Thank You, John McCain

“Let’s return to regular order,” Mr. McCain said on the floor of the Senate.

Diana Bauer and I mused about accomplishments this morning. “Everybody is yapping,” she said, “but we aren’t accomplishing much.”

“Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately. And right now they aren’t producing much for the American people…

We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side…”

Mr. McCain has certainly noticed the same problem.

“You write op-ed every week,” Ms. Bauer said. “Do you think you’ve changed any minds?”

It’s a good question and shows that this writing stuff is the very antithesis of a good engineering job.

“We’re getting nothing done. All we’ve really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Our healthcare insurance system is a mess. We all know it, those who support Obamacare and those who oppose it. Something has to be done. We Republicans have looked for a way to end it and replace it with something else without paying a terrible political price. We haven’t found it yet, and I’m not sure we will. All we’ve managed to do is make more popular a policy that wasn’t very popular when we started trying to get rid of it.”

The Neil Gorsuch appointment shows how a job used to work:

Fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
List the best candidates for the job.
Nominate Mr. Gorsuch.
Hold hearings in the U.S. Senate.
Confirm the appointment.
Make good:
Mr. Gorsuch is sworn in.

Back in about 1980, I honchoed the design of an industrial machine that accepted a flow of books or magazines and stacked them in an even pile so the “extra” paper around the edges could be trimmed off. It worked a treat; we installed them around the U.S. and Europe in printing plants to produce everything from Playboy to Reader’s Digest with a stop at TV Guide.

ChecklistIn order to get those magazines into your hands, I looked at the existing stackers on the market and found that they couldn’t keep up with the throughput particularly of the thin, fast moving magazines like the two-up Digest or TVGuide. That defined the problem. A number of people on my team and over in the sales offices researched what the market needed and how many we might sell because there was no way we’d spend a gazillion dollars of design time and tool up for a machine that sold three copies. The requirements came out of that research. We dreamed up and discarded a lot of solutions and homed in on the best. One of my designers at the time was arguably the best, most creative machine guy I’ve met anywhere; he did the layout. The guys in the model shop downstairs built a prototype and we tested it right there in our own plant. I installed the first one in, I think, Offenburg Germany.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

The Pilemaker went from defining the problem to making good on the solution — you reading a magazine. Or at least gazing at the foldout.

That’s the way writing op-ed and governing are supposed to work, too.

I want my columns to change the way you think or, better, to get you to take action. That’s my goal. The make good is when you do volunteer for a community group or throw the bums out of Washington.

We want the legislature to complete the tasks we set for them. That’s our goal; it should be every Congress Critters’ goal as well. The make good is when we see a bridge built across the Rock River or a health care system that works.

I have no way other than persuasion to strong arm you into completing my goal but we can force Congress to do so.

We can elect new ones.

Give them a check list.

Remind them that they lose their jobs when they don’t make good.

And then follow through.

Thank you, John McCain. You got us part way there.



Sunday will be the 50th anniversary of the Detroit race riots.

“Gun battles raged in Detroit’s streets. Snipers clashed with National Guardsmen and police. Many residents huddled for safety in their homes, while others — both black and white — looted businesses. Many of the businesses were then set ablaze.

“The riots engulfed the city beginning July 23, 1967, and continued for five days — one of many to hit the U.S. that summer. The violence prompted President Lyndon Johnson to send in federal troops to quell the upheaval.

“Forty-three people — 33 blacks and 10 whites — were killed. More than 7,000 people were arrested. Over 1,400 buildings were burned. Fifty years later, Detroit is still recovering.”

We’ll see a lot of news coverage this week and next, alongside laudatory prose of how much the country is doing to remember the events and will use them to assure we never repeat those times.

U.S. Flag Flown Upside DownThe Algiers Motel incident, for example, happened one fire-lit night of the racially charged 12th Street Riot. The building itself is gone and grass grows on its lot. There has never been a monument there to the lives lost but there will be soon.

About a century earlier and some 500 miles to the southeast, we made a different kind of history.

July 21, 1861: The Civil War’s first major battle erupted at Manassas, known as Bull Run, Virginia
July 22, 1862: President Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet
July 23, 1863: A skirmish at Manassas Gap, Virginia
July 24, 1864: The second Battle of Kernstown, Virginia

Today, we are tearing down monuments to that War. I wonder how long it will be before historical revisionists tear down the new monuments in Detroit.


The Science Isn’t Wrong

But it ain’t right, either. Mayday! Mayday!

“The science is fixed,” Science Friday host Ira Flatow keeps selling^H telling us.

In the “Robot Sadism” episode of Science Friday, associate producer Christie Taylor went to JPL to find out how to build a wheel that lasts.

In 2013, rover operators had noticed a gaping hole in Curiosity’s left front wheel as it moved across the Mars landscape. After some investigation, they realized “it wasn’t just one little mishap that caused a puncture or one particularly awful rock,” said engineer Patrick DeGrosse. “It was just the first symptom.”

