Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fear of Flying

I'll admit it. I hate to fly. I have a fear of flying or as JetBlue now calls it, "Jetting". So now I have a fear of Jetting too. Every flight I take I fear will be my last. It's not rational. I know the odds. It's an honest phobia and with it comes strong anxiety. Not the William Shattner, "There's something on the wing", type of anxiety. Although Shattner was right, there was something on the wing! It's more the discomfort that comes from the complete inability to relax. Every bump, every mechanical whirl, every squeak of the aircraft and my comfort is disrupted with thoughts like, "OMG the wings are gonna to rip off". I don't actually think it's a fear of flying, exactly, I think it's a fear of not flying... and then plummeting 35,000 feet to the ground whilst the screams of terror erupt all around me. I am, of course, also afraid of heights, which might be the real phobia. Or it might be the fear of not being in control. It's also possible I'm a bit claustrophobic. I know for certain that this is not a post 9/11 fear. I was aerophobic when aerophobia wasn't cool. A bomb in the cargo bay is just one of the many reasons the wings might be ripped off, so terrorism just joins the crowd of anxieties already in my head. Regardless, the phobic cocktail that I face when boarding an airliner is real and I struggle each and every time I fly. I like jetting, it's sounds a bit more peaceful, JetBlue might be on to something.

Nevertheless, this fear that I have brings me to a strange place today. Since I believe I am a self made expert in fearful flying, I have something to say. Perhaps I am not the most fearful passenger -- those passengers tend not to get on board -- or they pass the flight heavily sedated...but I have real fear and I've tried to combat it rationally. I like to believe I am a thoughtful person, with a degree in mechanical engineering, and an advanced degree in operations research, along with a career in the United States Air Force. I have spent a considerable amount of time both in the air, albeit always as a passenger, and in careful deliberation of those who make it their profession to be in the air. There was one exception. I was the impound officer on a KC-135 tanker that was grounded from flying for a mechanical condition that could not be solved. During the impound I sat with the aircraft 24/7 and led the investigation into why the aircraft's rudder was malfunctioning. We solved the problem and for some reason, perhaps pride, I flew with the test crew on the functional test flight to return the plane to service. I had no fear, ironic, go figure.

But all this is simply to establish my credibility as someone who is rational but afraid to fly in order that I may make my next commentary. So here is my problem. I would much rather my aircrew be asleep in the cockpit and overshoot the airport by 150 miles, than be on-board an aircraft that takes off into a flock of geese, looses both engines, and then lands in the Hudson river. The pilot of the Hudson River flight, Capt Sullenberger is a National Hero. Both pilots on Northwest flight 188 to Minneapolis have been terminated from their employment and have had their pilot's licenses revoked by the FAA. Captain Cheney and First Officer Cole are National Goats. And not just any Goat’s, they have been portrayed by the media in such an evil and judgmental light almost as if their actions placed their cargo at such risk they might as well have aimed their aircraft directly at the World Trade Center.

The most logical theory, apart from what they the pilots of said, is that they were asleep. Let’s pretend that they were not sleeping and were perhaps, as they have claimed, heavily engrossed in the understanding of their crew scheduling software loaded on the laptops they were using during the flight. Which is, of course, a violation of NWA rules which prohibits the use of "...electronic devices..." in the cockpit. Has anybody been in the cockpit of a modern airliner these days? The cockpit is an electronic device. It actually wraps itself around the crew members. I'm not sure of the difference between a portable computer and the one that surrounds them...the big question is were they really checking the crew schedule or perhaps it will be discovered they were playing MS Flight Simulator while they were at work, that would be ironic.

I think the media would love to discover that they were surfing porn at 35,000 feet. That would make for some National headlines. There seems to be a few indignant journalists’s who don't understand why the pilot's laptops were not confiscated. As if there were some sinister motive at play here, i.e. the pilots were intentionally negligent and therefore immediately criminally negligent for losing their situational awareness (SA) for a few moments. And by a few moments I mean it takes about 13 minutes to fly 150 miles and if I understand correctly -- a good portion of that over flight was spent trying to correct the error. And unlike when we miss a turn on the highway while we were engaged with our cell phone conversation, you can't just throw a u-turn, well actually you can, procedurally though, when you lose SA, you don't. Why the crew was out of contact with air traffic controllers for a longer amount of time is an entirely different problem and has nothing to do with lap tops. I think the question should be, what is the level of vigilance the crew of a commercial aircraft is required to maintain at all times? I think it's unrealistic to suggest that omnipotence is the requirement and I think it's a lie if aircrew members suggest that's where they operate, every minute of every flight. It gets better.

