Thursday, July 31, 2014

A rather remarkable rotary story—the unmanned K-MAX has just completed a three year Afghanistan tour delivering supplies to the Marines—and its performance has been exemplary. Yes, I did say “unmanned.”

"There is nothing more common than to find considerations of supply affecting the strategic lines of a campaign and a war."

Carl von Clausevitz

The K-MAX helicopter can fly cargo delivery missions without a human at the controls.

Delivering supplies by road in hostile territory is innately hazardous. The roads in Afghanistan—where they exist—leave a great deal to be desired—and then there is the IED threat. Add in gunfire and RPGs for good measure.

Delivering by manned helicopter is expensive.

The decision was taken to try a third alternative—to use an unmanned helicopter.

The first point to note here is that the Kaman K-1200 K-MAX isn’t flown remotely by some pilot back in Las Vegas (as so many drones are). In this case the aircraft is programmed to fly a mission and does just that—all on its own. However, the mission can changed in the air if need be.

The original idea was for a six month mission lugging around 750 pound pallets of supplies. Performance was so exceptional that two moved 30,000 pounds in a single day (against a target of 6,000 pounds).

Some data:

  • One was ready to fly 94 percent of the time (the other was taken out of service after a hard landing). 94 is a truly awesome figure for something as innately complex as a helicopter—especially when operating under Afghani conditions. The great thing about the KMAX is that although it has everything it needs, it is relatively simple (by helicopter standards). It is also impressively robust. It all speaks of thoroughly good design.
  • 1.4 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight.
  • Cost $1,300 per flying hour.
  • Over three years, the KMAX lifted more than 4.5 million pounds of cargo.
  • The aircraft can lift 6,000 pound loads at sea level and 4,000 pounds at 15,000 feet.
  • Certified in 1994, the Kaman helicopter was designed for heavy duties like logging operations, power line construction, firefighting, and installing ski lifts. It can haul 6,000-pound loads at sea level and 4,000 pounds at 15,000 feet. That strength is partly thanks to Kaman’s use of two intermeshing rotors on top of the aircraft. The setup eliminates the need for a tail rotor, which is usually needed to keep the aircraft from spinning uncontrollably, but sucks up about 30 percent of the engine’s power. Dropping the blades in back preserves that juice for lifting power. It also keeps the bird’s center of gravity over its payload hook, so carrying heavy loads is easier.

As a matter of interest, I worked with some Kaman engineers briefly  while I was on a DARPA assignment for Piasecki Aircraft back in 2009. They were singularly impressive.

The implications of this success are profound because the Achilles Heel of every military operation is, traditionally, road-based supply. Road convoys are long and difficult to protect.

Air—in this age of MANPADS and automatic weapons is not invulnerable, of course, but the odds are tilted in your favor. It will be fascinating to see how far the military progress this. The Army are experimenting with the KMAX right now. Reflect that a unit—free of its dependence on roads—has a greatly increased ability to maneuver—and to be unpredictable. On the other hand, fuel, water, and ammunitions are all heavy and bulky—so how much could you really do from the air? It’s about time we tested that out.

The project was actually managed by Lockheed Martin. They seem to have done a good job, but I think the real credit belongs to Kaman.

July 31 2014: Crystal ball time! Some speculation about some significant developments which (maybe) are going to take place over the next 15 years?

You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Steve Jobs

As I write this I’m 70—as of May 2014) so  figure that 15 years is about as far ahead as I’m likely to experience (not that I really have a clue) . That said, I had a pair of great aunts who made it to three figures—but both my mother and grandmother died in their later 70s.

The great aunts were highly motivated. They looked after—nursed—a  younger relative who was such a hypochondriac that she wouldn’t do anything for herself. And both the great aunts backed the horses with enormous success.

Apparently being a motivated gambler constitutes a formula for longevity.

Am I a motivated gambler? Never thought of it that way—I don’t gamble for money in the classic way—but I’m certainly motivated, and I’m certainly an adventurer—so it could be that I am.

Who knew?

Given that my mother both smoked and drank heavily, her relatively early death was no surprise, but my grandmother was another matter. In her case, it was almost as if she had enough of life—which was strange given her quite amazing spirit and accomplishments. But she had experienced almost too much change in her life—including the early death of her husband, two world wars, one civil war, a terrible relationship with her only daughter—and seemed to have had enough. I recall she was particularly upset when the little shop she used to go to regularly was sold—and the owner, Mr. Lawrence, whom she had seen virtually every day for years, was suddenly no longer there. With hindsight, she may well have had early stage Alzheimers—and I doubt she would have wanted to live if she had felt her mind slipping away. I miss her terribly.

