Author Archive

Adventures in Journalism, Part I

The Daily Mail caption for this video is “Passenger films terrifying moment airliner dumps 20 tonnes of fuel over Saudi desert.”

Yes, it’s certainly terrifying.  No airliner in the entire history of aviation has ever had to dump fuel before!  It’s kind of a miracle that the aircraft designers anticipated this once-in-a-lifetime need, and built fuel dumping equipment into the airframe.  What visionaries!  What unbridled heroism!

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Adiós, Space Fence

While most news outlets were freaking out about killer pythons, the Japanese helo carrier, or the 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the US Air Force was quietly preparing to shut down Space Fence, one of the oldest but most productive parts of its space surveillance network.

It’s also one of the few facilities that can provide 24/7 “uncued detection” capability… which is nerd-speak for the ability to find things in orbit that nobody expected to be there (ie. space junk).  Contrary to what Hollywood likes to show you, it’s impossible to track every single object of space debris.  There are over half a million distinct objects, some smaller than a penny, and no one nation (or even group of nations) has enough radar or visual coverage to follow them all.  In fact, the US Space Surveillance Network has only 6 facilities worldwide dedicated to on-orbit detection and tracking; Space Fence was the largest and most effective of them, spanning the continent at the 33rd parallel.

space_surveillance_network

Space Fence is the red line stretching across North America

Why is the closure of this capability important, you ask?  It might be easier to have some visual reinforcement.

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STS-7 window impact

This is what a mere fleck of paint did to a cockpit window on OV-099 Challenger during the STS-7 mission, back in June of 1983.  The pit you see there is only 1mm in diameter, but remember that paint is probably the most innocuous bit of debris one can run into when travelling 17,580 miles an hour.   During STS-59, OV-105 Endeavour experienced similar window damage, and the object actually penetrated half of the window’s total depth.  That’s kind of a big deal.  Other STS missions have seen micro-collisions where objects have punched right through the orbiter’s silvery radiator panels.  Objects like this paint fleck are too small for Space Fence to detect and track, but there are literally hundreds of thousands of larger objects.

Despite being several decades old, Space Fence is still relevant today because it has a longer reach than most other sensors, and because it can do its work un-cued.  In other words, it detects without being specifically tasked to look for a known or unknown object in a given region of orbital space.  It is responsible for around 40% of the observations on the 23,000 objects the Department of Defense currently tracks.

Though part of a broader surveillance network, the VHF Space Fence is crucial because it can track objects up to 24,000 kilometers away. Other sensors in the network generally track objects at altitudes lower than a few thousand kilometers, [Brian Weeden, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability] said.

“The Space Fence is very important as it gives an ‘uncued tracking’ capability,” Weeden said. “Because it’s constantly transmitting, it can detect objects without being tasked to do so. There are some other sensors in the network that can do uncued tracking to some degree, but the Space Fence is rather unique in the sheer size of the detection coverage it has.”

Gruss, Mike.  Shelton Orders Shutdown of Space Fence.  SpaceNews, 6 August 2013.

Granted, the current Space Fence is a little long in the tooth and suffers the additional handicap of being based on 1960s technology.  Thanks to sequestration, not only is the current capability being forced to close, but its future replacement is also stuck in limbo—waiting for the Pentagon to decide what projects it can reasonably afford.  Meanwhile, there are about 500,000 debris objects too small (from 1-10cm in diameter) for the current space surveillance network to keep tabs on.  And their numbers will only increase.

 

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The Space Debris Story (2013)

A lengthy but informative 16-minute video on the growing challenges of orbital debris.

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The Mad Men aesthetic only seems cool

… if you forget how casually chauvinist the real-life ads were.  Like this one:

Toronto Week, p. 5. c. late 1960s-early 1970s.

A lame double entendre, followed by the execrable “Light enough for her.”  Because chicks can’t handle full-bodied single malts; their sissified GI tracts can only handle watered-down blended whiskies.

