Somewhere in the far reaches of Bethesda, MD, cloaked in an impenetrable shroud of secrecy lies a humble agency called the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. When I ran Google Earth on their address, I got a nice hi-res image of their campus on my screen, but every attempt I made to save it so I could post it on the site led to the results shown to the right. This is a crew that doesn't want to be found.
The NGA At Night
January 25, 2006
The Germans have found a wonderful new pest control technology, and it avoids the use of those messy and toxic insecticides! Scientists at the Max Planck Society have learned that plants will kindly permit their genes to be manipulated in a way that causes them to emit a curious smell when they are infested with a particular variety of voracious caterpillar. The odor attracts another species of insect that exterminates the parasite. Here it is, strait from the press release:
What twisted mind thought this insidious scheme up? The hapless caterpillar settles in for a hearty meal, the enjoyment of which ironically triggers the release of the gas that will lead to his demise. But it doesn't end there. Like Odysseus and his crew caught in the trance of a Siren's Smell, killer wasps make a nest of the helpless creature, who is probably beginning to suspect a trap by now. Too late. The nesting process results in a slow, painful death as hundreds of hungry wasp babies gradually consume the host. Had enough? I haven't. Now that the wasp babies have made a meal of their host where are they going to turn for food? So the process ends with the mass starvation of a generation of wasps. Can you imagine a more grim spectacle? Where's the DDT.
This mutation can turn up naturally in humans. My wife has discovered that I'm blessed with the "insecticide gene". Seems that when I've ingested some spicy or noxious new recipe to which my body has yet to build up a resistance I'm prone to my own particular brand of emission. The "cry for help" attracts its own wasps - in this case my angry spouse. She has tried to beat the gene out of me, but it's a stubborn bit of DNA.
What's That Buzzing Sound?
"Corn plants emit a cocktail of scents when they are attacked by certain pests, such as a caterpillar known as the Egyptian cotton leaf worm. Parasitic wasps use these plant scents to localize the caterpillar and deposit their eggs on it, so that their offspring can feed on the caterpillar. Soon after, the caterpillar dies and the plant is relieved from its attacker."
Avian Flu Update
Last time we talked the avian flu was mutating in strange and potentially dangerous ways in Turkey. The good news then was that the virus had not mutated quite enough to cause concern. Now we have a few more details - turns out there are three mutations one of which "allows the flu virus to bind to the receptors on the surface of its host's cells." That's bad. And yet Maria Cheng, of the World Health Organization (WHO), said, "it is not clear what role this particular change plays." I've got my hand up. The role it plays is that it causes the virus to bind to US. Not birds. That seems clear enough to me. Peole seem to be paranoid about all the wrong things these days. Video surveillance cameras aren't going to protect us against a domestic avian flu outbreak.
January 26, 2006
Neither Snow, Nor Rain, Nor . . .
The US Postal Service has a great reputation for braving the harshest elements in a Herculean effort to deliver our junk mail. Every now and then they encounter a situation that causes them to abandon their lonely, bracing trek. Like the other day when a kid was running around South Troy, VT with a BB gun, which led the local postmaster to declare a temporary lockdown. As Ralphie's mom was wont to say - "Somebody might have got his eye shot out!"
Quote of the Day
The Wash Post reports that BB&T, a large bank that does lots of business in the DC metro area, has decided to abandon financing ventures in which municipalities are using eminent domain to evict hapless property owners. This was positioned on the front page of the business section as a move by BB&T to take a stand on the right of governments to throw you out of your house whenever it suits their purpose. Here's the quote, direct from the lips of W. Kendall Chalk, chief credit officer for BB&T::
Say Your Prayers, Letterdude
This incident is eerily like the closing scene from "A Christmas Story", in which Ralphie very nearly does shoot his eye out by stupidly shooting his new Red Rider at a metal sign and watching the errant BB fly back into his glasses. The kids in South Troy are up to a bit less good. This one in particular was wandering around taking potshots at street signs and other common BB targets when one bounced off and hit an employee of the Postal Service. This is probably a felony and, given the security fad and all, I would have expected a full mobilization of the VT National Guard. The fact that they're all in Iraq may have dimmed those prospects. The postmaster did the next best thing and mobilized South Troy's finest while halting mail deliver in the town until the fiend was apprehended, which took place more than 4 hours after the shooting..
The South Troy Record-News quotes Det.. Sgt. John Cooney: "It was a good cooperative effort between the agencies leading to some peace of mind for the neighborhood." In a place like South Troy I would think they get just about all the peace of mind they're inclined to handle. To the contrary, I'd expect them to embrace a bit of excitement and horseplay.
I guess the Postal Service just ain't what it used to be. According to their spokesperson, Maureen Marion. "From the Postal Service's perspective, whenever there's a safety issue we will suspend delivery in the area where that safety issue takes place until such time as we can come to a resolution." Not taking any chances, are they?
"Our number one concern is a philosophical and principle-based one. We do a large amount of commercial lending. . . . There is the potential for abuse of eminent domain."
