Monday, 20 August 2012

China: implosion or explosion?

The People's Republic of China is in a precarious and unstable position.

It has a totally capitalist economy, endemic corruption and no effective legal system that anyone can trust. It relies on exporting to western societies which are themselves descending into materialistic nemesis. The exports rely on slave factory labour, as did Great Britain before the social reforms of the 19th century.

The exports cannot continue because the western societies are also in trouble. They have mountains of debt, greedy consumers and a financial world that barely understands the concept of truth. The main international currency, the US dollar, survives only because countries like China are propping it up in their own interests. Why does China have to ensure that the dollar continues to buy a large number of Yuans? Partly it is so that its overseas customers (i.e. most of them) will buy Chinese goods, largely manufactured by slave labour, rather than the ones made in the west. It is also because much of China’s reserves are stored in dollars and these reserves presumably come from taxes paid by Chinese people.

The average citizen needs to save a lot of money for future contingencies. China’s state capitalist society has no national health service, no state provision for elderly care and no state pension system. A citizen in mainland China can either store money physically or buy property. Banks and share markets are not safe options: ‘the stock markets are rigged, the banks operate in a way that is non-commercial and the Yuan is still strictly non-convertible.’ This is a quote from Mark Kitto’s article You’ll never be Chinese in the August 2012 issue of Prospect magazine.

 The need to store money in property has led to the worst property bubble in history. It could burst suddenly tomorrow or any time in the next decade.  Such a crisis could be precipitated by, for example, foreign owners of office blocks and skyscrapers deciding to sell them. No one knows how or when but it seems bound to happen.

 The result would be that the Chinese government’s property port folio would collapse, leaving it without the funds to prop up the dollar which in turn would mean a rapidly diminishing overseas market. At the same time, there would be much reduced wealth in the home market as people lost their savings to the plunging property prices. A lot of angry people would be consigned to unemployment and poverty and unable to pay for their own healthcare or support in old age. There could be real hardship and the government would not have the cash to relieve this.

 According to Kitto the prevailing culture is wholly materialistic and status-obsessed with little tolerance of foreigners wanting to settle down in China (as Kitto had tried to do over 16 years as an immigrant businessman, only to find himself decidedly unwelcome). Corruption is endemic, pride is taken in the bigness of the country, there is no widespread, trusted legal system and education in other than the city international schools stifles creativity and consigns the majority of pupils to a sense of worthlessness, although I am sure there are elements of it the west could learn from.

 Kitto’s picture of China today is one of status and wealth seeking, corruption, xenophobia and absence of an effective justice system. There is also resentment at the large inequalities which are building up. This is manifest in the private gated communities growing in number.

It has by far the largest military force in the world, with over a million soldiers, although it is not so powerful, flexible and technologically advanced as the US military. Its huge manpower could be deployed either to quash internal conflict or to attack surrounding countries as a means of uniting its population against a common foe.

 So when problems come to a head it seems to me there will either be

  • Implosion. Violent riots and civil war throughout the country. There are numerous regions and ethnic groups to fight over diminishing resources, including food and water, and plenty of single men looking for a cause and having no belief in God to restrain them. Previous internal conflict has been deadly and cruel on a scale difficult to imagine in the west. The first part of the 20th century saw up to 100 million deaths and much gratuitous torture (e.g. Mao Tse Tung buried 40,000 scholars alive).


  • Explosion. With the military occupying surrounding countries and using their minerals and other natural resources. Afghanistan, e.g., has numerous rare earths and much else. Japan is in dispute with China over some small rocky islands. Afghanistan might be seen as a way of employing the large number of single men who could otherwise go on the rampage within China. It has the manpower to completely swamp the country and the ruthlessness to deal barbarically with jihad in the way Mao Tse Tung dealt with the old feudal system in China. As an atheist regime there would be no holds barred, since absolute right and wrong would disappear from the perceived universe, as it did in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Or could there be a third alternative? Possibly not, but as regards people’s lives the most important factor is not what political or economic system they live under or even whether they live in a time of change or of stability. What counts most is how human beings behave towards each other – family, friend or enemy. If the message of Christ (which unfortunately is not always manifest in the church) were to be absorbed by the People’s Republic then, I believe, whatever political upheavals or military adventures ensue there would be more humanity, to the benefit not only of Chinese men, women and children, but to those of any countries conquered or annexed. 

You may think this an unlikely scenario but I don’t think it is a hopeless one. There is  a rapidly growing Christian community (c.100 million growing at 4 % p.a.), despite official discouragement and some harassment, tempered recently by the increasing number of Communist Party members (70 million in total) becoming evangelistic Christians and a recognition that Christianity has practical potential for the following:

  • reducing corruption when Christian beliefs are sincerely held.

  • encouraging creativity in science, technology, business, social services and the arts (as in Protestant Europe and N.America during the Enlightenment, where recognition of ourselves as being made in God’s image had obvious implications for human creativity).

