Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Dogs in spaaaace!

Because our family visit to the National Space Centre coincided with the Centre hosting that Doctor Who convention thingy, the place was stuffed with the obligatory mountain of Doctor Who collectibles (or tat, depending on your point of view). Not that I always mind a bit of memorabilia - I'd have been thrilled if the Space Centre's curators had spent a bit of time on eBay and found stuff like this to put on display:

Your gran's display cabinet goes space-age - rocket-shaped vodka jugs commemorating the space flight of Belka and Strelka, who, in August 1960, became the first creatures to orbit the earth and (unlike Laika) return alive (photo credit El Pantera).

More Belka and Strelka-themed collectible porcelain (photo via ebay).

Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that it was the Kennedy clan who bagged the ultimate piece of Soviet canine spaceflight memorabilia. After her return to earth, Strelka went on to have a litter of puppies, one of which, Pushinka ("Fluffy"), Khrushchev presented to JFK's daughter Caroline in 1961.

I imagine that daddy accepted the gift with a rather forced smile - the year before, according to Deborah Cadbury's excellent book Space Race, JFK had taken the dogs' flight as an affront to American pride, taking pointed umbrage at the fact that "the first canine passengers in space who safely returned were called Strelka and Belka ... not Rover and Fido." Be that as it may, the Cold War apparently thawed sufficiently for Pushinka to get together with one of the Kennedy dogs and beget a doggy dynasty that exists to this day.

Via here and here.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Officially no longer frightening

So we took The Offspring to the National Space Centre in Leicester, only to find it had been taken over by some sort of Doctor Who convention:
Not at all worried by the sudden appearance of our screaming, heavily-armed, metal-clad mutant overlords...
This, however, was slightly more unsettling in a Strangelovian sort of way...
Survivor of the Blue Streak medium-range ballistic missile project.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Skippy the terrorist kangaroo

I see from the Indy that the Anglo-Australian terrorist threat level has been lowered to "tickled pink:"
A British 15-year-old and an Australian terror suspect planned to fill a kangaroo with explosives, paint an Isis flag on its flank and then set it loose on police officers, court documents have alleged.

The unnamed Briton and 19-year-old Sevdet Besim are alleged to have discussed the bizarre tactic on the Telegram messenger service, as part of broader plans to commit a major terror attack in Melbourne during commemorative services for Anzac Day. 
Shock at the horrible deeds of the tiny minority of actual murderously competent Jihadis shouldn't mislead us into forgetting that most of the "terrorist plots" that are supposed to make us panic and submit to Stasi-like levels of intrusive surveillance are as hilariously inept as The Bouncing Bomb Boys' kangaroo caper.

As terrorists, these kids aren't going to terrify anybody, although to give them their due, that was one hell of a teenage strop - most teens content themselves with slamming the bedroom door and muttering "I hate you", but plotting to launch an explosive-laden kangaroo at the coppers would be a far more forceful and creative way of demonstrating how unfair your adolescent hormones are currently finding the world. Sadly, I doubt whether the authorities will see the funny side and I suspect these kids won't get away with just being grounded for a couple of weeks and having access to the games console withdrawn.

Meanwhile, on their home front, SCIS ("So-Called Islamic State"*) are being threatened with having their supply lines cut by their most credible opponents:
The powerful Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia and its local allies have drawn up plans for a major attack to seize the final stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border held by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters, a YPG source familiar with the plan said on Thursday.

Such an offensive could deprive ISIL fighters of a logistical route that has been used by the group to bring in supplies and foreign recruits...

