Martian Chiaroscuro

marsHirise
Click to enlarge

Deep shadows create dramatic contrasts between light and dark in this high-resolution close-up of the martian surface.

Recorded on January 24 by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the scene spans about 1.5 kilometers across a sand dune field in a southern highlands crater. Captured when the Sun was just 5 degrees above the local horizon, only the dune crests are caught in full sunlight. With the long, cold winter approaching the red planet’s southern hemisphere, bright ridges of seasonal frost line the martian dunes.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Two-thirds of the Ukrainian Army in Crimea joined the Russians


Russian and Ukrainian sailors in WW2 uniforms practicing for celebration of Great Patriotic War
Getty Images/Sergei Supinsky

Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea have pulled off an impressive feat: ceding a large chunk of territory to an invading army without firing a shot. The question is whether they will be perceived as heroes, traitors or just a sad bunch of guys in ill-fitting camouflage betrayed by their commanders in Kiev.

Russian troops and local pro-Russian militias are now in control of most Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean peninsula, after bloodless “stormings” in which armored vehicles broke through garrison gates, some warning shots were sounded and, in some cases, stun grenades were used. Russian forces took pains not to harm any of their formal adversaries, and the 22,000 Ukrainian troops stationed on the peninsula managed to refrain from shooting at Russians. Only one Ukrainian serviceman has died since Russia invaded the peninsula with unmarked troops in early March, and it is not entirely clear who shot him in the neck.

For their peaceful abdication, the troops received praise from both sides. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked “those Ukrainian servicemen who did not go the way of bloodshed.” On Friday, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said that “despite enormous losses, Ukrainian troops in the Crimea have done their duty,” which apparently consisted of buying time for Ukrainian armed forces elsewhere “to prepare for defense, to achieve full combat readiness and begin a partial mobilization.”

By “enormous losses,” Turchynov meant the hundreds and possibly thousands who have defected to Russia from the chronically underfinanced, underarmed and even underfed Ukrainian army. “I’ve been serving for 15 years, and in these 15 years the Ukrainian army has given me nothing, not even a dorm room,” warrant officer and Crimea native Maxim Shumeyev told the BBC’s Russian service. “As I served the Ukrainian people, so I remain to serve the people of the Crimea.”

To the extent that the Ukrainians defied the Russians, their efforts were largely symbolic. In one famous video, a small Ukrainian unit marches, unarmed and singing the national anthem, on three unbadged Russian soldiers sent to bar their way to the Belbek airbase. The march took courage, and the unit commander, Colonel Yuli Mamchur, quickly became a hero to many Ukrainians…

Ukrainian nationalists worship dead heroes who laid their lives on the altar of Ukraine’s freedom. The national anthem even has a line about doing so. The Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea understandably decided not to martyr themselves…

Perhaps, when forced to make their own decisions, the Ukrainian servicemen simply did not have the stomach for killing people they still considered their brothers. Many officers speak confident Russian and almost no Ukrainian. The banners of some Ukrainian military units date back to World War II, when Russians and Ukrainians fought the Nazis as a single army. The ultimate test proved that killing each other is the last thing Russians and Ukrainians will consider. That is a blessing for Putin and a curse for the nationalist government in Kiev.

The largest civilian group celebrating Crimea’s reentry into Russia are retirees. Senior citizens who lived through the Great Patriotic War or its immediate aftermath as part of a united front against fascism.

And, now, as Russians their pensions will double.

Great-Power-Politics is back. Whoopee!

Unless Russia changes course – which seems unlikely anytime soon – the global consequences are apt to be grave. The US and the European Union will impose sanctions, weakening Russia’s economy and the world economy – and stoking even more tension and nationalism. Mistakes on one side or the other could lead to violent disaster. We need only to recall the spiral of hubris and miscalculation that led to the outbreak of World War I, a century ago this year.

