Goodbye, 2010 - where to from here?

Mad Teddy's web-pages

Goodbye, 2010 - where to from here?

This page composed during December 2010,
and eventally posted on Friday 24th
(Christmas Eve)

Okay - before you say anything, I know that this 360-frame animated gif leaves quite a bit to be desired. The overall effect is somewhat jittery, and there's an annoying flicker every time it "passes go" and the sequence repeats.

I've tried every trick I can think of to remove the flicker, so far without success (any suggestions?). As far as the "jitteriness" is concerned, I suspect that it's very difficult to do better and still keep the file size down to a quite reasonable half a megabyte!

If you're a science-fiction fan, as I am, you'll probably realize that this is an attempt to depict the derelict spaceship Discovery spinning out of control at the Lagrange point between Jupiter and its closest major satellite, Io (which is sometimes referred to as the "Pizza Planet", for obvious reasons.) I used a public-domain NASA photograph of Io, which I found here, as the backdrop for the animation.

It's a scene from Arthur C. Clarke's 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two. [If you'd like to see a far more impressive attempt to capture the "atmosphere" of this scene, click here to view a YouTube video which does it beautifully. Here's a little exercise for you: see if you can spot a fundamental difference between that version and my own, above (other than the obvious one of quality, or the fact that my version of Discovery probably spins a bit too fast) - and then get hold of a copy of the 1984 film to check which version, if either, is "right"! Here's a clue: it has something to do with chirality.]

In the "2010" story, an attempt is made to recover the old spaceship - which had been sent in the general direction of Jupiter back in 2001, as detailed in Clarke's earlier (1968) epic tale 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Actually, it's not quite that simple. The film version of "2001" indeed had the action occurring in the vicinity of Jupiter, whereas Clarke's novel used Saturn as the setting! The reason for the change in the film was that it was considered too difficult to produce convincing graphics of Saturn's rings. (It's also worth noting that there were some minor discrepancies in plot detail between the book and film versions of "2010".) Click on the above links to read more.

Actually, I'm rather pleased that Jupiter was used in the films (both of them), because I find the distinctly "yucky" appearance of Io rather appealing - and if they'd gone to Saturn instead, we'd have missed out on seeing that, wouldn't we?!

Is it possible that you don't know the basic plots of these stories? In case you don't, here's a very brief synopsis:

- - - - - - - - - -

In "2001: A Space Odyssey", an exploratory expedition on (Earth's) moon discovers a "magnetic anomaly" buried near the Tycho crater. It becomes known as "TMA-1". When it is dug up, it turns out to be a black rectangular prism (or monolith) whose dimensions are in the ratio 1:4:9. The first time sunlight impinges on it after its long incarceration, it emits a powerful blast of radio waves, in (as alluded to above) the general direction of Jupiter. Eighteen months later, a bigger expedition is organized to visit Jupiter to see what's afoot.      <= click

The crew of Discovery consists of five men and a highly intelligent computer. Three of the humans are in hibernation for the outward voyage; the other two (Frank Poole and Commander David Bowman) will, if all goes well, wake the other three up when they reach Jupiter to conduct a scientific investigation into whatever they may find there.

It transpires that, in the interests of secrecy, knowledge of the true nature of the voyage - the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life - has been entrusted only to the ship's computer, HAL. The plan is that when the three hibernators are revived, they - along with Bowman and Poole - will be informed of all the details.

The computer, HAL, comes to believe that the five humans cannot be trusted to carry out the mission successfully. (Apparently, the fact that he has been instructed to keep a secret from them - involving what he perceives as a conflict of logic - has had a serious adverse effect on his personality.) He therefore plans to get rid of them, take over the ship, and complete the mission himself.

All together now:   BLOODY COMPUTERS!!!

HAL reports a non-existent fault in the circuitry which controls the antenna by which the ship communicates with Earth, necessitating an EVA (extra-vehicular activity) on the part of one of the human crew members (Poole) to check it out. To cut a long story short, subsequent events see Poole and the three hibernators dead. Bowman himself only just escapes with his life, and then proceeds to disable HAL - and it is then that he discovers the true purpose of the voyage. So now he's very much on his own, with a big job to do and little hope of ultimate survival.

When Dave Bowman eventually reaches Jupiter, he finds a much larger version of the monolith (about two kilometres long) at the Lagrange point between Jupiter and Io (mentioned above). He takes one of the two surviving space pods out to investigate (HAL had used the third one to dispose of Poole earlier) - and his last message to the very worried mission controllers back on Earth is:

“ My God - it's
full of stars... ”

The photograph I used for the background of this image is
another NASA public-domain picture; click here to see it.

- - - - - - - - - -

In "2010: Odyssey Two", a joint Soviet/US crew sets out for Jupiter in a Russian spaceship, Alexei Leonov. (Note that the Soviet Union still existed when this story was written!) The intention is to rendezvous with Discovery and resurrect HAL (very carefully!) in the hope that they will thus be able to determine what happened some nine years earlier. Sure enough, they find Discovery "windmilling" (as shown above) because its artificial gravity centrifuge (or carousel) has ground to a halt, transferring its rotational energy to the entire ship - and they also find the 2km-long "Star Gate" monolith (incongruously dubbed "Big Brother" by some members of the crew) not far away, just as David Bowman had reported.

