Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Time for a Global Space Agency?

I saw an interesting Update on LinkedIn today.  Yesterday, 20 July, was the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon-landing, the first in history.  The poster suggested that the apparent lack of ambition in terms of space flight nowadays might be countered by the creation of a global space agency.  There were a couple of Likes and a couple of Comments, making the probably valid point that we as a species should be spending more money on cleaning up the mess we have made of our own planet before worrying about going anywhere else.

In the first place, I confess to missing the anniversary completely.  I can remember vividly as a 16 year old kid sitting in the Red Lion pub watching the Saturn rocket blast off from Cape Canaveral.  I remember sitting up all night watching the grainy black and white images broadcast to the world’s TV screens of the landing, and the “giant leap” moment when Armstrong stepped off the ladder to seal his place in history.  I can remember thinking that I would love to go there myself someday…..  I followed the entire mission closely, and that of Apollo 12.  Like the rest of the world, I prayed for the safe return on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission (so well captured in Ron Howard’s movie).  I marvelled at the entire Shuttle program, and wept for the fatalities aboard the doomed Challenger and Columbia flights.

And I feel saddened by the apparent lack of imagination and intent displayed these days by once pioneering NASA.

I’ve blogged about this before (see the post “Out of this World” from October 2010 if you’re interested).  In the nearly four years since I posted it, not a lot has changed.
NASA concentrates on unmanned missions to the outer planets and asteroids and trying to land on comets, and supplying crews to the ISS, and planning, seemingly half-heartedly, for a manned mission to Mars at some ill-defined point in the future.  The Russians continue to provide the only means of getting people to and from the ISS in the absence of a replacement for the Shuttle.  They sometimes suggest they’re planning to go the Moon or to Mars, but it always comes across as even more half-hearted than NASA.  China and India continue to creep slowly forward with their own plans, mainly again in the realm of satellite technology, while both say they hope to go the Moon and/or Mars and establish viable colonies in 50 years or so.  The EU – satellites, and the odd national spending time in the ISS, mainly it seems for publicity.

And that’s about it.   To all intents and purposes, mankind seems indeed to have lost its mojo, at least as far space travel is concerned.  It depresses me now more than it did four years ago.

Now I know the arguments.

I recognise that sending anything into space is hideously expensive.  I know that the parlous state of the world’s overall economy means governments must think very carefully about the most cost effective and beneficial ways of spending what money they have – I have to do that every day as an individual. 
I know that things like climate change, and healthcare, and food provision, and waste disposal, and alternative energies, and a hundred and one other concerns require increasing amounts of funding too.  Governments everywhere face increasingly complex demands for their tax revenues.

I recognise too the arguments about going out into the universe and trashing other planets not being the best advertisement for human civilization (whatever that is – I’ve yet to see a decent definition), and essentially sympathise with them.

But, I’m sorry, I cannot bring myself to agree with them.

Man has always been an explorer.  I’m sure when Columbus set off to find a passage to India, a lot of Portuguese citizens complained about the Royal family wasting so much money financing this Spanish adventurer.  But off he went, got lost and discovered (or at least re-discovered) the Americas, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Britain probably faced similar complaints when it started its Empire building but got around the problem by employing the Armed forces and convict labour.
This is what humans do.  It is part of the never ending search for knowledge.  That is what has dragged us, often kicking and screaming, from the plains of pre-historic Africa, to every corner of this old world we inhabit.  That search for knowledge has also brought us from the first flint and bone tools to modern weapons systems (perhaps not the best advertisement for progress, but valid nonetheless).  It’s brought us from cave paintings in blood and sand and water to today’s 3D and wide screen tv’s and cinemas.  From the wheel to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

The Wright brothers first took the air in a flimsy wood and fabric glider in 1903.  That entire first flight, from take-off to landing, could have taken place INSIDE the body of a stripped down Boeing 747 freighter – a plane that itself first flew not much more than 60 years after the Wright’s maiden flight.  That’s well within a single lifetime.  Two years after the 747 took to the air, Apollo 11 landed.  That is phenomenal progress.

