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Monday, December 26, 2011

White Christmas, Seattle style

No snow, but lots of whitecaps on Puget Sound. This is just south of Alki Point yesterday around noon.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

How democracy the roar of thunderous applause.

Below is a critique and debunking of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, written by Glen Greenwald for Salon Magazine.

Shame on the House of Representatives. Shame on the United States Senate. Shame on the President of the United States. Shame on us.

Here is the bill in its entirety.

Greenwald's critique in its entirety, with many hot-links, is here.


Three Myths About the Detention Bill Condemnation of President Obama is intense, and growing, as a result of his announced intent to sign into law the indefinite detention bill embedded in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). These denunciations come not only from the nation’s leading civil liberties and human rights groups, but also from the pro-Obama New York Times Editorial Page, which today has a scathing Editorial describing Obama’s stance as “a complete political cave-in, one that reinforces the impression of a fumbling presidency” and lamenting that “the bill has so many other objectionable aspects that we can’t go into them all,” as well as from vocal Obama supporters such as Andrew Sullivan, who wrote yesterday that this episode is “another sign that his campaign pledge to be vigilant about civil liberties in the war on terror was a lie.” In damage control mode, White-House-allied groups are now trying to ride to the rescue with attacks on the ACLU and dismissive belittling of the bill’s dangers.

For that reason, it is very worthwhile to briefly examine — and debunk — the three principal myths being spread by supporters of this bill, and to do so very simply: by citing the relevant provisions of the bill, as well as the relevant passages of the original 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), so that everyone can judge for themselves what this bill actually includes (this is all above and beyond the evidence I assembled in writing about this bill yesterday):

Myth # 1: This bill does not codify indefinite detention

Section 1021 of the NDAA governs, as its title says, “Authority of the Armed Forces to Detain Covered Persons Pursuant to the AUMF.” The first provision — section (a) — explicitly “affirms that the authority of the President” under the AUMF ”includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons.” The next section, (b), defines “covered persons” — i.e., those who can be detained by the U.S. military — as “a person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” With regard to those “covered individuals,” this is the power vested in the President by the next section, (c):

It simply cannot be any clearer within the confines of the English language that this bill codifies the power of indefinite detention. It expressly empowers the President — with regard to anyone accused of the acts in section (b) – to detain them “without trial until the end of the hostilities.” That is the very definition of “indefinite detention,” and the statute could not be clearer that it vests this power. Anyone claiming this bill does not codify indefinite detention should be forced to explain how they can claim that in light of this crystal clear provision.

It is true, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, that both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued that the 2001 AUMF implicitly (i.e., silently) already vests the power of indefinite detention in the President, and post-9/11 deferential courts have largely accepted that view (just as the Bush DOJ argued that the 2001 AUMF implicitly (i.e., silently) allowed them to eavesdrop on Americans without the warrants required by law). That’s why the NDAA can state that nothing is intended to expand the 2001 AUMF while achieving exactly that: because the Executive and judicial interpretation being given to the 20o1 AUMF is already so much broader than its language provides.

But this is the first time this power of indefinite detention is being expressly codified by statute (there’s not a word about detention powers in the 2001 AUMF). Indeed, as the ACLU and HRW both pointed out, it’s the first time such powers are being codified in a statute since the McCarthy era Internal Security Act of 1950, about which I wrote yesterday.

Myth #2: The bill does not expand the scope of the War on Terror as defined by the 2001 AUMF

This myth is very easily dispensed with. The scope of the war as defined by the original 2001 AUMF was, at least relative to this new bill, quite specific and narrow. Here’s the full extent of the power the original AUMF granted:

(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Under the clear language of the 2001 AUMF, the President’s authorization to use force was explicitly confined to those who (a) helped perpetrate the 9/11 attack or (b) harbored the perpetrators. That’s it. Now look at how much broader the NDAA is with regard to who can be targeted:

Section (1) is basically a re-statement of the 2001 AUMF. But Section (2) is a brand new addition. It allows the President to target not only those who helped perpetrate the 9/11 attacks or those who harbored them, but also: anyone who “substantially supports” such groups and/or “associated forces.” Those are extremely vague terms subject to wild and obvious levels of abuse (see what Law Professor Jonathan Hafetz told me in an interview last week about the dangers of those terms). This is a substantial statutory escalation of the War on Terror and the President’s powers under it, and it occurs more than ten years after 9/11, with Osama bin Laden dead, and with the U.S. Government boasting that virtually all Al Qaeda leaders have been eliminated and the original organization (the one accused of perpetrating 9/11 attack) rendered inoperable.

It is true that both the Bush and Obama administration have long been arguing that the original AUMF should be broadly “interpreted” so as to authorize force against this much larger scope of individuals, despite the complete absence of such language in that original AUMF. That’s how the Obama administration justifies its ongoing bombing of Yemen and Somalia and its killing of people based on the claim that they support groups that did not even exist at the time of 9/11 – i.e., they argue: these new post-9/11 groups we’re targeting are “associated forces” of Al Qaeda and the individuals we’re killing “substantially support” those groups. But this is the first time that Congress has codified that wildly expanded definition of the Enemy in the War on Terror. And all anyone has to do to see that is compare the old AUMF with the new one in the NDAA.

Myth #3: U.S. citizens are exempted from this new bill

This is simply false, at least when expressed so definitively and without caveats. The bill is purposely muddled on this issue which is what is enabling the falsehood.

There are two separate indefinite military detention provisions in this bill. The first, Section 1021, authorizes indefinite detention for the broad definition of “covered persons” discussed above in the prior point. And that section does provide that “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.” So that section contains a disclaimer regarding an intention to expand detention powers for U.S. citizens, but does so only for the powers vested by that specific section. More important, the exclusion appears to extend only to U.S. citizens “captured or arrested in the United States” — meaning that the powers of indefinite detention vested by that section apply to U.S. citizens captured anywhere abroad (there is some grammatical vagueness on this point, but at the very least, there is a viable argument that the detention power in this section applies to U.S. citizens captured abroad).

But the next section, Section 1022, is a different story. That section specifically deals with a smaller category of people than the broad group covered by 1021: namely, anyone whom the President determines is “a member of, or part of, al-Qaeda or an associated force” and “participated in the course of planning or carrying out an attack or attempted attack against the United States or its coalition partners.” For those persons, section (a) not only authorizes, but requires (absent a Presidential waiver), that they be held “in military custody pending disposition under the law of war.” The section title is “Military Custody for Foreign Al Qaeda Terrorists,” but the definition of who it covers does not exclude U.S. citizens or include any requirement of foreignness.

That section — 1022 — does not contain the broad disclaimer regarding U.S. citizens that 1021 contains. Instead, it simply says that the requirement of military detention does not apply to U.S. citizens, but it does not exclude U.S. citizens from the authority, the option, to hold them in military custody. Here is what it says:

The only provision from which U.S. citizens are exempted here is the “requirement” of military detention. For foreign nationals accused of being members of Al Qaeda, military detention is mandatory; for U.S. citizens, it is optional. This section does not exempt U.S citizens from the presidential power of military detention: only from the requirement of military detention.

The most important point on this issue is the same as underscored in the prior two points: the “compromise” reached by Congress includes language preserving the status quo. That’s because the Obama administration already argues that the original 2001 AUMF authorizes them to act against U.S. citizens (obviously, if they believe they have the power to target U.S. citizens for assassination, then they believe they have the power to detain U.S. citizens as enemy combatants). The proof that this bill does not expressly exempt U.S. citizens or those captured on U.S. soil is that amendments offered by Sen. Feinstein providing expressly for those exemptions were rejected. The “compromise” was to preserve the status quo by including the provision that the bill is not intended to alter it with regard to American citizens, but that’s because proponents of broad detention powers are confident that the status quo already permits such detention.

