Fidel Castro’s Letter to Franklin Roosevelt

November 27th, 2016

Fidel Castro died at the age of 90, on November 25, 2016. Years ago, I was assigned to write his biography for a German magazine. In it, I pointed out how Castro’s life convictions and personal values were shaped through youth experiences. But Castro didn’t initially grow up hating the United States or regarding it as an enemy. Quite the contrary, as a boy he was fascinated by America and by its revolutionary heritage.

Here’s a little curiosity from the United States National Archives. In 1940, a then 14-year old Fidel sent this jovial, handwritten, cheeky letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Curiously, the “received stamp” shows the exact day 76 years before Fidel Castro’s death.
Young Fidel did not receive a reply from President Roosevelt himself, but the record shows that an administrative pr0-forma acknowledgement was sent. Thirteen years later, Castro would be spearheading a revolution leading to the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

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Dear Linda and Paul

November 17th, 2016

In or around 1971, in the aftermath of the Beatles’ cantankerous breakup, Linda McCartney (Paul’s wife at the time) apparently wrote a scathing letter to John Lennon. His response re-surfaced at an auction in Boston in 2016. (Click to enlarge).

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Bad Hombre

November 8th, 2016

About 6 out of 10 Americans are heading for the polls today, bringing to an end the most uncivil and intellectually hollow presidential campaign season I have ever witnessed. In an effort to keep myself amused and entertained, I have created a special drink to celebrate the end of this onslaught. I shall call it: the Bad Hombre. Here’s the recipe:

BAD HOMBRE

1 oz tequila
Fresh lime juice
Mexican beer (lager style, well chilled)
Slice of lime
Tabatío sauce

In a mug, pour tequila over ice cubes. Add a lime juice and a dash of Tabatío. Very slowly top with beer and stir very gently. Garnish with a slice of lime.

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Please don’t drink and drive!

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Halloween 2016

October 31st, 2016

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“Bride Mannikin”, 1961
Artwork: Claes Oldenburg    Photography: Reinhard Kargl

 

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Strange Object Flying Toward SpaceX Rocket Before Catastrophe

September 2nd, 2016

I have seen a lot of film footage of exploding rockets. (They were quite numerous in the early days of spaceflight). But I’ve never seen anything like the incident that destroyed a SpaceX Flacon 9 at the launch pad at Cape Canaveral on September 1.

I’ve replayed the video provided by USLaunchReport.com over and over, slowed in down, and examined every frame leading up to the event. It seems quite clear that something exploded near the 2nd stage umbilical, which then ripped apart a tank. This happened extremely fast. After the initial explosion, fuel and oxygen can be seen gushing out, rushing down and igniting into a fiery cascade. The initial explosion’s flash was so bright and strong that its reflections can even be seen in the spherical tank sitting on the ground, quite a distance away from the rocket.

But I also noticed a puzzling detail. There’s a strange object moving very rapidly toward the rocket! It doesn’t hit the rocket, but it can still be seen in the air with the initial explosion already in progress.

See for yourself. Here are three frames in sequence. (The time bar does not reflect real time).  I’ve marked the object with an arrow.

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What is this? An extremely fast-moving aircraft in the far distance? This should be easy to verify or discount. Or perhaps a bird moving rapidly between rocket and camera? This would have been a very fast bird, flying in a perfectly straight line and without a visible wing flap.

All other options I could come up with would be rather sinister — such as a drone or some kind of weapon.

Any other ideas? E-mail me and let me know!

 

 

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What Goes Up Must Come Down

December 23rd, 2015

Vertically landing rockets have been a staple in science fiction for a long time:

And in the 1960s, Wernher von Braun’s Saturn team was already intensely thinking about outfitting future versions of the Saturn V with reusable stages. Among the many concepts studied were a winged flyback version and a parachute-assisted return. Unfortunately, these ambitions never went beyond the drawing stages. While closing down the Apollo program, NASA made the fateful (and as we now know, mistaken) decision to pursue the Space Shuttle as NASA’s exclusive launch vehicle. The vehemently protesting Wernher on Braun was sidelined and “kicked up” into a senior administrative position with little real decision making power. (Disappointed and unsatisfied, he left NASA a few years later). Since then, astronauts have been confined to low Earth orbit, going essentially nowhere but in circles.

