Newsnotes 2005 10

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M. Williams

Oil – still too cheap.

Jazzed-up capitalism [New Orleans hurricane]

Fewer, worse and bound for the USA [Hurricanes more frequent]

Join The Army, Fight The Police [British in Iraq]

Open-Legged Politics

NASA’s Great Leap Backward [End of the Space Shuttle]

Wandering Stars [Kupier Belt and Pluto]

The Ghost-Ship Enterprise [Star Trek]

Why Intelligent Design Is Stupid

For Sale:


Oil – still too cheap.

‘Forget the world: save the lorry driver’. That was the core of a brief campaign in September. Which fizzled out and failed to repeat the damaging blockades that happened last time.

Adjusted for US consumer prices, oil recently reached the highest price since the brief peak in 1980. What’s more, there are no more vast supplies of cheap oil waiting to be tapped. Lots of expensive oil, including gigantic deposits of oil-sands in North America. But for now, the only way is up. Oil at 100 dollars a barrel is foreseeable and would be healthy in the long run.

The previous Oil Shock paved the way for New Right politics, after which the price mysteriously lowered itself. In real terms, adjusting prices for inflation, crude oil was fairly cheap before the invasion of Iraq. Now the crisis back, and the dwindling reserves mean that this time the price might stay high.

But ‘big oil’ calls for government help, and is likely to get it. Modern business has some real achievements, but it works by taking great note of human social ties and human sentiments when these must be allowed for. It works by ensuring that the government can do its job when its job is useful for business interests. Managers know perfectly well that corporations do not run just on ‘rational self-interest’; they have a culture that must be respected and that can sometimes be usefully changed. They will take a very different and asocial view when it comes to fending off government controls and taxes that don’t suit them.

Business people may quite genuinely believe themselves when they protest at state regulation and taxes. But one should trust their beliefs when they would get a serious pain in the wallet if they got it wrong. Businesses and the rich in general do see the value of the state for their own needs, military and police and judicial. Since the 1940s the system has also run with a lot of subsidies for the rich, and Reagan never touched that. Support for the rich is necessary; it is only other people who don’t deserve it.


Jazzed-up capitalism [New Orleans hurricane]

The home of jazz is now the home of flood water. Bush Junior believes the New Right creed, ‘governments are the problem, not the solution’. Bush ignored repeated warnings that New Orleans would be flooded next time the city was hit by a Force 5 hurricane.

Some people managed fine, of course. “Fisher & Phillips, a large Atlanta-based law firm specializing in labor law, has been backing data to a remote site… Lawyers in the New Orleans office left the city Monday morning to move to other offices, and by Monday afternoon already had access to their data.

“Moving to disk-based and remote backups is an important way to recover after a disaster as quickly as possible, said Roberts. “I feel sorry looking at those businesses that spent all those dollars on traditional backups and all they have now are soggy tapes,” he said.” []

Medical records are among the records not properly backed up. That’s market forces for you: those who can command high fees in disputes about ownership and rights get well looked after. The poor get left behind. The not-so-poor get neglected if they don’t have immediate market clout. The USA’s working mainstream has had a stagnant standard of living since the 1970s. But most of them listen to the well-paid publicists of the New Right and share the belief that governments are the problem, not the solution. Things may need to get a lot worse before they learn any better.


Fewer, worse and bound for the USA [Hurricanes more frequent]

You can understand why Blair was outraged. The BBC was rather soft on the USA, but pictures of poor mostly-black people living in squalor were just too photogenic to ignore. As indeed were the British tourists, mostly white and middle-class, shocked at the callous incompetence of the world’s only superpower. Having been sternly rebuked for telling the truth about ‘Weapons Of Mass Destruction’ in the build-up to war, the BBC tried to be docile, but there are limits.

But are hurricane disasters going to become a regular thing, after the spectacular events of 2004 and 2005? That’s not a simple question.

Hurricanes are fickle things. Global warming doesn’t necessarily mean more of them: it might retune the weather patterns to produce less of them, and there do seem to be less in East Asia. But it’s now confirmed it means fewer but worse, globally. Worse and at least as many, as far as the USA is concerned. Unless the BBC becomes like Radio Moscow used to be, there’s going to be a whole lot more for Blair to be outraged about.

