Passchendale: One hundred years on, the horror and agony of the Passchendale campaign still resonates across Europe


The echoes of the carnage at Passchendale still resonate across the former battlefield where hundreds of thousands of soldiers became casualties of a bloody war of attrition.

Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the long and protracted offensive raged between July and November of 1917, claiming over half a million lives from all sides involved.

Passchendale, a small rural community in the West Flanders province of Belgium, became the site of historic carnage as German, British, and French troops fought for control of the strategically important Passchendale Ridge, a stretch of elevated ground about 70ft above sea level.

Seizing and controlling the high ground was crucially important for both sides, as the vantage point enabled unobstructed ground observation and a prime position for artillery pieces, with the added advantage of providing cover to conceal troop movements from the enemy.

Incessant bombardment during previous engagements had left the battlefield pocked by hundreds of shell holes, and had churned the ground to a quagmire. Constant rain during August 1917 compounded the problem, leaving the terrain with the “consistency of porridge”, as some combatants put it.

Horror and misery became the norm at Passchendale, with thousands of troops meeting their fate in a desolate ocean of mud that swallowed men, horses, and military hardware alike.

It was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. It ‘drew’ at you, not like a quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you…”, soldiers said of the vast amounts of soft mud surrounding them.

There was no gas, nor there were tanks fielded at Passchendale. The campaign was purely an infantry engagement, with hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers sent to fight and die in agony inside a massive quagmire.

The exact number of casualties will probably never be known, but estimates put at around 245,000 dead, injured, or missing British troops, about 280,000 German (though some estimates quote up to 400,000 casualties), and a comparable number of French soldiers, either dead, sick, or missing.

The British side claimed victory, though it would be a pyrrhic win. The British army was depleted, and exhausted after suffering such enormous bloodshed during three long months of hellish struggle.

Vera Rubin: The woman who unwound Dark Matter’s cosmic spindle


Among so many celebrity and A-listers deaths this year, the passing of some less well known (but by no means less important) people has all but gone unnoticed.

Vera Rubin was the American astronomer who first proved the existence of Dark Matter. Initially met with skepticism by the scientific community -mainly because she was a woman-, Rubin would come to be vindicated in later years, as her theories and discoveries proved to be correct.

Dark Matter: The Great Universal Enigma

There is a great universe out there. Ever expanding, all entities contained in such gigantic grain of sand keep moving at a steady pace away from each other.

The 14bn-year-old (give or take some loose millions of years) three- (or fourth-, if you listen to some theorists) dimensional Universe grows and grows in apparently
random directions, and all galaxies, nebulae, black holes, and whatever other space stuff is out there moves at dizzying speeds.

And this is only the observable Universe. In other words, the portion of Universe, however vast, that contains the light that has had enough time to reach us since the Big Bang occurred, all those billions of years ago.

But wait. If we can only see some of the Universe, what’s beyond this visible slice of Universal cake?

And more importantly, what holds the Universe together? Dark Matter, that’s the invisible thread that binds all things together out there.

Now, enter Vera Rubin.

‘As long as you stay away from science you should do okay.’

So an ill-advised school physics teacher said to a young Vera Rubin. But fortunately for the science community, she paid little heed to such cheap negativity.

A daughter of Jewish immigrants, Rubin’s interest on astronomy began when she was 10 years old. She had recently moved to Washington DC with her family, and the stars she saw through her bedroom window held the young Rubin in their thrall.

But Rubin’s path to the stars would not be an easy one.

In 1947, at 20 years of age, Rubin requested a graduate-school prospectus from Princeton University, only to be told by a dean that women were not accepted into the program (females would not be allowed to enroll in Princeton as undergraduates until 1969.)

She was also unable to attend Harvard because she married young, and followed her husband to Cornell University in New York, where he was studying physics. The young bride would go on to obtain a master’s in Astronomy at Cornell.

Undeterred by these artificial barriers, Rubin learned most of what she knew by conducting her own research, away from ‘centers of excellence.’ This circumstance would play against her, as fellow scientists would have a hard time accepting anything outside the norm.

Dark Matter: The unseen force that binds the fabric of the Universe

Let’s go back to that big bad Universe for a moment.

The Universe is full of stuff, that much everyone kind of agrees. Understanding this stuff, well, that’s another matter.

Back in the 1960s, the convention was that galactic mass was concentrated around a galaxy’s bright center. Based on this assumption, it would stand to logic that stars located the farthest from the center would move on a slower orbit, as they would be subjected to less intense gravitational pull.

