Video of Three Military Robots

This is another video I round on robots that are currently under development on YouTube, put up by the channel Inventions World. Of the three, one is Russian and the other two are American.

The first robot is shown is the Russian, Fyodor, now being developed by Rogozin. It’s anthropomorphic, and is shown firing two guns simultaneously from its hands on a shooting range, driving a car and performing a variety of very human-style exercises, like press-ups. The company says that it was taught to fire guns to give it instant decision-making skills. And how to drive a car to make it autonomous. Although it can move and act on its own, it can also mirror the movements of a human operator wearing a mechanical suit. The company states that people shouldn’t be alarmed, as they are building AI, not the Terminator.

The next is CART, a tracked robot which looks like nothing so much as a gun and other equipment, possibly sensors, on top of a tank’s chassis and caterpillar tracks. It seems to be one of a series of such robots, designed for the American Marine corps. The explanatory text on the screen is flashed up a little too quickly to read everything, but it seems intended to provide support for the human troopers by providing extra power and also carrying their equipment for them. Among the other, similar robots which appear is a much smaller unit about the size of a human foot, seen trundling about.

The final robot is another designed by Boston Dynamics, which has already built a man-like robot and a series of very dog-like, four-legged robots, if I remember correctly. This machine is roughly humanoid. Very roughly. It has four limbs, roughly corresponding to arms and legs. Except the legs end in wheels and the arms in rubber grips, or end effectors. Instead of a head, it has a square box and the limbs look like they’ve been put on backwards. It’s shown picking up a crate in a say which reminds me of a human doing it backward, bending over to pick it up behind him. But if his legs were also put on back to front. It’s also shown spinning around, leaping into the area and scooting across the test area with one wheel on the ground and another going up a ramp.

Actually, what the Fyodor robot brings to my mind isn’t so much Schwarzenegger and the Terminator movies, but Hammerstein and his military robots from 2000AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’ strip. The operation of the machine by a human wearing a special suite also reminds me of a story in the ‘Hulk’ comic strip waaaay back in the 1970s. In this story, the Hulk’s alter ego, Banner, found himself inside a secret military base in which robots very similar to Fyodor were being developed. They were also controlled by human operators. Masquerading as the base’s psychiatrist, Banner meets one squaddie, who comes in for a session. The man is a robot operator, and tells Banner how he feels dehumanized through operating the robot. Banner’s appalled and decides to sabotage the robots to prevent further psychological damage. He’s discovered, of course, threatened or attacked, made angry, and the Hulk and mayhem inevitably follow.

That story is very definitely a product of the ’70s and the period of liberal self-doubt and criticism following the Vietnam War, Nixon and possibly the CIA’s murky actions around the world, like the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. The Hulk always was something of a countercultural hero. He was born when Banner, a nuclear scientist, got caught with the full force of the gamma radiation coming off a nuclear test saving Rick, a teenager, who had strayed into the test zone. Rick was an alienated, nihilistic youth, who seems to have been modelled on James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Banner pulls him out of his car, and throws him into the safety trench, but gets caught by the explosion before he himself could get in. Banner himself was very much a square. He was one of the scientists running the nuclear tests, and his girlfriend was the daughter of the army commander in charge of them. But the Hulk was very firmly in the sights of the commander, and the strip was based around Banner trying to run away from him while finding a cure for his new condition. Thus the Hulk would find himself fighting a series of running battles against the army, complete with tanks. The Ang Lee film of the Hulk that came out in the 1990s was a flop, and it did take liberties with the Hulk’s origin, as big screen adaptations often do with their source material. But it did get right the antagonism between the great green one and the army. The battles between the two reminded me very much of their depictions in the strip. The battle between the Hulk and his father, who now had the power to take on the properties of whatever he was in contact with was also staged and shot very much like similar fights also appeared in the comic, so that watching the film I felt once again a bit like I had when I was a boy reading it.

As for the CART and related robots, they remind me of the tracked robot the army sends in to defuse bombs. And research on autonomous killing vehicles like them were begun a very long time ago. The Germans in the Second World War developed small robots, remotely operated which also moved on caterpillar tracks. These carried bombs, and the operators were supposed to send them against Allied troops, who would then be killed when they exploded. Also, according to the robotics scientist Kevin Warwick of Reading University, the Americans developed an automatic killer robot consisting of a jeep with a machine gun in the 1950s. See his book, March of the Machines.

