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Monday, September 20, 2010

Jupiter and Uranus


Click image to enlarge.

Everybody should see each of the planets at least once in their lifetimes. If you haven't yet seen Uranus (please spare me the South Park giggles here), there's an excellent opportunity in the next few days since it's in the same binocular field of view as brilliant Jupiter, the brightest object (apart from the Moon) in the sky around midnight, high in the sky. Uranus is comparable in brightness to Jupiter's Galilean satellites, and is easily spotted with binoculars; in pristine dark skies and with excellent vision, it can be glimpsed with the unaided eye, but that isn't possible at the moment with the Moon shining so brightly.

Still, it's easy with binoculars or the most modest of telescopes to find Jupiter, admire its moons, and then sweep toward the zenith (if you're in the northern hemisphere; toward the nadir if you're in the southern) and spot Uranus. Can you perceive its slight bluish tone? Compare its hue to Jupiter's moon Io, which is yellow by comparison. And then you've seen Uranus! Check that one off your list. The pinheads have already trimmed it by removing Pluto, but I'll bet it'll be back before long. Pluto requires a serious telescope, so complete the Grand Tour before they make it more difficult!

The picture above was taken at 22:45 UTC on 2010-09-19 with a Nikon D300 digital camera with a NIKKOR 300 mm f/4.5 lens (equivalent with this camera's “DX” sensor to a 450 mm focal length on a 24×36 mm film camera) at f/8. This vintage lens has substantial chromatic aberration and coma at full aperture, so I opted to stop it down at the cost of increased sensor noise. I selected sensitivity of ISO 800 and an exposure time of one second; this resulted in a slight trail in this unguided exposure which is imperceptible in the reduced scale image above, but which can be seen in the full scale enlargement. The exposure was made in mirror lock-up mode with Nikon's electronic cable release.

Posted at 02:00 Permalink

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reading List: Hostile Intent

Walsh, Michael. Hostile Intent. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7860-2042-3.
Michael Walsh is a versatile and successful writer who has been a Moscow correspondent and music critic for Time magazine, written a novel which is a sequel to Casablanca, four books about classical music, and a screenplay for the Disney Channel which was the highest rated original movie on the channel at the time. Two of his books have been New York Times bestsellers, and his gangster novel And All the Saints won an American Book Award in 2004. This novel is the first of a projected series of five. The second, Early Warning, was released in September 2010.

In the present novel, the author turns to the genre of the contemporary thriller, adopting the template created by Tom Clancy, and used with such success by authors such as Vince Flynn and Brad Thor: a loner, conflicted agent working for a shadowy organisation, sent to do the dirty work on behalf of the highest levels of the government of the United States. In this case, the protagonist is known only as “Devlin” (although he assumes a new alias and persona every few chapters), whose parents were killed in a terrorist attack at the Rome airport in 1985 and has been raised as a covert instrument of national policy by a military man who has risen to become the head of the National Security Agency (NSA). Devlin works for the Central Security Service, a branch of the NSA which, in the novel, retains its original intent of being “Branch 4” of the armed forces, able to exploit information resources and execute covert operations outside the scope of conventional military actions.

The book begins with a gripping description of a Beslan-like school hostage attack in the United States in which Devlin is activated to take down the perpetrators. After achieving a mostly successful resolution, he begins to suspect that the entire event was simply a ruse to draw him into the open so that he could be taken down by his enemies. This supposition is confirmed, at least in his own justifiably paranoid mind, by further terrorist strikes in Los Angeles and London, which raise the stakes and further expose his identity and connections.

This is a story which starts strong but then sputters out as it unfolds. The original taut narrative of the school hostage crisis turns into a mush with a shadowy supervillain who is kind of an evil George Soros (well, I mean an even more evil George Soros), a feckless and inexperienced U.S. president (well, at least that could never happen!), and Devlin, the über paranoid loner suddenly betting everything on a chick he last met in a shoot-out in Paris.

Thrillers are supposed to thrill, but if set in the contemporary world or the near future (as is this book—the fall of Mugabe in Zimbabwe is mentioned, but everything is pretty much the same as the present), they're expected to be plausible as regards the technology used and the behaviour of the characters. It just doesn't do to have the hero, in a moment of crisis, when attacked by ten thousand AK-47 wielding fanatics from all directions, pull out his ATOMIC SPACE GUN and mow them down with a single burst.

