Saturday, July 15, 2006

Deborah Butterfield horse suffers acute attack of agoraphobia at MMOCA

As predicted in an earlier post, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's 1983 Deborah Butterfield horse suffered an acute attack of agoraphobia over the weekend. Agoraphobia is a Greek word that literally means "fear of the marketplace." The attack was brought on by a marketplace overdose, with Maxwell Street Days -- especially Fontana's bargain racks and the crowds they drew -- surging right up to the glass wall of MMOCA.

The sculpture is expected to recover fully once the shopping frenzy abates.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Rough Beast slouching update

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
-- William Butler Yeats

The Rough Beast is stepping up his pace. Like Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now,” he loves the smell of burnt flesh, the screams of lives being snuffed out in modern high-tech war. There’s plenty of that to go around in his old haunts.

Israel, apparently with the full support of the U.S. government, is sending its jets screaming into Lebanon and Gaza, fighting a two-front war against civilians, allegedly to get three kidnapped soldiers back -- but more likely, in pursuit of the fantasy of reshaping the geopolitical structure of the entire Middle East, the same crazy vision that spurred the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Now they’ve got Syria and Iran in the crosshairs of their bombsights.

Small, weak, frightened men, posturing and acting out violently to hide the utter bankruptcy of their policies -- this is how world wars start. Disasters usually come in threes -- and nobody ever guaranteed there would only be two world wars.

The Rough Beast is pleased. The world is headed toward a cataclysmic, possibly nuclear, conflict -- and in the one nation that could possibly stop this crazy nonsense, the president has turned into a cheerleader for an insane war, and the silence from the man in the street is deafening.

What’s with the silence? People just don’t care? They actually believe this is simply a routine Israeli rescue operation to liberate three kidnapped soldiers? They no longer have the math skills to calculate the impact of $10/gallon gas prices on their household budgets?

I prefer to think that we’re regrouping, thinking and organizing -- trying to find a way to keep the maniacs in Washington and Tel Aviv from digging themselves a hole so deep that the only way out will seem to require the use of nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Guaranteed to break your heart -- unless, maybe, you are a neocon, but probably even then

Just a bunch of dots, right?

Wrong. Very wrong.

That was the "trees." This is the "forest."

It’s an interactive map posted by Cox Newspapers. (NOTE: Click on image of the national map to enlarge it. Click HERE for the interactive version of the map.)

Spending any amount of time with it -- zooming in on your own local area to find out who died in your community, zooming out to the state or national level for the bigger picture -- is to be haunted by a terrible sense of waste, of all these patriotic American lives expended so carelessly by a government that should have known better, because, after all, it’s not as if they weren’t warned. (Thanks to konagod for the link.)

This is how America looks with 923 days left in the Bush administration. So what's to be done?

It's not clear whether the exhortation just concerns rising gas prices, or whether it's commenting on the big picture, but the sign does suggest one approach. Except what would it accomplish, really?

It seems to me that returning the Democrats to power in both houses of Congress is probably a better bet.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Rumsfeld's DOD hasn't exactly been known as a model of efficiency, but this is absurd

The stories are the same in the print and online editions, but today's NYT saved the dramatic price tag graphics for the print edition, where they screamed at the reader from above the fold of the business section article on skyrocketing weapons procurement costs. However you illustrate it, this is ridiculous:
When it was planned 19 years ago, the F-22A was an ambitious project by any measure. It was to fly invisibly, at supersonic speeds and with the latest in avionics and engines. All this was to counter Soviet threats in air-to-air combat. Initially, the Air Force had planned to spend $82 billion and buy 648 planes.

Since then, the Soviet threat ended and the F-22A encountered numerous cost overruns and schedule delays. The Air Force also added new requirements so the jet could also conduct bombing missions — even though some critics question the feasibility of using an expensive fighter jet that flies at nearly twice the speed of sound to attack ground targets.

In the end, the F-22A is costing nearly twice as much per plane as planned, and the Air Force is getting only one-quarter the number it had initially sought. The cost for each plane has soared to $361 million, making it the most expensive fighter jet ever. It is still not ready for combat.
It's enough to make you wonder whether even an incompetent like FEMA's Brownie wouldn't be a better shopper than Rummy at the Pentagon.

Think about it: A botched landing in bad weather, say goodbye to $361 million. A lucky shot by an insurgent with a black market Soviet era shoulder-mounted missile, say goodbye to $361 million. A midair collision between two F-22As, say goodbye to the better part of a billion dollars.

