Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Alien archaeology (with spoilers)

I've been watching the old BBC series, Quatermass and the Pit on BBC iPlayer recently, and enjoying it a lot. If you haven't seen it yet, I'd recommend it (or the film version), especially if you're planning to read the rest of this post (spoilers ahoy!).

I was struck was how unexpectedly similar some of the underlying ideas, themes and major plot elements were to a very different Sci Fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Namely:
  • Both involve the discovery and excavation of an ancient alien artifact: the Martian spacecraft buried under London in Quatermass, the lunar monolith in 2001.
  • In both stories, the authorities try to keep the discovery a secret with cover stories. In Quatermass, the alien spacecraft is explained away as an unidentified German V weapon that had fallen on London in World War 2. In 2001, the moon base is quarantined on the pretext of an outbreak of some unidentified disease.
  • In both cases, the aliens who left the artifact behind altered the minds of our ancient hominid ancestors, pushing them towards greater intelligence and putting them on to the path to being human.
  • In both cases the seemingly inert alien artifact is activated by being exposed to a power source, leading to the climax of the story.
  • The human propensity for violence and its origin hangs over both stories. The Quatermass Martians bequeath intelligence to the hominids, but also their own propensity for violence, which we are told, stems form the insect-like Martians' instinct carry out periodic eugenic purges of their hives, in order to exterminate the unfit. In 2001, the aliens are presented as inscrutable, rather than evil, but it's also clear that, along with the gift of intelligence, their intervention also gifted our ancestors with the weapons, and perhaps the desire, to kill one another.
  • Quatemass and the Pit ends with a warning that the human race may destroy itself if it fails to curb the drive towards violence and weapon-making abilities that came, along with our intelligence from the aliens. This theme isn't made so explicit in the film version of 2001, (in the famous jump cut from bone club to orbiting satellite, it's never made clear that the first few spacecraft are orbiting weapons of mass destruction) but the novel is a lot less coy about the continuity of human violence.
At first sight, it seems as if Clarke might have been, perhaps unconsciously, influenced by this 1950s TV series. But, despite the striking similarities, it's probably not that simple. Quatermass and the Pit was first broadcast on the BBC in the winter of 1958-9, after Arthur C Clarke had moved permanently to Sri Lanka, and the film version didn't come out until 1967, (filming of 2001 had already started in 1965).

Also, the two elements (the discovery of an ancient alien artifact and aliens encountering ancient humans) had been explored in two of Arthur C Clarke's earlier short stories, The Sentinel (1951) and Encounter in the Dawn (1953), so it could even be that Nigel Kneale was influenced by Clarke's short stories when writing this Quatermass tale, rather than the other way round. Or maybe the parallels are just coincidence, but they've intriguing enough to be worth a bit more digging when I've got the time/inclination. Who knows what I might uncover...

Friday, 22 March 2019

Revoke Article 50 - open letter to MPs

I'm trying not to make this blog one long despairing howl of Brexit pain, but life comes at you fast and we're now in national crisis territory, as the Operation Yellowhammer/Redfold civil emergency plans & explosive growth in numbers signing the petition to revoke Article 50 show us.

That's why this post is just an adaptation of a letter I've written to my MP, hopefully as a rough template/inspiration for others who've already written asking their representaives in Parliament to back a referedum on the final deal and been brushed off with a bland boilerplate reply and the asserion that the UK is leaving the EU on the 29th of March and we must all "unite" to make the mess we've been presented with work.

Please feel free to copy n' paste use, adapt, critique, write a better letter, whatever. But please try to do something. It may be more in hope than expectation of changing minds, but this shit is getting real now:
Dear *****

On **/**/**, you responded to my [email//letter] regarding the proposal for UK to withdrawal from the European Union and concluded by saying that we are leaving on the 29th March and that we need to unite to make it a success. As you will be aware, this will not be happening on this date, so I am writing to you again to urge you to think seriously about the choices you are about to make and their effect on your constituents and the country.

Firstly, I would remind you that, having done nothing to meet the demands of myself and other constituents for a vote on the final deal, when the details became available, you have had the privilege of being able to consider the deal and vote on it twice in Parliament already, with another vote to come.

The agreement has twice been rejected decisively by the House. All available polling evidence shows that it is at least as unpopular among voters as it is among MPs, satisfying neither those of us who wish to remain in the European Union, or those who wish to leave. The government has negotiated for two years and has come back with a deal which does not preserve the advantages we enjoy as a member of the largest free market on the planet, or meet the promises of the leave campaigns to somehow replace this great deal with a better one. It is, by any reasonable standards, a failure.

