Mystery Explosion Over Sverdlovsk

November 19th, 2014

I am intrigued by dashcam footage showing a huge flash of light in the night sky near Ekaterinburg in Russia’s Sverdlosvk region. The video was reportedly taken on November 14 and made its way to Russian TV. Since then, others eyewitness reports have come in.

Perhaps the most likely cause would be a meteor similar to the Chelyabinsk event of February 2013. Except – this one looked very different. See for yourself:

Very strange. This reminds me of images and footage of the high-altude nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. and Soviets in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Starfish_Prime_aurora_from_Honolulu_1

The Starfish Prime shot, July 9, 1962. Yield: 1.4 Mt. Detonation altitude: 400 km.

If I counted correctly, there were 17 high altitude detonations (and 4 failures), ranging from just over 1 kiloton to 1.4 megatons, at altitudes between 23 and 540 km.  The results were partially unexpected but scientifically most fascinating. Many details are kept secret until today.

The era of these tests did not last long. The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 was expanded by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which banned the stationing and use of nuclear weapons in space. Effective today, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996 prohibits signatories from detonating any kind of nuclear device – although ratification and compliance remains a problem.

Given the current political tensions between Russia, the U.S. and Europe – would any nation capable of doing so dare to violate the treaties? Without doubt, some aspects of such tests would be scientifically enticing, but there are rather unattractive radiological side effects. And, the political fallout would be as bad or worse than the radioactive kind.

At some point, Russia might begin to argue that the earlier treaties no longer apply, because they were entered into by its predecessor the Soviet Union. But at least, Russia has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and ratified it in 2000, whereas the U.S. only signed in 1996, but failed to ratify until today.

And then there are the technological risks. The tests 5 decades ago fried several satellites with radiation and created artificial radiation belts with astounding staying power. Electromagnetic pulses disrupted ground installations and caused quite a bit of damage. Today, we have thousands of satellites and a manned space station in orbit, so the effects of a nuclear detonation could be a lot more severe.

All this leads me to hypothesize that if the Ekaterinburg-event was indeed a secret weapons test of some sort, it would have been something entirely new and exotic, and most likely non-nuclear. On the other hand, the “meteorite” explanation does not satisfy my curiosity either.

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Halloween

October 31st, 2014

Following tradition, here is my annual Halloween photograph. (Thanks go to Randy for modeling).

IMG_2695

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100 Years Ago, Europe (And The World) Went Mad

July 28th, 2014

100 years ago today, the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire declared war on Serbia. Russia sided with Serbia; the German Empire sided with the Habsburgs. France was requested to remain neutral but refused a clear reply, thereby leaving the German command unable to set up its deployment strategy. As a consequence, a declaration of war was propounded on France. And German troops marched into Luxembourg. Belgium also refused German troops to cross its territory on the path to France, and was served a declaration of war as well. The British Empire, irate that Belgian neutrality had been violated, declared war on the German Empire.

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And thus, what began as miscalculation and miscommunication all of a sudden turned into a global hellfire which consumed at least 17 million people and destroyed the British, German and Habsburg (Austrian) Empires. Almost nobody had seen it coming.

It was more than one “Great War” (as it was known then). Long after the guns fell silent four years later, a freshly divided and chopped up Europe lay in turmoil. The new nation states, artificially decreed, and haphazardly concocted from the rubble of former aristocratic empires, soon turned into uncoordinated, unsustainable economies and failed states. This in turn set the stage for economic despair, political division and the rise of anti-semitism, totalitarianism, communism and fascism.

Today, not enough time has passed to easily see the big picture. Many still view World War I, World War II, the Cold War and their multitude of ugly side shows of human perversion as separate events. But I believe all of this was part of an interconnected, complex greater picture — a dark era consuming much of 20th Century Europe.

Sadly, I know only little of the fate of my own ancestors in WW-1. What I do know is that my grandmother had eight male siblings, all of whom were mobilized and sent to war. Those who returned came back traumatized, injured, sick, and suffering for the remainder of their lives. All had departed thinking that it would just be a matter of weeks. Nobody expected what it would turn into.

My grandmother was still a minor, yet she was sent to work in a military hospital, while also taking care of  brothers home from the front on medical leave, and doing much of the household.

There was little talk about it, as the older generation believed that children should be spared the stories of war and destruction. And I was too young to ask the right questions while my grandparents were still alive.