Mr. DeGrosse is a member of the Tiger Team that tests copies of Curiosity’s wheels here on Earth.

Size of a Football Field on EarthIn the Mars Yard, a not-even-football field-sized test track in Pasadena, a test rover demonstrated whether the wheels slip or get bogged down or can climb a rock. (Do click the pic to see.) “Physics equations can’t tell you any of that,” Ms. Taylor said about the myriad of tiny interactions with the surface of Mars.

“You don’t sit down at your computer and draw up the complexity of sand grains and rocks and what all those friction coefficients are and how they tumble over each other when a wheel hits them. We’re just not at that stage yet,” Mr. DeGrosse said.

We’re not?

And yet, the science is fixed! We can map the earth and the GPS in our car will always direct us to the next location!

The science is fixed! We can cure the common cold!

The science is fixed! The sun’s corona is millions of degrees hotter than the surface and we don’t yet know why.

The science is fixed! 70-95% or humans are right-handed but we still cannot describe why we use one hand instead of the other.

The science is fixed! The planet Saturn has a massive, continuous hurricane up near the pole. Earth’s hurricanes are powered by warm ocean and wind down as they hit land or cold water. Saturn has no oceans and is really cold. Huh.

The science isn’t wrong. But the political and lay interpreters ain’t right, either.

And that’s the lesson for today.


Everything Is New Again!

I walk a couple of miles around South Puffin most mornings but yesterday was special.

“It’s a new year” and change was in the air. I expected transformation. I’d greet new people dressed in finery coming out of brand new homes. They would have handsome gardens and all their children would be above average.

It came as a surprise that I recognized every single house on my street. Every one.

Pundits insist on parsing “Make America Great Again” so it means something bad. In fact, on Face the Nation Sunday morning, the consensus was that the slogan specifically evokes racism and anti-feminism and classism and probably fascism.
Why is it so hard to look forward?
David Frum was so negative that he is the absolute embodiment of why I don’t read the Atlantic. He’s a “neoconservative” political commentator and senior editor at the Atlantic. A speech writer for Bush 43, he later wrote the first insider book about the Bush presidency. On Face the Nation, Mr. Frum called the current “crisis of democracy” something that hasn’t been seen since World War II. He was so virulently, consistently negative about Mr. Trump and a Trump presidency that even the Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg called him on his negativity.

The very people who wailed and gnashed their teeth over the Bush Administration are trotting out a similar litany again. Maybe one reason we need to make America great again is because these negative nellies are so afraid of change.

Here are some of the stories I’m hearing for 2017:

The president-elect doesn’t listen to anybody else.
Translation: “We need a president who will go along with the status quo.”
Reality: Mr. Trump tallied 1.4 million more votes than Ms. Clinton did in 49 states (only her huge disparity in California gave her a lead in the popular vote). He carried 32 states overall. She carried 18 and the D.C. He carried about 82% of all U.S. counties; she got the other 18%. That was a call for a significant shift. Voters deliberately chose a man who promised not to listen to the politicians.
The hope: Americans are already more hopeful that the country will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016 under Mr. Obama, according to a new AP-Times Square Alliance poll. People are looking forward to having more jobs and more money to spend.

The new administration has no substantive policies.
Translation: “We need to continue the Obama policies.”
Reality: The new mandate is to repair the damage done by years of political skulduggery on both sides of the aisle. More people than ever before fear and hate the federal government.
The hope: New policies will pare down every Federal department; reform the regulatory code; strengthen the U.S. military to discourage expansion by China, Russia, and terrorists; revamp all U.S. healthcare from the ground up and transform the VA; change the EPA from a fascist front to an environmental steward; establish school choice; create a working energy policy; do real science on climate matters; rewrite the 74,608-page federal tax code; and make us proud of our elected government.

The president-elect and most of the new administration have no political experience.
Translation: “We need a president who will go along with the expansion of big government.”
Reality: For more than a century, all “first world” countries have been rife with interest groups driving bigger government. The fundamental checks on such growth such as our allegiance to local control and a Constitution that limits the government’s role in economic life have been dissolved by Democrats and Republicans alike. Thank goodness that We the Overtaxed People finally elected someone with no political experience!
The hope: The classical liberal hopes that it may still be possible to stem the growth and return the “power to the people.”

The president-elect is morally outrageous!
Translation: “We need a president who is kind to women like Bill Clinton, or FDR, or LBJ, or Grover Cleveland, or James Buchanan.”
Reality: There’s no excuse for bad manners or illegal behavior but every recent election shows we not only accept it but approve of it from “good” politicians (the ones who confirm their supporters’ bias).
The hope: How about a resolution that we punish crimes and eliminate the Victorian prurience?

