Tuesday, February 24, 2015


So, in case you haven't guessed, today is the "official" pub day for Devils and Dust. (You may have read a couple of things about that book in these pages). Grab it at your favorite bookstore...if they don't have it, ask why. Politely. Or, of course, you can order it at the usual places online. And don't forget, if you like it, please post a review at your favorte site, and don't forget to tell all your friends. Our books live and die by that kind of word of mouth advertising. Thanks for everyone who's helped bring this book to life, particularly Jason Pinter and Polis Books, and to everyone who's helping get the word out.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

No One At the Wheel?

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

You can see it coming in the TV ads, in newspaper and magazine stories, and on the Internet: Every day, we get closer and closer to the truly self-driving car.
Soon, you’ll be able to jump in, tell your auto where to go, and just kick back while it uses a combination of computer software, GPS location and collision avoidance systems to get you there. But are we ready for what all of that means?
Engineers at Google have been working on what they call the “autonomous vehicle” for years. An early prototype (with a human driver aboard as backup) has logged over 700,000 accident-free miles as of 2014. The latest iteration is a little egg-shaped vehicle which has neither pedals nor steering wheel.

There are some bugs to work out, Google says, but they expect to have a model available for sale by 2017. Audi, Mercedes and the computer hardware company Nvidia, among others, are also said to be working on self-driving vehicles.
Meanwhile, according to rumors in the tech blogosphere, Apple is researching its own driverless car, to be called (what else?) the iCar. There are few specific details available, but I can guarantee you one thing: If Apple ever makes a car, it will be at least twice as expensive as its competitors’ vehicles, and the people who own them will quickly become insufferable. Anyone who’s asked for help with a PC in an online forum and immediately had at least two snotty Appleheads respond with “get a Mac” will know what I mean.
Ahead of the truly driverless car, you surely have noticed that new car models are being equipped with things like collision avoidance systems that brake or steer automatically when the car detects a possibility of an upcoming crash.
The Infiniti Q50’s “Predictive Forward Collision Warning System” claims to be able to able to notify drivers of potential hazards up to two cars ahead of them, possibly by the use of a tiny psychic in the glove compartment. Even parking is becoming automated. BMW is working on a system that will use side-mounted sensors to park the car without you even having to be in it.
The driverless car will certainly have its advantages. A report by the Eno Center for Transportation suggests that driverless cars could reduce crashes by over 4 million a year, save up to 21,700 lives and $109.7 billion, and save up to 724 million gallons of fuel. And, of course, if one can slump into one’s vehicle after a night of partying, tell it to “take me home,” then catch a few Z’s on the way, it’ll revolutionize drinking in this country.
Still, it doesn’t appear as if we have thought this thing all the way through.
For one thing, driverless vehicles could cause massive job displacement in transportation-related industries such as cab driving, long-haul trucking, and the music industry. I mean, seriously, if 18-wheelers can drive themselves, what will happen to at least a third of country music? If driverless cabs turn a generation of surly foreigners out onto the streets, what will be the implications for our national security?
But seriously, folks: A recent report commissioned by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey reveals some disturbing things. The report noted that tests demonstrate “how hackers can get into the controls of some popular cars and SUVs, causing them suddenly to accelerate, turn, sound the horn, turn headlights off or on and modify speedometer and gas-gauge readings,” according to The Christian Science Monitor.
Cars have basically become big computers, Markey’s report points out, and automakers have done nothing to address the threat of hacking. I’m not looking forward to the day when some East European script-kiddie can not only steal my credit card information off the card reader on the gas pump, but also drive my car into the river with me in it before I can do anything about it.
Not scared yet? Consider this: If hackers can do it, the government can.
Admittedly, there’s currently no recognized right to privacy in where you go on a public street or highway. That’s why they’re called “public.” But in a world where someone will have the ability to sit at a desk and not only see everywhere you go, but take control of your car and drive it where they want, maybe there should be.
All kidding aside, our lawmakers for once should get out in front of technology and make some sane regulations mandating security protocols for the self-driving car and providing some kind of privacy protection, rather than playing catch-up when something awful happens.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Mommie Dearest Republicans