Perhaps one day I will take time off to look through family archives and try to learn and reconstruct some of what has been lost.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_war_i
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties

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Rooftop Views Of Downtown Los Angeles

July 28th, 2014

Ever wondered what the concrete jungle of Downtown Los Angeles looks like to the birds? Ian Wood has captured this video using a small drone:

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Young Johannes Brahms in 1853

May 24th, 2014

I came across this somewhat rare picture of the German computer Johnannes Brahms (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897), taken in 1853.

Johannes Brahms, 1853

Johannes Brahms, 1853

Brahms was 20 years old at the time the picture was taken. Photographer and location are unknown, but 1853 turned out to be the year of fate for Brahms. All in that same year, he went on his first musical tour as accompanist for the Hungarian violinist  Eduard Reményi. In Weimar, one of the cultural capitals of Europe at the time, Brahms met  Franz LisztPeter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff. Falling asleep during a Liszt concert, young Brahms caused ill feelings and was fired as a result.

After a foot journey through the Rhineland, Brahms took the train to Düsseldorf to meet  Robert Schumann, at whose house he showed up unannounced. Schumann recognized his talent and invited the youngster to stay for a while. Brahms proceeded to fall madly in love with Schumann’s wife, Clara who was 14 years older than him and had 7 kids, with one more on the way.

A few months later, in early 1854 Schumann became mentally ill. After a suicide attempt in February, he was taken to a mental institution in Bonn, where he was confined for the two remaining years of his life. Torn between loyalty for Schumann and his feelings for Clara, Brahms continued to live in their house in Düsseldorf until shortly after Schumann’s death on July 29, 1856 at the age of 46.

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms carried on a very extensive correspondence over the years. Although Brahms asked for the letters to be destroyed, quite a few have survived and have been published, though they represent only a fragmented account of the complex relationship between Clara and Johannes.

Johannes Brahms went on to become one of the the world’s most famous and influential composers.

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Another Consumer Trap: “Late Fee” For Paying Too Early

April 11th, 2014

I was rather surprised to find a $35 “late fee” on a credit card statement. A quick lookup confirmed that I had made the required monthly payment well ahead of time.

Somewhat fuming, I called customer service. My monthly online payment had indeed arrived before the due date. In fact, it was so early that it had arrived before the actual “closing date” for the month. Therefore, it did not count as monthly payment, and the system treated this as if I had made no payment at all. Hence, the so-called “late fee”.

What this means is that in essence, consumers are assessed “late” fees for paying in advance. 

The tricky bit here is that this “closing date” is somewhat nebulous. It varies by several days from month to month, and special rules seem to apply if it happens to fall on Sundays or certain holidays. From whatever the “closing date” of the month is, I am allowed two weeks to post a payment before incurring a late charge. Payments made outside of this 2-week window will incur a fee.

Let’s go old school. Let’s say the mail takes 3 days to deliver the statement, and three days to deliver the payment. If there’s a weekend or holiday in between, this may leave just about 5 business days to check the statement and send off the bill.

Ah, that’s why we have online access, right? But if I’m frequently checking my account online (which seems like a sensible security measure), I will tend to look at my transactions as a timeline, but not as pictorial representation of an actual statement. And so, the actual “closing date” is likely to escape my attention.

What if you travel and wish to pre-pay because you might not have secure online access while traveling? Or you may want to get the payment off your mind before you depart? Or, if you carry a balance, you might want to reduce your interest payments?

You must still pay within the narrow window between the “closing date” and the “due date”, something not quite explained in the service agreement. (This undoubtedly lucrative trap should be disclosed as an “early payment fee”).

In my case, the credit card rep was kind enough to reverse the charge as a one-time curtesy. But, if I make the mistake of paying too early again, the penalty will stick. Not only that, it will go up to $37 in June.

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My Take On The Mystery Of Flight MH370

March 18th, 2014

My attention has been gripped by the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. To begin with, it is exceedingly rare for a modern jetliner to just vanish over the ocean without making a distress call. (But it did happen in 2009: Air France Flight AF447).

And yet, MH370 is even stranger. Just like with AF447, there was no distress signal. Flight controllers only suspected a problem after the plane failed to respond at an expected time. In the case of AF447, investigators pulled the plane’s automated ACARS transmission data and realized the plane had been in big trouble. By contrast, the last available ACARS data from MH370 report nothing unusual at all. Then, they terminate.

Of course, once air traffic control recognized the plane as missing, the initial search activity was conducted along the scheduled route. A failure to find anything could have meant the flight never went that way, or that widely dispersed wreckage and fuel oil slick on the water had simply been overlooked.

