Saturday, October 31, 2009

The recovery continues

It's now three and a half weeks since my quadruple heart bypass surgery, and I'm beginning to feel a bit more human. My stitches were removed this week (those that were visible, anyway - there's a bunch that are internal, and will either dissolve on their own or remain as wire holding my breastbone together). That was a bit ouchy, as the skin had dried out around them, and tugging on them was rather painful, but at least it's over now.

I'm getting more mobile, trying to walk up to half a mile a day (I did about a mile today), and get myself back into shape. I start 36 sessions of cardiac rehabilitation (3 each week) next Monday, and that'll combine with daily walking to keep me active over the next few months. My chest feels rather peculiar, as the breastbone's still not knitted together, and walking too far or doing too much results in little slipping feelings and noises as bits of bone seem to slide over each other - most peculiar! Still, they tell me it'll get better with time.

I'm very grateful that the excruciating pain of moving around is much better, and even coughing is getting easier (although that's still very sore). Hopefully, by the end of November, things will have improved to the point when I no longer wince when I cough!

Miss D. has now joined me from Alaska. Over the next few months she'll be helping me with my recuperation, keeping me challenged and up-to-the-mark in terms of fitness and rehab exercises (of which she has all too much experience from her own injuries), and generally being a loving nag in the background. I'll let you know if I survive the experience! I'm very grateful to have her here. It makes things much easier.

Thanks again to all of you who've sent prayers and good wishes my way. So far, so good.


Loy Krathong festival in full swing

If you've never heard of it, don't feel alone - I hadn't either, until I received an e-mail about it from a friend who's currently visiting Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. She writes:

You wouldn't believe the festival of floats and lights currently under way. Locally it's called Yi Peng, but across Thailand it's more widely known as Loy Krathong. It's a Buddhist adaptation of the Hindu Festival of Lights, or Diwali, as far as I can tell.

Part of the tradition is to release floats into the river, called krathongs, made of banana wood or leaves, and bearing lanterns (usually a candle in a paper lantern, but sometimes more elaborate affairs). This venerates the Buddha, and is also supposed to symbolize letting go of everything negative or evil in your life, allowing it to float away with the lantern on the waters of the river. It's a sort of spiritual release and regeneration, I guess.

Another part to it is the release of paper lanterns. You're supposed to make a wish as you release your lantern, and it'll be carried to the heavens along with all the other wishes made at the festival. It can also carry your worries and cares, just like the krathong in the river.

Curious, I did a bit of Internet searching on some of the terms she used. I've linked key words to articles giving more details. I also found several pictures on Wikipedia, which I've inserted into her text, and this video of the release of lanterns in Chiang Mai (a custom which seems more limited to that area, unlike the rafts or krathongs, which are released all across Thailand.)

Lovely, isn't it?


The perils of marketing a technical product

I'm sure many readers have encountered this issue. What happens when you're ready to market or advertise a technical product, requiring a certain amount of understanding to appreciate it, but have to leave said advertising or marketing in the hands of non-technical people? The result can frequently be disastrous.

The firearms industry is no exception. I recall Heckler & Koch's infamous catalog cover blooper at the 2007 SHOT Show, which hilariously illustrated cartridges inserted backwards in a pistol's magazine!

The howls of laughter from firearms enthusiasts and hobbyists re-echoed around Internet forums and the blogosphere for months over that mistake.

Now Woolrich, makers of 'tactical' clothing aimed at the law enforcement and law-enforcement-wannabe market, have made a similar slip-up.

As friend R. B. describes the above advertisement in an e-mail:

The one in the foreground is a determined-looking operator with a dapper cop moustache and a menacing glare like someone just bought the last bear claw at the donut shop.

He also has his scope mounted BACKWARDS on his AR.

Now that's going to take some living down!


Friday, October 30, 2009

An impressive light-and-music display

The video clip below shows a light-and-music performance at the Town Hall of Östersund in Sweden. Very impressive! It's worth turning up your sound to listen as you watch.

I'd like to see that 'in the flesh'.


A little bird's courage against a predator

An amazing series of photographs has been published, showing a kingbird attacking and fending off a red-tailed hawk that ventured too close to its nest. For copyright reasons, I won't reproduce them all here, but I'll show one in smaller scale as a 'fair use' example of the others.

There are more photographs and a description of the fight at the link. Highly recommended.


A British perspective on the Afghanistan situation

I posted on Wednesday about Matthew Hoh and his views on Afghanistan. Tonight I read in the British newspaper, the Daily Mail, about that country's Centre for Policy Studies and its perspective on the conflict. The two reports are very similar, and draw the same conclusions. Here's an excerpt from the Daily Mail article.

All too many senior officers at the Ministry of Defence have looked like politicians in uniform, pretending that it is business as usual when in reality the situation is deteriorating.

If we are to achieve anything in Afghanistan, I believe we must end this kind of institutionalised deceit and face up to the truth that Nato's operation is on the brink of failure. So what can be done?

As I argue in a paper to be published by the Centre of Policy Studies, it is time for a more sophisticated approach that recognises the realities on the ground instead of obeying the dictates of spin.

From the start, the Nato strategy was based on a dangerous mix of misconceptions and self-delusions. There was [a] false belief that the ruling Taliban and Al Qaeda were inextricably linked by an ideological determination to overthrow western civilisation through acts of destruction like 9/11.

But this was a misunderstanding. Awful though it is, the Taliban was not a conspirator in 9/11 and never represented a threat to the West.

