawa.

"The Magnificent Seven" is one of the few Westerns that even I've heard of.

I should have included a fourth quote:
Remember, there is no such thing as sex in our country
from "Dikij Vostok", in English "The Wild East". The plot of this one is when a group of Dwarves leave the circus in Kazakhstan, and need seven helpers to defend them against a group of marauding biker bandits.

Not many people know that.

It Came From Outer Space

Interstellar travel has yet another hazard. Just because you're not near an unshielded thermonuclear reactor (otherwise known as a star) doesn't mean you can't be blasted by a Solar Flare. From Science@NASA :
On August 24, 1998, there was an explosion on the sun as powerful as a hundred million hydrogen bombs. Earth-orbiting satellites registered a surge of x-rays. Minutes later they were pelted by fast-moving solar protons. Our planet's magnetic field recoiled from the onslaught, and ham radio operators experienced a strong shortwave blackout.

None of these things made headlines. The explosion was an "X-class" solar flare, and during years around solar maximum, such as 1998, such flares are commonplace. They happen every few days or weeks. The Aug. 24th event was powerful, yet typical.

A few days later--no surprise--another blast wave swept past Earth. Satellites registered a surge of x-rays and gamma-rays. Hams experienced another blackout. It seemed like another X-class solar flare. Except for one thing: this flare didn't come from the sun.

It came from outer space.

"The source of the blast was SGR 1900+14, a neutron star about 45,000 light years away," says NASA astronomer Pete Woods. "It was the strongest burst of cosmic x-rays and gamma rays we've ever recorded."

I really don't like to think about what the effect would have been if it had only been a few hundred light years away. Enough to sterilise the surfaces of all planets orbitting nearby star systems, anyway. And any Interstellar travellers had better have their SPF 5 trillion sunscreens on, or just a kilometre thickness of lead shielding.

The sooner we get off this rock and start spreading out a bit, the better.

Saturday, 13 September 2003

The Way the Brain Works - Reading

From Snooze Button Dreams :

Acocdrnig to an elgnsih unviesitry sutdy the oredr of letetrs in a wrod dosen't mttaer, the olny thnig thta's iopmrantt is that the frsit and lsat Ltteer of eevry word is in the crcreot ptoision. The rset can be jmbueld and one is stlil able to raed the txet wiohtut dclftfuiiy.

Friday, 12 September 2003

Design Your Own Superhero

Blogging's been light recently - due to the fact that in addition to a fulltime job, and having a 2-year-old son, I'm finishing off a Master's in Information Technology. And had an assignment due today.

Hmmm... 312 e-mails to read, plus another 107 in the "Suspected SPAM" directory to leaf through and purge.

What I need now is... a SuperHero!

(WARNING - highly addictive...)