Wednesday, December 31, 2008
The men who fell to Earth
Looking for some invisible literature to enjoy over the long weekend? A clinically rigorous, heartless prose dissecting some weird corner of reality, perfect antidote to whatever piles of literary ink on paper you found under your tree? You are in luck: NASA has just released the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, 400 pages of the most detailed description of astronautical death imaginable (except, maybe, for the unredacted version of what was released to the public). As if the opening credits of The Six Million Dollar Man ("She's breaking up!") were rewritten in the style of The Atrocity Exhibition. Even better, it's a *speculative* narrative, extrapolating from the insane quantities of evidence each of the "events of lethal potential" that may have been the point at which one or more of the astronauts died:
1. Depressurization of the crew module as the orbiter began breakup, when most of the astronauts had their helmet visors up and some did not have their gloves on. The report suggests the entire crew was killed or rendered unconscious at this point, but it also reads like they want that to be the case because the idea of death at any of the subsequent points is so horrific.
2. Exposure "to a dynamic rotating load environment with nonconformal helmets and a lack of upper body restraint" — heads being slammed against the insides of helmets that were not padded for such purposes, and torsos being whiplashed without shoulder belts, as the crew module windmilled through the high atmosphere.
3. The seats being torn from the module, and the crew members being torn loose from the seats.
4. "[E]xposure to near vacuum, aerodynamic accelerations, and cold temperatures" somewhere above 63,000 feet.
5. Ground impact.
The express purpose of the report is to aid future spacecraft designers and accident investigators, while the obvious unspoken purpose is to support a desired view that no astronaut experienced prolonged suffering. The methodology is the application of the most advanced air crash investigative techniques to support a detailed timeline, a comprehensive "vehicle failure assessment," and a thorough if sanitized review of each aspect of the "occupant protection" — seats, restraints, shuttle suits, helmets, training, etc. The level of detail is seriously mind-boggling, with detailed charts and analyses of each individual piece of shuttle material recovered, astronaut suit fragment, frayed seat restraint, and maps of debris distribution from Plano to Nacogdoches.
Some representative excerpts:
3.4.2 Injury classifications
18.104.22.168 Exposure to high altitude
[REDACTED.] Given the level of tissue damage, the crew could not have regained consciousness even with re-pressurization. Survival was possible, but not likely, even with immediate and extensive medical intervention at this point. Although respiration would cease after depressurization, circulatory functions can exist for a short period of time.
Finding. Tissue samples revealed evidence of ebullism.
Conclusion L1-3. The crew was exposed to a pressure altitude above 63,500 feet, indicating that the cabin depressurization event occurred above this altitude.
Finding. The depressurization event occurred prior to the loss of circulatory function.
There is very limited data on human exposure to space-equivalent vacuum. [REDACTED.] Although the Soyuz 11 cabin depressurization was relatively slow (reportedly taking more than 3.5 minutes to depressurize to 0 psi), it was stated that the depressurization was fatal to the crew in roughly 30 seconds.12 Because the exact scenario cannot be positively identified, no conclusions with respect to the rate or timing of cabin depressurization can be made from the medical findings.
Depressurization events in aviation have led to extensive studies on “time of useful consciousness (TUC).” TUC is generally based on the remaining amount of O2 in the tissues that is permitting brain functions to continue. Various factors affect the TUC (i.e., exertion, depressurization rate, pre-exposure O2 partial pressure, G-loads, adrenaline loading, etc.). Since the shuttle cabin uses air, the pre-exposure O2 partial pressure was only 21% O2 (the normal for sea-level). Based on debris and structural evidence, the most likely time for the initiation of cabin depressurization was at orbiter breakup (CE) at GMT 14:00:18.
Based on video evidence, the depressurization was complete no later than GMT 14:00:59 (figure 3.4-15), and likely much earlier (see Section 2.3). This corresponded to an altitude range of 181,000 feet to approximately 140,000 feet. Traditional aviation TUC would correlate a rapid depressurization at these altitudes to a TUC of 12 seconds. This would have been enough time for the crew to close their visors and initiate O2 flow, and yet they did not (see Section 3.2).
However, additional research discussed in Joint Aerospace Physiology, Air Education and Training Command/Bureau of Medicine and Surgery shows that the physiological response to hypoxia during a rapid depressurization event at this extreme altitude (181,000 feet) would have reduced the conventional TUC interval by 50% (i.e., 12 seconds would have been reduced to 6 seconds). In addition to the depressurization effects, the physical exertion against the G-forces that the crew experienced at this time would further reduce the available metabolic O2 reserves and increase the CO2 partial pressure. Also, NASA research data indicate that de-conditioned crews have a reduced tolerance to G-loads. Further, anecdotal reports from accidental exposure to vacuum confirm much shorter periods of awareness as reported by survivors.
The 51-L Challenger accident investigation showed that the Challenger CM remained intact and the crew was able to take some immediate actions after vehicle breakup, although the accelerations experienced were much higher as a result of the aerodynamic loads (estimated at G to 21 G). The Challenger crew became incapacitated quickly and could not complete activation of all breathing air systems, leading to the conclusion that an incapacitating cabin depressurization occurred. By comparison, the Columbia crew experienced lower loads (~3.5 G) at the CE. The fact that none of the crew members lowered their visors strongly suggests that the crew was incapacitated after the CE by a rapid depressurization.
From this time forward, the crew members would have been unconscious, totally unaware of events, and unable to brace against the loads. With the configuration of the ACES (i.e., visors up and three crew members without gloves donned), the depressurization was an event of lethal potential. Had the ACES been configured with the visors down and locked, gloves on, and EOS activated, the depressurization event by itself probably would have been survivable.
Finding. No conclusion could be drawn as to the rate of cabin depressurization based on medical evidence.
Finding. None of the six crew members wearing helmets closed their visors.
Conclusion L1-5. The depressurization incapacitated the crew members so rapidly that they were not able to lower their helmet visors.
Recommendation L1-3/L5-1. Future spacecraft crew survival systems should not rely on manual activation to protect the crew.
Conclusion A8-1. Spacecraft accidents are rare, and each event adds critical knowledge and understanding to the database of experience.
Recommendation A8. As was executed with Columbia, spacecraft accident investigation plans must include provisions for debris and data preservation and security. All debris and data should be cataloged, stored, and preserved so they will be available for future investigations or studies.
22.214.171.124 Mechanical injuries
Mechanical injuries were isolated to the period of time at which they most likely occurred, based on engineering analyses of motions and accelerations.
Catastrophic Event to Crew Module Catastrophic Event
A very dynamic motion environment existed after the CE (GMT 14:00:18); this environment became more intense as the CMCE (the breakup of the forebody) approached at GMT 14:00:53. Figure 3.4-16 shows representative loads on the unconscious or deceased crew members based on aerodynamic modeling of the forebody dynamics post-CE. The black dashed lines showing human performance limits20 are for conscious crew members. Based on the conclusion that the rapid depressurization occurred at or close to the time of the orbiter forebody separation, the crew was unconscious or deceased and unable to brace against these loads.
For the first 15 to 20 seconds, the modeled loads would not cause serious injuries to a conscious crew member who was capable of active bracing. An unconscious or deceased crew member would have been more susceptible to injury.
The crew is normally restrained in the seats by a five-point harness system (figure 3.4-17). A lap belt secures the lower torso. A crotch strap prevents “submarining.”21 Two shoulder harnesses, which attach to an inertial reel via the inertial reel strap, secure the upper torso.
Engineering analysis of the STS-107 restraints indicates that most of the inertial reel straps were extended and did not lock or retract prior to failure of the straps. The inertial reels are normally unlocked to allow the crew to access displays and controls with a full range of motion. With the inertial reels unlocked, the crew members’ upper bodies were left unrestrained during the forebody dynamics. [REDACTED.]
Finding. One crew member appears to have been restrained only by the shoulder harness and crotch strap.
Recommendation L1-2. Future spacecraft and crew survival systems should be designed such that the equipment and procedures provided to protect the crew in emergency situations are compatible with nominal operations. Future spacecraft vehicles, equipment, and mission timelines should be designed such that a suited crew member can perform all operations without compromising the configuration of the survival suit during critical phases of flight.
Figure 3.4-18 provides a demonstration of an integrated seat/suit/crew member in entry configuration.
[REDACTED.] Figure 3.4-19 shows an interior view of an intact, pristine ACES helmet demonstrating exposed hardware. [REDACTED.]
[REDACTED. Figure 3.4-20.]
Finding. Injuries were consistent with the crew’s upper bodies not being securely held to the seatbacks and with the evidence indicating that the inertial reel straps were extended at the time of failure.
Finding. Injuries were consistent with the crew’s upper bodies not being supported during the time of dynamic motion.
Conclusion L2-3. Lethal injuries resulted from inadequate upper body restraint and protection during rotational motion.
