Saturday, August 30, 2008

Decision Making

I've got a few blog entries in the wings, one that looks at Obama's DNCC speech (as an example of oration and not politically) and another that is about the changing-and-yet-unchanging nature of combat. But they are going to have to wait for just a day or so over this weekend while I take a quick look at John McCain's veep-choice.

vp-maccain-cp-5416664.jpgI'm going to assume that you know he's selected Alaska's governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Now much of what follows depends on a single piece of analysis and its resulting conclusion -- namely that she was selected primarily in a "attract dissatisfied Hilary Clinton voters" move. I'm pretty comfortable with this conclusion:

(1) She's a little thin on general qualifications, particularly as the choice of a guy who has stressed the need for experience. One term as governor leading a geographically large but populationally small state does not seem up to what I was expecting. I can see an effort to play to younger voters, much as Obama's veepchoice was clearly intended to bring some experience to the ticket. I'd be fine with this, but she doesn't seem to be much of a hipster.

(2) The timing was...uh...obvious. I'm fine with trying to grab some thunder, but this announcement, coupled with the "McCain has selected running mate" news stories running the day after Hillary handed the nomination over to Barack seems suspicious. I picture a scene like this:

"Senator, it's obvious he's not picking Clinton for the veep."

"Good, let's see if we can get some dame for our veep. Bring those Clinton fanatics over."

"Sure, but Senator, you can't call them dames anymore."

"What? Ok, then, find me some broad. One with great gams..."

Any way I try to look at it, I find the overriding logic of this selection must be driven by a "get the Hilary voters" logic. And I find that profoundly disappointing on the part of John McCain who, despite occasionally lapsing into the geopolitics of another era, remains a man I have considerable respect for. Here's why:

(1) It is, arguably, offensive to the decision making priorities of women to think that just because you've got a woman on your ticket they will, without presumably regarding other issues, vote for you. This is not my point -- I am not a women and therefore do not feel it is fully within my regard to make claims about how something may or may not have the potential to offend a group. But the point was made in conversations with our (also Obama supporting) guests last night, it was made by a women, and so I repeat it.

(2) It is a choice not for the future and the strength of the potential McCain White House (and let's face it, based on age alone, McCain's veepchoice is a lot more likely to end up in a position of power than is Biden!) but rather for the short-term goal of getting elected. I want a leader who thinks for the long term and takes actions in line with the ultimate goals which he espouses.

(3) It is a profoundly reactionary decision -- Barack Obama called the shots on this one and McCain responded. Coming from a guy who loves to play his bulldog, rebel image, and to portray himself as the guy who can make the tough calls in a crisis, this really let me down. I want to see my nation as a leader in the world, taking the lead on issues and events proactively and not just responding to events or the actions and statements of others.

(4) It feels like a "desperate times" decision -- a friend of ours described it as "McCain's hail Mary" to use the over-used football analogy yet again. But the thing is, there is no need for a desperate, tactically given choice. The race is yet young and there are tons of opportunities to get a qualified, complimentary vice presidential candidate who could contribute not just to a strong ticket but to a strong White House. So just as this choice made McCain look reactionary, it makes him look prematurely and unnecessarily desperate. I want a confident, cool leader.

images-1.jpegAll in all, I am left feeling kind of shocked (as was apparently everyone) and kind of disappointed by this decision. If you've read any of my other political posts, you know that I put a lot of election cred on how I perceive the candidates as decision makers. The unknown will come up during a four or eight year term, and so I put a lot of value on how I believe candidates reached their decisions, often more than on the actual results of those decisions. Based on the pathway I see Senator McCain having gone down for this one, I am left very unsatisfied -- all the more so because of his rhetoric about experience and image as a tough-guy.

I've been backing Obama this whole race for his vision and enthusiasm and glorious oratory. But I've seen the first actual overt "bad move" by the opposing candidate. Other than getting country names wrong, that is.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Barstools

This post is going to make me sound like an alcoholic if I'm not careful. But the thing to remember is that this is not a blog about drinking, or indeed about bars. Rather it is a blog about a particular arrangement of people, furniture, and objects.

That said, drinking will figure in to it, but feel free to make that coffee, water, or a smoothie if you prefer. Move it out of a drinking establishment and into a coffee house or

Picture 3.jpgWhat, in my roundabout way, I am trying to get to is this: I love sitting on a barstool, at a bar, watching the world go by (or participating in it -- barstool does not mandate or even imply passivity). The personal geography of the stool and the bartop are nearly perfect. A great height (if it is not too tall) for working on laptop. A great height for a book or magazine or some old fashioned pen-and-ink notepaper. There is enough space to spread out -- but not so much as to enable uncontrolled sprawling. A plate, a drink, and a book/laptop/magazine fit perfectly. This forces a tidy work habit and the selection of essential resources. The height of the surface also enables a pleasant multitasking -- the sharing of time between food and drink and whatever form of work (or recreation -- for a laptop computer or a book or some notepaper could imply either for me) is at hand.

Picture 5.jpgBut almost all of this could happen at a table. The relationship between the tabletop and the body is not too different from that between the bartop and the body. But it is a significant difference. The bartop encourages a leaning, relaxed, elbows-on-the-table mood. The table is a rigorous place, both by arrangement and psychology, where posture must be maintained, children should be seen but not heard, and knife and fork must be used properly.

There is something else about the bar that works well, and that is the back bar and the (almost) inevitable TV playing the news or a sports show. First, the back bar, that glorious collection of multicolored, multistyled bottles against a mirrored backdrop. Cognacs, Scotch whiskies, and super-premium vodkas and bourbons on the top row. Then the blended whiskies, the more commonplace vodkas and bourbons and a necessary range of tequila. Finally, one step above the well, the more ordinary vodkas and rums as well as the additives: the vermouths and the liquors.

I'll admit, right now, that your favorite bar may not exactly mirror that arrangement. This is just (roughly) how I'd do mine.

It is a wonderful visual stimulus -- something to gaze at when you need to look up. Unlike other diners across (or at an adjacent) table, it never looks back (if it ever does, seek help). Unlike an office wall, it is more than eighteen inches away and gives your eyes some sort of a break from the relentlessly myopic staring of the modern knowledge worker.

The TV plays the same role. A quick look away to Larry King or Wolf Blitzer or Keith Olbermann can refresh a stuck thought process or just provide a break from a monotonous task. The intermezzo of a highlight reel can provide a quick break between catching up on work email and diving into the framework of an intricately planned project.

Picture 4.jpgAnd here, for the first time, we will also encounter the alcohol. From ancient Sumer on, people have found that properly treated fermented grains can produce a relaxed state, inducing of creativity, conversation, risk taking, and even, in the right situations, considerable productivity. In the classic pattern of the "if you mean whisky" fallacy, it can also produce excessively abrupt emails, poor proofreading, a tendency for summary resignations, misuse of Britney Spears crotch shots in PowerPoint presentations, and worst of all corporate Karaoke. But a little self restraint, here, and the benefits out weigh the risk of accidentally showing board members a photograph of Brit's underwear.

Here is a place where you can sit and work and take a moment to rest and someone will bring you (almost) everything you need. What, then, of the noise and the other people there? For starters, I'm the kind of guy who has no problem grabbing a spot at the bar, pulling out his laptop, ordering a beer, and getting to work. If the rest of the patrons are all meeting up and actually watching the game or flirting, so what! If they think I'm an oddball, then that is their problem and not mine -- and if you are uncomfortable with this sort of attitude then you might actually find this whole working-at-a-bar thing isn't for you. But read on, we'll get on to this interpersonal contact stuff soon enough.

The crowd, though, becomes another optional distraction, something to take your interest away when you need (or choose) to let it do so. The rest of the time, it is white noise. Stare at an overly complex scene -- say one of those ultra-hard German crossword puzzles based around an oil painting of a cluttered used bookstore or else a day care center. Then let your eyes loose focus for a moment and suddenly the visual stimulus retreats to manageability. Crowd noise does the same thing. It helps focus by forcing you into yourself. And when you want to, look at the bored girl and the desperate guy hitting on her, or the bachelor party group, or the silent couple, or the would-be executives or... And if you catch enough of one of the conversations, and it should be sufficiently close by, say hi, drop in, offer some advice, tell them the easiest way to the freeway or what you thought of Mama Mia. It is (to gracefully paraphrase Fight Club) a single serving friendship. If you laugh and they laugh, great, everyone wins. If you laugh and they laugh -- at you -- then at least you brought a little joy to the world and you will never meet these people again.

But we do not always come to bars solitary, with laptop. Sometimes we come with another person or even a people. And then the whole barstool thing takes on a new role. It is splendidly isolating -- the crowd noise again. You can say anything, things you wouldn't say at a quiet restaurant, things about each other and what you'd like to do later, things about your friends, things about your co-workers, the economy, or the Large Hadron Collider. Which, by the way, will completely fail to destroy the Earth or even the universe when it switches on. The Large Hadron Collider, that is. But when the things to say run out or need refreshing, there is the full spectrum of human drama there, from the TV screens to the other patrons (tastefully watched in the back bar mirror if there is one). Take a break, look around.

