Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Historic elections

No matter how things go on Nov. 8 in the U.S., the outcome will be a big deal. Either we'll have the first female president, or the first authoritarian; in either event, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

As we head toward the vote count, I remember the first "big deal" election I was a part of: 2000, Bush vs. Gore. I was working in Florida, so really about as close to a front-row seat as you could ask. But would you actually want a front-row seat? Here's how my day went down.

At work by 1:30 p.m. That's because our first edition closed at 3:30 p.m. (The St. Petersburg Times basically invented aggressive zoning), not because of any planning for electoral craziness.

Of course as the day went on, electoral craziness materialized. The race was tied! Florida's electoral votes would decide the presidency! But there was a wrinkle: no one knew exactly who had won Florida. Before the first statewide edition closed, however, the networks all called the state for Gore. Whew. Front-page headline could announce his victory, right?

You know how this goes. Those calls were based on exit polls, which turned out to be juuuust a bit outside. The state was anyone's to win, and the front page was ripped up for the final edition.

More profanity-focused options were discarded, apparently.


By this time, back in the days where continuous online coverage was a rarity, our work was more or less done. There would not be any more news before the presses rolled again that night. Off to an election night party at the house of a Co-Worker of the Blog!

Except... it was less of a party and more of an extremely boozy cable news watch marathon. None of us had seen anything like this. That feeling didn't change as the night went on. This was more than a close race, it was a total mystery, and as young journalists I think we were expecting someone, somewhere, to come up with an answer while we watched. That didn't happen.

And when I woke up the next morning, fully clothed, on my couch (OK, I was 22, it was a futon) at home the next morning with MSNBC still on, I was no closer to knowing what was going on than I was the night before, although the size of my headache suggested something terrible had happened. There was also an inexplicable shoeprint--my shoe, fortunately--about 7 feet up on the inside of my front door.

The next few months, well, you know how the story unfolded. Vote counting went on for weeks, chads were hung, court cases were heard, and eventually George W. Bush was officially the president.

It was all literally unprecedented. All of it. And Election Night 2000 remains a singular event in my career and in my memory.

This time around, Election Night in America will be Election Morning in Hong Kong. If there's any sweating out of results, it will happen at an inconvenient time for drinking. Let's hope there's no need for anything but a sigh of relief and removing the fivethirtyeight.com bookmark from our browser.

Until 2020.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Information isn't what it used to be

Oh, hello, gentle reader. I didn't see you standing there. Please, come in, sit, make yourself comfortable. It's been a while, I know.

Since my last post, the B-21 has gotten a name, the Raider, which narrowly beat out Nukey McMeltface, I'm told. The 2016 presidential election is well under way. And the Blog Family has grown by one.

Look at that paragraph. The three items there are not equal in value--at least not to me!--but are presented as though they do.

And this is what has been driving me nuts about 2016. I'm not the first person to spill ink, real or electronic, on this and I'm confident I won't be the last. But the fact that statements are more and more being treated as equally true regardless of source is a real, creeping problem with public discourse. "I read it on Twitter" should never have the same weight as "I read it in the Wall Street Journal" and certainly not "I saw it myself." Opinions aren't facts. Innuendo isn't argument.

This isn't limited to fallible humans. Today, a Google search will get you this result:

No, Google. Bad Google.

Happily, a Snopes link is among the top results, but c'mon, Google... that's not news. It's, put charitably, rumor and speculation. (Russia Today is a propaganda arm of the Russian government; True Pundit is a conspiracy website.) A more cynical person might call it outright disinformation. The most cynical person might say this is a result of how we are all subtly being encouraged to only treat as "fact" things that align with our ideology.

So look. All I'm saying is that all information is not created equally. Fact is not subjective. There is such a thing as getting it right, and the *best* sources of information will admit their mistakes.


But please. Don't just take my word for it.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy America Day, America!

In keeping with the Read Ink tradition, I present to you... patriotic Muppets.


In a new development, this particular Fourth of July was spent in Vietnam, where our hotel served up this beauty:

Tastes like independence!

... at the breakfast buffet. FREEDOM!

Monday, February 29, 2016

Meet the new stealth bomber, (not quite) the same as the old stealth bomber

Let's talk about the B-21, a.k.a. the Stealth Aircraft Formerly Known as the LRS-B.

LRS-B, of course, was a somewhat tortured initialism for Long-Range Strike Bomber, with a hyphen thrown into the wrong place for good measure. But the label really said it all, or almost all: It is a bomber designed for long-range strike missions. It's also stealthy, which for some reason didn't make it into the name, but whatever. It's the B-21 now.

