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    About Those Smart Machines

    Posted by David Foster on 12th March 2014 (All posts by )

    Lots of talk these days about smart machines, brilliant machines, even genius machines.

    For balance, read this post about Stupid Smart Stuff.

    See also my post when humans and robots communicate.

    Posted in Aviation, Tech, Transportation | 4 Comments »

    San Francisco and a Sneaky Win for the Red

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 25th January 2014 (All posts by )

    In San Francisco recently there has been a minor hubub about the buses that ferry technology workers from San Francisco (where they live) to Silicon Valley (where they work). “Activists” have been blocking the city bus lanes where the technology companies pick up workers, and the city of San Francisco recently voted to charge the buses $1 for each time they stop in the bus lanes to pick up passengers, per this article. However, the “real” challenge isn’t with the buses, but the impact of Google, Facebook and other technology companies in the valley that are contributing to a rapid gentrification of the entire city

    But while logistical details of the pilot program were the reason for having the hearing, they also had nothing to do with it. For many residents, the high-ceilinged room at City Hall was a forum for airing much bigger grievances about inequality, for articulating angst against an industry attracting bands of well-paid workers to town while long-term residents are losing their homes. “These companies are filthy rich,” said a resident born in San Francisco. “We need to squeeze them for everything they’re worth.” Some speakers wanted the buses to be banned and for companies to take the money spent on shuttles and funnel it into the city’s transportation budget — advice the committee approving the proposal didn’t find too compelling.

    A similar difference in approach played out at the protest that morning. While some activists made careful arguments about the tornado of wealth, growth and housing shortages that has thrown the city into an affordability crisis, others held a giant sign with a much less nuanced message: “F*** off Google.”

    This thread crystalizes two key threads that I’ve noticed in my visits to California for work and for pleasure (Dan and I have been there a couple of times to run the Presidio 10) and I often travel to the valley to visit various companies as part of my job. The first item is that San Francisco has been completely remade, from top to bottom, and there are almost no “bad” neighborhoods left in the entire city. I’ve walked through most of the city or taken the streetcars, or driven, and since the 2008 bust the entire city has been part of an enormous revitalization as wealthy tech workers and related professionals have bought up property in the city. There still are a bunch of drunks in the Tenderloin, aggressive panhandlers everywhere, and some projects and worse neighborhoods in the corners of the city, but by and large it has been completely upgraded.

    The second thread is that the workers in Silicon Valley are so completely opposite of these “activists” that it is difficult to know how to begin the comparison. At all of the companies I’ve visited the professionals are engaged in their work and have a very “capitalistic” view of being the best and beating the competition. While California is a completely “blue” state on the map, these technology professionals couldn’t be more “red” on the issues of free markets, access to capital, and the nature of the world-wide competition that they face (I don’t know about social issues because we’d never discuss that sort of thing). These firms leverage overseas workers without a second thought, and ruthlessly prune inefficient parts of their organization to focus on their core differentiators.

    While the world was focused elsewhere San Francisco transformed into a post-industrial city full of aggressive technology workers and professionals. Due to some remaining elements of rent control there are still some of the characteristic “activists” milling around but the relentless and unstoppable force of high property values will find solutions and will eventually demolish and buy out their remaining haunts until it is just the ruthless face of the post industrial economy that can afford to live in the city.

    The “activists” will end up packing their belongings and heading over to Oakland or somewhere else where the rents are affordable and they can pick up their protests there. Unfortunately for them San Francisco’s compact size, beauty, and absence of large scale government subsidized housing will drive them completely out of the city. The college students will likely pick up some of the protests but since they don’t really vote or build a substantial power base up the wealthy firms will soon control local government and then policy and reality will align.

    If you really want to look at long term opportunities I’d recommend property in Oakland. Oakland has a great location, it just needs to be terraformed via gentrification and rising property taxes until every activist and poor person is driven out, just like it is occurring today in San Francisco. Maybe this is a 20-30 year vision, but it will happen.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Tech, Transportation | 24 Comments »

    Selected Posts from 2013, continued

    Posted by David Foster on 17th January 2014 (All posts by )

    One more batch…

    Freedom, the Village, and the Internet. Will social media re-create the kind of social control once often found in the village community?

    301 Years of Steam Power. What they told you in school about James Watt and the invention of the steam engine was very likely wrong.  Related: 175 Years of Transatlantic Steam.

    An Age of Decline? Is America in one, and is the situation irretrievable?

    The Baroque Computers of the Apocalypse. The remarkable air defense system known as SAGE.

    Book and Video Reviews:

    Fly the Airplane. Two flight instructors write about their romance, their flight around the country in a 1938 Piper Cub, and the life lessons that can be derived from aviation.

    Elective Affinities. Goethe’s novel about a love quadrangle.

    Wish Me Luck. A very good TV series about Special Operations Executive agents working in occupied France during WWII.

