Sunday, August 13, 2006

Is Xena our 10th planet?

With the discovery of another celestial body beyond Pluto that also orbits the sun the astronomers are faced with a new dilemma as to what really constitutes a planet, and whether Pluto is really a planet or not, and whether this new found lump of ice is really a planet or something other.

There should be some hot discussions on the topic at a conference starting on Monday.

Khaleej Times Online - Astronomers struggle to define 'planet’ - and perhaps name a new one
Our solar system is suffering an identity crisis.

For decades, it has consisted of nine planets, even as scientists debated whether Pluto really belonged. Then the recent discovery of an object larger and farther away than Pluto threatened to throw this slice of the cosmos into chaos.

Should this newly found icy rock known as “2003 UB313” become the 10th planet? Should Pluto be demoted? And what exactly is a planet, anyway?

Ancient cultures regularly revised their answer to the last question and present-day scientists aren’t much better off: There still is no universal definition of “planet.”

That all could soon change, and with it science textbooks around this planet.

At a 12-day conference beginning Monday, scientists will conduct a galactic census of sorts. Among the possibilities at the meeting of the International Astronomical Union in the Czech Republic capital of Prague: Subtract Pluto or christen one more planet, and possibly dozens more.

“It’s time we have a definition,” said Alan Stern, who heads the Colorado-based space science division of the Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio. “It’s embarrassing to the public that we as astronomers don’t have one.”

The debate intensified last summer when astronomer Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology announced the discovery of a celestial object larger than Pluto. Like Pluto, it is a member of the Kuiper Belt, a mysterious disc-shaped zone beyond Neptune containing thousands of comets and planetary objects. (Brown nicknamed his find “Xena” after a warrior heroine in a cheesy TV series; pending a formal name, it remains 2003 UB313.)

The Hubble Space Telescope measured the bright, rocky object at about 1,490 miles (2,400 kilometers) in diameter, roughly 70 miles (113 kilometers) longer than Pluto. At 9 billion miles (14.5 billion kilometers) from the sun, it is the farthest known object in the solar system.

The discovery stoked the planet debate that had been simmering since Pluto was spotted in 1930.

Some argue that if Pluto kept its crown, Xena should be the 10th planet by default - it is, after all, bigger. Purists maintain that there are only eight traditional planets, and insist Pluto and Xena are poseurs.

“Life would be simpler if we went back to eight planets,” said Brian Marsden, director of the astronomical union’s Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Still others suggest a compromise that would divide planets into categories based on composition, similar to the way stars and galaxies are classified. Jupiter could be labeled a “gas giant planet,” while Pluto and Xena could be “ice dwarf planets.”

“Pluto is not worthy of being called just a plain planet,” said Alan Boss, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. “But it’s perfectly fine as an ice dwarf planet or a historical planet.”

The number of recognized planets in the solar system has seesawed based on new findings. Ceres was initially classified as a planet in the 1800s, but was demoted to an asteroid when similar objects were found nearby.

Despite the lack of scientific consensus on what makes a planet, the current nine - and Xena - share common traits: They orbit the sun. Gravity is responsible for their round shape. And they were not formed by the same process that created stars.

Brown, Xena’s discoverer, admits to being “agnostic” about what the international conference decides. He said he could live with eight planets, but is against sticking with the status quo and would feel a little guilty if Xena gained planethood because of the controversy surrounding Pluto.

“If UB313 is declared to be the 10th planet, I will always feel like it was a little bit of a fraud,” Brown said.

For years, Pluto’s inclusion in the solar system has been controversial. Astronomers thought it was the same size as Earth, but later found it was smaller than Earth’s moon. Pluto is also odd in other ways: With its elongated orbit and funky orbital plane, it acts more like other Kuiper Belt objects than traditional planets.

Even so, Pluto remained No. 9 because it was the only known object in the Kuiper Belt at the time.

When new observations in the 1990s confirmed that the Kuiper Belt was sprinkled with numerous bodies similar to Pluto, some scientists piped up. In 1999, the international union took the unusual step of releasing a public statement denying rumors that the ninth rock from the sun might be kicked out.