It's great to finally see--at least, in an artistic sort of way--what the new plane looks like. But first, I'd like to note that this isn't the first B-21. Nossir! The first was the XB-21, designed in the late 1930s as a medium bomber prototype. Designed by North American Rockwell, it lost a fly-off to the apparently much cheaper B-18 Bolo prototype. It looked like this:

A vision of the future, set way in the past.


The latest B-21, meanwhile, looks like this:

A vision of the future, set in the present, but with echoes of the recent past. It's complicated, OK?

It's a slick looking plane that, it goes without saying, closely resembles the B-2, designed in the 1970s and first flown in the 1980s. It's also made by the same company, Northrop Grumman.

So here's the thing. As an aviation dork, I'm a little disappointed it doesn't look more exotic. I'm not sure what "more exotic" would mean here, to be honest, but as Justice Potter Stewart once said (kind of), I'd know it when I saw it. It's a B-2 with longer wing extensions and no saw-tooth trailing edge. Right?

There is, of course, a reason for that. The whole philosophy behind the LRS-B program was to use "mature" technology--that is, stuff we know works. That doesn't necessarily mean it's all stuff that is unclassified or old news, but it's proven. Which explains the shaping. The B-2's planform is aerodynamically efficient and nearly invisible to radar; why mess with success?

We know literally nothing about the B-21's capabilities at this point (or even how big it is, as the illustration doesn't give a sense of scale), but we can at least infer it is meant to be subsonic. The long wings we see up there provide lift and range, but the ain't made for breaking the sound barrier LINK.

That means what we've got here is an aircraft that looks like the previous generation in stealth, and isn't particularly fast. Is this ground for Panicking That We Have Wasted Money on a White Elephant? No. And here's why... I think.

I have pointed out in the past, with some annoyance, that Russia's and China's stealth entries get a lot of attention to their overall shaping without much consideration to the details. A plane can look stealthy without being stealthy, thanks to stuff like engine nozzles, canards, strakes, and so on. And in the end, it's what's under the hood--high-tech radar, efficient engines, datalinks--that makes a plane top of the line anyway.

And this is where I think the B-21 will necessarily take it to the next generation. Better engines will give it longer legs. Defensive systems like solid-state lasers are, publicly, nearly small and light enough to mount on a large airplane. Weapons are "smarter" and can be released from ever-increasing ranges to hit ever-smaller targets. Networking will probably allow the bomber to control, or work in concert with, a fleet of unmanned aircraft. And there is a very good chance the bomber itself will be "optionally manned"; for high-risk missions, it could be flown remotely, or by a computer.

Oh, and by the way, that -21 designation? That stands for 21st Century. What we see, in other words, may not be what we get, and no matter how much I wanted to see a chrome-plated, atmosphere-skipping SuperMegaBomber, that's probably for the best. If nothing else, it will give me plenty to blog about as more details follow the plane out of the shadows.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Way ahead of the curve

Many years ago, Mrs. Blog and I attended a music festival in Milwaukee. Don't worry--the story gets better from here.

The band I remember most was on a SummerFest sidestage, with the seating area half-full. "They're a Chicago band," Mrs. Blog told me. I hadn't heard of them. We sat down, beers in hand, as the band took the stage. The lead singer walked up to the mic, plugged in his guitar, waited a beat, then launched into a crunchy rock cover of "Crimson and Clover."

The band was OKGO. I bought a couple of EPs from their merch guy at that show, and their label-produced full-length CD later. It was good stuff! And, of course, you want to support your local artist.

Now, in 2016, [REDACTED] years later, they're not Beyonce famous. But they've made a name for themselves--as you probably know--by virtue of increasingly clever music videos involving stuff like treadmills, Rube Goldberg machines, marching bands and human LED displays.

Their latest video, for a (catchy) song called "Upside Down & Inside Out," takes it to another level, literally, and in a way that really appeals to the aviation nerd in me. First, watch the video:


Yeah, that's right. The entire video is shot in free-fall. Note, this is not zero gravity, although as Einstein would helpfully point out, it feels like the same thing, relatively speaking. The band is being affected by gravity just like everything else on the planet, but they are falling at the same rate as the plane they are flying in, so it feels like they aren't. This can be done in just about any plane by flying a parabolic arc:

Like a roller-coaster, but awesomer.

Neat! This is the same way astronauts train for zero-g environments. And--fun fact--when they're orbiting the Earth, they, too are being affected by gravity: they're in free fall, but are moving so fast they keep missing the ground. It's science!

Note, though, that this process only gets you a minute or so, at most, of free fall to work with at a time. So what OKGO did was do one continuous take, with pauses in the dancing and music (which were edited out later) for the times when the plane was climbing back to the top of the parabolic arc, and they were not in free fall. If you look closely you can see where free fall ends, about every 25 seconds, when all the performers are sitting or standing for a moment.

