31 October 2015

Halloween for the day

Time has an article by Olivia B. Waxman about Halloween:
This Halloween, children who trick or treat at a Yale economist’s house in New Haven, Connecticut will be asked some questions back before they get their loot.
First, they will be randomly assigned to go to a section of Dean Karlan’s front porch — either the section with a photo of First Lady Michelle Obama, the section with a photo of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, or the section with no photo (that’s the control). Half the kids in the Clinton and Obama areas will be asked if they know who the women are. The kids will also be asked whether they’d prefer fruit or candy.
The professor wants to see if the visual cue of Michelle Obama will lead more children to choose fruit over candy. That’s what happened when he did the experiment in 2012, and if it happens again, that may suggest the First Lady’s health campaigns have really been ingrained in kids’ heads.
Karlan isn’t the first social scientist to design an experiment around trick-or-treaters. In fact, there were a few studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when social psychologists were eager to get out of the lab and examine behavior of the broader public, says retired psychology professor Arthur Beaman. Another bonus: it was different from lab studies done with college students, where said students always know they’re part of a study, says Edward Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the University of Utah, who worked with Beaman on a number of papers.
The annual tradition of using kids as research subjects has seen a renewed interest of late, and the particular appeal is that these real-life examples can contribute interesting insights into human behavior. Of course, based on any one study, you wouldn’t say a theory of human nature is supported or not supported, says Bonnie Klentz, Professor of Psychology at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. But observing trick-or-treaters in their element does provide some unique benefits.
The anonymity, or self-perceived anonymity, of trick-or-treaters can make for some particularly interesting research. Scott Fraser, professor of neurophysiology teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles, realized that made them ripe for testing one of the conditions of “de-individuation theory,” the idea that behavior is dictated by context, and something like anonymity can make people less inhibited.
In the early 1970s, Fraser, Beaman, and Diener designed a study involving more than thirteen hundred kids in the greater Seattle, Washington area on Halloween night. When the kids were told they may only take one candy, and then left them alone in the room, the kids who remained totally anonymous, meaning they were not asked their names, took the most candy, while the kids who were asked their names took the least.
“If you want to control behavior, you need to make people identifiable,” Fraser concludes, noting this kind of thinking explains why surveillance cameras can influence behavior. Most of these “thieves” only took an extra piece or two, but a few took many more. (Diener says jokingly: “I wonder what those kids are doing now?”)
In another experiment, kids encountered either a candy bowl with a mirror behind it or a candy bowl without a mirror. They were told they could take one treat. Researchers stood behind a sheet decorated with drawings of witches and ghosts and they spied on the children through the little peepholes. “When the mirror was present, fewer kids took extra candy,” Klentz says. “Kids who were nine and older were more influenced by mirror than younger kids.” This suggests “it’s at a certain age when kids are able to reflect back and see themselves as an outsider would see them,” says Klentz.
Researchers have also shown that the notion of “free”(as in free Halloween candy) can lead to some irrational decision-making. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, gave trick-or-treaters a few Hershey’s Kisses and asked them whether they would rather give him one Hershey’s Kiss to get a small Snickers bar, or two for a big Snickers. Most gave him the two for the bigger one. But when asked if they would rather have the small Snickers bar for free or the big one for one Hershey’s Kiss, most kids went for the free deal, even though it was less candy. The experiment is just an example of the “kinds of mistakes we do in the name of free” which will make us “do irrational things, like drive a longer distance just to get gasoline” when people should really think about free as just another number, says Ariely, who describes this experiment in his 2008 book Predictably Irrational.
Indeed, much of the research on trick or treaters highlights things we already know about human behavior: “When our attention is focused on us, we tend to behave in more socially appropriate ways,” Klentz says.
Rico says he's not anticipating a lot of trick or treaters this year; we get few...

Movie for the day

War History Online has a review of a new British film, Dad's Army:
Dad’s Army is an upcoming 2016 British war comedy film, based on the BBC television sitcom Dad’s Army. Directed by Oliver Parker, it will be set in 1944, after the events depicted in the television series.
The story will see Catherine Zeta-Jones (video) play a glamorous journalist, who is sent to report on the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon. This is all before MI5 discovers that there is a German spy hiding in the fictional British town. Filming began in Yorkshire in October of 2014.
The production design is by Simon Bowles and cinematography by Christopher Ross.

ISIS for the day

The New York Times has an article by Peter Baker (Russell's son), Helene Cooper, and David E. Sanger about fighting ISIS in Syria:
President Obama announced that he had ordered several dozen Special Operations troops into Syria for the first open-ended mission by United States ground forces in that country, deepening American involvement in a war he has tried to avoid for more than four years.
While the deployment was small in scale, it was large in importance for a President who had refused to commit American ground forces inside Syria beyond quick raids. White House officials (photo of Josh Earnest) said the troops would advise local forces fighting the Islamic State and not play a direct combat role, but they left open the possibility of sending more in the future.
The escalation came just weeks after Russia inserted itself into the multisided civil war to support President Bashar al-Assad, bombing opposition forces, including some supported by the United States. Although not characterized as a response, the dispatch of American troops further complicates a kaleidoscopic battlefield with varied forces and sometimes murky allegiances.
Rico says he still votes for a cruise missile into Assad's bedroom some night... (Cheaper and fewer lives at risk.)

History for the day

On 31 October 1984, Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi (photo) was assassinated near her residence by two of her Sikh security guards:

Rico says it's hard when you put out an APB for Sikhs named Singh; they all are...

1517: Martin Luther posts his theses

History.com has this for 31 October:

On this day in 1517, priest and scholar Martin Luther approached the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed a piece of paper to it containing the 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation.In his theses, Luther condemned the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the papal practice of asking payment, called indulgences, for the forgiveness of sins. At the time, a Dominican priest named Johann Tetzel, commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz and Pope Leo X, was in the midst of a major fundraising campaign in Germany to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy. Though Prince Frederick III the Wise had banned the sale of indulgences in Wittenberg, many church members traveled to purchase them. When they returned, they showed the pardons they had bought to Luther, claiming they no longer had to repent for their sins.Luther’s frustration with this practice led him to write the 95 Theses, which were quickly snapped up, translated from Latin into German, and distributed widely. A copy made its way to Rome, and efforts began to convince Luther to change his tune. He refused to keep silent, however and, in 1521, Pope Leo X formally excommunicated Luther from the Catholic Church. That same year, Luther again refused to recant his writings before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Germany, who issued the famous Edict of Worms declaring Luther an outlaw and a heretic and giving permission for anyone to kill him without consequence. Protected by Prince Frederick, Luther began working on a German translation of the Bible, a task that took ten years to complete.The term Protestant first appeared in 1529, when Charles V revoked a provision that allowed the ruler of each German state to choose whether they would enforce the Edict of Worms. A number of princes and other supporters of Luther issued a protest, declaring that their allegiance to God trumped their allegiance to the Emperor. They became known to their opponents as Protestants; gradually this name came to apply to all who believed the Church should be reformed, even those outside Germany. By the time Luther died, of natural causes, in 1546, his revolutionary beliefs had formed the basis for the Protestant Reformation, which would over the next three centuries revolutionize Western civilization.

