Monday, December 31, 2012
FAREWELL TO AMERICA'S ONLY PASSENGER DIRIGIBLE
I’ve long been intrigued by airships, and was pleased when several years ago it was announced that the German company Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH had developed an advanced-technology dirigible design…the Zeppelin NT
…and was offering it for sale. I was even more pleased when one of these aircraft, named Eureka, was acquired by an American startup, Airship Ventures, with the intent of putting it in commercial service for sightseeing rides. And a bit later, I discovered that Airship Ventures was offering a zeppelin pilot experience program, which allowed licensed pilots to attend a 2-day training program culminating in actually flying the zeppelin (with an instructor, of course.)
I participated in this program earlier this year: it was a lot of fun and I’d been intending to write a blog post about it. But I got a lump of coal in my Christmas stocking when I was flipping through an aviation magazine and learned that Airship Ventures has suspended operations for financial reasons. The problems are (a) the general economy, (b) lack of economies of scale, as AV is operating only one ship, and (c) the greatly increased price of helium. (The Zeppelin NT is designed to minimize helium loss, but some such loss in unavoidable.) Attempts to locate a major sponsor who would provide enough funding to keep the airship in business were unsuccessful, and Eureka (which was apparently acquired by AV under a lease arrangement) has been dismantled and is on its way back to the manufacturer in Germany,
I’d have thought that there would have been a number of firms that could creatively take advantage of the uniqueness and great visibility offered by the zep, and am really surprised that no sponsor surfaced: AV CEO Brian Hall put the cost of sponsoring the airship for a year at about the same figure as the cost of a one-minute Superbowl ad.
In response to my inquiry about the ship’s status, the company did indicate that if a major sponsor should appear at this point they would be able to restart operations, albeit obviously with delays and higher costs than would have been the case had they been able to maintain continuous operations of Eureka.
Three Zeppelin NTs are being acquired by Goodyear as replacements for their blimp fleet, so Americans will still be able to enjoy the sight of zeppelins in our skies…but it is unlikely that rides will be offered to people not closely connected to the Goodyear company.
Very sad. Hopefully, at some point an improving economy, combined with adequate sponsorship and an ability to achieve sustainable scale, will allow AV to bring passenger zeppelins back to the United States.
In the meantime, Zeppelin NT rides are still available in Germany…I see that 11 different routes are now available.
Some additional links:
Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Saturday, December 29, 2012
UNACCEPTABLE PERFORMANCE BY THE VETERANS AFFAIRS DEPARTMENT
Here’s a Rudyard Kipling poem which isn’t as well known as some of his other ones:
There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.
They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !
They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, “Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites.”
(read the whole poem here)
What reminded me of this poem?
Apparently, in 2012 the average time to complete a VA disability or pension claim was 262 days, up from 188 days in the prior year and far above the official target of 125 days. More at Nextgov.
I’m not very impressed with the excuses offered by the VA for this situation:
VA officials attribute the backlog, defined as claims in the system for more than 125 days, in part to higher demand by veterans returning from 10 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with severe and complex injuries.
A Texas Veterans Commission official noted that the agency is caught in a “perfect storm” of claims from veterans of recent wars and those from aging Vietnam and Korea veterans whose disabilities are worsening.
But wasn’t this all predictable? Obviously wars cause injuries, and better battlefield medical attention means that more wounded soldiers will survive and hence need extended care. And wasn’t the higher claims rate “from aging Vietnam and Korea veterans” largely predictable from simple demographic analysis? I’m reminded of the saying about a British railroad from several decades ago: ”Despite its frequency and general regularity, Sunday morning seems to consistently catch this railroad by surprise.”
The above remark about the railroad notwithstanding, private enterprises generally seem to be able to deal with fluctuating demand and other problems quite well. There is almost always food in the supermarkets, despite droughts, crop failures, logistical problems, strikes, etc etc. The electricity is almost always on despite storms and electrical failures. And while businesses generally do a better problem than government at dealing with daunting arrays of problems, some government agencies do manage to deal with demand increases and fluctuations far better than the VA seems able to do with these disability claims. Somehow the FAA manages to conduct air traffic control safely and effectively despite the increased demand that occurs in holiday seasons and the varied and often nefarious effects of the weather. The military itself often manages to quickly deploy forces and equipment to far-distant locations. Why has the VA been unable to modify its processes to provide resolution of disability claims in a timely manner?
