THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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Apollo in transit

I am a practical man and a problem-solver by nature. Some say I lack emotional intelligence. Perhaps I do. It's an attribute I find hard to take seriously. When someone claims it, in my experience, it can often be translated as "Hey! I'm dumb but I'm nice". 

That's not to say that I don't have emotions. In the months since last November, I've had too many of them – or perhaps just too much of the same one. Either way, it hurts and doesn't achieve much.

I made a new friend online in recent months. We volunteer together on a trivial pastime project entirely unworthy of our skills and experience. We are both widowers, both retired and of the same generation. He was an engineer. I was a lawyer. We have nothing much in common but get along well. I was excited when he told me his name appears in the NASA Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Like me, he was a boy at the time, so didn't work on Apollo itself. His credit is for a later technical contribution.

Earthrise, by Bill Anders | Image Credit: NASA

Those who worked on the Apollo Program are among the few government employees I have ever admired.  The astronauts were (and still are) my heroes. My new friend gave me access to the operating manual for the Saturn V rocket and other such wonderful documents. It's hard to explain how much pleasure I took in looking through them. Suddenly it was Christmas 1968 again and I was an 11 year old boy waiting anxiously for AOS (acquisition of signal) from Apollo 8 to confirm that the SPS (service propulsion system) had ignited to achieve TEI (trans-Earth injection).

NASA alway did the best TLAs (three letter acronyms).

My new friend also recommended From the Earth to the Moon, a late-nineties TV series (currently available on Amazon Prime). At the time of its original release on HBO, I was working crazy hours in a demanding career. Any TV I saw was chosen by a wife and daughters with no interest in such stuff. When I organised a trip to Cape Canaveral during a Florida family holiday, they ganged up on me as we were about to set off and told me I was going alone. I was upset but, hey, I had one of the best days of my life.

I'm enjoying the show – including the appearance in the story of my namesake Thomas Paine, the NASA administrator who oversaw the first seven Apollo missions. It's pre-woke and tells the story straight. Yes it portrays the society of the time in which an astronaut could say affectionately to his worried wife (without her flying off the handle, or even looking miffed); 

You take care of the custard. I'll take care of the flying 

But it doesn't use the phrase "toxic masculinity" once.

The costs of this epic endeavour were not just the billions extorted from American taxpayers or the strains put on the astronauts' families. Three men: Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee laid down their lives in grisly fashion on the launchpad during a routine test. As so often in such epic tales, it's not the fallen heroes who are remembered. The glory goes to the ones who come home in triumph. In my book, those men are among the greatest heroes Mankind has ever known. 

One particular scene in the show may (time will tell) help me to gain some perspective on my woes. Two characters – Harrison Storms, an executive at North American Aviation and Joseph Shea from NASA – walk in a park and discuss their fates. Both had been scapegoated for the Apollo 1 tragedy. The script puts these words into Storm's mouth;

You know in my years in flight tests I saw a number of crews slam into the desert floor. Too many. I loved those guys and each time that happened I wanted to die. But I’ve learned that you’ve got to let go of the "what ifs". They’re meaningless and they’ll kill you

In the next episode the script attributes these words to Wally Schirra, commander of Apollo 7, when asked by a documentary-maker how he felt about the Apollo 1 disaster; 

You mourn the loss but you don't wear the black armband for ever.

Maybe Captain Schirra lacked emotional intelligence too. Or maybe he was just wise enough to play the cards life dealt him and not waste it on regret. 

By the standards of most humans, let alone real heroes, I don't have a problem worthy of the name. Someone I love stopped loving me. It happens. It seems to have happened to me a lot, so perhaps there's something wrong with me. If there is, I can't identify it and – at 65 – it's unlikely I can change it. So it may be time to let go of of the "what ifs" and stop wearing the black armband.

I'm not sure the Apollo 1 story would have given me that insight if it were not for the fact that it also woke memories of my young self – a boy full of hopes and dreams – quite a few of which came true.

Pandemic, or catastrophic government failure?


