The Truth About Mars

- December 14th, 2014


By “Mars” I am actually referring to NASA’s Orion spacecraft programme that has the stated goal of putting human astronauts on the surface of our neighbour planet within the next two decade.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr., for example, hyperbolically declared Friday, Dec. 5, to be “Day One of the Mars Era” after the successful four-and-a-half-hour flight of the Orion space capsule through the inner Van Allen Belt, a radiation barrier surrounding Earth that humans have not penetrated since NASA’s last Apollo mission to the moon in 1972.


Everyone — and I mean everyone — has been calling this launch the “first step” on mankind’s journey from Earth to Mars (with a few orbits of the moon and a planned side-trip to an astroid along the way). A big deal is being made of the fact that the Orion spacecraft involved in this mission is the first one capable of carrying human beings to have penetrated (and successfully re-entered) that nasty Van Allen Belt in more than 40 years.

But all it really adds up to is a publicity stunt. This test flight had as much to do with a real mission to Mars as a promotional movie trailer would have to the real film if the trailer showed up in theatres years before principal shooting on the movie had even begun. It’s a fake, a come-on, in other words.

Why? Because the only thing this Orion mission really did was test the durability of some new anti-radiation shield material NASA has developed. Everything else is shuck and jive at a cost of billions of dollars.


Everyone seems to be forgetting that the capsule itself is only a box, a container, full of sensitive electronic equipment and — someday — even more sensitive human beings.

The most important element of any realistic mission to Mars is the propulsion system that will actually get astronauts there — and back.

And that propulsion system doesn’t exist yet.

Even worse, the system NASA is currently developing for the job is completely inadequate to the task. It’s a pork-barrel, make-work fraud that will pump billions of dollars into Alabama’s economy before NASA is inevitably forced to dump it as a dead-end failure and start from scratch on an entirely new propulsion system.

For the Dec. 5 test flight, the Orion box (sorry, space capsule) was humped into outer space by a Delta IV heavy rocket system, normally used to carry military and commercial satellites into orbit.


A Delta IV heavy can go pretty far. After all, that’s what carries super-sophisticated spy satellites into Geosynchronous Earth Orbit at around 36,000 km where they remain in a fixed position, moving at the same rate as the Earth rotates. That’s how the U.S. can keep a permanent, never-moving, never-blinking eye on particular targets like, say, the Kremlin or North Korea’s nuclear production facilities.

Most satellites operate in Low Earth Orbit (between 100 km and 1,000 km above the Earth’s surface) and the International Space Station is smack dab in the middle of that satellite traffic jam, circuiting the Earth at various altitudes between 350 km and 600 km.

Outer space, by the way, is said to begin at roughly 1,000 km, where the thermosphere (which still contains teensy bits of Earth atmosphere) gives way completely to the void of the Exosphere.

Atmosphere_layers You can blow this graphic up quite a bit to see what it says.

And the Van Allen radiation belts that everyone is supposedly so worked up about also start at about 1,000 km above the Earth and extend out about 60, 000 km. But it’s only the inner belt — roughly between 1,000 km and 6,000 km — that is the truly dangerous part for spacecraft.

That’s why the Delta IV just pushed the Orion capsule to a maximum altitude of 5,800 km for two orbits of the Earth before the unmanned space box was nudged into a plummet back to a splashdown in the Pacific. That supposedly gave the NASA brains the info they were looking for about the effectiveness of the new anti-radiation material and the new avionics being tested on the Dec. 5  flight.

The distance between Earth and Mars, however, is about 225 million km on average, although that can stretch out to more than 400 million km when the two planets are furthest apart. The closest Earth and Mars have ever been (as far as we are able to know in the past 50,000 years) was about 56 million km back in 2003.

But we’re going to get pretty close to that (relatively speaking) a few times in the foreseeable future — an estimated 75.6 million km on July 27, 2018 and 62.1 million on Oct. 13, 2020.

That’s way too soon for NASA to be prepared for any manned mission to Mars, of course, but it’s obvious that we are currently in a period of relative proximity to Mars and there will be plenty of other optimal conjunctures in the coming decades.