That hasn’t stopped groups from attacking Pluto’s planethood. In 2001, the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History unleashed an uproar the situation.

Yes, Mel still has friends, give him a break!

Yes, Mel has made a mess of things, that's for sure... but I reckon we need to give the man a break. Some people have very very public falls from grace, and Mel has been one of those.

It's great that not all Mel's "friends" have dropped him like a hot potato. We need our friends whether things are good or bad... fair weather friends are no friends at all. Maybe it's during the times when we're at our worst that we find out who are real friends are... friends who will continue to love us despite our rotten behaviours.

Yes, Mel still has friends - People - Entertainment -

After a horror week in which friends have been hard to find, Mel Gibson has received support from Hollywood heavyweights.

Since shaming himself with an anti-Jewish tirade against the Los Angeles policeman who caught him drink-driving on July 28, Gibson has been relying - as ever - on his wife, Robyn, whom he has dubbed a saint.

But yesterday, two close friends - actor Jodie Foster and Jewish film producer Dean Devlin - spoke out, urging the 50-year-old's critics to understand that he is an alcoholic.

In the Los Angeles Times, Foster, who starred alongside Gibson in Maverick, said: "Is he an anti-Semite? Absolutely not. But it's no secret that he has always fought a terrible battle with alcoholism."

Foster paid tribute to Gibson for having survived an addiction that had haunted him throughout his adult life.

"[He is] a shining example of how low you can go when you are young and still pull yourself up," she said. "He took his recovery very seriously, which is why I know he is strong enough to get through this now."

Devlin - who co-produced The Patriot, in which Gibson starred - told the Los Angeles Times: "If Mel is an anti-Semite, then he spends a lot of time with us, which makes no sense.

"But he is an alcoholic, and while that makes no excuse for what he said, because there is no excuse, I believe it was the disease speaking, not the man."

Having been charged with three counts of misdemeanour drunken driving after his meltdown late last month, Gibson's career is in crisis, and his marriage is under strain. Whether Robyn can save the man who, by his own confession has been to the brink of suicide due to his war with alcoholism, remains to be seen.

Almost certainly she will not leave him. Through carousing and controversy, Robyn, 50, has stoically stood by her man.

"It evolved over a couple of years. We were friends, just a platonic association," Gibson said of meeting dental nurse Robyn Moore in an Adelaide share house in 1977 while he was in a production of Waiting For Godot.

Moore fell pregnant and the two married in June 1980. Theirs has since been regarded as one of Hollywood's most enduring marriages.

"Sometimes it almost doesn't bear analysing because it just does [work]," Gibson has said. "She certainly has a lot of wonderful qualities that I don't possess and I think I admire that. There's something true about opposites attract . . . She's 10 times more responsible [than me] . . . She's a lot more constant. I'm thankful for that. I need that."

The question is whether Robyn needs it. She has become the most isolated of Hollywood wives, seldom seen and most certainly never heard publicly. Her job is at home in the couple's lavish, ocean-front Malibu compound with most of their seven children - Hannah, Christian, Edward, William, Louis, Milo and Tom, aged between 26 and seven. She has never given an interview.

Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner once said of the pair: "Mel and Robyn are the definition of how two people can be in love. Nothing can come between them."

Source: The Sun-Herald

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Offensive outburst doesn't make Mel rotten to the core

Louis Nowra column in Thursday's Sydney Morning Herald brings a bit of sanity to the hoo-haa that's developed over Mel Gibson's fall from grace. Why does the media jump all over some people's public "sins" and ignore those of others? Mel Gibson blew it. So what? The guy has apologised. He's gone into rehad. He's paying a high price in his family. And was his drunken spree the result of the troubles between he and his wife?

Louis Nowra's says:
As every cop knows, drunks say the most terrible things. Black cops are racially abused by white drunks and vice versa. Woman cops are abused by drunken men ("What are you looking at, sugar tits?"). Experienced cops generally pay no attention because it is the drink or drugs talking.

