Friday, 17 April 2020

Car crash politics

THE UK government’s handling of the virus pandemic has been breath-takingly incompetent at almost every stage. It may sound harsh but when the facts are reviewed it is not hard to reach such a conclusion.

Johnson and his cabinet have always claimed they are being “led by science” not politics. But many scientists who are not in the government’s inner circle have voiced serious concerns and expressed alternative views.

And what exactly is scientific about having no mass testing? A lack of personal protection equipment for NHS staff? No protection for our care homes? And no social distancing for seven weeks after the first case of coronavirus was reported in the UK?

Italy, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, France, Japan, China, South Korea all introduced measures at an early stage to try and contain the spread of coronavirus. In the UK, Johnson’s initial response was, “Take it on the chin.”

The government's daily press conferences and media interviews by ministers have largely become an enraging exercise in fluent, complacent, platitudinous stonewalling. No answers to important questions, just evasive promises along the lines that everything will improve sometime soon.

Much of it boils down to a government that fundamentally objects to scrutiny -  the Commons has sat for one full month in Johnson’s first 10 as premier. And one of the reasons for this is because it is founded on political ideologies. For a decade it hasn’t valued or protected the people the country depends on, and it has spent years weakening the NHS and social care. Now, faced with the real world, it is struggling to accept its own culpability.

Why, for example, are there still around 15,000 people a day flying into the UK. That's the equivalent of 105,000 passengers a week, including those flying in from countries with their own serious Covid-19 outbreaks, like the US, China, Spain and Italy.

Even America has banned entry for people from Britain and elsewhere in Europe, whereas the UK has no such limits in place and deems it not important to impose health checks or a period in quarantine on people arriving at UK airports.

It seems increasingly apparent that this is a single-pony, Brexit-driven government with no script or comprehension for serious subjects, and is at its flagrant happiest when dishing out slogan politics.

A lamentable conclusion to draw from the UK government’s overall handling of the crisis so far is that its approach has appeared largely reactive and laissez faire, at least on the surface. In the corridors of money and power, however, there may be more sinister political forces at work.

In recent days it has seemed disingenuous for ministers to repeatedly infer that the British public are not capable of engaging in or understanding a proper debate about how a Covid-19 exit strategy is going to be managed in the weeks to come? As a result, one might also be inclined to conclude that UK plc currently has no plausible lock-down exit strategy.

If anything, public compliance with the lock-down has been more solid than anticipated and there is no evidence that people will stop complying if ministers start talking openly about how and when some restrictions might be lifted. Democracy entails debate.

Inspite of Covid-19, the government has also been adamant it sees no reason to change its looming Brexit trajectory, even though we’re less than nine months away from the transition period ending with no future trade terms in place.

The consequences of such a final EU departure are now magnified in economic terms because they will come on top of the grisly impact of the pandemic, as outlined by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) this week.

The government’s proposition is that, despite a predicted (albeit possibly short term) 35 percent fall in GDP, a rise in unemployment to maybe three million and annihilation of public finances, it remains the inviolable “will of the people” to add the effects of Brexit (with or without a deal) to the devastation being wrought by the virus pandemic.

As the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put it earlier this week in advising an extension - “why make a tough situation even tougher?” With coronavirus still rampant and economies tanking there are surely no rational arguments against agreeing an extension to allow time for a proper trade deal.

As summer 2020 unfolds, the days and weeks ahead will shine an ever more critical spotlight on Johnson and his egalitarian government’s handling of the pandemic. And it may yet prove to be one of the most egregious and catastrophic failures of democratic leadership in our lifetime.

But given Johnson's shoddy and disingenuous performance on other issues - such as on Brexit, immigration policy and even his response to the devastating winter flooding across the UK - it can surely come as no surprise that the UK is rapidly staking claim to be the poor man of Europe when it comes to its abject handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Sunday Times (19 April 2020) -  38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Traffic lights in the night sky

Starlink satellites leave diagonal lines as they pass through a telescope’s field of view.

UNITL relatively recently in human history the night sky remained one of the last unspoilt vestiges of our natural world. From the time of Galileo to the present day, astronomical observations from Earth’s surface have led to exceptional progress in the scientific understanding of the world around us.

Now, just as we enter the third decade of the 21st Century and a dynamic new phase in space exploration and exploitation begins, some of the current capability of astronomical instrumentation from the ground is potentially being endangered by the rapid development of micro-satellite fleets in low Earth orbits (LEO).

In the interests of preserving the ability to make meaningful visual and radio ground-based observations, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is sounding a clarion call for greater protection and international safeguards.

The IAU claims that if the deployment of mega constellations remains unchecked the view of the night sky will be increasingly impeded by artificial satellites, not only visible to the naked eye but also crossing and scarring professional and amateur time-lapse observations alike with parallel streaks at all latitudes.

SpaceX has already embarked on its ambitious Starlink project to populate the sky with some 42,000 satellites which, together with planned constellations such as those from OneWeb, Amazon and others, means there could one day be more than 50,000 small satellites encircling the Earth at different low altitudes.

These small, mass-produced satellites orbit very close to Earth with the intent to provide speedy internet connections via low-latency signals. But that proximity also makes them more visible and brighter in the night sky. Astronomers argue that such constellations will severely diminish our view of the universe, create more space debris and deprive humanity of an unblemished view of the night sky. If these networks come to fruition, they suggest that every square degree of the sky will eventually have a satellite crawling across it throughout the whole observing night.

