Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Spirit of the Palestinians

The "Spirit of Humanity"... what a lovely name for a ship. Coincidentally, I had been contemplating on the meaning of the word "spirit" in a recent post. It is by definition a nebulous concept. When we speak of a spirit we speak of something unseen yet whose presence is somehow felt or sensed. In Christianity there is the mystery of the Holy Sprit,  which is embedded in the even greater mystery of the Trinity. And one cannot help but to associate spirit with ghosts and all the supernatural world that evokes. And then there is the word spiritual, which hints at something which is the essence of religion and our belief in something which is beyond our human comprehension.

Today I am reflecting on the fate of the passengers and crew of the Free Gaza ship, the Spirit of Humanity, which sought to bring needed supplies to the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip which has been under a siege by Israel. And this led me to think about the spirit of the Palestinians which inspired the voyage of the Spirit of Humanity. It is the Palestinians who have battled implacably against the Israeli occupation of their land. It is they who have maintained their dignity throughout this 60 year old saga. It is they who with their indefatigable will have been able to resist for decades against a seemingly insurmountable enemy.

In order to survive they have dug tunnels and built homes with mud bricks. But it is the quiet inner toughness which impresses me the most. The simple act of a Palestinian mother raising her child under the harshest of conditions. Or a Palestinian father's ability to continue to challenge the occupying powers with his head held high, while always knowing that his very life is at the mercy of the occupiers.

The other day I watched Bill Moyers as he interviewed his guest W. S. Merwin, a poet. And during that interview they had this exchange.
BILL MOYERS: I had a portent of our meeting the other day. We took our two small grandchildren to the Central Park Zoo. And entering the preserve they have there of the Rain Forest every visitor looks up and sees a quote from W.S. Merwin. Did you know that?


BILL MOYERS: Yeah. It says, "On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree." Why would you want to plant a tree?

W.S. MERWIN: It's a relation to the world. It's nothing to do with thinking that the world is going to be there forever. But that's a relation with the world that I want is to be putting life back into the world, rather than taking life out of it all the time. We do a lot of that, you know? I've lived on Maui for 35 years. And I feel very, very lucky.
For the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, every day is like "the last day of the world". And yet they choose life. Isn't that amazing and wonderful, and a great example for all of us.

On board the Spirit of Humanity was an olive tree. The day that I finally realized the horrible injustice of the Israeli occupation was when I read in a news article that Israelis had destroyed the olive trees of some Palestinians. How can anyone destroy an innocent olive tree?  Somehow this impacted me more than if I had read about the Israelis killing the same Palestinians. A human being, any human being, can be guilty of something. But what can an olive tree be guilty of?

An olive tree can live for thousands of years and continue to bear fruit. Imagine generations upon generations tending and benefitting from the fruit of the same tree. An olive tree asks for little from the land - little water and little nutrition. And yet it returns the gift of the olive fruit and the oil that is extracted from it. The color and shape and appearance of the olive tree exudes humility. There is even a word for this - drab. It harms no one. Even in death its wood has an exquisite beauty. How could anyone think to harm such a humble creation of God? Surely this would be prohibited by any religion and subject the perpetrator of such a crime to a curse. Why is it that the ancient Greeks considered olive oil to be sacred and burned it in lamps in their temples, and that an olive branch is a symbol of peace?

If indeed there are spirits in nature, then surely the spirit of the land and the trees is calling out  to us in the Holy Land. Look at the Palestinians. Look at their towns. These are the people of the Bible. They live in harmony with the land.

And so I ask you to do anything you can to help the Palestinian people. And remember that fundamentally this is a war of ideas and ideologies. So talk to a friend. Write an article. Send a tweet. Participate in online discussions. Don't underestimate the importance of these seemingly insignificant acts. It is through these small actions that we slowly and gradually build up the zeitgeist that will eventually lead to practical and political actions. The spirit of humanity must be nourished if it is to bear fruit. Otherwise it will shrivel up and lay dormant, as it sometimes seems to be in today's world.

That is why I support the action of the Free Gaza movement. Theirs is an act of civil disobedience in the spirit of the non-violent struggles of the civil rights movement. And indeed in the spirit of the American philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau published "Civil Disobedience" in 1849 in which he discusses the subjects of slavery and the US invasion of Mexico in the 1840's. The relevance of his thoughts to the current situation in Palestine, Israel and the US is I think self-evident. So I leave you with these excerpts to ponder.