The posture -- remember the posture? Perch in couples holding hands, turn your wonderfully swivelable barstools towards each other for intimacy, turn back to the bartop for food or to read the menu or new magazines or to stare at the liquor bottles. If you are there in a group, lean in, lean out, arrange yourself as needed to talk to the person next to you, or n+1 spaces away. Raise your voice if necessary, scrum together as four for a laughing and shouting shared comment. Its all good, it all goes.

When you're on a barstool.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

(Aero)space is a Harsh Mistress

Q3 has not been pretty for the little guys in aerospace.

First Space-X looses their third Falcon 1 rocket.

Thilert proves that corrupt and fraudulent management and leaving your creditors and customers in the lurch is not an American speciality but rather that the Germans can do quite well at that game too.

Grob, to absolutely no one's surprise, files for insolvency and protection after managing to fatally crash the prototype of an already underfunded and overambitious project.

Columbia Aircraft's subsumation into Cessna (or did that happen in Q2?).

A few other dreamers fell by the wayside, too, unnamed and already forgotten.

Eclipse500_credit_Declan_540x359.jpgAnd then finally there has been the slow, bitter meltdown of Eclipse Aviation. At some point, I stopped believing and saw this as something that was bound to come. But not always. Five years ago, Vern's promises sounded good. Revolutionary, almost. A personal jet, a family flivver of the air. At long last Lewis Black and I would have our flying cars.

The marketing materials made that little jet seem so much like that vision of the future. Not quite The Jetsons but pretty damn good. In the post 9/11 world of increased aviation security it seemed like a great idea to get the heck out of the controlled gate-check world and start flying via air taxi or personal jet. The milage was even pretty good -- and the price? Fantastic.

The prototype flew -- did about one turn through the pattern from what I gather, and promptly landed. The engine, Vern insisted, was to blame. I'm willing to believe them. If Williams had, in fact, not completely failed to produce a viable super-mini turbofan then someone else would be trying to put that powerplant back into the air. How's that for a sentence construction, eh? But the FJ22 appears entirely moribund, off the website, almost a memory. Like Keyser Söze, perhaps the FJ22 is now a spook story that jet propulsion engineers tell their kids. Over reach the state of the art...and the FJ22 will get you!

It would not be fair to forget about this debacle of the powerplant. Ever revolution in aircraft design has been preceded or accompanied by a similar advance in engine technology. Without Williams' promised miracle, a quick substitution had to be performed in the form of Pratt & Whitney Canada's glorious little PW610. This was also a baby -- not quite the super-midget of the rejected motor, but still going deeper in to miniature-jet-engine technology than anyone (certainly anyone with the cred of P&W) had gone before. The timing was perfect, even though the fuel consumption, weight, and cost were all going to be higher.

Now I'm not going to let anyone start to toss a bunch of blame onto Pratt & Whitney. There's a genetic thing at work -- my grandfather would pretty much only fly things with P&W motors in them, possibly for superstitious reasons, but the point is the same. They build tanks. P&W Canada's been building miniature turbines in the form of helicopter engines since the 1950's and probably has more operational experience with this size class of jet than all the rest put together. So they know of what they speak and, while the end result may not have been quite as spectacular as was hoped for, it remains an excellent motor.

And perhaps more to the point, the press out of Eclipse was confident and smooth. The new engine would have greater thrust (a feature!) and only slightly higher fuel consumption (a bug) requiring tip tanks (that, I believe, had been planned anyway). No problem, a bit of a delay, just a flesh wound, everything is fine. Flight testing pretty much ground to a halt until a series of design revisions produced more production-like prototypes. These, in due time flew, obtained certification, and appeared on a lot of magazine covers.

And then things started to get a little icky. Customers were obtaining their jets, but with some of the much-vaunted Eclipse features omitted. FIKI (Flight Into Known Icing) certification seemed to draw on forever. Avionics features were placarded off. Blown tires started to become a frequent occurrence (Eclipse blamed operator error but I don't need to spend much time pointing out that a systemic spike in a particular sort of operator error can point to a design flaw that encourages this error...).

Then things got weird. Eclipses were going to be built in Russia. The single engine Eclipse 400 started playing the air show circuit. The hyped avionics architecture was being scrapped in favor of a less integrated system including a couple of off-the-shelf Garmin units. Blogs and chat rooms populated by frustrated, venting customers faced unprecedented legal threats. You'd think that one of the landmark cases on Internet anonymity would revolve around some huge megacorp, but apparently Amazon and Microsoft and General Motors and Delta Air Lines know well enough to let cranky customers have their space and not try to shut them down.

I wonder if they'll try to shut down this blog?

Then, in a so-shocking-it-wasn't-shocking move, Vern Raburn the founder, mouthpiece, and driving force of Eclipse was gone. Forced out by investors. He was to be in charge of "internationlization of production" or something like that. The Russia thing, in other words. Then 100 temps got pink-slipped. Then Vern was gone -- completely. Then a few hundred more got their thank-you-and-goodby (and not all of them temps, I hear).

Now the FAA is conducting a review of the certification process to ensure that the E500 is, indeed, fit to fly and (perhaps more to the point) that the agency followed its own procedures and didn't, like a lot of us, get a bit too excited reading the marketing white papers.

Alright now, this isn't a history lesson or a debrief. I'm not an aerospace engineer or a business analyst but I know a little about both fields. I am a blogger, and therefore have staked out my little piece of the Internet, opinions and all. Eclipse may pull itself together. God knows, when I was among the 25% of Amazon.com staff who got their notice one February afternoon seven years ago, I knew that they were making a necessary move. So this double-pass downsizing at Eclipse may be just such a necessary consolidation of forces. But Amazon was a hugely successful company -- one that had built success by throwing resources (mostly people) at problems and which needed to adapt to a sustainable, profitable architecture. They made the hard choices and did re-architect into something that is doing very well now.

Well, this is a history lesson and a debrief in another sense. I find myself, for the second time in less than a month, writing about over-promising aerospace revolutionaries. I find myself thinking about the seduction of a "better way to do things" and the danger of ignoring the lessons of history. Vern and Elon both knew that the established players were doing things wrong and that they could do it in a different way. So they built teams of like-minded individuals -- doubtless very talented teams with excellent theoretical and practical backgrounds.

I've been part of such teams -- and the Amazon.com thing is going to have to come up again. They/we were a team of folks with brilliant qualifications -- vastly over qualified in many cases -- but just little enough experience to not know that we couldn't do what we are doing. Yes, by the way, I know I'm really working the multiple-negatives here. And yet there was a solid business plan and vision lying on top of all of that. There was a solid financial base -- willing to give enough rope (particularly early on) to run at a staggering loss for a staggeringly long (but ultimately necessary) time.

I used to have a little saying, back in those days, about why Amazon survived when so many struggled and died: some Internet startups were begun by people with good business plans but little grasp of the technology. Others were the products of people with good technological backgrounds and innovative ideas -- but a flawed understanding of the business world. Naturally, there were a few that failed in both regards -- but they didn't usually make it long enough to discuss. Amazon, by contrast, was one of the first (and now the few) to combine a solid business plan with solid technology. Through ups and downs, bad decisions and good decisions, they held close (enough) to the original vision, adapted when necessary, and managed to make it work.

800px-Eclipse_aviation.jpgAnd now back to Eclipse (and perhaps Space-X). Where is the flaw? Business plan? Technology? Both? Neither? I lean to both -- a technological product that was designed with enough giddy naivety as to be brittle and intolerant of setback and failure -- the failure of the FJ22 and the original avionics system -- and enough cut corners as to generate problems once in service. A business plan that depended on successes in volume production and demand generation that have, so far, eluded them. Eclipse isn't the first to fall to this error -- of assuming or expecting a demand that fails to appear. McDonnell (now Boeing) made the same sad error in planning the Delta IV rocket. Externally a beautiful vehicle, the Delta's approach to cost-effective launch pricing was based around generating a large demand and benefitting from economies of scale in production and launch. For various unfortunate reasons, this failed to appear.

So now how do I wrap this up? Eclipse has problems -- big problems. I don't think that their layoffs are that sort of "thinning the herd" that can bring a troubled company back. They made big promises and generated and promulgated a lot of enthusiasm. So should we fear companies or products that generate too much enthusiasm? "Woah, there, let's not get too excited..." Should we mistrust companies that promise great change and revolution?

Any of these ideas are naive and simplistic. The reality is, yet again, caveat emptor. When dramatic promises are made -- read the fine print and run your own numbers. When someone promises just a little too much more than everyone else -- make sure you understand how they plan to (or already have) achieved this.

And be sad, at least a little sad, that promise has once again faded into cynicism, layoff, and frustration.

SJ50_2.jpgCirrus is out there, with a successful line of piston singles and a sexy little jet on the drawing board. Cessna's managed to keep true to their word and move from strength to strength -- including the wonderful little Mustang that just might have contributed more than a little to Eclipse's troubles. Orbital is building a larger-yet rocket from their well understood and consolidated base. So the startups can continue and grow secure. The big guys can show some flexibility and innovation.

So a little sad, but not too much.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Values and Tools

So Erica said something the other day that I thought was very interesting and it got me thinking. I'll paraphrase, because that was about three nights ago and we'd had (no shocker here) some wine:

Picture 1.jpgThe highest praise you can offer a woman is to say that she is striking, and the greatest criticism you can offer a person is to say that they have no imagination.

I promptly added to that, saying that the highest praise I can offer a piece of engineering is to say that it is elegant.

