Monthly Archives: November 2018

Spy satellites on TV

My rant this week is about how TV shows disseminate horribly inaccurate information about satellites. I just watched an old episode of The West Wing where a war between India and Pakistan was imminent in the Kashmir region. The U.S. general told the president that they had just deployed a satellite over the “northern Asian subcontinent” to monitor the situation. This is wrong on two levels.

First, to position a satellite over a fixed spot on the surface of the earth, it must be over the equator. That’s because a satellite in a circular geostationary orbit must orbit around the center of mass, i.e. the center of the earth. If that doesn’t compute with you, just take my word for it, or read up on orbital mechanics. Kashmir is over 2000 miles north of the equator, so it’s a no go.

Second, a geostationary orbit is about 22,000 miles above the surface of the earth. You can’t see much of anything from there except the weather. That’s where weather satellites hang out. Spy satellites and most other orbiting stuff we’ve sent up are in low earth orbit, somewhere around 200 to 300 miles above the surface. With very powerful cameras you can see things on the surface from there if the weather isn’t too bad. They are normally placed at an angle to the equator so that they can travel at various latitudes, although still centered on the center of the earth. The problem is that those satellites zip around the earth very fast, about 90 minutes per orbit. They are only over a particular spot for a minute or two and on the next orbit, when they are at the right longitude, they’ll be at a different latitude, so they won’t pass over that spot every 90 minutes. It cam take days to get there the next time and during the minute they are there, the weather may be bad.

Other shows do this all the time, too. The show 24 was awful about this. It’s still happening and it’s a problem. You may have heard of “the CSI effect” where some jurors expect police and FBI to be able to do all the fancy “scientific” things they see police on TV that are actually impossible or unrealistic. This may fall into that category. I even know of one general who asked a satellite engineer to position a satellite over a spot like that. Learn the laws of physics, TV writers! Some members of the public may expect unrealistic things of our military or law enforcement. Just because you saw a nice animation on TV, that doesn’t mean it’s possible.

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

The Word Is MurderThe Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel gets a point for originality in format if not in plot. It’s written in the first person, which by itself isn’t original, but the trick here is that the author is writing as himself, the real Anthony Horowitz, the writer of Foyle’s War and many successful books. It is populated with various real people he may have encountered in real life like Steven Spielberg, especially people in British television. In the end, though, that’s just a gimmick. The plot is a pretty traditional mystery. The author keeps telling the reader that he just left some clues here and there, but there are more red herrings than useful clues.

The mystery fails from what I call the Agatha Christie Syndrome. You may like Agatha Christie. I don’t. Her books, like this one, are filled with clues, but the way the detective interprets them and successfully solves the case is either ridiculous or depends on information not available to the reader. Thus it is not a fair mystery, i.e. one the reader can solve. In this case the author solves it at the very end by virtue of recognizing somebody, someone not identified to the reader until that point. The author then goes on to describe previous clues that supposedly point to that person, but the reality is that they all could just as easily have been totally random, not related to the mystery at all. Many of them are farfetched and contrived. There were so many red herrings that he could have decided in the last chapter to make the killer someone else that all those clues pointed to.

Much of the book seemed like a cross between an ego trip and a puff piece for his other works, which I found quite irritating. The author does write well, at least, and I found it more interesting than another mystery I started on, so it was not a total loss. It was devoid of objectionable material, which is worth something.

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Rant of the Week: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Folk, Country

Something has been bugging me for a long time. The marketers of popular media keep conflating unrelated things, thus corrupting them both. The two examples that I object to this week are the Science Fiction and Fantasy conflation and the Country/Folk conflation.

I read a lot. I’m on several recommended reading lists in my county library. They send me an email every week for each of those lists. I like good science fiction but there is no science fiction list, only a Science Fiction & Fantasy list. Every week it comes and every week it is 80-100% fantasy. The one I just reviewed was all about zombies, vampires, and dragons and time travel to an era of wizards and empires – every single book. To each his own they say, but to me that’s 13-year-old girl stuff. In any event, it has nothing to do with science. Science Fiction, real Sci-fi, does. It’s fiction, sure, but must be plausible scientifically, if not in the present, in the foreseeable future. There are different varieties of sci-fi, such as space operas and hard science, with differing degrees of plausibility, but that really has nothing to do with the fantasy stuff like what’s on the list. I wish they’d separate them so I can sign up for only what I want.

