Saturday, July 31, 2010

Alien versus human intelligence

The inimitable Dr. Neil Tyson (whom we've met before on this blog) talks about the differences we may find between our 'intelligence' and that of any aliens we meet.

As always, he does a masterful job, in a very amusing yet penetrative analysis. This man's worth listening to.


A 114-year-old record falls at last

Back in 1896, two Americans of Norwegian origin, Frank Samuelson and George Harbo, set a record for rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.

They embarked in an 18-foot clinker-built dinghy that they named Fox, after the publisher of the Police Gazette, a tabloid newspaper of the period.

They sailed from New York city on June 6th, 1896. Their journey was extremely hazardous, devoid as it was of any modern accouterments like radio transmitters or receivers, life-saving apparatus and the like. Their boat was capsized during a storm, and almost all their supplies and equipment lost. Fortunately, they were in a busy shipping lane, and were able to receive supplies from no less than four passing ships, which helped them to complete their journey. They arrived in the Scilly Isles 55 days after setting out.

The BBC reports that this long-standing record has at last been broken.

Four rowers have smashed a 114-year-old record by crossing the Atlantic in 43 days, 21 hours and 26 minutes.

The Artemis North Atlantic Rowing Challenge crew left New York on 17 June and touched the quayside at St Mary's, in the Isles of Scilly, just before 1500 BST on Saturday.

Skipper Leven Brown said it had been a "pell-mell, helter-skelter" trip.

"It's been absolutely amazing and what a reception [we have had] here in the Scillies," 37-year-old Mr Brown, from Edinburgh, said.

"The funniest thing for me was walking up the quayside - after more than six weeks of not walking, my legs felt more than a bit unsteady."

During the record attempt, the crew survived 33ft-high (10m) waves, encountered whales and rescued a man overboard.

There's more at the link. (Photographs courtesy of The Ocean Rowing Society, where more pictures may be found.)

Congratulations to all concerned on a magnificent achievement!


Thoughts on the Wikileaks controversy

I'm sure almost all my readers have by now heard about the so-called Wikileaks controversy. In case you missed it, the Wikileaks Web site released something like 90,000 pages of allegedly secret and confidential US military and diplomatic material relating to the war in Afghanistan. According to the Guardian:

The files ... give a blow-by-blow account of the fighting over the last six years, which has so far cost the lives of more than 320 British and more than 1,000 US troops.

. . .

The war logs also detail:

• How a secret "black" unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for "kill or capture" without trial.

• How the US covered up evidence that the Taliban have acquired deadly surface-to-air missiles.

• How the coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.

• How the Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of their roadside bombing campaign, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians to date.

That's not the whole story, however. The leaked documents allegedly pose a threat to ongoing Coalition operations in Afghanistan. CNN reports:

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the massive leak will have significant impact on troops and allies, giving away techniques and procedures.

"The battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world," Gates said. "Intelligence sources and methods, as well as military tactics, techniques and procedures will become known to our adversaries."

Furthermore, it's alleged that the leaks contain sufficient information to identify informants, thus putting their lives at risk. The Telegraph reports:

The Taliban has issued a warning to Afghans whose names might appear on the leaked Afghanistan war logs as informers for the Nato-led coalition.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said they were studying and investigating the report, adding “If they are US spies, then we know how to punish them.”

. . .

Information from the documents could reveal:

* Names and addresses of Afghans cooperating with Nato forces
* Precise GPS locations of Afghans
* Sources and methods of gathering intelligence

Predictably, reaction to the release of the documents has varied depending on the perspective of the commentator. Anti-war activists are delighted that so much 'dirty laundry' has been aired in public, placing particular emphasis on evidence suggesting that the Coalition has repeatedly violated the human rights of Afghans and others. Those supporting Coalition operations, on the other hand, regard the publication of these documents as nothing less than treason. They unleash diatribes against Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks (for a good example, see here), and want him, and whoever made the documents available to him, punished for what they've done. Assange, meanwhile, rejects any insinuation that he has 'blood on his hands' for what he's done, and insists he has the right to pursue his anti-war mission.

So much for the background. Let's take a long, hard look at the realities of the situation.

First, Julian Assange's political views may be anathema to many (including myself), but he's not a traitor to the USA. The dictionary definition of 'traitor' is:

1. a person who betrays another, a cause, or any trust.

2. a person who commits treason by betraying his or her country.

No matter how much one might dislike Mr. Assange or question his views and/or motives, he's neither a US citizen nor a US resident, so he doesn't fit that definition as far as the USA is concerned. Since he's an Australian citizen, and that country is part of the Coalition in Afghanistan, he might be the subject of official inquiries there: but as far as I know, he hasn't released any Australian-sourced documents concerning the war in Afghanistan, and is therefore probably not in breach of Australian law.

