SEMI-PARTISAN SUMMARY

CULTURE

In an interesting piece from Slate Magazine, Hanna Rosin delves into the deeper meaning behind the fact that the men strived to protect the women as the horror of the Aurora Colorado shooting unfolded. In an interesting and poignant article, noting the various ways that traditional “manhood” is being eroded by economic and social forces, she concludes: “Throwing your body in front of your girlfriend when people all around you are getting shot is an instinct that’s basic, and deeper. It’s the same reason these Batman and Spider-Man franchises endure: Because whatever else is fading away, women still seem to want their superhero, and men still seem to want to be him.”

Through the prism of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s memoirs and a recent Soyuz rocket launch, Atlantic magazine takes an interesting look at the intertwining of human spaceflight endeavours (perhaps the pinnacle of our scientific accomplishment) with religion and the sacred world. As well as the obvious example of Aldrin taking communion while on the surface of the moon, the author also considers other examples: “here is a priest, outfitted in the finery of a centuries-old church, shaking holy water over the engines, invoking God’s protection for a journey to near-earth orbit. That these two spheres of human creation co-exist is remarkable. That they interact, space agencies courting the sanction of Russian Orthodox Christianity, is strange”. A long article, but well worth a read.

Mike Huckabee thinks that Chick-fil-A’s decision to come out in opposition to gay marriage equality is just super, and is proposing that Americans make this Wednesday “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” in recognition of their “principled” (some might say irrelevant, because a corporation is harmed by gay marriage even less than a heterosexual human being) stance.

NPR reports in depth on the Vatican’s decision to send a crack team of Bishops to oversee the Leadership Conference of Women Religious – an organisation representing the majority of nuns in the United States – due to concerns that they are promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith”. Sister Pat Farrell, whose interview forms the basis of this article, sees things rather differently, and while she says that the LCWR will do its utmost to engage with the Vatican in good faith, there may be some elements of the mandate with which they cannot comply. Money quote from Sister Pat: “The question is, ‘Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?’ That’s what we’re asking … I think one of our deepest hopes is that in the way we manage the balancing beam in the position we’re in, if we can make any headways in helping to create a safe and respectful environment where church leaders along with rank-and-file members can raise questions openly and search for truth freely, with very complex and swiftly changing issues in our day, that would be our hope. But the climate is not there. And this mandate coming from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith putting us in a position of being under the control of certain bishops, that is not a dialogue. If anything, it appears to be shutting down dialogue.”

A British couple holidaying in British Columbia caught a big fish. A really, really big fish. A really, really, really really big fish. The creature weighs nearly half a metric tonne, is 4 metres long and is estimated to be at least 100 years old. Makes for some good bragging rights back at the local pub when they go home…

 

BRITISH POLITICS

Minister of the Bleeding Obvious states the bleeding obvious in this story from The Telegraph. Treasury minister David Gauke informs us that it is “morally wrong” to pay tradesmen (plumbers, builders, electricians etc.) with cash in hand, as this makes it easier for them to evade VAT or income tax. Aside from the fact that every cabinet member from Cameron on downwards needs to quit the moral preaching (why can’t you just say “illegal” or “wrong”?), his basic point is right. Until he goes on to say: “Getting a discount with your plumber by paying cash in hand is something that is a big cost to the Revenue and means others have to pay more in tax”. Seriously, Mr. Gauke? You expect us to believe that the black economy makes our taxes higher? You would tax us just as much as you already do even if you could get your hands on this missing slice of revenue, you would just find new ways to fritter it away on pointless, undeserving goals. So let’s not pretend that the cash-in-hand job that your local plumber does on the sly is the one thing standing between us and an actual competitive tax code. You must think we’re all really dumb.

The Commons Culture Committee has reported that they believe the UK’s current gambling laws are outdated and have not kept pace sufficiently with technological innovations such as online gaming. Overall, this appears to be a liberalisation of the market, which is good news. However, the proposed bill has been somewhat watered down in an attempt to assuage the concerns of detractors who worry about potential negative externalities.