    Author Appreciation: Rose Wilder Lane. RWL was both an astute and thoughtful political philosopher and a pretty good novelist.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Aviation, Civil Society, Energy & Power Generation, History, Human Behavior, Military Affairs, Political Philosophy, Tech, Transportation, USA, War and Peace | 3 Comments »

    Selected Posts from 2013

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd January 2014 (All posts by )

    I’m reviewing my posts over the last year, and will be linking some of them here, in some cases with additional commentary. Here’s the first batch…

    The bitter wastes of politicized America, on the toxic social effects of ever-increasing government power.

    Also relevant to the subject of this post are some of Sebastian Haffner’s observations on inter-war Germany. He notes that during the Stresemann chancellorship, when a certain level of stability and normality was achieved, “there was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness”…BUT a return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:

    A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddenly ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.

    I’m afraid that in America today, we also have a fair number of people who expect to have “the content of their lives delivered by the public sphere,” and this is another factor in the growing politicization of absolutely everything.

    The Dream(liner) and the Nightmare (of Social Toxicity). How reactions to the problems with the Boeing 787′s battery system exemplify the declining levels of trust in American society.

    Excusing Failure by Pleading Incompetence.  Hillary Clinton’s testimony on the Benghazi debacle clearly demonstrated her inability and/or unwillingness to understand the nature of executive responsibility. It is truly appalling that anyone could seriously consider this woman for the job of United States President.

    Respect her Authoritah. Nancy Cartman-Pelosi thinks it would be disrespectful to cut congressional salaries because it would reduce the dignity of lawmakers’ jobs.

    Connecting the World. Undersea cables, and their social & psychological impact.

    Posted in Aviation, Civil Society, Germany, Leftism, Management, Politics, Tech, Transportation | 1 Comment »

    110 Years Ago Today…

    Posted by David Foster on 17th December 2013 (All posts by )

    …the Wright Brothers’s first flight.

    Posted in Aviation, History, Transportation, USA | 12 Comments »

    History Friday: MacArthur’s Human Porter Logistics

    Posted by Trent Telenko on 13th December 2013 (All posts by )

    When I started writing my “History Friday” columns, one of my objectives was to explore the “military historical narratives” around General Douglas MacArthur, so I could write with a better understanding about the “cancelled by atomic bomb” November 1945 invasion of Japan. One of the least explored aspects of MacArthur’s fighting style was his highly flexible approach to logistics, which he described as “We are doing what we can with what we have.” Logistics being the ability to transport and supply military forces. In describing MacArthur’s flexibility, and poor documentation of same, I wrote previously:

    “One of the maddening things about researching General Douglas MacArthur’s fighting style in WW2 was the way he created, used and discarded military institutions, both logistical and intelligence, in the course of his South West Pacific Area (SWPA) operations. Institutions that had little wartime publicity and have no direct organizational descendent to tell their stories in the modern American military.”

    The importance of logistics is the reason for the adage, “Amateurs talk tactics while professionals talk logistics.”

    Today’s column is the story of one of those many “throw away” logistical institutions. In this case, it was MacArthur’s “human porter logistics” — native workers provided by the Australian and Dutch East Indies colonial authorities — married to the 5th Air Force’s primitive bootleg radio beacon navigation. A mid-20th century great-great-grandfather of today’s Global Positioning System radio beacon satellites.

    American and Australian casualties, with Papuan Stretcher Bearers.

    American and Australian casualties, with Papuan Stretcher Bearers. Men like the ones pictured were key in moving supplies from forward air drop zones to Australian and American troops in New Guinea.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in History, Military Affairs, Miscellaneous, National Security, Transportation, Uncategorized, War and Peace | 11 Comments »

    When Humans and Robots Communicate

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd October 2013 (All posts by )

    …they do not always achieve mutual understanding. And when misunderstandings do occur, the consequences can range from irritating to expensive to tragic.

    On July 6 of 2013, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed on final approach to San Francisco International Airport, resulting in over 180 injuries, 3 fatalities, and the loss of the aircraft. While the NTSB report on this accident is not yet out, there are several things that seem to be pretty clear:

    –The flight crew believed that airspeed was being controlled by the autothrottle system, a device somewhat analogous to the cruise control of an automobile

    –In actuality, the airspeed was not being controlled by the autothrottles

    –The airspeed fell below the appropriate value, and the airplane dipped below the proper glidepath and mushed into the seawall

    It is not yet totally clear why the autothrottle system was not controlling the airspeed when the captain and first officer believed that it was doing so. It is possible that the autothrottle mechanism failed, even that it failed in such a way that its failure was not annunciated. It is possible that an autothrottle disconnect button (one on each power level) was inadvertently pressed and the disconnection not noticed. But what seems likely in the opinion of several knowledgeable observers is that the captain and FO selected a combination of control settings that they believed would cause the autothrottle to take control–but that this setting was in fact not one that would cause autothrottle activation…in other words, that the model of aircraft systems in the minds of the flight crew was different from the actual design model of the autothrottle and its related systems.

