Saturday, November 30, 2013
COULD SOMEONE REMIND ME WHAT YEAR THIS IS?
…because it increasingly seems that the first three digits must be One, Nine, and Three.
Kanye West says Obama’s problems with getting things done are because “Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people”…(also, “Black people don’t have the same connection as oil people.”)
Representative Charlie Rangel (D-NY) recently asserted that “President Obama should drop the charade of democracy and rule directly through executive orders.”
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews is one example of those “progressives” who think patriotism is all about obeisance to the government and the Leader, rather than being about love of country.
A third-grade textbook, said to be compliant with the new Common Core standards, portrays Obama with the kind of messianic iconography commonly used by totalitarian governments in praising their rulers.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY AND THE DRIVE FOR UNLIMITED GOVERNMENT POWER
Majority Leader Harry Reid has succeeded in getting the Senate to change the rules such that most of Obama’s judicial and executive branch nominees no longer need to clear a 60-vote threshold to reach the Senate floor and get an up-or-down vote.
This action is simply one more manifestation of the Democrats’ hostility toward any limitations on government power…at least, any limitations of government power as long as they are in control (which they clearly intend to be for a long, long time.)
While the Obama administration is clearly more hostile toward the institutions of American democracy than even most previous Democratic presidents have been, still, the desire of Democrats to remove constraints on government power goes back a long ways. As I noted in a comment to this post, Woodrow Wilson believed that separation of powers was obsolete…he argued for this viewpoint based on extremely simplistic reasoning about the “organic” nature of government and the assertion that an organism could not have “organs offset against each other as checks, and live.” (As I also noted in the same comment thread, one would think that anyone who had run any kind of organization would understand the need for “organs offset against each other as checks.” even at the simple level of an auditing department and the separation of payment authorization from payment execution…and, of course, the concepts of feedback control and homeostasis clearly demonstrate the need for those “organs offset against each other” in any complex system.)
Also in the same thread, Vader cited someone who had said that Wilson’s belief in his own moral righteousness was so great as to approach mental illness. This is clearly also true of Obama, probably to an even greater degree than it was true of Wilson. And people with this level of arrogance, of course, tend to be especially impatient of any restraints on their power.
But it goes far beyond Obama himself. The growth of educational credentialism has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people who believe that their college degrees…entirely irrespective of any actual accomplishments that they have made or actual knowledge that they possess…have given them preternatural wisdom and hence they right and duty to control the lives of their less-enlightened countrymen.
American democracy is in grave danger. The 2014 elections will probably be the last chance to keep this country..and the world…from going down a very dark path. I’m reminded of a speech Winston Churchill gave during the years of appeasement, specifically in March 1938, in which he spoke of Britain and its allies:
descending incontinently, recklessly, the staircase which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad staircase at the beginning, but, after a bit, the carpet ends. A little further on there are only flagstones, and, a little further on still, these break beneath your feet.
THE MINI-SERIES IN 1878
Just re-read Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (outstanding) and watched the 1994 movie (pretty good.) The book, like much Victorian literature, was originally serialized in a magazine, in this case Belgravia: a Magazine of Fashion and Amusement.
I found the original illustrations that accompanied the serialization here. Inclusion of illustrations was apparently quite expensive in comparison with straight text, even after the efficiency improvements that went with higher print volumes, so they tended to be fairly scarce–only 12 of them for the whole serialized novel, in this case.
More about the book and the economics of Victorian publishing here…it is interesting that the high cost of book encouraged lending libraries to insist that books be published broken into multiple volumes, so that reader access to the book could be “timeshared,” resulting in a higher ratio of revenue to cost.
Hardy and the artist who did the illustrations (Arthur Hopkins) were able to collaborate only by mail, and Hardy was not thrilled with the first image of his main female protagonist, Eustacia…he was happier with the later versions of this character.
