Posts Tagged ‘Radio 4’

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.

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.

Satirical Video of Boris Johnson’s Car Crash Interview with Eddie Mair

June 23, 2017

Boris Johnson: he really should eat more roughage.

I found this video on YouTube of that interview Boris Johnson gave with Eddie Mair, in which the Tory leadership contender and former editor of the Spectator failed to answer Mair’s questions on what was in the Queen’s Speech for correcting harsher sentences against Blacks in the courts and improving the lives of the mentally ill. Boris couldn’t answer the first one, and after umming and ahhing tried to answer the second, before finding out that he couldn’t answer that one either, and tried to go back to answering the first question again. At which point Mair told him this wasn’t the Two Ronnies’ Mastermind Sketch, ‘Answering the Question before Last’.

Mair then went to mention all the policies May had said she would implement in the Tory manifesto, policies which had the support of 17.1 million people, but which had subsequently been dropped. Was it right to do this?

Johnson then replied that things hadn’t gone the way they wanted at the general election. To which Mair objected, ‘But you won’.

The video shows Mair and Johnson sitting in the seats for Mastermind as contestant and question master. And as Johnson performs worse and worse, so he gradually takes on the appearance of a clown, until he has the full garish wig and make-up. His comedic performance then ends with a honk of the clown’s squeaky horn.

Enjoy!

Boris Johnson’s Car Crash Radio Interview. But Will He Be Ridiculed like Diane Abbott?

June 22, 2017

My drawing of Boris Johnson, who seems to have been in some pain. Make up your own jokes.

Earlier today, Mike put up an audio clip of Boris Johnson, Tory MP for Henley on Thames, former editor of the Spectator, mayor of London, and frequent guest on Have I Got News For You being interviewed on the Queen’s Speech by Eddie Mair on Radio 4. Boris has got a reputation as an incompetent buffoon, based on the fact that things have gone spectacularly wrong with him in charge in public for years. Like, for example, when he tried coming down a zipline for some event, and got stuck halfway along and had to be rescued. Or when he shut himself out of his own house in front of reporters. Or when he held a press meeting for some campaign he was involved in, only to have the video go wrong, as reported in Private Eye.

This interview will most certainly not have dispelled that reputation.

Mair begins by asking Johnson about Theresa May’s comments last year about tackling various injustices. What was there in the Queen’s Speech today, about correcting the harsher treatment Blacks receive in court?

Johnson’s reply was a series a mumbled ‘ers’, followed by ‘I’ve got it here somewhere’ and rustling sounds.

So Mair moved on to his next question, which was about what plans the government may have to tackle mental health issues.

More mumbling and sounds of ignorance from Johnson, who then tried to change the subject and go back to the previous question.

At which point Mair brought him up sharp with the words, ‘No, Boris, this isn’t the Two Ronnies, where you can answer the question before last’, referring to that sketch which gently sent up Mastermind.

He then asked Boris about the contents of the Queen’s Speech in general. BoJo didn’t know, and so Mair told him. Or rather, he listed all the subjects and policies May had said she would tackle in her manifesto, which she has now discarded. 13.7 million people voted for that manifesto, said Mair. Was it right that this should now be thrown away?

More mumbling and muttering from Boris, who blustered something about ‘changed circumstances’.

Along with the clip, Mike has also put up some of the responses to it on social media, including those of the Labour politicos John Prescott and Chuka Umunna, and the left-wing writer and journo, Owen Jones. All of them make the point that this was a dreadful interview, comparable to that of Diane Abbott a few weeks ago. This resulted in Abbott being ridiculed across the media. Now Boris has given a similarly bad one, so will he get the same treatment?