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

You know, sometimes the over-the-top reactions of the right wing to the most innocuous actions or statements by President Obama remind me of a scene from a movie. Specifically, they remind me of the scene in “Mommie Dearest,” in which Faye Dunaway, playing actress Joan Crawford, goes into a complete screaming meltdown over the fact that she finds clothes on wire hangers in her daughter’s closet.
This week’s right-wing hissy fit comes in reaction to comments that the president made at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. After acknowledging the value of the meeting for “giving us the opportunity to come together in humility before the Almighty and to be reminded of what it is that we share as children of God,” and acknowledging his reliance on God’s guidance “not just in my own life but in the life of our nation,” Obama proceeded to go after those who would use faith either as a wedge or as a weapon.
“From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris,” he said, “we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.” He made particular mention of ISIS “terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”
But, the president warned, lest we get too proud or vain, we might remember that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Well, the only thing that drives the Mommie Dearests of the right crazier than the president speaking at all is him saying something that happens to be true. This time was no exception.
“The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, indicating that he (Gilmore) is either about 12 years old, or he really needs to get out more.
Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana used the time-honored right-wing tactic of just making stuff up. Obama, Rep. Fleming claimed, was saying that ISIS “are freedom fighters, just like the patriots of the Revolutionary War. And they’re no different; their service is just as honorable.”
Well, sir, I do know that they speak somewhat differently down in Louisiana, but to say that calling a group “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism” (Obama’s actual words) equals “comparing them to the patriots of the Revolutionary War” causes me to doubt either your understanding of our native tongue or your honesty. For the record, I do believe Rep. Fleming speaks English.
Closely akin to the wingnut tactic of making things up that didn’t happen is the even more pervasive one of denying the existence of things that did. Such as the complaint of former Fox News host, Ted Nugent bassist and soon-to-be-failed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who said that Obama could easily have defended moderate Muslims in his speech while condemning the radical extremists. Well, as we’ve seen above, that’s exactly what the president did, which Huck would know if he’d cared to read the speech. Or to tell the truth.
But for true hysterical hyperbole, you need to go to conservative activist and failed congressional candidate Star Parker, who told right-wing radio host Mark Levin, “Frankly, what the president did was verbal rape.” There is not a joke I could make about equating a speech at a prayer breakfast with violent sexual assault that would not be more offensive than the comparison itself. So I’ll just leave that one there.
Again, it is absolutely true, and widely accepted as such, that while great and noble things have been done in the name of God by adherents of all religions, terrible and brutal things have been done as well. Sadly, Christianity is not exempt.
To deny history and claim otherwise is nothing but pride and vanity, and while I haven’t been to Sunday School in a while, I seem to remember those being sins. I also remember something about bearing false witness. I’m pretty sure that’s bad, too.
It’s a pity that the supposed defenders of Christianity aren’t too good at practicing it, because they’re too busy playing Mommie Dearest and having dramatic conniptions over things most normal people take for granted.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Health Itself

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

This past week, in addition to once again trying to repeal health care reform, the Republicans who have recently come to power took aim against a new, even more pervasive foe: health itself.
It started when President Obama, speaking to Savannah Guthrie on “The Today Show,” threw down the gauntlet when asked about vaccination in light of the recent measles outbreak in the U.S.
“The science is pretty indisputable,” the president said. “We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not. …You should get your kids vaccinated.”
Well, the right wing wasn’t going to take that lying down, you betcha. Following the one ironclad principle of the right (“If’n one o’ them Obammy’s is fer it, we’s agin it”), Republican presidential hopefuls took to the airwaves to let us know that liberty includes the freedom to let your kids become tiny little germ weapons.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who, as you remember, tried to lock up a nurse for being in the same country as ebola, suddenly decided that inoculation against measles, a far more contagious disease, should be “optional.”
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul made his bid for the coveted Michele Bachmann Professorship of Unsourced Pseudoscientific Claptrap by telling talk show host Laura Ingraham, “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”
Heard from who? Jenny McCarthy? Well, hey, who are a bunch of dumb old scientists to argue with a Playboy Playmate and the former host of MTV’s “Singled Out”?
Not to be outdone, our own Junior Sen. Tom Tillis decried the undue regulatory burden of requiring restaurant employees to wash their hands after using the toilet.
“I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy,” Tillis said, “ as long as they post a sign that says, ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restrooms.’ The market will take care of that.”
Of course, in the unregulated dream world where Sen. Tillis would have us all live, there’d be no one to ensure that the sign is visible, legible, or even in English. But, as the song goes, “Freedom’s just another word for wondering why the waiter’s hands smell funny.”
Later, as usual, both Christie and Paul had to, as they say, “walk back” their statements. The “walkback” is what wingnuts and the people who try to pander to them often find themselves doing when they realize that the codswallop they’ve been spoon-feeding to the rubes, goobers and haters on right-wing talk radio, and Faux News has actually been overheard by the non-insane, and they have to do some damage control before the editorial cartoonists start drawing them with tinfoil hats.
Christie’s office released a statement: “The governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection, and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” Rand Paul went even further and had himself photographed getting a booster vaccine for hepatitis A. Guess he figured that for him, the “profound mental disorders” train had already left the station, with him on it.
As for Senator Tillis, as of this writing, he’s still holding the line against the tyranny of mandatory hand-washing. This caused a Republican friend of mine to comment, “I would not shake hands with that man.”
Here’s the thing: Vaccines don’t cause “profound mental disorders.” The one study that showed a link between measles vaccine and autism was conclusively debunked a few years ago when it was revealed that not only did Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor conducting it, misrepresent and change the results of his research, he did so after taking thousands of pounds from lawyers hoping to capitalize on his dodgy “research” in lawsuits.
Wakefield was later stripped of his medical license, and the journal in which the study was published retracted the article.
Yet to this day, you will find people telling you with complete and misplaced confidence that children suffering from autism are “vaccine-injured.” To keep spreading this lie when measles is trying make a comeback is dangerous. For politicians to spread it for political gain is inexcusable.
As for the value of washing your hands after using the restroom: Ask your mom. If you’d rather believe Thom Tillis than your own mama, I don’t know what to tell you.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