Monday, November 18, 2013
MUSINGS ON TYLER'S TECHNOLOGICAL THOUGHTS
Tyler Cowen, in his recent book Average is Over, argues that computer technology is creating a sharp economic and class distinction between people who know how to effectively use these “genius machines” (a term he uses over and over) and those who don’t, and is also increasing inequality in other ways. Isegoria recently excerpted some of his Tyler’s comments on this thesis from a recent New Yorker article.
I read the book a couple of months ago, and although it’s worth reading and is occasionally thought-provoking, I think much of what Tyler has to say is wrong-headed. In the New Yorker article, for example, he says:
The first (reason why increased inequality is here to stay) is just measurement of worker value. We’re doing a lot to measure what workers are contributing to businesses, and, when you do that, very often you end up paying some people less and other people more.
The second is automation — especially in terms of smart software. Today’s workplaces are often more complicated than, say, a factory for General Motors was in 1962. They require higher skills. People who have those skills are very often doing extremely well, but a lot of people don’t have them, and that increases inequality.
And the third point is globalization. There’s a lot more unskilled labor in the world, and that creates downward pressure on unskilled labor in the United States. On the global level, inequality is down dramatically — we shouldn’t forget that. But within each country, or almost every country, inequality is up.
Taking the first point: Businesses and other organizations have been measuring “what workers are contributing” for a long, long time. Consider piecework. Sales commissions. Criteria-based bonuses for regional and division executives. All of these things are very old hat. Indeed, quite a few manufacturers have decided that it is unwise to take the quantitative measurement of performance down to an individual level, in cases where the work is being done by a closely-coupled team.
It is true that advancing computer technology makes it feasible to measure more dimensions of an individual’s work, but so what? Does the fact that I can measure (say) a call-center operator on 33 different criteria really tell me anything about what he is contributing the the business?
Anyone with real-life business experience will tell you that it is very, very difficult to create measurement and incentive plans that actually work in ways that are truly beneficial to the business. This is true in sales commission plans, it is true in manufacturing (I talked with one factory manager who said he dropped piecework because it was encouraging workers to risk injury in order to maximize their payoffs), and it is true in executive compensation. Our blogfriend Bill Waddell has frequently written about the ways in which accounting systems can distort decision-making in ultimately unprofitable ways. The design of worthwhile measurement and incentive plans has very little to do with the understanding of computer technology; it has a great deal to do with understanding of human nature and of the deep economic structure of the business.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
ATTENTION BRITS: THERE ARE EXPANDING CAREER OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOU...
Some of this is just because people enjoy having and using a fireplace, which is good…much of it, though, is apparently because people can’t afford to heat their houses due to increasing energy prices, which is not so good.
I wrote about similar phenomena in Germany, here.
Monday, November 11, 2013
VETERANS DAY 2013
The war was in color
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Sunday, November 10, 2013
OBAMACARE, WWII, AND WHY EFFECTIVE LEADERS NEED STRONG SUBORDINATE LEADERS
Putting things in perspective: March 21st 2010 to October 1 2013 is 3 years, 6 months, 10 days. December 7, 1941 to May 8, 1945 is 3 years, 5 months, 1 day. What this means is that in the time we were attacked at Pearl Harbor to the day Germany surrendered is not enough time for this progressive federal government to build a working webpage. Mobilization of millions, building tens of thousands of tanks, planes, jeeps, subs, cruisers, destroyers, torpedoes, millions upon millions of guns, bombs, ammo, etc. Turning the tide in North Africa, Invading Italy, D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, Race to Berlin – all while we were also fighting the Japanese in the Pacific!! And in that amount of time – this administration can’t build a working webpage.
To be fair, the Obamacare support system is more than just a “webpage”…it also encompasses various back-end information-exchange systems. Still, it is a system that did not require the development of any truly new technologies or any conceptual breakthroughs in the use of existing technologies. Compared to any of a large number of WWII technology, manufacturing, and logistics efforts…proximity-fused ammunition, airborne radar, computer-based codebreaking, mass-production of airplanes and ships, the petroleum pipeline under the English Channel…the Obamacare support system is a very small thing indeed.
