Monday, May 31, 2010

Time for Klein

I’ve been trying to write a blog about our unregulated chickens coming home to roost for about a week now. The BP oil spill has now claimed the #1 spot of “Worst” in our history books. I’ve struggled and struggled with condensing what needs to be said into a reasonable length. After trying (and failing) again this morning, I read my latest Time magazine and found this by Joe Klein. (I hate it when that happens.)

The Junk Shot

”Indeed, the MMS soon emerged as a caricature of bureaucratic lassitude and corruption. A 2008 report found that the agency's regulators were taking gifts from, and having sex with the employees of, the companies they were supposed to be monitoring. Another report, about MMS activities from 2005 to 2007, will show, among many other things, that MMS staffers allowed oil companies to fill out their own inspection reports in pencil, which were then committed to ink by stenographic MMS regulators.“

I want to steal Klein’s best line (the last one in the piece) but I won’t. Go read it for yourself. My point is that while the MMS is the poster child for regulatory failure, it is far from alone. There are dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Federal agencies and departments that have been gutted, abused and silenced. The ways in which their missions have been thwarted are numerous and creative.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Gail Norton, meet Marion Blakey.

” Gale Ann Norton (born March 11, 1954) served as the 48th United States Secretary of the Interior from 2001 to 2006 under President George W. Bush.“

”After Norton's resignation, she joined Royal Dutch Shell Oil company as a legal adviser in their oil-shale division, drawing further criticism from environmentalists due to her prior support for oil drilling and use of U.S. national forests.“

”Marion Clifton Blakey (born March 26, 1948) is president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association. “

”Before this, she served a five year term as the 15th Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. “

If you think this started with George W. Bush you would be so very wrong. If you think Congress hasn’t hamstrung regulators but cutting funds, you’d be wrong again. It is President Obama’s task to fix all this -- to make our government work again. In between fighting two inherited wars and saving the world’s economy, I’m not sure when he’ll find the time. But he must.

Wall Street became a crooked casino and collapsed. Private industry is trying to dig its way out of the hubris heap. They -- and we -- are dependent upon a government we have been busy breaking for 30 years. God help us.

Don Brown
May 31, 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

Must Be Important

It made The New York Times and it made Marketplace so it must be important.

F.A.A. Tries to Accelerate Air Traffic Conversion

”The government is seeking to speed up the installation of a new air-traffic network ahead of a 2020 deadline.

The system, called the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, by the Federal Aviation Administration, uses satellites to direct aircraft rather than ground-based radar. “

Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all that. Why is it in the news? I think this is why.

”The Obama administration has considered offering incentives to airlines as a way to install the satellite navigation equipment sooner, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the call, without offering details.

“We have the White House’s attention on this, significant enough people where there could be some opportunities for us to be helpful to them along the way,” Mr. LaHood said.“

Or the next part.

”On Wednesday, the agency awarded Boeing, General Dynamics and the ITT Corporation contracts to help integrate new procedures and technologies into the air-traffic system, the F.A.A. said. The contracts are worth as much as $4.4 billion in the next 10 years, it said. “

Of course, that made me wonder about the number I’d read five paragraphs previously.

”The upgrade of the network is intended to increase safety, cut delays and save fuel. It will cost $2.1 billion to $4.1 billion, which will be shared by the government and airlines, Randy Babbitt, the agency’s administrator, said Thursday in a conference call with reporters.“

I can’t explain why they say it costs up to $4.1 billion when they just awarded contracts that are “worth as much as $4.4 billion”. But I’m just an ex-controller so what do I know?

I did find it kind of interesting that The New York TImes is getting their news from Bloomberg News.

By BLOOMBERG NEWS Published: May 27, 2010

Don Brown
May 28, 2010


Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Truth Hurts -- Again

It’s a weakness of mine. A disease. There is absolutely no upside for me in posting this -- and yet -- I’m doing it anyway. Somehow I still believe the truth is important, and this blog from Badtux The Snarky Penguin strikes me as the truth. (I found it at Earth-Bound Misfit, of course.)

”Yet this burst of modernization basically had slammed to a halt by 1975. Instead of electing progressive governors, the South started electing regressives, people intent upon rolling back the reforms instituted by the progressives. When progressives did get elected, like Edwin Edwards in Louisiana during the late 1970's, they found themselves fighting holding actions, basically trying to keep government services from being gutted by a populace increasingly hostile to government.”

I have a feeling that BadTux is just a few years older than me. My memories of this era aren’t as sharp as his. I was one of the many bewildered kids riding the bus to a different elementary school. Another one, wondering why so many kids were suddenly going to private schools. Or maybe, BadTux is just more insightful than I am.

