Sunday, February 24, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (movie review)

I thought I might miss this one but JS at the Meeting said it was good and not all that biased in his view.  Not sure what to make of that, my curiosity piqued, I made time after a Hilton lunch at ApacheConNA, where Alexia and Christine and I joined up with director Holden.  Christine had her own truck and took Alexia onward, while I ducked into the Regal in Fox Tower.

Katherine Bigelow has already made a name for herself in the war movies department, with Hurt Locker.

Everyone gets what they want to some level.  Letting the solo agent make the positive identification of UBL was a good touch.  Did she have much choice in that being who he was at this point?  The big plane seems a little hollow at the end, when the whole point of her career until now has been to reach this point, so now what?  Make a movie about it?

Pakistan is properly alert to having some airspace invaded.  Choppers always have problems so don't call me a spoiler.  It's not like the U2.  Remember the President Carter thing with the helicopters?  The movie makes some literate allusions into the lore,  Charlie Wilson's War isn't far in the background.

Had UBL actually died years before, this would have been the better story then too, and there would not have been much to cross-check its authenticity.  This movie is far from claiming to be an historical rendering of events.

That followup movie would talk more about who got what out of the deal.  The CIA is portrayed as having been made to look bad after 911, when it falsely claimed WMDs were being stockpiled (remember that dog and pony show at the UN?  They watch that in grad school now and learn that NATO intelligence was clearly inferior, jealous of UNSCOM and Scott Ritter).

So now it was all up to this Lindsey Moran type to not be so wrong this time.  She needed her loyal fans.  The (movie) director counts on at least some being won over.  She's the UBL hunter, straight from high school.  Not necessarily a gun nut either.

Speaking of the director, the actor, Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), looked not unlike Panetta as CIA director I thought, if maybe rounder.  The NSA had a role too, as a skeptic and reality check.  We were back to the embassies and Fortress America (I remember those under-car mirrors).  Not too hard to understand.  The US president was close at hand, was the feeling (as thoughtful, analytical).  The narrative looks for its boosters within White House circles.

Maya is not totally unsympathetic (more would say the exact opposite) in that she does net better treatment for the first torture victim, who starts getting some decent treatment eventually, though not Hilton quality certainly.  Being truly amicable goes a long way.  Not that we see much of that in this film.  USAers are an unfriendly bunch for the most part, as cast, eager to detain you or at least snatch your cell phone at gun point (not shown).

Although persistent, Maya is not expected to have paranormal abilities (Casey was known to look for ESP on one's resume), there's no remote viewing except what comes in from satellites, nor does she need to speak or read other languages.  She has to go through translators and her collection of torture CDs would need to be dubbed.  She's an attainable role model maybe.  There's no assumption she's expected to bed-bounce her way to the top either.  She's more like a good Muslim in that way.

The birthday cake plot element again seemed to echo back to Iran and Ollie North during Reagan's term.  They (he and McFarlane) were hoping to butter up some arms trader in that storyline.  Or was it Ayatollah Khomeini himself they were hoping to charm?  I'm Googling old articles as I think back to those days.  There's a sense of betrayal.  Iran is a still a "bad guy" in Washington's simple "friend or foe" neural logic (simpler than Drosophila's probably).

I should see that other new spy movie about that op (rescuing hostages), which I remember learning about closer to the time in early public accounts.

Anyway, the movie hopes we're at least friendly enough to buy some of these images of who and what Americans are supposed to be.  There's this hunt for UBL.  Now it's over.  They shoot a lot of parents coldly, telling the children it's OK.  The Pakistanis aren't so sure this is acceptable.  They're told to stay back.

US military helicopters have become a cliche and/or trope, thanks to Vietnam War movies.  This film takes the challenge of the chopper sound to heart and explores "stealth chopper".  Can a helicopter be made quieter than a dog barking?  The soundtrack poses that as a kind of physics question, testing our willingness to suspend disbelief (another variable, a wild card).