History and experience teach us that large, complex, time-critical programs only get done successfully when they are run by individuals who are tough-minded, possessed of practical wisdom, and willing to put their careers on the line to accomplish the goal…and when higher authority is willing to delegate sufficient scope and empowerment to such leaders. A couple of years ago, I wrote about one example of such a leader: General Bernard Schriever, who ran USAF ballistic missile programs.
In order to achieve his goal of delivering Atlas and other missile programs in the required time frames, General Schriever found it necessary to break a lot of china. For example, when Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott, ordered him to relocate certain missile facilities from the west cost to the midwest (supposedly based on industrial dispersion for survivability, but actually probably driven by political factors) Schreiver flatly refused, citing his “prior and overriding orders” to get the program done in the shortest feasible time. By then a general, Schriever stuck by his position on this even when Talbott threatened him that “Before this meeting is over, General, there’s going to be one more colonel in the Air Force!”
I don’t think people with strength of character like that of Bernard Schriever do very well in the Obama administration or that they remain with it for very long. A man who can say, as Obama did, “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director” is a very small man. Small men tend to hire and retain only other small men and women.
And small men and women don’t run large and complex projects effectively.
Sunday, November 03, 2013
HOW TO BE AN EXECUTIVE WHO LEARNS/DOES NOT LEARN
Your job as a leader is to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning of the meeting.
I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.
Is it likely that a person with the latter worldview will come out of a meeting knowing/understanding more than he did when he went into it?
Saturday, November 02, 2013
"I AM NOT A CROOK"
…said Richard Nixon, famously. Comes now Joe Biden, with “I am not a geek.” Specifically, in responding to questions about the problems with the Obamacare website and its supporting systems, Biden said:
“Neither (the president) or I are technology geeks and we assumed that it was up and ready to run.”
I don’t think the main problems with this implementation have to do with a lack of geekitude–most likely, there are many quite competent software developers working on this project–but rather with a lack of effective management. (And if there is a shortage of competent developers on the project, well, that’s a management issue, too, isn’t it.)
Real managers, real executives, don’t assume that important things will be ready when they’re supposed to be ready, and they aren’t satisfied with superficial answers to superficial questions, either. These effective leaders are people who have developed effective questioning skills so they can find out what is really going on. They establish open, non-fear-based organizational cultures so that people with concerns feel able to bring them forward. As I noted in my post about Benghazi (excusing failure by pleading incompetence), it is the responsiblity of an executive to establish an information and decision-flow architecture…including clear assignment of responsibilities…to ensure that the right things are seen and acted upon by the right people at the right time. Failure to do this..and to maintain and tune the system over time…will predictably result in catastrophes.
Later in the interview with Biden, the Vice President also said he didn’t know the specifics of why the website isn’t working, but that he was told the platform “is fine, but they have to change an awful lot of the inputs.”
“Look, all I know is they talk about 50,000 lines of this and this, I don’t know the technical reasons,” Biden said.
”So I don’t know, I wish I could tell you, that’s why I became a lawyer,”
A pretty flippant response to a serious situation. Slow Joe might not be able to understand the technical reasons for the failure, but he should be able–if he were competent at his job–to investigate and understand the management reasons for the failure.
Some of the questions that come to mind about this debacle are: How were the contractors selected? Why was it decided to have the government (CMS) act as prime contractor, rather than choosing an external company for that role? What do the contracts with the outside contractors actually specify, in terms of deliverables? What remedies are provided in the contracts for failures in delivery? If these remedies are inadequate, why did the government not require that they be more stringent? What was coordination vehicles were there between the government group writing and interpreting the Obamacare regulations and the separate group that was attempting to act as prime contractor? Was there a single individual in charge? What project scheduling and tracking methods were employed throughout this effort?
These are not issues that are specific to software technology–the above questions are ones that any good executive, whether his background is in construction or in theater or in wholesale distribution, would understand that he should ask.
A United States President is not elected as a philosopher king; he is elected to run the executive departments of government and to faithfully execute the laws passed by Congress. The members of the present administration have repeatedly demonstrated their utter incompetence to perform these tasks.