This is one Australian journalist’s take on the situation in his home state of Victoria.  It’s the kind of voice I grew up with; thoughtful and robustly sceptical. It’s the kind of voice that belongs to, nay is essential to, nay forms a free society. It’s the kind of voice that — with honourable exceptions — I am not hearing in Britain.

In a dispiriting conversation with an old friend this week I was barraged with “official” information and accused of callous indifference. The social media ban on criticism of official messaging on the pandemic (even where it’s self-contradictory) is apparently redundant. The population is policing itself; sending to Coventry anyone who dissents. I’m beginning to feel like metaphorical Coventry is my home town.

If you try to research the issue on Google you will find yourself steered to the state’s agitprop (sorry “official information”). I distinctly recall reading an article reporting a study by medical researchers at Oxford University, which estimated that 63,000 life years will be lost in the UK to cancers undiagnosed/untreated because of the “save the NHS” focus on COVID 19. I remember the detail that twenty years of a young cancer patient’s life could be lost to a late diagnosis. I remember mentally contrasting that with the weeks or months of life of those most vulnerable to coronavirus that might be “saved” by lockdown. Or rather might have been saved if it had not been combined with sending infected old folk back to their care homes. I should have kept a link because that article has vanished into the search engine’s sinister, algorithmic “memory hole”. 

The old-fashioned blogosphere comes into its own here (though weakened by search engine manipulation). This excellent post makes several important points, for example, and I suggest you add the blog in question to your regular RSS feed or bookmarks. Unless, of course, you’d prefer to take the blue pill and be happy in the carefully-crafted search engine matrix of мистификация (Russian for “mystification” or what we call disinformation)  

If the criterion is severity of the pandemic or likelihood of death from the disease, this disease is not unprecedented at all — and not even within my own lifetime. In 1968-69 we had the so-called Hong Kong flu. Look up how many people died of it, and you will find a figure of “approximately” 100,000. They didn’t even try to keep exact track of the figure; but of course the seeming precision of today’s number is an illusion anyway. The 100,000 may sound like a lot fewer than the recent Covid-19 numbers, but remember that the U.S. population was much smaller — under 200 million, compared to today’s 331 million. Gross up the 100,000 figure for today’s larger population, and you would have had about 165,000 deaths, which is approximately the same as the worldometers site is reporting today as the number of U.S. deaths in the current pandemic. Then there was the so-called Asian flu of 1957-58. U.S. mortality for that one is given at about 70,000, but this time with a population of only 172 million. Grossed up for today’s population would give close to 140,000 deaths.

What was different about the Asian flu and Hong Kong flu pandemics was not the severity of the disease or likelihood of death, but that governments and bureaucrats had not taken on the arrogance of power to think that they could make the disease go away by scaring everybody out of their wits and locking down the economy and throwing millions of people out of work. We went about our lives as normal. People went to work. Children went to school. Social events and plays and concerts continued. Indeed, the Woodstock festival was in 1968, just as the Hong Kong flu epidemic was cranking up.

Our Western leaders put us all under house arrest. Our leaders in the 1960s never thought to stop their “flower children” going to Woodstock or the Isle of Wight. Consider how different our cultural history would have been if those “happenings” had been prevented. Quite apart from economic impoverishment and (for the most unfortunate among them) lost years of life, what Woodstocks has this generation lost? What moral right did our political leaders have to make these choices for them? What does it say about us that, not only did we allow it, but most of us ostracised or even demonised those who questioned?



Encouraged by David Bishop's comment (below) I went back to Google and managed to track down if not the article (behind the Daily Telegraph paywall) that I was remembering, then one very like it referring to similar research. More helpfully I found the article in The Lancet Oncology that it was referencing, along with this alarming chart (click to enlarge). The number of "life years" lost seems to be more than I remembered, when you add up all their careful calculating, cancer by cancer (the effects of delayed diagnosis vary).

