Every time I’m convinced the internet was invented by Satan, it comes up with something that proves how valuable it can be.

My latest experience came earlier this month when, bored by political brouhahas, I started looking up old schoolmates who had dropped out of my life long ago. While searching for someone else, I came upon a blog for alumni of a Detroit Catholic high school that many of my elementary school friends had attended. What blew me away was a post by Dennis, who wrote about serving Mass with Pope John Paul II while stationed in Rome as a Jesuit priest.

Dennis and I spent eight years as classmates at Christ the Good Shepherd School in Lincoln Park, a blue-collar suburb. We weren’t close friends but got along very well even though he was everything I wasn’t: mild-mannered, well-groomed and handsome. The last time I saw him was on a bus in Detroit in 1970, when he was selling encyclopedias door-to-door to put himself through the University of Michigan.

My pastor spent close to two decades working in Vatican City, so after Mass the following Sunday I asked him if he had ever run into Dennis. His eyes opened wide in surprise. He not only knew Dennis but added that he’s now living in a retirement home for Jesuits just about 20 minutes from my place.

I called the facility the next day and was put through to Dennis. After chatting about old times, I invited him out to dinner. What ensued was one of the most fascinating afternoons of my life.

After graduating from college, he taught at a Jesuit-run high school for two years. Inspired by the priests and believing he was called by God, he entered the seminary. His studies took him to Paris, where he entered the diaconate. In fact, he was still only a deacon when he served at a Mass with John Paul the first time.

Ordained in 1984 at the age of 33, he was assigned to the Vatican, where he ultimately spent eight years. (He took a year off to do biblical research and archaeology in Jerusalem.) He got to know the pope a bit – he would never claim they were buddies, but he twice managed to arrange private meetings with John Paul for his parents and younger sister, who had Down syndrome. The pontiff was especially taken with the cheerful and gracious young lady.

Of the many stories Dennis told, my favorite is about the time he served at a Mass with the pope, who customarily had a receiving line after a service. John Paul would greet each server with a handclasp, then move on to the eminences who were in attendance.

When John Paul got to Dennis, he said, “So how is the little one?” For the next five minutes, the powerful church leaders — including the head of the Jesuit order — cooled their heels while Dennis updated the pope on how his sister was doing.

What a life he’s had, living four years in Paris and eight in Rome. He met Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and struck up a friendship with Martin Sheen, for whom he served as an informal tour guide when the actor visited Rome. (They became close enough that Dennis spent the Christmas holidays with the Sheens the year his mother died.)

Unfortunately, Dennis’ adventures came to an end in the mid-1990s, when he suffered a massive heart attack that permanently impaired him. While he no longer could work overseas, he recovered enough to resume teaching at the school where he was first drawn to the Jesuits.

Dennis’ flesh may be weak today, but his spirit remains as strong as ever. That the internet enabled me to re-connect with a soul like Dennis gives it partial absolution for its many sins.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – Random, loose thoughts this week:

I went to see Star Wars Saturday.  Confession:  I’ve never seen any of the other Star Wars movies.  But, my son wanted to go and so I took him.  I liked it.  I probably won’t go back and watch all of the others but I did enjoy this one.  When John asked me to take him I said, “I’ll be lost as a goose – I won’t know what’s going on!”  True enough, but it was still good.  I have friends who are fans of the series and you pretty much can’t escape knowing something about the general story if you ever read a newspaper, magazine, Twitter, or otherwise get on the Internet.  That being said, I found Carrie Fisher’s scenes especially poignant and loved seeing her on screen.

Where I live, in Shreveport, we have not seen a white Christmas since 1929.  In all probability we won’t this year either, although for a day or two the weather folks were actually suggesting the possibility of snow next week.  It’s just as well.  Snow down here is a real mess; nobody knows quite what to do and it’s always a wet, heavy snow which then turns to ice and makes an even bigger mess.  But, for a moment, I was hoping…

Oh, and Jingle Bells is now racist.  So, there’s that.

The Detectorists is over.  I wrote in this space last month about the charming British series about a couple of metal detecting hobbyists and their quirky friends.  The third, and final series (season) just aired in Britain and will hit the U.S. after the first of the year. I was lucky enough each week to stream all six episodes and can now confess that I got misty-eyed at the end.  If you have not caught up with this series, Seasons 1 and 2 are on Netflix – you have time to catch up before the third season airs.  The entire cast is strong and Mackenzie Crook is a genius. The show is so beautifully written and so subtle that you can watch it over and over and catch something new each time.  I can not rave about it enough.  Go watch.

Our local animal shelter continues to be a disgrace.  It just gets worse and worse.  Shameful and sad.

Christmas cooking: I’ve got to get my rum cake made today.  I have to make one more batch of Chex Mix (my fifth, or sixth…I lose count.)  I need a good recipe for cheese straws – I’ve lost the one my mother used.  I’m having a spiral cut ham for the family Christmas party and then gumbo on Christmas Day.  And it won’t be snowing.

Christmas cards:  we have a neighbor at the end of our block that writes a Christmas card for every person on the street and then she and her grandson walk the street every year and deliver the cards.  I think this is such an awesome little tradition and it does bring the neighborhood together.  So sweet.

I’m off to make a rum cake.  Have a good week!

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

This week, the US military confirmed a rumor that has been around for quite a few years: that they have a microwave weapon designed to knock out the electronic systems of guided missiles.

The weapons are known as CHAMPS, and have a range of some 700 miles. They are delivered by B-52 bombers, and use a pulse of microwave energy to take out electronic devices. It is not known how close to an enemy command center the device has to get to be effective, or how extensively the weapon has been used.

