Monday, May 31, 2010

A little bit of American Exceptionalism

Was reading John Keegan's book The Second World War. Keegan states that the only place where Japanese conquerors encountered resistance was in the Phillipines. The Americans had established some rapport with the Filipinos before the war. After the 1941 Japanese invasion the Filipinos remained loyal to the Americans in ways that French, Dutch, and British colonies did not. A US submarine bringing supplies to the Filipino resistance was pleasantly surprised to find a solid town dock, all the lights in town blazing, a native band playing on the dock ,and pretty dancing girls, all to welcome the submarine ashore.
Seems like the Americans did things right that other colonial powers neglected.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Deepwater Horizon poorly organized

Friday's Wall St Journal described the chaos and lack of organization aboard Deepwater Horizon when the well blew. A young technician radioed "Mayday, Mayday, We have an uncontrollable fire aboard." The rig skipper reprimanded her for exceeding her authority. To which the technician replied "Sorry Sir." The blowout preventer could not be closed until a committee of the top BP and Transocean executives met and gave the OK. Several workers mentioned a lack of firefighting equipment, pumps, sprinklers, hoses. The explosion put electrical power out.
The sinking of the platform made well control enourmously more difficult. There should have been plenty of fire fighting equipment. There also should be been a watch officer on duty 24/7 with the authority to close the blow out preventer, call the crew to fight fighting stations, maneuver the platform, order abandon ship, and what ever else is needful. No way a committee, woken sudden from sleep, confronted with fire and explosion, can make any kind of decisions, let alone the right decisions until it's much too late.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Wall St Journal on the BP oil spill

The Thursday Wall St Journal had a very good article about what went wrong. Looks like it really is BP's fault. The well was behind schedule and over budget. To save time and money the BP manager cut short the mud circulation procedure ("bottoms up" in oil field lingo). Best practice is to pump all the mud up from the bottom and inspect it for natural gas. If gas is detected in the mud, the well has a leak. BP only ran the bottoms up procedure for an hour, where as 12 to 24 hours is needed. Then BP skipped a leak test after cementing in the drill pipe, even though the cementing contractor Halliburton warned of trouble. The BP manager, an inexperienced man, had to overcome objections to his shortcuts by the other contractors on the rig.
The underground gas pressure is high, because of the 13000 feet of rock sitting on top of the oil/gas deposit. When BP pumped the drilling mud out of the well, the gas forced its way up the drillpipe onto the drilling platform and caught fire. To add insult to injury, the last ditch safety device, the blowout preventer failed to close off the well. So, we have two errors of judgment on BP's part, combined with a faulty blowout preventer and the result is horrendous.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wall St Banks cook the books

According to a front page story in the Wall St Journal, the big banks reduce their short term borrowing at the end of each quarter to make the end of quarter balance sheet look better. Bank of America, Deutsche Bank and Citigroup are named. They call it "window dressing".
Why do we care? Simple, a bank's ratio of debt to capital in a good measure of the bank's soundness. Too much debt, too little capital, and any small setback, like a loan default can break the bank. Bank runs out of money and has to fold. Investors in the bank loose all their money and FDIC pays off the depositors.
According to the Journal article, the banks are engaging in deceptive practices to could suck in unwary investors.
We REALLY REALLY need to clean up the accounting business in this country so that published financial documents mean something. In this case, the rules ought to be changed to require the banks to publish their average debt, averaged over the entire quarter, not just their debt on one special day out of the quarter.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Russians make first test flight of their new Air Force 1

The Russians need a presidential aircraft to keep up with the Americans. They just test flew a Tupolev twin engine TU-214 destined for the Russian Air Force One role. Looks like an ordinary narrow body airliner, with winglets like a Boeing 737. No where near as cool and impressive as the Boeing 747 four engine jumbo jet flown by the Americans. But at least it is Russian built, the Russians would loose a lot of status points if they used a foreign built aircraft.
Of course Aeroflot is converting their entire fleet to western built airliners. Aeroflot brags that all their international flights use Boeing aircraft.
Western aircraft enjoy a safety record of 0.73 crashes per million flights. East bloc aircraft show 7.something crashes per million flights. You are ten times more likely to crash flying east bloc aircraft. I wish the Russians all possible luck with their new home built executive aircraft.

