31 December 2014

Lightning at its best

Rico's friend Kelley forwards this splendid photo of lightning, with the Ghostbusters reference:
What sci-fi effects studio could come anywhere close to this pure Wrath of God stuff: 

Where the disappeared are

The BBC has an article by Linda Pressly about the dead of Medellin:
Once the murder capital of the world, the Colombian city of Medellin, has been transformed into an attractive and vibrant city. But, on the outskirts, there is a dump (photo) where people say the truth lies buried: the bodies of dozens of people who were "disappeared" in the years of bloody civil conflict.
Margarita Selene Restrepo stares out over the corrugated roofs of Comuna 13, one of Medellin's poorest and most violent districts. From here, a few steps from her home, she can see a huge, deforested, earthen scar on the hillside opposite. In Spanish it is known as la escombrera: the dump. And Margarita can just make out areas recently fenced off with flimsy green plastic. "Every day when I look across there it causes me such a lot of sadness. If she's there, she's so close. Yet at the same time, she's so far away."
Margarita is talking about her daughter, Carol Vanesa Restrepo. She was seventeen when she disappeared in October of 2002, and her mother believes her remains are buried in a disused part of the tip. She hopes that one day soon they will be exhumed. And she is vigilant; every day she checks to make sure no more waste is deposited anywhere near the green cordons.
For many years, Comuna 13 was under the sway of left-wing guerrilla groups. The state had little influence here, but Operation Orion, launched just before Carol Vanesa disappeared, would change that.
"The state decided it had to take back control of Comuna 13," says Jenny Pearce, professor of Latin American politics at the University of Bradford. "But the way they did it seems to have been in alliance with paramilitary groups. And the paramilitaries subsequently went in and 'disappeared' at least 200-300 people from the area. So the bodies at la escombrera are the victims of what can only be called a state crime."
Locals remember the operation and its aftermath as a period of "absolute terror".
"There were more than 1,000 men from the state's forces, two helicopters and more than 800 paramilitaries," says Jeihhco, the founder of a cultural centre in Comuna 13. "They came in indiscriminately on the pretext of getting rid of the guerrillas."
When the army withdrew after four days, the paramilitaries became the new lords and masters of Comuna 13. Carol Vanesa Restrepo and two of her friends have not been seen since.
Families of the disappeared - women like Margarita - have been calling for la escombrera to be excavated for more than a decade. Now the city's government has begun technical assessments of part of the site identified by a former paramilitary commander, known by his alias, Movil 8.
"He grew up in Comuna 13, so he knew the area well and was able to identify places he thought bodies had been dumped by using landmarks like trees and electricity pylons," says Jorge Mejia Martinez of the Medellin mayor's office, who is overseeing plans to excavate the site.
Lorries carry construction waste to parts of the dump
Excavating the site is complicated and parts of the dump are still used for construction waste
Construction waste is still deposited in parts of the dump
There is uncertainty about the number of people buried beneath the tons of earth and rubble collected from building sites and dumped here. It is believed some were discarded here before the killings in 2002, and that the paramilitaries were not the only perpetrators.
Continue reading the main story
Find out more
Listen to Linda Pressly's report on Assignment on BBC World Service on Thursday 1 January or catch up later on iPlayer
"The story began much earlier with the left-wing guerrillas," says Martinez.
"Other criminal groups have been active too, and bodies may have been brought from other parts of the city, and even from the wider region."
Some even believe the disposal of human remains is still continuing.
Medellin became the most murderous city on the planet in the days of Pablo Escobar - the man who industrialised the processing and export of cocaine in the 1970s.
But Escobar's Medellin Cartel didn't disappear when he died in a police shootout in 1993. It mutated. Its associates - and their successors - became paramilitaries who fought guerrillas and continued trafficking drugs. They also reinforced existing criminal organisations. And they formed new ones.
Graffiti criticising the paramilitary operations in Medellin  
Graffiti criticising the military and paramilitary operations in Comuna 13 is common
Though Medellin's homicide rate is at one of its lowest points for three decades, the number of forced disappearances has increased, says Fernando Quijano, director of Corpades, an institute that monitors violence in the city.
To a visitor, though, Medellin now feels very safe. The transport system includes a state-of-the-art metro system, and cable cars. There are tech hubs, museums, dozens of new schools, and also library parks. Comuna 13 is home to the Parque Biblioteca San Javier - a vast, airy multi-level, multi-purpose building. It is a place for study, cultural events, and education - a meeting point for the community.
The transformation of the city has been called the "Medellin Miracle", and there is much pride at what has been achieved. At the heart of the urban philosophy is the aim of including the excluded, a desire to bring governance to districts like Comuna 13, and connect people to the city.
Cable car station in Medellin
Cable cars now connect hilly areas of Medellin that used to be hard to get to
Medellin's covered escalators
Covered escalators also make the hilltops of Comuna 13 easier to reach
One of the escalators that make areas on Medellin's hilltops easier to reach
"People come to Medellin to see those buildings that we defined and created," says Sergio Fajardo, who was mayor of the city when it underwent much of this transformation, and is now governor of the larger Antioquia region.
"Those buildings gave our people hope that things could happen, that elegant things could happen, and that the most beautiful places could be where they lived. That's a message of dignity, and it's powerful."
San Javier Library in Medellin
The Parque Biblioteca San Javier is one of the new developments
Yet, despite these improvements, la escombrera with its secrets still concealed, looms over Medellin. And, as Fajardo says, there are "many escrombreras" throughout Colombia.
Over nearly six decades, almost a quarter of a million people have been killed in the country's civil conflict - the majority of them civilians. In Medellin, numerous people have a story of violence and loss.
At the city's Parque de la Vida ("park of life") building, part of the University of Antioquia, a group of women have gathered weekly for the last seven years. They meet and they sew. The women make dolls. And each of the figures represents a loved-one killed or disappeared.
Maria Lucely Durango has stitched her son, a 17-year-old murdered in 2011 when he crossed the invisible line in his neighbourhood that marked rival gang territory. She has dressed Juan Felipe Henao Durango in a graduation gown - the representation of a son who would never fulfil his promise.
Joining the sewing circle has been valuable therapy for the women, and helped them accept their bereavements. Often their stories are a demonstration of how cruelly indiscriminate the violence of Colombia's civil conflict has been: one mother lost a son to left-wing guerrillas, and a son and a daughter to the paramilitaries - the armed groups acting in opposition to those guerrillas. But most of the women who attend the group lost their loved-ones in paramilitary operations.
Continue reading the main story
Maria Lucely Durango
Maria Lucely Durango with a doll of her son Juan Felipe Henao Durango
Continue reading the main story
So will the families of the disappeared of la escombrera see their loved-ones disinterred? Three areas for excavation have so far been identified by Movil 8.
"In areas one and two, we're recommending that the excavation goes ahead," says the engineer who has been assessing the site, Gabriel Jaime Cardon Londono.
"In area three, we don't think it would be safe because it would mean digging down a lot deeper - about 25m. Any kind of movement of the earth here would be much more dangerous."
There are not only physical challenges. The cost could be prohibitive - $4m or $5m according to an estimate made in 2010.
"We hope it will be possible to reduce that figure," says Jorge Mejia Martinez. "But whatever the cost, the decision of the mayor's office is to unearth the truth that is hidden here."
A cross by a stone in memory of the disappeared
The stone reads: To the victims of forced disappearance of Comuna 13 of Medellin at the hands of the Bloque Cacique Nutibara [paramilitaries]. So we don't forget them.
For Jenny Pearce la escombrera is illustrative of how Colombia has experienced violence over many decades.
"It's emblematic of impunity, of the lack of a rule of law that says to people you can't murder someone, throw them on to a rubbish tip and get away with it. La escombrera shows the layers and layers of violence from all armed groups going back decades. There are people who want to show the city's overcome its worst decades - of course, Medellin wants to move on. But until the past is addressed, and there's security that people can trust, that's difficult."
Margarita Selene Restrepo lives at one of the highest points of Comuna 13. It is a very steep climb. But it has been made easier in part by another Medellin innovation - an escalator that has replaced 350 of the steps that rise almost vertically. Now, that part of the journey to Margarita's home takes just four minutes, compared to the hour it might have taken before. She is not impressed. For Margarita, investment in the city's infrastructure highlights the lack of commitment to victims like her.
"If the government cared about us, they would have done something about la escombrera," she says.
If the exhumation goes ahead, there is at least a chance Margarita will find out what happened to her daughter that day in October 2002.
Rico says WHAT