After 9/11 we have taken great measures to seal the flight crew into an impenetrable cocoon surrounded by their electronic devices -- we've sealed them in a crypt -- no one gets in, no one gets out. Their sanctuary is inviolate. When was the last time you've seen a pilot step into the cabin to stretch his legs, or pee. Further, after sealing them in, we expect that on today's flight we have the very best pilots that ever slipped the surly bonds of earth. We force ourselves to believe that Chuck Yeager actually came out of retirement to see us safely through today travel. The truth? Well, you can't handle the truth, and neither can I. So I'll just say that not all pilots are Chuck Yeager's and leave it at that. But I can tell you that as a collective group, pilots are extremely methodical, extremely bright, extremely bound by the rules and the checklists that consume their daily lives, and in general are extreme optimists with nothing but thoughts of self preservation and the success and safety of their command, crew, and cargo. Pilots are rarely suicidal -- unless of course they are unjustly removed from the great careers they have had for decades and surreptitiously turned into National scapegoats. But I digress.

I really would prefer that my aircrew not be asleep. We all know crew rest is an extremely important aspect of flying. Unlike driving a bus, if you get tired, you can't just pull off at the next exit to take a nap. So if the aircrew does get tired, should they fight through it? I've fought through it on the road, tunnel vision sets in, then the hallucinations I don't want my pilots hallucinating as they attempt to land. So perhaps a cat nap to clear their heads is appropriate. What's the alternative? Maybe they can take some caffeine? The fact that military pilots have access to "Go Pills" is an alternative. Can you say amphetamines? True they are flying high performance jet aircraft in combat and they need to be as sharp and alert as humanly possible -- but the fact is, the human body gets tired, and when it does, problems can crop up from nowhere. And then there is boredom. The cockpit of an Airbus 320 in flight high above the mid-west is not as high stress as combat. In fact it is exactly the opposite. It is a long boring haul with nothing to do but monitor a highly automated system and stare out the window. As Pappy Boyington has told us, "Flying is hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror". That is the life of a pilot -- that is why we pay them the big bucks, even though bus drivers and train operators have us equally as trapped within their lethal equipment.

Not to take anything away from Capt Sullenberger, he is undoubtedly a good stick. But he had some luck on his side since he found himself without engines on a clear day during the most critical time of flight, on takeoff. He was flying. He was fully engaged in the operation. His vigilance was at a maximum. His SA was at its peak. Had something additional been distracting him – perhaps clouds, or the takeoff was happening at night, or there were icing conditions – his job would have been even more difficult. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the right amount of vigilance at the right time? What if he would have been up stretching his legs when the bird strike hit?

How then do we reconcile the exact amount of vigilance required and expected to operate a jet in between the spectrum end points of a long boring haul over the mid-west and the terror of losing both engines on take-off? I state my question again, what is the level of vigilance the crew of a commercial aircraft is required to maintain at all times? We are in a technological era where unmanned vehicles are the reality. We have aircraft that can practically fly themselves. Do we expect the same level of vigilance, from engine start up to shut down, of our flight crews in such a highly automated environment? And if the flight crew’s vigilance drops off for a movement, exactly what is the nature of their crime? And more importantly who should sit in judgment? We know for sure it shouldn’t be the media with their array of colorful and highly paid media consultants.

A boring flight is a safe flight, right? We have clear air, no turbulence, no rapid decompressions, no lightning strikes, and no fear of icing. Everything is so smooth, automated and normal. The exit comes and goes and we missed the turn. Is that such a big deal? Perhaps some procedures need to be reviewed. Perhaps some discipline needs to be metered out to those found wanting. Perhaps there are a few more contributing factors. How about we wait for the safety investigation to reveal what really happened?

The Hudson River event was not a terrorist attack. It was a spectacular event with a happy ending. The over flight of Minneapolis was also not a terrorist attack. It was an incredibly boring event with an equally happy ending, followed by the vilification of the flight crew. Our fear of terrorism and our knee jerk reaction to everything related to flight safety seems exaggerated in the face of our National fear which is continuously fanned by the Media.