Recommendation L2-4/L3-4. Future spacecraft suits and seat restraints should use state-of-the-art technology in an integrated solution to minimize crew injury and maximize crew survival in off-nominal acceleration environments.
Recommendation L2-7. Design suit helmets with head protection as a functional requirement, not just as a portion of the pressure garment. Suits should incorporate conformal helmets with head and neck restraint devices, similar to helmet/head restraint techniques used in professional automobile racing.
Recommendation L2-8. The current shuttle inertial reels should be manually locked at the first sign of an off-nominal situation.
Recommendation L2-9. The use of inertial reels in future restraint systems should be evaluated to ensure that they are capable of protecting the crew during nominal and off-nominal situations without active crew intervention.
Crew Module Catastrophic Event
[REDACTED.] Engineering and ballistic analyses of the orbiter forebody failure indicate that the middeck separated prior to the flight deck. Crew members on the middeck separated along with the middeck accommodations rack, middeck lockers, sub-floor components, and Modular Auxiliary Data System/orbiter experiment data recorder – a scenario that is supported by debris plots (see Section 2.2). Based on structural design analysis, thermal damage, and position in the debris field, the flight deck “pod” and the CM aft bulkhead stayed intact for a longer time. The location of the recovered flight crew equipment, which is plotted in figure 3.4-21, supports the middeck departing prior to the flight deck.
[REDACTED. Figure 3.4-22.]
Finding. Crew members experienced traumatic injuries in areas corresponding to the seat restraint system.
Conclusion L3-4. The seat restraint system caused lethal-level injuries to the unconscious or deceased crew members when they separated from the seat.
Recommendation L2-4/L3-4. Future spacecraft suits and seat restraints should use state-of-the-art technology in an integrated solution to minimize crew injury and maximize crew survival in off-nominal acceleration environments.
Recommendation L3-1. Future vehicles should incorporate a design analysis for breakup to help guide design toward the most graceful degradation of the integrated vehicle systems and structure to maximize crew survival.
126.96.36.199 Thermal exposure
Finding. No significant levels of carbon monoxide or cyanide (combustion by-products) were identified in any of the body fluids.
Finding. There was no evidence of thermal injury to the respiratory tracts.
Conclusion L1-4. The crew was not exposed to a cabin fire or thermal injury prior to depressurization, cessation of breathing, and loss of consciousness.
[REDACTED. Figure 3.4-23.]
The ambient absolute pressure condition at separation was approximately 0.03 psi.
3.4.3 Identified events with lethal potential
1. The first event with lethal potential was depressurization of the CM, which started at or shortly after orbiter breakup. Existing crew equipment protects for this type of lethal event, but operational practices and hardware limitations were such that the ACESs were not in a protective configuration. The current shuttle ACES relies on the crew to lower and lock the visor; therefore, complete protection from a depressurization event depends on a permissive environment. Design solutions that do not require crew action are achievable.
2. The second event with lethal potential was unconscious or deceased crew members exposed to a dynamic rotating load environment with nonconformal helmets and a lack of upper body restraint. Current shuttle seat and helmet design and operational practices did not protect the crew members from this lethal event. Complete strap-in with inertial reels locked would reduce the risk of injury/death; however, even in this configuration, the current seat-suit restraint system provides limited protection from dynamic G events (i.e., no lateral restraints, no control of extremity motion, and no head-neck support). Better restraint designs that include head-neck support (i.e., conformal helmets), extremity control, and spine support are achievable to reduce the risk of injury/death.
3. The third event with lethal potential was separation from the crew module and the seats with associated forces, material interactions, and thermal consequences. This event is the least understood due to limitations in current knowledge of mechanisms at this Mach number and altitude. Seat restraints played a role in the lethality of this event. Although the seat restraints (e.g., narrow width) played a significant role in the lethal mechanical injuries, there is currently no full range of equipment to protect for this event. The event was not survivable by any means currently known to the investigative team, with the exception of ensuring the integrity of the CM until the airspeed and altitude are within survival limits. This is not possible for the current space shuttle design; however, future vehicle designs incorporating a principle of “graceful degradation” and CM stabilization are possible.
4. The fourth event with lethal potential was exposure to near vacuum, aerodynamic accelerations, and cold temperatures. Although current crew survival equipment may be capable of protecting the crew, it is not certified to protect the crew above 100,000 feet. At the altitude and speeds at which the unconscious or deceased crew members departed from the CM, the environmental risks include lack of O2, low atmospheric pressure, high thermal loads as a result of deceleration from high Mach numbers, shock wave interactions, aerodynamic accelerations, and exposure to cold temperatures. Existing shuttle CEE is certified to protect up to 100,000 feet and 600 KEAS; however, the ACES is not designed to provide protection from high-temperature exposures. Anecdotal evidence from the survival of the pilot of an SR-71 mishap [Aviation Week & Space Technology, August 8, 2005, pp. 60–62] suggests that an intact, pressurized suit similar to the ACES can protect a crew member at an altitude of 78,000 feet and speeds of at least Mach 3 (~400 KEAS). More research is needed to close the survival gap. The only protection that is achievable is to ensure the integrity of the CM until the airspeed and altitude are within suit capability, which is currently not precisely determined.
5. The final event with lethal potential was ground impact. Existing shuttle CEE protects for ground impact with a parachute. However, the crew member must manually initiate the parachute opening sequence, or the parachute must be used in conjunction with the crew escape pole of the shuttle to initiate the parachute automatic opening sequence. Military and sport parachuting solutions exist for opening parachutes independent of crew action.
3.4.4 Synopsis of crew analysis
The crew was unaware of an impending survival situation prior to the LOC. At the time of LOC, the flight deck crew was probably troubleshooting the caution-and-warning messages that were associated with the FCS fault, left main landing gear talk-back, and tire pressure messages. One of the middeck crew members was likely attempting to become seated and restrained under the dynamic LOC conditions. Until the forebody separated from the orbiter vehicle, the crew was conscious and had not suffered serious injuries. Cause of death was unprotected exposure to high-altitude conditions and blunt trauma.
If you're skeptical about the likelihood of being able to actually increase the chances of astronauts surviving the break-up of the spacecraft during re-entry, consider the following discussion, with particular reference to the SR-71 comparison:
3.2.2 Crew worn equipment configuration
Recovered videotape from Columbia revealed information related to the configuration of the crew worn survival equipment, including the helmets and the ACESs. The recovered middeck video shows the seat 5 crew member suited (except for the helmet and gloves) and the seat 1 and seat 6 crew members donning their suits. The middeck video, which does not include views of other flight deck crew members donning their suits, ends prior to the seat 7 crew member donning the ACES.
Recovered flight deck video shows the flight deck crew members suited with helmets and gloves on (except one crew member, who had not completed donning gloves by the end of the video). This video also shows the helmet and helmet neck rings in close proximity to the crew members’ chins. Because the helmets appeared to be restrained, investigators concluded that the crew members had the proper tension on the neck ring tie-down straps.
Although all crew members were wearing the main portion of the suit at the time of the accident, at some point the suits completely failed and separated. The SCSIIT investigated similar cases to understand the mechanism of suit failure.
3.2.3 Aircraft in-flight breakup case studies
The following civil aviation accidents provide examples of cases of passenger clothing being shed (body denuding) during in-flight breakups:
• Air India Flight 182 was flying at 31,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean on June 23, 1985 when a terrorist bomb exploded in the baggage compartment. The Boeing 747 aircraft broke up in flight, and at least 21 of the 131 recovered bodies were denuded.
• Iran Air Flight 655 was mistakenly shot down by a U.S. Navy ship on July 3, 1988 while flying over the Persian Gulf. After missiles hit it, the Airbus A300 aircraft broke up in flight at an altitude of 13,500 feet. The denuded bodies of the passengers
were recovered from the Persian Gulf waters.
• Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988. The bomb went off when the Boeing 747 aircraft was at roughly 31,000 feet and 313 knots airspeed; numerous passengers who had separated from the aircraft prior to ground impact were denuded.
• COPA Flight 201 broke up over the jungle in Panama on June 6, 1992. The Boeing 737 aircraft broke up at approximately 13,000 feet while in a high-speed dive (the pilots entered the dive because of a faulty attitude indication that was due to a wiring problem). Many of the passengers’ bodies were denuded.
These aviation accidents involved lower altitudes and slower speeds than those associated with the Columbia accident. However, a military accident more similar to the Columbia accident occurred on January 25, 1966 involving an SR-71 test flight. The pilot lost control of the aircraft, and the SR-71 broke up while flying at approximately Mach 3 at over 75,000 feet (~400 knots equivalent airspeed (KEAS)). The pilot survived, but the reconnaissance systems officer was killed. Points of similarity to the Columbia accident include:
• The SR-71 accident occurred at high speed and relatively high altitude.
• The SR-71 aircraft breakup dynamics resulted in a fatality.
• The SR-71 aircraft breakup dynamics included crew member separation from the vehicle.
