Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Oil and Coal

"BP has already spent an estimated $760 million in fighting the spill"

"BP on Wednesday said it had paid more than $32 million so far to settle claims from people and businesses in the Gulf Coast states harmed by the disaster. A company spokesman, John Curry, said BP had paid out $19.7 million in Louisiana alone through Tuesday."

Why should I give a damn? With somewhere between 180,000 and 3.5 million barrels of their oil now either suspended in the Gulf of Mexico or washing ashore, am I supposed to feel sorry for them? I've not looked for guidance concerning BP's next quarterly performance, but if it's comparable to 2010 Q1 then $760 million over 36 days means they're still making a profit. The company is so large that they can actually afford to eat a catastrophe like this without experiencing an operating loss. This makes me sick.

For several centuries now we've been pulling up oil and coal from the ground and burning it to make our lives easier. In earlier days the byproducts from this process served to darken skies and blacken lungs when performed on an industrial scale, and in some places it still does. But even where the skies are now clear, the carbon that's contained in these hydrocarbons is released into the atmosphere and acts as a thick thermal blanket over the Earth's surface. 

We've learned a fair bit over those centuries. Air pollution can be toxic, mineral extraction is a dangerous and dirty process, carbon dioxide blankets serve to heat up the planet, there is a finite supply of fossil fuels. Economically, we know that the true costs of oil and coal are not captured when the medical, social, political, and environmental effects are not fully accounted for. These externalities distort the relative position of these products in the marketplace.

We've also learned that energy from the sun can be converted to useful work, and that the Earth absorbs enough solar energy on a daily basis to power the world's existing energy demand more than 7,000x over. We've developed means of harnessing that solar energy that are net positive when all resource and manufacturing costs are accounted for. And we know that the environmental impact of these technologies is minimal relative to fossil fuel production and use, and with further research even that can be minimized.

7 of the top 10 largest companies in the world in 2009 were Oil and Gas producers, with combined profits of over $117 billion, and combined revenues of nearly $2 trillion. To say that they are a large, entrenched, and powerful interest group is to put it mildly. 

We as a nation, and as the human race, need to focus long-term on our energy policy direction. We need to accelerate our movement away from an Oil and Coal-powered world. And we need to do so even when there aren't environmental travesties getting front page coverage. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Photo Tuesday

An addition to a skyscraper. Who'd a thunk it? And it looks great; proportions are obviously what the architect was planning for from the get go. 

Obligatory self-portrait at Cloud Gate ("The Bean"). I forgot to smile.

A Simple Proposal

For the offices of President, Vice President, US Senator, and US Representative, incumbent office holders will be provided public funds to use in re-election efforts, and no other funds may be spent on these campaigns. Qualified challengers may elect to raise funds subject to existing campaign finance laws, or to receive and be limited to public funding equivalent to their incumbent opponent. 

No pesky term limits, and a significant leveling of the imbalance between incumbent and challenger. What's not to like? 

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Joy of Bicycles

Spring has a power unto itself that, especially after a difficult winter, borders on the miraculous. People from all walks of life are compelled to take pause as the trees turn misty green, the wind's knife edge is blunted, and they can finally take a deep breath, or two, minus the outcry from their lungs. Life. Dreams. Joy. Possibilities. It's hard to be a cynic when surrounded by the rebirth of nature. 

I'm a fan of bicycles. I don't ride as much as I should, but I get out more these days than I have in some time. A ride along the lakefront, or up the North Branch Trail, maybe out to Ravinia, an excursion to the single track at Palos, or Kickapoo; it's a great feeling to get where you want to go under your own motive power. 

I also love working on bikes. There's an elegance of design to a well-built bicycle, a distillation of purpose that shuns excess in favor of meeting it's rider's specific needs. A bike can be understood in it's entirety, it can be stripped down to its constituent parts and built back up in a matter of hours, it is in every way made to the scale of the individual. Diagnostics are performed with the hands, and ears, and eyes. Repairs are with simple tools, and demand a discerning feel and eye to obtain proper function and performance.

The bond of a rider with his or her bike is strong, an outward expression of self and a trust that can be deeply personal. To violate this through theft or vandalism is enraging. It is hard to think of a bike as anything other than a societal good; when that is marred by a crime against the bike and its rider it's hard to see how the world makes sense. To drag a bike down to the simple level of property and to treat it as such seems somehow profane.  Perhaps a misdemeanor against humanity. 


I give a bit of my time most weeks to Working Bikes Cooperative, an organization dedicated to helping people obtain bikes both in developing countries as well as right here in Chicago. They ship donated bikes to places across the globe where they are used as tools to improve lives and communities. And they sell donated bikes in their storefront to fund these charitable activities. It's a happy virtuous cycle. 

This time of year the storefront is particularly busy, as the weather is lovely and a bike ride seems like the best idea ever. I rather enjoy talking with customers, learning how and why they ride, seeing people who haven't been on a bike for 10-20-30-40 years hop on and give it a go. It's a pleasure to witness their joy, let down their guard just a little, and live their lives solely in that moment. Yay Spring!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Photo *

It's been some time since I've hit a Friday for Photo Friday, so here's my latest take. When I take interesting photos, or perhaps mundane photos, I'll post them. I'll try to do so on a weekly basis at minimum. And I won't beat myself up for not posting by the end of Friday. Deal? Great.

This was the third time in my life that I've been evacuated for a hotel fire. Not amused...

Seen in the gate at LGB. Little guy knows his airport.

 Coming home. Love that sky.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mental, and Physical, Fog

This past weekend a 20 year old, Soviet-designed aircraft carrying a who's who list of Poland's elite crashed near it's destination in Smolensk, Russia; all souls aboard were lost.

Such as it is, that's most of what I know about the incident, but certainly less than what I've read about it. And even simply stating these facts adds a bias, calling to mind an aging aircraft from a region and era that were not known for sophisticated civilian transport designs. 