I know many of the events mentioned were real enough.  Nancy Irving herself told me what it was like at Friends House, after that bus explosion in London.

Tony Soprano is perceptive, noticing the ISI is close to UBL's secret hangout. There's a negotiated flavor to this settlement.  Something for everyone.  Washington DC continues to play some imperial headquarters full of bossy types.  The film suggests spunky women (who know when to cuss correctly) have a bright future at Langley, token blacks too, and OK to be Muslim (Wolf a nice touch).

I returned to ApacheCon in time for the whiskey social.  A lot of the guests are from other time zones and some are furiously working on their talks.  I empathize.  We later joined Ashley at Rock Bottom.  Both her parents were or are in the military.  Mom is a medic.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Evolving Minerals

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Dr. Robert Hazen is a huge mineral enthusiast, enjoying a Renaissance of interest in the discipline.  What mineralogists have recently discovered is the panoply or canvas of minerals one finds goes through a progression, or "evolution" if you will, with the implied sub-meaning of "complexification" (greater variety, more permutations).

Early rock from the congealing of the solar system, such as that meteorite that recently blasted out windows in Russia (a big topic of our conversation), won't have many minerals in it and half of what it does have is only present in relatively nano amounts.

You need complex chemical reactions to catalyze a bigger vocabulary, processes like vulcanism and of course the appearance of water.  Those things only happen later, on bigger planets (is the current thinking), if at all.

Planet Earth, at age 4.5 billion or so, may actually be peaking around now, in terms of its mineral variety, as the Sun continues to warm.  The breathable future is measured in millions, not billions of years.  That may be the standard life cycle then, for planets in our class.

Hazen was very sure that humans' contribution to CO2 is like nothing the world has ever seen and is orders of magnitude higher than any second greatest cause of net change.  We're pushing fast and hard into unknown territory and he wonders if that's a good idea, though as a scientist he finds it fascinating.

Hazen wonders if "evolution" might gain more traction as an acceptable topic, in the anti-science USA, if transposed to this scale of minerals.  There didn't used to be clays.  Evidence is pretty strong that, without bacteria, you don't get specific crystals.  Humans are not the first biological form to play a role in planetary alchemy.  That used to be considered a newfangled idea.

He was also pretty definite about the story of the Moon.  Though he had nothing affirming to say about Velikovsky (someone asked at the dinner) he does of course accept that worlds collide.  Earth was not long congealed before this second mass collided with her at an angle and hit the reset button big time.

Venus may have undergone something similar as evidenced by her "reverse spin" (did she reel in a moon?) -- it's hard to know much about Venus.  Earth's spin nudges our Moon away from us, day by day.

Anyway, besides deterministic processes, you have these stochastic random events, and these will make a huge difference in any given scenario.

In Hazen's mind, it's pretty clear that "life" (however defined) is happening in trillions of cases.  His version of Universe is very richly permuted with life forms.  Maybe that's why he seemed so enthusiastic about science.  He also has a mineral named after him.  He was up front about the political nature of nomenclature committees.  Some of us were already used to that from tracking Pluto's demotion from planethood.  As new information comes in, old mental categories need to be fine tuned.

"Were buckyballs part of the early crystalline makeup of the universe?  Maybe not because buckyballs aren't crystals right?"  That was my question, plus another about whether anthropogenic mineral is an oxymoron.  Yes, a buckyball is not a mineral but a lattice of them would be.  Early Universe had graphite.  Astral buckyballs have already been seen and indeed their spectral signature is what led Kroto to approach Rice University in the first place (this is me thinking out loud now).

Regarding my other question, right, it's not a mineral if made in the lab, that's just part of the concept.  That being said, humans have created conditions that have allowed new crystals to spontaneously form.  Coal tailings, debris from mines, have been the only known locations for some types of crystal growth pattern.

We had many young students in the audience and the audience was very encouraging of their coming up with questions, which many did, coming to the microphone.  The balcony was filled with sponsored tickets.  The Mentor Graphics banner was prominent.