Despite the Russians’ assurances that they aren’t building the Terminator, Warwick is genuinely afraid that the robots will eventually take over and subjugate humanity. And he’s not alone. When one company a few years ago somewhere said that they were considering making war robots, there was an outcry from scientists around the world very much concerned about the immense dangers of such machines.

Hammerstein and his metallic mates in ‘ABC Warriors’ have personalities and a conscience, with the exception of two: Blackblood and Mekquake. These robots have none of the intelligence and humanity of their fictional counterparts. And without them, the fears of the opponents of such machines are entirely justified. Critics have made the point that humans are needed on the battle to make ethical decisions that robots can’t or find difficult. Like not killing civilians, although you wouldn’t guess that from the horrific atrocities committed by real, biological flesh and blood troopers.

The robots shown here are very impressive technologically, but I’d rather have their fictional counterparts created by Mills and O’Neill. They were fighting machines, but they had a higher purpose behind their violence and havoc:

Increase the peace!

The Sky At Night Looks at Britain in Space

I just managed to catch the weekday repeat a day or so ago of this month’s Sky at Night, in which presenters Maggie Aderin-Pocock and British astronaut Tim Peake looked at the history of Britain in space, and forward to the country’s future in the deep black. The programme’s changed a bit over the past few years in the case of its presenters. It was famously presented by Sir Patrick Moore from its beginning in the 1950s until he passed away a few years ago. This made the programme the longest-running show presented by the same person. Aderin-Pocock joined it before Moore’s departure. She’s a black woman scientist, with a background in programming missile trajectories. She’s obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and very definitely deserves her place on the show. But I wish she’d done a job that didn’t involve the military use of rocket technology, however much this is needed as part of national defence.

Aderin-Pocock was speaking to one of the management officials from Orbex, a new, British company, which has developed a rocket launcher and intends to open a spaceport in one of the more deserted areas of Scotland. The rocket will stand about 17 meters tall, using propane and High Test Peroxide as fuel. High Test Peroxide is a highly concentrated version of the hydrogen peroxide used by hairdressers to bleach peoples’ hair. The use of propane is particularly important, as it’s lighter than conventional rocket fuels, meaning that the rocket doesn’t have to carry as much fuel to lift off into space. Advances in satellite design have also allowed the rocket to be smaller than other spacecraft used elsewhere. British universities have succeeded in developing microsatellites – satellites that are much, much smaller than some of the satellites put into orbit, but which can perform the same functions. As these satellites are smaller and lighter, they only need a relatively smaller, lighter rocket to launch them.

The Scottish launch complex also wasn’t going to be as big as other, larger, major launch complexes, such as those of NASA, for example. I think it would still contain a launch tower and control buildings. As well as the official from Orbex, the show also talked to a woman representing the rural community in the part of Scotland, where they were planning to build it. She admitted that there would be problems with building it in this part of the Scots countryside. However, the community was only going to lease the land, not sell it to Orbex, and care would be taken to protect the farms of the local crofters and the environment and wildlife. Like much of rural Britain, this was an area of few jobs, and the population was aging as the young people moved away in search of work. She looked forward to Orbex and its spaceport bringing work to the area, and creating apprenticeships for the local young people.

The programme went on to explain that this would be the first time for decades that a British company was going to build a British rocket to launch a British satellite. From what looked the British space museum in Manchester, Time Peake stood under the display of Britain’s Black Knight rocket and the Prospero satellite. He explained how the rocket launched the satellite into space from Australia in 1975. However, the project was then cancelled, which meant that Britain is the only country so far which has developed, and then discarded rocket technology.

But Black Knight wasn’t the only space rocket Britain developed. Peake then moved on to talk about Skylark, a massively successful sounding rocket. Developed for high altitude research, the rocket reached a maximum of altitude of 400 km in the few minutes it was in flight. At its apogee – its maximum distance from Earth – the vehicle briefly experienced a few minutes of zero gravity, during which experiments could be performed exploring this environment. The Skylark rocket was used for decades before it was finally cancelled.

Aderin-Pocock asked the official from Orbex how long it would be before the spaceport would be up and running. The manager replied that this was always an awkward question to answer, as there was always something that meant operations and flights would start later than expected. He said, however, that they were aiming at around the end of 2020 and perhaps the beginning of 2021.