But that's pretty much what happens here. I'll have to go behind the spoiler curtain to get into the details, so I'll either see you there or on the other side if you've decided to approach this novel freshly without my nattering over details.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • We are asked to believe that a sitting U.S. president would order two members of his Secret Service detail to commit a cold blooded murder in order to frame a senator and manipulate his reelection campaign, and that the agents would carry out the murder. This is simply absurd.
  • As the story develops we learn that the shadowy “Branch 4” for which Devlin believes he is working does not, in fact, exist, and that Devlin is its sole agent, run by the director of NSA. Now Devlin has back-door access to all U.S. intelligence assets and databases and uses them throughout. How plausible is it that he wouldn't have figured this out himself?
  • Some people have cell phones: Devlin has a Hell phone. In chapter 7 we're treated to a description of Devlin's Black Telephone, which is equipped with “advanced voice-recognition software”, a fingerprint scanner in the receiver, and a retinal scanner in the handset. “If any of these elements were not sequenced within five seconds, the phone would self-destruct in a fireball of shrapnel, killing any unauthorized person unlucky enough to have picked it up.” Would you trust a government-supplied telephone bomb to work with 100% reliability? What if your stack of dossiers topples over and knocks off the receiver?
  • In several places “logarithm” is used where “algorithm” is intended. Gadgetry is rife with urban legends such as the computer virus which causes a hard drive to melt.
  • In chapter 12 the phone rings and Devlin “spoke into a Blu-Ray mouthpiece as he answered”. Blu-ray is an optical disc storage format; Bluetooth is the wireless peripheral technology. Besides, would an operative obsessed with security to the level of paranoia use a wireless headset with dubious anti-eavesdropping measures?
  • The coup de grace of the series of terrorist attacks is supposed to be an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States, planned to knock out all electronics, communications, and electrical power in the eastern part of the country. The attack consists of detonating an ex-Soviet nuclear weapon raised to the upper atmosphere by a weather balloon launched from a ship off the East Coast. Where to begin? Well, first of all, at the maximum altitude reachable by a weather balloon, the mean free path of the gamma rays from the detonation through the atmosphere would be limited, as opposed to the unlimited propagation distance from an explosion in space well above the atmosphere. This would mean that any ionisation of atoms in the atmosphere would be a local phenomenon, which would reduce the intensity and scope of the generated pulse. Further, the electromagnetic pulse cannot propagate past the horizon, so even if a powerful pulse were generated at the altitude of a balloon, it wouldn't propagate far enough to cause a disaster all along the East Coast.
  • In the assault on Clairvaux Prison, is it conceivable that an experienced special forces operator would take the mother of a hostage and her young son along aboard the helicopter gunship leading the strike?
  • After the fight in the prison, archvillain Skorenzy drops through a trap door and escapes to a bolt-hole, and at the end of the novel is still at large and presumed to be continuing his evil schemes. But his lair is inside a French maximum security prison! How does he get away? Say what you like about the French military, when it comes to terrorists they're deadly serious, right up there with the Mossad. Would a prison that housed Carlos the Jackal have a tunnel which would allow Skorenzy to saunter out? Would French officials allow the man who blew up a part of Los Angeles and brought down the London Eye with a cruise missile free passage?
Spoilers end here.  
It's a tangled, muddled mess. It has its moments, but there isn't the building toward a climax and then the resolution one expects from a thriller. None of the characters are really admirable, and the author's policy preferences (with which I largely agree) are exhibited far too blatantly, as opposed to being woven into the plot. The author, accomplished in other genres, may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself.

Posted at 21:15 Permalink

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reading List: Under The Cloud

Miller, Richard L. Under The Cloud. The Woodlands, TX: Two Sixty Press, [1986] 1991. ISBN 978-1-881043-05-8.
Folks born after the era of atmospheric nuclear testing, and acquainted with it only through accounts written decades later, are prone to react with bafflement—“What were they thinking?” This comprehensive, meticulously researched, and thoroughly documented account of the epoch not only describes what happened and what the consequences were for those in the path of fallout, but also places events in the social, political, military, and even popular culture context of that very different age. A common perception about the period is “nobody really understood the risks”. Well, it's quite a bit more complicated than that, as you'll understand after reading this exposition. As early as 1953, when ranchers near Cedar City, Utah lost more than 4000 sheep and lambs after they grazed on grass contaminated by fallout, investigators discovered the consequences of ingestion of Iodine-131, which is concentrated by the body in the thyroid gland, where it can not only lead to thyroid cancer but faster-developing metabolic diseases. The AEC reacted immediately to this discovery. Commissioner Eugene Zuckert observed that “In the present frame of mind of the public, it would only take a single illogical and unforeseeable incident to preclude holding any future tests in the United States”, and hence the author of the report on the incident was ordered to revise the document, “eliminating any reference to radiation damage or effects”. In a subsequent meetings with the farmers, the AEC denied any connection between fallout and the death of the sheep and denied compensation, claiming that the sheep, including grotesquely malformed lambs born to irradiated ewes, had died of “malnutrition”.

