Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Donald Trump Predicted in Stephen Baxter’s 1995 Novel ‘Titan’

July 16, 2017

I’ve been making my way through Stephen Baxter’s SF novel, Titan, these last few weeks. Baxter’s a British SF writer, with degrees in maths and engineering. He applied to be an astronaut on the Anglo-Soviet mission to Mir in the 1980s, which went to Helen Sharman. He’s probably best known for his Xelee-sequence books. These are set in a universe dominated by the extremely advanced, but mysterious Xelee, who are engaged in a war across the entire universe with the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures determined to age and extinguish the universe of ordinary matter. He has also written other novels about a variety of parthenogenic humans, descended from a lost troop of Romans, a catastrophic flood in the Bronze Age, and the books The Long Earth and The Long War, about parallel worlds, with the late, great Terry Pratchett. His novel, Voyage, an alternative history in which NASA launches a final manned expedition to Mars, was adapted for Radio 4 by Audio Movies in the 1990s. He was also the scientific advisor for the 1990s BBC SF series, Invasion Earth, about aliens from the higher physical dimensions invading the planet.

Titan is also about a last, crewed NASA mission. This time its put together by a team of astronauts, space scientists and ground control crew as the Agency’s last, great space expedition before it is closed down following a shuttle disaster. It’s set in what was then the near future – 2004 onwards – in America increasingly falling into right-wing extremism, irrationalism and Christian fundamentalism. The leading politician and subsequent president, is Xavier Maclachlan, a Texan with standing on an aggressively anti-science platform. Here’s the description of the man and his policies on pages 284-5.

Hadamard was in Washington during the inauguration of Xavier Maclachlan, after his wafer-thin win in the 2008 election.

Maclachlan called it a ‘liberation of the capital’.

Armed militia bands came in from Idaho and Arizona and Oklahoma and Montana, to fire off black-powder salutes to the nationalist-populist who promised to repeal all gun control laws. In the crowd, Hadamard saw a couple of Ku Klux Klan constumes, a sight he though had gone into an unholy past. Come to that, there was a rumour that a former Klan leader was being made ready to become a future White House chief of staff. And in his speech Maclachlan appealed to the people to end what he called the ‘Israeli occupation of Congress’…

And so on.

As soon as Maclachlan lifted his hand from the Bible, US peacekeeping troops in the Balkans and Africa started to board their planes to leave. Foreign aid stopped. The UN was being thrown out of New York, and there was a rumour that Maclachlan was planning some military adventure to take back the canal from Panama.

Army engineers – set in place during the handover from the last Administration – started to build a wall, two thousand miles of it, along the Mexican border, to exclude illegal immigrants. White it was being built, troops brought home from peacekeeping abroad were operating a shoot-to-kill policy.

There was chaos in the financial markets. Machlachlan had withdrawn the US from the North American Free Trade Treaty, from the World Trade Organisation, from GATT. Reviews of the country’s membership of the World Bank and the IMF had started – arms of an incipient world government, Maclachlan said, designed to let in the Russians. He had raised tariffs – ten per cent against Japan, fifty per cent against the Chinese – and world trade collapsed.

The Chinese, particularly, screamed. And so Maclachlan sent the Seventh Fleet to a new station just off the coast of Taiwan.

Meanwhile all the strategic arms treaties with Russia were torn up, as Maclachlan orderd his technicians to dig out the blueprints for Reagan’s old dream of SDI. In fact, Maclachlan wanted to go further. He was inviting ideas for what he called his ‘da Vinci brains trust’. The press was full of schemes for fantastic new weapons: smart remote sensors; dream mines that could shoot at passing traffic; smart armour that would use explosive tiles to deflect incoming projectiles; maybe even an electrical battlefield in which electricity-propelled shells would be zapped in by low-flying aircraft.

And back home, Machlachlan had cut off any remaining programs which benefited blacks and other minorities, and any funding that appeared to support abortion, which had been made illegal in any form.

Xavier Maclachlan was a busy man, and he was fulfilling his campaign promises.

Clearly, much of this is an extrapolation from the policies and attitudes of the Republican party and the American extreme Right in the 1980s and 1990s. Reagan had brought right-wing Christian fundamentalists into the Republican party, who had previously stood aloof from politics as part of a corrupt, fallen secular order. He had also begun to wind up government welfare programmes, particularly those aimed at benefiting minorities, such as Black Americans. Fears of an imminent apocalypse, social breakdown and Russian invasion, even after the collapse of Communism, had resulted in the emergence of the survivalist and then Militia movements, armed right-wing paramilitary groups. These had a bitter resentment of the federal government, which culminated in McViegh’s bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma. They also tended to be bitterly racist and anti-Semitic. They believed and still believe in stupid Nazi conspiracy theories that claim that the Jews are trying to destroy the White race through racial intermixing and that America is covertly controlled by the Jews through the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’, or ZOG. These groups and right-wing American fundamentalist organisations also believed that there was a secret, Illuminati conspiracy to create a one world Satanic superstate centred on the UN. Phyllis Schlafly, who was actually a Democrat, regularly denounced the UN as well as women’s rights. And one leading figure in the militias – I think it may have been Bo Gritz, who supposedly served as the model for ‘Rambo’ – stated that the way they would clear America’s international debt would be by minting a single coin with the legend ‘1 Trillion Dollars’. As for the Klan, there were a series of scandals in which senior Republican politicos were revealed as having links to or membership in the White racist terrorist group. The most notorious of these was David Duke in Louisiana, who is unfortunately still around and blaming the Jews for everything even today.

And political scientists and economists were predicting the rise of China and the other ‘tiger economies’, which would dominate the ‘Pacific Century’ even then.

Of course, there are things Baxter failed to predict, like 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He also takes the conventional view that the various free trade agreements and UN organisations, like the IMF and the World Bank, are nice, liberal, benefificial institutions, rather than the way corporate America imposes its own neoliberal policies on the rest of the world, particularly the developing nations.

Not that the Democrats have been much different. Counterpunch has reported that Obama was considering removing the ‘No first strike’ policy towards a nuclear confrontation, and Killary has been every bit as aggressive in her stance towards Russia and China as the Republicans, perhaps even more so.

As for the White extremist and racist groups supporting the new president, all that’s different is that the Klan has been largely replaced, or subsumed, into the internet-based Alt Right. But the hysterical fear of gun legislation, promoted and lavishly funded by the gun manufacturers and the NRA, against the desires of the majority of Americans, and even the NRA’s own rank and file membership, remains strong.

It shows how long the attitudes held by the American right, and which led to the election of Donald Trump, have been around. Since his election, left-wing news sites such as The Young Turks, Secular Talk and the David Pakman Show have reported that Americans have become increasingly dissatisfied with Trump. Sixty per cent of the American public want him impeached. This dissatisfaction even extends to Republican voters.