NASA man rates the Russian Soyuz capsule

Ever cautious NASA requires any space craft carrying live astronauts to be "man rated", by which they mean the maker has filled out pounds and pounds of NASA paperwork for every single piece that goes into the spacecraft. One of the reasons Shuttles cost so much and flew so little was the burden of doing the man rating paperwork on every single part.
NASA claimed that man rating was so important that they could not use the highly reliable Delta and Atlas rocket boosters used by United Launch Alliance to launch communications satellites. They claimed that Delta and Atlas were not man rated and hence far too dangerous to boost astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). This was the justification for starting a new development of Ares booster rockets.
In the long interval between the end of Shuttle flights and the first Ares flight, NASA planned buy tickets to the ISS from the Russians. Naturally the Russians don't do NASA paperwork for man rating their Soyuz system. But NASA, based on the Russian record of successful launches (better than the Shuttle) decided to man rate Soyus, just to keep the paper trail in order.
If NASA really cared they could man rate Delta and Atlas just as easily.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sunday Pundits

David Gregory's Meet the Press topic was "What can Washington do about the Gulf oil spill". Real answer. Nothing. The men and equipment to deal with the spill belong to the oil industry.
The New York Times man was very positive that Washington could do something, he didn't know what, but something. There goes a man of faith, faith in government. Too bad he is supposed to writing news stories.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Don't Mess with Texas

The Texas Board of Education has been updating the curriculum requirements for the state. This update has attracted quite a bit of negative press comment. Liberals accuse the Texans of being too conservative. And, due to the large size of the Texas school book market, they fear that Texas standards will become defacto national standards as text book publishers revise their books to meet the Texas standards.
I've read the Texas curriculum. It's posted on line here.
I don't see anything wrong here. The curriculum is spelled out in plain English, rather than ed major jargon. It is concrete, listing persons, places, events, and concepts to be taught. The selection of material seems perfectly reasonable to me. They want students to know American history, some fundamental economics, and recent important events such as the end of the cold war, and 9/11. It is NOT watered down. The curriculum goes far beyond anything taught in my high school, and I went to a pretty good school.
In My Humble Opinion (IMHO) the Texas curriculum is perfectly reasonable and centrist. The critics are drawn from far out in left field.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Regulation? or Welfare for Banks?

Up til now "derivatives", side bets placed between banks and investors, have been on a one to one basis. The two parties to the "derivative" reach a deal between themselves and that's that. Should one party to the deal go bankrupt (can you say AIG?) the other party doesn't get paid. Realization of this fact since 2008 has reduced the number of derivative deals.
The regulatory bill coming thru Congress includes a guarantee for derivatives. The bill requires derivatives to be traded on exchanges, similar to a stock exchange. The seller and the buyer do a deal with the exchange. BUT, the exchange will guarantee the deals against default. If you buy a derivative and the seller goes bust, the exchange will pay you off.
Just what we need, guarantees on gambling. The derivatives are essentially bets that stocks will rise or fall, or that a company or country (Greece for instance) will default on it's bonds. Banks are channeling lots of money into the game 'cause a winning bet pays off big. Money spent gambling on derivatives is money that should have gone into economic development. Derivatives do not finance new factories, new businesses, new construction, inventory, accounts receivable or sales. In short money that should have gone to creating new jobs is frittered away gambling.
We should not encourage the gamblers by offering a guarantee of payoff.

US to subsidize Brazilian cotton growers.