I did some outside work with other Wanderers.  The Heathman dinner was spectacular.  I asked about the Hamaker-Weaver thesis (glacial dust, re-mineralizing the Earth).  Some elements of that were part of Hazen's model, as the carbon cycle is one of his research foci.

Carbon subduction is of major interest.  As the Earth cools, it can afford to suck more of its own carbon to lower levels apparently.  He and his wife had just visited Biosphere 2 in Arizona where he had been struck by the scale of some of the experiments, though he thought they might be leaving out some important variables.  Live and learn.  I bought his book, The Story of Earth.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Report from Afghanistan

Meeting Room
 :: meeting room, Peace House ::

Some of the wiser elders of Portland (Oregon) gathered at Peace House tonight to go over their thinking about hearings in Washington DC regarding intelligence matters.  Our speaker:  a native born Afghan expat with over forty years experience in North American academia, going back and forth to Kabul.  He has US citizenship yet speaks fluent Pashto and Dari, as well as English, reads and writes in 'em too.

The New York Times article of February 5, Drone Strikes' Risks to Get Rare Moment in the Public Eye, was passed around for those who'd not seen it.  This was a well-read group, professional activists, well traveled, Portland cognoscenti.  The NYT article focuses on Mr. Brennan's advocacy of weaponized drones, versus drones for surveillance only, such as the WWF uses against animal poachers in East Africa (and elsewhere).

Afghani police themselves wonder why they can't make the arrest on the ground, versus letting aliens shoot at fellow citizens from the sky by remote control.  Drones seem pretty cool until they start shooting, at which point you have to wonder what happened to habeas corpus and innocent until proved guilty, the UN Declaration of Human Rights and so on.  Why are the poor and under-priviledged always getting the ax?  Aren't those pulling the trigger on their "flying shooters" (weaponized UAVs) equally chargeable as criminals?

Nah, war is always about double standards and total unfairness.  War is about flipping off those who yearn for the rule of law.  Mayhem rules.  We had some Vietvets with us, reminding us how true that is.  Given permission and encouragement, humans have what it takes to slice each other to bits and then some.  Drugs help.

War is by definition a kind of gangland violence and a US president wanting war powers is someone working hard to suspend the Constitution.  We all learned about Rome in school.  The patricians (Republicans) were frustrated by the constraints placed on them by the Plebes (Democrats) and decided enough was enough.  They went fascist, staged a coup and branded a new position of Emperor, commander in chief in a perpetual war of expansion.  "Fasces" is Latin for "bundle of rods" and is what you see emblazoned in US House of Representatives iconography.

They tried the same thing against FDR, but Smedley "Fighting Quaker" Butler blew the whistle (see Business Plot in Wikipedia).

Rome is never far beneath the surface, and at times like these, one wonders why they don't just wear togas in Congress.  I guess the suits make 'em look more Anglo and they're still aping the Brits after all this time.

I asked our speaker about how to tell the story as a Drug War.  We'd heard about oil, copper, gold... Afghanis are rightly proud of their resources.  They see the size of those bases, the US embassy, like Roman outposts, and don't believe for a minute that they're about to be vacated.  This "pulling out" in 2014 sounds like another chapter in hoodwinking the American people, while continuing to run a giant jobs-welfare program on the backs of the occupied.

The military / mercenary business is a jobs program, we all know that.  Dollars pump directly though these pipelines, as desirable as opium or cocaine, directly to warlords and government officials.  It's called "corruption" but it's also called doing what one can while one can, for one's extended family.

The audience reminded me it was Ecuador that had taken recent steps to legalize its own pharmacological assets.  Washington DC likes to outlaw crops in other countries, shows up with flame-throwers, assuming it has jurisdiction where it has none.

The idea that after all this time the US was still in some kind of "stalemate" in Afghanistan seemed somewhat laughable to those present at this meeting.