Trump, however, in his racism, his isolationism, aggressive nationalism and hatred of the welfare state and women’s rights, is very much in line with the general political stance of post-Reaganite right-wing American politicians. Indeed, he’s so much a part of this political trend that, with caveats, his election – or rather, the election of someone like him – was predicted by Baxter over two decades ago.

No wonder an increasing number of young Americans are looking to progressive politicos like Bernie Sanders for leadership and the redemption of their country against a corrupt political elite and the military-industrial complex. And I fervently hope they win, and that humanity will continue to reach out to the cosmos in a spirit of genuine exploration and wonder, and not as another arena for warfare.

Antique Technology in the Science Museum: Samuel Moreland’s Calculator

July 15, 2017

Looking through one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a copy of the Souvenir Guide to the Science Museum. This was a photographic guide to some of the Museum’s exhibits, which include Islamic alchemical apparatus, an iron lung, the wright flier, and a BBC television receiver from the 1920s among many, many others.

One of the early pieces of scientific equipment is a mechanical calculator constructed by the English inventor, Samuel Morland in 1666.

The guide explains

French mathematician Blaise Pascal made the first working mechanical calculator in 1642, and several mathematicians and inventors attempted to emulate or improve on his design. Morland’s device, shown here, could add, multiply and divide; the wheels were operated by a steel pin that was stored in the slot in the machine’s lid. Morland also invented a megaphone – or, as he called it, the ‘Tuba Stentorphonica’ and a water pump for spraying water to put out fires. (p. 40).

The Science Museum is, of course, also the home of the most famous of the historic calculating machines, Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, which has been hailed as the world’s first programmable computer. It was also the central theme of Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s Steampunk SF novel, The Difference Engine, which imagined an alternative 19th century, in which the Difference Engine had been built and ushered in a steam-powered information age in a Britain governed by a scientific elite under the premiership of Lord Byron.

It seems to me that Babbage’s machine was the culmination of a long process of invention, where mathematicians, scientists and engineers designed and constructed mechanical calculating machines. Pascal’s was the first of these. But I think the ultimate idea actually goes back to the 14th century Spanish poet and mystic, Ramon Llul. Alan Chapman, the astronomer and Christian apologist, says in his book, Slaying the Dragons, that Llul attempted to show that God’s existence was encoded in the structure of mathematics itself, and that this inspired a number of later writers to design calculating machines.

Apollo Astronaut Michael Collins on Sexism, the Fragile Earth and Banning Guns in Space Colonies

July 13, 2017

Last week I put up a post about a clip of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, pulling faces at a rambling, incoherent speech made by Donald Trump. Trump was signing into law an act affirming America’s commitment to the space programme. His speech about it was less than inspiring however, and Aldrin, who not only went to the Moon himself, but has also been a staunch supporter of opening the High Frontier up to ordinary women and men, was very definitely less than impressed.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently was Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story, written by the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins. Collins was the pilot, who flew the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon, and then waited in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin made their historic landing, before flying back with them on the return journey to Earth. The book is Collin’s account of how he came to be astronaut. Determined to be a pilot after being allowed to hold the joystick of a passenger aircraft on which he and his family were travelling as a child, he joined the USAF and became a test pilot. He then moved on to join NASA’s space programme. He describes the rigorous training required, and his first flight into space with John Young in Gemini 10 in July 1966. He also explains how he came, reluctantly, to leave the astronaut programme for a variety of reasons, not least was the way it was stopping him from spending time with his family. And in his final chapter he, like Aldrin, looks forward to the future spread of humanity throughout the Solar system and beyond, with humans going to Mars and then Titan, a moon of Saturn, which may hold the key to the origin of life.

This isn’t an explicitly political book. Nevertheless, Collins does comment on specific issues as they affect the racial and gender composition of the astronaut programme, his perspective on the importance of the environment and why he believes guns would be banned by the inhabitants of a space colony. These are all issues which Trump, his supporters and donors in the gun manufacturers and lobbyists would strongly oppose.

In the passage where he discusses how he and the other astronauts became part of a panel, whose job was to select a fresh batch of astronauts, makes a point of explaining why only white men were selected. He then goes on to comment that although this was what was done at the time, he believes and hope that this will change, and that Blacks and women are just as capable of flying air- and spacecraft equally well. He points out that the highly technological nature of modern aircraft means that there is absolutely no biological obstacle to women piloting such high performance machines. He writes

Note that I have said “he”, because there were no women in the group, nor where there any blacks. In thinking about that, it seems to me that there were plenty of women and blacks who could get the highest marks in categories 1 and 4 [their intelligence and how badly they wanted to be astronauts], but in 1966 categories 2 and 3 [education and experience] tended to rule them out. There simply did not seem to be aeronautical engineers and experienced test pilots, who were black or women. I think, and hope, that will change in the future. Flying a modern jet aircraft does not require a great deal of strength, for one thing. Hydraulic flight controls, like power steering in a car, prefer a light touch, and women should do as good a job as men. Obviously, an airplane has now way of telling the skin colour of the person flying it. (pp. 72-3. My comments in brackets).

He describes how looking at the Earth from space made him aware how fragile it was, and of the importance of preserving the environment.

I will never forget how beautiful the earth appears from a great distance, floating silently and serenely like a blue and white marble against the pure black of space. For some reason, the tiny earth also appears very fragile, as if a giant hand could suddenly reach out and crush it. Of course, there is no one giant hand, but there are billions of smaller hands on earth, working furiously to change their home. Some of the changes being made are good, and others bad. For example, we are learning more efficient ways of catching fish, and that is good because it means more people can be fed from the oceans. If, on the other hand, these new methods result in the disappearance of species, such as whales, then that is bad. The automobile gives us great mobility, but pollutes our atmosphere. We cook cleanly and efficiently with natural gas, but we are running short of it. Newspapers and books spread knowledge, but require that trees be chopped down. It seems that nearly every advance in our civilisation has some undesirable side effects, Today’s young people are going to have to acquire the wisdom to see that future changes help our planet, not hurt it, so that it truly becomes the beautiful, clean, blue and white pea it seems to be when viewed from the moon. The earth truly is fragile, in the sense that its surface can easily shift from blue and white to black and brown. Is the riverbank a delightful spot to watch diving ducks, or is it lifeless greasy muck littered with bottles and tires? More people should be privileged to fly in space and get the chance to see the fragile earth as it appears from afar.
(p. 146).

Further on in the book, he states that future orbiting settlements would get their power from solar energy, as this would not only be abundant and free, but also clean, unlike coal. (pp. 150-1).

He also remarks on the way the Apollo missions differed from previous historic expeditions in that the explorers were unarmed, and suggests that the future inhabitants of a space colony at one of the libration points where the gravity of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out, and so named ‘Libra’, would similarly see no need for carrying weapons.

Apollo set a precedent for the future in another interesting way. It was probably the only major human expedition in which no weapons were carried. In similar fashion, no weapons would be permitted on Libra and Librans simply would not be able to understand why earth people continued to shoot one another. On Libra, if people felt hostile, they would be urged to put their energies into athletic contests or other competitive events, or simply to let off steam by going flying.

