United 93: Hollywood Gets it Right This Time (or 9/11 Meets Apollo 13)

04/28/2006: In a politically-charged climate such as ours, it is easy to understand why making a movie about September 11 would be risky. To be fair, everybody has an opinion about what motivated the hijackers, and the effect of our post-9/11 strategy. Given the recent attempts by others to use the screen to advance political views, there is legitimate cause for concern over the potential for politicizing 9/11.

United 93 avoided that. As David Beamer–father of Flight 93 hero Todd Beamer–opined in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Hollywood got it right this time.

There is no political agenda in this movie.

A few notes about suitability: It would be a good movie for a family to see together. These are matters where healthy discussion is recommended, and the movie is good for that. The language is relatively clean, as the emphasis is not on salty language, but rather capturing the situation. There are a few F-bombs, and I counted one GD-bomb, but other than that it’s clean. There are some bloody scenes, but they are not overdone. This is not The Passion of the Christ or Saving Private Ryan. I do not, however, recommend it for pre-teens (except if the parents see it first). That’s a judgment call.

The movie is very stressful from the five-minute mark onward. One gets a close-up view of the difficulties faced by the air traffic controllers, the FAA, and our military. The directors capture the extreme hardships faced by multiple levels of command in even understanding what was going on, as things were unfolding very rapidly.

Keep in mind that the first plane–American Airlines Flight 11–hit the North tower at about 8:45 AM. At 10:03 AM–a mere 78 minutes later–United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, PA. In between that time, flights hit the South Tower and the Pentagon. While all that is transpiring, there are thousands of planes in the air (each one a blip on the screen for which controllers are responsible for maintaining adequate separation from the other blips), and even the suspect flights were tough to discern as hijackings.

Imagine trying to interpret such ambiguous data under the pressure that the military, FAA, and air traffic controllers were experiencing.

United 93 captures that in spectacular fashion!

Enter the heroes of United Flight 93.

Thanks to cellular (and air-phone) technology, the passengers learned that two jets had hit the World Trade Center and one had hit the Pentagon.

Given that your plane has been hijacked, and knowing that three buildings have been hit, what would you do?

Compounding matters, one of the hijackers is wearing what appears to be a bomb.

Now what would you do?

Had they been resigned to their fate, done nothing, and United 93 hit Capitol Hill or the White House, no one would fault the passengers for staying put. They were under no moral obligation to attack the hijackers.

What they did was morally supererogatory.

In the Army, Soldiers are trained to–if necessary–fall on grenades in order to save the others in their units. (Those who do so realize they are dead anyway, and it’s merely a matter of saving their comrades.) It is not uncommon for soldiers who do that to receive posthumous Medals of Honor, as–training or no training–it is still a gutsy act.

But the passengers of Flight 93 were not military-trained combatants, yet they had already witnessed things that would challenge the resolve of our best Special Forces operators.

They had a decision to make, and they made the best decision in a lose-lose situation.

On a day in which very little went right, the Constitutional Militia of Flight 93 reported for duty, and scored our first victory against Islamist terrorists.

The passengers also scored another major accomplishment: they made future hijackings less likely. Now, anyone who attempts to hijack an American flight will get beat to a pulp. They’ll never make it into the cockpit. If the sky marshals don’t put bullets in their heads, the passengers will take care of business.

Ergo, the heroes of Flight 93 made our skies safer.

United 93 also presents another group of heroes: the air traffic controllers (ATCs).

On a good day, ATCs have one of the hardest jobs in America. Their job is to keep planes from meeting in the air (or on the ground). That involves properly directing aircraft taxiing, taking off, ascending, flying level, approaching the runway, landing, and taxiing. When they get it wrong, lots of people die. And all it takes for that to happen is the slightest lapse in concentration.

From the moment American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North WTC Tower to just past noon, the ATCs safely brought in over 4,000 aircraft without so much as a near-miss.

United 93 is a fitting tribute to the passengers who scored a major victory, and the ATCs who kept their heads and did a remarkable job under the most extraordinary pressure.

Semper Fi to the heroes Flight 93, and hats off to Hollywood.

I often chide them when they get it wrong, but they got it right this time.

Lots of Wrangling over “Naked Jesus”

04/27/2006: The Insurgent, an alternative student paper at the The University of Oregon, recently ran a cartoon depicting Jesus–as he was crucified–nude, with an erection. This, of course, has stirred up the ire of some very predictable groups.

I lose sleep over lots of things; this isn’t one of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a Christian all the way. And yes, the cartoon was in poor taste.

But what do you expect from a radical group of students who are rebelling at all things virtuous?