It’s starting to get real. The BBC reports that the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to charge eight individuals with a total of 19 charges relating to the “phone hacking scandal”. Included in those facing charges are Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. So now the Long-Winded Leveson will not be the only thing keeping this dull story in the news. Hooray.

 

AMERICAN POLITICS

Inspired by the movie “Legally Blonde”, 22-year-old US State Senate candidate Mindy Meyer has blinged up her website with a lot of bright pink, bad MIDI sound files and other bells and whistles. If you ever wanted to know what you would get if you crossed a political website with MySpace at the peak of its popularity, here is your answer. She would clearly make a great state senator, because according to her homepage, she is against corruption. Says Meyer: “This is how politics has to change. There is always corruption, but I have the intention to follow my values and ensure that none of what happens in my district is corrupt.” Well, that’s sorted, then.

Commentary magazine takes a hatchet to President Obama’s reputation for being a brilliant orator. Alana Goodman calls Obama out for his recent speech in Roanoke, Virginia, not because of his “you didn’t make that” line but for dull, flat words and delivery when he goes off the autocue. She takes the line where Obama says “There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires” as a particularly egregious example of pedestrian speech-giving. She concludes: “For the past four years, liberals have tried to sell us on the idea that Obama is one of the greatest speakers of all time. Now they’re complaining that conservatives are taking his words literally and not cutting him enough slack. Which one is it?”.

In an excellent, frank op-ed in the New York Times, David Blankenhorn charts his evolution from opposing to supporting the idea of gay marriage. Though disappointed that society no longer thinks of marriage primarily in terms of providing the optimal environment in which to raise children, but instead as an official sanctioning of private relationships, he concedes that given this is how marriage is now viewed by most, the best thing to do is to try to strengthen the institution under its new definition, by welcoming committed gay and lesbian couples into the fold. He eventually comes to the conclusion: “So my intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same”.

A good long-form article from The Daily Beast explaining some of the underlying factors and influences behind the GOP’s sinister anti-Muslim hysteria. I thought I had heard pretty much everything when it comes to crazy quotes uttered by Republican lawmakers and “intellectuals” on this topic, but this article introduced me to a few more sad examples.

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A Milestone Passed

The Telegraph reports today on a scientific and technological milestone about to be passed by the human race – Voyager 1, the NASA space probe launched in 1977, is due to become the first man-made object to leave our solar system, the Milky Way:

Scientists launched Voyager 1 in 1977 on what was meant to be a five-year mission to Jupiter and Saturn, however 30 years later the vessel has continued towards the boundary of our solar system 11 billion miles from Earth.

Once the spaceship crosses this border it will enter interstellar space – the void between our solar system and the rest of the universe – becoming the first man-made object to venture beyond our solar “bubble”.

In the newspaper’s own comments section, many readers have been responding with the sentiments either of nostalgia (look what we could do as a species when we put our mind to it in that era) or with happiness (how nice to see a positive story in these difficult times, etc.). One reader, identified only as Hardeep_Singh, summed it up best for me:

“Extraordinary a glimpse of when anything was possible compare that to today’s mindset, ‘fairness’, protest, ‘lessons must be learnt’, etc.”

I know that I am in a small and diminishing minority of those who believe that even in these recession-hit, austere times, we should continue to dream grand dreams, and implement the ambitious programmes to make them possible. But it is my view that our societies cannot be built of just hospitals and schools and roads and bridges and the utilitarian things that bind us to the present; there must be room also for the arts, for medical research, scientific exploits and human-inspired voyages that perhaps don’t have a pre-determined goal in sight (Voyager 1’s mission after Titan was made up on the fly, the craft was not expected to remain functional for so long) but which generate new knowledge and bring back riches for us all nonetheless. I hope that our leaders will remember this, and that it will not fall exclusively to China and the developing world to explore these new frontiers and pass these milestones.

On a much more lowly, terrestrial scale, this article also happens to represent a small milestone in itself – the 100th piece that I have uploaded to this blog. Many thanks to you all, frequent and occasional readers alike, for your time, your comments and your support.

And God speed Voyager 1 on its journey.