He then describes how the lower or zero gravity in the colony would allow people to fly aircraft power by their own muscles. (pp. 154-5).

Most of this is, or at least should be, non-controversial. Scientists have been warning us about the immense danger to our ecosystem, and the horrific decline in its natural wildlife as more and more habitats are destroyed, and an increasing number of species threatened with extinction, since the early ’70s. Among those warning of the ecological perils to the planet was the inspirational astronomer and NASA scientist, Carl Sagan. And indeed, one of the most powerful images that stimulated ecological awareness and the burgeoning Green movement was that picture of the Earth as a fragile, blue orb hanging in the blackness of space taken from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. Way back in the mid-1990s the Beeb’s popular science programme, Horizon, devoted an edition, ‘Icon Earth’, to how this photo had influenced politics and culture.

The picture hasn’t just made more people aware of the urgent need to protect the environment. Some of the astronauts have spoken about how it brought home to them how artificial racial and national divisions are. They point out that there are now boundaries visible from space. Helen Sharman, the British astronaut who flew with the Russians to Mir in the 1980s, states in her book about her voyage that space helps to foster international understanding and cooperation. She observes that astronauts are the least nationalistic people.

As for guns, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that shooting in the enclosed environment of space habitat could have truly disastrous consequences through the damage it could do to the machinery and fabric of the colony itself, and their ability to preserve human life in the harsh environment of space. A bullet through the outer skin of a spacecraft could lead the escape of its air, causing those within to die of suffocation and decompression.

Trump, however, is supported by the racist and misogynist Alt Right, who would like to roll back Black Civil Rights and women’s social and political gains since the 1960s, while the Republican party as a whole is generously funded by the NRA and the gun lobby, and the Koch brothers and other industrial magnates. The Koch brothers own much of the American petrochemical industry, and so, like many of the other multimillionaire businessmen, are very strongly opposed to any kind of environmental protection. The Kochs in particular are responsible for closing down awkward parts of the American meteorology and environmental science laboratories when they dare to issue warnings about the damage industry is causing to the country’s natural beauty and wildlife. They are then replaced with other institutions, also funded by the Kochs and those like them, which then conveniently deny the reality of climate change. The Republicans and their supporters in industry have also set up fake ‘astroturf’ Green movements, like Wise Use, which seek to undermine the genuine environmental movement.

Given the way the experience of looking back at our beautiful planet from space has transformed political, social and cultural perspectives all across the world, you can understand why some astronauts just might feel they have excellent reasons for pulling faces at their president.

More Hypocrisy from the Tories and the Daily Mail as They Accuse Labour of Bigotry and Intolerance

July 8, 2017

The Conservatives and Daily Heil are back to the old tricks of accusing the Labour party and its supporters, particularly those in Momentum for Jeremy Corbyn, of intolerance, vandalism and intimidation. Sheryll Murray, the Tory MP for South East Cornwall, whined in an article in the Fail about her treatment by Labour supporters. She claimed that

“I’ve had swastikas carved into posters, social media posts like ‘burn the witch’ and ‘stab the C’, people putting Labour Party posters on my home, photographing them and pushing them through my letterbox. Someone even urinated on my office door.”

Dominic Sandbrook, one of the rag’s journos, then went on to opine that “The fact is the overwhelming majority of the abuse, bullying and intimidation comes from the Left.”

Tory MP Nadine ‘Mad Nad’ Dorries put up a photograph of one of these vandalised posters with the accusation that it was done by Momentum supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, along with her judgement that Britain was heading back to the 1930s.

As Mike has pointed out on his blog about the article, citing Tom Clarke, the Angry Yorkshireman, neither Murray, Dorries nor Sandbrook has absolutely any evidence that this was done by Labour supporters. It’s just another unfounded accusation to smear the Labour party.

And Murray herself also has form when it comes to intolerance. At one of her rallies, she stated that she’s glad there are food banks in Cornwall. When a section of the crowd, not unreasonably, shows its anger, she first tries to wave it off by saying, ‘Let’s ignore these, shall we?’ As Mike also asks rhetorically, what does she mean when she refers to the protesters as ‘these’? When they continue, she threatens to call the police.

Mike concludes

This Writer reckons the Tories are on the back foot, and this is a desperate attempt to regain credibility with the public.

It must not succeed.

So, if you see a Tory trying to defame the Left in this manner, don’t let it pass; challenge it.

We’ll see how long their feigned indignance lasts when they’re made to produce evidence – or shut up.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/06/tories-accuse-the-left-of-intolerance-and-bigotry-without-evidence-pot-kettle-black/

There are a number of issues underlying the petulant shrieks of intolerance by the Tories, some going back to patrician attitudes to the working classes that predate democratic politics.

Firstly, as Mike and the Angry Yorkshireman point out, there’s absolutely no evidence linking any of this to the Labour party. Indeed, some of it is just as likely to come from the Lib Dems or indeed just from people of no fixed political opinions, who are fed with the Tories. In rural areas like parts of the south west, the main rivals to the Conservatives aren’t Labour but the Liberal Democrats, and I’ve heard from former Conservative local politicians that the real hatred isn’t between Labour and the Conservatives, between the Tories and Lib Dems.

Secondly, the Tories’ attitudes in many ways is simply a display of the old, upper class suspicion of the working class. Way back in the early 19th century the upper classes hated and feared the Labouring poor as prone to rioting, and potentially subversive and disloyal. The only way to keep the unwashed masses in line was through outright repression and stern policing. This attitude vanished, or at least was seriously weakened when the great unwashed turned up at the Great Exhibition. And instead of wanting to burn the place down, showed themselves orderly, responsible and interested. But this latest accusation from the Fail with its petit bourgeois readership shows that the old hatred and fear of the working class as a seething mass of social disorder, yobbishness and violence, still remains.

Thirdly, it shows just out of touch ‘Nads’ Dorries, Murray and Sandbrook are. If people are lashing out at Tory MPs and their propaganda, it’s because they’ve been driven to it by grinding poverty and an administration that ignores everyone except the richest quarter of the population. Many areas of rural Britain, including Cornwall, have high unemployment. There’s also a problem of getting housing, which is often well out of the price range of locals thanks to wealthy people from outside the area buying it as second homes. I’ve a friend from Cornwall, who was particularly angry about this nearly a decade ago. I can remember him getting up to tackle a group of ‘upcountry’ people about it in a pub, when he overheard them talking about how cheap property was down there.

Then there are the national problems of acute poverty, caused by stagnating wages and cuts to basic welfare support. People want and deserve proper unemployment and disability benefits, and very definitely not to be forced to support themselves through charity and food banks.

And then there’s the whole issue of the privatisation of the NHS. A few months ago I wrote another pamphlet about that, in addition to the one, whose contents I put up here a week or so ago. While writing this, and documenting the way a long line of right-wing governments have been aiming to privatise the NHS since Maggie Thatcher in the 1980s, I felt so furious that I really couldn’t face any kind of Tory propaganda. I felt so bitterly angry at the way the health service is being run down, in order to soften it up for privatisation and purchase by largely American private healthcare companies.