Talk about craziness. According to an editorial in yesterday's Wall St Journal, the US is subsidizing US cotton growers. 70% of the subsidy money goes to just 10 big cotton operations. Corporate welfare basically.
The international trade laws prohibit farm subsidies because they are a disguised tariff. Brazil sued the US for unfair trade practices and won. Unless the US drops this costly bit of corporate welfare, Brazil is legally entitled to retaliate with tariffs against American exports. The Brazilians have drawn up such a tariff and it has teeth and will hurt.
In last ditch negotiations the US has offered to pay Brazilian cotton growers the same subsidy that US cotton growers get.
This is totally crazy. In this time of federal deficit we should not be paying US farmers to grow stuff. And we should NEVER pay foreign farmers to grow stuff.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Quoting from today's Wall St Journal. "In its last annual inspection of the Deepwater Horizon (the BP chartered oil rig that exploded and sank) last July, the Coast Guard didn't ask crew members to lower lifeboats to the water due to concerns that the test was too dangerous, Lt Cmdr. Odom told a federal panel investigating the disaster last week."
Wow! What is going on here? Lifeboat drills should be held once a month and the boats lowered into the water, just to make sure the lowering gear hasn't rusted solid. And that the crew knows how to lower the lifeboats. Granted, they ought to do lifeboat drill in good weather, but still it ought to be done, just to make sure the crew knows what to do.
Quoting further. "The Coast Guard also only ran a limited fire drill on the rig's helipad, excusing some workers who were normally supposed to take part because they were busy exploring for oil on the rig, according to testimony."
Wow again. Fire drills are supposed to be for real, and should also be done once a month.
Elsewhere in the article it states that Deepwater Horizon was not a US flag rig, it was registered in the Marshall Islands. Coast Guard checks of foreign flag rigs are completed in hours whereas inspection of US flagged rigs can take days.
That ain't right either. Coast Guard inspections should be the same for every rig out there.
And finally the article stated that standards for fire protection equipment were "of a general nature". That's bad too. Regulations should spell out in some detail how many fire pumps and of what capacity must be installed, the areas to be protected by sprinkler systems, the number and capacity of fire hoses and extinguishers. Inspectors should have the power to insist that rigs be properly equipped. Otherwise cheat skate owners will save money by skimping on safety equipment.
I'd say some tightening up is in order. When Deepwater Horizon sank it twisted the mile of drill pipe running down to the well into pretzel shapes and opened leaks in the pipe out of which oil is flowing. If the rig had stayed afloat, stopping the oil leaks would be easier. The lack of firefighting ability on board let the fire get out of control and sink the rig.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Off-shore drilling safety improvements

Shell oil was explaining the things it would do to make drilling in the Arctic safer. There were some surprising omissions, in view of the BP gulf disaster. It is generally acknowledged that BP's blow out preventer failed to shut off the flow of oil up the drill pipe. The blowout preventer is a giant valve installed on the sea floor to shut off oil flow in an emergency. BP's blowout preventer didn't work when activated. Reports have been circulating for some years that standard blowout preventers are not strong enough to shut off the thicker tougher pipe used in off shore work.
First thing Shell ought to propose is to test each blowout preventer on the pipe they will be using to insure that it will squeeze shut or shear off the pipe. This test ought to be down above water, before the blowout preventer is sunk to the bottom of the sea.
Second thing is to insure the blowout preventers have redundancy so that a single failure won't mean catastrophe. The blowout preventer should be required to successfully shut off a real pipe after sustaining damage. For instance, the preventer should work properly with a single hydraulic line or wire bundle cut, a single battery, or single air tank, or single hydraulic accumulator discharged, or run down. In short the preventer ought to have a dual everything, so that it works if any single item fails.
Third thing is to beef up the fire fighting capabilities of the drilling platforms. Out at sea they have plenty of water to spray on a fire. With enough pumps, water piping, sprinkler heads and fire hoses, they ought to be able to put out the worst fire. BP's platform should have been able to put its fire out. Clearly more fire fighting capacity is required.
I'm surprised that Shell mentioned none of these things.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Seven year old girl shot and killed in no-knock raid

