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A Dark Cloud

Virtually of of northern Europe is landbound – with almost all commercial air traffic grounded – due to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland.

The name of this volcano: Eyjafjallajokull is but one of the problems. Its virtually unpronounceable by anybody not fluent in Icelandic. (ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) is how it is listed on most news web sites. On the other hand the wikipedia page  for the wretched thing provides a sound file that ends with a sort of hissing click that really doesn’t sound anything like you’d expect. I pity the poor news readers who have to deal with it. It makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem as simple as Tom Jones.

President Obama has just had to cancel his trip to Poland to attend the funeral of late Polish President Lech Kaczyński. All airfields in poland are closed because of the cloud of glass-filled ash. It would, theoretically, have been possible for the President to fly to some point outside the affected area, and then travel overland to Poland. Not the sort of thing the Secret Service would agree to. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reported returning to Germany via an armored convoy from Italy. (The last time I recall that term being used to refer to Germans for a very long time indeed.)

The risks posed to aircraft flying through volcanic plumes is not new. A British Airways 747 flying near Mount Galunggung in Indonesia in 1982 suddenly suffered complete engine failure of all four powerplants. The aircraft was able to glide to a lower altitude and restart the engines – although one later failed again. The plane managed to make a controlled emergency landing in Jakarta.

The problems encountered by the British Airways flight (Flight 9) in 1982 ought to give anybody pause before suggesting that the closure of European airspace is in any way an over reaction. Because the plane was flying at night, and the volcanic ash did not show up on airborne radar, the crew literally had no idea there was any problem until the engines stopped working, literally with two or three minutes of each other.

Under examination it was found that the glass particles in the volcanic ash cloud entered the engine combustion chambers, where the high heat caused it melt, adhering to the sides. It was only as the plane descended, with the engines not running, that the molten glass solidified and enough broke off the it was possible to restart the engines. Engine damage wasn’t the only problem: The aircraft windshield was essentially sandblasted, as were the aircraft landing lights – making landing difficult and taxing impossible. Furthermore it was found that the fuel onboard had been contaminated by ash drawn into the fuel tanks via the pressurization ports.

This weekend Europeans are doing their best to deal with the situation: taking taxi rides, train trips, and ferry journeys to get home. For a few days it will be an inconvenience – but manageable.

The concern is what happens if the volcano continues to erupt for weeks or months? This is far from a remote possibility.

Air travel between North America and Europe will, on some level, still be possible. But it may involve flying to Spain or North Africa – and then relying on ground transportation to take you north to London or Berlin.

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Where have you gone, Jack Ryan?

Its been a few years since Tom Clancy has released a complete novel. And almost as long since I’ve read any of his work. I pretty much gave up after suffering through Red Rabbit (to date the only book I’ve ever actually thrown away) and I remember recoiling in disgust at The Teeth of the Tiger – in which a group of young American patriots go on a murder spree through the capitals of Europe, joyriding in Ferraris and Porsches financed through insider-trading profiteering enabled by a massive quasi-Governmental wiretapping operation. (Oh, and those are the good guys.)

I’d read Rainbow Six not long after it was first published back in 1998, and while not as engaging as some of Clancy’s earlier work – I didn’t recall it being that bad.

I was wrong. Its appalling.

Consider the premise: A group of liberal environmentalists plan to wipe out the entire population of the earth through a genetically-mutated virus, distributed via aerosol sprayed cooling systems at the Sydney Olympic Games. Along the way this group manages to finance random acts of terrorism, including graphic child murder – as well as a virus-testing program that sweeps both homeless alcholics and dim-witted legal secretaries into a secret clinic where they are free to drink and fornicate. Their medical overseers plying them with copious amounts of narcotics and plague viruses. Really.

Clancy is tiresomely repetitive, and boringly cliched in his portrayals. In the Clancy-world people fall into three groups: Military/Cops/Spies/Medical Personnel (apart from medical personnel who are also environmentalists- see above) – all hardworking heroic patriots. Group two: Environmentalists/Discovery Channel/NPR viewers/former KGB operatives/ and random dim-witted ex-Baader-Meinhoff gang members: Vicious, child murdering psychopaths. And lastly, the general population: dim-witted patsies, who rely on a secret army of spies, torturers and murderers to keep them safe from the other group of spies, torturers and murderers.

I hear that Clancy is working on another novel. (Read about it on his blog, in between comments about the quality of the whisky he’s drinking these days.) The strange thing is, I can’t ever remember a serious journalist ever asking Mr Clancy if he ever felt any responsibility for the idea floated in his 1994 book Debt of Honor: You know, the one which ends with a crazed extremist crashing his plane into a landmark American building, killing thousands in the process.