• The seat restraint straps failed.
• The SR-71 pressure suit is very similar to the shuttle ACES in design and construction.
• The dynamic pressure at the Columbia CMCE was roughly 405 pounds per square foot (psf) and the dynamic pressure at SR-71 aircraft breakup was roughly 398 psf, a difference of less than 2%.
However, there are also notable differences between the two accidents. These include:
• The SR-71 pilot’s suit pressurized automatically (as designed) when the cockpit depressurized due to the aircraft breakup. The pilot attributed his survival to the pressurized suit, which protected him from the low-pressure/low-O2 environment as well as the aerodynamic forces (windblast) that he experienced when he separated from the aircraft. As discussed in the sections below, the Columbia suits did not pressurize because the crew members did not lower visors or activate the suit O2 system. Additionally, three crew members did not complete donning gloves, which is required for the suit to pressurize.
• While the Columbia crew members were exposed to a similar dynamic pressure environment as the SR-71 crew members, the thermal environment of the Columbia accident was much more severe than that experienced during the SR-71 breakup.
• Because of the altitude differences, the chemical environment (higher concentration of more reactive monatomic oxygen) of the Columbia accident differs from that of the SR-71 breakup.
• The Columbia suits did not remain intact, whereas the SR-71 pressure suits did remain intact.
Aerodynamic analysis indicates that the equivalent airspeed of the CM at the CMCE (GMT 14:00:53) was roughly 400 KEAS, and that it increased to 560 KEAS by the time of Total Dispersal (TD) (GMT 14:01:10). The ACES is designed to maintain structural integrity and pressure response capability when exposed to at least a 560-KEAS windblast. Since the suit is certified by NASA to meet this requirement based on its similarity to the pressure suit used by the U.S. Air Force, it was not subjected to windblast tests for certification. By contrast, the U.S. Air Force suit was tested in a certification program in 1990 during which it was exposed to a 600-KEAS windblast (the suit was worn by a manikin that was restrained in an ejection seat with the helmet visor down and locked). During the first test (suit not pressurized), the helmet sun shield separated from the helmet and a life preserver unit inflation tube separated from the life preserver unit. During the second test (the suit was pressurized to 2.99 psi), both shin pockets (survival gear storage pockets) were forced open. No other relevant anomalies were observed.
In the U.S. Air Force windblast test configuration, the helmet visors were lowered, which is notably different from the position of the Columbia visors. Debris evidence indicates that the Columbia helmet visors were up. With the helmet visor up, the helmet cavity presents a high drag configuration that could contribute to a mechanical failure of the suit/helmet interface, leading to suit disruption.
Standard materials testing data exist for the suit materials (GORE-TEX®, Nomex, nylon, etc.). However, the data are for tests conducted at “normal” environmental conditions (sea-level atmospheric temperature, pressure, and composition). Little laboratory test data exist on the performance of the materials in extreme environments. The lack of laboratory data presents an information gap regarding how the materials properties of the ACES are affected by exposure to the thermal and chemical environments at the altitudes and speeds experienced by Columbia. Although the more severe thermal and chemical environment of the Columbia accident may have weakened the suit materials, hastening suit disruption, the extent to which the thermal/chemical environment contributed to suit disruption cannot be determined from the debris and because the environment’s affects on suit materials is not understood.
Complete report (PDF).
Previous posts regarding invisible literature, including "The Assassination Inquest of Diana, Princess of Wales Considered as an Unintentionally Ballardian Remix of the Warren Commission Report."
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Way down telescope way pt. 5
In the weeks following, I took my scope out to the front yard several times. I observed more Messier objects than I ever had before (mainly because I'd never tried before--as a kid, I was strictly a planets kind of guy). I spotted M13, the great globular cluster in Hercules, and M92 a cluster a short distance away. Fun stuff, even if my neighborhood is lousy with light pollution and seeing is crummy at best. When all else failed, I could always fall back on the moon. But what I was really waiting for was a star party with the folks from the New Braunfels Astronomy Club. August came, and I was raring to go. I just had to re-collimate my scope, since I'd moved the mirror the night before to try some prime-focus astrophotography. When I was tightening the screws to adjust the secondary mirror... the spider assembly collapsed. Crumbled, actually. The cheap aluminum axis literally broke into dozens of pieces. There was no way I could fix that on my own, so I had to shell out $50 for a Parks spider vane replacement from Scope City.
Closer examination showed that the secondary mirror holder had deteriorated and needed replacing as well, but could wait (and has waited). Also, the secondary mirror needed re-coating. Grr. But with two weeks lost, I was finally able to get everything put back together and a rough collimation completed. Then I hauled the scope (and family) out to Canyon Lake for the New Braunfels Astronomy Club's September star party. Well, the star party gave mixed results. Only one other guy had set up (an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain) so I didn't have much to compare/contrast my scope's performance against. And there was lots of high haze, so seeing was iffy at any rate. My kids ran wild, and The Wife and I spent more time worried about them destroying some piece of expensive equipment or falling in the dark than with actually looking through the scope. I managed to find M8, the Lagoon Nebula, early on and got a good, if hazy look. But I wasn't able to get a good polar alignment and overall I didn't get as much out of it as I'd hoped. But I did manage a couple of interesting long-exposure red light photos from that night:
And then those photography courses I took at Texas State during the fall semester kicked in full blast and weeknight observations were pretty much out of the question from that point on. But with classes winding down in early December, I started back with the scope. Using a compass in the back yard, I managed to get a mind-bogglingly good polar alignment on Christmas Eve when skies finally cleared after weeks of overcast weather. And my goodness, was the seeing brilliant. Crystal clear. Low humidity, no wind. The Pleiades (M45) were utterly brilliant through my 40mm Plossl eyepiece. M42, the great Orion nebula, was a ghostly white billowing stream, and the four stars that make up the Trapezium in the center were incredibly crisp through my 15mm Plossl eyepiece (which has become my favorite, I believe). But it was M37, a stunning open cluster in Auriga, that blew me away. It was utterly brilliant, like a layer cake of jewels gleaming brightly. I also took in the nearby clusters M36 and M38 as well, but neither compared to M37.
Alas, there have been two clear nights since, but seeing has been marginal. Lots of turbulence high in the atmosphere, and high clouds and haze. Last night I attempted to photograph the Orion nebula but the shots just weren't turning out. My polar alignment was off as well, so the scope wasn't tracking well. I did manage, for the first time ever, to observe M31, the famed Andromeda galaxy. I also found M103, a faint open cluster in Cassiopea as well as NGC869 & 884, the gorgeous "Double Cluster" that may make a great photo for me someday, but not last night. For astrophotography I had to content myself with a few moon shots, including this interesting crescent shot with warm colors:
The moon was low on the horizon, so poor seeing coupled with thick, hazy atmosphere resulted in iffy focus. Taking several shots in a row without touching the camera or changing any settings or focus resulted in just as many shots with varying degrees of sharpness. One end of the moon was clear in an image while the other end was blurry. Those were the conditions I was dealing with. Since I wasn't going to get any ultra-sharp, high resolution images of the moon, I thought I'd take advantage of the slender crescent and try to capture some "Earthshine" shots, in which the "dark side" of the moon is illuminated by reflected light from the Earth. This is the result:
Not the best, but not awful for my first time. I must've bumped the scope during the exposure at some point, accounting for the blur of the crescent. But the dark side is pretty clear there. I hope to try this again--perhaps even tonight--under more favorable conditions. One thing has made a huge difference in my astrophotography efforts, and I want to share it with anyone out there who has similar interests. My Canon XTi/400D has a small view finder, and when attached to the scope, images inside are small and dim. This makes focusing extremely difficult. This is not a camera with Live View, after all. I've tried various Hartmann mask configurations with disappointing results. Achieving exact focus was iffy, although they helped me get within a certain range. Then I heard of a different type of focusing screen, the Bahtinov mask. I didn't expect much from this seeming variant on the Hartmann mask, but short of dropping $150 on a stiletto focuser, I didn't have many options. After making one that was the wrong size for my scope (I'm still not sure how that happened) I Exacto-knifed out the proper pattern and rigged up a mask that slipped over the open end of my scope... and wow! The results were instant and obvious, even through my dim camera view finder. There are three sets of diffraction spikes created by the mask when the scope is aimed at a star, or planet. Two pairs of spikes are adjacent to each other and don't move. The third set of spikes moves closer to the others the more in focus the object is, finally settling in the exact center of the other two once focus is achieved. It's very clear, and very little ambiguity. I'm quite happy with the results thus far, and recommend it to anyone.
Hopefully, my next installment won't take so long to file. The New Braunfels Astronomy Club has another star party coming up in mid January, so with luck (and clear skies) I'll have some interesting things to report thereafter.
