Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Loose $8.4 Billion and be eligible for $160 mil severance Package.

Stan O’Neil, the CEO of Merrill Lynch got canned today for loosing $8.4 billion last quarter speculating in sub prime mortgages. His severance package includes vested stock options worth $36.8 mil, yet to vest stock options $86 mil, 24.8 mil in retirement benefits and 4.8 mil of “defered compensation” (a tax dodge). Not bad for a guy who racked up the biggest loss in Merrill Lynch history. I shudder to think what the retirement bennies are for a CEO who actually makes money.

Plastic Panic

The News Hour with Jim Lehrer reported that a chemical used to make polycarbonate plastic (the clear hard stuff used for Nalgenes and plastic baby bottles, among many other things), is suspected of being harmful to humans. Scene shift to a comfortable living room full of mothers and small babies. The babies are all sucking on plastic bottles. The mothers are all upset that the plastic might be doing bad things to their babies. Some of them announced plans to convert back to glass bottles. None of them mentioned going back to breast feeding. Scene shift, a scientific conference issuing a report using the phrase “great concern”. Then a lady scientist in her lab, white lab coat and all, expressing “grave concern”. Then another conference issuing another report saying “no cause for alarm”, and a male scientist (sport coat and tie, no white lab coat) saying “no problem”.

I know little to nothing about organic chemistry, so I have no idea which side is right on this one. But I’m glad my ex-wife breast fed our three children and I will recommend my daughter do the same when the time comes. And I think I’ll start buying my whiskey in glass bottles. None of this

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The price of Greenness.

Some real numbers on hybrid cars.

Car Cost,new MPG (City&Hwy)
Toyota Corolla $14926 32
Toyota Prius $22110 46
Cadillac Deville $42790 25
Lexus GS450h $52065 24

Sorry that the columns don't line up, blogger has it's own ideas about justifying text.

Prius costs so much more than the Corolla that you won't recover the costs thru savings on gas anytime soon. The car will be sold before the owner breaks even. Caddy costs less and gets better gas mileage than the Lexus. Plus the Caddy Northstar engine has enough power to beat the Lexus off the stoplights.

The mark of an advanced economy

I'm getting my exercise, walking down a rural back road the other day. Along the way a bright yellow backhoe is putting in a new septic system for a small ski lodge. Despite the fresh yellow paint on the backhoe, it isn't a Caterpillar, it's a Hyundai, come all the way from South Korea. That's a long way from northern New Hampshire. Obviously the Hyundai people have created a machine good enough to compete successfully with the best (Caterpillar) .
I tried to think how many other countries are good enough to export manufactured goods to the North American market. Japan, South Korea, China, Germany, England, Sweden and probably a few others that don't come readily to mind. But compared to the 192 nations that are UN members, it's a short list. Maybe we should rank nations as first world, second world, third world and so on by looking at who can export manufactured goods to who. First world would be limited to those nations that can export the the US. Third world would be the countries that don't manufature or don't export. Second world might be all the in-betweens.

Big new hanger at Groom Lake (aka Area 51)

The new hanger is recently closed in. Siding and roof are up, which is most of the work, there is little finish carpentry to do in an aircraft hanger. It's 185 by 350 feet, large enough to accept most large aircraft such as B1, B2, c17. The interesting part of the Aviation Week article is how little they really know about what's going on inside the Groom lake fence. They describe earthworks and towers, all "purpose unknown". The best photos come from commercial satellites, available to anyone. Aviation Week has a well earned and longstanding reputation for knowing nearly everything. In this case it looks like Groom Lake security has been tight enough to foil even Aviation Week.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

What kind of war are we fighting? And can we win it?

Title of the lead article in this month’s Commentary magazine. Fifteen notable foreign policy experts agree that we are fighting World War IV against Islamic extremists, and that it can be won, but it is going to be hard. The experts:

Fouad Ajami Johns Hopkins University

John Bolton US ambassador to the UN 2005-2006

Max Boot Council on Foreign Relations. Author

Reuel Marc Gerecht American Enterprise Institute, Author

Victor Davis Hanson Hoover Institute, Author

Daniel Henninger Deputy editor, Wall St. Journal

Martin Kramer Institute for Near East Policy

William Kristol Editor, Weekly Standard

Andrew C. McCarthy Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

David Pryce-Jones Author of “Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews

Claudia Rosett Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

Amir Taheri Former editor of Khayan, an Iranian newspaper

Ruth Wedgewood Hoover Institution

James Q. Wilson Pepperdine University

R. James Woolsey Former Director of Central Intelligence

For Malpractice suits try a fetal heart rate monitor

Long WSJ article about obstetricians, fetal heart rate monitors, rates of Cesarean section, and malpractice suits. It brought back memories. Twenty years ago I designed a fetal heart rate monitor. It is an electronic instrument that is now mandatory during birth and delivery. It creates a paper graph displaying the fetal heart rate in beats per minute. Normal fetal heart rate is around 140 beats per minute, and it varies up and down during birth. A prolonged drop in fetal heart rate is a bad sign (“fetal distress”). If the fetal heart rate remains low, most obstetricians will opt for a Cesarean section. As you might expect rates of Cesarean section have jumped from 7% in the 1970’s (before the instrument was in widespread use) to 25% today (where every birth and delivery room has one).

It would be nice to conclude that high technology and skillful surgery have improved the quality of life. Unfortunately that happens not to be the case. No one can point to an improvement in the infant mortality rate. The same percentage of babies die today as they did before the fetal heart rate monitor was invented. Thousands of monitors at $10,000 each and a million more Cesarean sections a year have not improved a baby’s chances of survival to age one. The obvious conclusion is that many of the Cesarean sections are unnecessary.

