Monday, April 24, 2006

The more I think about it, the more I'm really into this "open think tank" idea that I posted about little while ago. I ran across similar thinking in some comments on a Daily Kos posting about the need for more progressive think tanks. At least two other people are interested, so maybe I can get to know them and we can come up with something cool.

In the mean time, I've gotten started, slowly but surely. I purchased the URL There's nothing on it yet, but I'll be putting up a concept description, requirements, some sketches, and eventually the prototype and actual site. I've got a lot of thinking and design work to do before getting into the nitty gritty of it, so stay tuned.

In the mean time, though, there are some technical issues to attend to. I don't have any server space at the moment. Can anyone recommend a good provider? I'm thinking I will build the site with Ruby On Rails, so I'll need someone who runs Apache and MySQL. I imagine this is true for most server providers, but it's a requirement nonetheless.

Since I don't actually know Ruby, I'll have to learn. I'm going to start with some of the online tutorials. Rolling On Rails on O'Reilly seem pretty good. But I'm a sucker for old fashioned paper, and am looking at the following two books:

Programming Ruby: The Pragmatic Programmers' Guide, Second Edition

Agile Web Development with Rails : A Pragmatic Guide

Has anyone used these? Are they good? Or would you recommend something better?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Business Opportunities Supporting Air Taxi

Kevin sent me an email the other day about a conference in Florida dealing with the up and coming very light jet and air taxi businesses. For those of you unfamiliar with it, a new class of aircraft called Very Light Jets are soon to hit the market and have the potential to revolutionize air travel. They are small, single pilot jets that can carry 6-8 people with a transcontinental range. They are very quiet and have short takeoff and landing distances. Most importantly, they are cheap and have low operating costs. The first of these to hit the market will be the Eclipse 500 (featuring Avidyne flight displays!) later this year, which is slated to retail in the $1.5 million range, as opposed to the tens of millions for a Gulfstream or Lear. Others soon to follow will be the Cessna Mustang, Diamond D-Jet, Spectrum, Honda Jet, and more.

While also aiming for the corporate jet market, these manufacturers expect to sell a large number of aircraft to air taxi services. Charter service has been around since the 60's, but with the lower operating costs, the new air taxi companies like DayJet hope to keep prices competitive with first class on major airlines. Because of the short field capabilities of the VLJs, they will also be able to fly into many of the thousands of under-utilized airports around the country, thus avoiding the congestion of the major hubs, offering point-to-point service, and bringing the customer closer to many of the suburban destinations they are going to.

I think it will be a successful business, but there are already a lot of players in the primary market. But like any boom, there are plenty of ways to make money in secondary and tertiary businesses related to the boom. During the gold rush, someone who owned a saloon and sold provisions to prospectors likely cleaned up, and with a lot less risk than those who worked the mines themselves.

Are there similarly opportunities in the air taxi industry? Once people land at these small airports, they will still need transportation to their ultimate destination, and they will not have the benefit of numerous large car rental outfits on-site as the bigger airports have. Perhaps there is room for an innovative car rental business akin to Zipcar. Or maybe in a smaller, sleeker version of an on-airport hotel that rents zipcars. A lot of the smaller airports are in various states of repair, so possibly if you had the capital, you could start buying up old airports, restoring them, and building the infrastructure to support an air taxi service (though I suspect people are already doing this).

I'm sure there a lot of other ideas that I'm not thinking of. If you have thoughts, post them to the comments and we'll discuss.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What ever happened to deterrence?

With all this talk of bombing Iran, you wonder if nobody remembers the Cold War. Given that it lasted so long, it's hard to see how you could miss it. When the Soviets threatened us with nuclear holocaust, we guaranteed them the same. It was called Mutually Assured Destruction. But before that was Assured Destruction, which was the doctrine whereby if we were attacked at all, we assured the Soviets of nuclear annihilation. Given our overwhelming nuclear superiority over Iran, why can't we use that same strategy? Make it very clear: if Iran launches a nuclear weapon on the U.S. or any ally, or if a smuggled nuclear device is exploded on U.S. soil, Iran will be held accountable and the country will be flattened under a rain of nuclear weapons.