In sum, there is simply no question that this bill codifies indefinite detention without trial (Myth 1). There is no question that it significantly expands the statutory definitions of the War on Terror and those who can be targeted as part of it (Myth 2). The issue of application to U.S. citizens (Myth 3) is purposely muddled — that’s why Feinstein’s amendments were rejected — and there is consequently no doubt this bill can and will be used by the U.S. Government (under this President or a future one) to bolster its argument that it is empowered to indefinitely detain even U.S. citizens without a trial (NYT Editorial: “The legislation could also give future presidents the authority to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial”; Sen. Bernie Sanders: “This bill also contains misguided provisions that in the name of fighting terrorism essentially authorize the indefinite imprisonment of American citizens without charges”).

Even if it were true that this bill changes nothing when compared to how the Executive Branch has been interpreting and exercising the powers of the old AUMF, there are serious dangers and harms from having Congress — with bipartisan sponsors, a Democratic Senate and a GOP House — put its institutional, statutory weight behind powers previously claimed and seized by the President alone. That codification entrenches these powers. As the New York Times Editorial today put it: the bill contains “terrible new measures that will make indefinite detention and military trials a permanent part of American law.”

What’s particularly ironic (and revealing) about all of this is that former White House counsel Greg Craig assured The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer back in February, 2009 that it’s “hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law.” Four months later, President Obama proposed exactly such a law — one that The New York Times described as “a departure from the way this country sees itself, as a place where people in the grip of the government either face criminal charges or walk free” — and now he will sign such a scheme into law.

UPDATE: There’s an interview with (Greenwald) in Harper’s today regarding American justice and With Liberty and Justice for Some.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The reason for the season

Astronomical data for the solstice for folks in Seattle who care about such things:

The moment of solstice happens at 9:30pm pst on Wednesday, December 21st, and sunrise on the 22nd at the Admiral Overlook in Seattle will occur at 07:55:12 pst.

However, the weather for Thursday is looking overcast and rainy, so the solstice sunrise festivities may actually be watching the sky turn from dark gray to lighter gray. That's okay, Seattleites are used to a little cloud cover.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Port of Long Beach teamsters on port Occupations

Dateline: Los Angeles/Long Beach
An Open Letter from America’s Port Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports

December 12, 2011

We are the front-line workers who haul container rigs full of imported and exported goods to and from the docks and warehouses every day.

We have been elected by committees of our co-workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York and New Jersey to tell our collective story. We have accepted the honor to speak up for our brothers and sisters about our working conditions despite the risk of retaliation we face. One of us is a mother, the rest of us fathers. Between the five of us we have 11children and one more baby on the way. We have a combined 46 years of experience driving cargo from our shores for America’s stores.

We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.

Today’s demonstrations will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?

We love being behind the wheel. We are proud of the work we do to keep America’s economy moving. But we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part time at a fast-food counter. Especially when we work an average of 60 or more hours a week, away from our families.

There is so much at stake in our industry. It is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. We don’t think truck driving should be a dead-end road in America. It should be a good job with a middle-class paycheck like it used to be decades ago.

We desperately want to drive clean and safe vehicles. Rigs that do not fill our lungs with deadly toxins, or dirty the air in the communities we haul in.

Poverty and pollution are like a plague at the ports. Our economic conditions are what led to the environmental crisis.

You, the public, have paid a severe price along with us.

Why? Just like Wall Street doesn’t have to abide by rules, our industry isn’t bound to regulation. So the market is run by con artists. The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We cannot negotiate our rates. (Usually we are not allowed to even see them.) We are paid by the load, not by the hour. So when we sit in those long lines at the terminals, or if we are stuck in traffic, we become volunteers who basically donate our time to the trucking and shipping companies. That’s the nice way to put it. We have all heard the words “modern-day slaves” at the lunch stops.

There are no restrooms for drivers. We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs. An Oakland driver was recently banned from the terminal because he was spied relieving himself behind a container. Neither the port, nor the terminal operators or anyone in the industry thinks it is their responsibility to provide humane and hygienic facilities for us. It is absolutely horrible for drivers who are women, who risk infection when they try to hold it until they can find a place to go.

The companies demand we cut corners to compete. It makes our roads less safe. When we try to blow the whistle about skipped inspections, faulty equipment, or falsified logs, then we are “starved out.” That means we are either fired outright, or more likely, we never get dispatched to haul a load again.

It may be difficult to comprehend the complex issues and nature of our employment. For us too. When businesses disguise workers like us as contractors, the Department of Labor calls it misclassification. We call it illegal. Those who profit from global trade and goods movement are getting away with it because everyone is doing it. One journalist took the time to talk to us this week and she explains it very well to outsiders. We hope you will read the enclosed article “How Goldman Sachs and Other Companies Exploit Port Truck Drivers.”

But the short answer to the question: Why are companies like SSA Marine, the Seattle-based global terminal operator that runs one of the West Coast’s major trucking carriers, Shippers’ Transport Express, doing this? Why would mega-rich Maersk, a huge Danish shipping and trucking conglomerate that wants to drill for more oil with Exxon Mobil in the Gulf Coast conduct business this way too?

To cheat on taxes, drive down business costs, and deny us the right to belong to a union, that’s why.

The typical arrangement works like this: Everything comes out of our pockets or is deducted from our paychecks. The truck or lease, fuel, insurance, registration, you name it. Our employers do not have to pay the costs of meeting emissions-compliant regulations; that is our financial burden to bear. Clean trucks cost about four to five times more than what we take home in a year. A few of us haul our company’s trucks for a tiny fraction of what the shippers pay per load instead of an hourly wage. They still call us independent owner-operators and give us a 1099 rather than a W-2.

We have never recovered from losing our basic rights as employees in America. Every year it literally goes from bad to worse to the unimaginable. We were ground zero for the government’s first major experiment into letting big business call the shots. Since it worked so well for the CEOs in transportation, why not the mortgage and banking industry too?

Even the few of us who are hired as legitimate employees are routinely denied our legal rights under this system. Just ask our co-workers who haul clothing brands like Guess?, Under Armour, and Ralph Lauren’s Polo. The carrier they work for in Los Angeles is called Toll Group and is headquartered in Australia. At the busiest time of the holiday shopping season, 26 drivers were axed after wearing Teamster T-shirts to work. They were protesting the lack of access to clean, indoor restrooms with running water. The company hired an anti-union consultant to intimidate the drivers. Down Under, the same company bargains with 12,000 of our counterparts in good faith.

Despite our great hardships, many of us cannot — or refuse to, as some of the most well-intentioned suggest — “just quit.” First, we want to work and do not have a safety net. Many of us are tied to one-sided leases. But more importantly, why should we have to leave? Truck driving is what we do, and we do it well.

We are the skilled, specially-licensed professionals who guarantee that Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart are all stocked with just-in-time delivery for consumers. Take a look at all the stuff in your house. The things you see advertised on TV. Chances are a port truck driver brought that special holiday gift to the store you bought it.

We would rather stick together and transform our industry from within. We deserve to be fairly rewarded and valued. That is why we have united to stage convoys, park our trucks, marched on the boss, and even shut down these ports.

It’s like our hero Dutch Prior, a Shipper’s/SSA Marine driver, told CBS Early Morning this month: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

The more underwater we are, the more our restlessness grows. We are being thoughtful about how best to organize ourselves and do what is needed to win dignity, respect, and justice.

Nowadays greedy corporations are treated as “people” while the politicians they bankroll cast union members who try to improve their workplaces as “thugs.”

But we believe in the power and potential behind a truly united 99%. We admire the strength and perseverance of the longshoremen. We are fighting like mad to overcome our exploitation, so please, stick by us long after December 12. Our friends in the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports created a pledge you can sign to support us here.

