31 October 2013

Winning the World Series in Boston

Nate Rawlings has a Time article about something that hasn't happened since 1918:
Nine years ago, the Boston Red Sox broke one of the most famous curses in sports, winning the club’s first World Series title since 1918; they repeated the feat in 2007, but both times clinched the championship on the road. Last night the Red Sox won the World Series at home in Fenway Park for the first time in 95 years, igniting celebrations in Boston late into the night.
The Red Sox got big hits from Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew to jump out to a six-to-nothing lead after four innings and relied on methodical pitching from their bullpen to cruise to the Game Six victory. David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, was named World Series MVP after batting .688, the second highest batting average in World Series history.
Celebrations of the Red Sox’ improbable run from last place finish in their division in 2012 to World Series champions this year included a gathering at the Boylston Street finish line of the Boston Marathon, where the bombing in April of 2013 killed three and injured more than two hundred. In the wake of the bombing, Bostonians rallied around the Red Sox and their Boston Strong motto, which was on display Wednesday night.
Rico says he knew it'd been a long time, but that's a hell of a drought; but owning a bar in Boston would probably be a good thing right about now...

Syria destroyed its facilities

David Stout has a Time article via a Reuters article by Dominic Evans about Syria and its chemical weapons:
Syria has destroyed or rendered inoperable all of its declared chemical weapons production and mixing facilities, meeting a major deadline in an ambitious disarmament program, the international chemical weapons watchdog said recently. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize this month, said its teams had inspected 21 out of 23 chemical weapons sites across the country. The remaining two were too dangerous to reach for inspection, but the chemical equipment had already been moved to other sites that experts had visited, it said.
Syria "has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable," it said, meeting a 1 November 2013 deadline for the work. The next target date is 15 November 2013, when the OPCW and Syria must agree to a detailed plan of destruction, including how and where to destroy more than a thousand metric tons of toxic agents and munitions.
Under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States, Damascus agreed to destroy all its chemical weapons after Washington threatened to use force in response to the killing of hundreds of people in a sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus on 21 August 2013.
It was the world's deadliest chemical weapons incident since Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces used poison gas against the Kurdish town of Halabja twenty-five years ago.
The United States and its allies blamed the forces of President Bashar al-Assad for the attack, along with several earlier incidents. Assad has rejected the charge, blaming rebel brigades.
"This was a major milestone in the effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program," Ralf Trapp, an independent chemical weapons disarmament specialist, said. "Most of the sites and facilities declared by Syria to the OPCW have been inspected, their inventories verified, equipment for chemical weapons production disabled and put beyond use, and some of the unfilled weapons have also been disabled."
The OPCW mission is being undertaken in the midst of Syria's two-and-a-half year civil war, which has killed more than a hundred thousand people. There had been concerns that the violence would impede the disarmament, but the OPCW says Syrian authorities have been cooperating with the weapons experts.
At one location it could not visit, the OPCW said it was able to verify destruction work remotely, while Syrian forces had abandoned the two sites it could not inspect at all.
Syrian authorities said that "the chemical weapons program items removed from these sites were moved to other declared sites", an OPCW document said. "These sites holding items from abandoned facilities were inspected."
Trapp said it was "important to ensure that the remaining facilities can be inspected and their equipment and weapons inventoried and prepared for destruction as soon as possible".
Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at the Monterey Institute, cautioned that the work achieved so far had been relatively easy compared with the next stage, which will involve transporting and eliminating warfare agents. The OPCW also remained reliant on goodwill from Damascus, said Smithson, noting that both Saddam and late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had tried to pull the wool over inspectors' eyes in the past. "What is unknown at present is whether Assad has declared everything in his arsenal; remember, Gaddafi kept a stash, and Saddam tried his best to do the same but was outmaneuvered by savvy, determined inspectors, and to what extent Syrian cooperation will continue," she said.
Under the disarmament timetable, Syria was due to render unusable all production and chemical weapons filling facilities by 1 November 2013. By the middle of next year it must have destroyed its entire stockpile of chemical weapons. The OPCW has not said which locations it had been unable to inspect, but a source briefed on their operations said one was at Safira, southeast of Aleppo in the north of the country. The site itself remains under government control, but has been emptied of equipment because of fighting nearby. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence in Syria, said forces loyal to Assad advanced towards Safira and clashed with rebels on its eastern approaches.
The other site not inspected was at Tel Kurdi in Adra, northeast of the capital, Damascus. Tel Kurdi is now under rebel control, but has been empty since early 2013, when the equipment was moved to another site, the source said.
The site which was inspected remotely was al-Sukkar, also in Adra, which contained instruments, ammunition, and other substances which were destroyed by Syrian officials. The OPCW monitored this operation by video because the site, although under government control, was dangerous to reach.
Rico says if you believe all that, he's got a rug to sell you...

Deep Web? Who knew?

Jay Newton-Small has a Time article about what's keeping Washington up at night:
Washington has no idea what to make of the Dread Pirate Roberts. As Lev Grossman and I wrote in this week’s cover story, the Dread Pirate Roberts allegedly ran the Silk Road, the world’s most successful online drug bazaar, until the Feds caught him earlier this month. His real name, according to a 39-page federal complaint against him, is Ross Ulbricht, 29. He supposedly took the pseudonym from a character in the movie and book, The Princess Bride. In the Silk Road, DPR, as his followers called him, created a business model for anyone wanting to sell illicit items online using free encryption software called Tor and the virtually anonymous crypto-currency Bitcoin. Though the Feds have taken Silk Road offline, there are plenty of folks lining up to be the next Dread Pirate Roberts.
Lev and I examined the greater implications of the Deep Web, the massive and growing anonymous area of the Internet. But, from the perspective of lawmakers and law enforcement in Washington, Silk Road presents a double conundrum. It’s a blueprint for criminals the world over at a time when FBI resources are stretched thin and political will to empower government snooping has cratered. And it has created a regulatory headache in figuring how to deal with whole new currencies, tax havens and virtual online markets.
While Tor is used by everyone from law enforcement to Syrian dissidents to protect valuable information, it is a double-edged sword. Many experts warn that groups ranging from the Russian mafia to international drug cartels are looking closely at the lessons learned from the Silk Road. It took the FBI more than two years of investigative work to find Ulbricht. They don’t have the resources to compete with Silicon Valley in hiring, or the tools— a long-hoped for modernization of the law governing online wiretapping is on ice in Congress, thanks to Edward Snowden.
Developing technology to fight the Deep Web, or the anonymous non-searchable web, “is not adequately funded— it’s nowhere near adequately funded”, says Marcus Thomas, former assistant director of the FBI’s technology division and now on the advisory board of Subsentio, which helps companies comply with online warranted wiretaps. “Historically it was well funded, but recently especially with sequestration, it’s been hard hit. It’s always been a difficult thing to build cost benefit analysis for. How much money should you spend building a technology you may not use for a year, if ever?”
Chester Wisnieski, a senior information technology security adviser at Sophos, adds that the FBI doesn’t have enough trained staff. “If you look at the FBI, how many agents do they have in cyber? Less than two hundred,” he said. “There’s been a very fast shift of traditional crimes moving online and don’t have skilled agents to deal with it.”
The policy problem is compounded by Bitcoin, which represents another set of jurisdictional tangles for Washington. The Senate Homeland Security Committee, officials tell Time, plans on holding hearings on Bitcoin within the month. The committee sent letters to nine federal agencies in July asking for their thoughts on Bitcoin and other virtual currencies in the hopes of developing a holistic approach to the so-called crypto-currency that neither stifles the currency’s potential nor enables criminals to abuse it. “As with all emerging technologies, the federal government must make sure that potential threats and risks are dealt with swiftly,” Committee Chairman Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, and the committee’s top Republican, Tom Coburn, wrote in the letters. “However, we must also ensure that rash or uninformed actions don’t stifle a potentially valuable technology.”
Bitcoin can be a force for good. “We’ve grown used to the idea that virtual transactions should be tracked because they can be; whereas Bitcoin brings anonymity back into online commerce,” says Sasha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “It’s amazing how scary this notion is to law enforcement. But I see it as akin to trade in gold, cash transactions, and barter: not something to be feared, but simply another useful tool for commerce.”
And yet, virtual currencies have a complex past. In recent years, Liberty Reserve and e-Gold both ran afoul of the law, mostly for money laundering. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized funds from the world’s largest Bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, in May of 2013, charging that the company was operating an unlicensed money transmitting service. Mt. Gox has since moved to put names to Bitcoin transfers and register with Federal and state governments. There is about two billion dollars in Bitcoin in existence today. Authorities say Silk Road transactions amounted to $1.2 billion in Bitcoin.
Indeed, regulators have already taken an active interest in Bitcoin. The Senate Finance Committee is looking at language to regulate virtual currencies its tax code overhaul. They’re also considering giving the IRS more money to track virtual tax havens, Senate sources tell Time. A  Government Accountability Office report in June of 2013 warned that virtual currencies like Bitcoin could be abused as tax havens. New York Financial Services Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky sent subpoenas to 22 Bitcoin businesses this summer saying it was considering new regulatory guidance on virtual currencies. “If virtual currencies remain a virtual Wild West for narcotraffickers and other criminals,” he said announcing the subpoenas, “that would not only threaten our country’s national security, but also the very existence of the virtual currency industry as a legitimate business enterprise.” A Commodities Futures Trading Commissioner said his agency is looking into regulating Bitcoins as a commodity. And Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network put out guidance in March of 2013 saying Bitcoin brokers would have to follow wire service regulations, a potentially onerous requirement, as each wire service must register state by state.
All of this means that no one is quite sure how to handle Bitcoin: is it a currency? A bond? A commodity? Should dealers be regulated, like wire services or brokers? Should profits be taxed as capital gains? Few in Washington have even begun to consider these questions, and yet, given the rapid growth of Bitcoin, the Deep Web, and websites like the Silk Road, they will surely be forced to soon.
Internet users are increasingly looking for anonymity as their preferences and personal information are tracked and traded like pork belly futures. For many, the Deep Web represents a haven from those prying eyes. But, as in real life, when there’s anonymity, there are dark alleys where people will abuse it. In the physical world, should we choose it, we can live a cash-based anonymous existence. Should we be able to do so online, even if it means anyone can buy drugs, fake IDs, or illicit weapons as well? These are the questions Washington must grapple with as it looks at how to regulate crypto-currencies and police the Deep Web.
Rico says he hadn't even heard of the Deep Web until very recently, and barely understands how it works...

