Thursday, August 31, 2006

Mark my words -- a monumental waste of time

I'm going to go out on a limb with a prediction, one that will stay on this blog as long as I keep it running, and one that will be used one day to determine if I am to eat crow or revel in my prognosticatory acumen.

It's this:

(Photo credit Reuters / Rick Fowler)

NASA has awarded Lockheed Martin Corp a $3.9 billion contract to develop the Orion Moon spacecraft.

Will Orion work? No. At least not for that price, and not by 2014.

Now, I'm not saying that Lockheed is somehow unable to do the necessary engineering, or that they are somehow incapable of grasping the management of the project. But conditions are wrong, wrong, wrong. Huge military/government contractors have shown themselves, over the last several years, to be unable to organize and execute large, complicated projects without massive cost overruns, inefficiency, corruption. The bidding process has led contractors to vastly undershoot cost and duration.

These are not the 1960s. Then, a sense of national pride and sacrifice led contractors (and there were lots) to adhere to unbelievably high standards of timeliness and efficiency -- today, profits have proven to be far more important. Watch as Lockheed subcontracts out most of the work, turning a profit by doing hardly any of the actual work.

And do really want to go to the moon now? NASA, the only US agency with a global focus (though not anymore), is now diverting precious money from unmanned astronomical, climate and remote sensing satellites toward a mission that promises to yield virtually no scientific reward. What's more, with this mission we are now spending money on a Moon mission while at the same time borrowing vast sums of money that our children and children's children will have to pay back to fight a war that only a minority of Americans now believe in.

This is a scam of the highest order, and a stupid, visionless scam at that. Come 2014 (the date that Lockheed proposes to first test Orion with humans aboard), there will have been no launch. Orion will go the way of Lockheed's 1996 X-33, the supposed space shuttle replacement, which the NYT says, "never got built because of technical problems."

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Crash site confirmed

The Louisville Courier-Journal has the best photo I've seen yet:

(Photo credit Michael Hayman, The Courier-Journal)

UPDATE: here's another (also from the Courier-Journal):

You can clearly see the number "8" at the end of the runway, and how the planes crash site, in the lower right of the photo, is along the line of runway 26/8, the wrong runway. A slightly out-of-date aerial view of this site can be found here on Google Maps. Note the crummy state of runway 26/8 -- just another reason to be completely shocked that the pilots took off from the wrong runway.

CNN is talking now as if there's a chance that Comair 5191 could have taken off from 22 (the correct runway) and then banked hard to the right to crash where it did. But that seems extremeley unlikely. Taking off on runway 22 and then crashing where the photo indicates, with a crash line that is also in line with runway 26, would be a miracle of the highest order.

For some reason, the New York Times crops the above photo exclude the runway. I have no idea why they would have done this, since the complete photo essentially fully corroborates the "wrong runway" hypothesis.

UPDATE: Doug Petch points out how annoying the coverage has been so far. His main point, I think:
What does it say about the local outlets’ news gathering capabilities that all three stations waited for their parent networks to provide confirmation before standing 100% behind the “wrong runway” storyline?
Amen. The local guys are on the ground. They should have been able to advance the wrong runway theory almost immediately. Why didn't they? The victims and families of this horrible accident deserve the truth and they deserve it right away.

Don Bornhorst, President of Comair, declines to comment on cause of crash

After what looks to be a serious blow to Comair, the President of Comair just held an afternoon press conference, but gave few hints as to cause other than to give the most bare-bones of details, such as the flight number, the status of their efforts to inform families, the plane's tail number, the kinds of engines and number of seats on the plane, that both pilots were experienced, and the fact that Comair does not what to "interfere with the investigation."

No answer to the question, "did the plane take off from the wrong runway," other than to call such questions "speculation." He has not been to the crashsite. I should add that Bornhorst is clearly very broken up about what has happened.

All I can say is that if the plane took off from runway 22 and crashed and the upwind end of runway 26, then Comair 5191 would have to have been "magic." Comair must be looking down the bad end of a very bad lawsuit, and they know it. As such, no comment on which runway the plane used.

And I want to repeat what I said from the last post -- it is so very, very difficult to believe that the pilots both missed the fact that they were on the wrong runway. The runways look different. They are differently lit. Runway 26 is narrower. These pilots know very well that one runway is shorter than the other. And yet, they appear to have used the wrong one.

Plane Crash: runway 22 or 26 at Lexington-Fayette?

I lived in Lexington, KY, for two years. I've flown out of Lexington-Fayette airport who knows how many times, often on the same Comair flight 5191 that crashed today just a half-mile from takeoff in western Fayette County. (I also have a private pilot's license, which, I must say, I haven't used in a long time -- but I am familiar with the terminology.)

