Thursday, December 31, 2009

A blessed and happy New Year to all my readers

Thank you for dropping in to read my blog over the past couple of years (I'll have an anniversary post up tomorrow night). Please stick around in 2010!



Someone should give this woman a medal for bravery.

A broom-wielding woman with four children at home chased off two armed men who broke into a Des Moines house and demanded money.

The men allegedly kicked in the house's door Wednesday night and told the four children, ages 10 and younger, to get on the floor.

The woman, who was not identified by police, chased the men out of the house and down the street while swinging a broom at them.

Des Moines Police Capt. David Huberty says one of the men turned a fired a gun at the woman, who was not injured.

Police later found bullet damage to a vehicle nearby.

Huberty says police think the men fled in a car. Police found a handgun and a glove in a snowdrift.

Gutsy, determined, and a worthy protector of her family. Well done, Ma'am!


When ideology becomes a disease

Via PawPaw's House, I learned of a letter in the Boston Globe that simply flabberghasts me. I'm going to quote a few paragraphs from it (printed in italics), and respond to each in turn.

Current school security procedures lock down school populations in the event of armed assault. Some advocate abandoning this practice as it holds everyone in place, allowing a shooter easily to find victims.

An alternative to lockdown is immediate exodus via announcement. Although this removes potential hostages and makes it nearly impossible for the shooter to acquire preselected targets, it unfairly rewards resourceful children who move to safety off-site more shrewdly and efficiently than others.

Schools should level playing fields, not intrinsically reward those more resourceful. A level barrel is fair to all fish.

Can the writer be serious??? Does he truly intend to condemn more kids to die just because he wants to limit 'resourceful children' to the speed of response of those who are less 'resourceful'? There's nothing 'fair' about telling resourceful children that they have to run an increased risk of death! As for a 'level barrel' . . . words fail me.

Some propose overturning laws that made schools gun-free zones even for teachers who may be licensed to securely carry concealed firearms elsewhere. They argue that barring licensed-carry only ensures a defenseless, target-rich environment.

But as a progressive, I would sooner lay my child to rest than succumb to the belief that the use of a gun for self-defense is somehow not in itself a gun crime.

So the writer's ideology is more important to him than the life of his own child? Sir, you're not fit to be a parent. I can only feel profoundly sorry for any child unfortunate enough to be born to you. Hopefully, he or she will survive your influence and won't need your 'protection'.

Go read the whole letter for yourself. It's mind-boggling!

Grrrr . . .


Seventy-five years of the swept wing

Seventy-five years ago (from 2010), the technology of swept wings was first mooted in Germany. The German Aerospace Center reports:

In the 1930s, the fastest aircraft of the time hit an invisible limit: the sound barrier. As soon as aircraft came anywhere near this barrier, they became increasingly difficult to control. The rudders stopped responding, the wings began to vibrate and the whole aircraft was thoroughly shaken up. Aircraft frequently crashed as a consequence. Because of this, many researchers believed that sustained flight speeds of 800 to 900 kilometres per hour, commonplace today, were impossible.

In 1935, Adolf Busemann, who studied under the Göttingen aeronautics research pioneer Ludwig Prandtl, presented the idea of the swept wing at a congress in Italy. However, the suggestion of this 34-year-old, unknown in the scientific community, was ignored: "He was very young for a scientist and his idea of supersonic flight was considered to be impossible, even by leading researchers," explains Prof. Hans-Ulrich Meier, for many years a Head of Department in today’s DLR facility at Göttingen.

In his book 'Die Pfeilflügelentwicklung in Deutschland bis 1945' (The Development of the Swept Wing in Germany until 1945), Meier describes how the significance of the new invention as the basis for high-speed flight was only recognised in Germany. "One reason for this was undoubtedly the search for superior weapons systems for the impending war," Meier says. The new wing promised German fighter aircraft a speed advantage in comparison to their opponents.

In late 1939, Hubert Ludwieg carried out the first swept-wing measurements at AVA. Busemann had, in the meantime, become head of the new German Institute of Aviation Research (Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Luftfahrt; DFL) in Braunschweig. Ludwieg's measurements confirmed the correctness of Busemann's theory for the first time. A swept wing allows an aircraft to fly faster because the drag is reduced.

If, then, the swept wing was the prerequisite for high-speed and supersonic flight, the jet engine provided the necessary power. In 1939, the first jet aircraft in the world took to the skies in the shape of the Heinkel 178. Swept wings and jet propulsion were combined in an aircraft for the first time in 1944, in the Junkers 287, based on the research undertaken at Göttingen. Interestingly, the latter had wings that were swept forward – a concept that has only been recently revived, due to its difficult flight characteristics.

Junkers Ju-287

. . .

In contrast to jet propulsion, the swept wing was not used during the Second World War. Models such as the legendary first operational jet aircraft, the Messerschmitt 262, did not have swept wings. This was because this new wing shape also produced many problems. Lift and stability are worse than for unswept wings.

Messerschmitt Me-262

At the end of the War, the Allies secured the knowledge acquired in Germany for themselves: thousands of tons of documents were shipped to the USA, Britain and the Soviet Union. The German researchers were obliged to commit everything they knew to paper. This knowledge is documented in the 'Göttingen Monographs', still of significance today, and has been translated into English. "A thousand pages, dealing only with the best possible way to integrate the engine into the swept wing, went from Göttingen to the USA and Britain," says author Meier. Many researchers emigrated to the victorious powers. Adolf Busemann, the inventor of the swept wing, went to the USA, where he continued his research, first at NASA and then as a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The discoveries made in Germany became the basis of modern aviation. The Americans combined the results in the B47 jet bomber.

Boeing B-47A Stratojet

This in turn was the precursor of the Boeing 707, which introduced the age of civilian jet travel. All of today’s giant civilian airliners are based on the B707. A direct line can be drawn from Busemann’s swept wing idea via the Junkers 287 to modern aircraft such as the Airbus 380.

There's more at the link.

It's interesting to think that one of the fundamental technologies for most high-speed commercial and military aircraft is as old as that. At the time Dr. Busemann described it, the highest speeds attained by military fighter aircraft were considerably less than 300 mph! It speaks volumes for his genius that he was able to foresee the need for a solution to the problems posed by much higher speeds, and devise the concept of the swept wing, when no-one else could even conceive the need for it.


When taxes mean dying later - or earlier

I'm bemused by a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Nothing's certain except death and taxes -- but a temporary lapse in the estate tax is causing a few wealthy Americans to try to bend those rules.

Starting Jan. 1, the estate tax -- which can erase nearly half of a wealthy person's estate -- goes away for a year. For families facing end-of-life decisions in the immediate future, the change is making one of life's most trying episodes only more complex.