    Whatever happened in the case of Asiana Flight 214…and all opinions about what happened with the autothrottles must be regarded as only speculative at this point…there have been numerous cases–in aviation, in medical equipment, and in the maritime industry–in which an automated control system and its human users interacted in a way that either did or could have led to very malign results. In his book Taming HAL, Asaf Degani describes several such cases, and searches for general patterns and for approaches to minimize such occurrences in the future.

    Degani discusses human interface problems that he has observed in common consumer devices such as clocks, TV remote controls, and VCRs, and goes into depth on several incidents involving safety-critical interface failures. Some of these were:

    The airplane that broke the speed limit. This was another autothrottle-related incident, albeit one in which the consequences were much less severe than Asiana 214. The airplane was climbing to its initial assigned altitude of 11,000 feet, under an autopilot mode (Vertical Navigation) in which speed was calculated by the flight management system for optimum efficiency–in this case, 300 knots. Air traffic control then directed that the flight slow to 240 knots for separation from traffic ahead. The copilot dialed this number into the flight control panel,overriding the FMS-calculated number. At 11000 feet, the autopilot leveled the plane, switched itself into ALTITUDE HOLD mode, and maintained the 240 knot speed setting. Everything was fine.

    The controller then directed a further climb to 14000 feet. The copilot re-engaged VERTICAL NAVIGATION MODE and put in the new altitude setting. The engines increased power, the nose pitched up, and the airplane began to climb. But just a little bit later, the captain observed that the airplane wasn’t only climbing–it was also speeding up, and had reached almost 300 knots, thereby violating an ATC speed restriction.

    What happened here? Degani refers to events of this sort as “automation surprises.” The copilot was apparently thinking that the speed he had dialed in to override the flight management system would continue to be in force when he re-enabled the vertical navigation climb mode. But that wasn’t the way the system was actually designed. Selecting Vertical Navigation mode re-initialized the source of the airspeed command to be the FMS, which was still calling for a 300-knot Best Efficiency speed.

    Degani says that the pilots were well trained and understood how the speed reference value actually worked…but that the unintuitive nature of the interface caused this knowledge to be effectively forgotten at the moment when the additional climb was requested. He draws an analogy with the user of a cordless phone, who picks up the ringing phone and pushes the TALK button..a seemingly-logical action that actually turns off the phone and disconnects whoever is calling.

    The blood-pressure monitor that didn’t monitor.  A surgery patient was under anesthesia; as is standard practice, his blood pressure was being monitored by an electronic device. The patent’s blood pressure showed a high reading, and the surgeon noted profuse bleeding. The anesthesiologists set the blood-pressure monitor to measure more frequently. Periodically, they glanced back at the monitor’s display, noting that it still showed an elevated blood pressure, actively treating the hypertension–as they believed it was–with drugs that dilated blood vessels.

    But actually, the patient’s blood pressure was very low. The alarmingly-high blood pressure values shown in the display were actually constant…the machine was displaying the exact same value every time they looked at it, because after the measurement-interval reset, it had never made another measurement.

    What happened here? The blood-pressure monitor has three modes: MANUAL (in which the pressure is measured immediately when the “start” button is pressed), AUTOMATIC (in which pressure is measured repeatedly at the selected interval), and IDLE. When the interval is changed by the anesthesiologist, the mode is set at IDLE, even if the monitor were already running in AUTOMATIC.  To actually cause the automatic monitoring to occur, it is necessary to push START. In this case, the pushing of the START button was omitted, and the machine’s display did not provide adequate cues for the anesthesiologists to notice their mistake.

    Critiquing the machine’s design, Degani notes that “The kind of change they sought is not very different from changing the temperature setting in your toaster over…On almost every oven, you simply grab the temperature knob and rotate it from 300 Farenheit to 450, and that’s it. You are not expected to tell the system that you want it to stay in OVEN mode–you know that it will.”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Tech, Transportation | 18 Comments »

    Possible South Florida Meetup, Saturday 28 September

    Posted by Jay Manifold on 25th September 2013 (All posts by )

    La Vallée-de-Jacmel, Haïti

    If all goes well, I will be arriving at MIA on American 1665 from Port-au-Prince at 3:35 PM local time this Saturday. The plan, such as it is, is that I call Jonathan once I am through customs. I somewhat inappropriately made reservations for lodging much closer to FLL, just because I like the place (Villa Europa in Hollywood) and haven’t had the chance to stay there in a while. So anyway, southern Floridians interested in a probable wide-ranging and somewhat ethanol-assisted discussion (#civilsociety #crisisof2020 #statefailure #younameit) are encouraged to contact Jonathan and … figure something out. Hey, I have people for that.