Look at old pictures of the Mission Control centres in Houston and the Cape.  Row upon row of desks, each with its own computer screen showing a little bit of information, each to be interpreted by its operator, often armed with a pen and paper and slide rule.  There is now more computing power in the average smartphone than ran the Apollo program.  We’ve gone that far, in terms of computer power, in less than 50 years.  The internet has grown from a handful of users, all scientists in a more or less closed environment, to ubiquity in half that time.

The oldest airline is KLM, founded in 1920.  Before it celebrates its centenary, Virgin Galactic, an off-shoot of Virgin Airlines (itself only 30 years old), will carry its first paying passengers into space for an hour’s joyride at a cost of a quarter of a million bucks or so.  It has a waiting list of passengers already.

This progress has all been great, and in many ways has given us all a better life.  But it’s not perfect – nothing ever is.

Not everybody has access to it all for a start.  Huge swathes of the population still live in poverty and have no job or home.  No amount of iPhone computing power is going to help them.  As manufacturing has gone up – and despite factory closures world-wide, businesses continue to start up and flourish -  the demand for raw materials shows no sign of abating.  This leads to increased output of greenhouse gases.  This in turn leads to global warming, as far as many scientists are concerned (although many more would strenuously dispute that).  And what no-one denies, the supply of those raw materials decreases, and once they’re gone there is nothing to replace them with.

The population too continues to grow.  There are in excess of 7billion people on this Earth now.  It’s expected to reach 10billion sometime around July 2060 (source: the fascinating Worldometers website at  http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/).   That’s a lot of people to feed, when the land mass itself isn’t changing size to keep pace with population growth and the amount of arable land is actually decreasing as cities and, worse, desert areas get bigger all the time.   So as well as shortages of raw materials like oil and various ores, we are facing, soon, food shortages too.  Expect poverty levels to go up then.

Scientists are working on of these issues of course, but they faces challenges as big – perhaps bigger – than any that we have faced before.  New energy sources are needed.  Nuclear is good but accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Fukushima have turned many people, in particular environmentalists and (crucially) vote chasing politicians against it.  Wind power increases in popularity but is still relatively inefficient and those same environmentalists tend to object to the proliferation of wind turbines that spoil sometimes beautiful landscapes.  It takes an awful lot of turbines to match the energy output of even the smallest power station.   Solar power is good and increasingly efficient, but expensive to install and still reliant on the weather: fine in the southern Mediterranean, the Gulf states and similar areas of high sunshine, less acceptable in say northern Europe, or the extreme southern parts of South America and New Zealand, where the climate is cloudier and wetter. 

In food terms, scientists in the Netherlands have grown meat (or something like it) by a sort of cloning process, building a burger cell by cell.  It took a couple of months and cost millions.  Other protein sources such as insects (fried cockroach anybody?) are being seriously discussed as foods of the future.

All of which, in my humble opinion, as a layman with no vested interests (beyond living), suggests that in not too many years’ time, this old Earth will become incapable of sustaining anything remotely like even a modest way of life.  Mankind needs, desperately, more space.  More raw materials.  More energy sources.  More food. 

For this reason alone, it seems to me, there is an imperative to move out into realms beyond this Earth.  This is what people have been doing since time immemorial, moving on to find themselves more space and food and, yes, wealth.   But we have almost exhausted everything there is to find and exploit here. 

So it seems to me we need to rediscover this spirit of exploration, of going somewhere new and dangerous and exciting.  We all know it will cost huge amounts in money and, perhaps, lives – but relatively speaking that has always been the case, and it hasn’t stopped us yet.  It should not stop us now. 

It seems, however, that NASA and its worldwide partners and competitors are lacking that spirit, at least individually.  Perhaps a Global Space Agency is the way forward, a pooling of minds and ideas.  It works at CERN, but that seems to be an exception.  The US, Russia, China, India and the EU seem incapable of sitting down in a room and coming up with any kind of consensus.  They have failed to do so in the face of the on-going Palestinian  and Syrian genocides.  They are failing to do so in the wake of the murderous downing of MH17 over Ukraine.  There are always, but always, competing priorities and cost concerns and vested interests.  Perhaps there always will be, but I hope for the sake of us all, and our grandchildren, that I’m wrong.

