On The Future Of The US

A conservative friend wrote me a note about Benghazi. This was my reply.

“If you get a chance please read Stonewalled by Sharyl Attkinson..scary to me the Scott Pelley and CBS suppressed comments about Benghazi after the debate when they knew it was contradict president..

I am really bothered by the active choice to suppress news versus reporting the facts..”

Yeah, Attikinson is an interesting case because it does bring up a few different questions.

1) Is news being suppressed in general or at CBS? Is Attkinson credible?

2) What actually happened during Benghazi? Should we be outraged over it?

3) What should our national reaction be?

Point one is easy to address. In general: Absolutely not. You read plenty of conservative websites and are well aware of what happened. I read pretty much everything and can assure you that the liberal website have reported on it plenty also. Is the general public aware? Probably not as much as you would like. Probably more than I think is healthy. But that’s not a news suppression issue. That’s an issue of living in a culture that doesn’t value civics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmX04EztiTE). In general, the US culture is pretty broken. In general we tend to respond rather than think. In general we are very insulated from what’s going on in the rest of the world. In general we have a self opinion that’s hard to substantiate with facts. But that’s not The Media’s fault. There is good reporting taking place every single day. *Tons* of it, and from a wide variety of sources. The problem isn’t media suppression by the white house, Fox or MSNBC, the problem is cultural apathy. Blaming the media for that is like a child blaming his brother for making him do something bad. Johnny, your brother didn’t break the vase, you did. Stop blaming others for your actions Johnny. The US is, ostensibly, a democracy, but we have a culture of civic illiteracy that’s pretty embarrassing. That almost inescapably leads to poor governance choices.

Point two I suspect we’re going to disagree on. I haven’t read Attkinson’s book, but I’ve read the talking points of course. She seems to have factual gaps in a couple important areas. Key is that she has these gaps *way* after the fact. So she is either deliberately spinning things to support a conservative opinion or the issue is complex enough that it’s hard to remember where all the pieces are and keep everything straight. She had that trouble after taking the time to research and write a book that dealt with only four principle topics (any president is dealing with dozens a day). The administration was dealing with the issue in a very fluid environment where they a) were clearly caught by surprise (right or wrong) and b) didn’t know what they didn’t know. In particular, some in the GOP (and pretty much everyone on tea party controlled Fox) thinks that the response should have been something like “drop everything and engage in super human efforts to save those in the embassy”. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems likely that some things might have been done differently that would have materially effected the outcome, perhaps even to the extent of saving the lost lives. But equally, it could have inflamed already passionate emotions, led to a bigger fight and more lost lives. It’s hard to say on Monday morning, but it is very interesting that as recently as the last president, someone had a very similar situation to which he had a very similar reaction and the conservative media had a very different reaction (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rO3F6mZUaE). The parallels between these events are striking. Maybe that’s why Fox is so outraged now? Maybe they’ve learned their lesson and are disgusted that Obama didn’t? Maybe when the next Republican president makes a similar kind of mistake they will jump down his throat? I kind of doubt it. For me, I blame neither Obama nor Bush for their “in the moment” reactions to their separate trials.

Point three, what should our national reaction be. This is the hard one. As a nation, the culture is one of arguing talking points on the parts of events that are easy to understand, or at least knowable. Something happened, we can know what that something was and the other guys are libtards or fascists that are trying to destroy the country. Politics has always been ugly. In the early 1800′s the New England Palladium accused Jefferson of being an infidel that would destroy the churches of america if elected. The Sumner attack (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caning_of_Charles_Sumner) is another. During the second world war our treatment of Japanese Americans is well documented and shameful. The Red Scare during the 50′s. But the vast majority of the nation is unaware of these kinds of things and/or just doesn’t care. Just as every generation thinks it has discovered love and sex, so too it seems that every generation thinks it has discovered the ugly side of politics and the country (perhaps the world!) is going to crumble.

The national reaction on benghazi has been to continue to buy the mush most of the media is selling. There have been over hundred network news stories, hundreds of cable news stories, thirteen congressional hearings (plus another fifty congressional briefings) and twenty five thousand pages of official documentation. That seems like plenty about an event. We could get into a deep discussion about Attkinson’s findings, the facts of the day and our respective views on what did, should or shouldn’t have happened, but I’ve become increasingly Rooseveltian over the years. Elanor said “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

So what are the ideas that matter in the country today?