Rico says not much has changed in the last five hundred years...

30 October 2015

Jupiter drone

Wired has an article about future space projects:

Nowhere to land? No problem. NASA is investing in a fleet of robotic probes that could soon explore Jupiter, Saturn, and other interstellar bodies made of gas by flying with momentum from the wind.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been awarded a hundred thousand dollars to complete a study that will explore the possibility of “windbots” buzzing through the atmospheres above Jupiter and Saturn. To work, each drone would need to be self-sufficient and able to recharge based on wind and changes in temperature. The news was first reported by Wired magazine.
“One could imagine a network of windbots existing for quite a long time on Jupiter or Saturn, sending information about ever-changing weather patterns,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Adrian Stoica told Wired. “And, of course, what we learn about the atmosphere of other planets enriches our understanding of Earth’s own weather and climate.”
Researchers advised that the project is still in it’s embryonic stage, and it’s not even clear if it will ever come to fruition. But NASA has nowhere to go but up: the space agency tried exploring Jupiter with the Galileo mission in 1995, but came out with only a few hours’ worth of scientific measurements. Stoica, in conversation with Wired, compared the flight plan to dandelion seeds, which soar through the air without a predetermined path. “It rotates as it falls, creating lift, which allows it to stay afloat for a long time, carried by the wind,” Stoica said. “We’ll be exploring this effect on windbot designs.”
The announcement comes only weeks after NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory revealed that it hopes to put another autonomous vehicle on Europa, the Jupiter-orbiting moon considered most likely to host alien life. The Europa plan, which is also years away from happening, consists of landing an unmanned vehicle on the ice-covered moon and drilling into the ocean to explore what, if anything, lies beneath.
Rico says all we need now is the money and the will to spend it... (But obviously no one's read Arthur C. Clarke's Odyssey Three, where we're banned from Europa...)

That time again

Rico swears it's just a coincidence when he looks at the clock, but it was 1:11 again...

History for the day

On 30 October 1974, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round of a fifteen-round bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, regaining his world heavyweight title.

Syrian refugees in Sweden

Rico's friend Kelley forwards a Yahoo article by Jonathan Ewing and notes: 'Syrian refugees arrive at last in Sweden only to discover that paradise is cold, and dark at night. Stupid fucks! Where did you think you were going?'
When he fled the war in Syria, Abdullah Waez dreamed of a new life in Sweden. But now that he's arrived, surrounded by a dark and cold forest, he says he's scared and doesn't see a future here.
Waez and fifty other asylum seekers were shocked when migration officials brought them by bus to their new accommodation: a cluster of red wooden cabins in a forest in the village of Limedsforsen, some four hundred kilometers northwest of Stockholm. The village has around five hundred inhabitants.
Some of the migrants moved into the cabins right away. But a handful of others have refused. They finally agreed to get off the two buses that drove them there, but continued to block one of the vehicles from leaving. Warming themselves in the glow of a bonfire, they demanded to be taken to a bigger town. "We don't understand why they've taken us to the forest where it's so dark and so cold. When we first arrived, we were frightened, and we don't want to live like this, in the middle of nowhere," says Waez, in temperatures hovering around seven degrees Celsius as darkness fell around 4:00 pm.
The area's pristine nature, tranquil forest, and clean air are normally cherished by Swedes, who flock to the cabins during the winter ski season. But Waez and the other refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa were not having it.
"We don't like to stay in the woods, it's not our way," says Waez.
The Swedish Migration Agency says the country is receiving so many migrants and refugees, ten thousand a week, that its capacities are being strained and it is beginning to erect tents to house some of the arrivals.
"It's not totally in the middle of nowhere. There is a shop, and buses," Migration Agency spokeswoman Maria Lofgren told AFP.
The first night was the worst, says Waez, 34. "We told the immigration officer that we didn't want to stay, that we would not leave the bus and, for some reason, they didn't argue with us and neither did the bus driver," he explains.
The driver simply removed the keys and exited the bus but left the door wide open. The immigration officer also left and, not long after, several asylum seekers from Eritrea also left to spend the night in the cabins. "But we stayed and the first hour was okay, but then it began to get dark, so dark that I couldn't see my hand in front of my face," says Hadeel Waez, Abdullah's 25-year-old sister. "During the second hour it became very cold and the children began to cry. By the third hour, many of us began to argue."
Most agree that the first night was a grueling ordeal and very few people slept. But the asylum seekers stuck to their plan, refusing to disembark from the bus and move into the cabins. Since then, Migration Agency officials have been to the site several times to try to negotiate with them, but to no avail. It's this or nothing, they have tried to argue. "With the number of arrivals continuing to increase, the accommodations we can find are further and further away from the big cities," Lofgren said.
The nineteen cabins are spartan and clean, with running water and heat. Most have two bedrooms, a toilet and shower, a kitchen with an oven, a refrigerator, and a microwave, and a washing machine and television.
Jamel Alam, a 35-year-old from Eritrea, is one of those who thinks the accommodation is fine. He moved into a cabin with his wife and children on the first night. "We are happy to be here and maybe we can build up our lives again," Alam says.
Another man who would not give his name but said he was in his thirties and from the Syrian capital of Damascus, insists that, while he is grateful for what has been provided by Sweden, he does want to eventually move to a city. "I'll stay here for now, but if there is another place offered, then I'll gladly go. I want to learn Swedish and I want to work. I am an engineer and a teacher, I have something to offer, I would like to stay," he says.
Rico says he wonders how much geography is taught in Syrian schools... (And notice that, if you're poor enough, like those from Eritrea, a cabin in the woods looks pretty good.)

