Friday, September 25, 2009

Why Do I Love Stories About Lasers?

A Laser is Fired Into Space (Tom Zagwodzki/Goddard Space Flight Center)

This kind of thing makes me giddy:

...since launching the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, they've [the Goddard Space Center in Maryland] been firing a laser across 250,000 miles of space, hitting the minivan-sized LRO as it orbits the moon at nearly 3,600 miles per hour. It's no lucky shot either; they do it 28 times per second.

But perhaps even more impressive is the accuracy of the information the laser gathers. The Goddard laser is the first laser ranging effort to extend beyond low earth orbit, and it is able to measure the range of the LRO to within four inches. The microwave stations that are also tracking the LRO, by comparison, have a margin of error of about 65 feet. The accuracy provided by the lasers in turn allows researchers to know exactly where the LRO is in space, a critical component for creating accurate maps of the moon's surface.

The fundamentals behind the laser ranging are actually quite simple. A telescope on the ground at Goddard fires one-way laser pulses across space to the LRO. When the laser gets there, the LRO makes a record of each contact and sends it back to earth via its radio telemetry link. After that, good old-fashioned arithmetic is used to calculate the distance to LRO based on how long it takes the pulse to reach it.

Using this to map the lunar surface sounds like a waste of time--unless you care about science and innovation. This may not seem like all that, but it really is a good thing that we are seeing some success in our space program. Scientific innovation, which can lead to new products for us here on Earth, should be encouraged.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Carl Jung and the Red Book

This is one of the most compelling things I've read in a good long while:

This is a story about a nearly 100-year-old book, bound in red leather, which has spent the last quarter century secreted away in a bank vault in Switzerland. The book is big and heavy and its spine is etched with gold letters that say “Liber Novus,” which is Latin for “New Book.” Its pages are made from thick cream-colored parchment and filled with paintings of otherworldly creatures and handwritten dialogues with gods and devils. If you didn’t know the book’s vintage, you might confuse it for a lost medieval tome.

And yet between the book’s heavy covers, a very modern story unfolds. It goes as follows: Man skids into midlife and loses his soul. Man goes looking for soul. After a lot of instructive hardship and adventure — taking place entirely in his head — he finds it again.

Some people feel that nobody should read the book, and some feel that everybody should read it. The truth is, nobody really knows. Most of what has been said about the book — what it is, what it means — is the product of guesswork, because from the time it was begun in 1914 in a smallish town in Switzerland, it seems that only about two dozen people have managed to read or even have much of a look at it.

Of those who did see it, at least one person, an educated Englishwoman who was allowed to read some of the book in the 1920s, thought it held infinite wisdom — “There are people in my country who would read it from cover to cover without stopping to breathe scarcely,” she wrote — while another, a well-known literary type who glimpsed it shortly after, deemed it both fascinating and worrisome, concluding that it was the work of a psychotic.

So for the better part of the past century, despite the fact that it is thought to be the pivotal work of one of the era’s great thinkers, the book has existed mostly just as a rumor, cosseted behind the skeins of its own legend — revered and puzzled over only from a great distance.

The whole thing is fascinating. And I found Miss Sara Corbett to be an excellent guide along the way.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Burying a Mighty Big Lede

This story from the Washington Post commits a rather egregious bit of journalistic malpractice--burying the lede. In this case, what should have been the focus of the entire story is found on the fourth page of the website version of this article. That it carries the byline of Bob Woodward should shock no one--he's been given the unenviable task of officially leaking what it is the military really thinks.

The focus of the story, to be fair, was the non-surprising development that arrived with a sober assessment by General Stanley McChrystal--he wants more troops or the mission will fail. Who hasn't seen that coming? How is that news?

This, on the other hand, should be explained to the American people as clearly and succinctly as possible:

Overall, McChrystal provides this conclusion about the enemy: "The insurgents control or contest a significant portion of the country, although it is difficult to assess precisely how much due to a lack of ISAF presence. . . . "

The insurgents make money from the production and sale of opium and other narcotics, but the assessment says that "eliminating insurgent access to narco-profits -- even if possible, and while disruptive -- would not destroy their ability to operate so long as other funding sources remained intact."

While the insurgency is predominantly Afghan, McChrystal writes that it "is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan's ISI," which is its intelligence service. Al-Qaeda and other extremist movements "based in Pakistan channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial support."

Just to recap--the Taliban insurgency controls part of Afghanistan, it makes a lot of money from selling opium, we can't stop that, and, oh by the way, Pakistan is their lifeline. Pakistan is their safe haven. Pakistan is where al Qaeda continues to launch efforts to kill Americans in Afghanistan.

This part made the front page, but is buried a little further down than it should be:

The assessment offers an unsparing critique of the failings of the Afghan government, contending that official corruption is as much of a threat as the insurgency to the mission of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, as the U.S.-led NATO coalition is widely known.