For me that list includes:

I want the US to stop acting (essentially) unilaterally in invading other countries and killing hundreds of thousands of other humans based on ignorance, racism and trumped up threats. I *really* want the US to just stop killing people, but I’ve read enough history to understand that the world can be a big ugly place and that being completely pacifist is unrealistic and can itself cause huge problems.
I want the US to treat access to health care as a right.
I want the US to treat decent housing as a right.
I want the US to treat access to healthy food as a right.
I want the US to demand that people be paid a living wage.
I want the US to lead the global move toward sustainable energy.
I want racism to end (including sister issues like islamaphobia).
I want the every child to have a decent education.
I want government funded elections.
I want dramatic reforms to the way we imprison, rehabilitate and disenfranchise our criminals.

But that’s all boring right? How can you run a 24 hour news cycle on ideas? Most of them aren’t even “fixable” in any meaningful sense, they are changes that will take generations to achieve if they even can be. I do know that you can’t finish a project you never start.

And those are just some of the ideas that I hold dear and have actually come to conclusions about. The one that I have no idea how to solve is that of increased automation. The 1800′s and 1900′s were the era of agriculture, where there was a mass migration away from farms to cities. The 1900′s were an entire century of industry that lifted standards of living for hundreds of millions. The 2000′s are probably a century of biology as we gain greater and greater understanding of how life works and give ourselves the capability of living longer, healthier lives.

But something else is going to happen in the 2000′s also. Computers are getting smarter every day. Robotics are getting more and more capable every day. No longer are they just multi-million dollar machines replacing workers on automotive assembly lines (a change that has had tremendous impact already), now they vaccum your floor, fly 98% of every flight you take, will soon be driving your car (the impacts of which could be another 1,500 word essay). They drive the equipment on most large farms and manage a myriad of the downstream processes. They pick orders at large warehouses. With the Internet of Things gaining tremendous traction, this is only likely to increase over the next decade. Over time they will continue to take more and more of the menial and unskilled jobs that humans don’t want to do. These jobs are also the only ones that a lot of people are capable of doing. Ignoring for a moment the reality that eventually computers will also be able to do many skilled and semi-skilled jobs, in the initial decades of this change it is worth noting that it is simply a reality that not everyone is capable of being a knowledge worker. Not everyone is capable of being a mechanical engineer. How will a capitalist economy work when there is only a need for 25% of humanity to work and only 40% of the people are smart enough to do those jobs? After all, capitalism doesn’t reward hard work (ask the uneducated mom who works 60 hours a week at two fast food jobs to try and support her family). Capitalism doesn’t reward things society needs (there is arguably nothing more important to today’s economy than an educated workforce, yet the US seems absolutely willing to race to the bottom on teachers wages). Capitalism rewards one thing and one thing only, scarcity. Gold has little intrinsic value. Diamonds have very little intrinsic value. Both are highly valued because they are scarce. Heck, both have been used as currency precisely because of that scarcity. So what happens in the next 50-200 years when human labor of most kinds is no longer necessary, much less scarce. How do people get access to the basic necessities? How do people get more money? What is the nature of work and resource distribution at that point? I haven’t the first clue, but I suspect it’s going to be a very challenging transition.
So that’s my answer to what the national reaction should be. The answer is that we should collectively be completely and utterly unsurprised that people are fallible, when the stakes are as high as those the President deals with, that fallibility will sometimes cost lives. Be sad about those lives, make tactical changes to try and minimize the chances of losing more lives in the immediate future, then return to working on the bigger ideas.

Fermilab was founded in the early 70′s at the same time that the modern environmental movement really started getting legs. They decided to try and restore a native midwestern tall grass prairie, but no one had ever done that before. The founding director asked the question, “how long will this take?”

“Well, no one has ever done it before, so we really don’t know. It might be a few years. It might be a decade. It might take 30 years.”

The director replied, “well, then I guess we better get started tomorow”.

That’s how I feel about the US, and the longer we, as a culture, give Goats and Benghazi more attention than they deserve, the longer before we can start to work on the stuff that matters.

Ohio Adventure

Spent the weekend with a couple friends in Ohio and found it to be quite an adventure flying yesterday. I got to town two days ago and we spent a day wrenching on Greg’s plane before Evan and I decided to head over to his direction. Greg and I put together this video of the fun we had at his strip.