Monday, December 29, 2008
Some Ballardian economic indicators
I began to count the [swimming] pools. Ten thousand years in the future, long after the Cote d'Azure had been abandoned, the first explorers would puzzle over these empty pits, with their eroded frescoes of tritons and stylized fish, inexplicably hauled up the mountainsides like aquatic sundials or the altars of a bizarre religion devised by a race of visionary geometers.
-- J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes (2000)
Among the most persistent memes in the work of J.G. Ballard is the image of the empty swimming pool. Often grouped with another common cosy catastrophe trope that runs throughout Ballard's science fictions, the abandoned hotel. Ruins of the future, apocalypses of the present, Ozymandian fragments of our entropic imminence, these totems have some serious metaphoric oomph.
So it is always a pleasure to see these potent cultural signs show up in the mainstream press, as in today's New York Times. On the front page, just below the fold, is a feature on the proliferation of empty swimming pools as the result of home foreclosures in the American Southwest. A bummer for the homeowners, but a boon for some — for semiotically illuminated cultural weather-watchers and, more pragmatically, for skateboarders, who scour websites for foreclosure data like surfers watching the morning breaker reports, then head out with their boards, look for the foreclosure notices on the front door, and jump the fence, turning every suburban block into their own pre-apocalyptic pirate utopia.
December 29, 2008
Skaters Jump In as Foreclosures Drain the Pool
By Jesse McKinley and Malia Wollan
On a recent morning, a 27-year-old skateboarder who goes by the name Josh Peacock peered into a swimming pool in Fresno, Calif., emptied by his own hands — and the foreclosure crisis — and flashed a smile as wide as a half-pipe.
“We have more pools than we know what to do with,” said Mr. Peacock, who lives in Fresno, the Central Valley city where thousands of homes, many with pools behind them, are in foreclosure. “I can’t even keep track of them all anymore.”
Across the nation, the ultimate symbol of suburban success has become one more reminder of the economic meltdown, with builders going under, pools going to seed and skaters finding a surplus of deserted pools in which to perfect their acrobatic aerials.
In these boom times for skaters, Mr. Peacock travels with a gas-powered pump, five-gallon buckets, shovels and a push broom, risking trespassing charges in the pursuit of emptying forlorn pools and turning them into de facto skate parks.
“We can just hit them back to back,” said Mr. Peacock, who preferred to give his skateboarding name because of the illegality of his activities.
Skaters are coming to places like Fresno from as far as Germany and Australia. Mr. Peacock said his floor and couch were covered by sleeping bags of visiting skateboarders each weekend.
Some skateboarders use realty tracking sites like realquest.com and realtor.com to find foreclosed houses with pools, while others trawl through satellite images from Google Earth. On the Web site skateandannoy.com, where skaters trade tips about how to find and drain abandoned pools, one poster wrote about the current economic malaise. “God bless Greenspan,” the post read, “patron saint of pool skatin’.”
This is not the first time this particular meme has graced the pages of the paper of record. Even before the GWOT's explosion of scenes of American soldiers lounging by empty Baath tubs, there were pieces like the 2001 photo essay on John Cheever's story "The Swimmer," which featured photos of none other than David Hasselhoff pondering the meaning of it all.
Do you suppose David Hasselhoff has ever read The Atrocity Exhibition? Do you think he'd agree to appear in the movie? Or, short of that, maybe a remake of Crash?
During the night the swimming-pool had drained itself. The once mysterious world of wavering blue lines, glimpsed through a cascade of bubbles, now lay exposed in the morning light. The tiles were slippery with leaves and dirt, and the chromium ladder at the deep end, which had once vanished into a watery abyss, ended abruptly beside a pair of scummy rubber slippers...
There was something sinister about a drained swimming pool, and he tried to imagine what purpose it would have if it were not filled with water. It reminded him of the concrete bunkers in Tsingtao, and the bloody handprints of the maddened German gunners on the caisson walls. Perhaps murder was about to be committed in all the swimming-pools of Shanghai, and their walls were tiled so that the blood could be washed away?
-- J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun (1984)
Friday, December 26, 2008
Bonestell does NYC apocalypse
From today's paper, Chesley Bonestell's uncharacteristically earthly "Atom Bombing of New York City" (1950). You can go see the original at the New York Historical Society. How much more prescient was this than Bonestell's better-known space colonies?
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Christmas in Gitmo?
Some of you have received tangible versions of the above Christmas card I drew this year, appropriating the recent courtroom sketches of KSM mounting his own legal strategy in front of the secret tribunals.
As I read some of the latest stories about the birth of Camp X-Ray as a convenient extraterritorial venue for the internment of captured mujahideen, I daydreamed alternate versions of the place, reimagining a twentieth century in which the jurisdictional eccentricities of the place allowed the flowering of a utopian commune that combined the lifestyle experiments of the modernists and their postwar heirs with the sun and rum-soaked romance of twentieth century Cuba. Maybe in a few more years.
Meanwhile, they're hanging mistletoe from the razor wire.
Postscript: My official Christmas 2008 dream girl is Ms. Sinaloa, Laura Zuniga, the beauty queen busted yesterday outside Guadalajara with a half-dozen homeys headed for a "shopping spree" enabled by "a large stash of weapons, including two AR-15 assault rifles, .38 specials, 9mm handguns, nine magazines, 633 cartridges and $US53,300 in cash." ¡Feliz Navidad y Viva la Reina!
Lame Duck Christmas: A Holiday Fable
Lame Duck Christmas
A Holiday Fable
by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Subdued, yet persistent alarms sounded throughout the Aspen Lodge. Determined Secret Service agents strode down the main hall, checking each door in turn as their personal Bluetooth ear clips fed them a steady stream of threat updates.
An agent entered the study, and found the President with his cowboy boots kicked up on the desk, reading The Washington Times’ sport section.
“Oh, it’s you, Shade Man,” the President said, looking back to his paper. “Can you believe this? Teixeira’s getting $180 million from the Yankees. I mean, come on. We didn’t even pay Nolan Ryan that kind of money when I owned the Rangers, and he at least had a great nickname.”
“Mr. President, the bogey’s evaded our interceptors and crossed over the Canadian border,” the agent said. “You need to get to a secure location.”
“His nickname was ‘The Ryan Express,’ you know.”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“That’s from the movie ‘Von Ryan’s Express.’ It’s got like two meanings, see? That’s what makes it so great.”
“Sir, we’ve already moved the Vice President to an undisclosed location, but the longer you remain here, the more vulnerable you become.”
“Is that so?” The President eyeballed the agent over the top of his paper. “And where you boys got Big Time stashed this time?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you, Sir.” The agent shifted uncomfortably. “It wouldn’t be undisclosed then.”
“Point taken,” the President nodded, then folded his paper. “Shade Man, Camp David is the most secure campground in the world. We’ve got Seabees and Marines all over the place here. Why, KOA’s got nothing that can compare.”
A second agent entered the study. “He’s still here?” the second agent asked in surprise.
“He won’t budge,” the first answered.
“Mr. President, the threat is more grave than you understand. We have to evacuate you.”
“I am not running from a fat man in a red suit,” the President said. “You forget that my cat-like reflexes saved me from that Iraqi assassin’s attempt on my life last week. So, if that Santa fella thinks he’s got the moxie, I say ‘Bring it on!’”
“Mr. President, that was a shoe-throwing journalist.”
“They were wing-tips, goddamnit!”
The door flew open, and the Chief of Staff rushed in.
“Hey Shoe Man,” the President said in surprise, “I thought you were spending Christmas in Washington--although it is ironical you’re here, seeing as how we’re just discussing Iraqi assassins.”
“Mr. President, I boarded a plane as soon as I learned of the threat against you. And I have to say, I find it wholly credible,” the Chief of Staff said. “Placing the leader of the free world on the ‘Naughty’ list is no different than an Ayatollah issuing a Fatwa against you. I’m sure all international legal scholars would agree.”
“So Santa Claus is working with Al-Quaeda now? Sonofabitch. I sat on his lap once when I was a kid.” The President thought for a moment. “I thought we had him and his radical backers stonewalled in the U.N.?”
“We did, until Al Gore met with him and convinced Santa the entire permanent ice cap would melt before we allowed any binding CO2 emission controls to come up for a vote,” the Chief of Staff said. “Santa... overreacted. He believes we’ve not been negotiating in good faith.”
“I knew both of those names starting with ‘Al’ couldn’t be a coincidence. I think Mr. Gore needs to check in for an extended stay at Hotel Guantanamo,” the President shot back. “Where’s the proof that Global Warming is real?”
“Well, the Kringlehaus--Santa’s largest and oldest toy assembly plant--fell into the Arctic Sea earlier this summer when the pack ice melted. Nearly 1,500 elves drowned, and another 37,000 were put out of work.”
“Damnit, didn’t we have a deal worked out to relocate his factories to the Christmas Mountains in west Texas? What the hell ever happened with that?”
