Monday, April 26, 2010

Peter Watts Sentencing - No Jail Time

Good news -- we heard a few minutes ago from Dave Nickle at Peter's sentencing hearing in Port Huron, MI that Peter won't be sent to jail. My understanding from Dave's partner Karen who relayed the news is that Peter was lectured extensively by the judge about how it is important to be nice to the police, and Peter will have to pay a fine. But no jail time, which is substantially better than the gloomy predictions we were making last week!

Dave and Madeline are going out for a beer with Doug Mulkoff, Peter's lawyer, and a group of other supporters. They'll be home in 5-6 hours, so expect first hand updates later this evening.

UPDATE - Dave has posted an initial report from the Quay Street Brewing Company.

The Port Huron Times-Herald had this on their website today:
Author Watts to be sentenced today

A Toronto author convicted March 19 of assaulting, resisting and obstructing a border officer at the Blue Water Bridge is expected to be sentenced today. Peter Watts is scheduled to be in St. Clair County Circuit Judge James Adair's courtroom at 2 p.m. Information his online court record shows the recommended sentence is 180 days in jail with credit for one day served and 60 days suspended upon payment of $1,600 in fines and costs. A jury found Watts guilty of refusing to comply with orders during a random inspection at the bridge. An officer testified at trial that Watts tried to choke him.

Although the Times-Herald, in keeping with their past performance, tries to cast Peter in the most negative possible light, I want to make it clear that Peter was cleared of the assault charge. The officer who "testified at trial that Watts tried to choke him" had his testimony discredited during the trial by an independent witness. No assault by Peter ever took place, although Peter himself was assaulted by being punched, pepper sprayed, and knocked to the ground.

Peter was convicted of non-compliance with the orders of the border officer. The jury evidently believed that being punched and pepper sprayed should not have affected Peter's ability to follow those orders. Peter talks about that on his blog.

Both NewsFix and Quill & Quire have news coverage that more accurately reflects actual events than the Port Huron Times-Herald. However, it is the Simple Justice blog of Scott H. Greenfield which provides the most succinct analysis of Peter's travails:
Like Cory Doctorow, I agree completely that Peter Watts' conviction is absurd and horrible. He was convicted for acting like a normal person under abnormal circumstances. He was convicted for lacking the understanding that when interacting with officials with guns and shields, one bows deeply like a supplicant, just to avoid irritating small minds.

There is no justice. It is all about maintaining order and conformity, because the system needs order and conformity. The Japanese aphorism about the nail that sticks out being hammered down is entirely apropos. What, you thought living in a democracy entitled you to more or less equal power relationships with officials? The people wearing the jackboots want you to remember that.

Weapons of Mass Distraction

Being a peaceful kind of guy, I am deeply concerned by yet another instance of weaponization, although in the spirit of scientific inquiry, I am closely following today's experiment.

Earlier this month, senior officials in the Middle East definitively identified an earthquake initiator (earlier reports here and here) which others were quick to exploit. This is the experiment which I noted earlier and which is scheduled for today, an experiment that proposes widespread attempts to induce earthquake events.

If the initial premise is correct, there is enough evidence to suggest that large portions of North America are in serious trouble, and a strong likelihood that Sydney, Australia may be swallowed by the Pacific Ocean in a seismic event that would be unprecedented in human recorded history.

In the past, similarly credible links have been made to hurricanes, although today's experiment is the first time that I am aware of where actual testing will be done. For the sake of science, I urge people to observe, and wait for the earth to move.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Hubble is 20 Years Old!

I've been married for almost as long as the Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit.

But talk about schedule creep. After delays in construction on a project conceived in 1969 as the "Large Space Telescope", and approved in 1977, the Hubble space telescope was finally completed by the mid 1980's, and scheduled for launch in October 1986. But then the Challenger disaster happened in January 1986 and the shuttle fleet was grounded in the aftermath of Challenger's loss. Over four years after the accident, space shuttle Discovery finally took the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit on April 24, 1990 -- twenty years ago today.