How does this compare with the cost of previous generations of fighter planes? This Media General article gives some comparisons in 1998 dollars. Although inflation has continued since then, the relationships between the different planes' prices has probably stayed about the same.
Aircraft: P-51 Mustang (World War II)
Year entered service: 1940
Number built: 14,855
Maximum Speed: 437 mph
Original cost: $54,000
Cost in today's dollars: $599,000

Aircraft: F-86 Sabre (Korean War)
Year entered service: 1948
Number built: more than 5,500
Maximum Speed: 685 mph
Original cost: $178,000
Cost in today's dollars: $1.44 million

Aircraft: F-22 Raptor
Year entered service: 2005
Number built: 62 (183 anticipated)
Maximum speed: more than 1,300 mph
Original cost: $133 million
Cost in today's dollars: $133 million
In other words, one F-22A would buy at least 222 P-51s, which rolled off production lines in World War II almost like cars and helped to win the war. It would also buy nearly 100 Sabre jets. It's hard to believe that one F22A is actually that much more productive than either one -- especially as it has suffered from a lot of mission creep and would mostly be used as a bomber today, although it was originally designed to combat Soviet fighters.

It's an old, familiar story. The Brits have a lot to tell us about skyrocketing weapons system costs that helped sink an empire. In their case it was naval weapons, but air power has become today's sea power. And we don't seem to have learned much from our predecessors.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Happy birthday, Nikola Tesla

I've been distracted with work and almost forgot -- but thanks to Coturnix at Blog Around the Clock, I'm reminded that today is Nikola Tesla's 150th birthday. Check out his post for a treasure trove of links to information about this fascinating figure, who is being celebrated all over the world in many ways this anniversary year -- and who will be played by David Bowie in "The Prestige," a film directed by Christopher Nolan, who made "Memento." If you don't know much about Tesla, the link to this story in the Globe and Mail will give you a quick overview.

My own associations with Tesla go back to childhood, when electricity itself held the fascination for kids (or at least some kids) that computers and the Internet do today. That's when I made strange electrical devices out of kits and odds and ends and dreamed about this Serbian-American giant (today claimed as a favorite son by both Serbia and Croatia, which makes him a unifying force in the strife-torn Balkans), who invented alternating current, without which the modern world would scarcely move, or do anything. (He had worked for Edison, but they had their great falling-out over this. Edison hated alternating current and favored direct current, which he had invented the electric chair to publicize.) Tesla also invented radio, but lost the credit, the patent and the Nobel Prize to Marconi.

More recently, I encountered Tesla in a charming and thoughtful novel , "Loving Little Egypt," by the late Thomas McMahon. The book (published in 1988 and reissued in 2003 in paperback) is partly a technology fable, partly a magical evocation of a time earlier in the last century when the equivalents of today's computer hackers were self-taught telephone hackers, and partly a populist critique of monopoly capitalism, with some of the issues it raises surprisingly relevant today.
It's about a young man named Mourly Vold, a nearly blind physics prodigy who in the early 1920s discovers a way to tap into the long-distance telephone lines and set up a communications network with other blind people nationwide — to the horror of William Randolph Hearst (who believes they're part of a Mexican anarchist plot to infiltrate the U.S.) and with the blessing of Alexander Graham Bell (who with his deaf wife, Mable, becomes a kind of mentor and foster father to Mourly).

How Mourly falls into, and then escapes, the clutches of the robber barons who control the telephone system; how he decides, regretfully, to renounce the haven of the Bells' Cape Breton retreat and strike out on his own; how he finds love on a bus through West Virginia; how he and his motley crew join forces with the eccentric, pigeon-fancying physicist Nikola Tesla to outwit Hearst and his crony Thomas Edison, and exact a fitting vengeance from them — all this, and more, forms an enthralling tale that is made even more alluring by McMahon's blending of narrative with scientific and philosophical insight and trivia, and by the frequent intrusions of "real" historical characters like the Bells, Edison, Hearst, Einstein, Sarah Bernhardt, and others.
"The eccentric, pigeon-fancying physicist" -- that's from late in Tesla's difficult life, which ended in poverty and ridicule by the scientific establishment of the time. But he's portrayed with great sympathy by McMahon, a highly regarded professor of mechanics and biology at Harvard who wrote three fascinating science-related novels (see cross references to the other two at the link) who died of heart failure on Valentine's Day in 1999 at the all-too-young age of 55.

Happy birthday, Nikola! (You'd probably be happy that, as T. reminds me, we have a Tesla Terrace named after you here in Madison. Sorry about the fact that it's adjacent to Marconi Street. It must have been somebody's idea of compromising on that radio credit.)