Detroit police raided a two family home and a little girl was shot in the neck and pronounced dead at the hospital. The cops threw a flash bang grenade into the home and a scuffle occurred as they entered. A shot was fired with tragic consequences. This was filmed live by a TV crew from Arts & Entertainment network for "First 48", a reality TV show.
Cops should not be doing no knock raids, it's just too dangerous for all concerned. If the inhabitants have a gun, they always shoot, the cops shoot back and somebody gets killed. Occasionally the inhabitants kill an officer, and then face murder charges. There is just no reason to subject citizens and officers to OK corral style shootouts.
Radley Balko wrote that Army units in Iraq are subject to much more oversight on no-knock raids than civilian police in the US. In Iraq it requires a general officer to OK a no knock raid. As general practice in Iraq the house is surrounded and then surrender is demanded. Most of the time the Iraqis surrender and come out with their hands up.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Facebook trashes profiles

The software wienies at Facebook have been messing with the code. Most of my profile information (favorite books, movies, music etc) just dropped out of sight, like gone for good. I spent a little time typing some of it in again, but I wonder why I bother.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bye-bye TV

Over the air TV was converted to digital last year. That means plain old TV sets with rabbit ears do longer work. You have have cable, or a converter box ($50 now) or a nice new TV set.
Visited my daughter last weekend. As a modern art sculpture, they have three old no longer functional TV sets piled up artistically in the dining room. That house no longer does TV. They have broadband Internet but no cable TV.
I'll bet the TV networks didn't see that one coming when they were pushed on board the high def digital TV bandwagon a few years ago. In effect, the switch to high def digital has reduced the TV audience, partly from people not converting, and also because the new high def digital signal doesn't go very far. Where I am we used to get 8 over-the-air TV stations. Now that we went all digital, we only get one station over-the-air. That's seven TV stations with a smaller viewership.

Can we Revoke Faisal Shahzad's Citizenship?

So reads the headline on a Wall St Journal OpEd piece by Peter H. Shuck, professor at Yale Law School.
To which I say, why in the name of all that's holy would we want to? He attempted to commit an atrocious crime on American soil, was apprehended by American police on American soil, and will face American justice. Since he is a US citizen, our foreign enemies cannot bad mouth us for being mean to foreigners. If convicted, the usual punishment is jail time or execution. Revocation of citizenship is surely unusual, and possibly cruel as well. There is a clause about that in the Constitution.
My other question is, what is this clueless lawyer doing teaching law at Yale?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Physician's Town Hall

We had one last night up here. It was kinda scary. The doctors, all respected local practitioners, known to and respected by the audience, tried to put a happy face on Obamacare. But as discussion went on it became clear that they see a grim future. Higher prices, less service. Rationing of care, extinction of new drug development, more and more paperwork. Mandatory electronic medical records that allow the government, the insurance companies, potential employers, and personal enemies to access your medical records. Bureaucratic OK's required before expensive treatment which are Sarah Palin's death panels under another name. The extinction of private medical practices, all doctors becoming mere employees of hospitals or health care organizations.

Follies of the Main Stream Media

So I'm getting a little breakfast in a greasy spoon on the way out of Washington DC. I skim a copy of the Washington Post that's lying on the counter. The editorial page is a classic. First article urged the administration to go postal on Egypt. Here is a friendly middle east power that has, and is still, doing good things. They called off the war with Israel 40 years ago and have kept their word. The outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood (root of Al Quada) in the 1920's, and imprisoned and executed Fawzi el Qutb (dangerous Islamic extremist) in the 1960's. Egypt has been a better friend and ally than even the Saudi's. Yet here is the Post calling for the administration to do regime change on them just cause Hosni Mubarak is a military strongman rather than a democratically elected politician. The world is not a perfect place, but but Mubarak is a better man than that nutcase with a funny name running Iran. If you want to pick on middle eastern governments why not pick on the really bad ones?
Next editorial down is praising the DC teachers union for finally coming to the contract table. Here we have the worse school system in the country, and the Post is siding with the teacher's union? As opposed to the parents and students? The DC system didn't fall to it's current nadir without a lot of help from the teachers.
No wonder the Post is loosing money, it isn't focusing on matters that readers care about.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hat is in the ring. I'm running for office

