UK Election Fallout and Qatar: what would you do if in charge?

Suppose like me you are an author of fiction. Given the following situations, put yourself in someone’s shoes and ask yourself, what next?

The first event was the rather unfortunate end result of the UK election. What was delivered was what I consider to be the worst possible outcome. The problem is, voters are sucked in by “jam today”, or “I am annoyed about something.” So, what now? First, some background. The national debt of Britain now stands at £ 1.73 trillion, and the interest payment on this debt is about 6% of revenue. That might seem to be reasonably sustainable, but there is the overall issue of Brexit looming. The UK has apparently had a recent surge in GDP, despite the threat of Brexit, but it is not clear that will last, and interest rates will probably grow from their record low. Suppose they double, which is easy from such lows. 6% suddenly turns to 12%, and that is ugly. (The existing loans will stay at their agreed rate, but can you pay them back when they mature? Otherwise you have to borrow at the new rate.) It appears that Jeremy Corbyn was promising a lot of spending, together with an unspecified increase in taxes. My guess is a lot of the youth vote that went to Corbyn thought the rich would pay. The usual problem with that assessment is that while the rich can be made to pay significantly higher taxes, to get the amounts needed to make a significant difference in revenue tax rises have to go a lot deeper. There are just not enough rich to soak. On the other hand, people may well argue they needed more money to go to health, education, or whatever. The question then is, can you pay for what you want?

May was apparently promising austerity. That is hardly attractive, but it was also put forward in a rather clumsy way. Cutting out school lunches is not only hardly a vote winner, but it is also never going to make a huge difference. Putting that up front is a strange way to win an election. It seems that the Tories were so convinced they were going to win that they decided to put up some policies that they knew would be unpopular, so they could say later, “You voted for them.” The two who are believed to have largely written the manifesto have resigned (really, pushed by angry senior Tories) but the question remains, why were they left to write it? Why did the senior Cabinet Ministers not know what was in it, or if they knew, why did they not do something about it? There’s plenty of blame to go around here, folks, nevertheless there are two hard facts: if Britain and the EU cannot manage Brexit properly, there will be severe economic problems, and economic problems seem to be like a very active virus that goes everywhere very quickly. The second is, if debt gets out of hand, the country spends so much on interest repayments that it ends up in the position Greece is now in. Anyone want that?

So, put yourself in some position: what would you do? My opinion is the Tories should realize that Corbyn has no chance currently of forming a government (because he needs every non-Tory vote) and get on doing something that has at least some public appeal. May either has to go, or learn oratory and get some empathy for the others.

The other event is the Arab attempt at isolating Qatar, on the grounds it is financing terrorism. Actually, the Saudis are almost certainly the biggest such supporters. The real reason appears to be either Qatar is friendly with Iran, or alternatively Qatar is the home of al Jazeera, a TV network that tries by and large to report the facts, warts and all. The US position on this is obscure. President Trump has lashed out against Qatar, without any particular evidence, although Qatar is known to have given refuge a number of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The US is also bombing Assad’s troops in Syria to prevent them getting at fleeing ISIS fighters; it seems that terrorism is being actively supported by the US, which make no strategic sense. At first, it looks as if Qatar could be quickly invaded from Saudi Arabia, but whoever does that would have to be very careful because Qatar houses the biggest local US base in the region, and has 11,000 military personnel there. To add to the complications, Turkey has promised to send troops. Fighting Turkey should mean fighting NATO, although with President Trump nothing automatically follows.

So, imagine you are the leader of Qatar, what would you do? Return the Muslim Brotherhood members to Egypt where they would probably be tortured and/or executed? Promise to stop funding terrorists? (If you really are not, this is easy to keep, but maybe not so easy to convince others that you are keeping it.) Remember, whatever you decide to do, you have to be prepared for whatever consequences follow. Not easy working out what leaders should do, is it? Writing fiction is, of course, easier, because you control what happens next. But if you want that fiction to have some relation with reality, what happens next has to be plausible, so here is your chance to get some practice.

