Friday, May 29, 2009

P-51 Mustang #1

Yes, after all that the answer to the quiz was indeed "Mustang", but the airborne version rather than the car. Clue number one was a picture of the 27 litre Merlin engine that transformed the high-altitude behaviour of the plane when it was first tried in the airframe in 1942 as a replacement for the original Allison lump. As a result, the P-51, as it was now designated, became a powerful, multi-role aircraft that carved it's own legend into the skies over Europe and the Far East.

The version shown above is the only two seat instance of the P-51 ever produced and not a configuration the War Department ever commissioned. This conversion was done by a wealthy previous owner who did a ground-up restoration - more like "created a new plane from scratch", in fact - who wanted a professional pilot to fly it while he could ride shotgun in the rear cockpit. Subsequently, this plane was bought by the Collings Foundation for around $2.5m and now operates for some 500 hours a year at various location offering rides to the lucky (i.e. those willing to spend the money) passengers. Such as me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Clue Two

For what I'll be up to tomorrow, that is. But don't read this one literally .... though "catching air" is an integral part of the process. Just add the above to the first clue and I'm sure the answer will become clear!

(Original poster from here at 4.99 GBP, which is a real bargain if you ask me.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Swine Fever Fever

If you have a cold or are "a lady of a certain age", don't whatever you do travel to Japan just now. You won't like what will happen to you. And neither will those around you, as you all find yourselves in quarantine for 7 days. Oh yes, it's swine fever fever all over again.

I got a note Sunday morning from United that my Tokyo flight was delayed by 50 minutes. I was a bit surprised as the weather was set clear and sunny both ends of the route, so just put it down to the normal on-going decay of United's fleet of 747s. ("Ah, no, sorry, that particular model is out of warranty now, and anyway with that mileage on the clock what do you expect? Stuff's bound to be breaking down and falling off.")

It was only when on-board that there was an announcement as to the real reason for the slippage: new health checks in Tokyo! Oh. Joy. In addition to the usual immigration and customs documentation, we now had to fill out a hastily printed (and hastily translated by the look of it) medical history form basically asking, "do you now, or have you ever, had a temperature?" Well hopefully I have some sort of temperature otherwise I'm dead, but I'll let that pass. It also asked if you were on any suspicious drugs. No, not methamphetamine, but rather anti-virals, anti-colds or I suppose anti-swine medication.

In true Japanese form, such things are not to be taken lightly. Failure to pass either the written or the infra-red exam - and more on that in a minute - will mean being in medical quarantine for 7 days. But on the plus side, you'll be accompanied by those seated within a 2 meter radius of your seat just so they can be doubly sure to have locked up all the likely suspects. Yes, it's pointless, but at least it's thoroughly pointless.

12 hours later we pull up to the gate at Narita. We are ordered to stay seated. We obey. A posse of booted-and-suited medical staff come on board in order to deal with the unclean load of foreigners who are now cluttering up their nice clean, sanitary airport. Not only are they wearing face masks but they have eye screens, nylon bunny suits, latex gloves and small rubber boots. Somewhere a British MP is probably dreaming of such things, but if so they were in First Class getting a private examination. We just wanted to get off the bloody plane.

First off, one of them whips out an infra-red camera and starts scanning the entire aircraft, row by row, looking a bit like some sort of post-apocalypse photographer trying to record the mayhem laid out before them. Heaven help you if you were a bit menopausal at the time because you'd really have a hard time explaining to some poor student why you didn't have swine flu but rather were pumping heat into the plane because of an untimely hormonal imbalance. English wasn't their first language, nor even the second; I think it ranked somewhere down at 47 just after that African tounge clicking thing. The poor girl checking the form was therefore running her finger over each and every line, slowly & meticulously checking every single entry, including seat number, destination and whether or not you were going to escape into the wilds of Japan to "go traveling about" as it put it. Engaging in a dialogue on any point whatsoever would undoubtedly lead you straight to medical jail, albeit with much bowing and apologising, so it's better just to sit still and stay cool. Literally.

Fortunately I passed, apparently chilled enough to be allowed entry despite the steam now coming from my ears at being stuck here for 40 minutes and missing the bus I planned to catch. I was given a green piece of paper that seemingly signified I was in rude health. And I quote, "This document is to certify that you have passed quarantine inspection". Well, good then. However, not so fast. "If you have any symptom such as coughing, you are requested to wear a mask for preventing the spread of infection. These requests are made to protect you as well as your family." Given my family isn't in Japan, "not so much" on this one.