In fact, at one stage Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, even considered handing over Osama Bin Laden to the Saudi security forces but, after talks with his co-religionists, decided against.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are still completely different animals. Al Qaeda is an internationalist, nihilist group bent on global jihad. The Taliban is essentially a national movement with limited aims - not a single, cohesive organisation but an army of disparate tribal leaders and farmers' sons who desire to defeat foreign invaders.

This makes nonsense of the argument that the defeat of the Taliban is essential for the security of the West. No one from the Taliban has ever thrown so much as a petrol bomb on western soil.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Defence proclaimed that 'the choice is between fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and fighting them on the streets of UK towns'. Such idiocy is an insult to our intelligence.

We are told that if we are not in Afghanistan, then the country will become an ungoverned space from which our enemies can attack us. But there are plenty of havens around the globe, such as the permissive tribal areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen from which Al Qaeda and its franchises now operate.

Moreover, our presence in Afghanistan feeds Al Qaeda's insidious propaganda about western oppression of Muslims. Radical websites are full of imagery of the battle in Helmand and the rallying cry of martyrdom.

For Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is the best place in the world to generate video footage of jihadi attacks on 'infidel forces', which in turn helps global recruitment and fundraising.

That is why we need a completely different approach. What I advocate is not a complete withdrawal, but rather the reduction of our forces to the point where we have a strike capability against enemies who threaten our people.

We are now very good at electronic intelligence and hitting pinpoint targets from a long distance. We do not need vast armies of troops in the desert. We also should lower the flames of the insurgency through deals with tribal leaders, backed up by generous development programmes.

One of our spies in the region told me that a decent political officer, with the right back-up, could reduce violence in Helmand by 70 per cent. That sort of approach worked before, when the British Empire had dedicated political officers in the region, and it can work again.

Moreover, the misguided attempt to impose nationwide governance from Kabul should also be abandoned, as the tribal structures are far too strong for this kind of centralism. It would be far better to work with the grain of Afghan society, providing local health and education services, as well as support for local security arrangements.

This requires a lot fewer troops than the numbers envisaged by General McChrystal and the Ministry of Defence - which would free huge amounts of money to buy off tribes and reduce the insurgency to a manageable level.

What is certain is that we will lose if we go on as we are.

There's more at the link. Recommended reading.

For the benefit of those who may not have read my earlier articles about Afghanistan, I repeat: we've walked into a conflict that's many centuries - indeed, millennia! - old. Alexander the Great was the first 'civilized' leader to encounter it, and he didn't make much headway. Every 'great power' since then, including Britain and the Soviet Union, has failed in the same way. Unless we learn from their mistakes, rather than repeating them, we'll fail too.

President Obama is right to want to evaluate his options very thoroughly before making a decision as to what to do next . . . but not making a decision is the same as making one. Every day that passes right now strengthens our enemies in that part of the world, and weakens the US position. We need strong leadership, but at the moment it's conspicuous by its absence.


More on the Internet's 40th birthday

Yesterday I posted an article about the 40th birthday of the Internet, which was 'born' on October 29th, 1969. A couple more interesting items have come to light today.

The Daily Mail has published pictures of the computer used to send those first Arpanet messages, and interviewed Prof. Leonard Kleinrock, one of the 'founding fathers' of the Internet. Here's the computer in question, with Prof. Kleinrock:

There's more at the link. Very interesting reading.

Then, the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, has launched a competition with a $40,000 first (and only) prize, to commemorate the Internet's 40th birthday. They explain:

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, DARPA has announced the DARPA Network Challenge, a competition that will explore the role the Internet and social networking plays in the timely communication, wide area team-building and urgent mobilization required to solve broad scope, time-critical problems.

The challenge is to be the first to submit the locations of ten moored, 8 foot, red weather balloons located at ten fixed locations in the continental United States. Balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roadways.


1. Register on this web site on December 1.
2. Find other people interested in helping you solve the DARPA Network Challenge.
3. Starting December 5, submit locations to the web site immediately after you find them.
4. For updates, follow us on Twitter.


A $40,000 cash prize will be awarded to the first entrant to submit the latitude and longitude of all ten balloons.


Announcement - October 29, 2009
Registration Opens - December 1, 2009
Balloons Launched - December 5, 2009
Submission Deadline - December 14, 2009

Official rules for the competition (in .PDF format) may be found here. Good luck to any readers who decide to enter - and don't forget to share the prize with your humble host here if you win!


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Parkour FAIL!

I'm sure readers are familiar with the sport of parkour (a variant is known as free running, but enthusiasts regard them as the same discipline in different forms). Wikipedia defines parkour as follows:

Parkour (sometimes also abbreviated to PK) or l'art du déplacement (English: the art of moving) is a physical discipline of French origin in which participants run along a route, attempting to negotiate obstacles in the most efficient way possible, as if moving in an emergency situation, using skills such as jumping and climbing, or the more specific parkour moves. The object is to get from a Point A to a Point B using only the human body and the objects in the environment around you. The obstacles can be anything in one's environment, but parkour is often seen practiced in urban areas because of the many suitable public structures that are accessible to most people, such as buildings and rails.

Parkour has become more widely known through various films, including the James Bond epic Casino Royale in 2006. Here's a partial chase scene from that movie where the person attempting to get away uses Parkour techniques.

(If you want to see the whole scene, including its climax, click here for the nine-minute-plus video.)

Be that as it may, there are many Parkour wannabes out there . . . and when they try to behave like advanced practitioners of the sport, things have a habit of going horribly wrong (very amusingly so, from the point of view of detached observers such as ourselves). Here's a video clip of some of the disasters.

Oh, dear . . .