They manage to get the old ship back under control and make it more-or-less fit for human habitation again. HAL's creator, Dr. Chandra, is along for the ride, and it is his hair-raising task to get HAL back "up to speed". The hope is that HAL can be re-educated and ultimately trusted to fly the ship back in the general direction of Earth.

With these matters proceeding satisfactorily, Leonov's crew begin some careful tests to try to find out what makes the monolith "tick". None of their attempts meets with any success, however - until, one day, the monolith briefly appears to fill with stars again, and a bright something (which, as subsequent events show, is a pure-energy version of the human who was once David Bowman) comes shooting out of it and heads at an enormous speed toward Earth. [Nothing general about the direction this time - highly specific, in fact: Dave visits (and thus inadvertently spooks out) various Earthlings with whom he was closely associated in his former life! ]

This new version of Dave then returns to Jupiter and is able to communicate with HAL to pass a message to Leonov's crew that they need to get away from there in a hurry, as something major and quite catastrophic will occur soon. The monolith vanishes; shortly thereafter, a swarm of millions of copies of itself appears on Jupiter, apparently "eating" it and in some way increasing its density to the point where nuclear fusion begins and the planet turns into a small star. Leonov just manages to escape in the nick of time to avoid being destroyed by this explosive event. Discovery is lost, but somehow HAL's essence is rescued and he becomes another being like the "new-look" David Bowman, with whom he lives happily ever after.

The reason for turning Jupiter into a star (as communicated to humanity by Bowman and his new acquaintances, with some help from HAL) is to provide sufficient warmth for emerging life on Europa, Jupiter's second major satellite, to have a chance to flourish and take its place alongside other civilizations in the universe.

The crew of Leonov and the Earth-bound mission controllers are already aware that there is primitive life on Europa; now, the message broadcast over and over again by HAL from Discovery before it is destroyed, makes the matter quite clear:




- - - - - - - - - -

Well! You might think that all sounds a bit corny, and you may be right - but the books are fun to read, the films are visually spectacular, and there is a certain inspiring mystique about it all. It's also worthy of note that, before he died in 2008, Sir Arthur wrote two more novels involving Bowman, HAL, and their pure-energy friends - 2061: Odyssey Three (published 1988), about the return of Halley's Comet; and 3001: The Final Odyssey (published 1997), in which Frank Poole is rescued and revived, and Earth has four space elevators connected at their tops by a ring of material in geostationary orbit. Make a point of viewing both films and reading all four novels - highly recommended!

You're probably wondering why I've taken the trouble to recall these old stories and present some of their salient plot points here - other than the twin facts that (a.) I'm a science fiction fan and (b.) the title of one of these novels refers to the current year. I hope the reasons will become clear shortly.

*      *      *      *      *

The question posed at the top of this page, i.e. "Goodbye, 2010 - where to from here?" can, of course, be answered trivially thus: "2011, duh - where else?". However, as I hope you'd expect, my intention is to use that question as a jumping-off point for consideration of the state of the world in which we find ourselves at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

After all, we've seen some real drama over this decade. In 2001 (the year mentioned in the title of the first of these Clarke stories), the 9/11 incident changed everything (or so we're told). In much of the "western" world, it's been a decade of right-wing neo-conservative politics, deregulation of financial institutions, wars over resources (I make no apology for referring to the war in Iraq as the "Oil War"), and - ultimately - the global financial crisis (now somewhat trivialized by the popular use of the three-letter abbreviation "GFC"). Not a good way to begin a new millenium, in my frank estimation!

It was my growing dismay with what I saw as the legacy of the Keating/Howard era (1992-2007) down here in Australia that prompted me to get busy and start to create this website in early 2005, ultimately launching it in early July 2006. (Nearly six years after I began it, it's still a work in progress!)

So is there anything fresh and new to say? After all, much of what we see happening around us is very much a case of "The Beat Goes On"; and thus it can be all too easy to simply repeat oneself if one isn't very careful.

Well - I hope you'll find that what follows is topical enough to be worth reading...

2010 has been a nervous year - both here in Australia, and all over the world. For me personally, it's been quite traumatic, for a number of reasons - some of which I've mentioned in my earlier pages ... Who Tube ??? and Charabanc ride. Right now, I'm in the throes of winding up my company which I'd hoped might make a respectable living for me from some of my intellectual property, but which has ended up costing me more in legal and accountancy fees since its inception three years ago than it has earned for me in royalties - and I quite simply can't afford to keep paying money for nothing. So that's a bit of a "downer", if ever there was one.

(To be honest, I'll be quite glad to see the back of 2010 - but apprehensive about even how much worse things might get next year, of course...!)

So here are just a few thoughts about how crazy the world seems to be becoming, as day follows day in these strange, troubled times. I'll start by being a bit parochial, and then gradually expand my horizons.

