The Breakfast Club (Schiaparelli Was Right?)

breakfast beers photo breakfastbeers.jpgWell, not exactly.

Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian Astronomer, was the first to describe canals on Mars in 1877 and they soon fired the popular imagination.  Could they be a sign of life on Mars?  Now there were a lot of scientists who thought this was a load of hooey.  In the first place not all observers saw canals and in the second place no independent observer came up with exactly the same map of canals (at the time photography was not yet very advanced and Astronomers relied on hand drawn sketches).

Perhaps then the canals were seasonal, or indicated remaining damp sports where vegetation of some sort grew.

They saw some lighter or darker albedo features (for instance Syrtis Major) and believed that they were seeing oceans and continents. They also believed that Mars had a relatively substantial atmosphere. They knew that the rotation period of Mars (the length of its day) was almost the same as Earth’s, and they knew that Mars’ axial tilt was also almost the same as Earth’s, which meant it had seasons in the astronomical and meteorological sense. They could also see Mars’ polar ice caps shrinking and growing with these changing seasons. It was only when they interpreted changes in surface features as being due to the seasonal growth of plants that life was hypothesized by them.

Now one of the great proponents of the concept of Martian canals was Percival Lowell who, while a great designer and builder of observatories, was also a certifiable crackpot.  He wrote 3 books on Mars, Mars, Mars and Its Canals, and Mars As the Abode of Life, that last of which in particular posited that the vast network of canals were created and maintained by intelligent life forms.

Then again he also saw a great mountain on Venus which we now suspect was due to the optical limitations of his telescope and the near horizon position in which he made his observations.

About the only prediction he made that did pan out was his inference of Pluto from the orbits of Neptune and Uranus and while the observatory named after him was able to confirm the existence of an object in about the position he thought it was, modern scientists doubt that it has enough mass to have the effects he described and have observed several similar objects in the outer Solar System and so have demoted it to a mere dwarf planet.

The Martian canal theory was pretty thoroughly debunked by the early 1900s.  Experiments with amateur observers had shown the tendency to collect a series of point features into a line and as larger telescopes with better optics starting observing these features distinctly and recording them in photographs with long exposures and high quality it fell more out of favor among serious Astronomers.  An important nail in the coffin was the development of spectography which Alfred Russel Wallace used to prove that the surface of Mars was too cold for liquid water and there was no evidence of water vapor in its atmosphere.

Still, the notion of water on Mars had by that time a firm hold on the public through authors like H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Indeed it was used as a plot element as late as 1950 in the work of C.S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury, all of whom should have really known better.

So, does the discovery of the fact that Mount Sharp is composed of distinct layers of sediment which could only have been laid down by a large body of water prove Schiaparelli was right?

Alas the last vestige of liquid water vanished from the surface of Mars before the genus homo was even sapiens and while the diversity of life on this planet does present several organisms that could survive Mars’ harsh climate they are mostly microbial.

NASA’s Curiosity rover finds evidence of 3.5B year old Water Lake in Gale Crater

By Alexander, Inferverse

On December 9, 2014

Mars may have once had a massive lake, according to recent data revealed by the Curiosity Mars rover. It has led scientists to believe that at one time Mars was much wetter than originally thought. Gale Crater is the location at which scientists believe a 96-mile-wide crater existed.

Dr. Michael Meyer, of NASA noted that “The size of the lake in Gale Crater and the length of time and series that water was showing up implies that there may have been sufficient time for life to get going and thrive.” The scientists noted sandstone deposits were pointed in the direction of Mount Sharp, which would indicate that at one time water flowed toward the center of the crater.

The deposits are the first solid sign that scientists have had in some time that Mars very likely could have had a large body of water. This will give scientists new evidence and new leads to look at moving forward beyond this mission.

Nasa’s Mars Curiosity rover finds that 96-mile-wide crater once held lake


Monday 8 December 2014 15.22 EST

Billions of years ago, a lake once filled the 96-mile-wide crater being explored by Nasa’s Mars rover Curiosity, bolstering evidence that the planet most like Earth in the solar system was once suitable for microbial life, scientists said on Monday.

Scientists discovered stacks of rocks containing water-deposited sediments inclined toward the crater’s centre, which now sports a three-mile (5km) mound called Mount Sharp. That would mean that Mount Sharp did not exist during a period of time roughly 3.5 billion years ago when the crater was filled with water, Curiosity researchers told reporters during a conference call.