They all make the point that he won’t.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/06/22/boris-johnson-makes-an-ass-of-himself-on-radio-interview-but-will-he-receive-diane-abbott-style-ridicule/

No surprise there. The French Philosophical Feline, Guy Debord’s Cat, made this point over a fortnight ago when Abbott was forced to pull out of the campaign due to ill health. People started muttering about how this showed she was incompetent, while May asked the rhetorical question if people wanted this woman as Home Secretary? La Chat Philosophique Francaise compared this to the 1970s racist campaign against the Labour party, in which voters were explicitly told that if you wanted a ‘coloured’ living next to you, you should vote for the Labour party. Or to put it crudely, ‘If you want a n***er for a neighbour, vote Labour’. He writes

In the last week or so, we’ve heard May and her Tories say “Would you want Diane Abbott as Home Secretary”? Such a question is predicated on the knowledge of the Other. The idea that the Home Office will be run not only by a woman, but a black woman is too much to bear for our crypto-racists. Better to have a white woman or a white man in charge, eh? Where are the black faces in May’s cabinet? There are none. There are a couple of Asian millionaires but no black people.

Diane Abbott has been attacked precisely because she is black and because she’s a woman. Boris Johnson is allowed to make as many gaffes as he likes and get away with it. He’s given plenty of latitude when he indulges in racism and his thuggish behaviour is regularly overlooked, even laughed off. He’s a clown, so we’re told.

He concludes

When you base your competency argument on a handful of gaffes rather than a person’s record, then you play the bully’s game. If you can’t see the obvious racism that underpins the bullying of Abbott and prefer to focus on her presumed incompetency, then you need to have a word with yourself.

https://buddyhell.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/racism-and-the-bullying-of-diane-abbott/

Part of the issue in Abbott’s case, I suspect, is the fact that challenging racism has been a very important part of Abbott’s political career. Her parents were both working class. The Daily Mail a little while ago in an article on her claimed that she was personally embittered because she believed that her mother had been passed over for promotion because of her colour. Which is very possible, given the racism of the times.

As a result, Abbott got a reputation as someone, who was prejudiced against Whites. In the 1987 one of the Tory papers – I think it was the Scum – ran a double spread of photographs of various Labour politicians, underneath which was a quote designed to frighten all right-thinking British Thatcherites. Underneath Red Ken’s fizzog was the quotation ‘I am not in favour of the army. I am in favour of arming the working classes to guard the factories.’

And below Abbot’s was the statement ‘All White people are racist’.

This was designed to show how far left and unfit for government the Labour party was. As it stands, Ken Livingstone was in favour of workers’ control, though this was only one aspect of his views on industry and government. And as some of his Tory opponents and colleagues in London admitted, Livingstone was far from a lunatic.

I’m sure the same can be said for Abbott. The quotations from the Scum sound plausible, but that’s what effective propaganda has to be. If it sounds like lies, then people won’t believe it. And it isn’t as though the Scum doesn’t have a reputation for lying. As one of the premier organs of Thatcherite propaganda, it shares all the mendacity of the party is loudly supports.

And this is quite apart from its blatant racism. Way back at the end of the 1990s or the first years of this century, Private Eye ran an article on yet another case in which the Scum had been hauled up before the Press Complaints Commission, as was, for racism. The Eye pointed out that the wretched paper had had 19 decisions against it by the Commission for racism over the years. And that was then. Who knows what the count is now!

As for Abbott, she seems perfectly at home with Michael Portillo and Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics. I did hear a little while ago that Portillo was her baby’s godfather, though I’m not sure if this is right. If it is, it confirms that she’s fitted right in as a politician of long and distinguished standing.

Will Boris get pilloried for his dreadful performance? Of course he won’t! He’s White, pukka old Etonian establishment – the type of people, who believe that they have an unquestionable right to govern the rest of us, and who the right-wing media, including the Beeb, will support against challengers like Abbott. Or Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter, who was also ridiculed after failing to know the answer to a question posed by Woman’s Hour.

Which will just show just how biased in terms of class and race the Beeb and media are.

And for fans of classic comedy, here’s the Two Ronnies Sketch in question.

Radio Programme Tonight on Bishop Grosseteste’s Medieval Big Bang Theory

June 14, 2017

Science Stories on Radio 4 tonight, `14th June 2017, at 9.00 pm is on ‘The Medieval Bishop’s Big Bang Theory’. According to the short description about it in the Radio Times, the programme’s presenter, ‘Philip Ball tells the tale of a medieval Big Bang Theory forged by Bishop Robert Grosseteste in the 12th century’.

