Humans. Clever enough to do anything. Dumb enough to try

mars-arms

What will eventually trip humanity up is not knowing where to stop.

It’ll be throwing money and ideas at every imaginable ‘problem’, regardless of whether there is any potential value in solving it.

Poverty, disease and war all look like problems that could do with the application of more human ingenuity than we’re giving them. Developing self-driving vehicles or living on Mars, not so much.

Yet when you look around, one of the main reasons why poverty, disease and war persist is because humans at the top of the pyramid are more interested in fighting for control of resources so they can pour them into into elite vanity projects like self-driving cars and sending people to Mars than they are in fixing the spreading fissures in the rest of the pyramid.

“Ah, but,” say the people developing a self-driving Mars module. “We have to go to Mars because it’s Mankind’s manifest destiny. Plus, so we’ll need a fresh start too because we’re working so hard to fry the Earth to a crisp in our eagerness to maintain a technological civilisation that’s sufficiently outsized to support a vanity project like putting humans on Mars. Isn’t our circular logic wonderful?”

No it’s not. In a better world you’d sort out the conditions of the 99% before diverting money and brainpower into Chimera-hunts like manned Mars expeditions or building an infallible computerised 3D model of the entire world so that autonomous vehicles can function properly.

It’s not even as if there’s a remotely realistic chance of getting a human colony to survive on Mars even if we can divert the obscene amount of time and energy needed to put it there. There’s no breathable atmosphere. No protection from solar radiation. The surface temperature is mostly below freezing but can shoot up by 170 degrees F.

And then there’s the small matter of highly toxic perchlorate, which carpets the entire planet at concentrations deadly to humans. That’ll require billions of extra dollars to design and deliver filtering and washing equipment just to give the Mars mission peeps a slim chance of not being poisoned on arrival.

But hey, let’s look on the bright side like Doug Archer, a scientist with the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Demonstrating a knack for understatement he may not be fully aware of, he told space.com in 2013 that perchlorate’s existence on Mars would have posed an even larger problem had it not been discovered.

“But now that we know it’s there, I am confident we will be able to design around it. I have a lot of co-workers here at Johnson Space Center who work in the human exploration side of things, and none of them seem to think perchlorate is a showstopper,” he concluded.

That’s a pretty-close approximation to Upton Sinclair’s dictum that you can’t get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it. Not that engineers can’t design a way round everywhere outdoors being toxic, simply that everything new we find out about the Red Planet adds to the knowledge that it might as well have the words “YOU’VE GOT BIGGER PROBLEMS THAT NEED SOLVING ON EARTH” etched into its surface in 600-foot-deep letters.

Advertisements

Pedestrians to be preceded by a robot holding a red flag?

A RECENT edition of the BBC’s All in the Mind radio programme delved into the way humans react to self-driving vehicles.

A trial in London found that people crossing the road tended to give Autonomous Vehicles less room than normal cars once the pedestrians realised the AVs would always slow down or stop if a human got in their way.

The pedestrians figured that, since the AVs in the trial drove themselves slowly (max. 15mph) and deferred to other road user, a self-driving car environment would be place where vehicles picked their way through the pedestrians not the other way round.

This finding made the experts unhappy. Not about the possibility that the cars might make a mistake and hurt someone, but because people were exhibiting undesirable behaviour by showing insufficient deference to vehicles.

Such behaviour by pedestrians clearly won’t scale up into the picture of AV transportation the auto business wants to peddle, which is of super-dense vehicle traffic that’s both fast and safe thanks to the wonders of artificial intelligence. In urban settings, you can’t have safe AVs that aren’t also slow AVs.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. One thing you can do with AVs that you can’t with what one guy on the BBC programme called ‘driver cars’ is daisy-chain them together into mini convoys: slower but more efficient.

Even then, the best the professor running the London AV trial had to offer was ‘peaceful coexistence’ between AVs and pedestrians. Like, say, North and South Korea. Or driver cars and pedestrians at the moment.

The big lie about AVs is that they’ll suddenly be perfected and become ubiquitous overnight, enabling them to seamlessly take over an existing ecosystem. People are increasingly pointing out that this won’t happen and that, for instance, cities will need to make radical planning changes to accommodate driverless cars.

I fervently hope the planners come up with something more imaginative than the 60s/70s approach of using miles of railings to corral pedestrians on to narrow pavements to give traffic unimpeded access to lethal estuaries of tarmac sliced between shops, houses, parks and other human spaces.