As space becomes ever more commercialised the speed of such development is quickly overtaking the existing, globally agreed rules governing space activities. Mega constellations are just one area where new rules of governance are urgently needed. Others include the exploitation of resources on the Moon and elsewhere, preserving peace and resolving disputes, and rules for everyday living in space.

Recognising the urgent need for coordinated action, next year the space nation Asgardia is organising a second congress in its ‘Paving the Road to Living in Space’ series. It will focus on discussing key aspects of space law needed to ensure the success of future space exploits.

Of course, ROOM fully supports the growth and advancement of space technologies and the ensuing benefits they bring to everyday life, business and commerce across the globe.

But it would be ironic indeed if, by exploiting LEO without due responsibility, we neglect to consider the resultant damage to scientific research and a previously unblemished part of our natural environment that deployment of such new technologies could unwittingly deliver.

The urgent question is, do we continue to rush headlong into deploying massive new orbital networks without checks and balances, and with scant regard for the heavens above - or can the global space community approach this kind of thing in a more mature and responsible manner that is fair to everyone?

Editorial (originally published under the title 'Mega-constellations raise awkward questions for space community') 
by Clive Simpson in the Spring 2020 edition of ROOM Space Journal

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Light changes everything


I’VE always been fascinated by light. Or perhaps, to put it more accurately, by the lack of dark compared to the perpetual electronic daylight most of us now live in and accept as the norm.

It may have been an early interest in astronomy and growing up under big Fenland skies that first prompted this lifelong interest. The stunning wonder of the heavens in a gloriously dark and primitive sky that, in those days, was hardly touched even by artificial satellites.

A decade or so ago I started taking a more professional interest in new types of lighting and its potential impacts on life in general and human health in particular, attending some international lighting conferences and writing about the subject more widely through my work as a freelance journalist.

I had a feeling deep in my gut that something about our modern forms of light and our more recent headlong dash to LED technology wasn’t quite right - and yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Of course, I was as keen as anyone to promote better dark skies by removing as much of the unnecessary light pollution as possible that now pervades our life after darkness falls. I was also a keen supporter of the fledgling environmental movement so, like most of us, I quickly bought into the industry-led narrative about LED lighting, its energy-saving properties and how good it would be for our planet.

Was there a downside? On the face of it there didn’t appear to be one and it seemed we were all left with little choice but to purchase vastly more expensive LED technology light bulbs. Okay, so the cost was a bit steep compared to the incandescent bulbs we were all replacing but if we were saving Earth in the process surely that was a price worth paying?

But all along the light sensitive ‘eyes’ in my gut were posting warning signs about the slow but inexorable creep of modern-day LED lighting.

In the past few years they might have darkened the heavens in a few locations though that might be more the result of councils up and down the country switching off lighting to save money.

What we might have saved in energy consumption on an individual light has likely more than been replaced by the massive increase in the quantity of lighting installations of all kinds. In reality, LEDs have led to a pandemic of uncontrolled and excessive lighting inside our homes, on public buildings, on transport and on the roads.

Driving home after dark the other evening, I was momentarily blinded by the dazzling headlights of an oncoming car. At first I thought the driver had mistakenly left his lights ‘on beam’ but then I realised this excessive brightness was a new normal for night-time driving. These were just the ultra-bright LED headlights now installed as de facto standard on every new car.

I fear I am not alone in finding overly bright vehicle headlights an increasing driving and road safety problem - and not always just at night, sometimes in the daytime too.

It seems our lighting designers - whether for street “function”, inside the home or on motor vehicles - have run with the excitement of LED technology merely because it was new and the latest thing.

In the process little thought has gone into its intense luminosity, blue-white colour balance or the fact that LED light is acutely directional, more akin to a laser than a conventional light source with excessive glare, a huge increase in light intensity at the centre and a very sharp cut-off.

The UK is not alone. Populations around the world have readily embraced these new forms of light, often unwittingly and without due process to its effect on our bodies and the environment. If I have learnt one thing whilst studying this issue over recent years it is that light is not just light.

Certainly the more intense blue-white light of lower cost high lumen LEDs is potentially damaging for us whether in the home or outdoors - and, treated without due caution, may actually turn out to be a lot worse than our now rejected traditional forms of incandescent lighting.

In her recently published book (Incandescent, September 2019), journalist Anna Levin throws her own spotlight on the transforming colour and tone of our everyday environments. “Light is changing, dramatically. Our world is getting brighter - but is brighter always better?” she asks.

The thrust of Levin’s book is that natural light (and dark) is fundamental to almost every aspect of life on Earth, interacting with humans and animals in profound yet subtle ways. “We mess with the eternal rhythm of dawn-day-dusk-night at our peril,” says Levin. “But mess with it we have, and we still don't truly understand the consequences.”

She claims that technology and legislation have crushed our previously warm, incandescent lighting in favour of harsher, often glaring alternatives.

And there is the irony. Since regulations were passed introducing legislation banning incandescent lamps, domestic energy consumption has actually risen and so, according to the UK Department for the Environment, there has been no overall saving.

In recent years there can be no question that our night-time world has been rapidly infiltrated by a voracious predator - an un-natural form of light that is both seen and unseen at the same time.

Incandescent is a well-researched and written book, with accessible analysis and explanations supported by technical details about LED lighting’s potential impact on human health and the wider environment. It throws an intriguing new light on an unanticipated problem that is only now becoming recognised.

Some useful links:
Anna Levin - Incandescent
LightAware - charity & support
Soft Lights - lighting with thought 
Clive Simpson - Writer & Editor