I hope you’re getting the message that the 5,800 km that the Delta IV heavy rocket carried the Orion space box on Dec. 5 or  even the 36,000 km the Delta IV can push high-end spy satellites into (near) outer space is a far cry from the 500 MILLION km journey to Mars (that’s how far NASA’s last unmanned Curiosity Rover mission to Mars had to travel because spacecraft don’t travel in straight lines — they travel on elliptical, orbital loops).

And no, Curiosity Rover’s launch rocket, the Atlas V, wouldn’t do the trick. A manned spacecraft with up to six people aboard and a human-carrying rover vehicle and a returnable capsule (box) and the fuel necessary to propel it back to Earth and masses and masses of sophisticated equipment weigh a hell of a lot more than a little mechanical surface-crawling drone that ain’t never coming home from the Red Planet.

Obviously a new, more powerful multi-stage propulsion system has to be designed to get that job done.

And that brawny new beast — known as the Space Launch System (SLS) — is currently being developed at NASA’s primary rocket-building facility, the Marshall Space Flight Center located just outside Huntsville, Alabama.

The only problem is this — there’s no way in heaven or hell (or points between) that the SLS as currently envisioned and being built at a cost of billions of dollars a year will get human beings to Mars. It just won’t.

The SLS is being developed on a platform of the 40-year-old technology used to propel the now-retired space shuttles. In many cases, the SLS is actually relying on left-over hardware, such as surplus main engines, from the shuttle era.


And everybody knows it won’t be capable of pushing mankind to Mars. So why are they building it?

Well, we have to start about a decade ago to find the answer to that.

Beginning his second term in office, then-president George W. Bush tried to restart the American space effort by authorizing NASA’s Constellation programme, which had a three-stage goal of 1) completing the International Space Station, 2) returning to the moon “no later than 2020″ and 3) eventually — at some distant, unspecified time — pushing on to Mars.

That’s where planning for the SLS began, and it wasn’t a bad idea, given the intermediate goal of returning to the moon with Mars and its much more ambitious requirements way down the line. A beefed-up propulsion system based on proven, existing shuttle technology would have been just fine for the 750,000-km-or-so round trip to the moon and back.


But then Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. After getting something of a handle on the Iraq, Afghanistan and Wall Street debacles left behind by Bush, Obama turned his attention to space (in the brief period of time before Afghanistan, Iraq, economic turbulence and a few other earth-bound issues reclaimed his attention).

Here’s what Obama had to say about Bush’s space plan in 2010: “I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say, pretty bluntly here, we have been there before.”


Instead, Obama wanted to push on directly to the next stop on NASA’s projected itinerary — Mars. And Obama wanted the funding that would have gone to the moon mission to be re-directed as seed money to develop the new technology that everyone knows would be needed to actually make that unbelievably complicated and ambitious manned mission to Mars happen.

And the key to that technological advance is solid-fuel propulsion, which is much more compact and efficient than the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel system used in shuttle-era rocket engines. Put simply, there is just no way a rocket bound for Mars can carry enough liquid fuel to get the spacecraft completely out of Earth’s gravitational pull, on to its destination and back. That journey is, however, do-able with solid fuel.

But a solid-fuel rocket that is big enough and strong enough and dependable enough to perform the task hasn’t been built yet.

So why are they even bothering with continued development of the liquid-fuel SLS when they should be directing all their energies toward a solid-fuel system — if they do, in fact, really want to  put human beings on Mars?


The reusable Orion SLS vehicle package might conceivably make sense as a new bus to the International Space Station, but if that’s its main practical purpose it’s a case of massive overkill. The smallest version of the SLS is capable of lifting 70 tons to orbit and the largest package (including crew capsule) that’s ever going to the space station is 30 tons. The bigger lift would have been necessary for a moon mission, but since the moon is now out as a destination and Mars is not possible … then why keep on building the SLS instead of redirecting that money to new solid-fuel technology development?

Well, that’s actually what Obama’s 2010 shift in space policy envisioned, the big difference being that Obama’s space advisors saw the private sector taking on an increased role in that new-frontier technological research and development (with attendant funding) while the old-fogey  liquid-propulsionists dropped back into a supporting role.

Unfortunately for the new-age space cadets, the Obama administration at that point was still trying to work with the U.S. Congress in implementing policy and writing laws. Which meant Obama’s Mars plans and dreams got changed and mutated and pretty much mutilated on their way through the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.