More Apple for the day

Jared Newman has a Time article about an even-larger iPad:
Gadget geeks are pretty good at pattern recognition. Immediately after Apple announced the ultra-light iPad Air last week, the tech world began speculating on the possibility of an iPad Pro.
Apple already offers the MacBook Air for mainstream laptop users and the MacBook Pro for those who want more power, so the birth of the iPad Air hints at a pro-level counterpart, aimed at people who use tablets as work machines. Given Apple’s messaging around iPad productivity during last week’s event, we can guess that Apple has at least thought about the idea, so let’s indulge in a bit of speculation:
One thing that pundits are already talking about is the idea of a keyboard that also serves as a tablet stand and screen cover. Many third-party vendors offer this already, but a tightly integrated keyboard from Apple would be even better. Consider how the existing iPad Smart Cover connects through magnets built into the tablet, and it’s easy to imagine how a keyboard cover would shine. (And yes, I know Microsoft has its own implementation with Surface; let’s not turn this into a flame war.)
Apple is rumored to have prototyped its own keyboard cover, and some tech watchers thought we’d see it at last week’s event. But John Moltz makes a good point on why it didn’t happen:
The problem with iPad keyboard covers is that even the full-size iPad isn’t wide enough to accommodate a full-sized keyboard. Microsoft gave the Surface a different aspect ratio, so it’s more than an inch wider than the iPad in landscape; that gave them the room to make a full-sized keyboard. Apple doesn’t have that luxury and they’re not the kind of company that’s going to make a crappy half-solution.
Although Moltz doesn’t guess at what a proper solution would look like, a wider iPad makes sense. Just as Apple stretched the iPhone 5′s screen from three-and-a-half to four inches, a pro-level iPad could get a wider aspect ratio, while keeping pixel density the same at 264 pixels per inch.
How wide might this iPad go? Let’s assume that Apple would at least add a sixth row of icons to its home screen, following the same pattern as the iPhone 5. Keeping the distance between icons the same in portrait mode, the minimum size increase would be 322 pixels, for a total resolution of 2370-by-1536.
To maintain the Retina display, the screen size would measure 10.7 inches diagonally– exactly one inch longer than the iPad Air– and 8.98 inches lengthwise. With bezel size remaining at 7/8 of an inch on either side of the screen, the entire tablet would measure 10.73 inches lengthwise. That’s just enough for a full-sized keyboard.
There is one problem with my theory: the aspect ratio is atypical, floating halfway between 3:2 and 16:10. Alternatively, It might make sense for Apple to stretch the screen out even further. An iPad with 16:10 aspect ratio, for instance, would have a 2458-by-1536 resolution display, measuring just under eleven inches.
But Apple isn’t afraid of odd aspect ratios (the iPhone 5s is 71:40, just a little off from 16:9), and widening the screen too much would make it feel awkward in portrait mode. Also, keeping the screen as small as possible makes touch interaction easier, because you don’t have to move your hands as much. I know there’s speculation about a thirteen-inch iPad, but I question how comfortable that would be to hold in your hands or use in your lap. This hypothetical device still has to function like a normal tablet, after all.
Keyboard aside, those extra pixels could be useful for all kinds of apps. Consider GarageBand: in the current version, you can expand the instrument panel in track view to show the volume slider and mute controls, but this takes away from how much of the timeline you can see. A wider iPad could show more of the timeline even when the instrument panel is fully expanded. For movie editors, a wider iPad would reduce some of the letterboxing you get now, even if it’s still not a perfect fit for 16:9 video.
The app transition would be similar to what it was for the iPhone 5, with a black border on either side of the screen until the app is properly optimized. Having to expand app content in just one direction for each orientation would minimize the amount of work developers must do. Meanwhile, Apple could use the extra screen space for a slide-out app dock, allowing users to quickly toggle between programs.
If this kind of iPad Pro existed, we can assume it would include more processing power and RAM, and a Touch ID fingerprint sensor to make it more practical for business users. But mainly, I’m interested in what a pro-level iPad might look like, and how it would fit in with the rest of Apple’s lineup. A modest size increase, to just under eleven inches, would retain much of the comfort level and portability of the current iPad, while allowing for a full-sized keyboard and new software features. And while I have no idea whether this is something Apple will build, it’s something I’d be interested in.
Rico says he'd be interested as well, but a Slate with an Apple logo deserves a flame war...

Steve Jobs for the day

Eliana Dockterman has a Time article about historic status for a historic place:
Steve Jobs’ childhood home in Silicon Valley got historic designation when the historical commission of Los Altos, California voted unanimously to make it a landmark, the Daily News has reported.
The modest, one-story home where the Apple Inc. co-founder and his foster parents moved in 1968 is currently owned by Jobs’ sister, Patricia Jobs. The tech visionary built the first hundred Apple I computers at the home at 2066 Crist Drive with help from her and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Rico says he hopes Patricia got some Apple stock, and not just the house...

Odd couple, indeed

Sean Vitka, who holds a JD from Boston College Law School and was a legal fellow at the Open Technology Institute and a Google Policy Fellow at Georgetown Law, has a Slate article about a technological odd couple:
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that BlackBerry executives met with Facebook to discuss potential bids for the ailing smartphone-maker. Strategically speaking, such a deal would give Facebook the ability to circumvent other manufacturers they rely on. The companies aren’t talking to the public, so whether a Facebook phone would use its own operating system, the BlackBerry’s, or just base it off Android, is unclear. The deal could be a significant market shakeup, in theory.
But why would Facebook want such a deal? Blackberry’s slide from grace has been going on for years, but September was a particularly bad month. The company announced it would lay off about forty percent of its workforce, that it had lost a billion dollars in the last quarter, and that it was backing off the consumer market to focus on businesses. Echoing this, T-Mobile stores have since stopped carrying BlackBerry smartphones.
The market is pretty duopolistic, at least for now, and there’s not much reason for that to change in the short run. Windows Phone is fighting for third place in Europe— according to Engadget, it’s celebrating ten percent market share in France and twelve percent in Britain. BlackBerry’s presence in Europe, meanwhile, shrank to a diminutive two percent in the five major European markets. BlackBerry’s market share in America fell to just over four percent in July.
Even were BlackBerry a good buy, it wouldn’t be a good fit for Facebook. Just over a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg said a Facebook phone "has always been the wrong strategy for us". Even if Zuckerberg has changed his mind about a Facebook phone, BlackBerry seems like the antithesis of what it would be looking for, especially with the company’s recent pivot back into its business-focused niche. Have you ever wanted to provide all of your employees with a phone centered on social networking?
Facebook would need to roll back a number of very recent BlackBerry decisions the moment it stepped through the door. Facebook also has significant work left to do with the existing markets: one recent study found that Facebook’s mobile ads have a vastly higher ROI on iOS than on Android.
All this aside, BlackBerry is still a valuable company. The Wall Street Journal notes a number of assets owned by BlackBerry, including $2.6 billion in cash, no debt, and patents worth between one and three billion dollars. And I’m also guessing Facebook will take note of another bit of BlackBerry news breaking today: BlackBerry’s messaging app picked up twenty million users across Android and iOS since its launch a week ago.
Still, BlackBerry as we’ve come to know it would be a quagmire for Facebook.
Rico says not merely odd, but doomed, and deservedly so... (No, Rico does not do Facebook, and wouldn't take a Blackberry if you gave him one.)

