Moon:Head July 25, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon.
There’s something about this photograph that I find undeniably weird. It could be the inversion of the Lunar Module, it could be the fact that it is orbiting Earth, this was from the Apollo 9 mission which was sent up to test the LM in Earth orbit prior to a lunar orbital test on Apollo 10.
There’s some sense of otherness about it, but what precisely I can’t determine. Maybe it’s the sense that the LM shouldn’t be in Earth orbit, that it’s utterly unsuited for that purpose. I don’t know.
Anyhow, while reading about all things Apollo I came across this. It details JG Ballards fascination with the supposed alienation that space flight engendered. A notable strand of Ballard’s fiction depicted societies laid waste by travel into space, not so much physically as psychologically. In one story a disease is brought back, one of the symptoms of which is to make the sufferer believe that they were once astronauts. They wander about Cape Canaveral unable to come to terms with reality, either their own or others.
Still, Ballard’s explanations for his predicted end to space travel cannot be entirely discounted as explanations for our ongoing disinclination to venture deeper into space. A recognition of the panoply of perils awaiting space travelers, emphasized each time an astronaut dons a bulky spacesuit, is surely an unstated factor in our reluctance to travel thousands or millions of miles away from Earth where a crisis could not be dealt with by rushing back to the safety of home. And one concern about a proposed flight to Mars which has been explicitly raised by experts is that the long, lonely voyage there and back may well drive astronauts insane. Furthermore, there is unquestionably a metaphorical truth, if not a literal truth, in Ballard’s argument that ventures into space would upset humanity’s sense of time. Consider the impact of those first photographs of Earth from lunar orbit taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts, showing our world as an island of blue in a vast imposing blackness, and the data and photographs obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope and other unmanned space probes. The message from our contact with space is clear: we are beings who live only for several decades, on a world that is only a few thousand miles in diameter, but we live in a cosmos that is over thirteen billion years old and vast enough to contain billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars and planets. Properly understood, that information would certainly function as a shock to the human perception of time, as an incentive to ponder static eternity as an alternative to our brief, frenetic experience of time, and perhaps even as an inducement to a complete, stunned paralysis.
I’ve never found that idea entirely compelling. Not least since humans have somehow managed to go to unusual parts of our own planet without plunging into psychosis. Antarctica is close to the magnificent desolation described by Aldrin of the Moon. And the isolation of those environments is not entirely different to the isolation of stepping onto the surface of the Moon (indeed years ago in Tunisia in the south of that country I found it telling that the local landscape was described as being like the surface of the Moon – the description wasn’t entirely wrong, and the landscape was stunning, but… it weren’t the Moon).
And of those who visited the Moon there have been, perhaps distressingly for that analysis, no real instances of outright madness. If anything the divorces, alcoholism and suchlike made the astronauts almost too typically of their generation of Americans.
Which is not to say that some interesting behaviour didn’t manifest itself. Edgar Mitchell who visited as part of the Apollo 14 crew underwent a self-defined epiphany while journeying back and in subsequent years tilted towards all things paranormal. Within a couple of years he established the Institute of Noetic Studies which examined issues of consciousness and psychic phenomenon. He later attested to his belief in UFOs and made some remarks about Roswell being a genuine incident that he later had to retract.
Was it the pressure of the Moon landing which precipitated this?
Not necessarily. He was already interested in such matters and apparently conducted ESP experiments covertly while on Apollo 14.
Back to Andrew Smith and Moondust….
Mitchell [conducted] a private experiment ‘transmitting’ mental images of randomly chosen shapes to four people back on Earth at prearranged times. Unfortunately, his accomplices had vfailed to take account of a slight delay in the launch, so were out of sync with his attempted projections. In what looks a little like rationalization, the astronaut claims that the results were still significant, as the other subjects’ guesses were far wider of the mark than would statistically be expecting, suggesting that they had a subconscious knowledge that something was wrong. What ever the case Mitchell was betrayed by on of his collaborators and word leaked to the media shortly after splashdown. Another independent-minded Apollo astronaut assures me that, had commander Shepherd known of Mitchell’s intentions before hand, the younger man would certainly never have flown – on any mission. But Ed kept it wholly to himself. No one at NASA had the vaugest notion that this hippy stuff was going on right under their noses. Curiously Deke Slayton claims to have been more open-minded. “I thought it was worth a look,” he says. “Hell, NASA doesn’t know everything”.
That said there’s no doubting the experience pushed Mitchell further along the trajectory he was already on…
The epiphany led Mitchell to ask, “What was causing the exhilaration every time I looked out the window?” It seemed that nothing in conventional science or religion could explain in a way that satisfied him…
Well, I have a few suggestions as to what might make me feel even slightly exhilarated, and I’ll admit it – downright terrified, were I halfway between Earth and moon. That reminds me of a programme I saw on the Shuttle back in the early to mid-1990s. It was pretty detailed, but the thing that struck me was – looking out of the windows of the Shuttle – just how dark space was. It was like a physical presence pressing against the frail skin of the spacecraft. Of course that’s the wrong way to look at it. The tiny bubble of air and life that the Shuttle represents is like our own planet in miniature and one could see it representing that air and life pressing outwards.
And that, perhaps is where Ballard, for all the genius of his fictions missed an essential dynamic of the space age (and so does John Waters in the piece referenced yesterday), a dynamic that links directly into our own motivations as individuals and species. Yes, of course there is the pull home both physically and psychologically, but there is also the opposite, the urge to push away. Those are in a tenuous balance and often fighting with each other, indeed the history of human space flight is indicative of this. But they remain and presumably will do so well into the future.
Meanwhile, what are we currently left with? Fictions for the most part… such as this here, another Moon related curiosity. It’s a hoax, meant to be footage from a ‘secret’ Apollo 20 mission, a joint US/Soviet mission that following the identification of an alien spacecraft on the Moon landed and investigated said spacecraft and found… well… watch or read for yourself. I’ve read that this is the product of a French performance artist, supposedly one Thierry Speth (although who is to say – perhaps the joke is infinitely recursive and there is no Speth, he too being a fabrication). If so fair dues to him or her.
It could be better, not so sure about the CGI alien spaceship stuff… and it’s all very ropey. But the idea itself is great. I’d have loved to have seen this done in a better way. Or perhaps this is the best way, sitting on the edge of amateurism and authenticity, that that ropey aspect is somehow an interpretation of those blurred images and jerky movements as when Armstrong climbed down from the Lunar Module…
This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to… Shriekback July 25, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
What an odd band Shriekback were. A sort of supergroup comprised from refugees from Gang of Four, XTC and parts various. Starting off as electronic tinged dance, then mutating to … well… electronic tinged dance with a lashing of Goth and then onto … electronic tinged dance with lashings of world music and some explicitly pop elements before vanishing and then returning again later in the 1990s and releasing albums sporadically ever since. In a way theirs is the quintessential path taken by so many of their ilk during this time. Small, slightly obscure bands that started to make it big, then rushed towards a more commercial sound only to falter at that point… the Psychedelic Furs, to take another example, did likewise. Although in fairness to the Furs they did come back to a harder edged position before disbanding. And then returning.