"I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days," says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. "Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?"

Currently, the tax applies to about 5,500 taxpayers a year. So, on average, at least 15 people die every day whose estates would benefit from the the tax's lapse.

The macabre situation stems from 2001, when Congress raised estate-tax exemptions, culminating with the tax's disappearance next year. However, due to budget constraints, lawmakers didn't make the change permanent. So the estate tax is due to come back to life in 2011 -- at a higher rate and lower exemption.

To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. "We have done this at least a dozen times, and have gotten more calls recently," says Andrew Katzenstein, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles.

Of course, plenty of taxpayers themselves are eager to live to see the new year. One wealthy, terminally ill real-estate entrepreneur has told his doctors he is determined to live until the law changes.

"Whenever he wakes up," says his lawyer, "He says: 'What day is it? Is it Jan. 1 yet?'"

Estate-tax experts didn't expect Congress to allow the tax to lapse, and are flabbergasted that it is actually happening. "All fall when I gave speeches, I said I was willing to bet anyone in the room $10 that we would have an estate-tax extension by the end of the year," says Thomas Ochsenschlager, head of taxes for the American Institute of CPAs. "Thank goodness I didn't have any takers," he says.

Now, all bets are off. "If Congress couldn't do it this year, why will they be able to do it next year?" says Prof. Michael Graetz of Columbia University, who worked both at Treasury and for Congress. He calls the lapse "congressional malpractice."

Under current laws in effect until the end of this year, the size of the exemption is $3.5 million per individual or up to $7 million per couple. The tax is slated to disappear entirely on Jan 1.

But estate planning in 2010 will be complicated by a new twist: a complex tax on capital gains that will affect a broader swath of taxpayers. The estate tax is scheduled to return in 2011 at a 55% rate with an exemption of slightly more than $1 million.

. . .

As part of the changes taking effect in January, Congress also dramatically lowered the taxes on gifts to grandchildren. But all the uncertainties -- Will the law be changed? Will it be retroactive? -- are forcing family legal advisers to craft various provisional financial-planning strategies that can be undone later if the rules do change.

The situation is causing at least one person to add the prospect of euthanasia to his estate-planning mix, according to Mr. Katzenstein of Proskauer Rose. An elderly, infirm client of his recently asked whether undergoing euthanasia next year in Holland, where it's legal, might allow his estate to dodge the tax.

His answer: Yes.

There's more at the link.

Y'know, when deciding whether to pull the plug on one's nearest and dearest becomes a financial consideration, rather than a moral and ethical one . . . there's something drastically wrong with our society.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Popping corn in slow motion

This is a fascinating video clip, showing popping corn in very slow motion.

Interesting to see how the kernel expands outward from the shell - and how what tastes so good, comes to taste that way.


A really exciting movie prospect

I don't know whether US readers will be familiar with Rosemary Sutcliff, a British writer of children's novels. I grew up reading her books, and still have most of them in my library, and re-read them to this day with great enjoyment. They're as much fun for adults as they are for children.

It's reported that one of her best books, The Eagle Of The Ninth, is to be made into a film. Wikipedia sums up the book's plot as follows:

The story is set in Roman Britain in the second century AD, after the building of Hadrian's Wall. A young Roman officer, Marcus Flavius Aquila, is trying to discover the truth about the disappearance of his father's legion in northern Britain. Travelling beyond Hadrian's Wall, in disguise as a Greek eye doctor, Aquila finds that a demoralised and mutinous Ninth Legion was annihilated by a great rising of the northern tribes. In part, this disgrace was redeemed by a heroic last stand by a small remnant around the legion's eagle standard. Aquila's hope of seeing the lost legion re-established is dashed, but he is able to bring back the bronze eagle so that it can no longer serve as a symbol of Roman defeat—and thus will no longer be a danger to the frontier's security.

I'm really excited about this. The Eagle Of The Ninth is (in my not-so-humble opinion) a truly great novel, accessible to both children and adults, easily on a par with J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. It should make a superb film - particularly if the movie sticks to Sutcliff's original plot. If it does, it'll definitely go on my must-see list.

Some publicity stills from the movie have been released.

Looks good so far. I do so hope they don't twist the plot out of all recognition, and ruin the film for those who know and love the book! If they get it right, there's plenty of room for sequels, as Sutcliff wrote at least six more books about the Aquila family through history, including a rather unique perspective on the Arthurian legend. It is to hope . . .


A camera that makes you look good?

The Daily Mail reports:

A camera which can instantly transform your appearance to one of airbrushed perfection has gone on sale.

The Casio Exilim EX-S12 features a 'make-up mode' which uses simple technical tricks to smooth skin, enhance cheekbones and illuminate eyes.

When the camera detects a face in a picture, the make-up mode adjusts the focus and exposure, then automatically illuminates the person's face and alters the background colour, eradicating unseemly glare.

To create the appearance of flawless skin and hide imperfections, the £200 [about US $322] camera then softens shadows and shiny patches caused by sunlight and harsh white light.

The changes to your appearance can be as minor or dramatic as you wish because the make-up setting has 12 levels. The lowest of these adds a minimal air-brushing effect and the highest transforms your appearance.

To add to its appeal, it is small and light enough to fit easily into a handbag – making it perfect for taking to parties and allowing you to look your best in the photos even if that wasn't case on the night.

Other functions include a smile-detection feature which means you can be sure that everyone in the frame is beaming when the picture is taken.

Its makers claim you can also say goodbye to those blurred and out-of-focus pictures as the face-detection function recognises individual faces and group shots and automatically applies the best of 41 different pre-settings.

It also has an auto-shutter function which determines the perfect moment to take a photo, delaying the shot until the photographer's hand is steady or the person being pictured stops moving.

There's more at the link, including paired photographs showing how the camera 'touches up' the shot to produce its special effects.

It sounds like a great idea . . . but I hope it doesn't 'improve' the picture to such an extent that one becomes unrecognizable!

(Mandatory disclaimer: no, I'm not sponsored by Casio, and I get no return in cash or in kind for mentioning this product on my blog - I'm just intrigued by its technology.)


Another hero leaves us

I was saddened to read today of the death of Knut Haugland. The Telegraph reports:

Knut Magne Haugland was born on September 23 1917 at Rjukan in the Norwegian province of Telemark. After qualifying as a military radio operator, in 1940 he saw action against the Germans near Narvik as part of the Norwegian campaign.

After the Germans had overrun his country, Haugland found work in the Hovding Radiofabrik in Oslo, where he started covert work in the Norwegian resistance movement, but in August 1941 he was briefly arrested by Quislings, escaped and fled via Sweden to England.