Let's parse that:
"Our number one concern is a philosophical and principle based one" - Translation: We're doing this for altruistic reasons, - yeah, we'll probably lose some money, but somebody has to draw the line somewhere and, dammit, this is it.
"We do a large amount of commercial lending. There is the potential for abuse of eminent domain." - Translation: Most of our business is really retail banking - you know, the people who are pissed because of that Court decision - so we've got nothing to lose here. This makes good business sense.
January 30, 2006
The Sad State of Airline Food
You know airline food is getting bad when passengers turn to their traveling companions to supplement the meager, unappetizing fare laid before them by harried flight attendants. I just endured a flight from DC to Maui - eleven hours of culinary wasteland now thankfully behind me as I discover wonderful new things like the "Wailea Itch", a bourbon, rum, fruit juice concoction that comes complete with an umbrella, tropical fruits, and a back scratcher - the latter presumably to satisfy the resultant itch. I gave back the scratcher and asked for a refill. But at no time during my journey was I so desperate that I resorted to cannibalism. Alas, others are not so fortunate.
My Favorite Airlplane Fare
Some guy in Fort Lauderdale got so fed up with his meal that he leaned over and took a bite out of his seatmate. This occurred while the plane was still sitting on the tarmac. Having filled up on human flesh, the loon takes a dive onto the runway. To be fair, the flight was bound for Newark, so the guy didn't have Maui to look forward to. Though he was taken to the hospital, the Broward County sheriff's office would make no comment on his condition. I'd venture to say that this fellow was in a condition that was considerably less comfortable than that which he enjoyed before his meal; that those Broward County sheriff's deputies caused him to regret ever thinking about munching on his traveling companion and advised him that, next time the urge strikes him, he should make sure to indulge in a jurisdiction far from Broward. In short, this guy will not be welcome in Broward County. Let's hope he doesn't show up in Maui.
A short one today - I'm in Maui, after all, and I've can hear the surf.
February 1, 2006
One More Reasons to Listen To Your Mother
Remember how mom used to bug you to tie your laces so you wouldn't trip and scrape your knee? This is a lesson most of us have learned the hard way despite mom's plaintive admonitions. Some guy in England is still learning, and there's no reason to believe that he is now acquainted with the error of his ways. He was browsing around the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where many priceless artifacts are on display. Naturally, his shoes are a knot short of fully laced, so the first staircase he encounters presents a journey that ends with the destruction of a group of priceless Qing Dynasty vases, which happened to be sitting precariously on a window ledge just waiting for the useful idiot.
The Fitzwilliam Exhibit Hall
There's a couple of things to be learned from this episode. First, listen to you mother. Second, if you're the curator of a prestigious museum with responsibility for some of the world's greatest treasures, don't leave them sitting around on windowsills. It's OK to put them behind glass, preferable at a safe distance from well-known hazards like staircases and the like. This is not a "Please Touch" museum for kiddies.
I'd say the perpetrator probably hasn't learned his lesson. According to Reuters the dolt "left the museum shaken but undamaged". I can't imagine some guy breaking stuff at the Smithsonian and leaving in anything less than a state of utter disrepair inflicted by former Marines with residual testosterone to soak up on hapless idiots. The Fitzwilliam curator, Duncan Robinson, had this to say: "It was a most unfortunate and regrettable accident but we are glad that the visitor involved was able to leave the museum unharmed." Doesn't it strike you that the balance between life and property may be tilted a bit to the right in Duncan's mind? The only thing he left out was his relief that the vases were there to break the clumsy oaf's fall. What's a priceless vase if it spares a broken bone or two?
Mr. Robinson also had a word or two for the folks out there who are bound to criticize the museum's display technology - "Whilst the method of displaying objects is always under review, it is important not to over-react and make the Museum's collections less accessible to the visiting public." Once again, maybe just a slight too permissive for comfort.
Well, I'm being pretty hard on this English guy but I was once an idiot and I haven't renounced my credentials. Once when I was traveling to Greece on business we visited the Parthenon, where they have lots of marble busts on display (the ones the English didn't take back to the British Museum). Idiot that I am, I'm thinking that these great marble busts from ancient Greece are there for the touching. After all, you can walk right up to them! When you get that close, it's hard to keep your hands off, which I didn't. One difference between Greek security guards and English security guards - the Greeks have guns. And, while I'm sure they're not afraid to use them, I had no interest in testing the hypothesis. I only touched one of those Greek busts, and I didn't come anywhere near breaking it. Since I didn't get arrested, I have to admit it was worth it.
And maybe for good reason. The NGA, not to be confused with the NSA, is in a pretty straitforward business. They take detailed pictures, mostly from satellites, and make these images available to those having a need to know. Many of these folks happen to work over in Fort Meade, the epicenter of the NSA. While the NSA is engulfed in controversy, the NGA is going through an agency makeover with corporate overtones.