No, I’m not sitting here feeling morose at the prospect of dying—I’m pretty relaxed about that since there is nothing I can do about it (though I’m endeavoring to get somewhat fitter). Instead, I’m just plain curious—and I have been wondering what to include in a science fiction story I have been playing with for some time. Or is that just an excuse for me to have some fun? Probably a bit of both.

I’m actually pretty skeptical of forecasting—and claim no particular talent for it. True, I have been right on a number of occasions—I forecast the Great Recession back in 2004 with some accuracy—and was certainly right about the threat of terrorism—but I’m sure I have been wrong many times more often. Still, sometimes it’s fun to guess—purely as a mental exercise. No, I’m more going to extrapolate than guess. Spotting and projecting trends has a greater likelihood of success than the traditional WAG (wild ass guess)—or so I like to think. Given the frequency of the unpredictable, I’m not sure I’m right about that, but I like the idea that there is some logic to my thinking.

THE UNITED STATES. There is such significant social stress in the U.S. that I think the country will move significantly to the left over the next  years—though maybe not as soon as 2018. Gerrymandering is hard to fight. By social stress, I mean that far too many of us have to struggle to survive, that household income for most of us is in decline, that costs are increasing, that the present level of income inequality is not sustainable—and that corporate power has become excessive. A move to the Right will not resolve these issues. A move to the Left could. In addition, demographics suggest a move to the left. Do these thoughts make sense in the light of the widespread belief that Americans are fundamentally Center Right in orientation? No, they don’t—but I’m far sure that such a widespread belief is valid. Anyway, I am convinced that something has to give. The present system is not delivering for far too many people and is leaving too many in poverty, too many out of work, too many hungry, too many in debt, and too many in prison. Yes, I know the poor don’t vote and Congress pays the less affluent  scant attention—but need is a formidable incentive to action.

THE U.S. CONSTITUTION. There will be another constitutional convention which will result in significant reforms. One will involve establishing that corporations are not people in any legal sense. Another will eliminate gerrymandering. A third will impose limits on the Supreme Count. a fourth will clarify federal and state relationships.

WAR WITH CHINA. The U.S. will almost certainly clash with China militarily—and these encounters will primarily be naval. We may well find our aircraft carriers vulnerable to Chinese hypersonic missiles. If we prevail, it will because of land-based airpower. With luck, we will avoid full scale war. Taiwan will revert to China much in the manner of Hong Kong.

FOOD IN THE US. We will wake up to the fact that food in the U.S. has been debased to the point of being downright unhealthy—and there will be a reaction broadly similar to that which has taken place against tobacco. A similar reform will cover our water supply which is currently heavily contaminated by meds, toxic chemicals, herbicides etc.. (most of which we don’t test for).

AGRICULTURE IN THE U.S. Currently U.S, agriculture is based upon monoculture and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Both of these are disastrous in terms of health. They will continue nonetheless, but the high cost of inputs, plus an increasing demand for organic foodstuffs, will encourage alternative methods (which can yield high output and do exist). Will antibiotics be continued to be given to animals being raised in CAFOs? One has to hope not.If they are, we are going to experience massive antibiotic resistance with incalculable consequences. Without effective antibiotics, even simple injuries and ailment can kill.

TRANSPORT. We are going to see a drastic revolution in transport—everything from driverless cars to completely new types of transport. In particular, I see something replacing the traditional train. Elon Musk’s Hyperloop? Possibly. We need something faster than a train but more fuel efficient than aircraft. Could the Hyperloop work? Based what I have read, it would work fine. That leaves capital cost as being the issue. Interestingly, Musk quotes “under $6 billion” for the 350 mile LA to San Francisco line he has proposed initially. That seems low to me, but he has a track record of driving costs down quite significantly—as he has proven with both Tesla and SpaceX.

ROTARY AIRCRAFT. Both because I am interested, and because I worked in the field for a while, I am now convinced that we are going to see a significant breakthrough in the helicopter field. The end result will be able to take off and land vertically—but will be at least twice as fast, have more endurance, and be able to lift heavier loads. The aircraft may well be electric or hybrid electric. It will be profoundly significant for both military and civilian applications.

