31 December 2010

More than enough

A classic: the other President accepting his election by mai:

Johnny Dwyer has an article at Time.com about too many presidents in the Ivory Coast:
It was a remarkable moment, even in the bizarre, tortured political drama that has been Ivory Coast's first presidential election in a decade. Earlier this month, as a spokesman for the country's Independent Electoral Commission prepared to read the partial tallies from the November vote live on Ivoirian television, a supporter for then incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo interrupted the broadcast and forcibly tore the results from the officials hands.
The incident provided a telling glimpse into how passionately defiant Gbagbo and his supporters remain in the face of the current political reality in the Ivory Coast (or the Cote d'Ivoire, as it is officially known): by international consensus Gbagbo lost the election to his opponent, and one-time political ally, Alassane Ouattara. Electoral reality notwithstanding, Gbagbo's intransigence has violent implications not only for the Ivory Coast but repercussions for a region inhabited by about 300 million people.
"Beyond Cote d'Ivoire, the way this crisis will be solved will affect the future of democratic elections in Africa," says an Ivoirian executive who wished to remain anonymous, out of concern for reprisals. With elections slated in the coming year for Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia, and potentially Niger, he says: "The democratic process has to win."
Nearly a month after his supporter interrupted the televised tally, Gbagbo's defiance hasn't softened. If anything, his supporters appear to be pushing the nation closer to civil war with a United Nations-backed force caught in the middle. A delegation of presidents from Benin, Cape Verde, and Sierra Leone, representing ECOWAS (Economic Organization of West African States), arrived to negotiate Gbagbo's departure and, presumably, reiterate the stark threat issued last week by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan: step down or we will install your opponent through military force. Despite the unprecedented warning, the delegation left Abidjan with little more than the assurance that Gbagbo would see them again. As if to punctuate the delegation's visit, pro-Gbagbo mobs have targeted U.N. convoys with at least two attacks, in one incident firing on vehicles, in another torching one truck and wounding a peacekeeper with a machete.
For the State Department, which has consistently pushed for elections in Ivory Coast, the developments are troubling. "The peaceful resolution of this crisis is smack in the middle of the President's first priority and his policy to all of Africa, which is free and transparent democratic elections." said Deputy Assistant Secretary William Fitzgerald for the State Department's Bureau African Affairs. On Wednesday afternoon, the State Department disclosed that an RPG hit the U.S. embassy in Abidjan last week. More than half of the American embassy staff has left the capital of Ivory Coast under "voluntary departure", while the remaining diplomatic contingent is preparing to evacuate if necessary, according to a State Department spokesman.
Since the death of Ivory Coast's post-colonial strongman, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, in 1993, electoral crises in Abidjan have followed familiar plot points: an election produces a popular nominee for the presidency, the incumbent leader refuses to step down in the face of the results, violent clashes force a mediation between the political parties. The principal players in the power have changed little. The two men at the center of today's crisis. Gbagbo and Ouattara, have appeared opposite one another in the Ivoirian political drama since Houphouet-Boigny's death.
But, with entrance of ECOWAS as the potential military enforcer of the elections results changes the storyline for Ivory Coast and for the region. In the past, ECOWAS has interceded only in military crises (in Sierra Leone and Liberia) to allow for a political solution. In Ivory Coast, the reverse is true. ECOWAS is threatening military force in response to what is a political crisis, and that raises unprecedented scenarios.
Elections in West Africa have been a problematic in the post-colonial era. They are intended to provide for a bloodless transfer of power. But they have also presaged civil war. Both Liberia's Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh used contested elections as a platform to launch armed revolutions. And both men eventually faced down ECOWAS-sponsored military forces after their rebel armies proved to be more bent on brutality and theft than on restoring electoral democracy. ECOWAS's military engagement in both countries was indecisive. The force, ECOMOG, not only suffered staggering casualties in both conflicts, it also became embroiled in the morass of lawlessness of each civil war, accused of human rights violations, looting and even of arming rebel factions. (Liberians joked that ECOMOG stood for Every Car or Moveable Object Gone.)
A troubling development in the Ivoirian crisis has been the recruitment of mercenaries from Liberia. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has warned former combatants in her country's civil war against crossing the border to fight in the Ivory Coast. According to former commanders for Charles Taylor, Liberians fighters, marginalized after that civil war ended in 2003, are flocking to both sides of the crisis. Recruitment has split along ethnic lines, with members of the Krahn tribe joining Gbagbo's forces and Gio and Mano fighters aligning with Ouattara. "Right now most of those guys are hungry: looking for job, looking for money," says a Liberian commander who chose not to join the mercenaries.
The Ivory Coast is a diverse nation of more than twenty million people, not only in terms of indigenous ethnic groups, but also with a large migrant population from neighboring countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, and Liberia, as well as large populations of Ghanaians and Nigerians. In the past, Ggabo has leveraged xenophobia against presumed "foreigners" to rally his base including an extremist militia allegedly tied to human rights abuses, the Young Patriots. "I don't like to present it in that light, but it's true, there's an ethnic alignment, there are people from the Southern part who are from Gbagbo's region and these are the ones now who are really controlling the army, " says the Ivoirian executive.
Diplomats, however, are cautious about the specter of another ethnic conflict in Africa. The State Department, for one, does not see an ethnic element to crisis. "This is not an ethnic issue; this is not a religious issue; this a political issue," Deputy Assistant Secretary Fitzgerald said.
But one political scientist living in Abidjan, also fearful to speak on the record, sees ethnic tension and politics as inseparable. "The political use of these grievances has exposed the problem in a disproportionate way and created resentment between the North and the South, eventually leading to the rebellion," he said.
There are signs of hope for elections the region. Guinea, which conducted its first democratic election in fifty years of independence, inaugurated President Alpha Conde last week after a fiercely contested runoff. The political parties in that election clung to ethnic lines— and there was scattered violence after the final results came in— but, the loser, Cellou Dalien Diallo, accepted the results, paving way for a peaceful transfer of power. "The leadership is critical for West Africa" the Ivoirian executive says. "To have a political establishment that decides, no matter what happens they will put the country first... then we can defend ourselves against the leadership curse."
However, there are no such signs from Gbagbo. With his isolation, the situation for Ivoirians grows more desperate. Food prices in Abidjan have jumped with the skittish suppliers charging more to bring food into the capital. While one resident who spoke with Time noted a noticeable drawdown of military forces and roadblocks set up by Gbagbo's militia, the Young Patriots, gunshots still ring out through the night. Strategic locations, such as the television station, remain heavily fortified by military positions. Last week, Gbagbo supporters blocked a United Nations convoy from investigating a location suspected of being a mass grave.
And, as the ECOWAS emissaries departed, Gbagbo made his position clear. An aide of the former president threatened to expel ambassadors of countries, including the United States, France, and Nigeria, who have recognized his opponent.
The State Department viewed Gbagbo's statements as a sign of weakness, rather than strength. "He's making a lot of threats, and I think he realizes that his time in office is limited and that the pressure's getting to him," said Fitzgerald.

Huzzah for the Aussies!

Rico says his Dutch friend Rob sends along this about the Australian prime minister:
The Australian Prime Minister does it again! It took a lot of courage for this woman to say what she wanted the world to hear. The retribution could be phenomenal, but at least she was willing to take a stand on the beliefs of she and Australia. The whole world needs a leader like this!

Muslims who wish to live under Islamic Sharia law were told to get out of Australia, as the government targeted radicals in a bid to head off potential terror attacks.
Separately, Gillard angered some Australian Muslims by saying she supported spy agencies monitoring the nation's mosques.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard:
I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture. Since the terrorist attacks on Bali, we have experienced a surge in patriotism by the majority of Australians.
This culture has been developed over two centuries of struggles, trials, and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom.
We speak mainly English, not Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language. Therefore, if you wish to become part of our society, learn the language!
Most Australians believe in God. This is not some right wing Christian political push, but a fact, because Christian men and women founded this nation on Christian principles. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools. If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.'
We will accept your beliefs, and will not question why. All we ask is that you accept ours, and live in harmony and peaceful enjoyment with us.'
This is our country, our land, and our lifestyle, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all of it. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, pur pledge, pur Christian beliefs, or pur way of life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great Australian freedom: the Right to Leave.
If you aren't happy here, then leave. We didn't force you to come here. You asked to be here. So accept the country that you accepted.
Rico says he could not agree more...

Happy New Year (early)

30 December 2010

More Trudell

John Trudell

Rico says the famous PF Soto sends along this:

Dragon, for a guy who deserves it

Rico says he bought Dragon 11 for his friend Rich, blinded in Vietnam (yup, ancient history, forty years on, but still around to haunt us).
Rich says he's looking forward to using it, and Rico hopes it works well for him.