The French are very good at altering streetscapes to accommodate pedestrians and vehicles equably but these schemes are expensive, no to mention predicated on a level of national/civic pride that Brits only seem capable of applying to royal weddings, not the places we live in every day.

While I believe that AVs’ progress will be slower, more problematical and ultimately much less complete than their fans expect, it will be a very good thing if they force a rethink around the place of mobile steel capsules in human spaces like cities.

If not, you can see some tech wizard coming up a red-flag-holding robot to walk in front of pedestrians to make sure we show the requisite deference for self-driving cars.

Truth lies gasping in Douma.

Martha Gellhorn. Chester Wilmot. Clare Hollingworth. All war correspondents admired for their independence and tenacity. When Gellhorn wasn’t selected to cover the Normandy landings in 1944, she got herself smuggled on to a beach on D-Day. Wilmot sacrificed his press accreditation in Papua in 1942 by refusing to keep silent about what he regarded as incompetence in the Australian forces’ generalship.

Then there’s Robert Fisk.

Robert who? You may well ask, given the complete lack of attention he’s afforded by the rest of today’s, mainly chair-bound, UK media. Fisk was one of the first journalists from a ‘western’ outlet to get on to the ground in Douma on Tuesday.

He looked for evidence of the alleged chemical weapon attack that the UK, US and France, used as the pretext for that rusty oxymoron, a ‘humanitarian missile strike’. Fisk went to the hospital where the video of children being sprayed with water was filmed. The scene was real, he was told by a doctor, but the people were actually being treated for hypoxia caused by inhaling dust and smoke created by a conventional bomb strike.

The panic and water spraying shown began when the person with the camera shouted ‘Gas!’ Then the camera person just left. Soon afterwards the ‘chemical attack’ video went online along with apparently-posed and re-posed photos of dead people at the alleged site of the ‘chemical’ attack.

Fisk talked to many people ‘amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups’. He didn’t find any of the 500 people said by the World Health Organisation to have been treated in Douma for chemical weapon after-effects.

In short, Fisk did what a war correspondent should do. He went and saw for himself. Walked the streets. Talked to people. Checked out the scene of the ‘atrocity’.

He reported what he saw and what he was told by those who lived through the fighting in Douma between Syrian forces and the US and Saudi-backed Islamist rebels.

He found no evidence of the alleged chemical weapons attack, which the leaders of the UK, US and France – the FUKUS coalition – claimed to have been totally convinced about by their intelligence services and social media.

For reporting these things, Fisk is labelled by many fellow British journalists as an ‘apologist for Assad’ – that 21st century repackaging of the 1930s traducement, ‘appeaser.’ Journalists who would burst into tears of rage if you called them a useful idiot who served our own WMD dossier-concocting establishment are happy to call Fisk a useful idiot who serves Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies.

QuadRanting owes Robert Fisk an apology. Fifteen years ago, when QuadRanting was still fully immersed in the hologram, he switched from the Independent to another newspaper because he disliked Fisk’s polemical presentation of stories like his December 2003 report on the aftermath of what appeared to be a Coalition missile strike on a Baghdad marketplace crowded with civilians

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it could have been one of ‘our’ missiles, or that I didn’t know that such incidents are a commonplace or war, or (especially) that I believed Tony Blair and his dodgy dossier designed to deal us into a war he must have known would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians.

It was because Fisk was telling the truth – that is the facts, truthfully with not just the blood and bandages but a palpable sense of the wrongness of what he’d witnessed. And at the time, to coin a phrase, I couldn’t handle the truth.

When Fisk filed his report from the market place at Shu’ale, he was holding a shard of metal from the missile: maybe weighing only a few ounces but nevertheless much, much more solid than the ‘evidence’ on which Mrs May based her personal decision to send in the Tornadoes this weekend.

We’ve rarely needed more than now to give ourselves time for sober reflection and to painstakingly strip away the noise to arrive at common interpretations of the signals before rushing to judgement and the missile launchers.

In the absence of state actors we can trust, and in the presence of a completely cognitively-captured mass media, we need the Robert Fisks and Patrick Cockburns of this world more than ever. Mr Fisk, I’m sorry for 2003.

Chemistry set-up

The war hawks’ lack of imagination is depressing. When they want a war, they hit the public with a hyped-up, evidence-lite or evidence-free, chemical atrocity and take it from there.

There’s no hard evidence whatsoever that Monday’s alleged incident in Douma, Syria, was actually a chemical attack. If it was, there’s no hard evidence who did it.

