Don’t freak out about Freak Out

The KMG Fire Ball (a.k.a. Afterburner) had a catastrophic breakdown at the opening day of the Ohio State Fair. The simple answer to “What happened?” is: a sweep arm (or something in the junction between the seats and the sweep arm) broke. In response, Fireballs (and Move-It/Spin Out, a related ride with the same gondola arrangement) worldwide have been shut down until KMG and accident investigators figured out exactly what happened.

Several fairs that have contracted carnival companies using the Freak Out (Fireball’s “little brother”) have decided not to allow the operation of Freak Outs, either.

For someone with a grade-school education and a conviction that all catastrophic failures can be prevented with enough qualified inspections, this seems to be a sensible precaution. Actually, it’s a great example of why you shouldn’t let politicians make policy outside the very narrow bounds set by the Constitution.

I’ve seen comments on YouTube videos from posters who are probably convinced that they are sensible, intelligent people saying idiotic things like “they should require NDT” (if they weren’t idiots, they’d take a few seconds to realize that NDT is not only required, but the Fireball in question passed all of them), or “all rides need more inspections/what do you ‘deregulation’ folks have to say now?” (they think inspections–so long as not made by government-employed slackers–are some kind of magic wand that will always find anything wrong, not realizing that the study of metal fatigue is not nearly as mature a science as they think it is). I’ve also seen articles decrying the lack of Federal regulation in amusement rides and calls to have rides of all types (even low-G rides for which high-tech testing would be an unfruitful, extravagant expense that would leave many small county fairs rideless) undergo extensive testing to operate.

The mainstream media also takes a slice of idiot cake, finding and reporting on “structural defects” that were identified and fixed years ago, and accidentally/on purpose not saying whether these issues were addressed on the one at the Ohio Fair. Implication by omission that the ride was operating with uncorrected, known defects. Although a few scattered outlets have responsibly found and reported the test results (not much harder to find than the service bulletins advising owners of the structural issues), far more newscasters have chosen to omit the ride’s clean bill of health in order to create a more sensational, let’s-make-big-government-bigger, rabble-rousing story.

So what’s the straight poop?

For anyone with the most basic understanding of the physics of mechanics and strength of materials, shutting down Freak Out because of what happened to Fireball is like banning oranges because you discovered a worm in an apple.

Freak Out and Fireball can both be described as groupings (six for Fireball, four for Freak Out) of four seats attached to a gondola that rotates at the end of a long arm that swings through around 240 degrees of arc. But there’s a significant difference in the nature of the gondola. In the Fireball, the sweep arms (which connect the seats to the swing arm) are essentially cantilever beams.

If you’re in building construction, you know what a cantilever is. If you’ve visited the Infinity Room of House on the Rock in Spring Green, you’ve stood on a cantilever. If neither of those gives you any perspective, think about trying to loosen a bolt. Fingers don’t work too well if the bolt is tight. So you get a wrench. If that doesn’t work, you get a longer wrench. You push down on one end of the wrench, and the other end exerts a moment (turning force) on the nut. The wrench is working like a cantilever. The sweep arms on the Fireball are like the wrench; the nut is the hub of the gondola, and the seats are your hand–tugging on the “wrench” with every swing. Observers watching the Fireball will tell you that in full swing, the sweep arms are visibly flexing with the strain of the G-forces every swing.

This stress can eventually fatigue the metal in the sweep arm, creating cracks that will eventually become breaks. The problem is that by the time these cracks are large enough to see with the naked eye–or even a loupe–the metal’s probably already broken. General inspections will not reveal them, no matter how competent the inspector.

The only way to detect these cracks before they become a threat to ride safety is with non-destructive testing, which–depending on what exactly is being tested–can include ultrasound, X-rays, magnetic particle testing, neutrons, and terahertz radiation, among other methods.

But the Freak Out is the same thing, isn’t it?

Uh, no. In the Freak Out, the sweep arms are not cantilevered. They actually attach at an angle–only about half of the distance from the fulcrum of the swing arm to the seats is actually the swing arm, the rest of the distance is sweep arms. When the arm is swinging, the sweep arms will want to pull in toward each other, a force that is resisted by spreader bars set between the arms. This puts much less stress (closer to the fulcrum=less force)–and therefore less chance of structural failure–on the sweep arms.

