Consider this a wake-up call. This is one more reason why we need to invest in our space program — because, right now, we are playing chicken with the universe. That deadly asteroid might not hit tomorrow, or even in 2106. But the danger is real. As author Larry Niven put it, “the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”
Newly-released documents tell of how America learned of the 1940 Katyn Massacre seventy-two years ago, and worked to keep it quiet. “The directive was to ‘never to speak about a secret message on Katyn.’ During the 1951-52 Congressional hearings, for example, no material was presented to demonstrate that Washington knew about Katyn as early as it did.”
“Starman tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Komarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space…In 1957, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.“
By way of LinkMachineGo, NPR’s Robert Krulwich tells the tale of the sad and unnecessary death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. “As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, ‘cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.’“
“Along with modern humans, scientists knew about the Neanderthals and a dwarf human species found on the Indonesian island of Flores nicknamed The Hobbit. To this list, experts must now add the Denisovans.” Researchers discover evidence of a fourth separate species of ancient man in the caves of Siberia. “The implications of the finding have been described by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London as ‘nothing short of sensational… [W]e didn’t know how ancient people in China related to these other humans.‘”
Um….ok. FIFA picks the next two World Cup hosts after Rio: Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022. (Pro-tip: Remember to apply for a booze permit for the latter.) “Qatar, which has never even qualified for a World Cup, used its 30-minute presentation to underline how the tournament could unify a region ravaged by conflict.” Y’know, perhaps they’ll both make for great Cups. But if FIFA was trying to get out from under the recent bribery allegations, I don’t think I would’ve chosen these two particular nations.
Another intriguing selection from the trailer bin: Peter Weir, who arguably has never made a bad film, sends Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, and Sairose Ronan on a walk across continents in the trailer for The Way Back. “The book is Rawicz’s account of being captured by the Red Army in 1939 and his journey to freedom with other inmates. The group crossed the Siberian arctic, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, finally settling in Tibet and India.“
“It’s December 1997, and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. The tiger isn’t just killing people, it’s annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving, and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again.“
Risin’ up and back on the street, Brad Pitt will apparently delve into the tiger woods for Darren Aronofsky and writer Guillermo Arriaga (Babel) in a film adaptation of John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. Well, ok then…but Aronofsky is getting notorious for signing aboard more projects than actually happen. Along with the ballet-thriller Black Swan, which may be in the can by now, he’s also meant to be making a Robocop reboot, a Jackie Kennedy in November 1963 story with wife Rachel Weisz, and a movie about UFC fighter Lightning Lee Murray. Sounds like a full plate.
“Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow center, put it well in an insightful article in Foreign Affairs, published a year ago. ‘Until recently,’ he wrote, ‘Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it. Now it has left that orbit entirely. Russia’s leaders have given up on becoming part of the West and have started creating their own Moscow-centered system.‘” With Dubya on the road for the G8 summit, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan surveys the state of US-Russian relations, concluding that “something is happening…[but w]e’re not — or at least there’s nothing inevitable about our becoming — enemies.“
A very happy belated birthday to my sister Gillian, who turned 27 yesterday. (We celebrated on Monday, but, as y’all might know, I haven’t posted here since then.) Update: Also, a very happy Yuri’s Night to you and yours — tonight is the 45th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first-ever trip into space, as well as the 25th anniversary of the first space shuttle mission. (By way of Blivet.)
By way of a friend, the State Department releases its mandated yearly human rights report for 2005 (here), finding cause for alarm in Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, Burma, North Korea, Belarus and Zimbabwe and (surprise, surprise) progress in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report doesn’t delve into human rights violations here at home (although China tries to fill that gap in response every year), but it does unequivocally state — in bold, no less — that “countries in which power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers tend to be the world’s most systematic human rights violators.” Hey y’all might be on to something. Deadpans the head of Amnesty International: “The Bush administration’s practice of transferring detainees in the ‘war on terror’ to countries cited by the State Department for their appalling human rights records actually turns the report into a manual for the outsourcing of torture.”
“Is this the right message to be sending to taxpayers in America, Russia, Europe and Japan — that it’s OK to do a stunt like this?” The Russian space agency weighs the financial pros and safety cons of an orbital chip shot from the ISS. “The golf shot is hardly the first commercial venture in space. The cash-strapped Russian space agency has taken three ‘space tourists’ to the orbiting laboratory for a reported $20 million apiece. An Israeli company, Tnuva Food Industries, paid the Russians $450,000 to show two cosmonauts drinking milk, and Pizza Hut paid $1 million to slap a logo on the side of a Proton rocket and have cosmonauts deliver a pizza to the space station. The Russians aren’t alone. Last year, the Japanese space agency arranged for the filming of an instant ramen noodle commercial on the space station.”
“For whatever reason, Bush seems fixated on his rug. Virtually all visitors to the Oval Office find him regaling them about how it was chosen and what it represents. Turns out, he always says, the first decision any president makes is what carpet he wants in his office…Sometimes Bush describes it as a metaphor for leadership. Sometimes he relates how Russian President Vladimir Putin admired the carpet. Sometimes he seems most taken by the lighting qualities.” Ah, the glory days…I guess it was only after that tough second decision — the drapes, maybe? — that the job started getting to Dubya.
