Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Demonic Pokemon, Pokemonic Demon

Regular readers of this blog (all six of you) will know that I am the father of a bright ten year old, who being a ten year old is subject to all the whims and fads of his peer group. For a (fairly long) while, one of those fads was a card game called Pokemon (link here to Wikipedia entry) -- a game whose arcane intricacy I never figured out. Additionally, there was a television show. And merchandise. Oh yes, merchandise -- enough lunch boxes and knapsacks and figurines and stuffed animals and all kinds of other (expensive) goodies, all designed to separate the child's parent's money from the child's parent. While the game and its surrounding hype were annoying mass media junk, the concept as a whole had a certain elegance in its exploitation of obsessive-compulsive “collect ‘em all” tendencies in children. Not that I would have any understanding of obsessive-compulsive “collect ‘em all” tendencies.

So you can imagine my horror when I learned that by allowing my son to have exposure to Pokemon cards and Pokemon paraphernalia, I have made it possible for him to learn how to enter into the world of witchcraft, how to cast spells, how to use psychic phenomena, how to work supernatural powers against his enemies , and worst of all, how to fantasy role play! I guess it is because "everything in life is real" that I need to take this seriously. Or perhaps not.

The list of Pokemon bad things begins at around 1:15. As a parent, I am pretty concerned about my son needing to work supernatural powers against his enemies. In his one experience with a bully, he was miserable for weeks because he didn't want to punch the other kid, which I am sorry to say would have been my response. He finally got the other kid to stop by talking to him about it, and convincing the other kid through reason that the harassment needed to stop. But I can see how with access to supernatural powers, he would have totally just zapped the other kid instead of applying will and courage and resolve to deal with this problem. Because kids would do that, when they aren't pumping their friends full of bullets with their handguns.

I also had issues with the logic behind why the Pokemon concept was both as corrupting as he says, and was also as effective a training tool as he says. If the latter were true, I would have expected to have absorbed enough of this knowledge during hours of watching Pokemon with my son to have the ability to use this methodology to make myself a superstar of corporate training. The fact that I am not an incredibly wealthy corporate training guru should tell you something.

In order to assuage my concerns, I hauled N1S (Number 1 Son) in front of the monitor, played back the video and watched his reaction, which went from basically neutral to astonishment to outright hostility. His response -- "He's crazy. I know the difference between fantasy and reality. I would never shoot my friends with a real gun. This guy is really stupid."

So, there you have it, from a ten (well, technically almost eleven) year old boy: "This guy is really stupid". I can't express it better myself. I wonder if this guy knows Pat Robertson? They surely belong together.

The truly sad thing about this are the people in the audience, who have all apparently turned off their capacity for critical thinking and for asking questions. Around about the mention of "witchcraft", I would have been walking out. Demagogues of this ilk have existed in every age, but their power comes from those who follow unthinkingly, or who remain silent in the face of nonsense.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Background: HMCS Athabaskan and Haitian Relief Efforts

The Canadian Forces ship HMCS Athabaskan (DDG 282) which was just deployed to Haiti is an Iroquois-class destroyer. Ships of this class are also referred to as the "Tribal class", a tradition which dates back to the Second World War when ships of an earlier Tribal class were obtained by the Royal Canadian Navy from Great Britain.

Athabaskan was built in Quebec in 1972, and went through TRUMP (TRibal-class Upgrade and Modernization Project) in 1994. The Iroquois-class Tribals supplemented the Canadian Navy's River-class destroyer force in the 70's and 80's. Militarily, the Iroquois-class were originally designed to conduct anti-submarine warfare, but the TRUMP conversion remade them into area air defence platforms.

The current Commanding Officer of Athabaskan is Commander Peter Crain, who relieved Commander Steve Jorgensen in command of the ship in August 2009.

The ship was one of four Canadian naval vessels that took part in Exercise Joint Warrior in September/October 2009. The others were HMCS Halifax (currently deployed with Athabaskan to Haiti), HMCS Montreal, and the supply ship HMCS Preserver.

In the photo (which is from Athabaskan's photo gallery on the ship's web page), Athabaskan is leading Halifax and Montreal through the waters of the Royal Navy's Fleet Base at Scapa Flow on the morning of October 14, 2009. This procession marked the 70th anniversary of the night in 1939 when the battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk by the German U-Boat U47 at what was supposed to be a secure anchorage.

In Haitian waters, Athabaskan will take station to the west of Port Au Prince, while Halifax will anchor off the town of Jacmel on the southern coast, about 30 kilometers away.

View Haiti - Canadian Relief Jan 2010 in a larger map

Michaelle Jean, the current Governor-General of Canada, is a Haitian refugee, having come to Canada at the age of 11 to escape the Duvalier regime. Jacmel, a town which is a popular tourist destination, is also the home town of Governor-General Michaelle Jean's father.