And one more difference between Fireball and Freak Out: The frames of both rides are part of a single trailer (the Fireball requires an “auxiliary” trailer for the other parts, the Freak Out does not), meaning there’s a rather substantial amount of structural steel on each end of the trailer. Fireball swings parallel to the trailer, so if a seat grouping falls off, it slams into that massive steel. Freak Out swings perpendicular to the trailer, so a loose seat grouping would be able to skid to a stop away from the ride (assuming there’s nothing massive near the ride), meaning the Freak Out is slightly less dangerous in the case that there actually is a seat detachment.

Is there anything an average fair-goer can do to tell if a machine like this is over-stressed?

Actually, you can snag a bit of a clue by watching how it’s operated. The greatest G-forces on either ride occurs at the bottom of the arc when the ride is in full swing. Spinning the gondola at this point puts even more stress on the sweep arms/seat attach points. A company operating for maximum thrill will spin the gondola throughout the ride. A company that wants their rides to last will only spin the gondola when the arc is small, or at the top of the arc when the ride is in full swing, and notably not rotating the gondola through the high-G point.

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Powerful words, or not?

So for his Independence Day post, Jeff Goins decided to blog about the power of words, featuring (naturally) those words penned back in 1776, when people not only could write cursive (but that’s another post), but beautiful cursive that you want to frame.

And as Jeff is wont to do, he ended his post with an invitation to comment about other words that we might find “powerful.”

I collect a lot of people’s words (i.e. quotations).  They have several things in common. For one, most of them were first uttered by those we consider our greatest statesmen. For another, the ones that resonate most with me seem also seem to share an unfortunate tendency to be the most powerless words on the planet (or at least in the US of A):

“The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.”
–Carl Jung

It seems the more proof we have of this, the more Government tries to make us use the same recipe.

No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.
– Abraham Lincoln

If Government doesn’t think they’re good enough, then they must assume being born in America constitutes “consent.”

Power always thinks… that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.
John Adams

Oh, that explains it.

“A nation that expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, expects what never was and never will be.”
–Thomas Jefferson

We keep trying to make things simpler and simpler, we have more and more schooling to get less and less learned, and meanwhile our freedoms go by the board.

“Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.”
-Thomas Jefferson

Probably why family farms are being absorbed left and right into factory farms, and taxes and regulations are disproportionately burdensome for small businesses and “self employed” individuals. Can’t be having uncorruptable cultivators around to maintain morals.

“It is better that ten guilty escape than one innocent suffer.”
–William Blackstone

If the “people” had their way, most victims of Fake News would be drawn, hung, and quartered before the truth got its proverbial shoes on.

“Hence also do I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor…
When violence is offered in self-defense or for the defense of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission…”
–Gandhi

Yet there are those who believe everyone can be forcibly made into sheeple.

“To die is poignantly bitter, but the idea of having to die without having lived is unbearable.”
— Erich Fromm

“Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”
— Napoleon Bonaparte

We kill people time and time again, but we never count it unless the heart stops beating.

Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.

-Theodore Roosevelt

So what do we do with the ones who were born here?

“The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.”
-Theodore Roosevelt
I think we’ve got all of those. . .
And my all-time most resonant quote:

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
–Benjamin Franklin

 

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Copyright Cringe

A few months ago, I came across a documentary on the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald that I hadn’t seen (how I came to be watching it is a blog in and of itself). I became fascinated by the differing viewpoints on why she went down and realized it might be fodder for a book approached from an angle no one had taken (at least to my knowledge, since a lot of what was in this one documentary was new to me). I started combing my local library and inter-library system, and watching eBay for more books and images.

Now that I’m actually setting words in order, it’s setting in. Not writer’s block–at least, not “writer’s block” in the usual sense. I’m getting copyright cringe. Big Fitz is the highest-profile subject I’ve considered taking on. Does the Fitz enjoy the same sort of not-until-they’re-100-years-dead protection that humans do? Or does an analysis of a very public disaster fall under “fair use”? A “press photo” has an implied permission to journalists writing articles in their papers about the subject at roughly the time of the photo’s creation–does this permission extend to a book written on the subject several decades later? How can you use a “photographer (not to mention people in the picture) unknown” picture with no provenance?