A final analogy.  Put yourself in the place of Mr and Mrs Ugggg, the first humans on the plains of Africa when food starts running low in their little valley.  Mr.Ugggg is insisting they should move on and find somewhere else where there is more to eat.  Mrs.Ugggg wants to stay where she is – she’s just cleaned the cave (again), she has skins to cure and the kids are settled and there’s still at least one wild pig to eat…..  But Mr.Ugggg is insistent, so move on they do.   And this turns out to be a good thing,  for their ancestors proceed to populate the entire planet over the next several millennia.

Sadly, it seems to me we are all turning into Mrs.Ugggg, at least as far space exploration is concerned.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

What should we do about Putin?

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin used to run the KGB.  This means he has blood on his hands.  Lots of it.  After the destruction of MH17 over Ukraine he has another bucket load to rinse them in.

He can say as much as he likes that it’s Ukraine’s fault because it happened in their airspace.  Watch his body language making that statement: looking down at the desk, his eyes straying all over the place but never looking at the camera.  All classic indicators of bare faced lying.  The man would not know the truth if it kicked him in the crotch.  The statement – no, let’s be clear here: the LIE - ignores the fact that in many respects the Ukrainian government’s hands are tied.   Tied by the massed ranks of the Russian army, tanks, fighter planes and all, lined up just across their border, ready to move.  The forces have been there since Russia illegally annexed Crimea.   The LIE also ignores the fact that Russia is helping the rebels (sometimes I hate that word) by providing arms and assistance and training.

Look at pictures of the rebel militia men.  Despite the fatigues and the Kalashnikovs, they are not soldiers.  For a start, most of them are overweight.  Serving soldiers don’t normally wear ski masks to hide their identity either.  They are, quite simply, poorly educated petty crooks and thugs, the kind of person proliferating throughout eastern Europe.  They usually supply the muscle that helps organised crime flourish, and the oligarchs amass their fortunes.   The majority of them probably do not care about whether they are in Ukrainian or Russian territory, their main concern being who is lining their pockets with the largest amount of hryvnia or roubles.  Given a free rein, the Ukrainian police and armed forces could probably mop them all up in a week or so, with it must be said many casualties on both sides. 

But of course, the Ukrainian government does not have a free hand.  The Russian presence along the border assures that.  And of course, the thugs know it and are happy to strut around, posturing for the BBC and CNN cameras, fire off the odd round and intimidate any outsiders having the gall to enter their territory.  They clearly possess better armaments than the average criminal gang (for that is what they are), and know how to use it – the Ukrainian casualties, including military planes shot down, so far proves that.  Which raises the questions of where they have obtained the hardware, and who has provided the training required to master its use?  There can only be one answer, and it lies a few kilometres away across the border.



Which leads us back to Putin.  If, as seems certain, the arms and training have been provided by the Russian armed forces – and for the life of me I can’t see any other alternative theory that makes any sense – it is surely inconceivable that it would have been done without his knowledge and indeed approval.  Given the fatalities in the conflict so far, on both the rebel and (mostly) Ukrainian side, here is yet more blood on the man’s hands.

The downing of MH17 is now providing these gangs with their (I use the term at its loosest) finest hour.  The eyes of the world are on the wheat and sunflower fields of the border regions, and the smouldering wreckage and twisted decaying corpses of nearly 300 innocent souls, children and infants included, that disfigure the landscape.   Ignoring the human tragedy (and that is nigh on impossible to do), the downing is giving the rebel forces a power over events they can only have dreamt of.  Clearly, they are making no attempt to secure the site for the necessary investigation.  This ensures that anybody can wander into a field and pick up a piece of wreckage or someone’s pitiful belongings, as a ghoulish souvenir – though why anyone in their right mind would want to do such a thing is beyond me.  And yet there are many reports of this happening.  Instead of securing the site, the militia are actually hindering the efforts of investigative teams to reach the site at all.  There are reports of crash evidence being stolen or destroyed, the whereabouts of the flight recorders is disputed (some reports say they are in Ukrainian hands, some say in Russian and en route to Moscow, and others that they haven’t yet been found), and that the missile battery that allegedly brought the plane down has already been spirited away, back onto Russian territory, within hours of the incident.