Space for the day

The BBC has an article about Opportunity, the Mars rover:
Mars rover Opportunity, which has been exploring the Red Planet for more than ten years, is suffering from memory problems, NASA has said. The six-wheeled vehicle (not to be confused with Curiosity, which launched in 2011) keeps resetting unexpectedly.
The Opportunity team thinks an age-related fault affecting the flash memory used by the robot is to blame. It believes it has found a way to hack the rover's software to disregard the faulty part.
Speaking to Discovery News, NASA project manager John Callas outlined how his team intended to solve the issue. He explained how the rover, like a typical computer, has two key types of memory: volatile and non-volatile. Non-volatile memory "remembers" its information even if it is powered down, making it ideal for long-term storage, similar to how a hard drive works on a PC
Volatile memory, comparable to a PC's random access memory (RAM), is quicker to access, but requires power, so, when the machine turns off, any data stored within the volatile memory is lost. The rover can still operate with the memory fault, but NASA is keen to fix the problem
The problem with Opportunity is that its non-volatile memory is suffering from a fault, probably related to the hardware's age. It means that when the rover tries to save telemetry data to the flash memory, it fails, and so it then writes it to the volatile memory instead. When the rover powers down, the information is then wiped.
"So now we're having these events we call 'amnesia,'" explained Callas in Discovery News. "Which is the rover trying to use the flash memory, but it wasn't able to, so instead it uses the RAM. It stores telemetry data in that volatile memory, but when the rover goes to sleep and wakes up again, all the data is gone. So that's why we call it amnesia; it forgets what it has done."
The problems are becoming more severe, NASA says, with the memory issue causing the rover to reset itself, and, in some cases, stop communicating with Mission Control altogether. In an attempt to solve the problem, the NASA team is attempting to "hack" the rover's software so that it ignores the faulty part of its flash memory, and instead writes, permanently, to the healthy hardware.
The process will take a couple of weeks, Callas told Discovery News. However, he added that Opportunity is ageing and could be heading towards the end of its useful life.
"It's like you have an aging parent, that is otherwise in good health, maybe they go for a little jog every day, play tennis each day, but, you never know, they could have a massive stroke right in the middle of the nigh," he said. "So we're always cautious that something could happen."
Even if the rover fails now, it will have comfortably exceeded its initial goal of spending three months on the Red Planet. Ten years after it first landed, Opportunity has covered 26 miles of the Mars surface, and sent back vital intelligence about the planet's biological make-up.
Rico says, finally, a good use for hackers...

History for the day

On 31 December 1946, President Harry S. Truman officially proclaimed the end of hostilities of World War Two.

Idiot for the day

The New York Times has an article by Bill Morlin and Kirk Johnson with the headline: Woman at Walmart Accidentally Shot Dead:
The 29-year-old mother was shopping with her two-year-old boy and young relatives in Hayden, Idaho, when the boy found a gun in her purse and it discharged once, officials said.
Rico says that the gene pool is better off without her, but we'll have to watch her son later... (And it's another case of Attention, Walmart shoppers...)

Civil War for the day

Steve Warren, of the Union League of Philadelphia, puts out a daily email, usually with a photo, and today's is a Dance revolver:

The photo is of a J.H. Dance and Brothers Army revolver, made in Columbia, Texas from 1863 to 1865. Dance made two models of the revolver, an Army style in .44 caliber (above) and a .36 caliber Navy model. Both were pretty much copies of period Colt pistols.
Civil War firearms manufactured by J. H. Dance and Company are among the most highly prized antique weapons, valued for their fine craftsmanship as well as their rarity. From July of 1862 through May of 1865, the company produced six-shot Colt-pattern revolvers in both .44 and .36 caliber; total output was fewer than four hundred. The Dance family, originally residents of North Carolina, moved to Daniels Prairie in Greene County, Alabama, around 1835. In 1848, James Henry Dance traveled to Brazoria County in Texas and, in 1853, he moved to Texas with most of his family, including father, brothers, cousins, and slaves.
The family jointly purchased 450 acres of land in the Cedar Brake section, where they established a plantation. In 1858 they built a spacious home in the thriving river-port town of East Columbia, on the Brazos River. Across the street from their residence they opened a manufactory for metal and woodwork, named J. H. Dance and Company and operated by James Henry Dance and his brothers David Etheldred and George Perry. J. H. Dance and Company prospered even before the Civil War, manufacturing gristmills and cotton gins.
At the outbreak of the war, James Dance enlisted in the Brazoria Volunteers; he later became first lieutenant in the Thirty-fifth Texas Cavalry. His brothers George, David, and Isaac also enlisted but, because of their abilities and skills, they were detailed to their steam factory at Columbia by early May of 1862. Isaac died of measles in 1863. Initially the Dances' primary tasks were mounting cannons and repairing wagons for the Confederate army and grinding cornmeal for the Bates Company.
In April of 1862, George Dance wrote Governor F. R. Lubbock, requesting an advance of $5,000. He claimed that this sum would enable the Dances to begin firearm production with an output of fifty revolvers a week. Evidently they received some aid, for, on 5 July 1862, a letter written by George's cousin, Mattie Duff, states that "the boys think they will soon get some three or four of their pistols finished." While production may have been at a somewhat slower pace than originally anticipated, by 2 October 1862, the Dances were able to ship a dozen revolvers to the San Antonio Arsenal.
By November of 1863, the Dances had decided to sell their business to the Confederate government. Cousin Mattie wrote that "the boys think it quite possible they will quit the shop soon", and added that George had left for Houston "to see if he could make a government affair of it." Further, "he thinks perhaps it will be done". Revolver production had come to an end in East Columbia by 10 December 1863, and Mattie wrote that she had been "in town all week helping the boys to leave".
The federal occupation of Matagorda Island, located just off the Texas coast near Brazoria County, prompted the belief that the county was about to be invaded. The Confederate government doubtless wanted to consolidate the Dances' skills farther inland and out of harm's way. The Dances relocated to a site three miles north of Anderson in Grimes County, and here the Confederate government built a powder mill and pistol factory.
On 7 February 1864, Mattie Duff received word from Uncle Harrison that "they were not quite ready for making pistols but soon will." One of the last known shipments of Dance revolvers took place on 18 April 1865; a lot of twenty-five six-shot pistols was sent from Anderson to the Depot of Supplies in Houston. At the end of the war, the Dances closed the Anderson facility and returned to East Columbia to restore their factory, while adding the manufacture of furniture. The 1900 hurricane ruined the factory. It was never rebuilt.
Today, Texas Historical Marker #8603 marks the site of the J. H. Dance and Company's facility. If anyone happens to own one of their less than five hundred manufactured pistols they not only have a valuable, sought after, and desirable firearm but an historic piece of Texas history. It is estimated that they manufactured about 350 of the .44 caliber revolvers and about 135 of the .36 caliber. The factory also produced cannon balls, bayonets, sabers, swords, and gun powder.
Rico says it'd be way too expensive, but he'd like one...