    Posted in Americas, Announcements, Blogging, Civil Society, Latin America, Personal Narrative, Predictions, Schedules, Transportation | 4 Comments »

    Illinois Will End up Like Detroit if It Does Not Change Course

    Posted by Lexington Green on 30th July 2013 (All posts by )

    Detroit was once the greatest city of the modern world. Automobiles were the cutting edge of technology in the first half of the twentieth century. Talent and genius flocked to Detroit. Innovators in engineering, technology, design, finance, marketing, and management created a concentration of economic dynamism and creativity unlike anything the world had yet seen. Detroit was the Silicon Valley of its day, except its products were made of tangible metal, rubber, and glass. The auto industry transformed America into a land of mobility and personal freedom beyond the dreams of earlier generations. Henry Ford said, “History is bunk.” He meant the old limits could be blown away, and ordinary people could have a better life than they had ever dreamed of before.

    (The rest is here.)

    Posted in America 3.0, Big Government, Conservatism, Economics & Finance, History, Illinois Politics, Leftism, Political Philosophy, Politics, Society, Taxes, Transportation, Unions, Urban Issues, USA | 22 Comments »

    Chicagoboyz Cycling Series: Critical Mass, Part 2

    Posted by Jonathan on 29th June 2013 (All posts by )

    Did this again last night.

    Critical Mass

    Another big crowd. This time we started near the front, which made the whole experience better as most of the crashes and sudden stops happened behind us. Also it’s summer, so much of the ride took place when it was light enough to see the sights, including the more attractive female participants…

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Diversions, Photos, Sports, Transportation, Urban Issues | 10 Comments »

    Book Review: Fly the Airplane, by Meredith and Dana Holladay

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd June 2013 (All posts by )

    Airplanes, dogs, romance, adventure…sounds like a good set of ingredients for a successful book, does it not?

    Meredith and Dana Holladay are both pilots and flight instructors. They met in 2010, fell in love, got married, bought a 1938 Piper Cub and flew it around the country–to all 48 states in the contiguous United States–and they recently became parents of a baby girl named Alexandra. A busy 3 years.

    This is quite likely the only romantic story ever written that begins with a citation from the Code of Federal Regulations, specifically:

    Federal Aviation Regulations 91.3 Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command

    (a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.

    Meredith suggests that the above rule not only provides guidance for the conduct of aviation, but also provides a good principle for the management of one’s own life.

     The title of the book is taken from a phrase frequently spoken by flight instructors to students, often in a sharp tone: Fly the airplane. The point being that no matter what other important things need to be done–adjust the mixture, communicate with Air Traffic Control, change the settings on the GPS–the pilot must first and foremost maintain control of the aircraft. Again, Meredith suggests that the applicability of this principle goes far beyond aviation.

    After the breakup of her first marriage, Meredith decided to give on-line dating a try and put up a profile on She included a photo of herself taken the previous summer after landing at a grass strip in Pennsylvania with a student and his girlfriend. Dana–himself an experienced flight instructor–could tell from the photo that Meredith was an instructor as well as a pilot, since she was sitting in the airplane’s right seat.

     After a lightning courtship and marriage, they decided to move forward with their idea of a trip covering all the 48 contiguous states. The aircraft they chose for this project was a Piper J-3 Cub, a type for which Dana had long had a strong affection:

     I like that they are mechanically simple with minimal instrumentation. I also like the door and window design, which allows you to fly with both opened wide to provide a mostly unobstructed view of the world. It also allows people on the ground to get a good look at you as you fly overhead, and they’ll often wave and can see you waving back. I’ve never had that happen in any other airplane.

    (Taking a trip in a Cub does require, though, that you keep your baggage to a seriously absolute minimum. The Cub also lacks a self-starter: one person turns the prop over by hand while the other manages the throttle and magneto and holds the brakes.)

    Highlights of the trip included flying over the New Jersey Turnpike (with Simon & Garfunkel’s America playing in Meredith’s head), up the Hudson River corridor at about 1000 feet, right past the Statue of Liberty and over the George Washington Bridge, and through a mountain pass near Yellowstone. On-the-ground adventures included a scary climb up a cliff in Acadia National Park, a visit with a friendly/hungry seal in Oregon, and many more.

    This is a fun and meaningful book, whose appeal will not be limited to pilots

    I’ve flown with Meredith several times for flight reviews, etc…if you’re looking for flight instruction in the Washington DC metro area, you might want to consider getting in touch with Meredith and Dana. Their website is here, and they also have a Facebook page.

    The book is available through Amazon in both paper and Kindle formats.

     Related: Retro-reading…some interesting content in the March 1939 issue of Aviation magazine,  including an ad for the then-new Piper Cub Coupe model for $1995.

    Posted in Transportation, USA | 2 Comments »

    London Transport

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 25th May 2013 (All posts by )

    Recently I had the opportunity to travel in London. This post covers some observations about transport from the perspective of a Chicago resident.