"The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government," McChrystal says.

It really is Vietnam all over again. The Viet Cong maintained control of the countryside, made money from drugs, and found safe haven in neighboring countries. For political reasons, the U.S. had to refrain from doing everything that it could to "win" the war, and was pilloried for bombing Cambodia. The government was so corrupt, it had no legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

And, oh by the way, your loved ones fighting this war? Forget about their lives. The countless millions spent to find them vehicles to keep them safe are the problem, you see:

The general says his command is "not adequately executing the basics" of counterinsurgency by putting the Afghan people first. "ISAF personnel must be seen as guests of the Afghan people and their government, not an occupying army," he writes. "Key personnel in ISAF must receive training in local languages."

He also says that coalition forces will change their operational culture, in part by spending "as little time as possible in armored vehicles or behind the walls of forward operating bases." Strengthening Afghans' sense of security will require troops to take greater risks, but the coalition "cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people."

That's all well and good. Here's the problem, however. In order to get more linguists, the military needs more of those really smart but weird kids who have the aptitude to learn foreign languages. Unfortunately, smart and weird means that they may have some ambiguous sexual preferences and may engage in some behavior that is undesirable for a staid, stuffy military. They need to fix that. Then they have to explain to the American people why their loved ones are being asked to get out of the vehicles we've spent years waiting for so that they can be blown to pieces by an enemy that will exploit each and every one of their weaknesses.

So, just to recap--the Taliban are being supported out of Pakistan, they get their money from selling drugs, there's nothing we can do about it, the Afghan government is corrupt, and we need more troops. And, when we send those troops to Afghanistan, we're going to make them walk around in the open so that they can share the risks of the Afghan people and die faster.

If George W. Bush were President, liberals would be screaming right now. Instead, the Democrat Party has bought off the left, promising millions to them to shut their mouths about this insanity. And I'm a goddamned racist because I think President Obama is making a huge mistake here. Welcome to American political discourse, Fall 2009. Get your swag bag of goodies on your way out the door.

So much for running to the right of Senator McCain.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

This Outlaw Bikers Headline Makes Me Wonder

Journalistic malpractice is alive and well:

26 outlaw bikers crash on Oregon freeway

Report: 2 gang members are seriously injured in collision on Interstate 5 staff and news service reports

updated 35 minutes ago


WILSONVILLE, Ore. - More than two dozen motorcycles crashed on a freeway in Oregon on Friday, blocking traffic for hours, police said.

Oregon State Police said the bikers were behind a car when traffic unexpectedly slowed in the northbound lanes on Interstate 5.

The collision sent bikes scattering across the road, near Wilsonville, south of Portland.

Lt. Mike Towner, of Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, said emergency crews arrived at the scene to find “ordered mayhem.”

The Oregonian reported that two bikers with critical injuries were flown to Portland hospitals by helicopter. The newspaper said the incident, which involved 26 bikers, backed up traffic for about 7 miles.

Rescue personnel said seven other people were treated for shoulder and hip injuries and broken bones.

Most of the victims belonged to the Brother Speed motorcycle club, officials said. The Oregonian reported that the group is identified by the state's Department of Justice as an outlaw biker gang.

Now, I don't know about you, but I am concerned when an "outlaw biker gang" does anything in public. By definition then, these men and their old ladies should be in jail, correct? There's nothing in the story that suggests that the police took any of the "outlaw bikers" into custody. Just because a state agency calls them outlaws doesn't mean that that is a term that should be used to label a group of people who may have been out observing the law and had a misfortune. How about we call them "enthusiasts" in lieu of "outlaw" until we know that all of the members are convicted felons?

As to the question of who is, and who is not, a "badass." As someone who is a badass, by definition, you cannot be a badass if you have to tout your badassery by running afoul of the state Attorney General's office. Real badasses fly under the radar. Wannabes spend all of their running around money on lawyers and court costs. That's how that works.

If the journalists had spent a bit of time looking into this claim, rather than merely being stenographers who take down what the bureaucrats spew, they might have learned this:


Portland's Spring Oyster Feed 03/01/08 1:00pm Portland House

Benefit for Brother Ty's legal defense fund. Steak Dinner $8.00 donation Live Music 50/50 Door Prizes 05/10/08. Help us free our brother. Open at 2pm. Dinner at 5pm. Band starts at 7pm. Portland House

How many outlaws have a website where they advertise a Spring Oyster feed and try to organize a defense fund for someone they feel has been accused wrongly of breaking the law? The website is obviously out of date, but still. These are some very organized "outlaws."