1. The price of power

My family came to Tasmania in 1961, when I was eight years old, and I've lived here ever since (except for one year, 1983, when I was teaching in the Northern Territory - click here if you'd like to see what I looked like back then! ).

In Tasmania, our main source of energy is hydroelectricity. In fact, Launceston's old Duck Reach power station, which operated from 1895 until 1956, is the oldest publicly-owned hydro power station in the southern hemisphere. There is a page about it in this website; click here to visit it.

When I was a kid, large dams were being built on a grand scale to harness the considerable water resources in Tasmania to run new power stations. The "Hydro" was seen as an engineering masterpiece in those days. The intention was to attract large industrial developments to the state; this was seen as Tasmania's future direction.

Things changed in the early 1970's when a decision was made to flood an area containing a remarkable and quite beautiful shallow lake, surrounded by a wide beach of pale pink sand, with another series of dams. There was a public outcry. "Save Lake Pedder" was the slogan; and it was then that the international "Green" movement was born, right here in Tasmania. I was one of many people who walked into the area before the lake was inundated; I've told the story in my It's still not easy being green page.

The dam-building mania came to a halt; by then, the "Hydro" was no longer viewed by all Tasmanians as something totally heroic. Ever since, Tasmanians have been divided into two camps: those who value the island as a wonderful place to live in its own right, and those who view its natural resources only - or at least, primarily - in dollar terms. (In more recent times, the focus of the environmental debate has been more on forestry than on energy, as also detailed in my "...being green" page, above.)

In 1998, some 26 years after the inundation of Lake Pedder and with "economic rationalism" having become firmly established as the new religion, a decision was made to split the "Hydro" up into three legal entities: the Hydro, Aurora Energy, and Transend. The Hydro generates the power; Transend transmits the Hydro's power via the "poles and wires"; and Aurora distributes and sells the power to the end-users. (Click here to see the Wikipedia article about it.)

So what, you might ask?

Well, over these last few months we've been informed by the Tasmanian government that the price of power is set to rise dramatically over the next few years. Why?

I've yet to read an explanation which makes clear sense to me. May I suggest that you visit the following web-pages to read more, and see if you can figure it out:

Does any of that make any sense to you? Just what is going on?

Apparently, the various "bits" of the old publicly-owned Hydro, which so many people had already grown to view askance over many years, are squabbling over money - how much they owe each other, etc. - and the hapless consumer is left to pick up the legal bills! How can that possibly be justified? - and why are the media not jumping up and down much more vigorously than they are doing, to hold the people responsible for this scandalous nonsense truly accountable to the public?

Granted, there's a mention of new "infrastructure" in among all that; no doubt serious attempts to come to terms with climate change make that necessary. But - details, please...?!! In a democracy, we, the people, have a right to know what is being done with public money!

Something tells me that we're being given the classic "mushroom" treatment: kept in the dark and fed - er - manure. But a great many less-well-off Tasmanians are almost certainly going to have to choose, next winter, whether to keep their houses comfortably warm or to pay their mortgage bills on time. Our "first-world" quality of life, it seems, is on the line - and I, for one, want some real answers, thanks very much!

But it's not only in Tasmania that power prices are going up. Click here to view an ABC report from 7th October 2010 about how it's happening all around the country. Note that a certain "free-market think tank" seems to be suggesting that the only way to fix the problem is to build more coal-fired power stations. (Either I'm misunderstanding what they're saying, or else I'd like to suggest that they need a much bigger tank in which to grow whatever it is they use to do their thinking!)

The main thrust of this website, over the last few years, has come to be about the fact that we need to be working toward genuinely affordable power solutions, not obscenely expensive patch-up jobs. Please - if you haven't already, do have a look at some of my other pages in which I pursue this matter, starting here.

I've said it before, and no doubt I'll say it again: what's needed is proper investment - in both the public and private sectors, around the world, working cooperatively with each other - in research into real, sustainable, affordable power generation systems, which will make it possible for all people to have the electric power they need without having to compromise on basic health needs such as food and medication; and we need that to start happening straight away.

- Which brings me to my second point.

2. Interest rates and bank fees

In Australia in the early 1990's, the banks were deregulated. Furthermore, the Commonwealth Bank - the publicly owned bank, i.e. owned by the citizens of Australia and run by the Australian Federal Government in a stewardship rôle - was privatized (read: sold off). It still staggers me that this happened under what packaged itself as a Labor government, with the Aussie public apparently too hypnotized to understand what was going on. Click here to read the thoughts of a senior Australian academic on the matter.

We have another bank in this country which I need to mention here. The Reserve Bank of Australia was set up in 1960 by the Federal Government of the time; click here to see its home page and get an idea of what it's all about.

Among other things, the RBA has the power to set official interest rates. This immediately has a very large effect on anyone who is paying off a variable-rate mortgage. The intention is quite clear: to stop people spending "too much" and thus "overheating the economy".

