When in Mexico…

Federales badge“In Mexico, if you have a problem and turn to the police, then you have two problems.” — Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer, as quoted in Mark Greany’s Ballistic.

Humorous, yes, but it’s no joke.

Be careful down there. I am from Latin America, am totally fluent in Spanish, live within 100 miles of the Mexican border — in other words, I am the type of person who should have no problems at all in Mexico and should be welcome there. But I never, ever go into Mexico — it’s just not worth the risks. There are so many other places one can go without running such risks of corruption (not to mention the drug cartels, street crime, etc.) that to me it just doesn’t make sense to go into Mexico.

And it’s a shame, too. The Mexican people themselves — of which there are many north of the border too — are, as a whole, some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known. But Mexico as a country  — let’s be blunt here —  really sucks.

In the meantime, if you want to do something positive to help free the unjustly jailed Sergearnt Tahmooressi (the story is amazing — a huge travesty of justice; read the other articles linked here) start by signing the White House petition to see if the American President will at least pick up the phone and talk with the President of Mexico about it. It’s the least he could do, but hasn’t yet.

Beware the Stingray (land-dwelling version)

Beware the Stingray (land version)

Beautiful animal, isn’t it? But there’s another kind of Stingray that lives on land and it’s its “ears” that provide its dangerous sting. Oh, and the land version, made by secretive government contractor Harris Corporation, runs on batteries and is probably much more of a threat to you than the flesh-and-blood version — one of them could be onto you right now. It’s such a threat to your privacy that the Federal Government is trying very hard to keep its very existence secret, and you should at least know about it. Click on the image for more info.

Loss of freedom is a one-way trip, and what you can do about it

ImageA thought to consider: No government ever willingly gave up any kind of surveillance powers. Once in Big Brother’s hands, Big Brother never gives up an effective tool. The time to safeguard your freedom and privacy is before government starts using it, not after.

I say this as someone who grew up under a then-new Communist regime and saw how liberties disappeared as Communism grew. But in that respect there is nothing exclusively unique about Communism; we’ve seen the squeezing and trampling of our freedoms and privacy happening in the United States too. It’s become considerably worse under the Obama regime, but it certainly didn’t start with Obama.

Think about this and act — act vociferously — before it’s too late. It’s the very least we owe our children and future generations, to leave to them the freedoms we once had, and at the present rate, judging by what has been happening to our freedoms and privacy the last few years, we’re not doing a very good job of it.

So what can you do about it? Here and here are good places to join the fight on the national and global level, another on a more personal level to defend your own personal privacy. And to help learn and keep up with the latest, security guru Bruce Schneier’s blog is a great start.

Seven new ways you’re being watched

In the race between individual privacy vs. government use of technology, Big Brother technology is winning. The vast majority of people, even us “professional paranoids” who make it our interest to keep up and to warn others of the threats to their persons and privacy, can’t keep up with all the new ways being invented and put to use to keep tabs on even the most minor — though in some ways most invasive and therefore dangerous — ways to pry into and record what we do. say, and even think.

Here is a list and brief explanations of seven new ways by which you are being watched, tracked, and recorded by police. And in these cases that means even your local police; it doesn’t necessarily mean the big entities like the NSA. (The NSA & ilk in many cases already have even more effective means to do things like this.)

Believe me, the time to fight for your freedom, rights, and privacy is now, not later. And a good place to start is by joining with others trying to uncover what’s happening.

Bending your mind… with color?

We all know that color can affect how we feel and react: Cheery colors in a room, of an attractive object, of a glorious sunset — all can have a marked effect on mood and feeling.

But what if the effect goes much deeper? What if exposure to a given color can have effects on you as strong as any physical effect, such as making you physically weaker or stronger? What if exposure to colored lights, objects, or surroundings be used (perhaps by others) to weaken or control you? That would be freaky, scary, potentially deviously manipulative to the point of being dangerous.

And yet serious evidence is mounting that human exposure to color can have deep and irresistible effects on our behavior, judgment, and even physical abilities. Red can affect sexual attraction, while being in a pink room can make you physically weaker, or at least less aggressive. These are not tenets of pop psychology, but based on objective evidence and measurement — the effects are real, some of them so well established that “drunk-tank pink” (RGB=255,145,175 or #ff91af, for those who want to play with HTML RGB colors) is used in thousands of jail cells worldwide, with the authorities reporting remarkable results in de-fusing the offenders.

But what can be used also be abused? Can the powerful effects of color be used to surreptitiously control or manipulate? Could color exposure be used to affect business negotiations, the behavior of children, the decisions of a judge or jury? One cannot but wonder — and scheme?

No doubt some will, and probably already do. How are you being (unknowingly) affected?

Savvy paranoia indeed. Yes, indeed. But no need to worry, just be happy. Happy, happy, happy.

On privacy: Something positive for a change

One of the most insidious aspects of the privacy overreach by government agencies is that law enforcement agents, acting without any kind of court order, would order routinely order the data providers not to tell you that your data was being collected by the cops. But now some of the big data providers, such as Google and Apple, are starting to push back and the result is good for you and me. More info.