... when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country [Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign [U.S.] army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.

I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless. We are accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because the few are not materially wiser or better than the many. It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump. There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both.  

Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. Oh for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through! 

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?

If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn

As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. 

For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission.

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her — the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.

If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, "But what shall I do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to do anything, resign your office." When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man's real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.

But the rich man — not to make any invidious comparison — is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet. The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the "means" are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor. 

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it

When I meet a government which says to me, "Your money or your life," why should I be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society.

I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for conformity.

Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?

The lawyer's truth is not truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency.

They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head.

We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacturers and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation?

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to — for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well — is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

Monday, June 29, 2009

URGENT ALERT - Israeli Navy surrounding Free Gaza ship and threatening to open fire

Here is the latest news from the "Spirit of Humanity".
At 1:40 am, the Israeli Navy surrounded the SPIRIT while in international waters off the coast of Israel as it is on its way to the Gaza Strip. We got a call from the boat saying that they were being threatened, told to turn back or they would be fired on.

Huwaida Arraf, one of the delegation leaders, was on the phone with the Israeli gunboats, and we could hear her saying, "You Cannot Open Fire on Unarmed Civilians" several times. At this writing, they are surrounded by several ships shining bright lights into the SPIRIT.
Cynthia McKinney who is aboard Spirit had this to say.
"I am extremely angry. We demand that the Israeli government call off their attack dogs. We are unarmed civilians aboard an unarmed boat delivering medical and reconstruction aid to other human beings in Gaza. Why in God's name would Israel want to attack us and threaten our safety and welfare. I call on President Obama and the international community to intervene now to prevent this situation from escalating with potentially drastic results to the civilians on board." 
The latest updated news is available at

They also have a twitter account which they have been updating regularly.

In addition their is a webpage where you can see an updated position of the "Spirit of Humanity" on a map.

Here is a video of the "Spirit of Humanity" preparing to depart for Gaza.


Free Gaza ship "Spirit of Humanity" is on its way

Exciting news! The "Spirit of Humanity" is on its way to Gaza! Originally the trip was planned with two boats, but due to pressure from Israel only one boat was allowed to depart Cyprus. And that means that they won't be carrying the 15 tons of cement that they had originally planned to deliver to Gaza. But still this is great news. You have to hand it to Free Gaza for their persistence, especially considering that their last mission was rammed by the Israeli Navy and damaged to the point where it could not continue. Fortunately no one was hurt and the boat was able to limp into port.

Which reminds me that Cynthia McKinney is on board. She has to be the bravest American woman living today. I guess she just views this as an extension of the Civil Rights movement, and you know those people risked their lives in the 60's to protest against segregation. She has contacted the US government in an attempt to get free passage for their voyage to Gaza. So far she has not received any official reply. However she points out that this is a test for the Obama administration because they are bringing medical and other supplies which Obama has said Israel should allow to freely enter into Gaza.
Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney:
"The U.S. should send a message to Israel reiterating the reported White House position that the blockade of Gaza should be eased, and that medical supplies and building materials, including cement, should be allowed in ... Will [President Obama] stand by his own words and allow us to provide relief for Gaza or will he back down?
You can keep track of the progress of the "Spirit of Humanity" on the Free Gaza website.

They also have a twitter account which they have been updating regularly.

In addition their is a webpage where you can see an updated position of the "Spirit of Humanity" on a map.

Let's all wish the "Spirit of Humanity" the best of luck. The courage of her crew and passengers is indisputable. They certainly deserve our support and prayers. I don't know when they are due to arrive in Gaza, but I would imagine it would be in the next 24 hours. It's important to note that the Free Gaza movement has had success in the past. It's really up to the world governments to stand up to Israel and not allow them to collectively punish the Palestinians living in Gaza with this medieval siege.

Free Gaza now!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Brother Michael Jackson 1958-2009

Television viewers in the days since Jackson's death have probably glimpsed the old video clip: the Jackson 5 auditioning for Motown Records in Detroit, a July 1968 showcase that led to the Indiana group's signing.
The tape is brief and grainy, but young Jackson's charisma practically pops through the screen as the 9-year-old twirls and glides through his best James Brown impersonation.
In the above excerpt from an article titled "Michael Jackson, brothers stunned Motown execs" I heard for the first time about the existence of this historical footage and here it is.