It’s an appalling situation.  There are 300 odd families in this world, most of them in peaceful Holland and all of them thousands of miles away from a conflict that has nothing to do with them, trying to grieve for their loved ones, and understand why and how this was allowed to happen.  These poor people don’t even know when the bodies, or what’s left of them, are likely to be returned for a decent burial.   My heart breaks for them as well as the victims.



Back to Putin.  Over the whole period of this crisis in Ukraine, he has insisted on the right to protect the “rights of Russian citizens”.  We’ll leave out the fact that the people in Crimea and eastern Ukraine are actually legally Ukrainian citizens but of Russian ethnicity.  He has provided assistance to the “government” of Crimea and visited the province within hours of its proclamation, thus nailing his colours firmly to the rebel cause.  When the conflict moved on to the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, he made the same statements of support, and the gangs took over.  Russian forces moved up to the border, and despite denials from the Kremlin troops helped with equipment and training.  The situation remains thus today.

Western governments and the UN have made their usual statements of condemnation.  The US and the EU have imposed a number of economic sanctions and travel bans on Russian businesses and individuals “close” to Putin, and Russia itself has been expelled from the G8.  Its economy has been damaged, but not enough.  Obama and Merkel and Cameron have urged Putin to do something to rein in the rebels, pull back the Russian troops and engage in meaningful dialogue with the Ukrainian government to bring a peaceful conclusion to the conflict.  For the cameras and the world’s press he has appeared contrite and conciliatory and promised to do so.  More lies – nothing has changed, no troops have been pulled back and more arms and assistance have been provided.  His word is worth nothing.  He is a liar.  More blood…..



In the wake of MH17, more sanctions are being proposed, stronger ones.  There has been a fractious debate in the UN Security Council, but as usual the Russians have protested their innocence, the Chinese have sat there inscrutably saying nothing (thus tacitly supporting Russia) so the required unanimity for action is never going happen.

The US and the EU, if they are going to impose more sanctions, should no longer tread lightly.  They should impose financial sanctions and travel bans on one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.  They should take similar action against his lapdog Dmitriy Medvedev and every other member of the Russian cabinet.  For good measure, do likewise to the heads of the Russian Army, Navy and Air Force.  While they are about, they should make public how much these financial sanctions amount to – the offshore bank accounts where Putin’s ill-gotten wealth is gathering interest, and the amounts in them – I’m assuming of course that the CIA and MI6 have been doing their job properly and have this information.  The whole sorry gang should find itself persona non grata outside of the Russian borders.  For their complicit support of the rebels in eastern Ukraine, they should be declared war criminals and indicted.

The UN, meanwhile, supported by the US and EU governments, and its entire membership, should announce that under UN treaties national borders are sacrosanct and the citizens living within those borders are citizens of that country.  In the case of eastern Ukraine, anybody who does not wish to live in Ukraine is free to cross the border into Russia, leaving their home and belongings behind them, and make a new life for themselves there.  Anyone remaining in the Ukraine is deemed a Ukrainian citizen and may be subject to investigation for war crimes, including the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, and/or conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by hiding or destroying evidence at the crash site.


These measures, of course, run the real risk of spreading the conflict across the Ukrainian border and onto the world stage, but frankly the murderous downing of flight MH17 has done that already.  The victims of that terrible event, and their grieving relatives, deserve justice.  The US was quick to react after 9/11, even if a little misguided in launching a War of Terror that 14 years later has arguably failed and made the world a more dangerous rather than a safer place.  Obama, for all his faults, comes across as a more thoughtful and less gung-ho individual than Bush, but with a determination to seek and bring about the sort of justice required here.  I sincerely hope he has the courage to act strongly in this situation too. 