Grosseteste was the 12th century bishop of Lincoln, and was one of the leading figures of the 12th century renaissance. As well as leading English churchman, Grosseteste was a pioneering natural philosopher. In his Hexaemeron, a theological and philosophical meditation on the first six days of creation, according to the story in Genesis, he worked out a theory that is surprisingly close to that of the modern ‘Big Bang’. In Genesis, the creation of the world begins when God separates the light from the darkness. Grosseteste believed that God had created the world beginning with a tiny point of light, which exploded outwards. Its expansion created ‘extension’, or space, and the material from which God subsequently created the material universe over the next five days.

A.C. Crombie, in his Science in the Middle Ages, Vol. 1: Augustine to Galileo (London: Mercury Books 1952) writes

The first important medieval writer to take up the study of optics was Grosseteste, and he set the direction for future developments. Grossetest gave particular importance to the study of optics because of his belief that light was the first ‘corporeal form’ of material things and was not only responsible for their dimensions in space but also was the first principle of motion and efficient causation. According to Grosseteste, all changes in the universe could be attributed ultimately to the activity of this fundamental corporeal form, and the action at a distance of one thing on another was brought about by the propagation of rays of force or, as he called it, the ‘multiplication of species’ or ‘virtue’. By this he meant the transmission of any form of efficient causality through a medium, the influence emanating from the source of the causality corresponding to a quality of the source, as, for instance, light emanated from a luminous body as a ‘species’ which multiplied itself from point to point through the medium in a movement that went in straight lines. All forms of efficient causality, as for instance, heat, astrological influence and mechanical action, Grosseteste held to be due to this propagation of ‘species’, though the most convenient form in which to study it5 was through visible light. (99-100).

This makes it sound very close to the modern theory that all the forces – gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces – were united at the Big Bang, and subsequently separated out from this primal Superforce.

Grosseteste was also one of the medieval writers, who first posited the Moon as the causes of the tides. The association between the Moon and the tides had first been made by the Stoic philosopher, Posidonius, who was born c. 135 BC. Crombie writes

Grossetest in the next century [following Giraldus Cambrensus in the 12th] attributed the tides to attraction by the moon’s ‘virtue’, which went in straight lines with its light. He said that the ebb and flow of the tides was caused by the moon drawing up from the sea floor mist, which pushed up the water when the moon was rising and was not yet strong enough to pull the mist through the water. When the moon had reached its highest point the mist was pulled through and the tide fell. The second, smaller monthly tide he attributed to lunar rays reflected from the crystalline sphere back to the opposite side of the earth, these being weaker than the direct rays. (126-7). It’s not quite right. The tides are simply caused by the Moon’s gravity acting on the oceans as a whole. Mist isn’t involved. Nevertheless, he was right in pointing to the Moon as the cause of the tides.

Which is more than can be said of Bill O’Reilly. Until recently, O’Reilly was the lead anchor on Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing news network over in America. The host of the ‘O’Reilly Factor’, he specialised in right-wing harangues which occasionally ended with him insulting and screaming at his guests if they dared to disagree with him. He did this to the son of one of the firefighters, who lost his life in 9/11. The lad committed the unpardonable offence of saying that his father would not have blamed all Muslims for the attack, and would not have wanted America to go to war over it. This was too much for the veteran newsman, who screamed at the lad that he was a disgrace to his father, and then had him thrown off the show.

He also showed himself massively ignorant scientifically in an interview with the head of American Atheists, the atheist movement, which I think was set up and headed for years by Madalain Murray O’Hair. Trying to refute whatever point the man was making, O’Reilly seized on the notion of the tides as something that was scientifically inexplicable. There are clips on Kyle Kulinski’s Secular Talk and other left-wing news programmes of O’Reilly repeating, ‘Tides go in, tides go out, you can’t explain it’. All the while the lad looks at O’Reilly with a bemused expression on his face, and simply comments, ‘Perhaps its the mighty Thor’. O’Reilly, however, didn’t get the hint that he was being justifiably mocked, and so simply carried on with his daft refrain.