Afterward, Evan and I flew over to his strip and found the winds tumbling over the hill leading to high turbulence on approach. The Maule is a compromise airplane. It’s pretty good in short fields and it’s pretty good for cross country, but it isn’t exceptional at either. One of the ways that they tuned it for short field was to give it very large flaps, but the tradeoff for that is smaller than typical ailerons. In order to use a strip like Evan’s, I need to be on approach at about 40 knots. The problem was that with my short ailerons I was going stop-to-stop keeping the airplane upright at 60 knots. I tried to touch down, but because I was faster than I needed to be, kept floating each time I hit another little gust of wind. I think I probably would have been ok if I just planted it and worked the brakes, but unfamiliar fields are kind of a bad place to push you luck. All in all, it was *way* sketchier than my approach in Philo. At Swingle’s the strip is pretty well sheltered, so once you are below the trees there isn’t nearly the same level of rolling winds.

Still, I’m looking forward to coming back to both when conditions are more favorable.

After bailing out at Evan’s I planned to go to Columbus as I have been there a few times and like the folks there. Evan is about 60 miles east of Columbus so I had plenty of time to monitor the weather readings and see how things were shaping up. Columbus caters to jet traffic and only has two parallel runways, facing nearly due west. Yesterday the windows were from 220, putting them at 60 degrees across the runway. Crosswind landings in a tailwheel aircraft are always challenging, but the winds were 17 gusting 30. That puts the gusts at a 26kt crosswind component. That’s pretty much a recipe for an insurance claim in anything with a rudder smaller than a DC-3, so I looked around for other options.

Just past KCMH is Ohio State University (KOSU) and they had a runway facing 230, right down the pipe of the winds. Rather than call for a clearance though Columbus class C, I flew a few miles north and went under the outer ring, calling State when I got about 10 miles out. They cleared me for a straight in approach and the I spent what felt like the next 20 minutes trying to go against the wind to get to the airport. Without crosswinds to deal with, I was able to slow to a normal approach speed, about 40kt, on short final which gave me a ground speed of 15-20kt! I think I should be able to log my time as helicopter for this trip! Really weird to feel normal pressures on the controls, see a normal speed on the airspeed indicator but look out the window and feel like you’re in a hover.

The tower there was having everyone take Hotel, Charlie, Alpha to the ramp but, in a move that I both welcomed and found surprising, noticed that I was a tailwheel aircraft and let me taxi all the way down the runway to within a few feet of the ramp so I could avoid having to taxi with the stiff winds. Very forward thinking of them!

On the ramp there was a minor hiccup with a rampie that stood where it was hard for me to see him over the cowl, but soon enough La Naranja Danzante was tied down and sitting pretty until I’m ready to head be to Chicago.

Weekend Update

Tuesday

The weather in the midwest has been preternaturally kind to us the past couple weeks. Day after day of temps in the 70′s, clear skies and calm winds. While I would still rather be back in Mexico, my work has us staying in the US for the moment. At least that makes it easy to go flying.

A few weeks ago I started to wonder how high La Naranja Danzante would climb. It has a reasonably powerful engine, but you still have to feed it oxygen to make the thing work. The higher you go the less of that there is available. It’s also true that the higher you go the less oxygen there is for the pilot! I borrowed an oxygen tank from a friend and set out to see what the plane could do.

Beth and I have done a couple trips to the mountains in a Cessna 172. I also flew out there to do some mountain flying training in the same kind of plane. So, the extent of my experience is quite limited. A 172, without any thermal or wind assist, will only go to 12-13,000 feet. With thermals or winds you can often do better, but that’s not the kind of thing you can flight plan around and my interest is in understanding the normal limitations of the plane.

Tuesday was as smooth a day as you can get. Clear skies and no wind meant that the flying was like glass. Preflight included figuring out how to use the oxygen system and route the tubes from the nasal cannula to the tank and verify that gas was flowing. I took off, headed southwest away from the O’Hare airspace and trimmed for a cruise climb. Cruise climbs have a lower vertical speed than climb at “best rate”. This allows more air to flow over the engine and cool the cylinders.

Even climbing at 15-20 MPH faster than best rate I was still able to climb at 1,500 ft per minute up to about 5,000 feet. From there I was able to climb at about 1,000 ft per minute to 10,000. Good weather and a light plane definitely allowed for great performance.