Given all this, the British public has an absolutely right to be angry, and while I don’t approve of people urinating in anyone’s letter box, I honestly can’t blame them for vandalising the posters. In Bristol popular anger against the Tories could be seen just before the general election in a piece of graffiti scrawled outside the Eye Hospital near the BRI. It read: Donate Tory Blood – It’s Worth More!

Nads’, Murray’s and Sandbrook’s sneering about ‘left-wing intolerance’ shows the complacency and complete indifference to suffering of the Tory middle and upper classes. They’re very comfortably off, thank you very much, and the Tories are serving them very well. So they have no idea, and indeed react with absolute horror at the very idea that part of the masses hates them with a passion, because they have no understanding, or sympathy, with the real poverty and deprivation many people are struggling with. We’re back indeed in the territory of Matthew Freud’s comments about how the poor should be more flexible than the rich, as they have less to lose.

There’s also an element of the old Tory landlord class, who expect their workers to put up and tug their forelock to the master, no matter how badly they were treated. A few years ago one of the BBC history programmes covered the Highland Clearances, the period in the late 18th and 19th centuries when the Scots aristocracy enclosed and forced their tenant farmers off their land so they could devote it to sheep rearing. The image of the wild, romantic Scots countryside actually post-dates this process. Before then the countryside north of the border was filled with rural communities – townships – and their people. It only became a wilderness when these people were forcibly evicted and their crofts and other homes pulled down.

And to add insult to injury, those workers, who managed to keep their jobs were expected to tug their forelocks and sing the praises of their masters. The programme mentioned how one ‘improving’ landlord, who was actually English, or half-English, got very upset when he decided to have a statue put up of himself. He expected his workers to pay for it, and was furious when many of them were less than enthusiastic.

It’s the same attitude here. The Tories still expect absolute feudal loyalty and subservience. When this is not forthcoming, and anger is shown instead, their own selfish indifference to the plight of the lower orders comes out, and they start screaming about how it’s all so unreasonable, intolerant, and, by implication, disobedient.

And lastly, it’s also massively hypocritical. The Tories have absolutely no business accusing anyone of intolerance, and especially not the Daily Heil. Not when sections of the party is still bitterly racist, with Mail and the Tory party championing even more stringent state censorship and surveillance of what we may read and post online, or say on the phone or other forms of social media. Not when they’ve created the legal infrastructure for secret courts, where you can be tried without trial, with having your lawyer see vital evidence against you, or even know who your accuser is, if the government decides this would all be against ‘national security’. Just like Stalin’s Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy!

And the Tories certainly have no problem with violence and intolerance when it directed against the left. I remember how the Scum put up an approving story during the Miner’s Strike, about how an old lady struck the then head of the NUM, Arthur Scargill, with a tin of tomatoes she’d thrown. This old dear was praised for her pluck and daring at the evil Commie, who was destroying the mining industry and forcing all good, right-thinking Thatcherite miners out of the pits. Yet when the reverse occurs, and someone throws eggs at the Tories, they start frothing and screaming at their intolerance.

And if we’re talking about the Right’s intolerance during the Miner’s Strike, then how about the way Thatcher used military-style policing, including unprovoked charges, against the miners. This was done officially, and covered up by a complicit media, including the Beeb. Violence, and the savage beating of protesters, ain’t intolerance when it’s done by the Tory forces of law and order.

Dorries, Murray and Sandbrook show themselves with this article, to be intolerant hypocrites themselves. They’re all too happy to see people ground into the most extremes of poverty and misery, but panic when some few show their dissent by tearing down their propaganda.

Buzz Aldrin in Physical Pain at Trump’s Rambling Speech about Space Programme

July 6, 2017

Donald Trump has alarmed scientists and laypeople with the anti-science stance of his administration. They’re alarmed at legislation he’s passed allowing the teaching of evolution and climate change as fact to be challenged in schools, who may also be compelled to teach Creationism and present the arguments of the lobbyists in the oil industry that deny the reality of climate change.

Trump’s comments about space also appear to have caused serious pain to Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin is a genuine American hero. He was the second man to step out on the Moon after Armstrong. He was deeply religious. A devout Roman Catholic, her age himself Holy Communion while on the lunar surface, but afterwards became more ‘New Age’ in his beliefs. He has also been a committed champion of America’s space programme and of opening up the High Frontier to ordinary folks.

In this clip, David Pakman discusses the very pained expressions crossing the old flyboy’s face at Trump’s rambling speech. Trump was passing legislation supposed to reaffirm and strengthen the American space programme. It’s clear from his comments that Trump himself actually doesn’t have a clue about space. At one point, after he signs the piece of legislation, one of his aides remarks ‘To infinity and beyond!’

This, of course, is the watchword of Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear. However, Trump fails to recognise the quote, and thinks it’s about the law, commenting, ‘It is infinity. Well, it could be infinity.’

And when Trump does for a moment appear to understand what he’s talking about, it’s actually quite sinister. At one point he starts talking about how space exploration will benefit American industry.

Well, space does indeed have the potential to benefit industry. There are substances, such as ultra-pure crystals, that are difficult to create on Earth, but can be made much more easily in microgravity. But that’s not what Trump’s talking about.

What the Orange Buffoon is talking about is how good space will be for American defence contractors, which raises the horrendous issue of the militarisation space, which is prohibited under international law.

Pakman comments about how, after his immense achievement in landing on the Moon, and then having his patience tested by a conspiracy theorist, who challenged him with the statement that he hadn’t really gone to the Moon, the 87-year old spaceman now looks as though he’s really in physical pain at Trump’s incoherent speech.

Unlike the conspiracy theorist, Trump did actually walk away from his meeting with Aldrin. The challenge to the old astronaut’s integrity and achievement was too much for him to bear, and he decked the offender. Clearly, Aldrin has too much respect for the presidency to hit its current incumbent. But it seems very clear Trump’s ignorance was a bit too much for him.

Government Internet Censorship in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 6, 2017

One of the very real concerns about the current attacks on freedom of speech by British and American governments is these states’ demands for increasing powers to regulate and censor what is posted on-line. This has all been framed under the pretext of protecting the British and American peoples from pornography, especially paedophile, and terrorism.

Stephen Baxter is one of Britain’s leading writers of Hard SF. This is the subgenre of Science Fiction, which follows Asimov and Clarke in being based on real science, though obviously also with a greater or less degree of extrapolation and invention permitting the inclusion of FTL drives, AIs and aliens. Baxter’s best known for his Xelee sequence series of books. These are set in a universe dominated by the advanced and unknowable Xelee, an alien race so far ahead of humanity that humans and the other intelligent species compete with each other to scavenge bits and pieces of their technology. At the same time, the universe is being prematurely aged by the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures for whom the light and warmth of the universe of normal matter is a hostile environment.