The Romans of old burned Christians at the stake, beheaded them, used them for human torches, skinned them alive, and fed them to wild animals. Compared to that, a newspaper cartoon is quite mild.

I thank God that I live in a country that allows me to worship freely, and also speak my mind. (Anyone who knows me knows I love doing that.)

That same Constitution that lets me worship and speak as I choose gives those radical students the right to opine as they wish.

Besides, the fact that they are radical anti-Christians today hardly guarantees they will remain so inclined. After all, God used such a radical–Paul–as the instrument to “bring it” (the Gospel, that is) to the Gentiles.

And, being of Kurdish-Iranian descent, I am a Gentile.

Random Thoughts on the Oil Mess…

04/25/2006: When people wonder why fuel prices are so high, they ask as if there is an easy answer. I guess there is, at the top level: supply and demand. However, the factors that influence supply and demand, and also the price parameter that connects them, are not quite so easily understood. Here is a short list.

(1) India and China are surging in their demand for oil. When each were socialist/communist economies, their demand for oil was low in spite of their high populations. However, China has been inching toward a more free-market system since the mid-1970s, while India started a radical advancement toward free markets in 1991. The results have been staggering.

On one level, it is great: each country is realizing unprecedented levels of prosperity. On another level, it is putting pressure on the United States: two very large populations are now competing for the same scarce resources that we are. This is working to drive up oil prices, which impacts fuel prices.

For this reason alone, the long-term trend for oil prices is upward.

(2) The U.S. dollar has fallen about 40% since 2001. This is important, because oil prices are pegged to the U.S. dollar.

The primary culprit in this? Greenspan. When he finally got around to lowering the interest rates, he lowered them too much, and kept them too low for too long.

The secondary culprits: Bush and Congress, who latched onto those low rates and jacked up federal spending to heights that would have made LBJ and FDR blush.

The tertiary culprits: the American people, who are addicted to debt.

(3) Gasoline formulation standards vary from locality to locality. Different localities have different regulations for fuel additives. Most of these are driven by environmental considerations. Whatever the motivations, that these standards vary among localities serves to drive up overall fuel prices.

(4) American refinery capacity has not grown in the past 25 years. However, American demand for gasoline has definitely grown in the past 25 years, especially with our SUV culture.

(5) The new ethanol requirements for gasoline–a federal subsidy to farmers in the Midwest–has caused part of the recent spike in prices.

The culprits in this case: Bush and Congress.

(6) The ratcheting of tensions with Iran. Fact is, we are one air strike away from $100-per-barrel oil.

Culprit here: Bush.

Forget about the wrangling over Iraq. The intel stunk, and we are now seeing firsthand how badly it stunk. We’re there, we’re getting the job done, and we need to finish it and get the hell out of there. The Iraqi people can run their own affairs, and they should be able to do so without our interference.

That said, we need to revisit our WMD policy with respect to foreign nations. Fact is, we have neither the troops nor the money to fight full-out wars in North Korea or Iran. Nor do we need to pursue such action.

We already have plenty of nukes in our arsenal, and we have the technology to use them if we need to.

With that in mind, we can take a very diplomatic approach with Iran and North Korea and even Red China. Here is how I would word it (perhaps Tony Snow could put far better spin on it LOL):

We respect your desire to become a member of the nuclear community, as there are many legitimate objectives for pursuing this avenue. We have proven that in our sixty years as a nuclear superpower.

However, because of the devastating nature of the weapons, being a member of the nuclear club carries a tremendous amount of responsibility.

It has long been our policy to maintain the prerogative to use our weapons in the event of unprovoked attacks on us or our allies. That policy served us well during the Cold War, and remains our policy today.

We welcome you in your pursuit and look forward to a constructive relationship so that nuclear weapons will remain in their silos, as mutual destruction is not a path desirable to either side.

At any rate, we need to get out of the business of exporting democracy via our military. Backing off from this approach would have a relaxing effect on oil prices.

While the largest factors driving fuel prices have nothing to do with Bush, there are some things he can do to curb the problem in the short-term:

(1) Take a detente approach with Iran (and North Korea) with respect to WMDs.

(2) Work with John McCain to get some structural spending cuts in place. This will take some pressure off the dollar.

(3) Work to get America on a uniform set of gasoline formulation standards.

(4) Work with Congress to get some new refineries built.

As for long-term solutions, we need to keep in mind that ethanol is not necessarily the answer. A gallon of ethanol does not have the energy of a gallon of gasoline.

They’ve been pushing ethanol for 30 years now, and if the promise was as good as the hype, we would have said, “screw you” to Saudi Arabia a long time ago.

We need to get some experts in energy–a consortium of academics, industry leaders, and economists–to determine which emerging fuel sources carry the most promise. Each will have tradeoffs. Each will have advantages.