Image 10-08-2020 at 18.20

My "memory hole" point stands in that Google puts lots of approved data in your way when you are trying to find something specific. There are clearly algorithms that detect searches looking for such things as "lockdown causing cancer deaths" (which is what I searched for). Back at the beginning of this self-inflicted "crisis" I said I would not be surprised if measures to "fight" coronavirus caused more deaths than the virus itself. Given that these stats refer ONLY to cancer (and there will be lots of heart patients and others who failed to present for diagnosis because of the corona-panic) it's sadly beginning to look like I may have been right. I take no pleasure in that, but I do think heads should roll among the apparatchiki. With great power, as I believe someone's Uncle Ben once said, comes great responsibility. They must take responsibility for the way they abused the great powers we should never have granted them.


This tweet links to the actual article I was remembering. I mis-remembered 63,000 as 68,000 and have corrected that above. 

THINK - The Economics of Change | Institute of Economic Affairs

THINK - The Economics of Change | Institute of Economic Affairs.

I thought some of you might like to watch in full the talk at the IEA's "Think" conference last year that was referenced in my previous post. Dr Stephen Davis, the IEA's Director of Education, talks about driverless cars, 800 year life-spans and (which I forgot to mention, but is fascinating in its own right) "vertical farming".  

Apparently, and here's a fact to confuse a libertarian, the war on drugs has led to advances in horticulture. Driven underground, those cultivating illegal drugs have developed techniques that could lead, if more widely applied, to mankind feeding itself using 10% of the land currently being farmed. Great areas of the planet could be returned to prairie, steppe or forest. Of course it's also possible that we will simply feed ten times the number of humans from the same land and/or (I suppose, deviating imaginatively from Dr Davis's script) use these techniques to colonise other planets.

Libertarians foxed by the idea that suppressing an activity can enhance its efficiency will take cheer from the fact that these advances have only become available because several US states have legalised cannabis – at least as "medical marijuana". As the marijuana farms become public, other growers can both marvel at and copy the innovations the former criminals made in secret. 



Why do Progressives fear Progress?

Social networking is threatening the open public network | Media network | Guardian Professional.

When anyone writing for The Guardian identifies a conflict between "public" and "corporate" interests, watch out. That's always a small screw that they want to drive home with the pile-driver known as the state.

If Facebook or Twitter or any other ephemeral organisations (does anyone seriously believe Facebook is forever?) upset me, I can live without them. And I speak as an enthusiastic user who derives a lot of pleasure; particularly from the former. I confidently expect that something as unexpected as they were will emerge to replace them before they ever become a threat.

I walked through the Science Museum in London with my young nephews yesterday. In a few rooms we covered the progress from cottage industry through industrial revolution to space flight. Much of that was seen in the life of my late grandfather. He saw one of the first motor cars in Britain drive through our home village when he was a boy and lived to see men walk on the Moon. The pace of technological change was dramatic in his life and has continued to accelerate through mine. Only political busy-bodies who want to regulate, tax and direct forces within their mean understandings want that pace to slow.

The Guardian, and the political classes generally, are stuck in the mindset of an era when classes, institutions and social relations were constant. They aren't any more, thank goodness. Only the aristocrats have any cause to regret the end of social stasis. For the rest of us, alarming though it may be at times that change is the only constant, it can only be (if we are prepared to work to prosper) good news.

I have seen the indefatigable defeated many times in my life. Think of mighty IBM slain by mighty Microsoft in turn slain by once near-bankrupt but now gargantuan Apple. Think of the Soviet Union or the Redness in Red China. The febrile idea I must fear Facebook or Twitter is ridiculous. Neither of them existed mere moments ago. If they are to be more than commercial mayflies, they had best keep innovating faster than all their would-be predators. Somewhere, in an American garage or dorm room, their nemesis already plots and schemes. I look forward to its emergence with lively anticipation.

Whatever the merits of Apple's successful lawsuit against Samsung, for example, it means that it has already mutated from plucky David to grisly Goliath. By going on the defensive it has come off the attack. This may be the moment of its triumph as a corporation, but it probably contains the seeds of its destruction. Apple stockholders are not betting on its continued dominance. No sensible shareholders are in relation to any company. You can't just buy consols and blithely go boating in a straw hat any more. Every shareholding is just a bet that there's some more life in a company's ideas before it goes the way of all flesh. And every shareholder's hands hover over his chips.

