Orion mission re-ignites moon landing conspiracy theories

Orion is NASA’s next-generation spacecraft, “built to take astronauts deeper into space than we’ve ever gone before”. The video was made to highlight the complexity of the design challenges, particularly the amount of protection needed to safeguard fragile equipment and astronauts as the craft hurtles through the Van Allen radiation belt. “Radiation like this could harm the guidance systems, on-board computers or other electronics on Orion,” says the personable narrator. “Shielding will be put to the test as the vehicle cuts through the waves of radiation… We must solve these challenges before we send people through this region of space.”

Aha! Cue moon landing conspiracy theorists. “If the moon missions were real”, says one then it seems the whole ‘punching through the Van Allen belt’ problem should have been solved over 40 years ago.”

Sadly, the problem wasn’t solved then. The Apollo astronauts were pushed through the belt on their way to the moon and back, on the basis that their exposure was brief and the amount of radiation they received was below the dose allowed by US law for workers in nuclear power stations.

Sigh. The “slaughter of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”, as TH Huxley used to say.

Killer Apps?

This morning’s Observer column:

“Guns don’t kill people,” is the standard refrain of the National Rifle Association every time there is a mass shooting atrocity in the US. “People kill people.” Er, yes, but they do it with guns. Firearms are old technology, though. What about updating the proposition from 1791 (when the second amendment to the US constitution, which protects the right to bear arms, was ratified) to our own time? How about this, for example: “algorithms kill people”?

Sounds a bit extreme? Well, in April 2014, at a symposium at Johns Hopkins University, General Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the NSA, said this: “We kill people based on metadata”. He then qualified that stark assertion by reassuring the audience that the US government doesn’t kill American citizens on the basis of their metadata. They only kill foreigners…

Read on

LATER In the column I discuss the decision-making process that must go on in the White House every Tuesday (when the kill-list for drone strikes is reportedly decided). This afternoon, I came on this account of the kind of conversation that goes on in Washington (possibly in the White House) when deciding whether to launch a strike:

“ARE you sure they’re there?” the decision maker asks. “They” are Qaeda operatives who have been planning attacks against the United States.

“Yes, sir,” the intelligence analyst replies, ticking off the human and electronic sources of information. “We’ve got good Humint. We’ve been tracking with streaming video. Sigint’s checking in now and confirming it’s them. They’re there.”

The decision maker asks if there are civilians nearby.

“The family is in the main building. The guys we want are in the big guesthouse here.”

“They’re not very far apart.”

“Far enough.”

“Anyone in that little building now?”

“Don’t know. Probably not. We haven’t seen anyone since the Pred got capture of the target. But A.Q. uses it when they pass through here, and they pass through here a lot.”

He asks the probability of killing the targets if they use a GBU-12, a powerful 500-pound, laser-guided bomb.

“These guys are sure dead,” comes the reply. “We think the family’s O.K.”

“You think they’re O.K.?”

“They should be.” But the analyst confesses it is impossible to be sure.

“What’s it look like with a couple of Hellfires?” the decision maker asks, referring to smaller weapons carrying 20-pound warheads.

“If we hit the right room in the guesthouse, we’ll get the all bad guys.” But the walls of the house could be thick. The family’s safe, but bad guys might survive.

“Use the Hellfires the way you said,” the decision maker says.

Then a pause.

“Tell me again about these guys.”

“Sir, big A.Q. operators. We’ve been trying to track them forever. They’re really careful. They’ve been hard to find. They’re the first team.”

Another pause. A long one.

“Use the GBU. And that small building they sometimes use as a dorm …”

“Yes, sir.”

“After the GBU hits, if military-age males come out …”

“Yes, sir?”

“Kill them.”

Less than an hour later he is briefed again. The two targets are dead. The civilians have fled the compound. All are alive.

Ok. You think I made that up. Well, I didn’t. The author is General Michael Hayden, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, from which (I’m guessing) the New York Times piece is taken.