“In the 1970s, there was an average of about 10 Category 4 and 5 hurricanes per year globally. Since 1990, the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled, averaging 18 per year globally…

“Category 4 and 5 hurricanes made up about 20% of all hurricanes in the 1970s, but over the last decade they accounted for about 35% of these storms…

“The only region that is experiencing more hurricanes and tropical cyclones overall is the North Atlantic, where they have become more numerous and longer-lasting, especially since 1995. The North Atlantic has averaged eight to nine hurricanes per year in the last decade, compared to six to seven per year before the increase. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the North Atlantic have increased at an even faster clip: from 16 in the period of 1975-89 to 25 in the period of 1990-2004, a rise of 56%.” [].


Join The Army, Fight The Police [British in Iraq]

If you listened carefully, you’d have known all along that the British Army had achieved a sort-of peace by not really trying to reshape South Iraq. The USA set to work reshaping the rest of non-Kurdish Iraq with a manic enthusiasm that did not include much understanding. Which also left out the efficient business organisation that the USA is normally very good at. They still haven’t got the water and electricity right. Lawlessness and looting were officially endorsed so as to get some appearance of popular support for the original invasion. Iraqis who were willing to give the new system a try have been alienated by clumsy and ignorant behaviour—even Fallujah was not initially hostile.

The British Army operated by not trying to reshaping the society, by letting power pass to whoever was already powerful and not immediately hostile. Which means that the new police are barely distinguishable from the militias. Which means that they are seen as fit to police Iraqis but not Britons; expected to turn a blind eye to SAS men with unexplained weapons and suspicious explosives, as the RUC would do in Northern Ireland. But Iraqis took a different view: it was their country and foreigners should not be behaving like that.

Now they are blaming Iran, and are determined to hang on in Iraq till it becomes suitably subordinate to US and British interests. Not a sensible prospect, and it is doing something terrible to the morale of the troops who have to cope with such political folly.


Open-Legged Politics

A global survey revealed that people all round the world find that their countries are not governed by the will of the people, even though many of them agree that elections are free and fair. []. And why should anyone find this surprising?

Poland’s ‘Solidarity’ recently celebrated its success in bringing down the Soviet system. Which was a real enough achievement, but also the limits of its success. It created nothing. It helped destroy a moribund and dispirited system, but blocked the chance of anything new.

East Europe and many other parts of the world were persuaded that it was New Right policies rather than Keynesianism that had made the West successful. They adopted ‘Open-Legs’ policies, allowing market forces and foreign investments in a way the New Right never dared try at home. And it hasn’t worked. Both Eastern Europe and the former Soviet countries got poorer and less healthy as New Right solutions were applied.

It they’d copied China, they’d have done much better. China does not have private ownership of land—individual families farm it as they please, in most cases, but they have the use of it rather than Western-style property rights. China does not have a convertible currency, which means that foreign speculators can’t pump money in and then out again, as happened in the 1990s to the East Asian ‘Tiger’ economies. China never had the sudden privatisation that turned state assets into private property at ludicrously low prices. The Chinese kicked out George Soros and his ‘Open Society’ foundation in the late 1980s: he predicted they’d run into disaster and fail to get the foreign capital they needed. But the non-open Chinese state was able to keep control of foreign investment and make sure it benefited China. There has been no shortage of business people with no strong ideology who have flourished on those terms.

Eastern Europe has a passable future as West Europe’s backyard: at least the nearer parts of Eastern Europe have. For the rest, who knows?


NASA’s Great Leap Backward [End of the Space Shuttle]

Back in 1981, the Space Shuttle was supposed to be the future. And wasn’t. A brief attempt to get back into space this year ended with no one killed, but new safety fears have caused another suspension. While the planned Shuttle replacement looks remarkably like the rockets of the pre-Shuttle era.

