Fly Me To The Moon, Again

December 14, 2022

Harrison Schmitt was the last of only twelve humans ever to walk on the moon. Fifty years ago today — yes, way back in 1972 — his ship took off from the moon and we have not been back since.

Manned space flight was the dream of my father’s generation.  We boomers pushed us into the unmanned and more machine-driven discovery of space at the same time as we were inventing programmed stock trading, robotic automation, and plugged-in entertainment.  We love machines apparently.

We still believed that this was the start of regular inter-planetary travel. But it stopped, dead, just as it as getting exciting.

I wonder where the post-millennials will take us?


Radio First

December 12, 2022

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Today we celebrate the 121st anniversary of the very first transatlantic radio transmission, sent by Gugliemo Marconi from Cornwall to Newfoundland, proving that the curvature of the earth did not affect radio waves.


Beep Beep Beep

October 4, 2022

I was just a few weeks away from my 8th birthday when my father sat me on his knee specifically to listen to our old radio spit out some strange sounds — “Beep.  Beep.  Beep.”  Even through the static we knew we had never heard the like of it before.

On October 4th, 1957 — just sixty-five years ago — the space age began with the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.  I’m sure the surprise in the US was far greater than we felt in Europe.  We Europeans were already terrified of the power of the grey beasts just a few hundred miles to the east of our cozy nest in West London.  It seemed to many that Russian tanks could overrun Europe at any moment, and the technological genius of Sputnik simply confirmed our anxiety.

But again, there was always that secret spot inside that reveled in the fact that a European power had beaten the Americans into space.  And for my socialist grandfather and his cadre of friends, it was yet another sign that the Workers’ Paradise was superior in every respect to the Mickey Mouse- and Doris Day-loving capitalists.

In the end, I’m sure this had little to do with the ultimate end of the Cold War.  The costs of the space race were minuscule compared to the economy-shuddering trillions spent on the arms race by both sides.  But without Sputnik and all that followed, we would be a very different and more distanced world today.


16,435 Days

August 20, 2022

16,435 days ago, Elvis Presley had been dead four days and Groucho Marx for one; Jimmy Carter was into the eighth month of his presidency and serial killer Son of Sam had just been captured. On that day, August 20 1977, Voyager 2 was launched into space.

This morning, 16,435 days later, she is about 18.8 billion kms away from earth, still heading out. She left the Solar System several years ago, heading into the Interstellar Medium, and is still sending us valuable data every day.

Voyager 2 was built in 1976-1977 with tools that we would consider archaic and primitive today, and yet these days we have trouble keeping a toaster alive for more than six months!

It has been a glorious and useful and enhancing project and I hope it has many more thousands of days to chat with us.


The History of Trousers

February 1, 2022

We all take trousers as a given, something that almost everyone uses. They have become ubiquitous all around the world. But like everything else around us, someone had to invent them and work out how to make them.

This is a fascinating video that examines the earliest trousers yet discovered. They are more than 3,000 years old from the deserts of central Asia, and their story illustrates the history of sheep rearing, weaving, and clothing manufacture in an entertaining fashion.


The String That Binds Us

January 14, 2022

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4,000 year old rope at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis Egypt
Well-preserved rope was discovered at an archaeological site in Egypt dating to almost 4,000 years ago. Photo courtesy of the Joint Expedition to Mersa/Wadi Gawasis of the Università “L’Orientale,” Naples and Boston University

I recently came across an interesting article that suggested string was more important even than the wheel in the chronology of human innovation.

Ferris Jabir in The Long, Knotty, World-Spanning, Story of String reports on the discovery in Egypt of carefully coiled papyrus ropes untouched for 4,000 years, and notes complex textile remains from as far back as 30,000 years ago. Pulling threads together produces string, needed to hang the beads we know of from 300,000 years ago.