I would guess that most people not affiliated with the aviation industry use their experience with automobiles as a near-analogue to developments in aviation. Hence, the general public might hear "20 year old aircraft" and imagine a rustbucket of barely functioning parts that's just waiting to seize up at the worst possible opportunity. Thankfully, in the industrialized nations this is quite far from the case. 

Civil transport aircraft are designed from the outset to meet an in-service lifetime of approximately 30 years. The regulatory regimes of the industrialized nations require an ongoing series of in-depth inspections, maintenance, and overhauls for all operating aircraft, and the rules are much more strict for aircraft that carry passengers for commercial activity. 

These days, it's quite likely that an aircraft will be delegated to the boneyard not because it's been deemed unsafe, but rather that it's become too expensive to operate profitably. Fuel and maintenance costs drive industry decisions, and older aircraft are generally much more thirsty and cantankerous than their modern counterparts. But the safety of a well-maintained older aircraft is closely inline with that of a well-maintained newer aircraft.


Now to talk about the fogs. Flying is a mentally demanding task. Doing it well requires close adherence to established procedures and a constant, dispassionate, realtime evaluation of risk. The psychological and human factors elements of pilot performance are many, and while pilots are well-trained, they are also subject to human error. Sometimes the "need" to be on the ground at a certain place and a certain time can overwhelm, and decision making starts to become suspect.

I'm a pilot, or at least a student pilot, and I relish the opportunity to be in the air. Even as a passenger in cattle-class, I still get a thrill when the turbines spool up to takeoff power and I'm thrust deeper into the back of my seat. I'm also an aerospace engineer, albeit on the periphery of the industry, having worked for a sub-tier supplier for many years. I enjoy providing a play-by-play of what's going on with flight's I'm part of, sometimes to the alarm of those flying with me.

On a recent red eye flight into Chicago-Midway, I was one of the few passengers awake in the dimmed cabin as we approached the airport. We were in clouds, and I expected we'd get below them promptly and be on the ground in short order. Except the clouds went down to the ground and there was no visibility of the runway. We did two go-arounds, meaning that the pilot determined the landing approach was in someway unstable or unsafe and chose to climb out before trying something else.

I was worried at this point; worried mostly about the frame of mind of the pilot and co-pilot. While my car was parked at Midway and it'd be a PITA to land elsewhere at ~2am, I didn't want the folks up front to be thinking of anything other than how best to get the plane safely on the ground. Airline procedures, FAA regulations, and air traffic control were all aligned similarly, but it was the two people with their hands on the controls that were making the decisions that mattered. 

Maybe by the third time around the fog was patchy enough that they caught sight of the runway's threshold and could land with sufficient confidence. I hope so. But that third approach was the most fear I've ever felt in an aircraft; moreso than my first time skydiving, or even when a 2-seat Cessna's door popped open after takeoff right next to my elbow. Because at the end of a long day, when everyone else around was already asleep, those two pilots were battling physical and mental fogs. And my life depended on their ability to do so successfully.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Addicted to Refresh

We have a society that is addicted to the new. The fresh. The breaking. The hot. The up-to-the-minute. The short-term. The quarterly. The weekend gross. The day's closing price. The firehose of what's next. The refresh button.

Is this necessarily bad? What's so wrong with staying on top of things? Doesn't that show a desire to be informed, to have knowledge of the latest developments? 

These are the excuses I tell myself when I can't focus long enough on the deep dive tasks I know I want to accomplish, but never seem to get around to when facebook and my RSS feeds are peeking around the corner. They are how, when I have enough distance and quiet, I know that I'm an addict. Nothing too major, but still not something that I'm happy about.

But it does present a particularly nasty problem. If I'm not receiving a consistent and high quality feed of information on topics of importance, I'm significantly less likely to be well grounded and capable of thinking critically on these subjects. It takes quite a bit of gumption for me to go digging when cheap and easy distraction abounds. 

Modern Public Relations professionals know this proclivity, and they exploit it to their significant advantage. Releasing negative information late in the day on Friday is an age-old example, but there are plenty of other effective tactics that allow for the sophisticated manipulation and control of the public narrative. It often seems that without a continuously developing story that has front page staying power, anything else can be played down and eventually swept under the rug. 

I thought about this regularly during the most recent Bush presidency. So many revelations of abuse of power seemed to lack persistence, and for that matter, perspective. Ironically, scandal fatigue seemed to set in at the major media outlets; justified outrage at the government's actions was never quite as large in proportion to the original acts. Eventually the bad behavior became old hat, and coverage just seemed bored with the extra-Constitutional acts of our elected officials. Instead, it was replaced with the latest disposable scandal that was constantly in motion, Britney, Lindsey, and all their ilk.

The question is: if this is a problem, how do we solve it? I have some ideas, and I'll try to share some of them here soon.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A House (and Senate) of Brats

"As Speaker, I want every citizen of Illinois to know this is a people's Legislature -- we are here to serve the public, openly, honestly and with the highest standards. I am accountable only to you." Mike Madigan

“We’ve known for years that state pension systems and local pension systems are severely underfunded.” Mike Madigan

We are governed by petulant children. 

In the span of just a few hours this past Wednesday, significant legislation concerning the pension system of most state workers was introduced and passed by both houses of the IL legislature. 

 This was done, as the Chicago Tribune reports, in order to bypass the objections of state employee unions. Mind you, the bill in question is 39 pages, and the language was first seen by the Legislature the morning it was passed. Which doesn't really allow for careful consideration by those voting. In fact, every public reading of the bill required by the IL constitution, save for the last, happened last year and with text that was completely stripped from the final bill. And still it passed (remarkable given the polarization down in the Capitol) by 92-17 in the House, and 48-6 in the Senate. 

Why is this in any way thought of as acceptable behavior? Why can't our state government operate in anything resembling adult fashion? 

