Meanwhile, In America

Safe to say that since the election, Australia’s going to poo. We no longer have a Science ministry but we have a Minister for Sport. The Communications Minister has sacked asked the Board of NBN Co to resign. The Climate Change Commission has been dismantled, a same-sex marriage law is being challenged, and perhaps most worrying of all a cloud of secrecy is descending on the Drown Them All In Indonesia Turn Back The Boats plan.

But in America, where things have been poo for some time, they may be getting… um… pooer.

You might have heard of Obamacare. It’s actually the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act but it’s Obama’s idea and Republicans hate that so they call it Obamacare. Anyway, it’s a federal law that represents a massive overhaul of America’s healthcare system.

Like most good things, the Republicans oppose it. They’ve tried 42 times to repeal it, and failed. It’s been passed into law (after Obama won re-election with it as his main platform) and comes into effect on 1 October 2013. Under the law, insurance companies will not be allowed to discriminate based on pre-existing conditions. Significantly more people will be insured, especially amongst the poor. And it’ll lower the government deficit and reduce government spending on Medicare. Good things, mostly.

Although it’s not perfect – Dan Savage described it as ‘the lesser of two evils’ on the Colbert Report. (If you clicked that link, stop looking at his amazing biceps and please ignore that I just linked to an arsehole’s blog. I didn’t want to but it had the relevant transcript.)

WARNING: The next paragraph contains the rudest of all rude words. I feel it is used entirely justifiably, but if it offends you please just replace it with “George Pell” in your head, because he is also one. 

The Koch brothers are evil cunts. Having inherited an oil fortune of an estimated $100 billion, they have ‘funded’ numerous climate change denying ‘scientists’, supported the Tea Party movement and fought Obamacare wherever possible. Their most recent effort – a scaremongering ad campaign – is, frankly, disgusting. It’s the most insane, duplicitous, vile thing I’ve seen in a long time. Watch:

Is that not awful?

And as for ‘don’t let the government play doctor’ – remember it’s always Republicans who want to introduce mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds. It’s always the Conservatives that want to control women’s uteri. It’s always the right-wing that wants the housewives doing the ironing.

Keep Real Journalism Alive

Jonothan HolmesAfter five years in the host’s chair, Jonathan Holmes is leaving Media Watch. It would be easy to assume that after documenting the scandals, the mistakes, the ineptitude and often the downright sleazy antics of media organisations he’d have nothing but contempt for the way ‘journalism’ is conducted in Australia. From the Sunday Telegraph’s fake Pauline Hanson nudes to The Australian’s continued War on Climate Change, to anything the Herald Sun has ever published, it’s hard to think that the nation’s premier media critic could have anything nice to say about the media. But Holmes finished his final program not with admonishment but with praise, and an appeal. “Media Watch regularly shows you the worst”, he notes, “but the best, I still believe, is worth paying for.”

So my parting plea is this: whatever your politics, or your preferences, and even if you’ve never bought a newspaper, start subscribing to at least one media website: whether it’s the Herald Sun or New Matilda, Crikey or the Sydney Morning Herald, old media or new, pay just a little to keep real journalism alive.

– Jonathan Holmes, Media Watch, 1 July 2013.

My first reaction was of surprise and vehement disagreement. I have always believed that pay-walls are a stupid idea – as long as someone is willing to report the news for free (be it an advertising-supported or government-funded institution, a blogger or even social-media) then only fools will pay for it. And these days there is always someone else who will report the news for free. News organisations have never had anything close to this kind of competition. Take any news story on any given day – as an example, I’ll use the racist abuse aimed at Australia’s first Muslim frontbencher Ed Husic – and have a look at how many sources Google News has. Currently there are 208 online news sites that are reporting the very same story. And they’re reporting the very same facts and the very same quotes.