Slavery, ancient and modern

Rico's friend Kema (she of the on-line Slavery Museum) forwards this article by Anne Farrow from The Philadelphia Inquirer:
We may never know what happened between black teenager Michael Brown and white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, but if we knew our history with slavery, we would know all that we need to about what happened during their ninety-second fatal encounter and its devastating aftermath.
I am 63 years old, a white woman, and in the odd, and probably fortunate, position of having written a newly published book on America's memory of slavery, just at the moment when black anger over continuing racial injustice has captured national attention. Nine years ago, when I spoke about a book I cowrote on connections to slavery in the antebellum North, anguished audiences asked: Why don't we know about this?
Now, the questions are about Ferguson, and the gulf between the way white and black Americans view and experience our justice system. The questions are about rage. There is a continuum between the questions a decade ago and the ones I hear now.
Slavery in America was not a footnote, not "the sad chapter" of our history, but the cornerstone of our making. Three generations of eminent historians have documented the astonishing scope, duration, economic importance, and savagery of bondage in America, but this key piece of our past still is not prominent in the narrative of our nation.
In studying a set of eighteenth-century ships' logs linking Connecticut and the slave trade, I saw that when we made stolen black labor our national bedrock, and created a system where inferiority was identifiable by color, we doomed ourselves to the present day and a nation where justice and parity for black people have not been achieved.
The Connecticut seamen and commanders in these ships' logs did not regard their suffering African cargo as human. When they shoved them onto the English Caribbean islands, where the captives suffered and died in an agricultural system infamous for its cruelty, notions of kidnap and murder did not cross their minds.
These black men, women, and children were not seen as innocent people; they were a business opportunity, part of a supply-and-demand chain that separated more than twelve million Africans from their homes and changed a hemisphere.
Several hundred thousand in that involuntary migration came to the American colonies, and their palpable humanity didn't really pose a problem for most settlers here, either. The most pressing exigency of this brave new world was labor, and these valuable workers were the key to America's early success. Their stolen, uncompensated labor gave us our running start.
The best and most educated people owned slaves, promulgated its benefits, and enjoyed the wealth slavery created; the keeper of my Connecticut logbooks was not an obscure mariner, but a Saltonstall and the scion of an aristocratic family.
This comfort level with the omnipresence of human bondage became a cascading series of accepted and pathological untruths: Black people were designed for slavery; they did not mind being enslaved; they were not really human; and they didn't recognize degradation and injustice.
Scholar Arna Alexander Bontemps documented the way captives in the South became invisible. Their labor was essential to their captors, but because they were not regarded as human beings, their emotions, their lives, and their grief as exiles were not part of the record. They appeared as purchases, or as laborers. These one-name possessions appear in many Northern records as well.
By the time of the Civil War, four million black people were held in slavery in the United States. The suffering of those millions, the majority of whom were born here, has never been adequately addressed and explored by Americans.
The emancipation that ended legal slavery did not end racial prejudice, and those Americans who believe that it did need only look at the most recent statistics on African-American poverty, access to education, housing, and health care. African-Americans are poorer than they were nine years ago.
Americans still do not have a shared and meaningful body of knowledge about a labor system that held those millions in bondage. The hard question of how a post-Enlightenment nation, founded on principles of personal liberty, became the largest holder of slaves in the Western world is still waiting to be answered.
If, as a country, we truly understood the extraordinary human catastrophe we created when we became economically dependent on the oppression of black people, if we took this in all its terrible dimensions into our hearts and then our history, we would not be scratching our heads over Ferguson. We would understand exactly why the legacy of enslavement is raging through our cities and begin to do something about it.
Rico says that Marcus Garvey was right...

30 December 2014

Quote for the day

From Hannibal's Footsteps, by Bernard Levin, about an earlier Pope, also named John Paul XXIII:

The most scandalous charges were suppressed, and the
Vicar of Christ stood accused merely of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest.

Rico says it sounds like the Church today...

Movie review for the day (ITW)

Rico says he and the ladyfriend saw Into The Woods, starring Emily BluntTracey UllmanJohnny Depp (disappointing in this role), Mackenzie MauzyChristine BaranskiFrances de la Tour as the Giant, and the ever-amazing Meryl Streep (photo):
Into the Woods is a modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, in a musical format that follows the classic tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, all tied together by an original story involving a baker and his wife, their wish to begin a family, and their interaction with the witch (played by Meryl Streep) who has put a curse on them.

History for the day

On 30 December 1972, the United States halted its heavy bombing of North Vietnam.

Misheard carol for the day

Rico says, before all the carols (finally) go away for another year, he wanted to get in one last version of the 'slaying' song (that would be the NRA version of the Twelve Days of Christmas):
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me...
...twelve drummers drumming:

...eleven pipers piping:

...ten lords a-leaping:

...nine ladies dancing:

...eight maids a-milking:

...seven swans a-swimming:

...six geese a-laying:

...five golden rings:

...four calling birds:

...three French hens:

...two turtle doves:

...and a cartridge in a bare tree:

Rico says that only the wildlife are legitimate targets, though the leaping lords might have an open season... (But, given the plethora of 'cartridge in a bare tree' images out there, Rico says it seems that someone else had the same curmudgeonly thought...)

Gahan Wilson, as Rico suspected

Rico says, even searching the Condé Nast collection, where the Gahan Wilson cartoons category contains nearly five hundred items, he still can't locate the cartoon, but it seems someone else remembers, too, from a comment in The New York Times:
Lionel Libson
This column reminded me of a very funny cartoon, by Gahan Wilson, I believe. It showed a men's room with a huge guy in lederhosen, holding soap and a towel. On the wall, this sign: Hans must wash employees before leaving.

Rico says you can buy the documentary about Wilson, called Born Dead, Still Weird, here.

