Thursday, 2 October 2014

John Whiteside "Jack" Parsons (1914-1952)

October 2, 2014 marks the one hundredth birthday of one of the most revolutionary and ingenious scientists of the 20th century; yet his public profile can be described as modest, if not negligible at worst. There are many scientists from modern history whose legacies and identities are imprinted in the public consciousness. Among them are Albert Einstein in physics, Alan Turing in computing, Tim-Berners Lee in information technology, and Marie Curie in chemistry. John Whiteside Parsons, who is usually referred to as Jack Parsons, was easily on par with these greats in both terms of his genius and his contributions in his own field: rocketry. Wernher von Braun, the Operation Paperclip recruit responsible for Apollo 11's Saturn V, is said to have credited Parsons as being more important than himself to the American space program.

Parsons is notable, if not notorious, as being the cultural spectacle of being both a rocket scientist and an occultist follower of Aleister Crowley's Thelema belief system. I began researching Parsons for this very reason: the concept of a pioneering rocket engineer and prophetic advocate for human space travel being commitedly involved in neopaganism is an immediately fascinating idea within itself. At face value his story sounds like a cross-over between The Big Bang Theory and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The more I have learned about Parsons through acquiring as much biographical information about him as possible, however, transcends this novelty. I came to appreciate not only a scientist who provided both the practical and visionary means for present day rocket-based space travel and research, and that in the Space Race before it, but also a political, religious and philosophical thinker of immense moral principle, creativity, and cultural foresight.

Parsons was one of the main scientists responsible for the foundation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which is today as a primary subdivision of NASA controlling space exploration missions such as the Mars rover program. Beside his contemporaries he spearheaded its establishment as part of the original Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory Rocket Research Group at the California Institute of Technology (GACLIT) in the 1930s. Much like Issac Newton, Parsons was a prodigal autodidact. He began constructing rockets with his friend Edward Forman at the age of 16, resulting in the primordial basis of his groundbreaking inventions at Caltech. Jack was the child of privilege, but the loss of the family fortune during the Depression meant that he could not afford to attain a university degree (even though tuition fees at American universities were then a few hundred bucks, in contrast to the many thousands of today).

Unabated, Parsons and Forman basically walked into Caltech one day and approached the great aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman, who referred them to his PhD student Frank Malina (who was the first director of JPL and built one of the first rockets used for non-military means). Parsons, Forman and Malina formed the GALCIT Group at Caltech, which was known as "The Suicide Squad" for its usually explosive rocket experiments and subject to mockery from the Caltech establishment.  

Their idealism was pragmatically reliant upon the military-industrial complex during World War II: the U.S. government and military providing subsidy for their development of Jet-Assisted Takeoff units that were vital to the Allied war effort against fascism. But it was these funds that led to Parsons' invention of the first solid-fuel rocket units that were the technological blueprint for the realization of space travel (via Apollo and the Space Shuttle) that Parsons' first envisioned in his teenage days.

Parsons' career, however, was stifled by his personal and political life. As a Thelemite and individualist (the two are interchangeable) who advocated for racial equality, feminism and sexual liberation in 1930s-40s and then Cold War America, he was prey to the bigotry and McCarthyism that the scientific establishment was beholden to. Because of this he was forced to resort to work far beneath his abilities, including pyrotechnic and chemical engineering contracting which stockpiled the materials that tragically ignited the explosion that killed him at age 37.

But when we see the footage of the Moon landings (where a crater is named after Parsons), or spot the International Space Station above our orbit in the sky, we can appreciate that these are feats of human accomplishment that Jack Parsons was integral to the achievement of, and which were originally relegated to the supposedly impossible words of his mystical and sci-fi enthusiasms.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Umbrella Revolution

This blog frequently receives page visits from China. Given that it frequently discusses political dissent and protest movements, including the Tienanmen square incident, it somewhat surprises me that it could be accessible on the mainland. Thus I hope that those Chinese readers can receive this direct message to them.

I hope that you will support the movement for universal suffrage and democratic self-determination in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers have the fundamental human right to be free from the hegemony and diktat of Beijing and the Communist Party. This does not mean that your country, its culture and people are held in contempt: the corruption and inequality imposed upon you by your ruthlessly elitist and repressive political order impacts the entirety of China. The socialism that the Communist Party claims to stand for is contradicted by the vast iniquity and ubiquitous corruption and economic exploitation it sanctions, which is no different to the economic and social injustice being revolted against in the West. I hope that Hong Kong will inspire you to stand up for human rights in China just the same.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Redefining jihad

In the West, the Islamic term jihad is almost ubiquitously associated with the extremism and fundamentalism that is a microcosm of the religion's diverse, global population, such as that perpetrated by the sadists and gangsters of Islamic State. Thus in this context jihad is uniformly associated with beheadings, suicide bombings, violent misogyny, and ethno-religious persecution. But this is morally a gross misnomer. Jihad in Islamic terms means struggle: the struggle for truth and justice, and ultimately peace. The brave Kurdish Muslims of the PKK aiming to defend themselves, alongside the Yazidis, from Islamic State genocide and barbarism, can therefore be described as jihadis in the true and honourable sense. As can the participants of the Arab Spring who have resisted authoritarian repression and corruption.

