In the two weeks since the Air France 447 crash, I’ve written several times about the possibility that composite parts may have played a role in the disaster. This prospect has dire implications for the future, since these lightweight, fiber and resin materials are increasingly replacing aluminum in aircraft construction. AF 447 was an Airbus A330-200, a plane a body fuselage built of metal, but significant levels of  composite in its other parts–most importantly, the wings and the tail. 
 
Now, wreckage recoved from the crash shows that 447 may have broken up in midair–which raises new questions and offering new clues on this subject of composites, according to a piece today in the Christian Science Monitor.

“There is a very compelling need to find the wreckage,” says Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation safety consultant. “We need to know, if some of the composite parts failed [on Flight 447, whether they failed at a point that any other material would have failed."
 
Some of the biggest pieces of debris found so far appear to be the plane's tail fin and vertical stabilizer. These parts are made partially of composite materials, and their failure has contributed to several crashes in the past. In the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus 300 with a similar design to the A330, the vertical stabilizer snapped off in severe turbulence. One of the first questions investigators addressed was whether the composite materials used in the component contributed to the crash, according to Mr. Healing.

The Vote in Iran

The chart on the right comes from Andrew Sullivan, and it shows the size of the announced vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in six different official announcements on Saturday.  As Andrew says, "They didn't even attempt to disguise the fraud."  A real vote count would have shown at least a little bit of variation during the day, not the laser-like precision of this one, which shows Ahmadinejad winning almost exactly two-thirds of the vote against reformist challenger Mir Hussein Mousavi every step of the way.

I was at a book party for Bob Wright's The Evolution of God last night, and even then it was obvious that the Interior Ministry was probably rigging the vote.  One of the topics of conversation was: when autocracies decide to do something like this, why do they do it so clumsily?  Why not give Ahmadinejad 52.7% of the vote, which would be at least within the realm of reason?  Or force a runoff and let Ahmadinejad win a week from now?  Why perpetrate such an obvious fraud?

Hard to say.  Maybe it's just too hard to orchestrate something more believable.  Maybe, against all evidence, they believe that smashing victories are always more convincing than close ones.  Maybe it's just rank panic and stupidity.  It's a mystery — and a counterproductive one, too: there isn't a person on the planet who thinks that Ahmadinejad could have won two-thirds of the vote with a turnout of 85%, and the possibility of inciting an internal revolt is a lot higher with a barefaced fraud like this than it would be with something a little more subtle.

On the other hand, maybe we're looking at this through the wrong lens.  Obviously something about Mousavi started to badly spook the powers-that-be during the past week, and maybe they decided something needed to be done about it.  Maybe they wanted to provoke a round of violence from Mousavi's supporters as an excuse to lead a crackdown on dissidents.  And what better way to do that than to make the election rigging so obvious even a child could see it?

Maybe.  My crystal ball is cloudy, though.  I'm not sure what to make of this.

UPDATE: Juan Cole summarizes the evidence that the vote was rigged and then speculates about what happened:

Just as a first reaction, this post-election situation looks to me like a crime scene. And here is how I would reconstruct the crime.

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning....The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose.

They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts. This clumsy cover-up then produced the incredible result of an Ahmadinejad landlside in Tabriz and Isfahan and Tehran.

The reason for which Rezaie and Karoubi had to be assigned such implausibly low totals was to make sure Ahmadinejad got over 51% of the vote and thus avoid a run-off between him and Mousavi next Friday, which would have given the Mousavi camp a chance to attempt to rally the public and forestall further tampering with the election.

This scenario accounts for all known anomalies and is consistent with what we know of the major players.

UPDATE 2: The election still seems likely to have been rigged, but this chart apparently isn't evidence for it one way or the other.   Details here.

Rank This US News: Best/Worst Fed Jobs

Since the stimulus package kicked into action, the federal government has been hiring at unprecedented rates. But if you're job-hunting and you think that office culture is uniform across all agencies and departments, think again.

Enter BestPlacesToWork.org. This ranking system uses ten categories including "effective leadership, employee skills/mission match and work/life balance" to rate the best and worst federal employers. Granted, none of them have Google's perks (or do they?), but some departments' worker satisfaction is pretty darn high.

Best:

1. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

It's great to work here because: A. You have the power to save (or destroy) the world, B. you get to work in places like Area 51, and C. nobody messes with you.

2. Government Accountability Office

It's great to work here because: A. You get to tell other people how to do their jobs, B. you are fulfilled because when you talk, Congress listens, and C. your colleagues are a bunch of accountants without the power trips of political appointees.

3. National Aeronautics and Space Administration

It's great to work here because: A. It's a science-fiction nerd's fantasyland, B. you get to re-enact scenes from Apollo 13 during lunch time, and C. the sky's the limit (literally).