Doofus Of The Day #285

Today's award goes to Matthew Allan McNelly and Joey Lee Miller of Iowa. CNN reports:

Police received a call Friday night that two men with hooded sweatshirts and painted faces had tried to break into a man's home in Carroll, Iowa.

When police stopped a vehicle matching the caller's description blocks away, they were stunned by the men's disguises.

There were no ski masks or stockings pulled over their heads; instead, Matthew Allan McNelly, 23, and Joey Lee Miller, 20, streaked their faces permanent black marker.

Carroll Police Chief Cayler told CNN the strange disguises made it easier for his officers.

"We're very skilled investigators and the black faces gave them right away," Cayler said jokingly. "I have to assume the officers were kind of laughing at the time. I've never heard of coloring your face with a permanent marker."

. . .

Cayler said he's been fielding calls about the case from news media outlets from all over the country -- mostly because of their funny-looking mug shots.

"I've been chief here almost 25 years, been with the department 28 1/2 years and I've seen a lot of things that make me laugh and weird things but this was probably the best combination of the two -- strangely weird and hilariously funny all at the same time."

There's more at the link, including a pair of priceless mug shots showing our two Doofi with permanent marker all over their faces. How they're going to get it off (or explain it to the other criminals in jail) I've no idea!


The reality of losing a child

There's a heartrending story on MSNBC about the death of a young child from cancer, and her parents' efforts to give her the best and most meaningful life they could during her dying, and their experience of her loss. It brought me to tears, and I think it may be very valuable in helping others to face such tragedies. Here's a brief series of excerpts to whet your appetite.

Elena Desserich was diagnosed with brain cancer at 5 years old. She began to hide hundreds of little notes around the house — in sock drawers, backpacks and tucked between the books on the shelves — for her parents, Brooke and Keith, to find after she was gone. In “Notes Left Behind,” her parents share the journal entries they kept during her battle, as well as content from the notes left by Elena. An excerpt.

From Part 1: The beginning Day 1—November 29

It began early. We called it “binner.” With her IV surgery scheduled for 7 a.m., the last time she could eat was 1 in the morning. So at midnight I woke her up to a breakfast/dinner of yogurt — except the nurse forgot to order yogurt before the kitchen closed and we ended up with a meal of pudding and applesauce instead. From 1 a.m. to dawn we talked about “Alice in Wonderland,” her new discovery of the TV remote and what she always wanted to do. And although I couldn’t always understand her words because of the tumor, I could usually understand her drawings.

First came a circle with squiggly lines. This was where she wanted to go — the only problem was that I did not know what she was telling me. After several tries and more than enough frustration on her part, I figured out that she was talking about the “little restaurant” — the chili parlor a mile from our house. With this her face lit up as she told me she wanted spaghetti and cheese. This was a remarkably simple request and we added it to the list. The next one was a bit harder: the Eiffel Tower. To this day, I still don’t know where she came up with this one. Regardless, this was the list and what we needed to accomplish. From there the list continued to the “street of dresses,” which I immediately recognized as a wedding dress district in our town, but I feigned ignorance. It was the same street I had deliberately driven down on the way home with the girls for the past five years, while telling them to pick out their dresses. Now she was asking me to take her to the same shops that I had always envisioned taking her to when she was engaged. Now I questioned if she would ever make it that far. Still, it went on the list.

As the night went on, we continued to talk. She wanted to talk and I wanted to listen. Sleep was not as important as it was three days ago. I watched her face illuminated by the lights on the heart monitor wondering if I would remember every detail: the softness of her cheeks, the dancing glow of her eyes, the innocence of her thoughts. But was it all a nightmare? Would I awake tomorrow and the tumor would simply be gone? Maybe this was just a lesson from life and by tomorrow the tumor would miraculously disappear. I could only hope.

That night, the doctors sent us home for rest, but after they told us that our daughter had only 135 days to live, sleep wasn’t in our plans. Still we smiled, wiped the tears from our eyes and tried to pretend that everything was all right. But it was Elena who had the best suggestion. Before leaving, she wanted to celebrate Christmas. So we took time to carefully find her precious Jesus and angel ornaments and hang them on the tree that the grandparents had hastily put up only minutes before. Ironic, because in previous years, I’d always insisted on not putting up the tree before December 15. Still, this year it couldn’t come soon enough.

. . .

Day 4—December 2

Today was a good day. It was Saturday and we didn’t have to go to the hospital — all we had to do was make Elena smile. She was tired this morning, but also very hungry for waffles. After waking up at 6 a.m. from her open-eyed and teeth-gnawing sleep, all she wanted was waffles with butter. At first we couldn’t understand her with her limited voice, but thank goodness she could at least spell “WFL” to communicate her wishes. She had to have waffles with whipped cream, chocolate chips and cherries for eyes. And except for the cherries, she ate the entire thing. Must be the steroids working.

For the first time, Elena has now lost sensation in her thighs. Now she has a limp in her right leg, no gag reflex, limited ability in her right arm, loss of left-eye peripheral vision and reduced sensation in her legs. I know this because in an attempt to raise a smile, I tried to tickle her most ticklish part: her knees. It used to be that all I needed to do was motion toward her knees and I would instantaneously get a wide-mouth smile. Now she simply looks at me with annoyance. I miss tickling my little girl. For a dad, it’s always about more than horseplay — it’s a way of expressing my love. I’ll just have to find another way to make her smile.

. . .

