Monday, March 31, 2014

Needs More Velociraptors!

Noah” is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah, and most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible. As a result, I believe Hollywood will have a much harder time in marketing future biblically themed movies to Christians.
- Ken Ham, president of Answers In Genesis, Time Magazine March 28, 2014


In 1957, Paramount Pictures released The Ten Commandments

It was an instant blockbuster.

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and famously starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Yvonne De Carlo, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price (all huge Hollywood stars of their day – well, except for the then little known Heston, who became a huge star specifically for his role as Moses), a literal “cast of thousands,” and filmed on the largest, most expensive set ever constructed, The Ten Commandments became one of most financially successful movies ever made.

The film chronicles the life of Moses – the principal character in the Biblical book of Exodus.

The Ten Commandments has been released four times in theaters, and continues to be popular on cable movie channels to this very day. In 1999 the film was declared “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry and thus the original cellulose print is preserved in a refrigerated vault beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains near Culpeper, Virginia in a former Cold War nuclear bunker nowadays known as the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation.

The film is still popular, particularly with Christians – strangely including fundamentalists.

A quick web search shows numerous listings for the movie, it’s particularly popular on Easter weekend, especially on large screen TVs in church basements.

Despite DeMille’s efforts towards historical accuracy, the film takes a number of liberties with the story. 

In an interesting note, the Christian Bible doesn’t contain much detail regarding the life of Moses, especially the first 30 years of his life, and so DeMille turned to another holy book that does, the Muslim Quran. DeMille also extensively used Jewish texts to fill out Moses’ biography.

And yet I’m unable to find any reference to a prominent Christian leader referring to DeMille’s epic as “an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the Character of [Moses], and most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.”

How odd.

Far from being insulted, Christians are perfectly willing to overlook the historical and/or biblical inaccuracies of the film, and in large part loved it.

Funny thing, that, don’t you think?

“Hey, God, you know, you’re kind of a dick when you’re in a movie with Russell Crowe and you’re the one with anger issues.”
       — Bill Maher, Real Time with Bill Maher
Talking about the new Paramount Pictures movie Noah

“I think it’s time to bring back blasphemy laws.”
       — Tristan Emmanuel, CEO of Freedom Press Canada Inc. BarbWire
             In response to Bill Maher’s comment

Now, it’s quite likely that I’m the least religious or spiritual person you know, but I enjoy the hell (heh heh) out of the The Ten Commandments and the occasional biblically themed movie doesn’t offend me in the least (You want to offend me? Let Paul Verhoeven make another “adaption” of Robert Heinlein, there’s a special place waiting in hell for what he did to Starship Troopers).

And in that vein, I went to see the movie Noah.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the movie stars Russell Crowe in the titular role, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, and Ray Winstone as the baddy. Also if you pay very close attention, you just might recognize Nick Nolte’s gravelly voice emanating from, well, a pile of gravel.

It’s your basic feel good Old Testament Bible story.  You know, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, they fall in love, there’s a large angry bearded man who spends a lot of time scowling mightily and shaking his fist, a bunch of people in robes who look like they’ve never heard of soap and water run around slaughtering each other for no particular reason, and then God kills everybody who’s left. Also, there’s a boat and some snakes. Amen.

I liked it.

It wasn’t great.

It wasn’t bad.

It’s certainly no Ten Commandments, but Noah is an entertaining movie with decent acting by a bunch of really attractive people (and Russell Crowe).

If I have a complaint, it’s that the movie depends heavily on CGI, unfortunately computer generated characters cost a lot of money and Aronofsky is no James Cameron when it comes to prying cash out of the studio, so Noah’s CGI is closer to the crappy cartoonish animation of The Hobbit than the believable and fully immersive Avatar, but I didn’t find it terribly distracting – though others apparently have. When it comes to CGI, you pays your money and you takes your chances, frankly, I’ve seen a hell of a lot worse (and I’m looking at you, I Am Legend).

But, of course, nobody cares about the acting or the special effects.

It’s the plot.

All Christians learn the story of Noah and his Ark early on.  Heck, even if you’re not a Christian (or a member of the various other religions that incorporate a global flood myth), you’re familiar with the story.  According to the generic Christian version, God gets fed up with sinful humanity and decides on a do-over. He tells Noah to build a big wooden boat and put several of each kind of animal onboard.  Then God makes it rain for a month and drowns every single living thing on the planet except for Noah and his family and the animals on the Ark (and the fish, I guess).  The Ark floats around for a year or so and eventually comes to rest on a mountaintop as the waters recede. Noah releases the animals, then the Ark’s crew spends the next several hundred years fornicating like hyperactive hamsters in an effort to repopulate the world. Now free of sin and properly chastised by God’s murderous wrath, the reborn human race lives happily ever after in Godly peace and pious enlightenment.

Okay, I might have just made up that last bit, but the rest of it is the generally accepted biblical version of the Noah story.

Like most of the Old Testament (and much of the new), it’s a damned grim story.  And the only real lesson is that part where the faithful get to lay awake at night wondering if their deity might just up and decide to randomly off their narrow asses at any given moment so you’d better be good for goodness sake. Or something. Ok, maybe I’m not exactly clear on what the lesson is here.

Now, I’m sure that when the various parts of the Christian Bible were written, given the state of knowledge at the time, Noah’s story seemed like a perfectly plausible scenario. However, over the last thousand or so years we’ve learned a bit more about how our universe works, and the story of Noah and his big boat of salvation long ago started to show some significant problems.  Even if you end every sentence with “God did it!” the story simply doesn’t hold water (Yep, I said it. I’m not sorry).  No part of the Great Flood narrative works as anything other than a tall tale. None of it, from the volume of water to the geology to the timeframe to the number of animals to the staggering logistics to the amount of food and wastes to the utterly impossible task of one man and his kids building a rugged seaworthy ship the size of a World War II aircraft carrier out of wood using only primitive hand tools to the genetic limitations of the miniscule breeding pool to … well, it just goes on and on right up to the part where God completely and utterly fails to accomplish his stated goal of resetting humanity, since human nature of today is pretty much exactly the same as described in the Bible prior to the flood. Taking the story at face value and given the evidence at hand, it would appear that God brutally killed millions and millions of people for no reason whatsoever – and you sure would think He would have seen that coming, wouldn’t you? (What? There’s still sin? So I offed the unicorns for nothing? Motherfu…ur, I mean somebody is getting a plague of boils for this).

Beginning around the time of the Renaissance and the advent of empirical science, Christians started having to come to terms with the fact that not everything in their Bible could be taken literally – most especially the Great Flood. And a lot of Christians eventually became more or less comfortable with that idea and evolved (I’m not sorry) into the kind of people who don’t go around lighting other people on fire and whom you don’t mind having for neighbors or on your local school board.

But not all.

Young Earth Creationism, the belief that the earth is only 6000 years old and the Bible, usually a strict interpretation of the King James Version, has been around for a long time. But it really got going in America during the Reagan administration. Today anywhere between 40% and 50% of adults in the US identify with Young Earth Creationism and roughly 30% claim a literal interpretation of the Bible as history.

And the Great Flood is the entire foundation of Young Earth Creationism.

Everything depends on it, everything.

Without a literal interpretation of the biblical Deluge, all of Young Earth Creationism and its various offshoots simply falls apart.

It’s unsurprising therefore that Biblical literalists have gone to absolutely ridiculous lengths attempting to rationalize the irrational, up to and including incorporating dinosaurs into their narrative by putting coconut eating vegetarian Tyrannosaurs in the Garden of Eden and velociraptors on the Ark.  And Creationists were willing to spend an enormous amount of money building a museum (and soon a supposed full sized and functional replica of the biblical Ark) in Kentucky.


And this, right here, is why they simply cannot tolerate a movie like Noah.

Young Earth Creationists have constructed a house of cards so flimsy and so utterly ludicrous, that should it be questioned in any way, should any deviation in belief be allowed to exist, should any adherent engage in anything but absolute blind belief, the entire structure will collapse of its own ridiculous weight.

Canadian Creationist Tristan Emmanuel wrote an article on the anti-gay site Barbwire and posted a video on YouTube entitled “Bill-asphemy” where he suggested that non-believers such as comedian Bill Maher, who did a humorous and irreverent review of Noah on his show, be publically whipped for not respecting fundamentalist Christian beliefs.


Christians should unanimously condemn Maher. There was a time when a generation of believers actually believed in defending the honor of God and would have done just that — condemn Maher. Back then Maher would have faced stiff penalties for his slanderous crimes against God and country. And the reasons were clear: slander the ultimate authority of a nation — God — and you ridicule the very foundation of its laws, values, public institutions and leadership.