There are two kinds of answers one gets to copyright questions: the incredibly generalized ones that always come with the disclaimer that you should seek competent legal advice for specific answers, and the “competent legal advice,” which changes depending on how pricey a lawyer you can afford–which is nonexistent, if you’re so broke you’re painting your own cover art. Copyright courts are littered with the little guys who may technically have been in the right, but couldn’t afford to defend against the high-priced onslaught of big-shot corporate lawyers.

Anyone who’s paid attention to copyright knows about that little song that first appeared as “Good Morning to You” in an 1892 songbook that was used in an otherwise forgettable movie from a studio that was eventually taken over by Warner Brothers. WB raked in  millions in royalties for decades until a few years ago, when somebody finally got the right lawyer to convince a judge that WB only owned the rights to their particular arrangement of “Happy Birthday,” and not the original song. It was simply less painful to roll over for the 800-lb gorilla that cough up the money to contest WB’s interpretation of what exactly they owned. (The Federal Government has caught on to the technique, and uses it to shake down small businesses for unjust taxes and illegal interpretations of various business codes.)

And you may recall a show back in the eighties called “Greatest American Hero” (probably best remembered for its theme song, “Believe it or Not”). DC Comics went after the show for infringing on their “Superman” character. Well, let’s see now: both characters had a secret identity that involved flying, exhibiting superhuman strength, and wearing a costume that included a cape, a chest emblem, and the color red. One costume was dominantly blue with red and yellow trim, a big “S” on the chest, and a long red cape. The other was red, with an emblem that did not resemble a letter of the Roman alphabet, and a short black cape. One was an alien that derived his powers from Earth’s sun and kept a civilian identity as a reporter. The other was an ordinary human school teacher that got a super-powered suit from a friend who was living with aliens (and promptly lost the instruction manual for it). Sound like infringement? The judge read a few comic books of one and watched the pilot episode of the other, and concluded one was not based on the other. But that was a case where the lawyers were fairly well matched, so it was judged on its merits.

Another issue came to light with a themed bar serving drinks named after Gandalf, Frodo, Bilbo, and the like. Now these characters were all in The Hobbit, and in some countries, The Hobbit has entered the public domain. But New Line Cinema still went after them for infringing their live-action Lord of the Rings trilogy (there was at least one animated Lord of the Rings preceding the New Line version) despite not having any proof that it was their movie the bar was based on (if memory serves, the bar’s theming actually pre-dated the release of the movie). Again, it’s the party who can hire the best lawyer that wins, not the party with the best legal position.

Then there are the websites that automatically claim copyright ownership (or indefinite non-revocable license) of any image/design/posting uploaded to them. I don’t know that Netscape took advantage of it back in the day (they claimed copyright of everything that went through their email, which would have made them owner of practically everything that was written between about 1995-2003), but I think there have been a couple of sites that have been known to screen user-uploaded images for celebrity faces, which they then turn around and sell. The actual photographer can’t sell the photos commercially, because they didn’t get model releases; but a corporation can sell those same images with impunity just by adding one teensy little line to their user policy. The 800-lb gorilla strikes again.

So what’s a little ol’ nobody supposed to do? Cross her fingers and hope that nobody with a lawyer in his pocket thinks that there’s been an infringement? Ironically, hope that the book doesn’t get a lot of attention (like Dan Brown got from the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail for taking the idea of Jesus having blood descendants)? Or abandon the project altogether because even the most ridiculous, baseless claim of infringement can’t be defended against?

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Five theories, five directions to point fingers

In November—at least around the Great Lakes, when the gales usually come—the radio plays a song by a certain Canadian balladeer that’s rarely heard the rest of the year. I grew up with the song, and yet, it’s only an interest in submarines—that grew to other seafaring stories like those of the merchant marine—that  I came to realize how little I knew about the facts of her sinking—how little is still known, even better than forty years later.

One of the things I have come to realize is what a perfect example her story is of how tragedy is politicized by different groups for special interests, even when it seems everyone is ostensibly trying to solve the same mystery in a perfectly objective manner.