EXACTO round maneuvers to hit target

Gun Digest has an article about some amazing (and deadly) new technology:
For rifle shooters of every stripe, the video above is simply amazing. A bullet is fired at an initial aim point then, mid-flight, changes course to hit the desired target.
No, it’s not an illusion. Instead, it’s a successful test of a project by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), according to an article in the Daily Mail.
The maneuverable projectiles, known as Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO for short) are the first of their kind, according to DARPA. But, the Department of Defense agency has offered scant details about how .50 caliber EXACTO rounds execute their mid-air adjustments. The Daily Mail, however, offers up one possibility:
DARPA has not released precise details of how its bullet moves in mid-air, but this is one way in which the technology could work:
A sniper working at extreme range shines a laser onto the target. An optical sensor on the bullet detects the light from the laser to identify where the target is. Once fired, actuators inside the four-inch-long bullet receive data from the optical sensor to guide it to the correct location. Small fins are used to change the bullet’s trajectory, and the bullet can correct its movements thirty times a second. These changes are in response to movements of the laser, which the sniper uses to continually track and light up the target.
While it might be a first for small arms, the EXACTO round is not the first maneuverable projectile cooked up. Presently, the American, Swedish, and Canadian militaries all use M982 Excalibur, a navigable artillery shell.
The application of the new EXACTO round, if it ever finds its way to the battlefield, is fairly obvious, according to DARPA: ‘For military snipers, acquiring moving targets in unfavorable conditions, such as the high winds and dusty terrain commonly found in Afghanistan, is extremely challenging with current technology. It is critical that snipers be able to engage targets faster, and with better accuracy, since any shot that doesn’t hit a target also risks the safety of troops by indicating their presence and potentially exposing their location.’
Given the long shots made by American, Canadian, and British snipers in the recent conflict in Afghanistan using conventional gear, the EXACTO could potentially be a potent leg up.
Rico says things just got more dangerous for the bad guys... (And is there a copyright lawsuit by the X-ACTO company in the offing?)

Fingerprint 'cloned from photos'

The BBC has an article by Zoe Kleinman about the latest surprising hack:
A member of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) hacker network claims to have cloned a thumbprint of a German politician by using commercial software and images taken at a news conference.
Jan Krissler (photo) says he replicated the fingerprint of Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen using pictures taken with a "standard photo camera". He had no physical print from von der Leyen. Fingerprint biometrics are already considered insecure, experts say.
Krissler, also known as Starbug, was speaking at a convention for members of the CCC, a thirty-year-old network that claims to be "Europe's largest association" of hackers.
He told the audience he had obtained a close-up of a photo of von der Leyen's thumb and had also used other pictures taken at different angles during a press event that the minister had spoken at in October of 2014.
Krissler has suggested that "politicians will presumably wear gloves when talking in public" after hearing about his research.
Fingerprint identification is used as a security measure on both Apple and Samsung devices, and was used to identify voters at polling stations in Brazil's presidential election this year, but it is not considered to be particularly secure, experts say.
"Biometrics that rely on static information like face recognition or fingerprints; it's not trivial to forge them, but most people have accepted that they are not a great form of security because they can be faked," says cybersecurity expert Professor Alan Woodward from Surrey University in the UK.
"People are starting to look for things where the biometric is alive - vein recognition in fingers, gait [body motion] analysis - they are also biometrics but they are chosen because the person has to be in possession of them and exhibiting them in real life."
In September of 2014, Barclays Bank introduced finger vein recognition for business customers; the technique is also used at cash machines in Japan and Poland. Electronics firm Hitachi manufactures a device that reads the unique pattern of veins inside a finger. It only works if the finger is attached to a living person. Trials in the intensive care unit at the UK's Southampton General Hospital in 2013 indicated that vein patterns are not affected by changes to blood pressure.
Rico says just what we did not need... (And can't these hackers put their considerable skills to work on something we do?)

29 December 2014

A highway far, far away

Rico won't be going there anytime soon, either, but the BBC has an article about the Pamir Highway:
The Pamir Highway, known more formally as the M41, runs more than twelve hundred kilometers from the southern Kyrgyzstan town of Osh, through the Pamir Mountains, known as the Roof of the World and along the border of Afghanistan until it ends in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Originally a northern segment of the Silk Road trading route, the Pamir Highway has been in use for almost two thousand years. In fact, Marco Polo journeyed along this route on his way to China in the thirteenth century. But few other travellers have followed suit since.
Rico says it's another place he won't get to in this lifetime...