History for the day

On 31 October 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated near her residence by two Sikh security guards.

Linking Europe and Asia by rail

Tyler Falk has a SmartPlanet article about the latest tunnel:
For the first time, the European and Asian sides of Istanbul (photo) are connected by rail.
The $4.5 billion Marmaray project plunges about two hundred feet under the Bosphorus Strait and stretches about 42 miles. But it wasn’t easy. The project took nine years to complete and ran five years over schedule (discovering the ancient Byzantine port of Theodosius was just one of the setbacks).
But officials believe the project was well worth the wait, because it provides an important economic link between the two continents. Not only will the project provide a maximum daily capacity of one-and-a-half million for the estimated two million people who make the trip between the two sides of Istanbul daily— reducing the notoriously bad traffic between the two sides by twenty percent— but it will also reconnect important trade routes between the continents. The Iron Silk Road will also provide a non-stop trade route connecting China to Western Europe by rail.
But not everyone is optimistic about the new transit system. Critics fear that the project was rushed along too quickly to coincide with the ninetieth anniversary of the Turkish Republic. The problem? The underwater tunnel sits just eleven miles from a major fault line, as The Atlantic Cities reports. Officials urge skeptics that the system is safe, calling it the “project of the century”. But problems on the train’s first day of service didn’t do anything to ease those fears.
Rico says that there's a suicide bomber waiting to happen...

Tesla for the day

Kirsten Korosec has a SmartPlanet article about the Tesla:
A corridor of Tesla Supercharger DC fast-charging stations along Interstate 5 and Highway 101 is complete, allowing owners of the company’s luxury all-electric sedan to drive from San Diego, California to Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada for free.
More than 99 percent of Californians and 87 percent of Oregon and Washington owners now live within two hundred miles of a supercharger.
Tesla’s 120 kilowatt superchargers, which only work with the Tesla Model S, provide half a charge in about twenty minutes. The chargers work by delivering direct current power to the battery using special cables that bypass onboard charging equipment. And using them is free for all Tesla Model S owners.
To commemorate the completed West Coast Supercharger Corridor, two Model S sedans left San Diego for a 1,750-mile DriveFree road trip to Vancouver.
There are 31 stations in North America, with plans to expand to most metropolitan areas this fall. By winter of 2013, enough Tesla superchargers will be installed to enable coast-to-coast US travel. Tesla plans to to have superchargers within reach of eighty percent of the US population and parts of Canada by 2014.
Tesla is building a similar network in Europe. About ninety percent of people in Norway now live within two hundred miles of one of its six “supercharger” stations.
The electric car maker plans to open superchargers along a corridor from the Netherlands to Munich, Germany by the end of 2013. By the end of 2014, Tesla superchargers will be installed along major travel corridors throughout Belgium, France, Austria, Italy, Spain and the UK.
Rico says he's still hoping his father buys the Model X, the SUV version, when it comes out in 2014:

30 October 2013

Who knew?

Turns out that Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid, was born in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, not that far from Rico...