Wow! Just wow! There he is at age 9 in his full glory. Michael. Brother Michael. There are the mesmerizing spin moves that seem to defy laws of physics. And in some of his moves he seems to foreshadow the moonwalk that we all so strongly associate with him - the King of Pop.

I couldn't help but look up a video of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, doing his original version of "I got the feeling" to get some idea of where Michael was getting his inspiration from. Enjoy.

And then many years later we see Michael at his prime performing "Billie Jean" at the Motown 25 tribute. Absolute perfection.

Does it get any better than that? There is the signature moonwalk. And yet the spin moves are the same ones that the young 9 year old Michael had already mastered. And somehow it never gets old. You still can't quite believe what your seeing. The magician has perfected his act. Michael was magic. Pure magic. You almost expected him to suddenly disappear from the stage in a puff of smoke. And so he did.

Goodbye Michael - our real life Peter Pan. See you again in Never Never Land, where children never grow up.

Ben [Michael], most people would turn you away
I don't listen to a word they say
They don't see you as I do
I wish they would try to
I'm sure they'd think again
If they had a friend like Ben [Michael]

Goodbye dear friend. You will always be remembered.



I just found this video of Michael Jackson with James Brown that I think people will appreciate. I think it nicely closes the circle of these videos. It's a tribute to James at the time of his death in 2006. In it an emotional Michael Jackson says, "nobody has influenced me more than this man right here" while pointing at James Brown and then breaking into tears. To which James responds by embracing Michael. In the next clip we see James complimenting Michael on his career and ending with, "God bless the child that's got his own". A fitting tribute which reminds us of Billie Holiday. (Coincidentally Billie passed away in 1959, just a year after Michael was born.)

Watching this video reminds us of the struggles through the years of Black performers in America to be fully accepted and respected. Michael grew up during the turbulent civil rights movement in the 1960's. I'm sure he never took his success for granted. His success in turn opened new doors for the Black performers that came after him. He redefined music so that old labels like R&B (rhythm and blues) no longer seemed to apply. He briefly transcended his times, before he was dragged back down. Like all the saints, he had his imperfections - some major. But he brought joy into the world. And the world loved him in return.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Did a solar flare knock Air France 447 out of the sky?

I happened to be watching the National Geographic Channel's "Naked Science" show today. There was a re-run of an episode titled "Earth's Invisible Shield" which I had recorded earlier and was just getting around to seeing. Air France flight 447 was the last thing on my mind. In fact I haven't been following the story in the news at all. Of course it is tragic. But after you've read the headline, what more do you expect to get out of the story? There has been a lot of speculation about the cause of the accident which I won't go into here. I figured that eventually they would find the black box and collect the evidence and come up with a reasonable explanation. Some people have a morbid curiosity to get all the details, but not me.

That was before I watched this Nat-Geo program which was talking about a hole in the magnetosphere over the South Atlantic called the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA). And bingo I thought "hey, that's where the Air France flight went down". There is even a quote in the show about how this could affect aircraft flying over this region.
Prof. Peter Olson of Johns Hopkins University: "If you happen to take a long commercial jet flight, you would be flying through regions where the magnetic field is weak. And possibly at that altitude increased radiation would impact the airplane."
And folks, the SAA is real. This isn't some disaster theory cooked up by a bunch of doomsday-ers. In fact, when the Hubble Telescope flies over this region NASA has to shut it down to protect its electronics.

Here is a description of the South Atlantic Anomaly from a NASA webpage.
The South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA, the large red area in the image) is a dip in the Earth's magnetic field which allows cosmic rays, and charged particles to reach lower into the atmosphere. This interferes with communication with satellites, aircraft, and the Space Shuttle. While there are theories as to why this occurs, the geologic origin is not yet known. 
So I went to the web and did a Google search figuring that I wasn't the first person that this had occurred to. And I did find an article or two (here, here) making a connection and doing some speculation on the idea, but no one seemed to be getting into the details and trying to prove or disprove the idea. So I kept digging. And what I found is  thought-provoking enough that I decided to publish my results.

First I needed the exact time and location of the accident to see if it was in the area of the South Atlantic Anomaly, and to see if there was any associated solar activity around the time of the crash. And on both accounts it was ding, ding - bingo, bingo.

Take a look at this timeline from BBC of the flight of Air France 447.