“A string can cut, choke, and trip; it can also link, bandage, and reel. String makes it possible to sew, to shoot an arrow, to strum a chord. It’s difficult to think of an aspect of human culture that is not laced through with some form of string or rope; it has helped us develop shelter, clothing, agriculture, weaponry, art, mathematics, and oral hygiene. Without string, our ancestors could not have domesticated horses and cattle or efficiently plowed the earth to grow crops. If not for rope, the great stone monuments of the world—Stonehenge, the Pyramids at Giza, the moai of Easter Island—would still be recumbent.”

Jabir goes on to emphasize the impossibility of maritime navigation (and thus human expansion) without string and rope.

“It is no exaggeration to say that from the invention of sailing through the late 18th century, the economic prosperity, scientific progress, and military success of most nations around the globe fundamentally depended on string and rope. For much of this time, there were no major revolutions in sailing technology. Instead, there were elaborations and restructurings of an ancient template: a roughly crescent wooden vessel equipped with at least one mast and sail, and webbed with plenty of rigging. 

He notes how many of our standard items and resources today as based ultimately on string:

“We still wear shoes laced with string. Our clothes, sheets, curtains, carpets, and tablecloths are all woven from thread. Our phones, computers, toasters, blenders, and TVs still largely depend on bundles of wire transporting electrons. Above our heads, power lines, phone lines, and fiber-optic cables sling from one utility pole to another. More than a million kilometers of undersea cables tie the continents together—the submerged ligaments of global telecommunications.”

The essay concludes by considering the social and symbolic aspects of string and rope:

“For the Indigenous peoples of the Andes, string was its own mathematical language … String and rope are stitched into the English language, into longstanding idioms—learn the ropes, spin a yarn, hang by a thread—and even in the way we talk about relatively modern inventions: to describe the internet, we speak of websites, links, and threads … According to a popular Sudanese myth, a rope once united heaven and Earth, until a mischievous hyena severed it, ushering death into the world. In Greek mythology, the three Moirai, or Fates, spin, measure, and cut threads representing every mortal’s life.”

Well worth the read.


The Smartphone Trap

November 3, 2021

As regular readers will be aware, neither the Everloving nor I have ever had a mobile phone.  We are a disappearing breed, it seems, but we seem to manage our daily lives quite efficiently without being tracked by corporations and governments all day.

The fact that we are a vanishing demographic is shown by recent figures from Visual Capitalist indicating that smart phone ownership has reached saturation point:

 

Moreover, the latest numbers show clearly that the point of mobile phones is not (if ever it was) to enhance people-to-people communication but is rather to encourage you to buy more things:

 

I am sure that having a smart phone could add a degree of convenience to our lives, but the cost, for me, is just too high.


Beep Beep Beep

October 4, 2021

I was just a few weeks away from my 8th birthday when my father sat me on his knee specifically to listen to our old radio spit out some strange sounds — “Beep.  Beep.  Beep.”  Even through the static we knew we had never heard the like of it before.

On October 4th, 1957 — just sixty-four years ago — the space age began with the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.  I’m sure the surprise in the US was far greater than we felt in Europe.  We Europeans were already terrified of the power of the grey beasts just a few hundred miles to the east of our cozy nest in West London.  It seemed to many that Russian tanks could overrun Europe at any moment, and the technological genius of Sputnik simply confirmed our anxiety.

But again, there was always that secret spot inside that reveled in the fact that a European power had beaten the Americans into space.  And for my socialist grandfather and his cadre of friends, it was yet another sign that the Workers’ Paradise was superior in every respect to the Mickey Mouse- and Doris Day-loving capitalists.

In the end, I’m sure this had little to do with the ultimate end of the Cold War.  The costs of the space race were minuscule compared to the economy-shuddering trillions spent on the arms race by both sides.  But without Sputnik and all that followed, we would be a very different and more distanced world today.


The Long Lens of History

September 5, 2021

I’ve already lived through several generations of photography. My parents had a little Brownie box, and then I graduated to an SLR; we all had Polaroids of one kind or another, abandoned for digital a decade back; and now we have digital-SLRs and telephone cams of extraordinary clarity.

