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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Experiences vs. Things: A writer's view

Good piece in the Atlantic today, Buy Experiences, Not Things, about what consumers say they get by way of “happiness dividend” when they spend a given amount of money on experiences (a vacation, a concert ticket, a hot-air balloon ride) compared to spending the same money on material stuff. 

According to the studies, purchasers report more happy feelings about the experiences they purchased, than the goods they bought.

One reason may be that while a new gadget like the iPhone 6 inspires people to rush out and join long lines, all such gadgets age, go out of date, and misbehave. While they may be a good spending decision in terms of sheer utility for the dollars, they also may bring as much grief as happiness.  

Yet a bad experience can morph into a positive memory, no matter how maddening the experience was at the moment. Why? It's raw material for a vivid story later, and listeners love a good story.

I can relate to this myself, being a lifelong member of the group that marketers call “Experientials" -- people who love to gather experiences. Advertisers think about experiences that are purchased or that lead to purchases, but I like to think of experience as a part of work.

It's one reason I got into feature writing. Having seen the middle column of the Wall Street Journal's front page as a teenager, I thought that going out to research and write such stories would be a good job to have. It would be an extension of what my parents did for my brothers and me on family trips, going on dozens of factory tours. 

And 36 years of feature writing really did open up lots of interesting places, many of which are normally off limits; and it gave me the chance to visit with many fine people in the places where they work.

So as to encourage newcomers into this line of reportage, here are some highlights from those field trips:

First story, visit into the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas: No, they didn't let me into the warhead-assembly line but it was interesting to go into the plant and learn about thermonuclear weapons and how they are transported hither and yon. Security level: pretty tight.

Second story, how buildings would age if abandoned, for Smithsonian: In 1983 I toured the World Trade Center's north tower from basement to roof, and had a long and fascinating conversation with the chief structural engineer, Leslie Robertson. Also I went into the innards of the Grand Coulee Dam and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Here's an illustration from that article:

Pennsylvania: Rode with a helicopter crew that maintained live, high-voltage power lines. This very skilled crew worked from an MD-500 helicopter, replacing spacers on a 230,000-volt line.This was the edgiest flying job I've seen first hand: pilot Mark Campolong had to keep the tail rotor within a couple of feet of the cable.

Other helicopter ride-alongs: on a MH60 Black Hawk with a Night Stalkers crew on a training mission out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Cobra gunship in Missouri, Sikorsky S-61 flight to to oil rig, Bell 206 in remote stretches of the North Slope.

East Texas: Accompanied a recovery team working out of National Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, searching for a one-ton payload that came down in the Piney Woods. That was a lot of fun.

Los Angeles County Fire Department: crawled through their collapsed-building earthquake-training maze and jumped from a helicopter into a lake.

California: went to Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the middle of the night to watch transmissions being prepared for Voyager 2; climbed onto the Deep Space Network antenna in the Mojave to see how the signals go out.

Time in aircraft simulators, with expert instructors: flew a simulated 737 in Delta Airlines' simulator, and a B-2 sim at Whiteman Air Force Base. The latter was a surprisingly high-security shop, perhaps because of war plans that are rehearsed there; even the public affairs officer with me had to prove his identity.

Colorado: Learned how to handle a roaring fire under a large propane tank; then donned bunker gear to crawl from a burning mobile home. 

Texas: a police officer taught me how to make 180-degree turns at 40 mph.

Carthage, Mo: toured a dynamite factory and got a closeup look at metriol trinitrate, a variety of nitroglycerin, flowing from one pipe to another, in the open air, so as to avoid shock waves. Safe to say, this plant had some of the most serious safety precautions I've seen anywhere.

Vertical Assembly Building, Kennedy Space Center: Joined a crew checking the orbiter Columbia for space debris damage; saw solid rocket booster segments being stacked.

Stennis Space Center, MS: Saw a live test of the J-2X engine.

Water Tunnel No. 3, deep under Manhattan and Brooklyn: Visits to the valve chamber and to a tunnel under construction, immediately after blasting. This was the most interesting time, but there's some danger of a rock slab falling on one's head.

Ropesville, Texas: Rode a cable to the top of a radio tower with a construction crew.

NYC: went into the wreckage of World Trade Center 6 (the Customs House), six months after 9/11.

Houston, Texas: Climbed to the top of a tower crane at a construction show.

North Dakota: Visit to the giant phased-array radar antenna that watches for space debris ... and sneak attacks.

Groton, CT: learned how to escape from a sinking, overturned helicopter at Survival Systems Inc. (article is forthcoming in Air&Space).

Kansas and Gulf of Mexico: Spent a total of a week at two oil rigs.

Minnesota: Took lessons on how to fly a helicopter.

Ohio: went into the Ohio State Prison to learn about safecracking from one of the residents.