Emmanuel went on to quote religious law from no less than the Massachusetts Bay Colony to describe what those “stiff penalties” should be:

“…everyone so offending shall be punished by imprisonment, not exceeding six months, and until they find sureties for good behaviours; by sitting in pillory; by whipping; boaring thorow the tongue, with a red hot iron; or sitting upon the gallows with a rope about their neck; at the discretion of the court…”

Whipping. The pillory. A hole bored through the tongue with a red hot iron. And the threat of hanging.

And you thought the Taliban was a bunch of assholes, eh? It would appear that they’ve got nothing on Canadian religious extremism, who knew, right?

Needless to say, Emmanuel was unhappy with Noah.

Creationist Ken Ham, he of the Bill Nye evolution debate and the shrill voice behind the aforementioned Creation Museum, called Noah “the worst film I’ve ever seen.”

Ham was aggrieved by the movie’s fallen angels (which admittedly did look a lot like the bastard offspring of the rock monster from Galaxy Quest and Treebeard from The Two Towers, but come on, you’ve got Adam and Eve chumming around with brontosaurs and you can’t handle a pile of magic rocks?), the depiction of the Ark itself which Ham didn’t think looked enough like the barn shaped renderings from junior Sunday school, and especially the movie’s liberal depiction of human sin.  Despite the fact that nearly every scene involves human beings acting like complete assholes, for Ken Ham there just wasn’t enough greed and selfishness and plunder and debauchery and gluttony and rape and murder and cannibalism. And though the lead baddie repeatedly flouts biblical law to a degree that makes Bill Maher look like a rank amateur, Ham was upset because Noah liked animals better than people – because apparently God wouldn’t send a man who values animals above people as the guy to, you know, save all the animals.

But Ham was particularly put out by the movie’s portrayal of Noah as a religious lunatic:

Noah’s misanthropy is revealed many times in the film. For example, when the girlfriend of Noah’s son Ham is caught in a trap and is about to be overtaken by some marauders, Noah leaves the girl to die at their hands. The film’s Noah wants to totally destroy the human race and doesn’t want his sons to have children. In perhaps the most shocking part of the film, Noah plans to kill his unborn grandchild, the child of Shem’s wife, if it is a girl. As Noah values his animals on board more than people and rants about it, he becomes a psychopath. Hollywood’s Noah is not the righteous man described in Hebrews 11 and other scriptures.

For a guy who prides himself on being the world’s bestest Christian, Ham sure missed the boat on that one (still not sorry).

Look, Noah supposedly hears the voice of God telling him to drop everything and build a giant floating zoo. So he does, and it takes years. Decades. He meets angels. He sees miracles. The hand of God is upon him.  He fills the Ark with animals, locks himself inside, and rides out the end of the world. And even with the dying screams of humanity echoing in his ears he remains resolute in his divine task – now you’ve got to figure that this guy is dedicated. He believes, man, he believes. And what’s God’s message to Noah here? Right, people suck. God is like Liam Neeson in Taken, I will find you and I will kill you! I’ll kill you all. And so, in the movie, Noah decides that he must commit murder in order to carry out God’s will. And the thing is that like any fundamentalist, he cannot be swayed by the voice of reason. His wife, his sons, his daughter in law, none of them can convince him that he’s wrong, that he’s acting like a deluded jackass – even though he obviously is.

No wonder Creationists like Ken Ham hate the movie. 

Like Emmanuel, Ham complains that he can’t simply forbid people from seeing the movie.  He recommends Young Earth Creationists track down any Christian who’s been exposed to the movie and “communicate biblical truths and undo the possible damage that might be caused by this sci-fi fantasy, one that is making a mockery of the Word of God and its true account of Noah, the Flood, and the Ark.”

I doubt Ham has much to worry about, if the comments under the World Net Daily’s review (Movie Depicts Evolution and Black Magic! Run for your lives, Everybody!) are any indication. Young Earth Creationists already know everything they need to know:

It is simply a badly done movie. Not seen it but I trust what I've heard.

I haven’t seen it, but I hate it!  There’s that evidence based science creationists are so well known for.

I don't have to "see" it to know it's another piece of atheist garbage.

That’s not how you use quote marks. Here let me give you a proper example: Jeremiah 5:21, “Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not.” That clear it up?

Stay away from disgusting things like this... and that includes the many shows on TV that promote homosexuality. If it has homos in it, count me out. It's not an alternative life style, it's an abomination.

Hmmmm, maybe I missed that part where queer animals were led onto the Ark in fabulous pairs of same sex couples…

Don't attend such trash. Too bad Hollywood stars are not in mudslide areas. Cruel but they get what they dish out! Not swallowing their crappola any more!

Question, wasn’t it God who was dishing out the mudslides? And, well, you know, I guess if you believe your God murdered an entire planet because people pissed him off, praying for him to whack a few movie stars you don’t like is small potatoes.

People and even clergy of today are manipulating the word of God to suite themselves and what their evil hearts desire. I have a saying that goes Like this:"People shouldn't manipulate the word of God to suit themselves.[sic]

I have a saying too, but it involves less of quoting of myself and a lot more facepalming.

And my personal favorite:

The script writers inserted the words "the Creator" wherever the word God should have been. They just didn't want to upset people by using that word. Another case of editing/revising a biblical story. The leftists of the film-making industry had to be satisfied! The film will make money, that is the intent of having made it with such an expensive cast, however I can guarantee there will be one individual who won't purchase a ticket to see it. "The Creator" could mean Lucifer/Satan. Freemasons, the upper echelon adepts not the lower initiates, believe in a "creator god" but his name is Lucifer, not God of the Bible. Be careful how they use language that could be referring to something other than the point of reference you may have in your own mind. Our leaders today, especially shadow government, are Luciferian. Once the NWO/One world religion is ushered in, all will have to take the Luciferian initiation or lose his/her life. I know my choice; have you considered yours?

Have I considered my choices? Why yes I have, I’m considering having another beer … or just switching to whiskey right out of the bottle.

Luciferian initiation, folks. Luciferian initiation.

I mean, come on, you can buy New World Order, but can’t sit still for a goddamned movie without foaming at the mouth?

Honestly, if your religious beliefs can’t let you enjoy a movie without a crisis of faith, well maybe you ought to give that some serious thought.

You know, there are days I find myself wishing that a few of those flesh eating dinosaurs had indeed survived the voyage.

Because the herd could use a little thinning out.

If you know what I mean.

He speaks to you. You must trust that He speaks in a way that you can understand.
Methuselah, Paramount Pictures Noah, 2014

Friday, March 14, 2014

Into The Twilight Zone: Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-370

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has gone missing.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week, you know that already.

Those longtime readers who are familiar with my military background know that I have some experience in looking for downed aircraft, and other things, lost at sea. Most Navy sailors do. If you spend any significant time at sea, sooner or later you’re going to be looking for missing airmen, foundering vessels, and men overboard. That is simply the terrible nature of the beast. As a former intelligence officer who directed and coordinated certain aspects of visual and electronic searches using shore, surface, and air assets, I perhaps have a bit more insight into this process than the average Sailor, but any person who spends time in the fleet know at least something about it. We’re trained that way.

Which is no doubt why people asked me about it. 

Much of what follows appeared on my Facebook page two days ago. That social media post was simply intended as a quick casual response to my Facebook audience in answer to queries about the missing airliner and the various conspiracy theories that have sprung up since the plane mysteriously disappeared from radar.  I hadn’t intended it to be an actual essay like the kind that typically appear here on Stonekettle Station. However, that simple Facebook post went viral, and continues to spread virally across the internet and various news media. It has been reprinted in a number of places, sometimes with permission and sometimes without, and I’ve been receiving offers to appear on various radio and TV shows to discuss my comments further. This amuses me and I’ve declined all such offers so far.

I apparently underestimated interest in this topic.

Nor did I realize just how utterly starved the public is for any reasoned counter to the raging and rapidly mutating conspiracy theories surrounding this strange event.  If you’re a member of the media, especially somebody who has the power to influence format and content, you might want to give that some hard thought – seems to me there just might be a vacant niche in the 24 hour news cycle for actual, non-hysterical, non-conspiracy laden, non-partisan, good old fashioned fact-based reporting.

But I digress.

Back to the missing jetliner:

On Saturday, March 8th, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 with 239 passengers and crew onboard disappeared somewhere between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

A week later, the fate of the aircraft and the people onboard remains unknown. No wreckage, no debris, no trace of the aircraft or the people have been found.

Weird, man, weird. I mean, it's totally got to be alien space pirates or Langoliers or Dirty Dick Vader, right?

I mean, what else could it be, right?

Folks, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that based on my experience with this sort of thing, we can safely rule out alien abductions and inter-dimensional rifts in the space time continuum. And I have it on good authority that Dick Cheney was home all night, nursing an acid stomach over Obama's reluctance to invade Russia.