Don Brown
May 27, 2010

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ITYS #505

Midair Close Calls Prompt a Review

”A recent flurry of midair near-collisions around major airports has disturbed federal air-safety regulators, prompting a broad review of procedures and possible changes in training for air-traffic controllers. “

Round up the usual suspects.

”"We've been through a back-alley knife fight in labor relations," Hank Krakowski, the FAA official in charge of air-traffic control, told an industry conference in Washington last week. When it comes to issues such as voluntarily reporting mistakes without fear of punishment, Mr. Krawkoski said "a lot of managers are skeptical" about the FAA's intentions and "we have to build some trust."“

The FAA “building some trust” is like Enron selling some electricity.

I told you so.

”So what will happen ? It’s impossible to know. But I can tell you what happened last time. I was there. I lived it. And I remember that in 1987 I was really scared we were going to have “the big one.” Take a look at these figures.”

I’m betting the trend is just starting. This time, the start date for the wholesale destruction of the controller workforce wasn’t nearly as precise as August 3, 1981. It’s a lot fuzzier this time. But let’s put it at 25 years after 1981 -- 2006. If history repeats itself (and it does) that would mean the NMAC peak would be around 2012. I can hear Mr. Murphy warming up the dice all the way from down here in Retirementland.

Don Brown
May 25, 2010


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Strange Doings

I get nervous when I like what I read in the Wall Street Journal.

”The lessons learned from the health care debate appeared most starkly one day when Mr. Barr and his team of lawyers trekked to the Senate with boxloads of binders filled with rebuttals for hundreds of Republican amendments to the regulatory overhaul.

As it turned out, the preparation wasn't needed. Before Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D., Conn.) gaveled the session open, his Republican counterpart, Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), withdrew a mountain of Republican proposals, worried that in several cases they contradicted each other. In 21 minutes, a showdown expected to last weeks was over.“

I wonder if there are many Americans like me -- waiting until there is some reform of Wall Street before investing any money? To be honest, what is being proposed may not be enough for me. That would be because whenever I research a blog about the economy, I come across stuff like this:

After hearing that, I, of course, went right to Wikipedia to check out Mr. Black. Interesting fellow. And he emphasizes the part of all this that I just can’t get past.

”Black asserted that the banking crisis in the United States that started in late 2008 is essentially a big Ponzi scheme; that the "liar loans" and other financial tricks were essentially illegal frauds; and that the triple-A ratings given to these loans was part of a criminal cover-up.“

I get a bad feeling when I hear about something called a “liar loan”. It reminds me of Michael Milken and “junk bonds”. But the one that makes me think it’s outright fraud is the triple-A ratings. Why not a B rating? Or a A? Or even a double A? And the answer I keep coming up with is that only the “pros” play around with those ratings. The professional risk takers. The people that are trying to minimize risk -- the pension funds, the municipalities, the retirees, etc. -- want the triple-A rating. In other words, the only way to get the big money to invest in your piece of junk is to get a triple-A rating.

Maybe I’m wrong. Money is not my forte. But there’s the rub. For me to invest my money I have to trust. Controllers know a little about trust. It’s why we teach controller trainees not to lie. Pilots have to believe us -- they have to trust us -- or we can’t do our jobs. Too bad the folks on Wall Street don’t seem to understand that.

Don Brown
May 22, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

More On Debt

I was halfway through writing a blog about Time’s cover story and got sidetracked. Elizabeth Warren coauthored a book entitled: The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke.

I’m still reading an interview about it in Salon but I’m already hooked. You should read it.

So, we're not living that much larger than we were in the 1970s? The plague of American hyperconsumerism in recent generations is just a myth?

The overconsumption myth is just that -- a myth. It's a story that we tell ourselves. And it's a story that every credit card company that wants to press Congress to give it even more beneficial laws raises: the story of consumers who are wildly spending, and who need to be reined in. The credit card companies need protection from these wild overspenders.

When, in fact, those are the people that the credit card companies make all their money on?

When, in fact, that's exactly where they make all their profits.

I think that the reason that the story has been so tenacious is that we want to believe that it's true. If the only people who get into real financial trouble are the overspenders, then those of us who buy in bulk at Costco, and wouldn't dream of spending $200 on sneakers, surely we're safe. “

There is so much more but here’s the part to start you thinking. If you have a one-income family (Dad) and he loses his job (illness or laid off), Mom can go to work. If you have a two-income family (Mom and Dad) and he loses his job, you can’t cut your expenses fast enough because you paid too much for the house in the “nice” neighborhood with the “good” schools. The overpriced lifestyle is all conveniently financed, of course. And in case it hasn’t hit you, with two people working, you double your chances of a layoff. Or an income-reducing illness. In other words, you’re twice as likely to face bankruptcy.