An administration that seeks endless expansion of government’s role–but is at the same time completely incompetent at carrying out basic executive tasks–will drive expanding circles of chaos throughout ever-broader reaches of American society and the American economy.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz
, where comments are open
Saturday, October 26, 2013
APPEASEMENT, THEN AND NOW
The Prime Ministership of Neville Chamberlain is closely associated with the word “appeasement.” The policy of appeasement followed by Britain in the late 1930s is generally viewed as a matter of foreign policy–the willingness to allow Germany’s absorption of other countries, first Austria and then Czechoslovakia, in the desperate but misguided hope of avoiding another war.
But appeasement also had domestic as well as foreign policy aspects. In a post several years ago, I quoted Winston Churchill, who spoke of the “unendurable..sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure…In a very few years, perhaps in a very few months, we shall be confronted with demands” which “may affect the surrender of territory or the surrender of liberty.” A “policy of submission” would entail “restrictions” upon freedom of speech and the press. Indeed, I hear it said sometimes now that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticized by ordinary, common English politicians.”
Churchill’s concern was not just a theoretical one. Following the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, photographs were available showing the plight of Czech Jews, dispossessed by the Nazis and wandering the roads of eastern Europe. Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, refused to run any of them: it wouldn’t help the victims, he told his staff, and if they were published, Hitler would be offended.
I’ve just finished reading Niall Ferguson’s War of the World, and this book contains much more information about appeasement in British domestic society and politics. Some excerpts:
(Times Berlin correspondent Normal Ebbut) wrote regularly on…the (Nazi) regime’s persecution of Protestant churches. As early as November 1934, he was moved to protest about editorial interference with his copy, giving twelve examples of how his stories had been cut to remove critical references to the Nazi regime.
The Times was far from unique in its soft-soap coverage of Germany. Following his visit in 1937, Halifax lobbied near all the leading newspaper proprietors to tone down their coverage of Germany…The government succeeded in pressuring the BBC into avoiding ‘controversy’ in its coverage of European affairs…Lord Reith, the Director-General of the BBC, told Ribbentrop ‘to tell Hitler that the BBC was not anti-Nazi’…Pressure to toe the line was even stronger in the House of Commons. Conservative MPs who ventured to criticize Chamberlain were swiftly chastised by the whips or their local party associations.
At around the time of the Abyssinian crisis, the historian A L Rowse–who was just thirty-four at the time of Munich-recalled a walk with (Times publisher Dawson) along the towpath to Iffley, in the course of which he warned the older man: ‘It is the Germans who are so powerful as to threaten the rest of us together.’ Dawson’s reply was revealing: ‘To take your argument on its own valuation–mind you, I’m not saying I agree with it–but if the Germans are as powerful as you say, oughtn’t we to go in with them?
Saturday, October 19, 2013
THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, AS VIEWED FROM A SOVIET LAUNCH FACILITY
(This is a rerun, with minor edits, of a post from 2012)
This month marks the 51st anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.
Last year I read Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I’m still hoping to get around to reviewing one of these days.
Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.
At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.
Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”
Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Here’s a new study from GE: The Age of Gas & the Power of Networks. I haven’t read it yet, but looks like it contains some useful data and some interesting thinking.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
STORIES OF SOLAR STRESS
In my post A Perfect Enemy, I mentioned Poul Anderson’s 1972 story A Chapter of Revelation. God–intending to demonstrate His existence to the world and thereby encourage people to prevent the global nuclear war which is about to occur–stops the movement of the sun across the sky. (Technically, He does this by slowing earth’s rotation period to a value identical with Earth’s year.) The reaction to this event is confirmation bias on an immense scale: just about everyone draws the conclusion that the miracle provesthat whatever beliefs they already held were the corrects ones…for example, a Russian scientist (remember, this was written in 1972) suggests that “The requirement of minimum hypothesis practically forces us to assume that what happened resulted from the application of a technology centuries beyond ours. I find it easy to believe that an advanced civilization, capable of interstellar travel, sent a team to save mankind from the carnage threatened by an imperialism which that society outgrew long ago.” Moralists, militarists, extreme right-wing evangelists, Black Power advocates…all find in the miracle only proof of their own rightness, and the world slides into further chaos, with riots, coups d’etat, and cross-border military attacks.
