Virtually a new idea


THIS was the month (March 2011) that the Final Frontier went virtual.

More accurately, this was the month the world learned that space travel was virtual. For six cosmonauts, the virtual trip to Mars began 257 days earlier when they were locked into a steel capsule in Moscow.

This week they were allowed out of the simulated spaceship to trudge (in space suits) across a sandpit simulating the Red Planet.

Then they climbed back into their steel tube for the mock flight back to Earth, all in the cause of planning for a future real voyage.

Why stop at interplanetary travel? A similar mock-up could save Britain’s blushes on the international stage  –  and a cart-load of money.

This week we learned that a crew from Devonport-based HMS Cornwall seized 17 pirates and freed five hostages after storming a fishing boat in the Indian Ocean.

Five Yemeni fishermen were set free on their dhow. The 17 pirates were taken on to HMS Cornwall. “Oh good,” I hear you mutter. “Justice being seen to be done.”

Well, not quite. The Royal Navy frigate steamed off to Somalia … and set the pirates free.

For the pirates, this is a win-win situation almost as crazy as bankers’ bonuses. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you lose someone else’s ship and a few weapons, and get a free ride home. The best is that you get a multi-million-pound payday.

What’s the Somali for “So long, suckers”?

The Royal Navy has shrunk so much that already the regular Caribbean patrol has been scrapped.

The MoD might just as well commandeer the new £18million marine building being built by the University of Plymouth on its city campus.

The building will include a 35-metre by 10-metre wave tank which would be perfect for simulating the life of a matelot. They could take potshots with popguns at pop-up cardboard targets, and everyone would be happy.

Come to think of it, why not move all politicians (and political journalists) into a simulation while we’re about it? Lock us all into the House of Commons and put the key in a safe place.

I’m going to dub this one Bubble Politics, and if it catches on, please remember who invented it.

Instead of having politicians come up with ideas and consult the people, we could turn logic on its head.

People would choose what they want to do, by referendum if necessary. From time to time they would consult the politicians, by poking a piece of paper through a carefully-constructed keyhole in the door to the chamber.

Naturally, your correspondent would continue to file amusing, witty and perceptive stories about life in the Bubble.

You might fear that these stories would become increasingly dull and pointless, but not a bit of it. The latest Mars trial in Russia follows a similar experiment in 1999-2000 at the same Moscow institute.

That one went “wrong” when a Canadian woman crew member complained of being forcibly kissed by a Russian team captain. She also said two Russian crew members had a fight that left blood splattered on the walls.

THE Government’s U-turn this week on plans to sell off Forestry Commission land proves that people power does work.

A common complaint is that councils hold consultations but do not listen to the responses. It’s quite natural to feel that you’re not being listened to if you don’t get your own way, but it’s mass movements and not individuals who make a difference. Ask the Egyptians.

The 2008 consultation about plans for Plymouth city centre attracted just 190 online responses, from a city of 260,000.  The online petition to prevent Cann Woods near Plympton being sold off attracted 200 signatures on the first day it went live this week. Around the country that multiplied up to hundreds of thousands of disgruntled walkers and dog owners who the Government could not ignore.

IT’S probably premature (and unnecessary) to have an Egyptian-style revolution, but there is one piece of our great civilisation that we should fight for: libraries.

Councils are planning to cut library hours and even close libraries themselves. A little bookworm whispers to me that next year is another chapter, and councils that have managed to get by through shrinking opening hours will have nowhere else to go but full closure in 2012/13.

Only people power (or an economic miracle) can avert that. And the surest way is to use your library – so get reading.

A version of this article appeared in The Herald, Plymouth, in March 2011

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