The president-elect is a rapacious businessman or a terrible financial manager. Or both!
Translation: “We need a president who knows nothing about business.”
Reality: We haven’t elected many politicians who have ever built anything whether it’s a house, a race car, a rocket ship, or a stent. Look where we are now.
The hope: This country was founded on citizen legislators and public servants. Maybe, just maybe, we can reinvigorate the idea of finding successful, capable people in other fields to “lend” their expertise to the government for a little while and then return to real life.

All the new appointments hate [science | women | foreign policy | the EPA | education | Obamacare].
Translation: “The new appointments will throw away all our hard-gains in newspaper science, affirmative action, and ‘free’ perpetual care.”
Reality: Newspaper science isn’t real. Fake trophies punish real accomplishment. And TANSTAAFL.
The hope: We can move the 46.3 million people in the labor force who were actually unemployed into productive jobs. We will value truth over political correctness and doublespeak. And we will task NASA to collect earthly data and return to the stars.

Plenty of people are trying to rewrite history right now but our best chance is to write a better story from today onward.


Teeny Tiny Little Homes

“Tiny houses” are growing in popularity but one tiny cost never comes up: time.

I lived in about 90 square feet (albeit with a really nice “porch”) for a lot of most summers when I was growing up.

We had a 27′, 1950 Richardson cabin cruiser then; the cabin was about 10′ long and the boat had a 9′ beam. There was plenty of room as long as we didn’t mind making beds up every night and making furniture again in the morning. The boat had an enclosed head, a galley with ice box, and a lot of stowage. Boat, RV, and tiny house designers have learned to find storage everywhere (there is always more space available in the hull of the boat than is accessible).

On a boat or “boondocking” (also called “dry camping”), the grocery store often is not reachable.

Modern boats of that size have showers and hot water in the enclosed head and their galleys have electric refrigerators. But we didn’t have a washer or dryer. We didn’t have a freezer. We didn’t have room for more than a couple days of food although we could always hide an extra couple of cans of Dinty Moore beef stew or corned beef for sandwiches.

Tiny HouseTiny houses are at a big crossroad, according to Plastics News.

“Twenty-five tiny houses are under construction in a blighted Detroit neighborhood by a non-profit group with a plan that could become a national model for helping people who earn about $12,000 a year become homeowners in seven years.”

There are plenty of other “tiny house” projects. Rufus reminded me that Vic de Zen of Royal Plastics had developed a line of tiny houses made from extruded PVC to be used quickly to replace houses after a hurricane trashed the Carribean islands.

“I really think that house shown in the article is pretty …. but I have waaaaaay too much stuff for 400 square feet!” Rufus said. “And I hope that continues to be the case.”

The even smaller 300-square foot Tudor-style tiny house in the article had electric and heating bills, in the middle of cold Michigan in February, will be $32 because that minimal space has “9 inches of insulation and very energy efficient windows.”

$32 for light and heat in February seems high. A human body and a lightbulb should be able to heat that little space with that much insulation. Put two human bodies in there and you’d have to open a window to cool the place.

The race is on for smaller and smaller spaces. One man lives in a 207-square-foot space with his wife and two kids. The Richardson had just 90-square-feet in the cabin.

Rufus has waaaaaay too much stuff but the real question isn’t what stuff you give up but what other cost?

There is no room for collections of books. “I miss them, but I have audiobooks on my phone and a Kindle,” Liz Arden said.

There isn’t any wall space for art. “I have a 40-inch flat screen on one wall and three other smaller screens and they all cycle through my etchings,” North Puffin’s mayor and general roue Beau Pinder said.

“There’s no storage for my shot glasses and salt-and-pepper shakers,” Alice said. OK, that’s a problem.

Stuff really isn’t the issue. Ms. Arden has decluttered her life, so the spare look needed in a tiny space works for her.

Time is the issue.

Larger spaces have room for a pantry or a workshop or a craftroom or a studio which means larger spaces have food for the week or the month and a pipe wrench for the bathroom leak and a sewing machine for the quilt and a stack of unfinished and partially finished canvases (eventually) for sale. Larger spaces have dedicated rooms for eating and sleeping and pooping.

Tiny spaces eat time to shop every day or two for food. The home repair job takes time to borrow or rent a pipe wrench. Sewing the quilt takes time to visit an “offsite” community center. The stack of canvases means a separate studio. The artist has to get dressed and travel there to create. The storage under the bed/sofa/lounge and the dining room table/work bench/desk/kitchen counter means tearing down one job to set up the next. The head lived under the starboard berth in our first boat giving new meaning to the idea that “you have to get up to go.”

The trade-off is a good one and one most tiny house owners make happily. After all, a space that does so many different things so well is a joy. There is no 10′ Christmas tree to drag out to the compost pile. And, bonus, since there is no room for wrapping paper, you don’t have to wrap Christmas presents.

The caveat? Time is the only non-renewable resource in the tiny house oeuvre.