Sunday, July 14, 2024

It's Christmas For Conspiracy Theorists

     If you don't know someone took a shot a former President Donald Trump yesterday, doing only minor damage to him, killing an innocent bystander and injuring at least two others, then you have been living under a rock well past the last trolleycar stop.

     The TV and online talking heads were on it nonstop after it happened, mostly reporting the basic facts listed above and admitting they didn't know anything more.  The shots came from an apparently unsecured rooftop overlooking the venue, and that -- as so far reported -- is a significant failure.

     I have worked engineering support for TV reporting from a Presidential candidate appearance, though with smaller crowds.  I'm not going to get into any detail, but the U. S. Secret Service doesn't kid around.  They identify the sources of risk and they get them under control.  There are locations where they've asked utilities to weld down manhole covers along the route of a motorcade.  Their normal, known way to deal with vantage points is to put their own person with a gun up there, or get a cooperating agency to do so.  Did they miss this one?  Did the individual(s) assigned to it get sneaked past, taken out, distracted?  I don't know.  We may not ever know.

     What we do know is the dizzy-minded of every stripe are fabulating; online, I have heard everything from accusations of a "Reichstag fire moment" to "a Leftist plot foiled."  It's nonsense.  Not that knowing so will stop the firehose of BS, but it's all wind.

     The first claim is easy to disprove: nobody's that good a shot, not with a bobbing, weaving, gesticulating target.  At the reported distance, under the known circumstances, no one could pull off a near-miss of that nature on purpose, period.  And without a Number Two already in place, ready to step up and wave the bloody shirt, no even semi-sane conspiracy would take that risk.

     The other extreme is harder to debunk, but the historical examples (with one or two possible exceptions*) show that it takes a lunatic to get by the security around Presidents and Presidential candidates.  From Richard Lawrence's attempt on President Andrew Jackson in 1835 through the assassinations of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, the attempts on former President Theodore Roosevelt, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt and president Truman,* the assassination of President John Kennedy and Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy to attempts on Presidents Ford (two) and Reagan, only people adrift from reality have been unpredictable enough to bring the means of doing harm within range of Presidents and Presidential candidates, at least within U. S. boundaries.  Nearly all of them have acted as "lone gunmen."  Plotters plot and all plots leak, without exception.  It only takes one Smedley Butler, only one cinematographer with a longer lens and better microphone† than plotters realize, one disaffected member of the group, one misdirected message, one nosy reporter.  And both FBI and the Secret Service are listening; researching for this post, I was impressed by the number of attempts they have foiled.  There's zero likelihood of a plot.

     It is, I am almost sorry to tell you, "the usual noise in here." Having sown political violence -- and our history shows it is always lurking -- the harvest followed.  Keeping the civility in civil society requires constant effort from each of us, and we haven't been doing a very good job of it in recent years.  My sympathies are with the victims, as are the sympathies of any decent person.
* John Wilkes Booth was (arguably) sane and part of a wider plot; the Puerto Rico nationalists who murdered their way to within shooting of President Truman may have been fanatical but had no history of insanity.

† Perhaps I shouldn't point this out, but the power switches on many wireless microphone transmitters are lousy and, worse, talent has a habit of turning them off and then forgetting to turn them back on, so the switches are very often bypassed. 

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Dipping A Toe In

     The headline was interesting, combining two facts: more than forty percent of the U. S. population lives in coastal counties, and sea level rise is accelerating.

     People have differing opinions about climate change.  That's normal for our species -- in an age of space travel, people have differing opinions about the Earth being a sphere or flat, after all.  But while only twenty-four people have ever been far enough into space to get a really clear look at the big blue marble we live on, well more than a third of Americans can ride a bicycle to the sea shore and have a look for themselves, year after year.  Far fewer will find themselves under water in the near term -- in many places, the land rises quite steeply from the shore, after all.  Storm surges will be more of a problem, from the southernmost tip of Texas all the way around to New York City once in a great while, depending on the whims of hurricanes, themselves getting stronger and more frequent.

     Call it climate; call it weather.  Either way, the graph of water level over time says it's coming.  Does the name matter when your beaches become scuba sites or you're sloshing around the ground floor of your house in gumboots, salvaging what you can from the storm?

     It's certainly going to have an effect on the discussion.

     Of course, we said that when men went to the Moon, and we're not out of flat-Earthers yet.  Still, it's a lot harder to breathe water than to pretend geosynchronous communications satellites or the GPS and Starlink constellations are fake.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

I'm Going Back To Bed

     Wake me up right before civilization ends, please?  I want to see the big fireworks show at the grand finale.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

I Know The Face, But The Character...?