“The deal fell through at the last minute, Mr. President. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson wouldn’t approve the transfer unless Santa agreed to allow deer hunting there.”
“Sonofabitch!” The President flung his paper across the study. “This kind of shit never happened when Turd Blossom was here.”
The first agent put his hand to his ear. “We’re getting reports of elves stuffing sugar plums and marzipan into the gas tanks of SUVs across the country,” he said. “It’s really getting ugly.”
The lights went out, except for the multicolored string blinking around the window.
“He’s here,” the second agent whispered.
“How the hell can he be here already? You told me he just crossed the border not five minutes ago,” the President whispered back. “I’ve run whitetails down in my pickup back in Crawford. They don’t run more than 20 miles an hour or so. You can’t tell me these reindeer can fly any faster.”
A faint echo of jingle bells drifted through the house.
“He’s definitely here,” the first agent confirmed, drawing his gun from his jacket.
“Whoa, hold on there,” the President said, placing his hand over the gun and forcing it back. “No guns. We don’t want to be waking up Mom and 41. Or the twins. Or Laura. I’d never hear the end of it I let one of you shoot Santa. Even if he is an Al-Goreda sympathizer.” He stood up, rolled his neck and thrust his shoulders back. “No sir, I’m ending it here and now. Mano-a-mano. Let’s see that Tiger Woods guy cowboy up like this.”
The agents followed the President into the hall, with the Chief of Staff bringing up the rear. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“The living room, Shoe Man,” the President replied. “That’s where the stockings are hung by the chimney with care.”
“We’ve got two men guarding the fireplace,” the first agent said.
They crept into the living room, the lights from the Christmas tree casting a kaleidoscope of colors across the walls.
“Is he here?” the President whispered.
“I don’t think so,” answered the Chief of Staff. “He’s always gone before you look.”
Two agents lay beside the fireplace, snoring loudly. The flickering lights of the Christmas tree illuminated blissful faces.
“Visions of sugarplums,” the first agent said. “Damn, that’s cold.”
“Yeah. They’ll never live this down,” the second agreed.
“Look here. There’s a note on your stocking.” The Chief of Staff plucked the card away and opened it. “It says, ‘A gift from the reindeer.’ What do you think that means?”
“Oh, for the love of...” The President grabbed his stocking off the mantle.
The agents tried to take it from him. “Whoa, Sir! I don’t think you should--”
“A fat Al-Goreda sympathizer is not going to make me afraid of my own Christmas stocking.” The President held it upside down defiantly. Several black lumps fell to the floor with a solid thunk. “See there? That Santa ain’t as smart as he thinks he is.” A smirk crept across his face. “After all that bemoanification about Global Warming, what does he do? Gives me lumps of coal. Why, I’ll burn these with pride.”
The first agent bent down to examine the lumps. “Sir,” he said, taking a cautious sniff. “That’s not coal...”
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
The Goldfinch Bough
Video: Western Goldfinches feeding at 5 below, somewhere in southern Iowa, 12-22-08.
"A West African story from Southern Nigeria relates how a king kept his soul in a little brown bird, which perched on a tall tree outside the gate of the palace. The king's life was so bound up with that of the bird that whoever should kill the bird would simultaneously kill the king and succeed to the kingdom. The secret was betrayed by the queen to her lover, who shot the bird with an arrow and thereby slew the king and ascended the vacant throne."
-- Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890), in The New Golden Bough, revised and edited by Theodor Gaster (1954)
During my Midwestern holiday sejour this week, which involves lots of animal tracking in the snow, ice fishing, and reading from other people's libraries, I somewhat randomly pulled a 1964 paperback printing of the above-quoted text, and turned to the late chapter concerning the myth of Balder.
(You know you are intellectually handicapped when your point of entry to classic texts is your pre-adolescent reading of comic books. When the first visual referent for any Norse God is the one drawn by Jack Kirby, like my space age metallic Balder.)
Balder's only vulnerability was mistletoe, which brought about his death through a trick by Loki, and a great sadness in Asgard that led to a giant Viking funeral of the gods.
And mistletoe, in turns out, was a symbol of the idea of an external soul, a life force that could be separated from the body. Winter comes, and the great oak trees lose their leaves and appear dead, but the the mistletoe keeps growing green in the boughs of the oak, far from the littered ground.
The idea of the externalized soul exists throughout the world's mythology as synthesized by Frazer, including a large number of myths in which a figure of power maintains his power by stashing his soul in the body of a small bird, e.g.:
- The Transylvanian Saxon tale of a witch who kept her life force as a light inside an egg inside a duck on a pond atop a mountain, rendering her invulnerable.
- The tale of Seif-el-Muluk in the Arabian Nights, who encounters the beautiful daughter of a King of India, who is imprisoned by a Djinni who keeps its soul in the crop of a sparrow, hidden in a small box, which box is within seven other small boxes, which boxes are in seven chests, which chests are in a coffer of marble "within the verge of this circumambient ocean."
- The Hindu tale of the magician Punchkin, who secreted his soul in a little green parrot in a small cage inside a circle of palm trees in a faraway jungle, guarded by genii [the variant spellings of Djinn appear in the original Fraser/Gasper text]. The young son of the queen imprisoned by Punchkin nonetheless managed to find the parrot and return to free his mother:
He brought it to the door of the magician's palace, and began playing with it. Punchkin, the magician, saw him, and, coming out, tried to persuade the boy to give him the parrot. "Give me my parrot," cried Punchkin. Then the boy grabbed the parrot and tore off one of his wings; and as he did so the magician's right arm fell off. Punchkin then stretched out his left arm, crying, "Give me my parrot!" The prince pulled off the parrot's second wing, and the magician's left arm tumbled off. "Give me my parrot!" cried he, and fell on his knees. The prince pulled off the parrot's right leg, the magician's right leg fell off; the prince pulled off the parrot's left leg, down fell the magician's left. Nothing remained of him except the trunk and the head; but he still rolled his eyes, and cried, "Give me my parrot!" "Take your parrot, then," cried the boy; and with that he wrung the bird's neck, and threw it at the magician; and as he did so, Punchkin's head twisted round, and, with a fearful groan, he died!
According to Frazer, these myths of the externalized soul and the deaths of the owners of such souls formed the basis of the winter solstice rituals of many of the world's proto-religions.
So when I see the Western Goldfinches gather at the feeder in the five below winter cold, I wonder if Balder is lingering nearby in his animal form, keeping an eye on we servants of Loki as we play games under the mistletoe.
Friday, December 19, 2008
I guess that's easier to accomplish when there's no continuity to worry about.
Makes me want to bake some dried apple severed heads for the Christmas tree.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Djserka looked back the way they’d come. “So those moironteau things have been sent by Rapteer? Dreadful.” Nictating membranes flicked over Djserka’s eyes. “I daresay that explains why His Imperial Majesty’s restricted Nexial access. Damn. I should’ve spat in Rapteer’s food when I had the chance.”
Parric shook his head. “Should be doing more than just spittings.” More alarms sounded from the chamber. “We must be leaving before they break through.”
“You think those beasts will get past the Imperial defenses?”
“Of coursing they will. This palace is operating on skeleton crewing, remember?”
“Well, staff, yes. But there’s a full Eternal Militia battalion permanently stationed in the palace.”
“Only one battalion?” said Parric in surprise. “That is buying us less time than I’m initially thinking.”
“You’ve got quite a negative demeanor, don’t you?”
“The only way Flavius and myself can be helping is to be leaving,” Parric snapped. “When we are going, so are the moironteau.”
“And these moironteau will abandon their attempts to force their way onto the premises?”
“As soon as they are realizing we aren’t here, yes.”
“Then let us gather your wayward companion and see you both off. I’ve no desire to see these ghastly moironteau rampaging through my kitchens,” Djserka said. “Where is... what was his name? Flavius? Where is he now?”
“If he has any sensings, his room.”
“I see. And where does the Imperial court have him housed?”
Parric thought for a moment, then slowly pointed an antennae upward and to the left. “That waying, I’m thinking.”
Djserka dragged a claw over his chitinous face, sighing. “I meant... nevermind. Of course you wouldn’t know which room he’s in. You don’t know which room you’re in either, I imagine. It’s not like designated guest room names are inscribed over the doorway. Oh wait, they are.”
“Now who’s being negativing?”
Djserka snorted, loping down the hall. “Follow me. You’re most likely in the Tuluxmal wing off the central tower. Were your rooms far from the petite dining hall?”
“Not particularling. Two floors down and--”
“Huh. That’d be the Cobama wing. How odd.” Djserka reached the open shaft they’d come down, and gathered the end of the silk strand he’d left dangling earlier.
“Why is that odding? We are staying there each visiting. Rapteer is staying there, too.”
“Because,” said Djserka, ascending up the shaft with startling rapidity, “that’s a secure wing. It can be sealed off to either imprison or protect Imperial guests who are dangerous or vulnerable. I wonder which category you fall into?”