Baxter has also written a number of novels set in an alternative world. In Voyage, he described a crewed NASA expedition to Mars, whose triumph – a successful Mars landing – comes just when the entire American space programme is cancelled. The book was adapted as a radio play and broadcast on Radio 4.

In Titan, published in 1995, Baxter tells the story of a group of NASA and JPL scientists and astronauts, who launch a manned expedition to Titan to investigate further the discovery of living biochemistry by the Cassini probe. This is to be NASA’s last hurrah after the crash of the Columbia space shuttle results in the cancellation of the manned space programme. The story begins in 2004, in a world that is almost identical to the present of the time the book was written.

There are a few exceptions, however. Amongst the new inventions of this future past are computerised tattoos, which change shape according to the wishes of the wearer, and soft computer/TV screens, which can be rolled up and pasted on walls like paper.

And one of the issues that is very alive is the American government’s ruthless censorship of the internet. This is discussed in one scene, where NASA’s head, Hadamard, meets Paula Benacerraf, an astronaut aboard the ill-fated Columbia mission, her daughter, Jackie, who is responsible for publishing the discovery of life on Saturn’s moon, and her young son, at an official ceremony in Texas to honour China’s first taikonaut, Jiang Li.

He found Paula Benacerraf, who was here with her daughter, and a kid, who looked bored and restless. Maybe he needed to pee, Hadamard thought sourly. On the daughter’s cheek was an image tattoo that was tuned to black; on her colourless dress she wore a simple, old-fashioned button-badge that said, mysteriously, ‘NED’.

Hadamard grunted. ‘I’ve seen a few of those blacked-out tattoos. I thought it was some kind of comms problem -‘
Jackie Benacerraf shook her head. ‘It’s a mute protest.’
‘At what?’
‘At shutting down the net.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Oh, Christ, he thought. She was talking about the Communications Decency Act, which had been extended during the winter. With a flurry of publicity about paedophiles and neo-Nazis and bomb-makers, the police had shut down and prosecuted any net service provider, who could be shown to have passed on any of the material that fell outside the provisions of the Act. And that was almost all of them.
‘I was never much of a net user,’ Hadamard admitted.
‘Just to get you up to date,’ Jackie Benacerraf said sourly, ‘we now have one licensed service provider, which is Disney-Coke, and all net access software has built-in-censorship filters. We’re just like China now, where everything goes through the official news agency, Xinhua; that poor space kid must feel right at home.’
Benacerraf raised an eyebrow at him. ‘She’s a journalist. Jackie takes these things seriously.’
Jackie scowled. ‘Wouldn’t you, if your career had just been f***ed over?’
[Censorship mine].
Hadamard shrugged; he didn’t have strong opinions.
The comprehensive net shutdown had been necessary because the tech-heads who loved all that stuff had proven too damn smart at getting around any reasonable restriction put in place. Like putting encoded messages of race-hate and smut into graphics files, for instance: that had meant banning all graphics and sound files, and the World Wide Web had just withered. He knew there had been some squealing among genuine discussion groups on the net, and academics and researchers who suddenly found their access to online libraries shut down, and businesses who were no longer allowed to send secure encrypted messages, and … But screw it. To Hadamard, the net had been just a big conduit of bullshit; everyone was better off without it.
(pp. 130-1).

This is Science Fiction as the literature of warning: against cuts to the space programme, and net censorship. It even mentions rising graduate unemployment, in a scene where Paula Benacerraf arranges a meeting with her team to discuss the possibility of launching a crewed mission to Titan. They meet at dinner party in Benacerraf’s house, served by her housekeeper, Kevin. Kevin is a fine art graduate, who is working as Benacerraf’s housekeeper in order to work off his student debt. His works are the usual horrors inflicted on the world by contemporary artists. In her only visit to his atelier, Benacerraf is shown a 1/4 size sculpture of himself which Kevin has gnawed from a block of lard. This is just a study for a full-size work, which he intends to gnaw from his own liposuctioned fat or faeces. As she and her guests are being served by Kevin, she reflects that he is like the majority of graduates, who will never have a job.

Well, the shuttle programme has been cancelled, but hopefully this will not prevent the further exploration of universe. The Chinese certainly are looking to put a person into space, and are believed to be aiming to land a human on the Moon by 2020. Baxter also mentions this in Titan in his description of the spacewoman’s mission to the Deep Black, where he states that this is believed to be in preparation for a moon landing in 2019.

And Baxter is absolutely correct about the demands for a comprehensive censorship of the internet by the British and American governments. The only difference is the terrorists the governments are panicking about are Islamist, rather than neo-Nazi. So far, the demands for censorship have been limited, so there isn’t the almost-complete shutdown of the net described in Baxter’s version of the recent past.

But this is still a very real danger, as these accompanying threat, which Baxter didn’t predict, of increased state surveillance of electronic communications, for the same reasons as censorship.

Someone once remarked that all science fiction is really about the issues of the time they were set. Titan reflects the fears about the internet that were present back in the 1990s, when it was first emerging. These fears, and the consequent demands by government to censor nearly everything we see or read online, are still very real, and Baxter’s book is still very relevant.

A Real Steampunk Monorail Train

July 5, 2017

This is another piece of real steampunk technology I’ve found in yet another book on the weird inventions of 19th century, Victorian Inventions by Leonard de Vries, trans. by Barthold Suermondt (London: John Murray 1973). Along with illustrations and contemporary depictions of dirigible balloons and other flying machines, submarines, ships, steampunk carriages and electric trams, bizarre prototypes and version of the telephone and typewriters and other strange devices, there’s also series of very unusual trains and railways. One of these was a proposed monorail, which was the idea of the American investor, E.S. Watson.

The piece of text for the pic reads

Mr E.S. Watson of Water Valley, Mississippi, has been granted a patent for an elevated railway with only one rail. This rail may consist of normal T-Section and is supported at regular intervals by wooden poles or concrete columns. Figure 2 shows how the locomotive and coaches rest on the rail. The major part of their weight, and hence their centre of gravity, are at a lower level than the rail. Consequently, the train can never be derailed or overturn. Another advantage of this method is that road traffic can pass below the rail and no level-crossings are required.

(p. 33)

I can remember when waaay back in the 70s the monorail was being described in books on popular science as the railway of the future. Now it’s clear that it’s another invention that the Victorians produced, or at least thought of, long before. Despite being hailed as the future of rail transport, it has never really caught on, except in one or two particular attempts to create the town or urban environment of the future. It’s thus very ‘steampunk’ in that it’s a vision of an alternative future that never happened.

The Tory, Privatise Enterprise Cure for Stressed Teachers: Electrostimulate their Brains!

July 3, 2017

Everything about this says Bad Science, as in the book by Ben Goldacre. And ‘bad’ in every definition of the word. Not only wrong scientifically, but also morally. But it’s what you get all too often with the Tories in charge.