Mr. Assange's source is, of course, another matter. Information currently available suggests that a US Army Private First Class may be responsible for providing the documents to Wikileaks. If so, he's almost certainly in violation of his oath of service, and probably of one or more laws, regulations and restrictions governing the handling and dissemination of classified material. If media reports to date prove correct, I have little doubt he'll face charges for his actions, and I fully support that. If one freely takes an oath of office, and submits oneself to military discipline as a volunteer, one can and should be held accountable for any breach of that oath or of military discipline. That goes with the territory.

What if one disagrees with official policy, or believes it to be in error? Napoleon, in his Maxims of War, said:

Maxim LXXII. A general-in-chief has no right to shelter his mistakes in war under cover of his sovereign, or of a minister, when these are both distant from the scene of operation, and must consequently be either ill informed or wholly ignorant of the actual state of things.

Hence it follows, that every general is culpable who undertakes the execution of a plan which he considers faulty. It is his duty to represent his reasons, to insist upon a change of plan--in short, to give in his resignation rather than allow himself to be made the instrument of his army's ruin. Every general-in-chief who fights a battle in consequence of superior orders, with the certainty of losing it, is equally blamable.

However, he was speaking of a general, who's senior enough to have broad knowledge of all the factors involved in a given situation. A Private First Class, by definition, doesn't have nearly as much information at his disposal, and is unlikely to be well-trained enough to draw appropriate conclusions (particularly on the strategic level) from the little first-hand information he receives. Armies don't work that way. (Been there, done that, and got the T-shirt to prove it!) By all means, if one believes strongly that the policies of one's superiors are in error, it's one's duty to make that point to them, up to and including requesting to be relieved of one's post if one cannot in conscience obey orders. However, this isn't the same as abandoning one's oath and violating discipline.

I think this highlights the basic dichotomy separating the two sides on this issue. One side believes that conscience and personal belief override and supersede any considerations of duty, oaths of service, restrictive laws and the like. This is evident in Wikileaks' statement of its position in general:

The public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions. Which official will chance a secret, corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out? What repressive plan will be carried out when it is revealed to the citizenry, not just of its own country, but the world? When the risks of embarrassment and discovery increase, the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it. Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.

Today, with authoritarian governments in power around much of the world, increasing authoritarian tendencies in democratic governments, and increasing amounts of power vested in unaccountable corporations, the need for openness and transparency is greater than ever. In an important sense, WikiLeaks is the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.

WikiLeaks helps every government official, every bureaucrat, and every corporate worker, who becomes privy to embarrassing information that the institution wants to hide but the public needs to know. What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, WikiLeaks can broadcast to the world.

WikiLeaks is a buttress against unaccountable and abusive power.

We propose that authoritarian governments, oppressive institutions and corrupt corporations should be subject to the pressure, not merely of international diplomacy, freedom of information laws or even periodic elections, but of something far stronger — the consciences of the people within them.

There's more at the link.

That all sounds very moral and high-principled, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it completely ignores the other side of the equation, which is that there may be very good reasons for maintaining confidentiality about certain issues - reasons which may not be immediately apparent to those not in possession of all the facts, or unable to see the 'big picture' as a whole.

Unfortunately, observing such restrictions means trusting those in high authority to do their job . . . and that sort of trust has been eroded in recent decades through all too many scandals and shortcomings of officialdom. To put it bluntly, politicians, military officers and bureaucrats have lied so often about so many things that their utterances are now treated with suspicion as a matter of course. Examples are legion. The Pentagon Papers . . . Watergate . . . Iran-Contra . . . Zippergate . . . the rationale for the Iraq war . . . the list goes on, and on, and on. I don't blame people for mistrusting their leaders and rulers. I don't trust them either!

It's this pervasive, corrosive atmosphere of distrust of officialdom that has ultimately led to the existence of Wikileaks, and the willingness of some to use such channels to 'blow the whistle' on what they see as the deliberate covering-up of evidence of official ineptness, corruption and even actual crimes. Let's be very clear on this: the documents circulated by Wikileaks do, indeed, appear to provide solid evidence of some such cases. It's to be hoped that where appropriate, official investigations will follow, and guilty parties identified in or through the leaked documents will be punished.