Los Angeles: Accompanied a raid into a company making counterfeit merchandise, led by a private detective and sheriff's deputies. 

So, thanks to all my expert tour guides!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Interstellar Ice: The Fan-Poster

SF fans counting the days to the premiere of Interstellar are pretty eager to see what Christopher Nolan comes up with.

In my last post I pondered the problem of creating credible but uncanny images of alien neighborhoods, so I scanned my stock of ice photos for something along that line. Here's my shot at a fan-poster for Interstellar:

Except for the NASA image of the spacewalking astronaut on the upper right, all the imagery originates from my wintertime ice field, including the spray of stars. The bubble-headed force-field creature was less than an inch long.

For people who find it hard to believe that macro-photographs can be sufficiently rich in detail and depth of field to stand in for outer space, here's a quote from Douglas Trumbull about the "Stargate" effects near the end of Kubrick's classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey
"The images implied exploding stars, vast galaxies, and immense clouds of interstellar dust and gas. Without revealing too much detail, I'll merely say that these effects involved the interactions of certain chemicals within a camera field of a size no larger than a pack of cigarettes."
I'm working on a PowerPoint SF short story using more ice art, so will be back with a teaser about that.

Imaging the Unimaginable: Alien settings and Interstellar

Interstellar is coming in November! Here's a poster from the official website, and fans are coming up with more.

A standing challenge in SF games, graphic novels, and movies is to picture the unimaginable. If someone like Ellie Arroway dropped into an exo-solar civilization, what would she see? How to create visuals that are truly striking and uncanny, but also make enough sense to be processed by the brain? 

Stanley Kubrick's 2001 made an historic stab at it. One of the segments at the end, a fly-through of the Monolith, relies on color-negative aerial photography. Here's a link to Douglas Trumbull's description of the special effects used for the movie. 

Other alienated movies to check out are Solaris, Forbidden Planet, Prometheus, and the original Alien. The latter's spaceship interior (H.R. Giger, designer) still chills and impresses

Monday, June 23, 2014

Costa Concordia: Project Progress

On June 22, Titan-Micoperi reported that all the starboard sponsons for the wreck of Costa Concordia had been attached, including the troublesome S13 flotation tank featured in my previous post. That one needed a do-over. 

That leaves four sponsons to go, all on the port side, which is less damaged than the starboard side. So that's good news for the wreck-refloating and removal later this summer. (Photo, Parbuckling Project)

The next step is an evaluation by the government on Thursday, June 26, about the project's readiness to cope with what is now a very fragile hulk. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

JLG Crawler-lift: Ditching ladders and scaffolds for "high inside" work

Finished training last week on how to operate a scissor-lift, and during a break, the instructor showed me a compact, crawler-mounted boomlift marketed by JLG. Here's a photo of it inching through a doorway (

I haven't used it, but the idea is cool enough - a track-mounted machine that:
  • Fits through a 40-inch-wide doorway;
  • Can crawl up a 40 percent slope;
  • Expands its footprint via hydraulically actuated outriggers; 
  • Is powered by rechargeable batteries, needing no IC engine or power cord inside;
  • Has a railed platform at the end of an extendable boom that, in the largest model, would let me change a light bulb 75 feet off the floor; and,
  • So I hear, costs a quarter-million dollars.
Photo from JLG of the big one in action:

And, for the well-heeled handyman, it would be very nice for roof work (photo,

Thursday, May 29, 2014

MH370 Had a Satellite Phone: New information

I had mentioned in previous MH370 posts that I'd like to know more about what, if any, satellite phones the Boeing 777-200ER airplane carried, and whether there's any evidence of use during the flight. (A satellite phone looks something like a large cellphone, but it relies on satellites rather than cell towers, so a satellite phone is usable worldwide, whether you're calling from mountaintop, ocean, or desert.) 

This obscure subject never got attention from commentators discussing the many mysteries of the flight; rather, the TV air time focused on ACARS messages, speculation about possible cellphone use by passengers if hijacked, and eventually got around to the satellite pings revealed by Inmarsat. 

Of those, Inmarsat's "hand-shake satellite pings" provide the best info we have about the last hours of flight, if sketchy:

Now, we have some glimmerings that go beyond the ping question. Buried in the otherwise tedious 47-page report from Inmarsat listing many hundreds of signals is a page showing satellite-phone log entries. (For those who have had trouble locating the full ping log, here it is.)

Page 40 shows two attempts from the ground to telephone the aircraft, using Inmarsat's satellite-phone service. The first call to MH370 came at 18:39 Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, or 2:39 am Malaysia Time, and the second came at 23:13 UTC, or 07:13 am Malaysia Time. 