A big whale, and we missed it

The BBC has an article by Yao-Hua Law about a big whale:
With bodies as long as school buses, you would think that Omura's whales could never go unnoticed. Yet they are among the most mysterious of whales. The species was only given its name, based on dead specimens, in 2003. Until recently, scientists have failed to find live ones. Now the wait is over. Whale researchers have discovered a population of Omura's whales living near Madagascar. Their study, published in Royal Society Open Science, offers the first glimpse of how these elusive whales live.
Biologist Salvatore Cerchio led the study while at the Wildlife Conservation Society. He has since joined the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
His team almost missed the Omura's whales. In 2011, they were surveying dolphins in the coastal waters off Madagascar when they encountered three whales: a mother-calf pair and later a lone adult. But they thought they had found Bryde's whales, another little-known whale that lives in the region.
Some teammates thought it might be a new species and began to think of new names.
The next year, the team saw another four whales in fleeting encounters. They suspected that "at least one of the whales was something different".
Then, in 2013, the team moved further offshore and searched deeper waters. This time they saw whales within days, racking up thirteen sightings. The prize encounter was a mother-calf pair that swam close to the boat, revealing that the mother had no ridges on her head and a lower jaw with contrasting light and dark sides. That convinced the team that it was not a Bryde's whale.
"I was excited because I knew we had found Omura's whales," says Cerchio. But the whales were thousands of kilometers further west than they were thought to roam. "Some teammates thought it might be a new species and began to think of new names."
In late 2014, genetic tests confirmed that they had found the first live population of Omura's whales. By then, they had logged forty-four sightings.
"Omura's whales are built for speed," says Cerchio. He describes them as "spectacular animals with long, narrow bodies". Growing up to twelve meters long, Omura's whales are asymmetrical: their right side is whiter and their left is darker. Light and dark patches and stripes extend from the right eye to the pectoral fin. These patterns mean each whale is individually recognisable. But scientists also recognize beauty. The most common response to Cerchio's photos is simply "beautiful whale".
Cerchio's findings tell us that Omura's whales roam more widely than previously thought. We knew they swim in the waters between the eastern Indian Ocean, Japan, and Australia. Now it seems they also swim in the western Indian Ocean.
In 2003, Japanese researchers used skeletal specimens and genetic tests to establish Omura's whales as a new species. Previously they had been mistaken for unusually pale Bryde's whales or small fin whales. That was understandable. Whale specimens are scarce and scattered in collections across the world, so it is hard to compare them, says co-discoverer Tadasu Yamada of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, Japan.
What's more, Omura's whales never show both their heads and dorsal fins together, and never lift their tails out of water during a dive. "The whales surface briefly and reveal little of their bodies," says Cerchio.
Unlike many other whales such as humpbacks, Omura's whales almost always travel alone. Even so, "if you explore the area, you would find another one several hundred meters away," says Cerchio. The whales make low-pitched sounds, so Cerchio suspects that they socialize in loose groupings.
The team spotted four mothers with their calves, suggesting that the whales breed and raise young in the area around Madagascar.Nobody is sure what they eat, but Cerchio's team did see them lunge-feeding. A whale would accelerate fast, then open its mouth wide and suck in huge volumes of water, which it filter through tight, hairy plates called baleen. They may well have been eating tiny plankton, because there were no fish in sight.
For now, Cerchio says we can only speculate on how many Omura's whales are out there. But they may not be safe.
Oil exploration around Madagascar cranks out noise that could drown out the low noises made by the whales. So far Cerchio has no evidence that human-caused noise is harming the Omura's whales, but he says it is important to find out.
"Human noise is a pervasive threat across the oceans," says Cerchio. "Unfortunately, the effect is insidious and difficult to detect."
Rico says the ocean holds many things we don't know about...

Russian planes flyby US carrier

Jim Miklaszewski and Alexey Eremenko have a Time article about Russians harassing our carriers:
Two Russian warplanes edged near the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in the sea of Japan this week, forcing the Navy to send up fighter jets in response, military officials said recently.
The American aircraft carrier was in international waters east of the Korean peninsula in a joint exercise with South Korean naval forces.
See the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News:

The pair of Russian Bear bombers had failed to respond to radio calls as they advanced toward the USS Ronald Reagan, and four F/A-18 Super Hornets were deployed, Navy officials said. Once under American escort, the Russian bombers skimmed the water at an altitude of five hundred feet and came within a nautical mile of the aircraft carrier.
Navy officials said such encounters in that region are not unprecedented, and the intercept and interaction were considered "safe".
Russia has routinely tried to test international boundaries over the past few years by sending warplanes near other countries' airspace or violating their airspace altogether.
On 4 July 2015, the Russians sent planes near Alaska and California, coming close to US airspace without entering it.
In addition, some warplanes were sent to circle Navy ships in the Black Sea during Russia's takeover of the Crimea. US officials have labeled these as "provocative actions".
Rico says they really do not want to fuck with our Navy...

29 October 2015

Obama for the day

Melissa Locker has a Time article about the President:   
Remember the time President Obama sang Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” or when he busted out Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back?” Now the leader of the United States is back with a Halloween song sure to frighten the GOP—Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Rico says it's weird, having a hip President...

Apple for the day

Leo Kelion has a BBC article about Apple:
The BBC has confirmed that its iPlayer service (photo) is coming to the new Apple TV.
The catch-up app is not ready to launch alongside the revamped set top box when it goes on sale this week, but the broadcaster signaled it would be soon.
iPlayer was absent on earlier Apple TVs, despite the fact it is on other platforms, including Amazon's Fire TV, Roku, Google Chromecast, Sky's Now TV box and several video game consoles.
One analyst said the move should aid sales of the new kit in the UK. "Available on over ten thousand devices, BBC iPlayer is one of the biggest and best on-demand video services in the world, and has transformed how UK audiences watch programs online," said the BBC's director-general Tony Hall. "I am delighted that iPlayer will be coming to the new Apple TV in the coming months, helping to bring the BBC's distinctive and loved content to an even wider audience."
Until now, Sky was the only major British broadcaster to offer an app for the US firm's set top boxes. The BBC has, however, allowed users to stream content from iPlayer's iPhone and iPad apps to older Apple TVs. In September of 2015, its iPlayer team indicated it had "no plans" to change this for the new device. But a key part of Apple's pitch for its new box is that owners can use voice commands to request programs and movies by theme from across a range of services, without having to open and close individual apps. Users can, for example, ask for popular science fiction shows and be shown a range of suggestions from Netflix, NowTV, and other apps that communicate their content with Apple's computer servers. For iPlayer's content to be added to the list of recommendations, the service has to become a native app rather than be run off a separate device.
Earlier this month, the MacRumors site reported that two Bournemouth, England, based developers had created a tvOS app they dubbed Auntie Player to demonstrate that it would be relatively easy for the BBC to support the new platform. They noted it had taken them less than nine hours to build a working program, and urged the BBC to build an official version of its own.
"iPlayer coming to the Apple TV is a landmark deal," commented Ian Maude from the research firm Enders Analysis. Developers Matt Cheetham and Phillip Caudell published the code for Auntie Player online ."I think it's very difficult for any internet-based video streaming service to launch in the UK without it now. That was true for Sky's Now TV box, it was huge when it got iPlayer, and I think the same will be true for Apple."
The BBC understands that ITV has no plans to release an app for Apple TV. Channel 4 and Channel 5's intentions are unknown.
Rico says that only BBC buffs will know that, in England, it's called 'Auntie'...