Clearly we are in the right area of the South Atlantic. At 0214 GMT on June 1st there is an automated message indicating an electrical fault on the plane. Could this have been caused by a solar flare? Were there any solar flares occurring around this time?

Some people have dismissed this idea offhand because we are in a period of minimal solar activity. You see the sun goes through 11 year cycles of activity and currently we are at the low point in the cycle. But eventually I found an online story that pointed me to Sunspot 1019. Here's a photo of some solar activity associated with this sunspot.

In case you can't read the fine print, this event occurred on May 31, 2009. The same day Air France 447 took off from Brazil. Here are the comments from Pete Lawrence who posted this picture.
"Wow - what a sight greeted me this morning as I set up my h-alpha scope. A huge plume of plasma ending in what looked like an explosive ball. If you've got a solar telescope, take a look, it's changing but still visible."
Notice "Earth to scale" relative to this "huge plume". Now it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours for the effect of a solar event to effect earth after it has been observed from earth. Remember that light takes about 8 minutes to reach the earth from the sun, so we wouldn't even be able to observe the event until that much time had passed. But the particles associated with the solar flare would presumably travel at a speed less than the speed of light, so they would not impact the Earth until sometime after that.

Here's a view of the sun on the fateful day of May 31 as seen by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a satellite orbiting the sun. (Don't ask me why it's in blue.) Notice the active area in the upper left - that's sunspot 1019.

Fortunately for us earthlings, we are protected from high energy particles emitted by the  sun by Earth's magnetic field. This acts like a shield which deflects these charged particles. If the activity is intense, then some of the particles still get through and most are attracted to the Earth's poles by the Earth's magnetic field. This results in a familiar phenomena known as Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights. (I was fortunate enough to witness an Aurora Borealis once when I was traveling on a plane.)

Here's a video from NASA that shows exactly how this works.

Notice at the end of the video that the large solar flare does not enter the earth's atmosphere directly, but rather is deflected around the Earth and then appears to overwhelm our protective shield. This results in the field collapsing in a sort of short circuit and the particles are then steered to the north and south poles.

Now quite honestly the information on the web is a bit confusing about the effects of a solar flare. Apparently there is a huge burst of radiation accompanied by a stream of high energy particles. The radiation would presumably travel at the speed of light and this includes x-rays, ultraviolet rays and other high energy radiation, while the particles would take longer to arrive. The picture is further confused by the use of the term "cosmic ray". Cosmic rays consist mostly of protons, so this is not really a form of radiation and would not travel at the speed of light. It seems to me that only the particles would be deflected by the earth's magnetosphere, while the radiation would be partially absorbed by the atmosphere. But an jet passenger plane flies pretty high up, in the case of Air France 447 it was at an altitude of about 35,000 ft. at the time of the accident. And that means there is less atmosphere and magnetosphere to shield the plane and its occupants - especially if the plane is an area where there is a hole in the magnetosphere.

Both the high energy radiation and high energy particles would be capable of damaging an airplanes electronics. Even a relatively low level burst could interfere with radio communications and navigation systems which could set off a chain reaction of failures. But I'm assuming that modern aircraft are built to be extremely robust. In most cases there would be a backup system to take over in the case of a failure of a main control system. Of course human technology is not perfect, and just because there is a backup system in place does not mean that a smooth transition from a damaged main system to a backup system is always going to occur.

And then there is the possibility that both the main system and the backup system could fail at the same time. There is nothing a aircraft system designer can do to avoid a catastrophe under these circumstances. Yet if a truly energetic burst of radiation or particles were to hit a aircraft, then it is not out of the realm of possibility that multiple systems would fail simultaneously. In this case the pilot could try to take over manual control of the aircraft, but today's modern design incorporate what is called "fly-by-wire". This means there is no direct mechanical connection between the pilot's control of the airplane and the rudders and other moving parts that control the airplane. In effect when the pilot adjusts the steering wheel of the plane, it is like sending an email across the internet. When the rudder receives the system, another embedded computer has to decode it and then execute the pilot's command. Even if the pilot switches to "manual" control, the signals must still traverse the network and be interpreted by the receiving computer. If the network were to fail or the receiving computer were to fail, then the pilot would lose control of the aircraft. Again, there would be  backup systems for both the communications network and the control computer in the airplanes wings, but if there were multiple simultaneous failures then all bets are off.