Mohamed Atta was not on board Northwest Flight 188. Let's stop acting like he was.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I'm Not Happy with My T-Shirt

It's October twenty-second, two thousand and nine. That's forty years, three months, and two days since the voice of Neil Armtrong heralding, "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" emiminated from the lunar surface and reached my four year old ears back here on earth some 1.29 seconds later. Forty years hence and by my estimate the giant leap for mankind has never occurred. Mankind has done nothing with our trip to the moon, really. We've got Tang instant breakfast drink, no one really drinks it any more, Sunny-D seems to have won in the Vitamin C infused orange flavored drink department. We've got Velcro. But since parachute pant's left center stage in the mid-eighties most of us only use velcro when we are rolling up an extension cord in the garage. What happened? Dare I say...what the hell happened? It took less than a decade to reach the moon and it has taken us four decades to consider a return trip. And if we let the system decide, don't hold your breath, I doubt we will go back anytime soon.

How then, was our brief foray into space exploration, a giant leap for mankind? The short answer, it wasn't, not yet anyway. It was a technological achievement of the highest order, but we solved one problem and nothing more. The challenge was, take a man to the moon and bring him back safely, before the end of the decade. But beyond the vision statement set forth by JFK in 1961, we fell flat on our face. It wasn't a giant leap for mankind because mankind wasn't ready for the giant leap. What we did jump, unfortunately, was the shark. When the big science and engineering experiment involves driving a golf ball on the lunar surface, it was clear that the mission lacked strategic vision with regard to why we went out there in the first place -- which wasn't really the goal at all, to go, was it?. The goal was to go and return, safely, or so we thought.

Every ounce of energy that went into the Saturn V rocket was required so that a small command capsule containing three astronaughts could splash down in the Pacific Ocean after the 500,000 mile journey. Alan Sheppard striking a golf ball on the lunar surface, was the moment it was clear, we had no idea what to do with the achievement, the moon missions had "Jumped the Shark". Three missions later and after December 1972, man has never been out of low earth orbit again. As we look back we can clearly see that it was a case of been there, done that, got the t-shirt. And unfortunately there was no leap for mankind. It was just a three day lunar vacation for a few lucky astronauts. They went and returned safely. Mission accomplished -- there was never a plan for what's comes next. Four decades later and we still haven't figured out what's next. We never knew how to exploit the Amstrong prophecy. We had forgotten that JFK, had challenged us with a bit more, but we stuck to the problem at hand.

So does taking a larger leap, perhaps a leap to Mars fulfill the prophecy? Not if it means we are not staying. To go means to go. Not to return. The few who have really thought about what it means for mankind, to go, to really go, do not apologize for their seemingly calous attitude regarding the lives of a space fairing generation, if we raise one. It's easier to bring humanity to Mars if we don't have to bring them back, and it cost's less. The leap for mankind, the real leap, is to begin the colonization of the solar system. The moon in definitely the first step. That is the problem we must embrace as a humanity, as a mankind. I can go to Disneyland, I can bring back the t-shirt. That doesn't mean I live and work at Disneyland -- that's the real dream isn't it. The childhood fantasy. Like running away to join the circus. Sure you will return home one day, perhaps, to regale your friends and family of the tales of the great adventure, but everyone goes to Disneyland these days, and they come back with a t-shirt.

Neil Armstrong can tell everyone he took the small step, Alan Sheppard can tell his grand children he pitched out of the sand in the Fra Mauro Formation, but neither can tell the world they established the leap for mankind that should have come from such a tremendous accomplishment. Although in fairness, if we give Columbus the credit for discovering America, it was another 115 years before a colony was established at Jamestown, VA. And, once we do make the permanent leap into the heaven's, these great explorers, and golfers, will have their place in human history. And when the colonization of the new world finally did begin, it wasn't about tourism. When you went to the new world, you were in, all in. You brought your family with you. You were not coming back. This is the leap we must consider when it is time to go back to the Moon or to Mars. We must not go to Mars to drive golf balls in the red sand. We must go with a purpose not simply to prove we can. That's the leap, that's the vision, that's the Armstrong legacy that must be embraced by our humanity. It is the leap, that if we had only heard a bit more of JFK's speech, that "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space..." that perhaps we would have not simply have been satisfied to simply return safely.