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Hero Worship, Part II

It’s no sin to be one of God’s beautiful creatures, nor to be married into a famous family.  But it’s kind of amazing that Sophie Grégoire made the cover of Chatelaine twice in three years.  The shame of it isn’t merely that at this point (October 2006), Justin Trudeau is simply a former high school drama teacher; it’s that a magazine which still pretends to embrace progressive causes has wasted the entirety of its interview on the minutiae of how Sophie met Justin.

Since September 2005, Mme. Grégoire had been Quebec correspondent for CTV’s eTalk entertainment news programme; the accompanying 6-page article contains exactly two paragraphs about her own career aspirations:

During her first year at Montreal’s McGill University, she studied commerce but switched to the Université de Montreal, where she graduated with a communications degree.  She then worked as an account manager at an ad agency, took another job selling advertising space for a Montreal magazine, and worked in PR.  Until recently, she was a personal shopper at Holt Renfrew, but wanted to shift into broadcasting, where she was doing spot gigs on the side.

Seven years ago, she landed her first break.  “I thought, My God, the camera loves her,” recalls Sylvain Chamberland, the Montreal executive who hired her for a local all-news channel doing two-minute entertainment spots.  He was struck by Sophie’s bouyant sense of self, an anti-cynic.  “She’s authentic,” says Chamberland, a vice-president for the communications giant Quebecor.  “Believe me, I’ve met a lot of phonies in this business.”

– Sanati, Maryam. “She made it all happen.”  Chatelaine, October 2006. p. 72.

There could have been an interesting story there (especially regarding the unusual shift from white-collar office work to retail), alas the rest is meet-cute and relationship fluff.  But then who wants to read about a woman’s boring career goals (and the struggle to attain them) when you can sigh over her dreamy husband instead?

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Canadian warships at NATO fleet review, 1969

Canadian Forces Sentinel, Vol. 5 No. 8. (back cover). September 1969, Directorate of Information Services, Canadian Forces Headquarters.

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Queen reviews NATO fleet, 1969

British Pathé: Queen reviews NATO fleet

Click image to see video at Pathé site

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Facta, non verba

The country’s news media are in a froth over the lurid, gory details of a bizarre murder case, certainly one of the most sensational in recent times. Luka Rocco Magnotta (a.k.a. Eric Clinton Newman), a 29-year old man from Scarborough, has apparently killed and dismembered 33-year-old Lin Jun, of Wuhan, China. Magnotta is alleged to have stabbed Jun with an ice pick, mutilated and sexually assaulted the cadaver, and then mailed bits of it to the headquarters of the federal Conservative and Liberal parties. Somehow a video of the murder and desecration ended up on a website specialising in “gore”; the site is owned by an Edmonton man, Mark Marek, but its servers are based in the United States.

I won’t bore you, dear readers, with a recitation of the litany one can find all over the internet and television; but in the churning torrents of spilled ink arrive a few tantalising bits of data that beg for elaboration.

The first is the tale of an American lawyer who claims to have seen the snuff video, notified both US and Canadian police about its contents, and been rebuffed. The lawyer was so affected by having seen the video that he attempted to contact every jurisdiction where Magnotta’s social media profiles indicated he had been, and Toronto was one such location. Our local police dispute the lawyer’s account of his efforts to notify them, and believe they acted appropriately based on the information they had at the time.

“Knowing what we do know now, perhaps we could have done more,” said [Kevin] Masterman. “But at the time, knowing what we knew then, we were satisfied with the response of the call taker.” [...]

“He was trying to let us know about the video,” conceded Masterman, a Toronto police media and communications co-ordinator, who said Renville’s call came in at 10:30 p.m. Sunday.

But Masterman insisted “the call was quite vague at the time.” A police switchboard operator spoke to Renville, recorded the call, and referred Renville to Crimestoppers, but did not transfer him to a police officer, said Masterman. He added police would not release any recording of the conversation.

[...]

Renville called Miami police (Magnotta appears in online photos in Miami), Denver FBI and police (Magnotta was believed to be a former roommate of a convicted prostitute killer in that city) and the national FBI crime and terrorism tip lines and got either no response, or bewildered responses. He admits it must have sounded like a “crazy report.”