Haugland joined the so-called Norwegian Independent Company, formed to carry out commando raids in occupied Norway, which became one of the most decorated military forces during the Second World War.

He was selected by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to train with three others for Operation Grouse, the raid on a hydroelectric power station near his hometown where the Allies suspected that heavy water, a key component in the atomic weapons process, was being produced in order to build a Nazi atom bomb.

He parachuted with three others onto the Hardangervidda plateau on October 18 1942. But a planned rendezvous with British engineers never materialised after the Britons' gliders crashed and the survivors were tortured and executed.

As a result the Germans were alerted to Allied interest in heavy water production, but Haugland was ordered to wait on Hardangervidda, where his team subsisted on moss and lichen and, just in time for Christmas, a wandering reindeer. In sub-zero temperatures he kept in contact with the British using a radio to which he improvised spares using a stolen fishing rod and an old car battery. Every night at 1am he would make contact, often unable to control the chattering of his teeth, using the password "three pink elephants".

It was February 1943 before Operation Gunnerside (named after a grouse moor owned by Sir Charles Hambro, head of SOE) was mounted. Six Norwegian commandos were dropped by parachute, and after a few days' search, met up with Haugland for a new assault on the hydroelectric plant.

The heavily defended plant was now surrounded by mines and floodlights and accessible only across a single-span bridge over a deep ravine. The Norwegians climbed down the ravine, waded an icy river and climbed a steep hill where they followed a narrow-gauge railway and entered the plant by a cable tunnel and through a window. In the ensuing sabotage hundreds of kilograms of heavy water was destroyed. Though 3,000 German soldiers searched for the saboteurs, all escaped. The Nazi heavy water project never recovered.

Haugland hid on Hardangervidda for two months before going to Oslo to train radio operators for the Norwegian resistance. Despite being known to the Gestapo, he twice used the clandestine sea crossing known as "the Shetland bus" to reach Scotland. In autumn 1943 he visited London for supplies and training in new code techniques and returned by parachute.

In November 1943 he was arrested, only to escape, and his luck and courage held firm again the following year, when, on April 1, one of his transmitters, hidden inside a chimney at the Oslo Maternity Hospital, was located by direction-finding techniques. "The whole building was surrounded by German soldiers with machine-gun posts in front of every single door," Heyerdahl wrote later. "The head of the Gestapo was standing in the courtyard waiting for Knut to be carried down.

"Knut fought his way with his pistol down from the attic to the cellar, and from there out into the back yard, where he disappeared over the hospital wall with a hail of bullets after him." On the run, Haugland managed again to escape to Britain and did not return until war's end.

Haugland was twice awarded Norway's highest decoration, the War Cross with Sword, and was awarded the British DSO and MM, the French Croix de Guerre and Légion d'honneur, and, postwar, the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav.

There's more at the link.

Do note the last paragraph above. The War Cross with Sword was Norway's highest military honor for valor in action - that country's equivalent to the US Medal of Honor or Britain's Victoria Cross. Haugland won it twice. That takes an awful lot of courage . . .

After the war, Haugland was a member of the crew of Thor Heyerdahl's world-famous Kon-Tiki Expedition.

Returning to Norway, he continued his career in the military, retiring in 1983 in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He also served as Director of the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Not many people are truly, genuinely heroes. Knut Haugland qualified for that title many times over. I had the privilege of meeting him at the Kon-Tiki Museum some years ago, and was profoundly impressed by his gentlemanly demeanor. The world is a poorer place for his passing. God rest him.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Building implosion, Las Vegas style

I have to admit, this is a stylish way to bring down a building!

I thought the plunger at the end of the countdown was a nice touch.


Dave Barry hits another home run

The inimitable Dave Barry has published his review of the year 2009. Here are a few highlights.

It was a year of Hope -- at first in the sense of 'I feel hopeful!' and later in the sense of 'I hope this year ends soon!'

It was also a year of Change, especially in Washington, where the tired old hacks of yesteryear finally yielded the reins of power to a group of fresh, young, idealistic, new-idea outsiders such as Nancy Pelosi. As a result Washington, rejecting `business as usual,' finally stopped trying to solve every problem by throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at it and instead started trying to solve every problem by throwing trillions of taxpayer dollars at it.

To be sure, it was a year that saw plenty of bad news. But in almost every instance, there was offsetting good news:

BAD NEWS: The economy remained critically weak, with rising unemployment, a severely depressed real-estate market, the near-collapse of the domestic automobile industry and the steep decline of the dollar.

GOOD NEWS: Windows 7 sucked less than Vista.

BAD NEWS: The downward spiral of the newspaper industry continued, resulting in the firings of thousands of experienced reporters and an apparently permanent deterioration in the quality of American journalism.

GOOD NEWS: A lot more people were tweeting.

BAD NEWS: Ominous problems loomed abroad as -- among other difficulties -- the Afghanistan war went sour, and Iran threatened to plunge the Middle East and beyond into nuclear war.

GOOD NEWS: They finally got Roman Polanski.

In short, it was a year that we will be happy to put behind us. But before we do, let's swallow our anti-nausea medication and take one last look back, starting with. . . .


The No. 1 item on the agenda is fixing the economy, so the new administration immediately sets about the daunting task of trying to nominate somebody -- anybody -- to a high-level government post who actually remembered to pay his or her taxes. Among those who forgot this pesky chore is Obama's nominee for Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who sheepishly admits that he failed to pay $35,000 in federal self-employment taxes. He says that the error was a result of his using TurboTax, which he also blames for his involvement in an eight-state spree of bank robberies. He is confirmed after the Obama administration explains that it inherited the U.S. Tax Code from the Bush administration.


Congress passes, without reading it, and without actually finishing writing it, a stimulus package totaling $787 billion. The money is immediately turned over to American taxpayers so they can use it to stimulate the economy.

No! What a crazy idea THAT would be! The money is to be doled out over the next decade or so by members of Congress on projects deemed vital by members of Congress, such as constructing buildings that will be named after members of Congress. This will stimulate the economy by creating millions of jobs, according to estimates provided by the Congressional Estimating Office's Magical Estimating 8-Ball.


... the CEO of GM resigns under pressure from the White House, which notes that it inherited the automobile crisis from the Bush administration. GM is now essentially a subsidiary of the federal government, which promises to use its legendary business and marketing savvy to get the crippled auto giant back on its feet, starting with an exciting new lineup of cars such as the Chevrolet Consensus, a ``green'' car featuring a compressed-soybean chassis, the world's first engine powered entirely by dew, and a 14,500-page owner's manual, accompanied by nearly 6,000 pages of amendments.