Sad and disturbing.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
AN OLD BUILDING IN PORTLAND
…has a very old basement. In that basement is a major regional telecommunications interconnect point.
Monday, December 24, 2012
is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here
has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.
A wonderful 3-D representation of the Iglesia San Luis De Los Franceses
. Just click on the link--then you can look around inside the cathedral. Use arrow keys or mouse to move left/right, up/down, and shift to zoom in, ctrl to zoom out.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya
Sunday, December 23, 2012
A MAN AND HIS DOG
Photo and story here….from this collection of heartwarming stories and images.
Via Rachel Lucas, who is now blogging from Italy.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
PREFIGURING THE HACKER...AND THE AMERICAN SURVEILLANCE SOCIETY
Perhaps the first piece of fiction to feature a computer-systems hacker is Poul Anderson’s 1953 story Sam Hall. Anderson’s leading character, Thornberg, is technical director for Central Records, the agency that operates the computer system (“Matilda”) which a future U.S. government uses to maintain detailed information on all Americans.
We see Matilda at work in the first paragraphs of the story, in which a typical citizen checks in at a hotel. With “an automatic set of gestures,” he takes out his wallet and his ID card, and inserts the latter into the “registry machine.”
Place and date of birth. Parents. Race. Religion. Educational, military, and civilian service records…The total signal goes out over the wires. Accompanies by a thousand others, it shoots down the last cable and into the sorter unit of Central Records. The distorted molecules in a particular spool show the pattern of Citizen Blank, and this is sent back. It enters the comparison unit, to which the incoming signal corresponding to him has also been shunted. The two are perfectly in phase; nothing wrong. Citizen Blank is staying in the town where, last night, he said he would, so he has not had to file a correction.
Thornberg has certain reservations about the totalitarian regime which is now running America, but he is not actively disloyal. His political awakening begins when Jimmy, the son of his second cousin, is arrested on suspicion of treason, and Thornberg remembers some of the forbidden history which he has read.
The intellectuals had been fretful about the Americanization of Europe, the crumbling of old culture before the mechanized barbarism of soft drinks, hard sells, enormous chrome-plated automobiles (dollar grins, the Danes had called them), chewing gum, plastics…None of them had protested the simultaneous Europeanization of America: bloated government, unlimited armament, official nosiness, censors, secret police, chauvinism…
In order to protect the career of his son Jack, an officer in the regime’s military…as well as his own career…Thornberg decides to alter Matilda’s records and delete any relationship with the arrested Jimmy.
Thornberg toiled at the screens and buttons for an hour, erasing, changing. The job was tough; he had to go back several generations, altering lines of descent. But when he was finished, James Obrenowicz had no kinship whatever to the Thornbergs…He slapped the switch that returned the spool to the memory banks. With this act do I disown thee.
Thornberg’s rising bitterness reminds him of an old English ballad:
My name it is Sam Hall
And I hate you one and all
…and he uses his access to Matilda to create records for a fictional citizen by that name, a tough kid who has held a variety of unskilled jobs. Thornberg initially creates Sam Hall only as an outlet for his anger and to prove to himself that he can do it…but when a probably-innocent man is arrested for murder of a security officer…and Thornberg knows the man will be found guilty, whatever the true facts, in order to protect Security’s reputation for infallibility…he decides to establish a trail of records that will implicate the fictional Sam Hall as the murderer.
This is the beginning of Sam Hall’s career of murder and mayhem, as Thornberg repeatedly alters records to identify his fictional citizen as the author of real crimes across the country. Sam Hall is soon promoted to Public Enemy Number One…and his exploits soon inspire a range of copycat crimes against the government, with the attackers identifying themselves as “Sam Hall.”
The “Sam Hall” meme soon grows into a full-scale rebellion against the government. Thornberg helps things along by using his access to Matilda to spread mutual suspicion among government officials, turning the widespread distrust which is a feature of totalitarian societies against the regime itself.
Eventually, the rebels triumph and the totalitarian regime that is ruling America is overthrown. It seems a happy ending. Thornberg looks forward to destroying Matilda (after she is used one last time on behalf of the rebels “to help us find some people rather badly want” and “to transcribe a lot of information..strictly practical facts”) and to retiring Sam Hall to “whatever Valhalla there is for great characters of fiction.”
The story ends with the following sentence:
Unfortunately the conclusion is rugged. Sam Hall never was satisfied.
Friday, December 21, 2012
A COUPLE OF INTERESTING LINKS
The Jewish Museum has an extensive collection of medieval Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin manuscripts from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. Via Suzanne Fields.