I’ve got to admit my favourite album of theirs was always Jam Science released an almost incomprehensible 25 years ago in 1984. And that too is a bit of a curiosity, coming in two flavours, a truncated Y-Records version with a cover adorned by a screw, supposedly to indicate the sense of betrayal by the company on their protege's upping and leaving to the rather larger Arista. Flavour number two is a version of the same album from Arista, a few more songs, a different tracklist, bigger production values. And so on. Both versions have their moments. I can't say that I prefer one above the other. The concerns were curiously contemporary, or at least as far as one could discern from the opaque lyrics they were.
Unfortunately I can only find one track from Jam Science on the web, so you’ll have to settle for this eclectic compendium of YouTube video’s. We start with the fabulous My Spine (Is the Bassline) which shows off their dance side, then onto a selection taken from Oil and Gold, perhaps their most popular album, albeit also arguably their most excessive with fabulous atmospheric tracks like The Big Hush (later used by Michael Mann as part of the soundtrack to the rather fine Manhunter).
It’s hard to say if they went truly downhill after that. The melodies are less compelling from later and the rhythms are poppier. They did, most certainly become blander and… boo hiss… more ‘commercial’… in the latter part of the 1980s (see below for entertaining details), although newer material is interesting.
Two of their number took vocal duties, at least up until Oil and Gold when there was a split. My preference would be Carl Marsh who had a softer mumbled vocal style. But Barry Andrews who remained in the band had a certain energy.
Here are the videos…
My Spine (Is the Bassline) – vocalist Carl Marsh.
Hand on My Heart – from Jam Science, a remix version.
This Big Hush – Carl Marsh on vocals unless I’m much mistaken.
Nemesis – preposterous stuff… another remix…(I’d skip through to about 1 minute – actually I’d skip it altogether – and by the by, it’s fascinating to see how this pomp has spawned any number of video tributes on YouTube).
And this from 1988, which the kitschy side of me quite likes…if only for the conceptual cat it put amongst the pigeons of more chin-stroking fans.
Get Down Tonight – vocalist Barry Andrews.
Moon:God July 24, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon.
There’s quite a nice piece by John Waters in the Irish Times today. In it he discusses his own memories of the Moon landing, and sadly he was unable to watch it on television, his neighbour with said device having visitors. So John spent the day up a sycamore tree, or as he puts it:
I walked around thinking about what was about to happen and put my eye upon the tree. Other boys had climbed it, but I had never seen anyone go right to the top. I timed my assault for the precise moment Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were due to walk out on the surface of the moon.
I wasn’t looking for a means to remember. Perhaps at some level I understood the Apollo mission as a way of getting closer to God. Or, perhaps I was seeking to go some place no man had gone before.
Still, this being John Waters he cannot but fail to move into the language of transcendence. This irritates me somewhat less than his usual offerings in this vein because I too share a sense of that transcendence when it comes to the space programme (and incidentally, I include the efforts of the Soviets/Russians, Chinese and so on under that blanket term…).
Actually, as John Gray has observed, both responses are “religious” – the idea of faith in human progress just as much as belief in a higher intelligence. Both seek to transcend what is “obvious”. We seem to hold both perspectives within us, moving between them. Perhaps they represent not opposites, but a single complex mechanism for dealing with our situation, ostensibly improvable but essentially fixed, and ultimately mysterious.
Well, not so mysterious. But still awe-inspiring.
Anyhow, as he strays away from transcendence he strays towards fact. Always perilous in his case, and never more so when he says:
Perhaps the most salutary image we received that hazy July day was not of the magnificent desolation of the moon face, but the poignant perspective from that vantage point showing planet Earth, apparently suspended in space, humanity balanced perilously on its surface. No image has more beautifully captured the fragility of human hopes for omnipotence, or of man, imprisoned within his desires, doomed to sabotage his own efforts by misusing his freedom.
That’s a lovely idea. Sort of. If we didn’t go there we wouldn’t see. And in going we extend our… well, not omnipotence, there being no such animal, but at least our capacity to engage with the universe, or at least this tiny fraction of it. And for many of us that does of its nature extend the relationship with God.
Problem is, lovely or not, it’s wrong. I can think of two images that represent that notion but neither of them was associated with Apollo 11. The first, the “Blue Marble” was taken by Apollo 17 in December 1972 as it went to the Moon. Ironically Apollo 17 was the last of the Apollo missions, so we got a gem there. The interesting aspect of the photo is that it depicts the face of the globe entirely in sunlight. Another aspect of note is that it was originally taken upside down, due to the orientation of the astronauts when they took it.
So if Waters recalls that image from that hazy July we must grant him the power of precognition.
It is more likely that he’s thinking of Earthrise, a photograph taken by William Anders of Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the Moon. This took place in December 1968.
It’s another stunning image, the Earth half in shadow is depicted above the lunar surface. As with the Blue Marble image there’s an element of artifice about this (well, I guess that’s true of all photography). As viewed from the Command Module the Earth was to the left of the lunar surface and it’s only by pivoting it around that we get the image we see today.
There’s a second version taken around the same time in black and white which is almost as equally powerful as the Earth ascends from behind the Moon, but from a lower point.
There is a third image, also taken by Anders on this mission which is the first to be taken of the whole Earth. It too is remarkably, indeed even at this remove viewing these I find them enormously powerful.
Plenty of time then for a young Waters to assimilate it and its meaning and well before Apollo 11.
Actually there is a religious connotation to Apollo 8. After the mission there was a minor controversy due to the crew reading 10 verses from the Book of Genesis, an act which drew down the wrath of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a prominent atheist and an accompanying law suit. I have to admire the dismissal by the US Supreme Court of it on grounds of lack of jurisdiction. Mind you that might have set an interesting precedent. I wonder was the Old Testament chosen specifically (and by the by VNV Nation, amongst others, have taken the audio of that broadcast and put it to music in their fine track Genesis). It’s odd that Waters doesn’t see fit to mention that, or the even more compelling fact that Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian church elder, received Communion while on the Moon.
Yet there is another rather greater error in the article by Waters which is inexplicable. For he posits that:
And what a trick was played on us that day, as though in a conspiracy between technology and the ether! For months beforehand, a special Nasa sub-committee had been canvassing opinions with a view to formulating the first words to be uttered by the first human to walk on the moon. Presently, Neil Armstrong was given a memo with the agreed phrase. When the moment came, he faithfully recited the words.
That’s simply not true. All the reputable sources I can reference both on-line and off agree that it was Armstrong himself who composed the words. Let’s return briefly to Andrew Smith’s Moondust…
Now, what do you say as you become the first human being to set foot on the Moon? Neil Armstrong is an astronaut, not a poet and certainly not a PR man. He wouldn’t have bothered about it much, but people have been writing to him with all kinds of suggestions – the Bible and Shakespeare being the most popular sources of inspiration – and everyone he meets seem to have an opinion. The pressure is on. It’s irritating, because, for him, the landing was the poetry and taking off again his next major work. Still, as he thinks about it, he considers the paradox that it is such a small step, and yet… the laconic career pilot comes up with one of the most memorable lines ever offered the English language.
