Category: politics

They Put a Man on the Moon

Apollo Astronaut on the Moon

In thirteen years from now, with a budget of at least US$108 billion, NASA plans to once again put a man on the moon. In fact not one, but four at a time. Perhaps even a woman this time ;-). The major difference in the new moon launch plan – and something no doubt which came out of all the thinking about how “unsafe” the shuttle missions have been – is that a large unmanned heavy cargo launcher will take the actual moon vehicle and cargo up into Earth orbit; then a smaller crew launcher rocket will take the crew into orbit and allow them to dock with the mission specific vehicle. As far as coming back to Earth is concerned, the craft will be much like the original Apollo capsules, but with airbags to land inland and not at sea.

I have a couple of questions on my mind. Firstly, it was announced in the early 60s that the US could make it to the moon before the end of the decade. Today, in 2005, they can only announce 2018 as a possible date for a moon landing. Clearly the plans are more ambitious but the basic fact is that it will take more time, because everything is more complex and more grandiose. Secondly, the budget is very much equivalent to the original Apollo mission budget converted into 1994 US$. Indeed, it’s cheaper. So a more complex project to put four men onto the moon for seven days is budgeted to be cheaper that Apollo was. Somewhere, something doesn’t quite add up for me.

So why go there at all? A number of people hark back to forty two years ago, and one of JFK’s renowned speeches from 1962 :

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Back then, the Russians were engaged with the US administration in the space race. They put the first man in space in April 1961 and this speech followed a few months later. I wonder therefore if the desire to get back to the moon has anything to do with the Chinese space program. They may have denied having plans for a manned moon mission back in 2002, but being the clear leader in defense and aeronautics is a keystone of American policy.

Image Credit : NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA-GRC)

Digital Rights Management. Right?

DRM versus iPod. myMusic, myPod. iTry, iFail.

Sarah in Tampa, a blogger and sysadmin for a small business, probably knows enough about technology to live happily with her PC. When it came to getting some Madonna tunes she purchased from onto her iPod she was bitten by misguided DRM technology which is there ostensibly to prevent copyright violation. She had to input licences (which she owned) track by track then burn the tracks to a CD, before ripping the CD back to the PC – losing the DRM in the process – in order to have digital copies which could be transferred to her iPod. Why should legal owners of works have to jump through hoops to use them the way they want?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation are strong advocates of open source, common formats, and unrestricted digital media. Quoting from their paper on the subject of DRM :

DRM delivers no public value but exacts a punishing public cost. It is so harmful to the interests of developed countries that there are widespread revolts against DRM underway in the US and Canada, in Europe and in Asia.

As you will see, the answer to “Which DRM will spur the most development in my nation?” is “None at all.”

Their conclusion :

The iTunes Music Store manages to make millions of dollars selling music that can be downloaded for free (just as Evian makes billions selling water that can be garnered for free from the kitchen tap) by offering a superior, competitive product.

Sarah in Tampa, it would have been quicker for you to download those tracks for free (albeit illegally) in order to transfer them to your iPod. Congratulations for being part of what must be a minority in my opinion: tech-savvy enough to work around the situation. What happens when you don’t know how to exercise your right to listen to the music you own on the gadget you want? My bet is that most people probably just fire up their peer-to-peer filesharing software. Delicious irony.

Hey Bulldog

Child-like — No one understands,
Jack knife — In your sweaty hands,
Some kind of innocence is measured out in years
You don’t know what it’s like to listen to your fears
Lennon/McCartney 1968

This relatively obscure track “Hey Bulldog” from the Beatles album “Yellow Submarine” is a cult classic. Perhaps this bulldog will become a cult classic too. In his own somewhat contradictory profile, the Bulldog is “slower than your average mutt” and just wants “[…] a peaceful home, something good to eat, an occasional hump (any leg will do!), and somebody to pay attention to us”. I think he wants a bit more than that, like a liberal and free America. The American Dream is moving further from liberty and economic freedom (land of the free indeed) with every cent added to the price of petrol (gas) at the pump. Judging by this recent post on the “great divide”, the division of wealth is getting worse in America. Well worth a read.