Bigger than the redwoods, maybe

The BBC has an article by Jane Palmer about very tall trees:
Stephen Sillett's laboratory is dangling ninety meters above the ground. It is an intricate web of ropes and instruments strung up in the branches of a tree. And in the windy conditions that plague Tasmania's forests, it can be distinctly precarious. "You can hear big gusts come through like freight trains pounding along their way toward you," says Sillett, a forest ecologist at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. "As the gust hits, then the whole tree top just lays over and there's big old blows. It's amazing."
The trees in question are mountain ash, the tallest flowering trees in the world. They are not quite the tallest trees of any kind: that record belongs to the coast redwoods of the western US. But that might be because things have been skewed against the mountain ash.
It turns out that humans have been cutting them down in their prime, and they may have reached even more prodigious heights in the past. If conditions improve, might they one day beat out the redwoods?
Just how tall do Tasmania's mountain ash trees grow? As part of his research, Sillett and his colleagues re-measured the largest tree on the island state, in December of 2013. This towering titan boasts a height of over ninety-eight meters, three meters taller than the tower that houses Big Ben in London, England.
Mountain ash also grow in south-east Australia and Victoria, but Tasmania is where they have reached their peak. The island boasts over a hundred and forty trees taller than eighty-five meters. These goliaths have been given names such as Centurion, Damocles, El Grande, and Medusa. (But, oddly enough, not Goliath.)
Plant a eucalyptus and it can grow ninety meters in ninety years
The tall trunk is typically white or grey except when it is wet. "In the morning dew or rain it becomes this luminous green," says George Koch of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. "The outer bark gets wet and saturated, letting the green inner bark kind of shine through. It is truly beautiful."
The tops of the trees are where the action is. White flowers like pom-poms dot the upper part of the crown, which can stretch seventy-five meters deep. The trees also play host to dozens of species of plants and animals, such as wedge-tailed eagles and Leadbeater's possums. The wood decays so easily that hollows often form in their trunks and branches, and pools of water collect. These high-rise ponds provide homes to reptiles, insects and frogs, and water for mammals and birds. "There are so many things going on in the canopy," Sillett says.
On the face of it, the mountain ash should be able to beat the redwoods, which top out at just over a hundred meters. They grow five times faster than the redwoods, "sprinting" toward the skies. "They're the fastest-growing tree by far," says Sillett.
But they don't live anywhere near as long as the redwoods. Traditionally, a mountain ash's lifespan has been thought to be between 350 and 450 years. A recent study suggested it could be more than 500 years. Even so, they are youngsters compared to the redwoods, which reach nearly three thousand years old. "They just live fast and die young," says Koch.
Historical records do indicate that mountain ash have reached greater heights than today's giants in the past. In 1881, surveyor George Cornthwaite measured a felled tree in Victoria at 114.3 meters. That is about 1m shorter than the world's tallest living tree, a coast redwood measuring 115.5m. If you believe the old record books, and measurement systems, several other trees have reached such extreme heights.
The trees have a simple reason for growing tall, says Koch. They are competing for light, which they use to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar to sustain themselves. But it is water deprivation that limits their reach for the skies.
Pulling water up through the tree's trunk is a fight against gravity. So, in the tallest trees, it is difficult for the upper reaches to get enough water. In a sense, the treetop is like a small plant living in a dry place, Koch says. To get the most energy from sunlight, a tree needs to grow big leaves. But water stress limits the growth of leaves. The growth of leaves is driven by water pressure in their cells. But as the trees get taller, the relative water shortage decreases this pressure, so the leaves grow more slowly.
What's more, the tallest trees can suffer from "xylem cavitation", in which gas bubbles form in the cells carrying water up the trunk. These tiny gas embolisms can prevent water from moving up the tiny conduit cells, much like a pulmonary embolism can stop blood flow to the lungs in humans. To avoid this, the tree regulates how much water is lost through its leaves by closing down the tiny pores all over their surfaces. But these pores are also the pathways for carbon dioxide to come in, so by closing them the trees limit how much sugar they can make.
All these factors mean that trees start growing more slowly once they get tall, Koch says. Eventually, there is just no point growing taller: the extra energy the tree might harvest from sunlight is less than the energy needed to bring up more water. At this point, the tree stops growing upward.
They may not have reached this glass ceiling yet, though. Koch has studied the top leaves on some of the tallest trees and found that they aren't as water-deprived as they would be if the trees were at their limit. That suggests that the trees could grow taller.
Apart from these internal limits, mountain ash also sometimes get killed before they can reach their full height. "If you don't live as long, you can't get as big," Sillett says. Two things regularly cut their lives short: fire and fungus. When flames hit a mountain ash, the heat boils the living tissue of the trunk. "They just kind of get steam cooked, they don't actually burn," said Koch. But this overheating is fatal. Whereas redwoods can regenerate by sprouting, mountain ash cannot.
Fortunately, the same heat dries up woody capsules high up in the crown, causing them to crack open and release seeds. These seeds fall onto the forest floor and start feasting on the nutrients in the ash bed. The regeneration can be staggeringly swift. Koch visited Kinglake National Park on the Australian mainland shortly after a devastating fire in 2009. "Literally a couple of weeks later, the floor was carpeted with tiny mountain ash seedlings," he says. "In another three hundred years, maybe that forest will be back where it was." Fungus is also a big problem. Redwoods defend themselves by producing toxic chemicals in their hardwood. But the mountain ash don't bother, in keeping with their "live fast, die young" strategy. So over time, as storms injure the trees, fungi get into their trunks and cause decay.
For the last few hundred years, the trees have faced the biggest threat of all: humans. In the early 1800s, the first European settlers started felling swathes of the forests to feed sawmills, and later to make wood-chip to be exported. So the biggest impediment to the trees growing taller was being cut down in their prime. Today, only a small percentage of the mountain ash trees alive in pre-European Tasmania are still standing. "In the distant past, they may have even been taller than the redwoods," Sillett says. "We'll never know."
Mountain ash trees have been particularly tempting to loggers because they produce so much wood. They gain most of their height in the first ninety years of their lives. After that, rather like humans, they stop growing upwards and start growing sideways. They keep adding biomass right until their deaths. Sillett estimates that the tallest mountain ash, if it were cut down and dried in an oven, would clock in at 215 tons.
Such giant trees were the best bounty. A forestry report from the 1850s by licensed surveyor G. W. Robinson stated that the tallest trees were always felled first.
All that has now changed. In June of 2013, the World Heritage Committee extended the boundary of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Site by over 170,000 hectares, after successful negotiations between loggers, environmentalists and politicians. Many mountain ash now enjoy the highest level of protection in the world, allowing them to live out their lives in full.
The outlook for the trees is promising, says John Hickey, who has been a forest manager for Forestry Tasmania for over 35 years. "We have got some very interesting wildfire-created stands that were created around about 1800 in the World Heritage area," he says. "I think over the next century, or two, they'll be producing some outstanding trees."
Now the trees are protected, they should be able to reach the heady heights of pre-settlement days. So might a mountain ash beat out the coast redwoods for the title of tallest tree in the world? There is now a wild card in the deck: climate change. A warmer world could help them, or hinder them.
Regardless of what climate change does, Koch says it is likely that today's mountain ash trees are not at their upper limit. "I would guess that if we could kind of just freeze the climate that we have right now, they could probably be growing nose-to-nose with redwoods," says Koch. We may simply have to wait a few hundred years to find out.

Rico says that, having seen really big redwoods in California (both coastal, like those in the photo above, and in Yosemite), he doesn't need to go to Tasmania to see the competition...