New York is temporarily thrown into a panic when Air Force One flies low over Manhattan for a publicity photo shoot. Responding to widespread criticism, Gibbs notes that President Obama inherited Air Force One from the Bush administration.


David Souter announces that he is retiring from the Supreme Court because he is tired of getting noogies from Chief Justice Roberts. To replace Souter, President Obama nominates Sonia Sotomayor, setting off the traditional Washington performance of Konfirmation Kabuki, in which the Democrats portray the nominee as basically a cross between Abraham Lincoln and the Virgin Mary, and the Republicans portray her more as Ursula the Sea Witch with a law degree. Sotomayor will eventually be confirmed, but only after undergoing the traditional Senate Judiciary Committee hazing ritual, during which she must talk for four straight days without expressing an opinion.


On the economic front, California is caught on videotape attempting to shoplift 17,000 taxpayers from Nevada. General Motors files for bankruptcy and announces a new sales strategy under which it will go around at night leaving cars in people's driveways, then sprinting away.


President Obama becomes embroiled in controversy when, commenting on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, he states that the police `acted stupidly.' This comment angers many in the law-enforcement community, as the president discovers the next day when his motorcade is cited for more than 3,000 moving violations. To resolve the situation, the president invites both Gates and Crowley to the White House for a `beer summit,' which is described later by White House spokesperson Gibbs as `very amicable' except for some `minor tasering.'


President Obama, in the first serious test of his presidency, announces that he will send U.S. troops to rescue Democratic members of Congress pinned down in town hall meetings by constituents firing hostile questions concerning the administration's health-care plan, which turns out not to be wildly popular outside of the immediate Capitol Hill area. The president dismisses concerns that his health-care agenda is in trouble, observing that `there's something about August going into September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up.' White House spokesperson Gibbs explains that the 'vast majority' of the wee-wee was inherited from the Bush administration.


In international news, Iran shocks the world by revealing the existence of a previously secret uranium enrichment facility. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists that the uranium will be used only for `parties.' United Nations nuclear inspectors note, however, that `Mahmoud Ahmadinejad' can be rearranged to spell `Had Jammed a Humanoid' and `Hounded a Jihad Mamma.'


On a happier note for the White House, President Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize, narrowly edging out Beyoncé.


... the president, in a much-debated post-Thanksgiving decision, announces that he is sending U.S. troops into the electronics departments of 1,400 Best Buy stores to prevent Black Friday shoppers from killing each other over flat-screen TVs. Hours later the president withdraws the troops, calling the situation ``hopeless.'' Press Secretary Gibbs notes that the president inherited Black Friday from the Bush administration.


On the economic front, the nation's unemployment rate remains stubbornly high as it becomes clear that the $787 billion stimulus package has created a total of only eight jobs, all in the field of highway-construction flagperson. Looking for solutions, the president hosts a White House ``jobs summit'' attended by political, business and labor leaders, as well as 23 Portuguese tourists who got lost while trying to visit the Washington Monument and somehow penetrated White House security. Meanwhile, in what is believed to be the largest Craigslist transaction ever, California sells San Diego to Mexico.

There's much more at the link. Very funny, and highly recommended reading.


A cynic looks at airport security

Bill Sweetman writes at Ares about the state of airport security.

Since the terrorist attempt Friday on Northwest/Delta flight 253, [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano has repeatedly said "the system worked." But it didn't. A terrorist was able to get a bomb aboard the airplane. It is no thanks to Napolitano that the passengers on 253 are alive, not in fragments in a warehouse somewhere, being identified by technicians. The system failed, but fortunately the bomb did too.

Unfortunately for the rest of us. For a tiny cost, terrorists apparently have panicked officials into inflicting more damage on the global air transportation system, by imposing humiliation and discomfort on passengers, while not making the terrorists' job any harder.

It's time to apply some serious security discipline to the protection of air transportation, on a global scale. This rests on the fact that no security measure is perfect. But if there are multiple measures in place, the attacker can't count on the imperfections to line up - link several slices of Swiss cheese - and has a much more difficult task.

Today's system wastes a huge amount of time and money searching people who are not homicidal maniacs - and this is the incontrovertible fact behind all the arguments about "profiling." Not only are most passengers not bombers, but most passengers are linked to a mass of data, an electronic identity that makes it easy to confirm that they are unlikely suspects.

Yes, some people will argue, but there's always the chance that a 44-year-old woman who's lived in Des Moines for 16 years and has travelled 20 times a year on business, on average, for the last decade has suddenly decided to become a suicide bomber. There is a chance, but it is a very small one, and if terrorist groups have to start recruiting in that demographic it will put a big crimp in their activities. Which is what we want.

So one way to greatly improve aviation security would be to take advantage of what we already know about people. Offer passengers a smart card, linked to a security rating - akin to a credit rating, based on personal details, life events, a travel record, the data trail behind the ticket and other factors, rated against the profile of known attackers.

(Privacy? Count yourself lucky if that's all anyone knows about you. The other day I was dealing with a bank online: In 30 seconds it was asking me to confirm what city a family member lived in, and it knew where I lived - 25 years ago. That horse is not just out of the barn - it has galloped across the open plain into the sunset.)

Use any of several hard-to-spoof biometric systems to match the card to the holder - they have to be better than photo IDs, and I speak as a person bearing not the slightest resemblance to my passport photo - and your high-rated passengers can sail through. Maybe not every time - I'd happily trade the imbecile shoes/jacket/laptop routine for a once-in-10 thumbprint scan and explosives check - but at least most of the time.

Then you can get rid of the low-paid, bored-to-death screeners doing the same thing over and over again and focus on the low-rated types. I'd guess that the alleged flight 253 bomber would have been among them: boarded in Nigeria, paid cash, no bags, 20-30 years old and male.

The absence of any kind of critical thinking along those lines is why Napolitano maybe should be fired. But that would reflect badly on her boss, and what we've seen in the last year is that, ultimately, that's what matters in Washington.

There's more at the link.

I couldn't agree more with him, of course. Current airport security - and the TSA in general - is a bad joke. If I (admittedly military- and law-enforcement-trained) can spot ten ways to get something through, you may be sure that those seeking to do evil have spotted many more! (And just consider . . . how many of us have flown somewhere with something verboten inadvertently in our carry-on luggage, because we forgot about it? And how many times has the TSA failed to detect it? It's happened to me more than once.)

As fellow blogger Breda plaintively asked:

... tell me again why I have to bear the humiliation of being groped and swabbed every time I fly? Someone please explain it to me because, clearly, I don't understand. Can't they just put me on a terrorist watchlist so that TSA will leave me alone?

