Monday, August 3, 2015

A dark and loosely plotted future

Greetings, friends of the blog. You're in for a treat: this will be the second post in a row about writing! I'd like to talk to you about "Ghost Fleet." (Like "Callahan Crossroads," it's about a world war, but it's a little... less kid-friendly.)

I'll try to keep this general and spoiler-free, but if a few plot points slip through here and there, my apologies--you've been warned.

The subtitle of "Ghost Fleet" is "A novel of the next world war." And almost immediately, it delivers on that idea. The setup, broadly, is that in the near future there has been some calamitous radiological warfare in the Middle East--not by the U.S.!--that wrecks the oil market, the stock market, and the global economy in general... except for China, which somehow escapes in a position of strength.

Ghost Fleet--the cover.

'Murca, facing sudden and gigantic budget constraints, cuts military spending, leaving a lot of research and development in limbo, and a lot of the Navy's vessels in mothballs. With me so far? OK. China is rich and powerful, and the U.S. is less so, although things are getting better, as American companies do brisk business with the Chinese. Oh, and the Communist government has fallen in China, laid low by the economic downturn. A military-business partnership called The Directorate runs the show now.

Then China discovers a huge petro-energy deposit in its waters, giving it energy independence, and that leads its leadership to decide the time is ripe to crush the United States.

For me, this was a bit of a "needle scratches on the record and the jukebox stops" moment.

It could be that the authors have greater insight into Chinese military thinking than I do, but this seems like a move with almost no upside and tons of downside. Right? If the Chinese military pulls it off, then China's position (as the book describes it) is not greatly improved, and if it DOESN'T pull it off, then China is in for a world of hurt, both militarily and economically. China is already top dog, and starting a world war just seems like trying to hit boxcars on one roll.

But hey, it's a novel, and every novel needs a starting point. From there, of course, things get heated.

China invades Pearl Harbor! Destroys most of the U.S. fleet at anchor! Has hacked critical systems in American weapons like the F-35! And, critically, destroys nearly all of America's space capabilities--GPS satellites, communications, and so on. (This is accomplished via every space nerd's worst fear: an ostensibly peaceful space station having hidden weaponry.)

The key to America's ability to strike back, or strike at all, lies in the aforementioned mothballed ships, which are called--wait for it!--the ghost fleet. In the book, they are America's only hole card: new enough to do damage but old enough to not have been hacked.

Ghost fleet--the real thing.

I will omit details from here, because, you know... you might want to read the book and enjoy it yourself. But the plot follows a reluctant Navy captain thrust into a position of heroism; a Marine forced to lead a jihadist-style insurgency in Hawaii; and various players on the Chinese and Russian side. Oh, yeah, about the Russians: they collaborate with China in the sneak attack.

America is left mostly without allies, as NATO dissolves itself and Japan turns its back, kicking the U.S. out of its bases there.

It's one of the few books I have read in which the United States is involved in a war in which it has literally zero advantages. After the Pearl Harbor invasion, China holds all the cards. This was illustrated nicely, to the point where I as a reader was feeling angry at China in real life--yikes.

Now, the thing about this book is that it is written by two defense analysts, and the text is heavily endnoted. Just about every supposition they make about technology or capabilities in general is supported by at least a smidgen of research, which lends some smaller plot points some weight. And the story itself moves fast. As Mrs. Blog can tell you, I traded sleep for reading time a couple of nights in the last week, which is rare.

Having said that, "Ghost Fleet" suffers from some problems in both the plot and writing departments.

In terms of plot, the setup is kind of a worst-case scenario. A lot of things have to go wrong to get to the status quo, but sure, OK--it's not implausible, I'd say, just unlikely. But from there, I was disappointed that the story did not have more sweep. America, in the book, is left with two allies: 'Straya and Great Britain (Scotland has seceded). But the story takes us to neither of those places, although they are mentioned repeatedly.

Some key stuff (like how the deus ex machina behind China's ability to target its anti-ship ballistic missiles works) is never explained, which is a little jarring considering the pains taken to add realism elsewhere. Other things, like where the huge U.S. military presence in Korea was during this whole affair, never even come up. And broadly, the story feels like it is missing a third act; there is a major battle at the end, but to me there was still a lot of war remaining. I would also have liked to see some of the politics play out, as the U.S. dealt with former allies like Japan.

In terms of writing, there is only one (maybe one and a half) human relationship in play in the book. That leaves plenty of action-based tension but not a lot of personal stakes. Characters often sort of fill archetypes rather that inhabit their own space. And on occasion, people take the time to explain to each other things they already know--just for the sake of the reader.

But let me reiterate, it's a good read. Just feels to me like it was cut off abruptly, and missing a resolution to a lot of subplots and themes that are abandoned by the end.