We drivers have a saying, “We may not have a union yet, but no one can stop us from acting like one.”

The brothers and sisters of the Teamsters have our backs. They help us make our voices heard. But we need your help too so we can achieve the day where we raise our fists and together declare: “No one could stop us from forming a union.”

Thank you.

In solidarity,

Leonardo Mejia
SSA Marine/Shippers Transport Express
Port of Long Beach
10-year driver

Yemane Berhane
Ports of Seattle & Tacoma
6-year port driver

Xiomara Perez
Toll Group
Port of Los Angeles
8-year driver

Abdul Khan
Port of Oakland
7-year port driver

Ramiro Gotay
Ports of New York & New Jersey
15-year port driver

Friday, December 9, 2011


If you happen to be in the Pacific Northwest and also happen to have an unobstructed view of the horizon in both directions, tomorrow morning's lunar eclipse is going to afford a unique and implausible simultaneous view of both the rising sun and the setting eclipsed moon. This is called a selenelion and possible due to atmospheric refraction. For example, when you see the sun or the moon just sitting on the horizon, it isn't really there; the entire disk is actually just below the horizon, but we're seeing the image refracted over the curvature of the earth. With a selenelion both the sun and the moon are actually just below the horizon, but being refracted over it.

If you happen to be in Seattle, the bad news is that the Cascade and Olympic mountains will obscure the sun and the moon at the time of the selenelion, if the rain doesn't. The good news is that for the other 364 sunrises of the year, you also have a view of the Cascades and Olympics.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Into the dark

Two notable press releases from NASA today. The first, which got most of the coverage in the commercial media, is that the Kepler mission has confirmed the presence of a large rocky world within the habitable zone of a star some 600 light-years away. In and of itself, this announcement is actually only mildly interesting. What is more interesting is that in the year Kepler has been operational, it has already discovered 2,326 planet candidates, of which 28 have already been confirmed. Even more interesting is the fact that all of these were discovered in this very small section of the sky:

Statistically, this may bode very well for habitable worlds around stars within 10 light-years of our sun.

The more interesting story out of NASA today is that the two Voyager probes are reaching the outer limits of our sun's influence, and will very soon enter interstellar space. This will be our first direct observation of the Interstellar Medium, and will afford a great deal of insight into the realities of travel to the nearest stars.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ain't like dusting crops, boy!

The recent discovery of more small moons orbiting Pluto flags the possibility of a debris field which could seriously endanger the New Horizons probe when it arrives there in 2015. The question is not whether the debris field exists, which it seems to. Rather, the issue is whether the debris field is in the form of a disk (such as Saturn's rings) or a cloud. The best indications right now are for the latter.


Pluto's Moons Could Spell Danger for New Horizons Spacecraft

When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft reaches Pluto in July 2015, it may find the region more hazardous than anticipated. The discovery of several moons around Pluto — and the potential for more — increase the risks during the probe's flyby.

The main problem is debris. The small moons are under constant bombardment from nearby space rocks called Kuiper Belt objects, but the moons' low gravity prevents them from holding on to chunks of dirt and rock that fly into the air when hit. The debris instead finds itself caught in orbit around Pluto, where it could pose a serious threat to New Horizons.

"The most likely problem we would encounter is to be hit by something that is large enough to instantly destroy the spacecraft," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, told

Though cameras on the New Horizons probe will begin observing the Pluto system several months before its closest approach, they won't be able to detect the fast-flying milligram-size particles that could spell instant death if they collide with the vehicle.

New moons on the rise

Pluto's first known moon, Charon, was discovered in 1978, nearly 50 years after the dwarf planet was found. The Hubble Space Telescope discovered the next two of Pluto's moons in 2005, only two and a half months before New Horizons was launched.

In July of this year, a fourth moon of Pluto was located, and there are hints that two more might exist.

With three of Pluto's four moons having been discovered in the last five years, scientists have a hunch there are likely more still hidden.

Due to these new additions, a group of experts recently convened to analyze the hazards New Horizons might face. After determining the threat was real, they discussed how to avoid it.

A harder look at the challenge could make a significant difference, scientists say. Continuing to study the system with the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as several ground-based telescopes, could help reveal other hidden moons and their orbits well before New Horizons arrives.

Hunting hidden moons

But searching doesn't necessarily mean success.

"If there are moons too small, meaning too faint, then we won't find them," Stern said.

With that in mind, the group also determined the need for a good "safe haven bailout trajectory," or SHBOT — an orbit that New Horizons could shift into that would keep it away from the most likely danger zones.

The best route would zip through Charon's orbit, but on the opposite side of the planet from the moon. The large body constantly clears debris from its path, creating a safe route for New Horizons to pass through.

This strategy works best if the debris remains in a plane, similar to Saturn's rings. If, however, it orbits Pluto in a cloud, the danger is heightened.

If New Horizons encounters dirt and dust from the moons, it could put an abrupt end to the first mission to Pluto.

"There is no wounded here — only dead or alive," Stern said.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Curiosity abounds

Very nice photo of the launch of the new Mars rover Curiosity. The vehicle is an Atlas V 541.

Naomi Wolf on federal response to Occupy protests

Excellent but disturbing analysis of US federal government's response to the Occupy protests, by Naomi Wolf. A bit hyperbolic, I hope, but very thought-provoking.


The Guardian (UK)
Friday 25 November 2011 12.25 EST

The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy

The violent police assaults across the US are no coincidence. Occupy has touched the third rail of our political class's venality

by Naomi Wolf

US citizens of all political persuasions are still reeling from images of unparallelled police brutality in a coordinated crackdown against peaceful OWS protesters in cities across the nation this past week. An elderly woman was pepper-sprayed in the face; the scene of unresisting, supine students at UC Davis being pepper-sprayed by phalanxes of riot police went viral online; images proliferated of young women – targeted seemingly for their gender – screaming, dragged by the hair by police in riot gear; and the pictures of a young man, stunned and bleeding profusely from the head, emerged in the record of the middle-of-the-night clearing of Zuccotti Park.

But just when Americans thought we had the picture – was this crazy police and mayoral overkill, on a municipal level, in many different cities? – the picture darkened. The National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a Freedom of Information Act request to investigate possible federal involvement with law enforcement practices that appeared to target journalists. The New York Times reported that "New York cops have arrested, punched, whacked, shoved to the ground and tossed a barrier at reporters and photographers" covering protests. Reporters were asked by NYPD to raise their hands to prove they had credentials: when many dutifully did so, they were taken, upon threat of arrest, away from the story they were covering, and penned far from the site in which the news was unfolding. Other reporters wearing press passes were arrested and roughed up by cops, after being – falsely – informed by police that "It is illegal to take pictures on the sidewalk."

In New York, a state supreme court justice and a New York City council member were beaten up; in Berkeley, California, one of our greatest national poets, Robert Hass, was beaten with batons. The picture darkened still further when Wonkette and reported that the Mayor of Oakland acknowledged that the Department of Homeland Security had participated in an 18-city mayor conference call advising mayors on "how to suppress" Occupy protests.

To Europeans, the enormity of this breach may not be obvious at first. Our system of government prohibits the creation of a federalised police force, and forbids federal or militarised involvement in municipal peacekeeping.

I noticed that rightwing pundits and politicians on the TV shows on which I was appearing were all on-message against OWS. Journalist Chris Hayes reported on a leaked memo that revealed lobbyists vying for an $850,000 contract to smear Occupy. Message coordination of this kind is impossible without a full-court press at the top. This was clearly not simply a case of a freaked-out mayors', city-by-city municipal overreaction against mess in the parks and cranky campers. As the puzzle pieces fit together, they began to show coordination against OWS at the highest national levels.