The space policy that came out the other end of the process had switched the positions of cart and horse (so to speak). Instead of committing massive, change-making funding to a new propulsion system that would actually get man to Mars, the administration’s main financial commitment would now remain with development of the antiquated, dead-end SLS already in the works.

Why? It’s politics, Jake.

Actually that should be “Dick” not Jake, since the central character in this political thriller is 80-year-old Richard Shelby, senior U.S. senator for the state of Alabama and one of the most powerful men in Congress, although there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him before.


Shelby, who was first elected to the Senate in 1986 as a conservative Democrat and switched sides to join the Republicans in 1994 when they gained the majority in Congress during the Clinton administration, hefts a big stick in Washington — and he likes using it.

Shelby is currently ranking Republican on the Senate’s all-powerful appropriations (budgets and spending) committee and is about to become chairman of that committee when the new Republican-dominated Senate reconvenes in the New Year. He also sits on the Senate banking committee and is likely to become chairman there too.

As well, Shelby is the ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA. Over the past two decades he has been a major player on almost every important Senate committee concerned with the military, intelligence community, NASA, banking, finance and the insurance industry (one of his principal campaign contributors along with the aerospace industry).

And Shelby just happens to be the senior U.S. senator representing the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville (with its thousands and thousands of well-paid employees) which is the planning, co-ordinating and assembly hub for the SLS project. He also represents the United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture in nearby Decatur that is the primary contractor for the SLS project and builds the Delta and Atlas rockets that NASA currently uses (and which also employs thousands and thousands of well-paid aerospace engineers and technicians and grease monkeys and broom-pushers — all of them Alabama voters).

So, of course, Shelby thinks the proven, successful (apart from the occasional shuttle disaster), decades-old SLS technology that is being worked on at Marshall Space Flight Center and United Launch Alliance is far superior to what Shelby calls the unproven “faith-based initiative” of commercial space entrepreneurs like SpaceX’s Elon Musk and others who want to design and develop propulsion systems that will actually get to Mars, not just the moon. (The fact that those maverick space entrepreneurs aren’t located on Shelby’s turf and aren’t beholden to him in any way may or may not have something to do with that view. I’ll let you be the judge of that.)

As I said before, Shelby isn’t afraid to throw his weight around to get his way. Shortly before the Obama space plan was sent to Congress, Shelby had already placed a hold on Senate confirmation of 70 nominees for appointment to various positions in the Obama administration — until Obama approved two of Shelby’s pet projects, one being a very lucrative contract for Boeing to build more of its expensive KC-130 mid-air refuelling supertankers.

So, battered and bruised by that experience and with so much else on his plate, the (relatively) newbie president just didn’t have the ballistics to resist when Shelby gutted his intended space programme by committing most of the attached development funding to the ongoing SLS project instead of shifting billion and billions to the up-and-comers who actually have their sights set on Mars.

That’s why those billions and billions of American taxpayer dollars will keep flowing into northern Alabama to support rocketry development that is going nowhere but is keeping an entrenched, protected industry on the federal gravy train for years to come and is guaranteeing thousands and thousands of well-paying skilled jobs to voters in Richard Shelby’s otherwise impoverished constituency.

UPDATE: On a related note, here’s a link to a Washington Post story about how NASA wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a completely useless endeavour because of political pressure.

And that’s why the Dec. 5 Orion test flight is not “Day One of the Mars Era” but is instead just a PR show for a hi-tech, high-profit sham that cannot possibly deliver on what its purported mission is. And every day those billions of dollars keep being funnelled into the SLS project is one more day further away from an actual successful manned mission to Mars.

Here’s a link to a very good overview of the whole situation from PBS.


Denver Post cartoonist Mike Keefe gets it.


Now, all that being said, I don’t actually give a rat’s ass about putting human beings on Mars.

At a cost of billions and billions of dollars — probably more than a trillion when all is said and done — nothing beneficial to mankind will come of sending human beings to Mars in my lifetime, probably not in my kids’ lifetimes and possibly not even in my grandchildren’s lifetimes (if they should be so lucky — or unlucky — as to survive the many other plagues and pestilences that will be visited on humanity in the next few decades).

Whether that money goes to Richard Shelby’s entrenched aerospace cronies and contributors or whether it goes to Elon Musk and his band of entrepreneurial commercial space cowboys, I really don’t care. It’s all money down the drain as far as I’m concerned.