Now some of you may be saying "poppycock" at this time, but have you ever heard of a "neutron bomb"? A neutron bomb, also known as an enhanced radiation weapon (ERW), works in exactly this way. It emits a blast of radiation which can knock out nearby electronics. OK, it emits high energy neutrons rather than the high energy protons emitted by a solar flare, but the effect is the same. And because today's high speed electronics rely on smaller and smaller components, they are actually more susceptible to damage from radiation than electronics of the past.

So what was the sequence of events leading to the crash? Here is the sequence of events as reported by the Times Online in a ominously titled article, "Air France 447: The computer crash".
Did the computers wrongly order more, or less, thrust?

What is clear is that the autopilot of AF447 disengaged and massive system failures rapidly followed. One minute later an Acars message reported “multiple faults regarding Adiru”.

Two minutes later flight control primary computer one failed, then flight control secondary computer one. Both those systems, however, have back-ups. Something far more drastic was also happening and the plane was out of control.

Four minutes after the autopilot disengaged, the cabin suddenly depressurised, perhaps with explosive force.
"Massive system failures... multiple faults" - something had severely damaged multiple onboard computers simultaneously. And what about the back-ups? What makes the author assume that under these conditions that the back-ups would be any less susceptible to damage? The article suggests that there may have been a bug in the airplanes system software. You can be sure that there are hundreds of programmers poring over that code now searching for any potential bugs that could have caused this catastrophe. But no amount of redundancy in hardware or software is going to be able to recover when multiple computer systems fail all at once.

By this time you either think this is a plausible cause for the crash, or you have totally dismissed the idea. Well that's you, but the people who are officially investigating this accident should definitely consider this possibility because if it turns out this is the cause then there will be many more aircraft falling mysteriously from the sky over the next few years.

Why? Because not only is the South Atlantic Anomaly getting bigger, but there is also evidence that the Earth's magnetosphere is reducing in strength at an alarming rate. On top of that we are entering into a cycle of high solar activity, which means more solar storms and the resulting bombardment of Earth by high energy radiation and particles.

One obvious effect would be the disruption of global wireless communications and GPS navigation systems. But some scientists have warned that this could even affect the power grid with truly disastrous results. It wouldn't be the first time. Back in 1989 Quebec suffered a total blackout because of transformers that were damaged by the effects of a solar storm. In 1859 a much larger solar storm called the Carrington Event reaked havoc on existing telegraph communications. A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report warns that if such an event occured today, the results would be devastating. The damage to power systems could take months to repair, resulting in huge losses of human life and dealing a multi-trillion dollar blow to the economy. Here's a sample quote from the NAS report titled, "Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts".
Historically large [solar-geomagnetic] storms have a potential to cause power grid blackouts and transformer damage of unprecedented proportions, long-term blackouts, and lengthy restoration times, and chronic shortages for multiple years are possible. As Kappenman summed up, “An event that could incapacitate the network for a long time could be one of the largest natural disasters that we could face.” 

Does this mean that I believe the world will end in 2012 from the effects of a catastrophic solar storm? Uh no. My crystal ball says the much more likely candidate is a Near Earth Object" (NEO) such as a comet or asteroid. In fact scientists already have their eyes on one asteroid, Apophis, which is due to have a close encounter with Earth in 2029. In the meantime, be good and don't miss the movie "2012" coming out in November.

And if all of this still seems extremely far fetched then just remember recent events that nobody would have predicted like the 2004 tsunami that killed over 225,000 people or Hurricane Katrina which virtually wiped out New Orleans. Who would have thought those things were possible?

But for those who are eager to see the end of the world, you may be pleased to hear that some scientists interpret the South Atlantic Anomaly as the beginning of a shift in polarity in the earth's magnetic poles. While the polarities are swapping we would expect the magnetosphere to diminish substantially, leaving the whole Earth open to pummeling from cosmic radiation. On average the poles have switched every half million years, and the bad news is that we are about due for the next magnetic flip-flop.

And it's not just our electronics which would be affected. The high energy radiation from space can cause cancer and damage DNA, so I recommend finding a nice cave to call home - and you were worried about global warming.

The next time your having a beer with the guys try throwing this at them to see their reactions. "Did you know that the magnetosphere protects the earths atmosphere from solar radiation which would otherwise strip Earth of its atmosphere like what happened to Mars after it cooled down and lost its magnetic field?" Yeah, that's a great conversation starter.