Interesting thoughts. Have a read.

Don Brown
May 21, 2010


Who Is Right?

Think on this. Step back and listen to what is being said in this article about American Airlines in The New York Times.

”But critics on Wall Street and among the company’s unions say they doubt the company can turn its fortunes around. They say American’s management is too timid and unwilling to cut unprofitable routes, and it has failed to rein in costs, among the highest in the industry. The United-Continental deal is just the latest blow.

Lloyd Hill, the head of American’s pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association, said the company suffered from a “leadership vacuum.” And in a conference call last month, one Wall Street analyst publicly dressed down the company’s executives for a lack of passion. “

It sounds pretty bad. I mean, (according to the reporter) you’ve got the unions and Wall Street on the same side. That is hard to do. So it must be bad. Read on.

”Shares of AMR are down 9 percent this year, the worst performance by a major airline and well below the sector’s average gain of 13 percent. By contrast, shares of UAL, United’s parent, have gained 46 percent; Delta is up 20 percent in the same period. “

Even “The Market” says American has been doing the wrong thing. Baaaaaad. What has American been doing?

”American is one of only three major carriers that have never filed for bankruptcy, along with Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. As a result, the company is hobbled with much higher costs than its competitors, most of which have used bankruptcy proceedings to rewrite their labor contracts and airplane leases, terminate pensions and health benefits, and restructure their debt. If it had contracts similar to Delta’s or Continental’s, the company estimates its expenses would be $600 million lower each year. “

So -- assuming the article is correct -- American Airlines is being pilloried and punished for paying its bills and honoring its contracts. Including its labor contracts. By a union head no less.

Is anybody else wondering how we ever got here?

Don Brown
May 21, 2010


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Great Minds -- What?

Just sayin’...

”Meanwhile, the nation is cutting back on funding child care, and public schools and universities. Call me old fashioned, but I just think it's wrong that a single hedge fund manager earns a billion dollars, when a billion dollars would pay the salaries of about 20,000 teachers.“

That was Robert Reich on Marketplace last evening.

Sound like anybody you know?

Hey, I’m bound to get lucky every once in a while. Robert Reich? Well, he actually has a great mind.

Don Brown
May 20, 2010


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Kind of Tarp

If there has ever been a slicker trick invented than using a tarp to slide loads across the ground, I don’t know what it is. What? You forgot I liked to garden? I said “tarp”, not TARP.

I just finished trimming my azaleas (I skipped last year -- bad mistake) and instead of picking up the pieces to take to the compost pile I laid out a tarp, threw the cut pieces onto it and made one trip. All it takes is an old tarp with some stout cord tied to the ends. (You can just pull on the ends of the tarp. Cord is easier. Trust me.) If you’ve never tried it before, you’ll be surprised how big a load you can pull.

It occurs to me I’m spending more and more time on photography and gardening and less and less on air traffic control. I know most come for the ATC stuff. There will always be that part of my life. But it will dim over time. And there is nothing either one of us can do about it.

Don Brown
May 19, 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It’s Getting Old

Real old. Real fast. Maybe I’m just getting old. Or maybe I’m just moving on. But I get so tired of hearing the same old tune. The fact that it’s a new singer doesn’t make the song any better.

This is actually a pretty good article from The Dallas Morning News. Just because the players are singing the same tune doesn’t mean that the reporters aren’t doing their job. See if you recognize this tune.

“Our aircraft use 19 billion pounds of kerosene annually,” said Babbitt, a former airline pilot, consultant and head of the Air Line Pilots Association. “NextGen can save 5 percent — that’s a billion gallons of fuel and at $2 a gallon, it’s $2 billion worth a savings a year.”

For some reason, the fact that Randy Babbitt is supposedly one of “us” (an ex-union guy) doesn’t make it sound any sweeter. I don’t want to cost the airlines extra money nor do I want them to burn extra fuel, but “saving” them fuel doesn’t work. Seriously. All these direct routes. All the “flow control”. All the whining and complaining. What has it done for the industry? Absolutely nothing. They still lose money. Their service is still deteriorating. And they don’t even provide decent jobs anymore.

Delta Airlines lost $1.2 billion last year. “Saving” them $2 billion over 10 years (which isn’t going to happen anyway) won’t “save” anybody.

Really, it doesn’t even make sense. (This is where the good reporting comes in.)

”Getting all the gear on planes could cost $7 billion, and the FAA is weighing possible loan plans or incentives to get airlines on board, he said.“

We’re going to spend $7 billion to “save” $2 billion? Even if it made the airplanes run on time (and it won’t) it wouldn’t be worth it. Well, except to the avionics manufacturers, of course. The ones selling “the gear”.