For historical context, wikipedia will suffice:

An outlaw motorcycle club is a type of motorcycle club that is part of a subculture with roots in the post-WWII USA, centered on cruiser motorcycles, particularly Harley-Davidsons and choppers, and a set of ideals celebrating freedom, nonconformity to mainstream culture, and loyalty to the biker group. The word outlaw carries a specific meaning which does not imply criminal intent, but rather means the club is not sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association(AMA) and does not adhere to the AMA's rules, but instead, generally, the club enforces a set of bylaws on its members that derive from the values of the outlaw biker culture. Related to the term outlaw is one percenter, which is also derived from the historical rejection of the AMA and what it represents. Many motorcycle gangs which are considered to be criminal organizations by law enforcement authorities call themselves outlaw motorcycle clubs or one percenters and participate in that subculture, but their actions do not represent all outlaw clubs.

There are non-outlaw groups, like the Harley Owners Group, that adopt similar insignia, colors, organizational structure, and trappings like beards and leather outfits which are typical of outlaw gangs, making it difficult for outsiders to tell the difference. These groups appear to be, ironically, attracted by the mystique of the outlaw image but are offended by the suggestion that they are outlaws.

Brother Speed members consider themselves "one percenters," meaning, they like to raise a little hell now and then.

This constitutes the "legal" problem that the group has had recently:

At 5:33 on the night of the Free Souls party, Eugene police canine unit officer Robert A. Rosales stopped a black Ford Escort not far from the clubhouse. Rosales identified the 38-year-old driver, Paul Askew, as a member of the Outsiders Motorcycle Club and his two passengers as members of the Gypsy Joker and Brother Speed clubs.

Rosales cited Askew for driving with an expired license and patted down the bikers. He searched the Escort's trunk and found boxes of ammo, an unloaded .380-caliber handgun and an Outsiders motorcycle vest with a loaded .22-caliber derringer in the pocket.

They sort of have a problem of definition here--the man is an "outlaw" biker, but he was driving a black Ford Escort? How "badass" can someone be who drives a Ford Escort? Someone who drives a Ford Escort can hardly be considered an "outlaw biker." Wouldn't you, by definition, have to be breaking the law while on your bike to be considered an outlaw biker? You don't go around being a badass in a Ford Escort. You use a Ford Escort to schlep babies and old ladies around, or to maybe go to the mall and have ice cream and buy a Hannah Montana training bra.

Also,  you have NBA players who commit more serious crimes while riding their own motorcycles--is the National Basketball Association now an "outlaw" athletic club? It's a little bit of a stretch to condemn everyone in the club because of something that one person has done. If we extend the metaphor, then LeBron James is now a member of a weapons-loving outlaw motorcycle gang, and should now come under the scrutiny of law enforcement. What a farce.

Just because a government agency tells you that these men belong to an "outlaw biker gang" doesn't mean that that is what it is.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Solving the Space Debris Problem

Space Junk, Artist Unknown

Your uncle Norman has a brilliant mind. I have to be mindful of my own humility, which is a trait I have tried all of my life to suppress. Humility is really just the timid heart being forced to express itself in public. Stamp it to pieces, and let yourself feel the power of confidence and pride. They'll never let you down, and they'll never leave you when you get into trouble.

If the folks at DARPA would just read my blog once in a while, and send me a few E-mails when they're having serious issues coming up with ideas, I'm fairly certain that my snap decisions and quick-witted solutions would help them out. Sadly, the only people who read my blog are people who want to see naked pictures of Eastern European porn stars. I should do more to cater to this audience, but I just can't get out of bed in the morning and write about Hungarian sex practices.

This is their latest conundrum:

Mad science agency DARPA has a new addition to its wish list: technology to clean up thousands of pieces of orbiting space junk. Surely, world peace can't come far behind on the agenda.

Satellites and manned missions alike have had to dodge a growing swarm of orbital debris in recent years. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network has detected more than 35,000 man-made objects since the space age began over 50 years ago, with 20,000 such objects currently remaining in orbit.

DARPA also noted that the number of cataloged debris objects has actually jumped by almost 50 percent since January 2007. That uptick in space junk comes courtesy of the Chinese government destroying a satellite in 2007, and a collision between an active U.S. satellite and a retired Russian communications satellite this year.

In a perhaps belated response, the Pentagon agency issued a call for possible cleanup proposals yesterday. It noted a special interest in debris ranging from 1 mm crumbs to entire derelict spacecraft and used rocket segments, and asked for a general cleanup timetable ranging from days to years.

Well, having given this all of about two minutes of consideration, 90 seconds of which were spent trying to figure out why I taste garlic when I haven't had garlic today, I came up with this:

Thinker and Intellectual, Norman RogersShame on you, DARPA! You're thinking in reverse.

You don't need a space junk cleaner, because cleaners tend to suck like a vacuum. You need a space junk pusher!