I remember working at a company called Bellcore. Somewhere along the line our executives got it into their heads that our culture needed a bit of spiffing up. More like an overhaul. So they hired a bunch of consultants who injected a scripted serum called the "Bellcore Way" into our arteries. This crew evidently moved from victim to victim perpetrated this crime, each time changing the title to "X" Way, X being the name of the unfortunate firm undergoing cultural shock therapy. A word to the wise: when your executives have decided that you're so far gone that they need to remake your culture, it's time to polish up your resume. Even if they're right, the place will be crawling with management consultants that will make your life miserable and you're probably too far gone for any consultant to fix you up right anyway. Jump!
Well, it looks like the "X Way" team found the NGA. This otherwise profoundly secretive organization has proudly announced the establishment of a new "Vision Statement". This is usually the first step in the "X Way" road to hell. It customarily reads like the forced confession of a fallen communist apparatchik. Here are the key goals, followed by my customary smarmy commentary:
Establish an integrated, collaborative analysis and production environment that is responsive to and predictive of continuing and emerging global threats. What did we have before - a loosely coupled, dysfunctional collection of dolts?
Institute and expand an interoperable, strategically aligned [cross−governmental] National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG). When all else fails, create a new agency and blame everything on a misaligned organizational structure. If you're really thinking, set it up to fail by making it "cross-governmental" so that they'll have to call you back a few years hence.
Attract, develop, sustain and engage a workforce with the skills and competencies required to meet current and future threats and challenges. As opposed to the mindless slouches that have been taking up space in the cubicles until now.
Identify, develop, acquire and deploy capabilities and technologies to anticipate and meet the ever−increasing demand for timely, relevant and accurate GEOINT NSG Statement of Strategic Intent. This is code for "buy lots of useless stuff that's relevant for some meaningless purpose (like GEOINT NSG)". Ever wonder why it's hard to balance the budget?
Remember, this is only step 1 in the 14 step NGA Way process. Think of the agony that awaits these wretched souls. By June there will be blood on the streets of Bethesda.
February 8, 2006
Leaving Mobile? Drive.
Back from Maui. Actually, I got back on Sunday, did my religious duty (watched the SB), flew to Florida for the day on Monday and spent Tuesday bitter and confused. Good thing I didn't pass through Mobile, AL. They're letting people through airport security checkpoints with handguns. Nothing to be alarmed about though - it was an accident. Unlike avian flu, which is just slightly shy of setting off alarm bells as it continues its menacing advance across Asia and Eastern Europe.
Security In Mobile
Too Many Toys?
The Mobile Record reports that the security guards in Mobile were snoozing, gabbing, staring blankly into space or otherwise distracted last May. At that very instant along comes Mr. William Owens armed with a loaded .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver. Carrying disclosed firearms might be an everyday occurrence in the deep South - maybe a survival tactic for some - but it remains strictly off-limits when boarding commercial flights. Only lavatory smoking pisses flight attendants off more.
Despite Mr. Owens' profound breach of airline security, the Record reports that "federal authorities in charge of screening passengers at Mobile Regional Airport said they believe air travel remains safe at the terminal, which has been held up as a model for security upgrades at similarly sized airports throughout the country." Hmmm. I'm starting to wonder if these particular feds have our best interests at heart. They were the people in charge of screening passengers. Strike One. And they held this airport out as a Fort Knox of airport security. Strike Two. There's got to be a third strike in there somewhere, but I'm only giving these folks two strikes under he circumstances. I'm avoiding Mobile.
The local authorities were understanding with Owens, who is 63 and was probably just acting in according to lifelong, ingrained habit. Didn't mean to do no harm. He's been charged with misdemeanor "entering an aircraft or airport area in violation of security." But wait. Owens didn't enter in violation of security. Security invited him in. Don't blame Owens for that. Blame him for trying to bring a loaded handgun onto a commercial flight. That's probably a felony but, hey, it's really, really bad.
The feds are trying to mop up behind this as best they can. Lauren Stover, spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration, says that they are questioning the screeners and reviewing videotape but that "the investigation as inconclusive about whether the revolver was inside his black leather shoulder bag." Is it just me or is this investigation careening wildly off course? Do you really care where the gun was? I don't care if it was in his pocket. Point is, once he gets on the plane it could easily find its way into his hand. And maybe it wasn't in his shoulder bag because it was in his hand all along. Wouldn't that put a cherry on this one? Here they are doing full body scans when the guy strolls through with the piece in plain site.
Other News From Mobile
While I was poking around the Mobile Record I discovered this little item from today's paper under the headline "Woman Killed by Own Car." This is Must-See Reading. Tragic but true. This lady was standing in front of her car trying to "start the engine with a wire rigged to the battery." There are plenty of people in Mobile that could have taught her easier and safer ways to hotwire a car. But this woman apparently went to the Bill Owens School of Public Safety and Security, where she learned this handy technique that ultimately resulted in her untimely death at the hands of her very own Taurus. I always thought that that Taurus was an evil-sounding name for a car.