Here’s my favorite:

”Air delays have fallen sharply over last year, though Babbitt and airline watchers credit reduced flying by airlines for most of the gains.”

Big “duh”, huh? Why isn’t that considered “saving” the airlines fuel?

There’s even some humor.

”Babbitt also scolded airlines for scheduling too many flights at the nation’s busiest airports. “The FAA is not going to become the scapegoat on those types of delays,” he said, noting that pilots of delayed flights often blame air traffic control when they should be blaming their own schedulers.“

“Scolded”? That’s rich. What’s he going to do, audit cockpit voice recorders to catch pilots blaming controllers for scheduling delays? I’ve got a better idea. Instead of “scolding” people (and treating the public like they’re idiots) why don’t you regulate them? That way we can “save” the airlines some fuel, make the airplanes run on time, have the airlines turn a profit and create some decent paying jobs again.

”Babbitt said his staff is using published airline schedules to build models that show where delays are likely to happen in order to approach carriers to try to talk them out of such over-scheduling.”

I find it very interesting that an airline pilot -- a union guy -- is singing the same song all his predecessors sang. “Talk” instead of regulate. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Upper Branch Mine. Wall Street. How many regulatory-failures-leading-to-disasters do we have to have before you get The Flick, Randy?

The Great Recession won’t last forever. Then everybody will go back to flying with all of them trying to fly to the same 20-30 airports. We have the time to fix this. We have the opportunity to implement a regulatory system that will make this industry great again while serving the Public well.

Try a new tune, Randy. This one is getting old.

Don Brown
May 18, 2010


Monday, May 17, 2010

Saving ERAM -- Chapter 7

The great disappointment (for me) in The Limits of Software is that Mr. Britcher didn’t breathe a word about my favorite FAA story. There is nothing about how the Flight Data Processing program was saved. He touches on the facts. (I’ll use the FAA’s official history to save time.)

”Oct 1956: CAA leased a computer (IBM type 650) for installation in the Indianapolis ARTCC to assess the value of computers for the preparation of flight progress strips and to familiarize its personnel with this type of equipment. “

”Jun 30, 1967: During fiscal year 1967, which ended on this date, FAA installed an IBM 9020 simplex computer system at the Cleveland (Ohio) ARTCC (see Feb 18, 1970). “

If you would like to see an IBM 9020 there are some neat pictures here. The are even neater pictures of it being scrapped here.

Then there’s the IBM 9020 sent to Jacksonville Center.

”Dec 30, 1968: The data-processing capability of the NAS En Route Stage A system at the Jacksonville (Fla.) ARTCC went into operation on a part-time basis. The system's new computer complex processed and automatically updated flight plans filed by pilots with the Jacksonville ARTCC area. (See May 24, 1965, and Feb 18, 1970.) “

”Feb 18, 1970: FAA's first IBM 9020 computer and its associated software program became operational at the Los Angeles ARTCC (see Jun 30, 1967). The new computer system was at the heart of the new semiautomated airway air traffic control system--NAS En Route Stage A. This equipment reduced controller workload by automatically handling incoming flight information messages, performing necessary calculations, and distributing flight data strips, as needed, to controller positions. The agency planned to install similar equipment at all of the centers, and with the new automated nationwide system each center would have the capability to collect and distribute information about each aircraft's course and altitude to all the sector controllers along its flight path. The new computers also had the ability to record and distribute any changes registered in aircraft flight plans en route. (See Dec 30, 1968, and Feb 13, 1973.) “

”Feb 13, 1973: Ceremonies at the Memphis Air Traffic Control Center celebrated the center’s switch over to computer processing of flight-plan data, completing Phase One of the NAS En Route Stage A, FAA's decade-long program to automate and computerize the nation's en route air traffic control system (see Sep 26, 1964). With the new computer installation at Memphis, all twenty ARTCCs in the contiguous 48 states gained an automatic capability to collect and distribute information about each aircraft's course and altitude to all the sector controllers along its flight path. Pilots still had to file flight plans at flight service stations and military operations offices, but now computers would handle the centers' "bookkeeping functions" of assigning and printing out controller flight strips. “

(Frame of reference) ”Mar 17, 1973: Negotiators signed the first labor contract between FAA and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). “

As I said, The Limits of Software touches on the facts. But it doesn’t mention the legend. The legend of how the program was saved.

IBM was trying to automate the process of writing and distributing Flight Progress Strips -- and failing. The programmers just couldn’t think like controllers. So, according to the legend, the FAA took a bunch of controllers to the Academy in Oklahoma City and let IBM teach them to think like programmers. They learned enough computer programming to be able to talk to the real programmers and the project was saved. These controllers evolved into the Data Systems Specialists for the FAA -- controllers that became the computer specialists.