However, Rubin’s research concluded that the speed at which remote stars orbited the galaxy’s center was about the same as stars closer to it.

This, according to Rubin, suggested that there must be another, yet unseen gravitational force, at work.

The existence of Dark Matter had been postulated as far back as 1933. Technological limitations of the era, and the advent of Second World War prevented any serious research into it, however. Rubin’s work infused new life into the pursuit of this elusive cosmic mystery.

Conducting pioneering work with fellow astronomer Kent Ford, Rubin used our closest galactic neighbour, Andromeda, as an example. The team discovered that the rotational speeds of Andromeda’s stars increased rapidly as they moved towards their orbit’s edges, then levelled off. And these rates did not decrease, irrespective of the star’s distance to the central galactic mass. Rather, they became a constant value.

But what was most revealing was that the star’s rotational curve (that is, the orbital speeds of visible stars) remained flat. This contravened all expectations and accepted astronomic conventions of the time.

Admitting that this might have been a phenomenon occurring locally at Andromeda, she looked at other galaxies. Astonishingly, she observed the exact same behavior.

In layman terms, Rubin discovered that most stars present in spiral galaxies orbit at roughly the same velocity, a concept that would defy the established laws of the Universe.

Vera Rubin’s cosmic legacy

Rubin’s groundbreaking work was met with deep skepticism and mistrust, for two reasons: Her unconventional path to learning, and most of all, because she was a

Galaxies and stars are caught in the thrall of something called dark matter, named so because it remains invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. In other words, we can’t see it, at least current technology can’t.

But thanks to Vera Rubin, we know it’s there, molding and handling entire galaxies into shape.

Rubin died of natural in an assisted-care facility in Princeton, New Jersey, at the age of 88. She had suffered from dementia for a number of years.

D.A. Henderson, the great unsung hero who vanquished smallpox, also died in 2016 – Here’s his story


Though now consigned to vials securely stored in a handful of research facilities around the world, smallpox was once a mighty foe indeed.

The disease brought down civilizations and changed the course of history in painful and unpleasant ways, killing peasantry and royalty alike throughout its gruesome evolution. Smallpox slaughtered an estimated 300 million people during the 20th century alone.

It took the ingenuity and determination of one man, leading a team of scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) to take the disease on and eventually vanquish the seemingly unstoppable harbinger of death.

D.A. Henderson, an American epidemiologist, died in the year of our Lord of 2016. His passing was barely noted, among a long list of high-profile celebrities who have passed on this year. He went peacefully, in a hospice facility in the town of Townson, Maryland, at the age of 87.

Yet, Henderson’s passing marks the end of a hugely successful and significant life lived in the confines of the medical world. He steadfastly led a sustained campaign against a terrible and implacable disease that had raged for centuries, killing, maiming, or blinding millions of sufferers.

Smallpox: The sleeping giant

Late in the first decade of the 1500s, Hernan Cortes landed in modern-day Mexico with a detachment of conquistadores. A year later, a second group of Spanish mercenaries arrived, hailing from Hispaniola island in the Caribbean. These men brought exogenous death along.

Cortes fought and defeated this group, but some of his own men became infected with a hidden killer, setting off a chain of events with deadly and far-reaching consequences.

Smallpox soon spread throughout the indigenous Aztec population like wildfire, as they had no natural immunity to such virulent, foreign, never-before-seen disease. In a short time, most of the Aztec army and an estimated 25% of the civilian population had perished.

Smallpox would take an even higher toll on the Incas. The disease ravaged through Colombia first, killing the Incan Emperor, his successor, decimating the top echelon of Incan society. Two of the emperor’s sons survived, soon engaging in a civil war for power that killed even more people. All told, smallpox eradicated between 60% to 90%
of the Incan population.

The disease’s trail of death rode on. North America’s Indian population also suffered a devastating fate. Hiding inside two blankets and one handkerchief taken from a smallpox ward, the virus entered Indian society and killed an estimated 1.5 Native Americans. The items had been given as gifts to two Indian chiefs.

Major smallpox outbreaks continued until the early 1900s, both in the Americas and elsewhere, due to contact with Europen colonists and traders. It arrived in Australia around 1789, bringing the Aboriginal population to its knees.

And so it went on, bringing death and suffering wherever it popped up.

Henderson and the WHO’s efforts

Donald Ainslie Henderson spent a great deal of his career working for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the WHO.

During his time in the CDC, where he worked as Chief of the surveillance programs for viruses, he and his team put forward a plan to eradicate a disease that had killed pharaohs, emperors, and kings.

Starting in 1967, Henderson and his field team worked on the ground in smallpox hot zones, fighting a natural monster that had brought death to so many.