O’Reilly’s comments and use of the tides shows that O’Reilly knew precious little science, and that Grosseteste had a better idea of what caused it 900 or so years ago, in an age when books had to be copied out by hand and western science was beginning the recovery of ancient Greek and Latin scientific and mathematical texts and learning from the great natural scientists and mathematicians of the Muslim world.

Given O’Reilly’s massive ignorance on something I can remember being discussed in some of the text books we had at school, it’s no wonder that American scientists, educationalists and the general public are seriously worried by Trump’s attack on science education in America, and particular in his attempts to cover up climate change.

As for O’Reilly, he was sacked from Fox News a few months ago after his sordid and vile attitude towards women finally caught up with him. Like the head of the network, Roger Ailes, O’Reilly used his position to try to exploit women sexually. In the early part of this century he was forced to settle a case brought against him by a female colleague to whom O’Reilly had made an uninvited and very unwelcome sexually explicit phone call. This was followed by a series of allegations by other female journalists at Fox News of sexual harassment. This got to the point where the advertisers on the network got fed up, and started taking their custom elsewhere, at which point the veteran reporter lost his job.

Bishop Grosseteste, however, remains one of great figures in the history of western science. While many scientists would not share his religious beliefs, and would question the grounding of his scientific views in them, he is nevertheless important as one of the leading medieval scientists, who contributed to the foundation of modern science through his study of optics, mathematics and the natural world.

Real Steampunk Inventions from the Pages of ‘The Engineer’

May 29, 2017

I’ve posted up several pieces this weekend about some of the real inventions of the Victorians, and how they have inspired and resemble the science and machines of steampunk Science Fiction. This is a branch of SF, which imagines what would have happened had the Victorians invented space travel, computers, time machines and were able to journey to parallel worlds. One of the founding works of the genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was set in an alternative Victorian Britain, which had entered a steam-driven computer age after building Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title.

Some of the most amazing examples of Victorian and Edwardian engineering and technology can be found in the pages of The Engineer. This was the industry’s trade magazine, founded in 1856 by Charles Healey. In 1976 the magazine issued a glossy book celebrating the history of the magazine and the legacy of its founder. The book said of him

Healey has been described as a man of great strength of mind and character who always had ‘a smile, a question, and a penetrating look’. He had financial interests in railways in the Bourdon gauge, and among his many friends were leading men in railway engineering including Robert Stephenson, Isambard Brunel, and Sir William Fairbairn. But there is no evidence Healey used his editorial pages to promote his financial interests.

The magazine’s purpose, as it confessed in January 1916

was to spread the gospel of engineering. ‘Whilst engineering knowledge was the possession of but few men great progress was impossible, and it is the object of the paper to expand and distribute technical and scientific information. In so doing so it may fairly claim to have been a factor of no little importance in the great developments that have taken place during the late 60 years.’

And the magazine celebrated the practical work and achievements of engineers over the more abstract theorising of scientists. The book states

The Engineer pointed out that men of abstract science had done something, ‘but not much for us’. While applied science ‘has done for the physical world everything which science so far provide capable of accomplishing at all – railroads, manufactories, mines, the electric telegraph, chemical factories. And by who is it applied? Why the civil engineer, the mechanical engineer, the mining engineer and the shipbuilder who himself represents an important branch of engineering.

‘The wide earth over, we find the engineer working on principles, dealing with physical truths, using the investigations of those who have preceded him as stepping stones to knowledge, and leaving behind him through each generation mementoes of his labours. Mementoes, the result of a perfect acquaintance with such physical truths as men of the most exalted intellects have discovered-mementoes which will endure when the existence of the “leading journal” has become a matter of history’.

The ’70s were a period of economic depression, and part of the purpose behind the centennial volume was to counteract the mood of the times and inspire a new, fresh generation. The magazine declared

Today, when the economy is depressed, is an opportune moment to produce a book which will remind industry of its glorious past and act as a spur to project it into the future. It will also remind engineers and manufacturers of the power, grace and majesty of engineering.

Very much the same could be said today. Later this week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 will be discussing Britain’s critical lack of engineers, and asking how more young people can be persuaded to enter the profession. I’ve said in my previous blog posts that one way could be to link it to the interest people have in restoring and repairing motor vehicles, and the cyberpunk milieu of Science Fiction enthusiasts, who design fashions and exotic machines for this Victorian technological age that never was.