They Also Choose To Go To The Moon

As my blog approaches its one week birthday and surpasses 500 views, I noticed the other day that one of the views came from Russia. I thought that this was rather cool, but little did I know that either Mr. Putin or Mr. Medvedev himself must have been reading my blog, and took inspiration from my recent post, “We Choose To Go To The Moon”:

https://semipartisansam.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/we-choose-to-go-to-the-moon/

Clearly my words had quite an impact, as Russia has now decided to resurrect its plans to send humans to the moon:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/9141416/Russia-to-finally-send-man-to-the-Moon.html

Writes the correspondent in the Daily Telegraph:

“Mr Putin said piloted space missions should be revived by 2018, when the first flights are expected from Vostochny, a $13.5 billion (£8.6 billion) spaceport being built in Russia’s far east. The Soviet Union, the United States and China are the only countries so far to have launched manned space flights. India’s space agency declared in 2010 that it wanted to launch a human mission to the Moon by 2020, and scientists have indicated that China could do the same by 2025.”

Russia – like India and China, who also aim to land on the moon within the next 10-20 years – clearly has far better things to spend its money on than going to the moon, a modern-day re-enactment of what by that time will be a 60-year-old accomplishment. It is hard to see that it will generate anything close to the same return on investment as did the Apollo program, in terms of scientific knowledge, industrial growth or new inventions.

It should also be noted that the Russians have made similarly grandiose plans before, only to walk away from them.

But at the same time, in this day and age of austerity and retrenchment, it is somehow comforting that someone somewhere in the world – besides Newt Gingrich and his moon base – is still looking up to the stars and making plans to return to space.

We Choose To Go To The Moon

 

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon [interrupted by applause]. 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 organise 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 we intend to win, and the others too.” – President John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 1962

I have recently been re-watching the excellent television mini-series “From the Earth To the Moon”. Executive produced by Tom Hanks and in much the same style as the film “Apollo 13”, it tells the story of the entire Apollo space programme, from its early beginnings and the tragedy of Apollo 1, through the enormous triumphs of Apollo 8 and 11, the lucky escape of Apollo 13 right the way through until the end of the endeavour. If you have not seen it, it is very well worth watching.

I have been a project and programme manager by trade for the past six or so years, and the exploits of NASA and particularly the Apollo programme have always held a particular fascination for me. In past job interviews I have joked that while most people look at the first moon landing and wish they were an astronaut, I was probably the only one who was moved to become a project manager! Of course, I would not have minded being an astronaut at all, and do very much hope to fly in space some day. But I suppose one of the things that has always excited the geeky part of my brain is how human beings can come together and organise such a complex programme to achieve the goal of landing a man on the moon – in the 1960s no less, when the technology and computer processing power in even my humble, malfunctioning BlackBerry vastly outstrips that which was available to NASA at the time. How do people organise themselves to run such a huge project, and plan and track all of the millions of individual actions and steps that must be successfully completed in order to achieve the desired outcome?

I post the above video for a couple of reasons. I am a (very) amateur scholar both of the history of the Apollo space programme and the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and rewatching my television series and flicking back through some of my books about the space programme made me think about more recent human achievements.

I was born in 1982. What great accomplishments of the human race have taken place in my lifetime? I might think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of communism, and the spread of liberty and prosperity that is still occuring as a result. I might also think of the cooperation of many nations to construct and inhabit the international space station – though no humans have left low earth orbit since that final Apollo flight, this is still a remarkable technological achievement. Or on a more micro scale I might think of the successful mapping of the human genome, with all of the promise that this holds for curing diseases in the future. There are probably many more that I have overlooked, and I would be interested if any readers would care to suggest some of them in the Comments section.

But all of this brings me back to President Kennedy’s speech on September 12th, 1962. How many people became scientists because of the unmatched human endeavour that followed this speech? How many people became engineers, or mathemeticians, or pilots, or astronauts, and how many people’s lives have been changed because of the new technologies and discoveries that resulted from it?

And in these hard economic times, when so many of the western powers seem to be retrenching and lowering their ambitions, what are we doing now that will inspire people, or challenge them, or make them proud of us in 40 years’ time?

We Choose To Go To The Moon - John F Kennedy - JFK - Apollo Program