Ireland’s most ancient secrets

The BBC has an article by Amanda Ruggeri about Ireland:
Ireland is not very big. In fact, you can drive from the east to the west coast in less than four hours. But the country’s newest tourism initiative, Ireland’s Ancient East,  is aiming to cover almost half of it, from Cork north to County Cavan, and from the coast west to the river Shannon. There’s no one route, itinerary, or even a finite list of sites.
What it does offer is some of the country’s best-known sites: the Hill of Tara, Kilkenny Castle, Newgrange, alongside less-visited local secrets; an absolutely magical combination of the extraordinary and the unknown. And that’s how I found myself on a journey that felt like a choose-your-own-adventure through the past five thousand years, starting at the four peaks of Carnbane East, Carnbane West, Patrickstown, and Carrigbrack, located just eighty kilometers northwest of Dublin in County Meath.
From the summit of Carnbane East, a postcard-perfect panorama of Ireland spread out before me. Beyond the hedgerows and sheep in the patchwork of green fields, I could see the three other hills running east to west in a four kilometer chain that made up what might be Ireland’s finest and least-known Stone Age landscape.
Each of the peaks is topped with cairns, adding up to some thirty in total; originally, there may have been up to a hundred. Built some five thousand years ago by the first farmers of Ireland, these megalithic mounds make up one of the largest groupings of cairns in the whole country, with the main concentrations on Carnbane West and Carnbane East, where Cairn T is the centerpiece.
Incredibly, the site is all but unknown to the tour buses that ply better-known spots. Guided tours, a year-round staple at other sites, take place here only in summer. The rest of the year, the process is endearingly simple: head to the little café at Loughcrew Gardens, sign a book, borrow the key for Cairn T, drive (or walk) the two kilometers to the small parking lot at the base of Carnbane East and hike a kilometer up the hill.
At thirty meters in diameter, Cairn T is large enough to line up three London buses inside. And though the sheep who ambled over the nearby ancient stones didn’t seem to think so, the cairn was incredibly impressive.
Peeking through the metal gate into the stone mound, I could see what I’d come here for: the cairn’s passage tomb, a stone tunnel that leads you deep inside the mound. Taking a deep breath, I put the key in the lock. It didn’t fit.
That’s the other thing about travelling through lesser-known parts of Ireland’s ancient east: when you’re in areas not aimed specifically at tourists, at sites where you’re expected to be clever enough to sort it out yourself, you need to make sure to always ask for the right key.
After circling the cairn, befuddled, wondering if there was another entrance, I looped back to where I’d started. Patting my fingers around the gate, I breathed a sigh of relief: there was another lock. The key fit in cleanly.
Hunching to avoid smacking my head on the stone ceiling, I walked slowly through the passageway, the same one designed thousands of years earlier so that, on the spring and autumn equinox at dawn, sunlight floods the narrow passage and lights up the inner tomb. In the central chamber, the huge stones were carved with intricate loops and patterns, their specific meanings now lost. So was the meaning of the cairns themselves: academics don’t agree passage tombs were all burial chambers, only that they had extraordinary astrological and likely spiritual significance. The mystery, of course, only makes them even more fascinating. As did getting to experience one without so much as a guide.
Instead, to find out more about the country’s most ancient secrets, I went to talk to the people who have guarded them for centuries: the locals.
Over a breakfast of homemade soda bread and local eggs at the nearby Lough Bishop House, a nineteenth century farmhouse turned B&B, the owner Christopher Kelly offered to give my travel companion and me a tour of the hundred-acre farm. Take a site from this part of Ireland and put it anywhere else, and you could charge admission. But here, ancient sites literally make up the landscape. “See that part of the land up there, near the sheep?” he asked, pointing out a ridge in the land. “That’s an Iron Age enclosure.”
It was also Kelly who told us about another must-see in Ireland’s east: Uisneach. The hundred-acre property, privately owned like most of the country’s other ancient sites, is believed to have been the most important spiritual centre of prehistoric Ireland. I thought I’d done my research, but Uisneach hadn’t come up, its importance swallowed by the stature of sites like the Hill of Tara and the tombs of Newgrange (also in Ireland’s east, and also well worth visiting). “It’s very much a matter of searching it out for yourself in this part of Ireland,” Kelly said. “It’s not set up for tourists as much as the other areas.”
So to Uisneach we went. After getting completely turned around (put Uisneach into Google Maps and it takes you, not to the ancient site, but to a housing development with the same name) we made it. Marty Mulligan, the site’s sprightly tour guide, was there to meet us.
We were, it turned out, in the very heart of pre-Christian Ireland: this was known as the country’s navel, the axis mundi, the point where the five ancient provinces met. It was also where the Earth was said to meet the Otherworld.
And according to oral tradition and, until the arrival of Christianity in the fifth century, all of Ireland’s history was passed on through stories, it was the final resting place of the Earth Goddess Ériu, who gave her name to Ireland, and of the Sun God Lugh, whose name was lent to London. It was also a site where thousands of people may have gathered each year.
“This was a sacred place. It was like a Mecca: People made the pilgrimage here because of the ancient gods,” Mulligan explained. For Bealtaine, the bonfire-filled Celtic festival that heralded summer’s start, the fire at Uisneach was said to be the first one set, signaling to others to light theirs in a chain across Ireland.
People still gather at Uisneach to celebrate festivals like Bealtaine today. But, on this day, we were the only ones here, surrounded only by marks of the past.
As we walked through the lush, jewel-green landscape, we passed one mound after another. There are the remains of more than forty monuments here, including ring forts, barrows, standing stones, and a possible megalithic tomb. It’s not clear what any, or all, were used for; oral tradition aside, the most in-depth excavations done were in the 1920s and the site has been relegated to relative archaeological obscurity today. Still, recent academic work has found that periodic feasting and fires did occur here, with artifacts found as far back as the late Iron Age of the third to fifth centuries, and that a particularly opulent ring fort may have been a royal residence.
We arrived, finally, at the Catstone. The thirty-ton, six-meter-tall limestone boulder, carried here by a glacier thousands of years ago, looked like the gods themselves had perched it in place. It was this massive formation that was said to be the navel of Ireland, the resting place of Ériu, and the portal into the Otherworld.
And, at that moment, I certainly felt transported into another world, one that belonged to a different time and a different people. It was as far as possible from the Ireland that many travellers get to see.
Rico says it's been over a decade since he was there, and he may not get back, but it is a beautiful country with lovely people...