Much of the material in the book is about industrial machines and processes, which to most lay people, myself included, probably isn’t that interesting. Such as various types of manufacturing machines, industrial smelters, metal and chemical refining processes, pumping engines and so on. There’s also a chapter on railway engines, which is clearly of interest to steam enthusiasts and the people, who played with Hornby Railway sets when they were children.

But the machines and buildings I find the most interesting, are where the Victorians’ ideas prefigure those of modern technology, both real and in the imagined worlds of SF.

In architecture, the magazines shows two designs for a colossal tower for London, that was intended to rival the Eiffel tower in Paris. One of these shows very clearly the influence of the French structure.

Another was more straightforwardly British in design. Except for its size. It was going to be 1,240 feet.

We’re almost looking here at the soaring tower blocks of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or indeed, Judge Dredd’s Megacity 1.

Instead of a channel tunnel, a massive bridge was proposed to span La Manche, and link Britain to France.

And to warn ships of dangerous rocks and water, they also designed a floating lighthouse.

As well as normal railways, they also designed an overhead railway and rainwater collector.

The book also showed contemporary illustrations for the steam carriages and buses that were being developed in this period as the first precursors to modern vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.

This included the Randolph Steam Coach of 1872.

Other vehicles included Goodman’s velocipede of 1868, which could reach the amazing speed of 12 mph, and the Liquid Fuel Company’s steam van of 1985, which was entered in a competition the magazine ran for road carriages.

There was also an illustration of a one horse power road steamer, which could carry two people.

It also included the schematics for another vehicle, the Serpollet Steam Phaeton of 1891.

From this, it looks like a budding car enthusiast could possibly build one of these machines, in the same way people also build their own custom cars, and cyberpunk inspired machines like the one I posted up yesterday.

A Mr Nairn, an engineer from Leith in Scotland, also published his design in 1870 for a three-wheeled steam omnibus.

There was also this illustration of an early motorcycle, Duncan and Superbie’s bike of 1894.

and an early car, Panhard and Lavassor’s two-seater from 1894.

And to show that waiting at traffic lights were also a blight that afflicted the Victorians, there’s an illustration of the traffic signals at Bridge Street in Westminster in 1868.

The Victorians and Edwardians were also experimenting with new ways to move vehicles across ground, such as caterpillar tracks. These included traction engines, such as Ingleton’s Automatic track of 1868. This was engineered to allow the tracks to be raised when the engine reached the end of the field, and needed to make a tight turn.

Even after petrol began to supersede steam in the early 20th century, some firms were still experimenting with caterpillar tracks on the new petrol-driven tractors. The photo below shows the caterpillar tractor and train produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Peoria in America.

In some cases, the search for alternative means of locomotion went so far as reinventing the wheel. In 1909 Diplock patented a design for putting ‘walking feet’ on a wheel.

This is interesting, as H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads was about warfare conducted using machines some have seen as predicting the tank. The land ironclads of the title, however, are much more like contemporary naval vessels. They are long, contain rows of snipers along their sides. And unlike tanks, they walk across the ground on mechanical legs like vast, mechanical millipedes, somewhat like the Walkers in Star Wars, but with more legs.

The Victorians were also keen to solve the problems of ships navigating shallow waters. Bourne’s Steam Train, proposed in 1858, attempted to solve this problem through using the paddle wheels as terrestrial wheels, allowing the vessel to climb over sandbanks, and the engine could be geared down to provide more power.

It struck me looking at this that if it had been developed further, you’d have had amphibious landing craft like the DUK of World War II.

This was also the age in which people were making their first attempts at flight. One of the bizarre vehicles featured in the book was Carlingford’s aerial chariot of 1854. This was launched from a pole ranging from 6 to 9 feet in height, carried forward by a falling weight. This was like the Wright Brother’s early planes. Unlike the Wrights’, the aerial chariot didn’t have an engine and the pilot tried to crank the propeller by hand.

The magazine also published illustrations of the British military’s experiments with balloons in 1874.