In conversations with others in the defense industry, it has become clear to me over the years that there is indeed a genuine fear that China might underestimate a U.S. response to aggression. China hasn't fought in a major war in forever, whereas--for better or worse--America has been shooting or blowing up enemies pretty much constantly since the early '90s. And this might lead China to make the same mistake Japan did at the outset of Pacific hostilities in World War II.

Let's hope everyone remembers the lesson from that bloody affair (China, in "Ghost Fleet," clearly did not):


Friday, July 24, 2015

Callahan Crossroads, Anola Pickett, and You

Greetings, Friends of the Blog! Today I bring you a brief conversation with the children's author Anola Pickett, a talented writer who also--in the interest of full disclosure--happens to be my mother.

Her latest book, "Callahan Crossroads," came out earlier this month and it's a bit of a departure from her previous work; it has a male protagonist, it's set in the middle of the country and it takes place during a war. Here's the jacket summary, which pretty much nails it: 
It's the summer of 1918, and all twelve-year-old George Callahan wants to do is hunt for spies with his best friend. But with America at war, the Callahan family is facing new challenges on all fronts. Thoughtfully researched, beautifully written, and filled with historic detail, this heartwarming family drama is an instant classic both children and adults will enjoy.
I of course can't give an unvarnished review "Crossroads" for a variety of reasons, ranging from the fact that I'm [REDACTED] years outside the intended audience to the fact that, again, I am the author's son. But as a Kansas City native, I enjoyed seeing so many familiar streets and places (even ones that really only exist in old pictures now) name-checked. And as a guy who maybe knows more than he should about military history, a snapshot of what it was like at home during World War I was fascinating too--especially as seen through the eyes of a tween.

Overall, there are a lot of topics that you don't often see in a book for this age group. One of the biggest is how we are expected to act on the homefront during wartime, and how that can trample everyday human concerns. Feminism also makes an appearance, in the form of a debate over women's suffrage and Aunt Nora, who plans to join the Marines.

Here's what the author has to say about "Callahan Crossroads." Very minor spoilers within:

Q: Kansas City features almost like a character in the book. Why did you choose it as a setting?

A: Kansas City, of course, is familiar territory because I grew up and have spent most of my life here. It was fun to put George and his family in a neighborhood close to my own childhood home and to include streets and sites that are part of my hometown. For someone researching a book about the "war to end all wars," Kansas City was a logical setting because it's home to the National World War I Memorial and Museum. (www.theworldwar.org) I wanted to honor the spirit of Kansas City. After the war, Kansas Citians raised $2,000,000 to build a memorial “In honor of those who served in the world war in defense of liberty and our country.”

Q: How much of the characters and situations are based on your own family and memories?


A: As I wrote the book, some situations from my childhood flowed into the story. My mother was a seamstress, as was George's. She woke us up by pounding on the ceiling with a broom handle--a highly effective wake-up call! She and I struggled daily over her insistence that I eat what I considered lumpy oatmeal. When I was very small, a man came around every evening to light the gas street light and returned each morning to extinguish it. Milk and bread were delivered via horse-drawn wagons, as was ice in the summer and coal in the winter. Our house was on a terrace, as were the homes of the Callahans and the Kellys. Mrs. Schmitt's gingerbread men came from the memory of a woman who lived next door to my family. My mother often talked about her days in St. Vincent's parish and school. My extended family reflects the disparity of attitudes and action towards war. Like George's brother Charlie, one of my brothers was a conscientious objector and some nephews refused to register. I also have cousins and nephews with military experience and one nephew proudly serves in the U.S. Navy. I'm proud of them all for following their hearts and beliefs.

Q: How do you think attitudes toward war have changed since 1918?
 

A: In 1918 everyone in the country was aware that we were at war. The government established many departments to make sure that everyone was involved. Daily messages and omnipresent posters called the nation to serve--not just in the military--but at home by conserving food and energy, by saving metal and fruit pits (for gas mask filters), by collecting books for the soldiers, by buying Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps to financially support the war. Today, it seems to me, only those in military service and their families are directly involved in the war. The citizenry is not asked to sacrifice financially or to conserve resources or collect anything to help in a war. Military action seems removed from the daily lives of Americans.

Q: How unusual was Nora's situation? How many women served in the Marines during World War I?

A: Although a woman named Lucy Brewer served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the War of 1812, she was disguised as a man. The Corps began recruiting women into their ranks in August, 1918. They were assigned to office and communications work here in this country. Opha Johnnson was the first official woman Marine and 304 women had followed her into the Corps by the end of the war. General Jack Pershing (a Missourian) had already recruited young women to serve overseas as telephone operators. He gave priority to those who could speak French. In my book one of Nora's friends had left for Europe to do just that. Other women were "over there" as well: nurses, Red Cross workers, etc. None of them were on the front lines.