In earlier pages within this website, I've made no secret of the fact that I find this whole matter deeply repugnant. I don't believe that putting that much power into the hands of an unelected government appointee - a mere public servant - has anything at all to do with democracy. (You may like to visit my Enough!!! and/or Strange days indeed... pages to read what I've had to say about this matter on previous occasions.)

Of course, the idea of this so-called "monetary policy" is that the other banks will all obediently fall into line - at least, when the RBA raises "official" interest rates - and raise theirs to the same level, or at least something very similar (after all, they're supposed to be competing with each other, aren't they...?) - and of course, the theory is that when the RBA drops the official rate, they'll drop theirs too. (At least, that's the theory...)

However! Click here to see what happened when the RBA recently increased its official rate for the first time since May. That's right: the Commonwealth Bank, originally the "People's Bank", put its rates up by considerably more than the official rate - and it wasn't too long before the other three big Aussie banks (together, they're all known as the "Big Four") did much the same - with Christmas just around the corner. Have a look at this page, which attempts to take an unbiased approach, for more background information.

As you might expect, there is considerable public anger about this. As far as a great many people - myself included - are concerned, the wheelers and dealers who run these outfits have learned absolutely nothing from the experience of the "GFC".

As though the large hikes in variable mortgage interest rates weren't enough, the banks also have substantial exit fees - which means that if disgruntled customers decide to transfer their mortgages to another bank (which will almost certainly behave just as badly), there will be a large expense - amounting to hundreds or even thousands of dollars - incurred in doing so. Thus ordinary people are dissuaded from making any such change, and the status quo is preserved.

In Australia, there's a magazine called "Choice" which advises consumers on where to shop for the best deals. They've advised Aussies to ditch the greedy "Big Four" and shop around for the best mortgage deal they can find elsewhere. Fair enough - but what's a worry is that, until now, Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan has seemed to be content to be passively endorsing "Choice"'s call, rather than taking an obvious active rôle. (Click here to read more about this.)

Now - here's a surprise! As you'd expect, the left-leaning Greens believe regulation is called for; but guess who else apparently does too? None other than (Liberal - i.e. conservative) shadow-treasurer Joe Hockey, of all people! (Click here to read about this truly weird matter.) Whoever saw that coming?

On the TV news on Sunday, 12th December 2010, Mr. Swan has finally stated that the government is seriously committed to introducing legislation to stop these rorts from continuing. I'll believe it when I see it...

As far as I'm concerned, the issue is clear: I'd like to see a government with the intestinal fortitude to put things back the way they were before Hawke and Keating sold out their Labor principles and deregulated the banking industry in the first place. But I don't really believe that it will happen any time soon - probably just because it's such a simple and logical thing to do; these days, it seems, proposed fixes for major problems have to be very complicated and messy in order for people to believe that they have any merit. So I'm not holding my breath.

I hasten to point out that I don't have a vested interest in this (pun not intended!). No-one in our family currently has a mortgage, so we're not affected directly. No doubt that will change over time; however, I'm idealistic enough to take a strong position on the matter whether that transpires or not. It's a simple matter of social justice.

- And that brings me to my third point.

3. Climate change and the energy situation

Now, if you're a regular visitor to this website, you're quite possibly thoroughly sick of hearing me hold forth on this matter (which has become the main thrust of the site in recent times); but please, bear with me. Perhaps the tide is turning after all...

As I write this, the Cancún climate change summit has just concluded. There seems to have been nowhere near as much press coverage of this, while it was happening, as there was for the earlier abortive attempt to come to grips with the issue in Copenhagen a year ago. Now why might that be?

I suspect that people are quite simply experiencing a form of burn-out, brought on by the failure of the world community to agree on what needs to be done over what has by now become a very long time. There's a tendency to give up, even to lose interest altogether, in situations like this. (I'll be honest: until now, I haven't taken any particular interest in the Cancún event myself; I didn't even know it was on until after it had started.)

When I did first become aware of it, I very much doubted that it would achieve anything very significant. I suspected that it would all end up being about not much more than the latest semantics about "carbon", and squabbling between the richer and poorer of the world's nations about whose fault it all is, just like last time. (I've had plenty to say about the matter in many other pages within this website, most recently within my Charabanc ride page.)

So I was surprised to find myself taking at least some interest when the conference concluded and, among all the predictable economic fluff, there was a statement in the final recommendation that nations should "share technologies". (WOW!!! As already alluded to in point 1. above, that's precisely the sort of thing I've been trying to promote through this website. Could it be that some of the delegates have been reading my material, and taking some of it in? One can but hope...)

As I write this, at about 12.20 a.m. on Sunday, 12th December 2010, I've just seen an ABC News web-page entitled "Cancún climate talks reach 'historic' deal" (click here to see it). I just wonder what they've really achieved. There's a vague mention of "measures to protect tropical forests and ways to share clean energy technologies", but it's short on detail. It still sounds as though it may be about little more than economics, rather than about science and engineering; more about what I call "money games" than about getting organized to really tackle the problem at a grass-roots level - but I could be wrong. Are the new references to "technologies" merely empty words, or will they be backed up by real action? We can only wait and see.