Here's the page:

What's it mean? Maybe not much, but when the mystery is so opaque, just about anything can be interesting. Even the Wikipedia page on MH370 doesn't reference the satellite-phone info.

A few points:
  • Note that the two calls are shown as "not answered," rather than "terminal unreachable." From a lengthy discussion about the ping log on the DuncanSteel website, that suggests the satellite phone had power from the airplane's main circuits; it rang for an extended period; but no one picked up the phone.
  • I feel confident that the calls were directed at a hard-mounted satellite phone intended for priority uses by the crew, rather than a mobile sat-phone carried by a passenger, or one provided for passenger use by the airline. (Note that Malaysia Airlines does advertise that satellite phones are available for business class travelers on this type of airplane, the Boeing 777-200.) 
  • Finally: we are left to guess that the only sat-phone calls made to or from MH370 are the two attempts cited in the log, but we don't know that for sure.
There's solid information from the ping log that the airplane spent another hour in the air following the second call. The airplane then experienced a temporary power failure as the fuel supply ran out. 

All these bits of evidence lead me to think that after a couple of months' pause, the next deep-diving autonomous-submarine searches will center where they should have been all along, the southern terminus of the most likely flight path (graphic by Reuters):


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Costa Concordia Salvage: Trouble at the Big Dents

Since the successful righting of the hulk Costa Concordia by Titan-Micoperi last fall, it's been said often that the most difficult part is over (photo, Parbuckling Project):

That world-famous parbuckling job was accomplished using strand jacks, cables, anchors, temporary steel supports on the seabed, and giant ballast tanks, called sponsons, mounted on the port side.

Though the most spectacular part is complete, I continue to believe that the work to get it off the rocks and into a breaker's yard in one piece will be very difficult and maybe more so than the parbuckling itself.

I'll explain the reasons below, but first this obscure, yet worrisome news item: Last week an 800-ton sponson tank (numbered S13) intended for the starboard side came loose from its fastenings shortly after being placed. Starboard means right side; that's the side facing the shore of Giglio, which was underwater for months until  the ship rolled upright.  

Sponson S13 had positive buoyancy at the time, and in rising out of control, collided with an adjacent sponson. Divers were underwater at the time but apparently no one was injured. 

The heavy-lift Conquest MB1 crane has since loaded Sponson S13 back onto the pontoon barge MAK and now it's back at Genoa for repairs (crane photo, Concordia Group):

As I explained in previous posts, the two sides of the ship present different engineering challenges. Most of the port-side hull was relatively easy to work during the parbuckling preparations, because it was completely exposed to view, and because it wasn't heavily damaged. At the time, the port was the "uppermost side" of the wreck and riggers could work on it while harnessed to safety lines.

Both sides of the ship need to have sponsons installed so the ship will float enough to get it off the rocks and temporary platform; therefore both sides must serve as supports for these giant tanks.

Even now that parbuckling has set the ship upright, the rusty starboard side is much more difficult to work on than the port side had been. For one thing, the starboard side of the hull lies underwater, so work must be done by divers. (The parts in view above the waterline are the superstructure).

Another reason for the current difficulty is that the starboard side sustained enormously more damage than the port side. That side supported the entire deadweight of the ship for months, and much of that stress was concentrated into two zones, fore and aft, where the ship lay on its side, supported mostly by a pair of underwater pinnacles. 

I call those damage zones on the starboard side the Big Dents. Here's a Reuters photo of the starboard side, after parbuckling:

Sponson S13 has to attach onto the dent to the left of the picture, near the aft end of the ship. Here's a Parbuckling Project photo of S13 being lifted into place:

Here's a side view, also from the Project:

The lower diagram in the sponson map below shows the starboard side. Look at the long green rectangle near the stern: 
Sponson S13 is the long green object, horizontally oriented, and it's the one that had the problem earlier this month. From what I gather, the hull at this spot is so dented that a vertical tank can't be secured, so it has to be horizontal instead. 

The official explanation of the recent breakaway of Sponson S13 is that a chain passing under the hull wasn't tight enough, and this slack caused one end of the sponson to lift and damaged another one nearby. There might be more to it; certainly the Big Dent is a very difficult area in which to work.

I hope this post gives a little context to the latest news reports from Titan-Micoperi. To summarize: the ship is severely damaged due to wave motion over the months since the grounding, and because of how the ship came to rest; sponsons need to be placed there anyway to get the ship off the rocks; and the attachment points to that irregular, weakened zone are problematic. The whole ship may be so weakened that it won't hold together under the strain.

So once the hulk lifts off the reef and begins moving (whether under tow, or being pulled onto a semi-submersible recovery ship), it's sure to be a tense time for the salvors.  

Here's my information request of the week: imagery showing the results of an underwater sonar or photogrammetric survey of the starboard side of Costa Concordia.