SEMI PARTISAN SUMMARY

CULTURE

Slate magazine thinks that fastidious chefs are doing it wrong and that everyone needs to relax when it comes to worrying about the perfect oven temperature to cook their masterpieces – because the perfect oven temperature is a myth. Apparently some people pay people to “calibrate” their ovens every year, a waste of money given the fact that ovens heat above the set temperature and allow it to cool below before reheating, and the fact that different parts of the oven will maintain different temperatures to the area with the thermostat. This is a total vindication of my “make it up as you go along, don’t measure things and see what happens” philosophy of cooking.

Neil Armstrong is recovering well from heart surgery according to a report from NPR. Armstrong, the first man on the moon, now aged 82, recently had heart bypass surgery according to his wife. Neil Armstrong is an outspoken opponent of recent cutbacks to the NASA budget, recently telling Congress: “For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable”.

PoliticalOmnivore writes a smart review of David Frum’s first novel, “Patriots”, which I am currently also reading. Frum, a leading American and Canadian conservative intellectual, and former Bush administration official, has written an excellent novel which provides an insider’s glimpse into the seedy underside of Washington D.C., and the way that recent political trends (the Tea Party etc.) are influencing the behaviour of the thousands of political operatives working in D.C., serving the powers that be. I will be publishing my own review of “Patriots” on this blog in the coming days.

Another piece from Slate, scolding us for admiring the physiques of the female Olympic beach volleyball competitors, rather than their athletic skills. Justin Peters, the author, makes a fair point, though I think he goes a little too far in referring to Boris Johnson as an “asshole couch dweller”.

The astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station have a unique perspective on the London 2012 Olympic Games, writes astronaut Joe Acaba on his NASA blog. He writes: “I think watching the Olympics reminds us that we share one planet and that we can respect one another no matter what our differences, yet at the same time we can be proud of who we are and what we represent”.

A moving memorial from The Economist to recent failed missions to Mars, against the background of the recent success of NASA’s Curiosity rover in landing successfully on the surface of the red planet.

 

BRITISH POLITICS

The same left-wing blogs who so viscerally oppose the idea of unpaid internships, or the government’s welfare-to-work plans for unpaid work experience in exchange for benefits, are apparently posting recruitment advertisements for people to work as interns in a “voluntary” capacity. Blogger Guido Fawkes calls them out for their blatant hypocrisy.

<< Nothing else worthwhile to report on British politics. The Olympics eclipses everything… >>

 

AMERICAN POLITICS

A rare voice of sense in today’s Republican party, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md) has spoken out against the hysteria and apocalyptic language being used by some of his GOP colleagues as the budget “sequester” – the compulsory draconian spending cuts designed to kick into effect if the two parties could not agree a comprehensive spending deal – comes closer to becoming a reality. Appealing to the better nature of lawmakers, Bartlett says: “We need to stop with all the superlatives about the thing and be rational about it and involve the American people on it. It’s their country. It’s their kids that will have to fight the next war. They have a right to be involved, don’t they?” Hear, hear.

The Economist ponders the difference between “buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken”. Their conclusion: “… the best arena for moral disagreement is not the marketplace, but our intellectual and democratic institutions. We hash out our disagreements, as best we can, in public deliberation. The outcome of this deliberation becomes input to official policymaking, which in turn determines the rules of the game for business.”

Tim Stanley, writing in The Telegraph, cries a river for Mitt Romney over the recent harsh campaign ads that the Obama campaign has unleashed upon the Republican nominee-in-waiting. Pulling the partisan blinkers firmly into position over his eyes, he conveniently skips any mention of Republican “death panel” talk, or GOP intransigence on striking a bipartisan deal on the budget and deficit reduction. According to Dr. Stanley, “… we can also detect a strategy for winning that runs counter to liberal faith in his powerful personality. In short: hope and change are out; divide to win is in.”

Advertisements

A Perfect Landing

NASA’s Curiosity rover sends back a picture of Mount Sharp from the surface of Mars.
Picture: NASA

Amazing news. NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, successfully and safely landed on the surface of Mars in the early hours of the morning EST on Monday 6th August.

The New York Times summarises:

In a flawless, triumphant technological tour de force, a plutonium-powered rover the size of a small car was lowered at the end of 25-foot-long cables from a hovering rocket stage onto Mars early on Monday morning.

