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Thursday, December 31, 2009

From the people who brought you collective farming, Chernobyl and the near-destruction of the Aral Sea...

...a proposal to blast a wandering asteroid.

Russia's space agency chief said Wednesday a spacecraft may be dispatched to knock a large asteroid off course and reduce the chances of earth impact, even though U.S. scientists say such a scenario is unlikely.

Anatoly Perminov told Golos Rossii radio the space agency would hold a meeting soon to assess a mission to Apophis. He said his agency might eventually invite NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese space agency and others to join the project.

When the 270-meter (885-foot) asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers estimated its chances of smashing into Earth in its first flyby, in 2029, at 1-in-37.


The plan itself is actually pretty sensible. I just have my doubts about the guys offering to do it. Russia's historical "HULK SMASH!" approach to various problems has been fraught with unintended consequences from the beginning.

In an interesting follow-up to this story, French scientists unveiled a back-up plan: offering Apophis our unconditional surrender.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Since it's still the Christmas season.

We had a mostly good one. CM made his annual pilgrimage to the Burrow and unnecessarily rained gifts upon all of us, the kids being especially fond of Carnival Games for the Wii. "Life skills," the Much Better Half says. "For careers as carnies."

Dream big.

I say mostly good because my pet cat of 15 years, Molly, died early December 27th. She'd been fading badly over the past week, but didn't seem to be in much pain. Also, it made me a distracted and out-of-it host, so apologies for that. In a remarkable moment, Molly curled up with the kittens (yes, we still have two) for a nap on Christmas Day, pretty much the last time she moved. The kittens didn't object, and didn't try to play.

Still and all, it was a blessed time, well spent with family and friends. I have no complaints.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The "Advent Conspiracy."

An idea whose time is long, long overdue:

But to a growing group of Christians, this focus on the commercial aspect of Christmas is itself the greatest threat to one of Christianity's holiest days. "It's the shopping, the going into debt, the worrying that if I don't spend enough money, someone will think I don't love them," says Portland pastor Rick McKinley. "Christians get all bent out of shape over the fact that someone didn't say 'Merry Christmas' when I walked into the store. But why are we expecting the store to tell our story? That's just ridiculous."

McKinley is one of the leaders of an effort to do away with the frenzied activity and extravagant gift-giving of a commercial Christmas. Through a savvy viral video and marketing effort, the so-called Advent Conspiracy movement has exploded. Hundreds of churches on four continents and in at least 17 countries have signed up to participate. The Advent Conspiracy video has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube and the movement boasts nearly 45,000 fans on Facebook. Baseball superstar Albert Pujols is a supporter - he spoke at a church event in St. Louis to endorse the effort.

In the past four years, Advent Conspiracy churches have donated millions of dollars to dig wells in developing countries through Living Water International and other organizations. McKinley likes to point out that a fraction of the money Americans spend at retailers in the month of December could supply the entire world with clean water. If more Christians changed how they thought about giving at Christmas, he argues, the holiday could be transformative in a religious and practical sense.

I'm happy to say the Christmas shopping is almost done, and we didn't overdo it this year. The kids should be happy, and not drowned in stuff, and we didn't develop a case of homicidal fury trying to be good consumer drones.

Win-win!

Sic transit gloria mundi.


Jeffrey Smith has a magnificent pictorial post up about one of my favorite places on Earth, the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon.

Once home to 20,000 people, it is now inhabited by less than 100. Hemingway loved it, too, and rightfully so.

Jeffrey's pictures focus on the Basilica, which confirmed my love for all things Byzantine, as I've pointed out ad nauseum.

Here are a few more, which emphasize just how quiet the island has become over the last millenium:


A view from the Basilica. [Credit.]



Walking up to the piazza. [Credit.]


And, finally, the bridge over the canal. Those aren't handrails--the bridge isn't that big. A bit more of a precarious walk than depicted. [Credit.]

Not an according-to-Hoyle miracle....

But close enough for government work.

Friends went to visit Aunt Margie at the hospital yesterday evening.