  • sanctification of truth (essential for science, engineering, accountancy and all human endeavours).

  • questioning human authority, so that no one person can assume the role of a god  (this is what brought about western democracy).

  • communal care and health services free at the point of consumption (Christian communities are already providing care for the elderly and the Party knows this).

Weighed against a population of 1.34 billion this may be hoping too much but where human beings and God are involved extraordinary things can happen which confound all the predictions of the cleverest humans. Who, for example, would have predicted that the world’s most atheistic country would see the most rapid growth of evangelism in our time?


Reach me at

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Pop music's decline

Looking back at the decades since my youth I have noticed a steady decline in the overall quality of pop music. I had attributed this to an inability to keep up with changing tastes, thinking that since the 1960s the music has gone steadily down hill as I have veered towards classical music, soul, gospel, blues, heavy metal and folk rather than chart offerings. Today’s pop music, when I hear it, seems less adventurous: it lacks real inspired melody and lyrics. It must just be me and my generation, I thought. People of all generations always think that the old days were best, possibly because of the memories they evoke.

However, a recent artificial intelligence study of timbre, pitch and loudness  reported in a Scientific American blog seems to back up the intuition of many of my generation who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Almost half a million pop songs released over 1955-2010 were analysed for sound colour, texture, tonal quality, chords, melody, tonal arrangement and loudness.  They show a clear peak in the early 1960s, after which the music gradually got blander, less diverse and less adventurous while its loudness and violence increased, possibly as a compensation for the dullness of inspirational content. (We are talking about averages. There were obviously exceptions.)

The lyrics were also examined and it seems these got darker, more negative and more self-absorbed. This may well be the clue. Pop music came to life rather like the Cambrian explosion of marine life half a billion years ago – suddenly. It came from the gospel, soul and blues music of black African slaves liberated by the Holy Spirit. It reached a peak very quickly and on the whole the lyrics were wholesome and positive even in adversity, the tunes were powerful and memorable. For me the apex of this era was exemplified by the Ben E King song Stand by me, released in 1961.

Somehow I can't imagine a song of such innocence, depth, power and simplicity coming out of the music world today. It did not make so much of an impression at the time as it did recently, three years after becoming confirmed as a follower of Christ. I now see it as portraying the steadfast and robust nature of true faith and feel it must have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Since coming to believe this I  discovered that it has been voted one of the 500 all time greats ( Rolling Stone magazine).

 By the end of the 1960s, the music had lost much of its innocence and  power. The lyrics of Don McLean’s Bye Bye Miss American Pie   say it all:

Can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

 He was referring to the death of Buddy Holly, another giant of the era, who died in a plane crash in 1959. Albeit with ups and downs it was predominantly down from then on.

Ideas of right and wrong, non-sexual love and devotion to truth gave way to moral relativism, post-modernism, obsession with sex and iconoclasms. The monstrosity of the Vietnam War was in my view, on balance, a betrayal of Christian values, because although it might have helped prevent attacks on the relatively free societies of the west - and even this is debatable - it was at least partly, if not mainly, motivated by the wealthy classes’ fear of losing their wealth should communism ever make it to the USA.  Apart from the appalling dehumanisation and loss of life it had another consequence. Befuddled thinking emerging from the anti war protesters led to the rejection of Christianity itself, the denial of the divine source of being by many, and a revolt against not only the bad in western society but the good. This was despite the Christ-inspired Martin Luther King as he led America towards the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

New mantras and beliefs began to ring through society: if it feels good, do it; whatever turns you on; what’s true for one person may not be true for another; all leaders are bad; all attempts to improve society are corrupt conspiracies – a belief which if stated sufficiently often will be self-fulfilling.

 In the UK, at least, a new version of the 'upper class twit' appeared in the media – so-called intellectuals who preached liberalism and free love; they diluted and denigrated the sacred, they ridiculed the values and weakened the Enlightenment foundations on which western society was built. They misled young people into a downhill spiral of promiscuity, consumerism and debt, the consequences of which are only now beginning to be apparent.

A lot of what was thrown out deserved to be thrown out. Love was elevated above religion by The Beatles (All you need is love) and Jefferson Airplane (You need somebody to love) precisely as Christ taught. Yet mad theories about Him being a space traveller or social worker undermined belief in the Divine Truth of the Holy Trinity, the triune nature of the Creator and reality itself. Many of you reading this now will scoff at the very expression of Divine Truth.

So in retrospect it is not surprising that pop music, too, has gone into decline. The focus on money as the object of life discourages originality. There are still excellent bands and musicians about (my own brother is a US rock musician); but increasingly even young adults have to rely on re-issues and collector’s items to get good music as an alternative to angry self-pitying rap or soulless heavy metal (not all of it, some is brilliant) or bland disco fodder or pretentiousness or those who resort to shock or tastelessness. For live music there is an increasing reliance on tribute artists and old or reformed groups. As for the selling of recorded music this increasingly relies on repackaging commercially safe music from the past.