As frightening as the Ukraine crisis is, the more general disregard of international law in recent years must not be overlooked. Without diminishing the seriousness of Russia’s recent actions, we should note that they come in the context of repeated violations of international law by the US, the EU, and NATO. Every such violation undermines the fragile edifice of international law, and risks throwing the world into a lawless war of all against all.

The US and its allies have also launched a series of military interventions in recent years in contravention of the United Nations Charter and without the support of the UN Security Council. The US-led NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 lacked the sanction of international law, and occurred despite the strong objections of Russia, a Serbian ally. Kosovo’s subsequent declaration of independence from Serbia, recognized by the US and most EU members, is a precedent that Russia eagerly cites for its actions in Crimea. The ironies are obvious.

The Kosovo War was followed by the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which occurred without the support of the Security Council, and in the case of Iraq, despite vigorous objections within it. The results for both Afghanistan and Iraq have been utterly devastating…

One can add many other US actions, including drone strikes on the territory of sovereign states without their governments’ permission; covert military operations; renditions and torture of terror suspects; and massive spying by the US National Security Agency. When challenged by other countries or UN organizations, the US has brushed aside their objections.

International law itself is at a crossroads. The US, Russia, the EU, and NATO cite it when it is to their advantage and disregard it when they deem it a nuisance. Again, this is not to justify Russia’s unacceptable actions; rather, it is to add them to the sequence of actions contrary to international law.

The point of this post is not to endorse Jeffrey Sachs’ particular analysis of any piece of history. Though I often agree — I sometimes disagree. The man has spent a creative political life in a quest for regional and global solutions to the problems politicians continue to create, re-invent.

His understanding of the benefits of International Law is one that isn’t challenged by anyone short of the sort of self-assured maniacs we have managed to throw up from one or another crisis-demented country every couple of generations. Some are obvious threats from the beginning of their political careers. Some – unfortunately – have spent sufficient time in academia, finance or the upper strata of class society to ooze calm and deadly solutions worthy of Solomon or Kissinger or Churchill. Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.

We continue to die to satisfy their vision of political economy, nationalism and this week’s omelet.

Selling poison by the Barrel

A dangerous new form of a powerful stimulant is hitting markets nationwide, for sale by the vial, the gallon and even the barrel…The drug is nicotine, in its potent, liquid form — extracted from tobacco and tinctured with a cocktail of flavorings, colorings and assorted chemicals to feed the fast-growing electronic cigarette industry.

These “e-liquids,” the key ingredients in e-cigarettes, are powerful neurotoxins. Tiny amounts, whether ingested or absorbed through the skin, can cause vomiting and seizures and even be lethal. A teaspoon of even highly diluted e-liquid can kill a small child.

But, like e-cigarettes, e-liquids are not regulated by federal authorities. They are mixed on factory floors and in the back rooms of shops, and sold legally in stores and online in small bottles that are kept casually around the house for regular refilling of e-cigarettes.

Evidence of the potential dangers is already emerging. Toxicologists warn that e-liquids pose a significant risk to public health, particularly to children, who may be drawn to their bright colors and fragrant flavorings like cherry, chocolate and bubble gum.

“It’s not a matter of if a child will be seriously poisoned or killed,” said Lee Cantrell, director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System and a professor of pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s a matter of when.”

Reports of accidental poisonings, notably among children, are soaring. Since 2011, there appears to have been one death in the United States, a suicide by an adult who injected nicotine. But less serious cases have led to a surge in calls to poison control centers. Nationwide, the number of cases linked to e-liquids jumped to 1,351 in 2013, a 300 percent increase from 2012, and the number is on pace to double this year, according to information from the National Poison Data System. Of the cases in 2013, 365 were referred to hospitals, triple the previous year’s number…

Unlike nicotine gums and patches, e-cigarettes and their ingredients are not regulated. The Food and Drug Administration has said it plans to regulate e-cigarettes but has not disclosed how it will approach the issue. Many e-cigarette companies hope there will be limited regulation.

We’re back to the usual discussion of Americans creating their own Final Solution. Consuming liquid nicotine by the barrel or bottle — stupidity or ignorance?