My solution is a spiraling vehicle that pushes space junk ahead of itself--think of a space equivalent of a bulldozer that never comes back. This vehicle is launched into orbit, and there it deploys a massive basket-shaped appendage ahead of it. Using predetermined coordinates, it pushes outward from the Earth's gravitational pull, gathering bits of space debris ahead of it that are moving with it as it leaves orbit, not against it because that would cause a catastrophic collision. As the net collects slower-moving debris and pushes it forward, the "net" uses small hooks, magnets (although a lot of space debris probably won't stick to a magnet because they tend to use a lot of aluminum alloys), grabbers, and adhesives to hold on to the debris--it's not just the big items, but the nuts and bolts we have to worry about as well.

Once the device has cleared orbit, and effectively cleared the path ahead of it, a second stage rocket fires, pushing it away from the Earth at a rate that will prevent it from falling back into orbit. Affix a warning beacon and let the device push away from the Earth at a leisurely pace.

By launching forty to fifty of these vehicles, we could pre-program a fairly extensive cleaning operation that would allow everyone who tracks space debris the chance to assess whether or not the Rogers Spacejunk Debris Pusher (RSDP) is effective. Start with the tough stuff first. If it works, order up a few hundred more and commence to cleaning the skies above.

Problem solved, and DARPA, I'm wealthy. I don't need the money. Have a pizza party on your uncle Norman.

I'll post some diagrams in a bit on my website, if I stop having a life.

Space junk. All you have to do is get rid of it, and stop putting junk into orbit. Was that so hard to come up with? It doesn't seem like much a problem, does it? Nothing a dry hump with two waitresses from Budapest wouldn't fix, right?

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Weapon Too Sinister to Use Against the American People

Would Thomas Jefferson Wish For Us to Use Horrible Sonic Weapons Against Our Own Citizens?

I may be over reacting, but I don't care. I don't care what party you're in. I don't care about your politics. What I care about are basic civil liberties.

Should any government agency use a dangerous sonic weapon against Americans? Of course not. I grant state, local and Federal agencies the right to use force, and I grant that they might need to use things that aren't ideal, such as, I don't know, riot control vehicles. Yes, I said it--riot control vehicles. My family has made them for as long as I have been alive. They're perfectly reasonable when the authorities are confronted with civil disturbances.

I draw the line at monstrous weapons such as this:

LRAD-500 in use by San Diego County Sheriff's Department“Long-range acoustic devices [LRADs] for crowd control can be extremely dangerous. These are used in Iraq to control insurgents. They can cause serious and lasting harm to humans…We want to know WHY our Sheriff Dept has this weapon,” Sal Magallanez of San Diego-based Liberty One Radio said in an e-mail sent to East County Magazine, prompting a joint investigation.
The device was stationed by San Diego County Sheriff deputies at a recent town hall forum hosted by Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-San Diego) in Spring Valley and at a subsequent town hall with Congressman Darrell Issa (R-San Diego). The Davis Rally drew an estimated 1,300-1,500 people, including vocal conservative and liberal protest groups.

A public records search conducted by East County Magazine has confirmed that the device is an
LRAD 500-x manufactured by San Diego-based American Technology Corporation (ATC). Capable of use as an effective loudspeaker, the LRAD also has the ability to emit a deafening tone aimed at incapacitating and dispersing a crowd without use of lethal force.
“It’s very concerning,” Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “ It is fine for the Sheriff’s Department to have new less-than-lethal weapons, but for their interactions with individuals these still-dangerous weapons need to be used only as substitutes for firearms. They can’t be used as just another tool on the tool belt. As we’ve seen with tasers and pepper spray, these types of weapons are being used to subdue people even though they pose the risk of serious physical harm.”

Excuse me, but this is America. No, you may not use a weapon that emits a deafening, incapacitating tone at peaceful protesters, and I don't care what political stripe they are. I don't care if they're the three dirtiest hippies this side of Wavy Gravy--you may not use a sonic device upon them. Soap and water, fine. If they're really rowdy, use some tear gas.

This thing? Hells no:

Advertisement, LRAD-500

The datasheet is "password protected," but to your uncle Norman, that means, whoo, I'll publish it anyway:

Datasheet, LRAD-500

As a lifelong lover of evil, well, this is going too far. Do you want Johnny Law to have this kind of a weapon? And, bear in mind, most Johnny Laws out there are good men and women, don't get me wrong. But do you want that fat slob Johnny Law with the sociopathic disorder they couldn't quite nail down on his phony-baloney psychiatric evaluation to be standing there with his gut hanging out, his sammich in one hand, and his other hand riding the controls of this weapon against some people who he thinks "gots it coming?"

Anyone who uses this weapon against American citizens is a sadistic animal, plain and simple. The right of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest means something in this country, and the thugs who would use a military-grade weapon to inflict sonic pain on our fellow Americans have stepped over the line into the banality of evil.