This is no doubt an oversimplification. Some social and environmental reforms have been made since 1955 and there are some excellent rock, folk and blues musicians about. Occasionally an inspired mainstream pop song hits the charts. Also, new ways of marketing music without destroying its integrity are being explored, making use of the web.

Is this situation likely to change? Yes, I think so. But first people have to recognise and relate to the divine, because it is only transcendentally that great music of any kind is generated within us. It comes from the same source that peace on earth must ultimately come.
see also
(this link added 13 November 2012)

Reach me at

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Skylon: a gift to a venture capitalist? (Updated 17 Sept)

{Since writing the following I have learnt about a BBC 4 TV programme, The Three Rocketeers, shown earlier in September. I was on holiday at the time but have since seen a recording.

The technology is even more advanced than I thought. The latest SABRE engine tests went extremely well and all that is needed is for aeronautical engineers to implement the body design and launch infrastructure. Hopefully this TV exposure will attract some attention by someone with access to money. About one half of one month's quantitative easing budget currently allocated by the Federal Reserve in the USA would be enough to put this spaceplane into orbit.

As Alan Bond said, there can now be no doubt that this concept is viable and it is lack of capital plus a paucity of entrepreneurial vision which is holding up a technology which, without exaggeration, has the potential to truly open up the space frontier to private explorers and entrepreneurs alike. As a UK citizen I would of course like to see this home grown technology realise its potential in the UK, creating 70,000 jobs in  stagnant economy, but if the vision and investment continue to be as elusive as in the past  then  the  European Space Agency or NASA or a business consortium must surely take it on. }

There is a new concept of engine, SABRE, already at an advanced stage of development, waiting to be further developed and incorporated first in a Mach 4.5 aircraft, then in a Mach 25 spaceplane called Skylon which would take off  from and land on a runway. It should make possible the launching of a payload into orbit at as low as 1/100th the present cost. (Mach 1 = the speed of sound.)

To quote the UK Minister of Science David Willets,  it ‘is a potential game-changer’ and was the lead story in Spaceflight, August 2012: Skylon takes another step forward by Nick Spall.

ESA is also interested – not surprisingly since this is probably orders of magnitude ahead of anything being considered by NASA, or Virgin Galactic, or Space X or any contractors or partners of those companies, or the space agency of any other country.

SABRE is a combined cycle air breathing rocket engine taking shape at the labs of Reaction Engines Limited in Culham, Oxfordshire. It was exhibited at the Farnborough International Air Show in July 2012 where it was announced that its critically important and revolutionary helium-filled fine-tubed pre-cooler had been successfully tested. This is designed to cool incoming air during high speed flight from 1000 deg C to minus 150 deg C in 0.01 sec. The pre-cooler design can operate at sub-zero temperatures without frosting.

By incorporating this heat exchanger into a rocket engine it is possible to dispense with a large amount of on-board fuel by breathing in oxygen from the atmosphere and combining this with on-board hydrogen. Used in an aircraft the SABRE would bring any point on the planet to within 4 hours. Used in the Skylon it would dramatically reduce ground-to-orbit costs by a factor of 100.  

The next step is to construct and launch the Nacelle Test Vehicle, possibly from Aberporth on the coast of mid-Wales, and public money is likely to be provided; but the full development of Skylon would cost £10 billion and employ 70,000 people.  Recently, I learned about the asteroid mining venture, Planetary Resources Inc., set up by Larry Page of Google and James Cameron. A Skylon spaceplane would enormously increase the profitability of this venture. This concept has been around for a few years now but, I believe, is dogged by politics, bureaucracy and lack of vision of UK investors.

So if you are a rich venture capitalist with vision and a sense of adventure you may like to get involved with this technology and do humankind a service by investing in a giant leap into the rest of the universe with the prospect of a good return, while at the same time taking our minds off internecine, soul-destroying conflict on this precious planet.

The director of REL is Alan Bond. I have no inside information or contacts but the bottom of the  management page of REL has a 'contact us' option.


reach me at

Monday, 6 August 2012

ET life should be local (updated c.12 hours after initial posting)

Looking for life beyond Earth is an expensive business so it will be necessary to prioritise goals, although history is full of the unpredictable.

The Milky Way would  look  green from afar
- a mixture of yellow and blue stars.
Andromeda is the only other green galaxy we know of.
One fact we need to face up to is that SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) must confine itself to searching our own Milky Way Galaxy (MWG) of 160 billion stars plus perhaps several times that number of attendant planets. The searchable distances range from a few light years to tens of thousands. Anything beyond is not detectable by any technology we can envisage.