As well as wings, engineers were considering more exotic methods of flight. In 1916 there were a series of designs for planes held aloft by spinning discs. Looking at them, it is hard not to see them as the first predecessors of the helicopter.

As for balloons, this led to the development of dirigibles like the Zeppelin, a 1923 design for which was also published in the magazine’s pages.

Petrol driven cars and motorbikes are now ubiquitous, though there is still great affection and interest in vintage, veteran and historic road vehicles. One businessman in Leckhampton, one of the suburbs of Cheltenham, proudly displayed his early motorcycle from about the time of the First World War in his shop window.

The steam vehicles weren’t as efficient as modern petrol and diesel vehicles. They also faced stiff political opposition from traditional, horse drawn vehicles. Nevertheless, you do wonder what Britain would have been like if these machines had caught on to the point where they were the preferred method of transport, rather than horse-drawn carriages.

And these carriages, and the other machines and designs shown above, still have the potential to fire the imaginations of fans of historic technology, steam enthusiasts, and Cyberpunks. And perhaps, if more people saw some of these machines and their designs, some of them might try to make some of them. This would not only bring them to life, but also possibly inspire more people to take an interest in engineering and the great heritage of invention.

Steampunk Car – and the Real Victorian Vehicle that Inspired It?

May 28, 2017

On Friday I put up a post about the Science Fiction sub-genre of Steampunk, and some of the real Victorian inventions that have inspired it, and which even today seem like things from the imagination of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Steampunk takes its imagination from 19th century Science Fiction writers like Wells and Verne, and pioneering scientists, such as Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine. It imagines what might have happened, if the Victorians had developed space travel, time machines and a true information age. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling depicted a Victorian Britain, which had indeed entered a steam-driven, mechanical computer age following the construction of Babbage’s machine in their 1990 book, The Difference Engine.

This week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 is going to be discussing Britain’s serious lack of engineers, and ask how more young people can be persuaded to take up the subject.

It’s a complex issue, but I suggested in my piece that one way might be to harness the interest in Victorian-style SF hardware that exists amongst the fans of the genre. I also noted that you could possibly combine this with an appeal to the petrolheads, whose hobbies are restoring and working on cars and motorbikes, by getting people interested in the real, steam-driven motor vehicles that were developed during the 19th century on the way to the invention of the modern car.

There are steampunk conventions in Britain, America and other parts of the world. The other year, Phil Jupitus presented a programme on it on Radio 4. The members of the genre wear Victorian-style clothes, weapons, and pseudo-scientific devices inspired by the esoteric technology of this age that never was. And some of them have made their own, steampunk road vehicles. This is a very brief clip of one such car I found on YouTube, which had been lovingly made by a fan of the genre.

The blurb about it on YouTube merely describes Steampunk as a genre, but doesn’t say anything about the car itself. But the metal semicircle arcing over the vehicle suggests that it was partly inspired by a real Victorian invention, the velocipede designed by Richard Hemmings of Connecticutt, in 1869 (below). Hemmings said that his five year old son could propel a similar machine of about 5 feet ‘at a good pace’.

From Jeremy Sumner, ‘How Pedal, Steam and Petrol Put Horse Power Off the Roads’, in John Mortimer, ed., The Engineer: Highlights of 120 Years (London: Morgan-Grampian Ltd 1976) 124.

Looking through this book, which is a glossy, commemorative edition of the magazine, is fascinating for anyone with an interest in the history of technology, and carries a treasure-trove of inspiring ideas for enthusiasts of the genre. There are real life steam carriages and buses, a mid-Victorian mechanical traffic signals, an amphibious paddle steamer, a Zeppelin, and a petrol-driven tractor from 1916, which ran on caterpillar tracks. There are also designs for great towers in London to rival France’s Eiffel Tower, including one which would have been 1,240 feet tall. And instead of the Chunnel, Britain and France would have been linked by a truly colossal bridge.

I intend to post a piece about the book and its astounding and inspiring inventions later. I’ve no doubt that many of the people building vehicles and other gadgets based on their own interest in this particular genre, probably have an interest in science and engineering anyway. But the fact that people are trying to recreate and create science fictional Victorian cars and other machines shows that the steam punk genre does possess the power to inspire people with an interest in science and invention. Just as, no doubts, early generations were drawn to space and astronomy through the adventures of Dan Dare.

