August 13th, 2010

[PHOTO] Two pictures of the Earth

Pictures of the Earth from space are fantastic. springheel_jack reminded me of that in a post that he made earlier today, posting his two favourite Earth pictures, and, well, who am I to ignore a good thing?

The Planetary Society has an archive of Earth images, taken by missions as various as Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966 to Chandrayaan-1 in 2008. Excluding "The Blue Marble", the famous photograph taken of the Earth by the Apollo 17 crew in 1992 with a sere Africa tilted up at the camera amidst oceans, my two favourite photos are the ones below.

Earth and Moon from Mars

Taken from the Wikimedia Commons here, this image of the Earth and the Moon was snapped by the "Mars Orbiter Camera of [the] Mars Global Surveyor on May 8 2003 at 12:59:58 UTC. South America is visible."

At the time, the Earth-Moon system was more than 139 million kilometres away from Mars, the Earth being a few hundred thousand kilometres closer to Mars than the Moon. A bit more than 43% of the disks of both worlds is illuminated.

"This corresponds to what an observer with a telescope would see from Mars; a naked-eye observer would simply see a single point of light. Usually, the Earth and Moon are visible as two separate points of light, but at this point in the Moon's orbit they are too close to resolve with the naked eye as seen from Mars."

Pale Blue Dot

Taken from the Wikimedia Commons here, the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of the Earth was taken in 1990 as "part of the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. From Voyager's great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Coincidentally, Earth lies right in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun.."

These two images, taken from such immense distances, are tremendously evocative for me. The first photo is comparable to the very best resolution that our pre-space probe telescopes were capable of, looking not very different from a 1950s picture of Mars. The second photo, with its Earth occupying a fraction of a pixel, might well be the way that our world would look like from immense, immense distances. Both photos show how very small our world is. As science, they're interesting; as art, they're great.

[LINK] "Moonshine"

Charlie Stross tackles the idea that helium-3--an isotope of helium that supposedly will be good fuel for fusion reactors and, by virtue of its concentration on the lunar surface, could support space colonization--could, well, support space colonization.

Firstly, nobody's built a commercially successful fusion reactor yet. ITER plan to build a working test-bed; it's logical successor would be a working prototype first generation power reactor. There are huge obstacles to overcome, not least in developing neutron capture techniques and breeding D/T fuel; but there are gigantic engineering problems to overcome (sorry, annoying paywall). And that's before we look to a speculative second generation reactor, running on a different type of fuel, that — because of the higher Coulomb barrier between He nuclei — requires a far higher temperature (on the order of 500M to 1Bn degrees celsius, rather than the relatively chilly 100M degrees C required for D/T fusion).

Given the average generation time for a new reactor technology of 20-30 years, we won't be even thinking about prototyping an He3 reactor until 2060 at the earliest.

Secondly, there's
very little He 3 in the lunar regolith. The amount is non-zero, but we can also breed the stuff on Earth: Neutron bombardment of Lithium, Boron, or Nitrogen targets, or decay of Tritium are currently used. Breeding He 3 requires a high neutron flux, but unless the plan is to automagically shift us all over to a "clean" He 3 power cycle instantly, He 3 reactors will be coexisting with "dirty" high-flux fission or fusion reactors for many decades.

Is it really going to be cheaper to send monster trucks to the moon, than to build a couple of special-purpose high neutron flux reactors optimized for mass production of Tritium (and thereby for production of He3 as a decay product)?

He suggests that the fixation on helium-3--something I've blogged about in the past--as a way to pay for space colonization, to make it an economic endeavour as opposed to an ideological one, can't end well. I wonder: What economic incentive could work for space colonization?

[BRIEF NOTE] Globalization, counter-globalization

The Associated Press' "Malaysia central bank demands end to revival of ‘muslim currency’ dinar" caught my attention.

A Malaysian state's attempt to revive use of gold and silver coins common in early Islamic societies has run afoul of the country's central bank, which said Friday that local governments have no authority to issue their own currency.

The gold dinar and silver dirham coins provide an alternative to this Muslim-majority country's currency, the ringgit, in the northeastern state Kelantan, which is governed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, a conservative opposition group that promotes religious policies in its rule.

The gold dinar was the official currency of Muslim societies for centuries. The value of the coins used in Kelantan can fluctuate according to market prices, but officials say it remains a better alternative to currency affected by the U.S. dollar and other foreign currency.

