Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson didn't have to be Ferguson

I worked for a few years as a reporter in Chicago. In stints as the night cops guy and on general assignment, I covered more than a few of what the police department called "police-involved shootings." In layman's terms, that meant an officer had shot someone.

The narrative was often the same, and the key bit recited in roughly identical terms each time: "... and the officer, in fear for his life, fired [insert number here] times, fatally wounding the suspect." That was important because officers were not allowed to use deadly force unless they were in fear for their lives or those of others.

I won't go into how tough it is to report these stories. The police and coroner often control most of the relevant information, and witnesses implicating an officer in wrongdoing seldom have any evidence like photos or video. Former colleagues did an excellent job laying out exactly how dangerous this was in this story.

What I want to discuss, though, is how none of those situations--and some of them were horrific--led to the kinds of scenes we're seeing in Ferguson, Mo., right now.

In one specific case, I went out to cover the non-fatal shooting of a boy who police shot in the street near Cabrini-Green, back when it was still in the twilight days of being a housing project. He had been carrying a toy gun and lived in the neighborhood. The community was, as you might imagine, furious; demands for justice and answers were being shouted from the sidewalks within hours of the shooting.

After talking to the boy's relatives at the hospital where he was being operated on, I went back to the neighborhood, where a protest was taking shape. It was pretty big, a few hundred people. There were signs, megaphones, shouted slogans. Again, most of it was about justice. But there was some general "cops are pigs!" sentiment too.

They marched around the neighborhood. There were plenty of police on hand, lining the streets and standing by their squad cars. I think a few rocks were thrown; I know (because I heard) some coarse comments about cops' mothers were shouted.

But it never escalated. I got home at 2 or 3 a.m., having dictated a story from a pool car. The story wasn't about a riot. It was about a shooting of an unarmed kid that stirred up a neighborhood.

That's just one example. The Chicago police shot people in worse parts of town--places that often were torn apart by violence without any instigation at all. But I can't remember any instance turning into a Ferguson-type situation.

The aforementioned situation.

I wish I could put my finger on exactly why. I think there are several factors.

For all its faults (and some are quite serious), the Chicago Police Department understood the law, the media and the nuances of dealing with various communities. So you didn't see reporters or anyone else arrested just for "being there" or taking pictures, for instance.

And the only time I can remember seeing cops in riot gear was during anti-Iraq war street protests downtown. Even then, their presence was mostly passive and certainly didn't involve rubber bullets, tear gas or beanbag shotgun rounds... at least to my memory.

So rather than rush in and try to intimidate or control unhappy people with an overwhelming show of force--an act that, rightly or wrongly, makes most people feel like they are combatants rather than citizens--police keep acting like police. The same people that most residents see every day in their neighborhoods. It's an important psychological distinction, thinking cops are there to maintain order rather than simply to fight. Because fight is exactly what some people then show up to do.

There is a separate, but related and serious issue of police departments chowing down on surplus military gear from the U.S. presence in the Middle East; this piece gives a tremendous rundown.

In the end, I don't know what the precisely right response in Ferguson would have been. I suspect that more transparency into the shooting investigation and much less militarized police presence (and now the National Guard, whee!) would have been great first steps.

Unfortunately, now that we're at this point, I don't know where you go. I guess the good news is, it can't get any worse. But in my more-or-less direct experience, it didn't have to be like this at all.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moon shot

There doesn't seem to be much to celebrate in the news the last few weeks. Tragedy, death, mayhem--almost every day, a full house of unhappy tidings.

But right around this time, 45 years ago, some remarkable stuff happened. Stuff worth celebrating. Mankind took a few minutes off from doing dumb and destructive things, and landed on the moon.

I've written about this before. But there's a picture I wanted to point out:

Flying high. Really high.

At first glance, it's just cool in the way that nearly all space pictures are cool. There's a spaceship! And planets! Awesome!

But there's actually something really remarkable about this shot, taken by astronaut Michael Collins in the Apollo command module. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat... they are cluttered with selfies. Taking a picture of yourself is common and expected.

But Collins' picture? There's a good chance it is the world's first (and only) everyone-elsie. That's right. That single frame, with the lunar lander and the Earth, contained what at that time was every single person on Earth, living or dead.

The only person not pictured was Michael Collins, the photographer.

It's a photo that literally puts everything in perspective. And maybe embracing that perspective, one optimistically hopes, would lead to more news of the inspiring kind.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Color it... stealthy

Well, well, well. Japan's long-discussed stealth fighter program has stepped into the spotlight. A technology demonstrator, the Mitsubishi ATD-X, is no longer just a rendering. It's real, and it has a fantastic paint job:

Red-tailed and radar evasive. (photo from theaviationist.com)

The plane looks to be about the size of an F-16, and it bears repeating that this isn't a production model--it is for testing technology. In this case, radar-evading technology. The hope is that it is the first step of a home-grown Japanese stealth fighter, tentatively designated the F-3.

It's really tough to tell what the ATD-X is all about--beyond scale--based on the pictures. It has the familiar angles of a stealth fighter, designed to reflect radar energy away from the transmitter. It is probably just a single-seat aircraft; few fighter prototypes aren't. It probably also is not treated with any radar-absorbing material; there would be little point in doing so and then adding a glossy paint job on top of it. And based on the shape of the wings and fuselage, it's probably designed to be supersonic. You can't see the engine exhaust clearly, so it's impossible to see whether the nozzles are stealthy or even designed to vector thrust.