Now, I suppose it's just, just, vaguely possible that the missing aircraft is parked on a secret jungle runway in Sumatra or Cambodia (or Bangor, Maine), hidden under camouflage netting, with the passengers and crew secured in an underground prison and its mysterious cargo now in the hands of a heretofore unknown shadowy cabal of international criminals with a really cool and evil acronym for a name. But until the Queen gets a coded message demanding 36 Billion British Pounds in gold bullion to be hand delivered by Sean Connery himself, let's just go ahead and label that Alternate Theory #007.

Most likely, and by "most likely" I mean the probability is approximately 99.999999999999%, the plane and its unfortunate passengers are scattered like confetti across a large portion of the seafloor under the Gulf of Thailand or the Andaman Sea.

Okay, Jim, I hear you ask in that long suffering tone you use when you’re convinced I’ll see reason if you repeat the bit about Obama and his Magic Negro Ray of Evil Chocolate Mojo just one more time, if the plane went into the ocean why can't they find the wreckage? Huh? What about that?

The search and recovery teams haven’t found the (presumed) wreckage of MH370, because the earth is a damned big place.

Nowadays, largely due to advances in air travel and ubiquitous instant on-demand broadband global communication, many people seem to think that we’ve conquered this planet. It appears that we humans inhabit every nook and cranny from the deepest ocean rift to the highest mountaintop and beyond right up into orbit, and there is nowhere left for a single human to hide, let alone some lost place for a large airliner to crash and its location not to be instantly tweeted and instagrammed and Facebooked to every corner of the globe. But it only appears that way.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately depending on your point of view, that is simply not even close to true.

The world and especially the sea are vaster than you can imagine unless you've travelled across it, inch by inch and mile by mile – and maybe not even then.

If the plane fell into the ocean, which is the most likely scenario, even when you know exactly, and I mean exactly, where to look, it is still extremely difficult to find scattered bits of airplane or, to be blunt, scattered bits of people in the water.

And yes, I mean exactly that: scattered bits of people. 

A comment in the Malaysian Times, which reposted my Facebook comments without permission, boggled that I would say such a thing, scattered bits of people. But that is how it is. When an airplane hits the water at high speed, it might as well be hitting a slab of concrete. Ditto if it comes apart at altitude, from explosion or structural failure, aerodynamic forces tear the airplane to pieces fairly quickly and what ends up in the water is scattered bits. Bits of plane, bits of cargo, bits of people. Most of which is burned and torn and unrecognizable to the untrained and inexperienced – which is why crowd-sourcing the search and rescue process is likely to be unhelpful.

Over two and a half decades as a navy sailor, I've spent many days searching for lost aircraft and lost human beings in the unforgiving ocean.  Even if you think you know where the bird went down, the winds and the currents can spread the debris across hundreds or even thousands of miles of ocean in fairly short order. No machine, no computer, can search this volume, you have to put human eyeballs on every inch of the search area. You have to inspect every item you come across, every scattered bit no matter how small – and the oceans of the world are full of flotsam, jetsam, debris, junk, trash, crap, bits, and pieces. Often neither the sea nor the weather cooperates, it is incredibly difficult to spot an item the size of a human being in the water, among the swells and the spray, even if you know exactly where to look - and the sea conditions in this part of the world are some of the worst, especially this time of year. And again, to be blunt, after a few days, a human body and a waterlogged tree stump are nearly indistinguishable from each other, all you see is a dark wet lump in the water – if you see anything at all – and to find out which is which you’ve got to put a boat over the side of the ship and go look at it in person.

Yeah, but what about a fuel slick, we should be able to see that, right? That would be huge, impossible to miss, right?

Again, you just don't understand how big the ocean is.

A fuel slick from an airplane this size, assuming the fuel hit the sea in one mass and wasn't vaporized into an aerosol by break-up of the aircraft at 30,000 feet, might cover, what? a square mile? Probably much less.

A standard search area, a rectangle 50 miles wide by 200 miles say, along the airplane's flight path encompasses ten thousand square miles - every inch of which has to be searched by the Mark 1 MOD 0 human eyeball. If you fly over it in an airplane, that’s like looking out the window for an object the size of a man, or smaller, over a distance equal to three and a half trips between San Diego, California and Bangor, Maine.

But it’s much worse than that.

The search area now covers more than two hundred thousand square miles. That’s 200,000 square miles, and more.

That’s like driving the distance from earth to the moon, looking out the windows hoping you don’t miss scattered bits of debris that may be no larger than a pack of cigarettes.

Starting to get the picture?

And yes, a fuel slick is maybe much bigger than the rest of the debris, but we're not talking thick heavy bunker oil, a big black sludgy stain on the surface of the sea.  No, we’re talking about high grade light fuel, like the kind burned in commercial jet turbines. Jet fuel evaporates quickly. Slicks are broken up by wave action and wind. And in heavy seas the sheen of oil on water is nearly impossible to spot. There's a very finite amount of time for finding a fuel slick on the surface of the ocean, assuming that one even exists, that time is past for Flight 370.

Yeah, but how come they don't know exactly where it is? Don't we track all airplanes via radar?

No. And certainly not over the oceans between countries or even over remote territory like northern Canada or the Gobi Desert or undeveloped areas of Africa, Central America, and Mexico.  Hell, if we could track every plane in detail, the US and other countries wouldn’t have so much trouble with airborne drug smugglers, would we?

Commercial Air Traffic Control radar systems don't work the way you think they do, at least not exactly, and not all of the time. What Air Traffic Controllers see on their screens depends on where they are and what their particular job is.  Near an airport, the images are usually very accurate and in real time, but out away from those concentration points things aren’t quite so clear. Why? Money mostly. Ironclad coverage takes money and lots of it. And it’s not practical in a lot of places. It’s damned hard to build and man a radar tower in the middle of the ocean, or the jungle, or the Arctic. Oh, it can be done, and has been. I’ve been stationed in places so remote you wouldn’t even believe they exist, Shemya Island at the far tip of the Aleutian Islands for example, we built radars there and in even more harsh and distant places during the Cold War – but those were military systems and the cost is astronomical.  There are other constraints such as International cooperation, or the lack thereof, and limited and widely mixed technologies, some modern some dating back decades. And so on.

Well, Okay, but you mentioned military radar systems, how come the military wasn’t tracking the plane?

Most military radar isn't concerned with commercial air traffic on standard routes flying at 30,000+ feet. The skies are full of jetliners. Most just appear as a contact on a tracking scope. A blip. Since commercial flights are regular and known and their schedules are public knowledge, those blips are predictable and expected. They’re watched briefly as they trundle along in a straight line across the sky, and are then ignored.

Military people are concerned with threats.

Threats typically move in a ballistic trajectory, or a flat fast powered arc, or much closer to the surface moving in patterns that a trained radar operator recognizes as a suspicious contact. 

Military radar records might be helpful in figuring out what happened, but unless Flight 370 was behaving like a threat while passing through somebody's radar envelope, it's unlikely that anybody would notice or bother to identify it. And so those recordings will have to be analyzed, and the hundreds of contacts will have to be sorted out just to determine if MH370 even appeared on their scopes. Also military people charged with defending their airspace don't like showing people from other countries their radar systems, and for damned good reasons, so it's going to take some time to get those records.  It's going to be a while before a complete search those recordings can be done.

Sure, Okay, but what about the ringing phones?

You ever call a cell phone that was turned off? Ever call somebody and it goes straight to voicemail, but you know the phone is active and the other person has call waiting? You ever call somebody, their phone rings and rings and rings and rings and then they finally answer and when you ask, the guy on the other says his phone only rang one time? 

Folks, you hear ringtones even when the phone you’re calling isn’t physically ringing because the cellular network doesn’t want you to hang up while it tries to connect the circuit. Minutes equal money, if you hang up, if your call isn’t connected, the phone company is out profit.  So, they send you a ringtone while the systems looks for the phone you want.  If the phone doesn't respond immediately the network doesn't know if the device is active but in an area of weak signal or limited connectivity or heavy congestion, or roaming out of network, or turned off.

Sometimes you get different behavior depending on what cell system you’re using, analog, second generation digital, 3G, LTE, GSM, and so on.

So, some networks send you a ringtone to let you know they’re working.

Some just give you dead air until they connect.

Some do both depending on programming and happenstance.  There's no standard, even in heavily regulated North America, and sure as hell not across the various countries of Asia. This isn't some big conspiracy, it’s no mystery, this is how the various evolving patchwork cell phone systems work. The information is widely available and you can test it yourself.

Claiming that "ringing" cell phones mean the plane is or was still intact just means that you're ignorant of how the technology works.

Yeah, but what if the plane was intact and underwater. The cell signals might penetrate water even if the people were dead or unconscious, so the phones could ring until their batteries wore out. That might account for the ringing after the plane was lost, right?

No. Wrong wrong wrong.

Take some science classes, radio wave physics for starters.