It’s odd how all that is missing from Mr. Bricther’s book and the FAA’s official history. As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for the internet, I’d have to wonder if there ever was such a thing as a Data Systems Specialist. Even though I worked with many of them. Even though many of them came back to the control room floor to work airplanes during the strike. Even though I talked to one that claimed he was in the original class in Oklahoma City.

It’s a good thing we have the internet.

”e. Data Systems Specialist. The DSS ensures that the facility computer and related equipment function properly. He also--

• Performs systems analyses.

• Develops and modifies the program.

• Ensures program accuracy.

• Coordinates with adjacent automated facilities.

• Identifies the operational or procedural impact of program patches and changes. “

In case you’re wondering, the FAA eliminated those jobs.

Don Brown
March 17, 2010


Thursday, May 13, 2010

ERAM -- More Input

I’ve mentioned this site before but it’s been a long time. I went to it again this morning (looking for information) and wound up reading 13 chapters -- again. Not only is it great history, it’s compelling reading.

Let me whet your appetite: Squawk 1200 -- A history of the next mid-air collision

Chapter 3

”Eisenhower began his last two years as President.   Legislation brought forth research funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, particularly in Air Traffic Control.  The FAA inherited a former military base near Atlantic City, a ragtag complex of pale-green barracks and crabgrass lawns.  It was named NAFEC for National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center.

NAFEC needed computer consultants and contracted with my company (TRW).  I needed the down payment for a house and accepted the offer, which included per-diem.  Besides, the assignment involved aviation, didn't it.

"Your assignment," said Henderson, while shaking my hand, "is to get rid of the stacks." “

For those that couldn’t make the connection, NAFEC is the FAA’s Atlantic City-based Tech Center. Atlantic City, NJ. Oklahoma City, OK. Herndon, VA. The FAA always picks a garden spot for its facilities.

Chapter 13

”I stood up, drawn toward the noise.  My view was blocked in the dim light, but I knew the voice.  Whitey Miller cried out again as if he were in pain.  To this day, I can still hear his words.

"Christ!  Don't give me any more planes!"

I stopped, horror-struck at the sight of the man, head in his hands, doubled over, swaying, fingers claw-like.  "No more!" he cried.  "No goddam more!" “

It really doesn’t have anything to do with ERAM. But it does (I think) provide a valuable insight as to the interactions of controllers and techno types (for lack of a better word). I believe these types of interactions are the key to the future of ATC automation.

By the way, for the new controllers out there, if you’ve never seen one of your coworkers melt down on a sector -- just wait. I don’t think it’s as common as it once was, but it’s real. While you’re waiting, you might want to ponder the customization/lack-of-standardization question. Back in my day, we had the “drop-dead” strip marking rule. Your strips better be marked well enough that if you drop dead on the sector, your relief could jump in without a briefing.

Specifically, the strip sitting at the bottom of the bay without a switched mark on it? Your relief would switch him to the next sector. You guys don’t even know who you’re talking to these days. (What? You thought I’d forget about it?)

Don Brown
May 13, 2010


Saving ERAM -- Chapter 6

Okay. The Limits of Software won’t leave me alone. Perhaps I’m just not used to reading anything that deep anymore and it’s taking a while to process.

”The FAA’s Advanced Automation System project began in 1981, at about the time President Reagan dismissed 11,400 striking air traffic controllers. The timing was not incidental.“

All these years later -- after all the software failures -- the FAA is still chasing the dream of replacing controllers with computers.

”Custom-built, the 9020 (IBM computer) and the NAS monitor were never sold commercially.

The FAA wanted a commercially available multiprocessor that met the air traffic control availability requirements. Put another way, the FAA wanted to buy commercial products and it wanted them highly customized, in this case, for air traffic control.“

If I have digested this book properly, it’s been an education about “code”. Writing computer code -- original code -- that is error free is impossible. Writing code that is almost error free is really expensive. So it seems as if a lot of code is reused. Think about all the stories you heard about the early versions of Windows -- up to about Windows 95. DOS -- the old program -- was running much of it. That isn’t to start an argument about a subject I know little about. It’s to frame the context of this:

”Estimating the work on a linear basis, and assuming the same emphasis is placed on verifying the software, developing the 100 million lines of SDI software would take a thousand years. “

ERAM only has (or was to only have) 1.2 million lines of code. (The link directs you to an article entitled “The Return of Ada”. Interesting, no?) According to Mr. Britcher -- with a dedicated effort -- an organization can write about 100,000 lines of original, reliable code a year. He cautions that “lines of code” is a poor measure of software but it is a tangible that we can latch on to. So, ERAM would take 10 years or so to write. Unless you reuse some code. Or you didn’t rigorously test it.