War Nerd for the day

ExiledOnLine has a reprint of The War Nerd's 2007 article about Sikhs:
I think I’ve finally found a religion I can convert to: I’m thinking of turning Sikh. And we’ll just slide right by all the puns popping into your little heads, if you don’t mind. The Sikhs are just the coolest warrior tribe around. Take their scripture: my Bible goes on and on about beating swords into plowshares; I always hated that bit, because all you’d get was a wrecked sword and a lousy plow. But the Sikh scripture actually says that the sword predates the universe: “After the primal manifestation of the sword, the universe was created.”
See? That’s a god who’s got his priorities in order! No doubt about it, I’m letting my beard grow and practicing wrapping old socks around my head. Gary B. Singh, you can call me from now on.
It all started when I got a letter from a guy named Gill, a Sikh in the UK, whining about how I’d talked up all the other warrior tribes but never had a word to say for the Sikhs. “Give us some love, Gary,” Gill whined.
Well, the War Nerd makes war, not love, but after weeks of looking into this Sikh thing, I gotta give the bearded boys their due: the Sikhs have one of the most amazing military histories on the planet. And they’re still living through their Golden Age right now. One of the great last stands in Sikh history happened just over twenty years ago, when two hundred Sikh militants holed up in their version of the Mormon Tabernacle, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. Anybody with sense knew those two hundred Sikhs were going to fight like demons, because that’s what Sikhs have been doing for the past four hundred years. Sikh military history is so packed with glorious last stands that George Armstrong Custer would be a small footnote if he’d worn a big turban to go with that long hair and beard of his.
It was 1984, and the Indian Army must have known it was in for a big bloody mess to get the temple back, especially since its upper ranks are filled mostly with Sikh generals, Sikhs being the designated hitters of the Indian war game. But Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, and she was a lady who didn’t like being disobeyed, so she ordered her Sikh commanding general to overrun the temple.
Mistake. The Sikh CO inside the temple was a dude named Shahbeg Singh, who pretty much single-handedly engineered the collapse of the Pakistani Army in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. It was Shahbeg who organized the Mukhti Bahini, the Bangladeshi guerrillas who made history by being the first Bengali armed force in history not to pee in their dhotis and flee at the sound of gunfire. In fact, this Sikh must’ve given the Bengalis some kind of Sikh blood transfusion, because they fought well enough to make the West Pak garrisons surrender en masse, even before Indian troops crossed the Bengal border. After that it was the end of history for East Bengal, except for a bunch of whiney George Harrison begging chanteys and a tidal wave or two.
Well, this same Shahbeg arranged the defense of the Golden Temple so well that, at the end of a seven-day battle with the Indian Army’s best units, his two hundred-odd amateur militants had inflicted 83 KIA on the army and even managed to blast the first tank to enter the compound. They paid a price, naturally– at least five hundred Sikh dead and the Temple blasted into gold dust. But Sikhs, well, if there’s one thing you can say about ‘em, it’s that they’re willing to pay any price.
And they make the enemy pay, too. Less than five months after Indira Gandhi ordered the attack on the Temple, she was strolling into her garden to be interviewed by that fat old Brit with the Russian name, Peter Ustinov, when the Sikhs got their revenge. It must have been a pretty scene, the fat man sweating in the Delhi heat, Indira swirling up in her best sari, when boom, two of her bodyguards, who were Sikhs, naturally, opened fire on her with machine guns, turning her into human chutney. She died before the sweat dried on Ustinov’s chins. And then, just to add to Ustinov’s fun, her other non-Sikh bodyguards started blasting at the Sikh shooters, killing one and wounding another. Shortest (and loudest) interview the old battle-ax ever gave. Last, too.
That was the Sikh revenge for Operation Bluestar, the temple raid. By the way, that’s another of these lame ops titles they keep coming up with. Should’ve called it Operation Blowback, or Operation Indira, Are You Sure?
For the Sikhs, this was just like Chapter Two Million in a long and glorious series of battles, assassinations, and massacres. The Sikhs were born in the Punjab, the coolest part of India. Every conqueror in history headed that way as soon as he got his learner’s license at fifteen. The Punjab was the last, and the toughest place Alexander himself ever tried to take. He was so impressed with the army of Pontus, as they called it then, that he said every Punjabi deserved to be called Alexander, which was high praise, since Alex was never known for modesty.
Before him even those lazy necrophiliac Egyptians had a stab at the Punjab. I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but apparently those Nile-side loungers had the energy to attack the Punjab. Everybody had a turn, though it was the Persians and the Afghans who turned invading the Punjab from a healthy, occasional fun evening into an unhealthy obsession.
And that was before Islam was added to the subcontinental mix. By the time Sikhism started, about four hundred years ago, the Mughal emperors, basically a bunch of land pirates who swooped down out of Afghanistan to plunder the plains, had tried to convert India to Islam by using the time-honored method of appealing to the prospect’s common sense: “Convert or we’ll hack you into a million tiny pieces.” The Hindu majority, under the thumbs of hundreds of feudal kings, tried to weasel out of conversion so they could hang on to their own homegrown miseries, like the caste system. The Hindus’ ultimate weapon was simple inertia and birthrate. The Afghans’ sword arms just got tired after a while, hacking in that heat, and they said: “Aw, the hell with it.” Northern India settled into a lazy routine with the occasional massacre, a lot of bribery, nasty little village snobs hating each other.
Then along comes the founder of Sikhism, Nanak, who says: “There is no Muslim, there is no Hindu.” Meaning, the hell with both of you. Sikhs were radicals from the start. All the little traditions people know about them started out as in-your-face rebel yells in the Punjab. Like those beards: only the Mughal were allowed to wear long hair and beards. So the Sikh all let theirs grow longer than John and Yoko’s. That name, Singh, every Sikh guy has? It means “lion”, but the real point is that it replaced all the caste names they had before, like Malcolm making his last name X.
The Mughals didn’t like it. They said so pretty clearly. Take the early career of the sixth Sikh guru, an orphan named Gobind Rai. It was the Mughals who made him an orphan, by torturing his dad to death. See, in the old Punjab, death was nothing; death was what you got if the head man was in a good mood. Most of the time they weren’t in a very good mood, so you got real slow, horrible deaths. At least somebody at the Mughal court was nice enough to send Gobind a package with his dad’s head in it.
Gobind decided right about then to end the whole peacenik tradition of Sikhism. He had a sense of style so, to set the mood, he called all the Sikhs together and came onstage with a big huge sword and said: “My sword wants blood. Who wants to supply it? I need a volunteer!” Well, he would’ve bombed as a stage magician because there was a long silence, no hands raised, till an Untouchable convert came up. Gobind took him into a tent and came out alone, bloody as an apprentice butcher. Four more volunteers and the crowd was beginning to grumble. Then Gobind revealed the trick, which you’ve all probably guessed already especially if you remember Isaac and Abraham from Sunday school: the five dudes were alive! Heroes! All in new armor! Ready to kill!
These Five Beloved were the core of the Akala, the Immortals, an elite Sikh unit that wore these ridiculous Harry Potter turbans with metal rings on them. The rings, called quoits, were supposedly sharp and you can throw them as weapons. But I’m sorry, I’d be willing to stand all day in front of some dude in a wizard’s hat throwing sharpened frisbees at me.
The Sikhs’ real weapon was the flintlock. A grumbly Muslim Afghan wrote that “these dogs [the Sikhs] invented the musket, and nobody knows these weapons better. These bad-tempered people discharge hundreds of bullets on the enemy, on the left and right and back.” Aww, poor little Afghan! Those pesky bad-tempered Sikhs, shooting at you when all you want to do is massacre them for their unbelief and steal their stuff along the way! No-friggin’-fair!
The Sikhs were more than happy to fight hand-to-hand whenever it made sense, and even got praise from the Brits for hacking British soldiers to death with their swords even after being spitted on the redcoats’ bayonets. But the Sikhs were also sensible people: why risk getting cut when you can lure the enemy into an ambush and knock him out of the saddle at long range?
The Sikhs evolved a theory of warfare called “the two-and-a-half strikes”. You got a full point for ambushes and hit-and-run attacks, but only a half point for pitched battles where you lost a lot of your own men. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Francis Marion, and George S. Patton would have agreed.
By 1810, the Sikhs had driven the Mughals out of the Punjab. They owned the place, literally: they had an independent Sikh kingdom running there and, by all accounts it was the one place in India where something sort of resembling law and order actually prevailed. The only reason the Sikhs didn’t go on to run all of India and maybe the world is simple: They ran into the British. Same reason the Zulu didn’t get to own all of southern Africa. A lot of big, strong tribes were on the movie in Queen Victoria’s time, and the same thing happened to most of them: they met the Brits, and that was all she wrote.
Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the Punjab, was smart enough to sign a treaty with the Brits, keep a strong army to back it up, and avoid the sort of little faked “border incidents” the Raj loved to use to start a war. When he died in 1839, the Punjab fell into the usual bickering, and the Brits pounced. I keep telling you, the Brits circa 1840 weren’t the cute little Monty Python guys you imagine. They were stone killers, the best since the Romans, totally ruthless, no more conscience than a drain contractor. They saw the Sikhs fighting among themselves and went for it.
Even then, even with Sikh traitors fighting for the Brits, the Sikhs had the best of the first Anglo-Sikh war. The Brits lost more than two thousand men in the first battle, Ferozeshah, in 1845, and were on the verge of offering unconditional surrender when reinforcements arrived and overwhelmed the Khalsa, the Sikh army. The second war, in 1849, was easier, because the Brits, who knew more about occupation than our lame Bremer clones ever will, used the three years in between to bribe, assassinate and divide the Sikh elite. Even so, the Sikh cavalry, fighting basically without any leaders, slaughtered the British cavalry at the battle of Chillianwalla, smacking down the redcoats’ little ceremonial swords with their big scimitars. I’ve read Brit officers’ accounts of that battle, and they say something you get in all accounts of the Sikh: how big and strong the bastards are. The Brits said they felt like children beside the Sikh horsemen, and there’s really funny picture of a white officer surrounded by Sikh soldiers, looking like a pasty little midget with his bodyguards.
And you know the best thing about the Sikhs? They don’t waste time holding grudges. The Brits won; they accepted it, worked with it, and in a few years they were the core of the Raj’s army. That came in handy during the Great Mutiny; the Sikhs stayed loyal and that was what saved the Raj. In fact, the Sikhs stayed so loyal that the battle of Saraghari, one of their greatest-ever last stands, was fought in the service of the British.
In 1897, 21 Sikh soldiers in British service were occupying two tiny forts on the Afghan frontier. The Pushtun were getting bored, the way they do every few months, and decided to stop taking British gold and attack the Raj instead. So fifteen or twenty thousand Afghans whooped down to the frontier. And twenty-one Sikhs were standing in their way at Saraghari. The Sikh garrison knew they were doomed, and if anything it kind of relaxed them. They went on to cover themselves with glory, killing hundreds of Afghans before they were overrun. The unit’s communications specialist, who used a heliograph, a kind of semaphore, sent his last message asking permission of his British officer to stop signaling and go down and die spitting Afghans on his bayonet. Permission was granted, and he carefully packed up his heliograph, charged into the fight, and died gloriously.
The only objection you could make, and it’s kind of a quibble, is that politically this is a little weird, like a bunch of Mexicans dying in defense of the Alamo. I mean, it was the Brits who wrecked the Sikh’s homeland and all. But see, that kind of nitpicking is what ruins war-nerding. If you ask me, the Sikhs who died at Saraghari were just doing what they do best. I mean, what boy doesn't dream of dying at the Alamo, or Thermopylae, or on the Bonhomme Richard? Not many of us get a chance to actually do it, and if you do, you don’t nitpick about who pays your wages, you just soak up the gloriousness of it and imagine the songs they’ll write about you and how you’ll look as a statue.
And that’s the great thing about being a Sikh, which I’m gonna be soon unless the beard turns out too scratchy: it’s still happening! The Golden Age of Sikhism is still in session! When the rest of the world is a convalescent home, you can count on the Punjab– along with the Horn of Africa and the Congo— to keep the old ways going. And you can count on the Sikh to be there, doing a Little Big Horn or Alamo every few years to keep life sweet, and give me hope that there’s something better outside of this office life I’m stuck in.
Rico says he likes the one's he's met, but wouldn't want to fight them...

'Boobies' bracelet fight

The Associated Press has an article about an unlikely Supreme Court case:
The court battle between two girls and their Pennsylvania school over I Boobies! bracelets could be settled by the Supreme Court.
The Easton Area School District board voted seven-to-one to appeal a Federal appeals court's decision that rejected its claim the bracelets are lewd and should be banned from school. The case started in 2010 when two girls, then ages twelve and thirteen, challenged the school's ban on the bracelets designed to promote breast cancer awareness among young people.
The students, Brianna Hawk and Kayla Martinez, said they merely hoped to promote awareness of the disease at their middle school. They filed suit when they were suspended for defying the ban on their school's Breast Cancer Awareness Day.
In August, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision in favor of the girls, saying also that the district didn't prove the bracelets are disruptive.
Superintendent John Reinhart told The Express-Times of Easton he supports the board's decision. "The Third Circuit Court has compromised administrators' abilities to intervene in what is and what is not appropriate in school," he said. In court sessions, Reinhart had called the bracelets "cause-based marketing energized by sexual double-entendres".
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped the girls challenge the rule, said the school had been hinting that it would petition the Supreme Court. "I'm just really surprised that they're so determined to fight this speech case of all speech cases," said Mary Catherine Roper. "The bracelets didn't cause any problems in the school."
School district solicitor John Freund said the district had the backing of the National School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania School Board Association. He said they and other organizations are "concerned about the implications of a hyper-sexualized environment", The Express-Times reported.
The lone board member to vote against the appeal said the district should just drop the matter. "I think we should be done with it. Let it go. We lost twenty, thirty times, I don't even know anymore," Pintabone said.
Easton is one of several school districts around the country to ban the bracelets, which are distributed by the nonprofit Keep A Breast Foundation of Carlsbad, California.
Rico says there are other meanings, of course... (But how can you condemn breast cancer awareness? And since when are thirteen-year-olds not hyper-sexualized?)