Peter McKay, the Minister of National Defense said through a spokesman that the Governor General had no hand in the decision to focus on Jacmel, which was made based "on the recommendation of the brigadier general on the ground", as well as at the request of the Haitian government.

Halifax is scheduled to arrive off Jacmel by Tuesday. There are an estimated 84,000 people homeless in the Jacmel region, and the hospital was destroyed. The dock has reportedly been damaged, which means that landings will be done via smaller craft. Earthquake damage to the road means that Jacmel has also been cut off from aid coming by truck. However, a DART complement is already working there, as well as a United Nations force from Sri Lanka.

This juxtaposition is entirely appropriate -- in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami of Christmas 2004, DART deployed to assist in Sri Lanka, although the logistics back then were much more difficult since the Canadian Forces did not have the Globemaster transport aircraft.

In addition to the Sri Lankans, the Canadian contingent are also working with search and rescue teams from Colombia and Brazil.

Operation HESTIA

The Canadian military is going to Haiti to assist in relief efforts. This deployment is part of what is being described as a whole-of-government response by Canada that also involves Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) as well as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

The military response, designated Operation HESTIA, includes the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan and frigate HMCS Halifax, both expected to arrive in Haiti today, after sailing from Halifax Harbour last Thursday. Both ships are packed with relief supplies, including the result of a clothing and toy drive among the crews (scroll down when the link opens). The ships will likely anchor off the south coast, since there is a growing mass of maritime traffic in the harbour of the capital, Port Au Prince.

The Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) has been on the ground since last week. DART equipment is maintained on standby at CFB Trenton in order to ensure proximity to the global reach provided by 8 Wing's Hercules and Globemaster transports. DART's primary mission is to provide medical care and to ensure a safe supply of drinking water.

The 200 members of the DART unit will be supplemented by 500 sailors and specialists from Athabaskan and Halifax. There are an additional 1,000 Canadian Forces soldiers who will be sent shortly. Their combined mission will be to provide aid, and to assist the civil authorities in keeping order.

Current casualty estimates place the number dead in Haiti as high as 200,000 people, with an additional 300,000 made homeless. The death and devastation has been staggering, placing this disaster on the same scale as a war.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Devil and the Jackal

Trust Fred Clark at Slacktivist to properly dissect and shed light on the true evil of Pat Robertson's utterances. Mr. Clark's post contains some important thoughts which bear repeating:
I'm accustomed to Pat Robertson being an unholy fool, but his remarks following the Haitian earthquake were astonishing even for him. By attributing Haiti's suffering to a supposed "pact with the devil," he manages to break two commandments simultaneously -- both bearing false witness against his neighbor and taking the name of God in vain.

That sort of double word score is typical Robertson fare, until one appreciates how utterly and explicitly he takes sides here. By labeling the revolutionary enslaved people who founded the Haitian democracy as literally demonic, Robertson sides with slave owners and against democracy, liberty and human rights. He declares that he and his god are on the side of oppression and that liberation is the Devil's work.

Wow. That this is contrary to the Bible Robertson claims to read is obvious to every tourist who has ever filed past the Liberty Bell here in Philly ("Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof").

But it's worse than that. He's not just contradicting some bit of scriptural arcana here, he's cutting to the core of Christianity and setting himself in direct opposition to it.

Video: On the following two videos, Rachel Maddow does an introduction to this topic, and in the second, Raymond Joseph, the Haitian Ambassador to the United States makes some remarks that provide a pointed reminder that one should never piss off someone who understands history.

If Robertson is the devil of the piece, then the jackal is surely Rush Limbaugh, the drug-addled radio personality who has come to represent the not-so-pent-up hatred of America's bigots. In the following video, Keith Olbermann comments on statements made by both Robertson and Limbaugh:

A day later, Olbermann responds again to a fresh outrage from Limbaugh, this one also drawing a sharp reprimand from Roger Ebert which begins "You should be horse-whipped for the insult you have paid to the highest office of our nation." The Olbermann video follows:

As noted, Haiti's need is great. Donations can be made through the Canadian Red Cross, International Red Cross, MedecinssSans Frontieres, or other charity of your choice4

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti, Hell, and Devils

A day before the January 13 Earth flyby of 2010 AL30, some tectonic rebalancing was happening beneath the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The nation of Haiti occupies the western part of this island, and the quake occurred 25 km from the capital city, Port Au Prince at a depth of 13 kilometers. The consequence of that geological twitch was a Richter 7 earthquake, and the human devastation has been unimaginable -- current estimates place the death toll as high as 100,000 people. If that is indeed the case, that is nearly three times the total number of Canadians killed in World War Two. Or 40 times the number of people killed in New York City on 9/11.

