Wednesday, February 13, 2019

This, as they might say ...

... is littoral-ly bloggable: A stealthy futuristic ship is docked at Pier 30-32 in SF. Here's what it is.

When commissioned this weekend as the USS Tulsa (LCS-16), the 421-foot-long vessel will be the newest in the U.S. Navy's Independence class of littoral combat ships. Littoral refers to operations near shore, or just off the coast.

"It looks like something out of Star Wars," says Mike Rainey, a Navy public affairs officer, who is helping organize a ceremony on Feb. 16 to commission the ship.

The ship's relatively small size, a trimaran design with three hulls and a helicopter flight deck astern make this ship fast, agile, maneuverable and able to perform a wide array of missions. Earlier ships of this size and mission type maxed out at around 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour), while the LCS (powered by two gas turbine engines, two main propulsion diesel engines, and propelled by four water jets) can zip through the open seas at speeds up to 44 knots (51 mph).

I suspect that the closest the USS Tulsa has ever been to Tulsa is when she was first launched from the boatyard in Mobile.

At any rate, welcome to the Bay Area, USS Tulsa and her crew!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

ProPublica and the Navy Times on the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions

This weekend, ProPublica's website is running two blockbuster hard-hitting reports on the McCain and Fitzgerald destroyer accidents of the summer of 2017:

The two reports make a strong case that technology by itself is worse than meaningless; you have to invest in people. Training, communications, support: all these things are critical.

Copeman fired off a couple more memos before retiring, hoping he might at last get the leadership’s attention.

The first warned of the fleet’s increasing “configuration variance” problem: The same systems operated in dozens of different ways on different ships, confusing sailors as the Navy shifted them from one vessel to another.

“I liken it to this,” Copeman told ProPublica. “You have a car with a steering wheel and a gas pedal and one day you walk out and get in your car and an iPad sits were your steering wheel used to be and the gas pedal is no longer there.”

Copeman enlisted a four-star admiral, Bill Gortney, to sign the memo and distribute it in the upper echelons of the Navy. His memo would prove prescient. Four years later, confusion over the McCain’s new steering system caused the ship to turn in front of an oil tanker.

See also this set of articles in the Navy Times:

a lack of training in basic seamanship fatally combined with material deficiencies to create “a culture of complacency, of accepting problems, and a dismissal of the use of some of the most important, modern equipment used for safe navigation.”

Wow, there's a lot to think about in these articles.

It's interesting, although perhaps a stretch, to consider the above information against the recent report of the Lion Air tragedy in Indonesia: Lion Air’s deadly flight was a 13-minute struggle between man and machine:

A little over a week after the crash, Boeing put out a bulletin advising airline operators on how to deal with erroneous sensor information that would lead to “uncommanded nose down” maneuvers, while the FAA ordered flight manuals to be updated with the process to follow in such a situation. Boeing has said that the aircraft is safe, and that it is working with regulators and investigators to understand the factors leading up to the crash.

The directives prompted several of the biggest US pilots’ unions to say this was the first time they were hearing of the new anti-stall system. “Before the crash we were not provided any information on the MCAS or even its existence,” captain Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union for American Airlines pilots, told Quartz.

He added that bulletins after the crash provided clarity on differences between the override process for this 737 variant compared with the older 737NG model, which the Max succeeds. “We have those differences… [and] are asking further questions to better understand our airplane’s automated flight control systems,” said Tajer.

Tajer added that the directives and bulletins describe a “fairly complex emergency situation,” involving a system that can engage soon after takeoff, when the plane is still at a low altitude, and a number of alerts that could prove confusing or distracting.

Powerful technology is worse than useless if you can't figure out how to operate it.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

How Schools Work: a very short review

Frankly, I was rather pre-disposed to have a bad attitude toward Arne Duncan's How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation's Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.

For one thing, political memoirs generally leave me cold. It's too much "history is written by the victors," for me, for one thing. And they are written (duh!) by politicians, who while they may be very smart in many ways, are usually not experts in the particular field in which they are commenting.

Moreover, over the years, I hadn't really paid much attention to matters of public education policy (shame on me!), so I didn't have a lot of burning questions of my own on which I was hoping to hear from Duncan.

So I approached How Schools Work with a fair amount of trepidation.

But I was quite surprised!

Duncan is a great writer; How Schools Work moves right along, with a nice mixture of concrete anecdotes, more abstract material about policy struggles, and frank and honest self-evaluations of where he felt he got things wrong versus where he still feels strongly that he understands the way things ought to be.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this (slim!) volume is that Duncan attempts too much. He covers a lot of ground and necessarily leaves many critical topics covered in only a cursory fashion.

But surely the purpose of a book like this is to take people like me, and get them to comprehend a least a little bit of the enormous complexity of trying to fashion a social system that will help each child as much as possible.