But in this debate, no one seems to want to talk about the strategy that won the Cold War. Instead, on one side, you have the right-wing hawks claiming we Iran can't be deterred and cannot be allowed to possess the bomb, so we should attack. On the left, you have people saying we shouldn't ever threaten anyone. But threatening a counterattack is perfectly reasonable and it even puts you in a better strategic position. It's much easier to defend militarily and to gain allies diplomatically if you are the defender instead of the aggressor. It's also much more likely that the American public will fully support, and maintain supporting, a counterattack than a pre-emptive attack. Granted, a counterattack implies that the initial attack has already occurred and thus a large number of people have already died, but that is the risk a free society must take. The illusion of absolute security is tempting, but ultimately unattainable. Better to deter your enemy as much as possible and destroy him if attacked.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Pressure on Rumsfeld to Resign

With now six retired generals now calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign, you have to wonder if his days are finally numbered. What strikes me is the type of arguments that his supporters are making. Effectively, they are punting trying to rebut claims that he has poorly prosecuted the war and instead have treated calls for him to resign as attacks on his character.

For example, a lot of liberals have hated Rumsfeld from the beginning because of "the way he carries himself" as commentator Dan Goure said on NPR last night in his defense of the secretary. Goure goes on to argue that we need someone who is confident, and almost arrogant in his confidence to win the war. We shouldn't let personal failures get in the way of fighting, and he cites Abraham Lincoln's retention of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant despite concerns by some about his drinking. In another defense of Rumsfeld, Chairman of the Joint chiefs Gen. Peter Pace said that no one should question Rumsfeld's patriotism or work ethic.

But that's not what the new round of generals are basing their arguments on. They cite his refusal to listen to military advice, especially on the number of forces to deploy to secure the country after the invasion. Not only refusing to listen to advice, but publicly humiliating those who did not toe the party line, as Gen. Eric Shinseki discovered when he testified in front of congress before the war. As Gen. Paul Eaton argues, Rumsfeld placed too much emphasis on technology at the expense of desperately needed manpower. The generals also take issue with the secretary's micromanaging of the war. Furthermore, Rumsfeld also refused to acknowledge the insurgency, both in its early days as well as when it was very clear the war was far from over. The secretary is also responsible for Abu Ghraib and the human and P.R. costs that have ensued from it. In particular, he refuted Gen. Pace on what a soldier should do if they encounter a case of torture. The general believed the soldier had the obligation to stop it. The secretary only wanted to the soldier to report it.

These are not attacks on Rumsfeld's work ethic, his patriotism, or his personality. These are attacks on the decisions the secretary has made, his overall strategy and his tactics in leading the war, and the outcomes these have produced. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how much someone wants to win or how hard someone works. What matters are results. If his supporters cannot answer these charges with results (and more so than the president's Michael Brown-style "doing a fine job"), then maybe he should step down.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

House For Sale at Lake Hiwassee in OK

If anyone who reads this blog happens to be looking to buy a house in Oklahoma, my aunt and uncle are selling thiers on Lake Hiwassee, my old neighborhood. More info and photos are at their posting on It's probably a longshot, but who knows who reads this thing.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Open Think Tanks

Given the exploding readership and influence of political blogs out there, it is apparent that there are a lot of very capable, talented writers who are passionate on policy and political topics who do this just for the sheer interest in the subjects. Of course, many of the contributors are journalists and lots of the biggest blogs are staffed full-time, but I would guess that there are still lots of people who read and contribute smaller amounts who have otherwise unrelated employment.

At this point, though, most of the blogs seem to focus on up-to-the-minute news, fact checking, book reviews, and some shorter policy debates. Some posts can get lengthy, but there doesn't seem to be much in the way of position papers and studies like those put out by think tanks. Would it be possible to create an "open think tank" that uses the open source software development model? Maybe something like this: someone proposes a topic for the study and people can join up. The lead or the core of the group organizes the project and divide up the work, and people can contribute components, from doing research, data analysis, writing, graphics, editing, etc. Group members rely on each other to double check the contributions by each other.