Several weeks ago, I picked up Karen Thompson Walker’s novel The Age of Miracles, in which strange solar behavior also plays a leading part. Eleven-year-old Julia, focused in the usual challenges of growing up, is not too concerned when scientists announce that–for some unknown reason–the earth’s rotation has slowed very slightly and the days and nights are both getting a little longer. But the process, whatever it is, continues…the days and the nights get longer..and longer..and longer.
A very well-written book, IMO; especially impressive since it is the author’s first novel. Not everyone agrees: the Amazon reviews indicate that a lot of people liked it very much, and quite a few found it disappointing. But I thought it was very worthwhile; hard to put down, in fact.
Another coming-of-age story involving solar phenomena is Connie Willis’s Daisy, in the Sun. Like the protagonist of the previous book, Daisy is dealing with the problems of adolescence–oh, and by the way, the sun (which Daisy has always loved) is going to go nova and kill everyone on earth. It’s a strange story, difficult to summarize…I’ll just quote from the author’s introduction:
During the London Blitz, Edward R. Murrow was startled to see a fire engine racing past. It was the middle of the day, the sirens had not gone, and he hadn’t heard any bombers. He could not imagine where a fire engine would be going.
It came to him, after much thought, that it was going to an ordinary house fire, and that that seemed somehow impossible, as if all ordinary disasters should be suspended for the duration of this great Disaster that was facing London and commanding everybody’s attention. But of course houses caught fire and burned down for reasons that had nothing to do with the Blitz, and even in the face of Armageddon, there are still private armageddons to be faced.
Thursday, October 10, 2013
ANTI-ISRAEL BIGOTRY ON AMERICAN UNIVERSITY CAMPUSES
An Israeli soldier reports on what he has learned while speaking about Israel at universities in the Pacific Northwest:
When I served as a soldier in the West Bank, I got used to having ugly things said to me, but nothing prepared me for the misinformation, demonization of Israel, and the gut-wrenching, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic hostility expressed by many students, professors, church members, and even some high school students right here in the Pacific Northwest.
To give you a taste of the viciousness of the BDS attacks, let me cite just a few of the many shocking experiences I have had. At a BDS event in Portland, a professor from a Seattle university told the assembled crowd that the Jews of Israel have no national rights and should be forced out of the country. When I asked, “Where do you want them to go?” she calmly answered, “I don’t care. I don’t care if they don’t have any place else to go. They should not be there.” When I responded that she was calling for ethnic cleansing, both she and her supporters denied it. And during a presentation in Seattle, I spoke about my longing for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. When I was done, a woman in her 60’s stood up and yelled at me, “You are worse than the Nazis. You are just like the Nazi youth!” A number of times I was repeatedly accused of being a killer, though I have never hurt anyone in my life. On other occasions, anti-Israel activists called me a rapist. The claims go beyond being absurd – in one case, a professor asked me if I knew how many Palestinians have been raped by IDF forces. I answered that as far as I knew, none. She triumphantly responded that I was right, because, she said, “You IDF soldiers don’t rape Palestinians because Israelis are so racist and disgusted by them that you won’t touch them.”
Wednesday, October 02, 2013
WHEN HUMANS AND ROBOTS COMMUNICATE
…they do not always achieve mutual understanding. And when misunderstandings do occur, the consequences can range from irritating to expensive to tragic.