The Space Shuttle was one vehicle trying to do three very different tasks. Getting into space means vast amounts of power: best delivered by a rocket that can then be thrown away. Staying in space is simple, anything will fly in a vacuum. As for the return, there is no trouble getting down, the problem is landing in one piece. It’s like jumping off a gigantic mountain, and the Shuttle was always pushing the limits. Just having wings is a problem:

“The space shuttle is not designed for use beyond low-Earth orbit. Wings are not necessary. There are several issues that prevent the use of the space shuttle for lunar exploration. To escape the Earth’s gravity, any spacecraft must attain a speed of more than 17,500 mph. The shuttle is designed for re-entry from an Earth orbital speed of 17,500 mph, not the 25,000 mph speed of a moon mission. Entering the Earth’s atmosphere at this high speed would destroy the shuttle because it would exceed the wing and fuselage load limits. Currently, there is no thermal protection system that would protect the wings from such a high heat load…

“Q. How can NASA claim this is a new spacecraft, it looks like an Apollo era capsule?

“The shape of the spacecraft is a product of physics. The science of space flight hasn’t changed since we started sending humans into space. This is a high tech design that combines the very best of Apollo and the space shuttle. Blunt-body, conical spacecraft simply provide the safest, most economical means of transporting crews to and from space

“Although it may have an Apollo shape, the new spacecraft will have significant advances…

“The capsule shape allows the main thermal protection system for reentry, the heat shield, to be protected (covered by the service module) until it is needed for reentry, unlike winged vehicles whose thermal protective system is exposed for ascent and on orbit.”   []

That’s the current official line—go back to 1960s methods, methods that worked quite well. In my view, the Shuttle’s designers had watched too many SF movies, and foolishly thought they should be able to do it with a single vehicle. Worse, the Shuttle was intended for cargo as well as passengers—you can lose a few unmanned vehicles without great trauma and safety is expensive. This design meant fuel tanks along-side the passenger vehicle, with the problem of falling insulation-foam hitting vulnerable tiles, and also no chance of escape if the fuel tank blew up.

One-shot vehicles did a better job. That’s how the USA got to the moon and back using different vehicles for each task. A rocket took them up into space and a specially designed lunar lander took them to the EarthMoon and back into space again. The lunar lander also left half of itself behind. Finally a capsule returned them to Earth. They could do it all over again, or even do it for Mars, just not with the Space Shuttle, which was a technological dead-end.

The Shuttle is not the only 1980s innovation that failed to be an improvement over older methods.


Wandering Stars [Kupier Belt and Pluto]

Humans in space get vast amounts of attention, but ground-based astronomers do most of the interesting work. Sometimes with robot probes—and NASA’s new spacecraft will be suitable for robot probes, if the money dries up or politics shift. But ground-based telescopes are also doing wonderful work.

You’ve probably heard about the newly-discovered 10th planet, if it’s a planet, and there is serious doubt. It all depends on what you call a planet.

Ancient peoples knew of two unique objects in the sky, the sun and moon. And three more distinctive types of—irregular objects like comets and meteors, a few thousand ‘fixed stars’, and the five ‘wandering stars’ that obeyed complex yet definite rules. Specifically, these ‘wandering stars’ or planets were all found in the sun-path, the zodiac, which made them the basis of astrology.   A more rational analysis could have led to the later Copernican model of the Solar System. A few Greeks in what’s now Sicily and South Italy did come close. Venus and Mercury always being close to the sun offered a good clue. But Plato rejected the clues from geometry, preferring a system of ‘epicycles’ that did not upset existing perceptions and that sounded good when discussed among scholars and students. This system was beefed up several times to explain away inconvenient facts, culminating in Ptolemy’s system.

Copernicus went to the trouble of adapting epicycles to a sun-centred system. It was only slightly better at predicting where the planets would be seen. But it avoided the absurdity of having the whole universe rotate round the Earth once a day, and also more slowly once a year.

Galileo saw through his telescope that these planets looked very much like other worlds. Jupiter had moons, the planets had disks. The Earth was just another planet, as some ancient thinkers had speculated. From another planet it would be another ‘wandering star’, or rather the earth-moon system would make a nice pair.

Uranus was a new discovery, but very like the existing six planets, as like them as they were like each other. It even followed Bode’s Law, which had not been taken very seriously before then. It was the 7th planet.

Ceres, discovered in 1801, was in the right position to be another planet according to Bode’s Law. But it was tiny, much smaller than any known planet. Moreover, several other small worlds turned up in similar orbits. Rather than be honoured as the 8th planet, Ceres was viewed as the largest of the asteroids, ‘little stars’, a new class of object. Incidentally, the asteroid Vesta can be seen with the naked eye, as can Uranus, though only if you know just where to look. There is no evidence that any ancient observer actually managed this.

