Thursday, December 22, 2005

Items in the news

Here are a few news items from the last week or so that I found interesting.

  • Hurricane Katrina was only a Category 3 storm when it made landfall: Yesterday the National Weather Service stated that — after checking all of the data — that Hurricane Katrina was only a strong Category 3 storm, not Category 4, when it made landfall in southern Louisiana.

    This is important not just for historical reasons. The levees around New Orleans were designed to handle a Cat3 storm, yet failed. This underlines accusations that the state and federal governments let the conditions of the levees deteriorate over the years, and that to be safe the city really needs levees that can handle a Cat5 storm.

  • Author of the Roswell "flying saucer" news release is dead: Former U.S. Army lieutenant Walter Haut, the author of the press release stating that a "flying saucer" had crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, died in Roswell last Thursday at the age of 83. Something, which the Army says was a classified weather balloon, crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Haut wrote the initial news release on July 8, 1947, which was dictated to him by Roswell Army Air Field base commander Col. William Blanchard. The news release stated that a "flying saucer" had been recovered on a ranch 75 miles northeast of Roswell.

    Haut's press release is the point where UFOs entered pop culture, and it coined the phrase "flying saucer". The Army (back then the U.S. Air Force was part of the Army) quickly changed their story, saying that a weather balloon had crashed. Many years later it was determined that the object was a weather balloon, but that it had a special instruments package, probably part of the top secret "Project Mogul". From the Skeptical Inquirer site: "Its classified purpose was to try to develop a way to monitor possible Soviet nuclear detonations with the use of low-frequency acoustic microphones placed at high altitudes. No other means of monitoring the nuclear activities of a closed country like the USSR was yet available, and the project was given a high priority." Mogul was moved from New York, where they had problems with high winds, to Alamogordo, New Mexico.

    Haut later recalled a staff meeting a week or two later where Blanchard reportedly said, "Well, we sure shot ourselves in the foot with that balloon fiasco. It was just something from a project at Alamogordo, and some of the guys were here on our base later, too. Anyway, it's done and over with."

  • Police fear the worst for stolen baby penguin: This has been all over the news, but I missed it. A baby penguin was stolen from the Amazon World zoo on the Isle of Wight last Saturday. Police suspect someone wanted to give him as a Christmas present, possibly after having seen March of the Penquins. Zoo officials say that unless the penguin is returned soon, it will likely die.

    People from around the world have been writing letters and e-mails of sympathy over the penguin. At least two churches in the U.S. are praying for the penguin. An unidentified man reported that he had dropped off the penguin in a plastic bag at the Portsmouth docks on the English mainland. The penguin has not been found, but police fear that the bird may already be dead.

  • Microsoft may soon be fined $2.4 million per day by EU: The BBC is reporting that the European Union is threatening to sue Microsoft for $2.4 million per day because Microsoft has so far refused to comply with an EU ruling. The European Union ordered Microsoft to hand over documentation of the inner workings of its Windows operating system so that other systems, particularly "non-Microsoft workgroup servers", could reach "full interoperability" with Microsoft. Microsoft has not complied, so a frustrated EU is giving Microsoft 5 weeks to come up with the documentation or face a fine of $2.4 million a day until they comply.

  • French government legalizes file sharing: I don't understand French politics, but apparently the French parliament (as opposed to the French government) voted into law yesterday a bill that would legalize file sharing. This goes against the French government and the music industry. The parliament wants it legal to share downloaded music, but wants to reimburse artists through a tax on ISP fees (the tax was not, apparently, part of this bill). The French government vows to fight the bill.

  • Britain plans to record movements of all vehicles: Big Brother comes to Britain next spring. In March, 2006, Britain will begin building a database of all vehicle movement in the country. They will start by capturing license plate numbers via television cameras, whose locations are known via GPS positioning, at a rate of 35 million "reads" per day. The data will be stored for two years. Later they will extend the system with additional cameras, increasing the number of "reads" to 100 million per day, and with additional storage so that the data can be kept for five years. The authorities are signing agreements with gas stations, supermarkets, etc. to integrate their cameras into the network.

    Not surprisingly, British police say that this is an invaluable tool while civil liberties groups worry about infringement of privacy, and the harm caused when erroneous data is used to prosecute an innocent citizen. The authorities intend to use the data to track terrorists, organized criminal gangs, stolen cars, and "associated vehicles". The police contend that thieves often drive somewhere in a vehicle, steal it, and then drive back with it along side their legal vehicle. The police may be more interested in this "associated vehicle" than with the stolen vehicle.

  • Congress planning to outlaw analog-to-digital devices: Just before adjourning for Christmas, Congress introduced a proposal that would outlaw the manufacture or sale of devices that convert analog signals to digital signals one year after the bill's signing. The film industry in particular wants this, because they don't want people recording television or video tape signals onto DVDs, or pulling the same type of content onto a computer and distributing it over the Internet. Unfortunately, it would also make it impossible to pull your family videos off that old, analog 8mm videotape and store it on a DVD. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is fighting the law.

  • Judge rules against "Intelligent Design" in Dover, PA: A federal judge has ruled "intelligent design" cannot be mentioned in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican and Bush appointee, found that the school board's attempt to teach "intelligent design" in area high schools was a breach of the Constitution's separation of church and state. Said Jones, "The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy," Jones wrote. "It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

    This Doonesbury comic, posted to, is particularly appropriate. Click on the picture to see a bigger (more readable) version of it:

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