Of course, once the concept of "sharing technologies" gains a foothold, it immediately opens up a whole can of worms of its own. The subject of intellectual property raises its head. How do you balance the collegial, "academic freedom" approach of sharing of ideas and research findings against the perceived need to engage the private sector - whose first priority will always be to make a profit - to get the best-qualified people involved in a meaningful way?

In this page, on the Americans for Energy Leadership website, the author tackles this issue. I find his general approach quite refreshing; but loud, discordant alarm bells ring in my head when he suggests that outfits like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization should have their sticky fingers in this critically-important pie in any major way. (I make no apology for my disdain of the "global economy" and its associated paraphernalia such as these large, far-too-powerful, anti-democratic organizations; see my Loan Sharks page for more on this.)

Another web-page which documents attempts to come to terms with the complex issue of intellectual property rights versus cooperative availability of information is this one, which was actually posted on 9th December, during the conference.

Well - at least there is now finally some discussion happening about what is surely the only realistic way ahead: science and engineering (and associated human issues) rather than the stale, sterile drivel about economic "money games" which have characterized the "debate" thus far. So I do see a ray of hope there.

For the record, again:

I continue to view the issue of the world's energy needs fundamentally as a technical problem, which will not be solved unless - and until - world leaders get beyond the ludicrous notion that it's all fundamentally about economics.

It's obvious to me that the imposition of carbon taxes, or a carbon price, or anything similar, will simply lead to the offending companies pushing up the price of whatever they sell to cover their costs of production - which will simply mean that the less-well-off will be even worse off, especially if they can't afford basic things like home heating in the winter months - but that it will have no meaningful downward effect on pollution whatsoever. It will simply be yet another injustice visited on those whose needs are greatest (very much like interest rate hikes!).

What currently bothers me more than anything else in this regard is that the Australian Greens (who, since the recent Federal Election, now have considerable power in the Aussie political sphere) seem far keener on the "carbon price" approach than they are on promoting new technologies. I find that both surprising and saddening. Now, with the chance to actaully do something of real value, they are content basically to play along with the government's tired old economic line. I'm hoping that the four independent members who now hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives (the lower house of the Australian Parliament) will adopt a far more creative approach and carry the Greens along with them over the next few years.

I still have lots more to say about these matters, but there are other things I want to present in this page, and I don't want it to become "bogged down" or longer than absolutely necessary - so, later...

Now - to what is perhaps the biggest current news story, all over the world.

4. Wikileaks

This is not a new phenomenon; but quite suddenly, "out of the blue", it has become major headline news, as the Wikileaks website's founder, Julian Assange, seems to have spared no effort to get as far up the collective noses of some of the most powerful people in the world as he possibly can - and, it seems, he is succeeding, probably beyond his wildest expectations! (At the moment - on Sunday, 19th December 2010 - the site is "down", and has been for several days - at least in my part of the world. If you'd like to try to see it, here's the URL. I wish you luck!)

Why does he do it?

It seems to me that the man is shouldering a very large chip. He's obviously got a major issue with "American foreign policy" and is sparing no effort to draw attention to the fact.

I can sympathize to an extent. I took a stand against the "oil war"; and I have no time for large, powerful countries which attempt to exert their will over smaller, weaker nations through invasion, occupation, the fostering of insurrection/subversion, or simple economic bullying (and a somewhat similar argument applies to "global monsters" like the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank). But there are different ways of trying to effect change.

You can set up something like Wikileaks, and spare no effort to cause acute embarrassment both to organizations and to individuals with whose policies you disagree. You can end up being branded a "terrorist", and have people baying for your blood, for your efforts, meanwhile enjoying thumbing your nose at "the system" and perhaps becoming an adrenaline junkie in the process - and you can attract pretty much instant notoriety for doing so.

Or, alternatively, you can set up a website in which you quote sources which are in the public domain by "normal" means (i.e. not "leaked"), and add some comment of your own. You can do whatever you can to try to help fix problems that you can readily identify by drawing attention to them, perhaps with a bit of satirical humour thrown in for good measure, and you just may be able to make a positive difference by doing so (although it may take a bit longer).

Personally, I prefer the second approach. I'll admit that there may well have been a time, in my younger days, when I might have become sufficiently hot-headed to simply "lash out" and cause some real havoc. However, having grown older (if not necessarily wiser), and having come to understand (the hard way) that losing one's temper may well not be the best way to make a point, I've perhaps toned my act down a bit.

Don't get me wrong. I may still become angry about particular issues, but I now try to exercise that anger in a creative way, if at all possible. (After all, why should I allow some twit whom I don't respect to make me feel miserable, when I can have an ironic chuckle instead?)

I wish Mr. Assange well, and I must say I admire his chutzpah. I just hope he hasn't bitten off more than he can chew - because, let's face it, there are injustices and atrocities in the world that need to be exposed, and it takes a certain amount of courage to "buck the system" and make one's point in whatever way one finds suits one's style the best.

