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Destroying the past

Your correspondent would not characterise himself as a fan of the Prophet Mohammed; let us say merely that the man’s understanding of the Divine is at odds with our own experience.

That said, defacing a 900-year-old mosque isn’t just insulting to Muslims, it’s an assault upon humanity’s shared heritage.  Harming the centuries-old relics of a religion at odds with one’s own can hardly erase past history, and the effort says less about the evils of the target than it does about the mind of the perpetrator.  The world didn’t enjoy this sort of thing when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas back in 2001; it’s not any more entertaining or worthy when others try their hand at it.

Category: Historica  Tags:  Comments off


Amnesty International prides itself on being a non-partisan, non-sectarian campaigner for human rights, an advocate for the oppressed. And certainly at its foundation (and for much of its history) that was indeed its goal. But one can be forgiven for thinking that it in recent years it has experienced a certain drift toward the partisan—focusing on the motes of dust [1, 2] in the eyes of reasonably well-behaved nations, rather than the planks in the eyes of egregious abusers.

For example, a woman was executed for “witchcraft and sorcery” in Saudi Arabia yesterday—actually the second person in the kingdom to be executed for that crime this year. The woman (with the rather lengthy moniker of Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser) was in her 60s, and had been arrested way back in 2009. According to the Saudi religious police, she tricked people into giving her money and claimed to be able to cure their illnesses; a crime that might more properly be characterised as fraud, which doesn’t carry the death penalty upon conviction in most jurisdictions.

But the human rights group Amnesty International, which has campaigned for Saudis previously sentenced to death on sorcery charges, said it had never heard of her case until now, he adds.

A Sudanese man was executed in September on similar charges, despite calls led by Amnesty for his release.

— “Saudi woman executed for ‘witchcraft and sorcery’.” BBC News, 12 December 2011.

What’s Amnesty International doing this month? Lecturing the world on how George Bush ought to be arrested. Well, what’s the life of an elderly Saudi woman when there’s a class enemy to be persecuted?

UPDATE: Richard A. Clarke, counterterrorism advisor to three presidents, notes in his 2004 memoir Against All Enemies that Clinton and Gore were the first US administration to ignore the objections of their legal counsel and authorise extraordinary rendition against employers of terrorism.

While Amnesty International called for investigations into alleged war crimes during the 1999 Allied Force campaign against Serbia, it has thus far neglected to call for Clinton’s arrest, despite originating the practices that the NGO objects to in Bush’s case.

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The Screen Traveller: Hong Kong, Gateway to China (1938)

Here is an 11-minute travelogue showing the colony in happy times, 3 years prior to hostilities in the Second World War.

On November 16th, 1941, Canadian reinforcements from the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada arrived in Hong Kong to bolster the colony’s garrison. The Japanese launched their invasion on December 8th, and three days later, D Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers became the first Canadian Army unit to see ground combat in the Second World War.

CBC has an interesting audio account from survivors of the battle, along with some interesting nuggets of information. Perhaps most illuminating is the fact that more Canadians sent to Hong Kong died as prisoners of war (550+) than in the fighting (290).

Category: Historica  Tags:  Comments off

The curious case of the RQ-170

When dealing with the news organs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, one can never go too wrong by taking their claims with a liberal pinch of salt. The regime has a long and storied history of making outlandish (if not patently false) claims about its military prowess and capabilities—to engender, one presumes, a feeling of patriotism and camaraderie amongst the hometown crowd. Sometimes they even manage to sell these knee-slapping fabrications to the more credulous members of the world media; other times even the journalists are laughing into their sleeves.

"Stealthy" Saegheh fighter, an F-5 variant. Sept 2006.

Doctored photo of Scud C & Shahab 3A missile test, Apr 2008.

Bavar 2 "radar evading" wing in ground effect craft, Sept 2010.


It’s hard not to smile at the jaw-dropping audacity of the Iranian state media, so earnestly peddling the official fictions of the defence ministry. The most egregious embellishments—regarding the doctored photo of a missile test, the Saegheh‘s supposed stealth capabilities, and the “radar evading”, very lightly armed wing-in-ground-effect Bavar 2 craft—are also so unnecessary. Few people outside of Iran would actually believe the defence ministry’s overly optimistic statements.

