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)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mystery Barge 0010: Larry Page's newest dreamboat?

Still waiting for official news about the four-story mystery barge BAL 0010 that CNET has linked to a Google front ...

(KPIX 5/CBS San Francisco)

... (is it a retail store for Google glasses? A Loon earth station? An earthquake- and asteroid-proof data center?) ... I favor the latter myself, but am still waiting for a zoomed-in photo of the barge's top deck, which might help hone the guesswork. A data center should have big exhaust stacks for onboard diesel generators.

Meanwhile here's a little information about a certain Google co-founder's superyacht that was moored nearby last week, according to dogged reporting by Daniel Terdiman of CNET (his photo):


Larry Page's194-foot steel-hulled boat is named Senses, and as a helicopter-book writer, I'm pleased to note that it has a helipad:

But apparently no hangar. Note to super-yacht owners: if you plan to use your helo other than for flitting around the harbor, tack on a hangar for your fly-baby. Helos don't age well around salt spray.

But many yachts don't spend much time at sea anyway, so perhaps I'm carping.

Occasionally I check the Automated Information System (AIS) for shipping on MarineTraffic to see what boats like Senses are up to, but sadly, AIS appears to be of little help when spotting big shots' big yachts: such vessels are likely to be "out of range" most of the time. I take it that their AIS transponders have been switched off to foil PC-using pirates.

One time that AIS revealed the whereabouts of Paul Allen's mega-super-megayacht Octopus was while it provided global communications during Deepsea Challenger's recovery:

Not to make anyone named Larry jealous, but Octopus has hangar space for two helicopters:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Before the Fall: Mind that Ladder

Have been cruising around the landscape via Google Maps, and came across this remnant from my past:

The dark diagonal line is the shadow of a radio tower in Ropesville, Texas, that I spent time on and around for a Smithsonian story, hanging with the good ol' tower hands of Strickland Tower Service. It reminded me to post a few safety tips about ladders, which I've been using a lot lately in a repainting job around the house.

While the altitude at the peak of our roof is about 500 feet less than in Ropesville, just about any ladder can be dangerous to one's health. During the days of preparation and painting, several neighbors stopped by to urge me not to fall off.

After I put away the ladder, I looked into why thousands of people fall from ladders every year.

Don't try to save time by stretching sideways or "bumping" the top of ladder sideways. Once the ladder starts sliding, even a little, there's nothing you can do to stop it. Experts say that if your belt buckle is beyond the vertical supports of the ladder (called "stiles," by the way) you're already out of balance.

Aluminum ladders are a fine electrical conductor, and the results of electrocution are terrible to behold, so stay far away from live wires.

A large number of injuries trace to mistakes on the first two rungs. Common reasons: holding something in your hand, tripping on hazards around the base of the ladder, or slipping on wet rungs. Since nearly every ladder-related job requires some tool or container available at the top, use a rope to pull it up.

I recommend the "stabilizer" or "standoff" attachment available at hardware stores. It reduces the chance that the ladder will rotate around one side and dump you off, and it also makes for a more comfortable working distance when painting.

Check the ladder out before you head up, looking for anything out of shape, cracked or bent. Dented stiles are a concern with aluminum ladders, and a fiberglass ladder is in trouble when it starts turning fuzzy at the surface. That means it's losing the resin covering that gives it compressive strength.

Ditch the heavy family-heirloom wooden ladder, particularly if it's painted. Paint holds in moisture and hides rot around the rungs, and I wouldn't trust my life to one.

Check the ground surface against any tendency for the ladder feet to slip. In our neighborhood, one hazard while painting the front of the garage is that all our driveways slope toward the street. Combine a sloping surface with a shiny coat of sealer on the driveway: the feet of the ladder are more likely to slide and drop you on your face.

Planning to lop off some tree branches from a long ladder? Mind the fact that after you saw off that big bough, the remainder of the branch could spring upward a foot or more, freeing the top of the ladder to drop you on the ground.