Almost immediately, something about the Lexington, Kentucky, plane crash and the details of the recovery operation seemed to indicate that the aircraft, a Bombardier CRJ 200, had taken off from the wrong runway. (For a Google Map of the airport, click here; the map to the right comes from The longer of the two runways (7000 ft long) handles all of the jet traffic. It goes southwest to northeast. Since midnight last night, the prevailing winds have been out of the south and then the southwest. Because all aircraft have a easier time taking off in the space allotted if they take off into the wind, Comair 5191 would surely have been scheduled to takeoff on runway 22 (rather than runway 4); that is, toward the southwest on the long runway.

It is very unlikely that a jet aircraft would have attempted to take off from runway 26, except by accident, because the runway is too short. According to Flug Revue, the Bombardier CRJ 200 requires at least 1700 m, or 5800 ft, for takeoff. Anything shorter than that, and the aircraft would be forced to takeoff with help of what is known as "ground effect" without the velocity needed to sustain lift at elevations more than a hundred feet above the runway surface.

The pilots were veterans with Comair, which means that they had surely flown in and out of Lexington-Fayette any number of times. Both the pilot and co-pilot would have known which runway they were on before they took off. Furthermore, the control tower at Lexington-Fayette operates continuously (that is, there's someone there 24 hr a day). They would have been an additional impediment to mis-directed takeoff.

And yet, where did the rescue crews go? According to images from the local ABC/CNN affiliate, vehicles were accessing the crash site from somewhere near the intersection of Rice Rd (which heads north-south along the western edge of the Keeneland Racetrack grounds) and Versailles Rd, which heads east-west between Lexington and Versailles, roughly parallel to runway 26. The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that the aircraft crashed 1/2 mile from the end of the runway. Going back to the Google Maps image (here), if you were to try to access a crash site 1/2 mile from the end of runway 22 (the long runway), you would go to Parkers Mill Rd (KY Rte 1968), which is nowhere near where the vehicles were coming and going.

I have to conclude from this that there is a better than even chance that both pilots and the control tower failed to notice that the plane was taking off from runway 26. I find this completely surprising, and also really, really hard to believe, but I just don't understand, otherwise, why rescue and police vehicles would be using Versailles Rd, and not Parkers Mill Rd, to get to the crash site.

UPDATE: One blogger, worried about terrorism, lets this crash lead her into a complete psychotic break.

[Note that this blogger, Stacy Harp, is now threatening me with a libel suit for my comment that she was insane to jump to the rash conclusion that Muslims brought down the plane when it was so clearly pilot error. As a show of good faith, I am more than happy to state here, in front of everyone, that I have no way of knowing whether Stacy Harp is undergoing a psychotic break, and that the statement was meant solely to reflect the impression I got from the complete irrationality of her blog post that she was not thinking clearly. This is the most protected kind of speech under the First Amendment, especially since it was in no way meant to defame the character of Ms. Harp or harm her personally or professionally in any way. Blogs are meant to spread ideas and concepts -- and often in colorful and original ways. I found her ideas to be utterly bankrupt, and therefore took the step of publicly stating just how bankrupt I thought they were, just as she publicly defamed all Muslims by assuming that they would be responsible for the crash. So far, she has not provided a reasoned rebuttal to my claim that she was premature in assuming that Muslims caused Comair 5191 to go down. Personally, I think she owes the families of the passengers, and Muslim Americans living in the Lexington area, an apology. If she, or her attorney, wishes to send me another email concerning the content of this post, then they are more than welcome to do so. Perhaps the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee will contact her. Of course, I wish her no personal harm, but we are all grownups here. Not all responses to blog posts, such as hers, will be applause.]

UPDATE II: Sean Osborne from the Northeast Intelligence Network (I'm not familiar with this organization) is partial to the "wrong runway" hypothesis [emphasis mine]:
Based upon my carefull review of Bomardier CRJ-100 regional jet specifications, and having seen a live streaming video feed from a Lexington, Kentucky television station, as well as detailed satellite composite imagery of the Bluegrass Airport, it seems certain and is my assessment that Comair Flight 5191 executed its takeoff from the incorrect runway.

Facts I cite in making this assessment are as follows:

The ground impact markings and final site of the aircraft on the ground are consistent with an east to west departure from Runway 22/8.

Comair Flight 5191 impacted the ground a very short distance and in a straight line from the end of Runway 22/8, which on its western end is designated as runway 8 and is the nearest point to the impact site.

The length of this runway, which appears to be undergoing improvements of its surface, is approximately 3500 feet.