On Earth he was heard to say: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. This is what the recording recalls. But when you think about it, this makes no sense, because the words “man” and “mankind”, taken in context, mean exactly the same thing.
There’s no particular mystery to this… Smith again…
No one saw anything until Neil Armstrong pulled a cord which activated a camera on his way out of the LM. Then he jumped down to one of the lander’s big round feet, described the lunar dirt and stepped gingerly to the surface… he did get the words wrong, however, because he meant to say – and for years insisted that he did say – “One small step for a man….” Even his memory is not definitive, though in the freeze-frame world we’re about to enter,that doesn’t necessarily make it less true.
Waters however insists that his nascent and apparently self-generated conspiracy theory moves us to…
Thinking the words spontaneous, we glossed over the tautology. We knew what he meant. But what the recording attests is not what Armstrong said. The voice-activated transmission system momentarily cut out after the fourth word, tracelessly excising the indefinite article that would have made sense, and retained the humility, of the agreed phrase. “One small step for a man . . .” is what Armstrong was instructed to say, and what he insisted he did say.
And therefore comes to the conclusion…
It is as though something in time or space, or space-time, intervened to underline the distinction between what a human being can achieve from within an understanding of human nature and what we tend to extrapolate from these achievements about our collective and absolute potential. Perhaps, snipping out that fragile “a” to emphasise the tautological nature of human ambition, some benevolent force was whispering to us about the folly of thinking that we can climb out of our essential condition, gently reminding us that we make better progress when we think of getting closer to God.
Of course, again, how can we know if we don’t ever go. I may well be wrong, but I suspect that for almost all the actual meaning of the phrase will resonate as long as history is recorded. Something the deity might not be entirely unhappy about. And I can’t help but feel that in truth, the real history of those events demonstrates that for many – perhaps most – of those involved they managed, as with Apollo 8 and Aldrin, to bring God along or, more likely, to find God wherever they went.
More problems for Sinn Féin… July 24, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, The Left.
Interesting piece in the Irish Times by Fionnuala O’Connor on Sinn Féin. Interesting, but not entirely convincing.
It starts reasonably enough…
Sinn Féin is not the only party with malcontents, but has taken most hits, North and South, and may have the most thorough-going questions to consider. It might of course make sense for unionist parties to re-examine unionism, but that looks like a task for another generation. Ulster Unionists, the DUP and even the infant Traditional Unionist Voice have all lost councillors.
Republicanism has a more impatient base, more politicised supporters. Their re-definition has come too far to stall now.
Still, I can’t agree when I read the following:
The thoughts of Toiréasa Ferris perhaps won publication in a recent An Phoblacht , house organ of mainstream republicanism, because of her father’s standing. But it was forthright criticism from the Kerry councillor, a cruel blow from one of the Sinn Féin leadership favoured line-up of comely females – even though she is perhaps best known as daughter of Martin Ferris, gunrunner/turned pillar of the peace process.
Ms Ferris suggested that Northern success has served only to damage development in the South, where she recommended a renewed commitment to community activism that sounded like rejection of mainstream politics, and even republicanism.
My reading of her words were that they tilted towards a sort of populism and away from the left. Her musings about ‘rights’ issues was tokenistic of this. And that’s problematic on any number of different levels. Because what sort of SF would we see if that route were adopted? A sort of populist party of the centre right is my guess, an FF-lite in some respects.
I also found O’Connor’s analysis of Louise Minihan’s departure a bit odd to be honest.
Her stint as director of elections for TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh did not stop him carping that she had waited to take this course until after election as a councillor, and he would like her to do the decent thing and hand back her seat.
She made clear that would not happen. Ó Snodaigh should have winced as she declared “it would be hypocrisy to give way to a party I no longer support or believe in”.
I’m not entirely sure why it is ‘carping’ on Ó Snodaigh’s part? Minihan was co-opted to the Council in 2007. She subsequently ran on an SF ticket, signed a pledge and then within a month or so of being elected leaves the party. What of the obvious contradictions of running not two months ago for a party she did no longer support or believe in?
Now, that said there are clearly problems with that in so far as Ó Snodaigh would be regarded as of the left in relation to SF, so her departure, for whatever reason, isn’t exactly brilliant news.
O’Connor also takes an odd tack when she suggests that:
Sourness in their wake gave the lie to suggestions that the recanters were not important, their departure merely an irritant. When enthusiastic party activists shear off, abandoning discretion to lambast policy and lack of leadership, no party can be easy about it.
Well, in fairness, who wouldn’t be sour, after an input of time and effort to see candidates who gladly take the badge of an already existing political vehicle and all that goes with it to win seats only to open the door and step away once they are comfortably parked in their respective Councils? And a party is a larger and more organic creature than simply its leadership. What of the footsoldiers out campaigning, what indeed of Ó’Snodaigh himself who presumably campaigned for his erstwhile comrade?
And I think that the irritant factor shouldn’t be underestimated either. One or two irritants are simply… irritating. But once they start to proliferate they become a serious problem.
All the same, Southern unease about Northern dominance of the party leadership sounds fairly central to discontent about its fortunes. Listening to youthful voices chirruping disquiet where they failed to listen to the grizzled Christy Burke, the less glamorous and earlier refusenik in inner Dublin Sinn Féin’s ageing top table must sometimes recognise a strong partitionist note.
I find this an inexplicable analysis. Minihan left because she, as O’Connor notes, complained ‘that today’s Sinn Féin was no longer willing or able to challenge the British occupation of the six counties’. It’s hard to believe that partitionism was the core problem there. Christy Burke appears to have moved to the supposed comforts of political pragmatism. Again I’m at a loss to see where partitionism fits into that. Others have left due to a perceived lack of socialism.
That these complaints are so diverse and diffuse is actually evidence of a potentially larger problem, and one which has little to do with partition.
Should they cut their cloth? Set free the three green fields, lose those community activists at the recession-hit grassroots once more, and abandon the Dáil to Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin? Gerry Adams takes off abroad again, like a latter-day John Hume, but without the one-time network of powerful friends. The appeal to the diaspora to crusade for unification may have more to do with finding a role for the displaced Adams than real expectations of enthusing recession-crushed Irish-America about a united Ireland.
And she’s clearly not being serious when she argues the following…
Maybe it is time instead to assess strengths and weaknesses, to be realistic and re-christen the most efficient part of the organisation Sinn Féin/Northern Ireland. (Which would make it SIFFNI. Perhaps a thought not to be borne – although the mocking PISSNI never did catch on for the PSNI, Police Service of Northern Ireland.)
A Northern-bound SIFFNI, in effect if not actually re-named, would delight the lower-case eirig now setting out its stall of 32-county socialist republicanism with no big names, but apparent confidence.
It’s odd that she goes off in this direction. Is she trying to be humorous? Anyway, one way or another it doesn’t strengthen her argument.
Partitionism doesn’t seem to me to be the core problem facing SF, although it is one of them. Instead I think it is blindingly obvious what the greater problem. Simply put – and this by no means an original analysis – their growth, which once provided both sustenance and legitimation for changing policies and provided a bandage of sorts across different ideological stances, has stalled. And with that the means of mobilising and retaining people is more difficult.