Fall, again, alas

Many messiahs in jerusalem

Delancey Place has an excerpt from Reza Aslan's new book, Zealot, about Jerusalem:
In 63 B.C.E., the Romans conquered and occupied the Jewish holy land, and the reaction of the Jewish people was one of escalating defiance, which culminated over 120 years later in the Jewish Revolt of 64-66 of the Common Era, in which they expelled the Romans from their lands. (This defiance is essentially the same as the defiance seen in countries occupied by another nation's armies during modern times). In this cauldron of defiance, many Jews arose claiming to be the Messiah: the one who would rebuild David's kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel. One of them was Jesus of Nazareth. (In 70 of the Common Era, the Romans returned and destroyed the Temple and the cities of the Holy Land, sending the Jews on a diaspora that did not end until the reestablishment of the state of Israel in the twentieth century):
The first century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern-day Israel & Palestine, as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land, delivering messages of God's imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. The prophet Theudas, according to the book of Acts, had four hundred disciples before Rome captured him and cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure known only as 'the Egyptian' raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. In 4 before the Common Era, the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowned himself 'King of the Jews'; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers.
Another messianic aspirant, called simply 'the Samaritan,' was crucified by Pontius Pilate, even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome, an indication that the authorities, sensing the apocalyptic fever in the air, had become extremely sensitive to any hint of sedition. There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba, all of whom declared messianic ambitions and all of whom were executed by Rome for doing so. Add to this list the Essene sect, some of whose members lived in seclusion atop the dry plateau of Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea; the first-century Jewish revolutionary party known as the Zealots, who helped launch a bloody war against Rome; and the fearsome bandit-assassins whom the Romans dubbed the Sicarii (the Daggermen), and the picture that emerges of first-century Palestine is of an era awash in messianic energy...
Within a few years after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, an entire crop of landless peasants found themselves stripped of their property with no way to feed themselves or their families. Many of these peasants immigrated to the cities to find work. But, in Galilee, a handful of displaced farmers and landowners exchanged their plows for swords and began fighting back against those they deemed responsible for their woes. From their hiding places in the caves and grottoes of the Galilean countryside, these peasant warriors launched a wave of attacks against the Jewish aristocracy and the agents of the Roman Republic. They roamed through the provinces, gathering to themselves those in distress, those who were dispossessed and mired in debt. Like Jewish Robin Hoods, they robbed the rich and, on occasion, gave to the poor. To the faithful, these peasant gangs were nothing less than the physical embodiment of the anger and suffering of the poor. They were heroes: symbols of righteous zeal against Roman aggression, dispensers of divine justice to the traitorous Jews. The Romans had a different word for them. They called them lestai: bandits.
'Bandit' was the generic term for any rebel or insurrectionist who employed armed violence against Rome or its Jewish collaborators. To the Romans, the word 'bandit' was synonymous with 'thief' or 'rabble-rouser.' But these were no common criminals; the bandits represented the first stirrings of what would become a nationalist resistance movement against the Roman occupation. This may have been a peasant revolt; the bandit gangs hailed from impoverished villages like Emmaus, Beth-horon, and Bethlehem. But it was something else, too. The bandits claimed to be agents of God's retribution. They cloaked their leaders in the emblems of biblical kings and heroes and presented their actions as a prelude for the restoration of God's kingdom on earth. The bandits tapped into the widespread apocalyptic expectation that had gripped the Jews of Palestine in the wake of the Roman invasion. One of the most fearsome of all the bandits, the charismatic bandit chief Hezekiah, openly declared himself to be the Messiah, the promised one who would restore the Jews to glory.
Messiah means 'anointed one'.The title alludes to the practice of pouring or smearing oil on someone charged with divine office: a king, like Saul, or David, or Solomon; a priest, like Aaron and his sons, who were consecrated to do God's work; a prophet, like Isaiah or Elisha, who bore a special relationship with God, an intimacy that comes with being designated God's representative on earth. The principal task of the Messiah, who was popularly believed to be the descendant of King David, was to rebuild David's kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel. Thus, to call oneself the Messiah at the time of the Roman occupation was tantamount to declaring war on Rome. Indeed, the day would come when these angry bands of peasant gangs would form the backbone of an apocalyptic army of zealous revolutionaries that would force the Romans to flee Jerusalem in humiliation."

Rico says religion is a great cover; it allows you to do almost anything in the name of God... (But Rico still fails to understand why a Roman torture device, the crucifix, is the universal symbol for that dead Jewish guy, Jesus. I mean, how many people wear them around their neck without thinking about what it really stands for?) 