While I haven't fallen from a ladder (yet), I can think of a few mistakes that could have ended that way. The most embarrassing: While I was putting up decorations at a preview showing of the History series on my disaster book, my brother pointed out that I hadn't locked the braces on the stepladder I was using. Oops!

Monday, October 14, 2013

E-book Covers: A few tools for the DIYers

 For those asking about the mockup cover for a science-fiction e-book that I posted recently on LinkedIn (see final result at bottom) here's a little more detail on the steps. Nothing complicated!

I've mentioned before that one of my hobbies is photography. Living in the North, there's plenty of ice and snow available from November to March, and here are two (out of many) pictures of ice I've taken in the depth of winter:
They struck me as having a slightly alien quality. So what to do? Given that I used a dSLR at 18 megapixels, cropping is an option, particularly since Kindle caps the image size of an e-book cover. Here's an enlarged snippet of the photo on the left:

It looked like an offworld apartment house to me. First I used Sketchbook's airbrush tool to tune it up, then added the other photo, the swirly one, to make the scene a little more alien.

Many programs for stacking photos are out there, such as GIMP and PhotoShop, but for fun I used Autodesk's SketchBook Pro app on an iPad 3, which at high resolution (1800x2400) offers up to four layers. Using Sketchbook I pasted the swirly image into a blank layer, flipped it horizontally, then slid it behind the apartment house.

On the Sketchbook layer menu, there are four options that determine how the stacked imagery shines through. I used the "Add" option in Sketchbook's layer menu, and the "set transparency" slider control to lighten up the interstellar cloud a bit.

The final step was to export the image via DropBox to OpenOffice's presentation module to add some lettering, and voila, a cover mockup:

 "PHA"? It's NASA-speak for Potentially Hazardous Asteroid. Here's a link to PHA info from NASA, via Google cache, which has been quite handy in these days of government shutdown.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Costa Concordia: Recommended video of VDR data and bridge audio

The ex-master of Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, is now on trial in the Court of Grosseto, Italy. 

YouTube offers a variety of reconstructions of the final voyage, but I like this one from Mario Piccinelli, of the University of Brescia. It's an overlay of bridge audio onto navigation and system-status screens. Data came from the VDR (voyage data recorder) system on Concordia.

Note the green bars on the left - that's the status of the watertight doors.

Here's a link to Mario's journal article for Digital Investigation, "Modern ships' Voyage Data Recorders: A forensics perspective on the Costa Concordia shipwreck," about the huge effort that went into extracting and rendering data generated by the ship's instruments. 

Here's a description from the article intro:

“This paper delves into the examination of data found in the VDR from the actual Costa Concordia accident in 2012, and describes the recovery of information useful for the investigation, both by deduction and by reverse engineering of the data, some of which were not even shown by the official replay software."

All that info was supposed to go onto the VDR for storage (the equivalent of the airliner's black box), but the VDR malfunctioned. Fortunately Concordia's data stream went into a temporary storage unit called the accumulator, which investigators recovered in good shape. After extracting the data the team had to make sense of what was showing in the multiple channels - the readouts were not standardized like FDRs and CVRs in airliners. 

The methods should be useful as other investigators have to rebuild data from non-standardized accident data recorders.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Coming Up on 100K

A big thanks to readers and followers! Disaster-Wise is coming up on a hundred thousand views. I started the blog three years ago as a follow-up to lectures on my book Inviting Disaster. It's been a learning experience throughout.
And special thanks to:
  • Ian Punnett and Coast to Coast AM for having me on his weekend show a dozen times or more; editors at Air&Space, American Heritage Publishing, and the National Board of Boiler Inspectors who allow me to excerpt from my articles; and to Lone Wolf Productions for their invitation to History Channel's Titanic at 100.
  • Experts who graciously responded to my requests for info behind the headlines, particularly forensic engineers and disaster investigators. (And there's more to come: I just received two technical papers from Dr. Fabio Remondino at FBK Trento about the methodology behind Costa Concordia's underwater survey. I'll post them this week.) 
  • Google, for making Blogger available for free. Blogger is a little klunky for a person who was raised on an iMac, but has great functionality.
  • The wifely one, for putting up with quite a few "Just a minute - I need to post this first" demurrers.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gen. Giap: Last of a kind?