Why this massive mobilisation against these not-yet-fully-articulated, unarmed, inchoate people? After all, protesters against the war in Iraq, Tea Party rallies and others have all proceeded without this coordinated crackdown. Is it really the camping? As I write, two hundred young people, with sleeping bags, suitcases and even folding chairs, are still camping out all night and day outside of NBC on public sidewalks – under the benevolent eye of an NYPD cop – awaiting Saturday Night Live tickets, so surely the camping is not the issue. I was still deeply puzzled as to why OWS, this hapless, hopeful band, would call out a violent federal response.

That is, until I found out what it was that OWS actually wanted.

The mainstream media was declaring continually "OWS has no message". Frustrated, I simply asked them. I began soliciting online "What is it you want?" answers from Occupy. In the first 15 minutes, I received 100 answers. These were truly eye-opening.

The No 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process. No 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, with the most frequent item being to restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. This law would correct the conditions for the recent crisis, as investment banks could not take risks for profit that create kale derivatives out of thin air, and wipe out the commercial and savings banks.

No 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.

When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them.

For the terrible insight to take away from news that the Department of Homeland Security coordinated a violent crackdown is that the DHS does not freelance. The DHS cannot say, on its own initiative, "we are going after these scruffy hippies". Rather, DHS is answerable up a chain of command: first, to New York Representative Peter King, head of the House homeland security subcommittee, who naturally is influenced by his fellow congressmen and women's wishes and interests. And the DHS answers directly, above King, to the president (who was conveniently in Australia at the time).

In other words, for the DHS to be on a call with mayors, the logic of its chain of command and accountability implies that congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, told the DHS to authorise mayors to order their police forces – pumped up with millions of dollars of hardware and training from the DHS – to make war on peaceful citizens.

But wait: why on earth would Congress advise violent militarised reactions against its own peaceful constituents? The answer is straightforward: in recent years, members of Congress have started entering the system as members of the middle class (or upper middle class) – but they are leaving DC privy to vast personal wealth, as we see from the "scandal" of presidential contender Newt Gingrich's having been paid $1.8m for a few hours' "consulting" to special interests. The inflated fees to lawmakers who turn lobbyists are common knowledge, but the notion that congressmen and women are legislating their own companies' profits is less widely known – and if the books were to be opened, they would surely reveal corruption on a Wall Street spectrum. Indeed, we do already know that congresspeople are massively profiting from trading on non-public information they have on companies about which they are legislating – a form of insider trading that sent Martha Stewart to jail.

Since Occupy is heavily surveilled and infiltrated, it is likely that the DHS and police informers are aware, before Occupy itself is, what its emerging agenda is going to look like. If legislating away lobbyists' privileges to earn boundless fees once they are close to the legislative process, reforming the banks so they can't suck money out of fake derivatives products, and, most critically, opening the books on a system that allowed members of Congress to profit personally – and immensely – from their own legislation, are two beats away from the grasp of an electorally organised Occupy movement … well, you will call out the troops on stopping that advance.

So, when you connect the dots, properly understood, what happened this week is the first battle in a civil war; a civil war in which, for now, only one side is choosing violence. It is a battle in which members of Congress, with the collusion of the American president, sent violent, organised suppression against the people they are supposed to represent. Occupy has touched the third rail: personal congressional profits streams. Even though they are, as yet, unaware of what the implications of their movement are, those threatened by the stirrings of their dreams of reform are not.

Sadly, Americans this week have come one step closer to being true brothers and sisters of the protesters in Tahrir Square. Like them, our own national leaders, who likely see their own personal wealth under threat from transparency and reform, are now making war upon us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Illegal immigration

Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving; and please take a moment to remember the Nauset, Wampanoag, Narraganset, Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pocumtuc, Tunxis, Quinnipiac, Mattabesic, Paugussett, Niantic, Montaukett, Shinnecock, Pequot and Mohegan peoples, who were among the first nations to fall as a result of the European invasions of the Americas.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Going the distance

Scientific American this month has a very good article on some possibilities for NASA's manned space exploration program, written by two scientists involved in robotic deep-space exploration.

They proposed using a combination of the SLS chemical rockets or Delta IV heavy lift and Hall-effect ion drive spaceships to explore the moon, near-earth asteroids, Mars and Phobos. The argument for exploring near-earth asteroids was as a stepping stone for Mars and Phobos, and they were specifically looking at NEO 2008 EV5.

2008 EV5 follows a slightly oblique orbit very similar to earth's, and oscillates from about 1 AU (the distance from the sun to the earth) and 2 AU, at least in the immediate future. Mars at opposition is only about 0.5 AU from earth. My admittedly limited understanding of Hohmann transfer orbits is that a trip to 2008 EV5 or an earth-Trojan should take longer than a trip to Mars. Given that 2008 EV5 is only about 400 meters across, I must confess that I am at a loss to understand the wisdom of establishing 2008 EV5 as a waypoint to Mars. This is either a failing of my own understanding of how one navigates between two objects in different parts of the same orbit (very likely), or else NASA has other reasons for prioritizing a trip to 2008 EV5. My guess is that both are true; ie, I'm misunderstanding the geometry of a same-orbit Hohmann transfer, and NASA has more need of landing on 2008 EV5 than as a test-run for Phobos. My completely uneducated guess is that either NASA is more freaked out about near-earth asteroids than they let on, or that they want congress to think that they're more freaked out about near-earth asteroids than they let on. I lean toward the latter; perhaps at some point I'll bother to post my very own patented conspiracy theory on the subject. Anyway--

Based on the SciAm article and some of the recent posts here on candidates for outmigration, I created a graphic tonight to illustrate the relative distances of the different candidates being discussed. The planets, asteroids and moons themselves are not drawn even close to scale, but the relative distances between them is mostly right. The only exception to this is the distance between the earth and the moon, which is actually so small on the scale of the drawing that it could not be correctly shown at all. Also, the distances between Jupiter and her moons is completely erroneous, I simply included the Galilean moons to illustrate that the body depicted was in fact Jupiter.

1. The moon, and also the L4 and L5 Lagrangian orbits

2. Near-earth asteroid 2008 EV5, and also the earth-Trojans

3. Mars and Phobos

4. Ceres

5. Jupiter and Europa, Callisto and Ganymede

6. Saturn and Enceladus

It becomes apparent that Enceladus, intriguing though it is, is very, very far away. For a new home for our species, Ceres starts looking better all the time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Europa back in the game

NASA announced today the presence of enormous salt-water lakes only several kilometers below the surface ice of Jupiter's moon Europa. From the standpoint of colonization (and also incidentally exobiology), this is vastly preferable to the ocean of salt-water which also exists on Europa, but at some 100 kilometers below the surface ice. This puts Europa back in the running as a plausible candidate for outmigration, and possibly even in the top tier.

With this data, the three best candidates for a permanent and self-sustaining colony are, arguably, Ceres, Europa and Enceladus.

Saturn's moon Enceladus is in some ways the most appealing, but by far the least accessible. At 1.5 BILLION kilometers, it is more than twice the distance to Jupiter/Europa, and six times the distance to Ceres. And it is the smallest of the three candidates. But essentially limitless supplies of water and energy are relatively accessible to anyone living on the surface, and from the standpoint of self-sustainability that's huge.

Europa now meets most of the same criteria, is six times larger than Enceladus (and just a bit smaller than our own moon), and is much closer. The biggest drawback with Europa is still the very high amounts of ionizing radiation from Jupiter that would be experienced on the surface. Burrowing under the ice would provide shielding, but you have to get down there first. It is also possible that we could use another of the Galilean moons such as Callisto as a base-camp while drilling down to to the Europan lakes.