Orbex are not, however, the only space company planning to open a spaceport in Britain. Virgin Galactic have their own plans to launch rockets in to space from Cornwall. Their vehicle will not, however, be launched from the ground like a conventional rocket, but will first be carried to a sufficiently high altitude by an airplane, which would then launch it. I’m not a betting man, but my guess is that of the two, Orbex is the far more likely to get off the ground, as it were, and begin launching its rocket on schedule. As I’ve blogged about previously, Branson has been telling everyone since the late 1990s at least, that Virgin Galactic are going to be flying tourists into space in just a few months from now. This fortnight’s Private Eye published a brief list of the number of times Branson had said that, with dates. It might be that Branson will at last send the first of his aspiring astronauts up in the next few months, as he claimed last week. But from his previous form, it seems far more likely that Orbex will start launches before him, as will Branson’s competitors over the pond, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

When asked about the company’s capability of perfecting their technology, Orbex’s manager not stressed the skill and competence of the scientists, technicians and engineers working on the project. This included not just conventional space scientists, but also people, who had personally tried and failed to build their own spacecraft. He said that it was extremely important to fail to build rockets. He’s obviously referring to the many non-professional, hobby rocketeers out there trying to build their own spacecraft. He didn’t mention them, but one example would be the people at Starchaser, who started out as a small group of enthusiasts in Yorkshire but have gone on to create their own space company, now based across the pond in America. I think it’s brilliant that amateurs and semi-professionals have developed skills that the professionals in the industry find valuable. And the failures are important, as they show what can go wrong, and give the experience and necessary information on how to avoid it. I don’t think the rocket will be wholly built in this country. The manager said that some of it was being constructed in Copenhagen. This sounds like Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish team of rocket scientists, who are trying to put a person into space. They’re ex-NASA, I believe, but it’s a small, private venture. They have a webpage and have posted videos on YouTube, some of which I’ve reblogged. They’ve also said they’re keen for people to join them, or start their own rocket projects.

I’d been looking forward to that edition of the Sky at Night for the past week, but when the time came, it slipped my mind that it was on. I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If Orbex are successful, it will be the first time that a British satellite will launch a British satellite from here in Britain. And it sounds really optimistic. Not only will Britain be returning to space rocket development, but the Scots spaceport sounds like it will, hopefully, bring work to a depressed area. I’m also confident that the local environment there will also be preserved. The launch complex around NASA is necessarily so remote from other buildings, that it’s actually become a wildlife haven. So much so that it’s now a location for birdwatching.

When it was announced that they were planning to build a new spaceport in Scotland, I assumed it would be for Skylon, the British spaceplane. There had been articles in the paper about the spacecraft, which stated that it would be launched either from Scotland or Cornwall. It seems I was wrong, and that it’s Orbex’s rocket which will be launched there instead. But nevertheless, I wish Orbex every success in their venture, and hope that sometime soon Skylon will also join them in flight out on the High Frontier.

Can Climate Science Be Rendered Conservative-Friendly?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 19/10/2018 - 6:00pm in

How to pitch environmentalism to climate change deniers.

Huxley on Wider Teleology.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 19/10/2018 - 2:44am in