Speaker Madigan acknowledged the historical and systemic underfunding of state pensions in the quote above. As arguably the most influential person in state politics for the past 25 years, that funding situation happened on his watch, with budgets that he helped to pass. To let that slide for years, develop a half-assed job of "fixing" it, and then railroad it's passage within the span of a single working day shows considerable chutzpah. It's rather unfortunate that he doesn't use that political muscle in a more representative manner.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

HCR, A Look Back

This is what gets me, more than anything else, about the year-long debate surrounding the Health Care (Insurance) Reform Bill. The cost of health care in this nation is rising at an unsustainable rate. There is an ever-increasing number of people going uninsured due to this cost increase. These trends will continue unabated unless government steps in. All parties involved know this. And yet, as seen above, the GOP followed a strategy that was designed more toward winning elections than representing the needs of their constituents.

It is, by definition, impossible to work in a bipartisan manner when one side is not negotiating in good faith. Despite this, the Democrats essentially negotiated with themselves in shaping the final bill into a reasonable compromise, one that a less-cynical GOP would likely have gone along with. They behaved in an adult manner, and the bill and the country are better off for it. 

Scorched-earth politics is disgusting, but especially so when our country's in a significantly troubled state. It's long past time for our politicians to suck it up and return to the art of compromise. Cause there's plenty of shit that still needs to get done.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Photo Friday

Expect a more wordy post, or perhaps a few, coming soon. In the meantime, here's a couple photos taken on what felt remarkably like a spring day earlier this week. Whee!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Photo Friday

It's Friday, and there's photos to be had. 

The Tragedy that is Illinois Politics (an ongoing saga)

"Now I've made some difficult and painful choices in this budget." IL Gov. Pat Quinn, 3/10/2010

I call bullshit. I'm not a chump, but Pat Quinn has joined the chorus of IL state legislators that acts as though I am. 

Last year, Quinn wanted a 50% increase in the state income tax rate, from 3% to 4.5%. In the middle of the deepest recession since the era of soup lines and the Dust Bowl, he wanted to dig his hands a fair bit deeper into our collective pockets. And honestly, I'm glad he had the stones to give it a try. But it didn't go anywhere, because in Springfield it's always easier to kick the can down the road than to face reality.

Illinois has been mortgaging its assets and living on borrowed cash for far too long. Blagojevich ran up the bills on his watch, and when he couldn't lease the lottery, tax businesses to death, or sell off the Thompson Center, he simply stopped paying into pension requirements or giving constitutionally-mandated cost-of-living increases to judges. Not exactly shining examples of long-term fiscal responsibility. And now with the economy in shambles and IL unemployment at 11.3%, we aren't generating the necessary income tax revenue to balance the budget, much less cover the deferred payments and debt that we've racked up over the years. 

So here we are in 2010, and another budget needs passing. In his address Wednesday, Gov. Quinn tells us that we need to borrow to save money (that actually makes a bit of sense), and that his best solution for a budget with no tax increases is to cut heavily. As such, he tells us the only way we can avoid the loss of 17,000 teachers is to enact a 33% increase in income tax to fund the education deficit. 

But this is simply a shell game, and a particularly dishonest one at that. The State Board of Education budget was shored up with approximately $1.8 Billion of federal funds from the Stimulus over FY2009-2010. These funds were designed to prevent a catastrophic drop-off in educational funding due to the recession, but were always known to be temporary. From :
Invest one-time ARRA funds thoughtfully to minimize the "funding cliff." ARRA represents a historic infusion of funds that is expected to be temporary. Depending on the program, these funds are available for only two to three years. These funds should be invested in ways that do not result in unsustainable continuing commitments after the funding expires.
And now we hear from Gov. Quinn:
"In the current fiscal year, the one we’re in, the federal stimulus program provided One Billion dollars in emergency funding for education in Illinois. Those federal dollars made it possible to protect our education system from severe cuts in the current budget. But those federal stimulus funds for education will end on July 1, 2010 --this year -- and right now, we do not have the revenues to replace those federal dollars."

Fact is, 89.4% of the General Fund budget cuts from FY2010 to FY2011 are coming from Education. Governor's Agencies, which make up over 63% of the General Fund Appropriations, only see a cut of 1.4% of their General Fund Allocation. And when looking at FY2010 Expenditures vs. FY 2011 Appropriations, Governor's Agencies is the only budget category that sees an increase, and that increase is 225% of the total cuts of all other budget categories combined.

We do need to make some difficult choices to bring our state's fiscal situation back into order. But this budget proposal is simply a scare tactic to develop constituent support for an otherwise disagreeable tax increase. It assumes the people of Illinois are a bunch of reactionary sheep, and we deserve better leadership than that.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Get Off My Lawn, #1

(An occasional feature, when I put on my cranky old guy hat and bemoan the little travesties of modern life)
Why is it that cigarette butts are still a socially acceptable form of litter? 

I'm walking to the library yesterday, and a guy who's walking into a bar flicks the remaining third of his Satan Stick into the street before getting to the door. Understandable in one way, since our fair city has banned the enjoyment of smoking in public establishments, for better or worse. But he was literally walking past a butt can as he flung the cigarette away. No second thought, just let's it fly. 

I can't imagine this would be so common if there was a significant social stigma attached to the behavior. You know, like littering?

*Shakes his fist from his perch on the front porch*

Monday, March 1, 2010

Expectations, or Why I Bought A Hybrid

A few years ago, due to an accident that thankfully crumpled only steel and not any people, I found myself in the market for a new car. Well actually for a used car, cause that's how I roll. I had been thinking along the lines of a sporty small wagon or hatchback, something like a Mazda3, but I wasn't too thrilled with the prices. Seems as though vehicles of this type are for some reason popular in heavily urban areas, and they hold their value well. Grrr.