Let's hope President Obama can apply some of the 'change' he trumpets so loudly to our transportation security agencies and systems. If he doesn't, it's only a matter of time until we have another tragedy/disaster/call it what you will, perhaps as bad as or even worse than September 11th, 2001 . . . and he won't be able to blame President Bush for it!


US Marines make do to make war

I really like the attitude of the US Marine Corps when it comes to critical equipment. If they can't afford something, they find a cheaper alternative that's just about as good. If they're relying on another service to develop something they need, and that service has to curtail its program, they come up with an alternative solution (often at a fraction of the original cost).

They've done it again with their new Assault Breacher Vehicle (ABV). Originally the USMC planned to buy some of the US Army's proposed Grizzly breacher vehicles. When that program fell victim to budget cuts, they went ahead and developed the ABV on their own initiative, using older M1 Abrams tank hulls and modifying them at the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama (shown below).

The result looks like this:

The ABV has just gone into combat in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. Ares reports:

During Operation Cobra’s Anger earlier this month near the Afghan town of Now Zad in Helmand province, the Marine Corps rolled out a fearsome new weapon, the 62-ton Assault Breacher Vehicle (ABV), a tracked, armored vehicle that can clear a lane through minefields, expose and detonate IEDs and plow a path though obstacles.

How does it do it? True to the Marine Corps’ ethos, it blows them to bits.

The ABV was developed by the Corps to meet the threat the Grizzly program, canceled in 2001, was meant to defeat. When the Grizzly was consigned to the dustbin of history, the Marines set to work on a new mine-clearing vehicle by taking the chassis of an M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, lopping off the turret, replacing it with a line charge device, and adding a plow on the front that can churn up the ground, exposing any IEDs that might be buried in its path. But the vehicle’s primary calling card is the Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC) which carries a whopping 1750 lbs. of C4 explosive that can be shot out 100 meters, and is detonated remotely to simply blast the IEDs out of existence.

During the assault on Now Zad, “we did six different bre[a]ches, with a total of 11,500 meters of cleared bre[a]ch lane and shot 24 MICLIC line charges,” 1st Lt. Jody Stelly of the USMC’s 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, who took part in the action, tells Ares. They also plowed up two IEDs, and can confirm five more IEDs blown up, though Stelly says the exact number is hard to estimate.

. . .

Lt. Col. Kirk Cordova said that if any insurgents were near the blast, “they would be real gooey inside. But the shock and awe effect of nearly a ton of C4 detonating I’m sure scared the tar out of ‘em. It’s an awesome sight.”

There are currently five ABVs in Afghanistan, and the Marines have plans to field a total of 52 by 2012, of which about 34 have already been produced.

In a twist on the normal development process, what the Marines have built, the Army is now clamoring for. “The Army loves ‘em. They’re buying 187 of them,” J.F. Augustine of the Marine Corps System Command tells Ares, adding that “they’ve already started their buy, they’ve built I think seven for the Army already.”

There's more at the link.

Here's a video of the ABV during trials.

Looks like a very capable vehicle indeed. Kudos to the USMC for 'making do' so very effectively. Now, if I can only persuade them to sell one to me to clear those rush-hour traffic jams . . . a rocket-propelled hose with seven-eighths of a ton of C4 should do very nicely, thank you!


Monday, December 28, 2009

That's one way to stop a thief!

The video clip below shows how a Chinese man stopped two thieves astride a motorcycle after they snatched a woman's handbag in the city of Wenzhou.

That'll do it, all right!


Doofus Of The Day #302

Today's Doofus is from Minnesota.

An attempted copper theft at an Eagan substation early Wednesday knocked out power for thousands of residents and sent a would-be thief to Regions Hospital.

Eagan police said the 33-year-old suspect from St. Paul suffered severe burns but was in stable condition Wednesday and is expected to survive.

Two other St. Paul residents found near the substation, a 28-year-old woman and a 31-year-old man, were arrested on suspicion of felony criminal damage to property. They were booked at the Eagan Police Department and released.

Joe Miller, a spokesman for Dakota Electric, said the injured suspect scaled a chain-link fence, cut through the barbed wire at the top and then climbed on top of a transformer, where he was injured when he came into contact with a 69,000-volt transmission line.

Witnesses reported seeing a flash of light and hearing a boom at the substation before the power went out at about 12:35 a.m. About 7,100 Dakota Electric customers in western and southwestern Eagan were without power until 3 a.m.

. . .

Eagan police are investigating and working with the Dakota County attorney's office to determine the appropriate charges.

There's more at the link.

'Eagan police are investigating ... appropriate charges'? I'd have thought the would-be thief was 'charged up' enough already!


Berkeley High School, CA - where the lunatics are running the asylum

At first I absolutely couldn't believe my eyes, reading a report about this school . . . until I realized with dismal misery that it wasn't a joke.

Berkeley High School is considering a controversial proposal to eliminate science labs and the five science teachers who teach them to free up more resources to help struggling students.

The proposal to put the science-lab cuts on the table was approved recently by Berkeley High's School Governance Council, a body of teachers, parents, and students who oversee a plan to change the structure of the high school to address Berkeley's dismal racial achievement gap, where white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse.

Paul Gibson, an alternate parent representative on the School Governance Council, said that information presented at council meetings suggests that the science labs were largely classes for white students. He said the decision to consider cutting the labs in order to redirect resources to underperforming students was virtually unanimous.

Science teachers were understandably horrified by the proposal. "The majority of the science department believes that this major policy decision affecting the entire student body, the faculty, and the community has been made without any notification, without a hearing," said Mardi Sicular-Mertens, the senior member of Berkeley High School's science department, at last week's school board meeting.

. . .

The full plan to close the racial achievement gap by altering the structure of the high school is known as the High School Redesign. It will come before the Berkeley School Board as an information item at its January 13 meeting.

There's more at the link.

One couldn't make this up if one tried. Science, the bedrock of modern understanding, an essential element of much of modern life, is to be shut down at this school in order to 'free up more resources to help struggling students'? What the hell do they expect their non-science-educated students to do when they leave the school and go on to higher education? Without a solid science education, they'll be intellectually crippled!

There have always been, still are, and will always be struggling students: but it doesn't help the student body as a whole to destroy the upper echelons of education in order to cater to the lowest common denominator! Education should challenge those receiving it to work harder, stretch their minds - not seek to 'dumb down' the courses in the name of egalitarianism!