     Last night, Tam and I watched the Pete Gunn episode, "A Slight Touch of Homicide," with the remarkable Howard McNear as the bad guy.

     You probably know him as Floyd the barber from Andy Griffith, a vague, odd, garrulous character, and you may have wondered why Floyd can seem almost menacing at times.  Without giving too much away, his role in the noir PI series shows that darker side to wonderful effect.  It's well worth watching, thirty minutes of tightly-scripted drama.  And you'll never feel quite the same way about Floyd again.

Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Back To Conditioning Air

      The techs stopped by this morning and swapped out the coil and expansion valve, a not-inexpensive process (though it could have been much worse).  After a week of managing the system while it was supercooling, "set and forget" will make a nice change.

Monday, July 08, 2024

Oh, Of Course

     Every once in a while, I'm reminded of the extent to which we are still all wandering around in the broken remains of Roman civilization.  I was looking at some interesting engineering that included a few very old dams in Spain -- really old: the Romans built them.  Several are in what is now the Zaragoza region -- which (according to a machine translation) the builders knew as the settlement of Ceasaraugusta.

     Put that way, it's pretty obvious where the modern name came from -- as obvious as the remains of an ancient dam.

Sunday, July 07, 2024

The Big Science Fiction Convention

     Inconjunction was this weekend.  I didn't go.  I'm still getting used to being around people again.  I nerved myself up and went to a nearby antique shop Saturday, and then to dinner at Half Liter with Tam and one of her friends.  A lot of walking and a little bit of bike-riding: I slept like a log.

     Between the pandemic, the crazy reactions to the pandemic, and the chaos leading up to and following the 2020 election, I have become deeply leery of anything but the simplest. arms-length, surface-level interactions with other people.  Don't know 'em, don't wanna know 'em; smile, nod, "How about this weather?" and be on my way.  I'm sure many of them are fine people but I've been disappointed too many times and fooled more than once.  So how about I just don't get to know them well enough to find out?  Seems like a fine basis for coexistence.  Maybe they're a saint.  Maybe they're an asshole.  Why should I know?

     Today, I did another load of laundry, cleaned out the gutter on the south side of the house, repaired a broken wire in the feedline of my ham radio antenna that I found while cleaning the gutter and made a nice chuck roast with mixed vegetables (apple, turnip, potato, carrot, celery, onion and a couple of little cherry tomatoes, seasoned with coarse salt, mixed fresh-ground peppercorns, curry powder, garam masala and some datil pepper sauce -- no, it wasn't especially spicy, since I used that stuff in moderation) and mushrooms in parsley butter on the side.  You can hardly beat apples and turnips in something like this, though people don't believe that until they try it.  After all that, I'm worn out.  I may not even do dishes tonight.

Saturday, July 06, 2024

Both-Sideserism (Thumb On The Scales Edition)

     New York Times: "Joseph Biden may be too old to serve second term, should drop out of election now."

     Also New York Times: "Donald Trump may be too great a threat to the republic to serve second term, voters must decide."

     But, hey, apparently neither one of them has eaten barbecued dog like RFK Jr., who absolutely swears that he would never, ever eat human flesh and never has, and that's the honest truth as far as he remembers.

Friday, July 05, 2024

UK Elections

     I suppose this is where I'm supposed to say something insightful about the 4 July elections in the UK,* but I don't have anything specific.  I will point out that an American 10-32 bolt and a UK 2BA bolt are so close in dimensions that that you can usually use one in place of the other with no special effort, one of the great coincidental convergences of engineering. 

     How that might apply to elections is up to the observer.
* While the United Kingdom held 2024 elections on our Independence Day, we're going to be pulling the lever on 5 November, their Guy Fawkes Day.  "Remember, remember the fifth of November," and maybe check the more important basements for anything unexpected.

Thursday, July 04, 2024

Happy Birthday, America!

     Today's the day we told the British Crown we were leaving.  The King wasn't happy about that, resulting in eight years of spirited disagreement, death, injury, disease and various treaties.  But we persisted, and won, something George Washington, who was in a position to know, described as "little short of a standing miracle."

     We kept a few things from the mother country, like notions of jurisprudence that included the presumption of innocence.  In the 1760s, the English jurist William Blackstone wrote, "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."