Relief efforts began mobilizing as soon as the news got out. Both the Canadian Red Cross and the International Red Cross have been accepting donations, and three days later, there are groups on the ground delivering aid. Much more is needed.

Pat Robertson, an American televangelist, on the religious television program The 700 Club stated that Haiti and Haitians were "cursed by one thing after another" since they "swore a pact to the devil", a reference to the slave revolt which began in 1791. Robertson, as one of America's privileged elites, potentially descended from slaveholders, would of course have little sympathy for a populist uprising, particularly one where, in the words of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide
To free themselves from the bonds of slavery,
our forefathers turned to the Ancestors in the
ceremony of Bois Caïman, in August 1791. In
other words, to become free, the slaves prayed
not to the God of his master but to the God
of Ancestors.

Any rejection of the god of Pat Robertson seems like a good idea to me, so it must have been a no-brainer for men and women desperate to throw off the shackles of real oppression and slavery for which someone like Robertson would have no understanding, and clearly even less sympathy.

Robertson's statement was described as "stupid" by the American government, and viewed with contempt and amusement in France.

In the blogosphere, P. Z. Meyers (who is much admired in these parts) said it best in his own post on the subject of Robertson's "pact with the devil" remarks: "If it makes you angry, turn your outrage into something constructive and use it to motivate you to donate to Haitian relief first. Deal with the evil scumbag Robertson later."

There is no need to believe in a devil, but there is ample reason to believe in Pat Robertson, and to take a stand against all that he represents. Haiti will be hell for months and years to come, but donations to the relief effort will be our way to help the Haitian people despite Robertson and those devils like him who seek to exploit this little bit of hell on Earth.

To Haitian friends and colleagues, we hope that your families and loved ones are safe. We wish we could do more.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Passing in the Night

An object designated 2010 AL30 was discovered on January 10, earlier this week, headed in our direction at high speed. It zipped by yesterday on January 13 at a distance of about 130,000 kilometers -- roughly a third of the distance from the Earth to the Moon. The object was discovered by the MIT-affiliated, NASA-funded LINEAR project. LINEAR is an acronym for the LIncoln Near Earth Asteroid Research program, run by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.

You can see on the fine print on the image that it was constructed from "stacking" a series of ten images to obtain this result.

When I wrote the first paragraph above, I had some indecision about writing 126,000 versus 130,000 kilometers, because this was after all just a rough estimate. Note that my indecision represented a distance spanning a goodly fraction of the width of North America, for a chunk of space debris about the size of a moderate living room. This thing was tiny -- but still moving so fast that it would potentially have been unpleasant if it had hit the Earth.

I have no idea of the composition of 2010 AL30, but it is not much smaller than the object which is thought to have precipitated the Tunguska Event. The Tunguska precursor object, believed to be "a few tens of meters" in size, did not actually make it all the way down to the ground, but disintegrated and in so doing caused an impact explosion in the atmosphere that was a thousand times more powerful than the nuclear weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It flattened trees over 2,150 square kilometers, and would certainly have devastated a city.

Research programs such as LINEAR are part of a loose international association of asteroid monitors called Spaceguard. The American objectives were to catalogue 90% all Near Earth Objects (NEOs) larger than 1 km in diameter by 2008, with a proposed follow-on program whose objective would be to detect 90% of all near-earth asteroids 140 meters and larger by 2028.

NOTE - The above photo was lifted from the blog of the observer team of the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

National Anthem Blues

Over the Christmas break, at one of the events I attended, someone began a conversation with me by decrying how a particular radio spot wished the listener "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". This, I was given to understand, was unacceptable pandering to "them" ("them" being unspecified), and had the effect of diluting the importance of Christmas, which was, after all, a Christian holiday.

Having attended Christian churches as a child and again as an adult after meeting my wife, I understand the importance of Christmas to Christians. However, many other cultures celebrate the solstice which occurs before Christmas. It is therefore not clear to me how acknowledging the importance of the season to all the other cultures who mark the solstice detracts from the Christian appreciation of Christmas.

I have no sympathy or agreement with the particular mindset which holds that there should not be any contrary viewpoint to the accepted religious or political position -- that any dissent is a distraction for the faithful. People who believe this believe that in order to marshal the faithful, it is important to provide ongoing messages that reinforce the basic belief structure.

This brings me to the title of this post. Earlier today, I was disappointed to receive a chain e-mail, subject CANADA 2010, which contained a strong (although somewhat incoherent) anti-immigrant stance, whose message was that as Canadians, we should get behind radio commentator Bruce Allen's desire not to have the Canadian national anthem sung in Hindi at the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. This particular chain e-mail is a thoroughly discredited piece of tripe, an egregious piece of racist trash.