And, for the purposes of this discussion, I will add another criticism: lack of curiosity, going hand in hand with the lack of imagination. To allow me to consider these values in light of things and people, I'll agglomerate curiosity and flexibility -- it'll make sense, trust me.

These are interesting statements, and I probably say something about me. I don't actually know that they are atypical, but there is at least a little more sophistication that "has nice titties!" at work.

Elegant

Embracing and accepting the constraints offered and finding the best solution possible.

Never throwing resources at a problem and instead carefully selecting areas of innovation or expenditure and never substituting garishness or complexity when a little thought will provide a better solution.

Avoiding excess or imbalance in characteristics or actions.


Striking

Noticeably distinct in approach and/or results from comparable things or people.

Willing to embrace areas of character and to play to their strengths (as opposed to seeking a "common" solution at the expense of natural areas of excellence).


Curious & Flexible

Desiring (and able to) go beyond the obviously and readily apparent.

Wanting to go to the 2nd or 3rd derivatives: to understand how and why things happen and happen the way they do.

Able to adapt to situations outside of the norm, the preferred, or the intended. Soft in failure when limits are exceeded.


Imaginative

Perceiving, processing, and appreciative of things outside of one's direct experience.

Solving problems by using solutions that are not necessarily obvious or from within the same discipline as the one in which the problem occurred.

Ability to examine one's own actions from an outside perspective.


miss-plu-pkb.gifIt is interesting, but with a minimum of inelegant stretching, these can all apply to people and to things. An engineered product can be elegant and striking, by these definitions, embody imaginative design and possess the flexibility I align with curiosity. A person can even more easily possess these traits.

Incidentally, the appearance of golfer Kim Welch in this post is because I find her a very nice example of someone who is both striking and elegant (I can't speak to her curiosity or imagination, though golf requires a certain problem solving that implies at least a little of the latter). She has, understands, and owns her look, and it is a look that is relatively spare one. Her look and her golf game both play to her strengths.

NASA's New Horizons space probe appears for the same reason -- it is an effective examples of these values when applied to engineering. Focused on its mission and defined by those requirements, New Horizons is pared down to the minimum complexity possible by virtue of some very creative thinking and problem solving.

I considered adding a fifth value -- balance -- but decided that (in the quest for elegance) that I wanted to avoid producing a laundry list. Balance fits under elegance -- it is impossible to be imbalanced and elegant.

On a marginally related note, some recent conversations have brought an old insult back into play around the Strauss residence: TOOL. It was one of those cases where we knew what a tool was, knew what a tool wasn't, but couldn't quite decide on the definition. Erica suggested starting from the literal definition: someone who lets them self be used (willingly or not, knowingly or not) by others. I decided to extend this definition to include someone who is, ironically a slave to themselves.

A tool, therefore, is someone who submerges their own identity and is a slave to some agency such that they have little room for free or creative thought. The agency in question could be external (e.g. "a tool for the man" or someone who absolutely subsumes their identity to fit a spouse's vision of them) or it could be internal (e.g. someone who strives to fit a certain image they wish to project at the expense of being their true self).

If you look up at the values, it is amazing how broadly "tool" manages to hit across them. A tool is, by definition, not elegant, striking, curious, or possessed of imagination. At least they aren't when all tooled up.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Cool Idea, Lame Execution

So I just watched the women's Modern Pentathlon. I also just watched the women's 20k speed walk, which was weird and tactical and involved vomiting in a disturbingly compelling way. But this is the Pentathlon, the fiveathlon. Five events:

Shooting

Fencing

Swimming

Equestrian Jumping

Cross Country Running

The skills required of a messenger in the era of the Napoleonic wars to deliver a message to (or perhaps from, I don't remember the details) behind enemy lines. Sounds pretty badass. Tough, gritty, compelling. Uh, no. Actual experience? Lame, pussy, boring. How could that be?

The shooting is 10m air pistol. Ridiculously ritualized and pathetically slow. And completely devoid of bang, smoke, or recoil. I couldn't tell when they'd fired!

The fencing was actually pretty cool, so I'll leave that one alone.

THe swimming was 200m pool -- so my imagined version of this as some sort of badassed-up triathlon with shooting was already heading out the window.

The equestrian was cool -- show jumping is actually something I sort of enjoy.

And the run was missing both the cross and the country. 4km, around a weaving stretch of Tensabarrier that made the competitors look like they were trying to get through an airport check-in line rather than win a race.

All in all, not nearly what it could be. So I propose something new. An adaptation of the pentathlon to bring some grit, some hardness, and a little more athleticism to the event. First off, I propose timed transitions as in a triathlon or duathlon. Second, I propose a carry-your-gear approach much like the biathlon. Borrowing another page from the biathlon (which really is as badass as it sounds -- skiing and shooting), I propose eliminating the "points" system entirely and going to a strictly time-based system where errors or misses in un-timed component events would result in extra distance on the subsequent event. I also want to ensure that the environment is as natural and outdoors as possible. And I want a blend of "timed" and "scored" events so that neither monopolizes the overall challenge.

My thinking has now diverged into two different threads. One follows the "officer and a gentleman" approach of the original modern pentathlon (that sounds strange!) but updates it and intensifies it. The other takes the whole thing in a slightly more "outdoorsy" direction.

The 21st Century Pentathlon

Much like the original, an event modeled on the skills required of a soldier. The challenge was to avoid it becoming a paramilitary contest and keep the focus athletic. The format grew out of the idea of soldier in an airborne assault: gathering after a dispersed (possibly bungled!) drop, attacking an enemy position, and then evading counterattack to make it back into contact with friendly forces. I keep picturing the parachute landings of D-Day. It is, then, perhaps most based on the golden age of modern infantry combat, the 2nd World War. We could even call it the "Band of Brothers" -- but anyone who knows me recognizes that I (along with the late, great Stephen Ambrose) have something of a crush on the exploits of the 506th PIR.

Orienteering
You've come down behind enemy lines, scattered, in an unknown location.

In reality, you depart the starting line, navigate using map and compass through a series of checkpoints, to arrive back at the start line. I'd like to make the competitor schlep their rifle along with them, but safety concerns might prevent this. They could, instead, haul a dummy weapon like drill teams use.

Shooting (Rifle)
Having arrived at the objective, you attack.

Run to the range, retrieve your rifle, load, fire prone at ten targets. Run a specified distance (say 200 meters) around a close course and then return to the range to fire, standing, at another ten targets. For every target missed, run a penalty lap or have a minute added to your time or such. Putting the shooting after a cardio event massively increases the challenge of this part -- just like in a biathlon.

Swimming (open water)
After the attack, outnumbered, you flee across a river to evade pursuit.

An open water swim, perhaps 800m. Go ahead and ditch the rifle back at the range.

Running (cross country)
Having emerged from the river, run like hell to friendly lines.

A 5 or 10km cross country run. It needn't be literally cross country in the sense of natural terrain -- it could be an urban course and probably would be best if it was at least partially so -- but it should not just be laps around a stadium or such.

The airborne assault theme would have been even better served with something like parachuting as the initial test, but that is too much of a specialized skill and would push the whole event more into the military training exercise than the "themed" athletic contest. For the same reason I avoided an obstacle course and tried to build it up from things that have an existing and established place in competetive sport.

I'd also like to have a fifth event, but can't quite decide what that should be. Fencing is too French and too old. Equestrian is too english and too old. I'd like a non-shooting but "scored" sort of event -- and I'll have to keep thinking to decide what it should be.

Interestingly, as I research this event (Google!), I realize that there is something called biathlon orienteering and, yet again, have that slightly sinking "someone already thought of this" feeling. However it only appears to have been thought of in Swedish, so if I can bone up on my translation skills, I might be able to pull of credit for this here in the US...

The biathlon orienteering, however, only seems (as best I can translate) an orienteering exercise followed by some shooting. I'd like to see it extended, at a minimum, to a three-athlon involving orienteering, shooting, and running (navigate to objective, assault objective, return from objective). It would be the land-locked version of my event, then, and possibly an equally or even more appealing event. A long length orienteering event (60 minutes), a series of run-shot sequences at, say 50, 100, 150, and 200 meter ranges. Then a cross country run of 10km to the finish.


The Lewis and Clark

The model here is the skills required of an explorer in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest (or thereabouts). It eliminates the need to avoid "dated" events such as equestrian and the temptation to add excessively modern and militaristic events such as "locate and disarm IED." I fancy a two day event with three events per day. The first day is timed from departure to arrival at some camp site. Once there, using only gear they packed in, the competitors must spend the night. There is no score for how well you camp (this isn't Survivor!), but decisions on what gear is brought with might influence sleep and performance the next day. Departure times to the 2nd days events are based on arrival times at the end of the first day.

Since competitors are schlepping a bunch of gear on day one, it is the "heavy" day. The second day is the "light" day since they can leave their campsite behind.

Erica and I discussed this a little bit and came up with two different ideas. Her philosophy was "make it to camp and then perform various actions while based at camp. I followed a different approach. I'll outline hers and then elaborate on mine (only because I know it better!)