Why Are Countries Separating?

In many of my futuristic novels, I have selected a form of government to be in the background. Thus I have had a theocracy, a dictatorship, essentially no government (for the initial settlement of Mars), anarchy, crumbling “democracy” (i.e. our representative republic), real democracy, and finally, something else that I shall call federalism. The concept behind federalism is that a number of countries willingly join a Federation, and on most issues they continue on as they have always done, but there was also an over-riding Council whose function is to set a limited number of rules, and act as referees to make sure the various politicians in the countries behave. Another function is to provide factual information, and prevent political movements from achieving goals by lying. (Hey, I thought about “fake news” before it was popular, but that of course is hardly true either. Telling lies to get votes was bread and butter for the politicians of the Res Publica, and many of the inscriptions on the walls of Karnak by Ramses II had little relation with the facts.) This Federation also has to deal with the futuristic problems that we can see now, such as energy availability, resource allocation, climate change, etc. Interestingly enough, at least for me, the problems upon which the novels depended invariably arose from a similar source: people gaming the system. That may merely reflect my lack of imagination, but I rather fancy that any system will work well if all the people try to make it work. Most Romans thought Augustus was a great leader, even though he was effectively a dictator and probably the greatest manipulator ever.

The plots of these novels focused on how people were trying to get around the various rules. If there were an underlying message here, it was that rules only really work when people can see the point in them. A classic example is road rules. I suspect most of us have, at some time broken the speed limits, and while I have no intention of being specific and attracting unnecessary tickets, I know I have. I actually try to obey parking limits, but some times, well, something happens and I can’t quite make it. However, wherever I am, there is a rule on which side of the road I should drive on, and I keep to that assiduously. There is no specific preference – some countries drive on the right and others drive on the left, but a country has to choose one and stick with it, otherwise there are messy collisions all over the place. Everybody sticks to that rule because they see the point. (Confession time – once I did not. I came over a rise in Czechoslovakia, it was pitch black, and there was a little fire to my left. Suddenly, I realized the problem – there was a tank with camouflage netting parked in the middle of the road. I evaded around the left, not the right, because being in a British car I could better see the space I could use on my right, and also because I was better trained in sliding on gravel, etc, at speed and getting back on the road from that side. Must have given the tankers a bit of a fright. They would see a car first coming straight at their tank at 100k, then it would evade towards them and start sliding sideways, sending up showers of gravel from the side of the road.)

However, the point is, in general people will happily accept such rules if they see a point to them. Which side of the road you should drive on has a very clear point. The speed limit, perhaps less so. We recognize that road construction usually requires speed limits but I know that in some hilly terrain, overtaking a truck would be more important than sticking to a number. The problem with such rules, though is the rule makers seem to get carried away and think there should be rules for everything.

Some may recognize this Federal system. I made it up in the 1980s, and I was inspired in part by the European Union. You may recall at that time there was talk of the currency being the ecu, or European Currency Unit. Accordingly, in my novels I invented the fecu, however I put in one rule that Europe ignored. (They should have consulted me!!) In the novels, the fecu is used for transactions between companies and major corporations, and has a fixed value, a sort of resource standard. However, salaries in different countries, and goods in different countries, are paid in dollars, drachmas, whatever, and the average citizen never sees a fecu. I think the euro is a weakness of the EU because I don’t think you can run a common currency when countries have different economic policies.

Another question is whether the UE, through Brussels, has too many rules. Some say yes, others say no, but in the various discussions on Brexit, there is a lot of talk about untangling the thousands of rules. If that is a problem, there are too many of them. Good rules have a wide acceptance, and they could stay.

Which naturally brings me to the French election. All the commentators I have read say the French were upset over EU rules, and wanted change. So, what do they do? They elect a plutocrat, a banker! Trust the French – reminds me of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr) which translates out as “the more it changes, the more it is the same thing”. So, how do you get rid of the rule of plutocrats? The French elect one. The British go the indirect way and try the “go it alone” way. Neither will probably work, but in answer to the title question, I think it is because so many voters have given up on traditional representatives acting in the interests of the population at large they are prepared to try anything.