Space exploration is not about climbing mountains. It's far more than the drama of risky achievement, first to the North Pole, first to the Top of Everest. We don't go to the moon because it is there, unless we are wealthy thrill seekers. I think we confuse adventurism with exploration sometimes -- Societies such as National Geographic do not really distinguish the two. I think they exploit the excitement of extreme adverturism for their own profit and confuse the rest of the world's understanding of purposeful exploration with that which is pure adrenaline and ego. Yes there are some parallels, but when attempting to justify a higher purpose, a higher calling for mankind, we should stick to purposeful exploration and leave the adrenaline junkies at home.

We are at a crossroads. With a scarcity of funds and a very uncertain future for the manned space program at NASA, we must ask do we continue to put off, as a people, the leap for mankind that truly means we are no longer Earthlings? Or do we simply remain happy with our t-shirt?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Get Out of Jail Free

I was discussing the economy with a friend the other day, is it improving or getting worse? We didn’t seem to be able to move too far beyond whether the economy is simply driven by optimism or by measures more tangible (not much more) such as the employment rate. And if perchance employment is a key characteristic, what is the appropriate way to get more people working? None of it is clear. What is clear, however, is that whatever President Obama might suggest, the critics from the right, the Republicans, my conservative party, will be quick to label the approach as a step toward socialism.

I can’t solve all of the Country’s problems with this blog. What I can do is announce to all who will listen that I am tired of being part of this problem. Partisan politics, to me, is the biggest problem we face. Glenn Beck has said that too, but he is a fraud because he demonstrates again and again that he is not bipartisan. That’s not what we need. What we need is simple cooperation. I, for one, am willing to cooperate. I am ready to vote for something, anything that will move us forward and not get stalled in a debate.

There is an agenda before the country, one that includes the environment and healthcare and perhaps some big jobs programs. Some of us are in love with these programs and some of us hate them to our very core. The truth is anything we can possibly do in any of these areas will be big and costly. Even if we do nothing, there will still be big problems to solve and that will cost a great deal of money. All we really are doing is shifting subtle degrees of control from one group with some warped bent towards a guiding principal that with the complexities of society today, probably ceased to exist long ago. And if one group has their way, they will be momentarily happy while the other group will be seeing red, before the balance of power either shifts back or the solution that one group thought was to their benefit ceases to be.

The Republican backlash against President Obama continues to astound me. Yes I voted for McCain. But once he was President -- I'm was all in. He is the President and since I am tied to the military, my Commander in Chief. To speak out against his policies is as American as apple pie. To speak out against him as the President is an act of treason. We, as American’s, back the institution of the President of the United States regardless of who sits in the chair. That privilege is bestowed upon the individual on the day they begin – they don’t have to earn it. They can screw it up over time, but when first elected, we owe it to our Country to stand behind them and let them lead or we need get out of the way. They were already given the job. You don’t hire someone who is not qualified to be there. Once the President is elected he is hired and therefore deemed qualified to begin to well and faithfully execute the position. There is no on the job training or probation period. Critics and naysayers are not our President.

We now have been given yet another institution to consider. We now have a sitting President who has won the Nobel Peace Prize. Call me sentimental but to me it is so awesome for our Country that President Obama has won this prize that l get goose bumps. If this isn’t a favorable vote for our United States in the eyes of the world, I don’t know what else could be. You could look at it as a vote against the old administration, but that would serve no forward or higher purpose, a meaningless mental exercise. You could say President Obama hasn’t earned the honor, but that also would be a meaningless exercise since he has in fact won, and just like the Institution of the Presidency, he is now it’s Institution.

For those nit wits who might think the Noble Prize is an award for good work, would be the same nit wits who think becoming elected President is the challenge, without an actual plan to do anything once in office. The Nobel Peace Prize is set apart from the other prizes. Once you are a winner, you are the embodiment of the institution for as long as you are alive. This cannot be made any clearer because the Prize cannot, should not, and has never been awarded Post Humorously. Otherwise, Gandhi surely would have been a recipient by now. The fact it is, the Prize represents what was done but it also represents what has been left undone.

President Obama stopped being Barack Obama and became leader of the free world as a black man with a Muslim name the day we elected him. That, in and of itself, was the necessary accomplishment. Whether or not he ever succeeds at anything during his administration doesn't matter. His accomplishment, and now this award, will always stand. His appointment as leader of the free world has just been confirmed by a great representation of the free world. It's a victory for all of us and we have to be proud of this accomplishment -- because we elected him. I didn't vote for him but I am still proud of our Country for electing him and proud of him as our President.