The highly contagious disease is caused by the variola virus, and it’s transmitted through close contact with an infected subject, or inhalation of airborne droplets laden with virus. Depending on the disease’s course, the mortality rate ranges from about 30% to fatal.

Henderson and his team worked under stressful conditions at the best of times. The world was engaged neck-deep in the Cold War, for one. And the countries where the courageous scientist and his men were commissioned to work were already ravaged by wretched poverty, political upheaval, or all-out conflict.

But armed with a powerful vaccine in freeze-dried form (so it could easily withstand the highest African temperatures), Henderson worked tirelessly, using a technique called ring vaccination. Rather than vaccinating everyone, he injected the those who had had contact with smallpox victims, and those who had been in contact with these people. Thus, Henderson created a ‘ring of steel’ around those infected, preventing further spread. Smallpox is not carried by animals, which greatly helped to curtail its natural dissemination.

The team’s efforts spanned a decade. A Somali man was the last known patient to naturally contract the disease in 1977. This man would go on to make a full recovery, and passed away in 2013.

The world was officially certified as being smallpox-free in 1980.

Epilogue: A monster vanquished

D.A. Henderson wrote ‘Smallpox: The Death of a Disease’ in 2009. The book chronicled his heroic endeavor in eradicating a horrendous disease that had raged for centuries. The world is now safe from smallpox thanks to this man.

Smallpox is indeed one of only two diseases that have been completely eradicated, the other one being rinderpest, an infectious illness that affected cattle.

Henderson would continue working for many years, serving as an advisor on bioterrorism with the Bush and Clinton administrations, for example.

He passed away due to complications arising from a broken hip on August 19.

Small stocks of viable variola virus remain in existence. The CDC in Atlanta and a Russian facility in Siberia reportedly hold the sleeping monster. Henderson strenuously -but unsuccessfully- fought to have these samples destroyed, stating that any amount of smallpox, no matter how small, is dangerous.

And the greatest irony of it all is that since nobody has been infected with smallpox in generations, most of the world’s current population would now be highly susceptible to the disease, if an outbreak were to occur.

The Princess returns to the stars: Carrie Fisher – A life


Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper,’ Princess Leia said, in an almost mocking tone, to a stormtrooper-clad Luke Skywalker.

And just like that, the Princess and her savior became acquainted.

Carrie Fisher has sadly passed away today, meeting an untimely end at the young age of 60. She will forever be remembered for playing the part of the wayward Princess Leia, a diplomat from Alderaan who had the guts to face down Darth Vader himself and save the galaxy in the process.

Daughter of well-known actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, she made her on screen debut back in 1975, in the almost forgotten movie Shampoo.

But it would be two years later, when Fisher landed the part of Princess Leia in Star Wars, that Fisher’s life would change forever. She was barely 19 at the time.

Star Wars would go on to become a landmark moment in cinema history for many reasons, and the trappings of fame would not always bode positiveness for the cast, and specially for Fisher.

Substance abuse began plaguing the now well-known actor, and behind Leia’s tough facade hid a troubled individual that struggled with what she had become. ‘Drugs made me feel normal,’ Fisher said once in a candid interview.

Fisher was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985, something she made no secret of, and fought hard to remove the stigma attached to those who suffered the disorder. Fisher put her acting career on hold to deal with her mental health issues, and dedicated her efforts into writing books. Wishful Drinking and Surrender the Pink were the outcome of this writing period.

A little later on, in 1987, Fisher published a best-selling semi-autobiographical work, Postcards from the Edge, which would later be turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep.

She would return to acting for The Force Awakens, in which she rejoined most of the original cast from the 1977 classic.

From Hollywood wild child, to teenage pin-up and Percodan-addicted celebrity, not to mention her alter ego, Princess Leia, Fisher was a fascinating force on and off the stage. Later in life, her personal issues somewhat overshadowed her achievements, but one thing is for certain: The Princess has now returned to the stars where she belongs.

Serbian air stewardess who survived a free-fall from 33,000ft dies aged 66


JAT Yugoslav Airlines Flight 367 departed Stockholm, Sweden, bound for Belgrade on January 26, 1972.

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9, carried 23 passengers and 5 crew. Among these crew members was 22-year-old Serbian stewardess Vesna Vulovic.

The long-haul flight was scheduled to make two stopovers: First one in Copenhagen, the second one in Zagreb.