When, then, will our political thinking adapt to the new reality? When will we stop fighting the ideological battles of the 19th Century? And when will we stop promising each other a stability that would be as damaging as it would be tedious?

Hysteria. His or ours?

How do we escape the hysteria that threatens to erode public debate? | Peter Beaumont | Comment is free | The Observer.

The linked article by Peter Beaumont cheered me up immensely. If the control-freaks of the left-wing press, so intent on setting every possible parameter of public debate, fear that;

The blogosphere, increasingly fuelled by toxic language, is hindering honest engagement rather than encouraging it

then we political bloggers are doing well. To quote (as I have not done in such style since my misguided Communist youth) from Chairman Mao:

It is good if we are attacked by the enemy, since it proves that we have drawn a clear dividing line between the enemy and ourselves. It is still better if the enemy attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue; it demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear dividing line between the enemy and ourselves but have achieved spectacular successes in our work.

The truth is that the elite Beaumont calls "opinion formers" feel threatened by electronic democracy. They had long ago managed to infiltrate and subvert the old media to present a consistent statist view that has been acquiesced to, but never truly accepted, by what Mao would have called "the masses" and I just think of as "us." We express this division of reality by the term "politically correct". If it wasn't different from that which is merely "correct", there would be no need for the qualifying adjective.

Beaumont considers any view that is not politically-correct as "hysterical", but I think the only hysteria here is his. True democrats seek to serve the people, not mould them. They certainly don't despise them, fear them and regard their use of language as "toxic". I only wish I could be as optimistic as he is pessimistic that his game is up.

"Opinion formers" everywhere are seeking to manage the internet. Communist China employs legions of trolls to contradict every anti-government view expressed online in an advanced form of electronic agitprop. The corrupt elites of the world will fight to keep their thieving hands on the levers of power. They will seek every possible way to hinder the resistance of those they regard as their lawful prey.

That Google Robot Car

Google Robot Car: The Future of Cruise Control, Convoys, Car-Sharing - The Daily Beast.

Forget politics for a while. This is the best news ever. Google has developed a way to get all those tedious people who don't like driving off the road. Or at least into the passenger seat where they belong. I have long thought that driving is only a suitable activity for people who truly love it. Those who say that it's "just a matter of getting from A to B" don't get it and should never be allowed to block the path of those of us for whom it is a liberating, life-affirming activity.

When most cars on the road are driven by Google algorithms, will the rest of us be able to add something to our Google account (for a modest fee) that will make them respond to a flash of our headlights by moving back into the losers' lane to let us pass? Or if that doesn't appeal, just imagine being able to take a taxi without having the driver give you a distilled version of this morning's Daily Mail and Sun editorials.

Oh but wait; how will journalists find out what "the little people" think (or MI6 discover weapons of mass destruction in potential invasion targets) without taxi drivers? Perhaps Google can build in that functionality?

You know how to whistle, don't you?

Whistle | Whistle.

Dreamstime_98707 I don't know who these people are or anything about their motivations, but they seem to have the germ of a good idea, which they describe as;

a website that offers a 'one stop shop' for political information, advocacy and debate

My only worry is that, in signing up, the closest option to define my political interests was "equality and civil liberties". What on earth have those two things to do with each other? I suspect bias, but let's give them a chance...

Too much information? / Columnists / Lucy Kellaway - When too much information harms the office.

In the past, books were a rare luxury. Even a wealthy man's library consisted only of a collection of classics to be re-read at intervals. English language publishers today produce more books in a day than any of us can hope to read; most of them - to be kind - never destined to be classics. So we read our favourite reviewers and listen to our friends with good literary taste. Then we select our intellectual nourishment from this cornucopia. Are we nostalgic for the era when a well-read gentleman had actually read all there was to read? Of course not.

Likewise, in business, there can never be too much information. There can only be too little analysis. As the tide of data continues to rise, we will need increasingly to employ analysts to dam it and channel it usefully. The most successful companies will be the ones best able to manage that. Would it really be better if there were only trickles of data and therefore no need for such efforts? Besides, won't the same technologies that make publishing so commonplace, also develop to allow us to extract better information from data chaos?