Things Rico really doesn't like

December 2010 Blizzard Timelapse from Michael Black on Vimeo.

The bad and the good, three years apart

Rico says he stumbled across The Secret Invasion by accident, and thought he'd give it a try. The fact that it was made by the Corman brothers was a bad sign, but surely worth a look.
Well, not really, but you'd think, with Stewart Granger and Henry Silva, how bad could it be?
The answer is, with Raf Vallone (did he ever make a good movie? Yes, as it turns out, with thanks to IMDB: The Italian Job, with Michael Caine), Mickey Rooney, and Edd Byrnes (yes, he of 77 Sunset Strip), really really bad...
The Dirty Dozen, made three years later, was so much better.

True Grit, one and two

While he has yet to see the film, Rico says you will notice (as Rico, who wears a patch much of the time, did) that John Wayne wears his on his left eye, while Jeff Bridges wears his on his right. (And you'd've thought the Coen brothers would have gotten it right, though maybe they did it deliberately, to differentiate.)

Halfway back

Rico says that Mozy is supposedly burning DVDs and sending them to him to restore all his files. If not, boy, will he be pissed...

29 December 2010

Still doing it on the iPad

Rico says his tower Mac still hasn't gotten the backup disks from Mozy (though they've been promised), so he's still posting via the virtual keyboard on his iPad. Better than nothing, but still tedious... Let's hope they come soon...

28 December 2010

Good-looking blonde in her protective armor

Rico says the photo is of his friend Kelley's (second-hand) relative Amy in her chain mail.
We're hoping it deters biting by the 'developmentally-challenged' children she teaches...

27 December 2010

Think all his money had anything to do with it?

Rico says nah, it's gotta be true love, right? Why else would a beautiful 24-year-old woman marry an 84-year-old guy, even one with a lifetime prescription for Viagra? People.com has the story:
Hugh Hefner rang in the holidays with an engagement ring. The Playboy founder is engaged to girlfriend Crystal Harris, 24. He announced the engagement on Twitter:
"After the movie tonight, Crystal & I exchanged gifts. I gave Crystal a ring. A truly memorable Christmas Eve," Hefner wrote. "When I gave Crystal the ring, she burst into tears. This is the happiest Christmas weekend in memory."
Later, he clarified: "Yes, the ring I gave Crystal is an engagement ring. I didn't mean to make a mystery out of it. A very merry Christmas to all."
This will be the third marriage for Hefner. In 2009 he filed for divorce from his second wife, former Playmate Kimberly Conrad, after the two separated in 1998. He was previously married to Mildred Williams; their marriage ended in divorce in 1959.
Harris was a Playboy Playmate in December of 2009.

It's chemical warfare, damn it

Rico says it's a fine, white powder falling from the sky which is killing plants and small animals. That's chemical warfare, no matter what you say...
And Kevin Dolak and Leezel Tanglao at ABCNews.com confirms it (well, the snow part, anyway):
Commuters and travelers are struggling to cope with the aftermath of a massive snowstorm that slammed the Northeast on Sunday, causing a post-holiday travel nightmare as airlines canceled more than 1,500 flights and leaving others stranded in cars and on public transportation.
In New York City, subway passengers were stuck on the A train for more than six hours, WABC reported. About sixty people were stranded in their cars overnight on Interstate 280 in West Orange, New Jersey. New Jersey State Police Sergeant Steven Jones told ABC News Radio that plows are working to keep other major highways open. "As fast as they go through, the wind is blowing it back onto the roadways, and that's pretty much the toughest part of travel right now is that wind," he said.
The winter blizzard dumped more than a foot of snow in New York City and New England, and nearly two dozen states east of the Mississippi are under severe weather warnings. It is the same storm that brought flooding and non-stop rainfall to Southern California last week. The storm has dropped record snow in places such as Raleigh, North Carolina (7.1 inches), and Atlanta, Georgia (1.2 inches), according to the National Weather Service.
New York's Central Park has received about seventeen inches, and another two to four inches are still possible. The extreme weather conditions were accompanied by thunder and lightning in Manhattan. Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina declared states of emergency. New Jersey's acting governor, State Senate President Steve Sweeney, declared a state of emergency Sunday night, as the state was expected to get a foot of snow by midday on Monday. Lyndhurst, New Jersey has received a snowfall total of 29 inches.
Rhode Island and most of eastern Massachusetts, including Boston, have also issued a blizzard warning, with 15 to 20 inches of snow expected. Boston has declared a snow emergency, with another 8 to 12 inches of snow possible in addition to the 6 to 8 inches the city has already received.
Forecasters said the snow will continue to calm down in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and New York into the morning hours today.
Boston is expected to have snow until about noon, while Portland, Maine, will see more than a foot a snow into the early and mid-afternoon.
But winds of 35 to 60 mph will continue until mid-afternoon in New York and Philadelphia, to southern New England. In Cape Cod and coastal Maine, residents can expect winds between 60 to 70 mph.
Rico says there's a lot more here.

26 December 2010

While we're on the subject of kings

Rico says he and the ladyfriend spent a Jewish Christmas (meaning Chinese food, bad, and a movie, good) seeing The King's Speech, a splendid film (as expected) starring Colin Firth as the future King George the Sixth and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, a speech therapist brought in to fix the King's terrible stammer. It also stars Helena Bonham Carter (she of Howards End and Frankenstein and Fight Club and all the Harry Potter movies) as the future King's wife, along with Derek Jacobi as Archbishop Lang and a host of others.
See it, by all means.

Into each life, a little abdication must fall

Rico says he's only seen one abdication (Nixon's) in his lifetime, but his parents were alive for the one of King Edward the Eighth, back in 1936 (though they were but seven, and doubtless uninterested, pre-television). The resulting King, George the Sixth, was, of course, the father of the current Queen, Elizabeth.

Don't fuck with SFers

Rico says Bryant Jordan has an article at Military.com about another guy trying to pass as something he's not:
When Elon University in North Carolina honored some so-called "hometown heroes" in November, it included a retired Green Beret colonel on a mission to speak out about human trafficking. William G. "Bill" Hillar said he knew the subject all too well, as his daughter Sale was abducted in Asia in 1988 and sold into the sex-slave trade. He spent a futile six months trying to find and rescue her, but she died in captivity. It was all a lie, and now Hillar is under investigation for his claims by the FBI.
"A colonel in Special Forces? Only in his dreams," said Jeff "J.D." Hinton, a retired Army Special Forces soldier who began investigating Hillar more than a year ago, after hearing there were problems with his background. Hinton immediately began copying images of Hillar's website and other sites in which Hillar's expertise and background were featured. Using personal connections in the Army Special Forces community, as well as official channels, Hinton began exposing the holes in Hillar's background on his own website, Professionalsoldiers.com, in October.
There is no record of a William G. Hillar in any Special Forces outfit, ever, says Hinton. In fact, a search of military personnel records turned up only one William G. Hillar, a radioman in the Coast Guard from 1962 to 1970, according to Hinton.
Military.com was not able to reach Hillar through the email and phone number previously listed on his website. Rich Wolf, a spokesman for the FBI's Maryland and Delaware division, confirmed the Bureau is investigating Hillar but would not offer details.
For more than five years, Hillar promoted himself as an expert in international trafficking and counterterrorism. He has traveled the country to speak before charity groups, college students, and law enforcement organizations. He has been paid to teach classes, including at the prestigious Monterey Institute for International Studies.
On his now-defunct website, he claimed to be a retired Special Forces colonel who served in Asia, the Middle East, and Central and South America. He boasted training and experience in tactical counterterrorism, service with allied forces' elite troops, and advising foreign governments and militaries. When Hillar was confronted about his military credentials by former students, he reportedly denied claiming to be a Green Beret, saying he was just an adviser to the service.
Professionalsoldier.com's Hinton, who makes it his business to ferret out phony war heroes and spec ops wannabes on his website, claims Hillar has "made some serious money" passing himself off as a larger-than-life hero. Some promotional material on Hillar states his claimed attempt to rescue his daughter from human traffickers was partly the basis of a 2008 film called Taken, starring Liam Neeson.
A report in last month's Monterey County Weekly quoted a State Department spokesman as saying there is no record of an American woman named Hillar having been kidnapped anywhere in the world in 1988. Monterey officials began looking into Hillar after the school was contacted by a reader of Hinton's website, and some student veterans voiced suspicion of Hillar. When Hillar did not get back to the school with proof of his many claims, it ended its relationship with him.
Hillar's other venues began drying up, too. The University of Oregon, where Hillar also taught his human trafficking course, quickly dropped him and reported his charade to police. At George Mason University in Virginia, where he was booked to speak in November, the school canceled his appearance. A spokeswoman said: "If he had shown up, he would have been escorted off campus."
Hinton said fakers such as Hillar don't understand how small the special operations community is; it doesn't take long to establish whether someone is the real thing. He believes the Monterey Institute, which touted Hillar for five years as an adjunct professor, could have found him out and acted a lot sooner. "They were showcasing this guy like a three-headed snake," he said. "Now, they're trying to say he was not an adjunct professor, but just a contractor. All they're trying to do is mitigate their liability."
To make amends to Hillar's former students, the Institute has offered to let them keep the credit they earned, or remove it from their academic record and let them take a makeup course for no charge. Some students who socialized with Hillar out of the classroom don't think it's possible to make up for what happened. "I bought this man a couple of beers at the Crown & Anchor after class," a student identified as Theresa W. wrote on a Monterey Institute website. "Will MIIS refund me this? I cried for his young daughter who was killed by human traffickers."