Malpractice suits are driving this trend. Of all the medical specialists, obstetricians are the most likely to be sued. If they don’t use the fetal heart rate monitor, that’s grounds for a suit. If they don’t call for a Cesarean section after the monitor shows fetal distress, they get sued. In fact, whenever anything goes wrong, they get sued, in which case the fetal heart monitor paper chart goes to court and experts interpret the traces for the jury. The defendant’s lawyer will summon experts to testify that the obstetrician did every thing right; the plaintiff’s lawyer will summon experts to show the opposite.

In short, a technological advance has managed to raise costs without improving anything.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

On the goodness of the M16 rifle.

The M16 has been in service for better than 40 years now. Previous US rifles (Krag, Springfield, Garand, and M14) had much shorter service lives. The M16 represents a compromise between the full automatic Tommy gun and the semi automatic Garand rifle. Troops love fully automatic weapons. They figure firing off a full magazine improves their odds of a hit, and makes up for being out numbered or ambushed. The M16 is an improvement on the very popular Tommy gun in that .22 cal M16 ammunition is lighter than .45 cal Tommy gun ammo. Lighter means the troops can carry more of it, which is important when 20 rounds will be gone in one quick burst.
The privates may love full auto weapons but the men responsible for battlefield ammunition resupply don't. These men include everyone from the rank of corporal up to general officer. These guys all figure giving the troops full auto rifles means they will shoot off all their ammo in about 47 seconds leaving their outfit in the the deepest of doo-doo.
Looks like the Army hierarchy has won out on this issue. Unlike the Viet Nam era M16s, the new ones only fire a three round burst when the trigger is held down to conserve ammo. The old M16's would keep firing until the magazine was empty.
In order to get fully automatic fire from the M16, the designers had to reduce the power of the round significantly from that of the old .30 cal Garand rifle. The full power rifle rounds kicked hard. The recoil from such a powerful round throws the full auto weapon off target, sending the second and succeeding shots into the blue. The lower power .22 cal M16 round has very little kick, yielding a rifle that is easily controlled in full auto fire. The round has more power (and less weight) than the old .45 cal Tommy gun round, so in that respect the M16 is a step forward. But the .22 cal round doesn't hit as hard as the .30 cal rifle rounds in use in WWII and Korea. The troops in Iraq have complained of enemies picking themselves up and shooting back after taking an M16 hit.
The M16 trades off a lower power round for full automatic fire. This trade off is generally successful. A few soldiers would be willing to give up fully automatic for a more powerful round, but the bulk of the troops want full auto and will accept the loss of power needed to provide it. The competing AK47 makes the same tradeoff as the M16, a lower power round and full automatic fire.

Red Sox/Rockies at Denver. Game 3

The Colorado fans cheer as loudly as the Boston fans. There are fans in wild costumes, fans waving white handkerchiefs. Lot of spirit. The spirit seems to hold up even tho the Sox are ahead 5 nothing in the fifth inning.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Paint your pegboard.

My wood shop has a couple of modest sized pegboards for holding tools. The dark brown color of the native pegboard just radiated darkness and gloom thru out the shop. Today I finished giving both light sucking pieces a coat of off white, and voila, the entire shop is brighter. I can see to work the drill press, I can find the chuck key without a flashlight. Will wonders never cease.

Fashion Bullies attack, in middle school (WSJ)

Long and amusing piece in the Lifestyle section (Section D) of the Journal explaining the deadly serious business of selecting designer clothes for middle school kids. Wear the wrong designer label and get ostracized. "The better brands you wear the more popular you are" says an 8th grader from Alberta Canada. Cool.
Funny, I don't remember designer clothes being an issue at my daughter's high school just a few years ago. The "in" fashion was "urban grunge", to the despair of parents and faculty. It was inexpensive, but the kids looked awful all the time.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle crashes due to pilot error (Avation Week)

In the early morning of Apr 25 2006 a Predator B crashed roughly ten miles northwest of Nogales International Airport. The Predator was being flown by/for the Border Patrol (now US customs and Border Protection, under Homeland Security). According to the NTSB accident report the Predator control station featured two redundant Pilot Payload Operator consoles, PPO 1 and PPO 2. Shortly after 3 am a telemetry "lockup" on PPO 1 prompted the pilot to switch over to PPO 2. The NTSB found that the pilot didn't follow checklist procedures for the switch and failed to notice that PPO 2's fuel shutoff lever was set to "off". As a result the airborne predator obediently shut down its engine and crashed.
That's about as dumb as landing with the gear up.
Several questions come to mind. Like why hasn't the "telemetry lockup" (aka total failure) problem been fixed? Why does the console even have a fuel shutoff lever? It's not a very useful flight control, and in this case its presence destroyed a $3.2 million dollar drone.
And then the big question. Why is the Border Patrol flying super expensive UAV's instead of two place Cessnas which can be had new for $100,000? The only reason to use unmanned aircraft is to avoid risking the aircrew's life in dangerous airspace. Do the illegal immigrants come over packing Stinger missiles and shooting down the Border Patrol? I don't think so.
Two men in a light plane with plain old binoculars will do a better job patrolling the border than Predator ever will. And for a lot less taxpayer's money.