    The Heathrow Express is a high speed train that whisks you from Heathrow Airport (the main international terminal for arriving visitors) into Paddington Station in downtown London in fifteen minutes, with no stops. The train leaves every 15 minutes during normal airport hours and is fast, clean and has free wi-fi. The downside is that it costs over thirty pounds for a round trip (about $45). Compared to the “Blue Line” in Chicago, which takes an hour to get to the airport with about 20 stops, the Heathrow Express is a royal way to travel. In the past I have taken the “tube” or subway from Heathrow to downtown which also works and costs far less, although it probably takes 45 minutes or so.

    For the first time in London I took one of the ubiquitous traditional red buses that ply the city streets. Unlike the “Tube” which is relatively easy to navigate and follow, you need to do some research to figure out where the buses are going although they now have apps for everything, as well. It is great fun if you have some time on your hands to sit at the front of the top of the bus and watch the driver navigate through narrow streets incredibly crowded with traffic and pedestrians. You can use your “Oyster” card when you get on the bus and refill it at any Underground station.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Britain, Transportation | 6 Comments »

    175 Years of Transatlantic Steam

    Posted by David Foster on 13th April 2013 (All posts by )

    On April 8, 1838, the steamship Great Western..the first steamship to be purpose-built for the transatlantic passenger traffic…left Bristol for New York City. Four days earlier, though, another steamship, the Sirius, had left Cork for the same destination.  Sirius had not been designed for the Atlantic run; it was a small channel steamer which had been chartered by the rivals of Great Western’s owners. This competitive enterprise had encountered delays in the construction of their own Atlantic liner, the British Queen, and had chartered Sirius to keep Great Western from scoring a win in the PR battle. Sirius did arrive at New York first, on April 23, but Great Western came in only 12 hours later…its crossing of a little more than 15 days was the fastest ever from England to America.

    There were earlier crossings that had been at least partly steam-powered: the American ship Savannah in 1819 (which actually used only sails for most of the voyage),  and the Dutch Curacao and the Canadian Royal William, which made their crossings in 1827 and 1833 respectively. But it was the Great Western vs Sirius race which marked the beginning of steam passenger and mail service across the Atlantic.

    The paddle wheels and auxiliary sailing rigs of the early steamers gave way to screw propellers and total reliance on steam, and reciprocating steam engines were later supplanted by steam turbines…which in turn have now largely been replaced by diesels and in some cases gas turbines. Aircraft carriers and submarines still use steam turbines, though, with the steam generation done by nuclear energy rather than the burning of coal or oil.

    Here’s the British actress Fanny Kemble, writing circa 1882,  in annotation of her years-earlier comments about the difficulties and emotional pain caused by slow communications between the continents:

    To those who know the rate of intercourse between Europe and America now, these expressions of the painful sense of distance from my country and friends, under which I suffered, must seem almost incomprehensible,—now, when to go to Europe seems to most Americans the easiest of summer trips, involving hardly more than a week’s sea voyage; when letters arrive almost every other day by some of the innumerable steamers flying incessantly to and fro, and weaving, like living shuttles, the woof and warp of human communication between the continents; and the submarine telegraph shoots daily tidings from shore to shore of that terrible Atlantic, with swift security below its storms. But when I wrote this to my friend, no words were carried with miraculous celerity under the dividing waves; letters could only be received once a month, and from thirty to thirty-seven days was the average voyage of the sailing packets which traversed the Atlantic. Men of business went to and fro upon their necessary affairs, but very few Americans went to Europe, and still fewer Europeans went to America, to spend leisure, or to seek pleasure; and American and English women made the attempt still seldomer than the men. The distance between the two worlds, which are now so near to each other, was then immense.

    (The quote is one of several passages cited in my post Further Fannyisms)

    Also: the ultimate development of the steam-turbine-powered passenger liner was represented by the SS United States. Sadly, this beautiful ship is in imminent danger of being turned over the the scrapper’s’ torches…to save her, the SS United States Conservancy needs to raise $500K in the next month and will welcome contributions.

    Posted in Anglosphere, Britain, Business, History, Tech, Transportation, USA | 3 Comments »

    Chicagoboyz Cycling Series: The Critical Mass Ride

    Posted by Jonathan on 6th February 2013 (All posts by )

    critical massholes

    These guys always seemed to be a bunch of juvenile, self-righteous assholes who enjoy the fruits of a modern transportation system while pretending to be above it all with their bicycles and simpleminded cultural leftism. The core of the Critical Mass experience are the massive traffic-fouling group bike rides on urban streets. By now CM is mainstream and tolerated by the powers that be with, I assume, the understanding that any daring transgressions will be restricted to off-peak hours. So it becomes just another annoying street event like the parades and art fairs and filming the hot TV show that are given dispensation to block traffic and inconvenience drivers. Of course I would never participate in such a thing. However, it turns out that some of my friends do these rides, and they asked if I wanted to join them. So I said, sure, sounds like fun.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Diversions, Photos, Sports, Transportation, Urban Issues | 20 Comments »

    “Taking Wealth From the Air”

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd February 2013 (All posts by )

    Grand Central Terminal is celebrating its 100th anniversary…see photo essay here. The station building itself is only the most visible element of a massive, courageous, and very profitable infrastructure project carried out by the New York Central Railroad.