So why pay when I can get it for free, right? But, if I’m honest, that’s a bit naive. Sure, it applies to basic reporting – the What, Where and When of journalism. And it even applies to analysis – the How, Why and ‘So What’. In short, the mostly-public goings on in the world are by definition widely available to anyone and everyone. But the point Holmes makes, and I agree with him, is that investigative journalism costs money and carries great risk. Investigative journalism is undercover work. It’s ‘Deep Throat’ style car-park meetings with whistle-blowers, it’s digging through trash-cans to find shredded documents, it’s doggedly pursuing leads that may take weeks, month or even years before the story breaks. Investigative journalism is expensive.

The work they do requires time, and money, and the willingness to risk huge costs incurred fighting battles in the courts.

– Jonathan Holmes, Media Watch, 1 July 2013.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the only way to fund investigative journalism is through pay-walls. Far from it – there are a range of funding-models available to all news organisations. The first that springs to mind is advertising. But unfortunately online advertising is weak tea – another victim of the range of online sources. The same amount of advertising money is now being spread not just on the few big Australian newspapers, TV networks and radio stations, but also the international news sites, the smaller independent news sites, and, well, all the other websites in general. The King’s Tribune highlights the difficulties facing smaller news organisations wanting a slice of the ad-revenue pie: “We’re too small to attract big advertisers and too big to get the small ones.”

Nor can we expect the government-funded organisations to be the sole bastions of investigative journalism. The ABC and SBS are terrific institutions and their fierce independence is to be lauded. But their belts are already tight, and ‘more money to the ABC’ is not a catch-cry we hear very often from policy makers. They do their part, and perhaps punch above their weight in many regards, but they simply don’t have the resources or funding to be the lone providers of investigative journalism. And nor should they. It’s not healthy for a democracy to have the only institutions that keep a check on government, funded by the government. Like them or loath them, independent news organisations are vital.

So I’ve decided to take Jonathan’s advice and “pay just a little to keep real journalism alive”. I’m looking into various outlets to see who’s worthy of my coin. Crikey came highly recommended when I asked on Twitter.

And of course The Conversation is an exemplary site which clearly puts accuracy and ethics ahead of speed and populism. And while it’s free (getting most of it’s funding from universities and some government programs) it does accept donations.

Walter Cronkite

The Moon. Let’s Go Back.

Image

Last night I snapped this photo of the moon. I’m delighted to say that I wasn’t the only one: Lots of people around the world were taking some great photos. And while the moon is absolutely gorgeous, part of me is sad, angry and frustrated that we haven’t been back since 1972.

Twelve human beings have set foot on that grey lump of rock. Twelve. There’s 7 billion of us alive, it’s only a three-day journey to another world – another frontier – and we’ve only sent twelve of us. And none of them since 1972.

Since 1972 we’ve sent people as far as the Hubble Space Telescope – 578 km above the Earth. At its closest point, the moon is about 362,570 km from Earth. We’ve gone nowhere near it for more than 40 years.

There’s no reason why we can’t go back, of course. We still have all the technology, the engineering knowledge, the expertise to do it. If anything, we have better technology now than we did 41 years ago. And there’s plenty we still have to learn about the moon! We don’t really have a good understanding of how it was formed, or why it seems to have two very different halves. The Apollo landings were all on the near side to us – for obvious logistical reasons. We have very sketchy information about the far side. And perhaps the best reason of all: water! At least three separate instruments on two different space probes have detected signs of sub-surface water. And where there’s water

But the science we can learn from manned lunar missions doesn’t just stop with understanding the moon. Like Mars, the moon is a hostile environment which makes it ideal for testing planetary exploration technologies. If we are ever to build a colony on Mars, it makes sense to start on the moon first: it’s a three day trip if anything goes wrong, and you don’t have to wait months for a launch window. And the moon would be a perfect stopover for further space exploration. Launch from Earth, refuel on the moon, then launch again to your next destination. And if there turns out to be a lot of sub-surface water there, that can be easily broken up with solar-cells into breathable oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.

It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of will. Political and societal will. The US government is currently planning to buy 2,443 brand new Joint Strike Fighter F-35 warplanes at a cost of $1.1 trillion over the next five years. The United States spends six times more money on the military than China, the next biggest spender. Yet NASA’s budget is continually being slashed, especially in planetary sciences. NASA’s budget over the last five years came to around $85 billion. If you’re having a hard time picturing how much more important the US Congress thinks fighter planes are over space exploration, I made a little graph:

NASA vs F-35
Source: Reuters / Wikipedia

Our future is in space.

