Friday, July 25, 2014
I'm kinda exhausted tonight. Working too hard, not sleeping very well, looking for another house to rent before our current housemate gets married, sorting out bureaucracy problems in two states . . . it's been a long week.
I'll try to put up some more blog posts in the morning. Until then, sleep well, y'all.
I was fascinated to read how, while cleaning a Dutch painting, an art student at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in England discovered that it had been altered in the past, obscuring its central feature - a stranded whale - without which the painting made very little sense.
Here's a video report on how the discovery was made. I recommend watching it in full-screen mode.
I suppose, after the passage of so much time, we'll never learn for sure who covered up the whale, or why . . .
Thursday, July 24, 2014
As most readers will know, I was born and raised in South Africa, and served in that country's armed forces as a young man. While researching some of the transport aircraft of the former Soviet Union, I was reminded of an incident in 1975 or 1976 (I forget precisely which year) that almost caused a couple of US representatives to have kittens on the spot.
The Soviet Union built the giant Antonov An-22 transport (shown below - still the largest turboprop-driven aircraft ever constructed) for its strategic airlift forces (as opposed to tactical airlift, which used smaller aircraft such as the Antonov An-12 and An-26). The An-22's normal payload was up to 60 tons, but it routinely carried up to a third more than that on shorter flights, and actually lifted a full 100 tons to an altitude of over 25,000 feet during one record attempt. It was a remarkable achievement for 1960's aviation technology. A few of these giants remain in Russian service to this day (although most have been replaced by the even bigger Antonov An-124 jet transport).
Being a long-range heavy-lift strategic transport, the An-22 was used by the Soviet Union to ferry armaments and other urgently-needed military supplies to Angola during the civil war that led to the Communist takeover of that nation in 1975 and 1976. Several of these aircraft flew shuttle missions between the Soviet Union and Angola, and others flew between Cuba and Angola, bringing in Cuban surrogate forces and their arms and equipment. For some weeks there were three to six An-22 flights coming into Luanda, capital of Angola, every night, offloading their cargoes for onward shipment by ground transportation then returning to collect more freight. Their cavernous cargo compartment (shown below) could hold more than any other airlifter of the period except the Lockheed C-5A.
South Africa got involved in the Angolan conflict in an attempt to prevent a Communist takeover there, initially with the encouragement and covert support of the US Ford administration. Unfortunately the Clark Amendment terminated such support, leading to South Africa being forced to withdraw from Angola (and precipitating the ongoing conflict in that country that was only resolved in 1989). South African forces ranged from the border with what is today Namibia all the way up to just outside Luanda (a distance of about eight hundred miles), operating with relative impunity at first, but later facing growing Cuban-led opposition.
A South African reconnaissance unit duly arrived within sight of the airport at Luanda, took a look at the increasingly hectic pace of resupply flights involving the giant An-22's, and radioed a proposal to its base in Namibia. It was in possession of a number of captured shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles, and was close enough to the runway to be sure of being able to hit the big planes as they came in to land. The South Africans proposed to shoot down all the incoming flights the following evening, which under normal circumstances would involve three to six An-22's. They requested permission to proceed.
Their bosses duly put the question to a couple of US representatives who were providing 'advice' as to what was, or was not, politically acceptable from the point of view of the US administration. The representatives promptly had kittens. An account from someone who was present at the discussion claimed that they begged and pleaded for the South Africans to abandon any and all plans for such an attack. They believed that the loss of so many of their limited supply of strategic airlifters (which were used to, among other things, ferry intercontinental ballistic missiles around the Soviet Union) would enrage the Soviets, and lead them to attempt something big in the way of retaliation. This, in turn, might involve the USA willy-nilly in the escalation of the conflict in Angola into something no-one wanted in the wake of the all-too-recent loss of South Vietnam to the Communists.
Reluctantly, it's said, the South African leadership conceded, and radioed their forces outside Luanda not to proceed with the attack. The latter were reportedly livid at having to forgo such a splendid opportunity, and protested vigorously, but were forced to knuckle under. The US representatives breathed a sigh (probably several sighs) of relief.
Here's a video clip of the An-22 at a Russian air show in 2008. For all its immense size and weight, it's still a pretty handy performer in the hands of a good crew. I recommend watching it in full-screen mode.
I wonder if that's one of the planes that was almost shot down in Angola, all those years ago?