Vox Political: Theresa May Has Called Army In, But Only Because She Cut the Police

May 24, 2017

The papers this morning were full of the story that May has put the army back onto Britain’s streets in the aftermath of the terror attack in Manchester last night. However, as Mike reports, this isn’t because the threat is one that can only be combated by the army. It’s simply because May has cut the numbers of the police so low that there simply aren’t enough of them to protect the public during this crisis.

Mike reblogs a piece from Harvey John Brown discussing an interview with a security expert on Radio 4 that morning. The security expert stated that the army was being called in, but would only be deployed in certain key points, and would be under the control of the cops. This was to free up the police for other duties.

The interviewer then drew the obvious conclusion that the army had been called in because of a shortage in available police officers. Which the security expert confirmed.

Mr Brown was very unimpressed with this, posting

Troops on the street is not because the threat level has been raised to critical but because the then-Home Secretary, the PM who now wants your vote, has cut police numbers to a level that puts the people she wants to vote for her in danger.

Strong and Stable? .. More a danger to me and my family.

Mike also concludes

Yes. Theresa May is a danger to us all. So is any Conservative government.

The only way back to sanity is to vote Labour on June 8.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/05/24/theresa-may-endangered-every-one-of-us-by-cutting-police-numbers/

There’s another dimension to this scandal, quite apart from the fact, which has been point out above, that May has endangered British lives and property through her wretched cuts to the police force.

It is that it flatly refutes one of the standard lies that the Tories regularly trot out: that they are the party of law and order, and that only by voting Conservative will you have a strong enough government capable of tackling any terrorist threat.

Maggie Thatcher, remember, was the Prime Minister who really loved the ‘strong state’ as she called it. By which she meant not state control and provision of essential services, the NHS and the welfare state. No! She wanted to get rid of those for the profit of her friends and paymasters in big business.

The ‘strong state’ she raved about and wished to strengthen even further were the security services, the armed forces and the police. She poured resources into the cops at the same time she used them to crush the miners. Anyone of any influence on the left was spied on by MI5, or smeared as an agent of Moscow.

And she did everything possible to play up the threat of the IRA, the British victory in the Falklands conflict, and the Second World War. The Tory election broadcast for 1987 showed footage of Spitfires careening across the sky, while the voiceover yelled that ‘man was born free’ before ending with ‘It’s great – to be great again’.

This was too much for Alan Coren, the former editor of Punch, who joked about the Battle of Britain being fought by the Royal Conservative Air Force on the News Quiz.

At the same time, Thatcher’s real support for the police and armed forces was always a matter of expedience. Once they had served their role in the Tory destruction of the unions, the benefits she had granted the cops were cut along with the numbers of coppers on the beat. The armed forces have also been cut, and cut again, with squaddies often thrown onto the streets with little preparation or support for their new lives as civilians. After Gulf War I there were serious concerns about the rise in poverty and homelessness amongst former squaddies, who had lost their careers in the services due to Maggie’s and the Tories’ cuts.

As for the Falklands War, which the Tories used to whip up support for Maggie as the great Churchillian war leader, that broke out because Maggie and the Tories were actually cutting back Britain’s armed forces. The naval ships guarding the Falklands were withdrawn, even though it was known that the Argentinians were build up their forces in the areas just opposite the Islands.

And we very nearly lost. We only won because we were aided by that butcher Pinochet in Chile, and because Maggie persuaded Ronald Reagan to support us. There’s a story going round that he originally wanted her to hand the Falklands over to the Argentinians, until she gave him an earful. If that’s true, and if Reagan had refused American aid, the result would have been a repeat of Suez under Anthony Eden – complete humiliation for us.

And as very many people, including myself have pointed out, the Tories are massively hypocritical in their attacks on Jeremy Corbyn for his support for open talks with the IRA in the 1980s, as they were doing exactly the same in secret. But publicly they maintain a face of stout resolution against dealing with terrorists, while also using the SAS as undercover death squads to assassinate leading Republicans in Ulster.