The technology for fuel alternatives is there, but currently the economics are prohibitive. Federal subsidies will not change that reality.

At the very least, we can demand annual updates for feasibility determinations. If one or more alternatives becomes economically feasible, we can determine which option carries more bang for the buck, and then arrive at some agreed-upon standards for transition, complete with timetables.

About price-gouging?

What about price-gouging? There could be some of that, but I ran the numbers. While profits were awfully high, profit margins–profits divided by sales–were roughly the same.

There was, however, a slight increase in profit margin. It would be very hard to determine if that slight rise in margin (net profits divided by revenues) is due to gouging.

Here’s the rub: small changes in profit margin, with large changes in revenues, can result in very large changes in net profits.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say you are the CEO of a company that has $1 million in revenues, and $500,000 in profits. That is a profit margin of $.50 per $1 of revenue.

Let’s say you made some improvements and your margin increased to $.70 per $1 of revenue. Let’s also say your revenue tripled to $3 million. That works out to $2.1 million in profits (versus $1.5 million if the margin stayed at $0.50). That’s a 40% difference, and we are talking in millions, not billions.

Now, let’s say your initial profits were $50 million on $100 million in revenues. Again, that’s a profit margin of $1.50 per $1.00 of revenue. Let’s assume you increased your profit to $0.70 per $1.00 of revenue. Let’s say your revenue tripled to $300 million

That translates to $210 million in profit, versus $150 million had the margin remained at $0.50. That is a difference of $60 million. Compounded over four quarters, that translates to a quarter-billion dollars in extra profits due specifically to that small change in profit margin!

What I just showed was how a small change in profit margin, coupled with a large increase in revenues, can skew profits. The issue is what caused that profit margin to increase???

And yes…that small change in margin could be due to a gouging effect. It doesn’t have to be, but it certainly can be.

Congress needs to cut the grandstanding and demand an accounting for the profit margin increases–even if it is small. A competent CEO should be able to provide a clear answer to that question without fumbling with technical terms.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher–like Dubya–is a Big Government Wuss

04/25/2006: I once had high hopes for Gov. Ernie Fletcher. He was the congressman from my district in Kentucky, and had done a very good job. In the wake of the scandals–and corruption–of Gov. Paul Patton, Fletcher ran a stellar campaign rooted in change, integrity, and hope. I know people who have worked for him, and they all swore to Fletcher’s integrity.

I voted for him. I figured Fletcher would bring radical change to Kentucky: tax reform, structural cuts within large, bloated agencies, and crackdowns against the corrupt cartel that had dominated Frankfort for 150 years. He had the credentials: he had been an Air Force pilot, an engineer, a physician, and a Congressman. On top of that, he was a preacher. He had a range of life experience and seemed like the right man for the job. Kentuckians elected him enthusiastically.

Since then, not much has changed.

State government is still bloated; no serious structural changes have even been proposed.

While Fletcher has managed to get tax reform passed, he has done nothing in terms of cutting wasteful spending.

The hiring scandal (more hype than anything else) reflects a desire on the part of his administration to effect “change” by merely implementing a Republican version of the same system that preceded his. That is not reform.

Rather than try to get more Republicans hired into the merit system, he should have commissioned a study of the merit system, presented the facts to the public, and called on the Attorney General to work with him to fix it. Instead, this “scandal” has rendered him–just like his predecessor–irrelevant.

Meanwhile, state employee insurance is hitting Kentucky taxpayers hard. While Fletcher is a physician, he has provided no serious leadership in reforming state employee health insurance. No HSAs. No catastrophic care plans. Just more of the same. For Kentuckians, Fletcher could have used his post to lobby Bush and Congress on behalf of HSAs and Medical IRAs. Nothing.

(Contrast that with Republican Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has helped spearhead a reform plan that has some promise. Romney’s plan has red flags, but at least it is a plan. And he worked with a very liberal legislature to get it passed.)

In search of votes, Fletcher helped foist over $40 million onto Kentucky taxpayers to fund a new arena in Louisville (so they can pursue an NBA team that they have a snowball’s chance in hell of landing). This in spite of studies that have shown that such arenas provide dubious economic benefit compared to the hype.

On top of all this, Fletcher has done nothing to address the shortfalls to the state employee pension system, which is a disaster waiting to happen. Nor has he moved to address looming problems in the state Medicaid system. The “mess in Frankfort” that he promised to clean is as big today as it was when he took office.

On spending matters, he has capitulated to partisan extremism, supporting state funding of a pharmacy building at the University of the Cumberlands–a religious institution–in clear violation of the Kentucky constitution.