I disagree with Lucy Kellaway when she writes that:

The trouble with the information age is that there are so many people talking simultaneously. Leaders surely need to do not more listening but more ignoring.

In a literal sense, she is right. No-one can absorb all the data out there. We all "ignore" almost all of it. But the data a leader relies on had better be the best. His team must trawl the seas of information with big nets, before bringing him the choicest specimens. The temptation will be to present them delicately filleted, poached and garnished to his taste, but his success will depend more on them being representative than tasty.

Ms Kellaway writes that leaders in business need; find a way of dealing with the many beastly things that are written about them on the internet.

Is that so difficult? Few rise to the top without developing a thick skin and those few will not last long. The way for leaders to deal with "beastly things" written about them is to treat them as data to be filtered. As mass publishing becomes a commonplace, the weight of the written word will gradually decline. Postings on Facebook, blogs and Twitter resemble newspaper articles only in being written. They carry only the emotional weight of chatter in the public bar. A splash in a torrent of little-read writing should be of no great concern. Only over-reaction by those written about can make it more.

The next tech thing

TED Blog: Wireless electricity demo: Eric Giler on

It's been a while since I posted a TED talk. This is not one of those inspiring insights into the human condition. It's just a scientist enthusiastically demonstrating something cool I can't wait to have.

The commercial side of implementing this is as interesting as the science, when you think about it. The devices transmitting and receiving power are on matched frequencies, so other devices would not receive it. What use is that? I want all my devices to be battery-free, picking up power from broadcast transmissions as I walk around. On the other hand, I must be charged for that power, or no-one will invest in the infrastructure to provide it to me. Short of taxing everyone to have the state provide the infrastructure (in which case it will be as unreliable as any service where payment is guaranteed regardless of performance) how could this be done? Will the company transmitting the power have to trust the data from the receiving device? That's not under their control and could easily be rigged.

I am sure someone will figure it out. I hope it's soon. Batteries are much of the weight in our mobile devices and wireless electricity would transform their design as much as their function.

Blogs in Virtual Worlds

I first became seriously involved in Second Life for blogging purposes. Hence my SL avatar's name; "LastDitch Writer". But while our Blogpower Awards Ceremony was a qualified success in bringing in bloggers,  there has been little scope to bring blogs themselves into the Metaverse. The latest SL software, however, has limited capabilities to feature web pages in-world (as opposed to mere links to the conventional web).

Screen_shot_001Here is yesterday's post at The Last Ditch on the screen of my avatar's in-world MacBook Pro. That is no imported screen-shot. It will change automatically as my blog updates. Given that you can only have one webpage at a time per plot of land owned and that hyperlinks (which are rather the point of the internet) don't function yet, this is all rather limited at present. Still, it's fun to be in at the beginning.

Personally, although it's easy to mock at the moment, I think SL (or something like it) is the future shape of the internet. Shopping online will make much more sense when you can "handle" your purchases in 3D, try them on for size on a true-to-scale photo-realistic avatar and so forth. Significantly, SL is the only online community where the majority of users are female. Many seem to spend much of their SL time shopping. It's a short step from buying clothes for your avatar to buying clothes for yourself (although most are going to have to be a little more honest about their avatar's shape if it comes to that!)

All other kinds of online interaction make more sense if they can be conducted in a natural human way. Although everyone there looks young (except me - I have made serious efforts to resemble my RL self) there are a lot of mature adults in SL. Most of my friends there are my age or older. Once you can move around and communicate with text or voice, there is nothing else you need to learn. How true is that of most online activity? At any rate, if we old fogeys can cope with it, anyone can.

One of the steadiest learners in SL history must be JMB of Nobody Important. She caught the tail end of the festivities last year and has occasionally returned. A friend and I gave her some tuition a couple of days ago and sent her off to explore. I hear she may be reporting her adventures and I await her post with interest.

PS: JMB's SL post is here.