The Edmund Fitzgerald, named for the then-president of her owner, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, was the biggest “big ship” on the Great Lakes when she was launched in 1958. She was still #5 when she went down in 1975. For those of you who haven’t grown up hearing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the short version of her fatal voyage goes something like this:

On November 9, 1975, “Big Fitz,” as she was known, loaded 26,110 tons of taconite (a semi-refined version of iron ore) and headed out across Lake Superior, bound for the Soo Locks and down to Lower Michigan. The worst weather on the lakes is usually encountered in late fall, and meteorologists were forecasting a bad one the next day. There are often more than one ore carrier going the same way at the same time, and this time the Arthur M. Anderson was pulling out of Two Harbors around the same time as the Fitz got into the area. The two captains started on the usual route, traveling as far south as the Keweenaw Peninsula allowed, but when the gale warnings came, decided to abandon the usual route and take a northerly route closer to the Canadian shore. The two lakers stayed to the north as long as they could, but eventually they had to turn a southerly heading—directly into the heart of the worst storm many had ever seen on the lake—to get down to Whitefish Bay, the nearest shelter for big ships.

The storm was so bad that both of the Fitz’s radar masts were washed away. To make matters worse, the storm had also knocked out power to the Whitefish Bay lighthouse. Yes, there’s a backup generator that’s supposed to kick in when the power is lost, but on that night, the light was out for several hours. Fitz was forced to rely on the Anderson, running about ten miles behind her, to tell her where she was.

And this was a terrible place to not be sure of one’s position. Shoals abound, ready to gouge a hole in the hulls of ships that stray too close to them. Worse yet, while lakes don’t have tides, they do develop seiches, where the low pressure from a storm will suck the water from an area, which can cause the water level to drop significantly below its charted levels.

It was into this: the most challenging navigation in her journey, in one of—if not the worst—storms of the century, without benefit of her primary, secondary, or tertiary means of determining her position, that Fitz steamed. She was taking on water, but not at a rate her pumps couldn’t handle.  The captain’s last transmission reported that the ship was “holding her own.” She never raised an alarm.

Anderson raised the alarm when Fitz disappeared from her radar, sweeping the area as best she could when she came on Fitz’s last position as she battled her own way to Whitefish Bay. The Coast Guard took the call, but what could they do? For years, Congress had under-equipped the Great Lakes bases—after all, they were “just lakes.” Equipment procurement was decided on by ocean requirements—where merchant vessels seldom went more than 30 minutes away from shore—but a boat in distress in the middle of Lake Superior could be more than two hours from shore, placing it out of range of most helicopters.

The Coast Guard sent the one operational “heavy weather” boat they had (stationed at the wrong end of the lake), and begged the freighters to help.  Captain Cooper took the Anderson back into the storm, and after some soul searching, Capt. Jim Erickson took the William Clay Ford out. They found nothing. By then, flotsam from the Fitz were washing up on the Canadian shore.

The Coast Guard located her within weeks, but didn’t bother to survey her until the next spring, giving the lake-bottom mud several months to cover clues as to why she went down. Better cameras surveyed it in the 1980’s, and found several things the Coast Guard’s survey missed. She was visited again in 1996, when her ship’s bell was recovered in an operation that, by the request of the families, would be the last visit to Big Fitz. Even those surveys were unable to conclusively determine why she went down. None of the major theories have ever been proven or disproven.

So what were they, and what’s so political about them?

The first theory

Over a year after the Fitz went down, the Coast Guard released it analysis: The Fitz had been in such a hurry leaving the dock, they didn’t even have their hatch covers in place. Finding no characteristic scratching on the areas of the Fitz that weren’t covered by mud or disintegrated during her sinking that would indicate she scraped a shoal, they concluded that Fitz flooded from the top because her hatches weren’t properly secured.

Bottom line: It was the crew’s fault for not being anal about safety procedures.

Winners/losers: The Coast Guard looks good for making the rules, Fitz’s crew looks bad for not following them.

The second theory

After the Coast Guard released it official finding, the National Transportation Safety Board reviewed it and gave their own conclusion. They also concluded the Fitz had flooded from the top, but believed the hatch covers to have leaked, either to poor design or inadequate maintenance. They also considered the bulkheads separating her holds to be inadequate, which allowed her water-logged cargo to shift forward, making her bow-heavy and exacerbating the flooding.