Of course, this doesn't matter to the liberal clique who are obviously running the school (into the ground, let it be said). 'Hard' subjects like science don't count. What counts is the 'warm fuzzy' of addressing 'human issues' and 'social interaction' and so on. The fact that none of the latter matters a row of beans when it comes to achievement in later life is neither here nor there, as far as they're concerned.

I can only be profoundly grateful that I have no children of my own exposed to such blithering idiocy. If I did, I'm afraid I'd be tempted (beyond my ability to resist) to perpetrate an unfortunate and definitely politically incorrect act upon those who dared to suggest such nonsense!


Technology marches on

Two news reports caught my attention today.

In the first, the BBC points out that netbook computers, so recently developed, may already be on the way out.

Rising prices and better alternatives may mean curtains for netbooks.

The small portable computers were popular in 2009, but some industry watchers are convinced that their popularity is already waning.

"The days of the netbook are over," said Stuart Miles, founder and editor of technology blog Pocket Lint.

As prices edge upwards, net-using habits change and other gadgets take on their functions, netbooks will become far less popular, he thinks.

"Technology has advanced so much that it's outmanoeuvred itself," he said. "You wouldn't go for something so basic anymore."

His prediction stems from his belief that the netbooks of 2009 are losing touch with what made them so appealing.

Asus kicked off the netbook trend in 2007 when it launched the Eee PC 700 and 701. The 700 sported a 2GB solid state hard drive, 512MB of Ram, a 900 Hz Intel Celeron processor and a seven-inch screen.

Asus Eee netbook computer (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It was cheap, cheerful and a boon for those wanting to check e-mail and go online while out and about.

But, said Mr Miles, the success of the small, portable notebook has been its undoing because it has spawned so many imitators.

Many contemporary netbook models run Windows XP or Windows 7 which has forced the specifications, and price, upwards. Many, he said, now cost at least £350 [US $560], a figure close to that for a more capable full-size laptop.

What people are looking for now, he believes, is a machine that can keep up with the demands of contemporary web users - far more than the basic e-mail and web browsing that made the first models so appealing.

"As soon as you want to do anything else you hit the same problem, it ceases to work," he said. "It does not have the power."

Those changing habits of web users, he maintains, are too complex for those basic machines.

"It's the internet's fault for making us much more multimedia savvy," he said. Uploading and editing still or moving pictures and handling audio all require far more power than the basic netbook offers, he said.

This could explain, he said, why many laptop makers are now turning out very thin and light machines that have power but not the shoulder-wrenching bulk.

There's more at the link.

(I have to agree with Mr. Miles. Last month I bought a HP Pavilion DM3 notebook with 4GB RAM, a 300GB disk, and all the power I need for graphics editing, Internet browsing, writing, e-mail and other productivity tasks. It cost less than the $560 he mentioned. I'm preparing this blog post on it right now.)

As if to lend weight to the BBC's report, it's rumored that Apple will be introducing a new device, its much-anticipated tablet computer, next month. This would effectively serve the same purpose as a netbook, amongst other functions.

Rumours are rife that Steve Jobs, the company's chief executive, is planning to unveil a touch screen computer known as the 'iSlate' at the end of next month.

Details about the new product are being kept top secret, but expectations are high that it will be a one-piece touch screen computer that will look like a cross between an iPhone and a laptop computer.

Referred to in the industry as 'the tablet', it could signal the end for the keyboard and mouse system used by millions of PC users across the world.

The 'tablet' could be used for communication purposes as well as being a single device to download music, books, and films.

Apple has never acknowledged that such a device exists, but the company has booked the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco to make a "major product announcement" for 26 January 2010.

. . .

The company is also reported to have bought the rights to the website address.

If rumours of a January announcement are true, such a timetable could see the gadget in American shops from March and brought to Europe in time for next Christmas.

. . .

Little detail is known about the device, including the predicted price which could be as much as £700.

But it is expected to be similar to an iPod Touch with a larger 10-inch screen, making it convenient to watch video, search the internet and read digital books.

Analysts think it will be set up to handle television and newspaper subscriptions through a wireless connection.

Writing on the TechCrunch blog, technology writer MG Siegler on the said: 'The mouse and keyboard will one day die and everything will be touch and gesture based.

'It will happen and the tablet computer is the latest, and perhaps most important step in a line of technology taking us there.'

Again, more at the link.

Me, I'll stick to my desktop and notebook computers, two form factors which have served millions of people satisfactorily for a few decades. I don't take up fads just because they look interesting - I've learned to wait and see whether they last. I'm one of the dinosaurs of the personal computer age, having started working with computers in the mid-1970's. I can recall the Altairs, the Apples, the Sinclairs, the original IBM PC of 1981, and everything since. Many innovations have come and gone. I've learned to look for the mainstream and stay with it for my productivity tools.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's off to the Maldon Mud Races again!

Today, in a freezing-cold England, the annual Maldon Mud Race was held at the Blackwater River estuary in Maldon, Essex. The Guardian reports:

Passersby are advised to avoid the pungent sludge of the Blackwater estuary in Essex. "Warning - deep mud," reads the sign. But yesterday more people than ever ignored the notice and common sense, by slopping through the ooze in the annual Maldon mud race.

"It's a laugh and it draws a line under Christmas," said Andy Layley, about to take part in his fourth race, in a blond wig. The first mud run started in Maldon in 1973 after a convoluted pub dare. More people joined when the landlord promised a free pint to anyone who could cross the estuary and back. There are no longer free drinks, but the race has become a key fixture in the calendar of eccentric English events and it raises tens of thousands of pounds for charity.

Maldon, Essex (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

By popular demand this year the number of competitors was raised by 70 to a record 250. "We had to turn away almost as many," said Michael Ballard, secretary of the race, though even he struggled to explain its popularity.

James Bamber, co-author of Wacky Nation, a guide to quirky British events, was one of the 6,000 who turned up to watch the messy spectacle: "The experience is unique. Football matches and theme parks are nothing compared to something like this. It's totally raw and unforgettable."

Many competitors race in fancy dress, soon caked in mud. There were lots of pirates and Santas, and a Zorro and Dennis the Menace.

"I do cold water swimming, worm-charming. Anything that gets me cold and muddy and I'll be there," said Joel Hicks, a trainee barrister from Leicester dressed as a pink panther.

. . .

The starting hooter prompted a flurry of flailing arms and legs as runners skidded down the bank. There were low groans of pain as the field plunged into the perishingly cold water.

It was chest-high in places and the current alarmingly strong even at low tide. You have to sink your arms deep into the mud to clamber out the other side. Then there's a punishing crawl across the quagmire of the back strait.