     While this can mean that a man who can afford very good lawyers is especially likely to escape being found guilty, the broad principle is aimed at preventing harm to the innocent -- and any malefactors who squeak by are likely to either mend their ways or commit further crimes, for which they will be arrested and face the possibility of punishment in due course.

     There's a guy running for President right now -- he'd love for me to mention his name -- who's been preloading public expectations if he wins and begins the mass deportations he has promised.  He's saying the media will single out the one lovely, otherwise-innocent mother who gets deported while ignoring the ten or a hundred presumed horrible, awful criminals swept up in the same dragnet and removed from the U.S., literally inverting Blackstone's ratio.  Meanwhile, he is benefiting from the presumption of innocence in criminal trials while availing himself of some of the best attorneys money and power can afford.

     You can listen to Founder and Framer Benjamin Franklin, or you can listen to that other guy.  One of them was there at the beginning, and knew the score.  The other?  He's mostly riffing, with no real thought of tomorrow.
By Kazvorpal - Photoshop CS5. This file was derived from: Benjamin Franklin 1767.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Not Too Cool

     In the first few days of the Spring heat wave, the air-conditioner coil in the furnace here at Roseholme Cottage froze up.  (I've been calling it an A-coil, but it's got one more section, so it's really an N-coil.)

     That wasn't too great. I managed to catch it early: air was still flowing but the cold side of the coolant line was frosted up nice and white where it's exposed as it goes into the box where the N-coil lives.  I turned the thermostat up several degrees, left the fan running and added a floor fan over the register in the dining room -- that one's only six feet away from the return dust grill, and the system works better if I can loft the cold air up and displace warm air into the floor-level return.

     Tam had out-of-town stuff to do over the next week and a half after I found it and I had several projects at work, so service had to wait.  I figured the system was just low on coolant, which (for abstruse reasons I have neither the time nor the crayons to share my limited understanding of) can make the N-coil tend to get much colder than it it should and freeze up.  In the meantime, I could probably manage it by not cooling the house any more than the bare minimum needed to control humidity.  You have to pay attention to the outside temperature and if the ducts in the basement are sweating, but if the system's not too messed up, it works.  I fired up booster fans in the bedrooms and it worked through a couple of weeks of bad heat.

     Then we had the flea explosion.  I had scheduled service by then, but Tam had to go out of town again and the house was a mess with bags of to-be-de-flea-ed stuff all over, so I cancelled it -- I thought.

     A few days later, the tech knocked while I was in the shower and we had a short, unhappy conversation.  That was early last week.

     After rescheduling and apologies all around, he showed up yesterday morning and worked his magic.  Yes, the system was low on coolant -- but after topping it up, it was still acting funny.  I'd drawn the newest tech; he spent some time on the phone with his more-experienced peers and came back to tell me that either the high-tech self-regulating expansion valve was shot -- or the coil was.  The latter was going to be costly and even the valve would be painful because it's labor-intensive (or time-intensive, at least: they have to empty the system, but refrigerant's too expensive to waste, so it gets pumped down and saved, and that's not a quick process.)

     He left and I called his office for an official quote.  They reminded me that the bill would be less if the system happened to be under warranty.  I asked them to hold that thought, I'd call right back after checking.  Turns out I had registered it back in 2017, and yes, it was a ten-year warranty if you bothered to register.  I called back, and now the service outfit wanted to send another tech out to make sure the problem was as diagnosed.  (I can't blame them for that.  The parts markup on a coil is a nice chunk of change and some or all of that is now off the table.) 

     Early this morning, the previous tech returned, skeptical senior in tow, and they did another round of measurements.  The original guy was vindicated (and happy about it.  It sucks to be the new kid -- BT, DT), and I'm waiting to hear back on scheduling the replacement.

     Meanwhile, we're in another hot streak and I'm managing the thermostat.

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Marooned In Space?

     Oh, no!  Sunita Williams and Barry "Butch" Wilmore are stranded (according to headlines) or not stranded (according to NASA) aboard ISS!  What'll they do?

     Ride the Boeing Starliner back down, once the engineers are happy; or hitch a spare pair of seats on a SpaceX Dragon capsule, if the engineers get a lot less happy than they are now.  They're not stranded.  If the price was right, the Russians would probably taxi them home, and gloat about it all the way.  