On July 6 of 2013, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed on final approach to San Francisco International Airport, resulting in over 180 injuries, 3 fatalities, and the loss of the aircraft. While the NTSB report on this accident is not yet out, there are several things that seem to be pretty clear:
–The flight crew believed that airspeed was being controlled by the autothrottle system, a device somewhat analogous to the cruise control of an automobile
–In actuality, the airspeed was not being controlled by the autothrottles
–The airspeed fell below the appropriate value, and the airplane dipped below the proper glidepath and mushed into the seawall
It is not yet totally clear why the autothrottle system was not controlling the airspeed when the captain and first officer believed that it was doing so. It is possible that the autothrottle mechanism failed, even that it failed in such a way that its failure was not annunciated. It is possible that an autothrottle disconnect button (one on each power level) was inadvertently pressed and the disconnection not noticed. But what seems likely in the opinion of several knowledgeable observers is that the captain and FO selected a combination of control settings that they believed would cause the autothrottle to take control–but that this setting was in fact not one that would cause autothrottle activation…in other words, that the model of aircraft systems in the minds of the flight crew was different from the actual design model of the autothrottle and its related systems.
Whatever happened in the case of Asiana Flight 214…and all opinions about what happened with the autothrottles must be regarded as only speculative at this point…there have been numerous cases–in aviation, in medical equipment, and in the maritime industry–in which an automated control system and its human users interacted in a way that either did or could have led to very malign results. In his book Taming HAL, Asaf Degani describes several such cases, and searches for general patterns and for approaches to minimize such occurrences in the future.
Degani discusses human interface problems that he has observed in common consumer devices such as clocks, TV remote controls, and VCRs, and goes into depth on several incidents involving safety-critical interface failures. Some of these were:
The airplane that broke the speed limit. This was another autothrottle-related incident, albeit one in which the consequences were much less severe than Asiana 214. The airplane was climbing to its initial assigned altitude of 11,000 feet, under an autopilot mode (Vertical Navigation) in which speed was calculated by the flight management system for optimum efficiency–in this case, 300 knots. Air traffic control then directed that the flight slow to 240 knots for separation from traffic ahead. The copilot dialed this number into the flight control panel,overriding the FMS-calculated number. At 11000 feet, the autopilot leveled the plane, switched itself into ALTITUDE HOLD mode, and maintained the 240 knot speed setting. Everything was fine.
The controller then directed a further climb to 14000 feet. The copilot re-engaged VERTICAL NAVIGATION MODE and put in the new altitude setting. The engines increased power, the nose pitched up, and the airplane began to climb. But just a little bit later, the captain observed that the airplane wasn’t only climbing–it was also speeding up, and had reached almost 300 knots, thereby violating an ATC speed restriction.
What happened here? Degani refers to events of this sort as “automation surprises.” The copilot was apparently thinking that the speed he had dialed in to override the flight management system would continue to be in force when he re-enabled the vertical navigation climb mode. But that wasn’t the way the system was actually designed. Selecting Vertical Navigation mode re-initialized the source of the airspeed command to be the FMS, which was still calling for a 300-knot Best Efficiency speed.
Degani says that the pilots were well trained and understood how the speed reference value actually worked…but that the unintuitive nature of the interface caused this knowledge to be effectively forgotten at the moment when the additional climb was requested. He draws an analogy with the user of a cordless phone, who picks up the ringing phone and pushes the TALK button..a seemingly-logical action that actually turns off the phone and disconnects whoever is calling.
The blood-pressure monitor that didn’t monitor. A surgery patient was under anesthesia; as is standard practice, his blood pressure was being monitored by an electronic device. The patent’s blood pressure showed a high reading, and the surgeon noted profuse bleeding. The anesthesiologists set the blood-pressure monitor to measure more frequently. Periodically, they glanced back at the monitor’s display, noting that it still showed an elevated blood pressure, actively treating the hypertension–as they believed it was–with drugs that dilated blood vessels.
But actually, the patient’s blood pressure was very low. The alarmingly-high blood pressure values shown in the display were actually constant…the machine was displaying the exact same value every time they looked at it, because after the measurement-interval reset, it had never made another measurement.