Kelantan authorities also say the use of such coins is encouraged in the Quran.

State officials have produced coins worth about $630,000 for use at about 1,000 outlets in Kelantan's capital, said Nik Mahani Mohamad, executive director of Kelantan Golden Trade, which mints the coins.

“It's a great, great moment for Muslims,” Nik Mahani said. “We are providing an alternative means for the people to trade with.”

But the plan hit a snag when Malaysia's central bank said in a statement later Friday that the ringgit remained “the only currency that is the legal tender for payment of goods and services in Malaysia.”

The bank said it “has the sole right under the law to issue currency in Malaysia.” It was not immediately clear how the bank planned to block the use of the coins for transactions.

The Malaysian state of Kelantan's project--with its own official website, of course--besides illustrating the limits of Malaysian federalism, shows an interesting phenomenon. Like other east-coast state, Kelantan didn't benefit from the British colonial investment in local tin and rubber mines that built the upper-middle-income Malaysian economy (and its famously diverse population). Kelantan was left behind. How does it respond? By embracing another sort of economic globalization, this one rooted in Kelantan's particularly strong identification with Islam.

This isn't a viable project, as commenter Stude Ham at the above link notes.

gold prices also fluctuate since gold is a commodity traded in commodity exchanges and therefore highly subject to speculative and possibly unregulated transactions.

the same can be said for silver, and years ago everyone got badly burned with silver trading due to the speculative trades of the hunt brothers.

the price of gold today keeps rising... but that is due to forces which can best be described as highly speculative in these times of grave uncertainties.

therefore, circulating gold coins as currency solves no economic quandary.

Still, it's an interesting response: You can't get away from globalization, can you?

[BRIEF NOTE] Geocurrents on the regionalist origins of Pakistani jihadism

Geocurrents is a smart blog, examining and illustrating--not only literally--different issues around the world superbly. The issue examined most recently in Pakistani support for extremist groups. In his most recent post, Martin Lewis demonstrates how strong Pakistani national identity co-exists with strong regionalist and regional nationalist identities as shown by political support. In the first post in the series, Lewis mapped support for violent groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban by region and found something surprising.

The patterns revealed by the maps are consistent and unexpected. The Punjab, Pakistan’s core, is clearly revealed as its most radical province. News reports, however, more often associate extremism with Pakistan’s western periphery, especially the Pashtun northwest, which is the site of most violence. But the Pew data shows that most residents of Pashtun-majority Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa reject Jihad-oriented movements. (Attitudes in the Pashtun tribal districts along the Afghan border were not surveyed, and are probably much more extreme.) Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s rejection of radical Islamism is probably related to its constant exposure to bloodshed, which usually turns most people away from violent ideologies.

More difficult to explains is the relatively high levels of support for extremism in Punjab. Punjab dominates Pakistan, forming the demographic, cultural, and economic core of the country, with considerably higher levels of development than Sindh, Balochistan, or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Punjab’s 34 percent support for Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group that supposedly aims “to destroy the Indian republic and to annihilate Hinduism and Judaism,” does not bode well for the future of Pakistan.

Levels of human development are consistently higher in Punjab than elsewhere, so, why this support?

It comes down to Punjab's own divisions. The Punjab region has seen many divisions, being split between India and Pakistan upon independence. India's Punjab was later split between Sikh-majority Punjab and Hindu-majority Haryana, whereas Pakistan's Punjab has remained intact. However, southern Punjab is home to the Saraiki language, or what's at the very least a cluster of highly distinctive dialects of Punjabi and what is increasingly claimed by proponents of Seraiki statehood to be a language justifying the creation of a new state within Pakistan. Frustrated Seraiki identities might be expressing themselves in support for radical Islamism; compare the dissent of Kelantan from Malaysian norms I mentioned earlier today.

According to Bill Roggio, “South Punjab teems with radical mosques and madrassas, which are used to indoctrinate Pakistani youths to join the jihad. Tens of thousands of members of these terror groups who have gone through training camps are said to be active in South Punjab.” Why south Punjab would be so much more inclined to extremism than North Punjab – or any other part of Pakistan outside of the Tribal Areas – is an interesting matter. North Punjab is a more agriculturally productive and prosperous area than South Punjab, but correlations between poverty Islamic radicalism are generally weak. Deeper issues are almost certainly at play.

