Archive for the ‘ Business ’ Category

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?

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.

Dear New York Times

Spend any time (and I really don’t recommend this) watching Fox News or wading through the cesspool that is the conservative blogosphere, and you’ll detect a palpable Schadenfreude when it comes to the financial struggles of old-world media. And chief among the targets of that right-wing glee has to be the New York Times.

The Grey Lady of American journalism, our national newspaper of record, with at this point, precisely zero credible competitors, finds itself ten years into the third millenium in a strange position. It has, by dint of its undoubtedly superior writers, research, and journalistic standards carved out a place on the web as the most visited newspaper site in the world. A site that has, for at least the last two or three years, been totally free of any sort of paywall. And yet in the last quarter, the Times managed to lose $25 million in the third quarter of 2009.

Now, losting $25 million in a quarter doesn’t mean the company is going to fold up and disappear anytime soon. (A closer look at the Times financials reveals they actually threw off almost  $90 million in cash in that quarter. Much of the loss is attributable to depreciation in the value of some of their non-core assets.) But obviously the company cannot continue indefinitely losing money. How then is the Times going to remedy the situation?

I can’t answer that question. If I had the gold-plated answer to newspaper’s financial problems, I wrap it up in a shiny business plan and sell it to a bunch of investment bankers.

But I will say this: The NY Times is the most prestigous newspaper in the world. I pay 75 cents a day for my local newspaper – buying it from a box near my favorite coffee shop. That paper probably provides me about 10 minutes of actual news reading. Roughly five minutes on local stories – and the rest on national and international. But those “non-local” stories – almost all of them I’ve already seen on the Times website. Columns by Tom Friedman or Maureen Dowd show up a day or two after they’ve been published in the Times. Most of the “value” I get out of my local paper is the (laughably easy) crossword, a couple of other puzzles, and reading the comics. The “news value” I get from the local paper is close to zero. But I willingly pay almost a buck a day for the convenience of a paper to hold n my hand as I sip my coffee and fill out the crossword.

Dear NY Times: We love you, we need you. Figure out a way to get that 75 cents a day from me, and the millions like me.