Unintentional Hilarity

I’ve often wondered about those Grandmothers you see in the stands at NBA games, dancing and singing along to the blaring sounds of the Village People classic YMCA. Do those sweet old ladies really understand what the song’s lyrics are all about? And if they did, would they really be singing along?

The NBA’s Milwaukee Busks have a dance team, composed of attractive young women, known as Energee.

Not to be outdone, a group of older local resident have started performing at Bucks games. Their “team name”?  I’m not making this up:

Most Milwaukee Bucks fans are familiar with the “Energee” dance team, which performs several times during every game, but what about the “Seniorgee” dance team?

Word of the Day: Procrustean

Procrustean

adjective

Marked by arbitrary ruthlessness and disregard for special or extenuating circumstances.

In Greek myth, Procrustes was a son of Poseidon with a stronghold on Mount Korydallos, on the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis. There, he had an iron bed in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly because secretly Procrustes had two beds. Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus, travelling to Athens along the sacred way, who “fitted” Procrustes to his own bed.

Procrustean is a useful word to describe many of the “mandatory minimum”, “zero-tolerance” policies of modern-day American institutions. A grade-school that suspends a nine year old for carrying a tiny plastic raygun in violation of its “zero tolerance” policies is an example of “procrustean” policy run amok.

Eyes in the Skies (On the Prize)

I read a story on the Huffington Post last week, in reference to an Israeli reconnaisance drone. The author made the claim that these UAVs could “allow their operators to read a name badge 40,000 feet below, at night.”

I’ve had a passing interest in the science of astronomy and optics for some time, and a little back-of-the envelope mathematics told me that this was absolutely impossible. (See my HuffPo comment for more details.) The short answer is that in order to see, and read, half in high letters from eight miles away requires a lens far bigger than could be carried in a single-engined aircraft.

No 48" telescope lens here...

What was interesting was that the author of the HuffPo article actually followed up my comment – acknowledging the correctness of my math, while assuring me that his source for the information was indeed qualified. He went on to speculate that maybe the secret military technology had moved beyond what was believed possible by civilian scientists. (It couldn’t possibly have done so.)

A little more research into the Israeli IAI Heron reveals a couple of potential motives for this “unintentional on purpose” sort of misinformation: The maker of this UAV is actively engaged in selling it to a variety of foreign governments, including India, Turkey, France and Australia.

The physics regarding what an optical surveillance system can, and cannot, do are extremely well established. And while the precise capabilities of advanced military hardware are usually closely held secrets – foreign military establishments employ multitudes of technically smart people who are just as capable of separating the hyperbole from the possible. So its unlikely that the Israelis put out the “read a nametag from the stratosphere” story to fool anyone in the Iranian military.

The Israeli company that makes the Heron has released a series of YouTube videos of the drone, complete with catchy upbeat musical scores. And while these videos don’t make the exact claim about reading nametags, the purpose is pretty clear: They want avergae military tech enthusiasts to become enamored with the drone’s technology. Making it that much easier for military procurement people in say, Australia or France, to justify their purchase. The actualy technological impossibility of reading nametags from miles away notwithstanding.

UAVs have become a huge business in the years since 9/11. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, while spy satellites are very good at locating and identifying military targets (a parked armored division, an airbase, a chemical weapons facility) – they aren’t very good at spying on terrorists. (Two guys talking in a car. A couple of huts in the desert.) And secondly, a spy satellite costs hundreds of millions of dollars to put into service. And sometimes they don’t work at all. An Israel-made drone, bought off the shelf for a few million, suddenly looks like a bargain.

A Dark Cloud

Virtually of of northern Europe is landbound – with almost all commercial air traffic grounded – due to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland.

The name of this volcano: Eyjafjallajokull is but one of the problems. Its virtually unpronounceable by anybody not fluent in Icelandic. (ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) is how it is listed on most news web sites. On the other hand the wikipedia page  for the wretched thing provides a sound file that ends with a sort of hissing click that really doesn’t sound anything like you’d expect. I pity the poor news readers who have to deal with it. It makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem as simple as Tom Jones.