Dwarf planet Ceres is practically in our own backyard, and about twice the size of Enceladus. It too is covered with water ice over a salt-water ocean, but we don't know yet how thick that ice-mantle is. When the Dawn spacecraft arrives there in 2015 we'll know a lot more. Ceres receives ample sunlight for solar power, so even if there were no geothermal energy such as on Europa, or whatever-the-hell is generating 16 gigawatts of energy on Enceladus, it could probably support a substantial colony even if the surface ice had to be melted for water. At this time, I'm inclined to think that Ceres may be our best shot at getting a permanent and self-sustaining colony established quickly, but we'll know a lot more once the Dawn spacecraft starts sending back data.

Many people have speculated that Ceres would be an important stepping-stone for colonization of the outer planets, but she may prove to be a critical destination in her own right.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day 11-11-11

In remembrance of every soldier, sailor, airman and marine, of every nation and of every conflict, have a very happy and safe Veteran's Day.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Four Billion Dollars...

...transferred out of major corporate banks and into credit unions this weekend.

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Horseshoes and hand-grenades

Tuesday, around 3:28pm pst, asteroid 2005 YU 55 is going to pass within the moon's orbit of us. A quarter of a mile (400 meters) in diameter, this is the largest asteroid to pass within the moon's orbit that we have ever known about (certainly lots of bigger ones have come even closer, we were just blissfully unaware of them). We have NEO's every single day, but this is one seriously big son of an accretion disk. If it were to actually hit the earth (don't worry, it won't, at least not in our lifetimes) the equivalent kinetic force would be greater than if every single nuclear warhead on every single missile on every single ballistic missile submarine in every single navy -- US, UK, France, Russia, China and India -- were to successfully detonate at the same location at the same time. Really. Which is still miniscule compared the the K/T asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs (which was some 30 times larger), but, still, this is a big effing rock coming by tomorrow.

This will provide astronomers a very close view of a pretty large asteroid that we won't have to leave home to see, which is valuable. Nearly as useful, it serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that we really need to have the capability to intercept and deflect such objects all the time, not just whenever congress decides that it might be fun to budget for such things.

It will be visible from most of North America Tuesday evening, tracking from Aquila through Pegasus in about 10 hours time, but at a maximum visual magnitude of 11.2 it will require at least a 6" reflector telescope to see. Here's the track, from Sky and Telescope magazine:

Below is a very well done graphic from, with lots more information about this and other large NEOs --

Lesson from Iceland: Let the banks fail

Very interesting analysis from the 2008 Icelandic bank crisis, and Reykjavik's recovery from that amid financial collapse of much of the European Union. Two points stand out in this-- first, prior to the collapse Iceland's government was more or less solvent; second, much of Iceland's success was at least aided by its independence from the Euro. But the principles remain solid, and perhaps it is time to reconsider what it means for an institution to be "too big to fail".


By Haukur Holm | AFP

Three years after Iceland's banks collapsed and the country teetered on the brink, its economy is recovering, proof that governments should let failing lenders go bust and protect taxpayers, analysts say.

The North Atlantic island saw its three biggest banks go belly-up in the October 2008 as its overstretched financial sector collapsed under the weight of the global crisis sparked by the crash of US investment giant Lehman Brothers.

The banks became insolvent within a matter of weeks and Reykjavik was forced to let them fail and seek a $2.25 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

After three years of harsh austerity measures, the country's economy is now showing signs of health despite the current global financial and economic crisis that has Greece verging on default and other eurozone states under pressure.

"The lesson that could be learned from Iceland's way of handling its crisis is that it is important to shield taxpayers and government finances from bearing the cost of a financial crisis to the extent possible," Islandsbanki analyst Jon Bjarki Bentsson told AFP.

"Even if our way of dealing with the crisis was not by choice but due to the inability of the government to support the banks back in 2008 due to their size relative to the economy, this has turned out relatively well for us," Bentsson said.

Iceland's banking sector had assets worth 11 times the country's total gross domestic product (GDP) at their peak.

Nobel Prize-winning US economist Paul Krugman echoed Bentsson.

"Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net," he wrote in a recent commentary in the New York Times.

"Where everyone else was fixated on trying to placate international investors, Iceland imposed temporary controls on the movement of capital to give itself room to maneuver," he said.

During a visit to Reykjavik last week, Krugman also said Iceland has the krona to thank for its recovery, warning against the notion that adopting the euro can protect against economic imbalances.

"Iceland's economic rebound shows the advantages of being outside the euro. This notion that by joining the euro you would be safe would come as news to the Spaniards," he said, referring to one of the key eurozone states struggling to put its public finances in order.

Iceland's example cannot be directly compared to the dramatic problems currently seen in Greece or Italy, however.

"The big difference between Greece, Italy, etc at the moment and Iceland back in 2008 is that the latter was a banking crisis caused by the collapse of an oversized banking sector while the former is the result of a sovereign debt crisis that has spilled over into the European banking sector," Bentsson said.

"In Iceland, the government was actually in a sound position debt-wise before the crisis."

Iceland's former prime minister Geir Haarde, in power during the 2008 meltdown and currently facing trial over his handling of the crisis, has insisted his government did the right thing early on by letting the banks fail and making creditors carry the losses.

"We saved the country from going bankrupt," Haarde, 68, told AFP in an interview in July.

"That is evident if you look at our situation now and you compare it to Ireland or not to mention Greece," he said, adding that the two debt-wracked EU countries "made mistakes that we did not make ... We did not guarantee the external debts of the banking system."

Like Ireland and Latvia, also rescued by international bailout packages and now in recovery, Iceland implemented strict austerity measures and is now reaping the fruits of its efforts.

So much so that its central bank on Wednesday raised its key interest rate by a quarter point to 4.75 percent, in sharp contrast to most other developed countries which have slashed their borrowing costs amid the current crises.

It said economic growth in the first half of 2011 was 2.5 percent and was forecast to be just over 3.0 percent for the year as a whole.

David Stefansson, a research analyst at Arion Bank, told AFP Iceland hiked its rates because it "is in a different place in the economic (cycle) than other countries.

"The central bank thinks that other central banks in similar circumstances can afford to keep interest rates low, and even lower them, because expected inflation abroad is in general quite (a bit) lower," he said.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Remember, remember the Fifth of November

No obvious signs of the Fox News website being hacked, as of 10pm pdt. Curiouser and curiouser.

But in honor of the old Guy we watched the traditional holiday classic "V for Vendetta" on DVD tonight. My mother is Australian of Irish Protestant descent, so Guy Fawkes was part of my upbringing. It seems many Americans never heard of him until that movie came out. The movie popularized the first five lines of the traditional poem, but the version I learned was longer, and went something like this:

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I can think of no reason
The Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow.
By providence old Guy was catched
With a lantern and a burning match.
Holler boys, Holler girls, let the bells ring,
Holler boys, holler girls, God save the King!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Have been offline last few weeks, and will be offline most of next week, so posting this a few hours before the 31st. Have a happy and safe Halloween, and a blessed Samhain to those who celebrate it.

Oh, and yes, this is a real pumpkin.

Fawkes News

You've probably already heard that the hacker collective Anonymous is promising to hack and shut down the Fox News website on Guy Fawkes Day, in response to what they perceive as unfair and unbalanced coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

I'm not going to address the politics of this, interesting though they are. I'm also not going to address whether I think what Anonymous is planning is "right or wrong"; that is for the history books to decide. If you follow this blog at all, you know that I have very little patience for Fox News, and corporate news media generally. My issue with them is mostly their execrable science reporting. I also don't typically agree with the political bias of Fox News, but I staunchly defend their right to hold and express their political opinions, however erroneous. I also don't agree with a lot of the tactics or motives of Anonymous. So these are my own biases, but the politics of Fox News or Anonymous are not my real interest at the moment.