There are also a couple of things wrong with it, beyond its hate-mongering anti-immigration stance:

First, there really is a radio commentator named Bruce Allen, and he really did broadcast an immigrant-bashing editorial on radio station CKNW that landed him in a certain amount of hot water. However, Allen did not mention anything regarding the national anthem sung in Hindi -- this was something creative added afterward, clearly by other interests with their own axes to grind. And in fact, this is an evolved version of something that circulated prior to 2007, attacking the idea of the American national anthem being sung in Spanish for a prior Olympics.

Second, my alert fellow Canadians are quite capable of going through the following simple mental exercise to understand that this hateful screed has little basis in reality. It goes like this:

Assume you are a Hindi speaking person in Canada who cares nothing for Canada. At a public event where you have the option of singing the Canadian national anthem you
(a) do nothing
(b) sing the national anthem of the country you care nothing about in your own language, after having spent time and effort to translate the words and arrange the music

Why would a person who cares nothing for Canada select option (b)? The suggestion that someone would is total anti-immigrant drivel. Before it got to me, the e-mail had been forwarded to 25 different people, and while it surprises and saddens me that something like this has any degree of acceptance, I am enough of a realist to understand that this is a symptom of fear, frustration, and a sense of powerlessness -- in fact, the same feelings that drive someone to forget their Christian ideals, and descend into anger over "Happy Holidays" versus "Merry Christmas". The more insidious problem is that there are those who would exploit these feelings to promote hatred and racism -- sending these e-mails to marshal the faithful and build a commonality of belief.

There is no better example of that than the other chain e-mail which I received a few hours after the first one (from a different source). This e-mail had the subject PRICELESS and purported to be a peace plan advanced by the comedian Robin Williams. It starts like this:

You gotta love Robin Williams........Even if he's nuts! Leave it to Robin Williams to come up with the perfect plan. What we need now is for our UN Ambassador to stand up and repeat this message.
Robin Williams' plan...(Hard to argue with this logic!)

Then it continues with a ten point plan which in effect has the US, UK, Canada, and Australia saying "screw you" to the rest of the world. The plan itself was clearly unworkable, and my original thought was that here was another celebrity shooting off their mouth on a topic on which they have absolutely no expertise. The one thing which made me pause was that this rant wasn't funny. If it really was Robin Williams, I would have expected him to be funny, even discussing politics. And of course, this e-mail too was bogus.

The originators of this e-mail would have gotten a two for one deal. On the one hand, they get to send their jingoistic message out, and on the other hand they get to attribute it to Robin Williams -- a comedian who would not hesitate to mock this kind of stupidity.

I have written about this kind of message before. The process whereby these messages get out very much resembles a viral marketing campaign. Neither of the individuals who sent me these e-mails are drooling redneck idiots, nor are they unreasonable people. The message of hate, and the untruths, are buried underneath the ostensibly reasonable initial premise. Their target is the person whose circumstances lead him to be angry over "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas", completely forgetting the religious and cultural values of acceptance of diversity.

I have no big answers, but for me, this is how we can fight back against those who lie to us and who try to drag down our spirit. If my world is the sum of the small decencies that my family and friends do for each other, then I can extend my world through small decencies for my neighbour, for strangers. If nothing else, each such act is a thumbing of the nose against those who would spread hatred and lies and so drive us apart.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year!

We want to wish our family, friends, and colleagues a Happy New Year for 2010.

So it is finally 2010, and even though we are definitely living in the future, Dr. Heywood Floyd is not the ex-Chair of the National Council for Astronautics in the US, nor is he the Chancellor of the University of Hawaii. But there is no more Soviet Union, and no Chinese space station poised to become a manned Jupiter-bound spacecraft. Sadly, there is no derelict spaceship called Discovery parked at a Lagrange point in the orbit of Io around Jupiter, close to a vast black monolith of non-human origin. Even more sadly, there is no series of giant wheel-shaped space stations around the Earth, nor is there a regular Earth-Moon cargo and passenger service supporting a vast industrial complex at Clavius which doesn't exit, and an excavation site at Tycho which also doesn't exit.

What we do have is the beginning of an interplanetary internet, and a recession that is ending although for regular people rather than large, wealthy corporate entities, the reality of that ending will take longer to realize.

We also have two little rovers called Spirit and Opportunity on Mars. From Geoffrey A. Landis, science fiction author and NASA Rocket Scientist, here are
New Year's resolutions for the Opportunity rover:
1. I will get more exercise. In the new year, I will try to take a long walk every day!
2. I'll do some travelling this year. Visit new places, see new things!
3. I will stop making fun of my big sister Spirit for being a stick-in-the-mud. She says it isn't funny any more (even though it is).
4. I promise to call home every day, even if I don't have much to say.
5. And I will be an obedient rover and do everything my people tell me to, because I'm a nice rover, not like my sister who just lies around all day like a slug.
6. And I hope everybody in my family has a real real real good new year, too! (Even Spirit). Best ever!
--Love, Opportunity