Even the normally-docile BBC is having to lead its stories with the word ‘suspected’ in front of ‘chemical attack’ although the body of its stories quickly moves on in language that implies the footage is genuine and Assad’s regime did indeed carry it out. Similarly, when giving talking heads a platform to demand ‘strong action’, none of the BBC’s interviewers I’ve heard bother to correct statements implying the allegations are proven.

Likewise, the official stories (they keep changing) on the Salisbury attack simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. In particular, if it was a nerve agent of the degree of lethality claimed by the government, how come all three alleged victims survived contact? The government’s own scientists say the stuff can’t be traced to Russia – or anyone else. In the end, the government’s endlessly-repeated assertion that Russia was the ‘only plausible’ perpetrator turned out to be based on waffle, insinuation and weasel wordings so finely-tuned that Boris Johnson repeatedly fell off the tightrope into flat-out lying.

At first it seemed that Salisbury was merely being used as a pretext to rescue Theresa May from her own party and give the government a hedgehog ramp out of the mess it had got into with Europe over Brexit.

Now Salisbury also looks like a precursor to escalating Britain’s involvement in Syria. Step one: wind up the UK public about Russia and chemical warfare over the Skripals. Step two: another mysteriously-timed ‘chemical attack’ falls neatly into the lap of the White Helmets in Douma. This ‘demands’ immediate military action by the US and its allies to prevent more chemical atrocities by the side allied to Russia. Except there’s no conclusive proof of chemical atrocities. Not this week. Not in January. And not last April.

And no mention of the ongoing tragedy of war deaths, refugee flight and civil collapse across Syraquilbyastan thanks to the West’s trillions of dollars-worth of involvement ranging from military advisors, to bombing missions, to arming ‘moderate rebels’ to full-scale coalition invasions.

No-one with one functioning brain cell and an internet connection seriously believes the official line on these these ‘chemical attacks’ on civilians, which are so mysteriously-timed to suit the Western war-hawks’ agenda. Yet the Western mainstream media, with a very few honourable exceptions parrots the government line as per the BBC, referenced above. An honourable exception:

After the Iraqi WMDs ‘dodgy dossier’, the faked-up warnings of impending genocide in Libya and the repeat doses of unsubstantiated chemical attack horror in Syria, there’s a significant slice of the public whose tolerance for escalation is weak to non-existent. Not just the radical left peacenik side of the balance but right across the spectrum to loyal conservatives who’re deeply suspicious of Russia or indeed all ‘foreigners’ but who equally despise the establishment and its tame media because of its constant lies.

Here’s a quote from a 2016 post by Ugo Bardi at Cassandra’s Legacy, which he republished today, for obvious reasons.

By the time of Augustine, the Roman Empire had become an Empire of lies. It still pretended to uphold the rule of law, to protect the people from the Barbarian invaders, to maintain the social order. But all that had become a bad joke for the citizens of an empire by then reduced to nothing more than a giant military machine dedicated to oppressing the poor in order to maintain the privileges of the rich.

I believe that the UK government does not think it needs the public’s express consent for another Middle Eastern military adventure. It doesn’t need to oppress us with a giant military machine (yet). It considers that, with a cognitively-captured mass media with which to cow MPs, it can get away with almost anything it wants.

But selling us misadventures on the basis of lies, for which the price will be counted in body bags and retaliatory attacks, corrodes democracy and freedom.

Whichever air bases they decide to bring home the Syrian war dead through, tacking ‘Royal’ on to the nearest town’s name won’t make up for the massive hole the UK government seems determined to blow in its legitimacy at home and abroad by going along with the hawks’ latest chemistry set-up.

(Edited 19 April 2018 to add link to Seymour Hersch’s piece in Die Welt on the US administration’s response to what its intelligence services knew were false claims about a chemical weapon attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, on 4 April 2017)

So, not plausible after all

As predicted by QuadRanting among many others, the wheels are inexorably coming off the Novichok/Skripal story despite a full-house effort by the UK’s permanent government, including the state media (BBC) and ‘non’-state media (ex-Fleet Street).

Well, mostly.

The day of Mrs May’s ‘triumph’ at the March EU summit, where she got backing for the line against Russia from trusting and/or credulous leaders, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg delivered a splendidly-nuanced summary of the UK’s position on the Brexitcast podcast, ending with the words ‘plausible … plausible, plausible, plausible’.