Apart from now now having to stand in another line in order to wave the green bit of paper at yet more officials, I could now sneeze free from fear of incarceration, cough without concern. However, I should perhaps point out that standing in a corridor for 10 minutes, packed cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of other people from around the world, to hand in said bit of paper to said officials probably exposed me to even more risk of catching the flu that anything that I was going to see on the plane. Sigh.

No idea how long they will stick with this, but it's still a big story here so I expect it will be a while. It's not being applied across the board, just on flights arriving from countries with known cases of swine flu. On the plus side, no one yet seems to have realised that seasonal flu has way more impact than the swine kind so hopefully this is just temporary and won't become a much loved feature of every trip here. And at least it's being done very, very politely. Woe betide the poor traveller arriving into Paris if the French authorities ever think "that looks fun" and decide to join in. Doesn't bear thinking about.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Drones, But With A Real Sting

We've all seen mention of late of the increasing role played in Iraq and Afghanistan by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) but it wasn't until I saw this video did it hit home quite how powerful a weapon they have now become. It's a web-version of a 60 Minutes piece (US television documentary show) that goes inside the control center for surveillance missions flown by these vehicles and really helps explain why they are changing the nature of how war is being waged in the 21st century.

Near the end you will see a segment where the reporter is shown, via an overhead view, standing on the apron in front of a hanger talking to two men. It's clear who is who and is obviously a real-time feed. However, tt was then pointed out that the images were taken from a UAV flying at a quie remarkable altitude of 10,000 feet over the airfield. And despite being told exactly where it was, the reporter could neither see nor hear it. Now, hold that thought.

In an earlier segment combat footage is used, this time taken in the infra-red spectrum. According to the commentary, what's being shown is a pair of insurgents that have just attacked a US patrol. You can clearly see one of the men is holding a "hot" object that looks like a rifle, the heat signature apparantly due to it having just been fired. For them, the bad news was that the UAV monitoring them has a laser targeting system and carries matching bomb accessories. The vengeance metered out from on high is therefore swift, merciless and delivered without any warning whatsoever. The result is not pretty, but it is devastatingly effective.

The eerie thing is that all these missions are "flown" from a command past in California, with only the take off and landing being managed my operatives in-country. Pilots have breakfast at home with their families, drive to the office, clock on, fly remote surveillance and combat missions, clock off and drive home in time for dinner. "Good day at the office, dear?" "Not too bad. Killed some insurgents and helped track the safe withdrawal of a covert ops team. What's for dinner?"

Change has a habit of creeping up on you unannounced. It taps you on the shoulder and makes you jump rather than coming at you from the front where you can track it as incoming. And ans you will see, this is one big change that's sneaking around out there.

So far, this is largely an airborne capability that's being deployed, but how long before there are ground-based equivalents, all handled from somewhere safe, air conditioned and softly humming, connected to the sharp end of war by nothing more tangible than a satellite link? It's not hard to see how a tank could be managed via the same capability so likely the next step is not that far off. Combine the two and you can now see a way to have entirely remote missions, comprising joint air and land-borne assets, all deployed and managed from far away and handled via satellites. Terminator 4 anyone?

On the plus side, there are clearly costs to be saved both in terms of human life and equipment, and it offers a very powerful way to support existing ground operations. But on the down side, you have to be concerned at how much more likely it will be that civilian casualties increase as a side effect of boots on the ground instead becoming eyes in the sky. Regardless, life - and now war - increasingly becomes a video game. We in Silicon Valey are not surprised.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Yup, Still Here

Not been posting much for a while here, largely because work has consumed even more cycles than usual. Back on the road next week in Japan before returning for a few days and then going to a trade show in Orlando and onto Europe. However, in between I do have something fun planned. Clue above .... care to guess what?

More news soon.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

It's Gonna Be Huge ... Trust Me

Nope, not a bad line from a 1970s porn film but rather what must have been the pitch for satellite radio back in the early 1990s. Forged in the "white heat" of the US computing and technology boom, both Sirius and XM offered a future where radio finally got away from the old AM/FM days of narrow coverage, incessant advertising and limited programming choice, finally to become a first class citizen in the personal entertainment field.