Of course, this sequence is just the latest in the surprisingly long history of photography. While the work of Fox Talbot and Dageurre from the 1830s and 1840s is quite well known, the latest thought is that experiments could go back a further generation, to the 1790s.

A print, “The Leaf”, due for auction, is now thought to be connected to Thomas Wedgwood and Henry Bright who were experimenting with “solar images”. Humphrey Davy (famous as the inventor of the miners’ safety lamp) wrote about these images in 1802.

Jill Quasha is the photo dealer and expert who bought “The Leaf” in 1989 as she was building the Quillan Collection, a group of world-renowned photographs that Sotheby’s sold (without the leaf print) for almost $9 million on April 7. She said that it was still too early to say exactly what type of research would be conducted on the image. Tests could include those to determine the age of the paper and to identify the chemical makeup of any substances on the paper. “I think it has to be done quickly and efficiently and with the least amount of damage to the photograph,” said Ms. Quasha, who added that she hoped the research could be completed within six months so that the print could be put up for auction again with a more iron-clad, and perhaps stunning, provenance. (As a Talbot, it was estimated to sell for $100,000 to $150,000; if it is determined to be older, it could bring substantially more.)

Interesting stuff for those us who follow cultural beginnings.


I Love Colour

August 29, 2021

I love colour. I try to show this is in my art work and photographs with varying degree of success. The always valuable Creative Report brings me news of a new book called “The Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour” that really intrigues me.

The shelves of the Forbes Pigment Collection, based in Harvard University’s Art Museum buildings, are organised mostly by hue. The effect of this “curious chromatic ordering” ensures that the archive resembles “an installation exploring the very nature of painting”, as colour historian Victoria Finlay writes in the foreword to An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour, a new book that catalogues highlights from the collection. Published by Atelier Éditions, the Atlas features images by photographer Pascale Georgiev of a handful of the collection’s 2,500 rare pigments and examines their material composition, providence and application …

Violet de Cobalt

Many of the colours are rare and some are unlikely to be made ever again. Finlay writes that Indian Yellow, for example, originally came from the urine of cows that had been fed mango leaves, while Mummy Brown – as the name suggests – really was collected from the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptians (and was still available in London in the 1920s, courtesy of Roberson).

Wonderful stuff!

 

 


When Paper Meant Something

August 6, 2021

I doubt that many of us give any thought at all to the papers and paper products that we use in multiple ways all day. Paper is ubiquitous and therefore almost invisible. But it wasn’t always so.

Gabriella Szalay has written a fascinating piece for The Recipes Project website in which she describes various attempts in the early modern period — when commercial paper was made from expensive linen rags — to make paper out of all sorts of other materials — wasps’ nests, for example, and poplar seeds, pine cones and green algae from rivers.

A good read.

 


A Truly Brave Man

April 12, 2021

The first hero that I remember having was Duncan Edwards, the Manchester United footballer who was killed along with many others in the team in the Munich air crash of 1958.  The second was Yuri Gagarin.

Sixty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin entered history as the first human being in space. A few years earlier, just before my 8th birthday, my father had taken the time to get me interested in the Soviet Union’s feat in putting Sputnik into space. I was entranced and remained an avid follower of the space race for decades. I followed the Russian dogs going up, and Gagarin’s flight was the obvious next step.

It wasn’t revealed for forty years that the cosmonaut ejected from the capsule before it crash-landed, parachuting to earth. And it was definitely sad for Gagarin that he was thereafter too valuable to put at threat and so he was never allowed to return to orbit. No matter.  That first flight was a glorious triumph for mankind!


Reason #237 NOT to Use Facebook

April 5, 2021

After the Capitol insurrection of January 6th this year, Facebook announced that it was suspending all political donations for at least a quarter while “we review our policies.”