News yesterday of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap's death. News reports have featured his role commanding the Viet Minh forces during the long siege that led to the fall of the French outpost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. But more than a year before that famous battle was Giap's well-planned ambush that caught the French during the last days of Operation Lorraine. After that, analysts in the West picked Giap out as a commander to watch.

I researched the disastrous end to Operation Lorraine as part of writing The God Machine. Here's an excerpt from my book, which I think illustrates Giap's careful planning:

France, then fighting Communists in Indochina, would have liked to employ transport helicopters in the fight but couldn’t afford the cost. Instead the French Expeditionary Corps had to rely chiefly on the country’s narrow, winding roads for moving troops and supplies. Where the Viet Minh controlled the ground, the cost of highway travel could be very high, such as the calamitous ending to Operation Lorraine.

In October 1952, the French sent 30,000 troops, supported by tanks, deep into enemy territory from the French fortified positions along the de Lattre Line. The mission was to attack Viet Minh supply storage dumps a hundred miles away in the Phu Doan area.

The French expected this would force the Viet Minh to stop attacks elsewhere and perhaps bring their massed army out into the open where French airplanes could attack them. After a few weeks the massive ground raid had reached Phu Doan and located hundreds of tons of arms including much new Soviet equipment. It had not, however, brought Viet Minh divisions out into the open where the French could use World War II tactics.

Having taken the towns Gen. Raoul Salan decided not to hold them any longer; he was now worried that Viet Minh commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap might have something in mind for his overextended column, which was 100 miles from the nearest French lines. A trap laid for columns in narrow roads -- where the enemy could not bring its power to bear -- was one of Giap’s trademark moves. In mid-November Salan ordered the men to head for safety but, as he had feared, Giap had his men waiting.

The Viet Minh anticipated that the French in pulling back from Phu Doan must pass through the steep-walled valley at Chan-Muong.  (Map: Orbis Publishing)

Here they built log roadblocks and set up heavy weapons trained on its narrowest point, a bottleneck formed by steep rock walls and manioc fields on either side of the road. On November 17 Viet Minh battalions let a line of tanks pass through mostly unscathed, then attacked the more vulnerable middle of the column. Exploding vehicles in the rear blocked help from tanks which had yet to enter the defile, and exploding vehicles in the front blocked escape in that direction. Mortars and then hand-placed satchel charges destroyed each trapped vehicle. French commanders gathered up their infantry from the confusion and sent them up the slopes to attack the mortar and gun positions. A bayonet charge finally sent the Viet Minh into retreat. The battles continued for another week, until the column reached safety at the de Lattre Line. The cost was 1,200 casualties.

My conclusion after reading about Gen. Giap, and talking to Vietnam vets, is that he didn't throw away his troops' lives as wildly as some have said. And he may find a place in history books as the last "big army" general to foil a superpower.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Gravity: Raising space-debris awareness ... perhaps a tiny bit too much

Eager to see Gravity this weekend, which is getting extraordinarily good reviews (98% on the Tomato-Meter, at this writing).

One of the trailers:

While space debris is unlikely to arrive in such pestilential swarms as the movie shows, and probably wouldn't be visible to the eye as it approached (see excerpt from my article below -- the closing speeds are too fast), whoever researched the Gravity script did get some important principles correct. And in any case the movie (particularly in 3-D) apparently does an amazing job of giving the viewer the sense of being up there, and out there.

Setting aside exaggeration for effect, the writers are correct that the biggest threat to manned spacecraft in low earth orbit (particularly the ISS) is man-made debris. It's also worth noting that NASA regarded servicing the Hubble Space Telescope with the Shuttle rather risky (at least after the Columbia loss) because the shuttle had no easily accessible safe haven. The Hubble is in a much higher orbit than the space station.

Here's a link to a NASA report on dangers from space debris.