Here's what it looked like behind the scenes:


And finally, the icing on the nerd cake for me is that the whole thing is shot in a surplus Il-76, a ubiquitous ex-Soviet military transport aircraft. You can find them all over the world now, being used for i̶l̶l̶i̶c̶i̶t̶ private cargo hauling, foreign military operations and of course music videos.

I knew I liked OKGO the first time I saw them. But I never would have guessed they'd inspire an aviation blog post. To paraphrase Claude Debussy, it's not the notes, it's the nerdery between the notes.

Friday, December 25, 2015

It's Christmas Eve, babe....

As always, here's to avoiding the drunk tank--and drama in general--as you settle in to enjoy the holidays.


And since we're having this chat: Happy New Year, too!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Armed and dangerous

Let's see if this is possible. Let's see if I can write brief post about gun control that's actually brief.

It can be tough to sort through all the noise to get any signal on this issue. You have probably seen a lot of information thrown around since the San Bernardino shootings: That 2.5 million crimes are averted every year because of guns (laughable); that gun crime is way down since 1993 (true but misleading; the numbers have been same since 1998 or so); that a gun ban in Australia made a big impact in gun deaths there (complex, but probably accurate); and even that it's unthinkable to abridge a constitutional right (also laughably untrue--try buying an RPG or shouting "fire" in a crowded theater).

All of that obfuscates the one fact that is literally undeniable: Americans are killed by guns at an appalling rate. Way higher, UNBELIEVABLY higher, than peer nations... and even some third-world countries. To say this is untrue is to share a Venn diagram with moon landing hoax believers.



That's a problem. A public health problem, in that people are dying who shouldn't be. A human problem, in that sons, daughters, mothers, sons are being taken from their families. And even an economic problem, in that all that those people could contribute--from the big, like starting companies, to the small, like paying sales taxes--is obliterated forever.

Why are we so unwilling, as a country, to address it?

I think the biggest issue is that the problem seems more or less insurmountable now. Distractions like "let's fix mental illness!" ignore the glaringly obvious correlation between gun deaths and the number of guns. Yet no one is seriously proposing confiscating all guns. That's because it would be constitutionally questionable, at best, and also because there are so many guns. The NRA has spent the last 40 years  convincing America that we need more guns as "tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection." Tons of other Americans, including me, have paid money to shoot firearms for fun, or own them at home for the same reason. So the heavily armed horse is way, way out of the barn, and isn't coming back.

It's easy at this point in the conversation to just throw up your hands and say, "Screw it! Nothing can be done." But that's a pretty lame attitude. That's not how we cured smallpox, integrated schools or made cars safer.

So here are some things we could do:
-Require liability insurance. It has been proven with other crimes that making them just slightly less convenient (or harder) to commit deters them. If, as when you buy a car, you have to obtain insurance, that will dent sales. It will also theoretically create economic incentives for insurance companies to find ways to make guns safer, for instance by funding more advanced smart gun systems.

-Mandate a much longer waiting period for buying a gun. Include an onerous background check. Training. The result is fewer gun sales, and guns in the hands of theoretically more stable, responsible owners.

-Make concealed carry illegal. This is probably the most controversial idea. But if we're serious about stopping mass shootings, we should understand that "good guys with guns" are unlikely to prevent such carnage. And worse, they present a complication to responding officers, who must now sort out who are the good shooters and who are the bad shooters before reacting. (Note that this is why, in the Oregon campus shooting, an actual armed student kept his gun holstered.) The U.S. is a modern nation, not Somalia, and if you feel scared enough to arm yourself for everyday life--and you're not in the military or in law enforcement--I would suggest that your money would be better spent on counseling.

-And this seems like the least-controversial idea anyone could suggest: Allow the CDC to study gun violence unfettered. Since 1996, the agency hasn't been able to examine gun violence with any kind of rigor. (Thanks, NRA!) Getting good, unbiased data on gun violence is the first step toward addressing it like the public health and safety issue it is.

The auto industry is a great example of how safety has been regulated into both the product and the user. It would be fantastic to see the same type of results with guns:




But nothing will change if we continue to just shrug our shoulders and complain that it's too big of a problem or too big of a burden on gun owners. Nothing resembling those two obstacles have stood in politicians' way as they happily tried to legislate  solutions to--just pulling an issue out of thin air here--terrorism. Terrorism, yes, which has killed exponentially fewer Americans since 2001 than gun violence. And no amount of gut-churning violence seems to be weighty enough to act as an inflection point. You would think the massacre of a bunch of children by a guy using legal firearms would have given us a push in the right direction. But that was years ago, and here we are again.

Like an addiction, the first step is admitting we have a problem. Denying it will just land us right back in the same bloody mess.

And so maybe the next post I write on the subject will actually be short. Maybe even just one word: "Finally!"