Day 9—December 7

With the tumor progressing, her speech is now very limited and you can see her actively counting the amount of times she chews her food so she doesn’t choke. I think she’s as much aware of her situation as we are. Her tongue and palate paralysis are also making it very difficult to understand her words. She’s getting visibly frustrated now and with her right hand almost completely immobilized, she has difficulty in helping convey her thoughts with hand motions. Brooke and I are now trying to teach her sign language in the event that she loses speech altogether, as well as her sight. Hopefully she will never have to use it, but we are painfully aware that this might be her only connection to the outside world. She already knows the alphabet A–E and knows the signs for “mother,” “father,” “thank you,” “tree,” “thirsty,” “hungry” and “proud.” We use the sign for “proud” the most throughout the day. Brooke is teaching her the sign for “bulls--t” so at least she can curse when she gets frustrated. I don’t think “shucks” has a sign. I keep telling her that as long as she keeps trying to tell us things, we’ll keep working to understand; that way we’ll never give up talking.

There's much more at the link. Also, examples of the notes Elena hid for her parents to find may be seen here. Both sites are highly recommended reading.

Elena's parents, Brooke and Keith Desserich, have written a book, 'Notes Left Behind', about their daughter, her struggle, and the notes she left for them to find after her death.

It's on my 'To Buy' list, you may be sure of that! Here's a video clip where they talk about the book, and about Elena's life.

Sometimes the worst happens, even to the best of people. That's life. God never promised us a life of beer and skittles - He merely promised us grace to cope with whatever came along. Elena's story is a reminder that anyone's time may come at any moment, and also a salutary lesson to us to live for today, and be grateful for all we have. We may not have it - or them - for much longer. That's life, too.


Happy birthday to the Internet!

Forty years ago today, on October 29th, 1969, the first link in what was to become ARPANET (the first packet switching network, that later grew into the Internet, and formed the backbone of today's World Wide Web) was tested. The BBC reports:

It has often been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For the internet, that first step was more of a stumble.

At 2100, on 29 October 1969, engineers 400 miles apart at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and Stanford Research Institute (SRI) prepared to send data between the first nodes of what was then known as Arpanet.

It got the name because it was commissioned by the US Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa).

The fledgling network was to be tested by Charley Kline attempting to remotely log in to a Scientific Data Systems computer that resided at SRI.

Kline typed an "L" and then asked his colleague Bill Duvall at SRI via a telephone headset if the letter had arrived.

It had.

Kline typed an "O". Duvall said that arrived too.

Kline typed a "G". Duvall could only report that the system had crashed.

They got it working again by 22:30 and everything went fine. After that first misstep, the network almost never put a foot wrong. The rest has made history.

. . .

From those first two nodes, Arpanet quickly grew and by December of 1969 it had four nodes. By 1972 it had 37 and then started the process of connecting up networks to each other and the internet, a network of networks, came into being.

Dr [Larry] Roberts [the MIT scientist who worked out the fundamental technical specifications of the Arpanet] has spent his professional life involved in networks and is not done yet. He is currently driving a Darpa research project to get the net ready for the next 40 years.

The work is concentrating on ways to improve security, enshrine fairness so no-one can hog capacity and guarantee quality of connection to support exquisitely time sensitive applications such as remote surgery.

There's no doubt that the net's first step was the start of a giant leap.

There's more at the link.

From so small a beginning, to today's World Wide Web, with probably half a billion people logged on to the Internet at any moment of the day or night . . . that's quite a story! Those involved in its origin may be justly proud, I think. Congratulations to all concerned.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Things you don't say to your wife

No s***, Sherlock!


He won't be the last

I felt great sympathy today at the news that a State Department representative has resigned in protest at US policies in Afghanistan.

When Matthew Hoh joined the Foreign Service early this year, he was exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.

A former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq, Hoh had also served in uniform at the Pentagon, and as a civilian in Iraq and at the State Department. By July, he was the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed.

But last month, in a move that has sent ripples all the way to the White House, Hoh, 36, became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.

"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department's head of personnel. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."

The reaction to Hoh's letter was immediate. Senior U.S. officials, concerned that they would lose an outstanding officer and perhaps gain a prominent critic, appealed to him to stay.

U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry brought him to Kabul and offered him a job on his senior embassy staff. Hoh declined. From there, he was flown home for a face-to-face meeting with Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer," Holbrooke said in an interview. "We all thought that given how serious his letter was, how much commitment there was, and his prior track record, we should pay close attention to him."

While he did not share Hoh's view that the war "wasn't worth the fight," Holbrooke said, "I agreed with much of his analysis." He asked Hoh to join his team in Washington, saying that "if he really wanted to affect policy and help reduce the cost of the war on lives and treasure," why not be "inside the building, rather than outside, where you can get a lot of attention but you won't have the same political impact?"

Hoh accepted the argument and the job, but changed his mind a week later. "I recognize the career implications, but it wasn't the right thing to do," he said in an interview Friday, two days after his resignation became final.

"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.

"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."

But many Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected. While the Taliban is a malign presence, and Pakistan-based al-Qaeda needs to be confronted, he said, the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.

. . .

Hoh's doubts increased with Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election, marked by low turnout and widespread fraud. He concluded, he said in his resignation letter, that the war "has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency."

With "multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups," he wrote, the insurgency "is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified."

American families, he said at the end of the letter, "must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can be made any more."

. . .

Ruggiero said that he was taken aback by Hoh's resignation but that he made no effort to dissuade him. "It's Matt's decision, and I honored, I respected" it, he said. "I didn't agree with his assessment, but it was his decision."

Eikenberry expressed similar respect, but declined through an aide to discuss "individual personnel matters."

Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., Eikenberry's deputy, said he met with Hoh in Kabul but spoke to him "in confidence. I respect him as a thoughtful man who has rendered selfless service to our country, and I expect most of Matt's colleagues would share this positive estimation of him, whatever may be our differences of policy or program perspectives."

