Thursday, October 30, 2014

Comet Gazing, Up Close

When I was a little boy, I marveled at the hazy photos of Mars taken from the new 200-inch Hale telescope at Mount Palomar in California, an observatory that retained its pre-eminence until well into my adulthood.  (Construction of larger telescopes waited until a rash of them were built in the 1990s and 2000s, other than a Soviet model built in 1976, at 236 inches, which was unavailable to the West during the Cold War.) 

Mars, state of the art, 1952 (Fröschlin)
Astronomical observations have been supplemented by spacecraft in the interim, from satellites such as Hubble to space probes such as Voyager and rovers such as Opportunity and Curiosity.  In my lifetime, then, the gold standard of extraterrestrial observation went from those cloudy photos of Mars, distorted by the atmospheric conditions of Earth, which led people to speculate about whether canals actually existed on the Red Planet or whether they were an illusion, to an ability to examine a pebble on the Martian surface.  A giant leap indeed. 

67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, upon approach by Rosetta

The same can now be said of exploration of comets.  Space probes have recently allowed us to see a few comets for the first time, looking upon surfaces that have been masked by distance and glowing comas, but the most fascinating photos have just arrived.

The Rosetta spacecraft was launched on 2 March 2004 by the European Space Agency, with the mission to track, acquire and investigate the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, discovered by Soviet astronomers in 1969.  Rosetta took a meandering journey about the inner solar system, taking advantage of the gravitational sling-shot effect of pass-bys of Earth and Mars, and examined several asteroids enroute to its rendezvous with 67P/C-G on 6 August.  It has since closed to an orbit within 29 km of the comet revealing an irregular shaped body, 2.8 miles (4.5 km) at its longest.  The photos of the last several days are spell-binding, for example:


The next major accomplishment will occur on 12 November with the detachment of the Philae lander, which will attach itself to the comet some seven hours later, another historical first.

And as for other comets, on 19 October the comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passed close by to the surface of Mars.  University Today has an article describing the event, and avail yourself of the video that shows the rendition of the appearance of the comet from the Martian surface.  If you ever wanted to be a Martian, that would be the best occasion.  I look forward to see if the Mars Rover or the like was able to obtain photos of the spectacle.

(H/T: daily timewaster)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

White House Computer System Hacked By Russians

Last week, a confidential source within the White House disclosed to Scott Johnson of Power Line that the network within the Executive Office of the President had been down at that point “for close to a week” and that a security breach was suspected.  Staff were told to keep quiet about the situation while the correction was worked out.  At that point, “no information has been forthcoming, either to those inside the EOP or to the public.”

Johnson immediately sent an inquiry to the White House press office, including a deadline for an answer, as the office told him to do.  After the deadline passed with no response, he ascertained that the office had indeed received his request.  Several more attempts were made, also with no response, other than his request had been forwarded to the appropriate “spokespeople”. 

This falls into the realm of a Really Big Deal.  If there were no problem, one would logically expect that the press office would quickly confirm so, but instead its silence has only accentuated the problem. 

Johnson’s Power Line colleague John Hinderaker has also raised the question about why the White House press corps of Professional Journalists™ had been oddly uncurious, other than to speculate that with the upcoming elections, wherein the electoral chickens are expected to come home to roost (to quote Obama’s longtime pastor and mentor) on the ash heap of quite a few Democrat politicians, the mainstream press is circling the proverbial wagons around the Obama administration which has already been buried with an unceasing avalanche of evidence of its incompetence.  [That constitutes my entry into the Metaphor Prize of the Week Award.] 

But in an effort to forestall the greater story, the administration has released the news that an “outage” has affected “some EOP users”, so says Reuters.  Hinderaker appropriately points out that the key word is “some”, which could fall somewhere between the National Security Staff and the Office of the First Lady.  Are there a few targets, or many?

A follow-on release allowed that “there were no indications at this time that classified networks had been affected.”  Note that “at this time” can fall into the same category of dissembling as “some”.