NEW MATERIALS. We have been squirreling away with nano-technology for quite some time, but are very far from realizing the potential as yet. Lab developments take time to mature into products you can use in production—and longer still before they are actually used and accepted. Autos are a good example of this. We know there are all kinds of advantages in using some of the newer materials—saving weight being a primary one (because it yields improved fuel consumption)—but we still tend to rely primarily on steel for the bodywork. The price is right—and we know how to work it in detail.

For all that, I believe new materials are going to appear which will result in significant changes in our lives. Right now, I don’t know what they will be—or what they will do—but two examples of what I have in mind are graphene and aerogel.

Graphene is pure carbon in the form of a very thin, nearly transparent sheet, one atom thick. It is remarkably strong for its very low weight (100 times stronger than steel[1]) and it conducts heat and electricity with great efficiency.[2] While scientists had theorized about graphene for decades, it was first produced in the lab in 2004.[3] Because it is virtually two-dimensional, it interacts oddly with light and with other materials. Researchers have identified the bipolar transistor effect, ballistic transport of charges and large quantum oscillations.

What can you use graphene for? They are still working on that, but possible uses include using it as a structural material to ultrafiltration. It has wide application.

Aerogel is a synthetic porous ultralight material derived from a gel, in which the liquid component of the gel has been replaced with a gas. The result is a solid with extremely low density[1] and low thermal conductivity. Nicknames include "frozen smoke",[2] "solid smoke", "solid air" or "blue smoke" owing to its translucent nature and the way light scatters in the material. It feels like fragile expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) to the touch. Aerogels can be made from a variety of chemical compounds.[3]

Aerogel was first created by Samuel Stephens Kistler in 1931, as a result of a bet with Charles Learned over who could replace the liquid in "jellies" with gas without causing shrinkage.[4][5]

The real point of some of these new materials is not that they will replace existing materials—useful though this may be—but that they will allow us to do things which were impossible technically before. For instance, graphene sounds as if it might be ideal for use on airship construction. But that is just as an example. Overall, I expect the impact of new materials to be widespread and dramatic.

THE CONCEPT OF OWNERSHIP IN THE U.S. Since the end of WW II, with all its attendant shortages, we have been though a veritable orgy of accumulating stuff. In the future, it seems highly likely that we will turn more to having the use of a particular item or service rather than owning it. We have already made a start with software and some web services—and renting property is scarcely a new concept.  The idea of valuing access rather than ownership has all kinds of potentially interesting implications—but seems highly likely to run smack into the Constitution. I’ll develop this theme further on some other occasion.

THE EUROPEAN UNION. The EU is much criticized in the U.S. media for being socialist, having high unemployment, being unable to innovate adequately—and much else besides. Some of these criticisms are valid, but most are not—and the fact is the much of the EU now delivers a higher standard of living and economic to its citizens than the U.S. does to most Americans. It is also noteworthy that the EU, despite having high labor costs, still manages to compete globally. For these reasons, Despite various complaints and crises, I see the EU thriving and prospering.

Well, I have made a start—and will almost certainly return to this theme. It’s a good way of getting thoughts flowing. I should probably have covered computer power—which I believe will truly astonish us—but that is a topic for another day.

No, I haven’t written (here) about my science fiction story—but I have certainly been thinking about it. I’m superstitious about writing about my books before they are finished. Quite few writers feel this way. It’s not just that we don’t want to show something that isn’t yet as good as we hope to make it. It really is a superstition!

Now to flash back to the present—and the real world.




Wednesday, July 30, 2014

July 30 2014: Twenty-six apples a day—will keep the doctor away! Yes, I did say twenty-six.

Man seeks to change the foods available in nature to suit his tastes, thereby putting an end to the very essence of life contained in them.

Sai Baba

Statistics show that of those who contract the habit of eating, very few survive.

George Bernard Shaw

When I do research, I keep an eye out for the kind of key figures that really illustrate a point. They are less common than you might think because a great many issues are—quite rightly—nuanced. Conversely, some figures seem so extreme as to lack credibility. Still, here I am reminded of the Holocaust. Initially, few people believed in the sheer scale of it. Nonetheless, it turned out to be true.