This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden's foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken's invitation.

If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would advise a reduction in combat forces.

He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better U.S. communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda, and more pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up government corruption -- all options being discussed in White House deliberations.

"We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some obligation for it not to be a bloodbath," Hoh said. "But you have to draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve."

There's much more at the link. Highly recommended reading.

I've written about the problem of Afghanistan several times. Everything Mr. Hoh says - or is quoted as saying - in this article matches what I've read in many historical sources. We've walked into a centuries-old conflict, of which the Taleban and Al Qaeda are merely the latest forms of expression. There's no military solution. If we want to win, the answers must be found elsewhere - and no previous power that's entered the region, from Alexander the Great, through the British Empire, to (most recently) the Soviet Union, has been able to do so.

I salute Mr. Hoh for his honesty and courage in speaking out as he has. Despite what 'armchair warriors' may say, he's genuinely living up to his US Marine Corps heritage.


Amazing photographs of sperm whales

The Daily Mail has published some fascinating photographs of a pod of sperm whales feeding on giant squid off Japan.

The captivating pictures show adult sperm whales feasting on a rare giant squid. Though the squid looks small beside the enormous whales, it is thought to be an incredible eight to ten metres long.

One of the dead squid's tentacles - a leftover scrap - was measured at a jaw-dropping three-and-a-half metres long.

And experts now think the pictures could be some of the rarest ever captured beneath the ocean's surface, showing as they do the sight of five adults teaching a hungry calf how to catch its prey.

Underwater photographer Tony Wu witnessed the pod - five adults and a juvenile - devour the mammoth squid near the Ogasawara Islands in Japan earlier this month.

'It was a childhood dream come true,' said Mr Wu.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales in the world, inhabiting every ocean on the planet.

Researchers estimate that more than 110 million tons of squid may be consumed by the species every year.

However with feeding depths ranging beyond 800 metres deep, this behaviour has rarely been recorded.

On this once-in-a-lifetime occasion Mr Wu was lucky enough to see the adult whales appearing near the surface - and teach their calf to dive into the deep blue waters to feed on its prey.

. . .

Accompanied by underwater photographers Eric Cheng and Douglas Seifert, Mr Wu entered the water to photograph the animals with permission from local whale watching authorities.

'The group kept diving and resurfacing with the larger whale carrying the squid in its mouth,' he said. 'They kept repeating the scenario and it was a good opportunity to get them on film.

'It seemed as if the adult whales were trying to teach the baby to dive and also to eat squid.

'Female sperm whales are known to raise calfs in a collective manner and they have strong family units.'

Cephalopod expert Dr Mark Norman confirmed the images give a rare insight into the feeding ritual of the sperm whale.

'It is incredibly rare to record a sperm whale with a giant squid actually in its jaws,' said Dr Norman, Senior Curator at the Museum Victoria, Australia.

. . .

'As echolocation is pivotal for sperm whales finding their prey, it is not out of the question that the females would release the dead squid at depth and let the calf echolocate and recognise it in the dark deep water, typically around 800 m deep.'

There's more at the link, including more and larger photographs. Highly recommended reading for nature lovers.


After five hundred years, history is revised

For those of you who, like me, are history buffs (particularly military history), news from England today would have made you sit up and take notice.

It saw the death of Richard III, ushered in the Tudor dynasty and gave Shakespeare one of his best known quotations.

Now, 500 years after one of the most important clashes in British history, archaeologists have finally found the location of the Battle of Bosworth Field - two miles away from where historians thought it was.

Battle of Bosworth Field, as depicted by Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740–1812) (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The discovery follows an extraordinary piece of detective work in which experts combed three square miles of fields with metal detectors, took dozens of soil samples and scoured the historical records for clues.

Over four years, they found evidence of a major medieval battle, including the remains of swords and buckles, lead cannonballs and shot fired from handguns.

The experts say the evidence is 'compelling' that the site lies near Sutton Cheney in Leicestershire, two miles from the Bosworth heritage centre and memorial.

Battlefields Trust archaeologist Glenn Foard said: 'We are not releasing the exact location yet because we fear illicit treasure hunting.'

The curator of the heritage centre, Richard Knox, said: 'It is fantastic. When we had the first discovery we were very excited but we had to wait to get more evidence. Now we are confident.'

The Battle of Bosworth, fought on August 22, 1485, marked the end of the War of the Roses, the 30-year civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster.

It was the final confrontation between the Yorkist King Richard III and his challenger Henry Tudor.

In Shakespeare's Richard III the king, thrown to the ground in the heat of battle, cries: 'A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!'

Richard was killed, and his rival was crowned King Henry VII.

There's more at the link.

This is interesting from all sorts of angles. The Battle of Bosworth has traditionally been regarded as the end of the Middle Ages in England. Its effects rumbled on for decades; despite it being 'officially' regarded as the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, unrest and rebellion continued for some decades, and even resurfaced during the reign of Henry VIII.

One result of the Battle of Bosworth that's still with us is the military unit known as the Yeomen of the Guard.

Yeomen of the Guard on parade (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Henry VII formed them as his personal bodyguard after his victory at Bosworth, while still on the battlefield, and they've been in existence ever since. Their uniforms are still of the Tudor pattern established by Henry VII. (They should not be confused with the Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, popularly known as Beefeaters, one of whom is shown below.)

Yeoman Warder of the Tower of London (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Definitely something to explore next time I get to England.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Amateur dramatics FAIL!

Oh, dear . . .


Of shrimp and DVD's

I'm highly amused to learn that an Australian shrimp may have developed a natural 'technology' that beats all our human optical drives.