I would set it up like Sourceforge, where there's a project webpage that contains info on the project, group members, maybe a blog or wiki for discussion and other communication. For the actual materials of the study, like raw data, analysis, or the actual text of the report, it's all managed through a version control system just like source code is. You can have various stages of release of your documents, alpha and beta drafts or something like that, and a final release (although if it follows the open source trend, nothing ever makes it out of beta).

Of course you'll never be able to match the speed of real think tanks because they're working full time and have more research resources available, but I bet it'd be surprising the number and quality of ideas that come from an open think tank. The people who contribute may be amateurs, but there are a lot of very well-educated and thoughtful amateurs out there who could create top quality studies. Who knows, maybe it could end up like Linux or Firefox and carve out a niche and give the established players a run for their money.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Tuesday, April 04, 2006's New Look

Yesterday, The New York Times released their new website design. They've wided out the page, changed up the fonts, and reorganized it. Some of the other new features are still in development, such as the My Times section where you're supposed to be able to create your own personalized news and information page. The Times Topics page is pretty cool, serving as a reference index to people, things, events, etc. that are covered by the paper.

In general, I think it's a good thing that they wided out the pages, but the main page seems a little scattered. The "Inside" bar stretching across in the middle is an abrupt interruption of the columns started above it, and then the columns below seem too compressed, especially given the new font.

Most of the text now uses the "Georgia Serif" font, which I think looks good for bolded headlines, but it hard to read when it's smaller and non-bolded. In particular, the font looks pixilated at the smaller size. The spacing of the letters is also somewhat awkward, and the words, especially with the smaller fonts, seem stretched slightly, making it harder to chunk the words visually. This is most apparent in the lower column area. For smaller text, I think it's much easier to read a sans-serif, or even the traditional Times New Roman.

My favorite page, actually, is the Today's Paper where the articles in the printed version are presented. The page is organized in basically one long column, and the articles are grouped by first page and then by section. Front page has headlines and summary sentences, while the remainder of the article links are just headlines. A small image of the front page is situated next to the front page articles. I find this page very easy to navigate, scan, and read. I wish the rest of the paper was laid out in a similarly simple fashion. Of course, this may all be moot due to RSS readers.

They also seem to be playing up the multimedia aspect of their news coverage. Personally, I don't know how much value that really adds. Most of the video segments seem like they would be just as good as written text, and you could read it about 2-4x faster. I have enjoyed the still slide shows they've had for some time now. I don't know how much value is added by having voice narration over just having that text as a caption, letting the reader examine the pictures at his own pace. Then again, I may just be an old fuddy-duddy and not understand all this newfangled, hip multimedia experience stuff.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Ding dong, DeLay is Gone!

Delay Will Not Seek Re-election To Congress

It's been a long time coming, butthere's only so long that someone that flagrantly power-hungry can go without going down in a ball of burning trainwreck (to borrow a phrase from one of my co-workers).

Universal Digital Ports

Had an idea the other day that could be a business opportunity: a "universal digital port". In the aviation electronics world, and probably in the electronics world more broadly, there are a lot different digital data protocols, like serial ports in RS-232, RS-422, RS-485, ARINC 429, ByteFlight, Ethernet, USB, parallel ports, game ports, etc. In aircraft cockpits, you have all these different devices using different formats and getting them to talk to each other is a pain. There are companies out there that make conversion devices (we call them "happy boxes" here at the office) but they are often very expensive, and specialized to for a particular device using a specific format.

Why not do the conversion in software? The device itself would be a generic embedded computer with an array of digital inputs and outputs whose voltages can be varied across the range found in the various data formats. The actual protocol, timing, voltages, etc and the conversion from one protocol to the other, is done in software that can be easily written and loaded to the device. You could even write the software in an extensible "plug-in" style and release an API so that people who buy your device can create their own protocols.

Using one common hardware configuration gives you pretty good economy of scale in production. Opening the API offloads a lot of the programming work, so you would just have to get the basic OS and the software framework going to have a viable product.

In a way, this is kind of similar to software radios, such as the open-source GNU Radio and the military's JTRS but applied to digital device-to-device communication instead of audible radio. Any thoughts? Kevin, is there already a VC-backed startup that's been doing this for the last three years?