Anti-IED laser weapon ( Aviation Week)

"Boeing researchers say they have demonstrated the company's Avenger mounted laser system can disable improvised explosive devices and un exploded ordinance. During tests at Redstone Arsenal, the 1-kw solid state laser destroyed five types of explosives" That's all it said, no pictures, no more explanations.
Avenger is Boeing's Humvee mounted anti-aircraft system. Armed with guns and/or surface-to-air missiles (SAM) some 600 systems have been deployed. Boeing swapped out the conventional weapons and dropped in a laser for experimental purposes. The system also was able to destroy a couple of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) parked on the ground, not as impressive as blowing 'em out of air, but it does show the laser has enough zap to be dangerous. Presumably the IED's were likewise sitting out in the open, rather than buried under the road, although it didn't say one way or t'other.
Lotta things you'd like to know. Was the laser continuous or pulsed? Was it visible light, infrared, or ultraviolet? How long could it keep burning before running out of fuel or overheating? Does "solid state" mean something like a giant LED shaped into an optical cavity with one end half-silvered? Does "1-kw" refer to power into the laser or laser power out? How efficient is the laser at converting electricity to death ray? Can it run off the Humvee battery or does it need it's own engine generator? Is it worth searching the web for details or is everything classified?

Putting on a show for the World Series

Good old Fenway Park was all swept and mowed and looking fairly good despite its age. All the players were introduced. John Williams conducted the Star Spangled Banner. The Air Force did a flyover. Stands were full, enthusiastic fans were cheering at full voice. Boston took the lead early and increased it through out the game which made fans cheer louder. Mother Nature sent a light-to-medium rain, you could see it beading up on the batter's helmets, but everyone wanted to get on with it, no one wanted "game-called-on-acount-of-rain". I kept thinking of that famous Norman Rockwell cover shows three huge umpires, all dressed in black, looking at the sky and getting ready to call the game. Not a chance last night. Both sides played well. The Red Sox classic white uniforms looked very baseball. Colorado was wearing black shirts with white piping over gray pinstriped pants. Not an effective combination. If you are gonna wear black, you gotta go all the way, Colorado should go with black pants to match the black shirts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What cost Biofuel?

Cost to produce a barrel of biofuel: (From the WSJ

From cassava $45
From jatropha $43
From sugar cane $45
from corn $83
from soybeans $122

For reference, a barrel of the real thing is going for nearly $90 today.

Hybrid or All Electric Car Makers Take Sides (WSJ)

According to the Journal's automotive guys in Japan, Toyota and GM favor hybrids, Renault and Nissan (Carlos Ghosn Motors?) and Honda like the pure electric approach. You gotta wonder who's smoking what here.
Pure electric cars are in mass production right now. You can buy one today, no waiting list. We call 'em electric golf carts. They are too slow to venture on the freeway, they don't keep the rain out, no heater, and the range is not much more than a few turns around the golf course. This level of performance hardly exceeds that of a bicycle, for ten times the price of a bicycle. It's the best you can do powered with lead acid car batteries. The batteries just don't store enough juice to do any better.
The pure electric car people are hoping for lithium ion batteries that store more juice, and be lighter (lithium weighs less than lead) allowing an electric car good enough for commuting and the occasional run to the grocery store. Forget about longer trips , you use a conventional gasoline or diesel car for that.
Lithium ion has two big problems. First, they cost like crazy. For $50 I bought a new lead acid battery big enough to crank my Caddy. Same money only gets you a lithium ion battery big enough to run a laptop for a couple of hours. Secondly lithium ion is a fire hazard. There is a very impressive bit of video out there showing a laptop bursting into flames and burning down to a puddle of plastic on a conference room table. A failure in the battery released all the stored energy at once. Now visualize the fire when a lithium battery big enough to run a car lets go like that. And how collision proof are these batteries going to be?
Then there is the hybrid mafia. I do allow that Toyota has a good product in the Prius, good styling, and it's selling like hot cakes. They have a waiting list of eager customers. Not bad for a very tiny low performance car.
Too bad the Prius doesn't make economic sense. The gas mileage isn't all that great and it is very expensive. You'd have to drive the Prius a million miles before the modest saving on gas repaid the stiff purchase price. You do better with a conventional small car, it costs half what a Prius does. Your Prius will be dead and gone long before it reaches break even on gas. We won't even speculate what a battery replacement on a Prius will cost. Car batteries last about 4 winters, I'd not expect a Prius propulsion battery to last any longer. Also, Prius maintainance costs on a dual propulsion system to be twice that of a conventional car with a single propulsion system.
The real answer is diesel. The 1970's diesel VW Rabbit got 40 mph, better than the much costlier and complicated hybrids get in 2007. The Europeans have figured this out and better than half their cars are diesel today.

World Series starts tonight. Go Sox

Last Saturday night, the Red Sox managed to win the American league pennant in the seventh and last game of the playoff. The game was at Fenway Part. Place was packed with ardent Red Sox fans cheering their heads off. Typical Red Sox performance, pull out a win at the very last minute. Or not. Every Boston fan remembers the curse of the Bambino, the 85 year losing streak where Boston never won a World Series. The curse goes back to the 1920's when sophisticated Red Sox management traded Babe Ruth (the Bambino) to the New York Yankees. We also remember the Series against Cincinnati back 20 years ago when the Sox managed to loose to Cinncinati in the last inning of the last game.
All this unhappy history was turned around in '04 when the Sox did finally win the series. At last. Now Boston gets a second chance, going up against a new expansion team, the Colorado Rockies, of whom I had never heard before this season. Colorado managed to win 21 out of their last 22 games, so newbies or not, they could be tough.
Saturday night I received an email from the NH republic party urging all good Republicans to watch the presidential debate, also on Saturday night. I replied that all good Red Sox fans just had to watch Boston play for the league championship. Some things are sacred, and watching the Sox win is one of them.