“Finding the inclined strata was … a complete surprise,” said lead scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“Sedimentary geology … is the cutting edge for trying to understand the Earth. When oil companies collect seismic surveys across places, they are looking for inclined strata because then you get geometry that tells you where the rocks are that you’re looking for,” he added.

The new studies, which have not yet been published, point to a series of wet and dry times at Gale Crater, challenging a previously held notion that Mars’s period of warm climate was early and relatively short-lived, scientists said.

“All that driving we did … just didn’t get us to Mount Sharp. It gave us the context to appreciate Mount Sharp,” Grotzinger said of the rover, which has travelled about five miles (8km) since landing on Mars in 2012.

The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927)

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Welcome to The Breakfast Club! We’re a disorganized group of rebel lefties who hang out and chat if and when we’re not too hungover we’ve been bailed out we’re not too exhausted from last night’s (CENSORED) the caffeine kicks in. Join us every weekday morning at 9am (ET) and weekend morning at 10:30am (ET) to talk about current news and our boring lives and to make fun of LaEscapee! If we are ever running late, it’s PhilJD’s fault.

I would never make fun of LaEscapee or blame PhilJD.  And I am highly organized.

This Day in History


Not just torture: Senator says CIA stalling over bogus intelligence that led to Iraq war

By Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy

December 10, 2014

CIA Director John Brennan, under fire over the Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture, is facing new heat over his role in what a senior lawmaker calls an apparent coverup involving bogus intelligence used by the George W. Bush administration to help justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Carl Levin, D-Mich., who’s ending 36 years in the Senate, plans to press Brennan one last time to fulfill a pledge to support the full declassification of a CIA cable debunking the claim that the leader of the 9/11 hijackers met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in the Czech capital of Prague just months before the attacks.

“Director Brennan’s apparent refusal to do what he has committed to do – to ask the Czech government if it objects to release of the cable – now takes on the character of a continuing coverup,” Levin plans to tell the Senate on Thursday, according to a draft of his speech obtained by McClatchy.

The March 13, 2003, cable was sent by CIA field officers in response to a request for more information on a single-source intelligence report of a meeting in a Prague park between Atta and al Ani. The cable warned that U.S. government officials shouldn’t cite the unverified report.

Even so, Cheney continued to give the report credibility in media interviews, telling CNN in June 2004 that the truth of the report hadn’t been resolved.

“Those statements were simply not true,” Levin said in the draft. “The vice president was recklessly disregarding the truth, and he did so in a way calculated to maintain support for the administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq.”

The Guardian view on the CIA torture report: there is a second scandal here

The Guardian

Wednesday 10 December 2014 15.14 EST

Buried deep in the US Senate’s report on CIA torture is an account of how often brutal interrogation was outsourced to a private company in receipt of huge sums of US taxpayers’ money. The CIA transferred a total of $81m to a firm set up by two psychologists involved in the interrogation programme. The value of the CIA’s contract with this firm reached $180m in 2006, though in fact only $81m was paid out before the contract expired in 2009. In 2007 the CIA provided that same company with a multiyear indemnity arrangement to protect it and its employees from legal liability. The agency later paid out a further $1m in connection with this agreement.

All this gives a fascinating glimpse into how private business interests became enmeshed in activity – the interrogation of suspected terrorists – that we would normally regard as the exclusive preserve of the state, namely the safeguarding of national security. If it is a scandal that the CIA tortured, it is another scandal that it hired a private business to do that work on its behalf.

It was of course a state decision taken at the highest political level – the relevant presidential memorandum of notification was signed by George W Bush on September 17 2001 – that led to the CIA programme. But in the workings of the operation, there was also a commercial aspect – something the Senate report clearly intended to expose.

The involvement of this private company was not a lateral feature of the programme but a key feature of it. The report says that the psychologists not only “devised” the interrogation techniques but then went on to play “a central role” in the programme’s “operation, assessment and management”. They even conducted the interrogations of some of the most significant detainees themselves.

The CIA Is Still Running Amok

By TIM WEINER, Politico

December 10, 2014

Officers of the CIA’s clandestine service working overseas are compelled to be a kind of legal criminal. Their crucial job-before Sept. 11-was to convince foreigners to commit treason, using cash and cunning as inducements. Thus they would steal secrets in the name of the national security of the United States. To do so, spies abroad had to lie about who they were and what they did.