Mike over at Vox Political has today posted up a piece commenting on a story in today’s Torygraph, hyping the use of an electronic device, the Alpha-Stim, which Leigh Academies Trust are offering to their staff at seven secondary schools, seven primary schools and a special educational needs school in Kent to treat the symptoms of stress amongst their staff. The Torygraph says that the device is the size of a mobile phone, and works by sending micro-pulses of electricity to the brain to stimulate the production of alpha waves. This supposedly helps relieve anxiety, depression and sleep disorders. The Trust is offering it along with other therapies. The extract Mike includes in his piece quotes one Peter Caunt of Nottinghamshire Healthcare Trust, who says ‘We know this type of therapy works’ before going on to say that the question is whether it is cost-effective.

Mike compares it to the shock treatment used on very disturbed people, which works by burning out part of their frontal lobes. He states that he personally knows people, who’ve had it done, and they have not been the same afterwards.
He asks why the schools management company isn’t trying to solve the problem by making teachers’ lives less stressful.

He wonders if the real reason is that the company’s bosses want to turn their staff into compliant little teaching zombies, who won’t complain, because they’ve had their conscience burned out of them along with the stress.

He also makes the point that the Trust used to be headed by Frank Green, who was appointed to a two-year stint as schools commissioner by Michael Gove. This shows the strong connection between the company and the Tory party.

The device should, apparently, be used for 20 minutes each, but some teaching staff are using it twice or three times. So Mike asks the obvious question of what kind of teachers they’re like afterwards.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/03/the-tory-cure-for-stressed-teachers-is-electrocute-their-brains/

Everything about this is highly dubious. It looks very much like something straight out of the accounts of bad, if not pathological science, from the pages of Ben Goldacre, Martin Gardner and others. Ben Goldacre, you may remember, wrote a book, Bad Science, about this kind of nonsense a few years ago. the Sceptic, Martin Gardner also attacked bad and pernicious science a few decades ago in his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. This looks like a prime example of it, to go with other, earlier pseudo-sciences like eugenics, lobotomies, Lysenkoism, Nazi ‘race science’ and monkey glands.

As for electro-convulsive therapy, it was devised by a German Jewish doctor, who fled Nazi Germany to Fascist Italy. Deciding that it could be an effective method of treating the mentally ill, he started by testing it on tramps he and the authorities rounded up off the street. Adam Parfrey published an essay on it, ‘Gimme Shock Treatment’, in one of his books on the extremes of belief in 1990s America, Apocalypse Culture or Cult Rapture. That essay made it very clear just how nasty it was.

It’s still used, but proper medical professionals only resort to it in the case of severely disturbed people, where there really isn’t much choice.

And everything known about the brain should say that tinkering with it, unless you know exactly what you’re doing, is an appallingly bad idea. The brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. Modern neuroscience has succeeded in identifying which parts of the brain produces which mental function, but even so, there is a vast amount we don’t know. Raymond Tallis, who is a Humanist and former neurologist and neurosurgeon, wrote a book, Aping Mankind, with the aim to show that much human thought and mind couldn’t be reduced to neurological functions. He stated clearly that he wanted to show that thinking was ‘as mysterious as walking on water’. Given the vast complexity of the brain, and its vulnerability, it really is stupid and dangerous to mess around with it in this manner.

Remember a few years ago, when many doctors started to worry about possible brain damage caused by putting mobile phones next to your ear? They were afraid of the health risks posed by putting what is a microwave source next to your brain when talking on the phone.

It also reminds me of the ‘feedback cult’ of the ’70s. This also noted the connection between alpha waves and mood. It therefore encouraged people to hook themselves up to special monitors, which registered their alpha waves, and then learn how to control them and so altered their mood, all for supposedly beneficial purposes. That was also debunked some time ago.

The alpha-stim also sounds to be me like something that escaped from the Human Potential labs in the ’60s and ’70s. The Human Potential movement was one of those weird movements based on psychology that emerged in the 1960s, promising to bring people fulfilment and happiness through their programme of therapies. It still survives in various forms, and developed strong links with corporate capitalism, to the point where its detractors have called it a corporate mind control cult.

Adam Curtis devoted a programme to it in his documentary about the legacy of Freudianism, The Century of the Self, over a decade ago now. And what the programme revealed about it was truly chilling. The movement and its doctors managed to convince the medical profession to let them try to treat a selection of patients suffering from schizophrenia. The treatment consisted of dosing these poor souls up to the gills with LSD, and then attaching electrodes to electrify their brains. And all the while they were taught to repeat to themselves, ‘I am comfortable in myself’.

They interviewed one poor young woman, who’d been a victim of this nonsense. The treatment was a horrible, ghastly failure. It was perhaps a mercy that the woman said that she couldn’t remember much about it now, except that sometimes she had it done several times a day. It was this kind of appalling medical experimentation that the producers of Classic Star Trek took solid aim at in the episode ‘Dagger of the Mind’.

As for this latest rubbish, it also reminds me of an episode in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, when Doctor Bashir is called on treat Garak, the station’s Kardassian tailor and spy. Garak, like many other Kardassian secret agents, had a device implanted in his brain to stimulate his pleasure centres, so he could get through being tortured. Garak, however, has become so miserable that he started using it recreationally, and so has become addicted. Bashir has no choice but to find out what he can about the device, and try to remove it from his friend.

Which all sounds dangerously close to what’s going on here, with the exception that it’s teachers being treated with it, not alien spies.

I am really not at all surprised that it’s the Tories, or a company that’s associated with them, that’s peddling this nonsense. The Tories just love pseudoscience. I’ve reblogged stuff from Kitty S. Jones and other disability bloggers about the model of sickness devised by Unum and their pet psychiatrists at Cardiff University to have people thrown off benefit and declared fit for work, has been roundly debunked by other medical professionals.

And a little while ago, Private Eye in its ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column took a pot shot at a Tory-controlled council in Kent or that part of the world, where the local authority had cut council services, but was funnelling tens of thousands of pounds to a company headed by one of its female members, which specialised in using Neuro-Linguistic Programming or some other kind of dodgy therapy to offer spurious treatment to council staff.

Which, again, sounds very much like what’s going on here.

And then there was the case of the Leaderene herself, Maggie Thatcher. Thatcher was into Ayur Veda, a system of alternative therapies brought to the world by one of the dodgy Indian gurus, who rocked up here in the 1960s. Thatcher treated herself to baths, where along with the water there was a weak electric current. Obviously, she thought it would do her some good. I’m quite sure there were many others, who wish the voltage had been somewhat stronger.

This looks to me very much like a potentially harmful pseudoscience. As for Caunt’s statement that ‘we know it works’, that’s what Tory spokespeople have said about work improving people’s mental health, and other mental professionals, not to mention normal, ordinary people without a financial or ideological stake in it, pointing out that it’s rubbish. And I’ve no doubt it’s the same here.