Khamenei’s conditions gut nuclear deal

The Clarion Project has an article by Meira Svirsky about duplicity by the Iranians:
Contrary to the international media’s announcement that Iran’s Supreme Leader had finally approved the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world’s powers, Ali Khamenei (photo) has outlined nine conditions to his acceptance that basically change the entire agreement.
The conditions were detailed in a letter written by Kahmenei to Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, translated into English, and published by the official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting authority.
An analysis of the letter provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) shows that “the set of conditions laid out by Khamenei creates a situation in which not only does the Iranian side refrain from approving the agreement, but, with nearly every point, creates a separate obstacle, such that executing the agreement is not possible.”
MEMRI also notes that “in his introduction to the new conditions, Khamenei attacks the US and President Obama with great hostility, and called for Obama to be prosecuted by international judiciary institutions.”
The conditions involve a number of stall tactics regarding Iran’s fulfillment of its obligations according to the agreement. For example, Khamenei is now demanding the timeframe for dismantling certain functions at its Arak reactor be changed until all sanctions are lifted. In addition, instead of shipping out enriched uranium and receiving in exchange raw uranium, as stipulated by the deal, Iran is now demanding receipt of low-level enriched uranium in its place.
With regards to sanctions, the agreement calls for the sanctions to not be merely lifted (meaning, there would be the possibility of snap-back in the face of Iranian violations); Khamenei is demanding all sanctions be permanently cancelled. In addition, he says no new sanctions may be imposed on the Islamic Republic, even if Iran engages in terrorism or human rights violations. If new sanctions are imposed, Iran would consider the agreement null and void.
Khamenei’s announcement of the nine conditions follows the Islamic Republic’s audacious testing of a new, long-range, surface-to-surface ballistic missile, a weapon whose sole purpose is to deliver a nuclear weapon. Yet, according to the agreement, “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
Judging from the reaction to this violation of the United States, who instructed UN Ambassador Samantha Power to “prepare a report” for the Security Council, the United States has chosen to ignore this blatant violation. Europe, who already sees its coffers being filled from sanctions relief, had a similar yawn about the missile test.
Clearly, America and the rest of the P5+1 world powers tasked to make an agreement with Iran with little regard to the circumstances, have decided to ignore Khamenei’s machinations and, judging from the lack of international reaction to them, act as if they are nonexistent.
It is a sad commentary for the West that they have chosen to back down instead of confronting one of the world’s worst state sponsors of terrorism and violators of human rights. History will show for us, and our children, what the consequences of such an enormous capitulation will be.
Rico says what a surprise; an Ayatollah saying one thing and meaning another...

Kidnapped and forcibly converted

The Clarion Project has an article about yet another Islamic outrage:
In a sad but typical story in Pakistan, a Christian girl about to be married was kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to a Muslim man.
Nabil Bibi (photo) and Sajid Masih from Changa Manga, Pakistan, a small town close to Lahore, had planned to marry in November of 2015 after a year-long engagement. Less than a month before the wedding, Bibi was abducted by a Muslim man named Allah Rakha. After a long search for her to no avail, Bibi’s fiance, her father, and other family members lodged a complaint with the police. One month later, the police had reportedly failed to act on the complaint.
Two weeks ago, a number of men showed up at Bibi’s father’s house and presented him papers documenting Bibi’s conversion and her marriage to Rakha. Able to locate the address of Rakha’s house, Bibi’s fiance, her father, and two cousins went to Rakha’s house and asked to meet with Bibi. Their request was flatly refused.
After insisting on a meeting with Bibi, the small group of Christians were surrounded by close to twenty Muslim men, who held them captive. They were released in the morning with a severe warning never to try to see Bibi again.
Masih, whose life is now in danger, has since gone into hiding. As documented by the Pakistani Christian Post: “In such issues, the victim’s family usually registers a FIR [First Information Report] for abduction or rape with the local police station. The rapist, on behalf of the victim girl, registers a counter FIR, accusing the Christian family of harassing the willfully converted and married woman and for forcing the conversion of the woman back to Christianity. Sometimes, it becomes a danger to life if the Christian family takes legal action against the Muslim man.
“In most cases, the victim girl may be subjected to sexual violence, rape, forced prostitution, human trafficking and sale, or other domestic abuse, or discarded from the home after some time has passed."
Rico says so much for the religion of peace... (Sounds like a good excuse for a feud, though.)

Bernie Sanders proposes legalizing marijuana

Sam Frizell has a Time article about decriminalizing marijuana:
Bernie Sanders (photo) said recently he is in favor of removing marijuana from a list of dangerous drugs controlled by the Federal government, a move that would effectively allow states to legalize it without interference from Washington.
Speaking to a group of students at a town hall meeting at George Mason University in Virginia, the Vermont senator and presidential candidate did not go as far as to to call for making marijuana legal nationwide. The proposal would still allow Federal law enforcement to prosecute drug dealers for traffic in marijuana sales.
But Sanders is the first candidate to call for removing the drug completely form the list of controlled substances, and people who use marijuana in states that legalize it would no longer be targeted for Federal prosecution.
“Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That’s wrong. That has got to change,” Sanders said. He is hoping to attract African-Americans to his campaign, and has been speaking frequently on the campaign trail about criminal justice reform and the disproportionate effect of marijuana arrests on minorities.
Rico says that's hardly getting out in front of the electorate...

Oxygen found in comet

Frank Jordans has a Time article via The Associated Press about the atmosphere of a comet:
Scientists say they have detected significant amounts of molecular oxygen coming out of a comet, an unexpected find that may have implications for the search for alien life and understanding how the solar system formed.
Oxygen atoms are abundant throughout the universe but, because they react very easily with other elements, they are rarely found in the molecular form known as O2. Scientists had previously assumed that almost all oxygen in a comet would come in the form of water (H2O), carbon monoxide (CO), or carbon dioxide (CO2).
But, using instruments aboard the European spacecraft Rosetta, researchers were able to prove the existence of large amounts of O2 in the gas cloud, or coma, around the comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
“It is the most surprising discovery we have made so far on 67P, because oxygen was not among the molecules expected in a cometary coma,” said Kathrin Altwegg, who co-authored the study published in the journal Nature.
Andre Bieler, a research fellow at the University of Michigan who contributed to the study, said the constant level of molecular oxygen observed in the gas cloud indicates it was trapped before the comet formed and remained there, untouched, since the early days of the solar system some five billion years ago.
Altwegg said the process by which molecular oxygen got into the comet challenges some theories about how the solar system formed, theories that presume all matter was heated and then cooled. Such a process would have resulted in the loss of molecular oxygen.
She said the finding could also have implications for the hunt for life on other planets. Many scientists have assumed the presence of oxygen and methane is a good indication of life, because those molecules are a by-product of primitive life forms.
But the abundance of both on comet 67P suggests that those two molecules alone shouldn’t automatically be taken as evidence of life, said Altwegg.
Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the research, said the findings were a “wake-up call” because O2 has long been top of the list of molecules sought by scientists hoping to find evidence of life on other planets. “The findings will add fuel to the fire for an already ignited debate about O2’s false-positive scenarios,” she added.
Rico says space continues to be even more strange than we can imagine...