Monday, December 17, 2012
WILL THIS WORK?
Peter Thiel put $300K into this company, which seeks to capture waste heat from power generation facilities (and other forms of low-grade heat) by artificially creating very tall vortices. The system works something like a very tall chimney, but without the expense of constructing such a chimney. Simple explanation here.
(When I wonder “will this work?”, I don’t mean at a technical level..sounds like experimentation has demonstrated that it will, at least at a small scale…I mean “work” in a commercial sense)
They cite 35% as a typical efficiency for a thermal power plant (which sounds about right) and estimate that their system could recover 20% of the now-wasted heat, resulting in an overall plant output increase of about 40% with no increase in fuel consumption. However, I’d make the point that new combined-cycle power plants are considerably more efficient–GE is claiming 60% for some of their “H” series machines…which is obviously a good thing but leaves less wasted heat to be recovered. Still, there is a lot of rejected heat even from combined-cycle turbines…and not all power plants are going to be combined-cycle..for one thing, I don’t think CC plants can use coal unless it is first gasified.
Lots of issues between development and large-scale deployment, of course..costs of large-scale systems are hard to estimate until you actually build one and operate it for a while, and I also wonder about public acceptance (and aviation safety/traffic implications, were these plants to be built out densely.) It’s a very creative concept, and I’m glad to see Thiel putting some money behind it…lots more will be needed to reach a commercial level.
I’ll be watching this with interest.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
BEAUTY AND UGLINESS
Here’s a Christmas-y song that I think is beautiful:
The song was written and sung by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.
“Have we gone to war yet?” she asked sarcastically, early on. “We (expletive) deserve to get bombed. Bring it on.” Later she yelled, “Let’s get rid of all the economic (expletive) this country represents! Bring it on, I hope the Muslims win!”
I like several Pretenders songs (Back on the Chain Gang
, for example), and this pretty much spoiled them for me. I’m not boycotting the group…I don’t turn the radio off if one of their songs comes on…it’s just…sad.
Fast forward to 2012. The Korean rapper known as Psy
(“Gangnam Style) was scheduled to perform at a Christmas concert (a benefit for Children’s National Medical Center) which is traditionally attended by the President of the United States. It turns out that in 2002, he smashed a model American tank onstage “to oppose 37,000 U.S. troops that descended on the Korean Peninsula” (in the words of a CBS Local
writer who seems to be as ignorant of history as Psy himself evidently is)…and a couple of years later, he rapped:
Kill those f***ing Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives/Kill those f***ing Yankees who ordered them to torture/Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers/Kill them all slowly and painfully
This rant was apparently inspired at least in part by the murder in Iraq of a Korean missionary by Islamic terrorists after the SK government refused to cancel its plan to send troops in support of the Iraq war.
After the information about Psy’s past performances came out (and Psy issued a standard pro-forma apology). some people thought that Obama might have declined to attend a concert at which Psy was a star attraction. But they were wrong, and he did attend
One would think it would be obvious that for the commander-in-chief to attend a Psy concert..given the above backstory..is highly disrespectful to American military people, and indeed to Americans as a whole. What would have been most appropriate would have been for the concert organizers to disinvite Psy. Failing this (and there might have been contractual reasons making it impossible even had the organizers been inclined this way), Obama could have issued a brief statement of regret that it was impossible for him to attend given Psy’s comments about Americans. This would have demonstrated that the President has respect for his own country, and that he expects such respect to be shown by others.
No one familiar with Obama’s history would really be surprised that he did not choose this course. What is slightly surprising, and more than slightly disturbing, is that Obama’s attendance seems to have been just fine with many Americans, and with most of the old-line media. This Atlantic writer
, for example, uses the Psy-Obama handshake to bash any “right-wingers” who might see anything wrong with Obama’s presence at the concert.
Of course, when a couple of months ago Americans in Benghazi were actually killed, as opposed to just being threatened with being killed, most of the old media showed great lack of interest in digging into the feckless Administration behavior that led to this debacle.
What is pretty clear is that we have a substantial number of people in this country who simply do not identify as Americans. They may identify with their profession, or with their social class, or with their educational background and asserted intellectual position, or maybe even with their locality…but identification with the American polity is missing. (And this phenomenon seems to be strongest among those whose self-concept is most closely tied in with their educational credentials.)