It was obvious to others that something serious was happening. Shortly after bomb tests began in Nevada, the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, New York which manufactured X-ray film discovered that when a fallout cloud was passing overhead their film batches would be ruined by pinhole fogging due to fallout radiation, and that they could not even package the film in cardboard supplied by a mill whose air and water supplies were contaminated by fallout. Since it was already known that radiologists with occupational exposure to X-rays had mean lifespans several years shorter than the general public, it was pretty obvious that exposing much of the population of a continent (and to a lesser extent the entire world) to a radiation dose which could ruin X-ray film had to be problematic at best and recklessly negligent at worst. And yet the tests continued, both in Nevada and the Pacific, until the Limited Test Ban Treaty between the U.S., USSR, and Great Britain was adopted in 1963. France and China, not signatories to the treaty, continued atmospheric tests until 1971 and 1980 respectively.

What were they thinking? Well, this was a world in which the memory of a cataclysmic war which had killed tens of millions of people was fresh, which appeared to be on the brink of an even more catastrophic conflict, which might be triggered if the adversary developed a weapon believed to permit a decisive preemptive attack or victory through intimidation. In such an environment where everything might be lost through weakness and dilatory progress in weapons research, the prospect of an elevated rate of disease among the general population was weighed against the possibility of tens of millions of deaths in a general conflict and the decision was made to pursue the testing. This may very well have been the correct decision—since you can't test a counterfactual, we'll never know—but there wasn't a general war between the East and West, and to this date no nuclear weapon has been used in war since 1945. But what is shocking and reprehensible is that the élites who made this difficult judgement call did not have the courage to share the facts with the constituents and taxpayers who paid their salaries and bought the bombs that irradiated their children's thyroids with Iodine-131 and bones with Strontium-90. (I'm a boomer. If you want to know just how many big boom clouds a boomer lived through as a kid, hold a sensitive radiation meter up to one of the long bones of the leg; you'll see the elevated beta radiation from the Strontium-90 ingested in milk and immured in the bones [Strontium is a chemical analogue of Calcium].) Instead, they denied the obvious effects, suppressed research which showed the potential risks, intimidated investigators exploring the effects of low level radiation, and covered up assessments of fallout intensity and effects upon those exposed. Thank goodness such travesties of science and public policy could not happen in our enlightened age! An excellent example of mid-fifties AEC propaganda is the Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region pamphlet, available on this site: “Your best action is not to be worried about fall-out. … We can expect many reports that ‘Geiger counters were going crazy here today.’ Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily. Don't let them bother you.”

This book describes U.S. nuclear testing in Nevada in detail, even giving the precise path the fallout cloud from most detonations took over the country. Pacific detonations are covered in less detail, concentrating on major events and fallout disasters such as Castle Bravo. Soviet tests and the Chelyabinsk-40 disaster are covered more sketchily (fair enough—most details remained secret when the book was written), and British, French, and Chinese atmospheric tests are mentioned only in passing.

The paperback edition of this book has the hefty cover price of US$39.95, which is a lot for a book of 548 pages with just a few black and white illustrations. I read the Kindle edition, which is priced at US$11.99 at this writing, which is, on its merits, even more overpriced. It is a sad, sorry, and shoddy piece of work, which appears to be the result of scanning a printed edition of the book with an optical character recognition program and transferring it to Kindle format without any proofreading whatsoever. Numbers and punctuation are uniformly garbled, words are mis-recognised, random words are jammed into the text as huge raster images, page numbers and chapter headings are interleaved into the text, and hyphenated words are not joined while pairs of unrelated words are run together. The abundant end note citations are randomly garbled and not linked to the notes at the end of the book. The index is just a scan of that in the printed book, garbled, unlinked to the text, and utterly useless. Most public domain Kindle books sold for a dollar have much better production values than this full price edition. It is a shame that such an excellent work on which the author invested such a great amount of work doing the research and telling the story has been betrayed by this slapdash Kindle edition which will leave unwary purchasers feeling their pockets have been picked. I applaud Amazon's providing a way for niche publishers and independent authors to bring their works to market on the Kindle, but I wonder if their lack of quality control on the works published (especially at what passes for full price on the Kindle) might, in the end, injure the reputation of Kindle books among the customer base. After this experience, I know for sure that I will never again purchase a Kindle book from a minor publisher before checking the comments to see if the transfer merits the asking price. Amazon might also consider providing a feedback mechanism for Kindle purchasers to rate the quality of the transfer to the Kindle, which would appear along with the content-based rating of the work.

Posted at 23:23 Permalink