About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Hunger Games, The Reaping, and Vietnamnesia

The Fictional Reaping...
(© Lionsgate Entertainment)

...And the Real One.
(© UPI 1969)

Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only

In recent years, I have become increasingly aware of the disconnect between what young people today call "history" and what I clearly retain as memories.  Sometimes the difference is identifiable as a deliberate attempt to scrub the past.  Listening to how the Japanese teach their children about World War II leaves most westerners scratching their head and wondering if they're talking about the same war.  Other times, the passage of time, the loss of vital documents, and the death of participants make the reconstruction of past events something of a guessing game.  The intertwining tales of the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, and the Ark of the Covenant have become a gaping collective hole that hundreds of years worth of investigation still haven't solved. 

I have a lot of DVD's and Blu-Rays, as I'm sure the same is true for many of you.  Most movies on disc now include the special features section that usually contain edited scenes and short documentaries about how that particular film was made.  I don't always take the time to watch those, but when I do there's always something interesting to discover that more often than not, improves the viewing experience of the movie itself.

I've had on my shelf for some time a standard DVD of the first Hunger Games film.   When it first came out, I initially dismissed it as a JATM (Just Another Teen Movie).  But one evening when we were imprisoned by an epic snowstorm, my son, who was visiting us in Pennsylvania, slipped the movie into the player.  Thus, I became a reluctant captive.  But as the story unfolded, I was able to find some themes that tickled the part of my brain where the knowledge gained during my quest for my Political Science degree is stored.  I actually went to the theater to see the second and third ones, and then ordered the trilogy of Ms. Collins' books for my Kindle.  The books were every bit as fascinating.  I basically read through all three of them in the space of about four days.   

By all accounts, I'm far from alone in the fascination for these tales.  The books are all best-sellers and the movies have been wildly successful.  And everyone is waiting with baited breath for the denouement when it hits theaters next year.

On this particular evening, however, I skipped the movie and went to the special features.  It was interesting to hear how the stories were transitioned from print to film, and how unselfish Ms. Collins' was with the inevitable compromises that must be made.  But as the interviews unwound, I heard one of the book's editors talk about how the story reminded him "...of the Bush years..." when mothers had to watch their children go off to fight.

That got my attention.  I backed up the disc and listened to his repeated comments.  Again I felt the slight disorientation that goes with the statement, "But that's not how I remember it."

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An Airliner's Eye in the Sky: A Serious Proposal

Picking up the Pieces
From ZeeNewsIndia.com

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
written content only

Aircraft, both civilian and military, vanishing over the "trackless ocean" is not a new occurrence.  Vessels of the atmosphere ranging from balloons to jet bombers have a long history of failing to return from overwater flights.  The latest instance, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, remains missing as of this writing, and has become the most intriguing air mystery since Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.  What made MH370 so hard to comprehend was the sudden realization that beyond a certain radius from land, radar is nonexistent.  Since it's invention by the British during World War II, it has provided a sense of security for airline passengers as well as nations seeking to guard their airspace against hostile intrusion.  As senses of security go, this one proved to be false.

Radar, an acronym for radio detection and ranging, works by sending out an electronic signal.  If there is an object within it's range, the signal "bounces" or more properly, reflects off the objects solid surface and is gathered in by the receiving antenna.  The difference in time between when the signal was sent and when the reflection was received provides data on distance.  There are literally hundreds of different types using different frequency ranges depending on the application.

But radar has it's limitations.  Some types are severely degraded by weather, since water in the form of cloud droplets and raindrops is largely opaque to radio signals.  Also, radar beams don't follow the curve of the earth.  Past a certain point, the beams continue out into space.  Range of a particular radar depends on a host of factors, both technological and meteorological, which would take too long to discuss here.  To make things easier to understand, think of a radar as a flashlight.  

When you turn on a flashlight, you send a beam out in front of you.  If the object you're trying to locate is there, the light reflects off its surface and is returned to your eyes.  But if the object is too far away, even if the beam hits it, there's not enough power remaining to reflect the light back to you. 

So even the most powerful shore-based radars can only reach out so far.  Elevating the transmitting antenna can "lower the horizon" enough to pick up objects much further away.

So, when an aircraft flies out over the ocean and leaves the umbrella of land-based radar coverage, it is essentially on it's own.  Normally this is not a problem, since modern navigational technology does a great job of keeping the aircraft on course and on time.

But as recent events have shown, that may not be enough to ensure the safety of the plane, crew, and passengers.