Apple for the day

Harry McCracken has a Time article about the latest iPad:
When you think about it, there aren’t many categories of gadget which benefit as much from being slim and lightweight as tablets do. After all, nobody wants to kick back and spend some quality time with a boat anchor. So, the trimmer the tablet, the more inviting the prospect of cradling it in your hands for extended periods as you watch video, read ebooks, peruse the Web, and do all the other things which tablets excel at.
Which makes it all the more weird that Apple— a company which just loves to make new things thinner and lighter than old things— hasn’t had much of a track record of doing that with the iPad.
To date, its skinniest full-sized tablet was 2011′s iPad 2, which was .34 of an inch thick and weighed 1.33 pounds. But the “new iPad” which it unveiled in March of 2012 was .37 inch thick and weighed 1.44 pounds, making it the rare Apple device which was actually a skosh portlier than its predecessor. And the slight update to that model which followed in September of that year stuck to those specs.
But Apple finally has a new big-boy iPad that’s strikingly more portable than the one before it. The screen is still the familiar 9.7-incher, but now it’s part of a device that’s .29 of an inch thick (twenty percent thinner than before), and weighs only one pound (nearly thirty percent lighter). Adding to the generally diminutive feeling, the tablet is also about eleven percent narrower than before. You only have to hold it for a millisecond or two to understand why the company decided to call it the iPad Air.
With the Air, Apple is following its typical pricing strategy: instead of listening to people who think it should sell cheaper products, it’s offering better ones at the same prices as before. Like every previous full-sized iPad, the new one starts at $499 for a model (clad in a “space gray” or silver-colored aluminum case) with 16GB of storage and Wi-Fi; it maxes out at $929 fully loaded with 128GB of space and LTE wireless networking. But Apple’s media event also included news for folks on tighter tablet-buying budgets — most notably the announcement of the iPad Mini with Retina Display, which will arrive on an unspecified day “later in November”. That one’s essentially the same device as the Air, with the same specs and same industrial design, except that the digits in its screen dimensions are flipped: the display is 7.9 inches instead of 9.7 inches. Its starting price is $399.
Apple is keeping two earlier models on the market, too. Last fall’s iPad Mini, with a low-resolution screen but the same basic industrial design as the Air and Retina Mini— which also bears a strong familial resemblance to the iPhone 5s— is now $299, down from $329. And the venerable iPad 2 remains in the lineup at $399, although I think that nearly anyone with $399 to spend on an iPad will be happier with the faster, higher-resolution, more-capable-all-around Retina iPad Mini.
Meanwhile, at least some of the people who would have opted for the portability of the iPad Mini in the past should be swayed by the Air, which Apple says is the lightest full-sized tablet in the world. Depending on your definition of “full-sized”, it may lose that title on 7 November 2013, when Amazon releases its 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX; at just 13.2 ounces, the HDX almost feels as if it’s hollow, like a chocolate Easter bunny.
Still, whether it’s a record-holder or not, the iPad Air is such a featherweight that it changes the experience of using Apple’s tablet. (I tried a unit provided by Apple with built-in Verizon 4G LTE, adding .05 of a pound to the package; no, I didn’t notice it.)
To steal the phrase that Jeff Bezos used to describe Amazon’s original Kindle e-reader, you want a tablet to disappear in your hands. And there’s so much less of the Air that it comes closer to doing that than any previous full-sized iPad, letting you focus on the app you’re using rather than the device you’re holding. You can even support it in one hand, at least for a bit, without giving yourself a sore wrist. It’s just plain more approachable.
The Air sports the same screen as the old model, so it’s obvious what Apple shrunk to squeeze it into the narrower case: the borders. As with both variants of the iPad Mini, the bezels along the left- and right-hand sides of the display (when held in portrait orientation) are now slender rails. At first, that made me nervous— I worried that my palms would intrude on the screen real estate, covering vital information and possibly even triggering features which I didn’t intend to trigger. In reality, that wasn’t an issue, in part because iOS is designed to reject such accidental input.
The bezel reduction also has a major side benefit. Depending on the size of your hands, it can be much easier to reach all the keys on the on-screen keyboard as you clutch the Air in portrait mode. I typed quickly and accurately with both thumbs, a little as if it were the world’s largest BlackBerry.
From an industrial-design standpoint, the iPad Air is a dramatic improvement on any full-sized iPad before it, but an awful lot hasn’t changed about this device. The screen resolution is still 2048-by-1536 at 264 pixels per inch; Apple dubs that a Retina display, since your eyeballs shouldn’t be able to distinguish individual pixels when you hold the tablet at a typical distance.
When the iPad got those specs twenty months ago, they were so much better than the norm that they made you do a double-take. Since then, they’ve set a standard which everybody else in the industry has rushed to meet or exceed. Amazon’s 8.9″ Kindle Fire HDX, for instance, crams 2560-by-1600 pixels into a smaller display, giving it 339 pixels per inch. But the iPad didn’t need more resolution: unless you’re in the habit of viewing your tablet through a magnifying glass, I doubt you’ll be dissatisfied with the screen.
The battery life is the same as before, too: “up to” ten hours when browsing the web on Wi-Fi, listening to music and/or watching videos, a claim my informal tests seemed to back up. The iPad’s real-world endurance is one of the best things about it, and it must have been a challenge for Apple’s engineers to preserve it, while simultaneously downsizing the dimensions and weight.
Apple also gave the new iPad the same five-megapixel camera on its backside as the old iPad had, which is okay by tablet standards, but no match for the improved eight-megapixel model on the iPhone 5s, and a 1.2-megapixel camera on the front for FaceTime and other video-calling apps. Alas, the Air doesn’t have the Touch ID fingerprint sensor that’s the iPhone 5s’ niftiest new feature; here’s hoping it shows up on the iPad Air 2 in 2014.
One big hardware change is standard yearly operating procedure for Apple: it upgraded the iPad Air to the latest model of its own custom-designed mobile processor, and says that it delivers up to double the performance of the previous model. The new chip, the A7, first showed up last month in the iPhone 5s and is based on 64-bit technology rather than the 32-bit architecture that’s otherwise normal for mobile gizmos. Apps which involve particularly serious crunching of numbers— like 3D games and video editors— should benefit, especially as their creators rewrite them to take advantage of 64-bit processing. So will ones which measure your movements, such as fitness apps— as on the iPhone 5s, the Air’s A7 is partnered with a specialized chip called the M7 which can log data from the tablet’s sensors without killing the battery.
Nobody needs to pitch a tent in front of the local Apple Store to be the first on the block with a 64-bit iPad: the real point of Apple’s speed improvements for iOS devices is about allowing developers to write ever-more ambitious apps in the future, not correcting an existing deficiency. As usual, it didn’t occur to me that my old iPad might be the least bit poky until I tried the new iPad. I did, however, notice that the Air was snappier in some instances, including when it chugged its way thorough the animated effects in iOS 7′s interface.
Another new twist that’s arriving with Apple’s new iPads is a change in app pricing, or lack thereof. Buy any new iPad— or iPhone or iPod Touch— and you’re entitled to free copies of Apple’s iPhoto image editor, iMovie video editor, GarageBand music maker, Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet, and Keynote presentation tool. They’re all good, and the company has retooled all of them for iOS 7′s streamlined interface. Rather than finding them pre-installed, you download them gratis from the App Store; it’s nice not to have to ponder whether they’re worth the few dollars apiece which Apple has been charging until now.
The company is also providing people who buy new Macs with new OS X versions of all these apps at no additional charge. The not-so-subliminal message: it thinks you should buy lots of its devices, run lots of its apps, and use everything together as a system.
In the end, though, it’s not Apple’s six newly-free apps that make the iPad Air special, or even the ones which are preinstalled, like the Safari browser and Siri. It isn’t even the new hardware, impressive though it is. No, the iPad Air’s best feature is the 475,000 third-party offerings tailored for it in the App Store, still by far the most bountiful collection of tablet software in quantity, quality and sheer diversity, from entertainment to web tools to education to mundane business stuff. No competing model has anything like it, which is the single biggest reason why no other full-sized model has made much of an impact on the market.
Design-wise, this iPad is so much svelter that it almost feels like a new class of Apple tablet, but it remains an iPad and, for now at least, that continues to be the most important bragging right that any tablet can claim.
Rico says he already has an iPad, and is saving up for the newest Mac Pro, but you could (and should) certainly buy one...

International scam for the day

From: anna-kari.garnell-isaksson@ptj.se
Date: October 29, 2013 at 22:35:28 EDT
To: national.co.uk@ptj.se 
Contact Larry William via email, result.ukunit@gmail.com
UK Result Promo department, read the subject and follow the instruction of your claims.
Regards,
Anna Kari Garnell Isaksson

War Tales for the day


Don Moore has a website that publishes stories of servicemen and women; this is one of them. (This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida, on 28 October 2013, and is republished with permission):
Jack Sanzalone of Port Charlotte, Florida spent almost three decades under the sea in atomic attack submarines, keeping an eye on America’s enemies as the boat combed the deep searching for adversaries.
The gold chevron on his left shoulder topped with a white crow, a white star in the center and three gold bars below indicated he was a rare breed. When he retired, at the age of 49 in 2011 from the Navy, he was a Command Master Chief. There are slightly more than seven hundred of that rank in the Navy, out of more than 350,000 who serve. He was one of the Navy’s senior enlisted men.
When Sanzalone graduated from high school in 1980, he began working as a diesel mechanic. “One day, while doing a chassis rebuild on a garbage truck, I had an epiphany,” he said. “It was the heat of the summer in New Jersey and I was lying underneath the garbage truck. Maggots were coming out of the back of the truck. I decided it was time to pursue another way of life."
“I went down to the Navy recruiter on Monday and shipped out to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside Chicago on Friday. When I signed up I told the recruiter that I wanted to 'get a little structure in my life’.”
At the conclusion of boot camp Sanzalone was selected to receive The Navy League Award, honoring the sharpest recruit in his training cycle. “I remember meeting with a female admiral, and she put a book in front of me with the various positions opened to a Navy recruit. Because of my test scores, she told me I could pick any job in the book. Because I liked numbers, I selected navigation. I became a quartermaster. I went to Quartermaster’s School and graduated tops in the class,” he said. “Shortly after graduating from school I went aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Coonts (DD-240).
“The next thing I knew I had to get the charts aboard the Coonts ready for the invasion of Granada: Operation Urgent Fury.”
Sanzalone and the Coonts spent the next five or six months blockading the coast of Granada against Communist insurgents who were trying to infiltrate the country and take control.
Thus began his storied Naval career. “I made Chief in seven years. It usually takes twelve to fifteen years. I made Senior Chief after sixteen or seventeen years in the Navy. I made Master Chief in nineteen years,” he explained. He was 38. “On a submarine I was ‘Chief of the Boat’. It was a very intense leadership role. There is a triad of leadership aboard a sub: Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, and Chief of the Boat.
“I was the conduit between the crew and the officers. My job was to mentor junior officers and work with the enlisted men,” Sanzalone explained. “Eighty-seven percent of a submarine’s crew is comprised of enlisted men. Without them a mission couldn’t be completed.”
Most of his Naval career was spent at sea aboard atomic submarines. Most of these subs were attack submarines. “An attack sub is smaller than a ballistic missile submarine. An attack sub is charged with doing surveillance. A Trident missile sub is primarily used for deterrence. It carries up to 24 nuclear missiles, each with multiple warheads,” he said.
All of Sanzalone’s adventures aboard these subs are classified. What he can say is that, while serving aboard the destroyer Coonts, he got in a discussion with his skipper about his Naval career. “My captain asked me: ‘What do you want to do with your Naval career?’ I told him I wanted to be part of the submarine fleet. He said I was a natural born submariner. A short time later I received a telegram from the Navy. It said: ‘Congratulations, you’ve been selected for the Submarine Service.’ My captain had gotten me into the Submarine Service. After sub school in New London, Connecticut, I went aboard the attack submarine USS Gato (SSN-615).
“I was a second-class petty officer and a navigator when I went aboard. It was my job to plan the mission and work out the details for the the captain. The most difficult part of the job was preparing for deployment,” he said.
It wasn’t too long after making Master Chief, Sanzalone went aboard the attack sub USS Panche (SSD-683). “I was sitting in my office and a voice said, ‘Would you be interested in serving aboard the Panche?’ “I didn’t hesitate, because I loved sea duty. Before I knew it, I had a set of orders sending me to the Panche as Chief of the Boat. She was one of the top submarines in the fleet.”
What was his mission aboard the Panche? “I can’t talk about it. Let's just say it was undersea research and development. What I can tell you: of all the submarines I served on, the crew of the Panche was the the most talented group of men I ever served with. Commodore Chas Richards was the commander of the boat when I was aboard. He later became an admiral, and was the guy in charge of the Trident missile sub base in Kings Bay, Georgia. He was the commander of Submarine Group 10.
“I went from there to Submarine Development Squadron 5. It was a broad leadership role that controlled a number of Navy operations around the country.
“After that I became the Chief of Boat aboard the newly-commissioned attack submarine USS Jimmy Carter. I got to work with a spectacular crew skippered by Captain Dave Honabach. During the commissioning we got the opportunity to have dinner with former President Carter and Mrs. Hyman Rickover. At one point Jimmy had worked as a young naval lieutenant for Admiral Rickover.
“My last duty station was unique. I became a member of the Special Submarine Support Detachment out of Washington, DC. We were headhunters who interviewed people for special naval operations. We went all over the country interviewing potential candidates. We’d interview fifteen people and maybe select one person.
Sanzalone finished by noting: “The most difficult job in the Navy is being the wife of a sailor. I remember, all too often, standing topside on a submarines looking down at an open hatch as we were getting ready to go out on an operation for six or seven months.
“I’m watching my family standing on the pier with tears in their eyes. My wife was about to become the mechanic, cook, cleaner, you name it, she did it. My hat’s off to her. I would have to climb down that hatch and say: ‘Let’s go to work for America!’
When he and his wife, Dawn, retired from the Navy, they were living in Washington near Bremerton. “Being a California girl, she said she wanted to go some place where it was warm. We found beautiful Charlotte County,” he said. “After six months of retirement I realized I had to find something to do or my wife was going to kill me."
Sanzalone ended up working as a member of the Charlotte County Neighborhood Accountability Board. “It’s a program for first offenders under eighteen who have committed minor crimes. Our job is to work with these youths from ninety days to a year and get them back on track. Needless to say, I talk up a career in the Navy for some of them. They couldn’t have written a better position for a guy like me. I get the opportunity to mentor and help these youths. There are about eighteen of these programs in counties throughout the state. The Navy was a great job, but this is where I work now. It’s a spectacular job helping the youth of Charlotte County.”
The Sanzalones have three children: Angeline, 23; Stephanie, 20; and Antonio, 15.
“It sounds to me like Tony may become a submariner. He’s in Navy ROTC in school right now, and doing well,” his old man said. 
Command Master Chief Jack Sanzalone’s duty stations during his thirty-year career in the Navy:
RECRUIT TRAINING COMMAND GREAT LAKE
USS COONTZ (DDG-40)
USS CONYNIGHAM (DDG-17)
USS H.J. ELLISON (DD-864)
USS GATO (SSN-615)
USS GEORGE C. MARSHALL (SSBN 654)
NAVAL SUBMARINE SCHOOL INSTRUCTOR
USS HONOLULU (SSN-718)
SUBMARINE SQUADRON 17
USS GEORGIA (SSBN-729)
SENIOR ENLISTED ACADEMY CLASS 81
USS PITTSBURG (SSN-720)
SUBMARINE SQUADRON 2
USS PARCHE (SSN-683)
SUBMARINE DEVELOPMENT SQUADRON 5
USS JIMMY CARTER (SSN-23)
SPECIAL PROJECTS PERSONNEL SUPPORT DETACHMENT 
Sanzalone’s file:
Born 2 March 1962 in Kearny, New Jersey
Currently lives in Port Charlotte, Florida
Entered the service in February of 1982 and was discharged in October of 2011
Highest rank: Command Master Chief
Served in nuclear submarines
Commendations: Specialist Breast Insignia, Enlisted Submarine Warfare Breast Insignia, Silver Deep Submergence Insignia, Meritorious Service Medal (2), Navy Commendation Medal (6), Navy Achievement Medal (3), Good Conduct Award, Meritorious Unit Commendation (7), Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation, Sea Service Ribbon (4), Navy “E” Ribbon (5), National Defense Service Medal (2), Navy Expeditionary Medal, Coast Guard Special Ops Service Ribbon, Kosovo Campaign Medal (24 March 99 to 10 Jun 99), NATO Medal “Operation Allied Force" (24 March 99 to 20 July 99), Armed Forces Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal
Rico says we need to recognize people who do the hard things to keep us safe...