Q: You weren't around during World War I, but how were things during World War II in Kansas City? What do you remember? Did you have any German neighbors, and if so, how were they treated?
 
A: World War II brought back many of the efforts from the first war. Citizens were asked to buy bonds and stamps to support the war effort; food was rationed, along with shoes and gas. Schools held paper and metal drives. We collected grease and took it to the butcher. I don't remember any antipathy toward German neighbors, but there were negative feelings about the Japanese. Although there were no Japanese-Americans in my neighborhood, I remember that the owners of a Chinese restaurant were whispered about. I'm sure their business suffered because some local gossips thought they looked "Oriental."

Want to know more about Mom/Anola and her work? Visit her website, anolapickett.com.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Happy America Day, America!

As always, I think it's best to digitally celebrate the United States of Awesome with furry characters who have funny voices:


Enjoy your fireworks (if legal), burgers (if you have a grill) and red white and blue paraphernalia, wherever you are!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why isn't the future now?

As I stare down the barrel of an upcoming 14-hour flight back to the United States of Awesome--this time with a tiny human being--I ponder a different reality. A gentle universe where 14 hours is two hours, and "how on earth will we distract her for half a day!?" becomes "hey, maybe she'll just nap through it."

The thing about this scenario is that it was this close to being not an alternate reality, but simply reality. So pull up a chair and let's talk about VentureStar, a grand idea in the mid-90s that was derailed by something utterly mundane.

There's this proverb about how a horseshoe nail caused the downfall of a kingdom. There are lots of steps between the nail and the downfall, but the gist is simple: a bunch of things had to happen right, but one went wrong, and bam, all of a sudden the barbarians are there installing a new king and reorganizing your postal system.

What does that have to do with VentureStar? Let's first take a look at what VentureStar was.

The short version was that it was a single-stage-to-orbit, reusable launch system. In non-nerd terms, that means it takes off and lands in one piece, and like an airliner, you can refuel it, check the oil and shoot it back into space again. This is simpler that today's staged designs, and crucially, much cheaper because you're not dumping millions of dollars' worth of hardware into the ocean each time you launch.

Also looked awesome.

It was a joint venture between NASA and Lockheed Martin, neither of which were rookies in the shooting-things-into-space game. And the first step would be a technology demonstrator: the X-33, a suborbital spaceplane that could in theory be scaled up for passenger travel.

Passenger travel. Yeah. You see where I'm going with this?

The amazing thing about all of this is that despite the science-fictional feel of the whole endeavor, the technology was pretty much ready. One of the most complex bits of any rocket--the engine--was tested and worked great. Unlike conventional rocket nozzles, this was an "aerospike" design, in which the exhaust flowed around a central pillar. This actually simplified the design and allowed it to work well at many different altitudes, unlike a conventional engine, whose nozzle is most efficient in a relatively narrow band. Whatever, here it is:


OK, so the engine was good. Avionics--the electronic gizmos you use for naviation, communication and so on--all well-developed, thanks to the Space Shuttle program. Ditto for flight controls. Heat management for the X-33 wouldn't be a huge deal, as it didn't have to hit the blistering speeds necessary to make it to orbit.

But then there was the issue of the fuel tanks. Remember, this is a single-stage spacecraft. And the thing about staging is it allows you to drop excess weight as you go--are those engines done firing? Drop 'em! Fuel tank empty? Drop it! VentureStar would not be able to do that. So everything it carried would have to be as light as possible.

Rather than building the tanks from metal--as one does--these tanks would be made from composites, which are lighter and stronger. But they also had to fit in an oddly shaped space. To wit:


A very trying angle. Ha. Trying. Angle. Triangle. Sorry.


And that worked against composites. Being crammed into an asymmetrical space meant that the forces exerted on the tanks were not distributed evenly. And that worked against composites' strengths. In 1999, the hydrogen fuel tank for the X-33 failed during testing. And even with something like 90 percent of the spacecraft built, NASA threw up its hands and said, "Eh, not worth it." At the time, it seemed like an insurmountable problem. So after a bit more fiddling around with it, Lockheed Martin gave up too.

Could this be pulled off in 2015? Probably. Is anyone working on it? Not that I'm aware of. Does this mean I'm probably going to be stuck with a discombobulated kid on my lap for 14 hours instead of two? Absolutely.

So that's the story. The fuel tank, arguably the least complex piece of a multibillion-dollar rocket, ended up being the VentureStar's horseshoe nail. And for want of a nail... well, you know how this ends.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Homemade jet engines, then and now

True story: as a fifth-grader, I and a classmate built a rudimentary jet engine for a science fair*.

OK, OK... maybe "rudimentary" is being a little complimentary. And in reality, it was more of a motorjet, which was cutting edge in the late 1930s. But still. A jet. I assume the Parents of the Blog have a picture somewhere, but since I don't have one in hand, I'll just describe it to you.