An Exercise in Gullibility*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
July 11, 2010
as "Humorous Lesson in Identity Theft Education"

One of the most effective of the email scams is the so-called "Nigerian Scam."  In it, the sender spins a tale of revolution and chaos, resulting in the need to relocate the subject nation's material wealth off-shore to keep it from being seized by whomever the enemy is.  This was a tactic primarily used by Nigerian criminal groups and has proven to be shockingly effective, as Americans, always eager for the quick buck, pass their vital information.  Of course, the criminals then drain acounts, flatten credit card accounts, as well as apply for other loans in that person's name.


As a joke, I posted a version of this on a website I belong to, and was amazed at how many took it seriously, despite the oh-so-obvious names in the "letter."  So here for your humorous enjoyment...

Dear Friend,

My name is Umaylme I. Robyu and I am the Undersecretary of the Treasury for the sovereign nation of Udumtu Antzer. Recently, our government has come under immense pressure from militant rebels led by the renegade General Yullbe Sahri, and a coup is imminent. Social order has broken down and our people are fleeing the capitol city, Baibai Cache, in hopes of finding refuge in the Yurpornow Mountains.

I have been directed by our President, Ushuda DeLeetthis, to disperse our governments assets to safe holding accounts in the United States, in order to keep our national wealth from falling into rebel hands.

Due to some unfortunate political decisions regarding support of recent American elections by our esteemed Ambassador, Wedrayne Akowntz, we find ourselves without official friends in the current U.S. administration. Since they have refused to assist us, I am making this personal appeal to you.

My Chief of Staff, Mr. DeNyle Ovzervyce and I have formulated a foolproof scenario. We have made arrangements with a local gemstone dealer in Chicago to receive our liquid funds which will be used to purchase quantities of Deesarfayke diamonds, our national gemstone. The dealer has given us a very good price and has assured us that subsequent re-sell should net the agent around 40% profit.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Ultimate Action Flick: Bauer v. Bourne


Jason and Jack
The Knights of the 9mm




Picture credits -- 
Universal for Jason and Fox for Jack

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited portions

"I regret every decision or mistake that I might have made 
which resulted in the loss of a single innocent life.  
But do you know what I regret the most?  
That this world needs people like me."
--Jack Bauer.

"Do you even know why you're supposed to kill me?
Look at us.  Look at what they make you give."
--Jason Bourne

I've long been a fan of the action adventure movie, especially those that involved in some form the dark shadowy world of covert action.  Being a guy, I guess that preference is kinda written into my DNA.  From "Man From U.N.C.L.E." and Mission: Impossible in the '60's through the library of Jack Ryan movies, and Tom Cruise's re-invention of the MI story, those releases have consistently drawn me like a magnet.

In the last 10 years, two series, one of movies, the other of television, have captured my imagination.

In November of 2001, Fox Television launched a novel new programming concept.  Called "24", it followed the work of a federal counter-terrorism agent named Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland.  Instead of the usual format, the series would follow in real time the minute-by-minute travails of Bauer through a single 24-hour day.  The tension was magnified by the ticking of the clock, a constant reminder of the passage of irretrievable time.  Although burdened with a certain amount of filler, and that Jack seemed to never be more than 15 minutes away from anyplace in the vast expanse of Southern California, the show was nevertheless an instant hit.  Although not intended to, it circumstantially fell into those dark, angry days following 9/11 when America at some level seethed with vengeance against the terrorists who had so brazenly attacked us and killed our people.  Americans saw in Bauer someone who would doggedly pursue and bring to justice, usually by death, of those who had sworn to do us harm.  "24" gave us a hero, albeit a fictional one, when we needed it the most.  

The series lasted nine seasons, each time with Bauer seemingly vanishing from sight only to reappear for the next "day."  The show not only glorified the agents of the Counter Terrorist Unit, but also made heroes out of some of the most unlikely of characters, particularly the very geeky Chloe O'Brien, underscoring that in the modern version of that secret world, a computer and a good operator can be every bit as dangerous as bombs and bullets.

In the summer of 2002, another action adventure franchise debuted with the "Bourne Identity," an adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novels.  I say "adaptation" with a certain irony because the movies resembled the books in the same way that a zebra resembles a parking meter.  That opener was followed by "Bourne Supremacy" in 2004 and "Bourne Ultimatum" in 2007.  All three movies follow Jason Bourne, a brain-trained CIA assassin, really a human killing machine, as he recovers from a bout of amnesia while trying to grasp the meaning and purpose behind his life and what he has been turned into.  Bourne and those who pursue him literally span the globe from New York to Tangiers, giving the films a rich locational canvas on which the action unfolds.

There are similarities in the two characters, beyond their common initials.  Both have done some difficult and dangerous things for the U.S. government, and both have been damaged because of that. Both find themselves largely on the outside looking in as their sponsors and supporters continually find new ways to betray and abandon them.  The question begs, is there enough of a link to join the two stories?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Opening the Gate: Measles and The Irrational Fear of Vaccines


The Measles Virus
From Science.com

An infected patient.
From Healthnet.com

People do not believe lies because they have to, 
but because they want to.
--Malcom Muggeridge

A delusion is something that people believe in 
despite a total lack of evidence.
 –Richard Dawkins.