Bottom line: It was either the construction firm’s fault for cutting corners in construction and/or the owner’s fault for not giving the Fitz the maintenance it needed.

Winners/losers: The industry as a whole looks bad for putting profits over people’s lives. Government (including the NTSB and the Coast Guard) get to look like saviors protecting the common man from the greedy industrialists.

The third theory

The laker mariners as a body rejected the contention that the Fitz flooded from the top. Hatch covers weigh several tons, the crew would have certainly checked the hatches as soon as the gale warnings went out, and at worst, the hatches would only leak about a cupful—well within the capacity of the bilge pumps. They pointed out that Fitz had been far closer to the shoals than what was considered safe, and the captain had told the Anderson that part of his fence (the safety fencing that runs along the sides of the boat) was down. Now to a landlubber or weekend yachtie, a fallen railing may sound like the result of a wave crashing over the side, but to experienced lakers, it was a clear sign that Fitz had “hogged”–she had either suffered a stress fracture or struck something underwater that caused her to arch upwards amidships, causing the fence to snap under the tension. They contended that the Fitz had run aground and not felt it in the fierceness of the storm.

Bottom line: She bottomed out because she didn’t have the navigational tools she needed. (The Whitefish Bay lighthouse had known power problems that could have been addressed sooner.)

Winners/losers:The crew looks good for doing their best with a bad situation, the Federal Government looks bad for not making funds available to maintain, much less improve, navigational aids for a water system many lakers are convinced that Washington views as  “knee-deep ponds.”

The fourth theory

Taconite absorbs water. Plus, water-logged taconite can clog up the “rose box” (a guard on the pump inlets to keep cargo out of the pumps), making it impossible to pump water out of the holds.  Furthermore, the pumps are in the back of the boat; if she was down by the bow, there would be no way for that water to get to the pumps. She would get lower and lower every time a wave broke over her bow that eventually she would “nosedive.” In this case, the first inkling that she wouldn’t be coming back up again would be when her wheelhouse imploded from the water pressure, an event that would give no one any time to raise an alarm, much less escape.

Bottom line: Having pumps in the back of the boat only is a dangerous flaw; there should be a means to detect and remove water no matter where it gets into the hold.
Winners/losers: The Coast Guard/government get another chance to make more burdensome regulations. The ship owners/operators are saddled with the added expense of more pumps/less space for cargo, for marginal benefit. Why “marginal”? Because if a significant amount of water does get into the holds, it’s difficult to separate from the taconite, no matter where you put the pumps.

The fifth theory

For centuries, there have been tales of 100-ft waves. The few who had survived such waves were dismissed as delusional. Even into the 20th Century, it was “known” that waves couldn’t be much more than 30 ft. Experts proved it with their Gaussian models. They refused to consider they might be wrong until Gorm platform in the central North Sea in 1984 observed a 36-ft (11m) wave in a relatively low sea state. It wasn’t until the Draupner platform in the North Sea on January 1, 1995, recorded an 84-ft (25.6m) wave that experts were forced to admit that such waves did exist; even though their models didn’t predict them. Since then, with more sensors capable of more and more accurate wave height measurements, what are most commonly referred to as “rogue waves”—waves substantially larger than average waves in an area that form without warning and disappear without a trace—have turned out to be not so rare, after all. A curious trait of rogue waves is they either show up as a single wave, or as a sequence of three waves; lakers have many tales of the “three sisters”–three abnormally large waves that will hit a ship -bang-bang-bang.

What does this have to do with the Fitz? On YouTube, there is an interview with a tugboat captain who knew some of the crew that was on the Anderson the night the Fitz went down. The waves were so bad, they had to lay canvas over the motors to keep them from flooding out. Many feared the Anderson—which wasn’t dealing with flooding—would go down. And then a triple rogue wave hit her from behind. Anderson was in better shape to begin with. She wasn’t as deep into the thick of the storm as the Fitz was. And she barely survived it. The Fitz was ten minutes ahead of her, as the waves roll.

Ten minutes later, the Fitz’s “lights went out of sight.”

Bottom line: The Fitz went down due to a situation that was not anticipated because its possibility of its existence was dismissed out of hand by the governing bodies.
Winners/losers: The captain and crew are vindicated from cries of negligence. The scientific community has to eat crow for denying what sailors have known for decades.