28 October 2015

Fall is officially over

Rico's friend Kelley notes they're scheduled to get the first snow of the season in DeForest, but also sends this:

Blimp on the loose

Slate has an article about a 'marauding' blimp:

A giant, marauding spy blimp— specifically, a blimp from the Army's Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENSS)— came untethered today and has been marauding over the East Coast for hours, knocking out power lines and terrifying the citizenry with its marauding malevolence.
CNN has more, including the safe ending:
A blimp associated with NORAD's surveillance of the East Coast that became untethered from its mooring in Maryland is now on the ground, and authorities have it secured, Pennsylvania State Police told CNN.
The loose JLENSS blimp had been in the air over Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and caused power outages before it came down, Columbia County Department of Public Safety Director Fred Hunsinger said. Both the Montoursville and Hazleton, Pennsylvania, State Police troops responded, police said. The blimp landed in Montour County. The military took no kinetic action to bring it to the ground, according to the Pentagon, though there is no further information at this point about how it came down. Hunsinger went on to say that there have been no reports of injuries or deaths, but the dragging of the blimp's cable had school leaders taking precautions to protect children as classes began to let out for the day.
"We know right now that, according to the Pennsylvania State Police, the balloon has landed," Jean Lapinski of the Columbia County Emergency Management Agency told Jake Tapper of CNN. "I don't really know exactly what that area looks like, it looks to me, just on a topographical map that we have, that it wasn't a real populated area, so we're hoping that was the situation with it."
There are currently about eighteen thousand people without power in the Bloomsburg area, according to Joe Nixon with PPL Electric. Nixon said they have "reports that the blimp hit power lines in the Bloomsburg area" and that they went to the scene to investigate. Nixon noted it is rainy and windy in the area.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's office said that Federal authorities and local emergency management personnel have confirmed the aerostat is contained and no longer moving in Montour County.
The state is in touch with local and Federal authorities, including the State Police and National Guard, to secure the aerostat's downed equipment. "These agencies will continue to be on scene to secure the area and ask all residents to remain away from the scene," the office said in a statement.
The military had been planning to scramble helicopters that can land next to the JLENSS when it comes down in order to secure it.
Two F-16s scrambled from the New Jersey National Guard had been tracking the JLENSS aerostat, a Pentagon official said, after the aircraft came loose from its mooring station in Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
The FAA also tracked the balloon to keep it safely separated from other air traffic.
JLENSS, which is short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, is a system of two aerostats, or tethered airships, that float ten thousand feet in the air. The helium-filled aerostats, each nearly as long as a football field, carry powerful radars that can protect a territory roughly the size of Texas from airborne threats.

Rico says they obviously don't know the definition of 'marauding'...

Movie review for the day: UF

Under Fire, starring Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Joanna Cassidy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Gene Hackman:
Three journalists in a romantic triangle are involved in political intrigue during the last days of the corrupt Somozoa regime in Nicaragua, before it falls to a popular revolution in 1979.
Rico says that Joanna Cassidy was, for him, the best part, of course...

The song in Rico's head

Rico says sometimes he has no idea how a song gets in his head, but it was probably playing at McDonald's, and is the perfect theme song for global warming...

Perfect word for Rico's condition

Rico says that would be the Anglo-Irish term gobsmacked...

They're back!

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, a ninety-minute special, will premiere on 1 January 2016 at 9 pm on PBS. The special finds finds Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, photo, right) and Dr. Watson (played by Martin Freeman, photo, left) in 1890s London. The Abominable Bride is a one-off special; Season Four of Sherlock will go into production in the Spring of 2016, though no airdate has been set.

Rico says he, of course, will be watching...

Making the best of a bad situation

Kelly Phillips Badal has a Yahoo article about a creative Halloween costume:
Josh Sundquist lost a leg to cancer at nine, but that hasn’t stopped him from remaining a “Halloween enthusiast” (his words) as an adult and dressing up in clever costumes that make the most of and celebrate his missing limb.
For the past five years, Sundquist has posted pictures of himself in costumes only he can pull off: in 2014, he was a foosball player (’cause, duh, those little plastic guys have only a single leg for kicking!). In 2013, he was a pink flamingo, and his leg was the head. The year 2012 saw him as the leg lamp from A Christmas Story, which may be the most perfect one-legged costume of all time; and in 2010 he dressed as a gingerbread man (photo) with one leg bitten off.
“Got something that makes you ‘different’? Instead of being self-conscious, embarrassed, or ashamed, find a way to celebrate it,” Sundquist writes on his website.
By the way, Sundquist does a lot more than just create amazing Halloween costumes. He’s a ski racer and soccer player, and the only person in history to ever have been named to both the Paralympic Ski Team and the Amputee Soccer Team. He is also the best-selling author of the memoir Just Don’t Fall, a motivational speaker, and a YouTube star best known for his viral hit The Amputee Rap.
So what have you done today?
Rico says he does a pirate thing for Halloween, given his patch, but this is way cooler...

History for the day

On 28 October 1886, the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France, was dedicated in New York Harbor by President Grover Cleveland.

Apple for the day

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has a Fortune article about Apple:
Apple reported record fourth quarter earnings of $1.96 per share on revenue of $51.5 billion, driven once again by strong iPhone sales. The results beat but did not blow past expectations. The stock rose more than 2.75% in after hours trading.
“Fiscal 2015 was Apple’s most successful year ever, with revenue growing 28% to nearly $234 billion. This continued success is the result of our commitment to making the best, most innovative products on earth, and it’s a testament to the tremendous execution by our teams,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “We are heading into the holidays with our strongest product lineup yet, including the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, Apple Watch with an expanded lineup of cases and bands, the new iPad Pro and the all-new Apple TV, which begins shipping this week.”
Apple’s record September quarter results drove earnings per share growth of 38% and operating cash flow of $13.5 billion,” said Luca Maestri, Apple’s CFO. “We returned $17 billion to our investors during the quarter through share repurchases and dividends, and we have now completed over $143 billion of our $200 billion capital return program.” 
By the numbers:
— Revenue: $51.5 billion, up 22.3%
— iPhone: 48.05 million, up 22.3%
— iPad: 9.883 million, down 19.8%
— Mac: 5.71 million, up 3.4%
— Services: $5.09 billion, up 10.3%
— Other products: $3.05 billion, up 104.6%
— Gross margin: 39.9%, up from 38%
— Revenue guidance: $75.5 to $77.5 billion
— GM guidance: 39% to 40%
Rico says now he's really sorry he had to sell all his Apple stock...

27 October 2015

Could the Nazis have conquered the US?