Then there’s the problem with folk music. Marketers now consider folk music a subgenre of country music. I like folk; I don’t like country music. They used to combine country and western. I like some western, but didn’t like country. I thought that was a stupid combination. Now it’s folk. This one makes a little more sense. Much folk music comes from Appalachia and what is now the deep south. Many folk singers, both black and white, have southern accents, people like Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. That’s fine. But sometime in the 1970s or possibly a bit later, the publishers started adding southern accents and other country touches to the recordings of singers who don’t naturally have them, like Joan Baez. Maybe she hasn’t actually changed her accent, but just listen to the backup singers on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Of course the theme of that one is southern, so it makes some sense, but her subsequent recordings sound much like the worst parts of pop country music, with electric guitars, pedal steel guitars, drums. Real folk music uses acoustic instruments. Pandora does have a separate channel for Folk that’s not Country, which is good, but in many places, like the library CD section, Folk and Country are in the same section. They aren’t the same.

A Death in Live Oak by James Grippando

A Death in Live Oak (Jack Swyteck, #14)A Death in Live Oak by James Grippando
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

They say an author should write what he knows and this book is a good example of why that is so – both in the good sense and the bad. Grippando was a trial lawyer and the legal strategy and courtroom scenes in the book are excellent. As a retired attorney myself, I found them credible and entertaining. I’m also a retired FBI agent, and the author obviously is not because his scenes involving the main character’s FBI agent wife and the whole FBI undercover operation are preposterous – almost laughable. I gave up on his earlier novel Blood Money for the same reason. There are plenty of FBI retirees out there; the author should really make an effort to have one give him some advice or serve as a beta reader. The plot line involves the lynching of a black student in Northern Florida – two, in fact, one a historical reality, the other a modern day fictional one. I found the characters one-dimensional stereotypes and the writing unexciting, but the plot and the legal stuff were entertaining enough to kill a few hours here and there despite the book’s flaws.

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#MeToo and pop culture

Currently there is much in the news and in politics about the #MeToo movement and how women are so often mistreated, sexually harassed, or worse, especially by men in power. Of course such treatment of women is terrible. What I’m curious about is why men feel they can treat women that way. Part of the reason for sure is that they can and they can get away with it. Just look at who’s president (past and present). For some reason, even a great many women seem to accept this. I think a good part of it is that a lot of people, women included, are brought up being taught that’s the natural order of things – men dominate and maltreat women and it’s their place to accept it. This may not be the message they get from their parents, but they are being taught this every day in pop culture such as music.

Here are some lyrics going back a ways. The women accept that they love their man so much he can treat them horribly and they’ll still be there for him.

Walk (Back to Your Arms) – Tami Neilson
No matter what you say or do or
What kinda hell you gonna put me through
I’m gonna walk (walk walk walk)
Back to your arms

Under My Thumb – Rolling Stones
The way she does just what she’s told
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb

A Fool In Love – Ike & Tina Turner
You know you love him, you can’t understand
Why he treats you like he do when he’s such a good man
Without a man I don’t wanna live
You think I’m lying but I’m telling you like it is
He’s got my nose open and that’s no lie
And I, I’m gonna keep him satisfied

These are tame compared to a whole bunch of the more modern lyrics in the rap/hip hop world, such as eminem’s. As long as people keep listening to (and buying) such “music” the attitude isn’t going to change much. Watching a few politicians or movie stars fall from grace isn’t going to change it. We need to stop the abuse of “freedom of expression,” a term that’s used as a false justification for glorifying violence in many forms.

It’s more than music, too. I’ll skip YouTube, Reddit and other media outlets, but there’s plenty to find there. If you watch the local TV news you’ll see cases every week of some abused woman who sticks by her abuser when he commits some violent crime. Unfortunately there are plenty of women who feel totally dependent on their men, even very bad men, and will take the abuse in exchange for financial or even emotional support. This teaches women, especially impressionable young girls, that “sticking by your man” is the right thing to do no matter what. This has to change.