What such people do generally care about…a lot..is coolness, which means they care about entertainers and celebrities. We now have a President who apparently cares more about the transient glory of being associated with a flash-in-the-pan rapper (and whoever else sang at this concert) than about showing respect to those he has the responsibility to command. And this is evidently just fine with many among the media and academic elites.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
SIMULATION, TRAINING, AND REALITY
The issue of knowledge transfer between simulations and the real world is important not only in the military, but also in business and aviation..and surely many other areas as well.
Sterrett notes that in simulations:
First, we usually have far better knowledge of the situation than is possible for real armies; consider that one of the key pieces of information from ULTRA decrypts was the Axis order of battle in various theaters – simply knowing what units the Axis had was a major intelligence coup, but such information is routinely handed to players. Moreover, the scenario usually tells us what the friendly and enemy win conditions are, while those are often less clear in real life.
Second, in nearly every game, our forces do exactly what we tell them to do, exactly when we tell them to do it. In the real world, subordinate forces need time to conduct their own planning so they can carry out our orders, and they may not go about the task exactly as we envisioned…
Third, gamers are usually planning by themselves, which means they have to explain everything only to themselves and to the game. Military staffs deal with more information than one person can process; even a battalion staff is likely to be several dozen people. Getting this many people to pass information among themselves efficiently, and let alone coming up with a coherent plan that everybody understands, requires practice.
The interview reminds me of a passage in Don Sheppard’s book Bluewater Sailor, which I wrote about several years ago…
When a decision is made in an organizational context (as opposed to a decision by an entirely autonomous individual), additional layers of complexity and emotion come into play. The person who must make the decision is often not the person who has the information/expertise on which the decision must be based. Indeed, the information and expertise are often distributed across multiple individuals. These individuals may have their own objectives and motivations, which may differ from the objectives and motivations of the formal decision-maker, and which may conflict with each other. And the making of the decision may alter power relationships within the organization, as well as influencing the phenomena about which the decision is ostensibly being made.
The above factors are illustrated with crystalline clarity in the story of a seemingly very simple decision, which had to be made onboard a U.S. Navy destroyer sometime during the 1950s.
Don Sheppard was the newly-appointed Engineering Officer of the USS Henshaw, with responsibility for its 60,000-horsepower turbine plant. But his knowledge of propulsion equipment came entirely from study at the navy’s Engineering Officer School. Reporting to Sheppard was the “Chief,” an enlisted man with no theoretical training but with twenty years of experience in the practical operation of naval power plants. When Sheppard assumed his new duties, the Chief’s greeting “bordered on rudeness.” The man clearly believed that engineering officers might come and go, but that he, the Chief, was the one who really ran things, who was the “Prince of the Plant.”
During maneuvers off the Pacific coast, a bizarre accident resulted in the Henshaw dropping a depth charge which exploded very close to its own stern. The shockwave was enough to knock down men who were standing on deck. Sheppard asked the Chief if he thought the plant might have suffered any damage:
He furrowed his brow, glaring at me. “Damage, sir? We’d know about any major damage by now if the plant suffered. i don’t think we got any problems, sir,” he answered–patronizingly–in a civil enough tone, but barely so. Who was I, an interloper, to dare question the Prince of the Plant?
Sunday, December 09, 2012
DUBIOUS INVESTMENT ADVICE AND THE CONVEYOR-BELT APPROACH TO LIFE
Over the last couple of years, numerous writers–on blogs and in the media–have been expressing concern about the state of the legal job market and asserting that there is an overproduction of lawyers. Comes now Lawrence Mitchell, who is Dean at Case Western’s law school, with an article titled Law School is Worth the Money. He denounces the “hysteria” of the critics and argues, basically, that those who are interested in going to law school should be encouraged to go ahead and do so.
I’m not very impressed with Dean Mitchell’s reasoning, and there are quite a few other people–many of them lawyers and law professors–who are similarly unimpressed.
One thing that particularly struck me in Mitchell’s article, and not in a good way, was this:
What else will these thousands of students who have been discouraged from attending law school do? Where will they find a more fulfilling career? They’re not all going to be doctors or investment bankers, nor should they.
Friday, December 07, 2012
PEARL HARBOR + 71
Last year Jonathan worried that the cultural memory of the event is being lost, and noted that once again Google failed to note the anniversary on their search home page, whereas Microsoft Bing had a picture of the USS Arizona memorial.
(12/7/2012: same thing this year, at least as of this posting)
Shannon Love analyzes how Admiral Yamamoto was able to pull the attack off and concludes that “Pearl Harbor wasn’t a surprise of intent, it was a surprise of capability.”