Sinn Féin strikes me as a party which while having a Republican ideology as a sort of cement is simply too diverse for its smallish size in the Republic in terms of other ideologies. Where Fianna Fáil, or indeed Fine Gael, can be broad churches readily able to encompass fiery free marketeers and submerged (often very very submerged) social democrats, nationalists and less nationalist and so on with the ultimate binding discipline of the prospect of state power to herd people into line, Sinn Féin by contrast is both diverse and small, with different strands who can all point to their own vision of the Republic. All is grand while elections are being won, and the relatively (but not uniformly) smooth ascent to power in the North was a great help. As soon as the project slows and in the context of considerable reworking of what Republicanism means, at least on the practical level, the fault-lines begin to open up as people have quite literally little else to do but contemplate their situation.
At the same time let’s not exaggerate it. Party uniformity has been notable in the past so some level of attrition while, arguably, inevitable doesn’t have to pose anything close to an existential threat. In the North they govern. In the South they have four TDs, a Senator, a considerable number of Councillors (50 odd, down due to defections from 54 in 2004 but still well up on 21 in 1999). Their rivals remain marginalised. That O’Connor, even in jest (or at least one hopes it’s a joke), should try to compare Éirígí with Sinn Féin is to point up the isolation of the former, the hegemonic status of the latter even in its current rather dilapidated state.
Yet even to use that term dilapidated is to see how much the situation has changed.
And in retrospect I wonder, if we take the old jibes at face value, whether SF was right to try to push towards government. Because what alternative destination is there?
None of this is to suggest SF is about to disintegrate. I’ve said it before, there is an election racing towards us which, if the party is careful it is well-positioned to see gains. But… something needs to be done to shepherd it through the current doldrums.
Still, the sentence that concludes the piece by O’Connor is intriguing.
The new school term will be worth monitoring.
Throw away line or teaser for something she knows..?
Moon:Been there, done that? July 23, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon.
A brief but good piece on the Slate Culture Gabfest dealt with the meaning of this week both in terms of coverage and in terms of the event itself. It started with an excerpt from “Rocket Experience” with vocals added by Buzz Aldrin. You may like it. I don’t. But it rapidly improved with what I thought was one of the nicest summations of the whole thing…
We wanted to start out with insouciance on this topic… but I can’t help it. I thought this anniversary meant absolutely nothing to me. I started reading about it and I actually became quite emotional. i think this is one of those things for which an anniversary is utterly necessary to reawaken our mind to the sheer courage and ingenuity and shared public purpose, sense of public purpose, which put a human being on the surface of the effing Moon.
An interesting point was made about the ‘immediacy of the web’ and how we can now all watch these events in way that even ten years ago we couldn’t have. Actually, that reminds me of the first CD-ROMS with their Quicktime movies of the moon landing in tiny windows on computer screens. It’s funny how the moon landings became in the decades after a sort of visual short hand of excitement.
And yet, it’s paradoxical, because imagine if you will the use of almost any other artifact of high technological achievement from 1969 and consider whether that would have the same cachet. Indeed one contributor to the Slate Gabfest recalled a moment in the Ron Howard Apollo 13 movie where:
…somethings gone wrong and they cut to the huge team of people in Houston all operating slide rules. There were of course calculators at that point.. but people were also using slide rules to navigate that emergency…
It is almost disturbing when one thinks of it in that way. Like Concorde, another hugely ambitious piece of technology, but one very much of its time there is this sense of slippage. That the future we expected has somehow been deflected. And yet that future we project is of course the past as was.
…which raises a related question, you’d think we were now 40 years on in terms of computing power and technology and we exploit all sort of synthetic materials and plastics to make airplanes that we fly on routinely safer and quicker and yet…
the thought of putting a man back on the Moon is the one that so… almost as inconceivable to us as it was when Kennedy announced the ambition in the early ’60s.
That is a remarkably apt insight. It’s not just an issue of political or social will, although that plays an enormous part. It is in some respects the product of a need to reinvent the wheel. Orion may be Apollo redux, and form follows function, but for the US space programme to reimplement Apollo in this modified and modernised form is a task that even now is nearly beyond belief. Even in 2009.
I’ve been re-reading Andrew Smith’s excellent Moon Dust, which is both an history of the Moon programme and a sort of investigation of the lives of the astronauts both during and after. In regard to the actuality of the landings there is a fine four or five page sequence which cuts from the audio that the global audience heard during the descent by the Lunar Module to the surface of the Moon and what was actually happening on board it.
We know this as the voice of Mission Control. his name is Charles Duke, but the astronauts just call him ‘Houston’. There are other voices too, but they all sound distant and intermingled and it’s hard to get hold of what they’re saying. An air of expectancy hangs in the room.
Now we hear;
“Descent engine command override. Engine arm, off, 413 is in.”
“Houston, Tranquility Base here… the Eagle has landed”.
And Smith delicately untangles the events each of those short sentences described, from the thirty seconds worth of remaining fuel, twenty of which were necessary to retain for an abort, to the events beyond the sentences, Armstrong realising that the landing area was littered with ‘a field of rocks’ and eventually having to made a decision with barely seconds to spare to land in ‘a clearing of about 200 feet, bounded by craters on one side and more boulders on the other’.
Even when one knows the outcome, the description is nerve wracking. And that too adds to the sense of the enormity of the project.
Smith’s book is equally good on how the lives of the astronauts were subsequently utterly altered by their experiences. These were almost exclusively military men, there was only one scientist amongst those to walk on the surface, who were ill-prepared for the fame that was to dog them afterwards. Alcoholism, relationship breakdowns, depression. the whole gamut of symptoms of humans pushed to extraordinary limits. Perhaps, perhaps if the Moon landings had been sustained that fame would have been diluted, as Apollo 17 was followed by 20 and 30 and whatever… But the curious thing is that the isolation of their journey was mirrored by the isolation of their lives thereafter. This was a place no-one was going to go back to, at least not in most of their lifetimes.
Which led on the Gabfest to the thought that the ‘wonderment’ of the event could be summed by the Onion’s entertainingly foul-mouthed piece:
And there’s an odd little precursor of that by Smith when visiting the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canveral, a construct so large that it is reputed to have its own micro climate.
Then there’s the nightmarish crawler, like something from a Judge Dredd comic, which transports rockets from the Assembly Building to the gantries at half a mile and hour, running on tank like treads that weigh one ton apiece. This is not like anything you’ve seen before. It’s unreal.
And now the bus has stopped and you’re climbing off and into a giant brick hangar and – fuck, there’s the Saturn V.
You can reel off figures and statistics all you like, but until you’ve stood underneath it, nothing can prepare you for this behemoth, suspended in segments from the ceiling, just astonishing. You try to fit a meaningful portion of it into a photo, but can’t, so you give up. What you think is not “How could anyone make something this big?” because you know that people have been making big things for millennia. BUt to make something this big, and intend it to fly – the audacity of this conceit alone – and then to make it work, to conceive of this impossible twisty chaos of pipes and cables and weird steel tubers and nozzles as big as the bus we just rode in on, bigger, and make them do something predictable and controllable and reliable enough to bet a life on, three lives, every time… it’s just… the mind reels in the same way that a Victorian’s must have been carried away by one of that era’s gargantuan steelworks or power stations. Even at thirty five years remove, it’s barely credible.