What I'm more interested in are the tactics behind the announcement Anonymous made. From a purely tactical standpoint it seems very weird to me that Anonymous would go to the great lengths it has to pre-announce the target and date of the attack.

To date, Anonymous has succeeded in about 50% of their attacks, which is respectable. But that indicates that while their hackers are very competent, they're not infallible. So if a massive crippling cyber-attack on the Fox News website were indeed being planned, it would seem to be in the best interests of Anonymous to stack the deck as much in favor of success as possible. A little stealth goes a long way. That the already paranoid Fox will now step-up their already substantial internet security is given.

Also given is that by pre-announcing the date and form of the attack, if Anonymous fails, everyone will know that, and Fox will make hay out of it. Without pre-announcing, the situation for Anonymous would be win-win; if the attack works, they get the credit, and if it doesn't, nobody is the wiser. But they've gone to a fair amount of trouble to ensure that this isn't the case. If Anonymous fails in their attack, they will do so famously, and their political capital goes way down.

Also, by pre-announcing the hack, they've ensured that many more people will visit the Fox News website that day, increasing Fox's advertising revenue. It occurred to me based on this that perhaps Fox WAS "Anonymous", and the whole thing was just a gimmick to get more traffic on the Fox News website. But Fox News doesn't seem to be covering it at all. And if the point of pre-announcing was to intimidate, it doesn't seem to be having much effect.

So, I'm left with only a couple of possibilities. One is that Anonymous is in fact planning a major cyberattack on Fox News for the 5th of November, and are so incredibly confident of their success that they're deliberately taunting the Fox cyber-security people. Which could be the case. The other possibility I can see, which would be rather more clever if it happened to work, is that Anonymous is counting on enough people going to the Fox News website that day to crash their servers. But that would probably require a rather larger ad campaign than what Anonymous has put forward so far.

So, we'll see what we see.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Celestial Navigation 101: Lesson 5, Objects in Motion (Introduction)

So far, we have looked at celestial objects as if they were more or less motionless in the sky. But with the exception of Polaris, nothing could be farther from the truth. The earth rotates on its own axis, causing the entire sky to appear to spin around it once every day. The earth revolves around the sun in an elliptical orbit once each year, and the other planets also revolve around the sun. The moon revolves around the earth, moving easterly relative to the stars. The stars themselves move relative to the earth and to one another. From our perspective this motion of the stars is minor, but not so minor that we can ignore it for our navigation.

I'll be on the water the next few days; when I'm back in front of a real computer we'll tackle the problem of how to determine the geographic position of a body in motion on a different body in motion.

Justice for All (who can afford it)

If you're still wondering what the 99% are yelling about, this would be it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ex-Meridians for USCG exams

This post is about celestial navigation, however it is most emphatically NOT part of the "Celestial Navigation 101" series. This topic is beyond the scope of even what we normally teach as "advanced celestial navigation". However, esoteric though it is, it shows up on USCG licensing exams for 1600 ton Mate Oceans and above. So this post is mostly intended for Oceans license candidates in the US Merchant Marine; however, it may have some interest for those working with celestial navigation generally. It happens that at work today I stumbled across a very simple way to solve ex-meridian problems, and so I thought I'd pass that along here.

We have not yet discussed Local Apparent Noon sights in the CelNav 101 series, so let me start with a very brief description of this. Local Apparent Noon, or LAN, is the moment when the sun crosses your longitude line. At that moment it is the highest it is going to be all day. Measure the altitude of the sun with a sextant at that moment, and then, comparing that altitude to the known Declination (latitude) of the sun, you can determine your own latitude. I'm going to explain this in more detail in the CelNav 101 series, but that's the gist of it.

The advantage of LAN is that it is a very easy sight to take with a sextant, and it is very easy to compute. That, however, is its only benefit. The fact that the Line of Position derived from it happens to be a latitude line is irrelevant, because it is as inherently flawed as any other LoP derived from a sextant sight. The real reason we teach LAN at all is that it is a good confidence-builder for fledgling navigators. Once the student masters basic sight-reduction, they never again have a need for LAN, because any celestial object at any time can give them just as much information as the sun can only one time each day.

The technique used to derive latitude from LAN can also, theoretically, be applied to any other celestial body when it crosses your meridian. There's no reason to do so, but it's possible.

These days we confidently rely on twilight sights of stars and planets to confirm our GPS only once each day. However, once upon a time, before the invention of GPS, the "noon sight" was a routine part of the navigator's daily work. If the navigator failed to obtain their noon sight, either due to cloud cover or simply not getting up on deck in time, this was a significant loss of navigational data. So methods were developed to allow the navigator to take a sight a few minutes after the sun had crossed the meridian, and still be able to derive a reasonable latitude from it. This is what is meant by an ex-meridian sight. Centuries ago, when computing a sight reduction required that spherical trigonometric calculations be solved long-hand, ANY celestial line of position which did not require that was an obvious benefit. Since the invention of logarithmic tables (and later calculators and computers) to perform the trig for us, this has not been the case. If a navigator happens to miss their noon sight, they simply take a sight of the sun at whatever time is convenient and reduce that into a line of position which is every bit as useful as an LAN derived latitude. Put another way, no modern navigator worthy of the name would ever use an ex-meridian sight, because a simple sunline is easier and far more accurate.

Except, of course, for USCG license candidates, who are expected to.

There is another CelNav technique on USCG exams which is basically useless and can be done more easily and accurately with another technique which is also required on the same exam. It's called an Amplitude, and is basically a means of computing the azimuth to an object without getting into the spherical trig necessary to compute an azimuth. But with sight-reduction tables or calculators, azimuths are simple, and we have to be able to use them anyway. So the easy way to avoid dealing with amplitudes on a USCG exam is to simply work amplitude questions as azimuth problems.

It turns out that you can do exactly the same thing with ex-meridian sights. Simply compute it as a normal sight-reduction. Because the sights are necessarily either nearly north or nearly south, the intercept can be applied directly to the Assumed Latitude or DR Latitude to derive the latitude of the ex-meridian. That's all.

Here's an actual example from the USCG database. In it they're asking to compute your latitude from the meridian transit of the star Dubhe, in the Big Dipper.

-- On 8 May 1981, in DR position LAT 30°26.0'N, LONG 46°55.1'W, you take an ex-meridian observation of Dubhe. The chronometer time of the sight is 11h 10m 54s, and the chronometer error is 01m 18s slow. The sextant altitude (hs) is 58°35.0'. The index error is 1.5' on the arc, and your height of eye is 44 feet. What is the latitude at meridian transit?

a) 30°12.5'N
b) 30°19.8'N
c) 30°27.6'N
d) 30°35.8'N

30°19.8'N (answer b) is correct. However, if I simply do this as a standard sight reduction (cheating and using a StarPilot calculator, but the result is the same regardless), I get 6.2' Away from 358° T, from my DR latitude of 30° 26.0'N. Since my ex-meridian sight is always going to be essentially north or south of me, I simply subtracted my intercept from my AP (actually DR in this case) and get 30° 19.8'.

In this case it works out to be exactly right, but even worst case it can't possibly be enough off to lead me to pick any of the other answers.

So if you are taking a USCG Oceans Master or Mate exam, you can effectively NOT study the Amplitude or Ex-Meridian methods and still do fine on those questions, so long as you know how to compute a simple sight-reduction. Incidentally, you can also use your sight-reduction method to determine great-circle courses and distances.