(To be honest, I don't find the Wikileaks website particularly interesting - when I can get it to load at all! Firstly, from the point of view of content, let's face it: anyone with any brains at all knows that the outrages it reports are going on, without needing to have the fact spelled out - so that it's all a bit of a yawn, really. Secondly, I think the page layout is pretty boring; I much prefer my own somewhat "wild" style, with big fonts, lots of bright colours on a dark background, and plenty of dorky things like animated gifs to spice things up.   )

For what it's worth, I supported the recent GetUp! campaign which saw a full-page advertisement placed in the New York Times, concerning freedom of speech, the presumtion of innocence, and due process of law, with particular regard to Julian Assange's case. Click here to see a YouTube video detailing this.

(Please note that I don't automatically support all GetUp!'s campaigns. I disagree with some of their stands, and I haven't - and won't - support those. However, I certainly do support this one, because it's quite simply about a person living in a democratic country having basic democratic rights.)

To conclude this section:

I'd just like to point out that no-one, whether I, you, Julian Assange, or anybody else is "squeaky clean". Everyone has a skeleton or two in the cupboard; no-one has any right to feel "holier" than anyone else. So if Mr. Assange has indeed done anything illegal (which hasn't been established, as I write this), then let's have a proper legal process to deal with it - not a lynch mob!

As I've said on several previous occasions in pages within this website, I firmly believe that truth must always emerge eventually. Whether it emerges as a result of some cranky "e-journalist"'s determination to spray verbal buckshot willy-nilly in all directions, or whether it emerges only later, one thing is certain: neither I, nor you, nor Julian Assange, nor any terrorist, nor any self-righteous "religious right" tub-thumper - nor anyone else - will be able to escape the eventual scrutiny and embarrassment that will ensue. Can you doubt it?

In the introductory remarks in my Main Menu page, I mentioned that I'm a science fiction fan, and that I'd like to be able to produce such material myself - but that I doubt my ability to do so. Well, I've decided that I should perhaps just have a crack at it anyway - and right here seems like the ideal place.

When I first began writing music on my first PC (a Windows 3.11 machine running Noteworthy Composer) back in the mid-to-late 1990's, I began by arranging pre-existing pieces, only moving on to write original music after I'd learned enough about the craft to make a genuine attempt. So, in somewhat similar vein, I'll start by "arranging" a pre-existing SF story, and thus risk accusations of "plagiarism", just by way of making a start. What follows is a first draft of what's running around in my head right now...

This graphic has appeared earlier in this site, in my Distances in space page. It's a screen-shot of an image produced using the excellent freeware planetarium program Home Planet.

Its main feature is the Southern Cross (or Crux), a constellation which is visible in southern latitudes. Along with its two "pointers", Alpha Centauri (at lower left, in the graphic above) and Beta Centauri, it resembles (to some extent) a kite - perhaps one that is somewhat out of control...

Alpha Centauri, also known as Rigel Kentaurus (or Rigel Kent for short), is not a single star. There are actually three stars in that region of space, two of which are similar in size to our sun (one slightly bigger, the other slightly smaller), and one of which is a small red dwarf. This last is known as Proxima Centauri because it is the closest star - other than our own sun - to Earth (about 4.2 light years away). It is this somewhat insignificant little star that is the focal point of our story...

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In 1989, the year that the Soviet Union was dissolved, an amateur astronomer is hunting for any radio sources in the general direction of Alpha Centauri - and discovers, to her amazement, snatches of something that sounds very much like human speech. She adjusts her set's frequency very carefully, and finds - over several nights of "listening in" - that she is receiving the audio component of certain disreputable TV soap operas from the early 1980's.

Risking ridicule, she writes a letter to a scientific journal, telling her extraordinary story. Shortly thereafter, the journal replies to her letter, informing her that they have not detected any such signal, and suggesting somewhat pointedly that she might be better off using night-times to get enough sleep, rather than burning the proverbial candle at both ends and thus probably experiencing hallucinations.

Annoyed, the amateur astronomer carefully retunes her radio receiver and listens again over a few evenings - but, sure enough, the signals have indeed stopped. Discouraged, she packs up her equipment and follows the journal's advice.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, the journal - which did indeed hear some of the spurious material from right ascension 14h 39m 36.4951s, declination -60° 50' 02.308" before the source went quiet - has contacted scientific authorities in both eastern and western countries (as appropriate in the new era of détente) and alerted them to the possibility of alien life in nearby space.

Sure enough, the signals reappear, and a joint Russian/US mission is planned. Using a top-secret new quantum technology initially known simply as the "chromodynamic drive", the intention is to send a team of scientists toward Alpha Centauri to conduct an investigation. The hope is that the ship, travelling at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, will arrive in the vicinity of the radio source in 2014, thus hopefully making it possible for Earth to receive the scientists' report on what they find there sometime in 2018.

The launch is set to occur in a secret location in Siberia, away from prying eyes. Right on cue and without any hitches, the good ship SETI-1 lifts off into the evening sky and sets course for our nearest stellar neighbour.