Would you like to be held accountable for the things you say and do while inebriated? Endless amounts of time are spent in courts arguing this very thing, and often with the result a person is acquitted or convicted of a lesser misdemeanour.

Offensive outburst doesn't make Mel rotten to the core - Opinion -

THE recent international kerfuffle over Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic remarks created a blizzard of sanctimonious and hysterical attacks on the actor. I thought the incident was blown out of all proportion but there is something about the uproar which shows a disturbing trend in this era of media witch-hunts.
Let's look briefly at Gibson's scrape. He was pissed as a fart and told the arresting officer: "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world."

As every cop knows, drunks say the most terrible things. Black cops are racially abused by white drunks and vice versa. Woman cops are abused by drunken men ("What are you looking at, sugar tits?"). Experienced cops generally pay no attention because it is the drink or drugs talking.

There has been a consistent strand to the attacks on Gibson, besides guilt by association (his father has insane ideas about Jews and the Holocaust) and that is that his inebriated comment reflects a core belief of his. Critics rest their case on the idea of in vino veritas, booze brings out the truth. But does it?

How many people have woken up the morning after getting plastered, hung over and filled with remorse at what they have done or said? They are remorseful because they did not mean the hurtful or hateful things they said and, in fact, their words or actions were totally uncharacteristic.

Years ago a drunken Elvis Costello made a racially offensive comment about Ray Charles. This comment, overheard in a bar, nearly cost Costello his career in the US and yet he was and is one of the great supporters and lovers of black music.

Take an example from literature.

When the letters of the fine British poet Philip Larkin were published, many people were horrified at the crass anti-Semitic and anti-black comments. The letters had been private and were obviously written to shock and even amuse some of his correspondents. The hysterical reaction by literary mavens overlooked the fact that Larkin was a devotee of black jazz musicians and never made publicly disparaging statements about Jews or blacks. Were the remarks his true beliefs or just the product of an uncensored mind?

The loudmouthed former Test cricketer Dean Jones was fired from his job as a commentator this week after he called a devout Muslim South African cricketer a terrorist. This was not part of his commentary but an offhand remark caught by an open microphone.

It's easy to imagine that Jones and his mates would have joked privately about the Muslim and they would have considered it a bit of harmless banter that in no way reflected their actual beliefs.

But does Jones really think that he's a terrorist? Absolutely not.

These examples have one thing in common. They were private comments not meant for public consumption. But, some people will say, they reflect the beliefs of those who said these awful things.

Our private thoughts can be unruly - obscene, sexist, racist and ridiculous. Sometimes we keep them to ourselves or share with others. Humans are driven by contradictions and there can be great divisions between our private and public thoughts, actions and words.

Our private selves can contain a swarm of ideas and imaginings that can be contradictory to the actual beliefs we express truthfully in public.

A feminist can have fantasies of being raped that sexually excite her, but be horrified by the notion of it happening in reality. Aborigines can talk among themselves about "white c---s" and yet work with, live with and love a white person. The expletive is why we have expletives - to let off steam or anger - and can even be humorous in the right context.

One has just to sit through the documentary The Aristocrats, in which comedians present filthy, obscene variations of a crude joke, to realise that there is a huge gulf between thinking hideous things and actually doing them.

Common to all these examples is that they were meant to be private before the media blew them up. If our thoughts and private conversations between friends were to be made public, how many of us could stand the scrutiny?

For me the racist abuse by Australian spectators of coloured cricketers is a public utterance and therefore to be condemned.

And I think the insulting and publicly expressed loony ideas about Jews from Gibson's sober father are terrible because you know they are his core beliefs.

As for his son's true beliefs about Jews, a couple of drunken offensive remarks will not tell us.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Asean must take action on the rape of freedom in Burma

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, Eva K Sundari and Teresa Kok Suh Sim have written the following guest column for The Nation.