But within days, news surfaced about the plane’s radar transponders and automated communications gear not functioning. Apparently, these systems went down minutes before the last voice transmission was made. This is very odd indeed, because if these systems malfunction, both pilots would see warnings on their screens, and yet, the last voice transmission indicates nothing unusual.

This was followed by revelations that INMARSAT data indicate the plane was still airborne at least 7 hours after takeoff, but not along its planned route. Meanwhile, uncorroborated reports suggested the plane had been spotted by military radars in airspace not listed in the flight plan. And, there have been claims that the plane first rose unexpectedly to 45,000 feet (which is almost impossible with a heavy fuel load and certainly dangerous, since it could make the plane unstable and stall). Then, the plane is said to have descended to as low as 5,000 feet, which (if done deliberately) would have seriously compromised its range.

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Did someone turn off ACARS, the radar transponders and radio-based navigation systems to deliberately produce “radio silence” – the way it has often been done in military flying? (Then why wasn’t the satellite link severed as well?)

Much has been made of the fact that civilian and even military radar coverage in the region is not what one might expect. There are gaps, and a knowledgable pilot could have navigated without detection. I assume the pilot could have used of a handheld GPS device after turning off the plane’s built-in ADS-B. But to avoid radar, the pilot might have to descend at the expense of range and speed.

Given its fuel load, a quick look at the map shows that the Beijing-bound Boeing 777 could have reached as far as India, Pakistan and perhaps even North Korea – at least at optimal cruising altitude. But certainly not at prolonged flying at low, ground radar evading altitudes.

Adding to the mystery are the two people at the controls: Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah (53) and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid (27). Both have been exposed on Australian TV for unprofessional conduct in the cockpit. And Mr. Shah was apparently a critic of Malaysia’s regime and supporter of the controversial opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Both pilots were Muslims, although no information has been made public indicating any link to Islamic extremism.

Many theories have been put forth. But in my opinion, each of them has serious flaws.

Conservative engineering and redundancies mean that modern jetliners very rarely crash as a result of one single cause. In almost every disaster, there are many contributing factors and a series of interconnected failures. It is strange that so far, not a single indication for any sort of such problem has been found.

One interesting theory I have read would have something on the plane catch fire shortly after the last voice transmission at 1h19 local time. At that exact time, Hamid transmitted a standard “good night”, suggesting everything was peachy.

Here’s the theory: Shortly thereafter, smoke fills the cockpit. The pilots may struggle with smoke hoods while trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Perhaps they make a last ditch effort to climb in order to starve the fire of oxygen, but stall out at 45,000 feet. One of them takes the plane into a recovery dive, while the other reprograms the autopilot for the best possible runway he can come up with.

Shortly thereafter, both pilots lose consciousness before being able to issue a distress call. The autopilot guides the plane out over the Indian Ocean. At this point it is essentially a zombie plane flying itself. Eventually, electrical failures disable the control surfaces. The aircraft becomes unstable and goes down. (See: “A Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet”, by Chris Goodfellow).

Sounds compelling, but this does not sufficiently explain why ACARS went offline at 1h07 (if that is indeed the case), without either of the pilots noticing a warning — fully 12 minutes before Hamid’s final “good night”. [Update 2014-04-11: The Malaysian civil aviation authority later confirmed to Reuters: “We would like to confirm that the last conversation in the transcript between the air traffic controller and the cockpit is at 0119 (Malaysian Time) and is “Good night Malaysian three seven zero.”]

The other possibility is of course foul play in one form or another.

As you might imagine, the Internet has lit up with all kinds of conspiracy theories, but there is just too much speculation to give credence to any of them.

On the other hand, the two most obvious terrorism scenarios are also problematic.

If a suicidal terrorist-pilot wants to crash a plane and murder all passengers, he can do so. (This has happened in the past. For instance: Egypt Air Flight  MS990/MSR990). If he is a sole proprietor, he’d first need to knock out the other pilot. A determined individual can accomplish this by a variety of means. But then, there’s no need to fiddle with communications gear, unless the purpose is to make the plane (or the wreck) disappear.

This leaves the possibility of a meticulously prepared and cleverly orchestrated hijacking – a cunning, dramatic plan never seen before, taking the world by surprise. Far fetched? Well, so was 9-11.

And why has nobody claimed responsibility? Well, nobody did after 9-11. For some time after, the origins were (and to some degree are) still a mystery the world is hungry to hear about.