Saturn, Pluto, Charon, broken iPhones and people watching you

  • This has nothing to do with Apple.

    Own an iPhone?: You may want to get an extended warranty. According to an article in Computerworld, 26 percent of iPhones break or fail in some way within their first two years. Now I do have a wee bit of doubt about that 26 percent number because the company that provided that number for the Computerworld story sells extended warranties for iPhones. Still, if it’s anywhere near accurate, that’s a lot of expensive broken phones. Owner beware.

  • Apple is watching you. Apple has added a new clause to their user agreement that allows them to share your location and moment-by-moment movement with others. What others? It doesn’t say, so for practical purposes that means anybody. You are required to agree to this change in their user agreement before you can receive anything more from Apple, such as software downloads. The same clause and policy presumably apply to the iPad too. Before you flee to Google and its Android phones and tablets, be aware that Google has always had a clause like that in their user agreements, and though it it seems less intrusive it’s also more vague, so it’s hard to know if Google is better or worse. See the full article in the Los Angeles Times.
  • Speaking of surveillance: Are you being bugged? Not the insect kind, but the kind of bug that records what you say and sends it to the FBI, Russian FSB, or whoever is after you. In the movies some guy walks around the room with a little gadget that has a little antenna and winking red lights; when it beeps he reaches under the phone or into a lampshade and yanks out a tiny thingy that often has a little blinking red light too. (In the movies bad guys are always required to have little blinking red lights on their nefarious devices, just like bombs are always required to have a red wire and a blue wire.) But audio bugs do exist in the real world — not as often as in the movies, but they do exist and there are people who make a living detecting them. If you’ve ever wondered how that’s done, here’s an intro. In the U.S. it’s perfectly legal to buy (though often not legal to use) audio bugs and there are lots of places that sell audio bugs and of course the detectors. It’s interesting technology, but I don’t recommend you even think about bugging someone unless you have — and have consulted — a good lawyer. (Note that in the foregoing I’ve deliberately linked to a vendor that is outside the U.S. If you want to buy this stuff in the U.S. you’ll have to find it yourself. For those outside the U.S. the lawyer advice also applies.)

    Strange sights

  • Cassini sails on: The Cassini space probe (formerly known as Cassini-Huygens until the Huygens probe was space-bombed onto Titan’s surface) continues its complex dance around Saturn and its panoply of moons, returning volumes of scientific data each day and returning spectacular photos like the one at right.
  • One big reason not to live in Nebraska: On this day in history in 2003, down from the sky fell one great reason not to live in Nebraska: The world’s largest recorded hailstone fell to Earth at about 100 mph, striking the siding of a house in Aurora, Nebraska. In the impact it lost some of its weight, but what was left measured 7 inches across, or about the size of a soccer ball. That also makes about the size of a human head, and it’s easy to imagine the result of the 100-mph head-sized ice ball striking a stationary human cranium. And lest you think that was a fluke, a previous record-setting hailstone, measuring slightly smaller and weighing 1.5 lbs, was found in Potter, Nebraska in 1928. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen in, say, the Arizona desert.
  • Also on this day in history: In 1978 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona (where it gets very cold and they do get some big hailstones) astronomer James Christy discovered that the planet Pluto (and yes, dang it, it’s still a real planet in my book) has a moon. It was officially named Charon after the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, following the International Astronomical Union rule that new solar-system bodies are named after Greek characters. But James Christy himself pushed for Charon from the beginning in honor of his wife, Charlene, who goes by the name “Char.” It was only later that he found that the name Charon coincided with the name of a mythological Greek character.
  • And so you can quit wondering, that photo at the upper right that looks like a disco ball is the best approximation we have of what Charon looks like. Being a low-resolution computer-generated image the individual pixels look like facets, but that’s just a computer artifact; Charon doesn’t really look like a disco ball. It’s a composite image put together from many photometric measurements by Marc Buie, a Lowell Observatory astronomer who in the astro world is known as “Mr. Pluto.” (I once interviewed Mr. Buie about Pluto and I can attest that what he doesn’t know about Pluto probably isn’t known.)
  • If you’re wondering why the Lowell Observatory keeps coming up in discussions of Charon and Pluto, that’s because the Lowell Observatory is sort of the “home” of Pluto. It was at the Lowell Observatory that founder Percival Lowell predicted the existence and general location of Pluto, it was at Lowell Observatory in 1930 that Pluto was discovered by Kansas-farm-boy-turned-astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, it was at the Lowell Observatory in 1978 that Pluto’s moon Charon was discovered, and over the years much of the pioneering work on Pluto has been done there. In the world of astronomy, Lowell Observatory, though originally founded to research Mars, is now the place for Pluto.

A noble Ex-Pilot, X-planes, X-citing innovation, an X-rated bridge…

  • Tower Bridge in London. On June 14 nothing happened at this bascule bridge.