So when one hears the news that Iran has miraculously acquired an American RQ-170 reconnaissance drone—in reasonably good condition—the immediate response must certainly be scepticism. The doubts are doubled when one learns that the Iranians have changed their story—at first claiming the drone was shot down, then claiming that they had taken command of it and forced it to land, mostly intact.

Still, the thing shown on Iranian TV looks an awful lot like an RQ-170, and some unnamed source who had no qualms about spilling the beans to CBS News claimed it was the genuine article, so… maybe it is?

Hard to say one way or other, based solely on the video. The Aviationist has a half-dozen higher-quality still images, over which one can puzzle and hunt for additional clues. The first thing your correspondent did was grab a nearly head-on shot and crank up the brightness, in order to see whether anything lurked behind the grill covering the engine inlet.

Engine inlet with brightness increased substantially.

If it’s a model or a mock-up, it was at least built by someone who had the foresight to include detail behind the grill; something that seems like it ought to lead to a turbine and compressor blades.

There’s plenty else, though, that doesn’t add up—hence my ambivalence. Instead of the medium blue-grey paint common to USAF aircraft, this drone sports a yellow-beige colour familiar to anyone who’s built an epoxy model kit. Then there’s the duct-tape-like adhesive covering breaks in the wings just outboard of the topside fairings. If the aircraft had been shot down, then showing it in a damaged state ought not to have been an issue. If it had been landed by Iranians after a successful cyberattack, one could also forgive a multitude of bumps and scrapes; the Iranian pilot, after all, wouldn’t know the particular handling qualities of that aircraft type. Nor would he have been presented with many prior opportunities to refine his descent profile and landing technique. Even if the thing had to be cut into thirds for transport, what would be the point in making such a sloppy repair job visible to the television audience?

The claim to have taken control of the drone is entirely spurious. In years past there have been media accounts of insurgents bootlegging Predator video feeds, but it’s important to note that what the insurgents saw was just the ISR output. The command and control signals are encrypted to prevent the sort of cyberattacks that Iran is trying to claim it can execute. I have no doubt that Iran could purchase jammers of adequate range and power, but this would merely cause the drone to fall back upon its loss-of-signal protocol.

The Pentagon confirms they lost contact with a drone last week, and that its last known position and heading would have brought it down just inside Iran. But this too presents problems. All military drones of a certain size have a Flight Termination System (or FTS)—which, in the dry parlance of the DoD, is designed to put an uncontrolled / hazard aircraft in a zero lift, zero thrust condition via some kind of destructive mechanism. The more expensive sorts of drones (and especially the high-altitude kind who must rely on SATCOM for their C2 signals) have less catastrophic safeguards, too. Their loss of signal protocol is to climb to best comm altitude and return to base (or designated orbit point) while trying to re-establish the C2 link and positive control.  This has been relatively standard practice for the larger UAVs, and was successfully implemented in 2002’s X-45 program; it’s hard to believe later designs don’t also incorporate these safeguards.

Last week when this RQ-170 lost contact with its ground-based pilots, it ought to have turned around to come back to the barn. That it apparently did not (and now has a starring role on Iranian television) presents more questions than your correspondent could presume to answer. But perhaps the biggest is how—absent any positive control from the ground—would it manage to come down in such an intact state? The RQ-170 is believed to have an operating ceiling of 50,000 feet, and perhaps more usually inhabits the slightly less rarified altitudes common to long-haul airliners and fast business jets. Descending safely from such a height is not beyond the realm of possibility—the drone may have entered either a flat spin or a “falling leaf” stall, robbing it of much forward and vertical velocity, but arriving unscathed on the ground after such an occurrence would be exceedingly rare and unlikely.

I don’t know what to think, to be honest, but it will be fascinating to learn the truth one day.

Much Ado About Nothing

Celebrities live out their lives in upon the lighted stage, and are frequently inclined do things that might get ordinary civilians shamed or fired.  So it’s always entertaining when one these gilded Icaruses veers into the scorching rays of hypocrisy, as in the matter of 22-year-old Paulina Gretzky’s suddenly redacted Twitter feed.

