The town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin is not generally thought of as one of the innovative centers of America. Children's clothing, yes. Trucks? You betcha. But Oshkosh doesn't typically jump to mind as a powerful counter-argument to those who worry that the computerized, modern era has obliterated backyard tinkering, craftsmanship, and forward-thinking innovation.
Except for one week a year.
Each year, at the end of July, the Experimental Aircraft Association has its annual convention at the Wittman Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 12,000 airplanes and hundreds of thousands of people attend, making the airport, for that one week, the busiest airport in America. Lots of private and commercial pilots fly in to the convention in standard general aviation planes that range from the 1920s to the latest and most current models. There are graceful biplanes that are as much works of art as machines of the air. There are WWI and WWII fighters, tiny little trainers, gliders, seaplanes, and huge military transports. But the show is also a hotbed of innovation and inventive craftsmanship; reassuring to anyone who wonders, or worries, whether we've lost that hands-on, Thomas Edison-like inventor's edge.
The "Experimental" Aircraft Association, after all, was founded to support those who wanted to design and build their own planes. Many of those innovators have gone on to produce and sell hundreds, or thousands, of standardized "kits" of their designs, which are then built by individual owners in their garages. Even in 2009. And the results are often far beyond what exists in "factory-built" airplanes. Some kitplanes go 200 miles an hour or more, on only a few gallons of gas per hour.
But really, the fun part; the remarkable part (and the most inspiring part), is seeing the vast array of new ideas made real in prototypes spanning a broad range of shapes, sizes and levels of complexity. To illustrate, here are just a few:
The ICON -- portable, light, amphibious sport fun
Park in your garage, take off from a runway, and land in the local lake for a morning of fishing--and look cool while you're doing it. ICON has high-tech design and looks, aimed at pilots who want a plane that's relatively simple but as modern-looking as their stereo systems. It's still in test flight, and the plane is limited to two passengers, and 120 mph. But it's clearly not your father's Oldsmobile.
Terrafugia--a high-tech flying car
One of the longstanding problems of using planes for transportation is that you arrive at a destination airport without a good way to get around on the ground. So ever since the early post-war era, designers have tried to figure out how to make a hybrid vehicle that would both fly and drive. Nobody so far has had a lot of success with the concept of a flying car (the requirements of the two types of transport are pretty different, after all), but a team of MIT engineers has entered the market with a high-tech design called the Terrafugia, which they call a "roadable aircraft." (Wings fold to drive on roads.) Will it work? Hard to say. It has flown, but it's had some problems in flight testing that the team is now struggling to work out. But it's a bold try at applying new technology to an old problem.
The Maverick -- a low-tech flying car
Innovation isn't purely the domain of high-techengineers, as evidenced by this bare-bones flying dune buggy. Designed by a missionary pilot named Steve Saint (author of End of the Spear), it's a grass-roots solution to a very common problem in remote third-world areas: washed out, impassable roads. As a dune buggy, it navigates rough dirt roads well. But if a driver encounters an impassable section of land or road, he or she can open a parafoil atop its long center pole, start the pusher propeller behind the buggy, get a 100-foot headstart, and literally "puddle-jump" the washed-out section. It flies 40 miles an hour (so it drives faster than it flies), and is simple enough to be easily repairable in the bush ... even by indigenous people with limited mechanical or pilot training.
The All-Electric Plane
The problems with an all-electric airplane are more complex than a hybrid or electric car, but there are several companies working on the concept. "It's the future," says Jeremy Monnett, whose Sonex company is working on the electric engine/aircraft pictured above. "It's not the near-term future, but it's definitely the long-term future. You know that Chinese saying about "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step? Well, this is our first step." Sonex, a kitplane manufacturer, is testing the 55 kw (75 hp) brushless DC cobalt motor on an existing Sonex kitplane, but Monnett envisions the engine being used eventually to extend the flight time of a motor-glider design or power a much lighter, purpose-designed airframe. (Sonex is also working to develop a single-engine kit jet (see below). When? Ah. Well, when they find a new engine manufacturer, because the original supplier went out of business.)
The Vision Jet
But while Sonex is years away from a flyable, single-engine kitplane jet, Alan Klapmeier has one already flying. Klapmeier is the founder and mastermind behind the Cirrus Design Company (whose Cirrus aircraft James Fallows has written about numerous times). But not content to rest on his laurels, he's designed, and is working to market, a very sleek but practical single-engine, five+2-seat, factory-produced personal jet for the speed-seeking traveler.
Some of the ideas on display are astoundingly simple; others rely on sophisticated computer design and control. And they may not all work or prove viable, of course. The history of aviation, like any field, is littered with ideas that proved better in concept than in reality. But the EAA show is a reminder, once a year, that that the "old" backyard, hands-on, bold spirit of invention is still alive and kicking, even in the video-game and digital age. And that alone is worth something.
Note--offline: I'll be offline for the next week. Returning August 6th.
More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures
Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.
The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.
In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
Even with the overwhelming recent New York cover story, the women pay a price for speaking out.
Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.