She was referring to the UK government’s tenuous argument that Russia is the only plausible source of the ‘military grade’ nerve agent allegedly deployed in Salisbury, even though there was not then – and is not now – any scientific evidence to support the claim. My reading of ‘plausible … plausible, plausible, plausible’ aligns with Spike Milligan’s contention that any word will raise a laugh if it’s repeated often enough. In the Brexitcast context, ‘plausible’ was funny ha ha, and thus funny unbelievable.

As we know, some nations told Britain they’d support us only if we produced conclusive evidence, rather than hearsay and circumstance. Others reluctantly fell in in line and weakened their position with Russia by expelling Russian diplomats. The usual suspects lined up alongside Britain in the belief that the UK government would somehow avoid the pitfalls and pratfalls that were plainly-visible potential in the official narrative.

But it didn’t. God knows what pressure the scientists at Porton Down endured to lie about the provenance of the Novichok. If they’d given in, it would have destroyed their professional credibility because if you ask any competent organic chemist (not that the UK government or its tame media did), they’d tell you that the formulae for these agents are widely-known and they can be produced anywhere with little difficulty by someone with the necessary knowledge. In other words, there’s no such thing as a ‘weapons grade’ Novichok.

Of course, the Russians might have simply been fiendishly clever: deploying an effectively untraceable substance and thereby adding another layer of doubt to any attempt to pin the blame on them (that is, if it was them and, if it was Russian, whether it was an official operation). Or they may have been super-supremely fiendish and laid a trap tailor-made for the UK’s propaganda machine to blunder into.

Either way, when Porton Down publicly stated what it had told the Foreign Office nearly three weeks before, that there is nothing to suggest that the nerve agent is Russian, May and Johnson were out on a limb. Doubtless the phone was ringing off the hook at the FCO with calls from foreign governments that might justly be paraphrased as “You stupid twats, we trusted you and look where you’ve got us”.

The day the ‘not Russian’ statement appeared, the Skripal story disappeared from top ¾ of the BBC news page, while the rest of the news media launched into a moral panic/outrage over a pensioner charged with murdering a burglar. I think we know enough about the police and criminal justice system to know that in normal times the burglar situation would have been handled very carefully and very slooooowly. But when a public distraction is called for …

QuadRanting still believes that the Skripal case will never be publicly resolved. We’ll never conclusively know who did whatever it was – an FSB handbook for applying poison to doorknobs? Do us a favour — because the UK will do everything it can to prevent the Russians or anyone else investigating it properly.

In Propaganda Britain 2018, it’s enough that 90% of the public now believe that Russia Did It, that Russia Wants to Harm Us Because We’re Wonderful and They’re Ghastly, and Thank God for a Strong Leader. Germany 1932 all over again.

What would the men who believed they were fighting for freedom on the Western Front a hundred years ago make of it?

Car industry expects hundreds or thousands more to die so it can get self-driving cars right

Lentz-Reuters

Toyota Executive Jim Lentz on Reuters TV

Car industry reaction to last week’s fatal collision between a ‘self-driving’ Uber car and a pedestrian sheds useful light on its view of humans’ place in the carosphere.

“A hundred or 500 or a thousand people could lose their lives in accidents like we’ve seen in Arizona,” Toyota North America Chief Executive, Jim Lentz, suggested to Reuters in a discussion about the future of real-road tests of AVs (for the record, the Uber vehicle involved was a Volvo).

Lentz continued: “The big question for government is: How much risk are they willing to take? If you can save net 34,000 lives [about the annual US road death toll], are you willing to potentially have 10 or 100 or 500 or 1,000 people die?” he said.

Note how the issue of self-driving cars killing people by the hatful suddenly becomes the government’s problem. The car industry wants to know how much carnage ‘the government’ is willing to suck up so that its members can enjoy an unimpeded run at perfecting self-driving cars.

It’s an absolute article of faith among AV cheerleaders that self-driving vehicles will eliminate road fatalities. This belief rests on a dangerous combination of overstretched logic and hubris. The logic runs that almost all vehicle ‘accidents’ result from human error, so eliminating human drivers will eliminate mistakes and therefore all injuries and deaths. The hubris is that engineers can create AVs that are 100% perfect 100% of the time. And AVs will have to be thus.  No less than absolutely-undiluted perfection will do.

But some very experienced AV engineers seriously doubt whether the incredibly-complex webs of intra- and extra-vehicular technology required will ever achieve the 99.99999999999999999999999% glitch-free operation envisaged.