Erica's Approach
Day One
Kayak/Canoe
Equestrian Orienteering
Cross Country Run
Day Two
Shooting
?
Short Run

Nick's Approach
Day One
Sailing
Orienteering Run
Shooting
Day Two
Kayak/Canoe
Cross Country Riding
Cross Country Run

Here's the thinking behind my approach:

You take a ship across to your destination. You land in unknown territory and need to find your way to a good campsite. On the way, you need to hunt for food. You make contact with a friendly tribe and obtain a horse and a a canoe to explore more. Finally, you must flee after an attack from hostile natives.

This could easily add an addition event per day (at the cost of completely destroying the competitors!). Possibly some sort of rock climbing the first or second day and something like fencing or archery (fighting off the hostiles) on the second. But I think that the three per day are a pretty good outline.

Erica's approach economizes by putting the navigation exercise on top of the riding exercise -- and by eliminating the somewhat cumbersome small boat sailing. That would allow for more "skill" based events like another shooting contest (pistol or shotgun?), archery, fencing, bouldering, etc. I ended exercised some discretion and ended it with a run again, so that there is a dramatic finish-line-crossing. I'd use some sort of a time penalty system or what-not to bring the performance from target disciplines and their kin into the event as a whole.

Would either of these be fair? Popular? Successful? I'm not sure. But I think they'd be more dramatic and probably more TV friendly. I think they'd have an appeal to the REI sporting set (for the Lewis and Clark) and the crossfit/military set (for the Band of Brothers).

A Bloggy Parade of Nations

I'd like to take a brief moment to thank my readers. I know I have some regulars, most of whom are friends and family. But every day when I check my stat-counter, I'm shocked to see how far and wide the range of people who have stumbled across these writings is. I collect a little bit of information that lets me see how many people hit my blog, a little about what they look at, and a couple of other random bits of information.

Perhaps some of you arrived by accident and quickly left, disappointed that I didn't actually have topless photos of Cameron Diaz (though what sort of search would make you think that I can't imagine). Perhaps some of you read the page you landed on and then went away, never to return. Maybe some of you read a page or two, or have stopped by once or twice more. In any case, thank you.

images.jpegBut in many cases the most interesting uses the reader's IP address to generate a (rough) idea of the location from which the request came. I'm always surprised to see the breadth of nations which readers come from. And so as the Olympics wrap up, here's a little look (in alphabetical order, just like the opening ceremonies) at the nations of The Noodlebook:

Australia
Austria
Brazil
Canada
Finland
Georgia
Germany
India
Indonesia
Israel
Luxembourg
Malaysia
Netherlands
New Zealand
Nigeria
Norway
Romania
South Africa
United Kingdom
United States

Note - the ones in italics were added to the list on 8/27/2008. The parade continues.

It is amazing what the Internet enables. A guy living just north of Seattle can toss some information, ideas, and opinions out there and the world will, in an "if you build it they will come" sort of way, somehow manage to stumble across it.

Desert Island Books

This goes back to the style of 105 Things About Me -- a self-indulgent look at, well, myself. Not quite myself -- but instead at one of the best ways I've ever found of getting a look at a person from the outside: the books I read. It is, then, half self-indulgence and half suggested reading.

I used to listen to a radio station that played the seminal "Desert Island Discs" program. Well known (or as the show wore on, progressively less well known) artists would list the ten disks that they would, if trapped on a desert island, want to have with them. I don't listen to all that much music, and my tastes are with little exception confined to relatively mainstream singer-songwriter stuff.

If trapped on a desert island, then, what ten books would I take? I'll admit to a certain degree of practicality: I've opted for long books and books with a high "contemplation" value. I've kept in mind the idea that this reading list will potentially have to tide me over for a while and have included a bit of variety even if that action meant I'd have to leave a couple of strong favorites at home. There are, however, a couple of emotional inclusions, books in there because they should be or because I know they bring me an odd sort of comfort.

I'd also like to apologize to the people at Amazon.com for, in some cases, borrowing their cover art in order to make this article have some visual appeal. For what its worth, those pictures all link back to Amazon if you are interested in exploring one of the titles a little further.

Neuromancer
51A1HJ0GVYL._SL500_BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-dp-500-arrow,TopRight,45,-64_OU01_AA240_SH20_.jpgYou knew this would be in here. This is, without a doubt, my book. It is the book I take with on airplanes, read about every year just to keep in touch, write essays about when I can't think of anything else. It is the drug soaked future vision of techno-hippie-curmugeon William Gibson. As the product of a man with more experience with psychedelics than CPUs, it is in many ways a shockingly prophetic vision of the future. Granted, the Rise of the East that so dominated future visions of that era (anyone remember Crichton's hideous Rising Sun?) has generally failed to come to pass. Neither did World War Three. Nor did the space colonies, for that matter.

But what makes Neuromancer interesting as a work of vision are the computers. Artificial intelligences and neural connections may still be the stuff of sci-fi dreams, but Gibson saw perhaps more dramatically than anyone the rise of pervasive computing and connectivity. While everyone else was preoccupied with hard science fiction -- precisely understanding how the things o their future would work -- Gibson ignored the details and painted with his broad noir brush strokes. As a result, he was one of the few to look far enough ahead to see what would come to pass in a few decades. Granted, there are anachronisms such as the bank of pay phones that are essential to the book's most creepy moment or the non-standard multi-pin connectors that briefly frustrate Case just shy of the climax. But overall Gibson offers no clue as to how things work (how exactly are Molly and Case able to stay in touch during the Straylight run, for example?), but just lets them happen. And as a result, he saw (in some senses quite literally) the future in a way few others ever did.

The writing is as dark and imagistic as is the universe. The crumbling derelicts of Western Civilization are described not through sweeping panoramas but through isolated, vivid scenes. Sometimes the prose rambles on -- particularly towards the end, during the 2001: A Space Odyssey-like descriptions of Case's final hallucinatory flight through the joint defenses of the Wintermute and Neuromancer AI's. As I said, sometimes I think Gibson really did see his future...


The Diamond Age
eb17c060ada04410bdb79110._AA240_.L.jpgA stark contrast from Gibson's seat-of-the-plants imagination, The Diamond Age is a product of the methodical, well informed, and carefully considered work of Neal Stephenson. Here is a future cast deep into a vision of nanotechnology and digital divide. In many ways it is starkly different from Gibsons -- certainly much more of a post-Cold War work, steeped more in Huntington than in Reagan. Where Neuromancer presents it's future with a damn-the-details disregard for implementation and infrastructure, Diamond Age very nearly presents a complete course in the ideas of Alan Turing. Indeed, some of the book's most charming passages are those excerpts from the Primer devoted to Nell's technological education (I've actually done "Primer only" readings of the book -- skipping the mainline action in favor of that belonging to Princess Nell.

It is a much more hopeful book that Neuromancer, even though the social and technological divide is, if anything, more dramatic than in the earlier book. Whereas Neuromancer presented an undeniably dark vision of humanity, Diamond Age somehow shows a future where, while there may be crime and corruption and war and poverty, and while the seemingly limitless power of nanotechnology has failed to fulfill more than a fraction of its promise (at least for most of the world!), the better angels of our nature still seem to have a fighting chance and the reader is left believing in heroes (and even more so in heroines, since Stephenson is just about the most feminist of science fiction authors).

Granted, the book does occasionally suffer from logical inconsistencies, but I am willing to put this off to my incomplete understanding of the world (one could, for example, look at an incomplete narrative of events in our world and wonder why some people have amazing handled directions that instantly supply them with directions to any point on Earth...and others don't). The book (and Stephenson's work in general) has also been widely criticized for its abrupt ending. I agree -- it sometimes feels as if Stephenson felt like "alright, I'm done here, let's get this thing wrapped up" and pushed the pace in the final few dozen pages. But the fact is, the events of those pages are told with what I think is a deliberately synopsizing style. We know the characters, we know the action. In a sense, the main stories have ended. The last chapter (or two) is more like those wrap-up title cards that used to be popular in movies (and still are for docudramas) which tell the audience what characters went on to do hard time and what characters went on to found successful aerospace firms. I'm picturing the end of HBO's superlative rendition of Band of Brothers, by the way, where just about everyone ended up doing something amazing -- except for Dick Winters who I guess pretty much returned to farming and then quietly retired and I vaguely believe may not live too far from here. So if you view it as a wrap up, of a realization that the story is over, we're just tying off a few loose ends -- and that the story isn't over -- then it feels a lot better.

I also recommend the audiobook, superbly read by Jennifer Wiltsie (incidentally that controvertial ending flows very nicely in her reading). The voice is primarily that of Princess Nell, though the characterizations are all superbly done without any of the drama or histrionic over-acting that some readers seem compelled to include.


The Name of the Rose
512MGT2T21L._SL500_BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-dp-500-arrow,TopRight,45,-64_OU01_AA240_SH20_.jpgThose of you who know me knew this was going to be here. It has to be, after all. It is the only medieval (I hope I spelled that right) mystery about codebreaking written by a semiotics professor I know of. It is also without a doubt the peak of Umberto Eco's willfully obtuse and esoteric writing. The very conceit of the book -- that it is a translated reconstruction of a manuscript written by a dying monk hundreds of years ago -- is pure Eco. And with his absurd range of knowledge (and feel for the styles of that age), he pulls the trick off as convincingly as Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest do in This is Spinal Tap (which is a great deal funnier, by the way).