The primary runway at Bluegrass Airport, Runway 22/4, is 7,000 feet in length.

The CRJ-100/200 family of regional jet aircraft require a minimum takeoff distance of approximately 5,000 feet.
UPDATE III: A local farmer, Nick Bentley, confirms the "wrong runway" hypothesis (Lexington Herald-Leader). According to Scott Lanter, the Airport fire chief, the crash site is in line with the shorter runway 26.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

An enabler of the path of least resistance

New York Magazine has published a series of eighteen "what ifs" on what the world (or just New York) would be like if Islamic terrorists had not decided to park planes in the upper floors of the World Trade Center.

Amongst the entries is Andrew Sullivan's take, which he linked to on his site. He may have a future in science fiction. Here's my take on his must-read post in an email I just sent to him:
As I read your "what if" this morning, I couldn't help noticing that oil wasn't mentioned once, except as a nod to your gas tax. I found this disappointing but illuminating.

I've spent a lot of time in the last couple of months -- first through my (dilettante) interest in Nigeria, and later through my broader interest in global oil pricing -- grappling with the effects that the Iraq war and other supply disruptions have had on global oil markets. I have come to realize how completely dependent we Americans are on oil, not just in terms of the import ratio, but in terms of how utterly disastrous another major disruption (on the order of the Iraq invasion) would be for our economy, or worse if we were suddenly to lose a grip on those oil fields upon which we have increasingly come to depend.

We reached peak oil / gas in the US in the early 80's. Since then, we have been scrambling to find a strategic place for ourselves that guarantees steady (if not increased) supply for the foreseeable future. The oil majors understand this clearly. They know that if they decided today to rely solely on current drilling operations, their production capacity would steadily drop to zero. Without continued exploration, their volume shrinks, as do their profits, which becomes a problem not just for ExxonMobil or Royal Dutch Shell shareholders, but also for anyone who wants to buy oil.

Given how obvious this is, it amazes me how little credence those on the left are willing to give oil majors when they say that exploration is an issue of national security as well as of profit, and how little public recognition those on the right, especially neocons like yourself, are will to give to the fact that our involvement in the Middle East is not simply to impose militarily our brand of democracy but is primarily the result of our need to secure oil resources that in the future are likely to become increasingly non-fungible (that is, not freely traded on oil markets). We have no way of knowing for sure if we are reaching Global Peak Oil, but the oil industry knows that its days are numbered (even ExxonMobil is involved in developing renewables).

It is puzzling to me how silent you are on the issue of oil. I doubt very much that Islamist groups would be in a position to threaten Israel if there were no oil in the Middle East. There would be no Saudi millionaires funding madrases in Pakistan or Arab strongmen giving aid to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. If mideast economies were more diverse, there would be less corruption, and less opportunity for social unrest and religious extremism. Instead, the West is the Great Scapegoat. We buy their oil, we insert ourselves into their economies through "free" trade, and we show no signs of letting up. There are smart, liberal people living in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq who see quite well how the system works, and that the West is not without blame, as shown by the history of our involvement, with the British, in Iran and Iraq since we overthrew Moussadegh's in 1953's Operation Ajax.

But none of this is found in your blog: no discussion of Iran's strategic importance for our long-term petroleum security, no discussion of the underlying premise of the neoconservative world vision that democratization is a great goal but the steady flow of oil with the US controlling the spigot is even better, no discussion of how exercise of our military power on a Small Earth can make things worse, not better.

Am I wrong about any of this? Could be. But at least I'm trying to understand things at the level where they matter. I am trying to have a "serious" discussion about the Middle East. To me, though you have admirabily recognized your errors and your role as an Iraq War collaborator, you have failed to examine the principles behind your reasoning in the lead-up to the war. Your "what if" proves this, and clearly outlines what a superficial thinker you have become. To you, our impending oil doom is solvable with a gas tax (ha!) and there is no link between our need for oil and Hezbollah's rocket attacks on Israel. To you, the problem of Islamism is that "these people" are intolerant, not that we have put them in an economic position where those ignoble few are more likely to break ranks and put airplanes into the World Trade Center.

It is in this context that I have become very angry at your dismissal of the anti-war crowd (you have the emails from me to prove it). Your dismissal reflects both a tendency to discount all arguments that are not made on your (pro-war) terms, and your inability to see what lies at the root of the traditional arguments that have been made against the Iraq War. You have dismissed them for so long (and you have seen enough leftist idiots make fools of themselves trying to make them) that you have forgotten what they are. But now that an attempt has been made by the Administration to exercise a worldview that is consonant with your own -- an attempt that failed -- it's time you re-evaluated more than just your take on the war's execution, but also your position on what's best for this world from here on out.