Then, a second source steps up – the Washington Post – and discloses that the outage was in fact caused by hackers, “thought to be working for the Russian government”.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the story tosses in this tidbit halfway through the article:
US officials were alerted to the breach by an ally, sources said.
So, it’s not bad enough that the White House security system is breached – we also weren’t capable of detecting it on our own.  What has historically been the most vaunted electronic intelligence gathering system in the world had to be told by some other country’s intelligence service.  I expect that some will be relieved that at least we weren’t tapping someone’s phone.

If we are to learn anything of substance about this story, it will have to wait until well after the election, or even after Obama finally leaves office.  But there is enough confirmation that the Russian government (not just Russians, but the government) has successfully tapped into the computer system of the White House.  We just don’t know quite yet what that degree of success constitutes.

“Reset.”  Indeed.
Update:  I notice that now John Hinderaker has also picked up on the "alerted by an ally" angle.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Scotland Remains: The Kingdom Stays United

The results are in and the decision is unequivocal: the much-anticipated referendum on the independence of Scotland from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which had been publicized as a neck-and-neck race between independence and status quo, ended up being anything but – more than 55% of the massive turnout of voters – some 85%, phenomenal by British and certainly American standards  – has voted to remain as before.

The 'nays' have it

Scotland has been united with England (and thereby Wales and [now Northern] Ireland) by the Treaty of Union of 1707, which recognized the fact that the two nations had had the same monarch since James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne as James I (the same James who authorized the famous Bible translation) upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 (he being her double first cousin twice removed, royal relationships being so complex almost by definition).  The tepid bond between the two peoples riven by Hadrian's Wall had been more than acrimonious, with the Scots driven to open warfare and oppressive subjugation by the English, but the Scots over time have been proudly British while still staunchly Caledonian.

My family on my father's side is Scottish (not Scotch – that's a libation), and my mother's otherwise German ancestry has a significant portion of Scottish ancestors as well (along with a dollop of Spanish).  The main family derives from the area of Jedburgh, and is thus classified as Border Scots, with a string of veterans of the great battles against the English – Sterling, Falkirk, Bannockburn and the rest, and our tartan is of the Jacobites.  My approach to the question of independence for Scotland is divided: emotionally, the idea of a freed Scotland has appeal from a bowed-but-not-broken sense of resistance (my people were all Confederates as well, many of whom owed an earlier allegiance to the Republic of Texas).  But that appeal is to an earlier Scottish sense of pride in its culture of hard work, frugality, and personal responsibility.  That sense, quite unfortunately, has been debased and subsumed beneath a Leftist philosophy of 'eat the rich', increasing dependence on the dole which is subsidized by London to the tune of some £1300 per capita more than the welfare payout elsewhere in England.  The SNP Leftist dogma is swimming against the slowly turning movement in larger England, seen clearly in the steadily increasing approval of Nigel Farage's UKIP party, and in the movement of the national center toward the right in even the Labour Party.

The general idea of killing such a generous British goose is found in the frankly incoherent policies of the now-resigned Scottish National Party's Alex Salmond, who tossed together the idea that the Scottish national income will absorb the whole of the North Sea oil revenues for a Saudi-like economy of living off the found wealth of their natural resources without having to apply any real application of actual work, an idea that would have Adam Smith, himself a Scot, turning in his grave.  The rest of his plan, including such necessities as a new national monetary system and defense policy, taxation, membership in NATO and the EU (to name but a few), was bound up in a wait-and-see attitude.  The idea was run on sheer emotion, with really nothing to tie it to reality, and Salmond was never able to explain how to get to the bottom line.

The election is over, but the issue remains.  There is a parallel in my mind to the Canadian referendum in 1995 on the question of independence for Quebec, in which the decision to remain united won by a slim margin of 51%.  If the decision had been otherwise, it wouldn't necessarily have stopped with a sovereign Quebec.  Newfoundland, previously a separate dominion from Canada, would have explored independence as well, having been split geographically from the remaining rump state.  There was a developing movement in British Columbia and Alberta to explore splitting off from Ottawa and seeking statehood with the United States.  This nightmare for Canada became more real when, after the dust had settled, it was discovered that the Francophone voters had voted for independence by a significant margin; it was the English-speaking citizens of Quebec that managed to keep the province from splitting off.  The only reason that the independence issue hasn't resurfaced is the political division within the Québécois.  But expect to see a ripple effect, if not the direct result of the referendum then a reflection of a rising tide of ethnic nationalism in Europe, such as the Catalanes in Spain demanding a referendum of their own.