Cool Summer

All this talk about sunspots got me thinking about this years cool summer. Could this be related to sunspots as well? Specifically, the lack of sunspots. You see as I was investigating sunspot activity for this article what I found out is that other than that one outburst around June 1, the sun has been unusually quiet lately. So I did another web search - this time for sunspots and cool summer. Well, I seem to be in an even more lonely position with regards to this idea than the Air France 447 idea.

But whenever the mainstream media finds it necessary to poo-poo an idea, then you know that you must be on to something.

And then I happened by chance upon the Dalton Minimum. From 1790 to 1830 there was a period of unusually low sunspot activity. Coincidentally global temperatures fell during this same period. So as much as we humans would like to take all the credit for climate change, there are still some factors that are well beyond our control. Perhaps Mother Nature is trying to teach us a lesson in humility.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Spirit of Pixar’s UP

With love's light wings did I o'er-perch these walls;
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do that dares love attempt;
- Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

This is very hard for me. I am writing a review of UP, the new PIxar movie. It’s hard because I simultaneously loved and was disappointed by this movie. The other thing that makes it hard is that UP has some very strong personal connections for me.

[I suggest watching the movie before reading this review. Not because I give away the story line (I don’t get much into the details of the story), but because my discussion of the symbolism won’t make much sense without the context of the movie. And even though I dwell on the more somber aspects of the movie, I want to let you know that this is the funniest movie I have seen in a long time.]

UP and me

From the very opening scenes of UP I felt a very strong connection. It opens with an old newsreel of explorer Charles Muntz traveling to Paradise Falls where he discovers the skeleton of a dinosaur like creature. Of course there is no Charles Muntz in real life, but Paradise Falls can be none other than the real life Angel Falls. And that is my first connection. You see, as I whispered to everyone seated around me, “I’ve been there”. I’ve been to the real life Angel Falls. And just as it symbolized paradise to the main characters in UP, it also symbolized paradise for me.

The next connection for me came as our young protagonists Carl and Ellie grow older - and finally Ellie dies. And Carl is left alone. For me the similarity is in my divorce and my growing older. I’ve felt Carl’s loneliness and is desire to shut himself away from the world.

Then the young Wilderness Scout, Russell, appears one day at Carls doorstep. And immediately I made another connection, because this young child (played by Jordan Nagai) has an uncanny resemblance to a nephew of mine. They are both asian and they both have this infectious enthusiasm and boundless youthful energy. But the most striking similarity of all is the voice. The slight asian accent and the rise and fall of the pitch of their voices is identical. The similarity is so strong that the whole time through the movie I couldn’t get over the feeling that this was the voice of my nephew speaking through this animated character.

Despite all of that, I did not leave the theatre with the feeling that I really loved this film. In fact I felt slightly disappointed. And it took me a while to figure out exactly why. The obvious reason is that I was comparing it with WALL-E and for me it had not measured up - mostly because I felt it lacked depth of meaning. But after a day of pondering on the film and reading many online reviews, I have begun to change my opinion.

Dazzle me please

One complaint I had was that the animation did not compare with what I had seen in previous Pixar films. And I was not blown away by the 3D effect as I had expected to be. In fact the animation seemed flatter and less 3-dimensional than in previous Pixar films. I was disappointed that Pixar had not chosen to push the limits of computer animation as they had in their previous films. In fact that is what made the Pixar studios famous. Their first film, Toy Story, was the first full length animation film produced solely on computer. And with each film they have pushed the technology. But in UP there is almost like a step backward technologically if you ignore the 3D effect.

And 3D comes with a price, because it substantially reduces the brightness of the image. For me this negated the positive effect of 3D. It almost makes me think that the film would have been more visually stunning and beautiful in 2D. After reading many comments from the creators of the film it becomes clear that they made use of color to help tell the story, and unfortunately the color is muted by the 3D glasses. And after a while the 3D effect wears off psychologically speaking, while color I think has a more lasting psychological impact. That’s interesting, because one of the main reasons I was so excited about seeing this film is the 3D technology.

I wish Disney and Pixar would release their films in IMAX format. The most impressive animated film I ever saw from a purely visual experience was Happy Feet because I saw it on a IMAX screen. The amount of visual detail and color jumping off the screen was just astounding. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that Pixar has any immediate plans of doing an IMAX film, but Disney does seem to have struck some sort of deal with them so who knows what the future will bring.