Yes, after the discovery of the concentration camps, we knew there had been organized extermination of Jews and other minorities, but it took some time for people to come to terms with the fact that millions had been systematically killed. That scale of evil did not seem believable—and the Germans were—and are—correctly regarded as a highly cultured and civilized people. Surely they would never behave in such a monstrous way. After all, such barbarity would require the involvement of large numbers of people. In fact, it would seem highly probably that the population as a whole would have to be complicit—even if only tacitly accepting.

My feeling is that we are facing just that sort of problem with the food industry. Yes, we know that certain foods—such as Fast Food—are not good for us, but I am far from sure that we have come to terms with the debasement of much of the food we eat. Yet, the emerging evidence increasingly persuades me that we are experiencing a new Holocaust stemming from a gross misinterpretation of capitalism. We seem to be migrating from the notion of a fair profit to the idea that only the maximum profit is acceptable—and such an end justifies any and all behavior (up to, and including, killing large numbers of people).

An extreme statement? Consider the tobacco industry or Big Pharma, for that matter. How can it be acceptable for half the U.S. population to be on legal drugs? There is—sadly—a profound difference between legal and right.

Let me quote an extract from

The nutrient content of foods has dramatically declined across the board since the introduction of mechanized farming in 1925. For example, as explained by Dr. August Dunning, chief science officer and co-owner of Eco Organics, in order to receive the same amount of iron you used to get from one apple in 1950, by 1998 you had to eat 26 apples!

Were people prior to the 1950s eating foods that were “unnecessarily” nutrient-dense? Was most of their diet superfluous, in terms of the amount of nutrients a body can get by on?

The idea that your body wouldn’t put the extra nutrients to good use is just plain silly! You did not suddenly develop a new set of genetic instructions over the past 60+ years that allow your body to thrive on toxins and “not know what to do” with antioxidants! So please, do not fall for that kind of nonsense.

One of the primary reasons food doesn’t taste as good as it used to is also related to the deterioration of mineral content. The minerals actually form the compounds that give the fruit or vegetable its flavor. All of these issues go back to the health of the soil in which the food is grown.11

Healthy soils contain a huge diversity of microorganisms, and it is these organisms that are responsible for the plant’s nutrient uptake, health, and the stability of the entire ecosystem. The wide-scale adoption of industrial agriculture practices has decimated soil microbes responsible for transferring these minerals to the plants.

In 2009, the American Association for the Advancement of Science featured a presentation on soil health and its impact on food quality,12, 13 concluding that healthy soil indeed leads to higher levels of nutrients in crops.

Agricultural chemicals destroy the health of the soil by killing off its microbial inhabitants, which is one of the primary problems with modern farming, and the reason why the nutritional quality of conventionally-grown foods is deteriorating. As reported by Scientific American14 back in 2011:

“A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in theJournal of the American College of Nutrition.

They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding ‘reliable declines’ in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century.

Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition... The Organic Consumers Association cites several other studies with similar findings: A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent.”

Americans live sicker and die sooner than the inhabitants of most other developed nations—yet we spend between 50 and 100 percent more on healthcare. Could all of this be connected? I tend to think so.



Tuesday, July 29, 2014

To quote Business Insider: “A Major Revolution In The Book Industry Is Letting Novelists Make A Living .” Good grief! What a novel situation!

Self-publishing used to be associated with failure. But that stigma is going away as many authors say they're making more money through self-publishing than their counterparts doing it the traditionally more accepted way, according to NPR.

author earnings

There was a particularly interesting article on self-publishing in Business Insider on July 25. Overall, it made the point that self-publishing through Amazon (and the like) is enabling an increasing number of writers to make a living—something they could not do when published by traditional publishers.

In fact, the article was scathing about traditional publishers—by which I mainly mean the five large corporate publishers who now dominate traditional publishing. Small independent publishers are an entirely different matter. They come in all shapes, sizes, and patterns of behavior. It is the large guys who seem to have a culture of treating their authors badly.

Why do they behave this way? They have long had the power so a culture of such behavior has evolved—and greed plays no small role. In addition, there are plenty of writers waiting in line—or there were. That just might be beginning to change. If it does, traditional publishers may have to change their ways. The day that happens, I’ll go looking for flying pigs!

Here is author Barry Eisler (a terrific thriller writer, by the way) on the subject.

They generally pay us only 12.5% in digital royalties, compared to the 70% we get from Amazon. They insist on taking control of our copyright not for a reasonable term, but forever. They've done all they can to try to keep the prices of books artificially high, which hurts consumers and costs authors money. They have a record of zero innovation. And they've run the industry for decades in a way that has benefited the few while stifling new opportunities for the many.