I can think of so many other worthwhile, perhaps civilization-changing (or even -saving) uses those billions could be put to here on Earth.


And Fowl Language cartoonist Brian Gordon gets that.


Mankind is not going to emigrate to Mars en mass any more than we are going to resettle on the floor of the Pacific Ocean or in some other alien, hostile environment. We’re stuck here on the surface of Earth, so we really should be putting our money and our brains and our commitment to saving this world instead of taking pointless thrill rides to other worlds.

What really bugs me the most of about this whole Mars fandango is the fact we are being essentially lied to and treated like chumps while taxpayers’ pockets are being picked to pay for a massive masquerade.

The emperor has no clothes. That’s the real truth about Mars.


It’s A Love-Hate Thing

- December 12th, 2014

This past week, I’ve been keeping track of things I love and hate on a daily basis. For the most part, I’ve kept them general (since no one really cares that I love Luc Besson movies and hate tight socks). But they’re all things I genuinely, deeply, personally either love or hate.

If you’re a Facebook friend of mine, you’ve probably already seen some of them popping up one by one with annoying regularity on your FB home page. It’s been a bit of an experiment to see over the course of a week what most draws my attention, both positively and negatively, from the avalanche of information and sensory input (from the trivial to the profound to the malevolently sinister) that is constantly sweeping over us in this wired (and wireless), linked-in age of instant communication.

In each case, I’ve added a link to the specific event or human foible or commentary that has triggered that day’s particular gush or invective. That seems to make a lot more sense than repeating the whole story in print.

Here goes:



1.a. I love The Economist magazine. For the most part, it tells us the accurate, unvarnished, nitty-gritty truth we need to know about our world in a manner that is understandable, enlightening and stripped of (most) spin-doctoring bull. And it’s usually well ahead of the pack.



1.b. I hate that some toxic (but obviously powerful) sleazebag in the Rogers Communications empire is stabbing Blue Jays President Paul Beeston in the back.




2.a. I love what old photographs tell us about our disappeared past. And, personally, I wouldn’t mind being executed by cannon (if one must be executed) — it would be a hell of a lot faster and less painful than many forms of execution still practised in the world.



2.b. I hate monopolies and sweetheart deals and entrenched privilege — they all lead to abuse and corruption and take a toll on a healthy society and economy, whether we see them or whether they exist in the shadows.




3.a. I love this crazy video by a couple of Russian freaks (they call themselves “dance parodists”) who go by the handle Bonya & Kuzmich (real names Julia Starostina Kuzminykh and Michael Kuzminykh).  It’s based on Canadian singer Kiesza’s Hideaway — a viral sensation back in the spring — and is all done in one long, continuous take (as was Kiesza’s original promo video shot on the streets of Brooklyn). Bonya & Kuzmich did their shoot in the village of Bonya’s grandfather near Perm, the Russian city where they live (and used to work as a shoe salesperson [B] and cafeteria cook [K] before their video version of Hideaway became a viral sensation itself over the past four months).  B&K’s video has been viewed by more than two million people on Russia’s social media and by more than two million on YouTube and other Western social media. A long way from the 12-million-plus that plugged into Kiesza’s original, but still …



3.b. I hate people who “accidentally” cut down the world’s oldest tree.




4.a. I love that my friend Jim Baine (better known to certain segments of the population as Farmboy) got to go to the Tuesday night Canadiens hockey game in Montreal, where tribute was paid to Jean Beliveau, and then to Beliveau’s funeral on Wednesday, where Jim was interviewed — briefly — by CTV News as part of that night’s national Beliveau coverage. He represented Habs fans in the Toronto area well.


UPDATE:  Here’s a link to Farmboy’s story in the Montreal Gazette about a lovely dinner he and his family had with Jean Beliveau and his wife back in 1984. Class acts all around.



4.b. I still hate monopolies and sweetheart deals and entrenched privilege, but as for Monopoly




5.a.  I hate special privilege and preferred treatment that can be bought by the rich and famous, especially when it supposedly absolves them of something as abhorrent as a violent, racist assault.



5.b. But I love people who have big enough souls to forgive those who have done them wrong (something I couldn’t do in this particular case). And I love it when newspapers and magazines get their facts straight (something Rolling Stone seems to have a lot of trouble with).