I know a number of you have been asking (some less patiently than others!) for me to make my books available from vendors other than Amazon.com, and in formats other than the latter's Kindle files. Well, the day has come! If you look in the sidebar, under four of my five books you'll now see buttons that'll take you to either Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, the Apple iBooks store, or Kobo, where you can buy them in the format of your choice. My latest book, 'War To The Knife', is at present only available on Amazon.com, because it was launched in their KDP Select service. When it comes out of that service after 90 days, I'll see about setting it up from the other vendors as well. So, if you have a Nook or iPad or Kobo reader and want my books in your native file format, you can now buy them.
This is an experiment. With Amazon's launch last week of its new Kindle Unlimited subscription library service, it may become financially imperative to return to an Amazon-only sales strategy (which, of course, is one of the reasons Amazon's launched KU in the first place - to lock in unique content that you can only access there). I'd prefer not to do that, but it's a question of dollars and cents. If I sell only a few copies each month at other vendor sites, while losing out heavily on the income from Kindle Unlimited (which is only available to authors if your books are exclusive to Amazon), I may have to drop Barnes & Noble, Apple and Kobo as vendors. I guess we'll see how sales go on their sites, and take it from there.
If you have any problems ordering from those sites, please send me an e-mail (the address is in my blog profile) or leave a comment to this post, and I'll try to fix them as quickly as possible. Thanks!
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Go read all about how the US government determines whether someone should be listed as a suspected terrorist, denied the right to fly on airlines, and so on. It's Orwellian! Nowhere will you find any mention of civil rights, due process, or judicial overview.
Big Brother . . . he's worse than Orwell ever imagined.
I wrote in May about the development of the Alpha cluster bomblet in Rhodesia during that country's brief and violent existence. The person most responsible for its development was Peter Petter-Bowyer, who rose to the rank of Group Captain (equivalent to Colonel) before Rhodesia lost its war and became Zimbabwe. I wasn't aware when I wrote those words that he had died a couple of months before. It seems he had an allergic reaction to treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
I had the privilege of meeting Group Captain Petter-Bowyer on more than one occasion in South Africa during the 1980's. He was a most interesting man, with all sorts of stories to tell and many accomplishments to his name. Apart from being an operational fighter and helicopter pilot with vast experience, he also helped to design a range of deceptively simple, low-cost yet amazingly effective air-dropped weapons that were well suited to manufacture in a low-technology economy such as Rhodesia's, and perfectly adapted to counter-insurgency warfare. They included:
- The aforementioned Alpha bomb, later further developed by South Africa into the CB470 cluster bomb;
- The Golf bomb, which resembled nothing so much as a gas cylinder with a long probe on the nose (to ensure an air burst rather than allowing the bomb to bury itself in the ground) and tail fins at the rear. It had a double casing, the space between them being filled with thousands of short pieces of scrap rebar, making it a horrendously effective shrapnel device. Filled with ANFO, they proved devastating in combat. The large version equipped Hunter fighter-bombers. A smaller version was developed to equip light aircraft such as the Reims 337 (a French-manufactured version of the Cessna Skymaster, used by the US armed forces as the O-2A). Here's a picture of a Reims 337, known as the Lynx in Rhodesian service. The small-model Golf bomb is beneath its starboard wing, with its long nose probe clearly visible. (Note, too, the .30-caliber machine-guns installed in pods above the wings. Click the image for a larger view.)
- The Frantan, a small but highly lethal napalm bomb. "It was made from woven glass fibre set in a phenolic resin binder & was aerodynamically shaped, incorporating tail fins for stability. It contained, when filled, 16gall of napgel & had a large pocket of flash powder to ignite all the napgel. Improved initiation was achieved by using two slightly modified Alpha bomb fuses. The improved accuracy of delivery, the complete shattering of the case on impact, the total ignition of the napgel & the improved & predictable ground spread made this frantan ideal. This improvement was such that it was even used by Hunter aircraft in preference to the imported 50gall frantan, which gave inferior performance." (A Frantan is mounted on the outboard pylon beneath the port wing of the Lynx aircraft pictured above.)
- Several other innovative air weaponry solutions.
Group Captain Petter-Bowyer's autobiography, 'Winds Of Destruction', is an excellent memoir of his military service and a fine history of the Rhodesian Air Force. For all that it was small and ill-equipped, this air arm performed a vital function during Rhodesia's gallant and ill-fated war, and established a stellar reputation among fighting airmen everywhere. I highly recommend his book as essential reading for all military aviation enthusiasts - and it's available in an inexpensive Kindle edition, which makes it even more accessible. You can also read an extended interview with him here.
I feel a very personal sense of loss at the news of Peter Petter-Bowyer's death. He was a remarkable man. I'm honored to have known him.