It took almost five decades for the reusable rocket concept to return and become reality, and it was neither NASA nor any other national space program, but two private companies which accomplished the first proof-of-concept.

In November 2015, Blue Origin had successfully landed an experimental test rocket at its launch site in West Texas. It plans to use the rocket again. And on December 21, 2015, California based SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket to space while returning and landing the rocket’s 1st stage to the launch site for a powered, vertical landing.  For the first time a rocket has been successfully landed during a commercial satellite launch.

The concepts used by the two companies are very different, as illustrated here:

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The end result result of the SpaceX flight is certainly stunning and resembles what science fiction described so many decades ago:

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It now remains to be seen if recovering and refurbishing an entire rocket stage and its engines is indeed cheaper than building a new one — something that hasn’t been tried on a commercial scale. But if Wernher von Braun was right (and he usually was), this should be the way to go.

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Mark Twain’s 180th Birthday

November 30th, 2015
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Mark Twain, detail of photo by Mathew Brady, February 7, 1871

Today I am celebrating the 180th birthday of one of my favorite personalities: printer, typesetter, journalist, humorist, philosopher, businessman, lecturer, world traveler, family man, passionate American, and of course, author Samuel Longhorn Clemens (M:.M:.), better known under one of his pen names, “Mark Twain”. (Clemens also wrote under the name of “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass”).

Twain had a great interest in the sciences, among them astronomy. (He was born in the year of Comet Halley’s appearance in 1835, and just as he predicted, he died in the year of the comet’s subsequent appearance of 1910). In his autobiography, he wrote:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ “

Lesser known among Twain’s many other talents and pursuits is that he was also an ardent inventor and innovator — who earned (and lost) fortunes with his patents and contraptions, going from great wealth to bankruptcy and back to wealth several times in his life. Among other things, he invented a history trivia game and a self-pasting scrapbook, which earned him $50,000 in the years after 1873.

Twain was also quite a lady’s man, and one of his inventions, the “Improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” (U.S. Patent 121992 A, Dec 19, 1871) must have made interesting dinner conversation in Victorian houses.

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Death In America

November 12th, 2015

The way many people around the world perceive it, the United States is a nation where bodies are piling up because Americans are constantly shooting each other. And of course, the reason is supposed to be a crazy lack of gun control laws. Chalk this perception up to the junk press and to the nature of the news media business. In the Internet age, the unbiased reporting of nuanced and complicated facts isn’t nearly as lucrative as tucking on heartstrings to generate clicks, shares, likes and comments on social media.

In reality, gun-related deaths in America have been declining for decades. They are now at the lowest level in three decades. And, gun deaths are not even among the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. These are, according to the official CDC data:

Heart disease: 611,105

Cancer: 584,881

Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205

Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557

Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978

Alzheimer’s disease: 84,767

Diabetes: 75,578

Influenza and Pneumonia: 56,979

Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 47,112

Intentional self-harm (suicide): 41,149

(Source: Deaths: Final Data for 2013, table 10)

The biggest contributing factors to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and respiratory disease are obesity and smoking, which are personal choices. It has been estimated that no less than 50% of the total U.S. health care spending is the result of smoking and obesity. Suicide, the 10th most common cause of death in the U.S., outnumbers homicide two to one.

Of course, telling people that their lifestyle sucks doesn’t generate much media revenue. But outraged reports about gun carnage, school shootings and psychopathic killers does the trick!

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Halloween 2015

October 31st, 2015

Following tradition, here’s my annual Halloween photograph. Camera: iPhone. Effects: iPhoto, Photoshop. Model: Unknown).

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(click to enlarge)

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World Press Freedom Index 2015

September 3rd, 2015



Reporters Without Borders said it had found a “worrying decline” in the freedom of the press in 2014 across the world, and that the EU had received its largest ever spread of rankings.

The World Press Freedom Index has been published ever year since 2002 by Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit organisation registered in France that defends freedom of information and has consultative status with the United Nations and UNESCO.

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