Once at about 10,000 ft though, the air really starts to get meaningfully thinner and climb rates continually fell off even when paying extra attention to proper leaning.

At about this point I put on the oxygen. Regulations say you must be on oxygen if above 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes or above 14,000. I was pretty sure I was going to be able to reach 14,000 and wanted to try out the oxygen system in any case. The pulse oximeter registered that my blood saturation was about 95% and putting on the oxygen brought it up to a more normal level of 98% within a minute.

Continuing to climb I passed 14,000 as expected and still at about 500 ft per minute. Once I got a 172 up to about 13,000 feet so this was the highest I had ever piloted an aircraft and it was still performing really well, though the manifold pressure was down to around 17 inches.

In the end I ran out of airspace before I ran out of climb. Going above 18,000 ft demands an instrument flight plan and I didn’t have one so I topped out at 17,900 ft and still climbing at 250ft per minute.

Friday

Every Friday Central County Airport in Iola, WI has a fly-in lunch. We’ve had a week dominated by a high pressure system that has continued to bring great weather. I called my buddy Chris and told him to call in sick, we’re going to the lunch.

Got to the airport around 10 and fired up the plane. In this case, the plane was a 1947 Cessna 195 restored to like-new condition. The rumble of the 300hp Jacobs radial on the front of the old bird mixing the calm air and pulling us into the sky made it hard not to think of aviation in by-gone days.

The plane doesn’t have an autopilot, but the calm skies made hand flying a breeze as we motored our way an hour and a half north. As we got to the area, things started to get busy. We were clearly far from the only people who had the idea and the pattern was very busy. When we got into the area there were 7 planes in the pattern. We made a standard entry and radio calls all the way around. Things were busy, but organized. We made a low pass for the crowd and landed.

The landing was sketchy. I had been to this airport a year or two prior, but landed the opposite direction. Landing to the north was a whole different adventure. The trees on the approach end are much closer to the end of the runway, making for a challenging appearance. The runway itself is just a mess, with a huge divot right where you would want to touch down if making a short field landing. Needless to say, we bounced mightily off the divot.

The lunch was good, as always. They change the menu every week and this time it was pork chops, brats, ham steaks, quarter pounders and extra long hot dogs. We arrived a few minutes early, but the turn out was so large that they were already out of pork chops when we got served and I got the last serving of ice cream for dessert. They served about 200 people and, given that they are all volunteers, probably netted about a thousand dollars for the day. I bet that’s more than some EAA chapters make in dues for the year!

Saturday

Saturday was a beautiful day with a sad start. A local RC flying club had recently lost a member. Middle aged guy mowed down while riding his bike. They contacted some new friends I’ve been hanging out with at C09 (Morris, IL) about the possibility of doing a missing man formation flight. My new flight instructor invited me to go along before our lesson. Our formation had five planes, including two with smoke systems. We took off from Morris at about 9:00 and headed toward the RC flying field, getting into formation on the way.

Our first pass was just a simple formation and we circled back for another. On the second pass we’re in the number 2 plane so pull up sharply to be the missing man. At this point the formation goes pretty much out the window as we all make a series of maneuvers for the memorial attendees. At the end they all yelled their thanks into the radio.

From there my CFI and I headed east to the practice area to do some aerobatics training. We flew out to the aerobatics box and did some simple maneuvers. A few wing overs and a couple rolls, but unfortunately the cumulative effect of some of the aggressive figures in the missing man coupled with a few things in the box was just too much and I started getting a little nauseous. We headed back to Morris to call it a day.

We next went back to Morris and found that a bunch of folks were getting ready to head out on a lunch run. We joined them in the Pitts and watched the parachuters land while I had a chicken salad.

Next, we headed to DeKalb for lunch. It was the summertime pig roast complete with the Steve Miller cover band. Since it was second lunch, all I had was dessert. Someone potlucked in an apple strudel full of butter and cinnamon and I added a side of ice cream to round things out.

Our trip home was a three ship formation which, as I was in the Pitts, we elected to fly inverted. Surprisingly difficult to maintain over an extended period of time!