GPS and cell phones operate above the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) portion of the Radio Frequency spectrum, those wavelengths do not, repeat do not, penetrate water. Period. It doesn’t matter what you read, or what some conspiracy goof said on TV, it can’t happen. Physics is physics, it’s not magic, and the principles are very, very well understood.

Now just wait a damned minute, Jim, I hear you protest, don’t they have those giant radio transmitters that can talk to submarines underwater?

Yes. But those operate in a different wavelength. Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) radio waves can penetrate water to a significant degree, but you'd need a cell phone the size of large refrigerator/freezer and an antenna miles in length to use those frequencies and there is no way around that. Also, those frequencies are slow, it takes hours to send a few characters of text, they cannot be used for voice or cell phone communications. Period.

Yeah, but what about reports that the plane turned before losing contact?

What about reports that the plane’s computers continued to send engine performance data hours after last voice contact with the pilots?

What about reports that the 777 might experience cracks around an antenna mounting?

What about the pilots? What about the fake passports? What about this? What about that?

Look, that's what experts are for.

Search and rescue, forensic crash investigation, fault analysis of complex systems, anti-terrorism investigation, air traffic control, all of these things are complicated, they require experience and training and years of education.  Just because you read some stuff on World Net Daily or on Facebook or heard it from the guy in the cubicle next to yours, doesn’t make any of those people experts.

Investigation and analysis takes time, if it was easy and obvious, anybody could do it.

And that's what's taking so long. Maybe the plane turned around, maybe it didn't. Maybe the cabin lost pressure, suddenly or slowly. Maybe the plane exploded at altitude. Maybe it augered in. Maybe maybe maybe. At the moment, nobody knows anything. Period.

Every single person on the planet in this information saturated age should damned well know by now that initial reports are going to be conflicting, contradictory, confused, and just plain wrong.

That confusion is not evidence of some cover up, or even something unusual. This isn’t some big conspiracy, it is unfortunately the nature of the situation. It's perfectly normal and it happens all of the time and it always has and you know it.

Every single human being who lives in the Information Age should understand in their bones that every Joe Shit The Ragman who comes along just might not know what the hell he's talking about, but that doesn't stop him from getting on the TV or the Internet and speculating away. It’s human nature to fill up the unknown with nonsense, and you should be smart enough to recognize that and demand proof and evidence and fact.

Conspiracy theories aren't about the truth, they're about the conspiracy theorist.

Wait for the official word and for the sake of Dread Cthulhu and your sanity, stop listening to TV pundits and World Net Daily. News media has to fill up bandwidth, and they will with whatever drooling idiocity that comes along, but you don’t have to listen to it and you certainly don’t need to go around repeating it. 

It's unusual for a plane to vanish nowadays, yes, especially for a large modern aircraft, but that doesn't mean it has to be the plot of a Stephen King novel, or Ian Fleming for that matter.  Ships, planes, people have vanished before. It happens. It used to happen a lot. They fall into the sea or into the remote jungle or the empty desert and are lost for months, sometimes years and even decades.

The world grows ever smaller, but it is still a vast, vast place, there are plenty of dark holes beyond the reach of technology for things to drop into and vanish for a while. 

I have no idea what happened to this airplane, but the difference between me and the media is that I’m not afraid to admit it.

Again, that's what experts are for, let them do their jobs. Sooner or later, the plane or its wreckage will be found, eventually we'll know the reason why. Mechanical failure, accident, weather, human error, terrorists, or even time-travelling kidnappers from a dystopian future. Sooner or later, you'll know.

Yes, it's hell on the families who wait for news of the their loved ones, but hysteria, wild speculation by the media, and conspiracy theories from the internet sure as hell aren't helping.

This isn't CSI or an episode of 24, sometimes you don't get answers in 60 minutes with time out for piss breaks and a snack.

Act like a rational adult and deal with it.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Fear and Respect

Obama, the perception of him and his ‘potency’ across the world is one of such weakness. Lookit, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil, they look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates. We are not exercising that peace through strength that only can be brought to you courtesy of that red, white, and blue that only the strength of the United States military can do.
- Sarah Palin, speech to CPAC 2014

Nobody should be surprised that Putin is making these moves because there is substantially less respect for the United States than there was four years ago. And no one should be surprised that Vladimir Putin is restructuring the old Russian empire. We shouldn’t be surprised at that. This guy was a former KGB operative.
        - Rick Perry, speech to CPAC 2014

Obama promised that if he became president, the world love us and respect us, and he would charm the snakes back into the basket.  Well, the snakes are not back in the basket. They're roaming all over the landscape, because nobody trusts that what he says means anything […] Every time the president basically tries to use an iron fist, it becomes a limp wrist […] Once again, what we've seen in American foreign policy is that we're going to have a little conversation. We're going to talk. Here's the problem. We treat our friends like our enemies and our enemies like we want them to be our friends, and we end up with no friends at all…
        - Mike Huckabee, interview with Arkansas Matters

Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.
- Albert Camus

I can’t get no respect. No respect at all…
       - Rodney Dangerfield



That’s the concern. 

Prestige. Standing. Reputation. Respect.

That’s what I wrote about in the last post here on Stonekettle Station, respect. And predictably I got some email about it, the gist of which can best be summed up as:

Nobody fears us any more and it’s all Obama’s fault. Woe, oh woe!

And that seems to have been the theme at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC for short. Just like Comic-Con where the most enthusiastic elements of nerddom get together to swap stories and bodily fluids, CPAC is where the most fanatical members of conservatism get together to share tales of their woeful oppression at the hands of Adolf Hussein Obama – they also swap bodily fluids, mostly spittle and bile.

No respect. The United States just doesn’t get any respect.

Nobody fears the United States, howled Sarah Palin, because shirtless manly Vladimir Putin wrestles bears! Bears!

Nobody defers to the US anymore, wailed Rick Perry, shirtless manly Putin was KGB! KGB!

Snakes! Snakes, everywhere! screamed, Mike Huckabee, it was supposed to be love and respect but it’s mother-fornicatin’ snakes!

Snakes and Bears and the KGB, Oh My!

The highlight of CPAC though had to be this bit of simpleminded jingoistic sound-bite wisdom:

“Mr. President, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a nuke is a good guy with a nuke!”

That was the Sourdough Shill herself, all walleyed and big-haired, blurting out what passes for deep thought and foreign policy expertise among the conservative lunatic fringe these days.


Boy, hell, that sure escalated quickly. Nukes.

When at CPAC, go big or go home, I guess.

With every sound-bite, with every Tweet and Facebook post, these people become ever more insane.

Nukes. Nukes, no less. Nukes. You’ve got to be kidding me.

Two days ago we were talking about economic sanctions, suddenly conservatives are threatening nuclear war?

Nukes, that’ll stop Russia, nukes.

Sure. Let’s nuke ‘em.

And nobody, nobody, stood up to challenge that insanity, instead the crowd cheered

Folks, the fundamental difference between Comic-Con and CPAC is that the geeks dressed up like superheroes with the fake space blasters on their hips are often above average in their intelligence and they know they’re living in a fantasy world, at CPAC the dimwitted nuts are armed and in deadly earnest and they’re aiming to get their sweaty little hands on America’s nuclear arsenal.

You want the rest of the world scared shitless of America? That, right there, will certainly do it.

Hell, I’m an American and the thought of these saber-rattling fanatics in control of the US military keeps me awake at night.

Trust me, you hand an automatic weapon and a sack of loaded high-capacity magazines to some raging violence prone imbecile with reality issues who claims to talk directly to God and plop them down in the middle of a crowd, and you can bet every gold ducat you bought from Glenn Beck that people will be scared alright – scared enough to band together and start shooting first in preemptive self-defense maybe.

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a nuke is a good guy with a nuke?

Yeah, let’s go right ahead and threaten Russia with nuclear war over some peninsula in the Black Sea that 99.999% of Americans couldn’t find on a map even if you gave them three tries and all the Google they could stomach. 

Fifty years ago you could maybe, maybe, squint your eyes and say, well, if we’ve got to atom bomb the Russkies and vaporize billions in the madness of mutually assured destruction, well, you know, we’ll at least be doing it to contain communism, we at least can claim we’re doing it for freedom and democracy and Yankee Doodle Dandy.  But nowadays? The USSR is long defunct and Russia is a democracy more or less and whether or not Crimea ends up part of Ukraine or part of Russia or decides to throw in with Timbuktu makes not one damned jot of difference to the freedom, liberty, and democracy of the U.S. of A – unless we were to take Palin up on her brilliant foreign policy expertise and, you know, start a nuclear war over it.

Now don’t get me wrong, certainly we, the West, we maybe have a moral obligation to protest Russia’s actions in the Crimea, maybe more than protest – or maybe not.

Ask yourself something, are we protesting Russia’s actions because it’s the right thing to do … or because they are Russians? 