The eyes of a remarkable crustacean from the Great Barrier Reef could lead to a revolution in DVD and display technology.

A combined research team has discovered the Mantis shrimp possesses the most complicated visual system of any known animal.

The discovery could help humans develop advanced optics, said the scientists from the University of Queensland, University of Bristol and University of Maryland.

"The whole of their visual system is really weird. They have more receptors for seeing colour than any animal on the planet - their visual system is really most like a satellite," said Professor Justin Marshall from the UQ School of Biomedical Sciences.

"The animal has to scan space to build up an image sequentially much like a radar. They have this scanning system which contains a lot of information such as polarised light, circular polarised light, colour in 12 channels and ultraviolet in six channels."

Professor Marshall and his colleagues' research has found the shrimp's eyes operate remarkably similarly to modern DVD and CD players and provide the solution to make much more efficient players, eliminating the need for specific types of players such as blue ray.

"Currently we use circular polarised sensors in CDs and DVDs to read off data from the discs. The shrimps have organised the same basic idea through evolution over 400 million years to see each other," Professor Marshall said.

"Blue ray uses the blue range of the spectrum and then you've got old CDs and DVDs which use red at the other end of the spectrum.

"A quarter wave retarder (which the shrimp have) allows you to read efficiently across the whole spectrum, meaning we could read more data and have different formats read by the same reader."

Professor Marshall said the discovery could also lead to better display technology affecting LCD screens.

"Images are formed on a LCD screen using polarised light and in this case, circular polarised light, so the rolled-up design of the shrimps' eyes could lead to us designing much more efficient and better displays," he said.

"We want to use nature's technology the shrimp have evolved."

Scientists are currently puzzled as to what the shrimps use this intricate and complicated visual system for but they do have a theory.

"It's possibly all coming down to sex, which is often the case in the animal kingdom. They really want to know about each other and judge the quality of their mates," Professor Marshall said.

There's more at the link. (Also, Wikipedia has a lot more information about the mantis shrimp's eyes and what they imply.)

So 'it all comes down to sex' for the shrimp, does it? Funny . . . for a great many humans, that's why they watch DVD's! How appropriate that the former's 'technology' might help the latter!


A canine cardiac savior?

Being in recovery from cardiac bypass surgery myself, I was very interested to read this report from Australia.

A central Queensland dog which jumped up and down on its owner's chest after the man suffered a massive heart attack may have saved his life.

Teka the three-year-old Australian cattle dog has been given the RSPCA's animal achievement award following the 2007 feat at a glass factory near Bundaberg.

Owner Jim Touzeau's heart stopped and he collapsed unconscious on the factory floor when Teka climbed onto his chest and began to jump repeatedly with all four paws.

The dog also barked in his face, rousing him enough to raise the alarm with his son.

She also ran outside and barked to attract attention.

Medical experts have been unable to say whether the canine CPR had any medical impact but say Mr Touzeau would not be alive today if not for Teka's efforts.

"I don't know if she actually kick-started my heart. But the doctors said that if I hadn't come to and called for help the chances are I would be dead," Mr Touzeau said.

"My heart had definitely stopped."

The 79-year-old glass craftsman also suffered deep cuts when he fell and sliced himself open on plate glass at the his Tinana factory.

He has since been fitted with a defibrillator implant.

. . .

The RSPCA will present the state-based commendation to Teka today and will also nominate her for a Purple Cross - the charity's highest bravery medal.

RSPCA spokesman Michael Beatty said Teka had shown incredible intuition.

"This award isn't given away lightly. If she hadn't been there he probably would not have woken up."

There's more at the link. Here's a link to a video report on the pair.

Looks like Teka's still in fine form! Congratulations to dog and owner.


An interesting man

The BBC has an interesting profile of Miklós Németh (as his name appears in Western speech: in native Hungarian, the names would be reversed).

The 1989 revolution has its unforgettable images, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its famous figures - Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the man who made a crucial first breach in the Iron Curtain which divided Cold War Europe has received far less attention in the West.

He is Miklos Nemeth, an economist who became Hungarian prime minister in November 1988 and proceeded to tear up the rule book for leaders of communist bloc countries.

His assault on the Iron Curtain began, strangely enough, as he considered his country's budget for 1989.

He spotted a mysteriously large sum listed under interior ministry spending. When he was told it was in fact for renewing the barbed wire on the border between Hungary in the Cold War "East", and Austria in the "West", he "erased it immediately", he recalls.

Nervous colleagues warned him of the possible consequences. Memory of brutal Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 was still strong.

But Nemeth wanted to test the promises of a new era made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

He visited Gorbachev in March 1989 and informed him of his government's decision in principle to start dismantling the border.

"I did not ask for permission", he says.

Nonetheless, as the barbed wire began to come down and border controls were gradually reduced, he half expected an angry phone call from Moscow, and was relieved when it did not come.

. . .

Nemeth was to incur [Erich] Honecker's lasting wrath when he decided to "cross the Rubicon", and open up the border fully in September.

This allowed thousands of East Germans, who had massed in Hungary after hearing of looser border controls, to leave for the West without exit visas, via Hungary's border with Austria.

But first Nemeth made a secret deal with the West German government, giving them time to prepare to accept the influx.

In return, a grateful West German chancellor Helmut Kohl helped Hungary service its large debt to Western banks.

This definitive opening of the Iron Curtain greatly undermined the authority of the East German regime.

Honecker lost power soon afterwards, and within weeks the Berlin Wall had fallen. "None of us, including Kohl, forecast the domino effect," Nemeth says.

. . .