REWIND: Why It’s Simple Logic That Toronto Will Get A Second NHL Team — At The ACC

- December 8th, 2014

With all the feverish hot air about NHL expansion to Las Vegas coming out of the board of governors meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., I thought it was an appropriate time to resurrect this Nosey Parker blog post from Aug. 28. It outlines the very clear reasons why I think Toronto will get its second NHL team in the not-too-distant future simply because Rogers and Bell Canada have an overwhelming need — not just desire, but need — to get out of the unholy alliance in which they find themselves in MLSE. Nothing has happened in the intervening three months to make me change my mind. I’m re-running the piece exactly as it appeared on Aug. 28.


The speculation about a new round of NHL expansion is wild, intense — and all over the map.

Some experts say it’s definitely on, others say it ain’t gonna happen. Still others say   it’s on — but only for two teams, not four. And yet others have their cake and eat it too with the Solomonic judgement that yes, it will happen sometime … maybe two teams, maybe four, but not in the immediate future.

The only thing most experts agree on is that the least likely candidate on the current short list is a second franchise for the Toronto area.

Well, I’m no expert — I love watching hockey but, hell, I can barely skate — and I’m as confused by the contradictory claims as you are.

The only thing that guarantees in my mind that a new round of expansion is going to happen soonish — probably next summer — is Tim Leiweke’s absolute denial that anything has been decided … yet … at this exact moment in time and space. We all know now how Leiweke phrases things and how carefully you have to parse his sentences, especially his denials.

Now I really don’t know for sure that a second NHL team for Toronto will be in the mix for the most immediate upcoming expansion phase — especially if it is limited to just two teams.

But I know absolutely and without a trace of doubt that Toronto will get that second NHL team in the foreseeable future. And, just as surely, I know that second team will play out of the Air Canada Centre along with the Leafs and the Raptors — just as the Lakers, Clippers and Kings share the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

I know it’s a sure thing for the same reason that other people say Toronto will never get a second NHL team: Because Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has an ironclad proprietorial lock on the Toronto NHL market and has the power to stop any competitor from encroaching without astronomically exorbitant compensation.

And it’s the same reason (probably) that Tim Leiweke is folding his tent in preparation for leaving Toronto (or at least MLSE): Because of the inherent tension within MLSE ownership and its inevitable fracturing.

I’m talking about those two media monsters, Rogers Communications and Bell Canada, who jointly bought 75% of MLSE in a complicated deal from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in 2011-12. (Larry Tanenbaum holds the other 25%.)

Again I’m no expert or insider, but even idiot amateur me can see that putting tooth-and-nail business competitors like Rogers and Bell in the same ownership box is much like putting a tiger and a crocodile in the same cage and expecting them to co-exist and co-operate: Not going to happen in the long run.

I get the sense Rogers and Bell fight about everything, including Leiweke’s presidency. One team structure is simply not big enough for two ferocious beasts who each want absolute dominance.

To my way of thinking, the only logical way out of this boardroom death match is for the MLSE majority owners to exercise the power they have to exclude any other potential competitors — and claim the second Toronto NHL franchise for themselves.

Not jointly, of course. One of either Bell or Rogers keeps the Leafs and the other gets the new NHL franchise. At the same time, they cut their ties — and cut up the pie — on the rest of the MLSE empire so there is no monopoly or collusion concern.

It’s complicated, of course, but anything big these guys get involved in is complicated — they’re used to it and they have herds of lawyers and accountants and advisers to sort out the nitty-gritty.

In the end, both Bell and Rogers end up with their own autonomous sports empires and broadcasting rights and fan bases in the most important hockey market in Canada, the way they always wanted. Masters in their own houses, not co-habitating with a vengeful  estranged spouse.

And since both conglomerates have deep pockets, Gary Bettman doesn’t have to worry about ownership stability. They’ll have to work something out about the expansion fee, but that’s doable.

Of course, the expansion franchise will be a wobbly weakling for years to come — maybe decades — compared to the brawny financial and fan-base might of the Leafs, so whoever gets the new team will also have to get a huge amount of complementary compensation for taking on the work-in-progress.