Parric flew after him in silence, remembering the deterioration of their previous visit to the palace.
Djserka stepped off onto a landing roughly midway up the shaft. “This way.” The em Naga-ed-der puffed down a narrow, well-lit hall, its bulk rippling with exertion.
“Are we belowing the dining hall?”
“Three floors below, yes, but not directly under it.” Djserka turned right at an intersection with a slightly larger hall. A doorway folded down to let them pass. “This is a more direct route to the Cobama wing. I apologize for my slow pace, but I’m more adept at vertical travel than horizontal.”
“Is it much farthering?”
“Yes, but we’re almost to the main corridor. At that point,” Djserka paused to take in several deep breaths, “you’ll be able to find your own way. Here it is, now.”
They entered the main hall with its ornate, vaulted ceilings. Not ten paces past them was a group of eight Eternal Militia walking in the direction of the Cobama wing. In their midst was Parric’s simulacrum.
“Ah! Commander, sir, if I may impose upon you--” called out Djserka before Parric could do anything.
Parric’s antennae sprang alert as he recognized Commander Balam. Balam’s eyes widened. Instantly he looked back at the simulacrum, which chose that moment to evaporate into nothingness. The evening’s dinner fell to the floor, half-chewed Onimik delicacies splattering the legs of the militiamen.
“Don’t move, the both of you,” Balam ordered, his cuayab raised and ready. “Don’t talk, don’t make any sudden moves!”
Djserka looked to Parric, baffled. “I don’t understand--”
“Don’t talk!” Balam repeated, moving toward them warily.
“Get readying for sudden movings,” Parric whispered without looking at Djserka.
“Certainly you can’t be seri--”
Parric flung himself back into the side hall in a blink. Green cuayab flame lashed the archway. Djserka shrieked in terror and lurched after Parric.
“They’re trying to kill us!” shouted the em Naga-ed-der as it loped after Parric.
“Yes. I’m noticing this,” Parric called back. He’d already reached the cross hall and hovered in the intersection, airborn. The doorway lay folded flat before him. “Which other waying can I get to Flavius?”
“There’s not a direct route, not on this level. We can go up one and then back down into the main hall. But why are they trying to kill us?”
“The stay of execution is rescinded,” Commander Balam shouted as the militiamen entered the far end of the hall, cuayabs glowing menacingly. “Set for narrow spread. We don’t want any blowback.”
“I’m thinking because I’m one of the dangerous ones.” Parric flicked his antennae, concentrating on his Crafting. The folded door wrenched itself from the floor. “You should be ducking now.”
Parric hurled the door down the hall. It met the streams of cuayab fire and shattered into a hundred burning missiles tearing into the militiamen.
Some alternate funding sources
In the spirit of giving to others, and being tight on funds to buy gifts for friends and family, a few topical nuggets on capitalism, crime, and revolution.
1. At the Literary Review, Simon Montefiore reviews Sean McMeekin's History's Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks:
It begins comically with the inept attempts of the new Bolshevik masters to force Russia's worldly and cosmopolitan bankers to hand over their banks along with the contents of their safes. McMeekin introduces characters like Max Laserson, a top banker and industrialist who threw in his lot with the Reds as a financial expert. But the real anti-hero of the book is a Swedish banker named Olaf Aschberg, who, though a successful banker and arms-dealer during the First World War, was also vaguely sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. This complex and highly intelligent man was to do more to fund the Bolshevik revolution than any other individual, and McMeekin's book does a great service in unveiling his interesting personality.
Next the Bolsheviks managed to seize the tsarist gold bullion - Europe's largest strategic gold reserve, worth $680 million. Meanwhile Lenin ordered the setting up of an organisation - the Gokhran, or State Treasury for the Storage of Valuables - to plunder and collect the private treasures and wealth of the rich nobility. (He himself borrowed the two Rolls-Royces and Delaunay-Belville limousine from the Tsar's garage, though amusingly the latter was actually stolen from him at gunpoint in 1918.) Part of the looting involved the murder of the entire Romanov imperial family: Yurovsky, the organiser of the killings, estimated that the jewellery secured by this slaughter was worth $300,000. The next stage was the nationalisation of all church property. Within weeks, the misguided writer Maxim Gorky, who was a member of the Gokhran, had helped fill countless warehouses with artwork, jewels, cutlery, silver, gold, furniture, books and other artefacts for sale abroad. The members of the committee posed with their swag in heaps - the warehouses sound like giant bandit's treasure troves. By December 1921, the swag was worth $450 million, or $45 billion in today's money.
Yet the Bolsheviks were desperate for guns and food to maintain their new state: all these treasures had to be sold abroad, but secretly, because the foreign capitalists of Britain, America and Western Europe were determined to crush the regime. The Leninist underground swung into action: Aschberg was the leading middleman, but an important figure on the Russian side was Leonid Krasin, a dapper People's Commissar who had managed Lenin and Stalin's campaign of heists and bombings between 1904 and 1907. He was one of those rare characters, a highly cultured and educated bourgeois who was as at home building a new bomb as he was negotiating with hauts banquiers in plush Western hotels. Krasin was assisted by one of the leading launderers of Stalin's bank robberies, Max Wallach, who would become famed as Soviet foreign commissar Litvinov. The foreign trade commissar Anastas Mikoyan was also a key figure. He became one of Stalin's senior magnates and survived at the top of the Soviet hierarchy; he both carried Lenin's coffin and attended JFK's funeral.
Soon Bolshevik operatives, some of them trusted veterans and others shadowy wheeler-dealers, brought back hundreds of millions in cash in suitcases. The climax of the book comes when the Bolsheviks and Ashberg set up a huge gold and treasure sale in Reval (Tallinn), a Baltic city that rapidly assumed 'a wild west atmosphere, becoming a kind of Bolshevik boomtown'. The Hotel Petersburg was the Bolshevik headquarters, where a crew of Leninist ruffians and smooth operatives, Western adventurers and conmen, and the representatives of respectable American, French and British investment banks, bought the treasures of Russia. De Beers purchased £1 million worth of diamonds for £365,000 under Litvinov's negotiations, but he did better later when he sold jewels worth $10 million to an English buyer. In less than two years, Lenin had raised, through gold sales, $353 million (£35 billion in today's money).
2. At Wikipedia, the real Ponzi, who, of interest to any writer who has ever submitted a story to an overseas market with SASE, invented an elaborate money-laundering scheme involving postal International Reply Coupons.
A few weeks [after his release from prison for alien smuggling] Ponzi received a letter in the mail from a company in Spain asking about the catalog. Inside the envelope was an international postal reply coupon (IRC), something which he had never seen before. He asked about it and found a weakness in the system which would, in theory, allow him to make money.
The purpose of the postal reply coupon was to allow someone in one country to send it to a correspondent in another country, who could use it to pay the postage of a reply. IRCs were priced at the cost of postage in the country of purchase, but could be exchanged for stamps to cover the cost of postage in the country where redeemed; if these values were different, there was a potential profit. Inflation after the First World War had much decreased the cost of postage in Italy expressed in U.S. dollars, so that an IRC could be bought cheaply in Italy and exchanged for U.S. stamps to a higher value. The process was: send money abroad; have IRCs purchased by agents; send the IRCs to the U.S.A.; redeem the IRCs for stamps to a higher value; sell the stamps. Ponzi claimed that the net profit on these transactions, after expenses and exchange rates, was in excess of 400%.
Ponzi canvassed friends and associates to back his scheme, offering a 50% return on investment in 45 days. The great returns available from postal reply coupons, he explained to them, made such incredible profits easy. He started his own company, the Securities Exchange Company, to promote the scheme.
Some people invested, and were paid off as promised. The word spread, and investment came in at an ever-increasing rate. Ponzi hired agents and paid them generous commissions for every dollar they brought in. By February 1920, Ponzi's total take was US$5,000, (approximately US$54,000 in 2008 dollars).
By March he had made $30,000 ($328,000 in 2008 terms). A frenzy was building, and Ponzi began to hire agents to take in money from all over New England and New Jersey. At that time investors were being paid impressive rates, encouraging yet others to invest.
By May 1920 he had made $420,000 ($4.59 Million in 2008 terms). He began depositing the money in the Hanover Trust Bank of Boston (a small Italian American bank on Hanover Street in the mostly Italian North End), in the hope that once his account was large enough he could impose his will on the bank or even be made its president; he did, in fact, buy a controlling interest in the bank. One biographer of Ponzi who wrote eighty years later described the cash price at which the bank's founding family sold their stake as suspiciously high. Having had a fiduciary duty to protect their depositors they were a lasting unindicted beneficiary without direct involvement.
By July 1920 he had made millions. People were mortgaging their homes and investing their life savings. Most did not take their profits, but reinvested.
Ponzi was bringing in cash at a fantastic rate, but the simplest financial analysis would have shown that the operation was running at a large loss. As long as money kept flowing in, existing investors could be paid with the new money, but colossal liabilities were accumulating.