Mission STS-31 was the tenth launch of the shuttle Discovery. On board were Mission Commander Loren Shriver (replacing John Young, the originally assigned commander), Pilot Charles Bolden, and Mission Specialists Bruce McCandless, Steven Hawley, and Kathryn Sullivan. Hubble was deployed in a 380 statute mile (612 km) orbit, a record orbital altitude for shuttle missions, in order that the HST could be released near its operational altitude well above the atmosphere. The height ensured that there would be no atmospheric interference for its optics, and minimal atmospheric resistance to affect its orbit.

Shortly after the telescope was launched and saw first light in orbit, it became clear that there was a serious problem with the main mirror. Manufactured by Perkin-Elmer Corporation, the mirror had a flaw called "spherical aberration" that caused all images to be fuzzy. This problem was fixed on the first servicing mission in 1994 with a device called COSTAR -- Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement -- which remained in place until the fourth servicing mission in 2009, by which time all Hubble instruments had built-in corrective optics. [Note: There were four servicing missions, but five actual servicing mission shuttle flights, since servicing mission 3 was performed over the course of two flights.]

During the telescope's lifetime, perhaps one of the most important images obtained by Hubble was the so-called "Deep Field" composite.

This material was presented to the 187th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Antonio, Texas on January 15, 1996.

Several hundred never before seen galaxies are visible in this "deepest-ever" view of the universe. Besides the classical spiral and elliptical shaped galaxies, there is a bewildering variety of other galaxy shapes and colors that are important clues to understanding the evolution of the universe. Some of the galaxies may have formed less that one billion years after the Big Bang.

Representing a narrow "keyhole" view all the way to the visible horizon of the universe, the HDF image covers a speck of sky 1/30th the diameter of the full Moon (about 25% of the entire HDF is shown in the image above). This is so narrow, just a few foreground stars in our Milky Way galaxy are visible and are vastly outnumbered by the menagerie of far more distant galaxies, some nearly as faint as 30th magnitude, or nearly four billion times fainter than the limits of human vision. (The relatively bright object with diffraction spikes just left of center may be a 20th magnitude star.) Though the field is a very small sample of sky area it is considered representative of the typical distribution of galaxies in space because the universe, statistically, looks the same in all directions.

The image was assembled from many separate exposures (342 frames total were taken, 276 were fully processed and used for this picture in 1996) with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), for ten consecutive days between December 18 to 28, 1995. This picture is from one of three wide-field CCD (Charged Coupled Device) detectors on the WFPC2. This "true-color" view was assembled from separate images were taken in blue, red, and infrared light. By combining these separate images into a single color picture, astronomers will be able to infer — at least statistically — the distance, age, and composition of galaxies in the field. Bluer objects contain young stars and/or are relatively close, while redder objects contain older stellar populations and/or farther away.

In 2007, while doing routine mapping of the distribution of dark matter within the galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17 (ZwCl 0024+1652), located 5 billion light-years from Earth, astronomers got an unexpected first-hand view of how dark matter behaves during a titanic collision between two galaxy clusters. The interaction created a ripple of dark matter, which is somewhat similar to a ripple formed in a pond when a rock hits the water. The ring's discovery is among the strongest evidence yet that dark matter exists.

Credit: NASA, ESA, M.J. Jee and H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University)

Astronomers have long suspected the existence of dark matter -- a hypothesized invisible substance -- as being the source of the additional gravity that is needed to hold together galaxies and galaxy clusters. Such objects would fly apart if they relied only on the gravity from their visible stars. Although astronomers don't know what dark matter is made of, they believe that it is a type of elementary particle that pervades the universe. Over the next decade, results from the Large Hadron Collider will provide more insight into this question.

A ring-like structure is evident in a composite image of the cluster made from Hubble observations. The ring can be seen in the blue map of the cluster’s dark matter distribution, which is superimposed on an image of the cluster. This is the first time that dark matter was detected, having a unique structure different from the gas and galaxies in the cluster.The ring measures 2.6 million light-years across.

The last photo below was taken after the fourth and final servicing mission in 2009, which repaired and upgraded Hubble so that it is expected to be functional until at least 2013, and likely much later. Although NASA originally intended to return the telescope to Earth for display in the Smithsonian, Hubble will actually outlast the remaining service lifetime of the shuttle fleet, now expected to end in September of this year.

So happy 20th birthday, Hubble! We hope you can provide us with many more years of incredible imagery out to the edge of the Universe.