The rover, called Curiosity, ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life — or might even still harbor life today. NASA and administration officials were also quick to point to the success to counter criticism that the space agency had turned into a creaky bureaucracy incapable of matching its past glory.

“If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space,” John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said at a news conference following the landing, “well, there’s a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”

Among the various images that have so far been received by NASA and released to the public, two are so remarkable that there are hardly words to describe them. Firstly, this picture, captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, of Curiosity making it’s landing on Mars, with supersonic parachute deployed:

Curiosity, supersonic parachute deployed, descending to surface of Mars
Photo: NASA

I believe that this is the first ever image of a human spacecraft landing on another planetary body ever taken from this perspective, from above, by a satellite orbiting that body – certainly I have never seen a comparable image from the Apollo missions either landing on the Moon or returning to Earth. It is amazing to watch the human-made Curiosity spacecraft, so small in the vastness of space but representing the very pinnacle of our technical and engineering ability, operating precisely according to the commands of scientists many millions of miles away, and executing a landing on another world.

Also astonishing is this 4 frames/second low resolution video taken by Curiosity, covering the period from heatshield separation to landing on the Martian surface:

 

We can look forward to many more pictures – panoramic images in colour and in higher resolution – in the coming days, though some accomplishments will have to wait awhile:

Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings.

NASA will spend the first weeks checking out Curiosity before embarking on the first drive. The rover will not scoop its first sample of Martian soil until mid-September at the earliest, and the first drilling into rock is not expected until October or November.

Hopefully the initial success of this mission represents a firm step toward an ultimate manned mission to Mars, with all of the resulting benefits to humanity that it would bring.

The Boris Resurgence

For most politicians, being accidentally suspended several metres above the ground on a zipwire whilst trying to promote the Olympic Games taking place in your city would be considered a negative occurence.

But despite having an internet meme modelled after him, Mayor of London Boris Johnson seems to be riding high in the polls and in the general public estimation.

Boris Johnson uses NASA’s “skycrane” concept to land on the surfact of Mars.
Image from http://dangleboris.wordpress.com

As Conservative Home notes:

Johnson is in a unique position: he is a national figure, an elected British politician with a large individual mandate, and does not have the pressure of constituency surgeries and whips, and so on. He is therefore able, in the style of American politicians (think Mitt Romney’s recent trip to London), to take a foreign trip and build his foreign policy credibility. His perceived rivals for the leadership (the Independent today gives the odds on Johnson, Gove, Osborne, Hammond, Hague and Davis) are not able to do that; they would either be on government business, or would slip under the radar.

A source tells the Times: “Frankly, Boris is one of the few people who could deliver this … his contact with sovereign wealth funds and big business leaders, as well as his draw as a political personality, is a key selling point for a lot of these people”.

These points are all very true. And given the strong leadership vacuum currently being left by the hapless David Cameron (though let’s wait to see what kind of Olympic bounce he might receive in the opinion polls) and the coalition strife being formented by Cameron’s decision to put off the government’s plans to modernise the House of Lords, a future Boris Johnson leadership challenge is certainly on the cards.

Cameron should take note – even if it results in the occasional misstep or gaffe, people appreciate authenticity and conviction most of all. Agree or disagree with him, Boris Johnson has both of these qualities. If they do lurk within David Cameron, he has yet to show them so far.

Dare Mighty Things

At 10:31PM Pacific Coast Time on 5th August, NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover is due to touch down on the surface of Mars after a journey lasting more than a year. Curiosity will be the largest, most powerful and versatile exploratory devices ever sent to Mars, or to any other planet. The engineering and scientific ingenuity underpinning this endeavour are quite astonishing, as is compellingly shown in this short video produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

 

While some parts of the multi-stage Entry, Descent & Landing (EDL) phase have been well tried and tested before on numerous missions to Mars or on spacecraft returning to Earth, the “Skycrane” – the final step of the process – has never been used before. The justification for resorting to this method makes perfect sense (landing directly with rockets would kick up too much Martian dust which could damage the Curiosity Rover) and the engineering seems sound, but I just sure hope it works.

When the time comes, it will be possible to view live updates from NASA and the Curiosity Mars Rover here.