If Duncan can manage to get his readers to at least fathom some of the underlying issues that are under debate, that by itself is worthwhile.

Sadly, the problems he wrestles with are hard, very hard, but I can report that How Schools Work is certainly worth your time.

Get educated!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

For Jazz super-fans? Or maybe for all music lovers...

Natalie Weiner, whose day job is sports journalism, has initiated a project she calls The 1959 Project, with a simple goal: each day, she'll publish some notes about This Day In Jazz History, 60 years ago.

As a nearly-60-year-old reader, I applaud!

It's a photoblog, so a big part of the appeal are things like this:

The above photo is undoubtedly the best-known part of the package. 57 jazz musicians, from Thelonious Monk to Mary Lou Williams to Lester Young, photographed on a Harlem stoop by Art Kane in order to demonstrate the genre’s vitality. It inspired its own documentary, and in 1998, a hip-hop version from XXL.

Looks like this will become a daily read for me, at least for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Elements of Eloquence: a very short review

Perhaps my favorite holiday gift this year was a delightful little book that my daughter gave me: The Elements of Eloquence

In high school (or perhaps earlier), we all learned about some basic techniques of language, such as simile, analogy, metaphor, alliteration, meter, and rhyme.

If these things interest you, then you might (or might not) be surprised and fascinated to learn that they are just the start of an entire menagerie of techniques, studied and refined for thousands of years.

For example, there is synaesthesia, where one sense is described in terms of another ("music that stinks to the ear").

Or hyperbaton, in which the word order is intentionally incorrect ("Take you to him I will").

Or diacope, in which the same word or phrase is repeated, after a brief interruption ("Bond. James Bond.")

Or assonance, which is sort of like rhyme, and sort of like alliteration, except it involves the vowels in the middle of words ("a stitch in time saves nine", "high as a kite").

And on, and on, and on.

In this marvelous little book, which I recommend to everyone who has any interest whatsoever in the way that language becomes literature, Forsyth dives deeply into all sorts of little-known, but extremely powerful, techniques like these.

In the same way that learning just a little bit about music helps you treasure Beethoven, or learning just a little bit about painting helps you be astounded by Rembrandt, learning just a little bit about these language tools will enrich the next essay you read.

And the next book. And the next poem. And the next play.

Which is an example of scesis onomaton, and of anaphora, and of tricolon.

Thank you, Mr. Forsyth!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Old and boring

Periodically, I happen to fly into or out of Chicago, and, for various reasons, I often use Chicago's secondary airport, Midway Airport, located on the South Side of Chicago.

If conditions are just right, it's not uncommon that our flight path takes us along an easily-visible east-west trunk route in Chicago's far south suburbs, a stretch of Interstate Highway that is, simultaneously, I-80 and I-294, and which also connects I-90, I-94, I-57, I-65, I-355, and probably more freeways that have been built since I lived in Chicago.

Anyway, right in the middle of that part in the world, in between the cities of Harvey and Homewood, sits a Gigantic Hole In The Ground, with a 10-lane super-highway running right through the middle of it, which always fascinates me when I fly over it. (Yes, this is the sort of thing that fascinates me.)

I recently came across a nice article about what this hole in the ground is all about, and it spurred me on to chase some more links: Tunnel Vision

The history of Chicago can be told as a series of escapes from wastewater, each more ingenious than the last. Before the Civil War, entire city blocks were lifted on hydraulic jacks to allow for better drainage, and the first tunnel to bring in potable water from the middle of Lake Michigan was completed in 1867. In 1900, engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River to protect the city’s drinking water, shifting its fetid contents from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, enraging the city of St. Louis (which sued, and lost) and, years later, making Chicago the single-largest contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1955, the American Society of Civil Engineers declared the river reversal one of the seven engineering wonders of the United States, alongside such better-known undertakings as the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, and the Panama Canal.

By the mid-20th century, the metropolis was once again plagued by persistent flooding problems. In 1978, Illinois Republican Sen. Charles Percy, looking back at decades’ worth of damage, declared Chicago the site of “the worst urban flooding known to any major city in America”—structural damage in neighborhoods, plus sewage in the river and the lake to the tune of 200 million solid pounds each year.

I moved to Chicago in 1981, but I didn't really know any of this. Yes, they told us the stories about reversing the river, and how the city had terrible water quality problems, and I knew about dying the river green for St. Patrick's Day ("to cover up the sewage", the wags said).

But I don't remember hearing anything about the Deep Tunnel project, which is a bit odd, as it's the sort of thing that I would have remembered.

Meanwhile, the project went on.

And on, and on, and on.

Renamed the TARP, or Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, the project finally started to come operational about a dozen years ago.