New anger about Sandusky

Football’s back, but the Valley isn’t happy. Penn Staters still seethe over Paterno’s treatment:
Elizabeth Morgan wasn't looking forward to the task in front of her. The veterinarian with close-cropped reddish-brown hair had always been more comfortable playing with the animals on her central Pennsylvania farm. But there she stood, one day last month, before a couple of hundred people, cameras and a microphone in her face, determined to tell Pennsylvania State University's trustees exactly what she thought of them and their handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
Morgan knocked the trustees for accepting the NCAA-imposed sanctions, for swallowing the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh that blamed Penn State leaders for a cover-up, for paying out nearly sixty million dollars to Sandusky victims, yet sparing the charity where he groomed his targets.
Then for the wind-up: "Three years ago, you fired an employee of sixty years of service for a failure of leadership," she said of coach Joe Paterno. "I suggest that most of you should have been fired long ago." The audience erupted in applause.
This was Morgan's fourth address to the trustees since Sandusky's 2011 arrest launched a firestorm that raged from the trustees' boardroom to downtown businesses to the student body and the football field, and that still won't subside.
Even after more than three years, thousands of alumni and supporters like Morgan are unwilling to accept the Sandusky narrative that casts their school and its once-beloved coach in a pejorative light. She belongs to Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a grassroots organization that grew out of the scandal and that has mounted a noisy, all-out effort to exonerate Penn State and Paterno.
With nearly a hundred thousand students, seventy percent of them Pennsylvanians, two dozen campuses from Erie to Abington, and a five billion dollar budget, Penn State is one of the state's largest educational institutions, and its sixth-largest employer. About three-quarters of its current students weren't enrolled when the scandal broke. Two new football coaches and presidents have since been installed. Nearly every victim lawsuit has been settled. Applications are up, and donations are strong.
And on Saturday night, Penn State returned to bowl action.
Yet forty thousand people have added their names to the effort to somehow wrest control of the university and rewrite history, including prominent professionals nationwide: lawyers, educators, a top government aide. They've captured most of the trustee board's nine alumni seats, packed its meetings, and put the leadership on the defensive.
In what has shaped up as a battle for the soul of the university, they are pitted against a majority of trustees who staunchly defend their decision to have the university accept responsibility for allowing a predator to roam its campus for so long and institute reforms so that can never happen again.
As critics, including the state treasurer and Senate majority leader, continue their courtroom attacks against the Freeh report and the NCAA (hearings are scheduled for early 2015) Penn State president Eric Barron last month did the once-unthinkable: He agreed to review the Freeh report, cracking the door for those who have been pushing for the board to repudiate the findings, including that Paterno, former president Graham B. Spanier, and two former administrators conspired to cover up the sex abuse by the assistant football coach. "The tide has turned," said Ted Brown, one of nine alumni-elected trustees on the 32-member board.
Nowhere is the fallout more evident than in State College, as a few days on campus last month showed. Paterno, Spanier, and Sandusky may be long gone, but their shadows extend over Happy Valley.
Recently, hundreds packed a ballroom at the Penn Stater. The occasion was the ceremony for the Michael P. Murphy Distinguished Citizen Award, bestowed by the Navy League of the United States' Central Pennsylvania Council.
Murphy, a Penn State alum, was a Navy SEAL killed in 2005 by Taliban forces in Afghanistan, a battle later chronicled in the movie Lone Survivor. For his actions, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration.
The crowd that filled the ballroom came to fete a 74-year-old woman also praised for "true courage" in the face of adversity as well as for her lifelong contributions to the community. As she sat, a video tribute played— her wedding photos, family pictures, images of school and football games— and a Creedence Clearwater Revival song coursed through speakers:
Oh Suzie Q, Oh Suzie Q, Oh Suzie Q, Baby, I love you, Suzie Q.
In the audience that night was Roger Roll, 72, a retired Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant and Penn State grad who had traveled more than two hundred miles from his home in Luray, Virginia. In a quiet moment before the ceremony, Roll had approached Paterno's widow and told her a story: when his unit was stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, awaiting deployment to Kuwait City, Roll, like the other Marines, had received a ceremonial coffee mug.
He sent his to Coach Paterno: he wanted the coach to know that Penn State grads were on the front line, doing their part. Weeks later, Roll received in the mail an autographed photo of Paterno, standing with one foot up on the stadium bleachers. As he recounted the story to Paterno's widow, he grasped her hand. "I just want to say how much I love Joe Paterno," Roll said.
The three cutout numerals, each seven feet high and four feet wide, stood against the bookstore wall, covered in signatures.
During a stroll down College Avenue, Ralphine Gentzler had popped into the store. She leaned close to the Number 4, looking for her name. Then she found it. "Love ya, Joe!" she had scrawled. Since the numerals, 409, appeared in October of 2014 in the Student Book Store as part of a promotion for a movie in support of Paterno, more than twelve thousand others had added their names and messages.
The number represents the number of football victories Paterno would have if the NCAA hadn't vacated 111 of his wins dating to 1998, when the alleged cover-up of the Sandusky abuse started. Since the sanctions, 409 has become shorthand for the injustice some say Paterno and Penn State have endured, a sentiment that resonates along College Avenue.
A few blocks away, the front window of a diner boasts a sign that reads Honor Joe. In the other direction, the 409 Pizza & WINgS restaurant opened over the summer.
Gentzler, a 75-year-old retired educator who splits her time between homes in State College and Cincinnati, Ohio, had stumbled upon the long lines for the 409 signature boards in October and happily signed.
She's a Shippensburg University grad, but her husband, Gary, as well as their daughter, son, and grandson attended Penn State. She and her husband have gone to football games for years. "It was thrilling to walk up and sign it," she said.
About an hour before the board meeting was to start, Morgan quickly downed lunch at a restaurant in the Penn Stater. "If it wasn't for how important this is, I wouldn't be here," she said. "And I have to say, a lot of it is for my family and my father."
Her grandfather watched games when they were played on the lawn of Old Main. Her grandmother inscribed her initials in the clock tower of Old Main. Her father, brothers, and aunt are alums. Morgan, a 49-year-old Clearfield County native, has been attending Nittany Lions games since the third grade. As a Penn State student, she was a little sister to a fraternity, rode on the equestrian team, and graduated with a biology degree in 1987.
Penn State was the family's anchor, a geographical reference point for their existence, the place she grew up on. After Sandusky's indictment and Paterno's firing, when Penn State was pounded in headline after headline, Morgan felt helpless. "You didn't quite know what to do and you desperately wanted to do something," she recalled.
She hadn't spent much time on Facebook but was online one night after the scandal broke and saw concerned groups pop up: "I just hit every single one, join, join, join."
An architectural engineer from Chicago, Illinois started We Intend to Vote Out the Penn State Board of Trustees. That grew into Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, which issued its first statement on 6 January 2012, blasting the board and calling for due process for Paterno, Spanier, former athletic director Timothy Curley, and former administrator Gary Schultz.
President Eric Barron has okay'd a review of the Freeh report. Early on, the group fumbled a bit, trying to figure out how to be effective, Morgan said. Its first major event was an informational picket outside a trustees meeting. "I was running around, going to the Dollar Store to buy paper and pens and to Lowe's to buy wooden stakes. We sat there that night making signs in the hotel," she said. The next day, they stood in ten degree weather, encouraging supporters to honk.
Just about every trustees' meeting is now filled with critics who verbally pummel the board at every chance. Student government leaders have even become targets, heckled at board meetings by critics, and sent nasty emails for supporting the board leadership's positions.
Not all are members of the Penn Staters' group, though it is perhaps the best-organized and farthest-reaching. Its members include Christian Marrone, chief of staff to the secretary of Homeland Security and a 1997 alumnus who played football; Spencer Niles, dean of education at the College of William and Mary; Ryan Bagwell, a 2002 alum and former journalist who has fought for access to public records around the scandal, raising more than fifty thousand dollars for the fight; Ray Blehar, a Federal government analyst who parses scandal developments; and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris, who has been touring the state, holding panels titled Upon Further Review, criticizing the board, the NCAA, and Freeh.
Morgan has helped maintain the Penn Staters' Facebook page, met with politicians, and served on a committee that endorsed alumni-elected candidates for the trustees board. "This wasn't my thing," said Morgan, who likes to ride and show horses. "My thing was to get down on the floor and play with dogs or go to the barn and talk to a cow."
As tens of thousands gathered at chilly Saturday tailgates outside Beaver Stadium, Edward and Susan Beck Wilson readied their menu. The Temple Owls were in town, so their popular tailgate, once featured on the Food Network, had to match. There were Pluck the Owls Seasoned Pretzel Bites and Owl Gone Baked Hash Brown Casserole.
Sharing space on the table was a staple that now appears at every game: a plea for donations to build Joe's Bench.
Nearly three years have passed since the university removed the large bronze statue of Paterno with his finger in the air in victory from its perch outside the stadium. At every game, fans leave mementos at the grassy spot where it used to stand. Before the Temple game, someone had placed a photo of Governor Corbett, captioned: "One does not simply fire Joe Paterno." Nearby was a sign reading: "Joe Paterno, Penn State's Spirit in the Sky."
And supporters like the Wilsons, alumni who split their time between homes in State College, Pennsylvania and Hudson, Ohio, and drive a minivan with the license plate SuePSU1, are helping raise money for a new bronze statue, this one with Paterno sitting on a bench clutching a book. Already the effort has garnered a third of the projected three-hundred-thousand-dollar cost. at the tailgating scene in State College.
"We want our kids to be able to sit down and talk to Joe," said Susan Beck Wilson, 64, a retired education director for a national craft retailer.
Penn State beat Temple, 30-13: for the first time in years, the Lions were heading to a bowl game. Penn State football may be back to normal. The contest for the control of and direction of the university goes on.
Rico says these people are totally obsessed with the wrong stuff; choosing football (even the 'sacred' memory of Joe Paterno) over the kids molested by Sandusky is stupid...

History for the day

On 29 December 1940, Germany began dropping incendiary bombs on London, England during World War Two.

28 December 2014

Quote for the day

From Theodore Roosevelt's book on his trip up the Amazon:

"A cool man with a rifle, if he has mastered his weapon,
need fear no foe."

