Thursday, August 24, 2006

Changes in the Heavens

"My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles."

Are there any school children in the last several decades who have not learned this mnemonic to recall the names of the nine planets that orbit the Sun? (In order, mind you, from "nearest in" to "farthest out.") Well, bad news, campers. The International Astronomical Union voted yesterday to strip Pluto of its status as a planet, reducing the number of planets in the solar system to eight. Pluto, discovered in 1930, will be placed in a category that appears on its way to being called "dwarf planets." (I guess the conventions of politically correct speech haven't reached the IAU as yet... To make matters along this line even more interesting, the collection of astronomical bodies that are so classified once were called, "minor planets." I wonder why the IAU didn't feel it could stay with that terminology?)

As this site has among its goals the purpose to inform as well as to entertain, let me offer a new mnemonic for the schools of tomorrow:

"My Very Eccentric Mother Just Served Us... Nothing..."

Thursday, August 10, 2006

New Developments in the "War on Terror"

It's all over the news today: the announcement of a plot to bring liquid explosives on board aircraft flying from Great Britain to the United States, and to detonate these explosives while the airplanes were over the Atlantic Ocean. According to the reports, six to ten aircraft flying for several airlines, were supposedly to be targeted. As of the last report I heard, some twenty-one people had been arrested; and perhaps as many as fifty were involved. News reporters and "expert" analyists alike were speculating as to whether this was a plot developed by Al Quaida. These discussions made reference to a plot, dating from the mid-1990's, to trigger in-flight explosions of U.S aircraft over the Pacific Ocean.

Who knows if all this is true? It may very well be true -- but we have no way of actually knowing if it is, or not. Here is what we do know to be true: New constraints are placed upon air travelers as a result of the discovery of the plot. In the United States, you will no longer be allowed to take liquids or gels through security checkpoints, although such items can be included with your checked baggage. In the United Kingdom, the restrictions are even more severe: no carry-on baggage is being permitted. The "terror level" indicator has been raised; more security personnel will be deployed in airports; and many airports will also be employing random "stop and search" checkpoints for vehicles traveling to the airport. Not only will travelers be unable to bring liquids and gels with them through the initial security checkpoints; if you purchase a cup of coffee or a bottle of soda or water while on the concourse of the airport, you will not be allowed to bring it on board the aircraft.

Exceptions will be made, we are told, for baby formula and medications, if the medication is in a bottle labeled by the issuing pharmacy in the name of the person with a valid ticket. This raises two immediate questions. First, what is to prevent a would-be terrorist from using just such a bottle to bring on board components needed to fabricate an explosive? Second, haven't we already seen women among the "suicide bombers" in the Middle East? What is to prevent a baby's bottle from being used to bring on board a liquid explosive, or a precursor component?

How long will it be before such questions are being asked openly by the media and the "experts" they flock to for their interviews? What will be the result of asking these questions? An increased level of apprehension among the general public? (And yes, I am as guilty of doing so as any member of the "regular" media...)

Maybe that's the point? To increase our level of fear? Because it is through the reality of our fear of being victims of terrorism that we are willing to accept restrictions upon our activities, and on our behavior. We will surrender our freedoms, allow the restriction of our liberty, to be set free from our fear. To trade freedom for security, we will think, is an acceptable transaction.

I can't help but go back to Orwell's novel, 1984. O'Brien, the Party member overseeing Winston Smith's "re-education" as he is being tortured, tells Smith a secret: the Party pursues power, not for the good of the people it rules, but for the sake of power. No one," O'Brien says, ever seeks to obtain power only to surrender it. The revolution takes place in order to establish the dictatorship. Moreover, the state of constant warfare that exists in the world of 1984 impoverishes the people of the nation-states; and that is the purpose of the state of perpetual conflict -- for an impoverished population is much more easily controlled than is one that is enjoying prosperity. Yet how ironic that it is our own state of prosperity that is being threatened by the potential acts of terrorists; and that we are willing to give it up, if only in part, in order to hang on to the remainder.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

It Feels Like "1984"

Was George Orwell's political novel about the future prophetic?

Well, maybe "prophetic" isn't the word to use: perhaps perceptive might be better. There are no "telescreens" to monitor us in every room, and in every public place -- although there are many technological equivalents that can do the job as well, or better, than Orwell described. (For example, what might Orwell have done in his novel with the "eye in the sky" technology used for covert surveillance of crowds at major public events, such as a Super Bowl, or by some cities around the country; or the facial recognition software used in parallel with such covert systems?) There are no "thought police" -- at least, not on an official basis. (There is the "politically correct" element that attempts to redefine, and control, speech...) "Big Brother" -- the strong, silent, vigilant Leader -- is not watching us. For all his faults, President George W. Bush is not the Josef Stalin of his generation. (In fact, if President Bush were to be compared with a fictional political figure, Robert Heinlein's "Nehemiah Scudder" more nearly fits the bill than does Orwell's "Big Brother.")