Putin, no matter what he and his apologists may say, is behind all that is happening in eastern Ukraine, including the downing of MH17.   The rest of the world must stand clearly against him and his regime, and stop the bloodshed. 

It must bring him to justice.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

World Cup 2014 according to Travellin Bob

Well, it was a good World Cup in the end.

Before the start, for months, there had been mass demonstrations by Brazilians who were (and I’m sure remain) decidedly pissed off that their Government chose to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure projects like new stadia in towns (like the capital Brazilia and Manaus) that don’t even boast a top flight team in the Brazilian leagues……stadia that will probably lapse into crumbling disuse by this time next year.  Roads were built – or at least started - , railways and airports upgraded, though often not completed.  Favelas, the slum cities where millions of Brazilians still live in squalor, were cleared by armed riot police, often without providing adequate replacement housing, and given a lick of paint to make them look a bit nicer to tourists.

Key things, at least to the population at large, like education and health care and state benefits, of course lost out in the cash stakes to this massive FIFA demanded splurge.  So I guess people had every right to be pissed off and complain, even though at times it did all get a little bit more violent than was strictly necessary (although much of the blame for that seems to lie in the usual heavy handed policing – at which Brazil is seemingly no different to anywhere else, including the Met Police and NYPD amongst others).

So there was massive doom and gloom before it all kicked off, and predictions (mine included) that it was all going to be a bit of a shambles.  TV crews, in the days before the opening ceremony, were busily shooting film of rickety temporary stands and entrance stairways at stadia throughout the country that did indeed look a danger to life and limb, and many pundits expected a tragedy or two in waiting.  Happily, it all turned out to be largely misplaced, with the only accident I can recall happening in Belo Horizonte where a new road bridge collapsed with a few fatalities.  The bridge was about 3km from the sparkling new stadium there, and on a new road linking it with the airport, so the link to the World Cup is clear.  

I can’t recall a single incidence of crowd trouble throughout the tournament, no fan fights, no riots, no nothing.  Indeed the atmosphere at every game I saw seemed electric, a wash of colour (largely Brazilian gold and green liberally mixed with national team colours) and singing and drums and brass bands – everything indeed that makes the World Cup such a wonderful spectacle.  I missed both the opening and closing ceremonies, but I gather J-Lo and Shakira shook their booties rather well, and of course Shakira can boast a longer involvement in the tournament than her other half.  She also became the first artiste to perform at three successive World Cups apparently – clearly good ole Sepp Blatter must be a big fan.

And what of the football?

I didn’t see a lot of the matches.  Despite being in a time zone close to Brazil’s the match scheduling often meant I missed the early game and a good half of the middle match as I was at work.  Later on, once the group stages were out of the way, the situation got even worse.   This was not always a bad thing – it meant I didn’t have to suffer the torture of England v Costa Rica.  But what I saw of it was excellent I thought. 
There was thuggery, as usual – the Uruguayan bloke who for no reason – apart from his team losing at the time - kicked Joel Campbell of Costa Rica up in the air, swore at him while he was on the ground then marched off without waiting for the obvious red card being probably the best example.  And of course Suarez taking a chomp at Chielini was unbelievable.  The ban he’s been given is about right, and at least Liverpool did the decent thing and packed the bucktoothed bastard off to Barca as soon as the right money was offered.  Frankly, the Catalans are quite welcome to the poisonous little shit (brilliant footballer though he undoubtedly is).