Religion, Science

Nevertheless it is necessary to remember that there is a wider Teleology, which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but is actually based upon the fundamental proposition of Evolution. That proposition is, that the whole world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay, potentially, in the cosmic vapour; and that a sufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say the state of the Fauna of Britain in 1869, with as much certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapour of the breath in a cold winter's day.
“Consider a kitchen clock, which ticks loudly, shows the hours, minutes, and seconds, strikes, cries "cuckoo!" and perhaps shows the phases of the moon. When the clock is wound up, all the phenomena which it exhibits are potentially contained in its mechanism, and a clever clockmaker could predict all it will do after an examination of its structure.
If the evolution theory is correct, the molecular structure of the cosmic gas stands in the same relation to the phenomena of the world as the structure of the clock to its phenomena.
Now let us suppose a death-watch, living in the clock-case, to be a learned and intelligent student of its works. He might say, ‘I find here nothing but matter and force and pure mechanism from beginning to end,’ and he would be quite right. But if he drew the conclusion that the clock was not contrived for a purpose, he would be quite wrong. On the other hand, imagine another death-watch of a different turn of mind. He, listening to the monotonous ‘tick! tick!’ so exactly like his own, might arrive at the conclusion that the clock was itself a monstrous sort of death-watch, and that its final cause and purpose was to tick. How easy to point to the clear relation of the whole mechanism to the pendulum, to the fact that the one thing the clock did always and without intermission was to tick, and that all the rest of its phenomena were intermittent and subordinate to ticking! For all this, it is certain that kitchen clocks are not contrived for the purpose of making a ticking noise.
“Thus the teleological theorist would be as wrong as the mechanical theorist, among our death-watches; and, probably, the only death-watch who would be right would be the one who should maintain that the sole thing death-watches could be sure about was the nature of the clock-works and the way they move; and that the purpose of the clock lay wholly beyond the purview of beetle faculties.
“Substitute ‘cosmic vapour’ for ‘clock,’ and ‘molecules’ for ‘works,’ and the application of the argument is obvious. The teleological and the mechanical views of nature are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the more purely a mechanist the speculator is, the more firmly does he assume a primordial molecular arrangement, of which all the phenomena of the universe are the consequences; and the more completely is he thereby at the mercy of the teleologist, who can always defy him to disprove that this primordial molecular arrangement was not intended to evolve the phenomena of the universe. On the other hand, if the teleologist assert that this, that, or the other result of the working of any part of the mechanism of the universe is its purpose and final cause, the mechanist can always inquire how he knows that it is more than an unessential incident–the mere ticking of the clock, which he mistakes for its function. And there seems to be no reply to this inquiry, any more than to the further, not irrational, question, why trouble one's self about matters which are out of reach, when the working of the mechanism itself, which is of infinite practical importance, affords scope for all our energies?-- from Huxley, T. H. 1896. The genealogy of animals [HT: David Haig]

In context, Huxley is claiming there are two kinds of teleology. The narrow kind (local final causes) is about the functionality of particular mechanism or body-part/limb. He thinks Darwinism effectively displaces theistic explanations of those narrow ones. But there is another kind of teleology that has more cosmic reach (general final causes). Huxley allows that evolution is silent on the possibility of, and compatible with, say, the existence of a Laplacian demon (''sufficient intelligence").

And, in fact, echoing a point of Leibniz, he discerns that when it comes to wider teleology, the Darwinian is in no position to make any claims about the purposes of nature as such. (I return to this below.) But she can raise the bar on any wider teleological explanation. For, whenever some feature is held up as being evidence for such wider teleology, she can argue that this phenomena may be a byproduct of the fact that the world is law-governed. Huxley's own main point is that the debate over wider teleology cannot be settled (by Darwinism), and (here speaks the Humean) that the debate is of no practical significance; it's (to honor David Haig's research) sterile. In addition, there are opportunity costs to focusing on the nature of wide teleology, while so many scientific problems remain unsolved.

As an aside, Huxley's claim that the nature of wider teleology has no practical significance can be read in two ways: first, one may see in it the assumption that religious and metaphysical doctrines over the purpose of creation/nature are motivation-ally inert. (We find hints of such a position in Hume.) When treated as an empirical claim this is manifestly false. When treated as a normative claim (that is, they should be inert), it presupposes something non-trivial. To see that, we need to see that the second reading of Huxley's claim about the nature of wider teleology seems to assume an answer to a widely debated question (in the reception of Spinoza and Bayle) whether a (minimally decent) society of atheists is possible (recall this post on Voltaire). For those that assumed that belief in the afterlife or God's providence were required to stability this-worldly-morality and social coordination, Huxley would seem to be begging the question.

Let me close with a final observation. It may be thought prima facie puzzling that he accepts that there is a stand-off over wider teleology. One may have thought that his reliance on a Laplacian demon would have made it seem plausible that the world is deterministic and so that behind the order of nature's laws, there is just (a version of Spinozistic) brute necessity. I think I can explain why this is not treated as a live  option. A few weeks ago I attributed the following 'Posidonian' argument to Darwin:

(I) A necessary condition of the possibility of (an (intended)) successful scientific representation or concrete model of (a region of) nature is that (a region of) nature is orderly;

(II) (A region of) Nature’s hidden order could not be the product of mere chance [as suggested by Epicureanism]* or mere necessity [as suggested by Spinozism], but only by an Ordering God/Very powerful/infinite mind or Natural Selection.