PJ Media recently put up an article titled 'The 10 Dumbest Fireworks Fails'. They were dumb, all right! Here's one to whet your appetite.
There are nine more video clips at the link. Entertaining . . . but dumb!
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Here's a time-lapse video shot from the cockpit of a Boeing 747 airliner on a flight from Tokyo to San Francisco, speeded up to portray the entire flight in just 83 seconds. The sunrise starting at 0m. 43sec. is spectacular! I recommend watching in full-screen mode.
There's a lot of controversy among authors (particularly independent authors such as myself) about the likely impact of Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited program. Briefly, for those who haven't yet heard about it, it's a subscription library for e-books. You pay $9.95 per month, and can 'borrow' up to 10 books at a time. As soon as you finish one and 'return' it, you can download another.
Authors have to enroll in the KDP Select program, publishing their books exclusively through Amazon.com, in order to participate in Kindle Unlimited. They'll receive a fee per book borrowed (provided that the borrower reads more than 10% of it), and the loan will count towards their sales rank in Amazon.com's Kindle Store. In the past, with the much more limited Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) program for Prime members (which will continue), authors received a fee every time their book was borrowed, whether or not it was read. That fee averaged about $2 per loan, but I expect the much greater volumes of borrowing likely to be generated by Kindle Unlimited will make it impossible for Amazon to continue that level of support. I expect the amount paid to authors per loan to drop by at least 50% in the short term, perhaps by as much as two-thirds to three-quarters. If this reduction is compensated for by increased borrowing, that might not be too bad; but I suspect it'll end up costing authors money.
There's a lot of controversy in the author community right now over Kindle Unlimited. Some fear it'll mean a default subscription model for independent authors, forcing them into membership in order to attract sufficient readers to earn a living - even though their income per book will (they suspect) be drastically reduced. Others see it as an opportunity, promising an additional income stream that should more than compensate for any reduction in sales. I suspect those who are already doing well will fall into the second camp, while those who aren't selling many books will probably gravitate towards the first.
However, I think that such controversies are missing the point. Remember the fabled buggy whip industry? It's long been taught in business schools that many companies making accessories for the horse-drawn transport market went out of business when the automobile came along because they misunderstood their market. They thought they were in (say) the buggy or wagon business, when in fact they were in the transport business. When a new mode of transport replaced an older one, their 'blinkered' approach prevented them from adapting in time to the changing market, and they went out of business.
In the same way, I think that authors must realize that we're not in the book business; we're in the entertainment business. Our potential customers can choose to spend their money on a movie (at a theater, or downloaded from a service like Netflix, or on a DVD); they can buy or rent a video game; they can invest in virtual reality hardware and software to immerse themselves in new and up-and-coming forms of entertainment; they can watch (or attend) a music concert or band performance; or they can read a book. We're competing for the reader's 'entertainment dollar' with all of those other resources.
I think Amazon may be on to something with Kindle Unlimited. They view the book market from a very lofty vantage-point indeed. They can see where entertainment customers are spending their dollars. They know that in order to keep books and reading relevant to modern consumers, they have to be offered in more easily accessible forms - and 'accessible' includes price, when comparing books to other forms of entertainment. Amazon's putting pressure on mainstream publishers to lower the prices of their e-books, and rightly so, I think; but it's also looking at the overall market and trying to figure out how it can get more books into the hands of more readers, to the benefit of the book segment of the entertainment market overall. It's taking the broad view. Many of my fellow independent authors are instead taking the narrow view that "if it's not good for me, it's not good, period". I think there are many avid readers who'll look at the economics of Kindle Unlimited and disagree profoundly that it's "not good". For them as readers, it's very good economics indeed.
That means that we, as independent authors, have to adjust our business model. We probably can't expect to make as much per book - so what can we do to maximize our income in this new age of entertainment? Can we introduce different formats of our work - audio books, for example? Can we use collections, both our own and collaborating with other authors, to put out our work under more covers and make it more accessible to readers? Can we develop skills in new areas (e.g. moving from novels to novellas to short stories and back again, varying our output so as to appeal to as many potential readers as possible)? Are we going to be guilty of the "buggy whip industry" syndrome, or will we adapt to the new technologies that are changing the world around us?
We have to be realistic. As an old African proverb reminds us: "It's no good farting against thunder." We've got to ride the winds of the storm, and make sure we come out ahead - no matter where it takes us. Kindle Unlimited is just the latest manifestation of the storm that's sweeping the entertainment industry throughout the world. I'm sure our children will be entertained in ways we can only dream of, and that I won't live to see - but I'm sure there'll still be authors, and they'll still be making a living one way or another.