He called Toronto police Sunday and says a woman took the call and transferred him to a man whom he understood to be an officer. “He suggested the video I saw must be a fake, it must be good special effects. It just didn’t make any sense for a fellow to videotape himself committing his crime, then load it on the Internet,” said Renville.

“I asked him to give me an email address to which I could send a link to the video and he said ‘no,’ they wouldn’t be needing a link to the video.”

Masterman denied Renville asked for an email address or offered to send the video link via email, suggesting Renville had spoken to so many others that he may be “confused” about details of his interaction with a Metro Toronto Police Services switchboard operator.

Masterman said Toronto police communications officials are “satisfied” with how the incident was handled, adding “in hindsight, there could have been other options, but knowing what they did at the time they’re satisfied with the response.”

– MacCharles, Tonda. “Luka Magnotta: Toronto police admit they “could have done more” when U.S. lawyer flagged disturbing video.” Toronto Star, 31 May 2012.

Optimistically, it may have been a missed opportunity; but apparently Mr. Renville did not express himself eloquently enough (nor provide enough probable cause) for the police to begin to connect the dots. It would not, in any event, have changed the outcome for the unfortunate victim, Lin Jun. But the really fascinating admission from police comes in the latter half of the Star article; and it’s interesting not because it relates specifically to this case, but to the future of policing and how the public interacts with them.

“We prefer that people call us. We don’t want to receive reports of crime over the Internet. We want to respond to reports right away. We don’t want the Internet as an alternate (sic) to 911.”

Masterman said the police service’s Facebook page is not monitored 24 hours a day seven days a week, and so if people try to report a crime in progress, “there’s no one there to talk to you right away.”

Renville says he also spoke to a receptionist at the Toronto Sun and emailed a Globe and Mail reporter, again to no avail.

“Frustrated, discouraged and distressed” by his inability to get it “on the radar of people who could do something about it,” Renville says he gave up Monday evening at his wife’s insistence, after three days.

– MacCharles, Tonda. “Luka Magnotta: Toronto police admit they “could have done more” when U.S. lawyer flagged disturbing video.” Toronto Star, 31 May 2012. [Emphasis mine]

The bolded part of the quotation is revealing, and not in a good way; it is nonsensical. Toronto police didn’t receive notification of the murder over the Internet, they received it via a good old-fashioned telephone call—which is, according to spokesman Masterman, their preferred avenue. Moreover, Mr. Masterman was being intentionally obtuse or disingenuous in his characterisation; Mr. Renville was not attempting to use the Internet as an alternate to 911. He was attempting to direct the police’s attention to the electronic record of a violent crime, not summon emergency services to intervene and save the victim’s life in the nick of time. Call me dense, but I think the police would be upset if you used 911 as your personal conduit for relaying evidence. Everything our emergency services have ever told us indicates that they’d like 911 to be reserved for cases where they might usefully respond to a real and present crisis, not an after-the-fact examination and dissection of evidence. This is exactly why the police fobbed off Mr. Renville on Crime Stoppers instead of 911; because they recognised that there was no emergency within their jurisdiction to be dispatched to.

The broader problem is that this particular case—featuring internet-based evidence of a violent crime—did not add up to something that smelled like probable cause, and that lack of cause suffocated any desire to spring into even modest investigative action. I understand the police’s attitude on this, and halfway agree that procuring good Net-derived evidence as the basis of probable cause can be fraught with frustration, delay and complication. Sifting through server and network activity logs, then coordinating your investigation with ISPs and IT staff at a dozen other nodes spread out across the country (and all its time zones) can be a giant pain in the ass. Add another layer of complexity if you have to deal with a foreign jurisdiction, its law enforcement entities and their dissimilar statutes and legal requirements. Add to that another significant hurdle; most law enforcement officers (and an overwhelming majority of their superiors) are not even remotely computer-savvy, so even a relatively modest challenge can appear to be as daunting as scaling Everest or K2.

But it’s a cold, hard fact that an increasing amount of our communication, commerce, productivity and entertainment takes place in the electronic ether—and that, dear friends in blue, will mean an increasing variety and volume of crimes whose evidence will have to be sourced from the net.