The Martian. Hollywood science!

The Martian: coming to a theatre near you! Even before release, an article turned up in our local newspaper where “experts” criticized the science in this movie. Now, I love it when people start to take science seriously, but is it fair? This story by Andy Weir started life as an ebook, and I purchased it and reviewed it on Amazon well before it took off, mainly because I too had self-published an ebook on Mars colonization and I started reviewing ebooks to help other independent authors. So, is the science OK in the book?

The biggest blooper is the storm (which I have seen in the film trailer). Martian winds can hit up to 200 k/h, but gas pressures are about 1% of Earth’s. Force is rate of change of momentum, so even after correcting for the lower gravitational acceleration and the mass of dust, the forces are comparable to a very gentle breeze here. Of course, if this were corrected there would be no story.

The next criticism of the film was that Matt Damon walks about as if he were on Earth (which he was!). Yes, the Martian gravity is slightly less than 40% of Earth’s, but who cares in a film? Worse, it would be rather difficult to get this exactly right, and if you try, the critics will soon be out finding flaws in what you do. As far as I am concerned, Hollywood is forgiven for this. It just is not worth trying to get it right, especially as the costs will add up, and I doubt getting it right would add many extra seats sold.

I shall be interested to see how close the film follows the book, because there are some more serious issues. The newspaper article mentioned radiation, and suggested that cancer was omitted from the film. I am not so sure that is important because the cancer would not appear until after the film was over, but there is another consequence of radiation, and that would relate to his living quarters, which were described as being like a tent and made of something flexible. Polymers need a good molecular weight to remain flexible, and ionizing radiation would very quickly embrittle most polymers, and if there are fibres in the tent material, make the matrix holding it together more porous, and less effective at holding gas under pressure. In my Red Gold, I got around that with two suggestions. The first was that the growing of vegetables was done in triple-layered glass houses. Glass does not degrade because it is held together with ionic forces, and should a sodium atom inadvertently be struck by a proton, well, magnesium will hold it more strongly. Eventually, it will haze, but that will also happen through other mechanical abrasion. My second defence against ionizing radiation was to have a giant superconducting magnet at the Mars-Sun L1 position, which would give a small deflecting nudge to incoming charged particles. This Lagrange point is where the planet and star’s gravitational fields equal the centripetal force required for any body to have the same orbital period as the planet. This position is only metastable, so corrections are needed, but this can be minimized by having the body orbit the position (carrying out a Lissajous orbit). Would this work? I hope so! So far nobody has criticized me for it.

However, another problem in the book, and I shall be curious about how the film does this, revolves around growing potatoes. Mark Watney (the character) needs water. Don’t try what he did, or if you must, try to be just a tad more competent. The method in the book is just plain ugly. Also, there had to be some other way because originally the crew would have needed water. In Red Gold, my method was to condense it from the atmosphere (50% humidity). Of course there is not much atmosphere, but it has to be pumped up to a useful pressure anyway. You cannot live in a space suit. The second method, once you find it, is to dig it up. Mars has plenty of ice, although finding a convenient lump depends on where you are. A more serious problem is nitrogen. You cannot grow things without certain elements in the soil. Potassium and phosphorous are probably there in small amounts in any soil, but nitrogen is different. So far, minor amounts have been found at Gale Crater, but not by other rovers, although in some cases they did not have the capability of detecting it. The Martian atmosphere has very little nitrogen, so unless there is a lot buried, settling on Mars could be difficult. Certainly, the growing of potatoes under the conditions described in the book would need somewhat more nutritious soil than analyses have so far indicated.

Is this important? I think so, because apparently there are people signing up for a one-way trip to Mars. I would hope they know what they are letting themselves in for.