Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Heads Up: Finally a good prospect for finding MH370

If the hulk of MH370 ever turns up, I'm convinced it will be soon. Perhaps within weeks, because a new subsea effort is underway and it's starting with much better information. We can hope it will bring finality to one of the all-time aviation mysteries. And no, the Boeing 777-200ER wasn't hijacked to a hidden base. 

For reasons still unknown it crashed into the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014, taking 239 souls with it. I think a catastrophic electrical fire is on the short list of possible causes, but that's only speculation. 

The new search builds on four separate sets of information, which have now lined up: flight simulations by Boeing, signal analysis, back-tracking of debris from the plane (aka drift studies), and photos from a French reconnaissance satellite that were taken soon after the crash. The sat-photos show a cluster of floating objects that were likely artificial. 

Taken together, these point to one fairly small area north of the main track:

The area of interest, 35.6 South Latitude, 92.8 East Longitude, is on the left side, where the black dots pile up. The latest studies identify a few additional places to look, but this one takes first priority. 

Over the final year of the 120,000-km search, evidence started accumulating that the searchers had been looking in the wrong place. Still, Australia refused to confirm that sufficient "new data" existed to justify a changed or expanded search.

Fortunately, the company Ocean Infinity has offered to take one more look:

It's doing this as a classic salvage venture, called "no cure, no pay," so Ocean Infinity will be out a lot of money if the search fails. If it succeeds, Malaysia will pay the firm up to $70 million, with the exact amount determined by the effort. 

And if successful, it will be more proof, as with commercial spaceflight pioneers Blue Origin and SpaceX, that the age of tycoons taking command is truly upon us.  

Friday, January 19, 2018

Anomalous: The interstellar object of October 2017

As readers might have guessed, I love the idea of humans crossing the interstellar void, even if it takes ten thousand years to get anywhere. My fan poster of the Interstellar movie is here:

And I love books like Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (the audio version of which came out last month on Audible!). 

So I was excited to read about the object that passed through our solar system, first reported on October 19. The IAU had to invent a scheme to indicate interstellar origin: designated 1I/2017 U1, now it's known as 'Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word meaning scout from a distant land. Although no telescope captured its portrait, the blue circle marks what astronomers saw (image combined from ESO's Very Large Telescope, and the Gemini South instrument):

Here's a Nature article with the science. 
curve range is very unusual.

Authors in a conservative journal like Nature or Science don't label something as "very unusual" very often, but that label fits 'Oumuamua. Here's my take from journal articles to date, in FAQ format.

Q. Was it verified as interstellar?
A. Yes. That's based on its speed and the "hyperbolic" path, a hyperbolic path being one that doesn't close up into an ellipse. And it came in at too high a speed to be bound to our solar system. While it seems to have come from the star Vega, that belief doesn't account for how stars move through the galaxy over time, relative to the sun. Given the asteroid's (relatively) low speed, Vega wouldn't have been in that spot at the time when 'Oumuamua was in the area. We'd need a lot more information to figure out where it originated. Here's the trajectory, from SciAm. 

Q. Have astronomers seen any other interstellar objects passing through?
A. This is the first one confirmed. The problem is that interstellar visitors come in very fast. That makes them hard to spot, particularly the low-reflecting asteroids. And even interstellar chunks of ice would be hard to see unless they approach the sun. It's a tribute to modern science that 'Oumuamua was detected at all. 

Q. Is it likely we'll see more interstellar objects?
A. Thanks to the rise of vastly greater computing power and new telescopes, yes. It's a sure thing that lots have already passed through our solar system over the eons, because interstellar space must have lots of loose rocks. The reason is that stars regularly pass near enough to other solar systems -- even through them -- to toss out planets and asteroids. That must have happened many times around the Milky Way galaxy, given the passage of billions of years. 

Q. Did observations show any sign of alien works?
A. It was scanned by radio telescope for artificial emissions, but nothing turned up. That doesn't prove a great deal since we had so little time even to look at it, and when we did have the chance, it was already so far away we couldn't resolve details. Other than the trajectory, the information we have is from the color of the light reflected and the timing of how that light dimmed over time, cycling about every seven hours.

Q. Why did its light change over time?
A. Most likely because it was rotating.

Q. Is there anything really unique about it, other than its origin?
A. The inferred shape of 'Oumuamua is by far the most unique feature. A year ago, experts would have guessed that the first observed interstellar object should be a garden-variety hunk very much like the thousands we see in our neighborhood. 'Oumuamua didn't fit that expectation in at least one respect, its shape. Though we couldn't resolve details, evidence from the way its brightness changed with rotation points to it having the proportions of a cigar: about 110 yards in diameter, and two-thirds of a mile long. While we know of some narrow asteroids in our solar system, none has a ratio that extreme. That means 'Oumuamua is unlike any of the 20,000 solar-system asteroids about which we've gathered info on shape. Since we don't know how it was oriented compared to Earth, it's possible that the ratio is even more extreme than 10:1. So 'Oumuamua is a strange beast in that respect. 