And the Gabfest recognises something of this when they argue…
…Essentially what it all comes down to… there are two tones to the coverage, that tone of wonderment… and then there’s this sort of chewing over of the regret that the space programme has stalled and even regressed.
On the latter point they also referenced Tom Wolfe’s article in the New York Times which takes the provocative notion that…
The American space program, the greatest, grandest, most Promethean — O.K. if I add “godlike”? — quest in the history of the world, died in infancy at 10:56 p.m. New York time on July 20, 1969, the moment the foot of Apollo 11’s Commander Armstrong touched the surface of the Moon.
Why, putting a man on the Moon was just the beginning, the prelude, the prologue! The Moon was nothing but a little satellite of Earth. The great adventure was going to be the exploration of the planets … Mars first, then Venus, then Pluto. Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus? NASA would figure out their slots in the schedule in due course. In any case, we Americans wouldn’t stop until we had explored the entire solar system. And after that … the galaxies beyond.
Three months after the landing, however, in October 1969, I began to wonder … I was in Florida, at Cape Kennedy, the space program’s launching facility, aboard a NASA tour bus. The bus’s Spielmeister was a tall-fair-and-handsome man in his late 30s … and a real piece of lumber when it came to telling tourists on a tour bus what they were looking at. He was so bad, I couldn’t resist striking up a conversation at the end of the tour.
Sure enough, it turned out he had not been put on Earth for this job. He was an engineer who until recently had been a NASA heat-shield specialist. A baffling wave of layoffs had begun, and his job was eliminated. It was so bad he was lucky to have gotten this stand-up Spielmeister gig on a tour bus. Neil Armstrong and his two crew mates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, were still on their triumphal world tour … while back home, NASA’s irreplaceable team of highly motivated space scientists — irreplaceable! — there were no others! …anywhere! … You couldn’t just run an ad saying, “Help Wanted: Experienced heat-shield expert” … the irreplaceable team was breaking up, scattering in nobody knows how many hopeless directions.
It’s a good piece and worth reading. Essentially Wolfe sees the space programme, and in particular the bid to reach the Moon as a ‘single combat’ that would in its winning or losing rout the other side, in this case the Soviets. And they won. And within a few years the NASA budget was halved…
It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.
It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.
Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.
Forty years! For 40 years, everybody at NASA has known that the only logical next step is a manned Mars mission, and every overture has been entertained only briefly by presidents and the Congress. They have so many more luscious and appealing projects that could make better use of the close to $10 billion annually the Mars program would require. There is another overture even at this moment, and it does not stand a chance in the teeth of Depression II.
And those thoughts in mind, every time I look at the simulations of Orion there’s part of me that does the calculus as to how Constellation will pass Congressional committees, how it will weather budgets and budget cuts and the need for this to be a programme that stretches past one Presidential term, past two, perhaps past three or four in order to produce outcomes. And a certain pessimism creeps over me.
What NASA needs now is the power of the Word. On Darwin’s tongue, the Word created a revolutionary and now well-nigh universal conception of the nature of human beings, or, rather, human beasts. On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived. Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word.
July 20, 1969, was the moment NASA needed, more than anything else in this world, the Word. But that was something NASA’s engineers had no specifications for. At this moment, that remains the only solution to recovering NASA’s true destiny, which is, of course, to build that bridge to the stars.
And if that seems an odd juxtaposition with the Onion clip, well think again about that wonderment. And what it means both on a practical and philosophical level.
And although there have been the setbacks that Wolfe points to, the lack of progress, it remains true that NASA has been extant for fifty or so years and that might be worth a little sliver of optimism, because simply surviving is no mean achievement in the world we live in, particularly for an organisation whose aims are largely so ineffable. And in that survival is the merest echo of the survival, or need to survive, for us as a species and to continue to exist in a universe which is indifferently hostile to us. Wonderment. Not a bad way to proceed in light of that.
The maddest piece in the Phoenix this last week. It’s a shortish article on the electoral ambitions of Ivana Bacik – let’s just say the Phoenix doesn’t take the most charitable view of these matters. For myself I’d be a lot less quick to jump on board the bandwagon which sees her attempting a Robinson/McAleese journey to the Presidency redux.
Anyhow, in all this it argues that…
Both Joe Costello and Bacik will be aware that party leader Eamon Gilmore is determined not to miss out on extra Dáil seats at the next election. This will mean that instead of running just one candidate in nearly every constituency, there will be two in many constituencies and with Dublin providing a rich harvest in the recent local elections – it is the largest party in Dublin – Dublin constituencies in particular will be targeted for more than one seat.
Hence it proposes that she may well contest Dublin Central again. That’s not the craziest notion I’ve heard. For a start the Sinn Féin approach there may well be weaker now than it was the day of the election with the departure of Christy Burke. I have no idea if he’s planning an election run and if he is, well, I wouldn’t bother – let’s put it that way, and although if Mary Lou McDonald runs again there her by then consistent efforts will stand to her it will still be far from easy for her to get elected.
Fianna Fáil may have suffered a mortal blow to their previous two seat electoral expectations. Fine Gael might well retake a seat long thought lost and the Gregory Group will be in a reasonably strong position to retain the seat won by Maureen O’Sullivan at the byelection.
So while Joe Costello could reasonably argue that he alone of all the potential candidates, we know of today, is best placed to keep a seat with O’Sullivan next best positioned and after that others coming in with various degrees of possibility.
In such a volatile mix it is quite possible that Bacik might do the business. The Phoenix is grudgingly accepting of that…
‘Not great [her election vote], but not bad either given that she had to contend with the limpest Labour effort in Joe Costello TD’s base’.
Still, that’s not mad either. That’s quite possible. What really struck me was the following…
Gilmore’s strategy, wishful or otherwise, is for Labour to take 40 plus seats and then, with the support of maybe six to eight SF TDs and a number of Independents (and maybe even the odd Green) challenge Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny for the Taoiseach’s position.
Okay. Let’s stop right there. 40 plus seats? A big ask. A very big ask on the day. I’d be a lot more convinced that they’ll get somewhere between 25 and 30. Perhaps verging on the higher side. 40 plus would be a remarkable, an earth-shaking achievement. It really would. Six to eight SF TDs? Really? I’d be astounded, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, if they returned more than six. On a good day. On a very good day. And with the latest drip drip of defections whose to say what sort of shape they’ll be in in two years time? I’ll grant the figure of one, or perhaps even two, GP TDs. There’s a couple who might resist the inexorably approaching firestorm, Sargent, perhaps White, and even Ryan might be still be standing in the aftermath. But the others would need some pretty remarkable shifts in climate change to sustain them, at least at this point.
Now, on the Independents front, yes, it does look as if there might be an increase in their numbers. But whether they’re left leaning is a different matter. And those who are may not want to play ball with Gilmore.