Perhaps the strangest quote I read in the book came to mind again as I was reading my latest copy of The Atlantic.

”The less software we invent, the better. Software for its own sake will compromise our planet's hygiene as surely as chemicals and missiles.“

When I first read that, I thought it was a terribly strange thought for a guy that wrote programs for a living. But while I was reading yesterday, the quote came back to me.

The Enemy Within

”When the Conficker computer “worm” was unleashed on the world in November 2008, cyber-security experts didn’t know what to make of it. It infiltrated millions of computers around the globe. It constantly checks in with its unknown creators. It uses an encryption code so sophisticated that only a very few people could have deployed it. For the first time ever, the cyber-security elites of the world have joined forces in a high-tech game of cops and robbers, trying to find Conficker’s creators and defeat them. The cops are failing. And now the worm lies there, waiting … “

I wonder if that is what Mr. Britcher was talking about when he said, ”will compromise our planet's hygiene....”?

Don Brown
May 13 . 2010


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Panic is Counterproductive

If you need to do the 100-yard dash in record time, the human panic response is useful. Otherwise, it’s pretty counterproductive in modern life. I saw this on Earth-bound Misfit. I just heard it repeated on GPS. I like it.

It isn’t easy -- fighting panic. Ask any controller (or pilot). But try.

Don Brown
May 11, 2010


You Know Who

I probably don’t even have to tell you who said this:

”And the common theme in all these stories is the degradation of effective government by antigovernment ideology.“

Monday. New York Times. You know who.

Sex & Drugs & the Spill

Don Brown
May 11, 2010

Friday, May 07, 2010


I told my Facebook fans that I was afraid The Limits of Software might “stick” with me -- even though I didn’t really enjoy reading it.

Robert Reich posted this yesterday:

”Pension funds, mutual funds, school endowments — the value of all of this depends on a mechanism that can lose a trillion dollars in minutes without anyone having a clear idea why. So much of the market now depends on computer programs and mathematical models that no one fully understands, so much trading is in the hands of a few people whose fat thumbs or momentary carelessness might sink the economy, so much of global wealth now depends on who can move their money quickest at the slightest provocation — that we are toying with financial disaster every day. “

You might want to read the whole blog. And think about the limits of software.

The (Almost) Crash of Wall Street

Don Brown
May 7, 2010


Kelly’s Magic

I’m going to assume that most of my readers are familiar with Kelly Johnson. For those that know, you’ll want to read this editorial from The New York Times.

The Last Days of the Dragon Lady

”FIFTY years ago today, the Soviet Union announced that it had shot down an American U-2 spy plane and that its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was alive.

It seems like a long-ago event from the cold war. That may be why, in this era of satellites and drones, most people are surprised to learn that the U-2 is not only still in use, but that it is as much a part of our national security structure as it was a half-century ago. “

Don Brown
May 7, 2010


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Do I Get a Gold Star?

I got BP and I got Massey Energy. So I left off Goldman Sachs (and a thousand other examples). Big deal.

”But don’t blame it all on George W. For thirty years, deregulation has been all the rage in Washington. Even where regulations exist, Congress has set such low penalties that disregarding the regulations and risking fines has been treated by firms as a cost of doing business. And for years, enforcement budgets have been slashed, with the result that there are rarely enough inspectors to do the job. The assumption has been markets know best, and when they don’t civil lawsuits and government prosecutions will deter wrongdoing.


That wasn’t me saying that. It was Professor Reich. I was paying attention in class. Were you?

While you’re there, you might as well read this one too.

”Why is the Federal Trade Commission threatening Apple with a possible lawsuit for abusing its economic power, but not even raising an eyebrow about the huge and growing economic (and political) muscle of JP Morgan Chase or any of the other four remaining giant banks on Wall Street? “

If whoever you’re reading isn’t as clear and concise as Robert Reich -- especially about the big items -- you’re probably reading the wrong people.

Don Brown
May 5, 2010

Broken Bird

I love it when readers write my blog for me. Thanks Mark.

Orbital Blames Galaxy 15 Failure on Solar Storm

”PARIS — The in-orbit failure of the Orbital Sciences-built Intelsat Galaxy 15 telecommunications satellite April 5 was likely caused by unusually violent solar activity that week that damaged the spacecraft’s ability to communicate with ground controllers, Orbital officials said April 20.“

Why should you care? Because this is your “space-based” ATC system. No, it’s not the future system. It is the system now.

”The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is leasing an L-band payload on Galaxy 15 to guide aircraft as part of a satellite-based navigation service that uses the U.S. GPS satellites in medium Earth orbit and payloads on three commercial satellites in higher geostationary orbit.“

And, to keep it interesting, it appears they don’t have any viable options.