When will rape and pillage taking place in Burma be finally confronted by the international community and the perpetrators brought to justice? It does not seem possible that justice could ever occur for those who have suffered so miserably at the hands of the military and seemingly with the blessing of the military officers and the country's leadership.

It does have a feel of a deliberate plan to demoralise and tear apart the minority groups who have as much legitimate right to live in the country as these brutes do.

Asean must take action on the rape of freedom in Burma (The Nation)
Gender-based sexual violence obstructs peace and development, particularly when it is a weapon used by military dictatorships against their own peoples. Burma is now permeated by such state-sponsored violence.

Systematic sexual violence became visible in Burma when the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) and the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) published "Licence to Rape", which documents 625 cases of rape committed by the military in eastern Burma between 1996 and 2001. The report noted that nobody had been prosecuted.

Burma is suffering the impact of decades of civil war. Civilians have become the main victims of a strategy aimed at undermining the guerrillas, which has resulted in forced labour, the use of human minesweepers, and massive relocations of entire villages. There are now an estimated 600,000 to one million internal refugees.

SWAN and SHRF argue that rape is used as a weapon in the Burmese military's war against ethnic minorities.

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable - owing to gender as well as ethnicity - to a horrific practice whose aim is to demonstrate the army's power and punish those who confront it. When the army enters a village, chaos erupts. Villagers are killed or ordered to pack their belongings and leave. Several of the reported rapes took place under such conditions, or when women are taken for forced labour.

Many victims have fled Burma. SWAN and SHRF learned of many cases from women who arrived in Thailand. In February 2006, we visited a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border and learned first hand of war and abuse.

"Licence to Rape" has attracted wide attention in Southeast Asia. Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Thai Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and vice chairperson of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Burma Caucus, called for an investigation by the United Nations. So did the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Commission.

Rape brings stigma, shame, and reluctance on the part of victims to speak out about what happened to them. But an increasing number of women and girls from Burma have begun to tell of their experiences of rape and other forms of sexual violence in the country's war-torn areas.

Army deserters confirm that rapes have occurred. And the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women has published material that corroborates information in Licence to Rape and adds numerous new cases from Burma.

Nevertheless, four years on, a UN investigation has yet to take place, because the military junta refuses to grant the UN access to the country. Incidents of rape continue to be reported, and the Burmese military surely must know what is happening. But the junta engages in Orwellian doublethink. It has rejected the reports, instead launching its own investigations whose conduct and staffing leave no room for confidence in their credibility.

National governments and the international community have an obligation to protect women and children against abuse. In 2000, the UN Security Council recognised that gender-based violence thwarts security and adopted Resolution 1325, which calls on parties in conflict to respect the rights of women and children, and particularly to prevent gender-based violence.

In 2004, the governments of Asean vowed to end the impunity states like Burma have enjoyed and signed the Declaration to Eliminate Violence Against Women in the Asean Region.

Burma is failing miserably to live up to the standards of decency that the Southeast Asian region is setting for itself. It has ratified the UN Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, a national committee exists for the advancement of women.

But such measures are of no use when the military remains firmly in control, the rule of law is absent, and the government refuses to admit to the systematic sexual violence committed by its soldiers as they terrorise the population.

Asean cannot afford to stand by idly. Neither can the international community. Such abuse of power is inadmissible, and we expect Asean to address the military's use of rape in the conflict in Burma. We urge the UN Security Council to raise the issue. All of Burma's people deserve security, and refugee women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence need the world's solidarity and support.

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana and Eva K Sundari are MPs in Indonesia. Teresa Kok Suh Sim is an MP in Malaysia.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Speculations on Thaksin's Burma trip

Sopon Onkgara has written a wonderfully speculative article on Thaksin's recent secret 1-day trip to meet with Burma's leaders. It does make one wonder what Thaksin is up to... I've become rather cynical of Thai politicians over the years. It seems that so very few have the nation's welfare at heart, and most seem to be more interested in preserving (and increasing) their own wealth and the wealth of their families.