Particularly since this all has the slight smell of an opening gambit, a means by which Labour could attempt to pressurise Fine Gael for what seems most likely, a coalition between the two parties. This would be the point at which Labour would be making a show of searching alternatives, perhaps even briefly with the – perhaps – decimated ruin that is Fianna Fáil (and let’s not get too carried away, their propensity to survive the worst is considerable, only complete political melt-down would see them return with lower numbers than Labour).
And for all those reasons I find it near impossible to believe that that is the calculation that Gilmore is making. Much more likely is the initial point made in the Phoenix article, that he seeks to plod away at building the Labour Party. All else will come after the election. Whenever that may be.
Given that, my belief, for what its worth, is that there is only one endpoint to all this stuff and it will see Gilmore and Kenny step into Government buildings together. A nice bit of gossip to put out into the ether though, and no harm in yet further constructing the notion of Labour as a national party really going for it this time.
Moon: Landing July 22, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon, Science, Science Fiction.
Swiftly moving beyond Garibaldy’s poor cultural experience with Moon…
It’s odd looking at the images of the proposed Orion and Altair vehicles that are intended to return the US to the Moon sometime in the next decade as part of the Constellation programme. They’re obviously very similar to the Apollo era modules, a result of a decision to take tried and tested technologies rather than attempt to push the envelope as was seen with the Space Shuttle. These are space going vehicles, rather than Low Earth Orbit vehicles. They can eschew the rudimentary wings, fin and control surfaces of the Shuttle.
And yet, for all the sleek computer animated simulations of the return – and as an aside can one think of any better way to leech the meaning from this than essentially staging it ahead of time in virtual form – they seem strangely lacking.
Okay, I have to admit, Orion isn’t bad. As Apollo writ large it has a clunky retro charm. The interior arrangement, now set up to carry… gasp… four to six astronauts… is more of the same. That flattened cone like shape has the necessary echoes of the past. No complaints there.
Reading the specs on wiki I had to smile…
* “Glass cockpit” digital control systems derived from that of the Boeing 787.
* An “autodock” feature, like those of Russian Progress spacecraft and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, with provision for the flight crew to take over in an emergency. Previous American spacecraft (Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle) have all required manual piloting for docking.
* Improved waste-management facilities, with a miniature camping-style toilet and the unisex “relief tube” used on the space shuttle (whose system was based on that used on Skylab) and the International Space Station (based on the Soyuz, Salyut, and Mir systems). This eliminates the use of the much-hated plastic “Apollo bags” used by the Apollo crews.
* A nitrogen/oxygen (N2/O2) mixed atmosphere at either sea level (101.3 kPa/14.69 psi) or slightly reduced (55.2 to 70.3 kPa/8.01 to 10.20 psi) pressure.
* Much more advanced computers than on previous manned spacecraft.
It’s like a car brochure… right down to the ‘combination of parachutes and airbags for capsule recovery’… well, okay. Not quite like a car brochure. I’ve yet to see a car with airbags on the exterior.
No, for me the disappointment is the Altair vehicle. Where is the spidery wonder of the Lunar Module? This looks like an articulated lorry in comparision, or no – a container on an lorry. It’s all propellent and payload, a squat utilitarian beast oddly truncated.
I want that spidery wonder back. And I want it now.
And that reminds me of, perhaps, one of the worst Science Fiction movies ever made, the peerless Moon Zero Two, straight from Hammer Films. It appeared a little after the first moon landing and it had a plot that could charitably be called not great. Yet, there was one feature in it that I really really like when I saw it first. And no, it wasn’t the kitsch near genius of its title music but instead a sort of souped up LM that was used to ferry people around the Moon. And this… this was logical. Take the existing LM and add on a new intermediate section.
Of course in reality the legs would have had to be strengthened, the body broadened, and really, was that the best way of doing it? Yet it made sense. Again a tried and tested technology that could be refashioned for years later. Funny thing is that even at the time I wondered whether such technology, or rather its lineal descendent would still be working so many decades later. Surely the design might have changed a tad.
But, when one looks at the specs for Orion and their similarity to the first effort to reach the Moon perhaps I was unduly pessmistic, although note that MZ2 was set in 2021. Now, if only they’d implement a Moon Zero Two LM… then we could truly say we’d gone full circle.
Here, meanwhile, is a clip from Moon Zero Two showing what we didn’t achieve.
And here is the theme music…
A classic of its kind, I’m sure you’ll agree.
By the way, a fantastic interview on National Public Radio’s To The Point this week with Buzz Aldrin about the first moon landing and why humans should go to Mars (he dismisses the Moon as a cul-de-sac). His main reason? If the US doesn’t the Russians and the Chinese will. It was funny to hear such unvarnished Cold War US Nationalist rhetoric, and yet, and yet. There was part of me suspecting that this was only the public reason he gave in an effort to pressurise the US administration. I say that because the sheer sense of wonder at what he had done and where he had gone was still remarkably strong in his recollections. Yeah, I think he got the space bug.
Equally good was a discussion with astronomer Jonathan McDowell and Steven Weinberg physicist about the merits or otherwise of human spaceflight. McDowell and Weinberg differed on that issue to some extent with Weinberg taking the view that unmanned probes can do all that humans can and more, whereas McDowell believes a human presence in some form is essential. Well worth a listen.
It’s available as a free podcast here and on the iTunes Store.
Moon: Worst Film Ever July 22, 2009Posted by Garibaldy in Film, Moon.
97 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.
More on McCarthy July 22, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics.
The Irish Times editorial at the weekend as regards the McCarthy Report is well worth a read. For from the off it assumes that the Report is the evidence of… well, read on if you will…
SO NOW we know the real extent of the problem and the gravity of the steps required to remedy it. It is overwhelming.
The idea that the Report charts the ‘real extent’ of ‘the problem’ is an interesting reading of it. Is the PS bill the problem? I’d have a different analysis, and I’ve articulated many times why I take that position. We have a relatively small and not unreasonably paid PS by international standards. What we have is far from extravagant in terms of service provision. Since the financial crisis corrections that I support, to no small degree, have occurred as regards pensions. Personally I’d like to see a proper universal provision society wide. As regards examining for waste there is in any system always room for improvement. But even beyond me and my thoughts one of the most striking results of the McCarthy analysis, as noted by Michael Taft, is how little there actually is to cut. Where are the vast savings we were promised from our coddled, pampered, massive Public Sector? This, after all, was the Report that was meant to forensically cut away to reveal a leaner more efficient entity beneath. But oddly that hasn’t happened (what has happened has been a number of indications that McCarthy wasn’t quite as forensic as was presented).
But a sense that the Report in and of itself is a justification for all that flows from it is strikingly pervasive through our media… what of Richard Bruton’s words at the weekend in the Sunday Business Post?
The huge number of recommendations in the McCarthy report gives some indication of the scale of the challenge.
The fact that the continued existence of two government departments and 98 agencies is now in doubt gives some indication of the amount of waste and bureaucracy that has flourished under Fianna Fáil.
We now live in a postMcCarthy world. The sheer scale of the reforms needed to restore the public finances and reform the public service is now clear. So it’s disappointing that the only element of outsourcing implemented by Fianna Fáil to date has been the cabinet’s efforts to use Colm McCarthy as a scapegoat for the tough reforms that the government should be implementing. Rather than try to explain the report to the public, the cabinet seems to have gone to ground.