The unpopularity of the deal aside, it also puts the UK in a materially weaker bargaining position in international trade negotiations, subjecting this country to pressures which endanger our National Health Service, food standards and employment rights.

What are the alternatives?

The UK could leave the EU without a deal, an outcome so catastrophic that contingency plans for what would amount to a state of civil emergency are being prepared (Operation Yellowhammer/Redfold) and the House of Commons have rightly rejected this as an option, although if no deal is agreed this is the default position.

Voters could have, and should have, been granted a referendum on the final deal, but the Government have failed to seek our informed consent on the terms of exit  and, having run down the clock, it is hard to see how this can now happen.

The only alternative which remains, if you are not to harm your constituents, is for Parliament to press for Article 50 to be revoked. This is not my preferred option, but we are left with no good choices, only damage limitation. You will be aware of the petition to revoke article 50, which is being signed at an unprecedented rate. Do not underestimate the anger and frustration of those who have been driven to add their names to it, having been denied a final say in the most important decision affecting their future, as the result of a marginal result in an advisory referendum, so tainted by disinformation, foreign interference, gerrymandering and criminal electoral fraud, that the result would have been voided, if the referendum had been binding.

Unlike some of the more vocal leave advocates, I am not threatening violence or civil unrest, but be assured, if the UK is taken out of the EU, either under the terms of the Prime Minister’s terrible deal, or a catastrophic no deal, millions like me will not rest until every politician who facilitated this avoidable national crisis, in defiance of clear evidence and explicit warnings, is voted out of office.

Please do not act under the mistaken belief that your constituents or the nation will ever to unite to make this botched deal a success.

Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely


Friday, 1 February 2019

White supremacist does self-parody

If you take aggressive right wingers at face value, they're all about autonomy, self-reliance and individual responsibility. Suggest measures to reduce inequality, or positive discrimination to level up the playing field for disadvantaged minorities and they're outraged.

"People should stand on their own two feet", they cry. Policies to mitigate inequality and discrimination are just handouts to scroungers, they encourage a "dependency culture." Recipients are "welfare queens" (in the USA) or lowly vassals of the corrupt "Nanny state"* (in the Mary Poppins-loving UK).

In short, you, and you alone, are responsible for how your life turns out. Quit making excuses about where you came from. It's where you're going that counts.

Which is superficially attractive. Nobody likes a moaner, everybody admires people who make it against the odds. But I'm beginning to think that some of the most vocal of the rugged individualists don't really believe in the uncompromising message of personal responsibility that they preach.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you a recent outburst from right-wing tough guy, Stefan Molyneux:
“White privilege” was 50,000 shivering winters while others in endless summers danced and sang and had easy eats year-round.

East Asians had it even worse. Siberia. Snow tigers.

You fantasize about “privilege.”


It was suffering.

So pipe down.

 Our ancestors earned it."

On one hand we're supposed to ignore a well-documented history of racism, systematic oppression, slavery and discrimination going back solidly for at least four centuries, which still obviously affects the life chances of people living today. The US Civil Rights movement and "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish" signs in rented rooms are lived history for baby boomers on both sides of the Atlantic. Black Lives Matter and the Windrush scandal are current. All this deep-rooted disadvantage, according to people like Molyneux, would just go away if poor non-white folk just pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. We live in a meritocracy where disadvantaged groups are personally responsible for the continuance of their own misfortune.

But also, according to Molyneux, pale-skinned folk deserve their breaks, not because of what they've done. Not because of what their parents did, or their parents, or even their great, great, great, great grandparents. No, If you're white, you're born with bragging rights because you're distantly related to somebody who lived somewhere cold in the stone age. Extra credit for that less than 5% of neanderthal DNA you might be carrying. Award yourself a medal, why don't you?

The mask really slipped there, didn't it, Stefan? It's not really about taking personal responsibility for what you, as an individual, do in the here and now at all. It's about spreading a message of inherited, ineradicable superiority carried down through bloodlines over tens of thousands of years. It's racism, pure and simple.

So pipe down about personal responsibility. That's not what you really believe in at all.