Tuesday, December 04, 2012
BOOK REVIEW: STASILAND
by Anna Funder
When Anna Funder visited the former East Germany in 1994–five years after the Wall came down–she found it to be a very strange place, “a place lost in time. It wouldn’t have surprised me if things had tasted different here–apples like pears, say, or wine like blood.” The German Democratic Republic, as it called itself, had been a suffocating surveillance state, dedicated to the monitoring and control of every aspect of its citizens’ lives–enforced by a huge organization known as the Ministry for State Security, Staatssicherheit, abbreviated Stasi.
Funder, an Australian, came to Germany in the 1980s after studying the language in school, and often wondered what went on behind the Wall. She became convinced that the stories of the people who had lived in East Germany…both those who had suffered under the regime and the perpetrators of the suffering…needed to be told. In 1996, she moved to the former GDR city of Leipzig and gathered the stories that resulted in this book.
Her first interviewee was a woman named Miriam. In 1968, protest demonstrations arose in Leipzig–the proximate cause being the government’s demolition of an old church–and were quickly crushed. Miriam and her friend Ursula were appalled at the regime’s brutality. “At sixteen you have an idea of justice, and we just thought it was wrong.” Miriam and Ursula were not anti-regime at this point, just anti-beating-people-up-for-protesting. They bought a child’s stamp set and used it for a makeshift printing facility, making posters and putting them up around town. Quickly, they were caught and both were held in solitary confinement for a month and repeatedly interrogated. Eventually, they confessed and was released to await their trials.
Miriam had no intention of going back to prison, and decided to go over the Wall instead.
She came very close to making it, but ultimately failed. (Telling the story to Funder many years later, she expressed concern about the fate of the police dog which had fallen down on the job, allowing her to almost get away.) Again she faced interrogation, this time for 10 hours a night, and was sentenced to a year and a half in prison. Following her release, she met her husband-to-be, Charlie, who was a phys ed teacher. He also wound up in trouble with the regime: swimming out too far into the Baltic Sea led to his arrest on suspicion of wanting to leave the country. Although he was released, he fell under further suspicion after assisting Miriam’s sister and her husband in their unsuccessful escape attempt. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1980 as part of a roundup of potential troublemakers on the eve of West German Chancellor Schmidt’s planned visit, and soon thereafter Miriam was told to come pick up his things–that he had hanged himself in prison. Miriam suspected, apparently with good reason, that he had in fact not committed suicide but had rather been beaten and killed by Stasi.
In 1989, Miriam was expelled from East Germany, on less than one day’s notice. A few months later, the regime fell and the Wall came down. When Funder talked with her, she had been unable–despite her stringent efforts–to find out what really happened to Charlie.
She chose to live in an apartment building without elevators…they were too reminiscent of prison cells. Brave and strong and broken all at once is the way Funder describes Miriam’s psychological state. Sometimes, Miriam liked to drive up to the former Stasi building and park right outside. “‘I just sit there in the car and feel…triumph!’ Miriam makes a gesture which starts as a wave, and becomes a guillotine. ‘You lot are gone.’”
There are other stories–for example, that of Sigrid Paul, whose son was born in 1961 with severe health problems. His life was saved by West Berlin doctors, and when the Wall went up he was separated from his parents. Stasi attempted to enlist Mrs Paul in a plot whereby she would be allowed to be with her son IF she would assist them by meeting with a certain person–a border-crossing activist named Michael Hinze–in the West. Remembering the case of Wilhelm Fricke, who had been kidnapped from West Berlin by the Stasi, she was sure they had the same fate in mind for Michael Hinze–and she refused their deal. But the psychological price was high.
“Me–bait in a trap for Michael! And of course that was an absolute no. I couldn’t.” Her back is straight, and her hands are clenched into fists on her thighs. “Karl Wilhelm Fricke,” she says, “was my guardian angel!” She starts to crumble and break. At this moment, she does not look like a woman who was saved from anything. “I had to decide against my son, but I couldn’t let myself be used in this way.’ Her back slumps and she is crying again.
Saturday, December 01, 2012
HAPPY 500th ANNIVERSARY
When asked to undertake the project, Michelangelo at first demurred, saying that “painting is not my art.”
The Vatican Library has put up a nice panoramic zoomable view of the entire chapel, here. Just click on the image and move around with the arrow keys; zoom in with the Shift key and out with Control.