And here is author Michael Fuchs.

" ... I have, not at all incidentally, been freed from the cartel practices, unconscionable contract terms, and not to mention soul-crushing rejection and frustration, of the Big Six publishers in London and New York, and the literary agency system," he wrote on his blog. "Now I write books for my readers, who buy them."

When he made that statement, there were, indeed, six large large publishers. A merger brought the number down to the current five. Back when I was first published in 1991, there were about 50 in this category. Mergers and acquisitions have resulted in a de facto oligopoly—unfortunately something that seems to be happening in most market sectors in the U.S. When only a handful of corporations have a lock on a market sector, competition goes out the window. We have anti-trust laws for good reason. Sadly, we rarely enforce them.

hugh howey

Author Hugh Howie—who is something of a champion for self-published authors—is quoted as follows.

A self-published (and bestselling) author named Hugh Howey has published a report backing up those claims, arguing that writers like him make more money from electronic books (e-books) than authors who have contracts with the five major publishing houses.

Howey published this chart as evidence, showing that as of this month self-published "indie" authors are earning 39% of all e-book royalties on the Kindle store, more than that of authors with the so-called Big Five publishing houses combined — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster — which account for 37%.

The share of royalties for self-publishing authors has risen steadily since February, when it was at 35% compared to 39% for the Big Five publishers.

Howey also estimates that 31% of total daily e-book sales are written by self-published authors, making that cohort the largest e-book publisher on Amazon when it comes to market share.

Publishing expert Mike Shatzkin has criticized a previous analysis that Howey did, contending that it neglected to include cash publishers pay authors through book advances. The analysis also underestimated print sale earnings, Shatzkin says.

Even if his data may not be perfect, it shows that self-publishing is becoming increasingly lucrative for many authors. Authors who publish the traditional way, Howey contends, are losing out on an increasing share of the profit.

As far as I am concerned, these developments are nothing but good news.

Special forces—special people? This education thing! This creativity thing!

The SAS is the most elite of the special forces in the world. They are not people who go out and advertise; they keep it inside. They don't want anybody to know about them.

Taylor Hackford


As a byproduct of my research—and also because I am just plain interested—I have had a great deal to do with Special Forces. They feature in all my novels.

One way or another, I am fairly sure Special Forces have existed for as long as there have been armies—albeit by other names—but, in their present form, they are traceable back to WW II. Since that time, after a period of uncertainty—the British SAS was actually disbanded for a while—they have gone from strength to strength.

Why so? Well, they are successful out of all proportion to their numbers. True, they cost more per head—sometimes a great deal more—but the return on investment tends to be exceptionally high.

But why is this? Well, one argument is that they are, quite simply, the cream of the crop—and exceptionally well trained and equipped as well—so, of course, they will be disproportionately successful. Another argument is that they do as well as they do because they normally have the initiative. They tend to pick how and when they will fight—and to turn down missions where they feel they cannot be successful.

It seems to me that that both these arguments are valid—but they miss the main point—which is that Special Forces soldiers have a different mindset. In essence, they are empowered. Instead of being subject to the minutiae of conventional military discipline, they are told the mission and—generally speaking—left to get on with it. In fact, they can, if they so wish, question the mission itself. In effect, they are treated like sentient adults, and primarily, their discipline is self imposed. In fact, Special Forces soldiers are rarely punished. The normal sanction is that you are returned to your original unit.

I have to wonder as to what extent this approach could be applied in normal life—starting off with school—and whether such an approach might not yield fairly extraordinary dividends. Currently, we emphasize “socialization”—by which we really mean pressure to conform backed up by discipline—but pay for it in terms of suppressing creativity.

How do I know that? It’s not a conclusion I can quantify. It is an opinion supported by the opinions of others whose judgment I respect.

Could we get a superior result if children—and adults—were given more responsibility?

My view is that we could—and that the benefits to society, if we really could tap into human creativity, would be immense.

There has been some experimental work to this effect—in schools as opposed to Special Forces—and the results have been entirely positive. In fact, they have been remarkable—but seem to have attracted little attention.

It could be that we should think about this stuff more than we do. Instead we have an approach to discipline which has resulted in our imprisoning many more people 2.4 million—than China—which has a multiple of our population.