So I was on Craigslist for a week or so, and an ad came along for a 2000 Honda Insight for a very attractive price. My fiancée was enamored with this car when it first came out, and I had said for a long time that I'd buy a hybrid when they became reasonably priced in the used market. Though to be honest, I was hoping for a few more years of personal internal combustion fun before taking the eco-plunge. Regardless, I wanted to use the opportunity to at least get a test drive of this techno-marvel, so I contacted the owner and set one up.

I was not expecting much, as this was (and really, still is) the economy car of economy cars. I really rather enjoy driving, and I'd never owned a vehicle that wasn't well regarded in the "fun-to-drive" metric. So I fully anticipated hating the Insight, and then having to do battle with my eco-conscience when justifying why I wouldn't be buying it. And then I drove the damn thing.

Calling it sporty would be a stretch. But that first drive was eye opening. One, it drove like a real car. Sounds pedantic, but I came into it assuming that it was more like a fragile toy, perhaps a slightly upsized Power Wheels, and I didn't get a bit of that while taking it around. Two, it's dynamics were actually fun. Steering was linear, well weighted, and reasonably precise, it felt spunky off the line, I got to row my own gears, and its low weight was felt. Three, the experience was a blast. The dash was a carnival midway of lights and gauges, all of it giving direct feedback on how my driving was affecting the car's efficiency.  I drove away in my finacée's Miata (a car I am in love with), wondering if I could make this tinny little two seater work in my life.

I took the plunge, and I can say now that it was the right call. After driving it for nearly 3 years and 25,000 miles it soldiers on like a champ, and I can still get well over 500 miles on a 10 gallon tank. With the stares and comments I get, I feel like I'm driving an exotic car, and I guess in many ways that's accurate. It's constructed from aluminum and composites, took its shape from a wind tunnel, it has a ground-breaking propulsion unit spinning the wheels, and only 16,000 were ever built. But even more than that, it's evident that it was designed and built with a singular focus on performance. Just not one of the performance categories most people associate with exotics.

Only a few driving experiences have made me laugh with joy; first power-on oversteer in a light weight RWD car, first time perfectly shifting on entrance and exit from a fast corner, any chance to take the Miata through some twisties on an Autumn day with the heat on and the top down, and the first time my Insight went into Idle Stop and I silently cruised to a halt at a light. Good times. 

Friday, February 26, 2010

Photo Friday, now on Friday!

I guess winter weather is something of a theme for these photo days, as I've got a few more from around the neighborhood to show you today. We saw some more snow Wed. evening, and as I was shoveling it I noticed the sky was pretty dramatic. So camera in hand, I set about to document the landscape as the clock spun into the next day. 

I set white balance off the snow and directly under a sodium vapor street lamp, so things got a bit on the blue side. A little more dramatic than what I'm usually about, but I like these all the same. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Department of War

Prior to 1947, the United States Government divided military duties between the Department of the Navy and the Department of War. That year, the two Departments were consolidated into the National Military Establishment, and the Cabinet positions were merged into the Secretary of Defense. 

Two years later, and in part due to the pronunciation of the NME acronym, it was changed again to the Department of Defense. 


Think about how you feel when discussing a "Department of Defense", or perhaps the even more anodyne "DoD". Consider how the word "Defense" positions itself in your mind. For me, it conjures a primarily benign image, somewhat passive, deliberate. It feels more ponderous, like something you need to thwack with a stick a couple of times to get its full attention. 

Now rally up a thought or two on a "Department of War". Again, for me, it's aggressive, menacing, focused, waiting to pounce. Not a child's toy, and certainly a Cabinet-level Department that requires close watch. A dangerous weapon.

And just for fun, what does the "Department of Homeland Security" feel like? Slight undertones of Nazi-era rhetoric along with peak notes of strangled bureaucratic mess and pure committee hell. 

Defense => War.
Homeland Security => Defense. 

Let's be honest with ourselves, especially in matters of our Nation's safety, and the lives and deaths of her citizens and soldiers. We have a standing military that is the world's most powerful and lethal war-making machine. It consumes nearly 1 out of every 5 Dollars our government spends. Let's call it by its true name, the Department of War, and let's deal with the fundamentally serious task of how to maintain and use it with extreme candor. 

No more armed conflicts, no more resolutions on the use of force. Only Congress has the Constitutional authority to declare war on a foreign entity, and that's where that power shall reside. 

Monday, February 22, 2010

Photo Friday

A few years back I was saddened to hear that Delicatessen Meyer in Lincoln Square was closing up shop. Mainly because, though I did not live a significant distance from the store, I had not sufficiently taken advantage of this historic institution, and felt it an opportunity wasted.

Now there is no longer reason for sadness. Gene's Sausage Shop has opened a branch in the old Meyer location, and, well, you can actually walk throughout the store! The old sign is now inside, and it's a great capstone to a great addition to the neighborhood. Makes for a fun photo too...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Income Inequality, an Introduction

From 1979 to 2005, the poorest 24 million American households have only experienced nine years of positive real income growth. Most of that growth was short-lived, and in 2005 their real average income is only 1.3% higher than it was in 1979, now at $15,900. 

Conversely, during that same time period the richest 0.01% of American households experienced 23 uninterrupted years of real income growth when compared to 1979. Much of that growth was consecutive, and in 2005 their real average income is 383.7% higher than what it was in 1979, now at $35,473,200. 

The richest 11,000 households combined earn slightly more than the poorest 24,116,000 households combined. 

The richest 400 taxpayers in the country, approximately .00013% of the population, earn 1.59% of the nation's income. In 2007, 289 of the top 400 highest grossers paid an effective federal tax rate that was below the national average of 20.4%. From 1992 to 2007, the top 400's share of the nation's Adjusted Gross Income more than tripled, while their share of the nation's tax receipts didn't quite double. 