    The bridge also rises: A bascule bridge is the proper name for a bridge where the two halves of the bridge tilt upward to allow tall ships to pass, perhaps the most famous being Tower Bridge in London. But it was at the Liteiny Bridge, which spans the Neva river in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, that on the night of June 14 a group of dissident artists protested the Russian-sponsored International Economic Forum being held nearby. Their protest was in the form of a 220-foot (65-meter) image of a phallus painted onto the roadbed on one side of the bridge so that when a tall ship came along and the bridge was erected… well, you get the idea. Police worked through the wee hours of the morning to remove the image, but not before thousands of drivers were forced to wait in traffic as ships went by, watching the giant phallus rise into the night sky of St. Petersburg. See the story (and yes, a photo) in the English-language site of Pravda (which reads remarkably like the American tabloid National Enquirer, but with more politics and perhaps even less credibility)

  • Tablets to push out desktops: According to Forrester Research, who are paid to be right about predictions like this, the growth in tablet PC sales will be at the expense of desktop PC sales. See the pretty little chart here.
  • But here’s my take on it: I think by late next year tablets will surpass netbooks (those tiny notebooks with Intel Atom processors that go for $300 or so) and will be eating into the low-end laptop market, while desktops will continue to shrink in market share just as they have for years. Remember you heard it here first. If you’re wondering about my rationale, write me in the comments and I’ll post an explanation.
  • Blessed innovation: The most interesting applications of tablet PCs are in places and applications where no computer has gone before. One such interesting application was recently created by the Rev. Paolo Padrini, an Italian Catholic priest who consults for the Vatican. His new iPad application replaces the traditional Catholic missal, the book that contains the order of the worship for every mass of the year. Like most innovative applications of new technology, it seems obvious once someone does it, so why didn’t someone think of it before? We’re going to see thousands such obvious-after-it’s-invented applications for thin tablet PCs.

    A spectacular display of breaking the sound barrier

  • The greatest of the greatest: In the history of aviation there have been many great planes, but few will disagree that the ultimate planes, generation after generation, have been the famed X-planes. These are the planes that in each generation have pushed the boundaries, set the records, expanded what it means to fly, sometimes even beyond the atmosphere. CNET News has a wonderful pictorial essay on X-planes from the X-1 — the plane in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 — to the X-51A that last month achieved Mach-5 hypersonic flight. It’s a wonderful series of 24 images and accompanying text. (I’m trying to figure out a way to pack it all into a single PDF I can save on disk. Any ideas, please let me know.)
  • On this day in history, on the night of June 21, 1942 the Japanese submarine I-25 surfaced near the mouth of the Columbia River and the town of Brookings, Oregon, and fired 17 of its 5.5-inch shells at Fort Stevens, which was there to guard the mouth of the river. The shells did some damage to telephone cables and took out the home plate backstop at the fort’s baseball field, but not much else. Fort Stevens, as a coastal defense fort, was equipped with large 10-inch artillery capable of taking out even large ships, which the little I-25 submarine was not. But in a less-than-shining moment in American coastal defense, the fort’s commander turned off all the lights and forbid the gunners to fire back, fearing that firing back would give away the fort’s position to the Japanese. With its massive 10-inch guns the fort should have been able to destroy the small, stationary, lightly-armed submarine, but the commander was apparently more concerned about hiding from the enemy than engaging with it. Some American planes on a training mission nearby called in a bomber which did engage and drop ordnance on the submarine, but the sub was able to evade, dive, and get away unscathed. It was the only time in WWII that an American mainland military facility was attacked by the Axis Powers.

    Warrant Flying Officer Nobuo Fujita

  • But that wasn’t the end of it: That particular submarine, the I-25, turned out to have a most illustrious history in the Japanese Navy. After its successful patrol in which it attacked Fort Stevens and torpedoed several vessels along the American coast, on a subsequent patrol it returned to the Oregon coast with a small seaplane stowed in a watertight enclosure on the deck. On the night of September 9, 1942 the little seaplane, piloted by Warrant Flying Officer Nobuo Fujita, flew over the coast and dropped two small incendiary bombs in an attempt to set the American forests afire. The seaplane returned safely to the I-25 and the next night another incendiary attack was undertaken. An American bomber and Coast Guard units eventually chased off the submarine, inflicting little damage. But the I-25 sailed away with the distinction of having inflicted the only attack during the war on an American mainland military installation and the only aerial bombardment of the U.S. mainland during the war.
  • And there’s a happy ending: After the war 1n 1962 the pilot of the seaplane, Nobuo Fujita, made a pilgrimage to the coastal town of Brookings, Oregon, to present his family’s 400-year-old samurai sword as a token of penance and friendship. (He was very ashamed of what he had done, and he had planned that if the town did not welcome him he would use the sword to commit seppuku, suicide by self-disembowelment.) Despite some early controversy he was welcomed by the town, served as Grand Marshall of the local Azalea Festival, and the sword is today on display at the Brookings City Hall. He returned in 1992 and planted a tree at the bomb site as a gesture of peace and was later made an honorary citizen of Brookings. He died in 1996 and two years later his daughter, Yoriko Asakura, buried some of his ashes at the bomb site, a man of great courage in war and great honor in peace.