Although the tunnel itself is enormous, what really makes the project work is the Thornton Composite Reservoir, which can hold ...

... brace yourself ...


The tunnel took a long time to drill (excuse me, to "bore"), but the reservoir was no simple project, either:

the north lobe of the Thornton Quarry was converted into a reservoir with the capacity to retain nearly 8 billion gallons of CSO prior to treatment.

It sounds nicer if you say CSO, rather than "combined sewer overflow," doesn't it?

You can see a great picture of the Thornton Reservoir partially full in this article, which has lots of other detail: Chicago's Deep Tunnel Project Holds 17.5 Billion Gallons of Sewage Underground

You may say that all of this could have been avoided if the city was not designed on a combined sewer system, but the problem is, that was the best thing engineers knew how to do in that day. You might be surprised when studying the past of waste engineering that modern day practices really weren't developed but in the last 50 or so years. Many places around the world have combined sewer systems, mostly stemming from successive waste management developments. As cities transitioned from open channel sewage systems, many places simply covered the channels with metal plates or concrete arches, creating 'closed channel' systems. For a long time, no engineers saw the need to manage and treat wastewater or stormwater, as the effects of maltreatment were largely unknown.

Well, those effects are known now, and we're finally starting to deal with the mess properly.

And even if sewage systems aren't really your thing, it's nifty to know those little details; for example, that you can schedule yourself a tour of a bit of the Chicago City Limits which is located 365 feet underground: This Is The Deepest Depth A Human Can Go In Chicago City Limits

How low can you go within Chicago city limits?

About 365 feet below ground, according to Kevin Fitzpatrick, managing civil engineer for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

That's where the floor of the Calumet TARP Pumping Station pump rooms rest far below Chicago's Riverdale neighborhood at 400 E. 130th St.

It's the lowest inhabitable point in Chicago.

The pumping station is part of the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant, which is a component of a massive system in Chicago and the suburbs designed to protect water quality in Lake Michigan and the Chicago Area Waterway System and to manage stormwater.

And you can try to wrap your head around its size and complexity by contemplating strange metaphors, such as those shared by the Slate article:

“I’ve been hearing about Deep Tunnel forever,” Frank Pajak, director of the Central Stickney Sanitary District, told the Tribune after that February storm. “I was at the ribbon-cutting (for the reservoir), and it looked great. So why am I still getting calls about people standing in ankle-deep sewage in their basement?”

One retort from the MWRD: If you think this is bad, imagine what shape we’d be in without all these tunnels. Small storms no longer contaminate the river, and the capacity of the system is still increasing—McCook will nearly triple in size by 2029. That being said, on account of an EPA funding dispute in the 1970s, the final system will be smaller than its designers envisioned. The congested network of neighborhood sewers in Chicago and its suburbs—local roads leading to the Deep Tunnel highway—also remain an unresolved issue. In many storms, says Aaron Koch, who served as chief resilience officer for the city and now works as the Chicago director of the Trust for Public Land, the Deep Tunnel is helpless to empty undersized sewers battling against supersize storms and sprawl. “What the Deep Tunnel system represents is a bathtub, and if you don’t have big enough straws to get to the bathtub, it doesn’t matter how big your bathtub is.”


It’s a cautionary tale for a time when climate change has the nation’s planners, scientists, and engineers contemplating enormous endeavors like storm surge barriers or more radical, long-term geoengineering schemes. It’s also a reminder that any project that spans six decades from commencement to completion will be finished in a different world than the one in which it was conceived.

So, the next time you find yourself flying into or out of Midway Airport in Chicago, you can look out the window over the immense South Side of Chicago, and see if you can see that enormous quarry with the freeway right down the middle of it, and now you can understand just what exactly it is being used for, nowadays.

Friday, January 11, 2019

It's not just a game, ...

... it's an equine-bonding, ASMR-inducing stress release exercise: The Only Part of 'Red Dead Redemption 2' That Matters Is My Horse

Though I’ve put a lot of time into the game, I haven’t made much progress in the traditional sense. I’m still stuck in the early missions, but I’ve maxed out my bonding level with Jeffy, and she’s eaten better than the entire encampment of humans I’m supposed to be caring for. We’ve galloped beneath the arc of rainbows, lassoed deer, and ignored troubled citizens attempting to wave us down for assistance. The only time I dip my toe into the wilder aspects of the Wild West is so I can earn enough money to upgrade Jeffy’s saddle, stirrups, or stock up on horse reviving tonics in the event of the unthinkable.

My son watches me play, some weekends, and he says: "Why did you just ride by that person? That was a quest; you could have stopped and had a new mission to go on!"

And I say: "Yes, but I'm just having too much fun riding around on my horse."

I haven't had any ASMR, though.

Maybe I haven't ridden far enough on Penny yet.