If the majority of the Crimean population wants to join Russia, and I’m not saying they do but if they did, so long as the dissenting folks are protected and allowed to exit if they so desire, who are we to say different? How moral is it for us to force an ethnic population to be part of one nation or another? We did that in Iraq with the British Mandate in the 1920s, the Soviet Union did it to various populations across the breadth of their empire, the colonial powers forced disparate ethnic and religious populations together across Africa, and of course there’s always Israel, and look how those tone deaf efforts turned out.  Endless war, constant conflict, ethnic cleansing, genocide, unrest, boiling hatred and seething resentment.

Perhaps, perhaps, the moral course of action here is to allow Crimea self determination and then respect their decision – whatever it may be.

However it shakes out, there’s a huge difference between reasonable actions justified by international law and consensus, and threatening Russia with nuclear weapons even as a hyperbolic sound bite – and anybody who aspires to political office should damned well know the difference.

And yet, Palin thinks that threatening nuclear war is just and righteous and moral and, more, an actual viable option in foreign policy.  And the conservatives at CPAC all enthusiastically nodded their pointy heads in fanatical agreement and cheered. 

To date, no conservative has denounced Palin’s insanity.

Nuke ‘em.

If the rest of the world doesn’t fear us, then it hasn’t been paying attention.

If the rest of the world isn’t utterly terrified that America has a political system that just might allow a spiteful unhinged dimwitted fanatic whose most complex thought could fit into a Tweet with room left over within range of The Button, if the world isn’t afraid of that, well, then it damned well should be. 

Nuke ‘em.

Jesus Haploid Christ, what the hell is wrong with these people?

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a nuke is a good guy with a nuke?

Who’s writing Palin’s speeches? Ted Nugent?

Honestly, this is what conservatives think will win America respect? The threat of nuclear annihilation?

You’d better like us.  You’d better do what we say. You’d better bow down and kowtow and show some respect to America.  Or we’ll nuke ya! We’ll incinerate your nation, we’ll vaporize your cities, we’ll kill your fucking kids, you betcha – not just the first born, all of ‘em – and then we’ll scorch your country right on down to the bedrock. Better show us some Goddamned respect or else!

President Obama should threaten not just Russia but the entire world (because you really can’t just threaten one nation when you’re talking about nuclear weapons now can you?). Really?

Nuke ‘em.

You know what nations, what people, talk like that? North Korea. The Iranian Ayatollahs. Nazi Germany. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. Saddam Hussein. Josef Stalin. Hideki Tojo.

And just how much respect do you have for them.

Conservatives bemoan the (alleged) fact that nobody respects America anymore.  Do you wonder why? Do you really?

No one respects the violently insane

Certainly we Americans, as a nation, we’ve always been impetuous. We’re a nation of cowboys, of misfits and outcasts and the fiercely independent. What was it Bill Murray said in Stripes? Our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. And we revel in it. It’s in our history and in our DNA and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Coupled to reason and intelligence those traits lead to greatness, have led us to greatness.

But while we respect the bold and the forthright, nobody respects a foolhardy jackass who smashes through life leaving a trail of bloody wreckage without care or regard for others.

And while civilization might tolerate and even sometimes revere the brash depending on the circumstances, nobody respects those who can’t keep their impulse to rage and violence under firm and consistent control.

We might pity the irrational, we might work to make them whole or to restrain their violent hostility, but we do not respect them.

So, why should anybody respect a nation that proposes to act in a similar manner?

No one respects a bully

Certainly strength might be applauded and respected – depending on how it’s used.

We admire those who stand up and fight when necessary, who use their strength to defend the weak and the helpless, who come to the aid of others when called and give the last full measure. We respect and admire that kind of strength and rightly so.

But only a simpering toady pretends admiration for a bully.

Nobody respects those who go around picking fights, those who fight when they don’t have to, those who glorify strength solely because they think it makes them superior to those who are weaker, and those who use their strength to demand respect.

Those who use their strength for ill-considered and unrestrained violence, those who lead with their fists instead of their brains, and especially those who use their strength for the sake of intimidation, to make others fear them, and to force their will upon the world, those people – those nations – are not leaders, they are bullies and terrorists in the purest definition of the term.

There is a fundamental difference between fear and respect.

Others will stand with you out of respect and admiration, but no one willingly follows another out of fear.

The same is true of nations.

No one respects an ignoramus 

Lack of knowledge or awareness can be overcome.

Honest ignorance can be forgiven and often corrected.

But nobody respects those who loudly glorify vacuous stupidity as some kind of virtue.

We respect those with clarity of thought, who have the quiet strength of their well reasoned convictions, and most especially those who have the courage to admit when they are wrong or ignorant and then do something about it and move forward with new knowledge. 

But nobody wants to be around a fanatical extremist who is proud of their ignorant stupidity and can’t shut up about their pet bugaboo.

There is an enormous difference between healthy skepticism and dogmatic denial, between conviction and fanaticism, between critical thinking and conspiracy theories. 

When we speak of America’s achievements, of this nation’s place in history, from the Constitution itself to the day Americans last set foot upon the moon (now more than 30 years ago and, really think about that), it is science and philosophy and enlightenment we’re talking about.

History remembers a civilization for its universities, for its knowledge and wisdom, for its libraries, for its philosophers, for its scientists and engineers and visionaries.  Those are the very nations and the very people who our founders turned to for inspiration when they designed the United States. The legacies of those civilizations continue to endure long, long after they have gone.

But history also remembers the ignorant, the brutal, the stupid, the fanatical, the bigoted, the extremist, and the misguided – but nobody turns to them for inspiration.

No one respects the callous

The world is a tough place for a lot of people and it’s easy to grow hard of heart … and yet it is empathy we respect.

We hold the selfless and the generous in high regard, those who give more than they take, those are the people and the nations who compel our admiration.

No one respects the indifferent, the uncaring, the greedy, the rabble rousers bent only to their own self aggrandizement, those who steer into danger over and over with no regard for the trail of wreckage they leave behind, those who put profit over people, and the gluttonous who waste more than they can use while others go hungry and cold and sick.

We respect those who are generous to a fault, kind of spirit, tolerant of heart, open of mind. Those are the very concepts that define nearly all service organizations from the Boy Scouts to the Masons, and nearly all religions – most especially the dominant religion of America … and yet those are the very traits most often discarded and studiously ignored in favor of unsympathetic self interest and selfish insouciance.

We respect and admire those who help others not those who help only themselves.

No one respects the hysterical fool

We respect courage.

Or rather we respect true courage, that determination to continue steadily forward even when we are terrified.

No one respects the blustering bravado of the posturing braggart and the wannabe hero.

The present usually feels safer than the future for good reason and it’s always easier to cling resolutely to the past, to hide your head in the comforting sand of conspiracy theories and those who tell you only what you want to hear.   But it often takes raw courage and steadfast determination to embrace the uncertain ever changing future. It is perfectly normal to fret about what alien shore we will ultimately be cast upon by the tide of history, but there is a tremendous difference between the normal apprehension all humans feel for the future and fearful pessimistic hysteria.

We admire those who are afraid and yet manage to face their dread, wrestle down their alarm with quiet determination, and step forward into the fire anyway.

Certainly only a fool goes ass backward into the unknown without preparation, but the bigger fool is the one who turns his back on the future altogether. No matter how terrifying, it is always better to face your fate head on than to let it take you unawares from behind.

We might not know what the future will bring with any degree of certainty, but we can prepare our nation and the world for any eventuality. 

But that takes courage. Real courage. True courage. Not the blustering bravado of the coward.

It takes the courage to educate our children, especially when that knowledge allows them to see the world through eyes radically different from our own.

It takes courage and determination not to remain deliberately ignorant, to cast off the chains of dogma and the admonishments of those who profit from our fear of the unknown.

It takes courage to willingly alter our viewpoints and our worldview and to embrace the ever changing and uncertain future. 

It takes courage to discard the past or to at least regard it dispassionately and to not be crushed beneath its overbearing weight.

It takes courage to be selfless, to be sympathetic, to meet others halfway or more if necessary for the greater good.

It takes courage to remain kind of spirit, tolerant of heart, open of mind.

It takes courage to be an optimist, to face the future with anticipation and enthusiasm and hope.

It takes courage, real courage, to use our strength with reason and restraint and not just because we can, not just because it’s easy.

More than anything, it takes courage, true reasoned steadfast courage, to be the people that others truly respect and admire.

It takes courage, true courage, to be the nation we ourselves can honestly respect and admire.

It takes courage to be the nation history will remember with timeless admiration.

But it takes nothing to be the nation others fear.