Had to happen sometime. The Grafton County Republicans have been looking for someone, anyone, to stand for election to District 2 Grafton county, (Bethlehem and Franconia). At the last Lincoln Reagan dinner, a bunch of senior county Republicans backed me into a corner and pressed me to run. So, I said yes.
The district is two small towns way up and north of Franconia Notch. Both towns together cast 1500 votes for state rep in the last two elections. Both towns are residential and tourist places, no industry or agriculture worth mentioning. It's a single rep district.
New Hampshire has an enormous (400+) lower house from a smallish state, so reps are pretty far down the food chain, compared to state senators, executive council members, newspaper and TV reporters, to say nothing of executive and judicial branch officials.
My campaign plan is simple. Walk around and knock on doors. The district is small enough that it is possible to meet a lot of voters face to face.
I can use all the help I can get.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

National Portrait Gallery

So I got to Washington DC. First time in years without young children, so instead of doing the fun childrens stuff like Air and Space, I did a grown up art museum. The portrait gallery was great. Best stuff is on the first floor, portraits of Americans that mostly I had at least heard off, and some about who I know quite a bit. Plus painters I had heard of. You can see the style changes over the years. Eighteenth century and earlier the men wear colorful three piece suits with coats down to their knees. After the revolution the bright colors go away and everyone dresses in black. Beards come back in for the civil war and last for 50 years.
All the faces show determined middle aged men, of the "don't mess with me" sort. Nearly all white, a number of Indians, and a very few blacks.
They have lots of room to expand. The upper floors are clearly waiting for some more stuff to show.

Westtown Alma Mater

Time flies. I attended my 50th high school reunion Saturday. At first I thought about maybe not going and pretending that I ain't that old. But as emails and Facebook stuff piled up, the nostalgia began to build, and I went. Driving into the school is a big change. The road I used to bike into West Chester on is all different. 50 years ago the road was all cornfields and apple orchards and wood lots. Now it is solid housing developments. Nice looking houses, but the farmers are all gone. It isn't until you get on the school grounds that things look familiar. The old treasured Main Building is still there, all red brick and a zillion chimneys. Since I graduated the school has added a theatre building, a science building, a lower school building, a middle school building, a student hangout building, an 9th grade girls dorm, and two more gyms. Our class gift will fund a new building for the maintenance people. Dunno what they will put up after that.
Our efficient class officers had name tags made up with our old 1960 year book pictures on them. Good thing, I wouldn't have recognized a lotta class mates with out them. We did lots of catching up on old times, and a fair amount of time listening to school officials make pitches for money and student referrals. That sell seemed a little harder than in past years.
All an all an enjoyable day, doing very simple things.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Posting will be light to non existant next week

I'm taking a road trip to Washington DC and don't plan to be back until next Thursday. If I luck out and have time and internet access I will post. Otherwise I'll resume when I get back.

Britt Hulme gets it right

Britt was on Fox last night. Talked about the Gulf oil spill. Said the overall safety record is pretty good, tens of thousands of offshore wells drilled with just this one really bad spill. Then he mentioned that the bulk of oil spills are tanker accidents (can you say Exxon Valdez?). He pointed out that if we don't drill for it here, we bring it in by tanker. Stop drilling and we get more tanker traffic. He reckoned that we do better, spill wise, drilling for it here than we do running tankers from the mid east.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Farewell old Paint

At 125K miles, trusty Cadillac is toast. Between the NH champion potholes and road salt, the bolts that hold the rear axle on the poor car have loosened from the body and the axle is close to coming off the car. Caddy, like all cars since the 1960's, is a unibody car. No frame, the body sheet metal carries all the structural loads. This design is highly admired by the auto racing fans, who call it "monocoque". It saves weight. Drawback to the design is there are no hardpoints to bolt heavy stuff like the engine and wheels. The car winds up with the heavy stuff bolted onto plain light sheet metal.
When the sheet metal fails, there is no reasonable fix, short of replacing the entire body of the car.
Too bad. Caddy has been a wonderful car for the last 75K miles and five years. It was cheap to buy, fast, powerful, quiet, and comfortable. Thrifty too, 27 mpg highway.