An ever increasing share of our nation's income is being stovepiped to the top earners. And while their paychecks have seen tremendous increases, their tax rates over the past several years have actually fallen in lockstep. How this effects the financial health of our nation is to come.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"An Abusive Use of a Historic Vehicle"

I read little bits of thoughts and things throughout my days; it's the world of blogs that I live in, and that's ok, good even. Occasionally though, a tiny little snippet sets off an avalanche of thought in my wee brain, and a logjam of those snippets then starts rolling in concert. That happened yesterday, when I saw a quote from Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) concerning the workings of the Senate.

“I’m saddened in a way… the reason the Senate works is because the chemistry of the membership makes it work. That’s why it takes unanimous consent to do almost anything. And the essence of the Senate was basically a longer, slower look at things. ...we’re frustrated right now over an abusive use of a historic vehicle (ed. - the filibuster) that led to the essence of what the Senate is, we’re about to abandon the essence of the Senate.”

What he says has resonance. The Senate places great emphasis on comity and the requirement for its members to behave with respect toward one another. The rules of the Senate reflect this, but also accord a great deal of discretion to each member in directing the progress of business at hand. In return, Senators are expected to abdicate this authority in all but the most extreme of circumstances, allowing established process and majority rule to bring legislation to a full chamber vote. This is the rightful place for each Senator to have his or her say.

In recent times, procedural holds and the modern filibuster have prevented a good deal of Senate business from reaching the floor. Members are exercising their powers in tantrum-like fashion, and it's keeping the body from doing the People's Work. Many left-wing pundits have chastised President Obama for not taking a harsher stand on this behavior, and have suggested he use recess appointments to get his nominations through the Senate. They also want him to advocate loudly for passing Health Care Reform through a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process. And honestly, there's many frustrating days that I'd agree.

But while I might just be a starry-eyed optimist, I think Obama is playing a longer game here. For four years he worked across the aisle in the Senate, and I think he has a deep respect for the chamber's traditions and deliberative style. He knows that the country is better off with a fully functioning and respectful Senate. And he's working from his position in the executive to give it space, but also to cajole it into again behaving like an adult. Right now that's delaying HCR from becoming law, and it's keeping a number of important appointments from being filled. But if he can successfully bring the Senate back from its idiotic scorched-earth methodologies, then I'm more than willing to wait a bit longer. 

But only a bit...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Photo Friday

None too thrilling this week, I must admit. But after a considerable snowfall, these meters made me think of lawn gnomes, and I felt a photo was in order. Enjoy, or not, at your own risk.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


I have a confession to make: I have a pay-as-you-go cellphone. And I have a further confession: I had never owned a cell phone prior to April of 2009. This amazes people when I talk about it. They wonder, "How did you ever survive without it?" I often hear, "I could never live without my phone." When I eventually got mine, my friends were shocked. And yes, for a little while toward the end I milked it a bit for the attention. But my reasoning went deeper than that.

Now just to set the stage a bit, I am very far from what you might consider an anti-technologist. I am an engineer, I love understanding how things work, I made my living off computers for several years, and the latest and greatest in gadgetry fascinates me. I'm a geek, even a nerd, and I'm ok with it. 

But (and this is huge, perhaps even colossal) I know that, for me, there are things in this world more important than stuff. And there are social mores more important to me than having the latest news / gossip. I feel that one of the most precious things I can give to another person is my attention. I am susceptible to distraction, especially when it involves information and learning on topics I'm interested in. And I know that I cannot live in the moment, with the people that surround me, if an easy distraction is simply a few button presses away. 

Story time:

1) Many years back I spent an evening with friends, when we made a home-cooked dinner and actually sat around the table. This was around the time when a majority of people were obtaining cell phones. Polyphonic ringtones were in vogue, and someone's phone went off at the table. They picked it up and proceeded to have a conversation while the rest of us paused. Then, once they were finished, the table talk  turned to what each person had as their ringtone. For nearly 15 minutes, in 5-30 second bursts, I endured my own personal hell. Beeps and blips played Mozart and Sir Mix-A-Lot and who knows what else, but the pleasant evening of conversation had just been drowned in inane pre-teen-like techno-giggling. I was nearly physically ill.

2) Just last week we went to see a series of plays at Steppenwolf over the course of two nights. During a particularly poignant and quiet moment in the first show, someone's obnoxious ringer went off for 5 seconds. And during the third show, with all the lights low and just after intermission, a person two rows in front of us pulled out his bright touchscreen smartphone to listen to his voice mail. When an usher sitting behind him quietly told him to put it away, his aghast look made me want to kick him in the face.

Cellphones enable rude and sometimes dangerous behavior "In Real Life". They easily suck attention away from things that are actually important, like face to face conversations, intimate performances, and even driving. Blackberries and iPhones take this even further, allowing a person access to their online world regardless of what's going on in their physical presence. I try to use these devices with caution in any environment, and give due deference to those people I'm actually with. If for no other reason, it's hard to be punched by someone on the other end of the line...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Pigs in Space

From its inception, NASA's Constellation Program (CxP) has been an ungainly mess. Tasked with making lemonade from the remaining gnarled lemon bits of the Space Shuttle, the CxP was President Bush's crack at doing something memorable (Moon, Mars, and Beyond). But like all rocket plumes and a good deal of political rhetoric, this plan was full of hot air from the start.

When Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, US human spaceflight policy was thrown for a loss. With two Shuttle disasters in the first 113 missions, the system was a demonstrable failure in many respects. Over budget, unable to meet mission readiness requirements, and now known to be fragile and lethally unreliable, calls for Shuttle's retirement became too obvious to ignore. Thus, concurrent to preparations for Shuttle's Return to Flight, NASA and the Bush Administration set about developing their Vision for Space Exploration. This program was unveiled in January of 2004, and called for completion of Space Station and retirement of Shuttle by 2010, development of a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) by 2008, a new rocket for ISS resupply by 2012, and a return to human US space exploration by 2014. 