What happened here? The blood-pressure monitor has three modes: MANUAL (in which the pressure is measured immediately when the “start” button is pressed), AUTOMATIC (in which pressure is measured repeatedly at the selected interval), and IDLE. When the interval is changed by the anesthesiologist, the mode is set at IDLE, even if the monitor were already running in AUTOMATIC. To actually cause the automatic monitoring to occur, it is necessary to push START. In this case, the pushing of the START button was omitted, and the machine’s display did not provide adequate cues for the anesthesiologists to notice their mistake.
Critiquing the machine’s design, Degani notes that “The kind of change they sought is not very different from changing the temperature setting in your toaster over…On almost every oven, you simply grab the temperature knob and rotate it from 300 Farenheit to 450, and that’s it. You are not expected to tell the system that you want it to stay in OVEN mode–you know that it will.”
Sunday, September 22, 2013
YARN, FABRIC, SWEATSHIRT
Bruce Springsteen, 1983:
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they aint coming back to
Saturday, September 21, 2013
FREEDOM, THE VILLAGE, AND THE INTERNET
I’ve reviewed two books by German writer Hans Fallada: Little Man, What Now?, and Wolf Among Wolves (the links go to the reviews), both of which were excellent. I recently finished his novel Every Man Dies Alone, which is centered on a couple who become anti-Nazi activists after their son Ottochen is killed in the war…it was inspired by, and is loosely based on, the true story of a real-life couple who distributed anti-Nazi postcards and were executed for it.
I thought this book was also excellent…the present post, though, is not a book review, but rather a development of some thoughts inspired by a particular passage in the story.
Trudel, who was Ottochen’s fiancee, is a sweet and intelligent girl who is strongly anti-Nazi..and unlike Ottochen’s parents, she became an activist prior to being struck by personal tragedy: she is a member of a resistance cell at the factory where she works. But she finds that she cannot stand the unending psychological strain of underground work–made even worse by the rigid and doctrinaire man (apparently a Communist) who is leader of the cell–and she drops out. Another member of the cell, who has long been in love with her, also finds that he is not built for such work, and drops out also.
After they marry and Trudel becomes pregnant, they decide to leave the politically hysterical environment of Berlin for a small town where–they believe–life will be freer and calmer.
Like many city dwellers, they’d had the mistaken belief that spying was only really bad in Berlin and that decency still prevailed in small towns. And like many city dwellers, they had made the painful discovery that recrimination, eavesdropping, and informing were ten times worse in small towns than in the big city. In a small town, everyone was fully exposed, you couldn’t ever disappear in the crowd. Personal circumstances were quickly ascertained, conversations with neighbors were practically unavoidable, and the way such conversations could be twisted was something they had already experienced in their own lives, to their chagrin.
Reading the above passage, I was struck by the the thought that if we are now living in an “electronic village”…even a “global village,” as Marshall McLuhan put it several decades ago…then perhaps that also means we are facing some of the unpleasant characteristics that–as Fallada notes–can be a part of village life. And these characteristics aren’t something that appears only in eras of insane totalitarianism such as existed in Germany during the Nazi era. Peter Drucker, in Managing in the Next Society, wrote about the tension between liberty and community:
Rural society has been romanticized for millenia, especially in the West, where rural communities have usually been portrayed as idylic. However, the community in rural society is actually both compulsory and coercive…And that explains why, for millenia, the dream of rural people was to escape into the city. Stadluft macht frei (city air frees) says an old German proverb dating back to the eleventy or twelfth century.
continued at Chicago Boyz
Thursday, September 19, 2013
DISCOVERY AND REDISCOVERY
Sunday, September 15, 2013
301 YEARS OF STEAM POWER
In 1712, Thomas Newcomen erected a steam engine of his own design near Dudley, in the West Midlands of England, thereby kicking off the age of steam. (Yes, this would have made a better post last year, to mark a round 300-year anniversary, but better late than never..)
We were told in the 5th grade that the steam engine had been invented by James Watt after noticing the way that the steam pressure in a teapot could cause the lid to lift a little. A nice story, but (a) James Watt did not invent the steam engine, and (b) early steam engines did not work the way that the teapot story would suggest.