I learned a lesson this morning, one that's going to take a while (certainly days, perhaps weeks) to sort out.
When I sat down at the computer this morning, our Internet service was out. A message appeared on screen asking the account holder (our housemate) to contact the service provider about unspecified issues. (It turned out that a re-issued credit card with a change of expiration date had screwed up the billing and payment cycle, and we'd been caught in the backwash.) It's going to take a day or two to sort that out.
While waiting (because Internet access is essential for my writing and blogging) I picked up a T-Mobile 4G mobile hotspot from our local Wal-Mart. It comes with a traffic allowance of 5GB of 4G data, valid for three months from date of installation, which made it by far the most cost-effective option. Setup was quick and easy, and the only problem I had was rapidly resolved with a telephone call to T-Mobile's unexpectedly helpful and friendly support desk. (What a contrast with AT&T and Verizon, who appear to staff their help desks with gormless goblins that can only be reached after interminable delays and infuriatingly unhelpful menu systems!) I was soon back on the Internet and humming right along . . . until I tried to read my e-mail.
Google's Gmail apparently has a persecution complex. It wouldn't allow me to access a single one of my multiple accounts (used to segregate different types of e-mail), because the IP address and ISP from which I was trying to reach them were new and unfamiliar. Very fortunately the e-mail account I use to sign into Blogger, and the one I use for most business activities, had been set up to use two-step verification; so after requesting that an authentication code be sent to my cellphone, I soon had them both up and running. I hadn't done that for the others, so I find myself barred from access to them at present - including the one I use for readers wishing to contact me from this blog. I've no idea how to go about resetting them. Google's asking all sorts of 'security questions' that I have no idea how to answer. It's ridiculous to ask me what year and month I opened an account when it was over a decade ago and I have no particular memory of it! I didn't ask for all those additional layers of security, and I'm annoyed that Google implemented them without so much as a 'by your leave'.
I now find myself stuck in administrative limbo until such time as I can figure out who to contact at Google to 'unfreeze' those e-mail accounts. (If anyone can offer suggestions as to the best and quickest way to do this, I'd love to hear from you in Comments; but please don't e-mail me, because I probably won't receive it!) When the dust has settled and everything's back online, I'll implement two-step verification on all my accounts; but I shouldn't have to do so. I resent Google making assumptions about my accounts when it has no idea what's going on. Why should I have to go through such additional, intrusive steps when I didn't ask for that level of security? If I hadn't implemented two-step verification on two key accounts, I'd be in serious difficulties right now.
Oh, well . . . at least I'm back online. That helps!
Here are seven kittens from the Triskel Maine Coon cattery in Quebec. They were lined up for a group picture when one of the staff decided to wave a toy over and around them. The resulting synchronized kitty-gymnastics made me smile.
Olympic class synchronized hunting, right there!
Monday, July 21, 2014
I had to laugh at an article titled 'How Chinese Ingenuity Destroyed Salad Bars at Pizza Hut'.
In China, Pizza Huts are either take-out only or somewhat upscale sit-down restaurants that even serve steak. A while back, it became a fad of sorts to build enormous fruit and vegetable structures at Pizza Hut salad bars. The reason was that customers only got one plate and one trip to the salad bar, so they wanted their visit to be worth it. And was it ever.
The result was truly amazing and wonderfully creative plates of food.
There's more at the link, including many photographs. Here's just one to whet your appetite.
There's even a YouTube video showing how it's done.
Yeah, I can see why they stopped offering the salad bar!
Ars Technica warns that functions in Apple's iOS permit unrestricted access to your confidential data.
Apple has endowed iPhones with undocumented functions that allow unauthorized people in privileged positions to wirelessly connect and harvest pictures, text messages, and other sensitive data without entering a password or PIN, a forensic scientist warned over the weekend.
Jonathan Zdziarski, an iOS jailbreaker and forensic expert, told attendees of the Hope X conference that he can't be sure Apple engineers enabled the mechanisms with the intention of accommodating surveillance by the National Security Agency and law enforcement groups. Still, he said some of the services serve little or no purpose other than to make huge amounts of data available to anyone who has access to a computer, alarm clock, or other device that has ever been paired with a targeted device.
There's more at the link.
One wonders why on earth such 'backdoors' were left open in the first place. Could it have been to accommodate three-letter government agencies such as the NSA? Surely not?
If you believe that, there's a bridge in Brooklyn, NYC I'd like to sell you. Cash only, please, and in small bills . . .