Q. How about its surface?
A. Its color (apparently a dull red) is nothing special compared to local asteroids. The color points to it being an asteroid of rock or metal, but the surface could be a mineral crust over ice. The insulating properties of such a crust would explain why, even if the object contains lots of ice, the ice didn't off-gas like a comet would. Many astronomers would have dearly loved to get a close-up look at the surface. 

Q. Is there any chance of taking a closer look?
A. Not 'Oumuamua. It came and went, and won't be back. Its speed and distance mean that none of today's chemical-fueled rockets could catching up. But with more advanced technology, such as nuclear propulsion, we might be able to get a close look at future drop-ins. That's the plot of Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, a novel about a spaceship that goes to explore a vast, dormant alien craft that's passing through the solar system. In a striking coincidence, Rama is also cylinder shape. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Origin of the "Streisand Effect": Tales of the Chopper

Many articles came out last week about Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury book ...

... and some are referencing the boost that can happen when an uber-celebrity's office threatens all manner of legal mayhem to shut down a publishing project, because it's such an invasion of privacy, etc.:

Said Jimmy Kimmel: "Threatening the writer with legal action is literally the dumbest move you can make if you want to keep it on the down-low.”"

The White House refuses to blame itself for any of this, saying press coverage of the book is solely responsible. 

Such marketing bonanzas are now called the Streisand Effect.

It's named for this case: in 2003, celebrity Barbra Streisand sued to remove an aerial photo of her Malibu coastal estate linked to a public-interest website (the California Coastal Records Project). That website had been set up to host thousands of coastline photos. The intent was to harness citizen action to protect California shores from illegal development. Ms. Streisand considered it an invasion of privacy.

Ms. Streisand not only failed to win her $10 million suit and get the photo blocked, she had to pay her opponents' legal fees.

Worse, from her perspective, the suit transformed the offending photo into a worldwide phenom. As in: the photo had been clicked on only six times before the legal filing, and two of those hits were from Ms. Streisand's law firm. Within a month, hits on the photo exceeded 400,000.

World media picked up the story as well. This from Japan Times: "She would clearly have done better to say nothing." 

It's earned a place in the list of unwanted results.

Here's the photo that caused all the buzz; it offended the plaintiff because she had selected her property for the seclusion it offered in those pre-drone days. It was essentially unviewable from the road, or from houses on either side.

The photographer was Kenneth Adelman, and along with thousands of other coastal photos, he took it from a Robinson 44 helicopter piloted by his wife.

In 2005, as part of my book on the social history of helicopters, The God Machine, I was writing a chapter about eyes in the sky. I came across the story, and got in touch with Mr. Adelman. Here's info from our email interview.

Q. Why use a helicopter? 

A: The helicopter is slower and more maneuverable than a light plane, and the removable door is a great help.

Q. What's a good setup for such photography? 

A. An altitude of 500 feet, and an airspeed of 50-60 knots, works well, with an occasional hover with a pedal-turn. 

Q. Did any other celebrities or coastal-estate owners sue him, or otherwise give him grief about taking photos of their property? 

A: No.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Tales of the Chopper: Mind that tail rotor

Feature writing on technology has taken me to a lot of strange places. One was riding aboard a Hughes 500 with a very skilled crew, working alongside a live high-voltage power line in Pennsylvania. Here's my article:

Here's what these jobs look like:

It was soon clear why this job was so demanding for the pilot. It wasn't just that the helo had to hover a few feet from the line, or that the altitude was so low that an engine failure would have certainly ended in a crash. That's because a safe engine-off auto-rotation is impossible in such a situation. 

The biggest risk was the fact that the tail rotor was on the same side of the ship as the power line. A pilot error that brought the tail rotor against the cable would destroy the rotor instantly, putting the ship into a spin followed by a crash.

I spent quite a bit of time on the humble tail rotor's history and purpose in my helicopter book, The God Machine, because the tail rotor may seem like some kind of appendage rather than a crucial, delicate component. It's essential to the most common type of helicopter, the single-main-rotor design, because it counters the powerful torque from the main rotor.

A reminder of how this noisy little device needs a high level of respect comes in a new report from Canada's Transportation Safety Board. The most likely reason that a helicopter carrying a powerline-maintenance crew for Hydro One crashed in Ontario this month, killing all four aboard, was because an unsecured tool bag came loose from the work platform and rammed the tail rotor:

Here's a side-by-side from the TSB, tool bag on the left and tail-rotor blade on the right:

So, helo passengers, pay attention to that safety briefing! Even lightweight objects can tangle and destroy a tail rotor, like a jacket flying out a side door. 