By the way, at 70 dBs, you're experiencing involuntary discomfort because your autonomic nervous system kicks in. That means that:

The autonomic nervous system (ANS or visceral nervous system) is the part of the peripheral nervous system that acts as a control system functioning largely below the level of consciousness, and controls visceral functions. The ANS affects heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, salivation, perspiration, diameter of the pupils, micturition (urination), and sexual arousal.

No, I don't think they're trying to get you horny. I do think that the inherent dangers of using such weapons outweigh any possible "peaceful" or "humane" application.

This is not a weapon that should be used on American citizens, period. End of story.

The Ghost Fleet

The Ghost Fleet (Richard Jones, Sinopix)

The reality of the global meltdown can be found in the water, riding at anchor, rusting in the sun.

Here, on a sleepy stretch of shoreline at the far end of Asia, is surely the biggest and most secretive gathering of ships in maritime history. Their numbers are equivalent to the entire British and American navies combined; their tonnage is far greater. Container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers - all should be steaming fully laden between China, Britain, Europe and the US, stocking camera shops, PC Worlds and Argos depots ahead of the retail pandemonium of 2009. But their water has been stolen.

They are a powerful and tangible representation of the hurricanes that have been wrought by the global economic crisis; an iron curtain drawn along the coastline of the southern edge of Malaysia's rural Johor state, 50 miles east of Singapore harbour.

It is so far off the beaten track that nobody ever really comes close, which is why these ships are here. The world's ship owners and government economists would prefer you not to see this symbol of the depths of the plague still crippling the world's economies.

So they have been quietly retired to this equatorial backwater, to be maintained only by a handful of bored sailors. The skeleton crews are left alone to fend off the ever-present threats of piracy and collisions in the congested waters as the hulls gather rust and seaweed at what should be their busiest time of year.

Local fisherman Ah Wat, 42, who for more than 20 years has made a living fishing for prawns from his home in Sungai Rengit, says: 'Before, there was nothing out there - just sea. Then the big ships just suddenly came one day, and every day there are more of them.

'Some of them stay for a few weeks and then go away. But most of them just stay. You used to look Christmas from here straight over to Indonesia and see nothing but a few passing boats. Now you can no longer see the horizon.'

The size of the idle fleet becomes more palpable when the ships' lights are switched on after sunset. From the small fishing villages that dot the coastline, a seemingly endless blaze of light stretches from one end of the horizon to another. Standing in the darkness among the palm trees and bamboo huts, as calls to prayer ring out from mosques further inland, is a surreal and strangely disorientating experience. It makes you feel as if you are adrift on a dark sea, staring at a city of light.

Ah Wat says: 'We don't understand why they are here. There are so many ships but no one seems to be on board. When we sail past them in our fishing boats we never see anyone. They are like real ghost ships and some people are scared of them. They believe they may bring a curse with them and that there may be bad spirits on the ships.'

You have to appreciate the fear of spirits and pirates--things best left to centuries gone by. The real implication of all of this is a shutdown of commerce, a fist full of sand thrown into the globalization engine.

What's coming is this--many of the ships will be scuttled for loss or "hijacked" by pirates. This is the only way to take the liability off of the books for shipping companies that cannot afford to have the vessels sitting and rotting.

Some experts believe the ratio of container ships sitting idle could rise to 25 per cent within two years in an extraordinary downturn that shipping giant Maersk has called a 'crisis of historic dimensions'. Last month the company reported its first half-year loss in its 105-year history.

Martin Stopford, managing director of Clarksons, London's biggest ship broker, says container shipping has been hit particularly hard: 'In 2006 and 2007 trade was growing at 11 per cent. In 2008 it slowed down by 4.7 per cent. This year we think it might go down by as much as eight per cent. If it costs £7,000 a day to put the ship to sea and if you only get £6,000 a day, than you have got a decision to make.

'Yet at the same time, the supply of container ships is growing. This year, supply could be up by around 12 per cent and demand is down by eight per cent. Twenty per cent spare is a lot of spare of anything - and it's come out of nowhere.'

These empty ships should be carrying Christmas over to the West. All retailers will have already ordered their stock for the festive season long ago. With more than 92 per cent of all goods coming into the UK by sea, much of it should be on its way here if it is going to make it to the shelves before Christmas. 

Christmas is going to be a strange proposition this year. We are not able to fully appreciate how good we were living three or four or even ten years ago. We will, likely, not live as well again for a while.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Jon Krakauer writes about Pat Tillman

This is definitely a book I shall read before Christmas. You cannot rival Krakauer for storytelling ability, and for him to take a subject like Pat Tillman and run with it is a blessing. So much is misunderstood about Pat Tillman. His family has suffered mightily at the hands of a government that should have gotten it right from the start. The unconscionable lying that went on should have sunk the career of the man currently running the Afghan War, General Stanley McChrystal.