(III) [It’s possible that] Science produces successful representations and successful concrete models of (a region of) nature.

(IV) ∴ There is a God (of order) or Natural Selection.

That Huxley is in the ambit of the Posidonian argument is revealed by two facts: first, he uses the characteristic Posidonian heuristic (a time-keeper that also tracks the heavens) to motivate this argument (recall, e.g. here; here; here; and here). Second, his explicit embrace of (IV; and, less surprising, III). It is no surprise, then, that (as David Haig pointed out to me) Huxley coined the term 'agnostic.'

To be sure, one may well think that Natural Selection is itself an effect of the operations of necessity. And Huxley leaves the door open to that possibility. (So this post-Darwinian version of the Posidonian argument is really of little use to an ardent Theist.) But there is an important distinction between appealing to Natural Selection and necessity. Natural Selection can explain observed particular variety (that is it can block arguments that start from local teleology); an appeal to necessity explains -- as Clarke noticed in his debate with Spinoza and Toland* -- nothing about local variations (and it even raises the question why there is any variation at all--having to treat initial conditions as mysterious brute facts). 

One post-script, I had always assumed that the Posidonian argument died with Darwinism. Even when I encountered it in Darwin, I assumed it primarily served a rhetorical purpose. But seeing it in Huxley makes me suspect that the Posidonian argument really only went out of fashion when an appeal to ultimate brute facts became philosophically respectable, that is, only after people like Russell started the reject the PSR . 


*Clarke's debate with Spinoza was studied in the nineteenth century; Boole even formalized and rationally reconstructed it!

My JBIS Paper on Passenger-Rated Hobby Rockets

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/10/2018 - 1:24am in

After the flight a few months ago of the American eccentric in his steam-powered rocket to see if the Earth really was flat, and Richard Branson’s announcement last week that he was only weeks away from sending his first tourists into space aboard his Virgin Galactic spaceplane, I thought it was time I put up a piece about a paper I had published in the Journal of British Interplanetary Society about other, passenger-carrying rockets. The paper, ‘Backyard Spaceships: Passenger-Rated Microlights for Hobby Rocketry’, argued that just as hang-gliders and microlight aircraft allowed people to enjoy the experience of flight simply for pure pleasure, so short-range passenger-carrying rockets could be developed to give people some of the experience of spaceflight. It’s quite a long and technical article, so I’ll simply quote the abstract. This runs

The FINDS and CATS prizes have introduced to contemporary astronautics the competitive spirit, which led to such spectacular advances in the fledgling aviation industry. This pioneering spirit is also shared by present day microlight aircraft enthusiasts. If the expected expansion of commercial passenger spaceflight with mass space tourism occurs, then it may create a demand for extreme short-range crewed rockets as a new form of leisure craft, Just as microlight aircraft recreate the experience of large aircraft flight on a smaller scale. If the technologies, materials and procedures used in microlight and balloon aviation are applied to those of high power solid propellant rocketry, then similar ‘microlight’ rockets able to reach altitudes of c.3,200 m, may be a possibility. Apart from the leisure and sporting opportunities offered by such craft, which would also encourage technological experimentation and progress, they would also great benefit astronautical education by adding the practical human experience of rocket flight to ground studies’ curricula. (p. 45).

The FINDS and CATS prizes were set up to encourage private organisations to develop rockets that could successfully fly into space and land again. They were deliberately established in emulation of the prizes that drove the early research into aviation and aircraft flight. These prizes were awarded in competitions for aircraft flying particular long distances, for example, and so encouraged and rewarded designers, engineers and pilots working on the designs of the planes and their engines.

A Danish organization, Copenhagen Sub-Orbitals, was also working on developing a human-carrying rocket, and have posted a few videos showing their vehicles’ test flights on YouTube. However, the last thing I read from them was that they were having difficulty making their rocket safe for humans, as the crash test dummy was always broken on landing. I don’t know whether anyone will actually go ahead and make such microlight hobby spacecraft, but the flight of the guy in his steam-powered spacecraft showed that such short-range, passenger hobby flights are possible.