Booms, small

Rico's friend Kelley, also a military hardware junkie, forwards this:
Found this in an internet article about what things look like inside. Seems that a grenade, these days, is not filled with gunpowder:

Space for the day

Time has an article by Maya Rhodan about more cool video:

Astronaut Alexander Gerst’s stunning images from space have been joined together to form a practically seamless timelapse video (above).The over twelve thousand images Gerst captured while traveling aboard the International Space Station were turned into this stunning video that offers a birds-eye view of massive storms, auroras, and the world a-glow after dark. Gerst was aboard the ISS from May to November of 2014.

Rico says space is always fascinating...


Time has an article by Justin Worland: Why You Should Change Your Amazon Password Now
Hackers said that they leaked data associated with thirteen thousand accounts on Amazon, XBox Live, and other sites. The hackers, who claim an affiliation with the group Anonymous, reportedly uploaded a now-removed document with credit card numbers, passwords and other data to the site GhostBin.
There’s little information about how the hackers actually obtained the personal data. The small scale of the hack, thirteen thousand accounts compared with millions in other recent data breaches, suggests that it may have targeted Internet users directly rather than through the companies where they had accounts. Additionally, Amazon and Microsoft, the maker of XBox Live, both denied that at a hack occurred on their end in a statement to The Wrap.
Regardless, even if the thirteen thousand figure pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of people who use these sites, the news should underscore how important it is to change your passwords frequently.
Rico says he hopes they can find these Anonymous schmucks and cut off their hands...

Bond (maybe) for the day

Time has an article by Lynette Rice about a possible new James Bond:
Idris Elba (photo), you aren’t helping your cause!
In a self-deprecating attempt to quash speculation that he’ll someday play James Bond, the star tweeted what he believes is an unflattering photo of himself (above) sporting a knit hat and a scruffy beard.
“Isn’t 007 supposed to be handsome?” he tweeted. “Glad you think I’ve got a shot!" First of all, the 42-year-old British actor still looks pretty dang good. Secondly, the idea of him taking over for Daniel Craig isn’t that far removed from reality. In one of the leaked emails that emerged during the recent Sony hacking scandal, Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal wrote to a fellow executive that “Idris should be the next Bond.”
Elba also gave a thumbs-up to the idea during a recent interview. When asked if he’d like to assume the classic role, Elba said: “Yes, if it was offered to me, absolutely.”
The high-profile gig, however, won’t be open for a few more years. Craig has reportedly said that he’s signed on for one more installment after Spectre, the 24th Bond film, set to be released in November of 2015.
Rico says he love to know how they're gonna rewrite Bond into a black guy...

AirAsia missing with 162 aboard

Time has an article by Charlie Campbell about yet another airliner gone missing:
An AirAsia plane carrying 162 people from Indonesia to Singapore vanished early Sunday, and initial search and rescue efforts failed to locate the aircraft. “We don’t dare to presume what has happened, except that it has lost contact,” Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, told reporters.
Some ten hours after the aircraft vanished, and with darkness having set in, no sign of the errant Airbus A320-200 had been found. Wet weather also hampered search efforts. The search was set to resume at 6 a.m. on Monday.
The plane had 162 people on board, including seven crew and sixteen children. No distress signal had been sent. The six-year-old aircraft had requested to deviate from its submitted flight plan due to bad weather before communication was lost with Indonesian Air Traffic Control, AirAsia said in a statement. The disappearance comes just nine months after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard. That plane has yet to be found, in a mystery that captivated the world for months.
Transport Ministry official Hadi Mustofa Djuraid told Singapore’s Metro TV that contact with Flight 8501 was lost somewhere over the Java Sea between Indonesia’s Kalimantan portion of Borneo and Belitung island off the eastern coast of Sumatra.
The single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner had apparently been flying at 32,000 feet when the pilot requested to fly at 38,000 feet to avoid cloud cover. However, meteorologists indicate that cloud tops in the vicinity may have reached 53,000 feet.
“The weather was not good— it was bad— at the estimated location the plane lost contact. We just received a weather report from the national meteorological, geophysics, and climatology agency,” Hadi said.
Earth Networks, a firm that monitors weather conditions across the globe, said there had been a number of lightning strikes between 6:09 a.m. and 6:20 a.m. close to where Flight 8501 was supposed to fly, The New York Times reports. Flying into a thunderstorm at high altitude may cause icing on control surfaces that freeze corrective actions by pilots, experts say, thus spurring aggressive aircraft maneuvers.
Indonesian Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said three aircraft, including a surveillance plane, had been dispatched to the location where contact was lost. The Singapore Air Force and Navy were also scouring the region with two C-130 planes, The Associated Press reports.
“I am shocked to hear the news, and I am very worried that the plane might have crashed,” a 45-year-old woman with six family members on the plane told AFP at Changi Airport. “They have always flown with AirAsia and there was no problem.”
According to Mike Daniel, a Singapore-based aviation expert with more than three decades experience with the FAA, planes commonly change altitude and routes to avoid inclement weather. “That’s what you expect pilots to do,” he told Time. However, Daniel said, “Indonesia is not known for having the best radar coverage and weather radar coverage; they need to update it for both the airports and routes.”
Similarly to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the AirAsia flight’s operator is supposed to have constant supervision and vigilance on the location of its aircraft. “One of the first things the authorities have to do is confirm with the airline where the aircraft is thought to be,” Daniel said. This information is crucial for search and rescue operations, for which the first critical day has now passed.
Flight tracking website Flightradar24 said Flight 8501 was flying at typical cruising altitude of 32,000 feet when its signal was lost. This is unusual, as planes most commonly get into trouble during takeoff or landing.
Initial information, Daniel said, indicates the possibility of a “high altitude flight upset due to bad weather and high level of cloud formation.”
The plane’s captain had a total of six thousand flying hours and the first officer a total of nearly three thousand flying hours, AirAsia said. The aircraft had undergone its last scheduled maintenance on 16 November 2014.
The vast majority of the 155 people on board were Indonesian. There were also six foreigner passengers: three South Koreans, including an infant, and one passenger each from Singapore, Malaysia, and the UK. The copilot was French. Sixteen children were listed on the flight’s manifest.
The loss of Flight 8501 is the third major aviation disaster connected with Malaysia in less than a year, following the disappearance of Flight 370 and then the apparent shooting down of Flight 37 over the Ukraine in July of 2014, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists.
But while AirAsia is a Malaysia-based company, its Air Operator Certificate was issued by Indonesia. (AirAsia Indonesia was, until 2005, known as Air Wagon International, and Malaysian AirAsia owns just 49% due to Indonesian restrictions on foreign-owned carriers.) This means that, under International Civil Aviation Organization protocols, Indonesia is responsible for the search and rescue efforts and subsequent accident investigation.​
White House spokesperson Eric Schultz said that President Barack Obama was following the plane’s disappearance. “The President has been briefed on AirAsia Flight 8501 and White House officials will continue to monitor the situation,” he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that “our hearts and hopes are with the passengers and families of AirAsia QZ8501.”
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also expressed concern on Twitter.
AirAsia has dominated budget aviation across Southeast Asia for over a decade and, until Sunday, had never lost a plane.
AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes set off for Surabaya after changed his personal and the company’s many social media profiles to a somber monochrome from their trademark red.
Rico says this is getting to be a pattern... (There's a sub-article entitled Everything You Should Know About AirAsia, which is don't fly it.)