By 2006, the Vision established in 2004 became the Constellation Program, and consisted of several interdependent parts. The CEV became the Orion "capsule", to be used for crew transport and support. Ares I was the launch vehicle for Orion, and its design  concept had moved further away from the Shuttle-derived hardware of the original Vision. Ares V was the new heavy launch vehicle, intended for launching the new Altair lunar module into low Earth orbit (LEO).

Fast-forward to now, and Constellation has accomplished the completion of its Systems Requirements Review (SRR) phase, and launch of the Ares I-X technology demonstrator. Certain flight-ready hardware is built, but there isn't a major aspect of the program in the beginning of 2010 that is beyond the development stage and into flight test. The Augustine Commission's view has the program schedule moving to the right to the tune of 2017-2019 before Human rating on Ares I is achieved and flown. With Shuttle retirement planned for the end of 2010, that's seven to nine years without a man-rated launch capability in the US inventory.

The sad fact is that, despite the skill and determination of NASA's employees, there has not been sufficient resolve on the part of the US Government (and hence, the US people) to create and then fully fund a rational human spaceflight capability since the Apollo era. We have time and again lurched from the new and shiny to the less-new and less-shiny, and have left a whole host of half-baked technology laying about unused. In my lifetime the X-30 National AeroSpace Plane, the X-33 / VentureStar, the Space Launch Initiative, the X-37 / Orbital Space Plane, and now Constellation were the intended Shuttle replacements, and each has burned through a pile of cash on the way to obsolescence. Now we look like we're going back to SLI-like commercial contracting, probably piggy-backing on COTS, for the LEO stuff. And who knows about the future for heavy lift?

The one good thing about this time around is an admitted focus on developing capabilities and technology first instead of establishing missions and then figuring out how to get there. As NASA's predecessor, NACA worked first to establish and then to further the state of the art in aeronautics through research. NASA has tinkered in human spaceflight development from countless directions over the past four decades. But with some overarching and constantly shifting (Mars! No, Space Station! No, Hypersonics! No, Space Station again! No, the Moon again!) destination throwing the whole plan into disarray with every new administration, there's been no way to focus on significant long-term goals. Buckle down and focus on the big research problems. Develop solutions. Partner with industry. And then plan some kick-ass trips to new and interesting places, and get back to where we've never been before.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Return of Photo Friday

I had some business to attend to in the River West area near downtown and snapped a couple shots of the surroundings, though not to great affect. I also stopped by the Tesla Store, since they're now open and have vehicles on display. Being a bit of an electric car buff I've been by it many times, and I'm glad to see that they finally got the place open. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Blinking 12:00

I'm pretty far from OCD, but there are a few things in this world that I get a bit obsessive about. I can't pass a CRT monitor set on 60 Hz refresh rate without either suggesting a settings change or simply doing it myself. I am very picky about pens, and try not to lend out my good ones (not necessarily the expensive ones) since they often come back not working as well. And back in the days of VCRs, I had a hard time leaving an unset clock blinking, regardless of where I was. 

These clocks were usually of a vein; either a multiple-button press or a multi-second press of a single button would enter you into the "clock set" mode. The select button would move you from field to field (day of the week, hour, tens of minutes, minutes, AM/PM), and the set button would change the value of the field. When done, you either had to press select until everything was finished blinking, or you repeated the entry sequence to get out of "clock set". It was similar to setting a basic digital watch, stopwatch, car clock, or countless other limited input digital devices of the era. Kinda like the Konami Code, once known it was used on everything as a first pass at solving the problem, and more often than not a variant of it worked.

This was not the case for the Broksonic 2-head VCR. My parents bought this as a component of our shadow entertainment system in the basement. It was cheap, it did its job, but it pissed me off to no end. And as silly as it sounds, its clock made me value good design for perhaps the first time in my life. 

I was, and still am, the geek of our family. Technology has always been more of a puzzle than an obstacle to me, and I typically enjoy sussing out the thought patterns that go into the design of an object. But this damnable VCR had me beat for days, well after the rest of my family had given up hope that its clock could ever be set. I spent literally hours trying to figure it out. And while at first I was relieved when I finally succeeded, I then grew angry, very angry.

Because I realized, perhaps for the first time, that there was an engineer with the responsibility to design this clock. He or she was tasked with making it functional, and then with making it useable. For mere mortals. This person had over a decade of working precedent to follow, and I doubt there were patent issues to concern them. They had the same buttons available that the other VCRs had, the same display capabilities, but they made this clock needlessly complicated. They simply didn't care.

And thus there was another object in this world that made people I care about feel inadequate. Which makes me sad. It's enough to feel beaten up by everything else in this world, but to suffer defeat at the virtual hands of a blinking clock is pathetic. That engineer, probably unknowingly, inflicted psychological pain on thousands of people through their lack of design thought. And I saw glimpses of that behavior practically every day in my previous job. 

A good design takes more than simply fulfilling the requirements set forth. It needs to understand its user, and accommodate for their abilities in a graceful manner. It needs to take into account what came before it, and embrace or discard that evolution of thought in a purposeful fashion. It needs to "grok" its place in the world and adjust accordingly. Anything less is just that.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Thoughts on Not Working

Today, a bit of an aside. The Ms. and I went to see "Up in the Air" last night, and it brought out a number of thoughts, emotions, and memories of my own recent experience. I was "Impacted by Workforce Management", and over nine months later I've yet to sign on for another round of full-time employment. 

The simple action of being laid off from a corporation is so anti-climatic, and it seems these days so routinized, that it's almost clinical. The movie depicts this well, and shows how little power the now-former employee has in their relationship with their now-former employer. I had over six years of personal relationships, work product, routine, and intellectual investment in my job, and all of that was severed in a minute-long interaction with my boss. 