For a while all seemed to go well, with both companies making headlines by grabbing key talent and competing with each other to win more of the key car brands "factory included" lists. Alas, that phase was pretty short lived. Before long it became clear that the only viable market, despite the early promise, was indeed in-car entertainment, a market that suddenly was being radically changed thanks to the iPod.

There's nothing wrong whatsoever with the system, programming or anything else (though my BMW factory-fit receiver still loses the signal too often for my tastes) but what is a problem is the $12.95 a month. In practice, I'm sure most drivers use one, or at most, two, satellite channels, supplemented these days with HD radio (free) and their own personal toons via an iPod (also free).

In my case, BBC World Service is the "go to" gig, with an occasional foray into Radio 1 just to see what the yoof of the UK is up to. For me, the BBC is always worth listening too, which is why I stream Radio 4 over the Internet at work all day long for the princely sum of zero dollars and nil cents.

While I'm willing to fork over the readies, the chart above shows that I might well be in the minority. Add to that unwillingness of Joe-public driver to spend the cash, that dramatic fall off in car sales is pulling the rug completely from under the merged Sirius XM group. Even if they are able to keep a significant percentage of the subscribers who already use the service active, the underlying trend of sharply declining new additions, thanks to miserable new car sales, is weighing down the company to the point of exhaustion.

Personally, I hope they manage to get back to a path of regular growth and regardless have a business model that allows them to stay solvent. But however you look at it, "huge" has turned out to be less than tumescent and more along the lines of "deflating fast". Alas, in this case it's pretty hard to see the satellite radio equivalent of Viagra showing up any time soon.

Listen long, my son, because soon it may be gone.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Once A Green Pioneer ....

[Images: The Santa Cruz Wave Motor, originally from Scientific American; via John Haskey].

Over the past year or so, much has been written about how Silicon Valley is reinventing itself as the centre of the green energy movement. VC money has been flowing thick and fast down that particular hill, especially when the gradient was steepened by oil being over $100 a barrel as it was until the economy fell off a cliff in 2008. However, despite the price collapse the long-term needs are clear enough that this particular wave continues to build, and green energy is therefore still a hot sector here in Silicon Valley.

What I didn't though realise, until a day or so ago, is that we've been here before. Silicon Valley was a leader in pioneering new forms of renewable energy over a century ago, a crown it's now starting to polish up all over again.

In the late 19th century, economic develop was a function of how much local access there was to one or more sources of energy. Without yet an extensive electricity generation and distribution system, the ability of individual communities to develop manufacturing businesses was therefore naturally very limited. However, the one thing you can be sure of in the USA in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, is that there is no shortage of creative thinkers willing to tackle even the most daunting of challenges, and so it was with energy supply.

As detailed here, there arose in California a whole series of machines intended to extract power from the sea in order to help foster industrial development along the state's extensive coastline, including right here in the Bay Area.

In 1877, an Oakland resident filed a patent for tidal-driven wave power. Over the next 20 years, a string of water-powered motors of various designs sprung up along the California coast from San Francisco southwards, including installations at Capitola and another in Santa Cruz.

Closest to home, the machine in Santa Cruz was up and running by 1898, providing, in this instance, pumped sea water for street cleaning and dust control.

The wave motor was basically a column inside the cliff, connected to the sea via another tunnel below the water lever. Inside the first tunnel was a float connected to a pump; as the water level inside this system rose and fell with the waves, so too did the float, allowing water to be pumped from a valve-controlled chamber up to street level.

This simple but effective system served the community well for 12 years, acting as both pump and tourist attraction rolled into one.

Just over one hundred years later, California is again looking to wave power to help float it's economy. PG&E has signed a deal to take electricity from a wave generation station due to go live in 2012. Furthermore, California has a plan to derive 33% of the state's energy requirements from green sources by 2020, so this is only the beginning.

Hopefully, the results this time around will be both better and longer-lived, but regardless it's amazing just how California is now sailing down routes that it has already explored long ago. Innovation, it seems, truly is part of California's genetic makeup, and access to abundant energy in order to foster economic growth remains an absolute priority.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rash(er) Clothing Choice

"Mass Culling Of Pigs Turns Out To Be A Boon for Egypt's Lingerie Industry"

Which is at least something, because despite news reports to the contrary this mass slaughter of pigs has nothing much to do with swine flu, other than it provides a good excuse for the Egyptian government to target the 10% of the country that is not Muslim and that likes to keep hogs.

How about we call it Egyptian Government flu next time around and see how they like it?

(Streaky bacon bra image from here)