29 October 2013

Arrghh

Rico's friend Kelley forwards this, by Jenny Depper at Yahoo.com, about how to fend off pirates:
Can Britney Spears ward off a group of swashbuckling pirates? According to the British Royal Navy, the answer is aye aye, Captain.
The Toxic singer's catchy early hits like Oops! I Did It Again and Baby One More Time have been used by naval officers to ward off Somali pirates off the east coast of Africa.
"Her songs were chosen by the security team because they thought the pirates would hate them most," Merchant Navy Second Officer Rachel Owens, who works on supertankers, told Metro UK.
Heavily armed Somali pirates regularly target cargo ships in the area and collected more than $40 million in goods in 2012 but, according to a report presented to the United Nations Security Council, pirate attacks are at their lowest since 2006. In the first nine months since 2013, only seventeen vessels have been attacked, compared to a hundred attacks in the same time period in the previous year.
"These guys can't stand western culture or music, making Britney's hits perfect. As soon as the pirates get a blast of Britney, they move on as quickly as they can," Owens continued.
Well, there you have it, folks. The former Mouseketeer's pipes are more threatening than an approaching naval destroyer and might be the catalyst for a dramatic drop in attacks. We bet her old mouse pal Christina Aguilera can relate, since her song Dirrty is regularly used as a method of disorientation in military interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rico says using their music surely falls under the 'cruel and unusual punishment' clause of the Constitution...

The Gold standard

June Thomas has a Slate article about Halloween:
How many lesbians will don Orange Is the New Black-themed Halloween costumes this year? My guess is 69,000— a number that will apparently include comedian Judy Gold and her fiancee. In an appearance on an episode of FXX’s Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, Gold shared her views on acceptable Halloween costumes, raising kids in New York City, and Republican politicians’ changing views on marriage equality:

Ah, but next time...

Justin Peters, Slate’s crime correspondent., has an article about a guy who's just plain lucky (and stupid):
Last week I wrote about Nelson Bernard Clifford, a Baltimore man who had been acquitted on three separate sexual assault charges since 2011, and was about to stand trial on a fourth. Each time, the state had DNA evidence linking Clifford to the crime scene, and victims who claimed that Clifford had attacked them in their homes; each time, Clifford took the stand and claimed that the sexual contact was consensual. Clifford appeared confident and poised on the witness stand. His accusers did not, and that apparently made all the difference. In my piece, I noted that the same tactics that helped Clifford beat the rap on the earlier cases could well work to his advantage in this latest trial.
I was right. The Baltimore Sun reports that Clifford was acquitted yet again. As with the other cases, Clifford claimed that the so-called assault had been consensual, and the jury apparently believed him— much to the chagrin and exasperation of the city, which must be wondering exactly what it needs to do to get a conviction. “When evidence is there, Juries need to convict,” the Baltimore police union wrote on Twitter. They’ll have an opportunity to try again: the state’s attorney has refiled charges against Clifford for two alleged sexual assaults from 2007.
Rico says they will get this guy, eventually...

History for the day


On 29 October 1929, stock prices collapsed on the New York Stock Exchange amid panic selling. Thousands of investors were wiped out.

Rico says that, on a brighter note, October of 1929 was the inaugural flight of the Dornier Do-X:

Pervert for the day

The Associated Press has an article about an idiot getting what he deserved:
A former Scranton, Pennsylvania school-board member has been sentenced to over fourteen years in Federal prison for sending thousands of explicit text messages to boys. Senior US District Judge A. Richard Caputo told former Scranton school board member Mark Kandel his conduct was "reflective of a depraved situation".
The Scranton Times-Tribune reported that even Kandel's sixteen-year-old daughter asked the judge to imprison her father yesterday, saying he preyed on her friends and made her an object of ridicule.
Federal prosecutors say Kandel sent more than thirteen thousand messages to seventeen boys, and that most texts were sexual in nature.
Rico says the guy obviously had way too much time on his hands...