I suspect that there's a value system in place that has its roots back in the old days in China... This value system had the family interests in mind where an individual member of a family was groomed for positions of power and influence and then was expected to bring great benefit to those above them (the emporer, etc), to cronies, and to their own families. What was good for the country as a whole does not seem to have been part of the paradigm... maybe I'm all wrong but I do wonder...

It would make an interesting topic for research for someone in the social sciences.

Secret of Thaksin's Burma trip might be in the skies (The Nation)
Even critics of Thaksin Shinawatra have to grudgingly admire his audacity and public-relations stunts. Still, as caretaker prime minister, his stealth diplomacy - with an abrupt half-day visit to Burma on Wednesday - surely more than raised eyebrows.

Controversy followed, with persistent doubts, but he got away with evasive responses and lame explanations.

People have to bear or live with his style of working, never mind tradition or protocol. Thaksin described his visit to the cut-throat rulers of Burma as modern diplomacy, bypassing cumbersome rituals and saving a lot of time to actually get results.

What results? Thaksin claimed that the trip was all for national interests, nothing else, and that the 35-minute meeting covered a lot of ground and wide-ranging issues. Indeed, our energy minister said the talk focused for a while on investment in oil and gas; the agriculture minister said there was discussion on bird flu; the Army chief said there was nothing much of interest.

If there was any achievement at all, Thaksin must have been the sole beneficiary, but he kept most of it to himself following the one-on-one huddle with the Burmese junta's overlords.

Let's look at this way: if the talks were all in the national interest and achieved much success, a shrewd politician like Thaksin would have optimised the useful outcomes to chalk up political points as the country heads towards a general election, if not put another halo around himself.

As far as we know, Thaksin is still trapped in bad times. He is very desperate to restore his sinking popularity following five years of numerous misdeeds, massive corruption and abuse of power, among other scandals in government. If the visit was urgent, necessary and genuinely beneficial to the country, he would have rambled on and on about the results non-stop.

Surely, the true achievements of the Burma trip, or even failures if there were any, must be something he is not prepared to reveal to the people, who footed the bill for the trip. When he did not come up with tangible results, it was inevitable that he would fall prey to all sorts of speculation.

It might sound funny or ridiculous to those who are not familiar with his odd behaviour, but it was just another sad episode for the country, whose future and destiny remain murky under Thaksin's power.

This was not the first time Thaksin's foreign trips have raised suspicions about his family's business and vested interests, particularly concerning the Ipstar satellite. Speculation and hearsay were confirmed by either credible evidence or business agreements.

There was talk about some hitches in the Shin Corp deal with Temasek Holdings of Singapore. One version was that it was not yet a done deal regarding ground stations on high mountains in Burma for the Ipstar satellite to have a direct link with Australia. Singapore has become the proprietor of the facilities through the sale of Shin Corp stocks and Burma feels uneasy about such an arrangement.

There was speculation about Thaksin's desire to invest his cash holdings in energy ventures, rare earth and other natural resources. "Why should I pursue business deals after I have sold all," he asserted. His argument was not taken seriously by those familiar with his style of doing business through nominees and funds.

There was talk on the grapevine about Thaksin's desire to drive away misfortune and whatever jinx now menaces his star by paying homage at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. The embattled billionaire is said to be fascinated by superstition and fortune-telling. His visits to various places led to wild talk about such practices.

If people are inclined to believe what Thaksin has to say, they should be prepared for disappointment later on. Somehow, what he has denied has tended to turn out to be true. As a politician who never admits any mistake, Thaksin did not care when his claims were found to be false.

If there were some truth in all the wild talk, it would be about his family's unfinished deal with Temasek Holdings. Half of the Bt73 billion has been paid over so far, but it remains untouched and Thaksin cannot remit it abroad, as there exist doubts about the legality of the entire transaction. What's more, parts of the deal encountered legal problems that led to sharp falls in the shares of Shin Corp companies, resulting in massive paper losses and a red face for Temasek Holdings. With Thaksin's political future in the doldrums, the likelihood of a strong rebound looks pretty remote, if not impossible.

