The Impossibility of Vacation: Signal on the Beach

As you can see, your average Signalista has a tough time unplugging from the world of global politics, even on vacation. Even on the beach. Here’s a little window into what it’s like… a prose poem by yours truly and Willis Sparks.


 

You’re on the beach. The sun blazes in a cloudless sky. Seagulls glide silently overhead. The soothing rush of the waves lulls you into a moment’s peace as you gaze at the water.. The level of the water. How much will it rise because of global warming in the coming decades. Three meters? Four? The fragmenting of the Paris Accords will definitely make it worse.

Well, in the long run we’re all dead anyway. Wasn’t that Keynes? For now this will be a perfect day. August is the best…. A lot of world leaders probably hate August. The 1991 Soviet coup against Gorbachev happened in August. So did the ruble crisis seven years later, a national humiliation that helped lay the groundwork for a strongman like Putin to take charge.  Nixon resigned in August 1974. I wonder what Robert Mueller is doing today. He’s probably wearing a tie..

The sky! That pristine blue dome. Above that blue are 1,700 satellites, used for navigation, military applications, and communications. The Chinese and Russians have developed technologies to shoot them down. President Trump is mulling a new Space Force to deal with it, though the Pentagon isn’t on board yet...

Good thing this beach isn’t so crowded. Bondi beach in Australia is crowded. Too crowded. That country’s population surge (it’ll reach 25m people three decades earlier than expected) is straining cities, clogging up beach access, and fomenting a backlash against immigration that could really roil politics there…

Pebble beach or sand beach? The age old question. China’s leaders are at the beach too. Every August, they spend two weeks privately plotting strategy at a beach resort called Beidaihe. It looks nice in the photos. Sand, it looks like. Wonder what they’re talking about today…. A face-saving compromise with Trump? How to keep North Korea on track? It’s hot. Maybe a dip in the water would be nice…

What beautiful water… What the… is that a garbage bag? That could kill a seagull! There’s a four-in-five chance that this bag  is from Asia, you know. That rapidly growing Asian middle class is buying more stuff and throwing out more trash than ever. The logistical and political hurdles to dealing with that problem are … what’s that smell? Is that… those kids are smoking weed! Are they vaping or is it a joint? What was that report about how Lebanon could bring in an extra $500m in export revenues if it legalized cannabis…

It really is hot out here. I’m thirsty. Water is important. Hope India never tries to use its upstream control of so much of Pakistan’s water supplies for political purposes. Kaboom. Wonder what’s happening in Egypt’s dispute with Sudan and Ethiopia over Nile water resources. Maybe it’s time for lunch. . .

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it's our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world's timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft's AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society's biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage. Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.