Desert? No, snow

Rico says the Associated Press has the story of a guy who thought he could hide:
A passport application investigation has led to the arrest of an AWOL sailor running from a naval investigation.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that 26-year-old Royce Allen Eagle of Virginia has been charged with perjury, unsworn falsification, and making a false report. According to court records, Eagle is accused of obtaining a fraudulent Alaska birth certificate to hide his true identity. Eagle, who went by the name Rick Engle in Alaska, deserted the Navy in 2007 during an investigation. No details were available for the Navy probe.
Authorities said the Diplomatic Security Service began investigating Eagle this year when he applied for a passport using a fake Social Security number.

If they can do it, why can't we?

Rico says Elisabeth Rosenthal has an article in The New York Times about solar power in an unlikely place:
For Sara Ruto, the desperate yearning for electricity began last year with the purchase of her first cellphone, a lifeline for receiving small money transfers, contacting relatives in the city or checking chicken prices at the nearest market. Solar power for Ms. Ruto’s hut in Kiptusuri, Kenya, means her toddlers no longer risk burns from a smoky kerosene lamp.
Charging the phone was no simple matter in this farming village far from Kenya’s electric grid. Every week, Ms. Ruto walked two miles to hire a motorcycle taxi for the three-hour ride to Mogotio, the nearest town with electricity. There, she dropped off her cellphone at a store that recharges phones for thirty cents. Yet the service was in such demand that she had to leave it behind for three full days before returning.
That wearying routine ended in February, when the family sold some animals to buy a small Chinese-made solar power system for about $80. Now balanced precariously atop their tin roof, a lone solar panel provides enough electricity to charge the phone and run four bright overhead lights with switches. “My main motivation was the phone, but this has changed so many other things,” Ms. Ruto said on a recent evening as she relaxed on a bench in the mud-walled shack she shares with her husband and six children.
As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic, transformative role.
Since Ms. Ruto hooked up the system, her teenagers’ grades have improved because they have light for studying. The toddlers no longer risk burns from the smoky kerosene lamp. And each month, she saves $15 in kerosene and battery costs, along with the $20 she used to spend on travel. In fact, neighbors now pay her twenty cents to charge their phones, although that business may soon evaporate: 63 families in Kiptusuri have recently installed their own solar power systems.
You leapfrog over the need for fixed lines,” said Adam Kendall, head of the sub-Saharan Africa power practice for McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm. “Renewable energy becomes more and more important in less and less developed markets.”
The United Nations estimates that 1.5 billion people across the globe still live without electricity, including 85 percent of Kenyans, and that three billion still cook and heat with primitive fuels like wood or charcoal. There is no reliable data on the spread of off-grid renewable energy on a small scale, in part because the projects are often installed by individuals or tiny nongovernmental organizations. But Dana Younger, senior renewable energy adviser at the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank Group’s private lending arm, said there was no question that the trend was accelerating. “It’s a phenomenon that’s sweeping the world; a huge number of these systems are being installed,” Mr. Younger said.
With the advent of cheap solar panels and high-efficiency LED lights, which can light a room with just four watts of power instead of sixty, these small solar systems now deliver useful electricity at a price that even the poor can afford, he noted. “You’re seeing herders in Inner Mongolia with solar cells on top of their yurts,” Mr. Younger said.
In Africa, nascent markets for the systems have sprung up in Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, and Ghana, as well as in Kenya, said Francis Hillman, an energy entrepreneur who recently shifted his Eritrea-based business, Phaesun Asmara, from large solar projects financed by nongovernmental organizations to a greater emphasis on tiny rooftop systems.
In addition to these small solar projects, renewable energy technologies designed for the poor include simple subterranean biogas chambers that make fuel and electricity from the manure of a few cows, and “mini” hydroelectric dams that can harness the power of a local river for an entire village.
Yet, while these off-grid systems have proved their worth, the lack of an effective distribution network or a reliable way of financing the start-up costs has prevented them from becoming more widespread. “The big problem for us now is there is no business model yet,” said John Maina, executive coordinator of Sustainable Community Development Services, or Scode, a nongovernmental organization based in Nakuru, Kenya, that is devoted to bringing power to rural areas. Just a few years ago, Mr. Maina said, “solar lights” were merely basic lanterns, dim and unreliable. “Finally, these products exist, people are asking for them and are willing to pay,” he said. “But we can’t get supply.” He said small African organizations like his do not have the purchasing power or connections to place bulk orders themselves from distant manufacturers, forcing them to scramble for items each time a shipment happens to come into the country.
Part of the problem is that the new systems buck the traditional mold, in which power is generated by a very small number of huge government-owned companies that gradually extend the grid into rural areas. Investors are reluctant to pour money into products that serve a dispersed market of poor rural consumers because they see the risk as too high.
“There are many small islands of success, but they need to go to scale,” said Minoru Takada, chief of the United Nations Development Program’s sustainable energy program. “Off-grid is the answer for the poor. But people who control funding need to see this as a viable option.”
Even United Nations programs and United States government funds that promote climate-friendly energy in developing countries hew to large projects like giant wind farms or industrial-scale solar plants that feed into the grid. A $300 million solar project is much easier to finance and monitor than ten million home-scale solar systems in mud huts spread across a continent. As a result, money does not flow to the poorest areas. Of the $162 billion invested in renewable energy last year, according to the United Nations, experts estimate that $44 billion was spent in China, India, and Brazil collectively, and $7.5 billion in the many poorer countries.
Only six to seven percent of solar panels are manufactured to produce electricity that does not feed into the grid; that includes systems like Ms. Ruto’s and solar panels that light American parking lots and football stadiums. Still, some new models are emerging. Husk Power Systems, a young company supported by a mix of private investment and nonprofit funds, has built sixty village power plants in rural India that make electricity from rice husks for 250 hamlets since 2007.
In Nepal and Indonesia, the United Nations Development Program has helped finance the construction of very small hydroelectric plants that have brought electricity to remote mountain communities. Morocco provides subsidized solar home systems at a cost of $100 each to remote rural areas where expanding the national grid is not cost-effective.
What has most surprised some experts in the field is the recent emergence of a true market in Africa for home-scale renewable energy, and for appliances that consume less energy. As the cost of reliable equipment decreases, families have proved ever more willing to buy it by selling a goat, or borrowing money from a relative overseas, for example.
The explosion of cellphone use in rural Africa has been an enormous motivating factor. Because rural regions of many African countries lack banks, the cellphone has been embraced as a tool for commercial transactions as well as personal communications, adding an incentive to electrify for the sake of recharging.
M-Pesa, Kenya’s largest mobile phone money transfer service, handles an annual cash flow equivalent to more than ten percent of the country’s gross domestic product, most in tiny transactions that rarely exceed twenty dollars. The cheap renewable energy systems also allow the rural poor to save money on candles, charcoal, batteries, wood, and kerosene. “So there is an ability to pay and a willingness to pay,” said Mr. Younger of the International Finance Corporation.
In the Kenyan village of Lochorai, Alice Wangui, 45, and Agnes Mwaforo, 35, formerly subsistence farmers, now operate a booming business selling and installing energy-efficient wood-burning cooking stoves made of clay and metal for a cost of $5. Wearing matching bright orange tops and skirts, they walk down rutted dirt paths with cellphones at their ears, edging past goats and dogs to visit customers and to calm those on the waiting list.
Hunched over her new stove as she stirred a stew of potatoes and beans, Naomi Muriuki, 58, volunteered that the appliance had more than halved her use of firewood. Wood has become harder to find and expensive to buy as the government tries to limit deforestation, she added.
In Tumsifu, a slightly more prosperous village of dairy farmers, Virginia Wairimu, 35, is benefiting from an underground tank in which the manure from her three cows is converted to biogas, which is then pumped through a rubber tube to a gas burner. “I can just get up and make breakfast," Ms. Wairimu said. The system was financed with a $400 loan from a demonstration project that has since expired.
In Kiptusuri, the Firefly LED system purchased by Ms. Ruto is this year’s must-have item. The smallest one, which costs $12, consists of a solar panel that can be placed in a window or on a roof and is connected to a desk lamp and a phone charger. Slightly larger units can run radios and black-and-white television sets.
Of course, such systems cannot compare with a grid connection in the industrialized world. A week of rain can mean no lights. And items like refrigerators need more, and more consistent, power than a panel provides. Still, in Kenya, even grid-based electricity is intermittent and expensive: families must pay more than $350 just to have their homes hooked up. “With this system, you get a real light for what you spend on kerosene in a few months,” said Mr. Maina, of Sustainable Community Development Services. “When you can light your home and charge your phone, that is very valuable.”