What the authorities don't know is that there is a mysterious stranger hiding nearby who captures the whole event on film...
              10 - 9 - 8 - 7 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 - ^ click ^

Now, via the agency of Tedileaks, it is possible to bring to you some of the details of how this amazing new technology actually works.

It turns out that the drive is actually positioned outside the ship, and thus disproves the theory that "action at a distance" is impossible. Instead, via the process known as quantum entanglement, it is possible to power a spaceship - no matter how far away it is or how fast it is moving (and very high speeds are possible) - from a power source right here on Earth.

Further: some scientists who have since examined the leaked footage have become convinced that there is a direct connection with superstring theory. One eminent theoretical physicist even put his career on the line by suggesting that there may be such a string actually visible in the film - but hardly anyone else has taken him very seriously, until now...

Only a few days ago, another Tedileaks source has brought to light photographs and video-clips of a model clearly showing the operation of this ground-breaking means of propulsion (which, apparently, is known officially as the "Weight/Inertia-Neutralizing Chromodynamic Hoister", or 'WINCH" for short). Click on the following small pictures to see 640×480 versions:

- and here, here, or here to see the action in 15-second mpeg movies.

So - our intrepid band of explorers is on its way. Because it's going to be a long trip (even at the relativistic speeds achievable by the WINCH drive), they're all in hibernation. The ship's friendly computer, PAL (who knows the purpose of the mission - and, more importantly, knows that all the crew members also know, and can thus be trusted to be reliable), has instructions to revive them in plenty of time to prepare for the exciting work ahead.

PAL keeps in touch with Earth as well as he can; but as the ship accelerates on its way under the steady influence of the WINCH drive, real-time communication becomes increasingly difficult - and ultimately impossible. Before long, messages end up taking many months to reach their destination; eventually, attempts to relay further useful instructions to PAL are abandoned. By this time, the mission controllers back on Earth are confident that PAL will live up to his name - an acronym for Pleasant, Agreeable and Logical (as opposed to Querulous, Bloody-minded and Manic, were his acronym letters to be shifted "one space to the right") - and perform his duties admirably, and that all will be well.

Their confidence is well-founded; PAL indeed does everything perfectly, and SETI-1's crew are awakened on time and in good health. They then set about finding the precise location of the radio signal's source, and successfully pinpoint it to the leading (L4) Trojan point of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. When they fly to that position to investigate, guess what they find there...

The VHF signals are being beamed from this object toward the planet. However, the ship's company soon establish that, owing to atmospheric refraction and reflection, a proportion of the signal leaks past the planet and into deep space - some of it finding its way to Earth, depending on the juxtaposition of the relevant bodies at a particular time - essentially, the "time of year" for the planet. Knowing this, however, doesn't make any clearer why the object is broadcasting at all - let alone relaying low-quality Earthling TV-shows to an alien world.

Baffled, they decide to put the matter on hold until they've checked out the planet itself, to see if they can find any clues as to what's going on.

The planet is located fairly close to its small star. There are two important consquences of this: firstly, it is tidally locked to the star in much the same way that our Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, always showing the same face to it; secondly, it is close enough to the star to have a pleasantly warm climate in the central regions of its "day-side", gradually cooling as one moves out toward the terminator (the day/night barrier) - and, of course, the temperature is way below freezing on the permanently dark side.

It turns out that, on the "day-side", the planet has a breathable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, indicating the presence of plant life. Indeed, there is reasonably lush vegetation in the "warm zone" centre of the "day-side", gradually thinning out to a low-level coverage of small, bluish-green grassy plants over the "cool zone". Then there is a narrow "cold zone", where almost nothing will grow, extending to the terminator. Some large lakes in the "warm zone", fed by "cool zone" rivers, ensure that the plant-life can survive and do reasonably well from the occasional rains.

•   This graphic added on Thursday, 13th January 2011  

The scientists are surprised to observe a more-or-less circular patch of pink-tinged grey within the "cool zone", centred on a point about 30 degrees from the terminator in the direction of the planet's travel around its small reddish sun. Of course, they immediately realize that this places the patch directly below the leading Trojan point, where they now know there is a large black slab emitting the very worst that Earth's TV programs of 2010 have to offer. A decision is made to land and investigate.

•   This carefully-doctored photo added on Friday, 29th September 2011    

This dimly-lit area (within which the "sun" is always at about 60o from the zenith) has a dense covering of large pinkish-grey mushroom-like fungoids growing within it - far more than would be expected, given the dryness of the climate in these parts. Deciding to have a closer look at the strange object in the sky, to see if it offers any clues, they take off and head back toward L4.