If the Country is too blind to see that one man did not win the Nobel Peace Prize. One Country, Under God, and Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal won the Nobel Peace Prize. President Obama’s achievement was to be elected by us, to be the leader of the Free World. It is our Institution and our place in the world that now has the legacy of Peace lain at our feet. If we are too blind to see that the Prize belongs to us, as an institution, just like the institution of the Presidency belongs to us the people, we are too blind to see that things are looking up. This is the time we ought to pull together; the world is giving us a get out of jail free card. All we have to do is take it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Fidelity Swap

A friend of mine, Kevin Maney, just published a book called, "Trade Off -- Why Some Things Catch on and Others Don't". In this book he introduces a concept that he calls "The Fidelity Swap".

Simply put Kevin believes that we as consumers continuously decide between a high fidelity experience or the convenience of something simple. Kevin has the benefit of having been in a unique situation for the past quarter century. For most of that time he wrote a technology column for USA Today. From his post he has covered the most important story's as technology changed before us -- and possibly more important -- he has personally interviewed the genius behind many of the decisions that forced these changes -- Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Ted Leonsis (AOL), Irving Wladawsky-Berger (IBM), to name a few. So he observed this phenomenon first hand and has now reported on it in a useful fashion.

So let me describe Kevin's "The Fidelity Swap" quickly. There are two axis by which a product or service can be delivered to the consumer. The vertical axis is the fidelity of the product -- how complex is the product in terms of delivering a high-bandwidth sensory interchange. The example he uses is attending a live event such as Cirque du Soleil or a rock concert. These events are live and high fidelity, but they are very inconvenient. The horizontal axis hosts the convenience of a product. Down loading Aerosmith's, "Walk This Way" onto your Ipod has become one of the easier things to do in life -- it's much more convenient than going to see them live in concert. As consumers we constantly make this swap, the convenience of 7/11 vs the fidelity of Whole Foods. The convenience of Pay Per View vs the fidelity of going to the big game. And it's been the same, seemingly, for as long as there has been a market for goods and services.

There are two additional aspects of the fidelity swap to understand -- first, if you are striving to create a product that has both high fidelity and high convenience, you are chasing what he terms the fidelity mirage. That product simply cannot exist. Second, if you are below the threshold for either the product of highest fidelity or of highest convenience you are stuck in the fidelity belly and must either improve along one of the axises or go lose to one of your competitors who is furher out in one of the directions, either higher fidelity or more convenient.

Now, to apply this concept to the business I am in, Kevin asserts that the US Armed Forces are always chasing super-fidelity in their products and services. I believe that this is true and could be the subject of another book -- dragging in Network Centric Warfare and it's ilk as an example. Ironically, as any war fighter knows by experience, the more convenient a lethal force is to use the more deadly it becomes and conversely the more complex a system is to use, the greater chance of getting killed while trying to figure it in combat. Unfortunately with the institution of the Armed Forces chasing high fidelity and the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine chasing convenience, by definition our Armed Forces are chasing the fidelity mirage.

You can't have both - the result of chasing the mirage has been, of course, the endless list of failed acquisition programs in our DoD. I have explored some other examples of the DoD with Kevin, perhaps he will indeed write a second book. But the subject of today's blog, apart from introducing everyone to the concept of the Fidelity Swap, is to suggest one more thing in light of a recent decision to kill the Ugov email service. As background, the Ugov mail service is simply a web based email for the government similar to Gmail, except with a few features like being hosted on government servers that makes the content a little less public. It allows collaboration and integration across a disparate community in a very big way. My theory is that anything convenient in the military is inherently perceived as a security risk by legions of security personnel who actually believe that an email never sent is the most secure. The reaction to enhance security will force development decisions further up the fidelity axis thereby eliminating efficiency and thus convenience. We see this again and again. A good idea comes forward -- everybody loves it. The bureaucracy descends and the idea is choked to death.

When I first opened my Ugov account I couldn't wipe the smile of my face and said to myself, "This is too good to be true". Well, we can be assured that the next series of decisions that occur will ensure that Ugov is and was too good to be true, and that whatever follows will be far less convenient. As of this posting the decision still stands to kill the service because of a percieved problem with security. I guess in a way I would rather they kill the service than to begin strapping on countless layers of security until ultimately the service is so cumbersome it will cease to be useful. At least this way we can get started searching for a new way to integrate and collaborate so we are ready when they pull the plug that send us back down into the fidelity belly.