Don't forget oil.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Is it "disproportionate"? Doesn't matter now

Talk of whether the Israeli response to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and continued rocket attacks against northern Israel by Hezbollah is "disproportionate" is really about whether Israel is committing war crimes ("disproportionality" is one of the predicates for war crime prosecution -- Articles 51(4) and 51(5) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions makes a "disproportionate" or "indiscriminate" response a war crime). To me, such talk seems counter-productive at this time. Of far greater concern is the galvanization of Lebanese of all stripes toward Hezbollah and against Israel. From Dahr Jamail at TomDispatch:

While the coming years also brought it [Hezbollah] more significant political representation and respect, the Druze and Christian populations continued to distance themselves from or oppose the group.

Now, the staggeringly disproportionate Israeli response to the detention of two of its soldiers and the killing of others in mid-July has changed even this. In a sense, the Israelis are accomplishing the previously inconceivable -- uniting the otherwise hostile power centers of the country behind Hezbollah. Last week, the Israelis actually began bombing key bridges in the Christian part of the country for the first time -- a clear statement that no Lebanese are to be spared their attentions. Most of the Druze and Christian leadership have by now condemned the Israeli response. Many have even gone so far as to state that they believe Hezbollah is working to defend the country's sovereignty.

Aside from protecting ourselves from attack (which is only the beginning), we have twin goals in the war against terrorism: first, marginalize extremists by stabilizing the legitimacy of secular moderates, and, second, create interdependence in the region based on a non-petroleum economy (see the Israeli economy for an example of how this works).

On both these counts, Israel's offensive against Lebanon has already utterly failed, and by generating new grievances it sets up the preconditions for further failures.

Until we can look critically at how we're waging this war and how we might modify our approach, and until we can get over our Vietnam-era and McCarthyite hangups about who's anti-war and who's not, this is going to go very badly.

Too bad the adults aren't in charge.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Is the London Hand-Lotion Bomb Plot "something dramatic"?

From Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, writing Saturday (Aug 5) [emphasis mine]:

Time is running out for Republicans. Unless something dramatic happens before Election Day, Democrats will take control of the House. And the chances that they'll seize the Senate are rising toward 50-50.

Has "something dramatic" happened? News from London (via the NYT):
British authorities said today that they had thwarted a terrorist plot to blow up multiple airliners traveling between Britain and the United States and cause "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
There was a time when plots / attacks such as these would have a positive impact on the Administration's approval ratings. This might still be the case. By elevating the terror alert yellow to RED for flights from the UK to the US -- for the first time ever -- the Department of Homeland Security indicates to the American people both the seriousness of the threat faced by the London Hand-Lotion Bombers and the potential seriousness of future threats. In 2004, the perception of real or puffed-up threats to the Homeland was no small part of Bush's reelection and the GOP's further consolidation of gains in both the House and Senate.

But does that dog hunt anymore? With support waning for the Iraq War, the Bush Administration, and the GOP-controlled Congress, and with new conflicts erupting (or re-erupting) in Lebanon, Iran, and North Korea, it wouldn't be unreasonable for someone who had voted for Bush in 2004 to see the looming crises as signs of incompetence, and therefore perceive further terror plots of evidence of deep disfunctionality in our government's primary task: protect the American people.

I've asked it before and I'll ask it again: is it now the case that terror attacks, thwarted or otherwise, help or hurt the GOP in the polls?

I think it's the latter. While Congressional Democrats are unlikely to use the London plot to talk up the gross incompetence of the execution of the War on Terror™™, I have no doubt that Republicans will use the plot in the same tired way they always have to get "security moms" to the polls. But this time, given the facts on the ground in Iraq and Lebanon, terror attacks with domestic implications might no longer have the same effect on the American polity as they would have had two years ago.

To answer Charlie Cook, "something dramatic" may yet happen, but unless it involves a three-way trist between Rahm Emanuel, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi, I don't think it'll be in the GOP's favor.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The end of Miami politics as we know it?

The relinquishing of power by Fidel Castro to his 75-year old younger brother Raul hints at what could be the end of Florida politics as we know it. And it couldn't come too soon.

I am one of millions of Americans who is tired of sane Cuba policy and Florida electoral politics being hijacked by this very strong single issue that only a relative handful of Americans care about.

We don't know what kind of reforms would be on the way if Castro dies soon, but there will be reforms. And there will be change in the kind of in jingoistic, LCD demagoguery that American politicians -- especially flag-draped variety -- can get away with.

Sure, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela are convenient targets, but their emigrants to the US do not live overwhelmingly in a single city in a single state, and they were not displaced by a communist coup d'etat in the name of either of their current presidents.