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
except quoted and cited portions

In the year 165 AD an epidemic broke out in Rome.  Called the Antonine Plague, it claimed nearly 5 million lives.  Modern research suggests that the cause of this plague was a virus that would eventually come to be called Measles.  Highly contagious, the disease has touched nearly all of humanity at some point in time, killing over 200 million since 1855.

However, in 1963, Dr. Thomas Peebles and Dr. John Enders, who also pioneered the polio vaccine, produced the first Measles vaccine.  In 1971, the Measles vaccine was combined with other specifics for Mumps and Rubella, and since 2005 the shot included specifics for Varicella.  Once the vaccines were put into use, Measles cases fell from the hundreds of thousands per year until 2005 when the illness was judged no longer endemic to the United States.

Late in 2014, however, an outbreak of Measles occurred in Southern California, tied to exposures to infected people at two Disney theme parks.  As of this writing, the total number of victims has risen to 100 and will continue to grow.

How could this happen?

Part of the reason is the large influx of people into the United States from countries which still struggle with Measles, among other serious diseases.  Vaccinations are not widely used in many of these countries, allowing diseases to gain a foothold among the human population.  It doesn't help that Measles is a tough little bugger, as viruses go.  An infected person could sneeze a cloud of virus into the open air, and the virus would continue to live for up to two hours.  Most viruses don’t survive for any length of time outside the body.

But the real villain in this piece is a con man with a PhD by the name of Andrew Wakefield.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Civil War: Events of March 1865

On February 28th, Brigadier General George A. Custer, after crossing the north fork of the Shenandoah River, encountered 300 Confederate cavalry under Thomas Rosser guarding the Middle River near the village of Mount Crawford.  Rosser set fire to a long covered bridge in an attempt to delay Custer's advance, but Custer ordered two of his regiments to swim the river while other units stormed the burning bridge.  Rosser's force was driven off and Custer advanced to Staunton and joined Phil Sheridan's force the next day.  Originally, it was Sheridan's intent to join Sherman in South Carolina, but decided to turn east instead to eliminate the remnants of Jubal Early's Army of the Valley.  On March 2nd, Sheridan encountered Early's forces at Waynesboro.  Early had a good defensive position, but had left his left flank exposed abutting some dense woods.  A determined Federal attack turned, and then rolled up Early's flank.  More than 1,500 southerners surrendered, although Early and his staff evaded capture.

The U.S. government established the Freedman's Bureau on March 3rd.

Also on the 3rd, President Lincoln issued surrender instructions to General Grant.  Grant was given wide-ranging powers concerning Army matters, but reserved political issues to himself.

On March 4th, Lincoln gave his inaugural address, speaking directly to the Confederate people, saying, "...with malice toward none; with charity for all."

Also on March 4th, Tennessee elects its first post-war Governor Parson Brownlow.

On March 10, Sherman's army continues its march through North Carolina, although slowed by spring rains.  He captures Fayetteville on the 11th.

On March 13th, the Confederacy enlisted its first black soldiers with the tacit understanding that those who fought would be freed.

On the 16th, Sherman, advancing towards Goldsboro was attacked by Confederate General William Hardee's corps, assaulting the left wing under General Slocum near Averasborough, attempting to slow Sherman's advance.  The Union XX Corps was driven back by the assault.  Reinforcements arrived and the Union counterattacked, driving back two of the Confederate lines, but repulsed by the third.  The XIV Corps arrived, forcing Hardee's forces to withdraw.  Three days later, Hardee, along with D. H. Hill and A. P. Stewart combined to attack Slocum's column again near Bentonville. Over the two-day battle, Hardee made early gains, but was repulsed.  Sherman reinforced Slocum on the 20th, and on the 21st, Hardee's force made a harrowing escape, as they barely escaped envelopment by Slocum.

Union General James Wilson began a raid on Selma, AL on the 22nd.

On the 23rd, Lincoln left Washington for Grant's Headquarters at City Point.

In an event similar to the World War II Battle of the Bulge, Confederate General John B. Gordon attacked and captured Fort Stedman, a Union outpost on the Petersburg siege line..  Gordon's forces managed to punch a hole 3/4 of a mile wide in the Union lines, making a desperate thrust towards the Union supply base and headquarters at City Point, VA.  But the Union had numbers on their side and managed to stop and then turn back the Confederate advance, eventually recapturing Fort Stedman.  The defeat, although unrealized at the time, essentially sealed the eventual fate of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Weakened by irreplaceable losses of men and material, this was their last offensive effort of the war.