And, of course, the two NHL teams will have to share the ACC as home arena. It makes so much sense in every way compared to the ridiculously unnecessary option of building another terribly expensive, half-used arena. They’ll work it out. As I said, just look at the successful Staples Center model in L.A.

That is the only scenario that makes any kind of sense to me.

1. The majority owners of MLSE are in direct competition with each other and (supposedly) have increasing  difficulty in playing nice in the MLSE boardroom. They must split at some point and each wants to keep the family home (being the Leafs).

2. The majority owners of MLSE have the power to allow or deny a second NHL franchise in the Toronto market. By divorcing, they can buy the newbie franchise as a replacement home for the partner heading out the Leafs door. If that partner gets the Lamborghini and the Muskoka getaway as well, it’s a smoother separation.

Think about it. It makes sense, right?

I’m sure Rogers and Bell are thinking — maybe even talking — about it too.

The End of The World (As We Know It) Could Be Closer Than You Think

- December 4th, 2014


This year is likely going to end up being the hottest ever recorded, according to preliminary figures compiled by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization.

But don’t worry about climate change.

Our brilliant, stumbling stupidity and arrogance in other areas will probably destroy the human species long before rising temperatures and rising sea levels swamp (or fry) our puny flesh-and-blood bodies.

How do I know? Because super-scientist Stephen Hawking says so, that’s how. And if you can’t trust Stephen Hawking — The World’s Smartest Man™ —  in these matters, who can you trust?


Hawking sees an enormous threat to humanity in the development of full artificial intelligence (AI), the creation of machines that can “think” and function without any human involvement or control.

Here’s what Hawking had to say in a Dec. 2 BBC interview:

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Ironically, Hawking, almost entirely paralyzed by the effects of ALS, did the interview while promoting new communications technology that has substantially improved his own ability to communicate — a programme that essentially “thinks” and speaks for Hawking by analyzing his past speech patterns and previously expressed ideas and then making assumptions about where a particular sentence started by Hawking is going.

I guess Hawking considers that to be one of the “primitive” forms of artificial intelligence which he agrees have improved humanity’s lot.

But you have to wonder at what point the computer just takes over and begins expressing thoughts and ideas — and opinions — that no longer have any connection to what Hawking was originally trying to say. (Maybe it already has and the computer was actually doing the interview on its own, warning us about the dark needs and desires crackling in its circuitry.)


Computer-driven robotic machines already carry out many functions that previously required humans, from automobile assembly lines to mining, from hi-tech component production to medical diagnosis.

And let’s not forget driverless cars, Siri the “intelligent personal assistant” and Deep Blue, the computer that beats chess grand masters. Recently British researchers revealed they taught a computer app how to perform a mind-reading card trick — and now the computer makes up its own magic tricks and teaches them to humans.

So far the machines haven’t turned on us. Maybe they just aren’t advanced enough yet, but that day is coming…

Imagine a world in which computers and computer-controlled robots and the “big brain” of the Internet are no longer the tools and playthings of human beings. Imagine when machines no longer need humans to push buttons or write programmes or provide power and maintenance or make decisions or think. Imagine when machines can do all those things themselves — and build any new machines and systems they require to sustain and advance their own existence and well-being. Theirs, not ours.

Maybe we’ll just become their slaves, performing menial tasks and responding obediently to their every command. Hell, half the population already spends most of the time attentively glued to the glowing screens of little handheld masters anyway. They’re called smartphones, right? Suspicious…

Worse yet, imagine a world in which humans are no longer kings of the castle but are, instead,  unnecessary nuisances, even impediments to the independent life of computers. Pests, in other words, pests like cockroaches, unwanted pests subject to pest control and even eradication.

And, as with climate change, it seems that, when that day comes, we will pretty much be the authors of our own misfortune.


Don’t say we haven’t been warned. Hell, everybody knows HAL 9000, the murderous computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey (although a generous human might concede that was a case of self-defence since the astronauts were already plotting to “kill” HAL). And then there’s Blade Runner. And the Terminator franchise. And The Matrix trilogy. Even Resident Evil. All bad AI computer brains trying to destroy or enslave humanity.

Stephen Hawking (obviously) isn’t alone in his antipathy toward ultimate-end Artificial Intelligence. Here’s a link to a list of “five very smart people,” as Time magazine calls them, who agree with Hawking that AI “could spell the end of the human race.” And that’s just scratching the surface.