Slow down

So that brings us to what was missing in the story that caused me to feel that it lacked depth. Of course comparing any movie - animated or not - with WALL-E is going to be tough, because to me WALL-E is one of the best films ever. And after pondering on the subject for a long while, I think I finally figured out why UP doesn’t quite have the same impact that WALL-E had. For me the difference is that WALL-E had a slower, more majestic pace. There were many golden moments when the viewer was allowed to just drink in the awesome magnificence of the world which WALL-E inhabited. Even when some of those scenes were of piles of trash, still the trash was of such a monumental scale that it had a magnificence all its own.

And with these slow lingering shots, the viewer was able to catch up with his thoughts and reflect on the meaning of the events he was witnessing. For me this conscious thought stream is critical for being able to make a strong and deep connection with the essence of the movie. I would compare it with the use of the “rest” in music. Music doesn’t just consist of notes, it also consists of moments of silence called a “rest”. As a young boy when I was learning to play the violin, I just could not grasp the concept of a rest. And I think even adult musicians at times fail to grasp the importance of those brief moments of silence. They not only can add to a musical composition’s sense of rhythm, but they can also allow the music to breathe and therefore come to life. You wouldn’t want to listen to someone speak who never took a breath. We need those breaks in speech to be able to process what is being said to us.

And that is what I think was lacking from UP. Through most of the movie, the pace was too frenetic. The dialogue jumped from one funny line to the next. And though I found myself laughing and enjoying the moment, I never had the time to really savor it. It’s like gulping down a gourmet meal. Afterwards, you wouldn’t feel like you really enjoyed the experience as much as you would have liked to.

But in the case of a movie the pace is force fed on the viewer. And in the case of UP the force feeding was too fast for my taste. Perhaps for a younger audience this pace is quite satisfactory, I wouldn’t know. But I suspect that even the small children in the audience would have benefitted from a slower overall pace, and especially occasional pauses in the flow of the movie to let them catch their breath and truly appreciate what they were witnessing.

The Spirit of UP

So now that I’m done with my criticisms of the movie, I want to tell you about all the things that I found intriguing about this movie - both from reading about the movie online and by just thinking deeply about the movie.

How fares my Juliet? that I ask again;
For nothing can be ill, if she be well.
Then she is well, and nothing can be ill:
Her body sleeps in Capel's monument,
And her immortal part with angels lives.
I saw her laid low in her kindred's vault,
And presently took post to tell it you:
O, pardon me for bringing these ill news,
Since you did leave it for my office, sir.
Is it even so? then I defy you, stars!
- Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

Ellie’s spirit

I slowly realized that UP is really a deeply spiritual love story and is powered by Ellie’s spirit. Even though Ellie passes away early in the movie, it is her dream that inspires Carl to make the journey to Paradise Falls. That part is obvious and takes little analysis. But when I pondered on this some more it occurred to me that for Carl, Ellie was still alive in the house and that the house came to represent Ellie for him. It was after all in the same house that he had first met Ellie. At the time it was abandoned and she was using it as a clubhouse for her Adventurer’s club. So you could say that the two of them adopted the house, and it came to be almost like an offspring for the childless couple.

Then there are the balloons. Again there is a spiritual representation. Balloons when filled with helium can float in the air - like angels. For a young child, a balloon has almost a magical quality. In the very first scene we see Carl with a balloon. And it plays a part in his chance friendship with Ellie. His first adventure occurs when Ellie encourages him to recover his balloon. This ends in him falling from a plank and causes him to end up in the hospital. This perhaps represents a courtship ritual. By doing this Carl convinces Ellie that he will take any risk at her request. And he never complains to her that it was her fault.

In this way we see Carl transformed into Ellie’s Romeo and her knight in shining armor. The two of them realize that they have found their soulmates. And they really do live happily ever after. And then Ellie passes away. This of course is the saddest moment in the movie. It is done so tenderly in UP. Carl must have all those thoughts about where the soul goes after death, but this is not an overtly religious movie. But then again as I have said, it is a deeply spiritual movie.

Carl’s spirit

Carl is left alone and left with the question, “what do I do now that the love of my life has passed away and I am left old and all alone?” And this is where the story really begins. Not exactly a promising start for what’s supposed to be a kid’s film - with the twin themes of death and old age.