Mike has put up another post about the way the Tories are now using fear to try to boost their falling popularity and get votes through putting the armed forces on our streets, justifying this as necessary to provide security.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/05/24/now-theresa-may-is-using-fear-to-win-the-election/

In fact, the Tories’ cuts to the armed forces and the police, carried out by David Cameron and now Theresa May, have made Britain less secure, and more vulnerable to crime and terrorist attack.

The image of the Tories as great warriors, bravely defending this green and pleasant land from all enemies, domestic and foreign, is the purest bilge.

Don’t be taken in.

Vote for genuine peace and security.
Vote Labour June 8th.

The Film Programme Tonight on Radio 4 on ‘Alien’

May 11, 2017

Tomorrow the next instalment of the ‘Alien’ franchise, Alien: Covenant, opens in Britain. Michael Fassbender, who plays the androids David and Walter in the movie, and director Ridley Scott, were interviewed this morning on BBC breakfast TV.

And at 4.00 O’clock this afternoon on Radio 4 The Film Programme, presenter Francine Stock will also be talking to Ridley Scott. The blurb for the programme in the Radio Times runs

Back in 1979 Alien opened up a new era in science fiction movies – a technical masterwork with a terrifying vision, an era-defining lead performance from Sigourney Weaver, and an unforgettable scene involving John Hurt and an upset stomach. It spawned a franchise, with original director Ridley Scott having now made Alien: Covenant. He talks to Francine Stock.

Vox Political on the Difference Between May and Corbyn over Apartheid

May 7, 2017

Mike has also put up a post asking Tory voters where Theresa May was during the 1980s, when Jeremy Corbyn was actively protesting against apartheid. He has a picture of the leader of the Labour party from back then, showing him being marched off by the rozzers. He has a placard around his neck urging people to join a picket against it.

Mike goes on to point out that May was nowhere to be seen. She was busy earning great wads of cash for herself at the Bank of England.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/05/07/tory-voters-where-was-theresa-may-when-jeremy-corbyn-was-protesting-against-apartheid/

This doesn’t surprise me. Many people at the time were entirely uninterested in the issue, and there was a sizable section of the Tory party that actively supported it and the South African government. When David Cameron was PM and making noises of support for Nelson Mandela, Mike put up an article reminding everyone how ‘Dodgy Dave’ was a member of the Tory party’s youth branch at the time when many of its members did openly support apartheid South Africa, and were only too keen to have Mandela jailed, along with everyone else in the ANC.

Now we are expected to believe that May and her party are convinced anti-racists, who can be trusted as guardians of our civil liberties post-Brexit. Because they want to remove all that nasty foreign legislation guaranteeing our civil rights put out by the EU, and replace it with a thoroughly British Bill of Rights. Despite the fact that the EU legislation was formulated with considerable input from British lawyers.

This goes beyond just May’s disinterest in the issue of apartheid. It affects basic British freedoms. The Conservatives and their Lib Dem enablers have passed legislation providing for secret courts, and repealing Habeas Corpus. Under these courts, if it is deemed necessary for reasons of national security, the defendant may be tried in secret, using witnesses, whose identity he is not given, and where the evidence against him may be withheld from his lawyers. As Mike and so many other left-wing bloggers, including myself, have said before, this is precisely the grotesque travesty of justice Kafka describes in his book, The Trial and The Castle, and which became a horrifying reality in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia.

And in South Africa under apartheid, the system of repression was so great that people risked arrest simply for talking about Nelson Mandela. I can remember listening to a programme on Radio 4 in which the speaker, a Black South African, described how he first came to hear about the country’s national hero. It was in school, and by a teacher, who risked her job and liberty. He described how she moved around the room, carefully closing the curtains, saying, ‘His name is Mandela’.

Is this the kind of state terror we can expect from May’s party following Brexit? Our genuine constitutional protections for the ancient liberties of freedom of speech, conscience and assembly stripped away and replaced with a constitutional fig leaf to disguise the real absence of any freedom in this country? And all done by a party who were not only indifferent to monstrous injustice perpetrated by right-wing regimes around the world, from South Africa to the death squads of Chile, and who, if they read Kafka, thought it all sounded like a good idea?