And it’s striking the direction of some of the reporting of it. For my money the best example of that was Mark Henessey in the Irish Times who sought to praise with faint praise. So after the somewhat odd compliment that the Report was ‘beautifully written’ which he appends to “it does flog a few horses that have been around for years, including the need to find ways to force doctors to use generic drugs” he notes:
Such magic-wand solutions have rarely produced much worthwhile, while the fascination for outsourcing in the report can be questioned given the past inability of the State to limit such bills.
Then he launches into musings on the Report and the issues it raises.
Should social welfare rates ever be cut? Should they be cut last? Should they be drastically reformed to root out waste and abuses (and they exist, and by the score) to ensure that those most in need are protected until the last?
It’s an interesting question, I suspect the answer is – as ever – it depends.
Problem is that the accompanying statement is incorrect. Go back and read the last appearance of personnel from Social Welfare before an Oireachtas Committee and one will see that far from waste and abuses existing by the score they’re actually fairly easily quantifiable and of a much lesser extent than the media proposes.
Hennessy argues that:
Extra taxation should be levied, but not in the form of income tax. People should not be discouraged from going out to work. We should pay property taxes, we should pay for our water and we should stop behaving as children thinking that services can be provided for nothing.
Who though is this we? The left argued across the decade, with a number of important exceptions, for higher taxation. Income tax as it happens because the left has also argued that universalism is better in such matters than fragmenting it, as with water charges, etc. However, note how that bangs straight into the ‘don’t raise income taxes’ mantra. A mantra that makes little sense if at the end of the day taxation is being levied (and by the by is a wedge issue in order to lower taxes and decrease public provision, as has been seen in the United States and elsewhere).
But, equally, we cannot have a situation where Middle Ireland is always the mug forced to pay more. Social welfare cuts may be the last thing to be done, but, if it has to be then so be it.
Are we at that point yet? Are we anywhere near it? Unfortunately he doesn’t actually come out and say we are.
The report’s focus on health, education and social welfare makes it easy to portray McCarthy and his colleagues as hardliners, but his opponents must make it clear where savings can be made.
Siptu president Jack O’Connor has poured scorn upon it, favouring a stimulus package to get people to spend what they have stored away. It is a well-articulated argument, and one would dearly wish to believe that he is right in thinking that such a stimulus and extra taxes on the rich are the way to get us out of this hole. However, I doubt that this can be done without pain for all.
No one is disputing there will be pain for all, indeed I’d argue that already there is pain for all. But McCarthy provides the polar opposite of what O’Connor suggests. A fiscal stimulus built on ‘pain for all’ is, to my mind, a vast improvement on a fire sale of public sector provision across education, transport, health and so forth.
Some realities have to be faced. Firstly, a decade-long boom when money could be thrown by the State at everything was funded by Lotto-style winnings from property taxes, and other one-offs. Those taxes are long gone, and will not be coming back any time soon.
However, the services they funded are still around. General taxation must rise to pay for them, or else we have to accept that some must fall. Undoubtedly, reforms could save some programmes. More could be done for less, but this will mean that public sector workers – who are as reluctant as any to accept change – must abandon old ways.
Except, and here’s a key problem, precisely what old ways is he talking about? The only truly fundamental ‘reform’ that comes out of McCarthy, and incidentally it’s one I support fully, is the idea of greater mobility in the Public Sector. Other than that we see no evidence of pan-systemic ‘old ways’ or restrictive practices. Instead we see practices that have developed in certain areas, such as the Garda, and practices that are specific to those areas. Indeed the very phrase ‘restrictive practices’ is used only once in Vol. 2 of the report in reference to some aspects of the primary and post primary education sectors (which I largely, although not entirely, would have little problem agreeing with their amendment).
Many in the health service work crucifyingly hard for patients, but the service is littered with restrictive practices that can stand comparison with the worst of the nonsense tolerated for decades from trade unions in Fleet Street.
Again, having read the text I’m not as certain as he that that’s what we see there are restrictive practices. For example, is working on a Saturday or Sunday for a pay premium genuinely restrictive, or is it a reasonable enough added extra? At the very least it’s debatable. Are all allowances unreasonable? Again, debatable.
Teachers can look to their own laurels. Perhaps Batt O’Keeffe last year exaggerated the impact of sick-leave days, but the idea of 31 days of uncertified leave is a joke. McCarthy is right when he says that Ireland is over-governed and over-administered.
Again, one wonders… what of the small but significant fact that it is primary teachers who get 31 days, secondary teachers, not VEC teachers who get 7 days uncertified, do indeed receive 30 days. The take-up rate is as follows:
At second level, 9,353 teachers took 1-4 days of uncertified sick leave; 3,208 took 5-9 days; 533 took 10-14 days; 88 took 15-19 days and 17 took 20-24 days.
So, if one proposes that three or four uncertified sick days is not an unreasonable provision (and realistically I suppose it’s possible that teachers are more exposed to infectious but short term conditions than most of us, otherwise why the latest thought from the WHO that schools may have to be closed in order to stem the transmission of swine flu – as it happens during the year I lecture in a third level institution on a weekly basis and I’m very conscious that vectors are much greater there than generally, and trust me, I’m watching the swine flu issue with more than ordinary interest) we can see that around 70 per cent of teachers cleave to something approaching the norm. As for the other 30 per cent? And in particular the magnificent 17… I can’t say I have much sympathy there, most importantly because one wonders how they could possibly do justice to the responsibilities they have to their students. Still, I can’t blame Hennessy if he misses the nuances of this. Because they aren’t in the Report, the text of which goes…
Sick leave arrangements: Teachers’ sick leave arrangements are more generous than the norm in the public sector, with an entitlement to 31 days uncertified sick leave each year at primary level, and no requirement for a medical certificate unless the absence exceeds 3 consecutive days. At post-primary level, the allowance is 30 days uncertified, with a certificate only being required for absences of more than 4 consecutive days.
Which is demonstrably incorrect since it ignores VEC teachers.
As regards it being overwhelming, well, riddle me this. The full measures proposed by the Report would amount to about €5.3 billion. We know that, as the IT puts it…
The first thing to be said is that this report presents a menu of financial options to the Government without any reference to the social policy of this State. The savings required by Government are significantly smaller than the scale of reductions identified in the report as being feasible. Since last year, some €9 billion has been taken out of the economy, largely through tax increases. A further €3 to €4 billion will have to be found next year and the expectation is that the bulk of this money will come through savings and public service reforms.
On Monday he was on RTÉ, and arguing that a unicameral chamber was a potential cost saving.
In its report the review group says that in order to realise substantive savings in expenditure within the Houses of the Oireachtas, it would be necessary to bring about major structural changes with considerable political, legislative and constitutional implications.
Think about that for a moment. It’s not whether the structures are in and of themselves good or bad or whether they have a societal value. It is instead ‘in order to realise substantive savings’. And what sort of savings? €28 million. There’s no comparison with other European polities to assess the ‘cost effectiveness’ of our highest democratic structures or contextualisation of any sort other than to note that a range of other European countries have unicameral parliaments. Given the very specific nature of the development of the Seanad one would reasonably expect more than that.