Save the ski industry, issue more H2B visas

Been listening to new Vermont Senator, Bernie Saunders this morning on Vermont Public Radio (VPR). Bernie came out four square against furrin low wage immigrants driving down the wages of his rural Vermont constituents. He started talking about the ski resort business as if it was Ford Motor or something. They have to pay a living wage, they need to offer entry level jobs to Vermont high school graduates, on and on. Actully young guys don't work at ski resorts for money. NO way. Young guys work at ski resorts 'cause they like to ski, and the resorts let the workers ride the lifts for free. Up here we call it ski bumming, you take a winter off and just ski. Best job is ski patrolman, that way you ski all the time, when you are working and on your day off. When you are 19, life doesn't get much better than skiing all day. I hadn't heard of any ski places around here failing to find enough young skiers to keep the place open.
Listening to Bernie, you'd think the resorts were heartless scrooges grinding their workers into the dirt (Bernie used to be a Marxist and still uses the old cold war/class war cliches). In real life, everyone in the ski business is in it 'cause they love to ski. Nobody (especially not the resort owners) makes much money at it, but they all have a good time.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

18 top toys according to Amazon

Amazon lists the top 18 toys. If these are the top 18 no wonder kids are into computer games.
Games, Barbies, Hannah Montana dolls, action figures. No electric trains, no cowboy hats and cap guns, no Lego sets, no Brio, no toy cars and trucks, no chemistry sets, no tricycles or bicycles, no ride on toys, no baseball gloves or hockey sticks, no plastic models, no Playmobile, no lead soldiers, no toy cannon to shoot up the soldiers with, no Erector sets, in short none of the really great toys I was lucky enough to have as a child.
Now a days there are just two kinds of toy stores, the Kids are Us/Walmart big boxes where the price is not outrageous but the selection is narrow, or the artsy places like FAO Schwartz were the prices are outrageous and the selection, abet broader, is beautifully made toys that appeal to only to grandparents rather than to real children.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Alan Dershowitz calls Oxford Union "hard left"

Civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz
is certainly no neo-con. He calls the Oxford Union " a propaganda platform for extremist views, primarily of the hard-left", which means Oxford Union is really far out in let field.

Michael Yon gives real skinny from Iraq

The best reporting from Iraq is coming from the likes of Michael Yon
Michael's photography is suburb, he is out in the field with the troops seeing what's really going down, and writing about it. He is honest as the day is long. The MSM reporters hole up in Baghdad hotel rooms and know nothing they don't read in Army press releases.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Words of the Weasel Part 4


Good sounding adjective often used to make ineffective things sound effective. For instance “holistic medicine” refers to a mixture of faith healing and herbal remedies. A “holistic approach” is recommended for dealing with thorny problems to which no solution is apparent. "A holistic approach" always sounds good.


Bureaucrat speak for “finish”. Finalize is wordier and more pompous sounding than the standard word.

Cycle of Violence

Usually used to describe things like the Arab-Israeli or Indian-Pakistani conflicts. The phrase implies a moral equivalence between the two sides, and that if only both sides would refrain from retaliation for the other side’s acts of violence, peace would break out. Shakespeare omce said “A plague on both your houses”. Use of this phrase suggests the commentator is ignorant of the history and causes of the conflict or too lazy to become informed Most newspeople are profoundly ignorant and lazy.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

$1.2 Billion for 2288 Armored Trucks (MRAPS)

The Marines are buying 2288 Mine Resistance Ambush Protected (MRAPS) trucks for Iraq. That's $500,000 per vehicle, which is a lot. Details here
Lets hope the things are really mine proof. Be a shame if after spending all that money a bigger land mine can take them out. These things don't carry much in the way of armament, they hope to carry enough armor to keep the crew safe without giving much, if any, offensive power. It's a defensive weapon. Are we buying a mobile Maginot Line?

Words of the Weasel Part 3

Change the dynamic

A vague phrase indicating a desire for change without any indication of what the change will be. It would more honest to describe the desired change and give some reasons for making same. Allowing politicians to “change the dynamic” is a free pass to do just about anything they want. This fraught with peril.

Think outside the box

Irritating and overworked cliché meaning to find a new idea. It implies that people less intelligent than the writer have their thoughts limited to a “box”. The writers are usually journalists who are less than intelligent themselves.

Paradigm Shift

A phrase suggesting a profound change in ways of thinking with no indication as to what the change might be. It sounds good, and has been used to describe a great many trivial or vacuous ideas.

Put in Place

Vague phrase suggesting the proposed action is easy or trivial and as easy as packing items into a suitcase. For example: “Hostilities between Irael and Hamas will cease as soon as an agreement is put in place”. This sounds much easier to do than “Negotiate a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas.”

Speak truth to power

An offensive phrase that suggests most people don’t speak the truth from cowardice and suggests that “power” is mean spirited and vindictive. One is expected to speak the truth all the time, whether speaking to the president of the United States, or a McDonald’s counter person. No American citizen is too timid to speak his or her mind to anyone, at any time. Public officials and business executives don’t engage in personal reprisals against citizens whether said citizen has spoken out against them or remained quiet.


Fancy word that means “use”. Why not write “use” instead?

