The neoliberal think tank that wants to sell the moon


Feedback is our weekly column of bizarre stories, implausible advertising claims, confusing instructions and more


23 February 2022

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Josie Ford

First hands on the moon

Oh, what fun it must be to sit in a tank, and think! It is a thought that strikes Feedback with full vigour as we sit in our stationery cupboard tank – does anyone know how to drive this thing, etc. – surveying the recent paper from UK-based neoliberal think tank the Adam Smith Institute, “Space invaders: Property rights on the moon”.

Feedback isn’t one of those unkind partisans who reflexively associates the word “swivel-eyed” with the output of neoliberal think tanks. Nor are we so unnuanced as to say the paper advocates “privatising the moon”, as some more agitated commentators have. To privatise something, we assume it must be in public ownership first.

No, it primarily addresses the question of what a Lockean-type classical liberal rights-based approach to economic justice demands in terms of adjudicating problems of the individual ownership of land in space. It also argues that the current rules-based international order, based mainly on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, is no longer fit for purpose when various private and national interests are engaged in a new space race and “everyday space tourism is just around the corner”.

That’s a mighty long corner, we’ll warrant. But if we are sceptical of the competitive tendering process to allocate land rights on the moon advocated by the institute, it is only because it also suggests a new international treaty underpinning it. This seems to us far too wet and statist. Several frothy free-enterprise outfits will already give you title to a parcel of the lunar surface for top dollar (3 April 2021).We suggest they could be awarded the contract for administering the scheme through some thrustingly free-and-easy “VIP lane” process.

Statistically thin ice

Russell Waugh writes from the Western Australian version of Perth bedazzled by the scoring system in the figure skating at the Beijing Winter Olympics. “The judges were able to add, and even subtract, points for good or poor execution of many different skills, with no common unit of measurement on any of the different skills (sometimes from a negative minimum point and a positive maximum point), add together all points given by seven or eight different judges, and then produce a final ‘measure’ to two decimal places,” he marvels.

We agree that statisticians would also wonder at the lack of any margin of error on the result. But then, that doesn’t appear to be the dodgiest thing going on at the figure skating this year.

However, we were more exercised by the margin of error on the final medal tally of the Great Britain team. We were pleased when, rather late in the day, that turned out not to be zero.

Carbon wormprint

Anyone who, like Feedback, has ever caught themselves wondering how large carbon emissions actually are should look no further than a communication from the Labour party in Hastings, UK, sent in by Gabriel Carlyle.

It celebrates an initiative of the local council to replace every light bulb in Hastings with low-energy LED bulbs. This will lead to an annual saving in just one town-centre car park of 1 tonne of carbon, “the equivalent of 300,000 worms. Layed [sic] end to end they would reach from Hastings to Eastbourne.”

We make that a distance of about 30 kilometres if the worms are laid out by road. This could be messy for all sorts of reasons. We are left wondering whether, if the worms are less than cooperative and just form a writhing ball in the centre of Hastings, that reduces the carbon savings in any way.

Long in the rings

We have a new benchmark in our occasional series on “how old the internet thinks you can be”. Natalie Roberts reports going to the Open University website to order a poster about plants accompanying the new BBC series The Green Planet and finding that the drop-down menu for date of birth allows options back to 1582.

Good for elderly tree sprites who have piled on the rings, we imagine, although it still excludes the most ancient of yews. Our vague concern, prompted by Natalie, about whether birth dates need to be in the Julian or Gregorian calendar leads us to the revelation that the papal bull advocating calendar reform was issued by Pope Gregory XIII in… 1582. We are now wondering whether this is a coincidence, a learned joke by computer elves at the Open University or has some other origin in the deep history of computer programming.

Quantum cat spin

Charles Warren wonders whether a physics-violating perpetual motion machine formed of a slice of falling buttered toast strapped to a cat’s back (29 January) would violate physics if the cat in question were Schrödinger’s cat.

Yes… no… maybe, Charles. We assume the premise of the cat always landing on its feet applies only to live cats. Introducing a potentially dead cat is possibly a new spin too far.

The usual…

It is only recent events that have made it at all notable that Douglas Jabs is the director of the Center for Clinical Trials and Evidence Synthesis at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. But many of you have now noted it, so we note it while on our way out of the room.

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