Sad Kermit

Sad Kermit has been doing his suicidal/drug thing for a while now, so I guess he’s stable. We should all watch out for him for when he tries to clean up his act.

Throwing Hammers On the Moon

Credit: NASA

In late 1972, Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt was returning from the last ever rover trip, of the last Apollo mission to the moon. It had gone successfully, and although he didn’t know it yet, Schmitt had recently taken one of the most important photographs of all time (the famous blue marble image of Earth). As they walked towards the EVA, Schmitt realized there would be no more use for his geology hammer. About to step in to the spacecraft, he begged Mission Control “Let me throw the hammer? Please?”

With an all clear, no wind resistance, and at 1/6th’s Earth’s gravity, the image above is of Schmitt watching his hammer fly 44 metres off into a patch of unexplored landscape.

The animated GIF of the hammer in flight and creating a plume of dust (below) was made by Roberto Beltramini. The tiny hole left behind is jokingly known as ‘Hammer Crater’.


Without an atmosphere, the blackness of space depicted in these pictures was so absolute that NASA had to develop a special ink, if they later wanted to realistically capture them in print.

Within this film from the rover camera, the audio captures the emotions of – and the surprising amount of latitude given to – those Apollo astronauts on that last mission.

The records of this simple, poignant action reminds me of course of the iconic opening scene from 2001, the work of performance artist Roman Signer, and (more recently) probably the best ever Mythbusters episodeMoon Hoax.

In it, the many so-called anomalies offered up by armchair conspiracy theorists (the fluttering flags, the non parallel shadows, possibly slowed down film, and the like) are neatly put away, leaving us just with the wonder of moments like those above – very real men walking around so improbably in 1972.

Austerity for Non-Dummies

When during recessions Keynesian economics is so intuitive (spend on things like bridges and roads – that you need to spend on eventually anyway – to spur growth), why is it conservatives are all over austerity and debt reduction?

The Guardian does a good job in explaining why

In this respect, the attempt to systematically reduce the cost of the state on the productive base of the economy, is part of a wider strategy of transferring money to businesses in the hope that it will give them more room to invest. This is bound up with an export-driven growth agenda, as the UK seeks to export more to China and other economies. This growth formula resembles that hit upon by Germany in the EU, as it was able to suppress domestic wages and public spending while exports to the periphery made up for lost demand. And from the point of view of businesses, this looks like a far more plausible solution than those calling for socialising investment, redistributing wealth or a rebooted corporatism – all of which would cost them wealth and power, and none of which guarantee them results any more than austerity does.

You can read more about this crazy, blinkered, ideological mindset here.

The Great Diva Hunt

“Shella Record” may be the most enigmatic figure in all of Jamaican music. After being the credited diva on the legendary track “Jamaican Fruit of African Roots”, Shella disappeared (it is said) to the States, otherwise leaving only rumor and mystery.

After finding a rare copy of the original record in a Toronto thrift store, artist Chris Flanagan set about finding the reclusive star, in the process identifying her real name (Sheila Rickards), interviewing her family, and meeting the people who recorded with her. In the process he has found the original tapes for “Jamaican Fruit of African Roots”, and is reissuing it on his own label – Shella Records. A documentary is being made of the search.

For more info and to keep up to date with the search, visit

Vice vs. Reddit Atheism

Vice is good for only a very small amount of things, so it was refreshing to read this op-ed piece on ‘Reddit Atheism’, recently.

If you say something as mild as “Hey, here are some Christians practicing their faith; that’s not really a bad thing” you’ll get mobbed by a group of people who are quickly becoming the most annoying demographic on the internet. I speak of a subtype of militant atheists who I’ll call the “Reddit Atheists.” These are the folks who have, ironically, adopted the attitudes of hardcore evangelicals who try to convert strangers on subway platforms—it’s not enough for them that they don’t believe in God, they want to make sure you don’t believe in God either. Just by being themselves, they make the best case against humanism.

Read the (cathartic, full) piece here.



Psychopathic capitalism

It is always reassuring to read the many ways that capitalists are like psychopaths. And the different ways that we can see the world – other than the cliche of the rich being the job creators.

Entrepreneurs and the rich are different and only partly overlapping categories. Most of the rich are not entrepreneurs; they are executives of established corporations, institutional managers of other kinds, the wealthiest doctors and lawyers, the most successful entertainers and athletes, people who simply inherited their money or, yes, people who work on Wall Street… most important, neither entrepreneurs nor the rich have a monopoly on brains, sweat or risk. There are scientists — and artists and scholars — who are just as smart as any entrepreneur, only they are interested in different rewards.


Scientific Economics

In an election year when we are about to be bombarded with a barrage of ideologies and gut-level opinions it may be useful to emphasise the work of Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. The two are revolutionising aid to the third world by applying scientific principles to its delivery. In this talk, Duflo begins by making the startling point that – in fifty years of aid delivery to Africa – we don’t know what has worked, or if anything has helped (or even hindered) the people living there.