Cut it out! Cut it out! Cut. It. Out! The hell's the matter with you? Stooopid! We're all very different people. We're not Watusi. We're not Spartans. We're Americans, with a capital ‘A.’ You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world! We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog. We're mutts! […] But there's no animal that's more faithful, that's more loyal, more loveable than the mutt.
     - John Winger, Stripes, 1981

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bad Reputation


C’mon. What did you expect? Welcome, Sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know ... morons.
   - The Waco Kid to Black Bart, Blazing Saddles, 1974.



That’s the concern. 

Prestige. Standing. Reputation. Face.

The conflict in Ukraine teeters dangerously on the razor’s edge of self immolation.

Vladimir Putin regards his neighbors with pale icy blue eyes and toys with the idea of a reborn Russian hegemony.

Stock markets around the world tremble in fear and uncertainty. Oil barons seethe in impotent rage and furiously speed-dial their pet politicians in white-eyed panic and demand that the sweet Russian crude be kept flowing at all costs.

The shade of Tom Clancy grumbles in dire warning from his flag draped tomb as warships circle like angry hornets in the Black Sea and the ring of Russian steel crashes through the chilly gray streets of Sevastopol like ghostly echoes of one of his Cold War thrillers.

The European Union holds its collective breath and cups a trembling hand protectively over its genitals and hopes that sanity and reason will prevail – they won’t, of course, prevail, they never do, not until enough people have died, not until enough blood runs in the streets, not until enough cities have burned and enough rage has been spent … but perhaps this time it will be different. Perhaps.

Meanwhile, in America, it’s all about face.

The old graying warhawks are raucously crowing “I told you so! I told you so!” while grimly polishing their brass campaign buttons and girding on their sword-belts.

This is it! They’ll finally get the glorious war with the Soviet Union they’ve always dreamed of. To arms! To arms! Man the bunkers! Open the silos! Launch the bombers and bring the subs to firing depth! Stand out the fleet to sea! The Russians are coming. The Russians are coming at long last! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!

Or …  maybe not.

Frankly, it’s hard to tell exactly what the creaky old Cold Warriors think America should do.

The ever sneering face of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham appeared on CNN yesterday and angrily demanded, “Well, number one, stop going on television and trying to threaten thugs and dictators. It is not your strong suit. Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody’s eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression. President Obama needs to do something.”

Oh yes, of course, it’s Obama who invites aggression. Yes indeed.

If only it wasn’t for Obama there wouldn’t have been six hundred years of history between Russia and Ukraine, Ukrainians wouldn’t have aligned with Russia prior to WWI and then been violently absorbed into the Soviet Union in a conflict that killed nearly two million Ukrainians and left a smoldering hatred for Moscow that exists to this day and laid the foundations for the current conflict. Why if it wasn’t for Obama, the Ukrainians wouldn’t have split away from Russia after the late lamented USSR went tits up and decided to set up their own sovereign country in the first place. And if it wasn’t for Obama, the newly independent Ukraine wouldn’t have suffered economic hardship and political turmoil all through the 90’s until they grew so sick of it they rewrote their constitution, reformed their political system, ousted their government, and brought Viktor Yanukovych to power. And of course, Obama’s weak indecisiveness is the cause behind Ukrainian disgust at Yanukovych’s corruption and abuse of power and attempt to align Ukraine with Russia once again. And, of course, Obama’s weak indecisiveness resulted in widespread Ukrainian aggression against their government and its eventual collapse which left the country wide open to Russian intervention.

Oh, yes, it’s so clear in hindsight. Gee thanks, Obama!

And now, now Obama needs to do something to clean up his Ukrainian mess.

Lindsey Graham has obviously been reading from the Sarah Palin coloring book. Something! Do something! He needs to do something! I’m not really sure what, but something! Something with warships and guns maybe! We must defend the Crimea! Russians! Ook! Ook! Let charge the Light Brigade! Into the valley of death! Nuke ‘em ‘till they glow, Kill ‘em all and let God sort it out! Something, Goddammit! That’s what we need!

And speaking of assbackward into the unknown, John McCain roused grumpily from the foggy bamboo cage of his raging PTSD and angrily shouted “Pickles!” as he often does when provoked. Then he too demanded that Obama do something. “Every moment that the United States and our allies fail to respond sends the signal to President Putin that he can be even more ambitious and aggressive in his military intervention in Ukraine!”

Now I’m no expert on senile dementia, but it may be that John McCain is mixing up his invasions. By God, we can’t let Ho Chi Minh and those yellow commies get away with this! Dammit, Man, if Obama won’t do something, by God I will. Ready my plane and let’s take the fight to those slanty-eyed bastards! For Honor and Richard Nixon, follow me! 

Both Graham and McCain figuratively smacked their manly fists into their horny palms to the sound of trumpets and rattling sabers and the mournful stirring notes of The Minstrel Boy

… but then both stopped short of demanding actual military action.

In his usual garrulous old man whine McCain snarled, “There is a range of serious options at our disposal at this time without the use of military force.” Dagnabit!

Head of the House Intelligence Committee, Michigan Republican Mike Rogers said, "There is not a lot of options on the table. And candidly, and I'm a fairly hawkish guy, sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is not a good idea."

Senator Marco Rubio said on Meet The Press, "If you're asking me whether the U.S. should be taking military strikes against Russian troops in Ukraine or in Crimea, I would argue to you that I don't think anyone is advocating for that."

Well, sure, Marco, nobody but retired Admiral James Stavridis, who used to be NATO's former Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, and who said in a Foreign Policy column last weekend that we need to send the fleet to the Black Sea and that NATO needs to dust off its cold war contingency plans and bring its 25,000-member Response Force to full alert.  Now, exactly what those forces are supposed to do, if not engage Russian troops in combat, Stavridis didn’t say – I mean, if they’re not there to fight, what are they there for? To ensure Putin doesn’t violate gay people’s human rights? Hello, hello, is this thing on?

Honestly, if these screeching chickenhawks aren’t talking about actual military action, then what are they complaining about? 

Without the use of military force what’s left but exactly the economic and political sanctions President Obama immediately proposed and threatened Putin with? 

Isn’t that exactly what McCain, Graham, et al are demanding? But what? They just don’t like Obama being the one to do it?

Maybe if Obama donned a flight suit and brandished an AR-15 while declaring “Yer all either with us or against us, damn yer eyes!” from the deck of an American aircraft carrier (The USS Ronald Reagan, of course) steaming up the Turkish Straits toward the Crimea? 


And are we to go it alone again, or should we maybe take the time to form a united front with the international community? Or hey, we could just ridicule France and hate on the Dixie Chicks.

Should we maybe send, oh, hell, I don’t know, a high ranking member of the State Department to Ukraine and Russia to seek non-military options and to ascertain truth on the ground – you know, since charging headlong into the fray without proper intelligence and an adequate understanding of the battlespace worked so, so very well for us the last time around … ur, last two times I mean, ur, uh, last three or four times or, well hell, how many times between now and Korea is it? I lose track.

But what about our reputation? What will people think if we don’t do something that at least looks military in nature? And we have to do it right now!

If it’s not the sanctions Obama proposed and it’s not a declaration of war, what then is it conservatives want? A number six?


Oh, you don’t know what a Number Six is?

Think John McCain played by Slim Pickens as Hedley Lamar’s henchman, Taggart, in the great Mel Brooks farce, Blazing Saddles.  Taggart explains conservative military geopolitical strategy thusly, “We'll work up a Number Six on 'em! That's where we go a ridin' inta town, a whompin' and a whumpin' every livin' thing that moves within an inch of its life! Except the women folks, of course…”


Note that conservatives agitating for action aren’t particularly concerned with how this crisis will ultimately affect any actual Ukrainians.


The concern here is how this conflict will impact Americans.

After all, most Americans can’t find America on a map let alone the Crimean Peninsula.

The vast, vast majority of Americans couldn’t tell you how the Russia of today differs from the Soviet Union of the long defunct Cold War that they pine so nostalgically for.

Most couldn’t describe with any but the vaguest notion the kind of government Ukraine has as compared to the one they had before, nor could they tell you what actually caused the current crisis – well, other than to grunt and shout “Pickles!” I mean.

Hell, most Americans couldn’t describe the difference between “Ukraine” and “The Ukraine” or why it matters, even if their lives depended on it – the press certainly has no idea.

I’d be willing to bet whatever sum of money you like that you can ask any random group of Americans to describe how a Russian navy base came to be located in Sevastopol, or even what body of water that base is located on or what its strategic importance is to the Russian navy, and not a single one would have any idea whatsoever without checking Wikipedia and its so, so accurate database first.  

Most Americans have no idea beyond the ingrained Cold War bogeyman of “Russia Bad! Evil Empire! Boris and Natasha, Moose and Squirrel!” and can’t be troubled to find out any more than that – despite having access to the accumulated knowledge of the entire human race at their fingertips. 

For all they really know, the Ukrainians could be a bunch of child murdering pudding sodomizers who wallow naked in the blood of little Christian babies under the light of the full moon.