Like the quoted song verse suggests, being childlike and innocent is not easy as you grow up. Some people clearly don’t understand, and are hiding in their safe place. You know, that place where politicians are honest, work for the common man and towards a better world. Unfortunately they are much more likely to be pushing for increasing foreign exports and better sales for the businesses they ultimately are working for. The common man works for these businesses, but he’s getting less and less of a share of the profits. Shareholders benefit from your work, not you. Less Americans have health insurance. You’re more likely to be living with less buying power and more credit than ever before : US consumer credit is at $17,490 per household at present, with over 2 trillion US$ total consumer credit for the population as a whole.

Rising US consumer debt, July 2001 – July 2005

Graph showing rising US consumer debt both in absolute and per household terms

Maybe you should listen to your fears. Avoiding your fears doesn’t mean that people who are courageous enough to confront theirs are wrong. The statistics are plotted in my graph above – my sources are the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Census Bureau. The economy is firmly based on consumer credit. At least you can be thankful unemployment is stable at around 5%. However if it starts to rise again, what happens to all that credit left to pay off?

I’m a British guy living in France, a casual observer of world politics. Unemployment here is at 9.9%original source (French). The social system is far from perfect. People cannot get jobs out of university mostly because the employee is over-protected by the state, and the unions are too strong to bring in much needed reform. Strikes are a big issue. But at least most people seem to be better addressing their fears and have a more natural tendency to criticise their leaders. Don’t be afraid to question the US administration.

Global Warning?

A recent article on Yahoo! collates a number of pieces of anecdotal evidence of species of fish, birds and locusts being found further north than usual. Scientifically speaking this kind of evidence cannot be directly linked to global warming, but it’s a possible warning sign. Just like if you see animals cowering outdoors or seeking shelter, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a thunderstorm, but quite often a storm will follow. You cannot state – scientifically – that animal behaviour either causes or predicts thunderstorms.

Some rather more scientific evidence based around the global temperature record seems to point more convincingly towards a small rise in temperatures, between 0.4 and 0.6° celsius. This evidence shows a warming trend, but fluctuations in temperatures of the Earth have happened in cycles for millenia and some people openly state that this fact is often ignored.

Fred Singer, a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton says the following :

[…] observations show that sea level has risen in the last 18,000 years by about 400 feet and is continuing to rise at a uniform rate, and is not accelerating, irrespective of warming or cooling.

The strongest scientific facts I could find are here, from which I quote :

Climate change is controlled primarily by cyclical eccentricities in Earth’s rotation and orbit, as well as variations in the sun’s energy output.

On one hand, the press seems to pick up on many anecdotes as pointers to global warming. Fear and doubt sells newspapers. On the other, scientists and long term records show that we are part of inevitable warming and cooling cycles which are beyond the control of humans. However, this does not mean that we should allow gratuitous pollution to continue, because other more serious effects of releasing noxious gases into the atmosphere are a public health concern of a different kind – notably a prevalence of asthma and other breathing problems in industrial regions.

Do not confuse climate models which predict warming with rather more widely accepted research about ozone depletion which causes more harmful ultraviolet radiation to strike the Earth, and caused a widespread reduction in the use of CFCs.

Perhaps you disagree with me, but I’m afraid for the moment I’d have to say I would rather play cautiously and reduce CO2 emissions for a number of other reasons than an imprecise fear of global warming. Carbon based fuels will not last forever at current consumption levels. A lot of fuel is wastefully burned in inefficient ways – especially in large engined motor cars. This waste worries me far more than a fear of possible global warming. Science should allow us to be increasingly abstemious with resources, and yet with industrial and scientific progress waste seems to increase!

Perhaps controversially, I might give the last word to Fred Singer, who says :

[…] there are many more important problems in the world to worry about, such as diseases, pandemics, nuclear war and terrorism. The least important of these is global warming produced by humans, because it will be insignificant compared to natural fluctuations of climate.