Following is the introduction from my 1999 space-debris article for Smithsonian on space debris. Coincidentally, that research brought me nose-to-nose with Columbia.

     =  =  =  =  =

ANYBODY WHO BELIEVES THAT SPACE IS AS empty as it looks in the movies should spend a few hours with Justin Kerr of NASA and Ronnie Bernhard of Lockheed Martin. It's June and both scientists have flown in from Houston to inspect the orbiter Columbia, which sits in Bay 3 at the Kennedy Space Center's Orbiter Processing Facility. I'm stretched out on an aluminum work platform by Columbia's windshield, under strict orders not to drop pens or notebooks or wedding rings that might damage the fragile tiles below.

Kerr hunkers down to my left and crawls through a playhouse-size aluminum entryway, emerging onto a catwalk with a nice view of Columbia's spacious payload bay. He grasps a lab notebook and a sampling kit, including a chopstick, a bamboo skewer and an orange stick. He directs my attention to a pair of tiny dark craters, each about twice the size of a sharp pencil tip, bored into a white metal frame that holds up one of the spacecraft's antennas. Kerr uses a bamboo stick and tape to gather up the smoky residue from each of the craters. He wraps up the tape and each stick to preserve the soot for microscopic scrutiny.

A shout comes from a platform one level beneath us: others on the NASA debris team have found another impact crater, this time on the right payload door. As we head down, I learn that NASA has logged io6 significant hits on Columbia from this single mission, most of them caused by unwanted man-made particles in orbit. (On most missions, minor damage means that at least one outer layer of window glass is replaced.) Bernhard is crouched under the open door, craning awkwardly to look straight overhead at the white insulated surface with a magnifying glass. He suggests I take a look. Through the tear I see goldish-brown felt that's been singed by the impact; on the white surface of the door smoky soot trails off one side.

These particular craters look pretty small to me, and I ask Bernhard if tiny but fast particles mean much. Yes, indeed, he says.

During a mission in 1995, Columbia took a hit in a payload door that made a gash almost an inch across. If that piece had crossed into the payload bay and punched a big enough hole in the cooling system there, Houston controllers would have ordered the ship back to Earth immediately. One reason it didn't hit at a bad spot was that the NASA debris squad had predicted the risk beforehand, based on earlier shuttle flights, and suggested keeping one payload door partially closed to help shield the payload bay. Bernhard says that, from the metals found in the crater, the culprit on that mission was probably a fragment of circuit board. Where it came from nobody could say, but an explosion is likely. Space has seen its share of silent blasts, some of them quite recently; in 1996 a Pegasus rocket exploded due to a fuel-tank explosion and propelled into orbit at least 700 pieces more than four inches across.

Science writers of the 1950s vividly described the risks to future spacefarers from rocky micrometeoroids near Earth, but the prognosticators missed the boat on what has turned out as a bigger deal, safety-wise. Near Earth, artificial meteoroids now pose a greater risk than the natural stuff. Over the decades humanity has gone Saturn one better by putting up not just a ring but a spherical shell of glittery objects around the planet. It's a layer of camera lens caps, spent rocket boosters, bolts, nuts, buckets of garbage, and countless flecks of dislodged paint and particles of solid fuel from booster rockets.

Even full-sized spacecraft that can be tracked reliably with radar have begun to cross paths, causing encounters that while rare are positively alarming. During his four-month stay on the Mir space station, astronaut Mike Foale received three warnings of approaching space traffic. In the last incident, an obsolete American satellite called MSTI-2 passed less than a thousand meters from Mir.

At the request of Russian controllers, Foale interrupted his exercise-bike workout to join the cosmonauts in the Soyuz (a Russian spacecraft that can return the cosmonauts to Earth) for a few minutes as a safety measure in case Mir was punctured. "We always looked outside [during the close passes] to spot them and it was inevitably futile," he says now. "Imagine trying to see a small dot ten kilometers away over your left shoulder, and a second later it's right next to you, and another second later it's ten kilometers over your right shoulder."