At some point soon we'll do a comparison of the two or three leading methods of computing a standard sight-reduction.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Strait of Magellan safely circumnavigates the sun

I'm working on the water tomorrow (Sunday) and so won't be able to post. But it's 2320 on the 15th now, so I'm actually jumping the gun by 40 minutes or so, in order to get to bed.

That said, Strait of Magellan is one year old today. Believe it or not.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fortuna Rota

In an earlier post about outmigration, I suggested that a classic Stanford torus space station design could be landed onto the surface of Enceladus in such a way that it would spin like a top, generating artificial gravity for its inhabitants.

A few of you have requested that I elaborate a bit on this idea, but I really don't have a lot to elaborate with. The research for a Stanford torus in space has been done exhaustively. In order to effectively mimic earth's gravity, a Stanford torus is a 1.8 km diameter ring turning at one revolution per minute. A torus this size could provide sustainable habitat for some 10,000 people.

Enceladus has a surface gravity of 0.011% of earth's, meaning something as small as a human would be essentially weightless, but gyroscope nearly 2 kilometers in diameter would presumably have enough mass to keep it "on the ground". The surface of Enceladus is fairly featureless ice, so creating a more or less frictionless stylus for the torus to pivot on should be manageable.

Enceladus has relatively vast resources of fairly accessible seawater and heat energy, although we don't yet know what the source of that energy is. So, that's my idea about putting a torus colony on Enceladus.



Celestial Navigation 101: Lesson 4, Sextant Sights

Continuing with the basic introduction to celestial navigation, we now look at how we're going to actually use the sextant to determine the angle of the celestial object above the horizon. I've made a number of illustrations in MS Paint to illustrate what you will see through the sextant telescope. This was fairly simple. I have not, however, created corresponding illustrations of the sextant itself, either as a whole, or illustrating reading the limb or micrometer drum. I did attempt to render such illustrations in Paint, but doing so proved beyond my skill level. Hopefully their absence will not prove a stumbling block.

For this lesson I will assume that we are using a sextant with a traditional split-horizon mirror, but the principles are the same with a whole-horizon mirror also.

When you begin a round of sextant sights, you must first determine the amount of intrinsic error the alignment of the index mirror will instill into your sights. For a good metal sextant you might perform this step once every several days; for a plastic sextant you'll want to do this before and after every set of sights.

Set your sextant index arm to 0° 00.0'. Then look at the horizon. You will see something like this:

Now, adjust the index arm until the two images come together like this:

Now look at your index arm, and micrometer drum if your sextant has one. Unless your sextant is perfectly aligned, you will now read some number larger than 0° 00.0', either "on" the sextant arc between 0° and 90° or 120° or whatever number your sextant goes to, or else "off" the sextant arc beyond zero in the other direction. Which side this Instrument Error is on, you are going to correct your Height Shot (Hs) of the celestial object in the opposite direction. Think of it being like a jacket; if it's on, take it off, and if it's off, put it on. This opposite value of the Instrument Error is called the Instrument Correction, or IC. Write this number down, you'll be using it in all of your calculations later.

Now, move the index arm out toward the middle of the arc, somewhere around 40° is fine. Now looking at the horizon, on the index side of the mirror we see only sky:

Now, the sun has set and civil twilight has ended. We have precomputed that the star Capella bears about 043° True at an altitude of about 52° above the horizon. We dial 52° into the sextant index arm and aim the sextant toward the northeast horizon. And, by the miracles of astronomy and arithmetic, we find in our sextant telescope this:

Which is pretty darned impressive, considering.

You now, using the micrometer drum, bring Capella down until it just barely touches the horizon:

And to ensure that you are holding your sextant exactly vertical, you rock it back and forth so that the image of Capella also rocks back and forth. You want to measure the angle at the exact moment (very exact, remember four seconds of time is one nautical mile) that Capella barely kisses the horizon in lowest portion of the rockering.

That's all there is to taking a star sight with a sextant. Bring the star down to the horizon, mark the time, write the time down in your notebook, read the angle you shot off of the sextant limb and micrometer drum and then write those down next to the time. That's it.

The sun is mostly the same, with two exceptions. First, we have to use filters so that staring at the sun through a telescope doesn't burn out our retinas. In this case, the filter has made the sun appear purple.

Using the micrometer drum, bring the sun down so that the very bottom of the disk of the sun, called the Lower Limb, just touches the horizon. I haven't drawn it, but rock the sun just like you did with Capella. Because the sun is very bright, you will usually get a "ghost" image of the sun on the side of the horizon mirror that is not a mirror. It's perfectly fine to utilize this image.

If the sun is reflecting brightly on the water, you may need to use a filter on the horizon as well. In this example, the filter for the sun is dark purple and the filter for the horizon is light green. This incidentally is fairly common.

In almost every single case, you will use the Lower Limb of the sun whenever you shoot it. However, when you shoot the moon, depending on its phase and position in the sky you will sometimes need to shoot the Lower Limb and at other times you will need to shoot the Upper Limb, like this:

In most cases, the visible disk of planets are so small in a sextant telescope that you can simply treat them as points of light like a star. If the visible disk of a planet is large enough that you can easily discern an upper and lower limb, align the horizon with the center of the planet. Pictured here is Jupiter, with three of the Galilean moons visible:

That is really, really, all there is to it. Oh, except that I forgot to mention that the celestial body you're shooting happens to be moving.

More on that, soon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Puny Little Ants

"You let one ant stand up to us, and they all might stand up! Those 'puny little ants' outnumber us a hundred to one. And if they ever figure that out, there goes our way of life! It's not about food. It's about keeping those ants in line."

News flash, Mr Cain. The puny little ants have figured it out.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Faster than light

Last week CERN announced that they had observed neutrinos to be traveling faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. I seem to recall Fermilabs finding similar (although inconclusive) results a couple years ago.

I realize it may be asking too much of particle physicists to stoop so low as to ask for help from an astronomer. But it turns out that the astronomy community has been aware for quite some time that when a star goes supernova, the neutron stream from that reaches earth some significant amount of time (minutes or hours, not nanoseconds) earlier than the light from the same event does. It has been previously assumed that the neutrinos were somehow being released earlier than the light, which may still be true. But if instead the time lag is due wholly or partly to neutrinos traveling faster than the light, then the further away the supernova is, the greater the timelag should be. That should be a pretty easy lookup for somebody. I may look it up myself this weekend, but I'm at work and my lunch break is rather short.

Here's the CERN press release, for those who have only heard this from Fox News:

OPERA experiment reports anomaly in flight time of neutrinos from CERN to Gran Sasso
Geneva, 23 September 2011. The OPERA1 experiment, which observes a neutrino beam from CERN2 730 km away at Italy’s INFN Gran Sasso Laboratory, will present new results in a seminar at CERN this afternoon at 16:00 CEST. The seminar will be webcast at Journalists wishing to ask questions may do so via twitter using the hash tag #nuquestions, or via the usual CERN press office channels.

The OPERA result is based on the observation of over 15000 neutrino events measured at Gran Sasso, and appears to indicate that the neutrinos travel at a velocity 20 parts per million above the speed of light, nature’s cosmic speed limit. Given the potential far-reaching consequences of such a result, independent measurements are needed before the effect can either be refuted or firmly established. This is why the OPERA collaboration has decided to open the result to broader scrutiny. The collaboration’s result is available on the preprint server

The OPERA measurement is at odds with well-established laws of nature, though science frequently progresses by overthrowing the established paradigms. For this reason, many searches have been made for deviations from Einstein’s theory of relativity, so far not finding any such evidence. The strong constraints arising from these observations makes an interpretation of the OPERA measurement in terms of modification of Einstein’s theory unlikely, and give further strong reason to seek new independent measurements.