150 years ago, bad news

Rico says his friend Kelley sends along this one by Steve Szktotak of the Associated Press:
A glass vial stopped with a cork during the Civil War has been opened, revealing a coded message to the desperate Confederate commander in Vicksburg, on the day, 147 years ago, the Mississippi city fell to Union forces. The dispatch offered no hope to doomed Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton: Reinforcements are not on the way.
The encrypted, six-line message was dated 4 July 1863, the date of Pemberton's surrender to Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg, in what historians say was a turning point midway into the Civil War.
The message is from a Confederate commander on the west side of the Mississippi River across from Pemberton. "He's saying, 'I can't help you. I have no troops, I have no supplies, I have no way to get over there,'" Museum of the Confederacy collections manager Catherine M. Wright said of the author of the dispiriting message. "It was just another punctuation mark to just how desperate and dire everything was."
The bottle, less than two inches in length, had sat undisturbed at the museum since 1896. It was a gift from Captain William A. Smith of King George County, Virginia, who served during the Vicksburg siege. It was Wright who decided to investigate the contents of the strange little bottle, containing a tightly wrapped note, a .38-caliber bullet and a white thread. "Just sort of a curiosity thing," said Wright. "This notion, do we have any idea what his message says?" The answer was no.
Wright asked a local art conservator, Scott Nolley, to examine the clear vial before she attempted to open it. He looked at the bottle under an electron microscope and discovered that salt had bonded the cork tightly to the bottle's mouth. He put the bottle on a hotplate to expand the glass, used a scalpel to loosen the cork, then gently plucked it out with tweezers.
The sewing thread was looped around the six-by-two-inch paper, which was folded to fit into the bottle.
The rolled message was removed and taken to a paper conservator, who successfully unfurled the message. But the coded message, which appears to be a random collection of letters, did not reveal itself immediately. Eager to learn the meaning of the code, Wright took the message home for the weekend to decipher. She had no success.
A retired CIA code breaker, David Gaddy, was contacted, and he cracked the code in several weeks. A Navy cryptologist independently confirmed Gaddy's interpretation. Commander John B. Hunter, an information warfare officer, said he deciphered the code over two weeks while on deployment aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. A computer could have unscrambled the words in a fraction of the time. "To me, it was not that difficult," he said. "I had fun with this, and it took me longer than I should have."
The code is called the Vigenere cipher a centuries-old encryption in which letters of the alphabet are shifted a set number of places, so an "a" would become a "d"; essentially, creating words with different letter combinations. The code was widely used by Southern forces during the Civil War, according to Civil War Times Illustrated.
The source of the message was likely Major General John G. Walker, of the Texas Division, who had under his command William Smith, the donor of the bottle. The full text of the message to Pemberton reads:
Gen'l Pemberton:
You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen'l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy's lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some musket caps. I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston.
The last line, Wright said, seems to suggest a separate delivery to Pemberton would be the code to break the message. "The date of this message clearly indicates that this person has no idea that the city was about to be surrendered," she said.
The Johnston mention in the dispatch is General Joseph E. Johnston, whose 32,000 troops were encamped south of Vicksburg and prevented from assisting Pemberton by Grant's 35,000 Union troops. Pemberton had held out hope that Johnston would eventually come to his aid. The message was dispatched during an especially terrible time in Vicksburg. Grant was unsuccessful in defeating Pemberton's troops on two occasions, so the Union commander instead decided to encircle the city and block the flow of supplies or support. Many in the city resorted to eating cats, dogs, and leather. Soup was made from wallpaper paste. After a six-week siege, Pemberton relented. Vicksburg, so scarred by the experience, refused to celebrate the Fourth of July for the next eighty years.
What of the bullet in the bottom of the bottle? Wright suspects the messenger was instructed to toss the bottle into the river if Union troops intercepted his passage. The weight of the bullet would have carried the corked bottle to the bottom, she said. For Pemberton, the bottle is symbolic of his lost cause: the bad news never made it to him. The Confederate messenger probably arrived to the river's edge and saw a U.S. flag flying over the city. "He figured out what was going on and said, 'Well, this is pointless,' and turned back," Wright said.

Merry, ho, happy, etc.

Rico says he spent Xmas with the ladyfriend's family and friends; he even graciously sat at the head of the 'kids' table (with the exception of the new granddaughter, a week old, there weren't really any children there). He offered to dress up as Santa for the occasion, but wiser heads (as usual) prevailed. The food, of course, was excellent; the ladyfriend always does a magnificent holiday meal. Once the friends left (snow was threatened, but didn't arrive), the traditional passing out of the presents ensued. All were pleased. Rico hopes you had a good holiday.

24 December 2010

Another good one gone

Rico's friend Kelley sends along an Associated Press story of yet another WW2 hero, dead at 94:
Fred Hargesheimer, a World War Two Army pilot whose rescue by Pacific islanders led to a life of giving back as a builder of schools and teacher of children, died Thursday morning. He was 94. Richard Hargesheimer said his father had been suffering from poor health and passed away in Lincoln, Nebraska.
On 5 June 1943, Hargesheimer, a P-38 pilot with the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, was shot down by a Japanese fighter while on a mission over the Japanese-held island of New Britain in the southwest Pacific. He parachuted into the trackless jungle, where he barely survived for 31 days, until found by local hunters.
They took him to their coastal village and, for seven months, hid him from Japanese patrols, fed him, and nursed him back to health from two illnesses. In February of 1944, with the help of Australian commandos working behind Japanese lines, he was picked up by a U.S. submarine off a New Britain beach.
After returning to the U.S. following the war, Hargesheimer got married and began a sales career with a Minnesota forerunner of computer maker Sperry Rand, his lifelong employer. But he said he couldn't forget the Nakanai people, who he considered his saviors. The more he thought about it, he later said, "the more I realized what a debt I had to try to repay."
After revisiting the village of Ea Ea in 1960, he came home, raised $15,000 over three years, "most of it $5 and $10 gifts", and then returned with 17-year-old son Richard in 1963 to contract for the building of the villagers' first school.
In the decades to come, Hargesheimer's U.S. fundraising and determination built a clinic, another school, and libraries in Ea Ea, renamed Nantabu, and surrounding villages.
In 1970, their three children grown, Hargesheimer and his late wife, Dorothy, moved to New Britain, today an out-island of the nation of Papua New Guinea, and taught the village children themselves for four years. The Nantabu school's experimental plot of oil palm even helped create a local economy, a large plantation with jobs for impoverished villagers.
On his last visit, in 2006, Hargesheimer was helicoptered into the jungle and carried in a chair by Nakanai men to view the newly found wreckage of his World War Two plane. Six years earlier, on another visit, he was proclaimed Suara Auru, "Chief Warrior" of the Nakanai.
"The people were very happy. They'll always remember what Mr. Fred Hargesheimer has done for our people," said Ismael Saua, 69, a former teacher at the Nantabu school.
"These people were responsible for saving my life," Hargesheimer told The Associated Press in a 2008 interview. "How could I ever repay it?"
Besides Richard, of Lincoln, Hargesheimer, a Rochester, Minnesota, native, is survived by another son, Eric, of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and a daughter, Carol, of Woodbury, Minnesota; by a sister, Mary Louise Gibson of Grass Valley, California; and by eight grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. Richard Hargesheimer said no services were planned.