Kicked out

Kate Pickert has a Time article about Obamacare:
President Obama has broken his promise that Americans who like their health insurance plans can keep them under the Affordable Care Act. Citing the new law, insurers have recently mailed policy cancellation notices to hundreds of thousands of people across the country, providing more ammunition to critics who say the law is bad for consumers. And that number may grow. NBC News reported recently that half or more of those who buy coverage independently may be forced to switch plans in 2014.
But the truth is that only a small percentage of Americans will have their health insurance choices narrowed because of the ACA. Approximately fifteen million Americans who currently buy health insurance on the open market will see substantial changes to their choices of plans for 2014. Such changes are common on the individual market, but the new health care law will lead to an increase. The rest of the insured population will see very few changes as a result of Obamacare. Here’s why: about thirty percent of the population currently has health coverage through Medicare or Medicaid, public insurance programs in which benefits will continue mostly unchanged. Another fifty percent of Americans get coverage through employers and already have no choice whether they can keep the exact same insurance plan and price structure year-to-year. That decision is made by employers, who offer employees a pre-determined menu of plans and prices.
Obama’s promise of coverage continuity has been broken for those who currently buy private plans on the open market, but many may be better off. The individual health insurance plans being cancelled this fall are generally being discontinued because they do not meet new ACA standards for insurance. The law requires that plans cover a package of what the federal government defines as “essential health benefits”; these include basic categories of care, including hospitalization, emergency care, maternity services, mental health services, and prescription drugs. The law also limits out-of-pocket spending and bans insurers from setting various annual and lifetime limits on coverage. (To balance the increased cost of covering these services, some insurers have narrowed the provider networks for plans being offered under the ACA.)
These new standards will lead to more comprehensive coverage for many people. Previously, many plans sold on the open market offered coverage so skimpy that it did not protect consumers from financial ruin. More than sixty percent of all personal bankruptcies in the US in 2007 were due to medical bills. Of those who declared bankruptcy due to medical costs, about three-quarters had health insurance.
As the law’s proponents are fond of noting, in many cases, more expensive coverage will actually cost the same or less than less comprehensive plans offered in the past. Those purchasing coverage on their own through the law’s insurance exchanges will be eligible for new federal subsidies if their earn up to four hundred percent of the Federal poverty level, about $46,000 for an individual and $95,000 for a family of four.
Yet, many of those receiving insurance cancellation notices do not know if they are eligible for federal subsidies to buy new plans. The federal web site managing insurance enrollment in 36 states continues to be slow or non-functioning. White House officials say the site, healthcare.gov, will be fully operational by the end of November. Until then, the site’s lack of usability will continue to be a practical problem for consumers and a political problem for the White House.
Recently, CBS News broadcast a report about a 56-year-old Florida woman named Dianne Barrette, whose BlueCross BlueShield policy is being cancelled due to the ACA. According to the report, Barrette pays $54 per month for her current policy, and was offered a replacement plan costing $591 per month. Reached by phone, Barrette said her current plan, called GoBlue, covers doctor visits, but does not pay for many basic services, like hospitalization, that are mandatory under new ACA standards. “I do have to find something with more coverage than what I have now as I’m getting older,” she told Time. “I just grabbed this because it was something I found useful for the time being.” Barrette said she earns less than $46,000 a year, meaning she would likely be eligible for new Obamacare subsidies to cut the cost of enrolling in a new comprehensive insurance plan. But, said Barrette, “I tried to go on the website and of course I can’t get on. I don’t know where to go from here. It’s kind of frustrating.”
Rico says he's, fortunately, already in the Medicare system...

Unbombable? Hardly

Karl Vick, Jerusalem bureau chief for Time since 2010, has an article about Iran's nuclear program:
In the foreground of the nuclear talks between Iran and Western powers that got under way in Geneva this month were centrifuges, yellowcake, and enriched uranium— all elements of what Iran calls a peaceful nuclear-energy program and what the West worries is a route to a nuclear weapon. But Iran has also charted a second route, one that could produce fuel for a possible bomb not from highly enriched uranium but out of plutonium, a product of the heavy-water reactor nearing completion in the hills outside the city of Arak, three hundred kilometers southwest of Tehran.
Because it is not yet up and running, the Arak heavy-water reactor has remained in the background of the nuclear controversy. But it looms larger every day. The reason: once Arak goes online, the option of destroying Iran’s nuclear program with air strikes becomes moot. The reactor is essentially invulnerable to military attack, because bombing one risks a catastrophic release of radioactivity. In the words of Israel’s last chief of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, who piloted one of the F-16As that cratered Iraq’s Osirak heavy-water reactor in 1981 before it was due to become operational: “Whoever considers attacking an active reactor is willing to invite another Chernobyl, and no one wants to do that.”
That reality is the reason why some experts are drawing attention to a peculiar notice filed by Iran’s nuclear agency to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in May of 2013. Iran told the agency that, as it readies the Arak plant for operation, it intends to do a practice run: instead of inserting real fuel rods filled with uranium into the reactor’s core, where nuclear fission occurs, they would insert inert “dummy” fuel rods. And instead of pumping heavy water into the reactor to moderate the nuclear reaction and absorb the thermal energy being released, Iran said it plans to use “light water”, ordinary H2O.
The plan mystifies experts, who take particular issue with testing the system using light water. The facility would be contaminated by ordinary H2O, which if mixed with heavy water would render the latter unusable, because, in order to work, heavy water must be 99.75% pure.
“Anything above that is hard to achieve and testing the system with light water would leave a residual atmosphere of H2O that would degrade the heavy water when it is added,” writes one US specialist of heavy-water reactors, who has worked with the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington, DC–based think tank, and who shared his assessment on condition he not be identified further. In other words, rather than save time, using ordinary water would delay the project for the weeks required to clean the system thoroughly enough to assure no trace of H2O remained; it wouldn’t take much to dilute the heavy water below 99.75%.
Iran’s stated intentions are unlikely enough that an Israeli nuclear specialist suggests that they might be a ruse. Ephraim Asculai, a scientist retired from the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, warns that Iran may have no intention of carrying out a dry run at all. It may be a cover story, he posits, for a plan to rush the installation of live fuel rods and heavy water instead— essentially getting the Arak facility “hot” before the outside world expects, at which point it becomes invulnerable to military attack. There might then be no way to stop Iran’s nuclear program short of invasion. “At that point, they are in the ‘zone of immunity’ as it’s called,” says Asculai, who has also worked at ISIS; he is currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University.
Although Iran already has enough enriched uranium to fuel more than one bomb — should it make the decision to convert the enriched uranium to military use — that’s not all the world must worry about. “The Arak reactor is increasingly relevant and, yes, it’s been a sideshow,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation chief now at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, or IISS, where Asculai laid out the “ruse” possibility during a September talk. “The angle of Iran pulling a fast one isn’t something that can be dismissed,” says Fitzpatrick. “I think it’s unlikely,” he adds — because so rash an act would run counter to Iran’s patient behavior to date and it would take “a couple of years” to generate enough plutonium for a bomb. “But it’s something that should be factored into whatever is tabled in Geneva.”
(MORE: As Iran and the West Make Progress in Geneva, Israel Grumbles From the Sidelines)
U.S. officials say Arak is indeed on their radar. “We have very serious concerns about them having a plutonium capability, another pathway for fissile material for nuclear weapons,” a senior American official told reporters before the first round of talks since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; a second round is set for early November. “It is a subject,” the senior official said, “of enormous concern.”
That concern is shared by other Western nuclear experts who worry that Iran might try to sneak the plant online. Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director who is now at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, says Iran might rush to declare the Arak plant operational before a watching world thinks it has produced enough fuel rods necessary to power the plant, which outside experts estimate at 100 to 150. Manufacture of the rods has apparently lagged, but Heinonen says Iran might install a far smaller number of fuel rods, perhaps as few as the 10 currently known to be in hand, and with that announce that Arak had become operational, and therefore too dangerous to bomb.
“It might be an exaggeration, but they could try to assert that the reactor is now loaded,” says ISIS president David Albright. Albright says that, technically, an Iranian claim that the reactor was “operating” with just 10 or 20 fuel rods would amount to a bluff, because more fuel would have to be in place to make the plant invulnerable to bombing. “Even if the fuel is partly loaded, the reactor could still be destroyed, and the radiological consequences of that would be very slight, if any,” he says. All that, of course, assumes that outsiders had a high level of confidence in how many rods are installed.
Iran claims the Arak plant is intended to produce isotopes for a variety of medical uses. But the reactor is far larger than required for that purpose, and, if fully operational, would generate enough plutonium to fuel two nuclear weapons annually. Extracting the plutonium would require another step, including the addition of a reprocessing facility Iran has not yet built, “but it wouldn’t be beyond them to get it on the black market, or more likely, from North Korea,” Fitzpatrick says.
Albright suggests another possibility, one altogether more heartening for the West: that the Iranians’ plan to test the plant with light water is sincere. “It’s not very smart,” he says, “which maybe implies something about Iranian capabilities and worries about the reactor.” The plant is years behind schedule, and the timetable slipped again after Iran’s May statement to the IAEA. The plan then was for a dry run in the final three months of 2013 and for the reactor to come online early in 2014. The timeline has been pushed back, but no one knows how far. IAEA inspectors complain that Iran has held back design information and limited their access to parts of the site.
“Before the delay was known, I estimated they could produce a plutonium device sometime toward the end of 2016, if everything went well for them,” says Asculai. “So there is still time. And meanwhile,” he says, “the enriched uranium route is really there.”
Rico says he's gotta get Armageddon done...
 

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