However, the problem is how to restore faith in the leadership we've entrusted with fighting the war in Afghanistan. That's a far more difficult issue. I've written before about the situation there, and I repeat here what I've said in the past: there is no military solution to the problem of Afghanistan. It simply doesn't exist. I have the highest respect and admiration for General Petraeus, who's probably the most brilliant commander the US Army has produced for decades; but I maintain that there is no way in the world for him to win a military victory in Afghanistan, no matter how many troops and how much firepower he's given. That conflict cannot be won by military means. Centuries of experience in that part of the world, by many occupying powers, bear that out. It's not going to happen. Any scholar of history will tell you that. As for a political solution? It's possible . . . but it'll take a quality of leadership, personal courage of conviction, and breadth of vision that I simply don't see in any of our politicians at present. The thought of President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton trying to reason with the Taliban is so ridiculous that it would be laughable, if it weren't so tragic! A modern Theodore Roosevelt would be far more likely to succeed . . . but we don't have a modern Theodore Roosevelt, more's the pity.

The Wikileaks scandal is merely a 'tip of the iceberg' indication of the polarization of our society; the conflict between, on the one hand, those dedicated to traditional values such as honoring one's oath of office and duty to one's superiors and country, and on the other, those who assign a higher, overriding importance to individual conscience and one's personal moral perspective. I fall into the first camp, but I can understand the perspective of those in the second (even if I disagree with it).

I don't know the answer to this dilemma. I don't think there is any simple answer. All we can be sure of is that the Wikileaks scandal is merely its current manifestation. There will be more. Be in no doubt about that!


Friday, July 30, 2010

Can big girls fly?

This video seems to suggest that they can . . . or, at least, they can skid an awful long way when they stop flying!


Doofus Of The Day #379

Today's award goes to an unfortunately-named removal company in London, England.

Proudly displaying the words Safe Removals, the owners of this firm were left red-faced after their driver got himself into a rather tight spot.

Happily cruising along a road in south London, the driver of the van came to an unexpected standstill when he attempted to drive under a low railway bridge.

The van became stuck fast and efforts to remove it only made matters worse.

Eventually, with tires squealing, the van lurched backwards - and the roof was torn off.

There's more at the link.

It reminds me a bit of the German pocket battleship Deutschland at the start of the Second World War. The authorities suddenly realized that if a ship named for their country were sunk by the Royal Navy, Britain would gain an immensely useful propaganda victory over and above sinking a major enemy combatant. The ship was hurriedly renamed Lützow to avoid the problem.

In this case, perhaps the firm should change its name to something that won't lead to ridicule whenever accidents like this inevitably happen!


Some very funny signs

Coed Magazine has published pictures of '100 Hilarious Sign Fails'. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite.

There are many more at the link. Good for lots of laughs!


Warm fuzzy news of the day

I can't help it. I'm a sucker for those news reports of how a dainty elderly couple on a limited income suddenly come into wealth unexpectedly. It always makes me happy for them.

It happened yesterday to a retired couple in England. The BBC reports:

A pair of Chinese vases discovered in a retired couple's home have sold at auction for £500,000 [currently about US $784,950].

The 10-inch high, Qianlong dynasty porcelain pieces were given to the anonymous couple from Southampton as a wedding present in 1965.

They were sold to a foreign bidder on the telephone and were originally valued at between £40,000 and £60,000.

The couple said: "We are absolutely delighted and are going on holiday. This has transformed our retirement."

There's more at the link.

They're certainly beautiful pieces. According to the auctioneer's catalog (item no. 377 for their sale of July 29th, 2010):

This exceptional pair of vases may belong to a group of ritual wares that were specially commissioned by the Qing Court for placement on Buddhist altars for ceremonial use in palaces and temples either within the Forbidden Palace or Bishushanzhuang in Chengde.

The inspiration for the form comes from Tibetan metalswares that were made as containers for storage of sacred water and used during Buddhist ceremonies. This rare form of altar vase known as a Benbaping was made to contain sacred plants.

How nice to have one's pension suddenly boosted by over three-quarters of a million dollars!


Thursday, July 29, 2010

An accident looking for a place to happen . . .

I've never seen such an idiotic, incoherent, rambling dumbass in my life!

If ever pain and misery were richly deserved, this guy qualifies! I'm almost tempted to believe the whole thing is a send-up, it's so stupid . . . but I don't think anyone could imitate a dork quite so successfully and keep a straight face!


Heavily loaded: Part 5 of 5

Herewith the last four in our series of heavily overloaded vehicles. Thanks again to reader C. le M. for sending them!

After looking at these images over the past few days, I can only be grateful that I haven't had to overload my own pickup truck quite as badly!


But is it art?

Thanks to the lovely Phlegm, I've been handed a puzzle that's had me cogitating furiously for much of today. She posted an article on her blog that linked to - of all things - an inflatable Vincent van Gogh painting!!!

This poses all sorts of questions.