This authoritarian approach—self righteous and judgmental—permeates our culture and results not only in extraordinarily long prison sentences, but in the worst labor relations in the developed world.

Such heavy costs—serious though they are—pale in relation to our loss of creativity. If we want to grow this economy, and solve our other problems, we need to get creative about it.

The downside, as far as I am concerned, is probably that a whole lot more people—their creativity unleashed—will start writing books.

The upside—with luck—is that a whole lot more people will start reading them.

I can live with that.

A book we should all read—FACTORY MAN by Beth Macy. It’s a great American success story—and it happens to be true.

Winners make a habit of manufacturing their own positive expectations in advance of the event.

Brian Tracy


Every so often, countries like people behave idiotically. It’s just part of the human condition.

I regard the mania for outsourcing manufacturing which gripped American corporations from the 1980s until recently, as a perfect example of that kind of mass idiocy. I guess we should give thanks that its consequences weren’t worse.

We could have opted for Fascism like Germany did in the 30s or completely lost it like the Cambodians did when they allowed the Kmer Rouge to take over and engage in genocide. Still, for all that, the horrendous consequences were bad enough and will be with us for decades.

Literally, tens of thousands of U.S. factories were closed, millions of Americans lost their jobs, thousands of communities were devastated—and, perhaps, worst of all, we exported expertise on a massive scale—so actually trained and entrenched our competition. If idiocy is the right word to describe this corporate behavior—and I am far from sure it is strong enough—then you can make a good case that it was greed-driven, short-sighted, treasonous, corporate, idiocy.

One of the core negative side effects of outsourcing manufacturing on this massive scale is that you lose a significant amount of other capabilities including the necessary expertise to increase productivity, and to innovate. In effect, by securing short-term gains—which may well be less than your expectations and have a tendency to erode—you have mortgaged your company’s future.

One consequence of being unable to secure productivity gains is  for overall productivity growth to drop—which has happened—and an incentive for management to endeavor to increase profits by squeezing pay, cutting investment, and to engaging in financial manipulation (such as stock buybacks). These activities help to explain the current lack of demand, poor growth rate, higher than desirable real unemployment rate—and general fragility of the economy despite considerable competitive advantage and stimulus in areas such as energy costs. There is no mystery about our current economic plight. We have inflicted the damage upon ourselves.

FACTORY MAN is the awesome story of one factory owner, John Bassett III who decided to stand and fight in the U.S.—and who succeeded in defiance of conventional wisdom and overwhelming odds.

This is what Slate said about the book.

In her excellent new book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, award-winning journalist Beth Macy tells the story of John Bassett III, a third-generation factory owner and descendant of Virginia’s Bassett Furniture family, which once ran the world’s largest wood furniture manufacturing company before cheap Chinese imports put an end to all that. A rare success story, Bassett took on the Chinese by filing the world’s largest anti-dumping petition—and winning in 2005. Bassett is now the chairman of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co., which employs some 700 people and has sales of more than $90 million. Here at the Eye, Macy shares an adapted excerpt from the book that explains how the Chinese began to decimate the U.S. furniture-making industry beginning in the 1980s—and how Americans helped them do it.

July 29 2014: The Marines UHAC—Ultra Heavy-Lift Amphibious Connector. Ingenious, but too big, too slow, too costly to operate, too lightly armored for high survivability on land—and far, far, far, too expensive. Oh, and by the way, unnecessary. All those points apart, it looks kind of fun.

I went in the Marines when I was 16. I spent four and a half years in the Marines and then came right to New York to be an actor. And then seven years later, I got my first job.

Gene Hackman

What struck me about the above quote was the phrase “seven years later”—and this is THE Gene Hackman talking. I’m not sure that those who have regular jobs, and paychecks, have any idea of what is involved if you want to make it in the creative arts—or what it takes. Seven years!




The Marines seem determined to re-fight WW II—as in they still envisage storming enemy held beaches. To that end, ideally they want armored vehicles that can be launched from quite far out, make their own way to land, and then maneuver like tanks or infantry fighting vehicles (at least up to a point).

To my mind, there are various flaws to this thinking.