Those were the days

If people ask me to recommend a good book about journalism (well, British journalism anyway), I always point them at Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Of the two, I prefer Scoop, and I was reminded of it by Roy Greenslade’s Guardian piece occasioned by the provisional death certificate recently issued for Lord Lucan. Greenslade reminds us of Garth Gibbs, the archetypal Fleet Street hack who diligently pursued the ‘missing’ Earl for many years:

Gibbs, who died in 2011, was renowned for his tenacious belief that he was only ever one step behind the missing peer. Not that he minded, however, because he spent a great deal of his employer’s money travelling the world while failing to get his man.

Reflecting on the matter after 30 years of fruitless journalistic endeavour, he explained that he had adopted as his motto an observation made by the canny Sunday Express editor John Junor: “Laddie, you don’t ever want to shoot the fox. Once the fox is dead there is nothing left to chase.”

Gibbs wrote: “With that in mind I regard not finding Lord Lucan as my most spectacular success in journalism. Of course, many of my colleagues have also been fairly successful in not finding Lord Lucan. But I have successfully not found him in more exotic spots than anybody else.”

Indeed, he had. He failed to locate him after three weeks in Cape Town, which was handy because Gibbs, a South African, was able to visit friends and relatives. Nor did he find him in Macau or Hong Kong or the Bahamas.

Colleagues who liked to toast Gibbs’s heroic failures were particularly surprised when he announced that he was off to check on a Lucan sighting in Wales. They couldn’t see the point: no sunshine and no expenses.

And thus was born one of Fleet Street’s enduring myths: the plotting by reporters and photographers of sightings of Lucan in remote hotspots across the globe that ensured first class travel to spend sun-kissed days in five-star hotels.

Sigh. Those were the days.

While I’m on the subject, the latest theory about Lucan’s fate is that he shot himself at John Aspinall’s zoo, after which his body was fed to a tiger. The really shocking thing about that is that nobody saw fit to call the RSPCA.

Marvin Minsky RIP

Nice informative obituary by Martin Campbell-Kelly which includes stuff I hadn’t known. This,for example:

Minsky was an exceptional pianist, and in 1981 wrote a remarkable paper, Music, Mind and Meaning, that explored the cognitive processes in musical appreciation. In 1985 he became a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research laboratory devoted to projects at the convergence of technology, multimedia, sciences, art and design.

His last book, The Emotion Machine (2006), which was written for the lay reader as much as the specialist, sought to understand and explain how “thinking” works, and to explain such phenomena as consciousness and common sense. He was the recipient of many academic awards and scientific honours, including, in 1969, the AM Turing award of the Association for Computing Machinery.

History’s contradictions

Lovely Observer piece by Will Hutton:

Sometimes dealing with the past is easy. A few months ago, the college where I am principal (Hertford, Oxford) handed back a precious 16th-century atlas to its rightful owners – the Humboldt University library in Berlin. A British soldier had been offered it in exchange for a packet of cigarettes in the devastated streets of Berlin in May 1945. His father was an Oxford professor and for most of the last 70 years the Ortelius atlas had been first buried in his room and then locked in the college safe.

The 70th anniversary of the end of the war seemed as good a moment as any to return it. But what struck everyone at the small ceremony was how affected the German delegation, including representatives from the embassy and Humboldt University, were by what we were doing. It was a symbol of Germany’s relationship with Britain within a peaceful EU, an act of friendship all the more valuable because it had been freely offered and a recognition that history had moved on.

But more often than not history’s legacies are more unforgiving – a minefield in which yesterday’s and today’s realities seem irreconcilable…

Academic bitchiness

Isaiah Berlin was a past-master of the genre. Here he is writing1 to Marion and Felix Frankfurter in December 1934 about Richard Crossman, who was then a Fellow of New College, Oxford (where Berlin had been briefly a Fellow), and whom I think Berlin detested.

“Crossman is trying to sell his soul again & finding no buyers even among those who think he had one.”

I worked for Crossman briefly, when he was Editor of the New Statesman. He was an interesting man, but not a nice one.


  1. from Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946, edited by Henry Hardy, Chatto & Windus, 2004.