*I've said it before and I'll say it again - it really is weird how the most vocal opponents of the Nanny State are people who literally have nannies.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Aircraft of the day

Oh hai. How time flies - you take a wee blog break & before you know it, a couple of months have passed. But, yes, this thing is still on.

It's been even longer - over eight years - since I did an Aircraft of the Day. And I only ever did two of 'em, anyway (here's the other). So here, by total absence of popular demand, is another, the aeroplane I've been obsessing about most recently, a 1930s design, the Mignet Pou-du-Ciel, better known to anglophones as the Flying Flea:
Mignet HM.14 Pou-du-Ciel
Henri Mignet's concept was simple. A small, basic home-built aircraft which could be constructed by anybody with a few craft skills and safely flown by a novice pilot. It was meant to bring aviation to the masses in the same way that Ford's Model T had brought motoring to the masses. Indeed, according to the Wikipedia article the name Pou-du-Ciel ("sky louse") was a nod to the Model T:
The odd name comes from the French nickname for the Ford Model T automobile, "Pou de la Route" or "Louse of the Road" because Henry Ford's economy car was so common and initially came only in black.
Which might be true, although my brief attempts to find a direct source confirming that the French ever called Model Ts "road lice" has drawn a blank so far (although a Belgian car site does seem to suggest that what looks like a post-war microcar, Hippolyte Delimal's Carabe was also nicknamed the "Pou de la Route" - presumably named after the Pou-du-Ciel, which isn't a lot of help, either entomologically or etymologically).

The Pou's unusal design, more like a two pairs of wings than a conventional wing and horizontal tailplane was intended to be a safety feature. The tandem-wing design was designed to be stall proof,* as explained here:
The wing enters a stall. But here, in tandem wing configuration, the front wing will stall. What happens now? Well, the nose drops a bit. The rear wing is still holding the airplane up a bit. But it cannot hold it completely, so the airplane will sink while its nose drops a bit. But, the nose that did drop makes the angle of the airplane (and its wings) less, so ...the wing lifts again once the angle of the airplane is good enough. The nose rises again. You get another change to react to the stall.

The result is that you enter a wave like movement, you sink while you have your nose going down and up again. You can keep on to this situation and even use it as a kind of hard controlled descent. Or you can get more time to react to this situation and give more power or lower your nose. Anyway, you are given a chance to live and tell.
Also, the controls for the all-moving front wing and rudder were simpler than those for a conventional aircraft (just a control stick, no rudder pedals), making life easier for a rookie pilot.

All great. Unfortunately, Mignet's HM.14, the original Pou, had an unsuspected design flaw which caused the aircraft to pitch nose downward when pilots attempted to recover from a shallow dive. A series of fatal accidents meant that, instead of becoming known as the safe, reliable "people's aeroplane" the Pou ended up with a reputation as a death trap - for example it makes 9th place on Hush Kit's list of the 10 Worst French Aircraft (just over 4 mins into this vid)

After these crashes all Pous were grounded by the authorities in France and the UK, pending investigations. The accident investigations were aided by the diminutive size of the Pou - small enough to fit inside wind tunnels which were usually only big enough to accommodate a scale model of the aircraft being tested. Testing revealed that, at certain angles "the front wing's downwash would accelerate the air over the rear wing and cause it to gain lift more quickly than the front wing, resulting in an ever-increasing nose pitch-down and flight directly into the ground."

The good news was that, once diagnosed, the problem was easy to fix, by simply moving the rear wing six inches backwards. But by the time modified, safe Pous were taking to the air again, it was 1939 and hobby fliers in France and the UK would soon have more pressing concerns on their minds than joy-riding in tiny home-built planes.

There's a bit of a "what if" hanging in the air here. What if the original Pou design flaw had been spotted before people started building and flying them? What if the war hadn't intervened when the design had been perfected?

I don't think we'd have seen huge swarms of Pous in the skies. It was only ever a one, or two seat pleasure craft, a really cool hobbyists' project, as opposed to a practical form of transport. Moving back from alternative history to real history, flight did eventually become more egalitarian, but not in the way Mignet anticipated. Instead of ordinary people taking to the skies en masse in tiny home-built machines they could construct or buy relatively cheaply, ordinary people got airborne once seats on huge, complex multi-million dollar jets became affordable to people outside what they used to call the "jet set."