Flying Replica of Messerschmitt Komet Rocketplane at German Airshow

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/10/2018 - 12:47am in

I found this little video of a modern, flying replica of the Messerschmidt 163 Komet over on YouTube, put up by Knight Flight Video. From the some of the speech you can hear, it seems that it was filmed at an airshow in Germany. The Komet was developed by the Germans during the Second World War to intercept allied bombers. Unlike conventional aircraft at the time, it was powered by a rocket engine. However, this also made it a virtual deathtrap to fly. The engine was a liquid fuel rocket motor. The fuels used were hypergolic, which meant that they automatically ignited when mixed together without needing a separate ignition system. However, they were also highly acidic, and so would cause severe burns if spilled onto the pilot. I’ve also got a feeling that once the fuels started burning, they were difficult to put out as the fuel contained its own oxidizer. Which was another serious hazard to the pilot. It also had a very short burn time – about four minutes. By the end of that very brief interval, the plane would have shot past the allied bombers it was supposed to shoot down. It would then have to glide back to Earth. I think the vehicle had originally been developed as a glider for service in one of the Nazi schemes to get German boys interested in flying, and then eventually joining the Luftwaffe as pilots – a sort of Nazi Air Cadets. The rocket engine was added to the design later. The commenters on this video also state that the absence of a conventional tail meant that the plane was difficult to land. It also lacked wheeled undercarriage, and landed on a skid instead. This resulted in many of its pilots breaking their backs on landing.

The replica plane is also painted red, whereas I think most of the Komets that were actually flown were painted standard German military grey. However, its red colour probably comes from a suggestion of one Luftwaffe officer or Nazi apparatchik that the planes should be painted ‘Richtofen red’, after the plane from by Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, during the First World War. The person, who made this suggestion believed that it would serve to terrify the allied airmen, but others have pointed out that if the Germans had followed his advice, it would immediately mark them out as targets and result in the planes getting shot down sooner by the RAF.

Looking at the video, it appears to me that the replica plane is really glider being towed by the Dornier aircraft that precedes it, although I can’t see a wire between the two. It clearly isn’t using a propeller, and it is very definitely not using a rocket engine. If it was, it would be moving so swiftly that I doubt there’d be much time to see it before it was a small dot in the sky. Plus the fact that I doubt very many pilots would wish to risk their lives in a fully accurate, working replica using the original rocket engine.

For all its horrendous faults, this was a significant advance in the use of rocket technology and in aircraft design. I think the Komet was produced as part of German aircraft engineers’ research into delta wing designs. After the allied victory, this research was seized by the allies, including British aircraft engineers and designers. They developed it further, leading to the creation of the Vulcan bomber, Concorde, and possibly the Space Shuttle.

Two More Optimistic Scenarios and Breaking News.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/10/2018 - 8:27pm in

To counter wild allegations that I am an incurable pessimist, I’ll leave readers with the most optimistic scenario I could find for how this slow-motion train wreck of climate change is going to develop.

Note that that possible future is only 2040 (when I hope to becomfortably dead), not the 2050s. Things will have changed by then, but that scenario won’t be as bad as I imagined, at least for a while. One thing won’t have changed though: The political debate around climate change.


And speaking of enjoyment: Alex Turnbull, Malcolm’s boy, is urging voters to vote anything but Liberal in the upcoming Wentworth by-election (I am qualifiedly optimistic that a defeat there would mean the Coalition loses his Lower House 1-seat majority: bye-bye Coalition government is a likely scenario). Alex is really pissed off at those who unceremoniously dumped his old man.

Seriously, though, the kid has a point. The Coalition is veering more and more towards the fashi right.

ScoMo wasn’t too happy with Turnbull Jr., but managed to maintain some composure. (I think he’s only rude and ill-tempered with ABC TV female interviewers.) It’s anyone’s guess how long it will take until someone uses the C-word with Alex, You see, that’s the favourite Coalition insult: Communist (not the word you thought, or … the other even more insulting one coalition!).


Our beloved PM announced his ministry’s intention to consider moving the Australian Embassy in Israel, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Apparently we are not supposed to see in ScoMo’s surprising announcement, which reverses decades of bi-partisan policy towards the Middle East, his and his party’s despair on the likely defeat in the approaching Wentworth by-election.

It’s important to note that the Wentworth electorate is representative of the Australian upper-middle class (source). That explains why it was until now a safe Liberal seat, even though open to social and cultural issues, but moving towards the right in economic policy.