Putting a Little Pizzazz in the Family Sedan (WSJ)

The article leads off with an attractive picture of a bright red '08 Chevy Malibu.
"The everyday family sedan is undergoing a transformation from stodgy to stylish as drivers begin to demand more from their basic transportation than a nondescript appliance on wheels. "
"Industry research indicates that consumers care more about styling than they used to, whether they are buying an expensive luxury vehicle or a bread and butter sedan."
Actually, real car people know that styling is, and always has been, extremely important to all car buyers. When Detroit suits say "consumers care more about styling than they used to" it tells you why the Detroit big three are being driven out of business. The suits running them know nothing about selling cars.
Before the Katrina gasoline price shock, the big three had retreated to the niche market of big pickups and SUV's. Three dollars a gallon killed that market. The suits didn't understand that the real automobile market is for small-to-medium size four passenger sedans. Drive Rt128 and just look at what folk drive during rush hour. Mostly four passenger sedans with a just a sprinkling of pickups and SUV's. Big companies like GM cannot survive on market niches, they have to serve the mass high volume market to generate enough cash flow to keep themselves afloat. The pickup and SUV market niche isn't big enough to support a GM. Let alone a Ford and a Chrysler.

Styling sells, and what's better, good styling comes free. It costs the same to stamp sheet metal into stylish shapes as it does to stamp it into boring and dowdy shapes. You want to make money on Chevy Cobalt and Impala? Give them good exciting styling. A well styled car sells better, and sells for more money than a plain-to-ugly one.

The Detroit big three have a lot of other problems, but the lack of well styled cars is a big one, and one that real car guys might be able to fix. Chevy's problem is, out of the six sedans and six SUV's on their website, the only one I'd care to own is Corvette. Corvette is a great car, but it's a niche market, there aren't enough guys with Corvette money to support the GM behemoth. Used to be, Impala was an exciting car that everyone wanted to own. GM has to make Impala, Cobalt, Malibu, and Aveo into desirable cars or Toyota and Honda are gonna turn the General into roadkill.

GM needs to focus on restyling the bread and butter cars and stop wasting money redesigning pickups and SUVs.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A really useful patent

I am building some shelves to display my train models. Thinking to get some inspiration for style and color by looking at what others have done I googled for Wall Display Cases Model Railroad Wood. Big surprise, Google turned up a PATENT here.
This is patentable? US Constitution Article II section 8 says
"The Congress shall have the power .... to promote the progress of science and the useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right the their respective writings and discoveries"

Shelves for holding models promote science and the useful arts? And are not prior art? Or obvious to one skilled in the art?

How many other mickey mouse patents have been granted in the US? One such mickey mouse patent cost the Blackberry company (RIM) something like $675 mil just a few months ago. Right now the US patent system discourages research and development, 'cause we all know that no matter what we develop, somebody has a patent on it and will sue, soon as we start making money. Patents have been accomulating since 1789, and searching them is impossible, too many of 'em and they are written to confuse the reader rather than explain what the claims are.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Does Osama Bin Laden deserve any civil rights?

On one hand, I will go to any length to capture or kill terrorists. On the other hand, American citizens, like myself, deserve full protection from government prosecution. Does US law allow tougher treatment for terrorists than full US citizens? Should it? How do you distinguish between scumbag terrorists and virtuous citizens entitled to Miranda rights, habeas corpus, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, court appointed lawyers, and fair trials? Suppose the terrorist is a US citizen?

The Republicans attempted to make such a distinction in the FISA bill currently before the House. The Republicans planned to offer a motion that politically vulnerable Democrats would have a hard time voting against. The amendment would have said that nothing in the bill could limit surveillance of Osama bin Laden and terrorist organizations.

This would have established that Osama and terrorists get less protection than ordinary citizens. The democratic leadership didn't like this idea and the FISA bill has been pulled for rethink.

A reasonable compromise would allow FBI/CIA/NSA surveillance ( tap phones, read email, open US mail, demand billing records, hack into computers) of foreign (Russian) spies, members of terrorist outfits on the Attorney General's list, and foreign nationals on foreign soil without any sort of warrant. Surveillance of US citizens at home or abroad , and foreigners on US soil need a warrant from a court.

Cadillac, the economy car

Four year old DeVille: $9K. Less than a new econobox. Gas Mileage 23 city 27 highway, better than any SUV or minivan. As good as some new econoboxes. Repair cost to 100K miles: zip. Life expectancy: another 100K miles. How can you go wrong?
Deals like this aren't hard to find, there are plenty of Caddys out there and many of them are in excellent shape. The Northstar aluminum double overhead cam V8 has enough power to get the car well above the speed limit in no time at all. Passing campers on two lane roads becomes a pleasure. Enough trunk room to take children and their gear to camp or college. Unbeatable prestige factor. Back seat with real leg room. Front wheel drive and antilock brakes for snow. Quiet and smooth riding, really takes the curse off commuting to work.
Buying tips: Make sure the head gaskets haven't failed. Head gasket leaks allow hot combustion gases to get into the engine coolant causing overheating. Repair cost is $ManyK. Take a test drive, work the engine hard and watch the temp gauge. Temp should stabilize at 195-200 degrees. If it runs hotter it's a bad sign. Radiator cooling fans don't come on until 230 degrees, if stuck in traffic you may see the temp ease up to 230 and then drop down as the fans cut in. Check all the fancy gadgets, power trunk latch, power windows, power seats, air conditioner and heater, power antenna, power door locks, radio, tape player, dash instruments, compass. Some gadgets you can do without, some you can fix your self. Gadgets fixed by a dealer will be costly. The gadgets are pretty reliable, all mine still work at 100K miles.
Pull the error codes. Find the heater/airconditioner controls. Press "OFF" and "Warmer" simultaneously and the car will display all the trouble codes remembered by the car's clever microprocessor. Write them down and when you get home look them up on Google and see if there are any deal breakers. Most codes will say "hist" meaning the fault was detected once or twice and then went away. I wouldn't worry about "hist" codes, concentrate on the active ones.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Take a slip and loose your job

Boeing announced that Mike Blair, head of the 787 Dreamliner project has been kicked upstairs and replaced by Pat Shanahan. Hmm, slip a $150 billion dollar project half a year and you are toast.