”Intelsat spokeswoman Dianne J. VanBeber said April 21 that the company expects to continue operating the L-band payload even after all other Galaxy 15 customers have been off-loaded. L-band service should continue even as the satellite is put through more-rigorous testing to determine the cause of the communications problem, although signal disruptions are possible during this period, VanBeber said.

Intelsat is coordinating Galaxy 15 testing with the FAA and with Lockheed Martin — the prime contractor for the FAA’s Geostationary Communications and Control Segment (GCCS) program that provides ground stations and broadcast services that, by using signals on the geostationary-orbit satellites, improve the accuracy of GPS signals for aviation. “

In case your eyes glazed over, “...signal disruptions are possible...“ and ”...Lockheed Martin — the prime contractor...“
This isn’t like your satellite TV going out and missing an episode of The Biggest Loser. “Signal disruptions” take on a whole new meaning when you’re flying blind, in a cloud, surrounded by mountains and your navigational signal is “disrupted”. And I know you’re surprised to find LockMart involved in all this (not).

Just as I know you’re surprised to find an “ITYS” attached to this blog.


”Gettin’ the flick ? ADS-B and GPS sound really cool until the Chinese decide to start shooting satellites out of orbit, sunspots start acting up or you realize your repairman now needs a space suit to fix your “satellite based system.” “

And, while I’m here, I have another “ITYS”. But this is a good one.

”(What ? You mean you don’t have a friend named Spike ?) Spike is a modern-day Renaissance Man -- he always has a new hobby. Right now it is solar astronomy. You can check it out for yourself. “

Spike (okay, his name is Stephen but he’ll always be “Spike” to me) is doing amazing things with his Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project. I mean, you can’t believe all the places he’s been and things that he has done with this project. The subtitle on his site might give you a clue: “America’s Largest Solar Astronomy Outreach Program“. If nothing else, you have got to see the suit. The sun suit.

Solar Astronomy, broken satellites and and a crazy man in a funny suit. This is not your run-of-the-mill blog you know.

Don Brown
May 5, 2010

P.S. Hit the “donate” button on Spike’s site. He really is doing good work with the kids.


Monday, May 03, 2010

Saving ERAM -- Chapter 5

Okay, I’ve thought about the book, The Limits of Software. It wasn’t a fun read. There were parts I agreed with, parts I agreed with grudgingly and parts I disagreed with. And all-in-all, I came away with a disjointed view of it. I can (and will) quote parts of it, but I feel like I’m cherry picking. This may be an important book about software but it wasn’t written for controllers and it wasn’t written for an ex-controller looking for some history on the Advanced Automation System.

Let’s just dive right in. Ada was a programming language that was supposed to be used for the Advanced Automation System.

”It’s a good bet that far more money has been made in discussing Ada than in using it.“

”The Advanced Automation System provided many opportunities to see the world on the taxpayer. A friend of mine, Mike, did Europe on Ada.“

From there, we follow Mr. Britcher’s friend through Europe as he jumps from conference to conference, spreading the good news of Ada throughout Europe. The book is quirky like that. It spends as much effort on the Piazzale del Pincio and Marcus Aurelius as it does on Ada. While it’s an interesting display of knowledge, I found it tedious reading. But Mr. Britcher does have a point. Just change one word and it becomes clear:

”It’s a good bet that far more money has been made in discussing NextGen than in using it.“

See what I mean? Controllers are probably looking at this all wrong. We’re looking for software that works. Software that helps us do our job better. Others don’t necessarily share that goal. They’re looking for profits. Or maybe a trip to Europe.

”IBM made a small fortune on the project (the Advanced Automation System), despite its sad ending. As Harry put it then, “The most important piece of hardware on the Advanced Automation System is the overhead projector.“

Again, just change a word or two...really just an update.

“The most important piece of hardware on ERAM is the PowerPoint projector.”

I assume we can all agree that Lockheed will make a “small fortune” on ERAM. Whether it works or not.

Here’s an interesting quote that will need no explanation for my regular readers:

” There were many extreme requirements, any one of which could undermine the successful implementation of a digital system. Here is a sample: ...replacing paper clearances with electronic notes, coupled with the complete removal of printers (the FAA was zealous about having a paperless system -- this system designed upon glaciers of paper). Deprived of old habits, the air traffic controllers would have no choice but to adopt new ones.“

Safety first. I really want you to consider the implications of that. Forget my obsession with flight progress strips. Think about “old habits”. Think about how the system’s safety depends upon the familiar -- the tried and true. It should have been obvious to FAA management. It was to the author.