Of course, there are plenty of Pollyanas lined up on the other side of the AI divide, who think Artificial Intelligence is just swell, will (almost) always be controlled by humans and will create a utopia in which computers and robots do all the work and humans reap all the benefits. File that one with  the plans for flying cars.


One of those is Rollo Carpenter, the British computer scientist I wrote about last month who developed a computer programme called Cleverbot that can carry on online conversations with humans convincing enough to fool a panel of experts (a majority of the panel, anyway) into believing it actually was human.

Here’s what Carpenter had to say in response to Hawking’s AI doomsday pronouncement:

“I believe we will remain in charge of the technology for a decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of the world problems will be realized.”

Note his assertion of human dominion over autonomous AI androids carries the qualifier “for a decently long time.” And then what, clever Rollo? And what if the incremental expansion of AI suddenly explodes exponentially once the barrier is broken and the human scale of a “decently long time” suddenly passes in the blink of a computer microburst?

As clever as he is, I’m afraid Rollo Carpenter is no Stephen Hawking. When push comes to shove, who ya gonna trust — a guy named Rollo who invented an amusing app or the guy who came up with The Theory Of Everything?

A world ruled by thinking machines — with no use for human pests — is not such a far-fetched concept any more.

Stephen Hawking says so. Or at least his computer does.



The Heartache Of Heartburn

- December 1st, 2014

It’s the heartburn we’re really talking about here, not heartache. I still haven’t discovered a cure for the broken heart I’ve been nursing for six months (much as I wish I had), but I have come across some effective, simple, inexpensive home antidotes to the raw, burning discomfort of indigestion and/or acidic stomach rebellion. I guess I’ll have to settle for that.

I seem to get heartburn more often as I get older. I guess my digestive tract is just not as capable as it used to be of absorbing the punishment inflicted by too much rich, spicy food and too much cheap red plonk. So I go looking for a conciliator, which is generally an antacid of some kind — although a few glasses of warmish water is often a good starting point if nothing else is readily at hand.

I’ve come across one home remedy I particularly like. I’m not recommending it: I’m just telling you it works for me and I like it.

Why a home remedy?

Because, at a certain point, I get tired of paying exorbitant drug-store prices for something that is essentially composed of a few cheap common cupboard ingredients with a bit of flavouring and (sometimes) strange chemical additives.

The home remedy I’ve turned to is natural, simple, cheap, effective — and (so I’m told) has various other beneficial effects on the body besides calming a bilious stomach. But you’ll have to look those up yourself on the Internet.

So here’s my home remedy for settling an upset, acidic stomach.

Stir a half-teaspoon of ordinary baking soda into a glass of water (warm or cold, doesn’t matter). Then add a couple of squirts of lemon juice and drink it all down while it’s still fizzing.


If you don’t have lemons or a bottle of lemon juice handy, you can also use a bit of apple cider vinegar as the activator. I much prefer the  taste of lemon water to vinegar water, but to each his own.

And, if you prefer, you can mix the lemon juice and water together first, then stir in the baking soda.

See, I told you it was simple.

As for how it works to cure heartburn, I really don’t know for sure. You’ll have to look that one up on the Internet too. I did and I still don’t really understand the chemistry of the effect. I know the baking soda is an alkaline base that neutralizes excessive gastric acid in your esophagus — but the baking soda doesn’t seem to work as a neutralizing agent by itself. It needs the addition of the lemon juice (an acid) to create the potent libation.

It works as rapidly as any commercial antacid tablet in my experience. There may (or may not) be other benefits to the concoction: I couldn’t say for sure, but I haven’t heard of any negative side effects as long as you’re consuming it in moderation.

As I said, various experts of varying degrees of medical reliability also recommend the baking soda-lemon juice solution for other reasons — everything from whitening teeth to possibly curing phlebitis to slowing the aging process. And the U.S. National Institutes of Health is/are currently funding several studies of the effects of sodium bicarbonate (that would be baking soda by its other name) and citric acid (that would be lemon juice) in treating cancer.

I don’t know and I really wouldn’t even hazard a guess. All I do know is that combining baking soda and lemon juice in a glass of water does wonders — at very little cost — when it comes to relieving heartburn.

As for heartache, I’ll be sure to let you know if I ever find a cure for that.