    In the late 1800s, hundreds of trains a day entered and departed Manhattan on the NY Central lines. All were hauled by steam locomotives, and large amounts of land in the vicinity of the terminal were used for yard and support facilities. People living in the vicinity of the tracks probably did not view steam trains, with their smoke and cinders, as being especially romantic. Indeed, the smoke was so thick at some points as to represent a serious safety hazard, impeding visibility of signals.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, History, Transportation, USA | 9 Comments »

    Unacceptable Performance by the Veterans Affairs Department

    Posted by David Foster on 29th December 2012 (All posts by )

    Here’s a Rudyard Kipling poem which isn’t as well known as some of his other ones:

    There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
    There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
    They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
    They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

    They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
    That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
    They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
    And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !

    They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
    Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
    And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, “Let us go to the man who writes
    The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites.”

    (read the whole poem here)

    What reminded me of this poem?

    This story.

    Apparently, in 2012 the average time to complete a VA disability or pension claim was 262 days, up from 188 days in the prior year and far above the official target of 125 days. More at Nextgov.

    I’m not very impressed with the excuses offered by the VA for this situation:

    VA officials attribute the backlog, defined as claims in the system for more than 125 days, in part to higher demand by veterans returning from 10 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with severe and complex injuries.

    A Texas Veterans Commission official noted that the agency is caught in a “perfect storm” of claims from veterans of recent wars and those from aging Vietnam and Korea veterans whose disabilities are worsening.

    But wasn’t this all predictable? Obviously wars cause injuries, and better battlefield medical attention means that more wounded soldiers will survive and hence need extended care. And wasn’t the higher claims rate “from aging Vietnam and Korea veterans” largely predictable from simple demographic analysis? I’m reminded of the saying about a British railroad from several decades ago:  ”Despite its frequency and general regularity, Sunday morning seems to consistently catch this railroad by surprise.”

    The above remark about the railroad notwithstanding, private enterprises generally seem to be able to deal with fluctuating demand and other problems quite well. There is almost always food in the supermarkets, despite droughts, crop failures, logistical problems, strikes, etc etc. The electricity is almost always on despite storms and electrical failures. And while businesses generally do a better problem than government at dealing with daunting arrays of problems, some government agencies do manage to deal with demand increases and fluctuations far better than the VA seems able to do with these disability claims. Somehow the FAA manages to conduct air traffic control safely and effectively despite the increased demand that occurs in holiday seasons and the varied and often nefarious effects of the weather. The military itself often manages to quickly deploy forces and equipment to far-distant locations. Why has the VA been unable to modify its processes to provide resolution of disability claims in a timely manner?

    Sad and disturbing.

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Health Care, Management, Tech, Transportation, War and Peace | 10 Comments »

    UPS gets Lean

    Posted by Shannon Love on 21st November 2012 (All posts by )

    I live in suburbia. Like most of suburbia, all the streets in my suburb curve or wind to slow down traffic and break up lines of sight. I live on a cul de sac.  It’s cozy and the kids can use the street at the “bottom of the bag” for football and other games without fear of being run over by through traffic.

    I rather like it.

    The people who don’t like it, are those who drive large service vehicles like the trash truck, the short school bus or delivery flat panel trucks. At least once a day, I am treated to the sight of large vehicle usually, a delivery truck, backing a filling several times to out of the cul de sac. When I hear air brakes and backup beeps and I know whats doing on. I’ve often wondered if there was a better vehicle to use, especially for the delivery trucks.

    Yep, there is. While taking a constitutional down the street to the park, I saw one of these whizzing towards me full of packages. It turned into my cul de sac so I followed and asked the driver if she was UPS (because of her uniform.)

    Yep, she was. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Transportation | 19 Comments »

    The French Aviators and the Slave

    Posted by David Foster on 1st October 2012 (All posts by )

    The discussion of Islamic slavery in the discussion thread here reminded me of a great piece of writing by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. St-Ex was a pioneering airmail pilot who spend much time in North Africa. The events described date from the late 1920s or early 1930s.

    “Hide me in the Marrakech plane!”

    Night after night, at Cape Juby, this slave would make his prayer to me. After which, satisfied that he had done what he could for his salvation, he would sit down upon crossed legs and brew my tea. Having put himself in the hands of the only doctor (as he believed) who could cure him, having prayed to the only god who might save him, he was at peace for another twenty-four hours.