Testimony by Scott Turow

Testimony (Kindle County Legal Thriller #10)Testimony by Scott Turow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This Scott Turow novel has all the elements that make his other novels good and some that make them not always so good. It’s set in The Hague where the main character, Bill ten Boom (Dutch name), a former U.S. Attorney in Turow’s fictional Kindle County, has accepted assignment as a prosecutor investigating an alleged war crime. The International War Crimes Tribunal is centered there but the Americans never signed off on the treaty establishing it nor do they agree to allow it to operate in the U.S. or subject U.S. soldiers to its jurisdiction. The alleged victims are a colony of Roma (gypsies) massacred during the Bosnian War. The questions is by whom? Bill and an intrepid Belgian investigator set out to find the answer and bring the perpetrators to justice. The possible suspects: A Serbian commander with a reputation as a vicious megalomaniac, a local gang, U.S. soldiers outraged over the fact the Roma may have stolen a cache of U.S. weapons that led to the death of a cadre of U.S. soldiers. The plot is twistier than a box of pretzels and heavily dependent on a great deal of knowledge and research Turow must have done about the workings of the Tribunal, the Roma people, the Serbs, Croats, NATO, and the U.S. Military. His works are ten levels more sophisticated than the average crime novel where the author doesn’t even understand the concept of jurisdiction. I couldn’t explain it to you if I tried and don’t want to spoil it for you, but I can say it is full of many colorful characters of many different nationalities. They’re almost all very likeable, but don’t trust any of them.

So what complaints do I have? Only one: Turow can’t write about sex without making it sound terribly unappealing, but he insists on putting a lot of it in his novels. We could stop the population boom by making everyone read his books. There must be a word for the style – somewhere between tacky and tawdry. There are seven pages of words in my Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate between them but none of them seem appropriate.

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Redistricting explained (and illustrated)

[Edit 8/4/2019: The recent U.S. Supreme Court case of Rucho vs. Common Cause has rendered this post partially inaccurate. See explanation at the end.]

In talking with friends, I’ve found there is some confusion over why redistricting is important, First of all, what is redistricting? It’s when a state government divides up the state into voting districts for election purposes, such as for Congressperson or state assembly. It could also be the same action by a city or county government for local seats like councilman. The U,S. Constitution as interpreted by the courts requires that each person’s vote be of equal value, sometimes called the “one man, one vote” rule. In practical terms this means that districts must be drawn to have roughly equal number of voters in each. This can be done fairly or unfairly. It is usually done by a committee appointed by a governor and thus dominated by the governor’s party, although methods vary in different states. Redistricting committees usually end up trying to protect their party’s power, or at least protect specific incumbents.The Constitution requires a census every ten years followed by redistricting to ensure that Congress reflects the current population distribution.

Here are three examples to illustrate why it’s important. Assume the state in the drawing has five congressional seats and two parties we’ll call orange and green represented by the 20 icons. The voters are 60% green (12 icons) and 40% orange (8 icons) distributed as shown.

One would expect that two of the five seats (40%) would go to the orange party and three (60%) to the green if lines were drawn in a neutral, unbiased manner. Courts, by the way, have also ruled that lines must be drawn logically from a geographic viewpoint, too. The next image illustrates what would probably be considered fair.

Based on where majorities are located, orange would get two seats and green three, and the districts appear to be logical geographically, too. However, if green is in control of redistricting it might try to draw the lines as follows:

See how that almost certainly gives Green four of the five seats since they have a 3-to-1 voter ratio in four. Notice also that the districts have odd shapes. This is where the term gerrymandering comes from – districts drawn this way are said to resemble salamanders. Courts often strike these down and have been known to appoint their own committees or special masters to redraw the lines more fairly.

Now consider the following district lines.

There are two safe districts for Green in the middle, but the other three districts are split 50-50. They could go either way. The district lines appear to be rational from a geographic standpoint. A court would probably consider this fair even though it might result in Green representatives in all five districts or three being Orange. However, suppose the two purplish districts are currently represented by popular Orange incumbents who consider their seats safe. The Orange party, if they’re lucky enough to be in control, might like this one better than the first (fair) one above, assuming the incumbents aren’t worried about the 50-50 split in their districts. This way they have a 50-50 chance at picking up a third Orange seat. In real life it is quite possible, and has often happened, that a minority party can retain, even guarantee, control in its state.

A friend recently seemed worried that redistricting could affect the U.S. Senate. No, it can’t. Why not? Because there are no U.S. Senate districts. The entire state is the one and only district for any Senate race. There are simply no lines to draw. You can’t redraw state boundaries. Every voter in the state can vote on every U.S. Senate race in their state. State senates, however, like state assemblies or legislatures, have districts, so they are subject to being gerrymandered.

Edit: The court in the  Rucho case ruled in effect that gerrymandering on the basis of party is okay. It is only gerrymandering on the basis of race that is outlawed by the constitution according to current Supreme Court law. If you substitute black and white voters for the green and gold, then the example and illustrations are accurate.