Lentz suggests that 1,000 lives is ultimately a reasonable price to pay to see whether perfect robocars are possible. After all, that would be just 0.08% of the 1.2 million people killed on the roads worldwide every year.

There’s something distasteful about an industry that viciously fought against seat belts and dirt-cheap safety improvements in the past solemnly counting-out, in the lives of strangers, the price of … perhaps … absolving itself from responsibility for the consequences of its trade.

One thing’s for sure. The quote at the top would never have been conceived if ‘government’ had been replaced with ‘Toyota’ and ‘people’ with ‘our employees’.

13 Minutes and the modern propaganda state

Watching the movie 13 Minutes on TV last night was a reminder, if ever one was needed, that one should never lightly make comparisons with Nazi Germany.

13-minutes-601

Burghart Klaußner as Arthur Neber and Christian Friedel as George Esner in 13 Minutes.

One of the film’s many strengths is its naturalistic depiction of authoritarianism creeping up on small-town Germany. Briton’s are still raised on an historical diet of jerky clips of Hitler gesticulating from podiums, motorcades hurtling through streets and massed ranks of storm troopers rallying at Nuremberg and we think “how did they fall for that?”

In 13 Minutes, the moment we realise the Nazis have fully taken over is when the town’s Party puts on a cross between a film show and a fête. There’s free beer and children skipping. The film they show isn’t of a political rally but a country sports day – except that there’s already something recognisably totalitarian about the shots of happy, healthy sons and daughters of the motherland racing towards the camera. The mayor-turned-local-Party-chief makes sure everyone knows who they should thank for Germany’s blessings.

Georg Esner, the carpenter whose bomb missed possibly killing Hitler by 13 minutes in November 1939, possesses both the prescience to understand the devastation Adolf will ultimately wreak on Germany and the courage to try to stop him. Alone, the film suggests. And certainly despite horrific torture, Esner maintained to the end that he was working with no-one else.

All around him in the two years leading up to the attempt on Hitler, the Nazis are ruthlessly preparing for all-out war, beating up and imprisoning anyone who openly opposes them and ostracising Germans who don’t join the Party.

The timing of 13 Minutes’ showing on UK TV was fortuitous given some uncomfortable parallels between the German government reaction to Esner’s bomb attack and what happened in Salisbury.

Neither the Germans, in 1939, nor the British government, in mid-March this year, had any idea to begin with who carried out the attack. That didn’t stop both of them instantly launching media blitzes blaming their respective bêtes-de-jour. For the Nazi leaders it was Churchill. For Theresa May’s government it’s Vladimir Putin.

The difference as of today is that a German border patrol stopped a man as he was trying to slip into Switzerland and found he was carrying materials linking him to the bombing. So they had a perp whereas the British authorities today, when you parse what they’re actually saying, have no incontrovertible evidence of what the Salisbury nerve agent was or the identity of the individual(s) who deployed it.

For five years after the Munich bombing, the dwindling number of Germans inclined to believe what they read and heard in the media understood that the incident was a dastardly British attack on German sovereignty carried out via the treacherous Esner. Their leaders new different – or at least that they couldn’t prove anything of the sort, though they kept Esner alive until the bitter end of the war in the hope of somehow being able to mount a show trial.

History.com’s account concludes: ‘Hitler dared not risk a public trial, as there were just too many holes in the “official” story’.

Of course, no-one disputes that the Germans had the actual bomber in custody; a man who’d killed seven people and injured nearly 70. One could debate for a very long time the many contradictions in keeping alive a traitor, who very nearly succeeded in derailing the Nazi leadership, for five long years during which the same leadership shot, hung and gassed millions of Germans and and carelessly slaughtered tens of millions of foreigners on the Eastern and Western fronts.

No-one should equate the record of the British state since WWII with anything that happened in Germany between 1936 and 1945, although we do have bad form when it comes to scapegoating innocent people following bomb attacks. The bottom line, though, is that our State didn’t execute the wongfully convicted individuals and it – eventually – owned up to subjecting them to ordeal and injustice.

Nevertheless, the Britsh state in the twenty-teens is becoming more authoritarian and more propagandising than at any previous time in my 60 years. But if I’m tempted to make a comparison with Germany in the late 1930s, I remind myself that I live in a society that’s still a thousand times freer, more tolerant and more open than Nazi Germany was.

What a pity that the UK’s national embarrassment and disgrace of a foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, lacks a similar perspective.