The Name of the Rose is a book to submit to. Before picking it up (and periodically during the reading process, whenever one of Eco's page long comma-laden sentences threatens to drive you to drink) repeat this special variation on the serenity prayer to yourself:

Grant me the intelligence to understand the parts that can be understood.
Grant me the patience to make it through the parts that cannot be understood.
And the wonderment to enjoy it all anyway.

(And, if necessary, go ahead and drink)

Once you decide to take this ride, it is a little bit like a hiking trip through a strange and exotic land (right now, Erica is reading a book about someone's adventure of just this sort in China). There will be times you have no idea what is going on, but eventually frantic hand-waving will help you find the bathroom or the teahouse or the place you can buy DVD's really cheap. There will be times you are lost, confused, and worried the train that just left was the last one out for the winter. There will be times you will follow a group of people who look similar to you (and therefore must know what is going on) only to discover they are from the Ukraine and are also lost. But in the end, the trip and its memories will be an amazing collection of thoughts and experiences so rich that they have to lie in your head for months or years -- and be revisited through photographs, storytelling, and dreams -- before they form a coherent picture and their full impact is felt.

This is how The Name of the Rose feels. It is a trip back to a time so different from our own that it is, in many ways, nearly incomprehensible. An Italian monastery during the time of the Papal Schism, as seen by a young boy apprenticed to a mysterious (and intentionally Sherlock-Holmes-like) monk. A mystery that explores murders that weave the most base of human desires with the most erudite. A code that, while ultimately not-so-difficult, forms one of the diverse hearts of the story. And everywhere, the complex and layered symbolism not just of Eco's own mind but that which permeated the 14th century itself. Roll with those overly-long descriptions and witch off the hyper-paced superficiality of the modern age, when beauty is just beauty and function just function. Instead get yourself thinking about the symbolism that is inherent in any object (and I take a broad definition of object, essentially using it as a postmodernist would use text). Today, we rarely plan symbolism, it tends to just happen as a side effect of more banal choices. Back then, it was the essential and driving design consideration.


Smiley's People
51+RiThlCaL._SL500_BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-dp-500-arrow,TopRight,45,-64_OU01_AA240_SH20_.jpgWelcome to the 20th century. The year is, well, sometime in the late 1970's (the book was written in 1979). The cold war is at its peak, rising to a final dramatic crescendo that, though no one knows it, will suddenly flare into stillness and the end of that movement of the symphony of history. The spy game is the sweaty place of men working alone, relying on cool wit and awareness. The men who were honed in the tumult of the Second World War are now at that time in their lives when they are either pensioned retirees or string-pulling masters. John Le Carre wraps up a long and wonderful thread of two such men -- George Smiley and his Soviet foe Karla -- in a book that is, I believe, the single finest piece of spy fiction ever written.

If you are thinking of picking it up, don't worry that you need to go back and pick up the two other books of the "main" Smiley/Karla trilogy (or the two prelude books that introduce Smiley or any of the other books in which me makes bit or major appearances). Smiley's People stands on its own as a single and wonderful work. I actually consider it to be significantly superior to any of the other Smiley books, to be honest. One of the joys of the book is the reunion value. To put it in a nutshell (I've deliberately avoided plot summaries here, but need to do a little one for this to make sense), retired and somewhat defeated British spymaster George Smiley is dragged out of his somewhat head-in-the-sand retirement for one final battle against his seemingly victorious rival from the Soviet Union (that's why I avoid plot summaries -- they always sound like that "back of the book" prose). Along the way, Smiley brings together an entire cast of characters from the old books, from the obvious (Toby Esterhase) to the obscure (Inspector Mendel). The result is a book that resonates with a "let's see what this old girl still has in her" sort of drama that I'm an admitted sucker for. It's part of what makes some of the Star Trek franchise so appealing (the Enterprise speeding away from the sabotaged Excelsior, for example, or the refitted Enterprise coming to the rescue in that glorious final episode of TNG, All Good Things). But you needn't actually know those stories to appreciate this aspect of the book. Indeed, I read them out of sequence since, when I picked each of them up, I had no idea the book was part of a larger whole.

Narratively, Le Carre does one of the most masterful jobs of perspective management that I have ever seen. He shifts his focus from that of a marginally omniscient narrator to an internal monologue from a mentally troubled Russian girl with such grace that the dramatic changes in tone are entirely seamless. Some of the book has a delightful dramatic irony, where the narrator almost seems to be the author of an official Circus history looking back on the event with the perspective of months or years, breaking aside for discussions of events taking place after the conclusion of the mainline story and limited in knowledge by official records. At times the narrator seems to know Smiley's deepest thoughts and musings, but at times those same thoughts are protected and only accessible through observation and speculation. Throughout runs a dry and very English wit, the wry observations of a narrator as world-weary and cynically perspicacious as is his protagonist. The result is one of the most unique and entertaining narratives I have ever read. I suspect a purist would complain that it was gimmicky, inconsistent, and unprofessional. But I am not a purist and enjoy a good story, well told, by any appropriate means.

The moments when the book does give is a look into Smiley's mind are a fantastic look into the mind of a man with (to use the book's own phrase), "many heads under his hat": retiring academic, veteran spy, civil servant, conscientious leader, failed husband, defeated warrior, and finally and most tellingly, a man who is in a position after years of frustration, failure, and inadequacy to finally gain the upper hand over his foe.


The Lord of the Rings
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There are, in sports such as diving and gymnastics, certain obligatory moves that must be displayed during a competition or a routine. And, for some people, there are certain obligatory books that must be put on lists such as this one. Lord of the Rings is one of those. If I didn't include it, I'd have to hand in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Fan card and walk away in shame. But the thing is, it is a good inclusion. I've never been quite the fan that some become. I never tried to make my own dictionary of the Elvish language or write a fanfic (footnote: the spell checker on my blogging software, presumably the one built into OS-X 10.5, knows the word "fanfic." Tells you something, doesn't it?) or draw maps of Middle Earth. But I'm not necessarily given to such acts of devotion.

But for richness of world, complexity of narrative, and degree of unspoken backstory, it is hard to beat Tolkien. One of the things that really does make all of his work so enjoyable is the feeling that it isn't a work of fiction, but a work of history. And just as even the most thorough of historic works can touch only a fraction of what went on (be it in a day or a few hundred years), The Lord of the Rings clearly touches only a fraction of what went on during those final days before the fall of Sauron. Tolkien's vast and very English scholars mind created a depth of detail that one can revel in.

It is also the wellspring of all other "quest" books. The fellowship gathers, embarks, divides, divides again, bifurcating into multiple anfractuous plot lines. Indeed, after Fellowship of the Ring it is entirely possible to read LotR (I just did it, I used the fanboy shorthand, sorry) as several concurrent novels, picking and choosing story lines. "Hm...today I think I will read just the story of Pippen..." But, gloriously, everything comes together at the end as, through nearly independent action (or the smooth hand of fate) the principles come back together, one at a time, until the final tearful reunion.

The dialogue may, at times, be heavy handed. I find Tolien's insistence on those interminable songs profoundly irritating (granted, he's trying to build a viking-like character, but this didn't need to turn so Wagnerian!). Sometimes the exclusion of backstory can leave the new reader staggering along for a few dozen or a few hundred pages (but you always know that exclusion is deliberate and not the product of the author not knowing what happened outside the story). The number of named characters defies counting, and little guidance is initially provided as to the potential importance of a newcomer.

But for all that, for all of the flaws it does possess, the work is a true epic. Sweeping, grand, and beautiful in scope.


The Codebreakers
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Somewhat tongue-in-cheekishly, I credit this book with my marriage to Erica. To give it full credit is obviously absurd, my willingness to eat the deep fried shrimp heads clearly counted for something. But despite later culinary adventures, our shared ownership of this book was one of the first "hey, this guy/gal looks interesting!" moments. At least we knew we'd have one thing to talk about on a date.

Simply put, The Codebreakersis a seminal work that has yet to be even remotely equaled. It is, without a doubt, the best single volume telling of the history of code-making and code-breaking up through the first third of the 20th century. Later than that and it starts to run into the constraints of secrecy -- the Enigma decrypts of the Second World War weren't made public until several years after its first publication -- and of a slapdash effort by Kahn to update the text with such modern technologies as the DES standard. But he is out of his element here, and that's why Applied Cryptography is on the list in any case. For the eras when ciphers were produced by men laboring with pencils, paper, typewriters, and perhaps primitive collections of wheels and rods (he does a decent job with technology up to about the Hagelin machines), for the era when the field was more intuition and art than the rigorous solving of equations that XXXX turned it into, this is simply the text.

As many historians do, Kahn does sometimes write for his time, implying that the reader should have familiarity with events and people now rendered obscure by the three and a half decades since the text was produced. There is also a definite conservatism in the work, something that the eccentric nature of those drawn to cryptography inescapably draws out. But for telling the human tale of an intensely technical field, Khan's book is without equal (just ignore the moments when his reporting turns to judging). To hear how Georges Painvin broke ADGVX through a single immense act of will, loosing a dozen or more pounds in the process, The Codebreakers is the book. To hear about eccentric Victorian gentlemen-scholars inventing cipher systems between dabbling in natural philosophy and at attending hunts, it is the book.