President Obama has just had to cancel his trip to Poland to attend the funeral of late Polish President Lech Kaczyński. All airfields in poland are closed because of the cloud of glass-filled ash. It would, theoretically, have been possible for the President to fly to some point outside the affected area, and then travel overland to Poland. Not the sort of thing the Secret Service would agree to. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reported returning to Germany via an armored convoy from Italy. (The last time I recall that term being used to refer to Germans for a very long time indeed.)

The risks posed to aircraft flying through volcanic plumes is not new. A British Airways 747 flying near Mount Galunggung in Indonesia in 1982 suddenly suffered complete engine failure of all four powerplants. The aircraft was able to glide to a lower altitude and restart the engines – although one later failed again. The plane managed to make a controlled emergency landing in Jakarta.

The problems encountered by the British Airways flight (Flight 9) in 1982 ought to give anybody pause before suggesting that the closure of European airspace is in any way an over reaction. Because the plane was flying at night, and the volcanic ash did not show up on airborne radar, the crew literally had no idea there was any problem until the engines stopped working, literally with two or three minutes of each other.

Under examination it was found that the glass particles in the volcanic ash cloud entered the engine combustion chambers, where the high heat caused it melt, adhering to the sides. It was only as the plane descended, with the engines not running, that the molten glass solidified and enough broke off the it was possible to restart the engines. Engine damage wasn’t the only problem: The aircraft windshield was essentially sandblasted, as were the aircraft landing lights – making landing difficult and taxing impossible. Furthermore it was found that the fuel onboard had been contaminated by ash drawn into the fuel tanks via the pressurization ports.

This weekend Europeans are doing their best to deal with the situation: taking taxi rides, train trips, and ferry journeys to get home. For a few days it will be an inconvenience – but manageable.

The concern is what happens if the volcano continues to erupt for weeks or months? This is far from a remote possibility.

Air travel between North America and Europe will, on some level, still be possible. But it may involve flying to Spain or North Africa – and then relying on ground transportation to take you north to London or Berlin.

Slacker-Luddites of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose…

You knew it was coming.

The first day the iPad went on retail sale in the United States, some fools took handheld videocam footage of themselves destroying this piece of technology. (Gizmodo story)

There strikes me as something very sad about this story.

Its not as if these kids hated the iPad itself – after all they clearly had just bought three of them, leaving us with definite impression that they’d take the survivors home with them to play with and enjoy. And it certainly isn’t as if they destroyed the iPad to make a political statement. Its not as if the iPad threatens their jobs or way of life.

No, they destroyed the iPad in search of their few seconds of Internet fame. (Andy Warhol’s famous fifteen minutes has since been downsized to a comfortable fifteen seconds – about all I could stomach, and all that was necessary to watch of their youTube video.)

Artifacts of technological wonder get destroyed all the time. A Formula One car spins out of control. A rocket blows up on the launch pad. A Las Vegas casino is collapsed by a controlled demolition. But these destructions have a point. Our engineers will learn from the  failures, making our cars and rockets of the future better. And the land cleared by the fallen casino will make way for something larger and splashier.

Have our youth become so detached from the wonder of the making things as to treat the work of others with such utter disrespect? One cannot but suspect that if any of these cretins had ever spent a week struggling to come up with the absolute perfect engineering solution to a difficult problem they would have not been so quick to pull out the baseball bat.

In my opinion, Gizmodo – and the other leading gadget sites – should consider a moratorium on these pointless destruction of new technology stories. They achieve nothing, other than encouraging future vandalism.

Where have you gone, Jack Ryan?

Its been a few years since Tom Clancy has released a complete novel. And almost as long since I’ve read any of his work. I pretty much gave up after suffering through Red Rabbit (to date the only book I’ve ever actually thrown away) and I remember recoiling in disgust at The Teeth of the Tiger – in which a group of young American patriots go on a murder spree through the capitals of Europe, joyriding in Ferraris and Porsches financed through insider-trading profiteering enabled by a massive quasi-Governmental wiretapping operation. (Oh, and those are the good guys.)