[Nemeth] went on to play his part in building the new Europe as vice-president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But nothing could match the drama and personal satisfaction of the role he played in Europe's year of revolutionary drama 20 years ago.

"I did not do the impossible, I just did all that was possible at the time," he says now. And the approval he enjoyed most was not from the top political leaders he met, but from much closer to home.

"After I had resigned as prime minister in 1990," he recalls, "I went back to my home village. And my father clapped me on the back, and said 'Son, well done, I'm still holding my head up high whenever I walk through the gates to my front door.'"

There's more at the link.

I was an intensely interested observer of the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe (not least because they signalled the end of active Communist interference in Southern Africa, which helped greatly in the search for peace and justice in that part of the world). I recall hearing Mr. Németh's name at the time, but never realized the seminal, pivotal role he played in bringing down the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.

Thank God that such men lived!


Monday, October 26, 2009

Boys and their toys again . . .

A very fast toy this time. I think it started life as a conventional ride-on mower, but I rather suspect the engine's been replaced by something a whole lot more powerful!

I don't know how many blades of grass will get cut at speeds like that, but I bet the driver's going to have fun!


A question for scientifically-minded readers

I'm sure many readers will have heard of the explosion that took place high over Indonesia earlier this month. For those who missed it, New Scientist reports:

On 8 October an asteroid detonated high in the atmosphere above South Sulawesi, Indonesia, releasing about as much energy as 50,000 tons of TNT, according to a NASA estimate released on Friday. That's about three times more powerful than the atomic bomb that levelled Hiroshima, making it one of the largest asteroid explosions ever observed.

However, the blast caused no damage on the ground because of the high altitude, 15 to 20 kilometres above Earth's surface, says astronomer Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario (UWO), Canada.

Brown and Elizabeth Silber, also of UWO, estimated the explosion energy from infrasound waves that rippled halfway around the world and were recorded by an international network of instruments that listens for nuclear explosions.

The explosion was heard by witnesses in Indonesia. Video images of the sky following the event show a dust trail characteristic of an exploding asteroid.

The amount of energy released suggests the object was about 10 metres across, the researchers say. Such objects are thought to hit Earth about once per decade.

No telescope spotted the asteroid ahead of its impact. That is not surprising, given that only a tiny fraction of asteroids smaller than 100 metres across have been catalogued, says Tim Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yet objects as small as 20 or 30 metres across may be capable of doing damage on the ground, he says.

There's more at the link.

Here's a video clip from an Indonesian news broadcast, showing the trail left high in the sky by the asteroid and its explosion.


However, I'm puzzled. I've always understood that an explosion of that force, that high in the atmosphere, would produce some form of electromagnetic pulse or EMP. The recent EMPACT Conference examined the danger, and the vulnerability of the US electrical grid to an EMP attack or incident is well known. However, this explosion - certainly as large or larger than many nuclear and/or thermonuclear warheads - doesn't seem to have produced any disabling EMP, either directly or as a side-effect.

I don't understand this. Is EMP, perhaps, solely a by-product of a nuclear explosion? That doesn't make sense to me, because militaries all over the world are working on EMP weapons using conventional explosives and technologies. It seems to me that an asteroid explosion of this magnitude, at this altitude, should produce massive radiation in at least parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. I'd have thought that would produce EMP as a side-effect. Am I wrong? Can any scientifically-minded readers explain? If so, I'd be grateful.


You might want to postpone that swim . . .

. . . if you're in Australian waters, that is! The Daily Mail reports:

A 'monster' great white shark measuring up to 20 ft long is on the prowl off a popular Queensland beach, according to officials.

Swimmers were warned to stay out of the water off Stradbroke Island after the shark mauled another smaller great white which had been hooked on a baited drum line.

The 10-foot great white was almost bitten in half.

The fictional shark at the centre of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jaws was estimated to be just five feet longer.

'It certainly opened up my eyes. I mean the shark that was caught is a substantial shark in itself,' says Jeff Krause of Queensland Fisheries.

The great white, the most dangerous creature in the sea, was still alive when hauled onto a boat near Deadman's Beach off north Stradbroke island.

News of the shocking attack on the smaller shark has sent jitters along the Queensland coast from Stradbroke Island, near Brisbane, to the Sunshine Coast further north down to the tourist mecca of Surfers Paradise, south of Brisbane.

'Whatever attacked and took chunks out of this big shark must be massive,' said 19-year-old surfer Ashton Smith. 'I've heard about the big one that's lurking out there somewhere.

'We're all being very, very cautious.'

There's more at the link.

Here's a video report from an Australian news broadcast.

Holy cow! Looking at the bite marks on that shark, I don't think I want to see what made them in the flesh - particularly not in my flesh!


An exhibition I'd love to see!

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has begun an exhibition titled 'Maharaja: The Splendour Of India's Royal Courts'. The BBC describes it like this:

When it comes to majestic grandeur, few monarchies in the world matched the opulence of India's royal courts in their heyday.

The Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum in London has brought some of that splendour to life in a new exhibition featuring more than 250 rarely seen objects, including thrones, gem-encrusted weapons and even a life-sized and bejewelled maharaja's model elephant.

Organisers say that Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts is the first display that comprehensively explores the world of these exotic rulers and their rich culture.

The exhibition centres on the golden period of maharaja power: from the beginning of the 18th century to the mid-20th century. Many of the magnificent objects on display have been loaned by India's royal families.

The aim is to illuminate the plush and sometimes ostentatious lifestyles of maharajas that existed right up until the end of British rule in 1947.

"There has never been an exhibition like this before, showing the spectacular treasures of the courts of the maharajas," said V&A director Mark Jones.

"Many of the objects have left India for the first time to come to the V&A.