Of course, on one level, 1984 described life in the Soviet Union under the dictatorship of Stalin. The attendance at indoctrination sessions, the rewriting of history, the atmosphere of fear and betrayal among the members of the "Party" in the novel all have deep connections to real events and experiences in that time and place. What prompts me to say now that it feels like 1984?

Oceania was at war with Eurasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.

My thoughts are probably triggered by the continuing "War on Terror"; and by the deepening conflict between the state of Israel and "Hizb' Allah" in Lebanon. I can't help but feel that we are not being told everything; we are only seeing and hearing those bits and pieces that are designed to engender in us an unquestioning support for our current foreign policy -- and for what feels very much like a preparation for an assault against Iran. Today, a report on the "FoxNews Channel" made reference to the "War on Terror" as "World War III"; and the comment that followed spoke about how such a war would essentially be without end.

Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

Iran is undoubtedly guilty of providing the rockets being used by Hizb'Allah for their operations against Israel; and many other forms of support. An article at (I've lost the link) mentioned that Hizb'Allah has received technical assistance from the North Koreans in the construction of their tunnel systems -- and, of course, the North Koreans are experts in tunneling. (How many people realize that the Korean War has never been formally ended; that we have what is, essentially, merely a 53-year old ceasefire?) We should not be blind to the connections; and I certainly understand the desire to "do" something.

What deeply concerns me is the way our society is changing to accommodate the demands of being in a perpetual state of warfare, as the "War on Terror" does not conform to what most of us imagine when it comes to trying to grasp the concept of war. For example, the news this morning showed Israeli tanks in Lebanon. According to the classic definition of war, the presence of a foreign military unit on the territory of another country without the express and uncoerced invitation of said country constitutes an invasion; and an invasion is an act of war. On the level of international law, the entry of Israeli tanks into Lebanon establishes a state of war between Israel and Lebanon, whether declared or undeclared. Yet Israel maintains it is not at war with Lebanon; it is, we are told (and it may very well be true) that Israel is acting in self-defense against Hizb'Allah -- in part, because Lebanon is unable to do so.

The transition from who we were, and how we viewed freedom and liberty, to what we must become in order to sustain the "War on Terror" is underway. When I recall that it was the state of permanent warfare that transformed the United States and Great Britain into becoming "Oceania" in 1984, I cannot help but wonder where we will arrive as the transition is completed...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Violence in the Middle East

As Israel and Hezbollah continue to clash in southern Lebanon, efforts continue on the diplomatic front to bring about a cease-fire. Earlier today, from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President George W. Bush held a press conference in which he described the contents of to resolutions being pursued at the United Nations to attempt to bring about the ceasefire. My reason for blogging arises from a particular phrase that Mr. Bush used several times during the course of his presentation, and during the question-and-answer period that followed; specifically, that the long-term efforts to bring peace to the region require the ceasefire so that the "root cause" of the violence can be addressed.

According to a report by, the "root cause" is the fact that Hezbollah is acting as a "state within a state" in the nation of Lebanon. However, this wasn't clear to me as I listened to the press conference -- I may have missed its initial reference. As such, I couldn't help but think that the real root cause is the desire on the part of many in the Islamic world for the destruction of the nation of Israel. On that level, there is no diplomatic solution to be obtained, until either the state of Israel ceases to exist (not a likely outcome), or the leaders of the Muslim nations accept the existence of Israel, and restrain their followers, and the groups they support, with both money and arms, who today lead the fight against Israel.

I am not a supporter of Israel, as are many among the American Protestant Evangelical spectrum. By the same token, I am not anti-Israeli. If I support any group in the Middle East, it is the embattled Arab Christian population, who are my brothers and sisters in the Orthodox faith; and who are suffering at the hands of both the Israelis and groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Unfortunately, they do not have a voice in the negotiations...

A note in passing: Not many people, I think, are aware that "Hezbollah" means, "the Party of God" (as in, "the Party of Allah"). Failure to understand the linkage between the political aims of Hezbollah on the one hand, and the religious underpinnings from which these political aims arise, dooms our efforts -- once again -- to almost certain failure.

And we -- the United States, that is -- never seem to learn...