And the Russians could be avenging heroes of righteousness and good.

Sure they could. I mean, after all, wasn’t it just last month that these same exact American conservatives were vocally praising Vladimir Putin for his stance on homosexuality and Western immorality?

These are the exact same people – the exact same people – who themselves want to solve all of America’s problems with guns and military force and think that they can liberate the Third World by dropping freedom on brown people from the belly of a B-2.  

But they’re hollering about Putin?

That’s rich. It really is. It’s like the jokes just write themselves.

Folks, and pay attention here, the politicians and pundits currently complaining the loudest about the White House’s response to the Ukrainian crisis have more in common ideologically with Putin than they do with Obama.

You might want to think about that. Think about it hard, because the irony is mind boggling.

Most Americans don’t know and they don’t care about any actual Ukrainians.

No, the real fear here being not the deaths or oppression of actual people, or the collapse of yet another modern nation’s stability into pillaging and rape and the bloody chaos of civil war, or the possibility of an expanding global economic catastrophe just as we were finally climbing out of the last mess, or even the possibility of a large scale war between nuclear powers and the resulting carnage and bloodshed and insanity. 

The real concern here is American Prestige.

That’s the real casualty of a war in the Crimea, right? Prestige. Face. Reputation.

"Everybody says 'no' to the U.S. these days without cost or consequence," laments Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six secretaries of State and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars – which is just plain goddamned Ironic as all hell given that Woodrow Wilson was the American president who got himself reelected on the slogan “He kept us out of war!”  Miller told Fox News that the last "truly effective" foreign policy was under former President George H.W. Bush. "There was a cost for saying 'no' to the United States. Right now, there is no cost."

I honestly have to wonder if Miller can actually hear what the words coming out of his mouth sound like. Particularly what those words sound like to the rest of the world.

If you’re hearing the tromp tromp tomp of goose-stepping, you’re not the only one.

With a straight face, Conservative blog American Thinker (an oxymoron if ever there was one) hails Sarah Palin as “astute,” and worries based on her vague 2008 comments regarding the Russia/Georgia conflict (which somehow proves her word salad gibberish to be as accurate and reliable as Nostradamus), that Putin will next invade America and take back Alaska in a fit of seller’s remorse.

Hey, it could happen. 

And, of course, Russia will dare this because, as the big-haired big-breasted foreign policy “experts” at Fox News pointed out today, the world just doesn’t fear us the way it used to.

Face, prestige, that’s what this is all about.

That’s what these people are really afraid of, that unless we attack, unless we unleash yet another ill-conceived war, unless we charge pell-mell into yet another conflict and leave several thousands more of our best and brightest dead on the battlefield, unless the world fears us, either our military might or our insanity, why, men like John McCain and Lindsey Graham will have to hang their heads in shame.  

But you know, here’s the thing: Pearl Harbor, Korea, Israel and the Arab states, Tibet, Mau Mau, Cuba, Cambodia, Algeria, Suez, Vietnam, Tibet again, the Congo, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Angola, Yemen, Sino-Indian, Rhodesia, Colombia, The Dominican Republic, Chad, Libya, The Six Day War, Nigeria again, Tibet again, The Troubles in Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Bangladesh, Black September, The Yom Kippur War, USS Liberty, USS Pueblo, Cyprus, Iraq and the Kurds, Iraq and Iran, Iraq and Kuwait, Iraq and America, The Dirty War, Libya and Egypt, Uganda, The Munich Massacre, Libya and Chad, The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, The Falklands, Lebanon, Grenada, Sri Lanka, Laos and Thailand, The Lord’s Resistance Army, Panama, Liberia, Somalia, Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya, Korea again, The first WTC bombing, The Kobar Towers, Iran, Korea again, The Line of Death, the Berlin Disco Bombing, Pan Am Fight 103, Korea again, The Kenya Embassies, TWA 841, Mumbai, Oklahoma City, Syria, USS Cole, and on and on and on, I mean, fuck, when exactly was this idyll time of peace and tranquility imposed by the fear of American might?

No really, please tell me. When exactly was this magical time when America’s military power and brilliant foreign policy so intimidated the world that all the other nations toed the Red, White, and Blue line like good little vassal states?

Because I spent more than twenty of those years in the United States military, engaged time after time around the globe from Libya to Iraq, from one crisis to the next, and frankly I just must have missed this peaceful golden age. 

But, Obama, he came along and screwed it all up, eh?

It’s Obama’s fault, not Putin’s, not Yanukovych, Obama.

It’s Obama who makes America appear weak, who has tarnished the nation’s credibility and reputation.

Of course it is. Why, certainly it’s not senators and congressmen and former has-been politicians and pundits and media personalities who publicly entertain outrageous debunked conspiracy theories and fight the president at every turn and who stand like strange bedfellows with our adversaries against the Commander In Chief. 

Oh yes, of course, calling their own president and their own neighbors unAmerican and communists and socialists and fascists and Nazis and the Anti-Christ and the enemies of America and the enemies of humanity and gangsters and of palling around with terrorists and just plain evil, no it’s not those people who damage America’s reputation with their raging insanity. No, certainly not.  And, of course, it couldn’t possibly be that these same people routinely weaken their own country with government shutdowns, threats of open rebellion and secession and outright civil war. No, it couldn’t be that.

Hell, when Obama gave in to Republican objections and openly sought permission from conservatives before using military force in Syria, they publicly denigrated him as weak – and they did so specifically because Obama actually listened to them and didn’t defy congress and attack Syria anyway.  That’s what a strong Republican patriot would have done, you know, attacked against the specific vote of congress. When Reagan thumbed his nose at congress and sent the military covertly into Afghanistan, why that wasn’t unconstitutional, well, alright, it was, but by God it showed balls – and it intimidated the hell out of our enemies like the Taliban … okay, that’s a bad example but I think I’ve made my point here.

Certainly the current administration’s foreign policy could stand some significant improvement, notably an aggressive campaign to repair the last 50 years of bluster and chest beating, but to blame Obama for Putin’s aggression now is more than a stretch, it’s outright lunacy.

Ah, hell, I guess at this point, after five years of this nonsense – did I say just five years? Oh never mind – I shouldn’t expect anything else. 

If these people are really concerned with reputation, maybe they should spend just a little less time worrying about Obama’s and a little more time improving their own.


WE THE WHITE, GODFEARING CITIZENS OF ROCK RIDGE wish to express our extreme displeasure with your choice of sheriff. Please remove him immediately! The fact that you have sent him here just goes to prove that you are the leading asshole in the state!
     - Harriet Johnson, letter to Governor William J. LePetomaine, Blazing Saddles

Monday, March 3, 2014

Iditarod 2014


This last weekend was the kickoff of the Last Great Race. 

Those of you who know me personally know of my passion for this uniquely Alaskan event, and my absolute respect for these mushers and their amazing dogs. 

I’ve written about the Iditarod since Stonekettle Station was first on the internet.  Several years ago in response to questions I was getting about the race and why I love it so much, I wrote the following article. Since then, each March on race weekend I’ve reposted it along with pictures and updated commentary from that year. This will likely continue. //Jim


Dog 4



Those lines were part of a message sent by Curtis Welch, MD, on January 22nd, 1925 via radio telegram from Nome to all towns in the Alaskan Territory.

That desperate message was intended for the Territorial Governor in Juneau, and the public health service in Washington D.C. and it sounded an emergency of almost unimaginable horror. Dr. Welch was facing a disaster the likes of which are rarely seen outside of fiction.

At the turn of the century, during the boom town glory days of the Klondike gold rush, more than 20,000 people lived in Nome – in January of 1925, long after the gold and gold miners had run out, Nome boasted a population of around 1400, about 975 white settlers and 450 Alaskan Natives. The last ship of the season, the steamship Alameda, had left Nome harbor two months before, tracking south ahead of the encroaching winter ice. The sun had followed the steamship, disappearing below the southern horizon and leaving Nome locked in the grip of –50F temperatures and the endless Arctic night.

During the Alaskan winter, Nome’s only contact with the outside world was unreliable HF radio – and the more reliable dog sled mushers and their teams who carried the mail and what light cargo they could via the old Iditarod trail.

Shortly after the departure of the Alameda, a native child fell sick and died. At first Dr. Welch was unsure of the cause, but as more and more children sickened over the next few weeks he began to suspect diphtheria – an upper respiratory tract infection caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. In the early stages, diphtheria mimics the symptoms of tonsillitis, the flu, or the common cold – which is why Welch, with the primitive diagnostic tools available to him at the time, was slow to recognize the impending disaster. Left untreated, diphtheria destroys the nervous system, leading to a loss of motor control and sensation, and very quickly, death. Diphtheria is highly contagious, with fatality rates up to 10% in the general population and as high as 20% in young children and adults over 40. Among the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, the fatality rate is much higher. More than likely, crewmen from one of the visiting ships had unknowingly brought the disease north at the end of the shipping season, leaving behind a deadly time bomb. As Welch noted in his radio message, by January an epidemic was almost inevitable. Nome’s only doctor was staring straight into the specter of at least 300 immediate deaths – all of which would be his family and friends.