There was some great goalkeeping.  The Mexican guy, Ochoa. may have looked a bit of a wuss what with the hairband, but dragged his team out of the group and close to an unlikely victory against Brazil by his superb keeping.  Neuer was also superb for Germany, playing in the modern sweeper-keeper role and just about deserved his Golden Glove Award.  Honourable mention too for Tim Howard, USA’s finest.  His Tourette’s Syndrome has given rise to the best chant in the Premier League in my opinion: “Tim Timminy, Tim Timminy, Tim Tim terroo, he’s got Tourettes and he says fuck you”.  And what of Joe “Head ‘n’ Shoulders” Hart?  Well, if he is England’s best then we really are in trouble.  I would blame him directly for Italy’s winner – why on earth he didn’t come to collect a routine cross into his six yard box I’ll never understand (my old team manager would have subbed me straight away for that, even in the Tonbridge League Division 2) and he never looked confident.  Woy rightly left him out in the dead match against Costa Rica, but played 30 year old injury prone Ben Foster instead of 23 year old Frazer Forster, who has shone for Celtic in the Champions League several times.  The kid deserved a chance and surely is a better future prospect than Foster (or for that matter Ruddy, Stockdale, Butland or arguably Hart himself).

There were great goals.  Rodriguez’ volley for Colombia was a thing of beauty, as was Tim Cahill’s for the Aussies, but I still love RvP’s header against Spain…….a perfect cross and the sort of dive rarely seen since Andy Grey retired twenty years ago.  Quite stunning.

And there were shocks too.  England were never expected to get out of the group (except by me, of course – I thought we had enough to beat Uruguay and Costa Rica) but nobody saw Spain getting hammered by Holland and failing to get out of the group.  Even England lasted a couple of days longer, although that was down to match scheduling not ability – we were equally piss-poor.  Likewise Italy going out at the group stage raised eyebrows.  But the biggest surprise for me was Brazil.  They were almost universally acclaimed as winners before a ball had been kicked, but turned out to be pretty awful.  Their capitulation against Germany in the semis was the stuff of dreams.  Germany are good, no doubt, but 7-1 was an embarrassment – pub team defending and a coach who clearly hadn’t a clue what to do to change anything.  They weren’t much better against Holland in the Third Place Play Off either – 10 goals conceded over two successive matches is the stuff of park teams not five time world champions.  At least we English can make the excuse that our football needs as much of an overhaul as Brazil's and (arguably) Spain’s.

The right team won in the end, of course.  Germany were a step ahead of everybody else.  The best goalkeeper.  Best defenders.  A midfield to crave.  And strikers in Muller and Klose who know where the goal is. And a team ethic that everyone else should aim for.  I can see them ruling the roost for the next ten years, no matter what Spain do to rebuild themselves.  Argentina were solid enough, but as usual Leo Messi (how on earth did he get Best Player?) was a disappointment and Aguero seemed to be carrying an injury.  Holland were entertaining with some great displays and a very un-Dutch camaraderie – I look forward to seeing how van Gaal does at Man U next season.  But Arjen Robben gets a bigger embarrassment every time I see him play.  He seems incapable of running past another player without falling arse-over-tit, contact or no contact.  He’s always been a diver, but a season playing for the Blessed Pep has made him even worse.  Frankly, they are too horrible bald old gits who deserve each other.

So now we look forward to Russia in 2018.  Oh, what fun that will be!  And then – Qatar 2022….unless of course Blatter retires or dies, bribery and corruption are then proved and the tournament taken away from them (the same could be said of Russia’s tournament).

I’m not holding my breath.

Oh, and a final thought.  On the BBC News this morning, I watched the Germans arriving home, to be presented to half a million delirious fans at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.  There was the most wonderful atmosphere there as the players danced and sang along with the fans, signed autographs, kicked balls into the crowd and generally had an absolute blast.  I thought I hope our vanquished England failures are watching this, and feeling very envious and determined to do everything to improve and maybe one day do something similar, before I die.  Then I saw in the Mail Online some pictures of Joe Hart, James Milner, Jack Wilshere and others, pissing about in a pool in Las Vegas with champagne and cigars and scantily clad beauties with pneumatic tits, without a care in the world.  The Champions League Qualifiers kicking off.  Pre-season tours and friendlies started.

And I thought, nah.  No chance. 

English football?  You’re ‘avin’ a laugh.