A Distant Mirror
51i-FeNgY5L._SL500_BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-dp-500-arrow,TopRight,45,-64_OU01_AA240_SH20_.jpgYou're probably starting to realize how much I enjoy history. I read, at least partially, for a sense of escape. I want to get away from my corporate day job where people feel the need to invent replacements for perfectly good words (e.g. saying "we'll go ahead of the ask succeeds and we get funding" rather than the perfectly good and well seasoned word request). But I digress. No world is more bizarre and alien than the 14th century. And given that I just pushed through a few science fiction novels, that is saying something!

In all seriousness, Tuchtman writes a great history here. It is a history of a time so distant in time and values that it really does feel, at some times, alien. She brilliantly structures the work around the armature of a single man's life, using this structure to organize the background and the primary narrative. Instead of only giving us the distant, dispassionate perspective of typical histories, she illustrated the sweep of the times through what is essentially a massive and recursive work of biography, always sweeping aside to cover a tangent and then flying back to the main story, grounding the dramatic events of that age in the life of a single blading man.

And what a collection of events the 14th century provides us with. I've already talked about A Distant Mirror in regards to its totemistic value as a perspective provider ("It can't be that bad...") whenever the nightly news gets a little depressing. And it was indeed a motivation similar to this that inspired Ms. Tuchtman to write the book. But here, in one book, we have the papal schism, the black death, and the hundred years war. It is enough tumult to satisfy a millennium's worth of tragedy, all packed into a hundred years. Given the drama (and most of it bad) contained in this history, it could easily turn maudlin and depressing. But the pervasive perspective is the ability of humanity to adapt and survive. It is, as such, a profoundly motivating and reassuring book, in addition to being densely informative.


The Fabric of the Cosmos
510ED66FD8L._SL500_AA240_.jpgOne day, before I die, I would like to understand everything in this book. I suspect that, when that happens, I will quietly dissolve into a vaporous cloud of disassociating particles. Fortunately, it will take quite a long time for that to occur.

Brian Greene, everyone's favorite vegetarian string theorist, tackles not his particular specialty (and despite Roger Penrose's characterization of him as a hedgehog, Greene certainly knows enough of a breadth of physics to pull this off) but rather the entire scope and wonder of the leading edge of physical understanding. Several ingredients contribute to ming Fabric of the Cosmos so wonderful to read. Greene's brilliant analogies (usually involving The Simpsons) not only clarify concepts but are amusing in their own right (the whole book has a dry and subtle wit). The physics discussed is profoundly interesting, even disturbing if you don't accept the idea that our reality may well be quite a bit more subtle and bizarre than generally expected. But finally, and perhaps most significantly, is Greene's own fascination with the material he is coming. The book brims with his own energy and enthusiasm, sense of wonder and amazement. In many ways, despite the enormity of the material covered, the book is very personal, opening as it does with an anecdote from the author's childhood and moving on to discuss the very researches that fill his day job (and what a day job) at Columbia University. This comes through most clearly in the final chapters when Greene quite admittedly takes the current state of the known and speculative art and plunges headlong into the visionary realms of where this knowledge could take us.

The entire book is set as a wide-ranging tour, a grand sweep across the most fundamental infrastructure of the universe. The big bang, inflation, the kinky activities inside the Planck limit, the quantum and the Einsteinean, all get some time. Unlike The Elegant Universe, Greene's first book, this is not an evangelism of String Theory. Obviously this approach to answering the fundamental questions and contradictions that currently arise in physics figures prominently, being Greene's area of research and specialization. But the book only graces this area when appropriate and necessary. I actually wish that it spent more time here -- I truly like the ideas of String Theory (as much as it might currently be caught in a physical backlash), but can always pick up the adjacent and equally well thumbed copy of Elegant Universe when I need to.


On Food and Cooking
51K2FNA72QL._SL500_BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-dp-500-arrow,TopRight,45,-64_OU01_AA240_SH20_.jpgWhat could be better than a book that is simultaneously about science and cooking? Very few things, I tell you that, when the book has the lucid explanations, beautiful production, and sweeping scope of On Food and Cooking. As an aside, you many have noticed just how often the word sweeping shows up as a word of praise in this entry (at least I think it does!). I tend to like my non-fiction that way: broad, epic, profound. I'm a generalist, I suspect, and like situations that let me see as broad a scope as possible. I also relish the moment of connection when seemingly disparate threads merge into a single coherent story.

Part of the appeal of On Food and Cooking is its fearless willingness to actually tackle some organic chemistry. I've often characterized this branch of the sciences as the one that I simply don't get. And it is true. Those who understand it tell me its easy, I just need to memorize few things. I think they possess some strange gift. Organic chem (or "Orgo") isn't like, say, the way-out-there physics of The Fabric of the Cosmos. That's like reading a complicated story that is in a language you know. Organic chemistry is like reading a complicated story in a language you've never seen before. For me at least! McGee manages to tackle the fundamentals of orgo pretty clearly -- probably partially because he has a clearly defined upper bound of complexity and partially because the topic he's working with (food) is more motivating than that of most organic chemistry texts. The explanations are also lucid and engaging, trust me, so it is not entirely the appeal of the topic that is at hand.

But beyond the orgo, this is a book about food, abut how food happens, about what food does, and about why all of these things happen. The popularization of food science owes a lot to Alton Brown, The Food Network's geek-cook extraordinaire (though I will say that I've liked Alton's shows less and less -- as he seems to rebrand from a geek into more of a welding-glove-wearing-man's-man-chef character). Now it doesn't take much exploration to realize that Alton learned everything he knows about food science from periodic guest Shirley Corriher and her fantastic book CookWise. This book is, in its own turn, a more conversational and applied version of On Food and Cooking. I've obviously chosen to go straight to the most pure source I know, skipping the intermediates.

On Food and Cooking is as endlessly interesting (and entertaining) as is the world's unending variety of food.


Applied Cryptography
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I keep trying to replace Applied Cryptography in my collection. It is, after all, more than a decade old in a field that has seen shockingly rapid advancement in that time. Most of the algorithms discussed in the book are obsolescent in today's security world. Perhaps even more critically, an awareness of system design now permeates security thinking, and not just a building-block approach. But nothing, and I mean nothing that has come out since 2001 has offered more than the slimmest threat to Schnier's classic. Practical Cryptography comes close, really close. And, if a second edition were to come out that updated it to include the latest and greatest, it would stand a real shot at taking the crown of Modern Cryptography Book On Nick's Island.

But enough about its superficial obsolescence, what has Applied Cryptography done so well that it still shows up on the list? The answer is that, like no other book on the topic, it builds an actual understanding of how the processes of security work. It contains both the mathematical rigor required to construct (or deconstruct) a security system and even more profoundly an ability to explain...to clarify...how these mathematical components operate. It takes the time to step, conceptually, through the now iconic cases of Alice, Bob, Mallory, and the various other characters of Schnier's explanations. It backs these cases up with some of the underlying constructs and mathematics. The recently maligned weak point is that the focus is on explaining individual systems and not on overall processes -- but as someone who does not intend to actually design a cryotpsystem, the clarity of these explanations makes their omissions entirely forgivable.

Much of the content, then, is timeless. Most of the great message passing schemes remain unchanged, or at least still valid. The ciphers discussed may not be fighting in the front lines anymore, but that does not make them unworthy of study. The knowledge in this book has not been replaced, merely supplemented. Now if I were heading off to a desert island, I'd like to take my copy with me just as it is -- broken spine and all -- for the sake of the half dozen printouts I've stuck in between various pages, updating the content with some current state-of-the-art examples of cipher algorithm design. Let me stick in a few sheets of paper and, no reservations at all, Applied Cryptography will beat all comers, hands down and no reservations: Rijndael/AES, of course, the flawed but endemic mobile communications ciphers of A5/1, E0, and KASUMI, the fascinating but flawed Roo/Py and Phelix, the phenomenal elegance of Trivium and Grain, and the enigmatic Don Coppersmith's suspiciously rotor-like Scream. That's nine ciphers...might as well make it ten and throw in Camellia for a look at Japan's stylings in the area.

But this is the sort of book that should have a busted spine, dog-eared pages, notes and highlights, and random pieces of paper sticking out of it. In the way that comic book readers show their love in a carefully bagged-and-boarded book, readers of Applied Cryptography should show their love love in a manner more akin to that scene in the sauce stained, water wrinkled, footnoted pages of cook books.


Monday, August 18, 2008

The Reunion Book

So something interesting arrived in today's mail. It was sitting at the door (so it may actually have arrived by UPS, I don't know, I didn't pay attention) in a big fat fluffy envelope. The kind with the irritating tendency to emit small clouds of a substance that appears visually and texturally similar to blow-in insulation. As, in fact, this one did.

images.jpegIt was stickered as coming from the Stanford Alumni association and turned out to contain an interesting object called a "Reunion Book." I'd never heard of one of these before, so I assume that some of you are as ignorant as I was. It is a sort of reverse-yearbook, a "where are we now" of all the people you entered college with. Or graduated with. Or should have graduated with. I haven't really explored the details.

Everyone got a little one page spread of a then-and-now photo pair, a brief bio, a personal timeline, and a photo of their choosing. It turns out that if I'd done the conventional thing I would have graduated from college fifteen years ago. Wowsers. So I couple of interesting things: I'm not in it. I feel vaguely resentful that the alumni association apparently was able to track me down to get me a copy of the book but didn't get in touch with me in time to fill out my form or whatever was required to get my own page. Now, in all honesty, this omission was probably my fault. I tend to regard mail from the alumni association with a sort of irritated inevitability. I tend not to open it. I assume, based on my sample of the times I actually do open and read mail from them, that they want me to subscribe to something or donate something or attend an event.