Quote for the day

Rico says his father sends this one:
“Don't pick a fight with an old man. If he's too old to fight, he'll just kill you.”
Rico says he's been too old to fight for a lot of years, and is way past it now; he'll just kill you, thank you very much...

23 December 2010

Technical difficulties

Rico says he's laboriously typing this on the virtual keypad on his trusty iPad (hey, doesn't everyone have a backup computer?) because his now-non-trusty Mac tower has gone wacko on him. It started with something (still undetermined) eating the disk space on the computer. But no matter how much Rico would take off the hard disk, it would still pop up as 'zero kb'). Of course, in the end, though trying to be careful, Rico moved or deleted the wrong file, and now it won't boot...
If Rico were even remotely normal, of course, he'd just throw the Mac in his car and drive it over to the Apple store in Ardmore. Alas, Rico can't do that, so he may have to put it on the hand truck and schlep it over there, assuming our good weather holds.
Well, that's about all Rico can stand to virtually type, so more later...

21 December 2010

Taliban farewell

Rico says his 'cousin' Kevin sends along this one:

Not by accident

Rico says the ads for new apps are coming out (The Wall Street Journal and Hyundai being among the first), and they're all for the iPad, not those other things...

Blonde joke for the day

This month's Esquire had a profile of Sarah Roemer, an up-and-coming young actress. She provided this splendid blonde (as is she) joke:
A blonde is watching the news with her husband, when the newscaster announces that six Brazilians had died in a skydiving accident. The blonde starts sobbing uncontrollably. Confused, her husband says: "It's sad, but they were skydiving. There were risks involved." After a few moments, still crying, the blonde asked: "How many is a Brazilian?"

20 December 2010

Blink and you missed it

Rico says it was big news at the time, but Bryan Walsh has an article in Time about why it's not now:
Back in May I met the CEO of a major environmental group for coffee in Washington. This was a few weeks after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig had exploded, but before the oil had really made landfall along the coast. The country's attention was focused on the spill, and anything seemed possible. No one knew exactly how much oil was leaking every day; the government said perhaps 5,000 barrels a day, but independent academics reported it could be far more. Models showed that currents might be able to take the oil slick east all the way around Florida, striking the Keys, Miami Beach, and eventually much of the East Coast. Fishermen in Louisiana and hotels in Alabama and Mississippi were already panicking over a lost summer.
The environmental CEO was obviously worried about the impact of the spill on the people and the ecology of the Gulf Coast, and he was angry about the nonexistent government regulation that had failed to stop the accident. But he also saw an opportunity. The oil spill would show Americans— in sticky, visceral detail— the true costs of their energy policy. Just as earlier disasters like the 1969 Santa Barbara spill had mobilized the environmental movement, the Gulf spill would motivate support for new legislation to curb carbon emissions. "When television cameras show oil hitting Miami by the end of the summer, it's going to change a lot of minds," the CEO said.
Fast forward to six months later. The carbon cap-and-trade bill, just being introduced to the Senate back in May, has died without a vote. The Presidential moratorium on new deepwater drilling was lifted early this fall, before the official government report on the causes of the spill even came out. Congress never managed to pass legislation that would have overhauled drilling safety, nor did it make any new laws that would have helped move the country off of fossil fuels. After the midterm elections, which swept Republicans into the House and weakened Democrats' hold over the Senate, the chance of tough climate and energy legislation seems remote. And the oil spill itself— so white-hot during much of the summer— seems to have vanished entirely from the media's attention.
What happened? Some lucky breaks helped, or hurt, depending on your perspective. Even though more oil was spilled by the Deepwater Horizon than any other event in U.S. history— 4.9 million barrels, by the government's most recent estimate— it happened more than forty miles into the Gulf, meaning that much of the oil had evaporated or been digested by bacteria by the time the first patches reached the marshes of southern Louisiana. A spill closer to shore might have left the wetlands drenched, like the shores of Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill. The Gulf Coast was also lucky that it was never hit by a major hurricane this season; a storm at the wrong place and the wrong time could have pushed waves of oil up onto the land.
The result was that, while scientists are hesitant to make any conclusions yet, the spill didn't destroy the vulnerable Louisiana wetlands to the degree that environmentalists feared.
The impact of the spill on the Gulf itself, on the aquatic ecosystem and the fish (and fishermen) that depend on it, is much less clear. Some scientists have said there is a great deal of oil still suspended in the depths of the Gulf, or even on the seafloor, but a Coast Guard report released on 17 December found there wasn't enough left to bother recovering. We may not be able to assess the impact on fisheries for years— certain species in Prince William Sound seemed healthy for a couple of years after the Valdez spill, only to eventually collapse— but the early reports are mixed. It's even possible that the effective moratorium on most fishing in the Gulf as a result of the spill may have even given some widely hunted species a chance to bounce back.
But while the economic impact on hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents has been immense, the spill itself began to recede from national attention well before its true scope was known. And the damage— or lack of it— doesn't explain why the spill had so little impact on the politics of energy and climate. That's explained by, well, politics. Unlike 1969 or even 1989, the environment isn't the bipartisan issue it once was. Like so much else it's now split down the aisle, with most Democrats favoring action and nearly all Republicans steadfastly opposing it. Any idea that the oil spill would have somehow changed that probably died the day Republican Representative Joe Barton apologized to then-BP CEO Tony Hayward for the White House's supposed "shakedown" in securing a $20 billion fund from the company to pay for the spill damages.
The spill wasn't horrible enough to jolt the country into action on energy and climate, but I'm not sure anything would have been enough— not with the current gridlocked political climate, and not with the headlock oil and gas has over certain parts of the country. When I traveled down to Louisiana to report on the spill, I was shocked to find that most locals, as angry as they were over the disaster itself, were angrier with President Obama over the drilling moratorium. But it shouldn't have come as a surprise: a report from the Federal Reserve last February found that oil and gas accounted for 6.5% of Louisiana's revenue, more than five times the national average. To oppose the oil industry in Louisiana is a political death sentence, which is why Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and Republican Senator David Vitter were united in their insistence on lifting the moratorium as soon as possible. A 4.9 million barrel oil spill didn't change those calculations.
That's left environmental groups glum this holiday season. If the Gulf spill won't alter our relationship with oil, what will? Perhaps only one thing: cost. The only recent time we seemed close as a country to changing the way we use energy was in 2008, when gas prices skyrocketed past $4 a gallon. Those days may be coming back; gas is nearly $3 a gallon, and oil is creeping towards $100 a barrel as the global economy gets up off the floor. It's almost inevitable that a true recovery will bring back high energy prices, and that might finally be enough to force Democrats and Republicans to enact legislation that can actually make a difference. If we've learned one thing about the American public, it's that an oil spill may be a disaster, but expensive gas is considered a real catastrophe.