Worst:

28. Department of Homeland Security

Problem: If you had to put old ladies' shoes through an x-ray machine 42 times a day, you'd be miserable too.

Possible Solution: Maybe those new whole-body image scanners will be more visually appealing.

29. National Archives and Records Administration

Problem: Ever since Sandy Berger walked out with an armload of uber-classified documents, its reputation has gone downhill.

Possible Solution: A newly found letter from Abe Lincoln will give the Archives a second chance to prove that it can properly secure important documents.

30. Department of Transportation

Problem: There are so many to mention. Air traffic control methods are antiquated, America's railways are pathetic, and GM just went under.

Possible Solution: Build a shrine to Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger.

 

 

U.S. Senate Covers Our Butts

Almost by mistake, the Senate passed legislation Thursday that could greatly benefit the environment. By a margin of 79-17, Senators approved a bill that will allow the Food and Drug Administration to place substantial regulations on tobacco products. Most of the regulations are aimed at reducing the number of people who begin smoking at a young age by banning fruit-flavored cigarettes and cartoonish packaging and ads aimed at children. Such efforts would undoubtedly improve the nation’s collective health. But applying higher taxes and stricter rules to tobacco product sales could also clean up the stain cigarettes leave on the planet.

BUTTsOUT, an international organization dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of smoking, reports that 4.3 trillion cigarettes are disposed on the side of roads, in water sources, and in public parks every year. And cigarette butts, which take more than 25 years to decompose, account for more than 50 percent of all litter in most western countries. Growing tobacco contaminates water supplies, destroys soil, and consumes almost four miles of paper every hour during the factory rolling process.

This legislation is good news for the 440,000 smokers that cigarettes kill each year. And if it can clean up tobacco's environmental mess at the same time? We'll all breathe a little easier.

Life & Death Simulations

First, check out this vivid simulation of the ugly synergy between population growth and C02 emissions. It's called Breathing Earth and it simulates realtime births outpacing deaths as carbon dioxide emissions spew at ~1,000-tons a second.

Too bad we can't turn Breathing Earth into the default screensaver on all new computers. Maybe: from screensaver to worldsaver.

Another interesting simulation, this one published in an upcoming PNAS, describes how Earth's 1-billion-year lifespan can be more than doubled by adjusting atmospheric pressure.

[Simply put: the only reason we can't breath easily atop Mount Everest is not because there's less oxygen in the air. In fact there's the same amount of oxygen at 29,000 feet as there is as at sea level. What's different is a greatly reduced atmospheric pressure that causes oxygen molecules to be dispersed over a much greater volume of space.]

Well, about a billion years from now, believe it or not, greenhouse Earth will fail. Ever-increasing radiation from our aging sun will heat Earth to the point where atmospheric C02—the kickstarter for plants that turn inorganic sunlight into organic life—will have been pulled out of the air by weathering rocks. Oceans will evaporate. The atmosphere will burn away. All life will disappear.

But Caltech researchers propose a solution: Reduce the total pressure of the atmosphere itself by removing massive amounts of molecular nitrogen.

Nitrogen is the mostly nonreactive gas comprising 78 percent of the atmosphere. Removing a bunch of it would regulate surface temperatures and allow C02 to stay alive in the atmosphere and support life for an additional 1.3 billion years.

Strikingly, no external influence [read: intelligent life or intelligent design] is necessary to remove N. The biosphere will accomplish this task all by itself—since nitrogen is incorporated into the cells of living organisms and is sequestered with them when they die.

In fact this reduction may already be underway. Earth's atmospheric pressure may be lower now than it was earlier in the planet's history. To assess this, some researchers are examining gas bubbles formed in ancient lavas to determine past atmospheric pressure.

 

"Law enforcement's challenge every day is to balance the civil liberties of US citizens against the need to investigate activities that might lead to criminal conduct," Joseph Persichini, Jr. of the FBI said yesterday. He was struggling to explain why, despite 88-year-old James Von Brunn's website full of hate speech, his criminal record, and numerous other warning signs, the FBI wasn't actively investigating him when he mowed down a security guard at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday.

But consider the case of Syed Haris Ahmed, a 24-year-old Georgia Tech student who was found guilty of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists on Wednesday. His crime bears a lot of resemblance to the stuff that Von Brunn had been getting away with for years: He wrote emails and chatted online about engaging in violence. In his case, it was jihad. (For the record, evidence against Ahmed also included amateurish "casing videos" of Washington landmarks.)