But Popular Information has learned that just 44 days later, Facebook donated $50,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee (the RSLC):

“In addition to supporting the election of legislators that are pushing measures to restrict voting, the RSLC is directly encouraging state officials to make voting more difficult. The group supported a version of the Georgia voting legislation that was even harsher than the measure that ultimately became law. The RSLC supported ending no-excuse absentee voting in Georgia and completely banning drop boxes …

Facebook also suggested its pledge suspending political donations for 90 days only applied to the Facebook PAC and not to direct corporate contributions, which is how it sent $50,000 to the RSLC. But Facebook did not explain why, if it believed as an organization that political contributions should be suspended for 90 days, political contributions from its corporate funds were any different than political contributions from its PAC. “

See other reasons not to use Facebook.


First We Take Mars Then The Earth

February 18, 2021

I am a space cadet. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s during the early days of space travel. I remember Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first landing on the moon, and I have followed the travels of the Voyagers into the void. It has fascinated me for decades. Today I watched live as NASA landed their Perseverance rover on Mars, and saw the first pictures come through a few minutes later. As usual, I felt a strong emotionalism as I considered the brilliance of the human mind.

I am also well aware of the billions upon billions of dollars that have gone into the space program, billions that could have been spent to deal with the serious problems we have here on earth. Those billions of dollars have been expended on training and technology and software and building teams well beyond anything we could have imagined in the days of the Mercury or Gemini projects.

We cannot get that money back but I do believe that if we concentrated our efforts and built sophisticated teams in the same way that NASA has, we could solve many of the earth’s worst problems. I am not a technological determinist; in fact, I would choose to use as little technology as possible (though much would be inevitable). What I am thinking of here is developing teams rather than machines, problem solving brains trained and resourced to cope with the devastating effects of “civilization” on both planets and people.

If we can solve the trillions of problems that beset us on the way to Mars, it must be possible to solve the problems we have here on earth. It just takes the will to do it.


Language Exposes An Up-Coming Breakup

February 2, 2021

In a fascinating piece of social science, researchers at Princeton University have analyzed the language used on social media posts by those going through a romantic breakup. They discovered that:

“Language markers can detect impending relationship breakups up to 3 mo before they occur, with continued psychological aftereffects lasting 6 mo after the breakup. Because the language shifts are also apparent in subreddits (forums) unrelated to relationships, the research points to the pervasive impact personal upheavals have across people’s social worlds.”

The researchers studied 1,027,541 posts from 6,803 Reddit users who had posted about their breakups.

“Signs included an increase in I-words, we-words, and cognitive processing words (characteristic of depression, collective focus, and the meaning-making process, respectively) and drops in analytic thinking (indicating more personal and informal language). The patterns held even when people were posting to groups unrelated to breakups and other relationship topics. People who posted about their breakup for longer time periods were less well-adjusted a year after their breakup compared to short-term posters. 

The ubiquity and accessibility of social media in western culture, especially, is making study of the written corpus a valuable new tool in social science. However, you can be sure that intelligence agencies and corporations are also analyzing us in the same way. Just like with mobile phones, convenience always comes at the cost of privacy.


Toilet Paper

November 29, 2020

A propos of nothing else that I write here, I thought this piece from Business Insider was a fascinating look at toilet paper and how it became an obsession during the early days of the pandemic:

I have often said that, along with electricity, the flushing toilet is an absolute requirement for modern life, and this “accessory” stands proudly beside it.


At Last — An Alternative to Plastic Packaging

November 17, 2020

The thing about plastic is that the damn stuff is absolutely essential to the way we live our lives today, especially when it comes to packaging and protection throughout the food chain. “A key advantage that plastic brings to food packaging is that it prevents oxygen from getting into contact with the food,” explains Christophe Jordan, Managing Director of the Translucent Paper business at Arjowiggins. “This ensures maximum freshness throughout the supply chain right through to the point of consumption.”

The other thing about plastic is that it is barely if ever degradable and so the detritus ends up in the sea, in landfills, inside animals, and everywhere we care to look. We need something that works as well as plastic but without the downstream pollution.

