Monday, February 20, 2012

Red Tails

My wife was giving a bridal shower for one of our nieces on Saturday so I did the manly thing - I got out of the house and went to see a war movie. Red Tails had been in the press because of George Lucas' problem getting funding for this movie. It was also about an interesting part of WW II history. I expected there to be technical inaccuracies and exaggerations but, since it was Lucas, I figured the action scenes would be good. In a word, I was disappointed.

Except for the fact that he used black actors in airplanes, this movie could have been any generic war movie. It had all the usual suspects, cliches and caricatures. There was the flawed, self doubting flight leader, the cocky pilot who ignores orders, the religeous kid seeking acceptance. And they threw in a romantic side story for good effect. You knew within the first 10 minutes who was going to live and who was going to die because you have seen this 100 times. Lucas had an excellent opportunity to tell the story of a unique piece of Black American history and he blew it. (FYI, each service had black units. The Army had the 761st Tank Battalion and the Navy had USS Mason (DE-529). All of these units had distinguished records)

IMHO, Lucas had touble getting funding because the movie was mediocre. Save your money and give this movie a pass.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ocean Ranger

Cajun's history summary reminded me that yesterday was the anniversary of the sinking of the drilling rig Ocean Ranger (Feb 15, 1982). I had some personal ties to that rig. If it was a Naval vessel, I might be considered a plank owner.

My first job out of college was working for Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company. Specifically, I was hired to join the client team in the Hiroshima, Japan shipyard where they were building two drilling rigs - the Ocean Bounty and the Ocean Ranger. The Ocean Ranger was a state of art rig designed to drill in the cold northern oceans (special steel in the hull) in the harsh weather typical of the North Sea. It also had a novel chain/wire mooring system that allowed it to anchor in deeper water. Coincidentally, both rigs got contracts to drill off of Alaska in 1977. I went along to provide engineering support to them. The Ranger drilled one hole in the Bering Sea where the winds were so fierce the anemometer pegged out at its maximum for several hours before the propeller flew off. As I was one of the few people who knew how to operate the complicated anchor windlasses, I was usually involved in any rig move and spent a fair amount of time on her.

Time goes on. I left ODECO and ended up working for Mobil Oil (the company she was working for when she sank). I was driving back from Morgan City one afternoon when the radio announced the sinking.

I can still remember the layout of the rig and sometimes I take a mental stroll across her decks and down to the engine room where I might take the elevator down to the ballast pump room - the same engine room that had a 20' x 20' hatch that provided access for downflooding straight down the elevator shaft. The ballast room where valves opened up in response to a shorted out control panel. I remember sitting in the radio room eavesdropping on other vessels radio telephone patches and their lonely men talking to their girlfriends. I remember the pranks played by the crew, especially if you were  green enough to leave your food tray unattended (Friends would add tabasco to your food if you did). I remember climbing down into her chain locker to help fix a snarl in the chain/wire swivel - a trip that an older engineer balked at when he realized the "ladder" was foot holes cut into the bulkhead. And I remember the 72 hour "days" pulling and setting anchors on a new location.

Most of the crew I had worked with in Japan and Alaska had moved to other rigs by 1982, but I knew two of the men who were lost on her. It was the first time someone I knew had been killed on the job.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Interesting People

I attended Grandparents Day at the middle grandson's school. (He goes to a LaSallian School.) While we were waiting for the program to start, one of the brothers, a Vietnamese man of about our age, came over to chat. I was at the other end of the group so I only caught snippets of his conversation but it was enough to gather that he and his father had escaped from Vietnam in 1989. ( I assume they had been in a "re-education" camp since the fall of Saigon) They managed to survive a typhoon and when they thought all was lost, a passing freighter picked them up and took them to Japan. He joined the La Salle Brothers and is now teaching.

Sometimes you never know what astounding stories people may have. It pays to keep your ears open. You can't underestimate the pull that the USA has for people who yearn for freedom. I can't wait to engage this man in a longer conversation.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Offshore Living

I stumbled across the web site of a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have a solution to the problem of getting visas for foreigners to work for their industry. They want to house these people in offshore living accommodations moored in international waters. They can live and work outside of the USA but yet be close enough to visit the Valley when they need to collaborate face to face by entering the US on a tourist visa. The group is called Blueseed and they have several concept facilities on the drawing boards.

The idea is not a new one although it has been newly named Seasteading.

Ocean Engineers have been working on very large ocean structures for years. The most common concept is for an offshore airport. And the oil industry has long solved the problem of logistics by housing several hundred workers on offshore floating structures called "floatels". A floatel can house around 400 workers and are used during construction of offshore oil and gas production facilities. And the US Navy can keep thousands of crew members at sea for months at a time.

But I don't see these seasteading concepts ever coming to fruition.

First of all, anyone who has ever lived and worked offshore for any amount of time can tell you that living conditions are cramped. Offshore real estate is too expensive to waste square footage on parks and open space. You sleep in a small room in bunk beds with shared bathroom facilities. You eat in a mess hall. There is almost no privacy except for climbing into your rack and pulling the curtain. It is not a pleasant existence although I've seen thousands of workers live in worse conditions in Dubai. It is not something most people would want to do for extended periods of time.

