Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mars One

Just started "The Martian" by Andy Weir, passed to me by my sister.
"In Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, an American astronaut named Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after a vicious sandstorm cuts him off from his fellow crew members. They assume, with good reason, that he has been killed in the storm; their only recourse is to save themselves by aborting the mission and returning to Hermes, the mother ship.

Watney’s situation then is the most dire that can be imagined. He has no means of communication with Hermes or Earth; as far as the known universe is concerned, he is dead and therefore no rescue operations are contemplated.
Watney is heir to the labours of countless other individuals — he has at his disposal numerous gadgets left behind by his fellow astronauts, ranging from a hammer and screwdriver to a plutonium-fuelled generator called a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. (Such a device does exist by the way — Weir’s future fiction is pretty much set in the present.)

It is through these devices — mainly an atmospheric regulator, oxygenator and a water reclaimer — that Watney is able to keep breathing and moving around and even to start planting and harvesting a potato crop on the soil of Mars."
The ludicrous "Mars One" project is doomed in a variety of ways, but the most telling fact is that the kind of guys you need on a no-return, ramshackle Mars base are plumbers, electricians, botanists and electronic engineers: people with mechanical aptitude and green fingers. The people who've signed up all seem to be folk with doctorates in black hole physics. As I said, doomed.


In "Wolf Hall" last week, Thomas Cromwell advises his son, who is about to joust with King Henry 8th for the first time. Cromwell explains that he once met a superb jouster in Turkey who explained the key to success: relax in the saddle, hold the lance as if it were light as air, and lose all care as to whether you will survive or not.

This is a very familiar trope. I recall some years ago watching a very bad film about King Arthur. I dimly recall someone like Danny Kaye playing the knight Lancelot, who at this point is wandering around incognito as the sword-fighting equivalent of a prize fighter, taking on all comers. A young man asks him the secret of his success. Kaye/Lancelot replies with the usual - do this with the sword, watch your opponent like that .. and then his final advice, and don't care whether you live or die.

Do you recognise this as another example of 'hawk vs. dove' or the game of chicken? A superlative dogfighting tactic was simply to fly head-on at your opponent, firing all the time. Both aircraft are small targets, but the first one to break away exposes itself completely to its opponent's fire and will be shot down. The pilots who 'didn't care whether they lived or died' were the ones who lived.

I think this advice comes down to: we can't all be psychopaths but sometimes it pays to emulate one.


I am a really slow learner. For years I tolerated being thirteen and a half stone, with a spherical abdomen and a vast, forty inch plus waistline. Six months of the 5:2 diet a couple of years ago lost me two and a half stone and for ages I was stable at just over 11 stone (70 kg). Recently I realised that I was still tolerating a layer of flab under the rib cage and a residual layer of abdominal fat. Why?

I guess I just hadn't engaged. I have now decided to forget BMIs and target weights, I just don't need to carry this extra stuff around. I was 10 stone 12 (69 kg) this morning and the loss of a kilogram is already noticeable at the gym (more power!). I have in the past been briefly 10 stone 9 lb and it's looking like ten and a half stone might be a healthier weight to be at. We shall see.

I recall Matthew Parris's famous remark on dieting. 'If you're a bit overweight, skip breakfast; if the problem is a little more serious, skip lunch too. The problem will soon be resolved.'

I agree.