It may shock those of you with a great deal of college pride that could do something so profoundly heretical. But the reality is that I regard college as sort of "a place I was for a while." This wasn't some sort of chemically induced stupor at work. I didn't discover alcohol until a few years into my education and even then played fairly lightly. And I never decided to pursue studies in Advanced Controlled Substances or anything.

College just wasn't the earthshaking, life changing event, for me, that it was for some others. No comment or criticism on either perspective, by the way. I actually wish I'd gotten a little more out of Stanford academically than I did. I pretty much treated the place as a big, hard high-school. I took my classes, did my work, and called it at that. By contrast, it amazes me how much Erica got out of her studies, capturing absolutely everything that school could provide. And sometimes I wonder what I could have gotten out of the Stanford experience if I'd had the realization (a) what an amazing place it was and (b) college isn't just a big, hard high school.

I also didn't graduate on time, but took a winding and indecisively exploratory path from start to finish. So I ended up loosing track with a lot of those freshman year friends that everyone tells you you'll never forget. I made new friends on the way, but by that time was living off campus and separated by a few crucial years (at that age) from most of those I was in classes with. Then, after spending too long there, I bolted for the Pacific Northwest and an all consuming few years at Amazon. I really only took two good friends from those days with me -- and neither of them from the freshman gaggle. It occurs to me, now that I think about it, that I might have dropped off the radar. And I suppose that'd be a fair thing to say.

I've tracked a few folks down from high school and Amazon via my Facebook presence, but had little luck with people from the college years. To at least some extent it was too large of a pool, and too long ago, to bring up any names. I knew I was missing something of this opportunity to reconnect, but could think of no way to drag all those names back from the dust laden vaults.

And then this giant book arrives, full of (almost) everyone from my freshman year. Now granted, all of those transitory friends from later aren't covered -- but this is at least a break in the case! I've just flipped through it a little and have yet to embark on some great quest, going page-by-page and launching Facebook/Internet searches for everyone who looks or sounds familiar. But here are a few interesting observations.

None of the people I looked at have gotten divorced -- in many cases they are still married to people they were dating when I knew them.

At least one person from my freshman class included a photo posing between Barack Obama and Oprah. I do not, however, think she was someone I knew.

Most of the people I looked at have families (kids) now. The rest have pets.

Almost everyone I looked at listed "hiking" or something similar as an interest.

Based on the photos, if I met most of them, now, I'd probably do a better job recognizing them that I would have expected.

How did we ever think the hair styles of that era looked good? Particularly the women's hair...

I really want to track some folks down and say hi...

Memories can come back when given a proper trigger.

Everyone seems to be doing well -- practicing in whatever profession or field I recall them as interested in when the left, and practicing successfully and at a fairly (or very) high level.

By and large, I found the lives to be pleasantly (and to some extent surprisingly) similar to my own. I'm not quite sure what I expected, but I think I harbored this belief that everyone I'd gone to school with had gone on to found startups, cure diseases, found countries, or win Nobel Prizes or Oscars or Olympic medals or Booker Book prizes. I think it is a continuing thread of insecurity I suffer whenever I look at some of the people I worked with at Amazon -- the ones who really got the bug and leveraged that experience and those contacts to remain (and climb) in the aggressive startup-founding-mandhouse of entrepreneurship. Whenever that hits me I have to remind myself that's not me. I'm a guy who works because he has to -- to provide for himself and his family and to enable the things that we really want to do. I don't fight the fight because I love the fight. I do what I have to -- and I'm fortunate enough to enjoy what I do and be good at it and to have the opportunity to work very hard and be well rewarded. And then I look at (and think of) those one-time co-workers of mine who went down the other path, my path, and raised families, went to school, traveled, and worked when they had to. Again, no judgement. Thank god for the compulsive entrepreneur. They are there to build companies, take risks, hang it on the line day after day. The world would be a very dull place without them.

But yet again, dear Reunion Book, I am pleased to see the world populated with (extremely) intelligent, hard working people who are out there doing what they do. And, I hope, loving what they do and finding themselves well rewarded for it. And, I hope, finding the time to go hiking or traveling or back to school or to write books or to make par at Pebble Beach or to chase down all of the extraordinary and wonderful dreams and goals that people should have. If you found a few companies, cure a disease, or win a couple of prizes on the way, then more power to you! But if you're working the day job, doing something fun on the side, and coming home to share nap time with your kids, congratulations just the same.

I'm a guy who loves nothing more than to come home and sit on the back patio with a glass of whisky, a laptop computer, and a cool breeze blowing by. And that's just exactly what I'm doing. Now I just need to start going page by page and searching Google and Facebook for everyone who looks or sounds familiar... See you soon, I've missed you more than I realized.

If you got here first (I can't be the only person with the "I'll Google people!" brainstorm), then leave a comment or drop me a line (strauss.nick@gmail.com).

The Little Man

So I've been reading, finally, about something called Direct 2.0.

It is not a piece of software. Rather, it is an attempt to re-architect (yes, that is a valid use of the word "architect." I know, even a linguistic curmudgeon like me will accept the verbing of nouns in an appropriately aerospace context) the deeply flawed plan to return people to the moon that NASA has drawn up in the past few years. It was begat by some guys I hang out in newsgroups with. Newsgroups, you know, those internet communities that I usually rail against ("Its all been downhill since AOL gave the hoi polloi access..."). But this one is something special -- nasaspaceflight.com. Together with virtual sister site unmannedspaceflight.com these two are the places I hang out when I want to hear real spaceflight professionals argue and/or get the inside scoop/speculation on what is going on Out There...

DIRECT_CLV_T+091.jpgDirect 2.0 is an interesting plan to take the same basic ground rules that the Constellation office bungled into the Orion capsule and the Aries booster family: re-use hardware, be fast, be cheap, be safe, be political. For some reason, they appear to make work what ATK and the guys at JSC have turned into one of the most profound cases of "throwing good money after bad" that I've seen since Pets.com collapsed. Now granted, when it first showed up on ATK's website, the Aries idea, the stick and the...well...whatever the other thing is called...seemed like potentially elegant approaches to getting people into space. And since the my, oh my, what a pattern of unrelenting growth and going-to-hell-ness. For the big boy, four engines...then five...now six...and ever more segments into the solid rocket motors. For the stick first rampant weight growth, then the oddly Mercury/Redstone like non-sustainable orbit that requires a service module boost almost immediately after separation, and now the crisis of ensuring that the astronauts are not jiggled into jelly by some sort of multi-million dollar paintshaker. Solve by...what...putting the parachutes on springs so they damp out the oscillations? OK, I'm perfectly comfortable with the theory and accept that the paradamper is a better idea that the absurd notion of the highly scarfed OMS engines firing in time to damp the oscillations, but this sort of solution is what I'm using to prevent my washing machine from shaking the house when it hits a spin cycle.

I'd like a little more robust planning going into my rockets, thank you very much!

And all of this -- weight growth. And no margins to begin with, so the moment Orion swelled at all...well...the rest is well documented in the PowerPoints you can download from nasaspaceflight.com. I'll leave it at that.

So some guys on the board got together and tossed out some ideas and did two things: they re-architected the overall plan and then they developed a new vehicle (singular) to support it. The result is, generally, a whole lot more elegant and efficient and cost effective. I'll be cynical enough to say "it'll suffer the same growth and problems as Aries did as it transitioned from ATK paper study to possible flight hardware." And I believe it will -- but the crucial difference is that the guys behind Direct 2.0 actually have enough margin to accommodate the unexpected without the whole thing turning brittle and shattering into a million thrust-oscination-induced pieces.

Direct 2.0 (and I'm intentionally avoiding a long, technical discussion of the designs and their merits) also has the look-and-feel of something well conceived and well planned. It does not have the square-peg-round-hole feel that the Aries rockets do. It smacks of actual synergy in the design.

Now here's the crux of the thing: it doesn't take a genius to see that there are some deep flaws in NASA's current plans. But government agencies are notorious for not wanting to admit that they Had A Bad Idea and then needing to go back and rework things. But we are about to have a presidential election. And those inflection points can be useful. Either of the two incoming presidents has the positioning that they could mandate a re-examination (and in the background mandate the change) of NASA's space exploration architecture. McCain's the rebel (after a career in the Navy?), Obama's the change guy. Either one can pull off a dramatic shift in space strategy (either one is likely to do so, actually, though not necessarily at the level I am advocating) while staying true to image and policy statements. In reality, Direct 2.0 wouldn't really change the suppliers at all, its just a loss of face at NASA.

So whomever you end up being, Mr. President, take advantage of the demise of the Bush regime and among the changes you make in the direction of American space exploration (many of which, whomever you end up being, I fear I will not like). Pick a decent, robust, well planned approach to getting people into space. Even if the whole Moon thing falls apart (as it probably will) or the Mars thing falls apart (as it almost assuredly will), we'll end up with a decent, supportable way to put Things And People Into Space. And I wouldn't like to lose that capability, subcontracting it to other nations and entirely sacrificing an enormous (and hard to recover) body of institutional knowledge.