This is just bad science, which is being hyped by company that obviously finds it cheaper to have their staff trying to make themselves less miserable by running electricity through their brains, than actually trying to do something more positive and concrete to improve conditions for them.

Pretty much like British society as a whole, where instead of offering real guidance and support to the unemployed, their harangued and demeaned by Jobcentre Staff through stupid, nonsensical models of unemployment and disability supported as government policy.

Counterpunch on the Dangers of the Driverless Car

July 1, 2017

Ralph Nader in an article posted on Tuesday’s Counterpunch took to task the current hype about driverless cars following a day long conference on them at Washington University’s law school.

Driverless cars are being promoted because sales are cars are expected to flatten out due to car-sharing, or even fall as the younger generation are less inclined to buy them. Rather than actually investing in public transport, the car industry is promoting driverless automobiles as a way of stimulating sales again.

Nader is rightly sceptical about how well such vehicles will perform in the real world. There are 250 million motor vehicles in the US. This means that real driving conditions are way more complicated than the simple routes on which these vehicles are developed and tested. And while the car industry claims that they will be safer than human-driven vehicles, the reality is most people won’t want a car that they can’t control, whose guiding computer can malfunction or which could be hacked into, whether by the manufacturers or others. Along with such vehicles come increased pressure from the manufacturers for less protective regulation for their drivers, passengers and the general American public.

As for developing a driverless car, which can be taken over by its human occupant in an emergency, researchers at MIT have already shown that this won’t work. Instead of producing driverless cars, we’d be better of concentrating on creating vehicles that are safer, more efficient and less harmful to the environment.

He concludes

The driverless car is bursting forth without a legal, ethical and priorities framework. Already asking for public subsidies, companies can drain much-needed funds for available mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades in favor of a technological will-o’-the-wisp.

He also links to a report by Harvey Rosenfeld into the dangers posed by driverless cars. It’s quite long – 36 pages. This makes it very clear, however, that driverless cars are disastrous. They’re literally a car crash waiting to happen. The report also claims that much of promotion of such vehicles comes from the insurance. Although driverless cars are likely to be much less safe than ordinary cars, the claims that they will be less liable to accidents will allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums for those driving ordinary vehicles.

Driverless cars have been under development since the 1980s, but I can’t see them becoming a viable reality any time soon. Last year the industry proudly announced two types of driverless car, one of which was called the Tesla, after the great Serbian physicist and inventor of Alternative Current. These were withdrawn after accidents in which people were killed.

I have to say, I don’t know anybody who wants one. The various pieces I’ve read about them say that for their owners, using them will actually be quite boring. This is despite the claims that people will be able to read, work or relax instead of driving. But you can do all of that anyway by simply travelling by bus, rail or tube.

Then there’s the threat of unemployment. Two-thirds of all jobs are expected to be lost to automation in the next decade. There are about 40,000 truckers in Britain. That’s 40,000 people, who may lose their jobs if driverless lorries are every produced. And they have been trying to develop them. I can remember Clarkson nearly bursting with excitement while riding in one during an episode of Top Gear a few years ago.

My guess is that the reasons behind their development is far more sinister, and almost certainly connected to the military. For years the military has been trying to develop autonomous, robotic weaponry. I’ve blogged about some of the war robots that have been created and which were featured a few years ago in the popular science magazine, Frontiers. These included various types of jeep, which had been altered so that they carried guns. Such machines have been under development for a very long time. Kevin Warwick, a robotics scientist at Reading University, describes how the US army created a robotic jeep equipped with a machine gun way back in the 1950s. This looks like another step along the way to producing the type of autonomous war robots, which Warwick and some other robotics scientists fear may pose a very real threat to the human race as they become more advanced and their intelligence greater. We are creating war machines very close to the Daleks of Dr. Who or The Terminator franchise.

It also seems to me that the navigation software and computer hardware needed for driverless cars will also find a major general applications in other types of robot. Despite claims by some neuroscientists that the human brain is a load of inefficient ‘kluge’ created by blind evolutionary forces that select for survival, rather than particular skill, cyberneticists have found it very difficult in practice to replicate the way living things, from insects all the way up to humans, actually navigate their way around the world.

Think about the way robots have to work their way around objects. They have to estimate exactly how far away the obstacle is, then work out a path around it, all done using maths. A human, meanwhile, rather than estimating how many steps it takes to the object, and then planning a path of some many steps, precisely laid out, are needed to walk around it, simply does it.

An example of how difficult robots actually find such navigation in practise was given by Warwick when he appeared at the Cheltenham Festival of Science over a decade ago. There’s been a kind of robot Olympics held in Reading. The various competing teams had tried to produce robots that could navigate their own way around the town. Warwick’s team had created a robot with an infrared detector, which would simply follow the light source planted on the back of the human running in front of it. Which to me sounds very much like cheating.

All went swimmingly, until suddenly the robot veered off the road and started shooting off somewhere else entirely, before it collided with something, fell over and stopped. Warwick and his team wondered what happened until it finally occurred to them that the robot had fixed on that big, infrared light source in the sky, the Sun, and ran off trying to pursue that.

This was a decade or so ago. I’ve no doubt that things have improved since, but I doubt that they’ve improved quite so much that driverless cars, or completely autonomous robots, are going to be appearing in the next few years.

And until they do, I shall be very suspicious of the hype.

Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones Claims NASA Operating Child Slave Labour Base on Mars

July 1, 2017

More madness from the very warped mind of Alex Jones. Jones is the head honcho behind the internet conspiracy theory show, Infowars, and its companion website, Prison Planet. Jones believes, or affects to believe, that the American government, the UN, the ‘globalists’, the elite and liberals, Socialists and feminists are engaged in dire and foul conspiracies against the world and its people, and particularly those in America.

Over the years he has claimed that the richest 1 per cent of American society and industry, or at least their menfolk, sacrifice children in Satanic rituals at their annual secret meetings in Bohemian Grove in California. The Twin Towers collapsed because of a conspiracy by the American government, and not because Saudi-backed terrorists hijacked and flew two planes into them. President Obama was going to use to the legislation permitting the establishment of refugee camps to house disaster victims to seize power and herd people into what were really concentration camps. Humanity and the world were under attack by evil extradimensional entities, who might be demons or simply alien intelligences. And Barack Obama was fully under their control. He was truly the Devil’s emissary, because, apparently, he looked demonic, smelt bad and flies were always hovering around him.

Ditto Hillary Clinton. She was also under Satanic influence. She was part of a vast, paedophile conspiracy supplying children to leading politicians from a pizza parlour in Boston. She was also some kind of robot or cyborg, because something metal fell out of her trouser leg when she had a fainting fit during her campaigning. When she momentarily had some kind of problem swallowing a glass of water, Jones seized on this as evidence that she was either demonically possessed, or carrying some kind of alien spawn, which was about to come bursting out of her like the xenomorphs in the Alien movies. She was herself also a participant, with Bill, in black magic ‘spirit eating’ orgies put on by a performance artist.