There's been intense interest in the discovery of a new Israeli implementation of its Spike NLOS (Non Line Of Sight) long-range battlefield missile system during its current operations in and around Gaza. Israel appears to have taken a number of its older-generation Magach tanks (themselves upgrades of US M48 and M60 tanks, no longer in front-line service with the IDF) and given them new turrets containing large quantities of these precision missiles. The cannon appears to have been replaced by a dummy unit, judging by the way it droops in some of the photographs doing the rounds. (It would probably have been easier to remove it entirely, but I suppose it helps mislead the enemy as to the nature of the tanks seen running around the battlefield, concealing the precision fire support role of the new units.)
Here are several images of the new Magach version gleaned from the Internet over the past few days. They've appeared in so many different publications and on so many different sites that I've no idea who to credit for them. I apologize for any inadvertent breach of copyright, and will put up a credit to the originator if that can be proved.
Note the raised blocky antenna structure in the third picture above. That appears to be a key element of the missile guidance system. In the picture below (of an Israeli M113-based system) you can see the three-missile launch unit ahead of its guidance unit. Note the similarity to the curved metal plate antenna shown above.
Note also the number of missile containers revealed in the last of the four Magach pictures above. It suggests the new missile carriers are armed with at least a dozen Spike NLOS missiles, perhaps more, all protected by the tank's heavy armor. That's a pretty impressive payload when you consider what this missile can do.
The NLOS is the longest-ranged version of the Spike missile family. It's widely claimed to have a range in excess of 25 kilometers (16 miles). Here's a picture of four Spike NLOS missiles in service with South Korea. They're on the back of a truck during a parade. Note the large cruciform wing structure.
Those wings enable the NLOS to fly more slowly than the shorter-ranged, smaller models of the Spike family, so that it can be guided very precisely using either its own sensor, or those on board battlefield drone aircraft or deployed by ground observers. It can be autonomous, guiding itself, or controlled by an operator. Here's an Israeli video showing one being deployed at long range in southern Lebanon against a Hezbollah stronghold. Note how it homes in on a specific window in the target building from 20 km (12½ miles) away. That's outstanding precision by anyone's standards.
To my mind the interesting thing isn't the missile (which has been around for a long time, and is now in its second or third generation); nor is it the modified tank that's carrying it. I'm interested in seeing how this development affects battlefield doctrine and tactics. For years infantry and armor have relied on artillery support. Some has been local (mortars, light rockets and small missiles carried by platoons and companies; forward-deployed light artillery; self-propelled artillery and heavy mortars accompanying tanks, or following close behind them). More has been distant (emplaced artillery firing on enemy positions reported to it by front-line troops or artillery observers accompanying them). Still more has been in the form of aircraft dropping bombs or firing missiles or cannon.
If sufficient quantities of a high-accuracy precision weapon like Spike NLOS can be carried by the front-line troops themselves, in vehicles that are as resistant to enemy fire as the main battle tanks that will bear the brunt of the fighting, this means that a great deal of the support artillery 'tail' can be left out of the equation. Front-line commanders now have under their control their own organic artillery support. Collateral damage will be minimized, because each missile can be very precisely guided (as shown in the video above). This will also reduce to a minimum the wastage of ammunition normally encountered with conventional artillery, where dozens or scores of rounds must be fired to neutralize a single target. Spike NLOS effectively makes this "one missile, one target", thereby greatly reducing the quantity of (very heavy and bulky) ammunition resupply needed in the battle zone. In fact, since they're well protected by their own armor and accompanying infantry support, missile tanks may even be able to go back to pick up more weapons under their own power, then return to the front lines, thus reducing the need for hazardous resupply by truck or helicopter.
It goes even further. Spike NLOS and similar missiles can be (and have been) mounted on patrol boats to secure the coastline. What if an army unit is operating near the coast, and has in its possession the consoles and control software needed to take over control of missiles fired from vessels just offshore, directing them onto targets only the army can see? Gaza is just such a fight, with the Mediterranean Sea only a few miles from the fighting. This might be a huge force multiplier for the IDF. In theory a fleet of patrol craft can carry dozens, scores, even hundreds of such missiles, launching them on demand. The army's own missiles can be held in reserve, or deployed to more distant areas where naval-launched missiles can't reach.
This may be a technological game-changer as far as company- and battalion-strength operations are concerned, eliminating much of the conventional supporting artillery 'tail' and empowering such formations to proceed independently at much greater speed than before - not to mention inflicting much greater surgical-strike precision damage on the enemy. I'll be watching with great interest to see how this evolves under operational conditions.