Signs of Spring

Yesterday it became warm enough to brush Cat on the porch. In winter Cat wisely refuses to get anywhere near the door. Yesterday Cat stood calmly on the porch railing while I brushed her out with an ordinary people type hair brush. Huge clumps of shed cat fur drifted away on the slight breeze. It's a pleasure to do this outside. When brushed inside the huge clumps drift away to the furniture and it makes me wonder why I bother. The idea behind brushing Cat is to reduce the amount of fur shed indoors.
Second clue. I had to get the mower out and cut the grass. The last snow storm only melted out the day before and here I am with the mower. Grass grows quick up here in the mountains.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Spectacular Pictures of drill rig burning and sinking

Watt's Up With That has a great set of pictures posted here:

The existential beauty of off shore wind farms.

This morning's NH public radio had a lady advocate waxing eloquent about the beauties of the Narragansett bay wind farm. "If only BP had been putting in wind rather than drilling for oil." Now that Teddy Kennedy is gone from the scene, some federal department OK'd the Cape Wind project, which had been held up for years by a Kennedy led group objecting to the unsightliness of it all.
The advocate failed to mention to cost per kilowatt hour for wind generated electricity, and the 2.3 cent a kilowatt hour subsidy for wind plants. The Cape Wind project will be 500 kilowatts, about one half the output of a real power plant, and only when the wind is blowing hard.
Not did she discuss what happens when the wind stops blowing, which it does frequently. I have sailed Narragansett bay and can attest to weary hours spent waiting for a wind.
In actual fact, the power companies have to build a real power plant to back up every wind plant to keep the customer's lights on during a calm. That's expensive.
So expensive that us rate payers expect another rate increase when and if Cape Wind ever goes on line.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Blow out Preventers and the BP spill

There is not much published on the web about these gadgets. They were invented in the 1920's and they ended the "gusher". You must have seen a picture of black oil spurting up higher than the top of the drill rig. The movie "Giant" with Jimmy Dean as oil wildcatter Jett Rink had a great gusher scene, black goop falling like rain.
The blowout preventer is a VERY strong valve that sits on the top of the well and shuts off the oil flow. Just how they work, above ground or underwater, was not made clear. It is implied, (but not outright stated) that they work by squeezing the steel drill pipe shut. Presumably this requires a power source (hydraulic? electric? compressed air? explosives? ) to work the pipe crushing ram. Also presumably activating the blow out preventer is an emergency measure since it damages the drill pipe, requiring replacement of the section of pipe the preventer squeezed flat. Also, presumably, the blow out preventer only succeeds in shutting off the oil flow when the drill pipe remains more or less intact.
Questions for BP. How was the blow out preventer powered one mile under water? Did the power come down from the floating platform that exploded and sank? How was the signal to actuate the preventer carried down under water? Was there any redundancy in case water got into the wiring or a pipe sprang a leak? Was the actuation automatic, like a fire alarm? Or was it the duty of the watch officer to flip a switch in the control room? What sort of protections against accidental actuation of the blow out preventer were there? What was the name of the watch officer responsible? Did this individual survive the fire and explosion that sank the platform?
More questions. Can the preventer be actuated by a submarine? What equipment does the sub need to carry? If the power supply is sunk, or run down (batteries, or compressed air tanks) can the sub recharge it? Is there a backup actuater such as a big hand crank? If so, can a sub work it?
And more questions. Who sold the blow out preventer? Was it new or used? Is that model rated strong enough to handle a well that deep? Who inspected the blowout preventer before it was installed one mile under water? What are the inspection requirements? Cracks? Leaks? Fully charged batteries or air tanks? functional control circuits? Are there any inspection requirements once the blow out preventer is under water? If so, did BP carry them out?
These are all questions that educated and experienced news men would ask. Unfortunately newsies these days are neither educated nor experienced.