Postscript

You might have guessed that I originally wrote this in November, and you’d be right. I wrote this based on what I saw in a documentary I came across, but I had a few facts I wanted to check before I posted it (I hate finding blunders of fact in written works, especially my own.) One thing led to another, and in the intervening two months, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of Fitz and her friends, so much that I was tempted to completely rewrite this post. I think I mostly succeeded in resisting the urge, because I wanted this to stay true to my early impressions; I’m planning on putting my revised impressions into a  . . . “more substantial” document.

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City Mouser, Country Mouser

Folks might be surprised to learn that lots of farms did without electricity until nearly halfway through the 20th Century. It wasn’t because they were sticks-in-the-mud or Amish. It was because in the cities a handful of poles could bring power lines to a hundred houses, but in the country, it might take a hundred poles to run power lines to a handful of farms. Even with government programs offering to pay for half the poles, it still wasn’t economically justified to electrify rural areas. Many farms finally electrified not to have lights and electric ovens in the house, but to provide power for barn equipment.

Now the issue is internet access. Back when AOL was sending out free 3.5″ floppies in the mail and dial-up was almost the only way anyone got online, very few people in my hometown bothered to get online. Why? AOL was a long-distance call. Internet was prohibitively expensive for what one was able to get.

Think it’s better today? In some ways, yes. Internet is no longer a long-distance phone call, but it’s still a lot slower than it could be. Of the three ISP’s offering Wi-Fi in my area, one is a cable-TV provider that claims speeds “up to” 100 Mb/s. What the “typical” connection speed is, I have my doubts (since I don’t have cable to test it). The other two are the major landline phone company in the area and a regional cell-phone company, both of which offer plans that max out at 24 Mb/s (In my area, anyway. One of them has great reviews for its 100Mb/s plan–somewhere else.)

One of them claims that 12 Mb/s is adequate for one or two devices. Maybe back in the day that was true, but now web pages are so bloated with widgets and cascading style sheets–and everyone and their brother wants you to watch “this quick video” (that might end up being 30 minutes long, assuming no buffering), that I wouldn’t trust a connection slower than 18Mb/s per device.

Unfortunately, even 12 Mb/s is too much to expect when everyone goes home from their work connections and logs in through their residential connections find they’ve only got 2 Mb/s to work with. Enough to read text-only emails, but slow as molasses in January for anything more. A few weeks ago, there was a “town hall” meeting about the problem. Not much came of it. If the ISP’s get a few extra bucks here and there, they channel it into making the urban connections faster, because there’s more potential customers to be gained by improving urban service. All the rural subscribers are doing is subsidizing access for urban customers.

This is especially frustrating because software–and even hardware–developers assume consumers have reliable, fast internet. Corporations such as Adobe, which offer their latest software as cloud-based subscription only, or Amazon, which design their Kindle software to expire after a particular date, assuming you can easily download their latest reader whenever they decide you should. Those funky new speakers Amazon and Google are pushing? I think they’d be paperweights around here.

I don’t know what the solution to this digital divide will be. Probably a new class–“digitally destitute.” As a country, we don’t have the money to keep our roads and bridges in condition, much less update millions of miles of old copper phone lines. But just remember if you’re getting ready to pop a video into your next bulk emailing: just because we country mousers technically have internet doesn’t mean we have all the bandwidth you might take for granted.

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Will I vote?

Will I vote tomorrow? It’s still a coin toss. Not that I haven’t decided who I’m voting for, but Tuesdays are a rather busy day for me, probably the worst day of the week for me to find some extra time, even thought I spend most of the day at the library, which is across the street from to polling center.

The other reason I debate about whether or not to vote is because I feel things are already decided. I live in Wisconsin, and both this year and four years ago, I had three Republican candidates I though might do a half-decent job as President, only to have all six of them throw in the towel before the Republican primaries got to Wisconsin.

And it’s not that I really like Republicans. Far as I’m concerned, the worst law ever passed in Wisconsin was signed by a Republican. If Republicans actually practiced the platform they preached, that wouldn’t have happened. I thought that was enough to make a Democrat of me, but his Democratic successor went on to sign his name to a bunch more bills in the same vein. They say Democrats want to expand Government power and Republicans want to keep it where it is. Where’s the option to lessen it?