But the pending disaster was far, far worse and far more horrifying. Nome was the hub of the surrounding area, the native population around the town numbered well over 10,000. Those natives had no resistance to the disease at all.

Their expected mortality rate was nearly 100%.

Nowadays, diphtheria would be treated with antibiotics, Erythromycin or even the big gun, Procaine Penicillin G. But antibiotics didn’t exist in 1925, and the best treatment was diphtheria antitoxin. The antitoxin didn’t cure the disease but rather neutralized the toxins released by the diphtheria bacillus into the victim’s bloodstream – giving the body’s own immune system a chance to combat the infection without having to deal with being poisoned at the same time. Unfortunately, even today the antitoxin doesn’t neutralize toxins already bonded to tissues and does nothing itself to kill the bacteria. For the antitoxin to work, it has to be administered as early as possible, usually immediately as soon as a doctor makes the clinical diagnosis of diphtheria infection and without waiting for laboratory confirmation.

One other thing to note: the antitoxin is perishable. Dr. Welch had antitoxin on hand, all of which had expired.

And so he radioed for help.

No ship could reach them, and in fact couldn’t get within 500 miles of Nome by then. No plane, not even the most advanced aircraft in the Alaskan Territory at the time, the Postal Service’s DeHavilland DH-4, could fly under the winter conditions – their open cockpits and liquid cooled engines made that utterly impossible.

The only solution was dogsled.

The antitoxin would have to be transported via a relay of sled dogs, from Tanana to Nome, a distance of 674 miles through astoundingly rugged territory in temperatures that were at record lows, -50 to –60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wild Bill Shannon led off, mushing out of the train station in Tanana with the twenty pound package, about 30 doses, of serum in his sled at 9PM on January 27. Shannon’s team was composed of nine dogs, all inexperienced, led by Blackie. Shannon was forced onto the frozen Tanana River, with temperatures approaching –62F he ran behind the sled to stay warm. He mushed into Minto with his face frozen black from the cold, hypothermic and severely frost bitten. He left three dying dogs in Minto, and headed out for Tolovana. Another dog died on the trail.

Edgar Kallands picked up the relay in Tolovana. When he arrived at Manley Hot Springs, they had to pour hot water over his hands to pry them off the sled’s handlebars.

Meanwhile the world waited. Nome’s plight had caught the attention of the entire globe . Famed Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, even offered to make an attempt in an airplane. The Navy proposed sending one of its ships as far north as possible, then assembling a plane on the ice pack and launching it towards Nome. Many other ideas were suggested. All were rejected as too risky and foolhardy. Nome would live or die with the mushers and their dogs.

The serum went north, from Manely Hot Springs via native mushers arriving at Bishop Mountain on January 30, at 3:00 in the morning. The temperature was –62F, and dropping. Charlie Evans mushed out of Bishop Mountain and lost both of his lead dogs on the trail, legend has it that he himself held the traces and led the remaining dogs into Nulato.

Tommy Patsey took the next leg out of Nulato and across the Kaltag Portage. The serum was handed off to Victor Anagick and then to Myles Gonangnan at Unalakleet at the edge of the vast Norton Sound.

A storm was rising. The type of storm you’ll only find in the deepest of arctic winter on the ‘Sound. The kind of storm that comes from winds driven across two thousand miles of frozen ocean. Gonangnan took one look at it and decided not to cross the ice – he knew the storm winds could easily push the pack ice and open leads to the frigid black water below, cutting the team off from land and dooming 10,000 people to almost certain death. He choose instead to circle the Sound in whiteout conditions and with wind chills approaching 70 below zero in gale force winds. He arrived in the native village of Shaktoolik at 3PM on January 31st damn near froze to death. Henry Ivanoff, took the serum and headed out into the storm.

At the same time the serum was heading north, Leonhard Seppala rode south out of Nome to meet the relay in Shaktoolik. Sappala crossed Norton Sound on the ice and turned east toward Shaktoolik in blinding conditions. Just outside Shaktoolik, he meet Ivanoff who had gotten tangled up with a reindeer and was struggling to free his harness and dogs.

Seppala took the serum and turned back into the teeth of the storm, again crossing the ice of Norton Sound. His lead dog, Togo, managing to find the way with almost supernatural instinct. Togo led the team unerringly from Ungalik to the road house at Isaac Point on the far side of Norton Sound, and in one day they covered a distance of 84 miles through one of the worst arctic storms on record. They rested at the road house, and then departed into the full power of the worsening storm, and as they ran across the ice the 65 mile per hour winds begin to open leads behind them and the ice began to break up. Seppala managed to make the shore, just ahead of the buckling ice and crossed Little McKinley Mountain – climbing nearly 5000 feet in the process. Seppala reached the road house at Golvin at 3PM on February 1st and passed the serum on to Charlie Olsen.

Olsen lost the trail in the storm and suffered severe frostbite to his hands while trying to save his dogs, but he made it to Bluff on on the evening of February 1st. Gunnar Kassen was waiting for him.

Kassen attempted to wait out the storm, but instead of lessening it kept getting worse. Kassen, afraid that drifts would block the trail, departed Bluff at 10PM into a 60 mile per hour headwind and whiteout conditions so bad that he could not even see the wheel dogs harnessed closest to the sled. He missed the lodge at Solomon and was two miles beyond it before he realized his mistake – so he kept going. Beyond Solomon the trail became an endless nightmare. The winds flipped Kassen’s sled and the precious cylinder of antitoxin fell out and was lost in the snow. Kassen froze his hands feeling around in the drifts for it. He found it, righted the sled, and continued on to Point Safety, making it ahead of schedule on February 2nd. Kassen’s lead dog, Balto, had performed an almost unbelievable feat of navigation through the storm.

Ed Rohn, believing that Kassen would have to wait out the storm at Solomon was not prepared when Kassen arrived. Because it would take time to ready Rohn’s team, and time was of the utmost importance, Kassen elected to continue on rather than wait. Kassen and Balto covered the remaining 25 miles and arrived two hours later on Front Street, Nome at 5:30AM on the morning of February 2nd.

Not a single glass ampoule of the antitoxin was lost, and the serum was thawed and ready for use by noon. Altogether the teams covered 674 miles in 127.5 hours under extreme arctic winter conditions in a hurricane force gale.

That was the first relay.

There were more, carried by many of the same men who ran in the first relay.

And later there were plane flights.

Nome was saved and so was the Alaskan Native population.

Rarely in fact or fiction has there ever been anything to match the skill, courage, and dedication of those men and dogs.


Today, we remember the events of that long ago time with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race.

It began humbly enough.

The Last Great Race had its origins in the mid 1960’s, the idea of Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr (later called “The Father of the Iditarod”), as mostly unnoticed competitions between enthusiasts of a slowly dying and mostly forgotten way of life.  Snow machines and technology had long ago replaced dogs on the snowy trails of the north, and mushing was a skill likely soon to be lost in the frozen blizzards of history – along with diphtheria epidemics and open cockpit mail planes.

Later Redington, along with local school teachers Gleo Huyck and Tom Johnson, came up with the idea of extending those short races all the way to Nome – many, including Dorothy Page thought they were crazy. But in 1973, the very first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race followed the old traces 1100 miles from Anchorage to Nome and forty years later The Iditarod is an ingrained part of our state’s history – and more than any other event, responsible for reviving and preserving dog mushing in North America.

The race begins on the first Saturday in March after a two week winter festival known as The Fur Rendezvous (called simply Rondy by Alaskans) with a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage.  The whole city turns out for the celebration and people come from all over the world to watch the mushers and their dogs run through the streets.

A day later, the race begins in earnest on a frozen lake in the little town of Willow a hundred miles north of Anchorage.

We’ve been out on that ice at –30F in howling snow so thick you could see barely ten feet and you had to find your way to the starting line by following the sound of excited barking. But this year was unusually warm, the sky was brilliant blue and beautiful, and we enjoyed the novelty of watching the beginning of this epic event without being bundled up like Arctic explorers.


Dog 3

Dog 2Dog 1


Dog 5  Dog 6

Dog 7

Dog 8



My wife and I saw old Joe Redington race his last Iditarod in 1997 at the age of 80.   He died two years later, in 1999, and was buried in his favorite dogsled in the town of Wasilla where it all began.

His legacy is a very big deal in Alaska, it’s a celebration of much more than a mere sport, it reminds us forcefully of our history here in The Great Land, it speaks directly to a triumph of the human spirit in this harsh and beautiful place.

More, the race reminds Alaskans every single year of those long ago men and their dogs who dared greatly, and won.