Before we are tempted to sign up to the ‘aid does more harm than good’ school, Duflo delivers a third option – randomised aid trials. Revolutionizing medicine, the principle of blind trials enable us to look beyond ideology and see exactly what does and doesn’t work – and the results are startling.

In their new book, Poor Economics, which has been described as a Freakonomics for the Third World, the two authors collect the many results of randomised social trials around the world, and gives solid answers such as ‘How expensive should a mosquito net be?’ to best fight malaria, and ‘for $1 of aid money, what would be the top performing intervention we can make to increase education rates in Africa?’

If only we had a political party – and an electorate – that took an evidence over ideology basis to decisions at home.

Flying Under the Radar


The bin Laden raid had me thinking about how difficult evading enemy radar is (short answer: for you or I, impossible. For the guys with the necessary skills set, not inherently difficult).

Flying under 150 feet will get you under most any radar systems, and even under 500 feet should do it within a mountainous country like Pakistan, where radar stations are most typically situated on the tops of hills or mountains. Stealth pilots typically use a ‘Nap-of-the-Earth’ technique, flying into gullies and depressions in the earth to evade detection, and can fly as low as understory canopy layer (under 50 feet).


Whilst the Pakistan mission was impressive, the most daring ‘under the radar’ flight was by a relatively untrained West German teenager, in 1987: Mathias Rust (pictured in his orange jumpsuit, above).

At that time, the USSR was considered to have the most formidable and ruthless air defense systems in the world, and had already shot down both US spy planes and commercial airliners entering its airspace (and thus, unfortunately, inadvertently assisting a little known band called The Hype).

Saving up for 50 hours of flight lessons, Rust deviated from a flight from Helsinki Airport in a rented Cessna, and through a random series of defense errors (and no small amount of good luck) made it to the heart of Moscow. Once overhead, Rust changed his landing site from the Kremlin (which he noted had extremely high walls, which could easily have allowed the Soviets to hush up the whole thing). He briefly considered Red Square, however it was too full of people for a safe landing. So Rust landed nearby, just outside the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral, and not far from Lenin’s tomb.


Like the work of postwar German artist Joseph Beuys, Rust’s intentions were to create an “imaginary bridge” between the East and West. His aim was to reduce the tension and suspicion between the two Cold War sides (which perhaps makes it a sort of inverse-terrorism, with friendship instead of fear-mongering the objective).

Ironically, just like regular terrorist acts, there was an inadvertent and inverse effect resulting from Rust’s flight. Such was the embarrassment caused by the incident, that Mikhail Gorbachev was able to undertake the largest purge of old school generals since Stalin relatively unopposed – thus removing many of the opponents to his future reforms. Combined with the loss of sense of invincibility of the Soviet military, the flight played a small part in ending the USSR less than two years later.

For Rust, his future was not much more rosy: eighteen months spent in a Soviet prison, a $100,000 fine for his Finnish ‘rescue’ mission, jail time for an unrelated attempted murder of a co-worker and, later, also fines for fraud and shoplifting. He is apparently converted to Hinduism, and now lives as a professional poker player in Germany: appropriately enough for someone who had successfully called the biggest military bluff of all time.

Guardez Les Potatoes!

The introduction of the potato to Europe from South America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to one of the greatest increases of wealth in recorded history. Potatoes yielded from two to four times more calories per acre than grain did, required no milling, were harder for foreign armies to steal (it was stored underground unlike grain), prevented scurvy at sea, and could be grown in fallow or even urban plots of land. It is said that a single acre of potatoes and the milk of one cow was enough to feed a whole family (or used for trade).

Still, despite its many benefits, potatoes had to overcome ingrained superstition and skepticism towards this foreign invader from rural populations, who believed it responsible for everything including syphilis, leprosy, and sterility. It was even banned from the British court, after an early feast included poisonous potato leaves, leaving many in attendance deathly ill.

A great propaganda push occurred in France, beginning with the royal court, by Antoine-Augustin Parmentier – who himself had survived on potatoes during his time as a prisoner of war in Prussia. Marie Antoinette wore a headdress of potato flowers at a fancy dress ball, creating a persuasive fashion craze amongst noblewomen at the time. Overcoming the resistance of farmers, however, required a more crafty manoeuvre.

In 1785… the King let (Parmentier) plant 100 useless acres outside Paris, France in potatoes with troops keeping the field heavily guarded. This aroused public curiosity and the people decided that anything so carefully guarded must be valuable. (Guards were instructed to accept bribes to steal plants). One night Parmentier allowed the guards to go off duty, and the local farmers, as he had hoped, went into the field, confiscated the potatoes and planted them on their own farms. From this small start, the habit of growing and eating potatoes spread.

Page: 4 of 22