Regardless, this is a big deal for a bunch of reasons. But there are two big ones. The first is that depending on how fast things go, it would make Japan the second, third or fourth nation on the planet to produce its own stealth aircraft (behind the U.S. and potentially Russia and China).

And the second is that it would take away a potential market for the F-35. That would mean a bunch of money lost for Lockheed Martin, which is working hard to sell the fifth-generation fighter in Asia and Australia. Worst-case scenario for LockMart, Mitsubishi could produce an exportable fighter itself, pulling away even more customers--although this seems unlikely.

It's hard to say what capabilities the F-3 might have, or how they might stack up to whatever is flying in 2020 or beyond. The state of the art has not been static, and indeed it's worth remembering that the first prototype stealth fighter flew more than 30 years ago.

All the same, Japan has a capable industrial base and a deserved reputation for mastery of high technology. This is a big step for the country's aviation industry... and another neat-looking airframe for aviation dorks to watch develop.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy birthday, America

It's been 238 years, but you've aged well. And as always, the best way to celebrate is... Muppets.

Happy Independence Day!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

How to make a long flight... longer?

Mrs. Blog and I have been on quite a few trans-oceanic flights. When that's New York to London, not a huge deal. Read a book, watch a movie, eat whatever food-like substance is put on a tray in front of you, and boom: you're landing.

But Hong Kong to anywhere in the U.S. takes a little longer. Like 15 hours or so. The in-flight entertainment system becomes a necessity, because it's too loud to talk, too cramped to sleep well and often too bumpy for, say, a nice game of cribbage. And that system better have a wide variety of movies.

But British Airways has a different solution, suggesting variety might be overrated.

If you want, you can now watch a seven-hour, first-person, commentary-free film of a train ride from Bergen to Oslo. Here's an exciting preview:

... and by preview, I mean half of the actual film. Don't watch it if you want to avoid spoilers!

I guess it's the equivalent of white noise for your eyes. But there's something a little weird about trying to experience a train ride while you're actually on an airplane. And it doesn't do anything to make the food better.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Wise man"? Really?

The idea that we, as human beings, are inherently rational (see the "sapiens" in homo sapiens) is being stretched to the breaking point lately for me. I say this because a sapient being--or a society of sapient beings--should be able to process tangible, real-world evidence, draw conclusions from it and plan future behavior based on those conclusions. That's how humans came to dominate the planet, after all.

But these days, that doesn't seem to be happening.

For instance, there are mountains of data showing that the Earth's climate is changing in direct correlation with the amount of carbon dioxide we're pumping into the atmosphere. And if that weren't tangible enough, there is also the small fact of Antarctic ice measurably and inexorably sliding into the ocean... which will raise sea levels by amounts ranging from problematic to catastrophic in the next hundred-plus years. Tangible. Real world.

But instead of guiding humanity to action, this stuff has become a political football. I can't think of another area of science that is so settled yet "debated" (note: those are irony quotes) so heavily along political lines. Look it it this way: denying manmade climate change puts you in roughly the same scientific sphere as believing vaccines cause autism and just a notch or two above denying evolution. Is that a good crowd to run with? Is that what we want to base policy on?

Here's another example: guns. I could go on at great length about this, but The Onion, as always, is able to wrap it up in a tight little satirical package:

No need for a caption.

In this case, the real-world, tangible evidence is an ever-larger pile of deadly shootings. It doesn't get much more tangible than that. Yet the U.S. has done basically nothing additional to regulate the instruments of those shootings. To the contrary, public discourse becomes flooded with  sophistic arguments about how the shootings are caused by anything but firearms. (Quick side note here, touching on something that fascinates Friend of the Blog Pete: I do enjoy guns and military hardware. The technology behind them is brilliant and the tactics and strategy in their use on the battlefield is engrossing. Yet, barring a zombie apocalypse, there will never be a gun in my home.)

And so homo sapiens looks at his surroundings and shrugs, figuring it's easier to make up his own reality. This isn't the attitude that made our species strong. But it may be the attitude that lays it low.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A numbers game

A while ago, I wrote about a few "things"--mysteries and former mysteries--that were inspirational to a writer of speculative words like myself. One of those things was "numbers stations": radio channels that went on the air occasionally and broadcast a seemingly random series of numbers, letters or words. Although it is widely assumed the stations are for spies doing spy things, nothing has ever been definitively proven. Fascinating!

Today I came across an interesting post on Kotaku that seemed to push the numbers stations into the 21st Century.

Thousands and thousands of videos, uploaded nearly every day. Each one is the same, structure-wise: 10 slides of shapes, shown over 11 seconds, over various random tones. Nobody has a clue what the videos are supposed to be, much less who is uploading them or why.

Just today, the channel has uploaded over a dozen bizarre videos.

Here's the idea. If you're reaching out to your espionage buddies, using the Internet--and a public corner of it, no less--broadens the scope of transmission to, well, the entire world. Here's what the YouTube videos look like:

Sure, sure, sure. It could be a completely innocent series of videos with no deeper meaning. But that's boring. Instead, let's assume it is a series of coded messages about something super-secret, super-important and super-awesome in some way. If nothing else, it's a super-intriguing jumping-off point for a great story.