Au revoir, maintenant rentrer à la maison

Kirk Semple has an article in The New York Times about hard times for Haitians:
The Obama administration has been quietly moving to resume deportations of Haitians for the first time since the earthquake last January. But in New York’s Haitian diaspora, the reaction has been far from muted, including frustration and fear among immigrants and anger from their advocates, who say that an influx of deportees will only add to the country’s woes.
“I don’t think Haiti can handle more challenges than what it has right now,” said Mathieu Eugene, a Haitian-American member of the New York City Council. “The earthquake, the cholera, the election; everything’s upside down in Haiti.”
Federal officials suspended deportations to Haiti immediately after the 12 January earthquake. In addition, a special immigration status, sometimes granted to foreigners who are unable to return safely to their home countries because of armed conflict or natural disasters, was extended to Haitians in the United States, allowing them to remain temporarily and work. Many Haitians, including some with criminal convictions, were also released from detention centers across the country.
But in recent weeks, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, has begun rounding up Haitian immigrants again, including some who had been released earlier this year, immigration lawyers said. On 10 December, the agency disclosed, in response to questions from The Associated Press, that it would resume deportations by mid-January.
Immigration officials said they would deport only Haitians who had been convicted of crimes and had finished serving their sentences. Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement last week that the agency was deciding whom to deport in a manner “consistent with our domestic immigration enforcement priorities”, but did not elaborate. The Obama administration has said it is focusing immigration enforcement efforts on catching and deporting immigrants who have been convicted of the most serious crimes or who pose a threat to national security.
Haitians who have been granted special immigration status, known as temporary protected status, will continue to be shielded from deportation, officials said. The protection was granted for eighteen months and is set to expire in mid-July; Haitians who have committed felonies or at least two misdemeanors were not eligible for the program. Immigration officials did not say how many people they planned to send back to Haiti when deportations resume next month, but they revealed last week that 351 Haitians were in detention.
Mr. Eugene and other Haitian community leaders in New York said that despite the limits of the government’s plan, the city’s Haitians were bracing for a resumption of wider deportations. “The people in the community are worried because they don’t know what the next target population is going to be,” Mr. Eugene said.
Ricot Dupuy, the manager of Radio Soleil, a Creole-language station in Flatbush in Brooklyn, said he had been “flooded with calls” about the plans for deportations.
Immigration officials would not say when they planned to resume deportations of non-criminals. The Haitian government has apparently not commented on Washington’s decision to resume deportations. The consul general in New York did not respond to phone messages, and the Haitian Embassy did not respond to calls and emails.
Nearly a year after the quake, an estimated 1.3 million Haitians are still displaced from their homes. The cholera outbreak has killed more than 2,500 people and hospitalized 58,000 more, according to the Haitian government. And disputes over the preliminary results of the presidential election last month have escalated into violence.
Advocacy groups have been lobbying the Obama administration to postpone the deportations. The Center for Constitutional Rights, based in New York, wrote President Obama to say that their resumption would endanger the deportees’ lives. The Haitian government often detains criminals deported from abroad, the organization said; because cholera is quickly spreading through that country’s detention system, the policy “would end up being a death sentence for many”, it said.
An official of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the State Department had been working with Haitian officials “to ensure that the resumption of removals is conducted in a safe, humane manner with minimal disruption to ongoing rebuilding efforts”.
Among those who have been rounded up in the past several weeks is a 42-year-old odd-jobs man who was detained last week by immigration officials in Manhattan and was being held in a jail in Hudson County, New Jersey, said his lawyer, Rachel Salazar, who asked that her client’s name be withheld because she did not want to jeopardize his case. The man, who immigrated to the United States as a legal permanent resident in 1990 and has a five-year-old child, was last detained in February because of three past felony convictions, including for assault, petty larceny, and attempted robbery, for which he had served time. But he was released in May, during the moratorium on deportations, Ms. Salazar said. The detainee said he was being held with about forty other Haitians, the lawyer said, and he had not been told when the government planned to deport him.
Rico says it's hard to work up a lot of sympathy for people who enter the country illegally, commit crimes, and then complain when we try and send them home... (And on our nickel, too.)

Not what you'd expect from nuns

Ah, the French

Bad name, good reaction time

Pretty, regardless

Mark Thompson has an article in The New York Times about the latest issues with the Osprey:
It's hard to imagine an American weapons program so fraught with problems that Dick Cheney would try repeatedly to cancel it. Hard, that is, until you get to know the Osprey. As Defense Secretary under George H.W. Bush, Cheney tried four times to kill the Marine Corps's ungainly tilt-rotor aircraft, and four times he failed. Cheney found the arguments for the combat troop carrier unpersuasive and its problems irredeemable. "Given the risk we face from a military standpoint, given the areas where we think the priorities ought to be, the V-22 is not at the top of the list," he told a Senate committee in 1989. "It came out at the bottom of the list, and for that reason, I decided to terminate it." But the Osprey proved impossible to kill, thanks to lawmakers who rescued it from Cheney's ax time and again because of the home-district money that came with it, and to the irresistible notion that American engineers had found a way to improve on another great aviation breakthrough, the helicopter.
Now the aircraft that flies like an airplane but takes off and lands like a helicopter is about to make its combat debut in Iraq. It has been a long, strange trip: the V-22 has been 25 years in development, more than twice as long as the Apollo program that put men on the moon. V-22 crashes have claimed the lives of 30 men— ten times the lunar program's toll— all before the plane has seen combat. The Pentagon has put $20 billion into the Osprey and expects to spend an additional $35 billion before the program is finished. In exchange, the Marines, Navy, and Air Force will get 458 aircraft, averaging $119 million per copy.
The saga of the V-22— the battles over its future on Capitol Hill, a performance record that is spotty at best, a long, determined quest by the Marines to get what they wanted— demonstrates how Washington works (or, rather, doesn't). It exposes the compromises that are made when narrow interests collide with common sense. It is a tale that shows how the system fails at its most significant task, by placing in jeopardy those we count on to protect us. For even at a stratospheric price, the V-22 is going into combat shorthanded.
As a result of decisions the Marine Corps made over the past decade, the aircraft lacks a heavy-duty, forward-mounted machine gun to lay down suppressing fire against forces that will surely try to shoot it down. And if the plane's two engines are disabled by enemy fire or mechanical trouble while it's hovering, the V-22 lacks a helicopter's ability to coast roughly to the ground, something that often saved lives in Vietnam. In 2002 the Marines abandoned the requirement that the planes be capable of autorotating (as that maneuver is called), with unpowered but spinning helicopter blades slowly letting the aircraft land safely. That decision, a top Pentagon aviation consultant wrote in a confidential 2003 report obtained by Time, is "unconscionable" for a wartime aircraft. "When everything goes wrong, as it often does in a combat environment," he said, "autorotation is all a helicopter pilot has to save his and his passengers' lives."
Rico says there's a lot more here.

The exception, not the rule

James Dao has an article in The New York Times about a Marine who doesn't much care:
Private First Class Daniel Carias, a Bronx native who is just weeks from graduating from Marine Corps infantry training at Camp Geiger in North Carolina, says he has known plenty of gay men since high school and feels completely comfortable around them. He thinks Congress did the right thing in repealing the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, a policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But Private Carias, 18, has one major concern: gay men, he says, should not be allowed to serve in front-line combat units. “They won’t hold up well in combat,” he said. That view, or variations on it, was expressed repeatedly in interviews with Marines around this town, home to Camp Lejeune, and outside Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
Most of the approximately two dozen Marines interviewed said they personally did not object to gay men or lesbians serving openly in the military. But many said that introducing the possibility of sexual tension into combat forces would be disruptive, an argument made by the commandant of the Marine Corps a week before the historic repeal was passed by the Senate on Saturday and sent to President Obama for his signature.
Many concerns —and possible solutions— are outlined in a Defense Department plan for carrying out the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Officials said they did not yet have a timetable for adopting the change. Under the terms of the legislation, the Defense Department will not carry out the repeal until Mr. Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certify that the military is ready to make the change.
In the interviews, the Marines also argued that front-line units living in cramped outposts were encouraged to be extremely tight knit to better protect one another. An openly gay man —only men can serve in combat units— might feel out of place and as a result disrupt that cohesion, they argued.
“Coming from a combat unit, I know that in Afghanistan we were packed in a sardine can,” said Corporal Trevor Colbath, 22, a Pendleton-based Marine who returned from Afghanistan in August. “There’s no doubt in my mind that openly gay Marines can serve, it’s just different in a combat unit. Maybe they should just take the same route they take with females and stick them in noncombat units.”
Advocates for gay service members said questions about the ability of gay troops to serve in combat units were based on unfair and inaccurate stereotypes. Gay men already serve honorably and well in war-fighting units, they said, just not openly. Those same gay troops typically blend in to their units without tensions, they said, and anyone, straight or gay, can crumble emotionally during fighting.
“The thought they would freak out, be unprepared, or panic is completely belied by the facts that have come out during this debate,” said Alexander Nicholson, a former soldier who is executive director of Servicemembers United, an organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans.
Anthony Wilfert, 25, for instance, served a year-long tour with an Army combat unit in Baghdad from 2005 to 2006. He was in firefights and knew colleagues who were wounded or killed. Several colleagues, including superiors, knew he was gay, he asserts. But no one had trouble with his sexuality in Iraq, he says, and he was promoted to sergeant. “No one feared that I would not be able to handle myself or be able to help other men and women on the battlefront,” said Mr. Wilfert, who lives in Nashville. Eventually, though, he was discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell”. He said he was considering re-enlisting.
The concerns raised by Marines about gay men in combat units echoed the results of a survey of 115,000 troops released by the Pentagon in November. The survey found that across the entire military, just thirty percent of service members said that ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” would undermine their unit’s ability to “work together to get the job done”. But, among infantry troops, the percentage was significantly higher: 48 percent within Army combat units and 58 percent among Marine combat units said that having openly gay troops would hurt unit cohesiveness.
Concerns about the ability of combat units to integrate openly gay troops has also been raised repeatedly by the commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, who told reporters recently that having gay Marines in combat units would be a “distraction. Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines’ lives,” General Amos said. However, the general, whose comments came several days before Congress voted to repeal the policy, said in a statement on Sunday that the Marine Corps would “step out smartly to faithfully implement this new policy”.
Not all the Marines interviewed expressed concerns about having openly gay troops fighting alongside them. Private First Class Alex Tuck, a nineteen-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama who is at Camp Geiger, said he had no doubt that gay Marines would not only perform well in combat, but would also be accepted by a vast majority of Marines. “Showers will be awkward,” Private Tuck said outside a shopping mall here, expressing a worry mentioned by just about every Marine interviewed. “But as long as a guy can hold his own and protect my back, it won’t matter if he is gay.”
But a friend of Private Tuck’s injected a note of skepticism. “It won’t be totally accepted,” said Private Justin Rea, eighteen, from Warren, Michigan. “Being gay means you are kind of girly. The Marines are, you know, macho.”
Several combat commanders, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to speak publicly on the issue, expressed concerns. An Army platoon sergeant who recently led front-line soldiers in Afghanistan, and who supported the ban’s repeal, said he envisioned a difficult transition period during which harassment of openly gay troops would be common. “They were kicking people out for being homosexual, and now they will be kicking people out for picking on homosexuals,” the sergeant said.
An Army officer who is now leading troops in Afghanistan said he expected that swift and stern disciplinary measures would stamp out harassment. But he said he still anticipated that many openly gay soldiers would feel alienated at first from their straight colleagues. “They will not be going to all of the events, strip clubs, and bars that the other soldiers attend, and soldiers will almost certainly not be going out of their way to sample the gay culture,” the officer said in an email. “The first gay men (as the infantry is all male) are going to need very thick skins.”
A third officer, just back from Afghanistan, said he would not be surprised if some combat soldiers in small outposts wanted to sleep separately from openly gay troops. But this officer emphasized that what would truly earn acceptance for gay troops would be fighting well. “Honestly, what I care about is how good a gunner they are,” he said. “If an individual is performing well on the battlefield, people won’t care.”
Rico says that openly gay men (as openly gay women will get hit on by straight men regardless) will be lucky if all they get from the other troops is being picked on; this is an organization comprised of a lot of angry young men, hopped up on testosterone, with access to a lot of weapons...