Krakauer's book looks at Tillman's life and death with the added advantage of his journals. This is something special:

Tillman saw it coming. In a moment of foreboding, he said to a friend: "I don't want them to parade me through the streets." And yet that's exactly what happened.

From the day Tillman enlisted in June 2002, the Pentagon's perception managers coveted his story: the granite-chinned NFL star who walked away from millions to fight for his country after 9/11. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- who had opened the clandestine Office of Strategic Influence in October 2001 and was the Pentagon's most enthusiastic propagandist -- sent Tillman a laudatory note and advised Secretary of the Army Thomas White to "keep an eye on him."

Frustratingly, Tillman wouldn't cooperate. He refused requests for media interviews and quietly disappeared into the enlisted ranks of the Army's elite Rangers.

Krakauer -- whose forensic studies of the Emersonian Man in books such as "Into Thin Air" and 'Into the Wild" yield so much insight -- has turned in a beautiful bit of reporting, documenting Tillman's life with journals and interviews with those close to him. And yet a full understanding of Tillman's motivations eludes Krakauer, and us.

Why did Tillman walk away from his fortune-kissed life? Yes, honor and duty; yes, family tradition -- Tillman's great-grandfather served at Pearl Harbor. His younger brother, Kevin Tillman, enlisted with Pat and served in the same Ranger platoon; indeed, Pat thought his brother was under fire in the engagement in Khost province where he died.

But these things, honor and duty, are the virtues in which male aggression often cloaks itself. Honor and duty could have just as easily obliged Tillman to resist the war in Iraq, which he called "illegal as hell" and an act of "imperial whim."

It's clear that Tillman had a certain moral vanity. In a journal, Tillman writes: "My honor will not allow me to create a life of beauty and peace but sends me off to order and conformity. My life becomes everything I'm not. . . . I follow some philosophy I barely understand. . . ."

Perhaps the closest to the bone Krakauer gets is a borrowed quote from Nietzsche: "I love him who makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe. . . ."

A man that thoughtful and deep is impossible to know. And yet, we are richer for Krakauer's attempt. The book is called 'Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman' by Jon Krakauer.

Of course they're listening in

It's really not that difficult to intercept wireless signals--any idiot can learn how to do it. One of my favorite things in the world is to sit with all three of my police scanners on the back porch and adjust frequencies in order to pick up as much information as I can:
Integrity of the game dialogue often focuses on player conduct. But several NFL coaches and executives enter the 2009 season with wider inspection practices and more paranoid eyes.

Growing, probing technology is causing some in the league to consider if cheating is reaching unprecedented sophistication. They are on guard. They are insistent that NFL leadership be as vigilant.

This goes beyond old-school and novel concerns. They know that some teams hire personnel to scour the hotel rooms of visiting teams' coaches and players and postgame locker rooms in search of any scrap of game-planning that can be pilfered -- They can beat that. It has little to do with opponents continuously seeking ways to survey sideline coaches in hopes of cracking their signals and intended personnel groupings -- They can outsmart them there.

Even familiar charges of artificial crowd noise pumped into stadiums are relatively tame compared with the type of cheating that new technology can provide. So, too, are fresher concerns that some teams are focusing cameras on quarterbacks during his calls at the line of scrimmage, playing the images on jumbo, in-stadium screens, and seeking an advantage for the defense whether instant or later after analysis.

How about home teams showing replays of controversial calls instantly and repeatedly when they work to their advantage -- and never showing them when they do not?

None of this alarms NFL coaches and executives as much as this issue: Are communications involving coaches' headsets and those involving players' in-helmet radios being intercepted by opposing teams?

Some coaches and executives say they have heard enough cracking sounds, enough interference, enough odd feedback and experienced enough times when the technology simply did not work that they believe this issue is a paramount one that must constantly be examined in the 2009 season and beyond.

Static or interference really is not an indicator of being eavesdropped upon. Intercepting a wireless signal transmission from point A to point B isn't going to interfere with the signal unless active jamming is taking place.

Here are the basics:
Home intercom systems. Baby monitors, children's walkie-talkies and some home intercom systems may be overheard in the vicinity of the home in the same manner as cordless phones. Many operate on common radio frequencies that can be picked up by radio scanners, cordless phones, and other baby monitors nearby. If you are concerned about being overheard on one of these devices, turn it off when it is not in use. Consider purchasing a "wired" unit instead.

Speakerphones. If your standard wired phone has the speakerphone feature, be aware that some models may emit weak radio signals from the microphone even when the phone's handset is on-hook, (that is, hung-up, inactive). For short distances, a sensitive receiver may be able to pick up room noise in the vicinity of the speakerphone.