As an afternoon chaser to a morning spent at the NY Comic-Con (I posted some pics over at Flickr), my brother, sister-in-law, and I took in the Russian cinema sensation of 2004, Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch. On one hand, it includes some really strange and arresting visual moments, and from very early on seems like a film in which pretty much anything can happen. But, frankly, I wasn’t feeling it. Even despite all the exposition in the early going, the movie makes very little sense, even by the laxer standards one accords fantasy films. And Night Watch wears out its welcome well before the end — To be honest, I kinda wish I’d just watched the two-and-a-half-minute version at the official site.
After a brief prologue describing the establishment of a centuries-old Truce between the Others, spectral forces of Light and Dark, Night Watch moves to the Moscow of twelve years ago, where a Ringo-haired Joe Flaherty look-alike named Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) seeks out a Love Potion #9 from an unsettling Russian crone. Soon, after consuming a concoction of blood, vodka, and lemonade, Anton flirts with the idea of causing a paranormal stillbirth in his now ex-girlfriend, which draws the attention of the Night Watch, a diplomatic police force of Others assigned (with their counterparts, the Day Watch) to ensure compliance with the Truce. Flash forward to the present, when Anton — as it turns out, himself an Other — has joined the Night Watch and now spends his days quaffing blood and chasing down vampires who kill without a license. (Did I mention this film was Russian? Even supernatural forces, it seems, rely on bureaucrats.)
Now that’s only the first twenty-five minutes or so — Night Watch takes several more baroque jags that involve, among other things, a prophecy of a Great Other precipitating a Last Battle between Good and Evil (Yes, this Film Demands a lot of Gratuitous Capitalization), a lovely Virgin and her ancient, unfortunate curse, an all-consuming vortex of bad mojo that rips rivets from planes and plunges them into your coffee, and a young child who draws the attention of a newly-minted vampire (at right). And, true, many of these new elements are introduced with clever visual flourishes — I particularly liked the aging secret, the spider-doll, and the world of the Gloom. But what is the Gloom, exactly, and how the heck does it work? What was the point of the Owl-woman? Why doesn’t the starving vampire chick feed on someone — anyone — else? Why did Der Evil Commissar give Anton the charmed necklace? And so on, so on. There’s something to be said for inscrutability at times, but Night Watch spends too much time making capital-R Rules only to break or ignore them in the later going.
Finally — and this is a more unforgivable sin — for a movie that occasionally moves at a bloody, visceral blur, Night Watch really drags at times. Given the thoroughly bizarre set-up and its fanboy grounding, I really wanted to like this film, but in all honesty I found my attention wavering within forty-five minutes (right about the time the Rammsteinish death metal accompanies the speeding Other-truck with the nifty gear-shift) and was kinda bored after an hour or so. There are some moody, memorable moments throughout, but they added up to a better trailer than they did a film. Apparently, the sequel Day Watch — is in the can, but I doubt I’ll revisit this particular world, or at least not without more vodka on hand.
“I was trying to escape. Obviously, it didn’t work.” If it’s any consolation, Dubya, we all feel just as trapped. In one of those resounding visual metaphors that capture a presidency and that life occasionally kicks up for all to see (the last one being Dubya’s fiddling during Katrina), our leader gets stymied by a locked door while trying to evade a reporter’s questions about his China trip (which were pretty softball, given all the things he could’ve been asking these days.)
In somewhat related news, in the relatively sanguine Post story about the door incident, the following depressing information is included: “In five years in the presidency, Bush has proved a decidedly unadventurous traveler…As he barnstormed through Japan, South Korea and China, with a final stop in Mongolia still to come, Bush visited no museums, tried no restaurants, bought no souvenirs and made no effort to meet ordinary local people…[Laura Bush] once persuaded him to go to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, only to see him burn through the place in 30 minutes. He dispensed with the Kremlin cathedrals in Moscow in seven minutes. He flatly declined an Australian invitation to attend the Rugby World Cup while down under.”
R.I.P. George Kennan 1904-2005. The nation has lost one of its senior diplomatic statesmen, at a moment when men and women of his wisdom, judgment, and foreign policy experience are needed in the public arena more than ever. He will be missed.
“People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of the concerted United Nations’ plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian allies …I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us.” – Dwight Eisenhower
Sean Wilentz reviews trained historian Condoleeza Rice’s sense of her field in light of her recent testimony, and finds her wanting. Notes Wilentz, “The American Historical Review’s notice of her first book, a study of Russia and the Czech army after 1948, charged that Rice ‘frequently does not sift facts from propaganda and valid information from disinformation or misinformation’ and that she ‘passes judgments and expresses opinions without adequate knowledge of the facts.’)” Well, dang, no wonder the Bushies jumped on hiring her for National Security Advisor…she sounds like a great fit.
Also in science news, CNN examines the cultural divide between the US and Russia over space exploration. My friends who’ve worked for NASA in some capacity have also complained about a risk-aversiveness bordering on the ridiculous within America’s space program, even with regard to unmanned missions. As one put it, for considerably less than the cost it takes to make one probe perfect, we could send up multiple probes — each with a 90% success rate — and just play the odds, which turn out to be roughly equivalent. Obviously, the calculus of safety for manned missions should be more stringent, but still, I’d think many astronauts would be willing to accept a greater degree of risk if it meant a reinvigoration of the space program.
What the World Thinks of America, from Gary Kamiya of Salon (premium). A fascinating read.
Russia proposes to NASA and the European Space Agency that we send humans to Mars by 2015. Great idea…and let’s get the Chinese involved as well.