  1. Why does this even exist? Who was it woke up one morning convinced that the world really needed an inflatable Vincent van Gogh painting???
  2. Why van Gogh in particular? Why not Rembrandt, or da Vinci, or Constable, or Monet, or Picasso? What is it about van Gogh that qualifies (?) him for historical puffery like this?
  3. Why inflatable? I mean . . . there are so many good prints out there of all sorts of art. Why fill one with air?
  4. Why should art be in a can in the first place?

Finally, would Don McLean ever have written and recorded 'Vincent' if his inspiration had been inflatable rather than inscrutable?


A toothsome morsel of history!

It seems some men are destined dentured for greatness . . .

A set of Sir Winston Churchill's partial dentures was sold at auction in England today for no less than £15,200 (about US $23,741). They were part of a collection of Churchill memorabilia that went under the hammer.

The BBC reports that Sir Winston's teeth have a special place in history.

Some people with a natural speech impediment make efforts to overcome it or cover it up.

But Winston Churchill came to value his as a vital weapon in the war effort.

In his wartime radio broadcasts, Churchill's distinctive voice was instantly recognisable. He wanted it to stay that way, so he had his dentures designed specifically to preserve his lisp.

They were made by a young dental technician called Derek Cudlipp, and a set of the dentures has been in his family since Churchill's death - but have been sold at auction for £15,200.

His son Nigel Cudlipp said his father's work was so important to Churchill the World War II prime minister would not let him join up and fight.

"When my father's call up papers came, Churchill personally tore them up," he said.

"Churchill said that he would be more important to the war effort if he stayed in London to repair his dentures."

And it seems they needed regular work.

"Churchill used to flick out his dentures when he was angry and throw them across the room," said Mr Cudlipp.

"My father used to say he could tell how the war was going by how far they flew."

For the last few years Mr Cudlipp has kept the dentures in a drawer at his house. He is selling them at auction because he feels they should be on public display.

The only other existing set is in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London - donated by the Cudlipp family.

Churchill's dentures are one of the museum's most popular exhibits. In a glass fronted cabinet, flanked by the teeth of royalty, they have pride of place.

"These really are the teeth that saved the world," said the museum's head of learning, Jane Hughes.

"Without them, 'Fight them on the beaches' would never have sounded the same. They were vital to the war effort."

. . .

"We've had enquiries from all over the world," said auctioneer Andrew Bullock.

"We've never seen this much interest in any item we've sold. We've valued the dentures at £4,000-5,000, but I wouldn't be surprised if they went for ten times that."

Never has so much attention been paid by so many, to so few teeth.

There's more at the link.

Hmm . . . I wonder if Mr. Cudlipp's World War II service could be described as 'indentured servitude'?


When history becomes inconvenient

I'm highly amused to read that British Prime Minister David Cameron, currently visiting India, was 'ambushed' by a journalist during a TV interview. The journalist demanded to know whether Britain was prepared to return the Koh-i-Noor Diamond to India. Somewhat taken aback, Cameron muttered, "If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I think I'm afraid to say, to disappoint all your viewers, it's going to have to say put."

He's quite right, of course. So many of Britain's treasured national patrimony is the result of what can only be described as looting, diplomatic piracy and downright theft that if it were all to be returned, the cupboard would truly be left bare. The Elgin Marbles; the Rosetta Stone; the Black Prince's Ruby; they're all the fruit of 'aggressive collecting' (to put it as charitably as possible).

The fun part about the Koh-i-Noor, of course, would be to decide which country is entitled to it. India claims it on the grounds that it was historically Indian before being ceded to Britain. Pakistan, however, now occupies more than half of the Punjab, the state from which it was finally seized by Britain, and therefore has its own claim to the diamond. If it were given to one, but not the other, would it spark a fourth Indo-Pakistani War?

Colonialism and jingoism are very much out of fashion today . . . but the treasures they won aren't likely to be going home anytime soon.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Another playground FAIL!

Considering the antics of our hero of yesterday's video clip, I thought it only appropriate to continue the metaphor. This is what happens when one doesn't think all the way through the construction of a BMX bicycle jump.


Heavily loaded: Part 4 of 5

Four more photographs from reader C. le M. of grossly overloaded vehicles.

The last four pictures in the series will go up tomorrow night.


Different approaches to food!

I'm astonished to see the outcry in England over a store chain that's selling squirrel meat. The Daily Mail reports:

Once a staple of the national diet, it is said to have a nutty flavour and can be cooked in soups, pies and casseroles.

But animal welfare group Viva has accused Budgens of cashing in on a 'wildlife massacre' by putting grey squirrel back on the menu.

Viva founder and zoologist Juliet Gellatley said: 'Culls of thousands of grey squirrels by so-called conservation groups to boost populations of red squirrels are irrational, inhumane and destined to fail, so it is very sad that Budgens are allowing profit to be made from wildlife massacre.