The UN, Socialists and feminists are all engaged in some weird plot to take over the world and enslave everybody in it, particularly White men. Gay and transgender rights activists are a ‘transhumanist UFO cult’ to create a new, genderless, form of humanity.

How much of this Jones actually believes is a moot point. His ex-wife was suing him for custody of their children, on the grounds that he was utterly made and it was damaging their kids to see their Dad ranting and raving in the TV studio he has at his home. Jones’ lawyers responded by stating that Jones didn’t believe any of it, and it was all ‘performance art’.

Recently Jones has also been forced to issue apologies to people he has libelled on his programme. Someone took his comments about the pizza parlour in Boston very seriously indeed, and walked into it waving a gun around in order to free the child captives in the basement. There weren’t any children kept prisoner there, in the basement or anywhere else. Fortunately, no-one was shot or hurt in this incident.

Then he was threatened with legal action from the Turkish owner of a Yoghurt factory, who had a deliberately policy of employing immigrants. Many of these were Middle Eastern. Jones claimed that this, entirely respectable businessman, who was another paedophile, and that his employees had been responsible for a series of rapes. The businessman wasn’t, and his employees were also innocent. After being threatened with a writ, Jones ended up making a statement that he was entirely mistaken about it all on air.

Now he’s done the same to NASA. On Thursday, Jones had on his programme Robert David Steele, a former Reform Party presidential candidate, who claims to have been a case officer with the CIA. Steele spun a yarn that NASA had been kidnapping children to send them on a 20 year journey to be used as slave labour on Mars. Oh yes, and they were also been frightened and then killed, so that their blood and bone marrow could be harvested for use by the elites. The children had to be terrified when they died as this would enrich it with adrenaline.

NASA responded by denying everything, and pointing out that they didn’t have any kind of child labour camp on the Red Planet.

See: http://www.news18.com/news/buzz/we-do-not-have-a-child-slave-colony-on-mars-nasa-1447965.html

This story is, of course, absolute nonsense. For a start, 20 years is far too long for a journey to Mars. Spacecraft have to go at a certain speed – escape velocity – to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull if they are to go anywhere else in the Solar system, whether it’s the Moon or the other planets. I think current plans for a Mars mission estimate that it would take about 2-3 years or so to get there. A long time, certainly, but not as long as 20.

Then there’s the logistics and engineering problems of getting people to Mars. You need rockets of a certain size and power. Furthermore, any colonists for Mars, whether free or not, would have to carry all their food, water and air with them. The spaceships will also have to be shielded against cosmic radiation and solar flares. These weren’t much of a problem when going to the Moon, because of the relatively short length of the journey – about a week. Even so, if a coronal mass ejection – a type of massive flare known as a sun storm – had occurred, it would have fried the Apollo astronauts. These are a real threat for those intrepid souls going on the lengthy journey to the Red Planet.

There are also other medical problems caused by the lack of gravity in space. As the astronauts’ bodies don’t have to fight against the pull of the Earth’s gravity, muscles shrink. They also go to the toilet more than they would on Earth, and so start to lose calcium, weakening their bones. Hence their health is monitored, and those crews staying in space for a long time, such as during the Skylab programme from 1973-5, have to devote a certain amount of time each day to doing their exercise.

As there is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ in zero gravity, and the fluid in your inner ear that tells you which is which also starts to float along with the rest of you, some astronauts suffer from ‘space sickness’, similar to the sea sickness some people feel travelling by ship.

There are also psychological hazards that may endanger the lives of the space travellers. I heard Dr Kevin Fong, who’s a specialist in space medicine, talking about them one year at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Fong pointed out that the strange environment of space can also affect astronauts’ mental health. Several of them have reported hearing sounds, such as dogs barking and babies crying, while in orbit. They can also find themselves doing strange, irrational things, which can potentially kill them, before being snapped out of it. One astronaut aboard Mir described how he was asleep one night, before being suddenly awoken by a noise. He then found one of his fellow astronauts suited up, ready to take a spacewalk. But the poor fellow hadn’t connected the air hoses. It takes about seven hours or so to put on and inflate a spacesuit, so that it protects its wearer from the hard vacuum outside their craft. None of this had been done, and if the astronaut had walked through the airlock, he would have been killed. Fortunately, the other astronaut was able to wake his friends and colleagues, who woke up and managed to stop him.

These are the hazards facing the extremely healthy men and women, who manage to pass the rigorous testing and gruelling grueling training programmes. Hopefully, one day we’ll have learned enough to make space travel sufficiently safe so that families with children can venture into the Deep Black. But we very definitely aren’t anyway near that level now.

This is sheer bullsh*t, and it’s not hard to see where it’s ultimately coming from. Somewhere in there is the influence of Alternative 3. This was an April Fool’s Day joke, broadcast by ITV in 1975. It was a bogus edition of a fake science programme, ‘Science Report’, which claimed that the Earth was dying, and so the Americans and Russians had secretly shelved their differences in order to colonise Mars secretly. Leading scientists were disappearing as they took up their new lives on the Red Planet. Ordinary people, meanwhile, were also disappearing. They were being kidnapped, lobotomised and ‘de-sexed’ to turn them into slaves as ‘batch consignments’, serving their elite masters.

The programme was a hoax, but unfortunately many people were genuinely taken in and didn’t realise that it was a joke. There was also a tie-in novelisation, which until recently was unavailable in the US. This led to rumours that it was all true, and had been deliberately suppressed by Them.

The result has been that a number of other conspiracy theories about secret government space projects have grown up around it, or been inspired by it. This latest nonsense appears to be one of them.

I don’t know how many people actually believe Steele’s story. Possibly very few, the kind of people, who bought into the lurid revelations of Commander X and his tales about secret collaboration with aliens. Or the late Bill English and his rubbish about meeting the Zeta Reticulan ambassador, Omnipotent Highness Krill, at a military base.

I doubt very many people actually believe the story, but that hasn’t stopped Jones having an effect. During the American presidential elections, he gave very vocal support to Donald Trump, who was a guest on his programme several times. He has libelled various blameless individuals, such as the Turkish yoghourt manufacturer. It’s a mercy that his stories about paedophile gangs didn’t result in someone being shot at that pizza place. He also notoriously claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was all staged, and that the children and others, who were killed and injured were ‘crisis actors’. This has led to people approaching and accusing the kids’ grieving parents with these claims.

And anti-racist activists are worried about the links Jones and his show have with the racist Alt-Right. This includes his fellow presenter, Paul Joseph Watson, who has inveighed against the threat Islam and Muslim immigration supposedly poses to western civilisation.

Jones is a clown, and his ranting can be hilarious, but there’s a very serious, very dark side to his show. It’s almost the very definition of ‘fake news’, and it is having a pernicious effect on politics in the US, as more citizens are encouraged to fear the terrible, but entirely imaginary Others that mean to harm and enslave them. While, of course, supporting right-wing Libertarian policies, which will deny them proper, decent medicine, welfare support, housing, clean water and education.