No sympathy from Rico

William Yong has an article in The New York Times about gas prices rising (and, no, not here):
Gasoline prices nearly quadrupled and riot police guarded filling stations around the capital of Iran as deep cuts in subsidies on fuel and other essential goods took effect. After midnight on Sunday, the price of subsidized gasoline jumped to about $1.44 a gallon from about 38 cents a gallon. Similar increases went into effect for compressed natural gas and diesel fuel, with subsidy reductions for other commodities expected to be phased in gradually.
Security forces with riot shields took positions at gas stations in Tehran, bracing for a possible repeat of the unrest that followed the introduction of gasoline rationing in 2007, but there were no reports of violence.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the long-anticipated subsidy reductions in a live television interview on Saturday night, calling the reform “a great victory for Iran”.
Policy makers have described the program as a “rationalization” or “targetization” of Iran’s vast and inefficient subsidies system, but some analysts fear it could increase living costs for millions of middle- and low-income households.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said that the government was spending $114 billion a year on energy subsidies. “If we can save one-quarter of that, it will amount to a vast economic transformation,” he said. He said that the prices of water, electricity, and natural gas would increase “gradually”, and that the subsidy for bread would also be gradually eliminated. He predicted that the bottom sixty percent of income earners would be better off under the new plan, while the wealthier forty percent would “need to economize”.
The reduction in subsidies comes as Iran’s economy is starting to show signs of strain caused by international sanctions. Economic restrictions imposed by the United Nations Security Council and further measures added by Western countries mainly to press Iran on its nuclear program have made it increasingly difficult for the oil-exporting country to conduct international business.
Iranian governments have sought for years to rein in the expensive and unwieldy subsidy system, but have feared a strong public backlash. Price supports amount to $4,000 per family per year, a recent International Monetary Fund report found.
The government tried to cushion the blow by making a one-time payment to each household of about $77. Although the funds were deposited in October, Iranians were not allowed to withdraw the money until Sunday, the day the reductions took effect.
Despite Mr. Ahmadinejad’s call for Iranians to refrain from spending the money immediately to help prevent a sharp jump in inflation, witnesses reported that many customers were withdrawing the full amount at once. “I want to spend it on living costs,” said one bank customer quoted by Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency. “I know that prices haven’t risen yet, but I know for sure that they will.”
The gasoline price increase was expected to be the most wrenching of the changes because of the country’s heavy reliance on private vehicles. Iran’s long-distance bus and taxi drivers’ guild predicted that fares could increase by as much as 125 percent.
The new price of about $1.44 a gallon applies to the monthly ration of about sixteen gallons per personal car. Gasoline bought over and above the monthly ration will increase to about $2.64 a gallon.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said the government would monitor and control increases in transportation costs that arise from the subsidy cuts. In recent months, his administration has insisted that any price increases above government-ordained limits would be considered part of an “economic conspiracy” and would be dealt with by the police and judiciary.
The political opposition has been skeptical of the plan but seemed to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. “In the dark of night the subsidy targetization plan began, a plan which the government has begun to execute detached from the people, without wisdom or long-term planning,” read an article published on the Kaleme news website, which is associated with the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi.
Rico says their new price (hell, even their over-quota price) is still well below that here; how do we go about buying gas from the Iranians?