    Squatting over his kettle, he would summon up the simple vision of his past-the black earth of Marrakech, the pink houses, the rudimentary possessions of which he had been despoiled. He bore me no ill-will for my silence, nor for my delay in restoring him to life. I was not a man like himself but a power to be invoked, something like a favorable wind which one of these days might smile upon his destiny.

    I, for my part, did not labor under these delusions concerning my power. What was I but a simple pilot, serving my few months as chief of the airport at Cape Juby and living in a wooden hut built over against the Spanish fort, where my worldly goods consisted of a basin, a jug of brackish water, and a cot too short for me?

    “We shall see, Bark.”

    All slaves are called Bark, so Bark was his name. But despite four years of captivity he could not resign himself to it and remembered constantly that he had been a king.

    “What did you do at Marrakech, Bark?”

    At Marrakech, where his wife and three children were doubtless still living, he had plied a wonderful trade.

    “I was a drover, and my name was Mohammed!”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, France, Islam, Middle East, Transportation | 7 Comments »


    Posted by Jonathan on 28th September 2012 (All posts by )

    A view from above into the driver's cockpit of a right-hand drive Jaguar E-Type convertible sports car. (© 2012 Jonathan Gewirtz /


    Posted in Photos, Transportation | 6 Comments »

    Extremely Cool

    Posted by David Foster on 19th August 2012 (All posts by )

    Weather permitting, the 200-year-old USS Constitution will be going for a brief sail today.

    The ship’s website is here.

    Posted in History, Transportation, USA, War and Peace | 1 Comment »

    200 Years of Railroads

    Posted by David Foster on 12th August 2012 (All posts by )

    On August 12, 1812, the Middleton Railway put two steam locomotives into regular service, marking the beginning of the railroad era—the social, economic, and political consequences of which would be vast. The poet Heinrich Heine, living in Paris in 1843, vividly captured the sense of the smaller world enabled by the railroad:

    I feel the mountains and forests of all countries advancing towards Paris. Already, I smell the scent of German lime-trees; the North-Sea breaks on my doorstep.

    The August 1812 event marked the first regular use of trains which were mechanically self-propelled…railroad technology itself goes back much further, beginning with tracks cut in stone in ancient quarries and continuing with the use in Germany, circa 1558, of wooden rails for the movement of ore within mines and with the introduction in Britain, in 1604, of flanges for keeping wheel on rail. These “wagonways,” as they were called, allowed one horse to haul about 4 times more freight than the same horse could handle with wagons operating over conventional roads.

    The Middleton Railway was created as a result of commercial pressures: in 1745, a mine owner named Charles Brandling was finding it difficult to compete with other miners who, unlike him, had access to water transportation. Brandling’s agent, Richard Humble, proposed the creation of a wagonway, which soon extended to a location near the River Aire. (About 35 miles.) The line was privately financed; Brandling did however obtain an act of authorization from Parliament, which gave him the power to obtain “wayleave,” which seems to have been a form of delegated eminent domain.

    Although horsepower in the literal sense was the major prime mover in this railway’s early history, a stationary steam engine was applied to help the horses over a particularly steep hill. By 1808, though, the Napoleonic wars had caused the price of horse feed to rise and the resulting high costs of transporttaion were again making the Brandling colliery uneconomic. John Blenkinsop, the newly-appointed colliery manager, designed and patented the rack and pinion method of traction and contracted with a local foundry to build two locomotives, which were named Salamanca and Prince Regent. Steam operations continued until the 1830s, when the line reverted to horse-drawn traction (a couple of boiler explosions were involved in the decision, I’d also suspect changes in the ratio between the prices of horse feed and coal), switching back to steam in 1866. The Middleton Railway was used for coal-hauling until 1967, and is now operating as a tourist railroad. The railway held its 200th anniversary celebration in June of this year, commemorating the first public demonstration of its steam engines on June 24, 1812.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Britain, History, Tech, Transportation, USA | 15 Comments »

    RERUN–Book Review: On the Rails: A Woman’s Journey

    Posted by David Foster on 4th August 2012 (All posts by )

    by Linda Niemann
    (previously published under the title Boomer: Railroad Memoirs)
    Originally posted 5/30/2005

    What happens when a PhD in English, a woman, takes a job with the railroad? Linda Niemann tells the story based on her own experiences. It’s a remarkable document–a book that “is about railroading the way ‘Moby Dick’ is about whaling”, according to a Chicago Sun-Times reviewer. (Although I think a better Melville comparison would be with “White Jacket”, Melville’s book about his experiences as a crewman on an American sailing warship. Which is still very high praise.)

    Niemann had gotten a PhD and a divorce simultaneously, and her life was on a downhill slide. “The fancy academic job never materialized,” and she was living in a shack in the mountains and hanging around with strippers, poets, musicians, and drug dealers. Then she saw the employment ad for the Southern Pacific railroad.