This is fortuitous because ours is very likely the only galaxy that could sustain intelligent, sentient beings and the life has to be in a tightly restricted region of the galaxy because anywhere else would be hostile to life.

 What is so special about our MWG?

1. The MWG is a spiral nebula, the only type for which life is possible. Only 10% of galaxies are of this type (the other 3 are elliptical, globular and irregular galaxies, all totally hostile to life.)

2. It has escaped any major merging with another galaxy. Such collisions prevent even a spiral galaxy harbouring life since the cosmic environment becomes unstable, so that all planets are bathed in hostile radiation and subject to chaotic forces. You would normally expect such collisions over the 10 billion year history of the Milky Way.

3. The Magellanic Clouds, which are appendages to our galaxy, choreograph the influx of gas from dwarf galaxies so that just the right amount enters to renew material in the spiral arms where new planets form without causing instability and structural degradation.

4. The black hole at the centre of this galaxy is exceptionally small (e.g. 1/20th the size of the corresponding one in the Andromeda galaxy) and so is less disruptive than other black holes.

5. The MWG’s black hole appears to be sending out waves of radiation periodically, orchestrating the balance of the stellar population for life in ways that are barely understood, possibly in consort with the Magellanic Clouds.

6. The MWG is a ‘green valley’ galaxy, consisting largely of yellow stars like the Sun, with a few blue stars forming each year (say 300,000 since Homo Sapiens began) as new gas is introduced by the Magellanic Clouds. The overall colour effect is green. This has allowed yellow stars to stay dominant for much longer than for any other galaxy except our neighbour the Andromeda and so the solar system has not been subject to violent stellar activity associated with blue and red stars. (In Andromeda’s case violent merger events have been the cause of the gas influxes but these prevent life sustaining cosmic environments.)

7. The MWG is more massive than would normally be expected for a galaxy of this size as seen through a telescope. This is because it contains a lot of dark material. The large mass helps it remain stable while gas is being drawn in and while its central black hole is ‘erupting’, as it does periodically.

8. The cleanly defined spiral arms of the MWG, together with its low luminosity, allow the inhabitants of any planets to probe into the depths of the universe, right back to its Big Bang beginning. Other spiral galaxies, like Andromeda, have spurs and feathers between the arms, while non-spiral nebulae have at least as bad observing conditions.

I understand that there are over 200 special features of the MWG which are crucial to life’s development. Moreover, the benevolent conditions which allow life to thrive and evolve are at least typified by the other yellow stars in the same spiral arm that houses the sun. It is this area we need to focus on to get a good idea of whether we are alone – at least as regards carbon-based biological life and this is in any case the only explorable area. 

Other forms of life based on other molecules are conceivable since laboratory experiments to synthesise life forms based on alternatives to carbon , albeit suboptimal and extremely primitive, could succeed within a decade or less. What these experiments show is that life could not possibly have been started via the assembly of chemicals by blind chance – phenomenal intelligence was involved, such that we can barely begin to imitate it, although even crude, simplified imitations of microbial systems could be useful in combating disease or producing new materials with desirable properties.

It is sometimes said that life not-as-we-know-it could exist in all kinds of unlikely conditions. Yet by definition we would not know how to detect it.

If we find definite evidence of microbial life on Mars (the Curiosity rover has just landed at the time of writing) it will indicate that it could occur almost anywhere in the universe but that a suitable environment is needed to allow it to thrive and progress into sentient beings. So then it will be a matter of looking thoroughly around our corner of the MWG, the only corner we are able to examine in sufficient detail, to find such conditions.

What are these conditions?

They are not easy to define since the advanced life on our own planet actually created its own modern biosphere by working on the rocks, lava, ocean and atmosphere of the newly formed planet and turning it into the world we see today. Nevertheless, there were certain aspects of the pre-life environment which are absent from other planets, from the stars they orbit around and from the galaxies to which the stars belong. I listed a lot of these in   Our Precious Planet but recent articles are showing a growing list of ways in which our planet and its place in the universe are extremely rare, if not truly unique.
(Update. This paragraph was added after listening to a podcast . I can't imagine why it had not already occurred to me.) On the other hand, if any organisms are found on Mars or elewhere in the solar system it could be they are just extremophiles, like the ones found on Earth in volcanic vents and other hostile environments. This is in fact quite likely given the abundance of life here over billions of years and the biotic debris ejected into the solar system when asteroids hit the Earth. In this case we should still search our inrerplanetary locale but with less assurance that bacteria are present throughout the Milky Way. 

In short, the nearby stars in the Milky Way which we are able to observe are the very ones most likely to have life. So let’s keep looking. Whatever the findings they will have major implications for everyone.

See also

The benevolence of black holes by Caleb Scharf  (Scientific  American (August 2012) p.22-7)

Why the Milky Way may be facing a mid-life crisis

 Reach me at