War History Online has an article about an alternate version of World War Two:
Considering some of the different outcomes that could have happened during World War Two, historians and researchers have looked closely at how and what would have happened if Germany and the Nazis had tried to invade the US.
Before America joined the war, Germany was making advances to the east in the then-Soviet Union, most of Europe was suffering under Nazi tyranny, and large pieces of North Africa were under German control. When Japan brought America into World War Two in 1941, Hitler declared war on America, making the war truly global.
The difficulty the Germans would have had is that they needed to invade from somewhere near the American mainland. This could have been possible if they had used one of the French-governed islands, or land in South America. The Germans would have needed this as a launch pad into the mainland, otherwise it would be impossible to launch an attack.
In the United States, gun ownership is widespread and, during the war, this would have meant that local people would have been well-armed to fight back against any invaders. As an invading force, the Germans would have faced an army around ten times the size of their own.
The main problem for German troops on the American continent would have been supplies. The German troops even suffered massive supply problems when they invaded the Soviet Union, so to get enough supplies including military equipment, fuel, and food across the Atlantic would have been nearly impossible, leaving the German army defeated and probably destroyed.
Nazi U-boats were no doubt a success during the war, and would have been needed to guard the supply lines all the way across the Atlantic, but that wasn’t possible because Allied warships and air support was making it difficult for the U-boats to gather momentum.
Fighting and defending their occupied territory in Europe, whilst attempting an invasion on the United States, would have surely been suicide for the German army. In addition, Germany was also under attack from Britain’s Royal Air Force. Thus, no attack on America was even feasible before the battles on the mainland were won and Great Britain occupied. As we now know, this proved too much for the already overstretched German forces, leaving a Nazi invasion of America a thing for dreamers and armchair generals.
Rico says the map has them coming up from the south, through Texas and Alabama. Knowing the rate of gub ownership in that part of the country, a lot of Germans would've died in the attempt, and that's why the Founding Fathers wrote this:

Slight risk, major reward

The New York Times has an article by Anahad O'Connor titled Meat Is Linked to Higher Cancer Risk, WHO Report Finds:
A panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization said the increase in risk is so slight that most people should not be overly worried.
Rico says he'd eat it, regardless...

Apple and the elusive Angela Ahrendts

The New York Times has an article by Vanessa Friedman about Apple and it's 'elusive' vice president:
The news that Microsoft is opening a flagship on Fifth Avenue, not far from an Apple store, reminded me of a question that has been niggling at me for the last few weeks, ever since the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its fashion gala in May would be sponsored by Apple, and WME/IMG debuted its all-fashion channel on Apple TV:
What happened to Angela Ahrendts, (photo) Apple’s senior vice president for retail and online stores, and its biggest fashion hire? Where is she in all of this?
In 2013, when Ahrendts was poached with great fanfare from Burberry, where she was chief executive, fashion speculated that she might become the friendlier, more stylish, face of Apple; in her former job, she had been known for her communication skills and charm, and Apple is not known for its female executives. The potential upside of having her as both a manager and an ambassador seemed high.
Yet, since starting last year, aside from a few LinkedIn posts on management techniques and the news that she was the highest-paid female executive in the United States in 2014, with a combined package of over eighty million dollars, she has largely disappeared from public view.
Instead, it is Jonathan Ive, chief design officer of Apple, who has become the face of the brand. It is Ive who will be at the top of the Met’s steps with Anna Wintour, welcoming guests to the gala as an official “co-chair”; Ive who popped up, somewhat surprisingly, on the Vanity Fair best-dressed list last month; Ive who has become the embodiment of Apple’s ambitions in the fashion world.
And despite the fact that the retail rollout of the Apple Watch was, presumably, partly Ahrendts’ responsibility, even Paul Deneve, the former Saint Laurent chief executive who joined Apple to lead special projects, has been more visible than Ahrendts, showing up at the cocktail party for the introduction of the Hermès Apple Watch during Paris Fashion Week, and hobnobbing with his old style-world compatriots.
In a recent Fortune profile tied to the publication ranking her as the sixteenth most powerful woman, a rare interview since Ahrendts joined Apple (and which, the magazine said, she agreed to only when it was clear they were writing the article whether she participated or not), she explained her absence by saying she wanted to first listen and learn. Fair enough. Listening was one of her signature traits at Burberry. And according to Fortune, she has slowly been changing the company’s retail culture. (The fact you get an email or text telling you when it’s time for your Genius Bar appointment so you don’t have to hang around and wait? Thank Angela.)
But it’s been more than sixteen months, and it’s hard not to think Apple is missing a trick here. Especially if it is interested in casting itself in part as a fashion brand.
To this end, how effective would it be to have Ahrendts play a public part in the brand’s personalization (personalization being a big thing in fashion), along with Ive? After all, when it comes to experience and understanding of the style sector, with all its byzantine value systems and preconceptions, not to mention understanding fashion consumers and appealing to them in a very direct way, it’s doubtful anyone else in the company hierarchy comes close.
On the most basic level, in terms of optics, seeing the very well-dressed Ahrendts wearing an Apple Watch the way she used to sport a Burberry suit (with an iPad) could be a very convincing visual tool. On a more abstract level, Ahrendts is an aspirational figure. People want to be like her, down to wanting to buy like her.
If the tech retail wars are heating up, perhaps it’s finally time to deploy her.
Rico says that Apple's missing a bet here...

1904: New York City subway opens

History.com has this for today:
At 2:35 on the afternoon of 27 October 1904, New York City Mayor George McClellan took the controls on the inaugural run of the city’s innovative new rapid transit system: the subway.
While London boasts the world’s oldest underground train network (opened in 1863) and Boston built the first subway in the United States in 1897, the New York City subway soon became the largest American system. The first line, operated by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), traveled nine miles through 28 stations. Running from City Hall in lower Manhattan to Grand Central Terminal in midtown, and then heading west along 42nd Street to Times Square, the line finished by zipping north, all the way to 145th Street and Broadway in Harlem. On opening day, Mayor McClellan so enjoyed his stint as engineer that he stayed at the controls all the way from City Hall to 103rd Street.
At 7 pm that evening, the subway opened to the general public, and more than a hundred thousand people paid a nickel each to take their first ride under Manhattan. IRT service expanded to the Bronx in 1905, to Brooklyn in 1908, and to Queens in 1915. Since 1968, the subway has been controlled by the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA). The system now has 26 lines and 468 stations in operation; the longest line, the 8th Avenue “A” Express train, stretches more than thirty miles, from the northern tip of Manhattan to the far southeast corner of Queens.
Every day, some four and a half million passengers take the subway in New York City. With the exception of the PATH train connecting New York with New Jersey, and some parts of Chicago, Illinois’s elevated train system, New York City’s subway is the only rapid transit system in the world that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No matter how crowded or dirty, the subway is one New York City institution few New Yorkers or tourists could do without.
Rico says he's ridden it, and will take London's any day...