[. . .]

South Punjab, in other words, has long been a politically marginalized area, lacking the administrative structures of the modern state. Until recently, the region was even denied its own linguistic and cultural standing, treated merely as peripheral variant of the Punjabi norm. When the Pakistani state under the presidency of Zia began to push politicized Islam in the 1980s, the region’s antiquated political structures were unable to resist to the hard-core Islamist political networks. Dissatisfaction with the northern-dominated Punjabi provincial government and the Pakistani national government has no doubt aided the militants’ cause.

One Pakistani commentator opposed Seraiki statehood for multiple reasons. The opening it might give to terrorist groups was raised.

To add another spin to this issue, with terror networks already present in southern Punjab and trying to strengthen their grip in that area, raising such an issue at this precarious time can provide the opening which India, Israel and their allies may be looking for to build upon and create a kind of mayhem as they have created in Swat and Balochistan. This will provide them the luxury to recruit traitors at will in the name of “Islam and getting your own identity”, as they have done in Swat and Balochistan. This may very well lead to opening another alarming front of a troubling separatist movement to deal with for Pakistan army and the already crippled government of Pakistan.

Wouldn't it be a terrible irony if the reverse were true?

[LINK] "Binns lands plum patronage job in Boston"

Doug Saunders at Twitter shared the news that Pat Binns, former premier of Prince Edward Island from 1996 to 2007 as leader of the Progressive Conservative party, has not only been Canada's ambassador to Ireland for the past three years but is now Canada's Consul-General in Canada's Boston consulate. This article says everything about the way that Canada's diplomatic corps, at its very top, is as unprofessional as the United States'.

The tradition continues: This morning, the Harper government (through the department of foreign affairs) announced that former PEI Premier Pat Binns has been awarded a plum diplomatic appointment. He becomes consul-general of Boston. Binns became PEI premier in 1996 and served 11 years in that role. He ran for election again in 2007 but was trounced by the Opposition Liberals led by Robert Ghiz. Binns didn't have to wait long for something new to do. Three months later, in August of 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government announced that Binns would become ambassador to Ireland. Binns replaced a career diplomat. At the time, federal Liberals blasted Harper over the appointment, accusing him of being a hypocrite because he had always been critical of Liberal patronage.

In any event, Binns is coming back to North America to a city with strong Irish roots. He will replace another political appointee as consul-general in Boston -- Neil LeBlanc. He was appointed to the post in the summer of 2006. LeBlanc is a former Conservative politician and was Nova Scotia finance minister. In that case, Liberals were aghast but the government defended the appointment by saying that LeBlanc had lived in Boston as a child and had many "connections" in the area.

The Island's links with the "Boston States" have historically been strong. Nevertheless.

[LINK] "Will Aussies elect a childless woman as PM?"

Can any Australians (Australasians, even) reading this confirm this account suggesting a remarkable degree of hostility towards the incumbent Australian prime minister because of her non-traditional marital and family status? This certainly doesn't go along with my understanding of women's rights in Australia.

For Julia Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister, the election campaign was inevitably going to include some mention of her hair.

Not only is it the fate of every female public figure to defend her cut and colour, but for Ms. Gillard, whose boyfriend is a professional hairdresser, some discussion on the topic was unavoidable. However, what she might not have been prepared for was the reaction to her relationship with her mane man, now a styling-product sales representative.

You see, Ms. Gillard and Tim Mathieson live in sin. Not only are they not married, but the flamed-haired Prime Minister doesn't have children and, at the age of 48, isn't expected to change her mind.

The childless, unwed leader of the centre-left Labor Party has been battling these issues throughout the campaign leading up to the Aug. 21 vote, including accusations that she would not understand issues around families and parenting because she is, as one opposition senator once put it, “deliberately barren.”

The issue goes beyond the normal battle of the sexes in Ms. Gillard's campaign for the top job, which puts her up against conservative Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, 52, a married father of three.

The controversy is over her choice to skip being both a wife and mother – a double women are expected to strive for – and how uncomfortable that decision has made some people in Australia.

[. . .]

An Australian sex therapist chastised the Prime Minister's “marriage lite” status, writing in one newspaper: “As a popular role model for women, her lifestyle choice may influence other women into making big mistakes about their lives.”