...The source confirmed a report on Kurdish news website Xeber24 that cited a senior YPG leader saying the plan includes crossing the Euphrates to attack the ISIL-held towns of Jarabulus and Manbij in addition to Azaz, which is held by other insurgent groups.
Yet another reason not not to get into an existential panic. Of course, the murderous authoritarian bigots in Ankara might keep the crumbling bogeyman du jour alive by bombing the Kurds, although with the well-armed and hostile air force of the murderous authoritarian bigots in Moscow now patrolling the Syrian skies, SCIS may not even be able to count on the Turks to do their dirty work for them any more. I've got severe doubts about whether military intervention in Syria can do anything to resolve the complex mess and I've no time at all for Putin, but, as far as I can see, the nearest thing to a military intervention resulting a good outcome would be the Kurds removing SCIS from the Turkish border, with the Turks unable to bomb them, due to the presence of Russian planes on the other side of the border.

Such a huge and visible defeat for the people loudly threatening to kill us all in our beds and for the securocrats who use their threats as an excuse for creeping authoritarianism and totalitarian-style mass surveillance would be good news all round.

Unfortunately, I don't think that would end the war and the misery of the refugees - "degrading" the group with the best publicity machine would still leave the various interested parties with plenty of other proxy armies and militias to throw into a regional power struggle which shows no sign of grinding to a halt any time soon, SCIS, or no SCIS.

* This seems to be the BBC's favoured religious-sensibility-respecting euphemism of the moment. Which is kind of OK, since most Muslims clearly don't subscribe to the Daesh interpretation of Islam, but it's also an annoying example of how privileged deeply-held religious convictions are, compared with any other kind of deeply-held convictions. For example, Aneurin Bevan was proud to call himself a socialist and was, on the whole, as a driving force behind the establishment of the National Health Service, a pretty benign one. Yet I don't believe that the BBC were ever so respectful of the convictions he held dear as to refer to the Nazis as "the so-called National Socialist German Worker's Party", in order to distance moderate socialists like Bevan from a bunch of similarly-named extremists.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

One nation, under Satan

The Welsh Christian Party says having a red dragon - an animal it believes symbolises the devil - on the national flag is at odds with Wales' position as a Christian nation.

It is calling for the flag which has officially been in place since 1959, to be replaced with the black and gold cross of St David.

The party's leader, the Rev George Hargreaves, said, "We will not allow this evil symbol of the devil to reign over Wales for another moment.

Wales is the only country in history to have a red dragon on its national flag.

"This is the very symbol of the devil described in The Book of Revelation 12:3.

"This is nothing less than the sign of Satan, the devil, Lucifer that ancient serpent who deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

"No other nation has had this red dragon as its ruling symbol.

"Wales has been under demonic oppression and under many curses because of this unwise choice."
Wales Online, back in 2007

"And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his his heads."
Number of heads may vary...


I hadn't fully read the Reverend Hargreaves' biog when I posted this, which was a shame, because it makes the story much better. Apparently, before becoming ordained as a Pentecostal Minister, becoming head of the Welsh wing of  the pro-creationist, anti-gay Christian party and appearing on Channel 4's reality TV show, Make Me A Christian, "George also wrote and co-produced Sinitta's 1986 gay disco anthem So Macho (sample lyric: "I'm after a hunk of a guy, an experienced man of the world ... He's got to be so macho/He's got to be big and strong, enough to turn me on")..."

With a back story like that it was only a matter of time before the Reverend George attracted Ukip's interest - he was nearly selected as a Ukip election candidate in Coventry South last year, but was eventually ditched, presumably for being too bizarre even for the Kippers (which is saying something).

Robots can do big jobs

There are lots of think pieces around these days posing the question  "Will a robot take your job?", or something similar. According to Betteridge's law of headlines, the answer is " no."

But change the question slightly, to "Can a robot do your job?" and I reckon the answer could be "yes", at least if your job is big and important enough to require your presence at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Because, heaven help me, I've just spent about three irreplaceable minutes of my time on this good earth reading the " best" quotes from the thought leaders present at Davos 2016 and am now totally convinced that every line could have been generated, without human intervention, by something like this, or this, or this.