Wireless microphones. Radio scanners can intercept wireless microphones used at conferences, in churches, by entertainers, sports referees, and others. Fast-food employees at drive-through restaurants use wireless systems to transmit order information. Their communications can also be received by scanners in the vicinity. Scanners can also pick up conversations on some walkie-talkies.

Wireless cameras. Wireless videocameras have been installed in thousands of homes and businesses in recent years. The camera sends a signal to a receiver so it can be viewed on a computer or TV. These systems are advertised as home security systems, but they are far from secure. While they are inexpensive and relatively easy to install, they are also easy to monitor by voyeurs nearby who are using the same devices.

Images can be picked up as far as 300 yards from the source, depending on the strength of the signal and the sensitivity of the receiver. Before purchasing a wireless videocamera system, ask yourself if you want to be vulnerable to electronic peeping toms. Research the security features of such systems thoroughly. You might want to wait until the marketplace provides wireless video systems with stronger security features at an affordable price.

Air-to-ground phone services. Conversations on the phone services offered on commercial airlines are easily intercepted by standard radio scanners. They are a favorite target of hobbyists.

Essentially, all you need to know is the frequency that the helmet devices work on, and then you need to have someone monitor that frequency with a scanner. Attach it to a laptop, and you can then pull in the signal and decode it, if necessary, or even make audio files and retain it.

I own several police scanners, the kind that scan EDACS and trunked radio networks. I can sit at home and listen in as camera men, producers, and local television staff sit in their trucks throughout the Washington D.C. area and chat about things. I can listen to virtually anything, and I have a 75-foot antenna wired up at the home in order to help me pull in signals. The Washington D.C. area is a hotbed of signal activity, and your uncle Norman loves to write things down and keep records. All of it perfectly legal, of course.

I'll have to acquire NFL tickets, should we end up near a stadium this season. I'll take my handheld scanner and see if I can pick up some signal calling.

America Online is Worth Less than These Two Swans

I would tend to resist the urge to criticize CEOs, except that, in most cases, the criticism is spot on:

Time Warner announced in May that it plans to spin off its AOL division by year end. The new AOL’s value will likely be barely 1 percent of the market price of the inflated stock that Time Warner accepted in the original $175 billion merger almost a decade ago—despite the inclusion of numerous subsequent expensive add-on acquisitions. While extreme, the Time Warner–AOL combination was no aberration. The deal represents less than half the financial damage done during an unprecedented era of excess in the media business. Since 2000, the largest media conglomerates have collectively written down more than $200 billion in assets, a record that would make even Citigroup blush. These write-downs reflect a broad-based legacy of value destruction from relentlessly overpriced acquisitions, “strategic” investments, and contracts for content and talent.

One might be tempted to give media executives a pass because of the impact of the Internet. If we take Netscape’s public offering in 1995 as the birth of the Internet era, on average over the next 10 years the biggest media conglomerates achieved less than a third of the returns available from the S&P as a whole. But even more telling is that these companies, as a group, had also underperformed the S&P for much of the previous decade, before the Internet upended their industry. Indeed, one aspect of the media business has remained largely unchanged for a generation: the lousy performance of its leading companies.

Although individual media moguls have come in for skepticism and scrutiny, the industry’s underlying strategies have mostly escaped question. Executives, investors, analysts, and the press seem to agree that the primary imperatives are to accelerate growth, diversify internationally, invest in content, and exploit digital convergence. Unfortunately, these are precisely the strategies that media companies pursued aggressively during the past lackluster decade.

That AOL is worthless is hardly the fault of the CEO--there are quite a few shareholders and customers who are shell-shocked as well. I can't help but feel relief, to some degree, that I wasn't an active trader or investory from 1995 until 2005. I had to sit out of the market because of an insider trading conviction and an arrangement that I made to take a ten year break. (They could have given me a lifetime ban, but Father still had some juice, so ten years was what we agreed upon).

That enforced sidelining of my financial activities saved me most of my net worth, likely, because I completely missed the dot-com bubble and the aftermath it created. I might have bought in heavily to Netscape. Remember Netscape? What a wonderful "browser" it was. The cool green colors and the graphics of it were fantastic, for the time. It was a well-designed piece of software, and, again, you have to remember the times. Internet Explorer is a far more flawed piece of code than Netscape ever was, but who's to say that, as time went on, Netscape wouldn't have had the same issues? It's hard to speculate. I do know this--Netscape worked like a charm on the best Macintosh computers of that era.

Think of where that value went--a hundred and seventy-five billion dollars in value has disappeared, never to return, and America Online is a clunker, full of features no one wants to bother with anymore. It reminds me of music business.

X - posted at my fabulous blog, An American Lion

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It's Not Much of a Game if I Can't Kill Ringo

In light of all the hoopla, allow me to show what happens when crackheads talk about the Beatles:

12. ‘Please Please Me’
The Beatles’ full-length debut features several instant classics (“I Saw Her Standing There,” the title track, “Twist and Shout”), to be sure, and its raw rookie energy is often irresistible. Compared to the solid gold tracklists they’d soon be assembling, though, it can’t help but feel a bit hit-or-miss.