Here comes the sun, finally

Rico says he's been awaiting the shortest day of the year, only because the days will start getting longer, but Richard Cohen has an article in The New York Times about the event:
What is the winter solstice, and why bother to celebrate it, as so many people around the world will tomorrow? The word “solstice” derives from the Latin sol (meaning sun) and statum (stand still), and reflects what we see on the first days of summer and winter when, at dawn for two or three days, the sun seems to linger for several minutes in its passage across the sky, before beginning to double back.
Indeed, “turnings of the sun” is an old phrase, used by both Hesiod and Homer. Virtually all cultures have their own way of acknowledging this moment. The Welsh word for solstice translates as “the point of roughness”, while the Talmud calls it Tekufat Tevet, first day of “the stripping time". For the Chinese, winter’s beginning is dongzhi, when one tradition is making balls of glutinous rice, which symbolize family gathering. In Korea, these balls are mingled with a sweet red bean called pat jook. According to local lore, each winter solstice a ghost comes to haunt villagers. The red bean in the rice balls repels him.
In parts of Scandinavia, the locals smear their front doors with butter so that Beiwe, sun goddess of fertility, can lap it up before she continues on her journey. (One wonders who does all the mopping up afterward.) Later, young women don candle-embedded helmets, while families go to bed having placed their shoes all in a row, to ensure peace over the coming year.
Street processions are another common feature. In Japan, young men known as “sun devils”, their faces daubed to represent their imagined solar ancestry, still go among the farms to ensure the earth’s fertility (and their own stocking-up with alcohol). In Ireland, people called wren-boys take to the roads, wearing masks or straw suits. The practice used to involve the killing of a wren, and singing songs while carrying the corpse from house to house.
Sacrifice is a common thread. In areas of northern Pakistan, men have cold water poured over their heads in purification, and are forbidden to sit on any chair till the evening, when their heads will be sprinkled with goats’ blood.
Purification is also the main object for the Zuni and Hopi tribes of North America, their attempt to recall the sun from its long winter slumber. It also marks the beginning of another turning of their “wheel of the year”, and kivas (their sacred underground ritual chambers) are opened to mark the season.
Yet, for all these symbolisms, this time remains at heart an astronomical event, and quite a curious one. In summer, the sun is brighter and reaches higher into the sky, shortening the shadows that it casts; in winter it rises and sinks closer to the horizon, its light diffuses more and its shadows lengthen. As the winter hemisphere tilts steadily further away from the star, daylight becomes shorter and the sun arcs ever lower. Societies that were organized around agriculture intently studied the heavens, ensuring that the solstices were well charted.
Despite their best efforts, however, their priests and stargazers came to realize that it was exceptionally hard to pinpoint the moment of the sun’s turning by observation alone, even though they could define the successive seasons by the advancing and withdrawal of daylight and darkness.
The earth further complicates matters. Our globe tilts on its axis like a spinning top, going around the sun at an angle to its orbit of 23 and a half degrees. Yet the planet’s shape changes minutely and its axis wobbles, thus its orbit fluctuates. If its axis remained stable and if its orbit were a true circle, then the equinoxes and solstices would quarter the year into equal sections. As it is, the time between the spring and fall equinoxes in the Northern Hemisphere is slightly greater than that between fall and spring, the earth— being at that time closer to the sun— moving about six percent faster in January than in July.
The apparently supernatural power manifest in solstices to govern the seasons has been felt as far back as we know, inducing different reactions from different cultures: fertility rites, fire festivals, and offerings to the gods. Many of the wintertime customs in Western Europe descend from the ancient Romans, who believed that their god of the harvest, Saturn, had ruled the land during an earlier age of abundance, and so celebrated the winter solstice with the Saturnalia, a feast of gift-giving, role-reversals (slaves berating their masters) and general public holiday from the 17th to the 24th of December.
The transition from Roman paganism to Christianity, with its similar rites, took several centuries. With the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, customs were quickly appropriated and refashioned, as the sun and God’s son became inextricably entwined. Thus, although the New Testament gives no indication of Christ’s actual birthday (early writers preferring a spring date), in 354 Pope Liberius declared it to have befallen on 25 December.
The advantages of Christmas Day being celebrated then were obvious. As the Christian commentator Syrus wrote: “It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity... Accordingly, when the church authorities perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.”
In Christendom, the Nativity gradually absorbed all other winter solstice rites, and the co-opting of solar imagery was part of the same process. Thus the solar discs that had once been depicted behind the heads of Asian rulers became the halos of Christian luminaries. Despite the new religion’s apparent supremacy, many of the old customs survived, so much so that church elders worried that the veneration of Christ was being lost. In the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo and Pope Leo the Great felt compelled to remind their flocks that Christ, not the sun, was their proper object of their worship.
While Roman Christianity was the dominant culture in Western Europe, it was by no means the only one. By millennium’s end, the Danes controlled most of England, bringing with them “Yule”, their name for winter solstice celebrations, probably derived from an earlier term for “wheel”. For centuries, the most sacred Norse symbol had been the wheel of the heavens, represented by a six- or eight-spoked wheel, or by a cross within a wheel signifying solar rays. The Norse peoples, many of whom settled in what is now Yorkshire, would construct huge solar wheels and place them next to hilltop bonfires while, in the Middle Ages, processions bore wheels upon chariots or boats. In other parts of Europe, where the Vikings were feared and hated, a taboo on using spinning wheels during solstices lasted well into the Twentieth century. The spinning-wheel on which Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger may exemplify this sense of menace.
Throughout much of Europe, at least up until the Sixteenth century, starvation was common from January to April, a period known as “the famine months”. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed over the winter, making the solstice almost the only time of year that fresh meat was readily available. The boar’s head at Christmas feasts represents the dying sun of the old year, while the suckling pig— with the apple of immortality in its mouth— the new.
The turning of the sun was perhaps even more important in the New World than the Old. The Aztecs, who believed that the heart harbored elements of the sun’s power, ensured its continual well-being by tearing out this vital organ from hunchbacks, dwarves, or prisoners of war, so releasing the “divine sun fragments” entrapped by the body and its desires.
The Incas would celebrate the solar festival of Inti Raymi by having their priests attempt to tie down the celestial body. At Machu Picchu, high in the Peruvian Andes, there is a large stone column called the Intihuatana (“hitching post of the sun”), to which the star would be symbolically harnessed. It is unclear how the Incas measured the success of this endeavor, but at least the sun returned the following day.
Yet above all other rituals, reproducing the sun’s fire by kindling flame on earth is the commonest solstice practice, both at midsummer and midwinter. Thomas Hardy, describing Dorset villagers around a bonfire in The Return of the Native, offers an explanation for such a worldwide phenomenon: “To light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of men when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, ‘Let there be light.’”
So there is good reason to celebrate the winter solstice, but maybe that celebration is still touched with a little fear.
Richard Cohen is the author of Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life.
Rico says we should bring back Saturnalia; it sounds like a lot more fun... But, five days out from the event, this is the perfect time for a Rant about Christ's Mess (yes, bad pun), the (so far) two thousand years of Crusades and miscellaneous wars and massacres, all performed in His name. The current tizzy over Don't Ask, Don't Tell, with the service ministries all refusing to accept openly gay men and women as airmen, soldiers, sailors, and (especially) Marines, is but the latest intrusion of Jesus into society...

19 December 2010

Feminine patriots? Right...

Rico says some things are almost too perfect to comment upon, and the NRA's new Miss Liberty America beauty pageant comes pretty close:
Miss Liberty America is a beauty pageant aimed at showcasing the country's "elite feminine patriots".
Competing in Las Vegas on the Fourth of July in 2012, the contestants will be asked to display their 'patriotism, intelligence, talent, and beauty' while promoting the Armed Forces, the works of our Founding Fathers, and, ultimately, liberty.
Much like other national pageants, the contenders will be judged on a personal interview, along with evening gown, beauty, talent, and swimsuit competitions.
However, additional aspects of the competition will focus on marksmanship and knowledge of the principles upon which our country was founded.
Rico says he can hardly wait for the feminists and gub-haters to chime in on this one...

Me, too technology

Rico says you could buy one of these copycat tablets:
Top row: TabletKiosk eo UMPC, Gateway E-295C, , Tablet Kiosk D440, HP Compact Compact 2710p, Fujitsu P1610
Middle row: Toshiba M200, Samsung Q1, Lenovo X61, Tablet Kiosk i213
Bottom row: Fujitsu Lifebook T4220 , Samsung Q1 Ultra, Toshiba R400, Samsung Q1 Ultra, Lenovo X60

or you could buy one of these:
Rico says it's your call, but he knows which one he bought...
Rico says his father, a practicing engineer himself, sends along these:
Comprehending Engineers One
Two engineering students were walking across campus when one said: "Where did you get such a great bike?"
The second engineer replied: "Well, I was walking along yesterday, minding my own business, when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike, threw it to the ground and took off all her clothes, saying: "Take what you want."
The second engineer nodded approvingly: "Good choice; the clothes probably wouldn't have fit."

Comprehending Engineers Two
To the optimist, the glass is half full.
To the pessimist, the glass is half-empty.
To the engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.*

Comprehending Engineers Three
A pastor, a doctor, and an engineer were waiting one morning for a particularly slow group of golfers.
The engineer fumed: "What's with these guys? We must have been waiting for fifteen minutes!"
The doctor chimed in: "I don't know, but I've never seen such ineptitude!"
The pastor said: "Hey, here comes the greenskeeper. Let's have a word with him. Hey, George, what's with that group ahead of us? They're rather slow, aren't they?"
The greenskeeper replied: "Oh, yes, that's a group of blind firefighters. They lost their sight saving our clubhouse from a fire last year, so we always let them play for free anytime."
The group was silent for a moment.
The pastor said: "That's so sad. I think I will say a special prayer for them tonight."
The doctor said: "Good idea. I'm going to contact my buddy the ophthalmologist and see if there's anything he can do for them."
The engineer said: "Why can't these guys play at night?"

Comprehending Engineers Four
An engineer had an exceptional gift for fixing all things mechanical. After serving his company loyally for over thirty years, he happily retired. Several years later the company contacted him regarding a seemingly impossible problem they were having with one of their multimillion-dollar machines. They had tried everything and everyone else to get the machine to work, but to no avail. In desperation, they called on the retired engineer who had solved so many of their problems in the past.
The engineer reluctantly took the challenge. He spent a day studying the huge machine. At the end of the day, he marked a small "x" in chalk on particular component of the machine and stated, "This is the location of your problem".
The part was replaced and the machine worked perfectly again. The company received a bill for $50,000 from the engineer for his service. They demanded an itemized accounting of his charges. The engineer responded briefly:
One chalk mark: $1
Knowing where to put it: $49,999.
It was paid in full and the engineer retired again in peace.

Comprehending Engineers Five
What's the difference between Mechanical Engineers and Civil Engineers?
Mechanical Engineers build weapons.
Civil Engineers build targets.

Comprehending Engineers Six
The graduate with a Science degree asks: "Why does it work?"
The graduate with an Engineering degree asks: "How does it work?"
The graduate with an Accounting degree asks: "How much will it cost?"
The graduate with a Liberal Arts degree asks: "Do you want fries with that?"

Comprehending Engineers Seven
Normal people believe that, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Engineers believe that. if it ain't broke, it doesn't have enough features yet.

Comprehending Engineers Eight
An engineer was crossing a road one-day when a frog called out to him: "If you kiss me, I'll turn into a beautiful princess".
He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog spoke up again: "If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will stay with you for one week."
The engineer took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it, and returned it to the pocket.
The frog then cried out: "If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I'll stay with you and do anything you want."
Again the engineer took the frog out, smiled at it, and put it back into his pocket.
Finally, the frog asked: "What is the matter? I've told you I'm a beautiful princess that I'll stay with you for a week and do anything you want. Why won't you kiss me?"
The engineer said: "Look, as an engineer I don't have time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog, now that's cool."
*Rico asks: 'Who stole my water?'

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