US destroyer passes disputed China islands

The BBC has an article (with its usual non-downloadable video, top) about us and the Chinese:
A Navy ship has sailed close to artificial islands built by China in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, US defense officials have said. Guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen breached the twelve-nautical mile zone China claims around Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly archipelago (see map).
The freedom of navigation operation represents a serious challenge to China's territorial claims. The foreign ministry in Beijing condemned it as "illegal". In a statement, ministry spokesman Lu Kang described the operation as a "threat to China's sovereignty", adding that Beijing would "resolutely respond to any country's deliberately provocative actions".
Defense Department spokesman Commander Bill Urban said that "the United States is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law".
China claims most of the South and East China seas. Other countries in South East Asia have competing claims for the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal, which are thought to have resource-rich waters around them.
The reefs (photo, above), which were submerged, were turned into islands by China by a massive dredging project which began in late 2013.
China says this work is legal and, in a meeting with President Barack Obama last month in Washington, President Xi Jinping said China had "no intention to militarize" the islands. But Washington believes Beijing is constructing military facilities, designed to reinforce its disputed claim to most of the region, a major shipping zone.
The Freedom of Navigation program challenges what it deems to be "excessive claims" to the world's oceans and airspace. It was developed to promote international adherence to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, even though the US has not formally ratified the treaty.
In 2013 and 2014, the US conducted Freedom of Navigation operations of different kinds against China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, each of whom occupies territory in the South China Sea.

Why is the South China Sea contentious?International maritime law allows countries to claim ownership of the twelve-nautical mile area surrounding natural islands, but does not allow nations to claim ownership of submerged features that have been raised by human intervention.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter had previously signaled plans for the sail-by, saying the US would "fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows".
A senior US defense official told Reuters the warship began its mission near the reefs, and would spend several hours there.
The USS Lassen was expected to be accompanied by a Navy P-8A surveillance plane and a P-3 surveillance plane, according to the unnamed official, speaking to US media.
Additional patrols could follow in the coming weeks, the official added.
USS Lassen
The ship (photo, above) is an Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer, which the Navy says is among the most powerful destroyers ever built.
It is five hundred feet long, with a displacement of nine thousand tons fully loaded, and crewed by about three hundred.
It carries two Seahawk helicopters and uses the Aegis defense system.
Weapons include Tomahawk missiles, RUM-139 anti-submarine missiles, and surface-to-air missiles.
Rico says that the Spratlys showed up as the destination for the gold in his novel, At All Hazards, available on Amazon. but China knows it would get its ass 'resolutely' kicked in any naval showdown with the US.

Idiot for the day

Time has an Associated Press article by Justin Juozapavicius about someone who's going to jail for a long (and well-deserved) time:
A woman accused of driving her car into a crowd of people at Oklahoma State University’s homecoming parade “purposely” went around a barricade, ran a red light, and drove over a police motorcycle before crashing into the spectators, a prosecutor said.
“The evidence suggests this was an intentional act, not an accident,” Payne County District Attorney Laura Thomas said in a public statement. The driver’s actions demonstrate “a depraved mind and indifference to human life”.
At a bail hearing, the district attorney told the judge that Adacia Chambers is “looking at four life sentences” if convicted in the deaths of four people who were hit.
Special District Judge Katherine Thomas granted the request for a million dollar bail and ordered a psychological evaluation for Chambers, who is being held on preliminary counts of second-degree murder. “This was a well-known parade day and route, and these innocents were visible from a substantial distance,” the district attorney said in the statement.
The suspect appeared at the hearing via video (above). The only time she spoke was to say “yes” when the judge asked if she could hear her. Prosecutors asked for more time to interview the dozens of witnesses who were at the scene and said one of the injured is in a “fragile” state, which could lead to more charges.
In Oklahoma, second-degree murder charges are warranted when someone acts in a way that’s “imminently dangerous to another person”, but does so without premeditation. Each count is punishable by at least ten years in prison.
Chambers, 25, of Stillwater, Oklahoma has yet to be formally charged, a step that requires prosecutors to file additional documents in court.
The judge scheduled the next hearing for 13 November 2015.
After the hearing, Chambers’ attorney, Tony Coleman, said when he told Chambers about the deaths, “her face was blank.” He said he was not sure Chambers is aware that she’s in jail. Chambers had yet to ask to see her parents or boyfriend.
Police are awaiting blood tests to determine whether she was impaired by drugs or alcohol.
During an earlier interview with Chambers, Coleman said he “was not satisfied at all that I was communicating with a competent individual”. Coleman has said Chambers was at work before the crash and that she does not remember much, only that she felt confused as she was removed from the car.
Chambers’ father, aunt, and boyfriend spoke outside the courthouse, telling reporters that they don’t know what led to the crash.
Chambers father, Floyd, said his daughter had received inpatient mental health treatment several years ago, but nothing seemed amiss recently, except his daughter had called and said she wanted to move back home. “I thought that was kind of strange, but I don’t know. She was very good about hiding her problems because she didn’t want the family to worry about her, and she kept to herself about things like that,” Chambers said, fighting back tears. He said his daughter is a talented artist who loves music. “I would like the public not to think so badly of her, because that’s not just who she was. That’s not who I raised,” he said. “And when we get all the test results back, we’ll know.”
Lynda Branstetter said she saw her niece Friday night and nothing seemed unusual.
“This is so not her. This is not her character,” Branstetter said tearfully. “She’s one that’ll give you a big hug. And she’s one if you’re down, she’ll make you smile. That’s my Adacia.”
Her boyfriend, Jesse Gaylord, said Chambers had difficulty sleeping and only got an hour or two of sleep before leaving for work Saturday morning. Gaylord said he never saw Chambers take any drugs, prescription or illegal, and that the last time they drank alcohol was a few weeks ago, when they each had one beer on his birthday.
“As far as for her to purposefully go and do something, that would just not be possible. She would never do anything like that consciously,” Gaylord said. Gaylord said he had never even seen Chambers break any traffic laws. “She’s honestly one of the most cautious drivers that I’ve ever ridden with. She never turns out in front of any cars. She doesn’t ever run yellow lights,” he said.
The crash killed three adults and a two-year-old boy. At least forty other people were hurt, including many children. The Oklahoma medical examiner’s office identified the boy killed in the crash as two-year-old Nash Lucas. Oklahoma State University said the boy’s mother, twenty-year-old Nicolette Strauch, is a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering.
The dead adults were identified as Nikita Nakal, a 23-year-old MBA student from India and a married couple, Bonnie Jean Stone and Marvin Lyle Stone, both 65, of Stillwater.
Rico says she's doomed...

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