That's right--Leah Greenblatt, Simon Vozick-Levinson rated "Please Please Me" twelfth on the list of the Beatles' albums.


Then, they committed this atrocity:

7. ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’
Few albums define psychedelia as thoroughly as the band’s eighth studio album — a fantastically ambitious concept record full to brimming with swirly-twirly trips (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Within You Without You”), old-fashioned rockers (“With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Getting Better”) and perhaps the most brilliant, complex achievement in Beatles history: the sprawling, dramatically tone-shifting magnum opus “A Day in the Life.”

Seventh. Seventh?

They then picked this:

1. ‘Revolver’
Choosing the best from a band whose lesser works were still superlative is tough, but the Fab Four’s 1966 masterpiece earns the platinum prize in an already-golden race. From its pioneering use of double-tracked vocals to the proto-psychedelic revelation of “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “She Said She Said.” The elegiac beauty of “Eleanor Rigby” is almost reason enough on its own. And yet ... we still have the joyous “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Good Day Sunshine”; the tender, lovestruck lullaby “Here There and Everywhere”; the poignant, French-horned “For No One.” Heck, even Ringo got his spotlight turn on the immortal goof “Yellow Submarine.” All in all, a work of true art.

Let me fix the list--best to worst: 

  1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone, 1967)
  2. Rubber Soul (Parlophone, 1965)
  3. The Beatles ("The White Album") (Apple, 1968)
  4. Revolver (Parlophone, 1966)
  5. Please Please Me (Parlophone, 1963)
  6. A Hard Day's Night (Parlophone, 1964)
  7. Help! (Parlophone, 1965)
  8. Abbey Road (Apple, 1969)
  9. With The Beatles (Parlophone, 1963)
  10. Beatles for Sale (Parlophone, 1964)
  11. Let It Be (Apple, 1970)
  12. Magical Mystery Tour (U.S./Canada only. Released as a Double EP in the UK) (Capitol, 1967)
  13. Yellow Submarine (Apple, 1969)

You could try to make the case that Help! and Abbey Road should be higher, but you cannot deny the kick in the pants that Rubber Soul and The Beatles give you when you're thinking clearly. I don't rate Revolver as high as many others, nor as low, but that's just me. And Past Masters were never "studio albums."

X-posted over at my nutty celebrity blog... but not at my main blog...

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Boo Hoo, BAE Systems

US Army MRAP Vehicle

Next time, figure out how to build a better truck:

To help win back a military truck contract potentially worth billions of dollars, BAE Systems Inc. has formally protested the U.S. Army's decision to pick a rival and is also calling on supportive lawmakers.

It is the latest sign of how hard defense companies will fight for work during a time of weapons-spending cutbacks and shifting Pentagon priorities.

The protest over the contract awarded to OshkoshCorp. was filed by the U.S. arm of BAE Systems PLC Friday.

The dispute shows how even smaller defense contracts are becoming major battlegrounds as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates shakes up costly weapons programs and prioritizes spending on ground forces.

For BAE, which has made a strategic bet on the ground vehicle market and builds the current fleet of midsize trucks, the work is critical to some 3,200 jobs at its Sealy, Texas, plant. This year alone, BAE expects about $2 billion in sales to the government from the trucks, though work will wind down next year if the company is unsuccessful in its appeal.

Being an expert on military affairs, even though I've never been inclined to put on the uniform, I want my government to equip our troops with good vehicles. I want my government to do so by letting American companies bid on contracts that have the chance at saving us money. I want them to expand the number of companies that can manufacture and build things and try to innovate. I'd also like them to keep that money in the United States.

That BAE, a British company, has a plant in Texas is a great thing. But the fact that a company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin is going to be building these trucks does not cause me a great deal of pain. In fact, why not ask if the people in Sealy can relocate to Wisconsin and take their talents to that company? Why not offer a partnership that transitions BAE's manufacturing operation to the one that Oshkosh, Inc. is going to be ramping up? Why not work together to make the best possible vehicles for our military? Navistar, another company that has protested the awarding of the contract to Oshkosh, is a $9.7 billion dollar a year company--and they're grousing about $280.9 million going to another American manufacturer? Boo hoo for you, too, Navistar. Why can't you and BAE innovate and come back for the next round of contract bidding and try to do better?

Or is it about the money, and taking US taxpayer dollars to Britain or about making sure no one can compete with you in the US market? Seems to be a no-brainer to me--make good trucks, do it better than anyone else, and you should get rewarded for that. Last time I checked, we were still a capitalist society.

Posted at my main blog, An American Lion...

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