The issue in Scotland is not likely to fade so soon though, with the 'Yes' voters being the more passionate and committed on the subject, and younger, with the age limit for voting having been lowered to 16 during the run-up to the vote.  They are a younger base, with more staying power.  And the question was given further life with a hasty concession by London, by the leaders of the three top parties (Conservatives, Labour, and Social Democrats), of greater autonomy within the future United Kingdom should it remain so.  Reform has a way of creating greater appetite for more change, and the maxim that the most dangerous time for a dictatorship is when it tries to reform itself actually applies to any government.  The promise of what "more autonomy" will look like has yet to be worked out, and the likely massive detail of whatever that plan will be undoubtedly will cover a legion of devils.  One such item to be resolved is the disconnect between the possible ability of Scottish MPs being able to vote on legislation affecting England, but English MPs being unable to vote on bills affecting Scotland.

This issue is far from settled, but we must keep in mind that a strong and united Britain is in the best interests of us all.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Helicopter Rescue from Mount Sinjar

This footage from CNN gives one a sense of the desperation on Mount Sinjar, as a helicopter of the Iraqi Air Force (from the interior it's likely an Mi-17) swoops in to pick up some twenty or so Yazidis before lifting off again quickly, an old man pushed aside as it lifts.  (Two days ago, another Iraqi helo crashed with all aboard killed, apparently overloaded with refugees.  I'm sure that the IqAF is clinically dispassionate about who it takes aboard and leaves behind for what is hoped to be a next flight.)

This interview with Mark Phillips shows at least some sense of cobbled order.  You can see the crew jettisoning supplies on final approach - I'm not sure of the efficacy of launching cases of plastic bottles of water from that height onto the rocks below, and for the uninitiated, the crescent symbol on the boxes has nothing to do with Islam, but is instead the international symbol for rations hailing from the days of Napoleon (apparently signifying croissants). 

The line of civilians that runs up to the helicopter is led by a young man who doesn't seem to board, lending the idea that there is some sense of control on the ground in order to prevent the tragic crash of a few days ago.  That isn't completely effective as there are at least two others left behind, likely attributed to the fear of the situation in a land that has no concept of queues.

I'm not particularly enamored of the vast body of war correspondents, but kudos to Mark Phillips (and the always unsung cameraman) for having the nerve to film this footage.  

Milton Speaks to the Current Tragedy

The Waldensians were a very early (12th century) attempt at religious reform of the firmly established Roman Catholic theocracy, a movement begun by Peter Valdes, otherwise known as Waldo, a rich merchant of Lyon suddenly converted to the cause of living life in accordance with the precepts of the early church as discerned by his reading of the New Testament. Preceding Jan Hus and John Wycliffe by centuries, his reforms anticipated the Protestant Reformation that finally took hold under Martin Luther some 400 years hence.

Initially widespread, sharp persecution soon confined the members to a secret movement concentrated in the Alps in the border region of France/Italy/Switzerland.

The movement continued to survive and persisted despite frequent persecutions and attacks, eventually allying itself to the early Calvinists of Geneva in the 16th century. That did not save it from the one of the greatest tragedies to befall it, the massacre of the Piedmont Easter of 1655 as commemorated by John Milton's poem that condemns the forces of the tripled-crowned Pope whose historic church corruption was frequently compared to Babylon.

Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
  Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
  Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
  Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
  Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks.  Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
  To Heaven.  Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O'er all th' Italian fields where still doth sway
  The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
  A hundredfold, who having learnt thy way
  Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

So, what knowledge has Milton imparted for us?  What parallels, what rhymes as Twain would say, do we derive?  The religious divide of the two camps for this massacre, Catholic and Protestant (and later, perhaps even worse, Protestant against Protestant), at that point over 150 years into the Reformation, were even still a lethal driving force considering that what was at stake was nothing less than the salvation or damnation of one's soul unto eternity, the idea that God Himself would turn His countenance upon us or turn forever away.

"Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints..."

Yet while paramount to some, there were many then as now to whom that rationale is only a thin veneer for more base, mercenary considerations.  (What?  Do you believe that the simmering struggle between the two factions on the island of Ireland is strictly a religious battle between Catholics and Protestants?)

The current cliché is that we find ourselves in a modern Clash of Civilizations, but primarily the attack of radical Islamic Supremacists upon the West, or more accurately against anyone, even their own co-religionists, who do not adhere to their ascetic, draconian, metastasized creed, praying to their particular Allah that is neither merciful, compassionate nor gracious.

The pop Commentariat can decry the cultural domination of the West, but one rarely hears of the enormous persecution of Christianity, in lands that saw the very beginnings of the church.  From Algeria and Nigeria through to Iran and beyond, untold thousands of survivors flee who can, or suffer at the very least the tax that allows them to live in hopefully hidden security, or worst to see themselves and their families kidnapped, raped or killed.  Who avenges or even seeks to protect these saints?   Obama vacations after his spokesman extolls how his policies have made the world more tranquil, but Defense Secretary Hagel tells a collection of Marines of how the world is exploding.

Move along.  We're not likely to see an answer from this quarter.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Situational Ethics 2014

Some people can't tell a call for genocide from a liberation struggle without a program:

The quip just goes to show that simply because a comment is cynical doesn't mean it isn't true.

(Marc Lynch is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.)

(H/T to Never Yet Melted)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Duke of Wellington Addresses a Perpetual Problem

The Peninsular War raged in Spain (the Iberian Peninsula) from 1807 to 1814, between the occupying army of France under Napoleon and his brother Joseph (who Napoleon had placed on the Spanish throne), and the forces of the United Kingdom, Portugal, and Spanish insurrectionists (and source of the Spanish term guerillas).

It is this conflict that saw the rise to fame of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had already gathered a vital military education and experience with campaigns in the Netherlands and Denmark and, most importantly, in India.  Though his career was attended by a great degree of good fortune (the first element of a successful commander, otherwise known as survival) and connections, it was his native intelligence and innate sense of leadership that established him as a superb general, and he remarked early on that "At least I learned what not to do, and that is always a valuable lesson."

Sir Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington

Of course, it was Wellesley who went on to establish himself as perhaps the most eminent of British military commanders as the one who defeated Napoleon once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, doing so as a field marshal under his more recognizable title of the Duke of Wellington that he earned in Spain. (A slight and delightful aside: some years later Wellington attended a reception in Vienna, and some French officers turned their backs to him as he entered.  A lady took it upon herself to apologize for the rude behavior, and Wellington replied "It is of no matter, Madam.  I have seen their backs before.")

A veteran of some sixty battles, he quickly learned of the vital importance of logistics to the ultimate success of a campaign, and he was one who would not suffer the least interference in his affairs, particularly from a general staff in London, far removed from the immediacy of the battlefield, that would dare question any element of his command.

There are some who may regard bureaucratic excess as a particularly military odium, but having dwelt in both worlds I can assure you that civilian political structures have that malady several magnitudes above that of the military.  (I have said before that I will never revert to being a civilian; that is only one of the reasons why and I do not bear that specific burden lightly.)  Thus I treasure, and unfortunately have reason to often recall, Wellington's dispatch of his answer to an irksome inquiry:
Gentlemen: Whilst marching to Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your request, which has been sent to HM ship from London to Lisbon and then by dispatch rider to our headquarters.  We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty's government holds me accountable.  I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, spleen of every officer.  Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.
Unfortunately, the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion's petty cash, and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain.  This reprehensive carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstances since we are at war with France, a fact which may have come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government, so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains.  I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below.  I shall pursue one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both.
1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London, or perchance

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.
Your most obedient servant, Wellington.