Terrorism is mainly psychological warfare.

The aim of the 9-11 attack was not simply destruction, but to generate maximum psychological impact. This can only be enhanced by a strong global media response. The painstakingly difficult investigation after the 9-11 attack, the missing pieces of information, the mysteries and loose ends all inevitably led to wild public speculation and theories. This was, of course, what the terrorists had hoped for.

It is a miscalculation to assume that terrorists would always be quick to claim credit. In the case of something truly dramatic, not fessing up and letting the world engage in wild speculation serves to maximize global attention.

If MH370 had quickly been found to be a suicide pilot, sabotage or a bombing causing the certain doom of all passengers, it would quickly fade from global consciousness, just like Egypt Air Flight  MS990/MSR990.

A mystery, on the other hand, can live on forever. And aviation mysteries seem to be especially predestined to capture global attention for a long time. Let’s assume the wreckage of Flight MH370 is not found in our lifetime. Then, future generations would carry on the search the way we now still wonder about Amelia Earhart, even though her last flight was only one of many to crash on similar endeavors, and even though Earhart was not even a highly competent pilot by comparison.

A more adventurous terrorism scenario I have heard goes like this: The plane was hijacked with the intent of using the passengers as hostages. (But then, where are the passengers now?)

Or, a particularly sinister plot: The plane is hijacked, the pilot(s) throw it into radio silence, take it to 45,000 feet, depressurize the cabin, incapacitate everyone in the cabin, then take the plane to a secret landing strip. Perhaps the plane is refueled and takes off again. At a safe location far away, the aircraft is covered with camouflage netting or rolled into a hangar. In the second part of the plan, perhaps months later, the aircraft is used as a guided missile. Perhaps it could even carry a nuclear warhead.

Well, I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds more like something a Hollywood screenwriter would come up with.

Personally, I think the most likely scenario is still some sort of accident. But terrorism cannot be ruled out.

How about the other scenarios? Until the wreckage is found, I think we will never be able to discount the terrorism. However, if it really was a hijacking (and not just a deliberate crash), then let me propose yet another theory. I do this because I have not seen it mentioned anywhere.

If it wasn’t an accident, here’s my theory: a botched hijacking.

What if we are looking at an attempted, but failed hijacking? Perhaps the plan was to take the aircraft, with its passengers alive, to some big airport where the passengers could be gloatingly paraded before the world press. (Such hijackings were very common in the 70s and 80s. See: List of aircraft hijackings). Only this time, something went wrong. Perhaps one pilot was the perpetrator but failed to permanently disable the other. Or perhaps crew members or passengers fought back. (This too, has happened before: United Airlines Flight 93).

So there you have it. More questions than answers!

Let me know what you think! Please post your comments below:

 

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Light Pollution

December 6th, 2013

Light Pollution

Photo: NASA and NOAA. Click to enlarge.

The natural night skies as seen from Earth are awe inspiring. But ever since the invention of electric lighting, unobstructed dark skies have been disappearing from industrialized, populated areas. Sadly, most people living in the white areas of the picture above have never had a chance to experience the firmament’s full glory.

More information about light pollution and the importance of fighting it:

http://www.darksky.org

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Mars, Four Billion Years Ago

November 18th, 2013

Four billion years ago, Earth was a rather hellish place. Its crust was still very thin and unstable. There was heavy and violent volcanic activity. Earthquakes were shaking the ground, liquid lava flowed in many places, and poisonous gases were everywhere. On top of that, our poor little planet was bombarded by a constant barrage of large meteorites. Despite all of that, the first primitive life forms are thought to have appeared during this period.

By contrast, at the same time, Mars was a very tranquil place. Here is a NASA animation, based on the latest data we have, showing what the surface of Mars would likely have looked like at the same time. Blue skies, clouds, oceans, lakes, rivers, mountains and all. Almost like a place for a vacation resort!

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The Making Of The New Vespa Primavera

November 7th, 2013

The Vespa Primavera is one of the world’s most iconic motor scooter models. It originally appeared in 1968 with a 125 cm³ 2-stroke engine. It derived from the “new” 125 of 1966, but with considerable differences in the engine, which raised the top speed by 10 km/h to over 100 km/h. Great attention was paid to details, which included the classic, practical bag hook.

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Piaggio, the maker of Vespa scooters, has decided to revive the Primavera name for one of its latest models, taking design cues from the original. Here is how the new models are made. This is not your grandfather’s assembly line!

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