There is no sense jihad in the ideology of salafi-fascists who justify their brutality and hatred with propaganda of deceit, and who are committed to denying humanity, including Muslims, their basic civil and human rights. These thugs therefore must not be permitted to such a linguistic monopoly. In being granted it we portray their crimes in the terms they would prefer.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Richard Dawkins and abortion

Words matter. When I was nine years old, I was victim to a disability hate crime that was so traumatic it took me over a decade until I reported it to the police. The person who committed this offence knew that I had a disability, developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia). In a public place, they stated, in mind of self-care, social and mobility difficulties: "That child should have been abortion."

Disabled people regularly face, perhaps usually in more subtle and subliminal forms, the implication of their inherently burdensome presence, or facetiously, sympathy for the supposedly inherently unbearable nature of this existence. In their most extreme form, these ethos motivated the "mercy killing" of Nazi Germany's Action T4 regime (which is a relevant historical observation rather than a mere example of Godwin's law).

Of course, childbearers should not be shamed or stigmatised by their decision to medically end a pregnancy. This could indeed be because of a child's disability; severe mutations causing immense suffering within a very short lifespan. But persons with Down's syndrome are unlike these cases, given that many of them lead fulfilling lives in the shelter of relatives and friends who love and cherish them. They chosen and valued, with the implication that they are uniformly, innately shameful or defective being the most damaging influence on their quality of life. The greatest suffering they face is probably such ignorance and prejudice, which is why Richard Dawkins, if he is a humanist, should rethink the ethical basis for his remarks.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

I am not white

I am not white. I may be primarily Caucasian, but from my mother's side I am partially Roma, and from my father's I am partially Cook Island Māori. Thus I am mixed racedefinitely the Other. I am ashamed to have presented myself as "white" by default in the past, but perhaps the pain of the shame of my childhood was too much to confront.

My skin is darkly-toned, my nose is slightly wide, my forehead is slightly high. I therefore do not doubt that racism, at least subconsciously, singled me out for victimhood from the adults abusing their authority to perpetrate their other forms of institutional abuse and discrimination, all trauma which responsible for my mental health condition. "Jacob looks unwashed", they told my mother, who was literally described as "swarthy" by them. "He has dark rings under his eyes" was an issue. One attempted to scrub my "dirty", brown-skinned little hands.

I am Jacob Richardson. I am not white. I will fight for justice and shame you for your white supremacy instead.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Obama protects the torturers

"We tortured some folks", was Barack Obama's folksy admission that officials within the Bush administration and CIA sanctioned and orchestrated these systematically perpetrated international law violations and human rights abuses of their detainees. A similarly folksy response can be given to the question of whether they will be prosecuted for these felonies: Nope.

Shortly after banning the use of "enhanced interrogation methods" (one of the most fatuous and contemptibly evasive propaganda euphemisms even linguistically constructed) in 2009, the Obama administration outright refused to prosecute those who permitted and ordered barbarism such as potentially lethal waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation, and threats of violence and death against detainees and their family members, despite the use of torture most often resulting in false intelligence being provided by those subjected to them. To paraphrase former Navy SEAL Jesse Ventura: "Give me Dick Cheney and a waterboard and I'll get him to confess to the Charles Manson murders."

In 2009, Spain levelled (but then dropped) criminal charges against six figures from the Defense and Justice (how Orwellian) departments responsible for organizing the Bush administration's torture human rights abuses and war crimes. To me the vilest of them all is John Yoo, the Attorney General who through technicalities and legalese constructed the internal justifications that torture methods such as waterboarding were not implicitly constitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment", or illegal. It was Yoo who stated that threatening to crush the testicles of a detainee's child was fair game in the name of military intelligence gathering. But the UN Convention Against Torture says otherwise.

In refusing to prosecute these international criminals, the Obama administration abandoned any pretension that it would take the moral high ground regarding the contempt of international law seen in the Bush era. Patronizing, self-serving promises of "reform" or "resolution" will not do. Anyone who cares about the idealized basic ethical values of modern civilization should fight for the Bush administration torturers to be behind the dock at the International Criminal Court.