I’d read Rainbow Six not long after it was first published back in 1998, and while not as engaging as some of Clancy’s earlier work – I didn’t recall it being that bad.

I was wrong. Its appalling.

Consider the premise: A group of liberal environmentalists plan to wipe out the entire population of the earth through a genetically-mutated virus, distributed via aerosol sprayed cooling systems at the Sydney Olympic Games. Along the way this group manages to finance random acts of terrorism, including graphic child murder – as well as a virus-testing program that sweeps both homeless alcholics and dim-witted legal secretaries into a secret clinic where they are free to drink and fornicate. Their medical overseers plying them with copious amounts of narcotics and plague viruses. Really.

Clancy is tiresomely repetitive, and boringly cliched in his portrayals. In the Clancy-world people fall into three groups: Military/Cops/Spies/Medical Personnel (apart from medical personnel who are also environmentalists- see above) – all hardworking heroic patriots. Group two: Environmentalists/Discovery Channel/NPR viewers/former KGB operatives/ and random dim-witted ex-Baader-Meinhoff gang members: Vicious, child murdering psychopaths. And lastly, the general population: dim-witted patsies, who rely on a secret army of spies, torturers and murderers to keep them safe from the other group of spies, torturers and murderers.

I hear that Clancy is working on another novel. (Read about it on his blog, in between comments about the quality of the whisky he’s drinking these days.) The strange thing is, I can’t ever remember a serious journalist ever asking Mr Clancy if he ever felt any responsibility for the idea floated in his 1994 book Debt of Honor: You know, the one which ends with a crazed extremist crashing his plane into a landmark American building, killing thousands in the process.

Cheat Sheets

Sarah Palin has been on the national stage for a year and a half now, and she seems no closer to bringing her Aw-shucks political diva act to a close. In fact, she seems more energized than ever.

Like a lot of people, I was hoping that she’d take the drubbing McCain-Palin got in ’08 to heart, and go back to Alaska where the damage she could do to our nation would be decidedly limited. Obviously, we don’t always get what we want. But as the Rolling Stones tell us – sometimes you get what you need.

When Palin got the nod from John McCain in 2008 she was clearly unqualified to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. She had virtually no significant political experience (not that Obama had a hugely long resume in that regard either..) – but most troubling, she very clearly lacked the intellectual chops to take on almost any national office.

Holding an office like Governor would have given Palin, at a minimum, two years to “hit the books” on issues of national and international importance. To finally craft, and master, a worldview that she could present to potential voters in the run up to the 2012 elections. She could use the time to choose and build a team of experts to manage her campaign strategy and message.  Americans are not particularly demanding of their Presidential candidates intellects. Adlai Stevenson, probably for all time, gave “the smart guy” a whiff of political nerdiness. But with that said, Palin’s performance during the campaign was so head-slappingly awful that one had to be either delusional or truly moronic to think that she’d make a good President.

Palin didn’t do that. She reminds me a lot of the worst sort of clients management consultants deal with: those who are so bad, they just don’t realize how badly they need help. So instead of keeping quiet, she has kept herself in the news: A badly reviewed ghostwritten book. A puzzling “quitting” of the Governors office. A self-defeating public fight with the father of her grandchild. A gig on Fox News. And a paid speech at the Tea Party convention.

This endless barrage of quests for attention ought to tell us something about Sarah Palin: She’s desperate for attention. Most probably because, at heart, she lacks self-confidence. She knows, in her heart, that she isn’t as smart as Obama. She ought to know she isn’t as smart as McCain, Romney, Pawlenty, or just about any other national politician.

The Tea Party speech probably won’t be the final nail in Palin’s political coffin. But, factually dubious talking points aside, the biggest tip-off to her eventual doom has to be the handwritten crib notes on her palm. They tell me that whoever is making decisions for Sarah Palin, Inc. doesn’t have a clue. If Palin had referred to index cards for her notes – that would have looked, if not necessarily “Presidential.”

Instead, she came across looking like exactly what she is: the failing student who hasn’t done her homework.

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