On March 27th, Union forces under Edward Canby lay siege to the heavily fortified Spanish Fort, the eastern defense of Mobile, AL, and the vital port of Mobile Bay.  On that same day, Lincoln held an important council of war at City Point with Grant and Admiral David Porter.

General Grant continued to extend his lines around the besieged city of Petersburg, VA, forcing Lee to thin out his lines in order to face the deployments.  On March 30th, Sheridan's cavalry attacked the Confederate right flank at Dinwiddie Court House, VA.   Grant had ordered a major offensive against the remaining Confederate supply lines along the Boydton Plank Road, the Richmond and Danville Railroad, and the Southside Railroad.  Grant wanted the Southerners to be forced out of their fortifications.  On the morning of the 29th, Warren and Humphrey's corps' moved south and west towards the Confederate right.  Up the Quaker Road came Warren's Corps, led by the brigade of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a hero of Gettysburg.  Chamberlain's brigade took on three brigades of Johnson's division.  The Union force eventually forced the Confederates back, Chamberlain collecting another of his 6 wounds suffered in the war, and was nearly captured.  The bullet that struck Chamberlain had passed through the neck of his horse, spraying blood onto Chamberlain's face.  The round was deflected by a picture of his wife which he kept in his coat pocket, but still traveled just under the skin around his ribs and exited out the back.  To all observers on both sides, Chamberlain had apparently suffered a fatal wound.  Indeed, General Griffin, seeing his subordinate, declared, "Chamberlain,you are dead!"  Chamberlain instead rose to his feet, grabbed another horse and rallied his fading troops.  Atop the horse, covered in blood and waving his sword, Chamberlain inspired not only his troops, but the Confederates as well.  At the end of the day, Warren's corps captured and held a portion of the Boydton Plank Road at Quaker Road.  Later, Sheridan occupied Dinwiddie Courthouse, completely severing the road.  The Union forces then prepared to attack the Confederates at the important road junction of Five Forks.

On March 31st, Confederate General George Pickett attacked and drove back Sheridan's cavalry.  It was merely a tactical victory, as the Union advance was unhindered.


Civil War: Events of February 1865

William T. Sherman entered South Carolina on February 1st.

On February 3rd, President Lincoln along with Secretary of State William Seward met on the steamboat River Queen with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, accompanied bu John Campbell and RMT Hunter to discuss possible peace terms.  The conference failed.

On February 4th, Robert E. Lee was named General in Chief of all Confederate forces.

From February 5th through the 7th one of a series of Union offensives during the Siege of Petersburg occurred at Hatcher's Run.  These actions were intended to cut off Confederate supply traffic on two vital roads west of Petersburg.  General Gregg's cavalry was sent to the Boydton Plank Road looking to locate and destroy Confederate supply wagons.  The Union V Corps under the command of General Gouverneur Warren marched southwest towards Dinwiddie Courthouse, taking up a blocking position on the Vaughn Road to protect Gregg's right flank.  The II Corps under Andrew Humphreys marched to Armstrong's Mill to cover Warren's right flank.  Late on the 5th, Confederate General John B. Gordon attacked II Corps from the north but was repulsed.  Overnight, II Corps was reinforced by elements of V Corps and Gregg's cavalry, having returned after not finding any of the supply train.
On the 6th, Confederate General John Pegram sent his division against the V Corps lines. The Southerners were driven back until General Clement Evans' soldiers piled in and halted the Northern advance.  Later on the 6th, Pegram and William Mahone's divisions attacked the center of the Union position near Dabney's Mill.  The Union line collapsed and fell back to reform north of the mill.  The next day, Warren sent his Union soldiers against the Confederate lines, recapturing the areas around Dabney's Mill which had been lost on the 6th.  The Union advance was halted, but at the same time extended their siegeworks to the Vaughn Road.  The Confederates were able to keep the Boydton Plank Road open, but with the extension of the Union lines, were forced to spread their already thin lines even further.

John C. Breckinridge became Confederate Secretary of War on the 6th.

The Union army appointed the first black Major, Martin Robison Delany, on the 8th.  Four days later, Henry Highland Garnet became the first black to speak in the U.S. House of Representatives.

William T. Sherman captured Columbia, SC on the 17th.  The city was burned, although the exact cause of the blaze remains to this day disputed.

The vital port of Charleston, SC was evacuated on the 17th, and surrendered to the Union Army the next day.  Fort Sumter, where the Civil War started, once again flew the stars and stripes.

On February 22nd, Robert E. Lee, exercising his new authority as Commanding General of all Confederate forces, appointed Joe Johnston as the commander of the only other effective fighting army of the CSA in North Carolina.

On that same day, voters in Tennessee approved a new constitution which included the abolition of slavery.