In ancient Greece there were some experiments with the use of steam power to create mechanical motion; thereafter nothing significant happened in this field until the late 1600s, when Thomas Savery invented a device for raising water by steam: it was intended to address the growing problem of removing water from mines. Savery’s invention was conceptually elegant, with no moving parts other than the valves: unfortunately, it could not handle a water lift of more than about 30 feet, which was far insufficient for the very deep mines which were then becoming increasingly common.
Newcomen’s engine filled a cylinder with low-pressure steam, which was then abruptly cooled by the injection of a water jet. This created a partial vacuum, which pulled the piston down with great force–these were called “atmospheric” engines, because the direct motive force came from air pressure, with the role of the steam being simply to create the vacuum when condensed. After the piston reached the bottom of the cylinder, it would be pulled upwards by a counterweight, and the cycle would repeat. (See animation here.) Conceptually simple, but modern reconstructors have found it quite difficult to get all the details right and build an engine that will actually work.
These engines were extremely inefficient, real coal hogs, requiring about 25 pounds of coal per horsepower per hour. They were employed primarily for water removal at coal mines, where coal was by definition readily available and was relatively cheap. But as the cotton milling industry grew, and good water-power sites to power the machinery became increasingly scarce, Newcomen engines were also employed for that service. For example, in 1783 a cotton mill–complete with a 30-foot waterwheel–was constructed at Shudhill, near Manchester..which seemed odd given that there was no large stream or river there to drive it. The mill entrepreneurs built two storage ponds at different levels, with the waterwheel in between them, and installed a Newcomen engine to recycle the water continuously. The engine was very large–with a cylinder 64 inches in diameter and a stroke of more than 7 feet–and consumed five tons of coal per day.
Despite their tremendous coal consumption and their high first cost, a considerable number of these engines were installed, enough that someone in 1789 referred to the Newcomen and Savery engines in the Manchester area as common old smoaking engines. The alternative to the Newcomen engine described above would have been the use of actual horses–probably at least 100 of them, if my guesstimate of 40 horsepower for this engine is correct. These early engines resembled the mainframe computers of the early 1950s, in that they were bulky, expensive, resource-intensive, and limited in their fields of practical applicability…but, within those fields, absolutely invaluable.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
9/11 PLUS TWELVE YEARS
(Rerun, with an important update at the end)
Simply evil: Christopher Hitchens suggests that sometimes the simple and obvious explanation for an event is more accurate than an explanation which relies on an elaborate structure of “nuance”
Marc Sasseville and Heather Penney were F-16 pilots with an Air National Guard squadron. Their order was to bring down Flight 93 before the terrorists in control of it could create another disaster on the scale of the World Trade Center…but their aircraft were configured for training, with no live ammunition and no missiles. A video interview with Major Penney here
Joseph Fouché writes about how the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001, and the murder of Ahmed Shah Masood on September 9 of that year, prefigured the 9/11 attacks.
On September 11, 2005, Rare Kate didn’t go to church. Follow the link to find out why. In my original post linking this, I said “What if American and British religious leaders had responded the depradations of Naziism in the spirit of this liturgy? Actually, some of them did. The impact on preparedness was certainly malign, and the people who took such positions certainly bear a share of moral resposibility for the deaths and devastation that took place. Ditto for those who are behaving in a similar way today.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an important leader of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany (executed in 1945), wrote the following:
Today there are once more saints and villains. Instead of the uniform grayness of the rainy day, we have the black storm cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. Outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Shakespeare’s characters walk among us. The villain and the saint emerge from primeval depths and by their appearannce they tear open the infernal or the divine abyss from which they come and enable us to see for a moment into mysteries of which we had never dreamed.
I was reminded of the above passage by something Cara Ellison said in a 2009 post about 9/11:
I guess I thought they were all gone, those types of monsters, stranded on reels of black and white film.
The refusal on the part of many individuals to face the seriousness of the radical Islamist threat to out civilization stems in significant part, I feel certain, from a desire to avoid the uncomfortable and even dangerous kind of clarity that Bonhoeffer was talking about.