More similarly unplanned foreign trips will be heard of soon enough. Thaksin's next one is expected to be to Cambodia, where there are still rich natural resources for joint investment. Don't be surprised if he shows up at Angkor Wat or other sacred sites as well.

Despite his mighty political power and supreme self-confidence, Thaksin still believes and has faith in the supernatural or paranormal - if it can yield some benefit to him.

Sopon Onkgara

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Burmese generals in cahoots with drug lords in Shan State

This report does not surprise me. It's one of the common knowledge sorts of things but nice that now there's some hard research been done.

The whole situation in Burma continues to be awful.

Burmese generals in cahoots with drug lords in Shan State (Mizzima News - Specialising in Burma-Related News and Multimedia)
Burmese military generals are actively involved in the drug trade, accept bribes and cover up for drug traffickers, said a report released on Wednesday by media in exile the SHAN.

The 64-page report titled 'Hand in Glove,' by the Chiang Mai, Thailand based Shan Herald Agency News took two and-a-half years to compile. It has accused some of the top military brass like, Lieutenant general Thein Sein, the secretary I of the State Peace and Development Council, Lieutenant General Myint Hlaing, Lieutenant General Kyaw Win and some other military officers of having their palms greased by drug lords in Shan state.

Lieutenant General Thein Sein, the former commander of Triangle Region Command with the rank of major general received an astonishing 45 assorted motor vehicles, both for his own use and as gifts for his superiors in Rangoon, said the report.

"The army leaders used to collect taxes on poppy fields, the products and make way for the transportation of chemicals to drug refineries in south western Shan State borders areas," said Sein Kyi, an assistant editor and also field researcher for the booklet to Mizzima.

SHAN interviewed about 80 people living along Burma's borders with Thailand and China which are mostly controlled by pro-junta cease-fire ethnic armed groups.

"It is not unlike Afghanistan where most government allies against rebels are found to be drug bosses," the report quoted an informed local as saying.

The report pointed out that the Burmese military expansion, from 168 infantry battalions in 1988 to 528 in May 2005, is one of the factors for military units to be lured to the illicit drug business in opium, methamphetamine and Yaba. The drug lords are from United Wa State Army, Kachin Defence Army, Shan Nationalities People's Liberation Organisation, Kokang and pro-military junta militia forces.

"Many teenagers use these tablets (methamphetamine) on their way to school because they are easy to buy and cheap, " said Sein Kyi.

The report claimed that opium production in Shan state is on the rise. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has, however, reported that poppy cultivation dramatically decreased in 2005 to 32, 800 hectares down from 160,000 hectares in 1999.

"The military junta showed outsiders, including UNODC, some places which are easy to reach in areas controlled by ceasefire groups in Shan state. But there are many places which are under military control in very remote areas in the mountains between the eastern Than Lwin river and Northern Namkham rivers where major poppy fields exist," said Sein Kyi.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

How about a ceasefire in the Middle East?

Chiang Mai floods

Here we go again! Chiang Mai is under flood threat. The river rose quite high and flooded some parts of the city. Then it went down but more storms are forecast for the end of the week.

Chiang Mai flood: hundreds of homes inundated (COT : TNA English News)

CHIANG MAI, July 31 (TNA) - Incessant rains have triggered a flood inundating hundreds of dwellings in the northern province of Chiang Mai.

Run-off from Doi Suthep, the mountain that overlooks the former northern capital, caused flooding some 30-50 centimetres deep in Mae Rim district, forcing villagers to move their belongings to higher ground.

Floodwater in some areas in the provincial seat is as high as 60 centimetres, causing traffic jams near Chiang Mai Rajabhat University.

The Meteorological Department issued a flash flood warning effective from July 31 through August 2 in at-risk areas in the North and the Northeast.

The department forecast heavy rain due to a low pressure ridge over the North and the upper part of the Northeast.

The southwestern monsoon covers the Andaman Sea, the Gulf of Thailand and the southern region. Waves up to three-metres high are expected in the Andaman Sea and the upper part of the Gulf of Thailand. (TNA)-E004