Income-wise, the median weekly personal income for Wentworth is $1,242 versus $662 for Australia. In the matter of professions, Wentworth almost doubles the proportion of university professionals (40.7% versus 22.2% for Australia), and the proportion of managers (20.8% versus Australia’s 13.0%).

It’s also educated: 46.8% of Wentworth inhabitants has education above bachelor degree, versus the 22.0% figure for Australia. Wentworth more than doubles Australian educational achievement.

But with this particular announcement ScoMo is playing identity politics. As it turns out, Wentworth is home to one fifth of the Australian Jewish community (91,022): 18,214 souls. 12.5% of its residents are Jewish, versus 0.4% in Australia.

The Liberal candidate, David Sharma, apparently was Australian ambassador before the court of the Messiah, Bibi I. It seems the idea was his. I haven’t heard Former Foreign minister Julie Bishop say a word about this announcement, which the Turnbull ministry had opposed.

Let’s see if this elite population is immune to shameless demagoguery.

The Price of Survival.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 10/10/2018 - 12:08pm in

I think there’s little need to repeat the dramatic pleas the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made last Monday: to avoid world average temperatures rising above 1.5°C greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 45% within the next 12 years and reach 0 (as in nada, zilch, rien) within 32.

There’s a detail, however, most commentators have overlooked. To achieve those reductions, in a capitalist economy, where prices are the rationing device par excellence, it “would require carbon prices that are three to four times higher than for a 2°C target” (Yes, maties, that was there, too).

The release of the IPCC report came a few days after our latest prime minister, Scott Morrison (aka ScoMo), concluded a tour over drought-striken regional Australia.

Tuesday morning former mining sector employee and current Federal Environment minister Melissa Price went to the radio: “We make no apology for the fact that our focus at the moment is getting electricity prices down,” she said. “Every year, there’s new technology with respect to coal and what its contribution is to emissions. To say that it’s got to be phased out by 2050 is drawing a very long bow.”

“That would be irresponsible of us to be able to commit to that”, added the extremely responsible Price.

Faced with that one would be tempted to conclude that Morrison and Price are two idiots. That, however, is a simplistic diagnostic and, as all wrong diagnostics, is bound to lead to a wrong treatment.

For one, because that “explanation” ignores the politics behind those two characters.

As it is known, Morrison, a conservative Coalition leader, replaced Malcolm Turnbull -- who once championed a carbon tax -- after a conservative backlash leaded by Tony Abbott ousted Turnbull. Turnbull’s popularity had plummeted among other things because energy prices had risen, placing low-income consumers in a very difficult situation, thus the lack of apologies.

Morrison was Turnbull’s rearguard action to stop the even more conservative (to say nothing of repulsive and odious) Peter Dutton from getting the top job.

But there are, in fact, at least 76.4 billion other very good reasons for Morrison’s and Price’s unapologetic “idiocy”.

Look at the chart above. At the current rate of production, the world’s proven reserves of coal should last 134 years, on average. But averages hide enormous variations: the reserves of the Russian Federation and North America could last between 350 and 400 years. That’s a lot of coal laying around, waiting to make its owners richer. Put yourself in their shoes: would you be anxious to let that money go?

Let’s look more closely at those reserves:

World's Top 10 Proven Coal Reserves
(billions of metric tones)

USA            237.3
CIS            157.0
China          114.5
Australia       76.4
India           60.6
Germany         40.7
Ukraine         33.9
Kazakhstan      33.6
Colombia         6.8
Canada           6.6

That data are for the end of 2012. Australia has the fourth largest coal reserves and is the fifth producer, but given its small population, most of that output (421 million tones per year) is for export. That’s how Australia manages to be the world’s second coal exporter.

And that coal is presently fetching a very good price: US$114.16 per ton, up from a five-year minimum of 49.02 in January 2016 (source). At the current exchange rate, that is 161.50 little Aussie battlers.

Moreover, coal mining is -- and has always been -- a crap job. Still hundreds of thousands if not millions of people all over the world earn a living doing that (and, wages being what they are, they are relatively lucky). How would you feel if your livelihood depended on that?

That’s to say nothing of those whose livelihoods depend indirectly from coal mining. Or those who grew used to the cheap energy fossil fuels make possible (because it’s not only coal we need to take into account: we also need to cut down other greenhouse gases emissions, like methane, which largely comes from cows).