'If this store is attempting to stand out from the crowd by selling squirrel, the only message they are giving out is that they are happy to have the blood of a beautiful wild animal on their hands for the sake of a few quid.'

Actress and Viva patron Jenny Seagrove also condemned the sale, saying: 'It is unbelievable that our wild grey squirrels are now being killed and packaged up for sale in such high street stores.

'Anyone who cares about wildlife, as I do, should be appalled at Budgens for allowing this. It seems that no animal is to be spared falling victim to such companies' marketing ploys. What gruesome product will be next to grace our food aisles? Blackbird, fieldmouse or mole?'

. . .

Henry Atwell, a butcher from Walton, Somerset, is selling ten squirrels a week at less than £3 each.

He said: 'To start with, customers try it through novelty, but they come back and buy more of them.

'Squirrel tastes similar to a rabbit. Some people say they taste a bit nutty but I don't know if it's in the mind.'

There's more at the link.

For the benefit of my (many) readers in Britain, I should explain that here in the US, squirrel meat is part of the normal, everyday diet of millions of hunters. There are defined squirrel hunting seasons in many States, and it's considered part of the rites of passage of young boys and girls to begin their hunting careers by bringing down a mess of squirrels for the pot.

I can vividly recall taking over my first pastoral assignment in the US. I arrived at my new church on the first Sunday in October, to find most of the men wearing camouflage clothing and carrying shotguns racked across the back windows of their pickup trucks. For a brief, horrified moment I wondered whether the shotguns were for use in case I preached a bad sermon that morning, only to be reassured that it was the first day of squirrel season, and the local sportsmen intended to head for the woods the moment church was over! (And, yes, they brought me several brace of squirrel for my supper that night!)

I suggest that the spokesladies for Viva quoted in the Daily Mail article had better stay away from the Southern states of the US during squirrel season. Not only would the slaughter drive them mad, but if they commented here as they do in England, they might find themselves locked up for psychiatric testing! I mean . . . what else are squirrels good for, if not for eating with a mess of pepper gravy, beans, greens and Dutch oven-baked biscuits? Mmm-mmm! Yum!

(No, they don't taste like chicken!)


The Northwest Passage gives up its secrets

As a nautical and history buff, I'm very pleased to learn that the wreck of HMS Investigator, one of the ships dispatched by Britain in 1850 to search for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin, has been discovered. She lies in Mercy Bay, off Banks Island in Canada's Northwest Territories (circled in red on the map below - click the image for a larger view).

HMS Investigator, skippered by then-Commander Robert McClure, sailed from Britain down the length of the North and South Atlantic Oceans, rounding Cape Horn to enter the Pacific Ocean and sail up the coasts of North and South America. She entered Arctic waters through the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia. Almost immediately she became ice-bound in Mercy Bay, where she and her crew were trapped for three years.

Other ships of the Royal Navy had entered the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean, traveling as far as Viscount Melville Sound before becoming trapped in ice in their turn. One of them, HMS Resolute, became the temporary savior of Commander McClure and the crew of Investigator. In 1853, despairing of working their ship free from the ice, McClure and his crew abandoned ship and traveled across the ice, using sledges and skis, until they discovered Resolute in her ice-bound harbor. They spent the next year aboard her.

In 1854, Resolute's crew (along with the survivors of Investigator) abandoned her in their turn, as did the crews of the other ships involved in the search. The crews came together aboard HMS North Star, the tender to the expedition, which had sheltered in a less ice-bound cove off Beechey Island. There she was found by two relief ships, which took aboard some of the survivors to relieve her overcrowding. The three vessels returned to England together.

The historical significance of Investigator's voyage was that her captain and crew were the first persons to traverse the Northwest Passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean (albeit covering much of the distance on foot over the ice, rather than by ship). In doing so, the McClure Arctic Expedition (as it came to be known) proved that the Northwest Passage did, in fact, exist. McClure was promoted to Captain for his achievements (backdated four years to when he entered the Northwest Passage), and he and his crew shared an award of £10,000 from the British Government (equivalent to well over US $10 million today in terms of buying power).

There's a sequel to McClure's adventures that plays an important role in US politics to this day. The abandoned HMS Resolute was found adrift in an ice floe off Baffin Island by an American whaler, George Henry, on September 10th, 1855. She'd drifted well over a thousand miles from where she'd been abandoned the previous year. The George Henry freed Resolute from the ice and brought her into New London, Connecticut. The British Government generously waived all claim to Resolute on learning of her salvage. The US Government bought the ship for $40,000 from her salvors, restored her, and returned her to Britain as a gesture of goodwill, presenting her to Queen Victoria on December 17th, 1856.