27 December 2014

Idiot for the day

Rico says that he can't reveal (other than noting that the guy, nearly thirty and employed, still lives with his mother, even though he's not gay) who it was that asked Rico if Asia "was a country", but it's a sad commentary on the educational system in this country...

Movie review for the day (TIG)

Rico and the ladyfriend went to see The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (he of Sherlock fame, and properly named Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch) and Kiera Knightley (she of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, and properly named Keira Christina Knightley), the story of Alan Turing and the breaking of the Enigma coding machine, which changed the course of World War TwoWinston Churchill told King George VI that "it was thanks to Ultra that we won the war."

Rico says it was much as expected; Cumberbatch was brilliant and Knightley was gorgeous. The Brits, being just a touch homophobic, lost an incredible mind to suicide far too early, and we had to wait decades for his Turing Machine to become a household device. Tim Cook, of course, would be proud of him...

History for the day

Rico's friend Kelley, also a history nut, sends this photo (top) of the 1912 iceberg (or one just like it; they all look alike, you know) that sunk the Titantic (bottom):

History for the day

On 27 December 1979, Soviet forces seized control of Afghanistan. President Hafizullah Amin, who was overthrown and executed, was replaced by Babrak Karmal.
Rico says we all know how well that turned out...

26 December 2014

Apple for the day

Farhad Manjoo has an article in The New York Times about Apple:
About a year before he died, Steve Jobs was asked at a conference to predict the future of the market for personal computers. Back in the late 1970s, as the chief executive and a co-founder of Apple, Jobs had presided over the birth of the PC industry, but then, after blockbuster sales of the iPhone and the iPad, he had taken to describing the tech business as entering the “post-PC” era. Did he really believe that desktop and laptop computers were going extinct?
He reached for an analogy: “When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm,” Jobs said. But as farming died off and people in urban areas began to buy automobiles, the auto market split into distinct categories. There were easy to use, relatively maintenance-free cars for everyday drivers, and powerful, specialty vehicles like trucks for people who needed to get stuff done. Laptops and desktops “are going to be like trucks,” Jobs predicted. “They’re still going to be around. They’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by one out of x people.” Four years later, Jobs’ predictions have pretty much panned out. Benedict Evans, an analyst at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, estimates that the number of smartphones and tablets in use around the world surpassed two billion in 2014, eclipsing the number of laptops and desktops in use. But, just as Jobs argued, the rise of mobile devices has not led to the death of desktops and laptops. In 2014 the once-sharp decline in PC sales began to level off. In some ways this year was a renaissance for the personal computer as our laptops and desktops acquired fantastic new powers that made them better than ever.
We saw the rise of Chromebooks, the Google-powered laptops that run an operating system based on the Chrome web browser, which often sell for around $200. Because they’re inexpensive and easy to maintain, Chromebooks began to cut into the low end of the computer market in 2014, and they’ve proved especially popular in education, where teachers and parents appreciate their simple design.
Responding to the potential threat posed by Chromebooks, Microsoft released a version of its Windows operating system that manufacturers began to include in inexpensive machines. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, released the Stream 11, a Windows laptop that sells for $200 and comes with a free subscription to Microsoft Office apps and one terabyte of online storage.
You can think of Chromebooks, inexpensive Windows machines, mobile phones and tablets as the cars of the tech business. And this year, low-priced Chromebooks and Windows machines helped the PC industry hold steady against the rise of phones.
But there’s a question of long-term viability. How long can PC makers survive by selling cut-rate devices?
Enter Apple and the new iMac it unveiled in the fall, an expensive desktop with a beautiful, high-resolution screen. If Chromebooks are cars, the new iMac is the world’s best truck. It’s a device optimized for professionals, not casual users, and it blazes a path forward for the once-beleaguered PC industry.
Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
As phones and tablets become more powerful and useful, and as they begin to occupy more of our time, PC manufacturers will have to create computers that take advantage of PCs’ shape, size and power. They’ll have to find new features that can’t be mimicked by smartphones. With a display unmatched by any other computing device you can buy today, the new iMac does just that. That’s why, of the dozens of new tech devices I tried this year, it was my favorite.
Chromebooks run an operating system based on Google’s Chrome web browser, and their low prices have helped make them a hit. Credit Mark Lennihan/Associated Press
Playing the high end has proved lucrative for Apple. In the third quarter of 2014, by the research firm IDC’s estimates, Apple became the fifth-largest PC seller in the world. Though its market share is dwarfed by the Windows PC giants Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Acer, Apple is predicted to rake in about half of the PC industry’s profits. “They’re doing remarkably well, and I think they’ll continue to go up,” said Tom Mainelli, who studies the PC market for IDC.
Mr. Mainelli argued that the ubiquity of smartphones had increased the appeal of Macs. Because people are shifting more of their computing to mobile devices, they’re waiting longer to replace their PCs. The longer ownership period helps people justify buying Apple’s high-end machines. “Consumers are saying, ‘Well, if I’m going to hold on to this thing for five years, I should buy a good one,’ ” Mr. Mainelli said. “Apple has really benefited from that.”
The new iMac has a 27-inch, Retina 5K display, meaning that its screen has about 5,000 lines of resolution horizontally and nearly 15 million pixels across the entire display. That’s about seven times as many as you’d find on a high-definition television set — and a few million more on than the latest ultra-high-definition TVs.
All those pixels make for a luxuriously sharp picture. Text sparkles and images pop, and when you to switch back to a computer with a normal screen, your eyes beg you to reconsider. At least, mine did. Years of staring at bad screens has turned my eyes into ruined orbs, but now, finally, I’d encountered a computer display that was good to them. When it was time to return the review model that Apple sent me, I hated to part with it. So I did something crazy: I bought a Retina 5K iMac of my own.
These machines aren’t cheap. The Retina 5K iMac starts at $2,500, which is $700 more than the non-Retina 27-inch iMac, and thousands more than you’d pay for a run-of-the-mill desktop computer. Still, for what you get, it’s not all that much. Last year Dell introduced a stand-alone 5K monitor that it planned to sell for $2,500 — the same price as Apple’s entire computer, for just the screen. Shortly after the iMac was announced, Dell reduced the price of its display to $2,000. But when you pair that display with a computer powerful enough to handle it, you’re bound to spend more than what you’ll pay for Apple’s all-in-one machine. If you’re looking for a desktop with a screen this good, Apple’s desktop is the way to go.
Apple is unlikely to sell the new iMac in high volumes. It’s a computer intended specifically for a small niche audience of photographers, video editors, animators, digital producers and Web-addled writers like me — people who spend a lot of time on their machines and are willing to pay for high-end tools.
Still, even if Apple doesn’t sell millions, the new iMac is an object lesson. If you’re a casual computer user — looking only to surf the web, check email and do other light tasks — you don’t need much more than a Chromebook or a tablet these days. You could probably get by with just a phone.
But as the low end of the PC business is swallowed by cheap devices, the only people left in the market for traditional PCs will be professionals. Apple’s recent success shows that professionals still love PCs, and they’ll even pay large sums for them. Some people will always need trucks.
Rico says WHAT

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