It's Ugly, Too

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

As I mentioned last week, one of the things Republicans always use to dismiss any idea that helps the middle class is, “How are you going to pay for that?” Infrastructure spending, help for college, getting more people insured — it’s always the same sneer: “How are you going to pay for that?”

Well, I have one idea that would help pay for a lot of good stuff: Junk the F-35 program.
In case you’re not familiar, permit me to indulge in a little aviation geekery. The F-35 “Lightning II” is a multi-purpose warplane developed by Lockheed Martin. The Pentagon intends to buy 2,400 of them over the next few years at a cost of $400 billion.
The Lightning II is intended to do it all: bombing, close air support of ground troops, air defense, recon — it’s like the Swiss Army Knife of aircraft. The naval variant is designed to operate from aircraft carriers. A version for the Marines has vertical takeoff and landing capability. The idea is that using one type of aircraft for multiple roles and branches of the military will standardize parts, repairs, etc.
On the surface, this sounds like a good idea, right? 
There’s only one problem: The bloody thing doesn’t work.
Last summer, the entire fleet of existing F-35’s had to be grounded because one of them caught fire on the runway. It’s the 13th time the fleet’s been grounded since 2007. Multiple studies have revealed a host of other problems. The pilot’s helmet-mounted display doesn’t work. The inertial navigation system doesn’t work.
It can’t land safely on an aircraft carrier because the tailhook doesn’t work. It doesn’t accelerate well because it’s so heavy, and using the afterburner for extra speed damages the aircraft. The main air to air missile doesn’t work, and no one can seem to figure out why. A new and sophisticated threat detection system can’t tell the difference between an incoming missile and the airplane’s own flares.
According to a report from the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the “lift fan” that gives the Marine version the ability to take off and land vertically is so vulnerable to “catastrophic damage” from ground fire that a single bullet could bring the plane down. As the old saying goes, this thing’s so broke down, if it was a dog I’d take it out back and shoot it.
And yet the military seems determined to go ahead with this boondoggle, exhibiting truly Rumsfeldian arrogance in the process.
For instance, a test pilot who’d flown hundreds of hours in the F-35 expressed concerns that the cockpit design made it hard to spot threats from behind, which is more than a minor concern for a fighter pilot. So how did the program manager for the project respond? According to an article in Foreign Policy magazine, USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan told a group of Department of Defense bigwigs, “Put that pilot in a cargo aircraft, where he won’t worry about getting gunned down.”
In December, defense reporter Tyler Rogoway revealed an Air Force report that the plane’s finicky engine has problems running on fuel from trucks warmed by sitting in the sun (a bit dicey when you think about where these things are likely to be operating). The Air Force’s solution: Don’t fix the plane, paint the fuel trucks white.
They’re even fighting to retire planes that do work, like the venerable A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft, to free up money and ground crews for a plane that isn’t going to be ready for years — if ever.
The other day, Iraqi sources reported that an A-10 attacking elements of ISIS in Iraq had four anti-aircraft missiles fired at it, “but that did not cause the aircraft any damage, prompting the remaining [ISIS] elements to leave the bodies of their dead and carry the wounded to escape toward the Shirqat district.”
So we’ve got a ground attack plane that can shrug off four AA missiles and send the terrorists scurrying, and that’s the plane the military wants to replace with one that catches fire on the runway.
We still need warplanes, but we need ones that work. We can save money modernizing and upgrading the ones that are proven able to do their jobs, rather than blowing billions on a lemon like the F-35.
That $400 billion will build a lot of roads and bridges. It’ll send a lot of young people to school. It’ll get a lot of people health care. So you want to know “where we’re going to get the money” for programs to help Americans? Let’s start by getting rid of a hideously expensive fighter jet that defends no one but the bank accounts of defense contractors and looks like it’ll kill more American airmen than the enemy will.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Day Grows Ever Closer

As the return of the sparrow heralds the onset of Spring, the arrival of the author's copies tells up Publication Day is not far behind...