But when they got back to Washington, they had to tell the truth to their fellow Americans. They had to trust-and be trusted by-the people who gave them their marching orders. They could not deceive those they served at headquarters, at the White House, the National Security Council and the State Department.

What is striking about this week’s Senate report on the Bush administration’s torture program-what is new-is not the fact that CIA officers may have violated the laws of God or the Geneva Convention setting up torturing prisons in the black sites of Afghanistan and Thailand and Poland. We knew that.

What is shocking is the continuing claim of the CIA’s leaders that torture worked. And that is a damnable lie, a devastating deceit and a self-deception that poses a danger to the agency and the American people.

(T)he CIA had concluded before Sept. 11 that torture does not work. Richard Stolz, chief of the CIA’s clandestine service under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, testified to Congress: “Physical abuse or other degrading treatment was rejected not only because it is wrong, but because it has historically proven to be ineffective.” To quote from the agency’s own manuals, reproduced in the Senate report: “Inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers.”

U.S. shuts down its last detention center in Afghanistan

By Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times

December 10, 2014

The U.S. military shut its last detention center in Afghanistan on Wednesday, a day after a Senate Intelligence Committee report highlighted torture of terrorism suspects at former CIA-run prisons in the country.

The U.S. military shuttered its prison at Bagram air base north of Kabul after handing over two Tunisian prisoners to Afghan authorities, and after releasing a Jordanian prisoner, who will be sent home or resettled with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Pentagon officials said.

Under a bilateral security agreement that takes effect Jan. 1, the government of Afghanistan will be responsible for all detention facilities in the country. The Bagram facility thus closed three weeks earlier than it might have.

Workers in Hong Kong Begin Dismantling Main Protest Camp


DEC. 10, 2014

The police stood guard on Thursday as workers began tearing down barricades erected by protesters who have encircled the political heart of Hong Kong for more than 10 weeks, starting an operation to effectively end the pro-democracy street occupations that have laid bare divisions over the city’s political future.

“We’ve been here for two months, more than two months, and it’s time to move on,” said Koby Chan, a sales representative in his 20s who was among a group of protesters packing to leave the area that the police have said would be cleared first, in enforcement of a court injunction. “We’ll stop now, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up. We’ll be back for sure.”

The area of the camp that the police have said they will clear first was largely empty on Thursday morning. “It’s just the beginning,” declared a banner that had gone up over a barricade.

Whatever happens, the protests have exposed and widened political fissures, Hong Kong residents say. The government and its supporters have accused the protesters of reckless naïveté and of assisting in Western-sponsored subversion. Many protesters have said the Chinese government’s plans for election changes in the city would give Beijing the power to choose winners.

“The protest culture has changed,” said Alex Chow, a leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which has been at the forefront of the protests. “The point is that the clearance will not solve the social problems.”

Appeals Court Deals a Setback to U.S. Crackdown on Insider Trading

By Ben Protess and Matthew Goldstein, The New York Times

December 10, 2014 10:19 am

The convictions had racked up in recent years, 85 people all told, as Manhattan prosecutors swept through Wall Street with what they described as clear-cut evidence of insider trading.

But on Wednesday, a federal appeals court upended the government’s campaign. And in the process, the court rewrote the insider trading playbook, imposing the greatest limits on prosecutors in a generation.

In a 28-page decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan overturned two of the government’s signature convictions, the case against the former hedge fund traders Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson, who were tried together. Citing the trial judge’s “erroneous” instructions to jurors, the court not only reversed the convictions but threw out the case altogether.

The appellate ruling hinged on a 30-year-old United States Supreme Court case, Dirks v. S.E.C., that has long been the cornerstone of insider trading law. Clarifying the vagaries of that ruling, the appellate decision drew a new and more defined line that curtails the boundaries of insider trading liability.

Unlike the trial judge, the appellate court ruled that Mr. Chiasson and Mr. Newman needed to know that insiders at technology companies were improperly leaking confidential information to hedge funds in exchange for some “personal benefit.” While they profited from the information, Mr. Chiasson and Mr. Newman were so far removed from the initial tips at Dell and Nvidia, the appellate court ruled, that they would not have known of any such benefit.

Congressional budget welcomes big bank bailouts once more despite White House opposition

Heidi Moore, The Guardian

Wednesday 10 December 2014 14.17 EST

Congress has agreed to use federal deposit insurance, which was designed to protect the savings accounts of consumers, to cover risky trading by the nation’s biggest banks.