The human race is probably decades away from creating a robo-tailor or a robo-plumber, but we could probably replace Christine Lagarde with a cybernetic substitute tomorrow and not notice any difference. Although she may be part way there already - judging by the black Sci-fi villain outfit she seems to be wearing in the first quote, she's already putting the Davros into Davos, or morphing from an organic entity into the Borg Queen - which would sort of make sense of her quote  - "Resistance is futile, sisters, you will be assimilated into the Internet of Women!"

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Gods among us

"By every meaningful measure, today's elites are gods" wrote Jeff Sparrow, in the week when the modern Olympian deities gathered on their mountain to discuss what to do with the teeming mortals below.

If Sparrow's right, it wouldn't be the first time a society has moved from trying to restrain the conceit of the powerful to openly worshipping them. I've just been reading Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. The Republic, although clearly not a democracy in any sense that we would understand it, (or that the Athenians would have understood it), celebrated individual ambition, but also recognised it as a dangerous force that needed to be limited:
To preserve it from the ambitions of would-be future tyrants, the founders of the Republic settled upon a remarkable formula. Carefully, they divided the powers of the exiled Tarquin between two magistrates, neither permitted to serve for longer than a year. These were the consuls, and their presence at the head of their fellow citizens, the one guarding against the ambitions of the other, was a stirring expression of the Republic's guiding principle - that never again should one man be permitted to rule supreme in Rome.
Compare and contrast the founding principles of the Republic with the honours Julius Caesar allowed himself in its dying days:
In the East they already worshipped Caesar as a god. In the East there were traditions far older by far than the Republic, of the flesh becoming divine, and of the rule of a king of kings.

And there, for anxious Romans, lay the rub. Late in 45 BC the Senate announced that Caesar was henceforward to be honoured as divus Iulius: Julius the God.
For many Romans and later commentators the transition from liberty, of a sort, to an imperial Pax Romana under divine autocrats was no bad thing. According to Gibbon "if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most* happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domition to the accession of Commodus."

Substitute "prosperity" for "peace" and that's more or less the justification for worshipping the god-like plutocrats of the 21st Century: we live at the end of history, in the best of all possible worlds, thanks to a handful of special ones with god-like creative powers: "And Zuckerberg said, Let there be Facebook: and there was Facebook. And Zuckerberg saw the Facebook, that it was good and Zuckerberg divided the advertising revenue from the allegedly amusing cat photos."

In a case of history repeating itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, we even have a precedent for the Eastern prophecies of an incarnate messiah in Ayn Rand's turgid fictionalised manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, in which the figure of John Galt foreshadows the entrepreneurial tycoon as a god made flesh, fit only to be discussed only in terms of awed reverence.

When did the prophecy come to pass? Well, at different times in different places, but here in Britain, I'd say the deification of the plutocracy happened around the time that Richard Branson attained the status of rock-star cool. Rather like the Christian applicant for the post of Messiah, Branson was an unlikely candidate for godhead; in Jesus's case this was because he was "little weak and helpless", as the Christmas carol puts it - in Branston's case it's because he looks less like a god than a toothy gnome wearing a jumper your nan knitted:
Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
I'm a laughing gnome and you can't catch me!
Strange, but, as Robert Graves wrote in his sequel to I Claudius (Claudius the God), "godhead is, after all, a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion: if a man is generally worshipped as a god then he is a god. And if a god ceases to be worshipped he is nothing." The deification of the elite owes less to the elite's own virtues than to our weakness for idol worship, which takes us back to the Marx quotation in Sparrow's article:
I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.
And just in case you were doubting that those particular words have already been made flesh:
 If you haven’t yet heard, Donald Trump is good at making money......He is great. He is rich. People like him. Politicians are terrible. ISIS must be defeated. Illegal immigrants must be deported. Make America Great Again. It goes on.

*Thanks to the over-enthusiastic predictive text on the tablet I was using, this originally came out as "moist happy and prosperous" which, with the addition of a comma, would have been more or less OK, given that we are, on average, mostly water.