From that point on I was simply cattle to be discarded with as promptly as practicable. Herded into the cafeteria while the still-employed were sent home, brought back to my cube to pack up my belongings, and then escorted out to my car and sent along on my not-so-merry way. No real explanation, no chance to say good-bye, just a few pithy platitudes and a "personalized" severance packet handed to me in assembly-line fashion when I returned my ID badge. Less than 2 hours start to finish. WooHoo.

It's the corporate world version of "Shock and Awe": Bring on so much change so fast that the hapless employee has no real means of recourse. I felt enough subtle warning signs ahead of time that I had kinda prepped myself to deal with it. But in reality I'm still dealing with it, or failing to deal with it. 

And I know exactly why. I was told in that brief minute with my boss of 6 years that it was "not personal or performance", but I was explicitly not told what it was. Thus it's hard to have confidence in my footing when I can't look back and see what caused me to fall. 

When I saw it coming I hoped, really hard, that it would be a personal interaction, something that had more than a touch of humanity associated with it. Unfortunately, and probably rationalized away for "legal reasons", my corporation took the route of the weak, and de-personalized this highly intimate matter into a milquetoast affair with only boilerplate-speak to regurgitate in my face. Even when walking back to box up my belongings, the managers and directors that I worked with side-by-side for years kept their eyes averted and couldn't muster up a word or two in my direction. It was as if I no longer existed in their world, and I guess that was essentially true.

I might be the equivalent of 2080 labor hours a year. But a human being is never a commodity. To make believe otherwise is simply sad.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Such an unsexy topic. How do you create lasting party majorities in Congress? Gerrymander the crap out of your state in order to capture all of your geographically loyal supporters into your districts. And do so in a fashion that spreads them strategically, so as not to waste votes on larger-than-necessary landslides or futile attacks on strongholds of the opposition.

Why should you care? Because it means the existing political parties get to stack the deck in their favor, usually dependent on who's in power at the time redistricting rolls around. I live in the Fifth Congressional District of Illinois, a shape not consistent with any of the geometry I learned in high school. By my (admittedly haphazard) count this district has 257 sides, which would make it an irregular dihectapentacontakaiheptagon. If I had to guess, this shape came into being with an agenda attached. And that agenda means that my vote, and hence my voice, is being magnified or diminished based on someone else's prerogative. In other words, it's not fair.

So what to do? I had a productive shower this morning, and that's what got me thinking about the subject. While I fully realize that this may not be original, I thought that instead of letting it be arbitrary, we could create a restriction on the number of sides (lets say 6 max) a congressional district can have. Irregular state and natural boundaries (significant rivers, mountains, canyons, etc.) would only count as a single side. Districts would have to be nearly equal in population, and would have to remain contiiguous. This would still allow for long-narrow districts that might be distorted, but I think I'd leave that at the discretion of the lawmakers.

And what would this do? First, it would force candidates and Representatives as a whole to be more responsive to all of their constituents. With incumbency less assured, it might require a greater feel for compromise than what exists in this currently hyper-partisan political environment. And with a diffusion of localized special interests, the need to bring home the pork might be lessened to an extent. But most of all, it would simply be more fair. And that's a big selling point for me.

HCR Portability and Me

I spent the weekend amongst friends and family up in our neighbor to the north, Canada. While I was showering this morning I reflected on the visit, and on some of the conversations I had while I was there. As is typical with my family the talk turned to the political more than once, and there were several occasions when the US Healthcare system was discussed. But something that wasn't raised then, and isn't often elsewhere either, is the effect Healthcare portability could have on the economy at large.

This strikes close to home for me, as I've been only marginally employed for the past several months after being "impacted by Workforce Management" . And since this isn't the first time in my career that I've been on the sidelines, I tend to think about Healthcare portability often. Fact is, the tie-up of Healthcare with employers is an anchor on the mobility of workers. When coupled with the ever increasing management view that labor is a fungible commodity, this gives a large and undeserved negotiating lever to employers over the employed.

The HCR bills passed in the House and Senate would provide a salve for this situation. By requiring coverage without penalty for pre-existing conditions, the choice to leave a soul-killing job without having another immediately lined up becomes that much easier. By requiring large-pool individual purchase policies sold on exchanges, the incentives are in the right place for creating reasonably priced Healthcare on the open market. By taxing employers that don't provide employee insurance plans, there would be a more level playing field for comparing salary and benefit plans from one job to the next.

If it ever actually existed, the era of employment security is now long gone, and I do not mourn its passing. That said, many employees have been shackled to their jobs over Healthcare-related concerns for far too long, and many more have been cast adrift without adequate recourse as soon as their job and thus their Healthcare ended. Decoupling these links restores a small amount of power to the individual, where each person can decide to take or leave a job based on factors more relevant to their satisfaction and happiness. That should lead to greater productivity, more growth, and significantly higher quality of life.

Pass the Damn Bill Already.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Show us what you've got

On Tuesday, voters in the state of Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown to take the US Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for 46 years. In the balance, the 60-seat Senate majority held by the Democratic Party will slide to 59, and the football that is Health Care Reform (HCR) is once again held by Lucy, with a nasty gleam in her eye.

I contacted my US Senators and Representative today, each of them a Democrat (I do live in Chicago after all), to see where they currently stand. I don't think it should be that difficult to get a straight answer, given that very similar bills have already passed the House and Senate, and the Congress is currently in conference to work out the differences. But so far the responses have been tepid, at best, with promises only to keep working the issue.

Here's what I think. The President has said he does not want to hold a vote on HCR before Senator-Elect Brown is seated. As far as I'm concerned, that's fine, and a decent means of proceeding in an adult fashion. But fuck all do I think it's ok to allow for a procedural filibuster to take hold after all the BS already surmounted just to get to this point.

So I propose a gentleman's compromise. Conference 24 hours a day to knock off the roughest edges on the two bills and morph them into something palatable within a week. Get all Democrats on board to shepherd the uni-bill through the shitstorm of process, and have it sitting on the floor waiting for a vote. Seat Senator Brown. After five minutes of handshakes, call for an "up or down" vote, and see where the chips fall.