The aircraft made it to its first stopover, but it would never make the second. At 16.01, while flying over the Hersmdorf suburb of Berlin -an area which back then was part of the GDR-, Flight 367 blew apart.
Its fuselage broke up in two while flying at cruising altitude, and both pieces plunged to Earth, crashing down on a snowy slope in what’s today the Czech Republic.

All on board lose their lives, bar one. Young Vesna Vulovic.

The stewardess miraculously survives the 33,000 plunge, and is found by a woodsman, who heard her screams.

She was rushed to hospital, where she was found to have a broken skull, and fractured vertebrae. She fell into a coma for 10 days. Upon waking up, she had no recollection of either the flight or the terrifying fall. All she could remember was greeting the passengers in as they boarded the plane in Stockholm.

Due to her spinal injuries, Vesna became paralyzed from the waist down, but in time, and as a testament of human resilience, she made a near-full recovery. She even went back to work for the airline, albeit in a desk job. She would never take to the skies again.

Vesna became a celebrity around the Balkans and further afield, and many expectant mothers even began naming their babies after her, as they associated the name with good luck.

But today, Vesna was found dead inside her apartment. The cause of death is not immediately clear.

Theories as to how a human being would survive a free fall to the ground from 33,000ft have been put forward throughout the years.

As luck would have it, Vesna was located aft of the fuselage when the aircraft exploded. A drinks cart pinned her against the wall and acted as a restraint, preventing her from being sucked out in the sudden decompression, and keeping her firmly in place all the way down.

Furthermore, the tail section where Vesna was trapped in retained its structural integrity as it plunged downwards, somewhat sheltering her and greatly reducing terminal velocity. And to compound the miracle, the broken fuselage hit a tree canopy first and then slid down a snowy slope, which reduced the impact force considerably.

Conspiracy theories emerged soon after as to how the aircraft came down. The official explanation is that a bomb was planted during the flight’s first stopover in Copenhangen, though nobody has ever been brought to justice.

Nevertheless, Vesna Vulovic’s miraculuous survival stands as a testament to human will and endurance.

Vesna received the Guinness prize for ‘Highest fall survived without a parachute’ in 1985, a record that she still held to the day of her passing.


Report: The slow death of American society – Cities across the US move to criminalise homelessness


Denver, Colorado, is one of the latest American cities to join the so-called ‘Hall of Shame’ of metropolises actively seeking to turn homelessness into a crime.

Last Tuesday, Denver city officials and a large police contingent showed up to enforce a removal order for 150 people living on the city’s sidewalks.

Denver is the latest US city to enforce such orders. Hawaii, Texas and Washington state, were the pioneers in the morally indefensible stance of citizen ostracization. Many cities have already banned living inside vehicles, camping in public areas, and begging. These bylaws are particularly damaging, as they often lead to the impoundment of vehicles, which normally means that the person affected loses all their belongings.

Across more and more places in the US, anyone deemed to be an eyesore for the upper castes, a nuisance, or a drain on society, is being pushed down a long road to nowhere.

Last August, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, announced that a ‘safe sleep’ pilot initiative would be terminated. ‘Safe sleep’ allowed homeless people to sleep on the streets and be left alone by the authorities. However, the mayor ended the initiative as some believed it caused ‘confusion’ among certain people who took it to mean that public camping had become legal.

As they were moved on, people in Denver chanted “No handcuffs. Give us homes,” to no avail. Police officers have no time for compassion, it seems.

A lot of metropolitan enclaves across the United States have seen a dramatic spike in homelessness. Rising home prices mean that affordable housing is becoming increasingly unattainable for those on ‘regular’ incomes. A similar problem is occurring here in Ireland right now. The Government may be planning to build thousands of new homes, but since only a privileged sector of society will be able to afford them, they might as well be building none.

The act of criminalizing homelessness is nothing new, of course. Mankind has seen plenty of similarly wretched behaviour through history.

During the Peasant’s Revolt in England in the 1830s, for instance, laws were passed to enable constables to collar vagabonds. If they resisted, they’d be sent to jail and kept on stocks for three days and three nights. Later on, whipping was added to the punishment.

Throughout the mid 16th century, vagrants could be subjected to two years of servitude and being branded with a ‘V’ for their first offence. Death for their second. Humanity has not shown much pity, compassion, or understanding for homelessness.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is an advocacy group organized to help people facing homelessness across the United States. The group has called for some of the recent laws passed to criminalize homelessness to be deemed unconstitutional.

According to the group, such laws further marginalize those affected, imposing even more barriers to accessing education, housing, or employment.

The presidential victory of Donald Trump, an elitist businessman to the core, is likely to compound the issue even further.

Criminalising homelessness is just a short step away to internment.