Ponzi lived luxuriously: he bought a mansion in Lexington, Massachusetts with air conditioning and a heated swimming pool, and brought his mother from Italy in a first-class stateroom on an ocean liner. He was a hero among the Italian community, and was cheered wherever he went.
3. At the SEC, excerpts from the official complaint against Bernard Madoff:
16. Madoff ran his investment adviser business from a separate floor in the New York offices of BMIS.
17. Madoff kept the financial statements for the firm under lock and key, and was "cryptic" about the firm's investment advisory business when discussing the business with other employees of BMIS.
18. In or about the first week of December 2008, Madoff told a senior employee that there had been requests fiom clients for approximately $7 billion in redemptions, that he was struggling to obtain the liquidity necessary to meet those obligations, but that he thought that he would be able to do so. According to this senior employee, he had previously understood that the investment advisory business had assets under management on the order of between approximately $8-15 billion.
19. On or about December 9, 2008, Madoff informed another senior employee that he wanted to pay 2008 bonuses to employees of the firm in December, which was earlier than employee bonuses are usually paid.
20. Bonuses traditionally have been paid at BMIS in February of each year for the previous year's work.
21. On or about December 10, 2008, the two senior employees referenced above visited Madoff at the offices of BMIS to discuss the situation further, particularly because Madoff had appeared to these two senior employees to have been under great stress in the prior weeks.
22. At that time, Madoff informed the senior employees that he had recently made profits through business operations, and that now was a good time to distribute it. When the senior employee challenged his explanation, Madoff said that he did not want to talk to them at the office, and arranged a meeting at Madoff's apartment in Manhattan. At that meeting Madoff stated, in substance, that he "wasn't sure he would be able to hold it together" if they continued to discuss the issue at the office.
23. At Madoff's Manhattan apartment, Madoff informed the two senior employees, in substance, that his investment advisory business was a fraud. Madoff stated that he was "finished," that he had "absoIutely nothing," that "it's all just one big lie," and that it was "basically, a giant Ponzi scheme." In substance, Madoff communicated to the senior employees that he had for years been paying returns to certain investors out of the principal received from other, different, investors. Madoff stated that the business was insolvent, and that it had been for years. Madoff also stated that he estimated the losses from this fraud to be approximately $50 billion. One of the senior employees has a personal account at BMIS in which several million had been invested under the management of Madoff.
24. At Madoff's Manhattan apartment, Madoff further informed the two senior employees referenced above that, in approximately one week, he planned to surrender to authorities, but before he did that, he had approximately $200-300 million left, and he planned to use that money to make payments to certain selected employees, family, and fiiends.
As I take in all of these inputs, I can't help but imagine near-future science-fictional postulates. As the entire edifice of contemporary finance in the United States unravels, revealed as essentially one giant fictive Ponzi scheme, who is going to loot the ruins? Would the Sprawl from Wall Street to Foggy Bottom degenerate into one giant looting spree somewhere between Katrina and Mogadishu?
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Arts and Crafts
The new issue of Gavin Grant and Kelly Link's amazing zine that could, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, is out (number 23!). It includes a few weird illustrations by yours truly, a byproduct of my doodling in front of Gavin during the work sessions at Sycamore Hill this summer. It was a lot of fun to illustrate someone else's stories, as with the above holiday-suitable drawing of a just-arrived giant box containing mysterious goods, as depicted in LCRW 23's opening story, "The Love Sling" by Nick Wolven.
Gavin and Kelly's small press, Small Beer Press, also has a ton of beautiful books and chapbooks and trinkets for for those question marks on your shopping list, including an outstanding selection of short story collections from the likes of John Kessel, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Alan DeNiro, Maureen McHugh, and Kelly, wonderful anthologies like the Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss-edited Interfictions (whose next volume is forthcoming next year), and chapbooks from kudzu-smoking Southern fabulists like Richard Butner and Christopher Rowe.
And one of the not-so-small presses has just published Kelly's new YA collection, Pretty Monsters.
Here's another drawing, one that didn't make the cut:
Thursday, December 11, 2008
But you, good and loyal readers, do not need to suffer wholly from my prolonged absence: I share with you now my final project for my recently-completed photojournalism course. Lest you think I'm merely a pasty-faced geek who sits in front of a computer monitor all day and makes stories up without benefit of real life experience, I'll have you know that I chronicled the opening of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University this fall, and accompanied the graduate students on an expedition to a cold case crime scene in rural Falls County where they worked with the Texas Rangers and the Department of Public Safety to recover evidence related to an unsolved murder from the mid-80s. Hardly Hemmingway, I know, but us nerdy types have to take what we can get.
Jerry Melbye, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, oversees the ribbon-cutting at the new Forensic Research Facility September 26, 2008. The Forensic Research Facility--a 10-acre site located on the sprawling grounds of the 4,000-acre Freeman Ranch at the edge of the Texas Hill Country--is the largest such human research center in the world.
Reporter Andrew McIntosh does a stand-up intro to a news story from an open shallow grave at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University-San Marcos September 26, 2008.
Information gained from the study of decomposing pig carcasses at the Forensic Research Center at Texas State University-San Marcos will help law enforcement investigations better collect and evaluate information gathered at crime scenes. Photo taken September 26, 2008, San Marcos, Texas.
Texas State University forensic anthropology students excavate a cold case crime scene in Falls County.
A spade marks the location of a human pelvis, discovered by students in the Texas State University forensic anthropology program at a cold case crime scene in Falls County.
Outfitted in protective dry suits, members of the Texas State Department of Public Safety Dive Recovery Team churn through pond mud looking for human remains at a cold case crime scene in Fall County.
Kristina Gavit, a graduate student in Texas State University's forensic anthropology program, searches for evidence at a cold case crime scene in Fall County.
Daniel DiMichele, a graduate student in the Texas State University forensic anthropology progran, displays a human tooth recovered at a cold case crime scene in Fall County.
Members of the Texas State Department of Public Safety Dive Recovery Team, the Falls County Sheriff's Office and the Texas Rangers sift through earth in a bulldozer bucket searching for evidence at a cold case crime scene in Fall County.
Investigators at a cold case crime scene in Falls County use a sieve to sift through dirt and debris while searching for human remains.
Ingrid Marrero, a graduate student in the Texas State University forensic anthropology program (right), Texas Ranger Marquis Cantu (bottom) and Bradley Whitaker of the Falls County Sheriff's Office use a sieve to sift through dirt and debris while searching for human remains at a cold case crime scene in Falls County.
Texas State Uiversity forensic anthropology graduate students Christopher Hodges, Briana Curtin and Kristina Gavit examine a scrap of clothing uncovered by Connie Parks.
Students in the Texas State University forensic anthropology program discovered numerous human vertebrae (including the one pictured) as well as a pelvis, multiple ribs and other assorted bones and articles of clothing during a search of a cold case crime scene in Falls County, November 14, 2008.
Interesting stuffs, no? All told, I finished the project with more than 1,900 total images, not counting the dozens--if not hundreds--I deleted in the field because of abysmal quality. It was quite an experience, one which going in I did not expect to get near any real, CSI-type crime scene investigations. But now that I have, I can assure you that it's not all drama and glamour television would have you believe. Although upwards of 90 percent of the graduate students are women. Attractive women, at that. Looks like Hollywood is getting one element of the discipline right...
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Tonight fluffy flakes are swirling down out of the early night sky. I'm at Fondren library where I work near the back door, and there are new happy shrieks and laughter each time someone leaves the building and discovers the snow out there.
Snowsnowsnowsnowsnow! Students have been coming in out of the snow to check out study rooms with snowflakes still stuck to their coats and hats.
Truly, a small to moderate amount of snow is delightful precipitation. Much more congenial than floods, tornadoes, and ice storms, all of which we get more frequently than snow; far better than hurricanes like the one that rolled over Houston and Galveston three months ago. Best of all: snow this particular Christmas holiday season.
An interview with Joe Haldeman
Haven't heard of Brutarian before? Well, you haven't been paying attention. They've become one of my most dependable markets, with the Dom, the publisher, buying pretty much every interview I offer him. Which is groovy, since Brutarian is a unique publication. And I don't use that term lightly. Take a gander at the cover to the current issue, no. 52 to be specific:
I want to know how Dom discovered my admiration for bodypainting? Combine it with a kind of hipster, late-60s, Charlton "Planet of the Apes" Heston aesthetic, and I figure most folks will end up buying the magazine for the cover art alone. But if you're not convinced, here's a small taste of the conversation I had with Mr. Haldeman, just to whet your appetite.
I’d like to talk just a little about another award you’ve recently been associated with: Your participation in the Oscar-nominated Operation Homecoming documentary. How did that come about?
It came about because the guy who’s in charge of the National Endowment for the Arts is a fan of my work, and he had to come up with a list of modern novelists who had written about war. He said I was one of the first he’d called.