The real 8th planet was Neptune. It was discovered because Uranus wasn’t quite obeying the law of gravity. Some thought maybe Newtonian gravity was not quite right, but it turned out an extra planet was there, close to where several different astronomers had expected it. It was in the wrong orbit for Bode’s Law; 30.1 ‘astronomical units’ from the sun, rather than the predicted 38.8. But it was much bigger than the Earth, so that its status as the 8th planet was not in dispute.

Pluto was found by astronomers looking for a 9th planet that was disturbing Neptune’s orbit. It later turned out these calculations were wrong—Voyager confirmed that Neptune was not being influenced by any outer planet, and meantime it had been shown that Pluto was very small indeed. It also didn’t behave like a planet. Neptune hadn’t been in its proper Bode’s Law position, but was otherwise normal. Pluto was way out of line, even crossing the orbit of Neptune.

In the last few years, a whole mass of ‘Kupier Belt’ objects have been found. Pluto looked to be one of a vast class of similar objects, much as Ceres was, so should it still be called a planet?

Last time the issue was raised, the International Astronomical Union said it was. But lots of people expected that there were ‘Kupier Belt’ objects as big as Pluto and bigger. One has now been found, 2003 UB313, hailed as the 10th planet, informally called ‘Xena’ and now with a moon nicknamed ‘Gabrielle’.

Beyond the Kupier Belt’, astronomers have also found something quite different, Sedna, a strange little world that is outside the Kupier belt, yet which is also almost as close to the sun as it will ever come on its 10,000 year orbit. Which means that there are almost certainly more of them, most too distant to have been seen yet, quite possibly some bigger than Pluto.

Some astronomers have suggested that a ‘planet’ is something that dominates its own orbit and does not share it with other similar-sized bodies. Given that all names are a bit arbitrary, that makes the most sense.

[The problem was solved by downgrading Pluto to the newly invented category of Dwarf Planet.]


The Ghost-Ship Enterprise [Star Trek]

Channel 4 is showing the last of Star Trek on Sunday afternoons, the fourth and final season of Archer’s Enterprise. The series is officially ‘resting’, but seems unlikely ever to be restarted. It was slightly surprising that a 1960s series was revived so successfully in the late 1980s, considerably better than the original. It also ran against the values of the time, refusing to conform to the gritty ‘impuritan’ values that now dominate US culture. This ran OK for Next Generations and two spin-offs, but the attempt to go back into the era before Kirk’s Enterprise never really worked. The bright colours of the original turned to doom and gloom. The third season tried to cash in on fears of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, before these were shown to be lies. It ended irritatingly, without ever giving an answer as to why one planet should have several co-existing intelligent species.

The final season is a mixed bag. If you’ve ever enjoyed Star Trek, don’t miss the three-part story beginning with The Forge, which features the young T’Pau and brings the Vulcans back into line with the original concept, after having made them technocratic ‘heavies’ in the three previous season. Babel One starts another three-parter with some interesting twists. For the rest, you can check fan opinions at []. Their favourite is the first of a two-part visit to the ‘Mirror Universe’, where familiar characters all have an evil counterpart. Myself, I found it too much of a surrender to ‘impuritan’ values, with violence and treachery seen as unavoidable. Previous visits have always included the idea of the ‘mirror universe’ reforming itself: this one did not.

The whole thing ends with a whimper. These Are The Voyages… brings back two excellent characters from Next Generation, but utterly wastes them in a show that has run out of money and ideas. Sadly but deservedly, that’s where the long ‘trek’ terminates.

[As I noted previously, they re-started it with films based on the original series but changing the timeline.]


Why Intelligent Design Is Stupid

The USA is once again witnessing a struggle against Creationism. The profoundly stupid notion of the Earth having been made a few thousand years ago has been given a slightly different gloss, with the apparent need for a ‘Designer’ to explain life’s complexities and the gaps in understanding.

All real understanding has gaps. Someone who claims to know everything will usually know nothing and be unable to separate sound ideas from foolishness. Every real story has gaps in the story. No one disputes that the first English settlement in North America was at Roanoke Island in Virginia. The later successful colonists at nearby Jamestown found the island empty. The exact fate of the lost colonists is uncertain; one theory is given in a recent book called Big Chief Elizabeth. Gaps and mysteries don’t make us doubt the basic tale.