”The air traffic controllers have often resisted automation. If you were to visit an air traffic control facility and witness, firsthand, the urgent and automatic nature of ground supervision of aircraft, you would understand why. In no other job are judgment and quick reflex so entwined, more so than in neurosurgery, I suspect. Any change in the controller’s environment can be traumatic. Change is inevitable. But the world of air traffic control is as vulnerable to change as it gets. Change, if and when it comes, must be imperceptible.“

An interesting grasp of the facts by an outsider. As opposed to the insiders who would leave controllers with “no choice but to adopt” radical changes in their habits.

(Personal note: I hope some controllers involved in URET during the early days read this and take note.)

I didn’t enjoy the book. I didn’t say I didn’t learn anything. I just didn’t learn what I was hoping to learn. If you have the time you might want to learn something you might not want to learn. Hold this quote in mind:

”Any change in the controller’s environment can be traumatic.“

Then go read the piece the following quote comes from and keep in mind that “DSR” was what was salvaged from the Advanced Automation System.

”The FAA's videotape makes mention of the fact that the controller was distracted while trying to adapt to a new piece of equipment called DSR. DSR is the Display System Replacement. In short, it's the new radar scopes that were installed during this time frame. I remember my first few days using the system. I was distracted too.“

Say Again? #35: Lessons Unlearned

Don Brown
May 3, 2010

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Deregulation’s Deeds

”In a letter sent last year to the Department of the Interior, BP objected to what it called "extensive, prescriptive regulations" proposed in new rules to toughen safety standards. "We believe industry's current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs…continue to be very successful."“

If you don’t see the connection between the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Upper Branch Mine explosion and the regulatory failures at the FAA -- then I have failed as a blogger.

People are dead. You can’t fix that. As horrific as the environmental damage is and the cost to the economy will be...people are dead. You can’t fix that. You can’t make that right.

Don Brown
May 2, 2010

Lessons From Greece

Frankly I don’t care anything about Greece. It is neither here nor there for me. I simply never think about it. But I thought this article had some lessons for America and the way we think about our government.

In case you don’t know it, the Greek economy is imploding and it threatens to take the world economy with it. Somebody has to pay their bills. Everybody thinks Greece should pay (of course) but if its debts don’t get paid then others can’t pay their bills, which means others can’t pay theirs....

You know how it goes.

Greek Wealth Is Everywhere but Tax Forms

” In the wealthy, northern suburbs of this city, where summer temperatures often hit the high 90s, just 324 residents checked the box on their tax returns admitting that they owned pools.

So tax investigators studied satellite photos of the area — a sprawling collection of expensive villas tucked behind tall gates — and came back with a decidedly different number: 16,974 pools.“

Hmmm. Rich people cheating on taxes. I would never have guessed.

”“We need to grow up,” said Ioannis Plakopoulos, who like all owners of newspaper stands will have to give receipts and start using a cash register under the new tax laws passed last month. “We need to learn not to cheat or to let others cheat.”“

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

”The cheating is often quite bold. When tax authorities recently surveyed the returns of 150 doctors with offices in the trendy Athens neighborhood of Kolonaki, where Prada and Chanel stores can be found, more than half had claimed an income of less than $40,000. Thirty-four of them claimed less than $13,300, a figure that exempted them from paying any taxes at all. “

I’d be willing to bet the rich Greeks tell themselves that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes if poor people don’t have to pay. That it isn’t fair that they should have to pay taxes just so poor people get a free ride. It probably isn’t fair that they are rich either but hey, they work hard for their money. (Like the guy picking up their garbage doesn’t.)

”How Greece ended up with this state of affairs is a matter of debate here. Some attribute it to Greece’s long history under Turkish occupation, when Greeks got used to seeing the government as an enemy.“

Does that remind you of anybody -- seeing the government as an enemy?

It’s a two page article. There’s a lot more to read and reflect upon.

Don Brown
May 2, 2010

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Losing Its Shine

Okay. I’ve finished the book. I can’t say that I feel enlightened. I’ll let it rattle around in my head a little before I comment further.

So, to keep you entertained, I’ll pass along this article sent in by a reader.

US Airways CEO: NextGen benefits don't justify equipage investment

”Speaking at the carrier's media day in Phoenix Wednesday, Parker said, "There is not a capacity issue in the United States right now as it relates to air traffic control, so putting in place NextGen ATC, while it makes all the sense in the world, isn't going to save the airlines dramatic amounts.“

I’m sure that makes all the sense in the world -- to somebody. I believe all my readers have figured out that NextGen is the greatest thing out there -- as long as somebody else is paying for it. Don’t use my money to pay for it. I never did think it was that great.

Don Brown
May 1, 2010