It’s not something you do for money--it was an awful lot of work, actually. I feel for soldiers, I really think they’re getting a raw deal now, and anything I can do that makes their position more clear to the public is worth doing.
Do you ever get frustrated or exhausted by your constant association with the Vietnam War?
Well no, not really. I mean, I’m used to it. Often I’ll just try to deflect it. Of course, most of the things I’ve written don’t have anything to do with war. Of the things I’ve written about war, about half of them don’t have to do directly with Vietnam.
Do you ever feel restrained or unfairly pigeonholed because of being so defined as a writer by The Forever War?
Well, there’s no way I can get out of it now. I think a lot of people are defined by their early work. Every now and then I’ll get fan mail that says “Why don’t you write the Forever War again?” Gee, you know, I wish I was 26 again, too [Laughing]
There's a lot more good stuff where that came from. Plus (and you can think of this as a bonus) I've got a handful of book reviews in this issue as well: Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard by one Mark Finn, Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock and Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer. If that doesn't move you to show Dom some love, you truly are a soulless automaton, and all hope is lost.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Freeman Dyson's Pit Bulls
Every couple of months, it seems, the NY Times likes to run a front page profile of extreme Texas redneck culture (see "Attack of the Feral Hogs" from this past summer). Whether the latte drinkers of the Upper West Side will continue to require such diversions after there is no longer a linguistically challenged Midlander at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue remains to be seen. In the meantime, it's local English teachers in the refinery towns outside Houston running clandestine dogfighting rings. About all you need to turn this into a perfect recreation of Nacogdochian Joe Lansdale's "The Pit" is to throw the owners in the ring with their dogs. Which is probably what these guys deserve.
Dogfighting Subculture, Illegal and Secretive, Is Taking Hold in Texas
December 6, 2008
...Over 17 months, the agents from the Texas state police penetrated a murky and dangerous subculture in East Texas, a world where petty criminals, drug dealers and a few people with ordinary jobs shared a passion for watching pit bulls tear each other apart in a 12-foot-square pit.
Investigators found that dogfighting was on the rise in Texas and was much more widespread than they had expected. The ring broken up here had links to dogfighting organizations in other states and in Mexico, suggesting an extensive underground network of people devoted to the activity, investigators said.
...In the Texas case, law enforcement officials described a secretive society of men who set up prize fights between their pit bulls and bet large sums on the outcome. Many of those indicted had long criminal records, but they also include a high school English teacher, a land purchaser for an oil company and a manager at a Jack in the Box restaurant.
The participants generally arranged the fight over the phone, matching dogs by weight and sex, and agreeing to a training period of six or eight weeks.
The training techniques were brutal. One man who was indicted trained a dog by forcing it to run for up to an hour at a time through a cemetery with a chain around its neck that weighed as much as it did. Then he forced dogs to swim for long periods before running on a treadmill. Every day the dogs would be given dog protein powders, vitamins and high-grade food to build muscle.
Then, as the fight date approached, the trainers would starve the dog, give it very little water and pump it full of an anti-inflammatory drug.
The fights were held in out-of-the-way places — an abandoned motel in the refinery town of Texas City, a horse corral in a slum on the Houston outskirts, behind a barn on a farm near Jasper and at a farmhouse in Matagorda County, south of Houston.
The two undercover agents, Sergeant Manning and his partner, S. A. Davis, posed as members of a motorcycle gang who stole automated teller machines for a living. They infiltrated the ring, allied themselves with a group of people who owned fighting dogs and rented a warehouse in Houston, where fights were eventually held.
People came to the contests from as far away as Tennessee, Michigan and the Czech Republic. Every weekend, fights were held throughout the area for purses that usually ran about $10,000. The agents documented at least 50 fights.
“The undercover cops were sometimes invited to three different dogfights in a night,” said Belinda Smith, the Harris County assistant district attorney prosecuting the cases, along with Stephen St. Martin.
The ring members called the fights “dog shows.” The two dogs would be suspended from a scale with a thin cord tied around their neck and torso. If one of the dogs did not make weight, the owner would forfeit his half of the prize money, or the odds would be adjusted. After the weigh-in, the owners washed each others’ dogs in water, baking soda, warm milk and vinegar to make sure their coats were not poisoned.
Then dogs were forced to face off in a portable plywood box two feet tall, usually with a beige carpet on the floor, to show the blood, officials said. At the command of “face your dogs,” the animals were turned toward each other. When the handlers released them, the dogs would collide with a thud in the center of the ring, tearing at each other’s mouths, jaws, necks, withers and genitals, officials said. A referee usually would let the dogs fight until one backed off, then the handlers would take them back to their corners and wash them for 30 seconds.
During the fight, the exhausted animals would sometimes overheat, lock onto each other and lie in the ring. The handlers would blow on them to cool them off and force them to fight.
The fight usually ended when a dog refused to cross a line in the center of the ring to confront the opponent, known as “standing the line.” Such dogs were usually drowned or bludgeoned to death the next day, officials said.
“These guys take it very personally,” Sergeant Manning said. “It’s a reflection on them.”
Most of the dogs seized were kept outside in muddy yards, chained to axles sunk in the ground, with only six feet of tether and no shelter, beyond, in some cases, a toppled plastic 40-gallon barrel. All suffered from multiple parasites, veterinarians said.
“These dogs were kept in more than cruel conditions — they were subjected to torturous conditions,” said Dr. Timothy Harkness, of the Houston Humane Society. “Death was more pleasant than what they had to exist for.”
Many of the surviving animals had battle wounds on their necks and mouths, Dr. Harkness said. Although some were not aggressive toward people, they were all bred to attack other dogs, and officials made the decision to euthanize them last week.
Dr. Dawn Blackmar, director of veterinary public health for Harris County, said that putting down more than 80 dogs in her care was heart-wrenching. “It was absolutely awful,” Dr. Blackmar said. “It’s not the dogs’ fault. It’s that people have taken and exploited this breed.”
The members of the dogfighting ring were careful about who attended a fight, often limiting each side to 10 guests and quizzing people about who they were, who they knew.
The principals would keep the location of the fight secret until the last minute and then go in a caravan of cars to the rendezvous point, making it difficult to collect evidence, law enforcement officials said. They were also secretive about where they kept their dogs, for fear of robbery.
“People would go to the fights and talk about their yards,” said Ms. Smith, the assistant district attorney. “But they were very secretive about where their yards are.”
Ms. Smith said dozens of people who attended fights had yet to be identified, despite photos, because they piled into cars that did not belong to them to go to the events and never used their real names.
“There are a lot of people doing this,” she said. “We could have gone on and on and on with this investigation.”
I had the opportunity earlier this year to get a brief tutorial on East Texas dog show culture from a fishing guide in Matagorda Bay, an ex Halliburton/KBR contractor whose high school job was clearing wild hogs off people's ranches. He told about the dogs one of his local buddies raised for boar hunts, though now reading about the dogfighters I have to wonder.
The way my guide told it, pit bulls are really too small to be ideal boar hunting dogs, and the bigger breeds like Rottweilers are too heavy — they get worn out running through the woods chasing the hogs for hours. So people like to breed their own custom mixes, to produce dogs that are really big and really athletic and really tough. In addition to pit bull, frequent ingredients to the mix include Presa Canario (the fighting dog of the Canary Islands), Rhodesian Ridgeback, Arkansas Giant Bulldog (a cross between the English Bulldog and the American Staffordshire Terrier, aka pit bull), Mastiff, Rottweiler, and the like. Basically, imagine a pit bull the size of a Great Dane. The product were dogs like:
"Big Jake," a 250 lb beast who once showed up in a bar after chewing through the airplane cable his owner had used to tie him in the bed of his pickup.
"Little Jake," around 225 lbs, who was un-killable, sustained through several mortal accidents and shootings by his own randy desire to sire pups.
"Watermelon Head," under 200 lbs, who liked to puncture the tires on the UPS truck. Yes, with his teeth.
All of this makes me think about Freeman Dyson's amazing essay, "Our Biotech Future," published in the New York Review of Books in July 2007. Dyson postulates that the coming democratic distribution of the tools of genetic manipulation will bring about a revolutionary obliteration of the interspecies barrier that maintains the family tree structure of life on Earth:
I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest indoor flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.
Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.
Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.
Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.
If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.
Prof. Dyson probably wasn't thinking about the crazy-ass redneck variations. Take the kind of dudes who grow themselves pit bulls that could eat a Volkswagen, the kind of dudes who like to hang out at exotic pet stores where you can buy scary venomous reptiles and arachnids, and the kind of Home Depot genomitech described above, and let your imagination run with it. So now my son talks not about what other breeds of dog he'd like to mix his Jack Russell Terrier with, but what other species.
If Dyson is right about the distribution of the tech (which seems on the money to me), good luck trying to regulate popular uses of it.