If left to his own devices, Carl would have just shut himself up in his house that he shared for so many years with Ellie and spent his last years in lonely solitude. But the world encroaches and Carl is at the point of being forced to move into a retirement home, which makes him come up with the outrageous solution which gives this movie its title. He decides to go UP! And the next thing we know the house is flying out of sight (and out of site).

And here we have the reappearance of the balloons. This time I feel like the balloons somehow represent Ellie’s spirit - lifting Carl up from his depression and carrying him up into the heavens. And Ellie’s spirit is very strong - strong enough to lift the house in the air and guide it to their dream Paradise. It is like an Adam and Eve story in reverse - instead of leaving the Garden of Eden, Carl and Ellie are coming to the their earthly Paradise.

The Spirit of Adventure

As a child Ellie played in the house and in her imagination the house became a flying airship with her at the helm. Now Carl using Ellie’s dream as an inspiration and through his own ingenuity has magically transformed the house. Ellie’s spirit had created the dream, and Carl’s spirit had given that dream life. And at the source of it all was the “spirit of adventure”.

Sometimes we don’t think about the words and phrases that we use daily. Why “spirit” of adventure? What do we mean in this context by the word spirit? Is it a ghost? No, but like a ghost it is invisible. Perhaps the director, Pete Docter, who describes himself as a Christian was thinking of the Holy Spirit.

I had my first inkling that this was a Christian film when Ellie asked Carl to “cross your heart”. It was not lost upon me that the cross symbolizes Christ. While the film is not deeply infused with Christian symbols, it seems that the movie is like a series of intertwined parables. Docter seems to be following in the footsteps of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” in creating a myth that speaks indirectly of Christianity. I’m convinced that everything in this film has a symbolic meaning with biblical roots.

The adventure begins... and my review ends

As the house rises UP into the heavens, Carl becomes transformed into a sort of modern day Don Quixote. Director Pete Docter describes UP in an interview as a sort of “coming-of-old-age story”. Carl’s story is not over in his old age, in some ways it is just beginning. And what is Don Quixote without Sancho Panza? So of course a short and round companion appears in the form of Russell who has accidentally stowed away on the house now transformed into an airship. And it is no mystery that Carl’s Dulcinea is in fact Ellie. Instead of a sword, Carl carries a cane.

Here again the story seems to be running in reverse, because Carl has already found his Dulcinea. And while Don Quixote battled enemies that his imagination created, Carl gets to battle real enemies. Carl embodies all the finest traits of the medieval knights that inspired Don Quixote. He displays all the characteristics of a “caballero”, which is the Spanish word for gentleman. And just as Don Quixote battled sorcerers, Carl faces the seemingly magical powers of his former hero Charles Muntz.

Carl’s quest is a simple one - to deliver his house to the plateau next to Paradise Falls. If he can only do this, he feels he will have kept the promise he made to Ellie - the love of his life. Remember that he “crossed his heart” and just as the Crusaders went on their quest with the symbol of the cross, so too did Carl.

Like Shakespeare’s Romeo, Carl tries to win the heart of his one true love. But again the story is running in reverse, because his Juliet - Ellie - has already passed away. Instead he defies fate and takes to the air to bring his Juliet - represented by their house - to her final resting place.

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Carl awakes and finds himself in the land of his dreams - over the rainbow and above the clouds. And like Dorothy he must traverse the magical kingdom in order to reach his goal. Carl travels to this magical world in a house just like Dorothy, but rather than crashing down his house is suspended above him. And like Dorothy, he has three companions that he finds along the way - Russell the boy, Kevin the bird, and Dug the Dog.

But all the analogies fail, because this is a new story. Perhaps it will become a classic in time. In the end Carl learns that Ellie’s spirit resides not in the house which he has converted into a temple of worship to the spirit of his dead wife, but in his own heart. Like the toy balloon he had as a child, he his holding on to the string of the past. Finally by letting go, he is able to appreciate the beauty of his own simple life with Ellie. And by letting go of the past, he is also freed to start a new life and to form new relationships with Russell, Dug and Kevin.

I don’t have much more insight into this modern day fairy tale. Go watch it - laugh, cry. And after the credits roll, take some time to ponder what you have just seen. Perhaps there is more to this whimsical story than meets the eye.