She greeted them with a chipper "How are ya doin'?"

!

We're all a little flattened, but in a good way.

She's scheduled for a couple more weeks of observation/rehab, but she's raring to get home.

Christmas came a bit early, thanks be to God.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Notwithstanding the horrible news.

I'm going to go ahead with a long-promised review of the Harry Potter books, which I finished a while ago and am going over.

To reiterate, here is the scale for certain popular/notorious themes. I've slightly altered it to balance out the numbers (1 is now 0):

Occult/Dark Magical Themes

0: James Randi
5: David Copperfield
10: Cthulhu


The Dumbledore Gaydar Detector

0: Stacy Keach
5: Rupert Everett
10: Liberace


Clancyitis Infection Level (this metric measures the extent to which responsible editors have become afraid of a blockbuster author and have allowed logorrhea to take the reins)

0: Hunt for Red October
5: Red Storm Rising
10: Debt of Honor


With that in mind, here's the review of Harry Potter and the Philos/orceror's Stone.

At the outset, I have to say that, by and large, I don't understand the outcry against the books. That's not a criticism of those who decry them, much less a critique of motives. However, I simply don't see what they are seeing, with the exceptions as to the behavior of the heroes.

Thus, the Occultometer isn't going to move much throughout the reviews of the seven books.

As another aside, I admit to being very, very impressed with Rowling's ability to write humorous dialogue and scenes. She is consistently funny, and often laugh-out-loud funny. That's not easy, and she pulls it off with aplomb. Also impressive is the word play and use of names as symbolic, all of which is worthy of the best Inkling tradition. Also, it's nice to see Latin, even bowdlerized, get the nods it does.

With that in mind, on to Book One.

Ratings:

Occult/Dark Magical Themes: 2. It is a very "light" book, as are all of the first four. Evil magic is portrayed firmly as *evil.* Even magic that can be bent to evil ends is renounced, which is significant.

Dumbledore Gaydar: 1 (he wears a holly wreath in one scene. Yeah, I'm stretching. So's Ms. Rowling.)

Clancyitis: 0. Very tightly written, and crisply plotted.

I enjoyed it, and very much so. It moves quickly, characters are introduced deftly (if not fully, keeping the demands of the overall story arc in mind) and the framework of a world is erected convincingly enough. The last is rather important, given that she's creating something of a "secret history," which is easy to do badly. The light touch helps.

Two consistent problems, including a nod of agreement with the critics. First, if there is a hole in her writing, it is with respect to fighting sequences. Yes, things are happening, but they are harder to picture than, say, a trip to Diagon Alley. Things get slightly better as the books progress, but she never quite gets Tolkien's knack for such things, and he was pretty spare in his descriptions of such things himself.

Second, yeah, truth-telling takes it in the shorts. The good guys can lie with impunity, which is the most troubling thing about the series from a moral standpoint. While a consistent theme of the books is the need to wear masks and to hide the truth from those who have no right to it, lying for its own sake is free of consequences.

Overall, I have no problem recommending the first book, and to properly formed youngsters (10 ish) at that.

Feel free to flame me for my lack of perspicuity in the comments.

Prayer request.

My Aunt Margie, one of my Dad's sisters, is dying. She and her late husband, my Uncle Don, used to watch my brother and me when my parents went on vacations. She taught us Yahtzee and always made sure we had the name brand cereal in the little boxes. Spoiled us right rotten, and this continued into late life, granting us permission to hunt on her property over the past decade plus.

She's suffering from congestive heart failure and is currently non-responsive.

Friday, December 11, 2009

I think I've figured it out.

As we muddle through the ever-shifting, tilting chaos of our house, hollering, laughing, cajoling, cheering, raising eyebrows, tripping and tipping over decrepit and/or new adopted animals, stuffing yet another child in amongst the decks, somehow keeping all the balls in the air, I think I finally understand.

I know who we are.

We're the bloody Weasleys.



No, seriously.

Welcome to the Burrow!

Brownsville's in good hands.

AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

Bishop Flores is leaving Detroit to head up the Diocese of Brownsville. Actually, he's going home.

He's a great one, and Brownsville's in the best of hands.

Now just let us be briefly bitter here in Motown as we deal with our loss. He was scheduled to speak at our parish in January. Looks like that's off....

Monday, December 07, 2009

We don't deserve men like this, but we get them anyway.

First, the living:

Navy Lieutenant John William Finn, 100 years old and the last living Medal of Honor winner from Pearl Harbor. I saw an interview with him in a recent History Channel documentary about Pearl Harbor. Basically, he just set up a .50 caliber machine gun and blazed away for two hours, getting multiple wounds in the process. "They kept bringing ammo out to me. I'd have kept firing for six months!"

For extraordinary heroism distinguished service, and devotion above and beyond the call of duty. During the first attack by Japanese airplanes on the Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, on 7 December 1941, Lt. Finn promptly secured and manned a .50-caliber machinegun mounted on an instruction stand in a completely exposed section of the parking ramp, which was under heavy enemy machinegun strafing fire.

Although painfully wounded many times, he continued to man this gun and to return the enemy's fire vigorously and with telling effect throughout the enemy strafing and bombing attacks and with complete disregard for his own personal safety. It was only by specific orders that he was persuaded to leave his post to seek medical attention.

Following first aid treatment, although obviously suffering much pain and moving with great difficulty, he returned to the squadron area and actively supervised the rearming of returning planes. His extraordinary heroism and conduct in this action were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service
.

2. And the dead, dying on November 20, 2009, Lt. Col. Lewis Millett, another Medal of Honor winner and the last man in the American armed services to lead a bayonet charge. Successfully, I might add:

Millet received the Medal of Honor for his actions Feb. 7, 1951. He led the 25th Infantry Division’s Company E, 27th Infantry, in a bayonet charge up Hill 180 near Soam-Ni, Korea. A captain at the time, Millet was leading his company in an attack against a strongly held position when he noticed that a platoon was pinned down by small-arms, automatic, and antitank fire.

Millett placed himself at the head of two other platoons, ordered fixed bayonets, and led an assault up the fire-swept hill. In the fierce charge, Millett bayoneted two enemy soldiers and continued on, throwing grenades, clubbing and bayoneting the enemy, while urging his men forward by shouting encouragement, according to his Medal of Honor citation.

"Despite vicious opposing fire, the whirlwind hand-to-hand assault carried to the crest of the hill," the citation states. "His dauntless leadership and personal courage so inspired his men that they stormed into the hostile position and used their bayonets with such lethal effect that the enemy fled in wild disorder."

Millett was wounded by grenade fragments during the attack, but he refused evacuation until the objective was firmly secured. He recovered, and attended Ranger School after the war.


Thanks to you both.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Thank you.

To God for the rebirth in Christ of our youngest on the Feast of Christ the King. Elizabeth accepted the Sacrament of Baptism with demure, if puzzled, grace. Thanks also to Shelly and CM for standing witness to this blessed event.

Elizabeth is doing well, inflating as we speak. She's on the brink of smiling, too, and is even jabbering slightly. I'm not surprised as to the latter--she has to start early, otherwise she'll never get a word in.

That's right--Christmas is coming.

Done shopping yet?

We haven't managed to get the tree up yet, though this weekend should do the trick. Still, we had a nice early Christmas with my parents, who abscond to their "camper" [think air conditioning, cable, full sized bathroom, bigger than my first apartment, etc.] in Arizona after Thanksgiving every year.

Mom and Dad are currently winding their way westward, so prayers for a safe journey are welcome.

If you are stumped for ideas, I'd like to propose the following: an adorable kitten, free of charge.

We've found homes for three of the five, and will be keeping one of them, which leaves one little charmer for the asking. Yes, I deliver.

Sounds good to me.

I'd have just thrown them [the WTC murderers] out of helicopters, myself.
S.M. Stirling | Homepage | 11.28.09 - 9:01 pm


I propose that the helicopter in question hover at precisely 1,368 feet off the ground.