Now Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and a million other social media sites might exist as long as IBM, or they might fold up shop and cease to exist within a decade. But what is inarguable is that the basic concept of social media (i.e. interacting with a global audience in near-real-time on the net) is here to stay; and net-connected mobile computing on small handheld platforms doesn’t seem like it is likely to vanish anytime soon, either. One cannot help but ask whether the police ought to be taking a head-in-the-sand approach to social media; surely adapting with the times is a strategy more likely to pay dividends.

I understand the reliance on tried-and-true infrastructure like telephones. They’re highly regulated, generally tied to a single individual (or at least a discrete physical location), and our emergency services infrastructure is designed to take advantage of this. If the call is from a traditional land line, the address/location of the caller will appear to 911 dispatchers, whether or not the caller volunteers that information. This gives first responders a certain degree of confidence that they are headed to the right vicinity where an apparent emergency is underway, and if the call is false or spurious, it can also be billed or fined accordingly. But even this has changed, and phone lines are certainly not immune to spoofing; an enterprising gadfly with modest telecom knowledge, access to a VOIP service and proxies can impersonate another telephone number without significant difficulty. This is why we now have the phenomenon of SWATting; making a spurious call to police that results in the dispatch of a tactical team to a residence whose innocent occupants pose no risk to public safety, and are unaware that their domicile has been reported as the scene of a violent crime. This potentially life-threatening prank has already occurred in Toronto and Langley, BC. Phones are not the be-all and end-all of citizen contact with police.

It seems to me that as the volume and variety of our net-based activity increases, the need for police to be able to conduct meaningful interaction (incident reporting, patrols, investigation and evidence collection) there will also increase. If I were a chief of police or senior superintendent, I would start to plan for that eventuality now—instead of trying to force the public back into the comfortable old way of doing things. Believe me when I say I am a curmudgeon and skeptic of every hare-brained “the internet will make life magic” scheme. It won’t. But in the developed world, the internet is to the 21st century as the telephone was to the 20th—essential, integral; woven into the fabric of daily life. Maybe it’s time that our police learned how to use it.

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Hero Worship

Perhaps it’s a failing that comes with having a Y chromosome and a devil-may-care attitude, but your correspondent had never been particularly interested in Chatelaine magazine.  I was dimly aware of it, and only to the extent that it was the origin of some of my wife’s recipes.  Otherwise Chatelaine seemed to a creature of another era; a plodding dinosaur of fussy, uptight second-wave feminism that kids today would consider weaksauce.  I was a little bit surprised to discover it is also something of a house organ for doyennes of the Liberal Party:


Today, Justin Trudeau is a father of two, the Member of Parliament for Papineau and a noted amateur boxer.  But back in June of 2008, he was a former schoolteacher whose most notable event on the public stage was saying some nice things at his dad’s funeral.  The election which brought Justin to Parliament occurred 4 months after his wife, Sophie Grégoire, appeared on this cover of Chatelaine.  Ask yourself whether (absent the Trudeau surname) the wife and child of any other rookie political candidate—from any political party—would stand a chance of making the cover of the 3rd-highest-circulating Canadian magazine.

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So, how do they feel about it now?

In the dying days of the summer of 1978, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police were united in opposition to certain provisions of the Canadian Human Rights Act (1977), and the planned tabling of a freedom of information act (which did not pass the federal legislature until 1985, as the Access to Information Act).

Toronto Star, page A5, 2 September 1978. Click to enlarge image.

There are many knee-slapping howlers in this Canadian Press wire piece, but these are amongst my favourites:

The chiefs urged the government yesterday to increase, not decrease, protection of confidential police information, saying American police have virtually been put out of the terrorist-fighting business because of the Freedom of Information Act in the United States.

Yes, the territory formerly known as the United States of America collapsed into violence and anarchy less than a decade after the US Congress overrode President Lyndon Johnson’s veto of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966.  A series of UN missions have tried in vain to keep the peace between the various American warlords and breakaway states ever since.

The association said 85 per cent (7,700 cases) of requests for police information under the Human Rights Act have come from convicted criminals.

Sure.  Because law-abiding citizens have no business trying to keep the coercive power of the state out of their lives.

Somehow I doubt that official attitudes have changed very much in the intervening years.

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