Although it lacks the pleasant self-congratulatory implications of the “idiocy” explanation, this more comprehensive framework has an advantage: it also explains ScoMo’s negative attitude towards the capitalist development of renewable power generation alternatives.

Morrison is a member of the Pentecostal Church. Unless some exceedingly bright young internet post-Keynesian comes up with the silver bullet to kill that monster, it seems we are left with ScoMo’s own solution to climate change. “I’d encourage others who believe in the power of prayer to pray for that rain,” he has been quoted as saying during his tour, “and to pray for our farmers. Please do that”.

Either that or we ditch capitalism, before it bakes us to death and destroys our civilisation or maybe even life as we know it.

Theres something chillingly apocalyptic in a religious man delivering us straight into the gates of Hell.

JBIS Article on the Skylon British Spaceplane

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 10/10/2018 - 2:42am in

In my last article, I discussed the forthcoming edition of the Beeb’s long-running space and astronomy programme, the Sky at Night, on the history of Britain in space. The programme will be presented by Tim Peake, and the blurb about it this week’s Radio Times looks forward to the opening of Britain’s first spaceport in Scotland within the next few years. The Radio Times doesn’t mention it, but recent newspaper articles have stated that such a spaceport will be built sometime in the very near future for launching the Skylon spaceplane. This is an unmanned vehicle, which has been developed as the successor to the 1980s HOTOL spaceplane.

Two of the scientists and engineers involved in the project, Richard Varvill and Alan Bond, published an article describing the plane in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 57, no. 1/ 2, for January/February 2004. The JBIS is the technical magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, founded in the 1930s to encourage British research into rocketry and space travel. The article runs from p.22 to p.32. The article itself is too long to reproduce, but its abstract runs as follows:

SKYLON is a single stage to orbit (SSTO) winged spaceplane designed to give routine low cost access to space. At a gross takeoff weight of 275 tonnes of which 2202 tonnes is propellant the vehicle is capable of placing 12 tonnes into an equatorial low Earth orbit. The vehicle configuration consists of a slender fuselage containing the propellant tankage and payload bay with delta wings located midway along the fuselage carrying the SABRE engines in axisymmetric nacelles on the wingtips. The vehicle takes off and lands horizontally on its own undercarriage. The fuselage is constructed as a multilayer structure consisting of aeroshell, insulation, structure and tankage. SKYLON employs extant or near term materials technology in order to minimize development cost and risk. The SABRE engines have a dual mode capability. In rocket mode the engine operates as a closed cycle liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen high specific impulse rocket engine. In airbreathing mode (from takeoff to Mach 5) the liquid oxygen flow is replaced by atmospheric air, increasing the installed specific impulse 3-6 fold. The airflow is drawn into the engine via a 2 shock axisymmetric intake and cooled to cryogenic temperatures prior to compression. The hydrogen fuel flow acts as a heat sink for the closed cycle helium loop before entering the main combustion chamber. (p. 22).

Schematic of the SKYLON spaceplane in the above article.

I’m delighted that the spaceplane is now set to enter service and look forward to the opening of the new spaceport in Scotland.

The Coal Truth

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 08/10/2018 - 6:04pm in



Last week, I spoke at a forum on Adani and indigenous rights organized by the UQ Human Rights Consortium. It was an excellent line-up, with

Murrawah Johnson – Youth Spokesperson Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council, Activist of the Year (Ngara Institute) and on the 50 Grist list – acknowledging her place amongst the world’s best and brightest fighting for the planet.

Dr Michelle Maloney – Co-founder and National Convenor, Australian Earth Laws Alliance

David Ritter – Chief Executive Greenpeace Australia Pacific, and author of The Coal Truth: The Fight to Stop Adani, Defeat the Big Polluters and Reclaim Our Democracy which is well worth buying and reading.

Having contributed to The Coal Truth I was very interested to meet David Ritter. I was particularly impressed that he took the time to respond personally to this long-ago post, attacking Greenpeace for the sabotage of a CSIRO experiment on GM crops. David assured me that Greenpeace had repudiated this action and re-established a good relationship with CSIRO.  There’s plenty of room for legitimate dispute about the issue of GM crops (I’m dubious, thought not opposed outright) but none about the kind of tactics used in that case.