Regarding institutionalized knowledge -- just look at SpaceX. They can read the same textbooks and technical papers as the guys at Lockheed Martin and end up 0-for-3. That's experience, judgement, and culture talking. That's what you loose when you stop building something for too long.

orion_landing_system.jpgBut above the practical NASA-like issues here, there is a phenomenal message that an official endorsement of Direct 2.0 would send. It would signify, perhaps more than anything, the Coming Of The Internet. The flattening of the world that has been written about so often would splash down in the waters of the American space program. Already us out there on the Internet have helped out those who will listen, starting with the incomparable Alan Stern and his New Horizons team who gratefully accepted the suggestions of several fans as to how to construct the Kodak Moment shots as their little probe sped through the Jovian system.

2216891305_e71caf2ab7.jpgThe science team was understandable busy focusing on the real scientific observations. Knowing this, they listened when folks at home punched the probe's trajectory data into computer simulators and came up with the times and pointing angles necessary to get the spectacular shots of Jupiter and its moons that made the front pages. The tools are no longer beyond the reach of the ordinary, interested, outsider. The interest has always been there. If you will let us in, you'll find that we are not just a nuisance but a powerful, useful force. Welcome us.

New Horizons gave us the tools we needed, we offered suggestions, they listened. The result was synergy -- very happy amateurs (all any of us on that board want to do is to get to do what Alan and his team do!). Great PR photos -- and great PR about the outreach and inclusion.

What kind of an upset would it make, what kind of an "Only In America" free-enterprise message would it send if a few folks using freely available data and commercially available software designed the method that this nation uses to get into space?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The fading of the blogasm

I have to apologize to my erstwhile readers who, numbering about six I think, I greatly thank for their attention. What forces this apology is the comparative quiescence of The Noodlebook over the past couple of weeks. When I started writing this blog, I was going like crazy -- often putting up two posts per day, back-dating one of them, and trying to make it look like I did this regularly and reliably. It seemed obvious that this phase, the blogasm as I called it in my usual way of creating portmanteau words, would fade.

In fact it held on a lot longer than I expected. I kept encountering things in my life that inspired entries. I kept thinking of interesting things that I wanted to explain. I wanted to write and write and write. So why the drop-off in postings, then? Time, frankly. The exegesis of my job have kept me away from the train, my usual blogging spot, for most days on the past three weeks. The train/bus combo from Edmonds to Bellevue is a rather tightly planned commute -- and it imposes some constraints on my timing. So when things get really busy or I know I will have to start early or work late (such as for a scheduled training class I'm teaching or taking) I am forced to drive.

But, readers, I think that things will be lightening up a little bit. Oh, I'm still busy, but for a few weeks I'll have some flexibility back and the ability to work on this little outlet of my energies. So here is a look at some of what I have planned:

A follow up to my why-I-like-Obama blog

The promised second part of my cryptographic advice for schoolchildren

An explanatory bit on hull length and some musings on how it might impact Olympic swimming

A thought piece on the design of rotor-based cipher machines and their sources of security as compared to modern ciphers

A tribute to the H-34 Choctaw and forgotten but historic aircraft in general

An explanation of my "I'd give a nut for an HP-65" statement (something that for possibly obvious reasons brings Erica endless amusement) and a brief history of HP calculators

Some sketches (tongue in cheek, of course) of some corporate personality types that I've been meeting

Some thoughts on the exploration of space and an outline of my (current) "If I ran my own space program" plan


So have faith and keep checking. I'll be back -- and in fact I guess that by putting up this post, I am back... The blogasm hasn't faded -- it has just been on pause for a while, gathering strength...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The well spoken

So after skimming a news article about Jim Leach's very eloquent endorsement of Obama, I violed one of my major personal rules. But, in the manner of a TV news teaser ad, I will now hold you in suspense and comment on Leach's comments. Meta-commenting, the lifeblood of the blogger, let me tell you!

Barack Obama's platform is a call for change," said Leach. "But the change that he so gracefully is articulating is more renewal than departure.


I like it, as a statement. And I think that it gets to a lot of the reasons that I support Obama but in just a few words. Which is why I am a teacher with a tendency to let classes run overtime and Leach is a successful politician in a soundbyte-ridden-world.

Now on to my mistake. I read on through the article, on the ABC News website, to the reader comments section. Oh God, why did I do that. My faith in America lies shattered.

Well, not really, but it was irritating enough to mandate a sort of mini-blog. The nutshell is this: why do people insist on using words like "Repug" and "McNasty" or "Obummer" or "Democrap." Guess what -- trying to sneak in some nasty words like that isn't actually going to improve your argument. It really isn't going to change someone's mind in a logical argument.

Gee...I WAS going to vote for McCain, but seeing that well spoken use of "repug" as a contraction of "republican" has so stirringly forced me to rethink my fundamental political values that I am forced to alter my viewpoint.

What have we sunk to? Is this a Junior High student body election? Am I going to see "Obama-4-Prez" signs in tempra paint soon? This isn't a partisan thing -- I've seen it on both sides of the fence. It is just a matter of acting intelligent. I don't expect everything to take place in a dispassionate debate by people wearing black robes or mortar boards or wigs or anything, but communicating clearly is a good start in any situation.

And while I'm at it, can we stop saying "plus" and "minus" as verbs? They are symbols. The operations are "addition" and "subtraction." I can verb nouns with the best of them, but that's just too much. I'm not even getting into my favorite corporate-isms, that's about twenty pages of blogging right there!

And who ever said "France" is OK. Its "Gaul," people. Has been for thousands of years, why do we need to change it?

Now that might be a bit beyond reality (though I am listening to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire right now, on the days that I can muster the focus), but take a look at people who speak well. Say Leach's quote above, Obama's speaking, or the great speeches of Churchill or MLK or any of the 20th century's greats. Powerful, motivating, moving, eloquent speech. Clear speech that uses the power of the language. And never says "Obummer" or "McPain"...

Friday, August 8, 2008

Let's light this torch!

images.jpegI love the Olympics. All those strange, obscure sports that are pursued by people with a love for some oddball form of competition get their moment in the sun. Like curling!

At least in Canada, becuase I don't think that Curling merits more than a few seconds of coverage here in the US, even during the Olympics. That said, Curling has a much higher participant base in Canada, though I'm not sure it's the place to make bank on the endorsements, even up North.

And yes, I know this is the Summer Olympics and I won't get to watch even a few seconds of curling. But curling has a certain symbolic value in my mind. It stands for all those who labor and train in obscurity, without a signature line of shoes, electrolyte rich sports drinks, or even brooms.

But really, this is the time you see athletes who have day jobs. Athletes who compete for love and for personal challenge. And every four years, they get a share of the glory. Granted, some get more than others. I neither like nor appreciate most gymnastics (ice skating suffers something similar) so I'm not quite sure why it gets the drama and the media darlings. Swimming and track work for me, so you can be sure that I'll be cheering for Phelps as much as anyone. Though his very-low-rise swim pants bug me. I'm always afraid something untoward will accidentally get revealed. And his name makes me think of Fred Phelps, one of the Ten Worst Humans Now Alive.

8716.jpgI'm getting pretty excited about cycling, The Tour having formed a nice little warmup exercise. To watch those crazy track team pursuit events that have an odd similarity between watching the Blue Angels and a rugby match (if you've ever watched a very good rugger squad move the ball up the field, it has a feel that reminds me of the drafting tactics of team cycling). Triatlon, the dominant sport of the Strauss household right now since golf is on hiatus until after the Danskin and/or Tiger's return to competition, gets is multisport moment in the sun. The majestic equestrian events get their day. The odd carnival of track and field get some glory.

Then you've got the people who compete in things like the heptathlon. I'm pretty well read, but I had to check that "hept" means seven. And I still am not quite sure what seven things go in the heptathlon. There' also the three-athlon we're so familiar with here, the five-athlon, the seven-athlon, and the ten-athlon among the multisports. Sorry folks, no dirty-du's.

And the weird "is this really an Olympic sport?" moments: BMX, beach volleyball, etc. For a good chuckle, look at the Wikipedia entry on Olympic Sports and enjoy the ones that aren't played anymore. I'm kind of glad that tug of war is off the menu, but why did the axe polo?

So we're here to celebrate it all -- to have a little fun and watch some guys with offensive lineman-sized guts go gung-ho trying to throw a small metal ball as hard as they possibly can. I'm planning on turning off the election campaign, global events (ps -- Russia, bad move with the invasion of South Ossetia. Couldn't you have held off a few days?), the unreliability of vendor managed training events, and lamentations on summer traffic for a couple of weeks. I'm going to put aside the reasons I'm told I should love, hate, fear, embrace, boycott, celebrate, mock, or ignore China. I'm just going to let the games unfold, enjoy the show for my own shelfish reasons, and then get back to the grind and the worry when everything is over and done with. I've strenuously avoided watching TV for the past two weeks, preparing my self for a long bout of coverage. We've stockpiled the house with healthy snacks to keep our endurance up (edemame, fruit, home-made sushi fixings -- all much better than nachos!). I've been trying to find a coherent and convenient tv and events schedule -- and might have actually succeeded. Now let's get ready and light this torch!

With apologies to Alan Shepard for the intentional misquote!