The Senate is a majority-ruled institution for a damn good reason. Time to put the filibuster back in its place (that place being a rarely used tool to scream bloody murder when something egregiously appalling to the minority party is on its way to becoming law), and get Congress working once again. We have a unique opportunity to do exactly that before going about and changing the Senate rules to codify a neutered filibuster. Let's strap on a pair and get it done.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Simplify. Then Add Lightness.

That's perhaps my favorite quote, and it comes from Colin Chapman, one of the greatest automotive engineers to have lived. In four mundane words he captured the essence of both race car and aerospace engineering; above all else, make it reliable and make it light. And it's something I wish the major car manufacturers of our time would take more seriously.

Our cars have become beasts. Power this, heated that, networked everything, and a screen for every passenger to consume entertainment until their eyes bleed. Headroom, legroom, elbow and shoulder room, acceleration, top speed, trunk space, number of seats, even wheel size have all notably increased. In 1987, the US average light-duty vehicle weighed 3220 lbs, put out 118 hp, and had a 0-60 time of 13.1 sec. Today, these figures are 4108 lbs (+27.5%), 225 hp (+90.7%), and 9.5 sec (-27.5%). Why? Because more, bigger, "better", and faster are all easy things to sell, and as GM and Chrysler have seen all too clearly of late, you can't make money if you can't sell cars.

But all of that comes at a price, namely efficiency. For all of the automotive advancement over the past couple of decades, we've actually lost ground on mileage. In 1987 the US vehicle fleet averaged 22.0 mpg, the high-water mark for modern vehicles. In 2009 we were at 21.1 mpg, a decline of 4.1% from 22 years ago, though to be fair, an increase of 5% from 11 years back. 

So what can we do? Adding lightness does something miraculous; any given car gets both faster and more efficient. Handling improves, acceleration improves, braking improves, mileage improves, it's a great thing. Except that, for a given car, adding lightness typically adds cost. This is because steel is cheap, and replacing it with Aluminum or Carbon Fiber (even if it's a lesser total mass) is usually not cost effective in the short run. But if you can lighten up the body, then you can get similar performance from a smaller engine and smaller brakes. That leads to even better efficiency, and that can mean overall lifecycle costs (fuel, maintenance, replacement parts) that more than make up for the initial increase in purchase price. This is especially so in periods of high fuel costs, such as we're experiencing now.

But step back even further for a moment, and consider the Honda Super Cub. It is the best selling powered vehicle of all time, with over 60 million of them produced in the last 50 years. the Super Cub's 49cc engine puts out slightly over 4 hp, but can propel a single rider up to 50 mph. For a motorized vehicle it is remarkably reliable, easy to maintain, and simple to repair when necessary. It achieves nearly 300 mpg in normal use, with only basic technology upgrades from it's initial design. And it remains a remarkable design, as it provides the basics of safe and reliable transportation and not a thing more. Simple, light, cheap, economical, reliable. When we make purchases according to that we need vs. what we might like to have, we can make some pretty smart choices. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Photo Friday (on Sunday)

My first take at cross country skiing, in the south suburbs of Chicago. It was a high of 10 degrees F that day, and my hands knew it...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Night Flying

Black. You forget how dark the world can be after living in the city for awhile. There's a streetlight that lives just out front of our apartment, and it's always a bit disarming on the nights that it goes out. But even then it's not truly dark; the city's glow radiates, streaming from inside buildings, carried forward by cars, reflecting back down from the undersides of clouds. When we have power we light up the place, and night becomes, quite literally, a pale imitation of it's true nature.

I love flying into Chicago on a clear night. At 5-10,000 feet, coming in from any direction, it becomes obvious from miles away that it's the work of man. Flat as a billiard table, stretching out for miles, and patterned in a woven grid of light that frays at the North, South, and West edges, but falls off an cliff to the East, over the lake. Especially when coming in from the Western states, this island of light rises in contrast to the land, and land, and more land that's been unceasingly under wing for hours at a stretch. Oriented forcefully N-S, E-W, it opens up a fractal world of ever increasing detail as the plane approaches and descends. I always want the window seat, unless I'm flying with someone who's never seen it before...

It gets even better the smaller you go. These days I do my personal flying in a tiny tin can out of a tiny airport out in the country of Southern Wisconsin. Not too long ago I was scheduled for my first night cross-country, and planned for a round trip to Madison. As this was at the height of summer I didn't depart for the airport until 7:30pm or so, as it was going to be awhile before the sun was finally set. It was perfect. Leaving the city that late, rush hour traffic was over and done with, and the drive was calm with an easy pace and few distractions. I was heading west by the time the sun fell to the horizon, and with a bit of dissipating cloud cover the show was spectacular. I pulled into the airport's parking lot just in time to catch the last of it, and stood there for awhile with a goofy smile on my face, relishing the moment.

Going over my flight plan with my instructor, I realized that I'd fouled up my headings with incorrect use of the plotter, and set about recalculating them with the whiz wheel. By the time I got outside to preflight the plane the sky had darkened, the clouds were gone, and the stars were shining as brightly as I'd ever seen them. That goofy smile was back in force. Taxi, run-up, takeoff, and climb, and we were on our way to Madison. Major navigation waypoints were found by the shine of moonlit lakes from 4,500 feet MSL. The air was so clear I could make out the destination runway from nearly 30 miles out. The runway was equipped with VASI so I had glideslope assistance, and it was wider than the length of most of the runways I'd been landing on. Traffic was non-existant, and we had the sky and the airport to ourselves. The radio felt like Art Bell at 2am. It wasn't Iowa, but it was close.

On the way back in a 3,500 ft cruise, there was a pinkish haze visible to the Southeast, far off in the distance. Visibility was over 100 miles as the haze was from the lights of Chicago, literally lighting up the sky above.

Night flying; it is so choice. If you have the means...