Arjowiggins has announce the creation of a material they call Silvicta which they claim “provides a more effective barrier to oxygen than plastic, as well as a barrier to mineral oils and fatty foodstuffs.” Moreover, “Sylvicta is entirely recyclable, compostable, and marine biodegradable, thanks to being manufactured from renewable raw materials supplied from protected forests … Unlike other such products on the market, the manufacturing process does not use harmful chemicals to achieve its translucency and functionality. “

Sounds good if the press release is to be believed. Let us hope it gets onto the selves as quickly as possible.


We Have Seen The Future — and it Zooms!

October 15, 2020

Just read a fascinating article at Forbes about how Zoom wants to become the operating system of the future or, rather, an entire infrastructure service provider.

“In an interview, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said … ‘Zoom is not a meeting anymore, it’s more like a people-centric infrastructure service. We can play online games, we can do so many things not like it used to be, where we talk or [use it] for business communications.”

As their next move to capture this space, Zoom has just launched Zapps,

“a feature that connects other apps directly in Zoom. By clicking a button at the bottom of Zoom’s interface, workers will be able to pull up Slack chats, Box or Dropbox documents and other tools from a range of productivity apps without leaving a Zoom room … In addition to Zapps, Zoom announced several other new projects at its annual customer conference on Wednesday, including the public beta of OnZoom, a platform and marketplace for online events that provides tools for hosts to schedule, sell tickets and promote events, and guests to search available events, buy tickets or make donations. 

In a world where we seem to be moving away from offices and have become quite comfortable with the paraphernalia of remote relationships, I can see Zoom being a key innovator — at least until it becomes big enough for Jeff Bezos to be interested in buying it out.


They ARE Watching You

October 5, 2020

I wrote this in the summer of 2013. The situation has only gotten worse.

* * * * * *

If you were at all unsure about just what the US NSA was tracking about YOUR life, then this long and detailed report in the Guardian should set you straight.  They can and do track everything every one of us does online.  Without warrants.  Without overview.  At the whim of individual monitoring officers.

“A slide entitled “plug-ins” in a December 2012 document describes the various fields of information that can be searched. It includes “every email address seen in a session by both username and domain”, “every phone number seen in a session (eg address book entries or signature block)” and user activity – “the webmail and chat activity to include username, buddylist, machine specific cookies etc” …

“One document, a top secret 2010 guide describing the training received by NSA analysts for general surveillance under the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, explains that analysts can begin surveillance on anyone by clicking a few simple pull-down menus designed to provide both legal and targeting justifications. Once options on the pull-down menus are selected, their target is marked for electronic surveillance and the analyst is able to review the content of their communications” …

“Beyond emails, the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social media. An NSA tool called DNI Presenter, used to read the content of stored emails, also enables an analyst using XKeyscore to read the content of Facebook chats or private messages” …

“As one slide indicates, the ability to search HTTP activity by keyword permits the analyst access to what the NSA calls “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”.

Anyone NOT worried about this is simply putting their head in the sand.


Beep Beep Beep

October 4, 2020

I was just a few weeks away from my 8th birthday when my father sat me on his knee specifically to listen to our old radio spit out some strange sounds — “Beep.  Beep.  Beep.”  Even through the static we knew we had never heard the like of it before.

On October 4th, 1957 — just sixty-three years ago — the space age began with the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.  I’m sure the surprise in the US was far greater than we felt in Europe.  We Europeans were already terrified of the power of the grey beasts just a few hundred miles to the east of our cozy nest in West London.  It seemed to many that Russian tanks could overrun Europe at any moment, and the technological genius of Sputnik simply confirmed our anxiety.

But again, there was always that secret spot inside that reveled in the fact that a European power had beaten the Americans into space.  And for my socialist grandfather and his cadre of friends, it was yet another sign that the Workers’ Paradise was superior in every respect to the Mickey Mouse- and Doris Day-loving capitalists.

In the end, I’m sure this had little to do with the ultimate end of the Cold War.  The costs of the space race were minuscule compared to the economy-shuddering trillions spent on the arms race by both sides.  But without Sputnik and all that followed, we would be a very different and more distanced world today.