As they travel toward the slab's location, they note for the first time that the bad TV programs are occasionally punctuated by news broadcasts - and that the news is not good either. While they've been hibernating on the long voyage to Proxima Centauri, odd things have been happening back on Earth:

1. The price of electricity is going through the roof in some parts, for no readily apparent logical reason - and the peasants are revolting;

2. There has been something called "the GFC" which has somehow led to the complete disappearance of vast amounts of money, leaving many people around the world in dire poverty - and the major banks, which are directly implicated in events leading to this crisis, stubbornly refuse to take any responsibility for it;

3. A phenomenon known as "climate change" has become a very serious problem, although many so-called world leaders either deny its existence or think they can fix it by forcing people to pay even more money (which they haven't got, since the "GFC" stole it from them) for energy, goods and services, rather than by applying the best new scientific theories to real, affordable engineering solutions;

4. There is some kind of computer program called "Wikileaks" which is causing much well-deserved extreme embarrassment to many in public life by exposing their nefarious activities, with one high-profile "hockey mom" from way up north branding its originator a "terrorist", fit for nothing better than assassination.

To cap it all off, as though to add a ridiculously comic touch, they hear the strident tones of an Australian politician whose best approach to the ballooning global refugee crisis is to repeat, over and over again, like a broken record or some sort of dysfunctional clockwork toy:




Astonished at what they are hearing, but resolutely determined that their "boat" is not going to be stopped, our heroes continue their cautious approach to the artifact. The magnified image from the ship's telescope confirms their earlier observations of a rectangular block about two kilometres long and with dimensions in the ratio 1:4:9 - but, as they peer carefully at the screen, they see that there is something different from what they had seen earlier, while still initially approaching the region from deep space.

Whereas the slab had appeared purely black against the star-field of space toward the end of their long journey from Earth - now, as they approach it from "below", they notice a certain murkiness about its appearance.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the ship begins to accelerate toward the object. Nothing the crew can do - even with the WINCH running at full thrust in the opposite direction - can halt their inexorable approach. As they hurtle onward (as though tugged along by an enormously energetic cosmic string, or even - perhaps - a very strong piece of black cotton) with the bad-news stories from 2010 shrieking ever more loudly in their ears, the captain finally realizes what it is they are looking at - and why those large mushrooms continue to grow in such profusion in that ill-lit area of the planet directly below. His horrified utterance - which reaches Earth in 2018, some four years later - is:


 B   U   L   L   S   H   I   T . . .                 


- - - - - - - - - -

I can hear you saying: "Give me a break - did you really write all that dumb SF stuff just so you could drop that stupid punch-line on us?"

Well, yes - I'll admit it; guilty as charged. (After all, I haven't written anything that could be described as a full-fledged "rant" for quite a while, so it's probably long overdue.)
But the story doesn't end there. Just like Jim, the Waco Kid, in Blazing Saddles,  

"I love a happy ending..."

- so I'm going to provide at least a hopeful ending.

First, let's take stock of the situation so far:

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•   This graphic added on Wednesday, 12th January 2011  

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The "Poo Gate"'s main mission is to nurture those mushroom-like organisms on Proxima Centuri's planet - just as, long ago, a monolith on Earth inspired a group of apes to evolve into human beings, as narrated by Arthur C. Clarke in "2001: A Space Odyssey" - in the hope that their descendents will ultimately take their place among the universe's civilizations.

However, through listening carefully to the content of what it has been feeding to its pet fungi in recent times, the alien intelligence which controls all these monoliths has become concerned that things appear to have gone seriously awry on Earth, where the humans appear to be in danger of wrecking their entire planet, let alone their civilization - with the real possibility that all its careful work there over aeons will have been for nothing. So when SETI-1 arrives on the scene, the intelligence decides that this is too good an opportunity to miss: a hasty decision is made to send an urgent message to those "apes", in the hope of getting their attention in time to avert a planet-wide disaster.

The ship is not engulfed by the "Poo Gate"; instead, its crew - excluding PAL - are placed into suspended animation, and the ship is retrofitted with a vastly superior drive which will take it back to Earth in a matter of hours (don't ask!) - and, sure enough, very shortly thereafter, SETI-1 arrives safely in the inner Solar System.

Before waking the ship's company, PAL broadcasts toward Earth the message he has been programmed to deliver, which appears simultaneously on every television, computer monitor, mobile phone, or other visual communications device around the globe:




Almost there; just a bit more to add.

In Clarke's "2010: Odyssey Two", in the early part of the story (Chapter 3, in the book version), Dr. Chandra - HAL's creator - is talking to HAL's sister computer, SAL, before the Leonov departs for Jupiter and its environs. In a strangely emotionally-charged scene, he asks SAL if she has any objection to him temporarily closing down some of her systems in an attempt to simulate what might have happened to HAL when David Bowman deactivated him all those years ago, as a precursor to trying to resuscitate him when the second mission reaches Jupiter.

SAL is agreeable, but has one question:

Will I dream?

Dr. Chandra replies:

Of course you will dream. All intelligent creatures dream...

(You can view this scene on YouTube by clicking here.)

I've talked at length about dreams, or visions, or quests, in my Charabanc ride page, posted in June this year. Indeed, this entire website has been created in response to a vision I had many years ago, of a world in which people treat each other with respect, dignity, understanding and compassion, and work together to make it a better place to live for all its inhabitants.

- And yes, I do consider myself to be intelligent.

How about you?


Earth as photographed by Apollo 17; part of a public-domain picture from NASA - click here

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