     The worst problem for the pair right now is ensuring a sufficient supply of underwear (etc.).  There's no laundromat on ISS; they can't even take dirty clothes outside and let the vacuum sterilize them: the resultant particulate matter would stay in orbit and after a few years, ISS and all the scientific instruments it carries would be orbiting in a thin cloud of schmutz. Astronauts, cosmonauts, tourists and whoever else on ISS bring up a suitcase of employer-issued attire, stuff their dirty laundry into the trash, and it gets packed into a disposable cargo vehicle (From Russia, ESA or JAXA, though the latter two may not be flying at present) and burns up on reentry, raining schmutz-laden ashes down on the oceans and great cities of the world.

     The biggest risk they're facing is a shortage of skivvies.  NASA has done detailed studies on just how long you can wear the same set of clothes (ickily long), and resupply flights arrive at regular intervals, so not to worry.

     But what about those thrusters?  The delay seems to stem from some wonky thrusters in the Starliner's Service Module, and the issue there is, that part is not coming home.  It gets discarded along the way and burns up, just like a bag of space laundry.  If there's any chance to figure out what went wrong, it's got to be before the spacecraft heads home.

     And why is there a problem?  Can't NASA just pull out their engineering samples here on Earth and start fooling with them?  Um, about that....  Even when NASA was building their own spacecraft, they weren't building their own spacecraft.  Mostly they were managing the design process, subcontracting construction to a whole flock of companies (Chrysler made big chunks of Saturn V that took us to the Moon!) and managing (and occasionally performing) system integration.  It was all done on cost-plus contracts: do the job, whatever it takes, and send Uncle Sam the bill.  For the commercial crew system that has produced SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's Starliner,* NASA has stepped back from micromanaging and final assembly; they described the mission and put it up for bid -- at a fixed price.

     SpaceX got in early, using the prototype Dragon capsule and Falcon boosters for the unscrewed resupply contracts and learning as they went.  Boeing -- who had absorbed a lot of other aerospace companies and had immense institutional experience building spacecraft -- went straight into building manned vehicles.  And, as they had always done, they subcontracted a lot of it.  Including the thrusters; those were made by Aerojet Rocketdyne (Owned by L3Harris, itself a child of defense contractor Litton Industries and Harris Intertype, who once made printing presses, broadcast equipment and military communications gear).  This was bigtime commercial spaceship stuff, and Boeing asked for -- and got -- a fixed-price contract from their subcontractors.

     Space is hard.  Rockets break, and they break in many new and unusual ways.  Make a change to an existing system, and it may surprise you; design a new system from the ground up and it will surprise you.  If the engineers are very talented and very experienced, they can anticipate many of the ways things will fail, but not all of the ways.  No one can.  SpaceX uses a "move fast and break things" approach, and it works -- but they suffer occasional dramatic failures and have, so far, been very good at knowing how much risk is acceptable for any given flight.  NASA, in the wake of the Apollo "plugs-out" ground test tragedy, was obsessed with hand-tightening every bolt, having all the contractors follow every step of every part of the work and materials in extreme detail, and it resulted in successful Lunar missions -- at very great cost.  Boeing threw their efforts into engineering and ground-testing -- and in writing careful specifications for the subcontracted subsystems.  When things break, it's a matter for figuring out where, why and how -- and if the failure was due to improper assembly, improper design, or flawed specifications.  Money is riding on the answer -- money and whose pocket it comes out of.  This is not just rocket-geekery; it's attorneys and accountants and managers; it's people's best educated guess on how much it's going to cost to make each widget and how much the prime contractor will pay for it.  Get those numbers wrong and you can eat up a year's profit; get them too wrong, and people die.

     Starliner's woes do not appear to be at the "people die" point.  They have, however, been teetering on the brink of "goodby, profits" for both already-ailing Boeing and some of their subcontractors, and that spaceship its going to to stay up there, docked with ISS, until they have sorted out every valve, bolt, screw, engineering specification, contractual clause and the wounded feelings of the second vice-president in change of making rocketships for money.  It's not very pretty or especially pure; it's not as spectacular as a fully-fueled Falcon blowing up on the launchpad because somebody screwed up the temperature limits of a carbon-fiber-reinforced propellant tank. But it's how big old companies like Boeing do things, and I'm confident they will eventually get it all sorted out.

     Meanwhile, Suni and Butch are rationing their clean socks very carefully.  Because, you see, it only counts as a successful test flight if they come back in the Starliner that carried them up -- and the second V. P. in charge of flying rockets for money will be in a heap of trouble if this doesn't work as planned.
* And, kind of indirectly, Sierra Space's Dream Chaser. But it's not competing to carry people at present.