If you want to get Republicans and Democrats working together, just start giving some traction to a third party. Killary says any third-party vote is a vote for Trump. Thump says any third-party vote is a vote for Hillary. The debates are between two parties. I’ve received dozens of email and phone surveys, over half of which only ask if I’m voting for Hillary or Trump. And those that do consider a third party will go on to ask which of the two duopolistic candidates I would prefer. I bet half the voters can’t even name a third candidate (I know my sister couldn’t.)

We’ve somehow managed to create a system where anyone coming in to either Big Party either gets molded into the Party objective (never mind what the official platform says), or somehow finds themselves out of the running. Neither side has to be “good,” they just have to suck a little less than the other one. Meanwhile America keeps up its march toward a totalitarian nation where an elite class enjoys the freedoms our founders promised all and the subjects of the country grind away as ignorable unpeople, cogs in the great machinery that become noticeable only when a great number of them fail.

Eisenhower warned us. JFK–if he didn’t die of it, they certainly took advantage of his death. The only way to arrest the slide of America is to break the duopoly that has corrupted our Capitol Hill for most of the last century. Take a third option!

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Since 9-11? Way longer than that

The output for this blog has yet to be as regular as I’d like, but it seems as summer approaches, it get even less regular. If you guessed it was because of the many distractions of summer, you’d be half right. Every year as Memorial Day approaches, I think of commenting on the annual slave-belt campaign, a campaign that’s been going on as long as I remember, and that goes back even before the laws. It’s why I mark Memorial Day not as a memorial to veterans, but as a memorial to freedoms, fought and died and paid with blood for, only to be traded away by politicians with ears bent by special-interest groups.

But it’s so painful to write about that I procrastinate. I procrastinate until it’s late July, and I begin to think about fair entries, due the first Monday of August (for open class, anyway). Late July and August are consumed with preparations for Labor Day weekend, which, for me, is nothing more nor less than my county fair.

The county fair is all-consuming for me. I spend Wednesday and Thursday alternately finishing and tagging entries with trotting them over to the fairgrounds. Then there’s the Thursday and Friday judging of general exhibits (which once upon a time was all on Saturday). Thursday night I’m off to the wine judging, and the rest of the fair I’m all over the place, but the midway in particular, snapping away and having over 1,000 pictures by the fair’s close Monday night. It’s a lot more time on my feet than I usually spend. After lugging all my exhibits home again (93 this year), I don’t want to do much of anything, least of all create.

While I’m still catching my breath (this year, anyway, since Labor Day wasn’t until the seventh), 9-11 rolls around.

A common theme among many of the columns is how many freedoms we’ve lost to the Patriot Act and similar legislations since the Towers fell. How the Government is increasing its surveillance, how we’re becoming a police state. We’ve been losing freedoms left and right for decades, and it’s only since 9-11 that you’ve noticed?

Just look at cars: in 1960, Wisconsin became the first state to require belts in cars. Not long after that, they designed a system that performs an unauthorized search (I supposed the alphabet-soup feds justified that you “consented” by buying the car and/or getting in it) to see which belts are buckled when you start the engine. Originally that was either the driver’s seat or the driver/passenger, where either one buckled would satisfy the dinger (I’ve seen both, but I’m not sure which is older). Now, it’s expanded to all seats and checks at intervals well after engine start.

And this information is now recorded on a “black box” which was introduced into cars without comment and mandated after only a handful of privacy advocates woke up enough to make token protest.

Of course, the “black box” would have a hard time recording everything Big Brother wants to know if the systems were good, reliable, mechanical systems. But it’s cheaper, easier, and more Big Brother-friendly to use electronic systems, so the car can be programmed to second-guess every input the driver makes. Anti-lock braking systems have been the poster child of “better in theory than practice,” getting blamed for as many collisions as they avoid. Does that give us the right to decide we don’t want them in our private property? Of course not! Even if ABS  isn’t mandated, per se, new regulations that ASSuME  we’re all to stupid to monitor our tires ourselves–and so our cars must look after us about it–require automatic tire pressure monitoring, and the easiest way to do that it with a minor modification of the ABS.

And like I said, systems–brakes, acceleration, steering–that used to be mechanical have, over the last fifteen years or so, been quietly replaced with electronic systems. I have an article or two from 2003 or so written when the “early birds” started using drive-by-wire; they commented about “consumer acceptance.” I had to laugh at that, even back then. “Consumer acceptance”? I’ll wager most people on the road don’t even know how a car actually turns, much less whether there’s a rack-and-pinion arrangement between their wheels. It’d have to take a major, multi-car failure in the technology for anyone to even notice.

Or not. The runaway Toyotas are a perfect argument for why you don’t build things with centralized control with a single point of failure. “Point of failure” is a count of how many things have to fail in order for the system to not work anymore. In the case of electronic pedals, from the computer’s point of view the whole pedal assembly is one keyboard. “Unplug” it, and the driver now has no control over the speed of the car. Both Toyota and the Government claimed the accelerations were caused by people that

  1.  Got a floor mat over the pedal, causing it to not come up when the foot came off it
  2.  Pressed the accelerator at the same time they were trying to step on the brake
  3.  Had a mechanical failure in the accelerator pedal (not the pedals as a whole)

Despite an engineer demonstrating (i.e. inducing) uncontrolled acceleration without anything that could possibly be attributed to driver error, and ignoring accounts where the brake pedal was also affected, they concluded that mandating even more electronics in the form of a “brake override” (pressing the brake pedal would automatically cut throttle to the the gas) would solve the problem.

That solution rests on the incorrect assumption that whatever caused the accelerator to not work right left the brake pedal unaffected. Didn’t hear about the brake pedal being affected? I wouldn’t have, either, except I make a habit of reading the comments on most articles. One poster related a Toyota acceleration experience where the front seat passenger (driver’s son) visually confirmed that the floor mat was not fouling the accelerator, the driver’s foot was not on the gas when it was on the brake pedal, and the brake pedal would not depress.  Now how is a brake override supposed to work if the brake pedal itself doesn’t? The electronic pedals, as a unit failed. That’s a single point of failure. For a mechanical car to have an equivalent failure, the mounting that the pedals were on would have to have collapsed, and what are the odds of that failing so quickly that you wouldn’t notice the pedals starting to feel funny? Otherwise, the brake system and the acceleration system would have to fail seperately. That’s two points of failure. Three points if it’s a manual transmission, where the clutch can take the engine out of the equation, allowing the e-brake to help or take over from the service (foot) brakes. (And taking out of gear? That’s arguable. While the poster did mention that they got control of the car by taking it out of gear, Mythbusters demonstrated that a “safety” feature prevents automatic transmissions from shifting out of drive at speed, even if the gear select is moved to “park” or “reverse.”)

But, despite this perfect example of the weakness of electronic controls, I have heard just tonight (Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015) that for at least eight automakers, any hope of the freedom to choose a proper mechanical system in your car has been slaughtered, gutted, field-dressed, and offered up as a sacrifice to Big Brother, in the form of an agreement to have active braking systems (in which cars will apply the brakes automatically if they decide their inattentive drivers haven’t noticed their lane has been blocked by something) standard on all their cars. Too bad if you decide that ramming the car in front of you out of the way is a lesser evil than getting buried by a tipping semi trailer load of gravel, or you gallantly wish to bump a stalled car out of the path of an oncoming train.  Given how little the Toyota acceleration debacle affected the industry-wide roll-out of drive-by-wire in general, we can expect that several hundred thousand inappropriate braking events will have about as much effect on the enforcement of such systems as Hillary’s time in the State Department had on her run for President. At least Hillary has a chance of getting jailed for her complete disregard of the “little people.”

Hackers have already demonstrated they can open doors, cut the engine, apply the brakes, even tension the seatbelts (yes, since the mid-1990’s, they’ve become electronic, too) by remote. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be hackers: the proverbial “ghost in the machine” can cause electronics to randomly malfunction, and then return to normal functioning with no evidence of the transgression. Or “random reprogramming” when a given area of memory fails; electronics work until they don’t, often with little or no sign of impending failure. The only sure way to avoid this is to avoid electronics altogether. Which the Government doesn’t see you having a right to do. You should have the right to modify your car to protect you from the dangers most significant to you, not have the threat of your greatest dangers maximized by some unelected, alphabet-soup agent in pursuit of protecting you from Big Government’s Scare of the Month.

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