"This exhibition shows that India's rulers were significant patrons of the arts, in India and the West, and tells the fascinating story of the changing role of the maharaja from the early 18th century to the final days of the Raj."

One of the most fascinating items on display is the Patiala Necklace - one of jeweller Cartier's largest single commissions. Completed in 1928, it originally contained 2,930 diamonds.

Divided into sections, the exhibition starts with a recreation of an Indian royal procession, before examining the political, religious and military leadership roles a maharaja had to assume.

A brilliant and no doubt priceless display of oils, watercolours and sketches show how the secular and sacred power of an Indian king was expressed most spectacularly in the grand public processions that celebrated royal events and religious festivals.

. . .

The exhibition also examines changes in the balance of power and changes in taste in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the disintegration of the Mughal empire and the impact of expanding British influence.

It explains how even under the British, Indian rulers were expected to exercise rajadharma - the duties and behaviour appropriate to a king.

These duties include the protection of their subjects, the adjudication of disputes, and the ministering of justice and punishment.

. . .

The final section explores the role of "modern" maharajas and the increasing European influence on their lives and possessions.

The exhibition explains the Raj essentially operated as a two-tier system - the British had direct control over three-fifths of the subcontinent, known as "British India", and indirect control over the remaining territory.

Although Indian rulers were guaranteed their borders and rights, the British continued to interfere in the day-to-day running of their states and to limit royal authority - most dramatically in deposing rulers they viewed as unsuitable.

Around this time the number of Indian princes - as rulers were now termed - grew enormously as the British bestowed titles on landowners and chieftains.

A system of imperial orders was introduced to integrate Indian rulers into a western-style feudal hierarchy.

The most important states were ranked within a system of gun salutes; Queen Victoria was entitled to 101 guns, the viceroy and members of the royal family to 31, while the princes had between 21 and nine depending on their status.

There's more at the link.

The V&A Museum Web site has a whole section dealing with the new exhibition, including many photographs and detailed descriptions. I've taken the liberty of copying a few of their photographs and descriptions, in order to whet your appetite to go and look at the whole Web site. In no particular order, here they are. (The text below each picture is from the V&A Museum Web site.)

When borne on an elephant, Indian rulers sat on a howdah. It was often embellished with royal symbols and executed in silver or gold, the precious metals reflecting the majesty of the king. This howdah, complete with parasol, comes from the collection of the maharajas of Marwar. The rear seat would have been occupied by an attendant bearing a parasol or chauri.

This spectacular turban ornament (sarpech) consists of a jigha, a feather- shaped upper part worn vertically, and a sarpati, worn horizontally. At the Mughal court, a turban ornament was bestowed as a symbol of favour, a convention that spread throughout the subcontinent. The style of this piece is typical of Murshidabad and was given to Admiral Charles Watson by the ruler, Nawab Mir Jafar, in July 1757.

In Indian court ritual the power of the king was articulated through his regalia and insignia, collectively known as lawajama (literally ‘necessary things’). This round fan is an adani, and in procession was swung on the axis of a long staff. The textile draping would have been soaked in sandalwood oil, which gives off a distinctive scent that is considered sacred in Hinduism.

The Durbar of Bijay Singh of Rathore (opaque watercolour and gold on paper).
The richly dressed Maharaja is enthroned on a
gaddi (throne) under a canopy
and smoking a
hookah. Behind him an attendant holds a morchhal (peacock
feather fan), a symbol of royal authority. Textiles were used to create
splendour in various settings, in this instance in a lush garden. The strong
colours and bold composition are typical of Rajput painting.

This jewel-encrusted pen case with ink pot is an outstanding example of Mughal court craftsmanship. It was given by the emperor to a Rajput ruler as a mark of favour, probably as a reward after a victorious campaign. Its splendour suggests that it would have been used by the maharaja himself, for important personal communications or for signing court documents.

A popular pastime in royal India, chaupar was played by four people, individually or in pairs. These extraordinary pieces are richly enamelled and jewelled, with the different players identified by colour and gemstone: diamond, emerald, ruby and sapphire. The enamelled dice are set with diamonds to indicate the numbers. The cloth board could be easily rolled and transported.

Indore was one of the most important Maratha states. It held out against the British until December 1817, when Company forces defeated the young Maharaja Malharrao Holkar and captured the state treasury. This sword probably belonged to the Maharaja himself as it is richly encrusted with gemstones and engraved with the chhatra, or royal parasol.

Necklace and earrings, Van Cleef & Arpels, Paris, 1949–50. This impressive
suite of jewellery was designed by Jacques Arpels for Sita Devi, the second
wife of Maharaja Pratapsinh Gaekwad of Baroda. She provided the remarkable
set of carved and cabochon emeralds from the Baroda treasury. The symmetry
of the necklace and earrings is testament both to the skill of the jeweller and
the quality of the stones.

As I said, these are just a few examples of all that's on display. Go look at the whole Exhibition Web site. It's worth the time and trouble.

If I weren't recovering from surgery, I'd seriously consider flying to London to see this exhibition before the scheduled closing date of January 17, 2010. This depth of information and quality of exhibits, dealing with one of the least-known yet most fascinating parts of human and colonial history, are seldom to be found. For my readers living closer to the V&A, please take advantage of your proximity to visit it, and let the rest of us know how you found it (either by e-mailing me, or leaving your impressions as a comment to this post).


Sunday, October 25, 2009

How to launch an anvil into the wild blue yonder

"Why would you want to do that?" some readers will ask.

"Because it's cool!" others will reply.

The video shows the coolness of the subject.

Ah, yes. Science in action.