Dovetail Joint

I made my first dovetail joint today. It was a test joint, joining a couple of piece of pine scrap, but it worked, fits together well enough (could be better, but heh, it's a hobby). On the scale of things in cabinet making, dovetail joints are pretty far up there, only hand carving Chippendale ball & claw chair legs has more prestige than doing dovetail joints by hand, at least in western cabinet making. The major trick is cutting them accurately enough so that the "tails" mate with the "pins" without too much gappiness. Tools needed are surprisingly few, try square, carpenter's bevel, back saw, coping saw and a double cut file. Joseph probably had these tools back in 1 AD.
Modern professionals will use a special jig and a router. The jig is a masterpiece and costs as much as the router.

Take no small slips

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner program has just announced that the plane is going to be 6 months late. This flagship program, with 710 confirmed orders, is the future of Boeing. No other program can touch the 787 for numbers of aircraft and dollars. These things go for $200 mil or so, which makes 710 of 'em worth about $150 billion dollars. Many of them are exported, which does good things for the US balance of payments. The schedule slip means all that cash flow doesn't start for another 6 months, which has gotta hurt. New airplane programs are incredible money sinks. Years of R&D work, zillions of dollars for parts, huge project team all drawing salaries, and no money coming in until they deliver the product. This slip means Boeing's money is going out for six months longer, which is a whole potful of money.
If the Boeing program managers are good, the slip will be only six months. If you are going to slip a program, better to take one big slip than a lot of small ones. The amount of ill will generated among senior management, customers and other stake holders is about the same for a big slip as a small one. It's tempting to make the program slip as small as you can, thinking you look better that way. "We are only a few weeks late, that's not so bad". But, if a few weeks later you have to admit to another small slip, and then another, and another, your credibility goes down the drain, and all the stakeholders have multiple chances to get mad at you. Better to do a realistic reschedule and take enough time so your team can in fact meet the new schedule even if it means a long slip.

Phasers are coming

"Raytheon's directed energy group has demonstrated a 20 KW laser that can detonate mortar rounds at 500 meters. It comprises 40 low power lasers bundled together and boresighted but operating without the use of a beam control device. Raytheon plans to upgrade the lasers for longer range anti artillery and anti unmanned aircraft missions. The company also fired a kilowatt class solid state illuminator for the Airborne Laser program more than 50 times, for up to 90 seconds. "
From Aviation Week 15 October

Kilowatt solid state lasers that can stay on for a minute and a half are impressive. The laser must keep it's semiconductor lasing material below 125 C while handling a kilowatt. The efficiency of solid state lasers is that of ordinary LED's, at least 75%. Of the kilowatt of electricity into the device, 750 watts comes out as laser light and only 250 watts goes into heating up the laser. Still, keeping the laser down to approximately boiling water temperature with 250 watts heating it is quite a trick. Perhaps this laser is built up of a number of smaller solid state devices ganged together somehow.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Subprime according to the WSJ

29% of ALL mortgages last year were high rate. High rate is defined interest rate more then 3% above US treasury bonds. All "sub prime" mortgages are high rate, but they aren't the only ones. Last year 13% of all mortgages were granted to speculators, people who didn't live in the house they were financing. 22% of all mortgages were offered "no money down".
Since banks now sell their mortgages to Wall St investors, the banks make their money off the fees loaded onto the sale at the closing. Once the mortgage is sold, the bank doesn't care if the mortgage defaults, 'cause they no longer own it. In the old days the bank put up it own money, and they took care to lend it only to borrowers that could pay it back. That is no longer true, the banks skim a nice bit of money off the top in the form of closing fees, and the Wall St investors assume all the risks that the borrower won't make his payments. The banks will now approve anything, no matter how risky or pricey.
The Wall Street buyers of mortgages collect the home owner's mortgage payments (nice chunk of change there) and borrow even more money by selling IOU's to other investors. The IOU's are advertised as safer than plain old IOU's because they are "backed" by mortgages. The more gullible investors bought this line and a lot of "securitized mortgages" thinking they were as sound as real mortgages.
Trouble is, they aren't real mortgages. The proud owners of "securitized mortgages" don't get the right to seize the real estate after the borrower misses enough mortgage payments. Early this summer the gullible investors wised up and stopped buying the "securitized mortgages", of which the most lucrative were "sub prime". Brokerage houses stopped receiving the steady stream of cash. Naturally this slowed the demand for mortgages, which made the banks less willing to write shaky mortgages, or in many cases any mortgages. This made it harder to buy and sell houses, and the price of houses falls. The average man's savings is largely in his house. When the average man begins to worry that his house ain't worth what it used to be, he begins to feel poor. And stops buying stuff. "Consumer spending", the backbone of the US economy drops, and all hell breaks loose.
In one case a clueless bank in Germany was buying US IOU's "backed" by sub prime mortgages in New Jersey using money raised in Germany by selling their own IOU's. That bank is now out of business.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Words of the Weasel Part 2