When HMS Resolute was finally retired from service and broken up in 1879, Queen Victoria remembered the courtesy shown by the US in returning the ship to Britain. She had a desk made from Resolute's timbers and presented it to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 as a gesture of thanks for the USA's generosity. The Resolute Desk is today the centerpiece of the Oval Office, used by the President of the United States for all official business.

The discovery of the wreck of HMS Investigator is of great historical importance. The Calgary Herald reports:

The wreck of HMS Investigator was detected in shallow water within days of Parks Canada archeologists launching their ambitious search for the 422-tonne ship from this chilly tent encampment on the Beaufort Sea shoreline.

“It’s sitting upright in silt; the three masts have been removed, probably by ice,” said Ifan Thomas, Parks Canada’s superintendent of the western Arctic Field Unit. “It’s a largely intact ship in very cold water, so deterioration didn’t happen very quickly.”

The clear Arctic water makes it possible to glimpse the outline of the ship’s outer deck, which is only eight metres below the surface.

Three graves were also found Tuesday. They are undoubtedly the remains of British sailors who succumbed to disease in the final months of the ship’s three-year Arctic ordeal.

“In anthropological terms, this is the most important shipwreck in history,” said senior marine archeologist Ryan Harris.

“It’s a bit like finding a Columbus ship in the Arctic.”

Finding a relic linked to the discovery of the Northwest Passage represents a reasserted Canadian claim to Arctic sovereignty, says Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who arrived at the camp on Tuesday.

“It’s fundamental to Canadian sovereignty in the North and the tragic tale of Investigator is one of the most amazing stories of Arctic history.”

“It’s a tale of incredible determination and suffering,” Prentice said in an interview.

Climate change in the North gets an assist in the discovery because Mercy Bay was routinely clogged in year-round ice until recently. The first recorded time the bay was ice-free was the summer of 2007.

The three-masted, copper-bottomed Investigator was found this week after marine archeologists deployed side-scan sonars from inflatable Zodiac boats. Underwater cameras will be used later this week to photograph the wreck and divers will be deployed next summer to probe the hull.

There's more at the link.

Other Canadian teams are searching for traces of the long-lost Franklin expedition. Who knows? Perhaps, over the next year or two, they may solve one of the longest-standing mysteries of Arctic exploration. Let's hope the discovery of HMS Investigator is a good omen for their efforts.


As Lawdog says: "What problem?"

My friend Lawdog opines at some length on the case of the Gurkha soldier who neatly removed the head of a Taliban warlord, in order to have some proof that said warlord had shuffled off this mortal coil. Needless to say, the politically-correct pantywaists who now run things in Britain have been squeaking in horror at the thought.

I can't for the life of me imagine why they're making such a fuss. I've been on a modern battlefield (rather too often for my liking, thank you very much). Have you ever seen what an exploding 155mm. artillery shell, or 81mm. mortar shell, or hand grenade, does to the human body? Think 'hamburger'. Think 'meatloaf'. Think 'pulled pork BBQ'. Do those terms give you any mental images? They're not far from the truth. By comparison, beheading with a traditional Gurkha kukri is a relatively clean, surgical thing.

The kukri is renowned for its ability (in the hands of a skilled wielder) to remove the head of a full-grown bullock with a single stroke. I can't imagine a Taliban head honcho proving any more difficult . . . and I doubt the Gurkha who did the deed wasted a second thought on the matter. He did what his father, and his grandfather, and his forefathers for many generations, have done before him.

Civilization's a very thin veneer in all of us, when push comes to shove. You don't believe me? Wait until you land on a battlefield, and you'll find out. I did. The hard way. I second Lawdog's comments, and then some.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Must be a male bird!

Why else would he choose this particular hidey-hole?


So you think life's given you a raw deal?

Count your blessings that you don't have to endure this.

Go and read it . . . then say a prayer for Jennifer, and her daughter Jessica, and all those involved in this tragedy. While you're at it, remember that there are many more Jennifers and Jessicas across our country, in different kinds of need, but all just as serious. How about seeing what you can do to help those nearest you?

Oh - and don't forget to give thanks for your many blessings, and the comparative smallness of your trials!


P.S.: Jennifer's posted a follow-up here. Go read.

Heavily loaded: Part 3 of 5

Continuing our ongoing series, here are four more photographs of vehicles loaded way past their limits.

More tomorrow.


A tragic accident . . . or something worse?

The Daily Mail reports on a Sicilian wedding that went tragically wrong.

A wedding photographer was accidentally shot dead after he asked the happy couple to pose with guns as part of the big day celebrations, Italian police have revealed.

. . .

Palermo police spokesman Colonel Teo Luzi said: 'From what we have been able to establish the photographer had asked the parents of the bride and groom if they had any guns to use as props in a picture and one went off hitting him in the head killing him.