BoingBoing has a review of a stunning new book -- Hubble: A Journey Through Space and Time by Edward J. Weiler, published by Abrams in collaboration with NASA. Much better pictures there.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Force Projection 3

This is a follow-up to earlier posts --
Force Projection, 2009 March 1
Force Projection 2, 2009 July 30

As discussed in the two earlier posts, the Chinese Navy has had a continuous presence in the Gulf of Aden since January 2009. My belief was that the Somali ant=piracy mission was an opportunity for the Chinese Navy to gain operational experience in international waters, as well as to observe the operational posture and procedures of other navies. Dr. J. Peter Pham has a column in the World Defense Review blog analyzing this position. The article dates back to March 2009, so it is a year old.

To recap -- the Chinese anti-piracy mission mission began on December 26, 2008 when the first flotilla left the naval base at Hainan Island, bound for the Gulf of Aden. This task force consisted of two missile-armed destroyers -- Haikou DDG-171 and Wuhan DDG-169 -- along with the supply ship Weishanhu.

On April 15, 2009, Wuhan and Haikou handed off to the second flotilla, consisting of the destroyer Shenzhen DDG-167 and frigate Huangshan FFG-570. The supply ship Weishanhu remained behind to provide logistics support.

A third force left Hainan Island on July 16, 2009. The guided missile frigates Zhoushan FFG-529 and Xuzhou FFG-530 along with the supply ship, Qiandaohu replaced all three of the ships on station in the Gulf of Aden. On November 1, 2009, Rear Admiral Wang Zhiguo hosted US Navy Rear Admiral Scott Sanders, the commander of the internationally constituted Combined Task Force 151, and members of Sanders' staff on board Zoushan.

Admiral Wang's problems during his tour included the capture by Somali pirates of the Chinese freighter De Xin Hai, a headache which he was able to hand to his successor. The missile frigates Ma'anshan FFG-525 and Wenzhou FFG-526 replaced Zhoushan and Xuzhou on November 12, 2009. On December 21, the missile frigate Chaohu FFG-568 joined the fourth flotilla, and a week later on December 27, a $4 million dollar ransom was paid to the Somali pirates for 25 hostages and the freighter De Xin Hai. It is assumed that Chaohu brought the ransom money.

On March 18, 2010, a handover ceremony was conducted on Ma'anshan to turn over operational responsibility to the fifth flotilla: missile destroyer Guangzhou DDG-168 and the supply ship Weishanhu joined the frigate Chaohu, relieving Ma'anshan, Wenzhou and Qiandaohu. On their way home, the three ships of the fourth flotilla were in Manila in the Philippines last week (April 13 to 17), on a five day port call, done apparently at the invitation of the Philippine Navy..

Of note for monitoring continuing operations is the fact that Weishanhu is now back in the Gulf of Aden for her second tour of duty. It appears that surface combatant vessels operate for 3 to 4 months, but the accompanying supply ship operates for 6 to 8 months. Thus far, both supply ships used to date have been units of the Qiandaohu class. Weishanhu (pennant number 887) supported the first and second flotillas, and is currently doing the same for the fifth. Qiandaohu (pennant number 886) supported the third and forth flotillas on a long (nearly eight month) deployment. There is reportedly a third ship in this class (NATO refers to it as the Fuchi class), but that ship has not been used. These ships also have their own complement of special forces troops and enough weaponry to deter attacks from pirates.

Since the Chinese Navy joined the UN anti-piracy mission in late 2008, Chinese warships have, as of the beginning of March 2010, escorted a total of 1,643 ships of various nationalities, and rescued 23 vessels from direct pirate attack. According to official Chinese government figures, more than 30 percent of China's foreign trade takes place via the Gulf of Aden route, which explains the continuing interest and ongoing commitment to providing military security.

A Belated Yuri's Night Observance

Today is the 18th, and I am 6 days overdue in blogging about Yuri's Night, the annual celebration of Yuri Gagarin's space flight on April 12, 1961 -- 49 years ago, the day when the first human being travelled beyond the Earth's atmosphere into outer space.

On Yuri's Night, 2010, there were 13 people in orbit -- one more than all the cosmonauts and astronauts who flew in the Vostok and Mercury programmes combined.