US Attorney David Nahmias openly admitted that Ahmed’s case did not involve an imminent threat or act of violence. “We will not wait to disrupt terrorism-related activity until a bomb is built and ready to explode,” he explained. “The fuse that leads to an explosion of violence may be long, but once it is lit...we will prosecute them to snuff that fuse out." Ahmed is now facing 15 years in prison. He's already spent the last three in solitary confinement at Atlanta's US Penitentiary.

It makes you wonder if law enforcement applies a different standard to different kinds of terrorists. And if they think some terrorists' civil liberties are more sacred than others'. One thing is certain: They shouldn't, because if we've learned anything in the past few weeks from James Von Brunn and Scott P. Roeder, it's that old white men can do a lot more damage than young Muslim ones.

Video: Five Funniest Gibbs Moments

You may have missed it, but Robert Gibbs is a funny dude. Behold our list of top five funniest moments in the Gibbs press room (and see the videos, too).

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 June 2009

Everybody is green today.  On the left, the mighty hunter Inkblot is in search of his prey: a blade of grass or two to munch on — which he will eventually barf up.  On the right, the mighty snoozer Domino has burrowed her way under a quilt and is wondering why she's being disturbed in her hidey-hole.

In other feline news, Scientific American examines the evolution of the housecat and concludes that it's all about the food bowl.  They love us because we feed them.  Needless to say, this is not exactly breaking news, especially for those of us who open cans of cat food each night and are exposed to such piteous cries that you'd think we had been keeping our furballs in kitty concentration camps all day until dinner was served.  Luckily, they make up for this mercenary attitude by being really cute, which is clearly their comparative advantage.  Otherwise they'd never have lasted.

More on the Detainee Photos

Kevin Drum responds to my earlier post on Obama's refusal to release more photos of detainee abuse:

We already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.

Kevin's right that we're trying to get more images, and he's right that releasing the photos is likely to cause more damage. But I think there is a good chance that the new photos will show us something we haven't seen much of before: visual evidence of abuse in places other than Abu Ghraib. Even if they don't, I can see several things releasing the photos might accomplish. 

Many people still deny that torture and abuse of detainees even took place. (See, for example, Marc Thiessen's debate with Michael Ware on CNN earlier this week.) More evidence won't convince those people, of course, but it will help build a volume of evidence to present to them and others. It will demonstrate that we acknowlege our mistakes, rather than trying to cover them up. In addition, we know from the CIA videotape debacle that any evidence left unreleased is vulnerable to destruction. Releasing the photos would prevent that from happening again. We can't just sit around and hope the photos get released sometime down the line—there really is a chance they may be destroyed. That is especially true if any photos still exist that show people committing crimes, such as rape of detainees, that no one was ever prosecuted for. Releasing the photos is the only way to know whether more people should have been prosecuted for detainee abuse than actually were prosecuted for it.

The broader point, though, is that I shouldn't have to defend releasing the photos. In a society that supposedly values transparency and freedom of information, the burden of proof should be on those who want to conceal information about what the government does. One of the great ironies of Obama's position on the photos is that he issued a memo earlier this year encouraging agencies to release any FOIA'd information they were not legally compelled to withhold. (As opposed to the Bush-era presumption that you should withhold almost everything unless you were legally forced to release it.) In his memo, Obama inadvertently makes a great case for making the photos public:

The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," Obama said in the FOIA memo, adding later that "In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

It's almost as if all that was bullshit.

Detainee Photo Update

In a conference committee meeting yesterday, House negotiators held firm on their insistence that an upcoming war spending bill not include a Senate amendment that retroactively exempts detainee abuse photos from disclosure under FOIA.  Senate negotiators then dithered a bit, finally backing down only after Barack Obama promised to "take every legal and administrative remedy available" to ensure the photos are not released.  The photos, Obama said, wouldn't add "any additional benefit to our understanding of what happened in the past and the most direct consequence of releasing them would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

Nick Baumann isn't impressed:

Obama's argument against releasing the photos is total poppycock. It should be totally non-controversial that additional photos will add to our understanding of what happened in the past. There's a reason the CIA destroyed the interrogation video tapes: images convey a different kind of truth than words do. It's one thing to read that Americans abused detainees, not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout the world, encouraged by the highest levels of government. It's another thing entirely to see the photographic evidence of that abuse. The second part of the White House's argument is equally silly, because it can be extended ad infinitum. Are we supposed to keep secret anything that makes the US look bad? If Obama does decide to pull a Cheney and classify the photos as secret, he better get ready for a long slide down a slippery slope. What happens the next time there's something that embarasses the US and might inflame opinion against Americans? Will he classify that, too?

I agree entirely with Nick's second point, but not with his first.  It's true that images are different from words and videotape is different from images.  But we already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

That doesn't mean that Obama's position is correct.  Preventing release via legislation or unilateral classification just because you don't like the possible result of a court fight is an appalling precedent to set.  If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.