Rather than stand on principle and veto the $11 million, he sided with the extremists and hid behind the excuse of “legal ambiguity”. With that decision, he has destroyed any chance of getting re-elected. He has lost his conservative base.

This is because he is an idealogue, while most conservatives are in fact principle-driven. While most of us conservatives supported the right of the University of the Cumberlands to expel an openly gay student, we also understood the inconsistency of its claim on grounds of being a private institution while receiving public money. (I opined about that on this blog.)

By doing what he did, Fletcher made conservatives look like stupid, narrow-minded ideologues. He will find that decision costly to his re-election hopes.

Rather than run for re-election next year, Fletcher should take one for the home team and opt out of next year’s race, conceding his mistakes that have ruined what could have been a great era of positive change for Kentucky.

For whom will I vote next year? I don’t know. It likely won’t be Fletcher. On the Democrat side, I absolutely refuse to vote for Crit Luallen or Greg Stumbo.

Is there a solid Democrat for whom I would vote? Former Governor Brereton Jones. On the Republican side, I’m not sure I like any of the names out there. Hal Rogers is a pork-barrel Republican Congressman. Ditto for Ann Northup.

I would also consider voting for fellow libertarian Gatewood Galbraith.

If I don’t like who I see on the ticket, I’ll write myself in as a protest vote.

Engineer Humor

04/24/2006: From http://www.gdargaud.net/Humor/Engineer.html

You Might Be An Engineer If…

* You have no life – and you can PROVE it mathematically. (That is empirical…I have no life!)
* You enjoy pain. (uhhh…I resemble that remark!)
* You know vector calculus but you can’t remember how to do long division. (That would be me.)
* You chuckle whenever anyone says “centrifugal force”. (Yup)
* You’ve actually used every single function on your graphing calculator. (Screw graphing calculators…real engineers draw their own graphs thankuverymuch!)
* It is sunny and 70 degrees outside, and you are working on a computer.
* You frequently whistle the theme song to “MacGyver”.
* You know how to integrate a chicken and can take the derivative of water.
* You think in “math”. (Affirmative)
* You’ve calculated that the World Series actually diverges. (Proven by inspection.)
* You hesitate to look at something because you don’t want to break down its wave function. (Well…I DO think in terms of transfer functions…oh crap!)
* You have a pet named after a scientist.
* You laugh at jokes about mathematicians. (YES!!!!)
* The Humane society has you arrested because you actually performed the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment. (No…my cat is too smart for that one!)
* You can translate English into Binary.
* You can’t remember what’s behind the door in the engineering building which says “Exit”.
* You have to bring a jacket with you, in the middle of summer, because there’s a wind-chill factor in the lab. (I’ve had that problem before.)
* You are completely addicted to caffeine. (Yup.)
* You avoid doing anything because you don’t want to contribute to the eventual heat-death of the universe.
* You consider ANY non-engineering course “easy”. (LOL…how true!)
* When your professor asks you where your homework is, you claim to have accidentally determined its momentum so precisely, that according to Heisenberg it could be anywhere in the universe. (I’ve never tried that excuse, but I like it!)
* The “fun” center of your brain has deteriorated from lack of use. (Yupper!!!)
* You’ll assume that a “horse” is a “sphere” in order to make the math easier. (Affirmative)
* The blinking 12:00 on someone’s VCR draws you in like a tractor beam to fix it.
* You bring a computer manual / technical journal as vacation reading. (And what’s wrong with that???)
* The salesperson at Circuit City can’t answer any of your questions.
* You can’t help eavesdropping in computer stores… and correcting the salesperson.
* You’re in line for the guillotine… it stops working properly… and you offer to fix it. (only if you went to Purdue and the person in front of you graduated from Indiana!)
* You go on the rides at Disneyland and sit backwards to see how they do the special effects. (I have done that!)
* You have any “Dilbert” comics displayed in your work area. (Used to.)
* You have a habit of destroying things in order to see how they work. (I still do that!)
* You have never backed up your hard drive. (Uh oh!)
* You haven’t bought any new underwear or socks for yourself since you got married. (Never married…therefore never had that problem! LOL)
* You spent more on your calculator than on your wedding ring. (No wedding ring, but LOTS of calculators!)
* You think that when people around you yawn, it’s because they didn’t get enough sleep.
* You would rather get more dots per inch than miles per gallon (not with $3/gallon!!!)
* You’ve ever calculated how much you make per second. (I’ve done that)
* Your favorite James Bond character is “Q,” the guy who makes the gadgets. (hehehehe)
* You understood more than five of these jokes. (and your point is???)
* You make a copy of this list, and post it on your door or your home page ! (Well…)