The US military claims that the weapons have been used in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but the recent admission appears to have been made in relation to North Korea. As the war of words between Trump and the DPRK continues to ratchet upward, it seems that the military is seeking to reassure the populace that the US possesses an effective anti-missile defence.

“These high-powered microwave signals are very effective at disrupting and possibly disabling electronic circuits,” Mary Lou Robinson, chief of weapons development at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, told NBC News.

Directed Energy Weapons

There has long been talk of directed energy weapons revolutionizing warfare. Lasers, whether using visible light or other frequencies, have been a staple of science fiction for almost a century now.

The problem has always been one of energy storage. High explosives contain a huge amount of destructive power in a small space, and even the best batteries in the world cannot match them. It remains unclear exactly how CHAMPS works, but reading the scanty descriptions given by the US military seems to suggest that it uses some form of explosive to yield large quantities of microwave radiation.  

It is probably, therefore, more of a conventional weapon than the US military wants us to believe.  

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Many of the weapons that US armed forces use are very conventional, and some are pretty old. The standard issue rifle is a direct descendant of the M16, and the pistols issued to soldiers – today, military-issue Glock 17s or 19s – are based on a design that is some 40 years old.

These designs work, and are relatively cheap for the military to procure. While research into microwave weapons should undoubtedly continue, therefore, we musn’t lose sight of tried and tested methods which don’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs.

Microwave weapons, and directed energy weapons more generally, definitely fit into that bracket.

The Real Battleground

A second issue with spending huge amounts on developing new ballistic weapons, such as CHAMPS, is that it can distract from where the real battle with North Korea is actually happening: cyber space.

The DPRK is keen to focus the world’s attention on its increasingly frequent tests of ballistic missiles. This certainly makes for good TV, but it also helps the hide the fact that the country has developed huge expertise in cyber warfare techniques, and is not reticent to use them.

As reported earlier this year, North Korea is already making hundreds of millions of dollars a year by launching cyber attacks on major financial organizations around the world. The foreign funds that these activities provide are incredibly important for a country laboring under a crippling array of sanctions.

So far, the most striking response to these attacks have been from individuals, and nor governments. One reason why so many people are turning to blockchain, for instance, is its superior protection to cyber theft, when compared to more traditional banking.

So far, however, the US government has not risen to the threat. There is still no clarity as to how the US will respond to the next inevitable cyber attack, whether this originates in the DPRK or from elsewhere.

That’s why this week’s announcement is so frustrating. It’s nice to hear, or course, that US microwave weapons are “possibly” capable of knocking out missile launch centers, but what about designing systems that can do this remotely?

Though the intention of this week’s announcement was meant to re-assure us that we are capable of dealing with North Korea, it does no such thing. Weapons like CHAMPS, while useful in a limited role, are not what we should be focusing one. If there is a war coming, it will largely be fought online, and we need to prepare for that now.

Forgetting the kneeling and other things the end of yesterday Steelers / Patriots game is everything that’s wrong with the NFL.

I only had a chance to listen to a little bit of the Patriots / Steelers game on my 1st break but had to go turn it off just after the pats kicked their 4th quarter field goal to come within five but as several residents at the nursing home where my wife works she was able to catch bits and pieces of it.

She was taking care of a patient when Big Ben threw to James and heard the call of “Touchdown” and the first replay but as she was doing her job didn’t have time to stay beyond that.

About 30 minutes later she was taking care of another patient who was saying how the Patriots won. She told him that she had seen the Steelers score a touchdown with a few seconds left. The resident told her, no the Patriots won and my wife didn’t argue figuring he was having a moment and didn’t find out otherwise till much later.

Now I know that according to the rules the reversal was valid and this lousy call doesn’t remove Ben’s responsibility for a really bad decision in trying to force that ball on the next to last play rather than throwing it way and shooting for overtime but let’s cut to the chase.

If what the NFL rules consider a “catch” is different that what a normal person who doesn’t follow the game thinks a catch is, the problem is not with the normal person, but with the rule.

At least that’s what I think.

The United Nations Security Council is considering a draft resolution nullifying any move by any nation to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The resolution does not mention the United States or President Trump, but let’s be honest. This is all about the United States and President Trump after he kept his promise and recognized Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the nation of Israel.

I’ll get into the philosophical problems with this move and what it says about the corrupt, ineffective organization itself, but let’s briefly point out how ludicrous this move would be logistically. To pass a resolution requires all 15 members of the United Nations Security Council to agree. Any of them can veto it. The United States is one of five permanent members of the Security Council. I don’t think U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley will need to seek guidance from the White House about whether or not to exercise our veto on the resolution.

In other words, this is 100% symbolic. It’s meant only to get the U.S. on record saying we are against a resolution that attacks our week-old decision. More importantly, it gets the other fourteen nations on record saying they oppose President Trump’s actions, though a press release would have been just as effective.

I’d love to see another member of the Security Council veto it for effect, but that’s almost certainly not going to happen.

Now, let’s talk about the philosophical implications of this move. The United Nations is, in essence, saying that one sovereign nation (the United States) does not have the right to recognize another sovereign nation’s (Israel’s) chosen capital. The only justifiable instance where the United Nations is right to condemn the actions of a sovereign nation is when they are either committing crimes against another sovereign nation, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, or when a nation is committing atrocities against its own people, such as what is happening in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslims.

What the United Nations Security Council is considering doing is an affront to any freedom-loving American or Israeli. It’s actually an affront to any freedom-loving member of the human race, but a majority of countries have been indoctrinated into anti-Israel rhetoric. The push to make a nation the size of New Jersey give away land to people who want to kill them is absurd. To say Israel cannot have Jerusalem as its capital or that the United States can’t agree with them is equally absurd.