McCarthy admits that:
… reducing the number of TDs by 10 or so would not save as much as people thought.
He added that €120 million or €130 million annually was the total cost of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission out of an overall public spending total of €60 billion.
“But there is a demonstration effect involved, and we felt we ought to look at it,” he said.
But what demonstration effect? It’s one thing, and here I’d fully support reforms, to argue for cutting wages and allowances for our political class. It’s quite another to actually argue for structural change. That the distinction appears to elude McCarthy is instructive. By the by, on another topic, for many years we were told that the ‘demonstration effect’ of Sinn Féin TDs, the one Socialist Party TD and before them Workers’ Party TDs taking the average industrial wage and giving the balance to their parties was showboating on a grand scale. Of course that was then and this is now and I guess when the likes of Eoghan Harris are trumpeting their self-imposed wage cut of…er… 10% as if it were the height of parsimony we should expect little or nothing.
There really needs to be serious debate about all this, not just on the proposals themselves, although on that there presumably will be, but on what they represent and what they mean and what sort of Ireland they will attempt to usher in…because while there are undeniably some good ideas in there that should be adopted there is also, unfortunately, a very clear underlying dynamic. McCarthy argues that he does not call for the dismantling of the welfare state. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the approaches taken fundamentally weaken what provision we currently have. Look at what we lose… current child benefit payments, Garda stations (may not matter to some but I have a certain respect for the force and having seen the necessity for good policing a sense of how important that can be), a cut in unemployment benefit, a ‘rationalisation’ of our public sector, free education, direct impacts on farming subsidies, rural transport, health, a ‘restructuring’ of our actual democratic system. And so on. And so on.
More on this to come.
Moon:Memory July 21, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Culture, Moon, Science, Science Fiction.
I think I saw the moon landings. I have a memory, I’ve had it for years now, of being in the sitting room of my parents house in Raheny watching the shaky footage on a black and white television. There’s a problem though. It was only this month that I realised that I would have to have been about 3 years and 8 months old when the moon landing occurred. And, given that, is it really likely that I actually saw Armstrong climb down from the Lunar Module onto the surface of the Moon? Or rather that I remembered it? It gets worse. I don’t know if RTÉ carried the footage, but, the time, 3.39 a.m. Does it seem reasonable that I’d have been awake at that point? Maybe I was bundled downstairs to watch. I don’t know and there’s no one to ask. So… the question remains did I see the reports the next day, or did I imagine them happening subsequently.
I suspect the latter two options are most likely, albeit they’re the most prosaic. Ah well. Another option is that I saw subsequent moon landings. It’s funny though. Almost the entirety of my life, including my adult life I’ve been convinced I did see them. And now… I don’t know.
If I did see it I wonder what I thought about it at the time.
There’s a fabulous book that I’ve been reading recently called The Baby in the Mirror by child psychologist Charles Fernyhough which through his appraisal of his own daughters mental development in her first three or four years gives an insight into memory and its centrality to our ability to understand the world.
As he notes:
In contemplating a forthcoming journey, we don’t just make a physical connection with the human being who will be passing through that airport and hailing that taxi; we make a mental connection, imagining the sights and sounds, the varied emotions of arrival. It takes a leap of imagination before we make the leap of substance.
In foreseeing herself in Australia, Athena [his daughter who was going to Australia with him to live] needed some of that self-thread. There was that little person, in the image of the future she had conjured up; there was something that it was like to that little person; and it would be the same as what it was like to be this little person.
Athena needed some understanding of herself as a centre of experience that persisted like her body persisted, with a future as well as a present. She needed to be a time-traveller.
I wonder about that. I was a bit older than Athena, but the way in which events at a very early stage in life impress makes me wonder how much of my personality was shaped by the background noise that was the space programme, something that ultimately fed and informed my cultural tastes, my sense of self. Did the moon landing operate on a subtly similar level with thousands of children thinking that they too could place themselves in the picture, so to speak. That the adventure of it was a visceral part of them and their self-identity, and was this because in large part we were there ready to be shaped just as these events were happening? Otherwise why, if my memory of watching the landing on television is a construct did I want it to be something that I lived through directly?
The meaning of it all is fascinating too. I mean, what did I think was going on then? Fernyhough argues that:
Ask a child, as Piaget did, who made the sun and the moon and you are likely to get a creationist answer. For children growing up on the shores of Lake Geneva, the stars of the constellation of Pleiades might have been scattered there by God. Piaget’s interpretation was that young children suffered from an ‘artificialist’ bias, mistakenly inclined to see a creative agency in inanimate objects. As their thinking becomes flexible enough to give them a basic grasp of the laws of physics, they become better able to see how the landmarks of nature could have arisen without human or divine intervention. Piaget saw artificialism… as a wrinkle of cognitive immaturity which is ironed out by further development. As you grow into more sophisticated reasoning about the physical world, he argued, you rely less on God for your cosmology.
However, Fernyhough believes that this is purely cultural rather than cognitive…
In one recent study, Australian and British children were tested on their knowledge of cosmology, such as their understanding that the earth is a sphere on which people can live without falling off. Even controllling for general intelligence, the Australian kids showed a significantly richer and more scientific understanding of cosmology than their British peers. One might say that they could not help but do so. Australian children grow up well aware of their distinctive location (relative to other English speaking nations) below the Equator. Their allegiance to the Southern Cross, as depicted on their flag, is emphasized in their elementary school curriculum, which introduces cosmology at an earlier age than in the UK.
So perhaps all those news reports and diagrams rubbed off, giving a sense of the universe, or at least the position of humans within it a greater depth than might otherwise have occurred.
Subsequently the memory faded into what I’d describe as a general fascination (although that’s too pointed a term, perhaps interest or even good-will better describes it) towards all things space related. It might have been happening in the sky, on the moon, tens and thousands of miles away, but it was an extension of the 5 year old, 10 year, 20 year old and so on, me. Each achievement, each milestone something to do with me. Certainly that was true up to late adolescence. Skylab fell? It fell on me, metaphorically. I still remember discussing the landing of the first Shuttle with others with that sense of fascination. But something changed. Probably I just got older. Social activities filled in and crowded out that space.
I didn’t follow the programme with the same interest as the years progressed. The news that they’d discovered exo-solar planets through telescopes came as a signficant surprise to me and as the numbers ramped up of just how many were discovered it was clear I’d completely lost touch.
Sure, on the cultural side the consumption of SF in whatever form continued, but the linkage to the actuality of space exploration certainly dimmed. That’s changed. The rise of the internet has made it much more a part of life again. Not in the same way though. It’s not as close, even if I still feel that same sense of good-will towards it. Maybe even a greater fascination as I realise that many of the achievement I once thought would have occurred by now haven’t and may not yet in my life-time, making that which did happen doubly precious (and apologies for the shameless solipsism of this piece… but, thems the breaks)…
But then, how could it be the same? The truth is I’m pretty sure now it didn’t quite happen the way I thought it did… That while it happened, it didn’t quite happen to me…