Expedition 23 on the International Space Station consisted of six people -- Mission Commander Oleg Kotov (RKA), T.J. Creamer (NASA), Soichi Noguchi (JAXA), Tracy Caldwell Dyson (NASA), Alexander Skvortsov (RKA) and Mikhail Kornienko (RKA).

At the same time, space shuttle Discovery, flying on mission STS-131 and docked at the space station from a week earlier, had seven people on board -- Commander Alan Poindexter, Pilot James P. Dutton Jr., Mission Specialists Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, Rick Mastracchio, Clayton Anderson (all with NASA) and Naoko Yamazaki (JAXA).

Gagarin, first man in space, would have appreciated that 49 years later, there are still firsts being achieved. On this occasion, the first time that four women were in space at the same time (Caldwell Dyson, Metcalf-Lindenburger, Wilson, Yamazaki) and the first time that two Japanese astronauts were in space together (Noguchi, Yamazaki).

Friday, April 16, 2010

Volcanic Plume from Iceland

NASA's Terra and Aqua spacecraft, both in "ball of yarn" polar orbits, carry a detector called MODIS. On April 15, the Terra spacecraft used its onboard MODIS instrument to capture the following image of a volcanic plume from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in southern Iceland.

In the photo, the Shetland Islands are at the photo's lower right corner.

In southern Iceland, the glacier over top of the volcano caused the upwelling lava to cool very quickly, forming a silica glass which fragmented into fine particles, and which in turn were carried into the atmosphere by the eruption plume.

The height of the plume occupies the normal range of cruise altitudes for commercial airliners. The presence of the the fine, sharp, jagged, abrasive silica particles in the volcanic ash cloud would cause engine failure if the material were sucked into an intake turbine. For this reason, air travel over most of northern Europe was cancelled for the day, and likely over the coming weekend.

Not since the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001 has there been such a large disruption in air travel.

UPDATE - The Astronomy Picture of the Day website has a great picture of the volcano for their April 19 entry.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Calypso Pork

I got an e-mail from a friend this morning describing a system problem -- the classical "I turn it on but nothing happens" problem, feared by computer users everywhere. Over GoogleChat through the course of the day, we agreed that my friend would come by this evening and we would check out the hard drive from the failed system, and if it worked, we would lift some data off of it.

I offered to provide dinner in addition to technical consulting.

Dinner would be Calypso Pork, from a recipe from a British cooking show called "Ainsley Harriott's Barbecue Bible", done by an English chef of Jamaican origin. The TV series dates back to sometime in the late 90's. The Calypso Pork recipe grabbed my imagination when it was described:

2 tablespoons of minced ginger
2 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of Muscovedo sugar
(I used demerara sugar because it was what I had)
a pinch or two of allspice
2 tablespoons of pineapple juice
2 tablespoons of corn oil
(the chef suggested any oil except olive oil)
2 tablespoons of RUM!
(should have been Jamaican dark rum, but I used what I had)

Combine all ingredients, mixing thoroughly

Add pork chops. Marinate for a few hours (3 and a half in my case).

Barbecue the pork chops -- approximately six minutes or so per side, on low heat.

I got the ingredients in the afternoon, scaled up the quantities to feed five people, and got the meat marinating.

When my friend arrived, we found that the drive he took out of the malfunctioning computer system was still good. We determined this by connecting the drive up to an interface device designed to connect to an IDE or SATA hard drive, provide power, and provide a data connection through a USB cable -- a must-have geek tool. When we connected up the drive, we found that we could read data from it, a highly desirable outcome, which meant that we were all set to copy over the drive contents to the high capacity data drive that my friend brought along for just this purpose.

Unfortunately we had problems getting the high capacity backup drive to work (refused to be recognized under either Ubuntu Linux or Windows XP despite repeated attempts), so we ended up only copying some critical files onto a flash drive. We agreed that my friend could borrow the nifty USB-to-IDE-and-SATA disk drive interface device for a while.

It being late in the evening, I barbecued the pork chops, and served them with roasted potatoes and a romaine lettuce salad.

Verdict -- this recipe is a definite keeper. I had never made this before, but everyone, even N1S, thought it was pretty good. The combination of flavours in the marinade worked well with the pork -- the ginger added some bite, while the rum blended everything else together into a savoury-sweet combination that accented rather than overpowered the meat.