'He was only there as a favour for the wedding photographer who had been originally been booked but had to pull out as he was ill. The bride and groom were distraught and the wedding was immediately cancelled.

'The prosecutor is looking at bringing charges against the groom's parents as this is where the death took place but we need to examine the ballistics report first as the bride's parents also brought a weapon.'

He added: 'The firearms were legally held but in the interests of safety they should all be kept safe and not be handled by people who are not used to them and have no experience.

'What we are trying to establish is if the gun went off as it was being handled by the photographer or if it went off as it was handed to him but no-one is being very talkative.'

In southern Italy and especially Sicily it is common for guns to be fired at family events or festivals as part of the celebrations and in the past this has led to numerous deaths and injuries especially around New Year.

There's more at the link.

OK, I have three questions.

1. This is Sicily, a land renowned for criminal gangs and blood feuds. How sure are we that this was an accident?

2. The original photographer pulled out at the last minute and arranged for a substitute. How sure are we that he didn't have some warning that it might not be a good idea to show up?

3. If 'no-one is being very talkative' about a pure accident, why not? What's there to keep quiet about? This sounds suspicious on the face of it.

One wonders whether the original photographer might have upset someone, or taken a picture that might identify some crime boss, and was targeted as a result. Hearing of this, he might have decided that discretion was the better part of photography, and asked the deceased to take his place, assuming that if he wasn't there, no harm would come to anyone. On the other hand, someone told to 'take care of the photographer' might not know that the person he targeted wasn't the photographer in question.

This stinks to high heaven, if you ask me.


"National Popular Vote" - another way to bypass the Constitution

I'm seriously concerned about the National Popular Vote (NPV) campaign, which aims to "implement a nationwide popular election of the President of the United States". It seeks to do this by having every State pass a law that its electoral votes should be assigned to the candidate winning a majority of the individual votes cast in a Presidential election on a nationwide basis. The latest State to adopt such a law is Massachusetts, where the legislature has just sent a bill to the Governor for signature.

There are four things that worry me about this effort. Three are relatively simple to sum up.

1. Such a law may override the democratic preference of the people of a particular State. Let's say the majority of Massachusetts residents vote for a Democratic Party candidate for President, but his Republican Party opponent wins the majority of votes on a national basis. With this new law in effect, the electoral college votes of Massachusetts would be assigned to the Republican Party candidate, even though his opponent won in the state of Massachusetts. How can this be democratic?

2. The National Popular Vote campaign carefully words their objective as follows:

Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state's electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Unfortunately, that's not true. The candidate who receives a majority of the votes cast across all 50 states as a whole - not in each of the 50 states individually - will get the electoral college votes of States adopting this legislation. That means, if Candidate X gets big majorities in a few States with large populations, he might be able to lose 30 or more of the smaller states, and still win election, because the large vote tallies of the populous states would overwhelm the smaller numbers involved in other states.

3. Because of point (2) above, the National Popular Vote campaign will open up Presidential elections to a far greater risk of vote-rigging. We've all heard the slogans about particularly egregious electoral scandals - "Vote early and vote often!" is the most common - but they'd be even more true if a majority vote were to decide the Presidency. If a more-than-usually-corrupt party machine could 'manufacture' another million votes for its candidate in a few selected areas - Chicago, New York, Detroit, St. Louis - those million fraudulent votes might be sufficient to alter the outcome of the popular vote nationwide, and therefore swing the electoral college votes of states adopting the NPV approach to the candidate benefiting from the fraud. I think the risk is far too great.

The fourth and most worrying element of the NPV campaign, in my eyes, is that it's a blatant attempt to bypass the Constitution of the United States. The provision of an Electoral College is a federal, constitutional matter, not determined by each individual State. You'll find it in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, as modified by the 12th, 20th and 25th Amendments. If we want to change that (or any other) part of the Constitution, there's a mechanism provided to do so (Article 5). The NPV campaign ignores this altogether, and seeks to alter the way in which individual States allocate their electoral college votes without modifying the Constitution itself.

This is extraordinarily dangerous.

In the first place, it may possibly be un-Constitutional, although that can only be decided by the US Supreme Court. The supporters of the NPV claim that their efforts are, indeed, Constitutional, in that they're not changing anything on the Federal level - only the State level. However, since their changes would involve not only the electors, but also the way they would be forced to vote, and would thus have a direct and immediate impact on a Constitutional process, I'm not so sure about their legitimacy.