Nature is full of profoundly unintelligent design. The modern lungfish—related to the fish from which all land-walking bony-creatures began—have nostrils which link to the mouth, but are still used just for sniffing. Most fish have nostrils, incidentally, but with a closed cavity behind them, most fish use the mouth for food and for water to pass over their gills. Most land-walking bony-creatures (tetrapods, to be technical) can breath through their nostrils, with various systems to deliver just air to the lungs, food and water to the stomach. Good design would be a completely separate ‘mouth’ that linked directly to the lungs. But that’s too big a leap for natural selection.

Humans have particular trouble separating air from food or drink. The human throat has been redesigned over the past few million years to give us more versatile voices. We are among the very few mammals that can sing; I think the only others are the dolphins and whales, which also have surprisingly large brains for their size.

Modern amphibians are not a ‘missing link, but a completely different solution to life on land. Michael Crichton showed his profound lack of understanding in having frogs used to fill in gaps for his recreated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Nothing on four legs is less like a dinosaur than a frog, a specialised jumping creature from a group of creatures that is just as old and complex as the line that led to dinosaurs and to us. Adult amphibians only breath air; it is their tadpoles that get their oxygen from the water. But they don’t use the beautifully efficient gills of modern fish; tadpoles use crude external gills. They must have gone back to the water after adapting to land.

The human appendix is a useful organ in some mammals, but not for us. But a small appendix is more likely to get infected and produce a dangerous illness, often fatal. Natural selection maintains a relatively large appendix, and seems unable to make the leap to eliminating it completely.

The human foot is very inconvenient with its finger-like toes. Quite explicable for descendants of tree-climbing apes and monkeys. Clawed paws and even hooves are excellent for running and climbing—consider cats, consider mountain goats. But those creatures are specialists in their own particular line. Monkeys kept something very much like the original mammalian paw, but adapted it for tree-climbing, a change that our hands and feet still reflect. Feet are slowly diverging from hands, because natural selection is slow, irrational and inefficient.

If all this were seen as design, you would suppose an utterly callous designer, not enormously competent, indifferent to pain and only marginally interested in humans. This is the actual ‘rational’ explanation for the superhuman children in John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. Wyndham also asks you to believe in designers who are careless enough to place blond children in communities where everyone has dark hair; it’s a clever tale from a rather callous and racist author. But it’s not as stupid as ‘Intelligent Design’, which is carefully tailored to match the belief of a bunch of puritan extremists.

The Darwin-Wallace Theory of Natural Selection has been proved ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. This is not the same as the cluster of ideas called Darwinism. No one doubts General Relativity, but this has not been bundled together with Einstein’s beliefs about pacifism, socialism and Zionism; there is no ‘Einsteinianism’ that one is supposed to accept or reject as a whole. Only with Darwinism has there been such a bundling, and only because Darwin was able to overshadow his co-discoverer—Wallace was a socialist who came to believe in spiritualism.

People nowadays shout about ‘Darwinism’ and ‘Survival of the Fittest’, without thinking what they mean. From the viewpoint of natural-selection, a rabbit is fitter than a wolf, a daisy is fitter than a tiger. Tapeworms and liver-flukes are also winners in the ‘fitness’ stakes. If ‘fitness’ is defined as long-term genetic survival or survival of the bloodline, that is the real answer, and one that Popular Darwinism keeps confusing and failing to face up to. Any land-walking bony-creature larger than a fox is in an historical cul-de-sac; it will probably get bigger over the next few tens of millions of years, perhaps producing gigantic descendants. But the next big global crisis will wipe them all out and a fresh start will be made from much smaller creatures.

We get misled by seeing things from a human perspective, ‘evolution’ that culminates in us. Humans emerged from a minor theme within the mammalian story, and the process seems totally accidental. Earth’s biosphere would work fine without humans, without mammals, without vertebrates, even without animals. Animals appeared relatively recently in the long saga of terrestrial life; for five-sixths of the story, they were absent. And in the story of animals, mammals play quite a small part and have been the largest animals for about an eighth of the animal history.


For Sale:

New Labour conscience, almost unused. Comes complete with an Ethical Foreign Policy, still in its original packaging.

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