    When I saw the ad in the Sunday paper–BRAKEMEN WANTED–I saw it as a chance to clean up my act and get away. In a strategy of extreme imitation, I felt that by doing work this dangerous, I would have to make a decision to live, to protect myself. I would have to choose to stay alive every day, to hang on to the side of those freightcars for dear life. Nine thousand tons moving at sixty miles an hour into the fearful night.

    Niemann is hired by the Southern Pacific to work at Watsonville, a small freightyard whose main function is to switch out all the perishable freight from the Salinas Valley. Other pioneering women are also joining the railroad at this time, and Niemann soon finds herself a member of an “all-girl team,” assigned to work the midnight shift during the rainy season. Their responsibility will be to reorganize all the cars that have come in during the day, positioning them on the correct tracks and in the correct sequence. They will have at their disposal a switch engine and an engineer, but it will be their responsibility to plan the moves as well as to execute them–coupling and uncoupling cars and air hoses, setting and releasing handbrakes, throwing switches. Before work, they meet at a local espresso house.

    It was an odd feeling to be getting ready to go to work when everybody else was ending their evenings, relaxed, dressed up, and, I began to see, privileged. They were going to put up their umbrellas, go home, and sleep. We were going to put rubber clothes on and play soccer with boxcars…

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, History, Transportation | 3 Comments »

    Natural Gas: Past, Present, and Future

    Posted by David Foster on 14th May 2012 (All posts by )

    The hot energy story of the last few years has been the vast expansion in the available supplies of natural gas, and the very significant economic implications thereof. I though it might be interesting to take a look at the past, present, and future of this commodity.
    The first known use of natural gas was by the Chinese, circa 500 BC…they captured gas from places where it was seeping to the surface, transported it in bamboo pipelines, and burned it for a heat source to distill seawater and capture the resulting salt and fresh water. The modern gas era began circa 1800 with the use of gas for lighting–initially of streets and later of homes and other buildings. Since there was no network of gas wells and long-distance pipelines, the gas used for these applications was usually not true natural gas, but rather “town gas,” made by heating coal. (Gas stoves seem to have become popular circa 1880, and apparently had quite an impact….I’ve read that the term “gas-stove wife” was enviously applied to women who were so fortunate as to have one of these appliances and were thereby spared the labor of tending a wood or coal stove, and hence had some leisure time available.)

    The transition from coal gas to true natural gas had to wait on the build-out of a long-haul pipeline network, which took place mainly from 1920 to 1960. Although electricity became the glamor “fuel” and displaced gas in many cases for cooking and heating, the generation of electricity itself has in recent years become a major source of gas demand. Natural gas is also important as a feedstock for the production of fertilizer and of various plastics. By the early 2000s, there were serious concerns that the US was running out of natural gas–see for example this 2003 TIME Magazine story. The article cites Alan Greenspan’s concerns that high nat gas prices would make us uncompetitive in many industries, as well as citing direct economic pain inflicted on consumers. The only solution seemed to be large-scale imports of natural gas via LNG (liquified natural gas) ships. (Gas is far more difficult to transport than oil, because it needs to be liquified in order to make the volumes manageable, which in turn requires refrigerating it to very low temperatures.) In late 2005, US natural gas prices hit an inflation-adjusted level of almost $16 per million BTUs.

    The price is now about $2.50 per million BTUs. What happened?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Politics, Tech, Transportation, USA | 8 Comments »

    “How a Bicycle is Made”

    Posted by Jonathan on 13th May 2012 (All posts by )

    Via sportsman extraordinaire Dan from Madison, this fascinating video shows the operations of a British bicycle factory in 1945. If the factory shown is not a composite it may be the Raleigh works in Nottingham. (The video shows Rudge branded bike frames being made. Wikipedia says that the electronics — now music — company EMI bought the Rudge name and produced bikes from 1935 until 1943 when they sold the brand to Raleigh.)

    The video was a promotional effort on behalf of British industry. In hindsight it shows British industry on the cusp of postwar decline. But that’s hindsight. The bicycles shown are pre-war designs, variations of which are still used in much of the world. (Many of the bikes shown in the video would have been exported, perhaps mainly to what are now the Commonwealth countries.) Updated versions of these bikes were popular in the USA until the 1970s when they began to be superseded by more modern designs. Since then the Raleigh brand has passed through multiple acquisitions, and Raleigh bicycles are no longer made in Britain (I have no idea when the Rudge brand was last used).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anglosphere, History, Tech, Transportation, Video | 18 Comments »

    Read and Weep

    Posted by David Foster on 5th April 2012 (All posts by )

    In Britain, an 83-year-old woman has been told that she must find a new medical practice, because travel to the one she has been attending for the last 30 years involves an unacceptable carbon footprint.

    Posted in Britain, Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Health Care, Transportation | 8 Comments »