We were admittedly not yes-men or yes-women regarding the president's policies.  This was not a room full of kiss-butts at the CIA, praise Allah, all bucking for job security and cushy retirement (the hearings are about making Brenner the new CIA chief, which Central Intelligence Agency is, since 911, only one of sixteen desktop icons in the lineup -- but still with higher public name recognition than most, with NSA a close second).

Like John le CarrĂ©, Dr. Wahab would have liked a police response to the crime of 911.  This was not a job for the military and the militarization of intelligence has resulted in a rotting and crumbling of that intelligence.

The USA of forty years ago was not as idiotic, to put it bluntly, was just starting down that slippery slope.  The leadership was perhaps better back then, for all the psychosis in high office (not a new phenomenon).  Even if Obama is semi-sane, he's still surrounded by drone-infatuated crazies and Gitmo apologists.  Back in the day, we had more people like Bob Textor and Roger Paget (and James Lambert while I'm naming names).

I think NATO was just jealous of all the respect the UN was getting, sending consultants around and trying to make the world (aka Planet Earth) a better place.  The US was like the evil queen in Snow White, going "mirror mirror..." and hearing "UN, UN" (not US).  This was hurtful, and the Jesse Helms crowd decided to pull the plug on the UN and go with NATO instead, which had a more liberal use-of-weapons policy (best to go with one's strengths, they were thinking).

NATO is now practicing "development at gun point", far less effective than the UN brand, and far more corrupt.   The military-minded also prefer NATO because they like to strut and puff in uniform, while sending emails to their secret admirers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Wanderers 2013.2.6

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 Steve Mastin delivered a detailed yet sweeping account of the history of diabetes, especially its diagnosis (e.g. Benedict Reagent, Clinistix, glycosylated hemoglobin HbA1c etc).

Type 1 diabetes is more of an autoimmune disease whereas Type 2 results from a combination of susceptibility (increasing in the population) and environmental factors, such as diet and obesity.

Steve has worked in the field, including with Japanese ministries post WW2, when the switch to new eating habits triggered a diabetes epidemic.

We went off on numerous tangents (per Wanderers) as Steve knew some of the players personally and wanted to give a sense of them, Richard T. Jones (OHSU) for example.

Attendance was high, including David Feinstein, Dick Pugh, Dave DiNucci, Michael Hagmeier and several others.

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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Cosmic Consciousness

:: a mashup of meetups ::

Dick Pugh graced Wanderers with his standard spiel, the one he takes on the road, with help from NASA.  He does a great job, as one of the world's leading experts on meteorites.  In more ways than one, it's a discrete science, a perfect niche, as there aren't really that many big ones you might own.  Only 6% are the iron type.  Most are rocks or hybrids.  Two days have gone by, and I didn't take notes.

The giant (or relatively large) hard thing breaks apart and leaves a field, usually.  It hits at an angle, leaving an oval pattern of stuff.  That's what the meteorite hunters look for, less for craters, which just don't happen that often.

The Earth's surface, being lush, or under water, masks some of its craterous features, plus its atmosphere really does burn up a lot of the smaller stuff.  Really big things that hit at cosmic speed are in a category of their own, and are Earth changing.  On the smaller side are the giant impact craters.

Our small group was very privileged to handle so many certified rocks of extraterrestrial origin, many of them as old as the solar system or older.  Many have pedigrees and history.  Most are discovered, a few have known impact times.

I encourage people to study meteorites and what they remind us about our solar system environment.  Seeking the "shooting star" as they're called is also a reason for getting outside at night under clear skies.  "No child left inside" is the Outdoor School slogan (something we have here in Portland).  Get off yer duff and go watch some space debris burn up in the biosphere.  Go alone or with dear ones.

Because a large mass will break apart, it can look just like a lot of windows of the same giant craft.  I recall when freeway goers including myself were treated to this illusion just south of Seattle one night, as if a great UFO had been sighted.  Cars pulled over, and a sight it was to behold.  The Seattle Times said later it was space junk breaking up, something Russian maybe.