Shakespeare called them whores. By the 19th century whore had become vulgar and the word prostitute came into use. In the 21st century prostitute seems judgmental and pejorative and so sexworker was invented. The “worker” part sounds virtuous. I expect them to join AFL-CIO any day now. Even better it is gender neutral.
Rain Forest
A neutral sounding replacement for “jungle”, popular with conservation groups attempting to preserve jungles. It gives us “the law of the rain forest” in place of “the law of the jungle”, and “Rainforest Fighter” in place of “jungle fighter”.
Wet land
A conservationist’s word meaning “swamp” but sounding much nicer. It is easier to get people interested in preserving “wet lands” than “swamps”. When you are up to your ass in alligators you have to remember your objective was to drain the wetland.
Most often used as “They had no plan for such and such” where such and such is a disaster (e.g. Iraq, Hurricane Katrina). This charge is always false. Of course they had a plan, everyone has a plan. It may be that the writer doesn’t like the plan, or the plan didn’t work. Disasters happen for a lot of reasons, some obvious, some not so obvious. If the writer had some understanding of the disaster he might name some of the reasons for the occurrence. Writers that don’t have clue (say the average reporter) will complain of the lack of a plan. Such complaints are bogus. The writer is really trying to say that we should not have the disaster, which is true but hardly profound. A military cliché is “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.

General Ricardo Sanchez vs the MSM

General Sanchez was supreme commander in Iraq back in 03-04. Abu Ghraib happened on his watch. That was sorta the end of his army career, he didn't get promoted again and he didn't get a top level pentagon job, instead he retired. He is probably still sore about that.
He was invited to speak at a press club meeting. I caught a rerun of the general's talk on CSpan. The bulk of Gen Sanchez's remarks trashed the media up on side and down the other. He accused them of ignorance, political bias, slanted coverage, and outright lying. Then he delivered some more choice remarks about congress, politicians, and destruction of American unity in the face of the enemy. At the end of his talk, in order to be an equal opportunity bad mouther, he slammed Rumsfield and Bush.
Then came the question and answer period. Long pause, after the general's harsh remarks about the press, few reporters in the room had the gumption to ask anything.
Needless to say the NYT and the WashPo reported the general's remarks slamming the administration and ignored his criticism of the press, Congress and politicians.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The real Hunt for Red October

Two years after Tom Clancy's best seller was published, a liquid fuel missile aboard soviet ballistic missile submarine K219 exploded inside the launch tube. Seawater poured into missile room. Nitrogen tetroxide rocket fuel leaking from the other shock damaged missiles vaporized and formed nitric acid when ever it encountered water. Breathing the fumes caused nitric acid to form inside crewmembers lungs.
K219 was operating off Bermuda at the time of the accident. By blowing all ballast tanks and ordering full power from the engines the captain managed to surface his stricken vessel. He radioed for assistance and three soviet merchantmen were diverted to render aid. An American deep sea tug, a patrol aircraft and an attack submarine appeared upon the scene.
This sensational event occurred just as Reagan and Gorbachev were meeting in Iceland. Both national leaders downplayed the incident so as not to disrupt the summit meeting. Much of the rest of the story bears an uncanny resemblance to the events in Tom Clancy's novel. Facinating read. "Hostile Waters" Peter Huchthausen St Martins Paperbacks. ISBN 0-312-96612-1

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Upcountry politicking

Grafton County (the far northern rural reaches of New Hampshire) Republicans held their annual Columbus day fund raising dinner. Maybe a 100 people showed up, enthusiastic Dartmouth students supporting the various Republican presidential hopefuls, town and county elected officials, a few plain old voters, and the local party chairmen. The happy hour was a meet and greet, followed by dinner. After dinner speaker was Governor Tim Pawlenti, flown in from Minnesota just for this affair. This is the guy who succeeded Jesse Ventura. He spoke, and spoke well, on the need for Republicans to be something more than the national accountants, scolding all and sundry over government spending. Then he went on for a good 5 minutes on the need for American energy independance. Somehow he got thru this without once letting the word "nuclear" ever pass his lips.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Diplomacy is the act of riling the Turks

For years the Democrats have been crying out for more diplomacy to solve the problems of the Middle East. To make US diplomacy more effective they are working on a Congressional resolution calling a major Middle East power genocidal. This high minded act is going to cause the Turks to jump right up and throw their weight into the Middle East conflicts on the side of peace. And time is of the essence, the genocide only happened 90 years ago and we just have to get this peace loving resolution thru Congress this week. So far the Democrats got it out of committee, and the Turks recalled their ambassador. When it passes the full house, the Turks promise to invade Iraqi Kurdistan. Diplomacy doesn't get any more effective than this.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Immigration Policy from Mitt Romney

Mailman just delivered a handsomely printed bit of Romney campaign literature. It actually has some real platform planks in it, unlike much of the motherhood and apple pie stuff floating around. This piece has real concrete ideas. Some of 'em I like, some of 'em I don't like so much. But give Romney credit for getting serious. In order, they are
1. Build a fence on the Mexican border. OK I guess, even though it will make the border look like the Berlin Wall.
2. ID cards for immigrants and a computer data base to check the cards against. This means that everyone, not just immigrants, has to have a card in order to get a job. I had to show my passport to get my last job. Lots of folk don't have passports or other paperwork, I guess that makes 'em unemployed. Plus, the computer data base check every time a guy takes a job amounts to an instant criminal background check. Kinda like the cops doing a stop and frisk on you.
3. No Amnesty. OK I guess, but does this really work? We have maybe 13 million illegals in the country now. Do we deport them all? What about their US born children? Deport them too? Deportation is hard on the deportee. Speaking for just myself, I'd feel rotten about packing unhappy illegals into buses heading back to Mexico. Kinda like packing Jews into cattle cars for the trip to Auschwitz.
4. Punish Sanctuary cities. Yeah, take that San Francisco and all you blue voting towns.
5. Improve Interior Law Enforcement. Right on. Next time they pull you over for a traffic ticket you gotta show proof of citizen ship as well as license and registration. I can't wait.
6. Encourage Legal Immigration. Good one. Right now the legal immigration channel is backed up for 10 or 20 years. Who can wait that long? Remember that immigrants and children of immigrants are more loyal to the United States of America than many native born. Loyal hardworking folks make this country great.