It was a coffee can with both ends removed.

The beginnings of an engine.

Inside the can was mounted a smaller can--I think it once held tuna. The lid was removed and a hole about 1/3 the diameter was cut in the bottom.

The ignition system.

At one end was a two-stroke model airplane engine with a two-bladed propeller.

This would be the "motor" part of a motorjet.

Inside the tuna can was a wad of steel wool mixed with wood putty--the ignitors. I won't even try to find something to illustrate that. But the point was that after experimenting with a bunch of different flammable things, we discovered this mixture would maintain an open flame in high winds... like those generated by a model airplane engine.

Finally, a tiny hole in the top of the coffee can admitted a tiny straw, which was attached to a can of WD-40. This was the fuel system.

You started up the prop in the front, started spraying fuel, and whoosh: a jet. The tuna can compressed the air inside the coffee can enough that, combined with the heat of WD-40, you actually got a little thrust. We never tested it, but I suspect it would have, say, accelerated a skateboard pretty nicely.

What made me think of this? Well, I saw today that GE just produced a rudimentary jet engine of its own. Except this one was more or less 3D-printed. And it's quite a bit more powerful. Check it out:


It's a really cool application of a technology that is still evolving in interesting ways. Just a couple of years ago, 3D printing was basically something you used to make toys or plastic parts. Now you can, in theory, simply command a computer to make a jet engine.

I think even adjusted for inflation, my production costs were much lower. But measured in skateboard thrust units, GE's version of a cheap jet engine blows mine away.

*Our jet came in second, to a "microwave that cools things down." It was a box with a fan in it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Danger Zone, as seen from two continents

The Internet has given humanity, for better or worse, the ability to share just about anything with millions of people. Cat memes... dumb jokes... vital economic data... it's all there.

It has also made it immeasurably easier to create and share pieces of cinema that, 15 years ago, simply didn't exist outside of movie trailers. I am of course talking about hype videos. This being an aviation d̶o̶r̶k̶ enthusiast's blog, and the aforementioned d̶o̶r̶k̶ enthusiast being located in Asia this post focuses on fighter jets and China.

First, what does a modern fighter jock's hype video look like? Here's one of the best, from the Navy's VFA-27 Royal Maces squadron, which apparently has Michael Bay on staff:


And here's a version from the other side of the planet, courtesy of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (if the video doesn't show up below, click the preceding link):



Similarities:
-Airplanes
-Engine noises
-Stirring music

Differences:
-Few pilots visible (China)
-No CGI (VFA-27)
-No danceable music (China)
-No colored smoke (VFA-27)
-No weapons fired (China)
-No chess pieces (VFA-27)

The two videos, in all seriousness, have different audiences. The VFA-27 piece isn't meant for wide distribution, other than getting some viral play. It's really aimed at other pilots and d̶o̶r̶k̶s enthusiasts. Showing off, in other words--a favorite pastime of fighter pilots.

The PLAAF video, by contrast, is meant for everyone to see. It's a commercial for the growing airpower might of China... as evidenced by the repeated use of J-31 footage. (And of course also by the inclusion of English in the video.)

Overall, it just illustrates that the need... the need for speed... exists across the globe. And as long as the fight centers around who is better at timing their smash cuts to the music, that's not a bad thing at all.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Kind of a big deal


Yeah, yeah... you are by now tired of first sentences that go something like, "I know it's been a while since I've posted, but blah blah blah." So we'll just dive right in.

First of all, Kansas won the Big 12 again. This is cool not just because it's incredibly rare for one team to win a power conference 11 times in a row, but also because it sets the stage for a Spinal Tap reference:

Eleven. Exactly. One louder.


Second of all, the conference was exceptionally tough this year; some number crunching indicates it was actually the toughest conference top to bottom. And that means the Big 12 tournament, which starts next week, will be unusually fun to watch. Just about every matchup either puts two ranked teams against each other or involves general bad blood.

I'm sure this, like all memories, has become a bit sepia-toned with age. But I remember getting into a game on an early day of the 1988 Big 8 tournament to watch Oklahoma (I remember because they had Skeeter Henry) play Colorado (I remember because they had, and still have, a buffalo mascot). My dad had gotten tickets. Kemper Arena smelled of sweat and popcorn. And cheering on two teams my 12-year-old self only vaguely cared about with my dad was... awesome.

Sadly, most of the games will be on at an hour that not even an unhappy Baby Blog would care to be awake at. I'll either be watching solo, or on time delay. Either way, I'm sure there will be a stream of text messages that will give me a pretty good idea of how things went. And then it's on to the NCAA tournament.

So here's to some great basketball. This has always been my favorite time of year for sports... even before Kansas' streak started.