It's impossible to stay on your feet. You have to grovel on all fours with your nose just above the stench. It smells like a drain blocked with fish and oil.

Then it is back into the Blackwater and a lurch up the bank to the finish line. The mud is everywhere: up your nose, in your ears and in your mouth. The cold showers aren't much help: the whole event seems geared to hypothermia.

The winner, Stuart Tutt, a 36-year-old IT manager, was still shaking with cold 10 minutes after finishing. "Never again," was all he could manage to say.

There's more at the link.

Yep. The English are still mad as hatters sometimes - for which, let us give thanks! It's nice to have a bit of silliness and fun in this all-too-often-depressing world.

Here's a video clip of today's race, taken by a spectator.


Bee landing skills may have implications for aircraft

Discovery News has an interesting article on how bees land - with implications for aircraft and space-ships, it appears.

Whether landing on a picnic table, underneath a flower petal, or on a wall of a hive, bees always manage to touch down without crashing or tumbling.

Now, for the first time, scientists have figured out how these insects maneuver themselves onto all sorts of surfaces, from right side up to upside-down.

The bees' technique, which depends mostly on eyesight, may help engineers design a new generation of automated aircraft that would be undetectable to radar or sonar systems and would make perfectly gentle landings, even in outer space.

"This is something an engineer would not think of while sitting in an armchair and thinking about how to land an aircraft," said Mandyam Srinivasan, a neuroscientist at the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland and the Australian Research Council's Vision Centre in Brisbane. "This is something we wouldn't have thought of if we hadn't watched bees do their landings."

Solitary bee (Anthidium florentinum) (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

When bees approach an object, according to previous work, they steadily slow down to a stop by adjusting their speed as the size of their target steadily looks larger. Srinivasan wanted to know what happens after that.

Along with colleagues, he set up a platform that could be adjusted to any angle from horizontal to vertical and even upside-down.

Using sugar water, the scientists trained honeybees to fly to the platform again and again. Then, the researchers turned on the high-speed camera.

Their footage showed that no matter how flat or steep the surface, bees slow to a hover at 13 millimeters (about half an inch) away from wherever they're going to land. That suggests, Srinivasan said, that the insects are somehow using their eyes to measure that specific distance.

"We don't know how they're doing it," he said, "But they're doing it."

If their landing surface was flat, the researchers report today in the Journal of Experimental Biology that bees simply touched down back legs first.

If the platform was anywhere between vertical and upside-down, on the other hand, the insects made contact with their antennae first, by pointing them almost perpendicular to the platform. Then, the bees hauled their front legs up and finished with a flip-like maneuver to get their mid-legs and rear legs onto the surface.

It's a graceful and acrobatic motion that would be well suited to aircraft design, Srinivasan said. Current landing systems use radiation-emitting systems, which are detectable and often undesirable for military applications.

Existing technologies, the bee work suggests, may also be more complicated than they need to be.

"It's a beautiful way of landing using biological autopilot," he said of the bees. "We would like to make spacecraft that do smooth, flawless dockings. Whatever bees are doing must be computationally simpler than what we are doing now."

There's more at the link.

That's pretty amazing, when you think about it. A 'biological autopilot'? Something instinctive, contained in a bee's very DNA, that helps it land correctly, every time, no matter what the shape or orientation of the surface? If the boffins can figure out how that works, it might make human air travel that much safer, given that a very high proportion of aircraft accidents occur during landing. (According to the US National Transportation Safety Board, in 2005, of all general aviation accidents (1,663) for which phase-of-flight data is available, 30.7% - almost a third - occurred during landing [link is to a .PDF file - see p. 35].)


E-books continue their growth pattern

Via Gizmodo, we learn that has made an intriguing announcement.

Amazon's Kindle hit an important and startling milestone yesterday: On Christmas, the company sold more Kindle books than physical books.

Yes, this is obviously the result of everyone who got a Kindle for Christmas (lots of folks) firing it up and ordering a bunch of eBooks on a day in which most physical-book readers weren't shopping. But it's still important and impressive.

Amazon's Kindle 2 e-book reader (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Amazon's strategy is clearly to drive "ubiquity," and based on stats like those above, it is succeeding. The more Kindle books Amazon sells, the more leverage it will have over publishers when it tries to force them to cut wholesale prices. If Amazon's Kindle momentum continues, the day publishers have to capitulate will come sooner rather than later.

And, despite publishers' cries, this is not necessarily bad for publishers: If publishers cut wholesale prices, Amazon will be able to cut retail prices. If the retail prices are cut to nominal levels—$2.99 or $3.99 per copy—sales velocity should soar. Publishers and writers will make less per unit, but the increased volume should make up a lot of the difference.

There's more at the link.

This is an important milestone for many reasons, but most of all because the publishing industry's business model is clearly unsustainable over the long term. It consumes massive amounts of paper and other resources, costs too much per book to print, store and distribute their product, and shuts out too many authors because publishers feel (probably rightly) that they couldn't sell enough of their book(s) to make a profit, given their existing cost structure. By moving to an electronic format, all these problems could be addressed.

It's so convenient to have one's library in electronic form that more and more people are bound to move to that format over time. As an example, I've just moved house, carrying with me a dozen six-foot-high bookcases and thousands of volumes. I'm going to be moving again sometime in 2010, and as a result of my recent experience I'm planning to drastically cut down on the size of my library - I simply can't face the thought of moving all that weight and bulk again! If I could have most of those books in electronic form, rather than on paper, moving my entire library - and quadrupling its size, for that matter - wouldn't faze me at all. If I could buy those additional books at a reduced price, I'd be spending a great deal of money on them, and the publishers would benefit from that (not to mention that their costs per book would be drastically reduced by cutting out printing, storage and distribution expenses). Everyone would win.

I don't like Amazon's Kindle in its present form (particularly its proprietary format, which binds users to Amazon to buy more books for it). Competing products have their own shortcomings. Now, if someone would bring out an open-source e-reader device, where one could buy books from the retailer of one's choice, and if that e-reader could address the shortcomings of present devices . . . they'd make a mint. I'd be first in line to buy it!


The real nightmare behind Obamacare

It looks as if a concerted effort is being made by the present Administration and majority party to shove the health care reform bill down our throats , despite the fact that well over half the American people have stated loud and clear that they don't want it. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out before Christmas:

The rushed, secretive way that a bill this destructive and unpopular is being forced on the country shows that "reform" has devolved into the raw exercise of political power for the single purpose of permanently expanding the American entitlement state. An increasing roll of leaders in health care and business are looking on aghast at a bill that is so large and convoluted that no one can truly understand it, as Finance Chairman Max Baucus admitted on the floor last week. The only goal is to ram it into law while the political window is still open, and clean up the mess later.