Heavy haulers at the Amtrak derailment site

Thinking about the Amtrak derailment at DuPont, Washington, last week. The latest information suggests the engineer took the train into a very tight curve at much too high a speed. When he did operate the emergency brakes, (allegedly) it was far too late.

In the first days, before NTSB's initial reports were available, news outlets looking for an angle described the extreme challenge of moving the locomotive that had bulldozed its way onto the interstate, because it was so heavy.

Actually, not that heavy, at 135 tons. The capabilities of derailment contractors, specialized riggers, and heavy haulers are, in a word, awesome. It's just that we don't often see such equipment in the news feeds. In this post I wrote about strand jacks:

In this post, about how re-railing crews work:

A few years ago I asked an engineer at Hulcher, a company specializing in re-railing, the most challenging problem his crews faced: he described a jumble of derailed locomotives at the bottom of a steep valley, where a tall railroad bridge offered the only access. That setting is difficult because wrecking cranes, which have the horsepower to pull about anything, can't spread their stabilizers. 

Here's the website of Oxbo Mega Transport, the Oregon company that hauled the engine from the interstate:

A good local article about the difficulties of a rapid, specialized move:

Here's the rig. Oxbo started with a short but massive trailer used for hauling transformers up to 300 tons in weight, then lengthened and lowered it to allow the load under bridges:

Here's the rig rounding a curve - slowly!

So the job at DuPont was challenging, but no means the biggest for Oxbo. Here's one of the company's bigger jobs - note the many axles in use:

Here's the best image I could find showing the two hydraulic cranes used for the lift.

While this picture doesn't show clearly what the Liebherr in the foreground is picking up, note the stacked counterweights - indicating it's rigged for a long-reach lift, or a heavy load.

A more typical loco-lift involves sideboom tractors working together, like this:

Thinking about the initial puzzlement and pessimism in early reports - "How could anybody clear such a mess in a few days?" - it's not surprising. We live in a consumer-oriented time, with a tight focus on affordable, high-performance gadgets that are car-size or smaller. Spending for passenger rail quality, such as Positive Train Control, is just not entertaining enough. 

Meanwhile, the unseen hardware necessary to drive our consumocracy - transport, factories, generators, and mineral recovery - is getting bigger and greatly more complex. So it's not surprising that general-interest reporters are years behind in estimating the capabilities of heavy industry. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Voter turnout: Boosting participation the American way

Problem: American voter turnout is abysmal, trailing most Western democracies. (Photo: Nick Cote for NYT).

And it's worse in off-year elections. So ... How about a competition between states in two categories, measured by success in voter turnout in the 2018 off-year federal election?

Such a contest taps into one of many neglected lessons from the mobilization to win World War 2: Namely, the record-breaking achievement of building and launching a Liberty ship in less than five days, due in part to Henry Kaiser's use of athletic-style competitions between shipyards.

Categories: One would be the highest turnout of eligible adults. The other category would be states showing the best improvement compared to the most recent off-year election, 2014 in this case.

Prizes: All states that signed up to compete would, at the outset, agree to support the two winners in pushing for them to be “first primary state” and “first caucus state” in an upcoming presidential election. If primary planning is already too far along to dislodge Iowa and New Hampshire in 2020, the two winners would wait until the 2024 election cycle.

Which of the two winners is promoted for the first primary, and which the first caucus? Perhaps a coin toss between the two winners would decide that. In any case they're certain to have a battle on their hands with Iowa and New Hampshire.

Who'd enter? States (and perhaps US territories!) that'd like a chance to receive -- just once -- the special attention that goes to “first primary” and “first caucus” states.

Let me know what you think!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Crisis on the K13: World's first technical-innovation rescue (1917)

For a recent speaking engagement, wanting to feature a high-performance team in action, I devoted the second half of my talk to the emergency aboard the British steam-powered submarine K13. This year is the hundredth anniversary.

Here's a PDF of that section of my PowerPoint

Quick thinking, persistence, and mechanical innovation spanning less than 48 hours saved a majority of the crew from the sunken craft, which had quickly filled with smoke from electrical fires and then was slowly filling with seawater from leaks through bulkheads. Here's a drawing from a survivor, showing the huge sub's position after sinking:

As far as I know, the rescue in the Gareloch was the first "Apollo-13-style" effort in history, seeing mechanical innovation under great time pressure. Some noteworthy rescues preceded this event (from train wrecks, mine collapses, and building fires), but didn't feature the on-the-spot techno-creativity demonstrated here.