Where has all the gas mileage gone?

Istapundit pointed me to

Ten Least Expensive 2007 Cars . They aren't really cheap, ($13K-$15K) and the gas mileage sucks on all of 'em. Worst was 20 city 28 highway. My Cadillac DeVille gets 22 city 28 highway. A low end econobox that doesn't get better gas mileage than a 4000 pound V8 luxury barge is hardly worth buying. Even the best gas mileage wasn't very exciting, a mere 29 city 36 highway. Thirty years ago a diesel VW Rabbit would do 40 mpg.
Maybe the revised Environmental Pollution Agency gas mileage test is giving unrealistically low numbers. Maybe the engines are too big. One of 'em had 155 horsepower. Great big seven passenger Dodge minivans used to have smaller engines. Maybe they dropped the compression ratio again to reduce the NOx emissons. The Caddy runs 10.6:1 and does it on regular gas. A lot of less advanced engines are detuned down to 8:1 to meet the NOx requirement. This costs gas mileage.
The industry is already crying about higher CAFE standards which seem to be coming right at them. Judging from this sample of new cars, they wouldn't be able to meet the proposed 35 mpg standard even if they made nothing but econoboxes. Forget about family sedans, SUV's, pickups and minivans.
Either the industry (worldwide, not just Detroit) has lost the secret of decent gas mileage, or the EPA test, the industry yard stick, is unduly pessimistic.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Expectations May Alter Outcomes Far More than we realize.

WSJ Column from some years ago.

"British Philosopher Bertrand Russell was only half joking when he described the powerful effect that nationality of a scientist can have on lab rats. Animals studied by Americans rush about frantically, with an incredible display of hustle and pep, and at last achieve the desired result by chance," he wrote in 1927. "Animals observed by Germans sit still and think, and at last evolve the solution out of their inner consciousness."

Words of the Weasel Part 1.

Below is my personal collection of weasel words and phrases. These are virtuous sounding things that actually mean little, or worse mean the opposite of what one would expect. They violate the good writing principles of “call a spade a spade” and use the fewest words necessary to carry the thought across the divide between speaker and listener. TV personalities, salesmen, or politicians using any of these phrases should be treated with suspicion.

At this point in time

“Now” means the same thing and is shorter and clearer. The only reason to use the longer and wordier form is to obfusticate or to seem profound when in actual fact you have nothing worthwhile to say.

Stand up to

Typically used by politicians as in “I stood up to special interests” or “I stood up to the other party”. The phrase suggests virtuous opposition to bad policies and bad people. It fails to express where the speaker is really coming from. It’s nice that the speaker opposes somebody or other, but opposition without presenting a policy alternative is mere obstructionism. The phrase is often used to avoid advocating a policy out of fear that taking a stand will make more enemies than friends.


An important sounding but vague word used to give a sense of institution and permanence. For instance “The diplomatic process” sounds more general and permanent than “The peace negotiations”. “The judicial process” sounds grander than “trial”. “The electoral process” is wordier than “election”.

Hacking thru the radar

Last week's Israeli Air Force strike in Syria may have used advanced electronic deception transmissions to confuse the up-to-date Russian made Syrian anti aircraft defenses. Systems are known that can invade air defense communications systems, cause them to transmit their radar views back to the attackers, and even issue false orders to cause sensors to look away from attackers, designate radar tracks as friendly, or insert false tracks.
Seeing the enemy radar's view is extremely valuable to attackers, it shows the blind spots in enemy radar coverage and lets the strike aircraft know when they are flying low enough to avoid detection. Radars contain various circuits or software to filter out clutter. It may be possible to crank those filter setting up so high that the attacker's radar tracks are filtered out. Or have the radar label the attackers tracks as friendly airliners. Or simply fill the system with so many false targets that the real attackers are lost in the crowd.
Hard information is a little scarce, Aviation Week is reduced to quoting Arab newspaper articles. "Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the-art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory" according to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan. It goes on to say "Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same system and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions".
Syria has recently acquired the Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) a mobile system with guidance radar, missile launchers and missile reloads all mounted on tracked vehicles. Tor-1 costs $29 million per system.
The actual site of the attack, and it's contents are still a matter of dispute. Some reports place the attack at Tall Al-Abyad up in the Turkish border, others place it at Day az-Zawr out near the Iraqi border. The site may have contained nuclear material on route from North Korea to Iran, or it may have been a more run-of-the-mill storage for conventional munitions bound for Iraq, or Hezballah, or Iran. News reports are conflicting.
Naturally successful use of secret electronic countermeasures tells the enemy that his system is vulnerable and that codes must be changed and fixes invented. The Syrian target must have been pretty high value for the Israelis to disclose the effectiveness of their electronic countermeasures.