“This result comes as a complete surprise,” said OPERA spokesperson, Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern. “After many months of studies and cross checks we have not found any instrumental effect that could explain the result of the measurement. While OPERA researchers will continue their studies, we are also looking forward to independent measurements to fully assess the nature of this observation.”

“When an experiment finds an apparently unbelievable result and can find no artefact of the measurement to account for it, it’s normal procedure to invite broader scrutiny, and this is exactly what the OPERA collaboration is doing, it’s good scientific practice,” said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci. “If this measurement is confirmed, it might change our view of physics, but we need to be sure that there are no other, more mundane, explanations. That will require independent measurements.”

In order to perform this study, the OPERA Collaboration teamed up with experts in metrology from CERN and other institutions to perform a series of high precision measurements of the distance between the source and the detector, and of the neutrinos’ time of flight. The distance between the origin of the neutrino beam and OPERA was measured with an uncertainty of 20 cm over the 730 km travel path. The neutrinos’ time of flight was determined with an accuracy of less than 10 nanoseconds by using sophisticated instruments including advanced GPS systems and atomic clocks. The time response of all elements of the CNGS beam line and of the OPERA detector has also been measured with great precision.

"We have established synchronization between CERN and Gran Sasso that gives us nanosecond accuracy, and we’ve measured the distance between the two sites to 20 centimetres,” said Dario Autiero, the CNRS researcher who will give this afternoon’s seminar. “Although our measurements have low systematic uncertainty and high statistical accuracy, and we place great confidence in our results, we’re looking forward to comparing them with those from other experiments."

“The potential impact on science is too large to draw immediate conclusions or attempt physics interpretations. My first reaction is that the neutrino is still surprising us with its mysteries.” said Ereditato. “Today’s seminar is intended to invite scrutiny from the broader particle physics community.”

The OPERA experiment was inaugurated in 2006, with the main goal of studying the rare transformation (oscillation) of muon neutrinos into tau neutrinos. One first such event was observed in 2010, proving the unique ability of the experiment in the detection of the elusive signal of tau neutrinos.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tiger, tiger, burning steadily

The above is a raw, unprocessed photo from the Cassini flyby of Enceladus on Saturday. No data yet on the actual surface temperatures or energy outputs from the Tiger Stripes, but it is clear from this and other photos from this series that whatever the energy source is, it has not diminished significantly.

Curiouser, and curiouser.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

SpaceX Falcon 9 fully reusable rocket system

$50,000 per launch, with a payload of significantly more than 5,000 kg. That's, oh, let's see, carry the five...$10 per kilogram. Total weight of myself, my clothes and a well-stuffed carry-on probably 100 kg. That's $1000 to get into orbit, before considerations of administrative costs and profit margins. That's comparable to a round-trip commercial flight from Seattle to Tokyo.

There seems to be an over-reliance on the use of retrorockets for landings. This makes sense for landing the capsule itself on worlds other than earth (which seems to be the intent). It seems counterintuitive to me for the first stage booster, when a parachute would presumably require less space than the fuel needed for the retrorockets. But SpaceX has lots of experience already with parachute recovery, so I'm assuming the retrorockets are actually a better solution.

But Elon Musk seems very focused on using this technology for large-scale outmigration to the moon, Mars and beyond.

100 kilograms into space for $1000. If this works, and it very well may, this is a complete game-changer.


The private spaceflight firm SpaceX will try to build the world's first completely reusable rocket and spaceship, a space travel method that could open the gates of Mars for humanity, the company's millionaire CEO Elon Musk announced Thursday (Sept. 29).

A fully reusable rocket would dramatically decrease the cost of lofting cargo and humans to space, making the exploration and colonization of other worlds such as Mars more feasible, Musk said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Musk did not guarantee success, acknowledging the daunting task his SpaceX team has taken on. SpaceX released a video animation of its proposed reusable rocket and space capsule system to illustrate how it would work.

"We will see if this works," Musk said. "And if it does work, it'll be pretty huge."

The hunt for an economic and reusable method for space travel has been a goal of many companies and government agencies from the Space Age's inception.

The only reusable manned spaceships built to date have been NASA's winged space shuttles, which were retired this year. The shuttles used reusable orbiters and solid rocket boosters for 30 years, but the system was not completely reusable.

Each of NASA's 135 shuttle missions also used a disposable 15-story external fuel tank. The tank was jettisoned once a shuttle reached orbit and ultimately burned up during re-entry.

Going to Mars?

Musk has said repeatedly over the years that he founded SpaceX in 2002 with the primary goal of helping humanity establish a lasting presence beyond Earth. Such expansion is necessary to ensure our species' survival, according to Musk, since a catastrophic asteroid strike or other calamity could one day wipe out life on our home planet.

Mars is a prime candidate for human settlement, and Musk has said he hopes SpaceX can send astronauts to the Red Planet within 10 or 20 years.

Colonizing Mars — or any other world — would require ferrying thousands of people and millions of tons of cargo through space. That's just not feasible with today's launch costs, Musk has said.

But a fully reusable rocket could change the equation dramatically. Musk illustrated the point by citing SpaceX's Falcon 9, which costs between $50 million to $60 million per launch in its current configuration.

"But the cost of the fuel and oxygen and so forth is only about $200,000," Musk said."So obviously, if we can reuse the rocket, say, a thousand times, then that would make the capital cost of the rocket for launch only about $50,000."

In its video new animation, SpaceX officials detail how their new launch vehicle, which is based on the Falcon 9 rocket, would work.

After separating in orbit, the two stages of the rocket would come back to Earth and land at the launch pad. The stages would not glide back using wings like the space shuttle; rather, they'd descend vertically, eventually settling down on four legs.

They could then be refueled, reintegrated and relaunched.

In the video, the Falcon 9 launches SpaceX's Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. NASA has contracted the company to make cargo flights to the orbiting lab.

Falcon 9 lofted Dragon to Earth orbit for the first time last December, and SpaceX had been planning to launch a demonstration mission docking Dragon to the station in January 2012. SpaceX officials announced late today (Sept. 30) that the firm could be ready to launch the next Dragon test flight by Dec. 19, but that target is still awaiting review by the U.S. Air Force and NASA.

Whenever that demo launches, if all goes well, Dragon's next flight would be an operational cargo mission to the space station, SpaceX officials have said.

Dragon is also designed to be reusable, and SpaceX is modifying it to carry crew as well as supplies. The company hopes NASA eventually uses Dragon to launch its astronauts to low-Earth orbit. The country has lacked this capability since NASA's space shuttle fleet retired in July and currently depends on Russian Soyuz vehicles to provide this taxi service.

Musk did not say when he hopes the reusable rocket would be operational, or how much its development would cost. But SpaceX is going to give the enterprise its best shot.

"We have a design that on paper — doing the calculations, doing the simulations — it does work," Musk said. "Now we need to make sure those simulations and reality agree because generally, when they don't, reality wins."

Friday, September 30, 2011

Enceladus, Revisited

Tomorrow is a very important day.

Around 1400 UTC tomorrow (0700 PDT) NASAs Cassini spacecraft will do a flyby of the south pole of Enceladus, at an altitude of 99 km (62 miles). This is the first close flyby of Enceladus since early March 2011.

At that time we learned that the Tiger Stripes on the south pole of Enceladus were being heated by an energy source of some 15.8 gigawatts. 1.4 gigawatts is the absolute maximum Enceladus should be able to generate, for a matter of a few short seconds, if all of her potential geothermal and radioactive energy were concentrated into the same place at the same time. Tomorrow we will learn if the Tiger Stripes have cooled, or if they are maintaining this heat output at a consistent (or increasing) rate. All evidence so far indicates that the heat signature is not decreasing.

Tomorrow we'll know for sure. And things may become a lot more interesting.

You can track the Cassini/Solstice mission tomorrow here: