Crossword contribution

palindrone |ˈpalinˌdrōn|

  1. a sequence of words that sound like communication when spoken but are equally meaningless when read backwords or forwards, e.g., in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings.
  2. a person who speaks in palindrones, often a person who does no useful work and lives off others.

ORIGIN early 21st cent.: from Greek palinagain+ Old English drān, drÇ£n [male bee,] from a West Germanic verb meaning resound, boom‘ ; related to Dutch dreunen to drone.

“Oh, if only government went in for an open source make-over…”

That’s what Yule Heibel wrote in a comment over at Doc Searls‘ “Understanding Infrastructure” column on 4/19 at Linux Journal. Yule’s plaint followed the kind of laundry list everyone has, and which most have given up on:

Here in Victoria, we’re looking at a $1.2 billion infrastructure project for sewage treatment, and the 2 levels of government (local and provincial) are feuding because both say that the other side didn’t tell them about information that was wanted. Walled garden? It’s a bloody fortification…

Then there are those infrastructures that are supposed to support social programs, including mental hospitals and detox facilities — they’re not working, either, and our homeless now include not only poor people, but people who should be in some pipeline of institutional support because they’re mentally ill or addicted (or both, typically).

It all gets off- or downloaded to citizens now, as if we could individually step into the breach, without infrastructural support.

Maybe government is where we need open source most of all — as a way of thinking and as a way of “architecting” infrastructure.

My three readers (fortunately including Doc) know that this Open Source Society theme has been my meme for time out of mind, and that I call it OSS2, differentiating it from Open Source Software, or OSS1.

Another of my readers is Phil Windley, a “republican friend” whom Doc refers to in his reply to Yule’s despairing comment:

Thanks, Yule. You’ve made my week. Or perhaps longer.

I am taken lately with the belief that understanding infrastructure is critical not only for building and maintaining civilization’s essentials, but for bridging chasms of opinion that make constructive discourse impossible.

A few years ago a republican friend from Utah said two things that have stuck in my mind. One was “There are two parts to democracy. Elections and governance. And governance is where the work actually gets done.” The other was, “Most people, regardless of political philosophy, just want the roads fixed.”

At Berkman, over two years ago, I wrote:

What about an Open Source Society? Only the first exists, but we can imagine two OSS movements:

OSS1 = Open Source Software (a result, but also a movement)

OSS2 = Open Source Society (a dream that needs movement)

And they both need organizational tools. OSS1 has a perfect match of organizational needs and organizational tools because the developers wrote them as they became a movement. SourceForge and Trac are great examples. OSS1 wouldn’t exist without the community’s organizational tools. But there’s more. OSS1 Developers use dozens of disparate tools and websites to organize their work…

…But the developers of OSS2, whose work we desperately need, to escape from the political specialists who’ve hijacked governance, don’t behave like that. The OSS2 developers we seek to serve are ready and able to form groups and describe their pain and hopes. But, just like OSS1 developers, they need an organizing environment suitable to their skills: a collaboration mall with all the tools they might need as they become more engaged.

I called it a collaboration mall because the Open Source Society engineers are regular people, who won’t even blog, unless tricked into it, and need a UI as user-friendly as the malls that have worked so well, regardless of sophisticates’ sniffing at them as proletarian.

OSS2 engineers are people who don’t know they need to collaborate to re-engineer society, and sure won’t if you tell us that’s what you want from us.

But if some of us are persistent enough to build hundreds of expandable little collaboration malls, located where they (we) will try them and engage our neighbors and find it easy to shop for hope there, then we’ll become the unwitting designers and producers of little patches on our governmental structures. Taken together, all those patches can comprise a Patchy government OS, as resilient and resourceful as Geronimo.

My God, it’s full of Mentors! Doc Searls and Ben Bowles.

After writing my tribute last summer on Doc Searls‘ birthday RE his gift to me, starting my blogging career, I had an amazing reunion. My friend Ben Bowles stopped by for lunch. In the same way that Doc Searls is a source and wellspring for my better self, so has Ben Bowles been. One difference is that I’ve known Ben more than 4 decades. Ben was an SR-71 pilot. Check that. Ben was the quintessential SR-71 pilot. In the Blackbird program, there were no ordinary aviators. Even in that group, Ben stood out.

The suit they wore was an Astronaut’s suit. They likewise carried a portable air conditioner around with them. Everything about the SR-71 mission was cool and macho enough to twang the heart of any red-blooded American male. Just one thing about Ben Bowles is an exception to the clichéd archetype of the macho fighter pilot:

Like Doc Searls, Ben is one of the most gentle, thoughtful, easygoing and irreverent men I have ever met. He and Pat and Sally and I had great conversations and good times in the years around 1970. In retirement, he’s done a bit of painting. About ten years older than I, he almost bought himself a new motorcycle last year. Also like Doc, Ben is always exploring the most practical way forward from here to the commonsense, reasonable, shared existence that so many of us know is possible if we’d just get out of our own way. In other words, they both bring a systems engineering approach to How We Ought To Live.

Here’s the irreverent part. On Tuesday, Ben sent this insight: “The average fighter pilot, despite the sometimes swaggering exterior, is very much capable of such feelings as love, affection, intimacy and caring. On the other hand, those feelings just don’t involve anybody else.

This is another too-long post about military aviation, but this time written to honor the two people I know who have taken more photographs from altitude than any of us can comprehend. Here’s Doc’s Aerial Recon collection, tagged aerial (4777 pics), aviation (998), sky (2682) windowseat (4421).

This is dedicated to Ben and Doc, who should know each other, mostly because they’re both interested in most things.

41 years ago this month, I graduated from USAF Pilot training. My housemate was Capt. Jack Ferguson who, unlike the rest of us college kids, had Real Air Force Experience, as a Navigator-Bombardier in the supersonic B-58 “Hustler” strategic bomber:

Convair B-58 Hustler

Ben Bowles had been an Aircraft Commander in Jack’s B-58 squadron, and an inspiration for him. Jack, in turn, was an inspiration to me. Jack was my housemate (at a sweet, pool-equipped rental in Tempe AZ, nearer to the ASU coeds we fancied than Williams AFB, where we trained). Jack was also my student commander, a Captain while I was a lowly 2nd Lieutenant (literally, from the French, a 2nd-class “holder-instead-of“; presumably, that would be instead-of officers who actually mattered.) Jack tutored me how to get through pilot training, which did not start well for me.

As we graduated from pilot training, three things happened:

  1. We got our orders distributing us into the pilot-devouring “exigencies of the service”.
  2. We lined up some Notable or relative to pin on our hard-won wings.
  3. We bought a Northrop-made model of our favorite trainer, the supersonic T-38 “Talon”.

Doc, and Ben can tell you I still have that industrial-grade solid-plastic model, marking the beginning of my insight into the Ben Bowles saga.

Like Doc, Ben started as a legend to me and became a friend. The first time I heard of him, he’d flown over to our Pilot Training graduation in a T-38 trainer from the legendary Edwards Flight Test Center to be the Notable to pin on Jack Ferguson’s wings: Item #2 on our graduation checklist. That was cool, because Jack had whispered that Ben was one of the early test pilots setting up the Air Force’s new hush-hush SR-71 Reconnaissance program.

When not flying tri-sonic spyplanes, these larger-than-life stratospheric aviators flew T-38s. That was a big deal because, for most of us over-trained cannon fodder, the T-38 would be the coolest aircraft we would ever fly. Hell, the T-38 is the coolest plane that most who ever touched her would ever fly:


In an age of jet aircraft as quirky as command-line DOS , the T-38 was like Mac OS X. It flew precisely, it rolled like a banshee (450 degrees/second roll-rate), and even taxied well, a rarity. At speed – 375 Knots IAS, a T-38 consumed 2 miles of altitude and a very few seconds to execute an Immelmann (a half-loop with a rollout at the top, flashing back at prodigious speed in the direction whence it came):

As I write this, I have a little trouble believing we did all this shit. I’m not so amazed that we 20-something college kids were capable of such heroics. What’s amazing is that our nation turns over such machines to such amateurs. A year later, in Vietnam, we got over being amateurs…

But Ben Bowles didn’t show up at our graduation ceremony flying just any T-38. No, nothing about Ben’s flying was ordinary. His airplane was tail #91605, the very aircraft model that all of us had bought, memorialized in solid plastic by Northrop and which I and most of my (living) classmates still display in our studies. Ben flew item #3 to Willy to be #2 on Jack’s checklist. But it gets better. 91605 was not just any T-38, it was a legend among us students.

Back Story: The Northrop Talon T-38 Trainer was one of the first aircraft equipped with a totally hydraulic flight control system. Up until the mid-fifties, aircraft had been controlled by a set of pulleys by which pilots pushed slabs of aluminum out into the slipstream to exert a force on that slipstream and thus push tail sections around or cause wings to selectively rise or fall. Properly choreographed into the ballet of flight, any skilled pilot could “feel” his way back home to a reasonably commodious stretch of runway. The modest mechanical exertions of those pilots meant that a minor flight correction required a slight effort and that a greater adjustment required a greater physical effort. In other words, the feel of the relative wind against the controls in your hands was a trustworthy indicator of what you were asking of your craft (and yes, “relative wind” is a technical description of the forces acting on an aircraft). Jets changed all that because it took so much force to move the controls, so hydraulics took over.

But the pushback of the relative wind is irrelevant to an aircraft with 3100 psi of hydraulic pressure to operate the controls. In fact, T-38 #91605, the very aircraft that Ben flew in from Edwards, was one of the original aircraft that had never been modified with the after-market “pussy-oriented” flight control system that we students required, a series of “springs and bell cranks” designed to provide we, the marginally-skilled student pilots, with the artificial feel that all other aircraft had, artificial feel acting as a surrogate for the pushback that the air provides for most aircraft when a pilot uses the ailerons, stabilizer or rudder to manipulate his craft. No, none of that was necessary for test pilots like Ben Bowles. Who cares if the stick and rudder in your aircraft provides tactile feedback to the poor schlub in the cockpit? The real test pilot needs none of that. Imagine the birth of awe that we Second Lieutenants felt upon introduction to such an aviator!

I was thrilled to meet Ben as I graduated, and to imagine that some day I might also be a “real” pilot. A year and a half later, after my visit to the Vietnam Unpleasantness, I managed to get assigned to aerial refueling of the SR-71 Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft, the coolest airplane ever built and likely to remain so:

This week, Ben and I agreed that he probably flew every one of the 22 SR’s ever built and that I probably refueled every one. As the head of the Standardization and Evaluation (Check pilot) Board, we know Ben flew this particular “B” model pilot trainer.

See those wet streaks on the wings? That’s a fuel leak, by design. If you look behind the aft cockpit, you’ll notice that the air refueling receptacle is still open, indicating that this aircraft has just finished taking on 100,000 pounds of special JP-7 fuel over the Sierra Nevada mountains, which was our familiar habitat just east of Beale AFB where both my children were born. That means the picture was snapped at 25,000 feet above sea level (FL 250), at a speed of 350 Knots Indicated Air Speed (KIAS), about 384 MPH, outside air temp, -55 degrees C.

Why is all that expensive JP-7 jet fuel flowing so easily out of its wings? It’s because this titanium aircraft is about to be accelerated to Mach 3.2, or so: 2,100 KTAS (True Air Speed), at 82,000 feet altitude. At that speed, the heat of the SR-71’s titanium skin rises so high that its skin plates close up tighter than a ground-pounding bureaucrat’s sphincter. Yep: when not flying at 3 times the speed of sound and about 13 miles above the earth, the SR-71 aircraft leaks fuel like an old boat. If not, the skin sections would buckle as everything heats up and the length grows by 8 inches (yeah, I know, you’ve heard that from pilots before). The rest of the time, the aircraft circulates its fuel around the skin to cool it. Why the special JP-7 fuel, when every other Air Force jet uses JP-4? Because JP-7 has a higher flash point, about 260 degrees Celsius, as I recall, to keep it from flashing. Every fuel load was tested at the lab prior to takeoff by the tanker. Woe to the tanker pilot who took off without the lab test in hand, even if the lab testy had been successful and everybody knew it. I saw that happen once (not to me, thank God) and the fuel load was pumped out into the stratosphere: 16,000 gallons. Yeah, we used to do that shit.

The SR-71 was an airplane that routinely would take off in daylight in California, fly into darkness over Ohio and return to land before sunset. Most airplanes leave the Air Force inventory with a whimper, but not the SR-71. On its last operational mission, The SR-71 broke its own transcontinental speed record: 68 minutes 17 seconds from the Pacific to the Atlantic, improving on the old record by 2-1/2 hours. Such was its urgency to become a static display at the Smithsonian.

SAM Spayed

Ben was over at the Okinawa detachment when I reported for duty at Beale AFB California in late summer, 1968. A couple of weeks later, I flew over for my 6-week rotation to Kadena AB, and stopped by the super-secret SR-71 Operations Center. There the Photo Interpretation people were celebrating a photo snapped accidentally that morning over North Vietnam on an operational sortie: Sure enough, the pilot was Ben Bowles and the photo was of a magnified nose cone of a SAM Surface-to-Air Missile firing straight up toward the SR-71, from about 20,000 feet below, intent on doing severe damage to Ben’s plane. As always with SAMs and the SR-71, it was not to be, but it was a great photo. A friend of my son Brian was in Intelligence at Hickam AFB, HI at that time and he still remembers spending a month analyzing that single image.

The SAM was on a fool’s errand. It was literally impossible to shoot down the “Blackbird” if both its engines were running. At 82,000 feet altitude and 3.2 times the speed of sound, it was a very large aircraft with a tiny radar signature, flying at the speed of a bullet leaving the muzzle of a high-powered rifle, doing so continuously, almost 16 miles up. I saw Ben in the bar that night, pleased to have a reason to commune with one of the masters of that arcane mission, and all it carried with it. Here’s a picture of Ben (left) taken a year later, after he flew the 100th operational SR-71 mission over North Vietnam:

Here’s Ben, a couple of years later, when he became the first SR-71 pilot to log 900 hours in the SR:

He still has that look. The quizzical eyebrow and direct demeanor. Like George Clooney with something to do.

“The Landing was uneventful”

A couple of months before the SAM photo shoot, Ben had even more fun. This was when the SR program was pretty new and people were still learning things faster than they’d like. On a training mission back in the states, Ben was presented the Air Force “Well Done” award when he saved an SR-71 which experienced an engine explosion “above 60,000 feet and Mach 2.5 while accelerating to a higher airspeed and altitude.” That description was penned 40 years ago, but how many aircraft have since been adorned with that offhand description of scalded-catness? Over the middle of America that day, Ben experienced the mother of all aberrant flight conditions. When an SR-71’s engine even hiccups in that circumstance, you’re in deep kimchee. But an explosion? Deformed pieces of titanium projecting out into the Mach 3 slipstream? Fuhgeddaboutit! You’re in full-on recovery mode. Somehow, Ben pulled it all back from the deep gulp of certain weirdness. Here’s Ben’s email describing this particular adventure:

On the morning of 29 July, 1968, my navigator, Jimmy Fagg, was not feeling well when we were having our preflight steak and eggs breakfast at the Personal Support Detachment. Butch Sheffield, returning from leave, walked in and mentioned he needed flight time for pay and he would gladly substitute for Jimmy.

The flight was going well. We had just finished refueling and were accelerating thru approx 2.6 Mach and 65,000′, leaving Louisiana heading West. (ed.: usually a 40 minute flight to Sacramento) First indication of a problem was when the right engine “unstarted”. However, this was more serious than a routine inlet unstart.

“Unstart” for laypersons: if there were a Bernoulli’s Third Law for Fast Airplanes, it would go like this: Thou shalt not ever, under any circumstances, introduce supersonic air into a jet engine. The turbine blades cavitate and the engine starts belching and the aircraft tries to shake itself apart, the kind of thing that can ruin your whole day. Unstarts were not unusual in the Blackbird, caused when the inlet spike was not precisely positioned to keep the trisonic bow wave outside of the inlet.

Ben, continued:

I heard a Big Bang and immediately had a big red light (ed: there are no small red lights) I looked through the rear-facing periscope and saw a huge smoke trail: obviously not a contrail.

Understand, when the inlet is unstarted, the aircraft is experiencing severe aerodynamic buffeting, making it difficult to read instruments until we slow to about Mach 2 (realize this was 39 years ago, don’t expect accurate numbers). Right engine is shut down. I ask Butch for the Engine Fire and the Descent checklist. I declare “Emergency” with Air Traffic Control center, “descending and diverting to Carswell AFB”. Then I tell Butch to “be ready to bail out”, who responds with, “Oh Shit”! (Butch had punched out of an SR once before and was not anxious to repeat the experience.)

Butch says, “I wish I had my checklist”. The roughness is now gone and the machine is flying smoothly with normal control. I tell Butch that I would just as soon stay with her as long as we have good control. Butch concurs (although, the check list says that if Fire Light does not extinguish…Bail Out). The problem remains, Fire Light is still On, flying on one engine, the smoke has diminished, but is it smoke, fuel spray (we are dumping as much as possible prior to landing) or contrail? I don’t want to land with a fire and Butch concurs. Still difficult to tell if we are trailing smoke due to overcast, poor light conditions, and looking through the periscope is like looking through the barrel of a 22 rifle.

We elect to request a fly-by with the tower to tell us if they can detect any smoke or fire. The Fire light is still ON. Tower says we look OK. Landing was uneventful. We taxi to and into a designated hanger, stopping inside, shut down the left engine and the hanger doors are closed. We complete the “shutdown checklist”…unbuckle our harness and stuff, but no one comes to help us out of the airplane. We at least need a ladder! Butch says the crowd is over by the right wing. Finally, a couple of considerate colonels come to our rescue and advised us, “you may want to see this”. We shuffled around to the right side. The outboard forward section of the nacelle had been blown out, taking with it a portion of the wing leading edge. Obvious severe fire damage. Not much of the engine was left in the nacelle…you could see daylight. Lockheed used this accident as testimonial for titanium airframes. Conventional construction could not have survived the intense heat from the fire…the right outboard wing would have failed rather quickly.

About that comment by Butch, “I wish I had my checklist”. What Butch meant was that he had Jimmy Fagg’s checklist, not his own. Every crew member marks up his checklist with useful margin notes, obviously of great personal value. As a stand-in, Butch was wishing he had his own annotated checklist rather than Jimmy’s, captured on the aircraft’s audio recorder.

At the Incident Hearing, the panel of officers was clearly interested in why Butch did not have a checklist with him, which would be grounds for dismissal. They were satisfied with the distinction he drew between Jimmy’s personalized checklist vs. his own, along with the fact that Ben saved the aircraft, which counts for a lot.

A while later, Ben showed me the plaque that the amazed engineers at Lockheed’s and Kelly Johnson’s famed Skunk Works had presented to him. They’d carved out a section of the wrecked nacelle structure, formerly a highly engineered segment of titanium, now twisted and distorted beyond recognition by the forces of Mach 3 winds and JP-7 fire. They’d polished the twisted section of non-deformable titanium and placed it on a piece of walnut and said the least and the most that could be said:

Great Save

Only Owls and Assholes Fly at Night

Ben has an even better story that sums up the focus of the test pilot, for whom regulations and foolish procedures have no place or, at best, provisional. When Ben Bowles made his Great Save, he violated regulations to do so, and could have been severely disciplined or lost his wings for doing so. When Ben reported to Edwards Air Force Base for his SR-71 training in 1966, he was delivered into the hands of test pilots who were less respectful of the procedures that Ben felt obligated to follow, having spent a lot of his career in the bureaucratic Strategic Air Command, flying supersonic bombers. It took a while for Ben to conform to the less formal standards that Tom Wolfe chronicled in The Right Stuff, including a selective disregard for regulations, especially for those highest up the invisible ziggurat of righteous stuffness:

Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.

Test pilots NEVER fly at night, for the same reason that they fly over immense dry sea beds perfect for emergency landings. Airplanes fly the same at night and day, so why would anyone test an airplane at night? But every Edwards test pilot was obligated to log a 75 minute night flight in a T-38. No one knew why. Just because. For this checkout flight, Ben was to be supervised by the legendary “Pete” Knight. The next year, Pete was destined to become the fastest, highest pilot of an airplane, the X-15, a record that still stands. Checking out SAC weenies in a meaningless night mission was not Pete Knight’s idea of a critical mission. When the UHF radio crapped out, he had his out.

“Screw it. Let’s go to the bar.’

Ben, conditioned by years in SAC, where a checklist was Holy Writ; “Hang on, Pete, this won’t take long.”

“My point exactly. I’m signing you off. Let’s go to the bar.”

“But really, they’ll be here in 40 minutes and we can go.”

“Ben, you know how to fly this airplane at night. Let’s go to the bar.”

“Pete, we really should do this, don’t you think?”

Finally, assuming all the authority of his position at the very top of the test pilot’s Ziggurat of The Right Stuff, Pete declared, “Ben, forget it. Only owls and assholes fly at night!” He turned on his heel and proceeded straight to the bar.

There are many doctrines, overt and subtle, encrusting the righteous ziggurat. The rule that only assholes fly at night is an implicit corollary to the Prime Directive of fighter pilots, which Tom Wolfe presented as the Holy Coordinates of the brotherhood: Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving. The problem with night flying is that you can’t do it and drink and drive at the same time.

When Tom Wolfe was in Denver on his Right Stuff book tour, I had him autograph several copies and handed him a letter with some of these Ben Bowles stories. I received a hand typed and penned reply, including his fabulous signature, going something like this:

Dear Britt,

I’m sorry it was so busy in the Tattered Cover that day. I hurriedly signed your books and didn’t read your letter until in the car to the airport.

It sounds like Ben Bowles deserves a book of his own. Pete Knight went on to break the Air Speed Record with a run of 6.7 Mach on 3 October, 1967.

Best regards,

Tom Wolfe

Sadly, I can’t find the letter. I never was great with atoms.

Clueplane to Cluetrain, A Personal Cross-Country

Doc Searls stayed here this week while keynoting the Conversations Network event, “Revisiting Cluetrain – 10 years later“. I’ve been working on this blog post for 3 months, and I wanted to present him with some atoms to celebrate the anniversary, so Ben and I cooked up a plaque so suitable for framing that we did. Thanks to both you guys: I wish I could deploy all your clues:

For Doc Searls: Thanks for keeping the Recon
tradition alive! Back in the day, negatives were
9″x 9″ and the geotagging accurate to the foot.

2100 miles and 600 prints per hour.               The cost per frame? Stratospheric.

Ben Bowles, Lt. Col., USAF, Rtd.
AKA Doc Searls, version 1.0

Scary Airports?

Here are photographs that someone has decided are the scariest airports on earth to land an airplane. I look at these pics and ask, what are the physics of these situations that make these airports more scary than they would be if they were surrounded by Kansas wheatfields? Answer: nothing. Every landing made on these runways is based on the physics that would be in play in Kansas. Get over it. Most of these scary airports are surrounded by water. For people who have never landed short of, or beyond the runway, why would you care about the water in front of or beyond the runway?

I like these pics of “scary” runways, but the premise is useless. Every one of these runways has a particular length, width, slope and surface and, at the moment of landing, a particular wind angle and gust component. The surroundings are laughingly irrelevant. This gets to the point that the random imaginings of the uninformed sometimes overwhelm the craft of people who know what they’re doing. A technical or unfamiliar situation, especially when freighted with potential danger, is rarely what the novice assumes it is. This is the curse of the onlookers imposing their uninformed fears on the everyday, reliable craft of others. While we all know that “war is too important to be left to the Generals”, it’s also true that the fears we carry around any activity or phenomenon deserve to be moderated by what the experts in those domains have learned to be determinative. So it is here: The conditions that surround a runway have nothing to do with the suitability of the runway.

But I gotta say I love that runway at the Courcheval ski area, memorialized in the James Bond thriller, Goldeneye:

The aviator in me wishes that, like Courcheval, every runway was downhill, and granted me 3 or 4,000 feet of altitude under its takeoff leg (right-to-left in this picture). As aviators like to say, there’s nothing more worthless than the altitude above you, the runway behind you, or the altitude you don’t have. So 3 or 4 thousand feet of altitude under the takeoff leg of a runway is a divine gift. As for landing (left-to-right here), every pilot likes an uphill runway in front of you on landing – saves a lot of wear and tear on the brakes – for the same reason that most exit ramps are uphill on Interstate Highways. Of course, it’s not such good news when you carry just a little too much speed and float just a little too long and find yourself driving straight into the side of a hill with a runway pasted on its side. No day is perfect.

Equipment near the Runway

I remember a sunny afternoon in the spring of 1968, when on final approach to land at Vung Tau field, Vietnam. The field is next to a terrific beach, where Americans and the Viet Cong both went for R&R, and both knew all of them were there. Everyone was OK with that: it’s one of the aspects of war that armchair warriors don’t get.

About a minute before landing that day, Vung Tau Tower advised:

“Homey 303, cleared to land Runway 36. Be advised, there is heavy equipment near the runway, in the ditch on the right side of the runway.”

Any aviator assumes he’s obligated to process every piece of information. Immediately. Correctly. Precisely. From that standpoint, information that cannot be acted on is distracting and vexing. This is especially true for junior officers. Like me, that day.

What the hell were we supposed to do with that factoid? I accessed my database of all the landings I’d ever made, seen or heard of, and I found no record of a landing that involved the ditches on the side of the runway. Well, what if something went horribly wrong on this particular landing, and we veered uncharacteristically off the runway and found ourselves bouncing down a grassy knoll at 80 knots toward a yellow earthmover? Which of our checklists were we supposed to consult at that moment? None. No checklist for that one, and no controls on the aircraft that could alter our fate. In other words, Why would the tower distract us at that moment with such a phenomenally useless piece of information?

My answer surely sounded cynical: “Roger, Vung Tau. As usual, we shall restrict our landing to the runway.”

Three Years and Counting… ZOT! ZAAHT! Zaah Technologies Rescues America from itself.

Do you remember the disruptive behavior of the Aardvark (“ZOT!“) that totally ruled the ants in the great comic strip, B.C.? That’s what our friends at Zaah Technologies are doing to a problem that’s been keeping America from being… well, America!

Yesterday, I mentioned the posts last week by Dave Winer and Doc Searls that really grabbed my attention because of dramatic coincidences of calendar and personality. My little company, ORGware LLC, would not exist without a blog post triggered by a dinner arranged by Dave Winer, three years ago tomorrow. On January 16, 2005, at 3 in the morning (yeah, like this one), my friend Harish Rao wrote The progressive movement is screwed (technologically, at least):

“Tonight, Nicco and I had dinner with Dave Winer. We talked about our podcasts, and a little bit about what we’re up to. Our conversation was at a cheap Italian place, over dinner. The conversation quickly turned to the core business of EchoDitto, and one of the main issues that we face:

“There is no good (i.e., comprehensive, inexpensive, and easy-to-use) web platform that does content management, blogging/podcasting, credit card processing/fundraising, bulk email management, event management, metrics & reporting, CRM, and voterfile management (yes, all of these things should be integrated) properly. Now, there are several solutions and vendors that have some of the pieces. But none of these solutions are comprehensive, and they certainly don’t play nice with one another (i.e., data sharing is non-existent).

“Frankly, we progressives are screwed unless we solve the technology problem (the lack of a decent integrated web platform), because technology should be the least of our worries. Topping it off, we don’t have a lot of time.

“I think we should create an inexpensive (i.e., open source) platform ASAP that draws the best features of all the products out there. And no, I don’t think that it’s bad business to open source software, especially in nascent markets.

“Who’s game?”

The comments were typical of the flash-and-flame-out nature of the blogosphere:

Long Post, but… my heart said, post it. It came to me just yesterday from OK. Already some smart people are commenting on it at our listserve. (It stretches yout topic a bit.) But, please, I want to encourage echo-ditto to GO FOR IT, create this open source magnet…
Submitted by geri on January 16, 2005 – 8:55pm

Great point. Do you (and Nicco?) want to write something for Personal Democracy Forum elaborating on what you see the problems are with not having a comprehensive solution, and how none of the efforts currently underway to provide one do that?
Submitted by Micah Sifry on January 16, 2005 – 9:18pm

Micah –

I did write up a brief talking points memo (two-three) pages that discusses the issue. I’m too embarrased to put it up on this website (it’s very rough), but I will email it to you – send me your email address to MY_FIRST_NAME AT ECHODITTO.COM. I’d love to hear your comments.

Also, Dave suggested we put up a website to get a discussion of this issue going. I’m game for that; honestly, however, time is short, and we need to act quickly.
Submitted by HR Rao on January 16, 2005 – 10:28pm

Did anything come of this? Look around, and you know the answer. Please read all the comments. They will teach you all you need to know why there is yet no public utility to do what Dave asked for last week, almost three years later:

What the electorate needs is to hire someone to lead us for the four years between elections. It needs someone who will ground our collective behavior in something resembling reality, so we deal with the problems that are collectively in front of us:

  1. The honor and prestige of our country (the equivalent of goodwill for companies, settle the wars we started, accept that we have to protect against terrorism, stop hyping it in terms of conventional warfare, that’s insulting).
  2. The integrity of our homes (everything from disaster response to changing behavior on a global level to respond to global warming).
  3. Caring for ourselves (health, education, protecting the Constitution).

…My advice to candidates going back to Dean was and is to start implementing the change you seek before the election, while you have the full attention of the electorate. Ask us to give money, not to buy ads, but to buy health insurance for 50,000 uninsured people in a particular state, so we can see how powerful we are collectively, how we can do good, starting right now. We yearn for this, to feel our muscles flex collectively, and individually to make a difference, not just in your hype, but in real terms. Hillary Clinton could have gotten up yesterday and said “There’s no time to waste. We can’t wait until January 2009 to solve the problems. Let’s start right now.”

Just one problem with all this exhortation: If we had the platform for this, we’d be doing Government By The People. Does anyone else feel the irony I experience every time a politician or strict constructionist or activist or enraged war widow exhorts us:

Tell the politicians this must stop!

Do something!

Don’t just sit there yelling at your TV!


Exactly what do the exhorters expect Americans to do? A million people marched in Washington before the Iraq war and no one noticed. Howard Dean’s real scream was “You Have The Power! You Have The Power!” Well, not exactly.

There are several missing components to the power that Dean tried to wish into being. There may be no demand for messages, but there’s plenty of demand for logistics. To paraphrase a great line, “What we’ve got here is a failure of logistics.”

  • Logistics is a protected process to cast an informed vote for every American older than 17.
  • Logistics is the objective counting of those votes.
  • Logistics is the objective reporting of those votes, prospectively and as cast.
  • Logistics is an analytical, not sports-minded, media, reporting substantive issues.
  • In this century, Logistics is a comprehensive, voter-friendly way for people to aggregate their values and voices online, in advance of election day, and to roll up their determination into millions of auditable pledges to vote their values and conclusions.

There are a million reasons why no one has built this public utility for America yet. A few of the comments from Harish’s post 3 years ago explained why it is impossible. Here’s the best example of declaring the impossibility of building the only possible solution to saving the Republic:

No one company is ever going to provide the be-all, end-all solution for “content management, blogging/podcasting, credit card processing/fundraising, bulk email management, event management, metrics & reporting, CRM, and voterfile management”. Period. The problem space is just too big.

It’s especially not going to be provided by a small company which can’t throw hundreds or thousands of programmers for five years at the problem. (Not that a BigCo would have a better chance at producing a usable product — but they could at least write off the failure and survive.)

If you try to have one product that solves all those problems, what you’ll end up with is either a package that does one thing very well and a bunch of other things poorly, or that does everything with a kind of generalized mediocrity.

The solution is not to have a bunch of companies running around trying to build the One True Database. It is in developing protocols through which systems from different companies can interoperate and integrate. Then companies can build products that solve one problem within the problem space, and leave the rest to other vendors.

It amazes me how far behind the curve the nonprofit tech companies are with this.
— Submitted by Jason Lefkowitz on January 23, 2005 – 11:55am.

Hot Damn!! I love being told I can’t do something! The assumption, even among the diehard liberals on this list, is that there is no force in America willing and able to build the comprehensive system that Harish Rao was, and still is, asking for. Can that really be true?

No force in America? Wow.

Sitting in the Front Rao

Above, I mentioned the coincidence of calendar, precisely three years having passed and little to show for it. Last Friday I sat down with the coincidence of personality, my friend Harish Rao. Those of us who poured our hearts into the Dean campaign, especially on the 2nd floor at 60 Farrel Street in South Burlington, VT, always have time for each other. Harish and his colleagues at EchoDitto are therefore willing to listen to my rants once in a while. It had been a year and a half since I’d assured Harish that we were still working on the platform that had, even then, been missing for so long, and that I’d get back to him when we were close to ready. That was last Friday.

Since then, I’ve worked my way through the justification that a single monolithic solution is indeed necessary, at least for now, and that a properly motivated, Goldilocks-type, just-right-sized team is the only way to get it done. I’m pleased that the ORGware platform is just now good enough to criticize (as the legendary Alan Kay said of the Mac OS in 1985). We have finished the heavy lifting and the answer to every demand I’ve seen is done or in our grasp. Most testers say that ORGware even has an answer to some needs not yet expressed, but will be, once people get through the feature set they thought they wanted. Users are funny that way.

I’ve talked a lot about ORGware the last three years, but never revealed our secret weapon. Zaah Technologies, Inc. Part of the reason is that there has been a procession of programmers and teams enthusiastic about the promise of ORGware, but none have delivered the resources required to build what was needed. Zaah seemed too good to be true, so I’ve withheld my excitement. If you’ve never heard of Zaah Technologies, don’t be surprised. They provide really big solutions for really big companies moving really big chunks of data and images around and making it all make sense to we poor users who have to make sense of it.

Zaah may process more photographs than anyone else on the planet, but you’ve not heard of them, because they do it for all those drugstores and gift shops, helping Mom & Dad celebrate another milestone in Jack or Jill’s life. You know, zillions of real people, not like we few Flickr users, so skilled but oh so marginal, compared to the big world out there. Check out Zaah’s portfolio for a glimpse into this company that Doc Searls concluded, is “the real deal.”

If you look on their home page, you’ll see that Zaah is incubating our little company, Open Resource Group/ORGware and just one other, StarStyle, the people who sell you the clothing and bling the stars wear on TV.

Over a year ago, Maurice Freedman and Sandy Fliderman of Zaah Technologies agreed to work with us to build the ORGware platform that otherwise would never see the life of day. It hasn’t been easy, but it looks like we really are close to a set of Democracy Logistics Good Enough To Criticize.


Chalice’s Restorant

A True Fable:

I was recently introduced to Riane Eisler’s seminal work, “The Chalice and the Blade“. Isabel Allende described it this way:

Some books are like revelations, they open the spirit to unimaginable possibilities. The Chalice and the Blade is one of those magnificent key books that can transform us and…initiate fundamental changes in the world. With the most passionate eloquence, Riane Eisler proves that the dream of peace is not an impossible utopia.

The book reports that most of Europe lived in peaceful, undefended villages before a series of invasions by violent horsemen from the area of the Caucasus mountains. Before the invasion, as far back as the archeological record reveals, these societies were matriarchies. (Of course they’d be Caucasian males. We turn asians away at the border; why not Cauc-asians?)

After the Caucasian males invaded, Europe became a patriarchy, enthralled by competition and conquest and male superiority. Eisler suggests that the models of peacefulness they trashed are yet attainable, if we can back away from the Dominant Father model.

The Horse Race vs. the Village

Last Wednesday, Dave Winer wrote What if our political process became conscious? Doc Searls declares it to be “the best post on politics I’ve read in a long while. It concludes”,

I’m not expecting very much from people who live “Inside the Beltway.” I don’t live there, never have, don’t even like visiting the place. To me it’s much like the arrogance of Silicon Valley. You can’t pop out every four years get us to vote for you and then go back into your nest. Politics belongs to all of us, in this country, the people are the government. We really lost our way, now it’s time to come back. It’s the change that’s happening in everything, decentralization, disintermediation. Obama speaks of a plurality, his campaign isn’t about a mere election, it’s about changing the way we do things.

My advice to candidates going back to Dean was and is to start implementing the change you seek before the election, while you have the full attention of the electorate. Ask us to give money, not to buy ads, but to buy health insurance for 50,000 uninsured people in a particular state, so we can see how powerful we are collectively, how we can do good, starting right now. We yearn for this, to feel our muscles flex collectively, and individually to make a difference, not just in your hype, but in real terms. Hillary Clinton could have gotten up yesterday and said “There’s no time to waste. We can’t wait until January 2009 to solve the problems. Let’s start right now.”

Maybe she won’t get elected, but getting us organized now would make it more likely.

JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

See how that works??

You really should read all of Dave’s post and Doc’s last 3 paragraphs stressing the difference between elections and governance, quoting a point Dave made earlier in his post:

What the electorate needs is to hire someone to lead us for the four years between elections. It needs someone who will ground our collective behavior in something resembling reality…

In a conversation around this stage in the last presidential election, Phil Windley pointed out that democracies are about two things: elections and governance. We care disproportionately about the former, because elections make great stories, and are easy to explain with sports and war metaphors. But elections are how we hire those who run our governments. We need to care about what they’ll do in reality. Or what we’ll do in reality. The idea isn’t just to change how elections happen, but how governance works as well.

Easier said than done. But we need to do it.

In an email last week, a friend suggested that maybe the problem is that our society lacks the vocabulary and values to operate as a village rather than a sports event. Perhaps there’s a framework within which we can deploy the GEOvoter API to address the issues that Dave Winer and Doc Searls care so much about:

What if there were a council of remarkable women? By appropriately utilizing the natural talents and aptitudes of each gender, we strive to make sense of a world gone crazy.

A significant part of the impetus for such an initiative could be based on a broad consensus of the workability of the “partnership model” proposed by Riane Eisler, in the international bestseller, “The Chalice and the Blade” back in 1987. In this ground breaking work, Eisler suggests that much of the archeological evidence of prehistory (cave paintings, artifacts, etc) were interpreted by early scholars in an intellectual and philosophical atmosphere predisposed by their own cultural background to interpret their findings as a confirmation of the accepted view of Man as a dominating, warring animal. Eisler does a remarkable job of showing that the same physical evidence can be re-examined without that pre-conceived view of human nature and a very different picture emerges. The picture is of a partnership society, with men and women working together for the good of their families and their societies, doing best what each gender and each person does.

Such a council of wise women, supported by many other men and women, like minded and desperate to see America, as a world leader, could take up the mantle of caring about the continuance of humanity on our beloved earth and let it be known to our political institutions that we want them to do the same.

Sounds like an idea whose time has come. How do we know its time has come?

  1. TCP/IP is a feminine, non-hierarchical, P2P protocol.
  2. We’ve tried every other idea and none of them work.


No Intel Inside – the Vomit Comet

Doc Searls and a few other acolytes of flight were guests of Intel for a ride on the Zero-G flight experience. Here’s Doc, presumably praying to Saint Spew, the patron Saint of Puke, before the flight:

I never knew a military aviator who enjoyed zero or negative G forces. In fact, most engines’ oil pumps are not specified for more than 1 negative G. Not that it kept us from trying zero Gs in a C-130, while otherwise bored, flying from one place in Vietnam to a similar-looking other place. In those halcyon days, each aircraft dashboard sported a quaint plexiglass map holder, about 6″ by 9″. Meant to hold a Jeppesen approach plate book, it was one half of a terrific Zero-G indicator. The other half was a pencil. I kid you not.

The trick was to drop the pencil into the map holder and start the one maneuver that’s obvious after a few moments’ reflection. In order to attain the maximum weightless time, you want to spend as much time as possible pushing the controls forward into the zero G range. You could do this starting from a high altitude and just push the controls forward, but you’ll get more weightless time if you start at a medium altitude at high speed and then pull the aircraft up at a couple of positive Gs to set up for the negative G phase. From the nose-up position, the pilot pushes the controls forward until the Zero G state is reached. That’s where the pencil in its lucite cage came in.

I’m sure the folks at Zero-G Corp have more sophisticated instruments, but none more direct or accurate; or more analogue. But some subtlety is required. Surely unlike the Zero G 727’s instruments, as the pencil rises from the bottom of the holder, one must gently release a bit of the forward pressure, since it obviously required a slightly negative G force to move the pencil off the bottom of the map holder. I describe this distinction so my pilot friends don’t point out my oversights.

That’s it. Just keep the pencil in the center of the map holder as long as possible. In the Zero Gravity Corp’s Boeing 727, that lasts about 30 seconds. In the C-130, we probably pushed the limits a little further, though we did not have the range of airspeed available to their 727. Here’s how the profile looks using their 727:

It’s really a matter of the airspeed and altitude available to you. In an SR-71, I’ll bet you could get close to a minute of weightlessness, by starting at 60,000 feet and Mach 2.5, arcing up to 85,000 feet or so and pulling it out when pointed straight down at about 35,000 feet, which is where most real men would be staining their tutu.

So that’s it. 2/3 of the people “lose it”, literally, on the Vomit Comet. And that’s why I never want to experience Zero Gs again. Few smart people do it twice.

Saint? Maybe. Latter Day? For sure.

Mitt Romney is talking about his faith and values this morning. I’ve found myself working very closely with some splendid people in Utah for the last several months, so this is of more than casual interest to me.

My friend and partner, Steve Urquhart, who is Chairman of the Rules Committee of the Utah State Legislature, says that Mitt Romney is one of those "perfect" people – the kind who does what his inner guide tells him to do. You know: all those words and deeds that you and I know we should get it together to conceive, plan, do and follow up with. I’ll take Steve’s word for it. They are characteristics that remind me of John Palfrey, Director of the Berkman Center. I wonder if those two fellas from Massachussetts would realize that. I feel lucky to perform that way for an entire morning.

Doc Searls and I were introduced to Steve by Phil Windley, a Utahn who is admired deeply and warmly by scores of East and West coast liberal types who can’t remember the last time they set foot in a flyover state except Colorado. With Doc and Kaliya Hamlin, Phil is just concluding their bi-annual Internet Identity Workshop. Kaliya is an Identity Geek (the "Identity Woman") from Berkeley who’s as liberal as they get, with a passion for non-conferences that most males still regard as airy-fairy, but not Phil and Doc and anyone who’s attended one, having seen how much better they work than the old format. Many of us became aware of Phil in 2001-2 when, as CIO of the state of Utah, he was blogging every day about what it was like to be the CIO of the state of Utah. In June, 2003, Doc Searls and Phil and I attended the O’Reilly Open Source Conference, just as the Howard Dean campaign was the hot topic on the Internet. It was at that conference that we started discussing the idea that grew into the O’Reilly Digital Democracy Teach-in at Etech the following February. Much of my life since then was shaped by that seminal meeting. Our little ORGware band, of which Phil and Doc are key members, is trying to build what was obviouly needed 4-1/2 years ago, and that still is not available.

Last month, I was impressed with Phil Windley’s personal statement, My Faith, where he tells his family background:

[in the first half of the 19th century,] Members of the Church, referred to as Latter-day Saints or Saints, were driven from town to town and state to state. In spite of this persecution and the murder of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Church has flourished and now has over 12 million members around the world in over 160 countries.

My own ancestors joined the church in England and Scandinavia in the mid 1800’s, emigrated to America, and crossed the plains in wagon companies as pioneers. These people were part of the great colonization effort made by the pioneers of the Rocky Mountains, settling in Southeastern Idaho where I was raised. When I read their stories, I’m constantly amazed at the trials they endured.

Mormons are Christians. Christ is the center of my religious life. One of the core beliefs of the Mormon Church is that after the death of Christ’s apostles the church fell into apostasy and the authority to act in God’s name was lost. We believe that the Church is Christ’s restored church on earth.

… the Mormon Church believes in, and is founded upon, the idea that God still speaks to men in the form of visions and revelations to His prophets. Most of Mormon scripture has come through modern revelation. Such revelations continue to guide the church today.

For most of the people I deal with every day, the vocabulary of divine faith and revelation are hard to listen to. Some of them have a hard time with the notion of the invisible hand of the marketplace, so we’re talking about a kind of extremism here. But what if we parse Phil’s description as we would a new Internet protocol? What does the LDSTP (The Latter Day Saint Transport Protocol) really describe? Yeah. I know. "Conestoga Wagon". Enough with the one-liners.

The Latter Day Saint Transport Protocol "LDSTP"

So some people in the US, a couple of hundred years ago, lived in communities which were dominated by the local church, and usually just one. Each of those town churches was run by a guy who was a full-time Religious Authority whose job it was to tell everyone else what sinners they were and to appear better than they were. We must assume that these guys were as fond of money and boys and girls in the same ratios as their counterparts today, perhaps even worse in that repressed society. Some of those devout churchgoers looked on this hypocrisy and decided that it’s better to download their spiritual code base directly from God to each person, rather than through the intermediaries who probably made "The Office" look like a model of competence and sincerity. They used the word "revelation" to describe those downloads. Presumably, they kept the insights that worked and abandoned the ones that didn’t.

It looks a lot like disintermediation to me, and the established clergy surely greeted this independence with the affection that the telecoms feel for David Isenberg and Susan Crawford. The persecuted believers in this new LDSTP protocol for a Spiritual Operating System ("SOS"), had to get out of town, so they headed west, and stopped on the other side of the mountains where it was most beautiful and where the local residents talked funny but were a lot more neighborly than the white folks back home. Life was good.

Forbidden from paying their clergy, every man was allowed to share his insights. Since life was so demanding, I assume they were forced to keep embracing what worked and let go of what didn’t. It sounds like the practicality of the team behind the Linux kernel. By any objective measure, they prospered more than the rest of America. It’s no wonder that their beliefs and vocabulary retain much of their beginnings, since what they kept worked so well.

If Mitt says it as well as Phil does, he’ll comfort the rest of the country.

The Valleys, all filled up…

Doc’s picture here was like a 2×4 to my forehead:

A zillion years ago, I was accustomed to flying USAF tankers from Sacramento to Fairbanks, Alaska, for a couple of weeks of weird weather and flying. On the way and back, we flew over the Brooks Range, where the serious peaks barely rose above the snows that filled the spaces between them:

As a hiker, I knew that it would take a full day to hike between peaks just like these in the Sierras, but only a couple of hours on snowshoes and minutes on a snowmobile.

The Brooks Range is, for some reason, a picture I will carry in my head forever. Thanks, Doc!