There can be no question about that – we are explorers. Our history as a species is one of exploration and development. To quote Sam Seaborn from The West Wing, “we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” Of course, if our natural inclination to explore isn’t enough to get us off this planet there’s a good chance the ravages of over-population and climate change will.

We should be preparing for that. We should be back on the moon doing science, and building a Moon-base. But we’re not. We’re stagnating.

I’ll finish with one of my heroes, Neil deGrasse Tyson, explaining ‘the case for space’ much better than I ever could.

No Carbon Tax rally

Latika Bourke is a brilliant journalist, and in my opinion she’s one of Australia’s top political reporters up there with Annabell Crabb and Laurie Oakes. Today she was reporting from the No Carbon Tax rally in Canberra, and using Twitter to share comments and photos.

What she reported is a worrying reflection of the growing lunatic fringe of Australia.

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Reminds me of Right America Feeling Wronged, a documentary by Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Alexander Pelosi. During the 2008 Presidential Election, Pelosi follows the McCain campaign and interviews the people that show up to Support the McCain/Palin ticket. Very sad.

Space Shuttles are BIG!

We’ve heard a lot about the space shuttle program recently, after Discovery’s final launch last week. There are two more shuttle launches planned – Endeavour on April 19 and Atlantis on June 28 this year. After that, the shuttles are scrapped and the US will be relying on the Russians for trips to the International Space Station.

But I think it’s nice to have a reminder of the sheer scale involved. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center recently tweeted these photos of the Endeavour being readied for launch.  Here’s the Endeavour being transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where it will be joined to booster rockets and an external fuel tank for takeoff.

Space Shuttle Endeavour on a 76 wheel transporter. Credit: NASAKennedy

The VAB is the world’s largest single-story building: it’s 160m tall, 218m long and 158m wide. So how do you get a massive shuttle like that upright, and move it around the assembly building? With a really big winch:

Space Shuttle Endeavour on a winch in the VAB. Credit: NASAKennedy
And here’s a shot of it still on the winch and now joined with the fuel tank and booster rockets. That fuel tank holds 535,000 gallons (2,026,244 liters) of liquid oxygen and hydrogen!

Endeavour is lowered into place next to its external tank and solid rocket boosters. Credit: NASAKennedy

For more photos – including the Endeavour being driven through a shuttle-shaped doorway! – check out Universe Today’s post.

Last year, this brilliant video was made showing the process of moving the shuttle to the VAB and then to the launch.

Incredible!

Images posted to Twitter by NASAKennedy.

Diaspora

Remember the outcry when Facebook changed its privacy settings every 6 weeks? A group of university students decided to make an alternative social network that gave ownership and control of information to the users, and they called it Diaspora. Raising over US$200,000 from Kickstarter, they set about designing and building a network focussed of freedom and privacy.

Central to Diaspora’s operation is the understanding that we all have different groups of people that we associate with, and our approach to them is different. What I share with my co-workers, for example, is different to what I share with my family or with my close friends. With Diaspora, managing that is easy – you can put people in different (fully customizable) ‘aspects’ of your life – Family, Work, Friends, General Public for example. For everything you share you determine which aspects have access to it. Facebook does this as well, but it’s a much less straight-forward approach.

The long-term plan for Diaspora is to decentralize it as well – so you can run it on your own Webhost and you’re not then subject to Facebook’s network. That’s not such a big deal now, but whenever you’re relying on one  company or party there’s always the risk that they can shut you down  – breaches of terms and conditions, for example. With Diaspora being distributed, and open-source, there’s no one organisation that can kill your account. That’s the future, though, at the moment it’s all running from the one spot – http://joindiaspora.org.

I’ve managed to score some invites, so I’ll be handing them out to some friends soon. It’ll be interesting to see how Diaspora goes, given the formidable competition they’re up against in Facebook.