There's more at the link. Words in bold print are my emphasis.

I highlighted that sentence because it's becoming more and more clear that this bill has nothing whatsoever to do with health care as such, and everything to do with expanding the power of the Federal Government. As the inimitable Karl Denninger postulates:

... here's my prediction.

Congress will somehow manage to put these two bills together and come up with something that both Houses of Congress will pass, and Obama will sign it.

The lawsuits will come immediately thereafter.

They will succeed, because there is simply no justification anywhere in The Constitution, nor can one be manufactured, to force someone under pain of federal fine and/or imprisonment to purchase something from a private party simply as a consequence of being alive.

This is so blatantly unconstitutional that nobody in The House or Senate can seriously expect it to stand. Therefore, we must conclude that it is not intended to stand - both House and Senate fully expect that mandate to be struck.

When, not if, it is you will discover the what I have said all along is the truth purpose of this so-called "reform" - a single-payer system.

Here's how it will happen.

1. Congress will pass and Obama will sign something containing this "individual mandate."

2. This will generate immediate lawsuits which will begin their way through the system, headed for the United States Supreme Court. That process will take several years. Note that the so-called "benefits" of this reform will also take several years to show up. This is not an accident.

3. Meanwhile, the taxes begin immediately. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s by the way - taxes were raised right into the maw of an economic recession, and helped turn it into a Depression. Such it will be this time as well.

4. Young, healthy people will pay the "fines" under protest and refuse to buy coverage (it's cheaper than complying with a $15,000/year mandate to pay the $750/year fine!) and join said lawsuits in Step #2. This will in turn begin to force private companies out of the system (remember, there are also price controls in there!) as adverse selection will not be eliminated as promised.

5. At some point the courts will strike the individual mandate. Free to not pay the fine or buy insurance and prevented from raising rates adverse selection will collapse the remaining private health insurers.

At this point you have:

1. Permanently higher taxes (since it is constitutional to tax!)

2. NO private health insurers left in the market.

3. The "standards and practices" remaining and impossible to remove (note the super-majority requirements in the bill - intentionally put there to prevent the removal of those standards and practices!)

What comes next? Unable to impose mandatory individual payments to private companies, The Government will then have "no choice" but to put in place a Canadian-style system.

For good or bad, you will get both rationing and a tax-funded medical system in The United States. Private override insurance may remain available and you may be able to continue to buy health care for cash, but neither is assured - neither can be done (for the most part) in Canada, as just one example.

I do not believe this outcome will be an accident - indeed, I believe it is the intention of the Obama Administration and The Democrats all along.

Those who are ascribing some sort of partisan "liberalism" motive - that is, a desire to take over 20% of the economy - are wrong. The real desire is to collapse health care spending to around 9-10% of GDP.

Since neither party is willing to have an honest debate and discussion with Americans relating to the amount of care we can afford to provide people, including but not limited to care as we age, for those who are unable to pay for it on their own, and since both parties have been co-opted by the medical device and pharmaceutical industry who have clamored for "more and more" of GDP (while delivering relatively small incremental "benefits" in the form of extending life, albeit at a questionable level of quality), this is what we're going to get.

Again, there's more at the link. Bold print is Mr. Denninger's emphasis.

More and more people seem to be waking up to the real danger of this health care bill. Even Jerry Pournelle, citing a Wall Street Journal editorial, recognizes another of its implications.

There is no better term for the ObamaCare Bill than Despotism. It's all very well for Congressmen and Senators to look out for their states, but this bill is a pure transfer payment from Republicans to Democrats. There is built into the bill a 40% tax on the most comprehensive -- and thus most expensive -- health care plans: But it does not apply to everyone. Longshoremen, for instance, are exempt -- and of course their unions have negotiated some of the most comprehensive healthcare short of what Congress gets. Other lines of work, nearly all heavily unionized, are exempt from the 40% tax (which will pretty well eliminate these plans for those who aren't exempt from the tax). Also, 17 States will be exempt; for the rest it's just too bad. There is no attempt at an explanation for these arbitrary transfers from those taxed to those not taxed. There is no logical reason why some are taxed and some are not. It's simply a set of earmarks, rewards to those supporting the "plan" and punishment for those who don't.

It's exactly what the Constitution was designed to prevent, a despotic transfer of wealth from one group to another.

Change you can believe in.

It's not to late to stop this abomination before it becomes law. Let's get hold of our Congressional representatives and Senators and demand an end to it, right now. Let's kill the bill once and for all - because if we don't, we're screwed.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

The meaning of the feast

I wrote last year about the night Christmas became real for me. It was very difficult to write that tale - I'd never told it in full before, and even now there are parts of it that I don't share in public. Nevertheless, it was a life-changing Christmas for me. If you haven't read it before, you might want to click over there and do so.

For this year, I'd like to recall the essential simplicity of the Feast.

This child was born to men of God
Love to the world was given;
In Him were Truth and Beauty met
On Him was set at birth the seal of Heaven.

He came the Word to manifest
Earth to the stars He raises;
The teacher's errors are not his
All men should sing His praises.

He evil fought and overcame
He took from Death the power;
To all who follow where He goes
At last He shows the Kingdom's sacred power.

The secret flower shall bloom on earth
In them that hath beholden;
The Heavenly Spirit shall be plain
To men on earth as once it was of olden.

And by the Spirit shall be known
Heroes and saints and sages;
Yea, they shall walk in all men's sight
Amid the light God sent to crown the ages.

("The Secret Flower": trad. German hymn, 17th century: tr. Eleanor Farjeon [1881-1965])

My grateful thanks to all of you who've joined me on this blog over the past year. May God bless you this Christmas, and grant you peace in the coming year.

I'll be taking a short break from blogging over the weekend. More posts will be up on Sunday night. Until then, please celebrate safely, and for those of you in the path of the current winter storm - stay warm!


A Lolcat Christmas

I periodically post Lolcats from I Can Has Cheezburger?, simply because they make me smile (and occasionally laugh out loud). Here are a few Christmas-themed Lolcats. Click each picture to be taken to the original ICHC post.


Why Christmas falls on December 25th

No, it's almost certainly not because an old Pagan festival was taken over, as popular myth would have it. Biblical Archaeology Review reports:

It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea. They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.

More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.

Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship — including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art — would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers. Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.

This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.

The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312 — before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have know it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation — the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”

In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar - April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6 — the eastern date for Christmas. In the East too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.” Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.

Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary — the moment of Jesus’ conception — the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.

The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date. Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born...and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.) Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.

In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism — from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year — than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own too.

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