In the second place, what happens to the Constitution if those opposed to one or more of its provisions discover that they can effectively change the legal foundation of the Republic without having to pass a Constitutional amendment? It's difficult - sometimes to the point of practical impossibility - to accomplish the latter, which is precisely the point. It shouldn't be easy to change the Constitution. However, if a means can be found to do so, as the NPV campaign seems to believe, then what's to stop a similar method being applied to nullify any other Constitutional provision that reformers find inconvenient? Freedom of speech? The right to keep and bear arms? Freedom of religion? What if any or all of these foundational principles of our Republic could be tossed aside by a simple process that subverts and/or ignores Constitutional checks and balances?

I think the NPV campaign is most dangerous from precisely this perspective. It attempts an end-run around the Constitution and the safeguards put in place to protect its provisions. From that perspective, I can't support it, and I think it must be stopped. The question is, how can we do so?

What say you, readers? Am I being paranoid, or do we have a real problem here? It's only fair to say that NPV supporters don't agree with my perspective, but that's hardly surprising. I'd be interested to hear your views.


EDITED TO ADD: A barrage of 'spam' comments by the well-known contributor 'Anonymous', giving pro-NPV facts and figures, has been deleted. I've already provided links to the NPV Web site, so those wanting such facts and figures can easily find them. I don't want the comment thread bogged down by having them regurgitated yet again.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Playground FAIL!

This young man demonstrates the need for caution when approaching the swings.



The lap(cat) of luxury?

I'm amazed to read of the Longcroft Luxury Cat Hotel that's just opened in Hertfordshire, England. The Daily Mail reports:

A new luxurious feline hotel could mean your pet has an even better holiday than you.

Four-legged guests ... can live it up in style with amazing treats from the hotel's organic ‘A La Cat’ menu.

Scrumptious delights to suit every moggy's palette include poached salmon, tiger prawns and even steamed white fish for delicate tummies - all served on a shiny silver platters and bone china plates.

With six individually-themed heated chalets to choose from and lots of space, guest cats are treated to Jazz and Classical music fed through a £5,000 state-of-the-art sound system.

Owners Abi and Matt Purser have ensured their four-legged patrons will never get bored at the hotel which costs between £15 and £19 a night, with extras like the A La Cat menu at £3.50 a day.

Outside their private bedroom windows are bird boxes to make sure birds fly in nearby to keep the cats are entertained.

Porcelain water fountains deliver perfectly fresh oxygenated water to keep all the guests purrfectly hydrated.

With the pampered pussies safely tucked up in their lavish bedrooms, Mrs Purser, 35, and her 40-year-old husband offer around-the-clock care and send absent owners postcards and pictures giving updates on the kitties' own little holidays.

And if life gets too tough the residents can take optional extras like the Grooming Pamper Package.

As well as delicate treatments for the ears and eyes the spoilt pets also get a nail shape, massage and shine.

Mrs Purser, said: ‘There are some pretty good catteries out their if you look, but no one has gone quite to the lengths we have in terms of comfort and style.

. . .

‘The music, the complex toys and the bird boxes all outside are just some of the twists we've used to make sure the cats stay stimulated.

‘The music is constantly changed to stop our guests from getting bored.

‘We will shortly be installing a machine which blows out catnip flavoured bubbles. We want the cats to stay active, happy and entertained while they're here.’

There's more at the link. Photographs are courtesy of the hotel's Web site.

I say, forget the cats. It looks comfortable enough that I want to stay there myself - provided they cook my meals in human fashion!


Heavily loaded: Part 2 of 5

Here are four more photographs of ridiculously overloaded vehicles.

I'm rather taken by the man lying on his back in the bottom picture, left leg casually crossed over his right knee. If that load lets go, he's going to be flatter than the proverbial pancake!

More tomorrow.


Westboro Baptist Church gets its come-uppance

I'm delighted to learn (via an e-mail from Miss D.) that the bigoted pseudo-Christians of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is led by Fred Phelps and consists largely of members of his extended family, got more than they bargained for when they picketed Comic-Con in San Diego last weekend. Comics Alliance reports:

They've faced down humans time and time again, but Fred Phelps and his minions from the Westboro Baptist Church were not ready for the cosplay action that awaited them today at Comic-Con.

After all, who can win against a counter protest that includes robots, magical anime girls, Trekkies, Jedi and...kittens?

Unbeknownst to the dastardly fanatics of the Westboro Baptist Church, the good folks of San Diego's Comic-Con were prepared for their arrival with their own special brand of superhuman counter protesting chanting "WHAT DO WE WANT?" - "GAY SEX!" - "WHEN DO WE WANT IT?" - "NOW!", while brandishing ironic (and some sincere) signs.

Simply stated: The eclectic assembly of nerdom's finest stood and delivered.

There's more at the link, including lots more pictures. Here's a video report on proceedings, complete with a 'Christ figure' whose comments made me chuckle.

Nothing like ridicule to discombobulate blind fanaticism!