Mosul offensive: ISIS attack on Kirkuk is repelled as heavy fighting rages on around Mosul


ISIS fighters mounted an attack on Kirkuk, just over 100 miles south-east of Mosul, while a sulphur plant near Mosul was set on fire, creating a toxic cloud. Noxious fumes drifted towards Qayyarah West airfield, forcing US troops stationed there to wear protective masks. Qayyarah West is the main staging area for US air assets supporting the ground offensive to retake Mosul.

Meanwhile, a large ISIS contingent mounted an attack on the south-eastern city of Kirkuk. ISIS incurred heavy losses, and the assault was ultimately deemed ineffective. Analysts believe ISIS staged this move to divert attention from Mosul.

Local sources on the ground also report that people trapped inside Mosul have began launching hit-and-run attacks against ISIS militia, in what is seen as an uprising against their tyrannical grip on the city.

US engineers also report that all accesses to Mosul are heavily booby-trapped and covered by sniper fire, making progress slow and extremely hazardous.

Irish and…not so proud?

​The Icelandic justice system upholds the people’s best interests, sending corrupt and thieving bankers headlong into slam, allowing the clay-footed giants to fall so the financial framework of the country can be rebuilt on a sound footing.

Meanwhile, the Irish Government enshrines the same corrupt and thieving bankers, covering up their cloak and dagger activities, approving a blanket bailout that fast-tracked the country into years of austerity and recession, and handing over Ireland’s economic sovereignty to a cadre of equally corrupt European puppeteers.

Russia deploys missile systems with nuclear capabilities in Kaliningrad as part of ‘exercise’


In another display of the escalating tensions between the US and Russia, the latter has deployed a battery of Iskander-M missile systems in its Kaliningrad outpost, bordering Poland and Lithuania.

The Iskander-M is a short-range ballistic missile system with an effective operational range of about 500km. Launched from a mobile platform, the weapon can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. Some modified versions of the Iskander-M ordnance are rumoured to have an extended range of 700km, which would put them within striking distance of the German capital, Berlin.

Kaliningrad was once Konigsberg, the capital of the East Prussia province. It borders with Poland in its southern fringe and with Lithuania on the north. The enclave was recaptured from the Germans in 1945 and renamed ‘Kaliningrad’ the following year.

According to Russian authorities, the deployment is part of an ongoing ‘exercise’, but the move is only likely to exacerbate relations between Russia and the US already strained over the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts.

Last July, NATO announced that four fresh battallions would be deployed into Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, to reinforce frontline border troops.

The deployment of the missile systems is likely to trigger a NATO-Russia Council meeting to discuss this, and other security issues.

‘Trumpxit’: Or how Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations drowned in a groping quagmire


Donald Trump is a dead man walking, politically speaking. In fairness, no man dubbed ‘groper-in-chief’ could ever dwell in the Oval Office.

Mr. Trump’s campaign, already tainted in numerous ocassions by lewd, offensive, and inflammatory rhetoric directed at women and ethnic minorities, and particularly Mexicans, has now imploded altogether over his brash comments regarding how he treats women.

‘Grab them by (their genitals),’ Mr. Trump appears to say in a 2005 recording that surfaced recently. ‘When you are a star, they let you do it.’

Mr. Trump appeared to be unaware that his microphone was on as he spoke candidly about his treatment and regard for women. He was on bus alongside TV- and radio host Billy Bush, on his way to the Days of Our Lives set, where he was due to appear in a cameo.

The audio records Trump speaking about his attempt to seduce a married woman. It is unclear when the alleged seduction took place, but the conversation was recorded after Trump married his third wife, Melania.

Trump says “I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it,” talking about the married woman.

After the revelatory audio surfaced, Trump issued a very rare televised apology, in which he says that “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”

In his video apology, he continues “I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not. I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them. Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.”

The forced apology did very little for Trump, other than reaffirm his own hypocritical view of the world. It looked awkward, stilted, and artificial, and was delivered reluctantly and with as much honesty as a charlatan offering the elixir of life from the back of his one-horse cart.

Staunch, heavyweight Republicans swiftly moved to withdraw their support for the Trump camp. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took over Trump’s role in The Apprentice, led the way. He publically announced that he “will not be voting for the Republican candidate.’

Former Republican canditate John McCain, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also announced that they would not support Trump’s candidature.

The ‘groper-in-chief’ himself strenuously emphasized that he will not quit the race after the incrimatory audio surfaced.

He is due to face off against Hillary Clinton in a second live debate later today, but the damage to his aspirations is clear, irreparable, and terminal.