The future doesn't always work out the way we expect. Although I do have a sort of yearning for Mignet's original vision - there's something about the simplicity, the minimalism and the do-it-yourself ethos that makes me wish for a Wallace and Gromit world where folk spend their weekends making their own aircraft or flying them around their neighbourhood. Although in an age where a mere radio-controlled drone, or possibly just the rumour of one, can shut a major international airport, that's probably more whimsical than wise.

*A concern shared by Juan de la Cierva, who had invented the autogyro in the previous decade in another successful attempt to devise a stall-proof aircraft. Some irony fans like to say that De la Cierva was killed when the conventional plane he was travelling in stalled in 1936, but a quick visit to Wikipedia debunks this neat story - it looks as if the aircraft drifted off course while taking off in foggy weather, accidentally flew into the chimney of a house on some high ground adjacent to the aerodrome and crashed.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

The shape of evil

My 1931 beginners' guide to astronomy, The Stars In Their Courses by Sir James Jeans, really is the gift that keeps on giving. Currently loving this passage on the Coal Sack Nebula from the very end of the book:
This region contains one of the most brilliant parts of the Milky Way, and also one of its most remarkable features, a pear-shaped black patch on the sky 8° long by 5° wide, which the early navigators and astronomers called the Coal Sack. Early Australian folk-lore interprets this as a yawning pit of darkness and also as the embodiment of evil in the shape of an emu, which lies in wait at the foot of a tree represented by the Stars of the Cross for an opossum driven by its persecutors to take refuge among its branches.
If you grew up watching British TV in the 1970s, the idea of the embodiment of evil in the shape of an emu will ring a few bells...
"Hello, Possums!"

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Lionheart: a cosmopolitan Euro elitist

There's apparently been a bit of a to-do over the statues outside the houses of Parliament, about who we should honour and who we shouldn't. When it comes to Oliver Cromwell and his record, my take is that, like some social media relationships, it's complicated, but he's an important enough figure to stay, warts and all. But what caught my eye was one particular reaction to the debate. Here's what Ukip's Gerard Batten tweeted:

"Whose statue are they going to demand goes next? First Nelson, now Cromwell, next Richard I from outside Parliament? After all he was a crusader - and a great one at that."
I can't quite believe that I'm here in 2018, still having to critique an opinion about a 12th Century monarch belched forth by the leader of a tiny single-issue party of far-right fanatics which should, by rights, have been thoroughly discredited by the chaotic implosion of their single policy. But with the mainstreaming of even their most deranged ravings, up to and including the UK's foreign secretary recycling their historically illiterate "EUSSR" trope, even their apparently obvious idiocy needs examining and taking to bits.

First, there's the obvious incongruity of the leader of a party of extreme UK nationalists, which even has "UK" in its name, latching on to Richard I. Not only was there no such thing as the UK at the time of Richard I, but Richard wasn't even that English. Born to an Anglo-French dynasty, this French and Occitan-speaking ruler spent most of his adult life in the Duchy of Aquitaine. After being crowned, he spent less than a year in the English part of the Angevin Empire. Although his territories didn't constitute a nation state in the modern sense, in geographical and cultural terms he embodied that archetypal Ukip hate-figure, a leading member of Europe's cosmopolitan elite.*

There's a paradox, or at least an irony, here. The most deeply reactionary voices in our national conversation, the ones who do nothing but harp on about past glories and promise to drag us, kicking and screaming if necessary, back in time, seem to be clueless about the supposed golden ages to which they want us to return. The ones who obsess about how everything was better in the past are the ones who seem to know least about it.

Then there's a whole new layer of irony when Batten praises Richard as "a crusader - and a great one at that." Most 21st Century politicians who praise warriors for prosecuting a holy war call them by another name - Jihadis. In their intolerance, belligerence and obsession with identity, the anti-Islamists have become the mirror-image of the Islamists they claim to stand against. Slicing even deeper into the multiple layers of historical irony, one of the unintended consequences of the Crusades was the diffusion of ideas, from technology, science and literature, to taking a bath, from the Islamic world and the Byzantine Empire. If the Crusading movement can be said to have left any positive legacy to counterbalance the slaughter, suffering and betrayal, then that legacy takes the decidedly un-Ukip-like form of an exchange of ideas between cultures.
Effigy of that Euro elitist traitor, Richard I, buried in the church of Fontevraud Abbey, somewhere in the EUSSR, because GREAT Britain obviously wasn't good enough for the half-French snowflake (image credit Adam Bishop).

*Yet more irony - Gerard claims to hate elites, yet his hero is a feudal monarch. How does that work?