Sunday

Every summer the Joliet Airport has a combined airplane and car show. This year is my first at the airport and I was happy to see the date approaching with day after day of sunny skies and calm winds. When I got to the airport at 9:00 everything was already in full swing. The lunch vendors were getting setup and the tents were packed with people enjoying the pancake breakfast. The pancake griddle was an entertaining home brew turntable. The pancakers (that’s the term for people making pancakes, right?) just stood in one place while a big slab of metal spun around in front of them. I think the theory was that they should be able to put the cakes on at one station, flip them as they went past another one and finally pull them off at a third. The wheel was spinning way to fast though, so they ended up putting an entire wheel of pancakes on, trying to flip them in about the right order (made difficult by the fact that there wasn’t much pattern to how they were put on) and then pull them all off at once (again, in the right order).

The car show had some nice cars, though as a car show virgin I was entertained by what kinds of cars some people thought worth showing. One that caught my eye in particular was a mid-80′s LTD sedan. Not just a pretty ordinary car, but not even cleanly restored. Just kind of a normal car in decent shape for its age and a fresh wax job. It was sitting just a few paces away from a meticulously restored and maintained 50′s vintage Corvette.

On the ramp it seemed like almost everyone had their plane out, so we had quite a variety. I think my plane might have been the newest at only 12 years old. There were maybe as many as ten that were built in the 1940′s, including my buddy Chris’s 1947 Cessna 195 that I’ve been lucky to fly in a bunch over the past few months.

In terms of flying, we took the 195 up for a quick formation flight, but the highlight was when I got to fly in a TBM Avenger for the first time. The startup of the engine alone is amazing with a deep rumble, snorting, gasping and shaking the entire airplane to life. We had to taxi through a big crowd of people to the runway. The big plane drew pretty much everyone at the festival around to see us up close. Lots of people waving and taking videos.

Tom pushed the throttle forward and soon we were scooting into the sky. We had a couple JROTC kids in the plane also, including one kid who had never been in a plane before. What an amazing first ride she had!

Surprise! You’re In A Rail Yard Space Shuttle Book!

Dreams are funny things. They reveal a side of the mind that can be very different from ‘normal’ thought. Heck even the notion of normal is a bit of an odd designation given that we spend something like a third of our lives dreaming. And what about surprises in dreams. You are walking down the street in your dream and are stunned to suddenly be hit by a bus. How can you possibly be surprised when your mind is also responsible for creating the bus that hits you.

In any case, I had a fun dream last night.

As many of you know, I wrote a book last decade about grid computing. A boring book with a limited audience (interestingly we sold about a third of our total volume in India), it served it’s purpose even while the world of computing moved on from grid computing to the cloud.

In my dream it was present time (2012) and my publisher called to convince me that I needed to talk with all my friends and get them to write reviews of the book on amazon to increase sales. I was flattered, of course, to hear that they thought a seven year old book about an unpopular and misunderstood technology was still worth reading, but they made a strong case that most of what we talked about was, in fact, central to the notion of cloud computing and we should be recognized as pioneers and not the authors of a book best used as a sleep aid.

Deciding that they were right I hit the phones and started calling people. Of course, in real life not only wouldn’t I be so easily convinced but I would have a very difficult time calling my friends as I only have numbers for perhaps 10% of them. I started wandering around the office while talking on my headset and noticed a freight train climbing into the beautiful clear blue sky.

Well, that’s weird. It seems my office is in a railroad switching yard.

As I wander around convincing my friends to write amazon reviews I’m fascinated by the complexity of getting freight loads positioned on the right trains, but I keep coming back to the loaded trains that are climbing into the sky.

On further inspection I notice that our yard is in a river valley and the trains aren’t flying at a 45 degree angle, but are actually on rails that have been painted the same color blue as the sky. (My ‘normal’ mind knows fully well that 2% is a steep grade for a train and tracks are generally more like .5%. Who knows where that knowledge went during the dream.) The steep tracks raise the trains up to the level of the surrounding terrain and off they go to their destinations.

My phone rings and I get called by a customer who wants to know if I can see the space shuttle from where I am. They are in Texas and I’m, it’s revealed at this moment, in the Mississippi river valley near St. Louis. But I look up and sure enough there is a giant delta wing aircraft with the space shuttle attached to the top of the left wing. It’s doing a series of low passes so everyone on the ground can get a good look at it. As you might imagine (certainly I did), it’s majestic. The delta wing is larger than any ever constructed (in order to carry the space shuttle, of course) and the shuttle looks like a trophy in a display case mounted, as it is, in a completely unflyable location on the left wing.

Everyone is excited that I get to see it and, as my customer and I begin a conversation about the future of cloud computing, I wake up.