Many responsible news organs (Globe & Mail, National Post, CBC, CTV—all of whom really ought to know better) repeated the speculation that this was somehow engineered by paterfamilias Wayne Gretzky, who was allegedly displeased by the racy photos made public by his daughter.  To be fair, this supposition and the subsequent media frenzy was initiated by the young lady’s own tweeted revelation: “Having a nice sit down dinner with my dad about social media..haha #SIKEEE [sic]”

If this is in fact the truth of the matter, then I will not stop laughing for a week.  Here for your own examination are a selection of photos culled from Ms. Gretzky’s feed; I have deliberately selected the most revealing—which for our purposes might be called the most “racy”.


I grant that none of these poses would be commonplace amongst the Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union, but neither is Ms. Gretzky displaying more of herself than one would for sunbathing in the presence of families at Kew Beach.

No father is bound to greet his daughter’s blossoming sexuality with anything like cheer, but Paulina is 22 after all, and by law, an adult.  Whatever she chooses to put out there is, for better or worse, her own decision.

The supposed displeasure of Paulina’s famous dad is all the richer because of the ah, road to fame taken by her mother, Janet Gretzky—or as the readers of the March 1987 edition of Playboy would know her, Janet Jones.  Here, for purposes of comparison, is a brief selection of photos of the then-26-year-old Ms. Jones.

NOTE: Links to these images will be deprecated after 15 days to protect the copyright of the original publisher.


I leave it to you, the discerning reader, to determine which is the more prurient in nature.

1987 was also the year that Wayne Gretzky ended a seven-year relationship with Canadian singer Vikki Moss.  Details are a little hazy as to whether things with Moss had officially ended before or after the fateful Gretzky-Jones meeting at an L.A. Lakers game.  According to the 19 February 1997 episode of Howard Stern’s radio show, Gretzky and Jones hit it off right away, and consummated the relationship that very night.  Author Stephen Brunt has chronicled the essential elements:

It happened fast—as he would confess to radio DJ Howard Stern a few years later, everything happened very fast.  (“That’s why they call you The Great One,” Stern said.)  There was a post-game dinner at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley with Thicke and a few of his friends.  (Two years later, when Jones and Gretzky were married in Edmonton, Thicke brought the chairs from the restaurant where they had sat that first night, and gave them as a wedding present.)  The next morning, Gretzky phoned one of his buddies.  “You’re not going to believe this,” he said.  “You know that chick from The Flamingo Kid?”  Soon enough, Moss was history, and at the training camp for the Canada Cup tournament the following September, Gretzky went public with the fact that there was a new woman in his life (which, in Edmonton at least, was treated as very big news).

— Brunt, Stephen.  Gretzky’s Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed.  Toronto: Random House of Canada, 2010. Print.  p. 100.

We may surmise, then, that Gretzky pater did not find it objectionable that his future bride disrobed for a men’s magazine—to say nothing of getting intimate on the first date.  I would also like to enter into evidence Janet Jones’ 1998 interview with Sports Illustrated‘s Jeff Pearlman:

Right before the nuptials, newspapers asked Wayne about the March 1987 issue of Playboy, the cover of which was graced by his nearly naked bride-to-be. (“You can’t see anything,” he said at the time. “I showed it to my mother; she loved it.”) That wasn’t good enough for the press. What was she thinking, they cried? Where were her morals’?

— Pearlman, Jeff.  “A Tough Post-nup.”  Sports Illustrated, 20 February 1998.

As something of a curmudgeon, I lean toward the cynic’s view that Paulina Gretzky’s Twitter shutdown was a calculated effort to gain attention for the lacklustre offspring of a famous parent.  Otherwise, one would have to conclude that Wayne Gretzky is a patronising hypocrite, lecturing his adult daughter about the very liberties that he and his wife were happy to exploit for their own benefit.

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Desert Birds by Werner Bartsch

The Mojave and Sonoran deserts are home to a variety of civil and military aircraft “boneyards”—vast storage areas for craft too old or expensive to fly.  Most airplanes that find themselves in such a location will be recycled in one way or another.  Either a decades-long living death, cannibalised by parts for still-flying brethren, or—when there are no useful organs left to transplant—they may be cut up for scrap.

German photographer Werner Bartsch has taken a journey through these boneyards and amassed a collection of pretty, melancholic images.  These were published in the book Desert Birds, whose first edition was released in Europe in October of 2010; the North American release is scheduled for September of 2011.

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