In a small provision in the budget bill, Congress agreed to allow banks to house their trading of swaps and derivatives alongside customer deposits, which are insured by the federal government against losses.

The budget move repeals a portion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act and, some say, lays the groundwork for future bailouts of banks who make irresponsibly risky trades.

“It’s both a stealth move and indefensible,” said Dennis Kelleher, the head of Better Markets, a group that argues for great oversight of banks. In a note to clients, he later called it “a sneaky, midnight repeal”.

A notable example of a bank making a spectacular failing bet with customer money came in 2012, when JP Morgan used its $350bn chief investment office to make the infamous ‘London Whale‘ trade, which led the bank to lose at least $6bn and led to a round of congressional hearings. JP Morgan increased its risk so much on the initial trade that the trader who initiated the bet called it “idiotic”.

Swaps and derivatives are financial instruments that allow speculators to make bets on the future prices of stocks, bonds and commodities. Banks and companies also use these swaps and derivatives to hedge against price rises in corn, oil, and other commodities they use regularly; airlines, for instance, regularly use derivatives to hedge the price of fuel, and McDonald’s, among others, has hedges on the price of corn.

Congress eyes move to cut pension benefits

John W. Schoen, CNBC


Lawmakers on Wednesday were finalizing a deal to shore up the government’s pension insurance fund with provisions that would raise premiums and allow troubled pension plans covering more than one employer to cut retiree benefits.

As of midday Wednesday, the reform provisions, which drew loud opposition from unions and other groups representing retirees, were not included in the latest version of a massive, $1.1 trillion spending bill, according to a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee. The measure may be voted on as an amendment in the Rules Committee, she said.

Payments to backstop these so-called multiemployer pension plans have run to hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. has warned it may run out of funds unless Congress implements reforms.

But the changed proposed Tuesday has drawn fire from unions and other retirement advocates.

“The problem is much more serious than skimming retirement benefits to keep the PBGC on life support,” said Richard Greer, a spokesman for the Laborers’ International Union of North America. This proposal “would siphon off tens of millions of dollars in hard earned retirement benefits to try and rescue the PBGC.”

About a quarter of the roughly 40 million workers who participate in a traditional “defined benefit” plan-those that pay retirees a guaranteed check every month-are covered by these multiemployer plans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Detroit emerges from nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy

By Tina Susman, Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times

December 10,2014

The nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy ended Wednesday when the lawyer overseeing Detroit’s fiscal recovery declared the crisis over and gave elected officials control of their own budget for the first time in 20 months, a deal made possible in large part by the city’s exquisite art collection.

At a news conference, Mayor Mike Duggan warned that it would be years before the once-booming center of the automobile industry could stand on its own without oversight from a state commission assigned to watch its spending. Duggan said Detroit’s residents should not wake up Thursday and expect a miracle.

But Detroit had things that smaller cities did not have, mainly the Detroit Institute of Arts, a museum with a collection estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. One report from Artvest Partners, a New York art investment firm, estimated that the collection could fetch up to $1.8 billion if sold at auction.

The museum proved key to a deal dubbed the Grand Bargain, which led to the creation of an $816-million fund donated by the state, foundations and philanthropists. In exchange, the museum was moved into a charitable trust, which ensured that its contents would not be sold off to pay creditors. The money in the fund will go toward patching holes in Detroit’s pension funds.

For at least three years, Detroit will be in a “control period,” during which a state-appointed financial review commission will approve all city budgets, all contracts worth more than $750,000 and all collective bargaining agreements. If the city balances its budget for three straight years and pays its bills, it will move into the “noncontrol period.”

The review commission will remain in place for an additional 10 years no matter what, and the city could revert back to the control period if it fails to manage its spending.

US medical students stage ‘die-ins’ nationwide in protest against police

Oliver Laughland, The Guardian

Wednesday 10 December 2014 17.44 EST

Medical students have staged so-called die-ins at planned venues in 70 locations around the US as protests against perceived police impunity continue to grip the country.

The die-ins, in which participants lie motionless on the ground in public, have become synonymous with the wave of protests following separate grand-jury decisions not to indict in the killings of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown and 48 year-old Eric Garner, both black men, by white police officers.

“We want to call attention to the fact that police brutality really endangers the lives and health of people of colour in this country,” said Dorothy Charles, a 22-year-old first-year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“As physicians and medical students it is our responsibility to take care of the health and wellness of our community, so we see it as a public health issue.”


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