Second, the technology exists to work in a virtual environment so why do we need to co-locate? I have worked on projects where the design may have been done on the other side of the world. Drawings are sent to a master server for distribution. Meetings are held as teleconferences. Fed Ex can deliver paper copies over night. Nobody needs to physically touch someone else in order to perform work.

Thirdly, I don't think that ICE is going to go for it. I worked on a project in the UK where I visited London for month long periods at a time. After about 4 visits, the immigration guys started to look at me funny. I've gone over to Canada to witness a test and been given the third degree by immigration officials who thought I was taking a Canadian job. People visiting the US from an offshore structure that was built for the purpose of avoiding immigration laws will not have an easy time of it, I'm afraid.

Finally, operating and maintaining a floating structure in the ocean is not cheap. You need lots of fuel for power generation. You need to bring food out on a regular basis. You need helicopters and boats. The ocean tends to wear out things like mooring lines and corrode steel. The cost of housing a person on such a facility would probaly exceed the costs of building a tele-commuting office in their home country.

And, oh yeah, don't forget that the USCG and the state will have to give you a permit for the facility. They could hold up the project for years if they were determined to do so.

The concept sounds like a good idea but I don't think it's practical.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Book Review - Taken

This is Robert Crais new release. Elvis Cole is hired to find a missing woman and her boyfriend. He finds out that they have been kidnapped by a group that preys upon illegals being transported into the US. They kidnap them and then extort ransom money from their family. These two just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elvis devised a scheme to impersonate a coyote in order to buy them back. His plan goes south and he is detained as well. Joe Pike, who was watching Elvis' back, then goes on a scorched earth rampage to recover his friend.

The book gives equal time to Elvis, Pike and Jon Stone, a mercenary friend of Joes. In a format new for Crais, he jumps back and forth between characters and time. This keeps you turning the page to find out what happens next. Don't start reading it if you have to get up early in the morning.

This is my new favorite Crais novel.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Glenlivet French Oak Reserve

This scotch is aged for 15 years in new French Oak casks. You can say it makes no difference but then why do the French age wine destined for sale to the US in American Oak and not French Oak?

Color: Light Amber
Nose: Light
Palate: Rich, Oakey
Body: Smooth, Silky
Finish: Long, Warming

For what its worth, I let my wife taste it for her opinion. She normally loves the smell of scotch but finds the taste too harsh. She tasted this one and didn't make a face. She kept asking for the glass for another taste. Because of her reaction, this gets my recommendation as a good introductory scotch.

A review of my history shows that I reviewed a different bottle of this scotch back in August of 2009. Go see and compare the tasting notes.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Green Power - Oops

Powerline gives us a look at the effectiveness of renewable energy such as wind and solar.
Slowly, information is leaking from nations that have spent heavily on wind and solar, such as Germany. This information should give pause to those touting solar and wind, including politicians. England is pulling back from wind, Germany has announced drastic cut-backs on its subsidies to solar, and Spain has announced the elimination of subsidies for renewable power. These actions are not the result of success. The erratic nature of these sources is well established. Further, electricity is rather unique among energy types – it cannot be stored on an affordable, commercial scale.

The leaders of countries that have spent heavily on solar and wind assumed that the erratic nature of these sources, and that the lack of storage, can be compensated by installing the facilities over a broad geographical area. They were wrong. A winter high pressure system can cover a broad area of Europe, rendering wind turbines useless when solar panels can generate little electricity, and none at night. Reports are indicating that at least 80% conventional back-up is needed.

A further complication is that fast back-up from conventional sources, such as coal or natural gas, is very demanding on the equipment, inefficient, and polluting – the pollution control devices do not work properly when heat output varies. According to reports, no coal plants have been de-commissioned in northern Europe rendering the claim of lower carbon dioxide emissions questionable.
So, subsidies are being discontinued and no coal units have been taken off line.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

News That Will Make You Angry

We learned that 279,000 federal workers owe $3.4 Billion in back taxes. Why can't the government collect taxes from its own employees? And shouldn't it be a requirement of employment that all federal employees pay their taxes on time?

The Treasury Dept has raised the amount of money taxpayers will lose in the auto bailout. The bailout is now projected to loose $23.8 Billion. This is up from $14 Billion last fall. The basis is the low value of the 500 million shares of GM stock the treasury owns. The stock would have to be valued at $53/share in order to break even. GM was trading at about $24.

The CBO tells us that federal workers are paid an average of 16% more than emplyees in the private sector. That's because the private sector has been cutting costs in response to the lousy economy. When was the last time you got a raise? The government doesn't have to as it doesn't need to make a profit. A chart from the CBO report is below.

And finally, the CBO says taxes will increase about 30% over the next 2 years!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Head Count

Saudi Arabia started the year off strong with 5 be-headings. Most of these were for drugs with the odd murderer thrown in for flavor.

Scary Chart

Below is a chart of US oil production showing both onshore and offshore contributions.

Note that this chart only goes to 2010. The Macondo blowout brought things to a virtual standstill that year so the future will show a significant decline in offshore production.

Source: Offshore Magazine