  • It is exceedingly unlikely that we will want to storm the beaches again. We are much more likely to seize a beachhead from the air by way of a parachute drop, assault by rotary aircraft, or by simply landing at an airport (or an any suitable ground) which we have previously seized. In all probability, we would grab a port (or ports). Ports are already set up to offload massive amounts of material very quickly.
  • The requirement for armor to float tends to make the resultant vehicle better at floating than fighting on land. That makes no sense because getting ashore is normally a minor element in the mission. It might take hours—but the land part may go on for days, weeks, or months. In short, the vehicle should be optimized for the land.
  • We already have better, faster, cheaper ways of landing armor. Appreciate that the armor itself does not have to float. It merely has to be carried by something that does. Here, we have traditional landing craft, hovercraft, and ships. A suitably designed ship could reverse onto a beach or similar and vehicles simply drive off. The notion that armored vehicles have to be seaworthy in themselves is simply not valid. The ability to cross rivers is, indeed, useful—but even that is not essential as experience has shown that building bridges under fire, though not for the faint of heart, is achievable. Consider that the Israeli’s did just that in 1973 when they crossed the Suez Canal to invade Egypt—after Egypt had invaded them.

The real plan is as follows.

“[A] future full-scale UHAC would have up to three times the payload of the Ship-to-Shore Connector (SSC) and approximately the payload of a 1600-series Landing Craft Utility (LCU),” said a joint reportwith the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. “It would have the same well deck footprint as an SSC with speeds twice that of an LCU. The captive air cell technology also yields a low ground pressure footprint (less than 2 psi) giving it the ability to traverse mud flats or climb over obstacles in excess of 10 feet. With a projected range of over 200 miles, UHAC could deliver forces and sustainment from well over a horizon.”

It will not only be able to traverse a wider variety of beachheads but also be able to climb over 10-foot-tall sea walls. It may have a top speed of up to 20 knots, if it goes into real production.

Currently the Marines are testing a half-scale Ultra Heavy-lift Amphibious Connector, or UHAC, just off the coast of the Philippines; the full-size version will measure in at 34 feet tall and 84 feet long and be able to haul a payload of about 200 tons, three times that of the Marines’ current Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC).

“The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab is sponsoring a half-scale UHAC demonstration during their 2014 Advanced Warfighting Experiment (in conjunction with RIMPAC [Rim of the Pacific Exercise] 2014),” explained the report. “Development of a full-scale technology demonstrator is a possibility.”

Clearly, the full scale UHAC is not designed to do too much maneuvering on land—which is a relief –because at 34’ tall, an enemy would need to  blind not to hit it.  However, I still wonder why the Marines feel they need the UHAC. Is that comment about low ground pressure significant? I wonder do they have a particular scenario in mind.

I shall have to talk to some Marine friends. Despite my critical comments, I’m a great supporter of crazy projects. You pretty much always learn something from a fresh approach.  

Not many people know this, but I was once was in charge of an LCT or Landing Craft Tank (See Photo). My brother Rex had bought it with a view to using it as a platform for divers in the North Sea. It wasn’t a bad idea though the North Sea is notoriously rough—and LCTs notoriously unstable in bad weather. Anyway, it was all academic because the LCT—which looked as if it was floating on the river—was actually holed and sitting on the bottom. That was not immediately obvious because the craft had a double bottomed hull, and the inner hull was still intact. Still, I rather liked having my very own vessel for a while. It was a piece of history. I think Rex sold it for scrap in the end.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Apparently you live longer if your have a sense of purpose—regardless of what that purpose is. I guess that means serial killers live longer. I’d like to think writers do too.

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.

Pablo Picasso

Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.

Cecil Beaton

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, 'Where's the self-help section?' She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.

George Carlin

I would have thought it was self evident that a sense of purpose would prolong your life. On the other hand, death seems pretty arbitrary—so perhaps not. Certainly, I can think of a number of driven people who have died before their time. In short, self evident is an opinion. It isn’t evidence—and I will confess a weakness for evidence.

Recent research by Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and his colleague Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center have come up with data which suggests that people with a sense of purpose have a 15 percent lower risk of death than their peers—and it doesn’t seem to matter when people find their direction. It can be in your 20s, 50s, or 70s.

Hill says he isn’t clear why a sense of purpose tends to keep you above ground a little longer. He comments that purposeful individuals may lead healthier lives—or perhaps a sense of purpose protects against the harmful effects of stress.

I give thanks every day that I changed career direction and opted to become a writer—but I have to say it is scarcely a stress free occupation. Apart from the creative challenges, book writing is akin to tightrope walking in a high wind financially—and then there is the issue of social disapproval to deal with. A surprising number of people don’t regard book writing as a proper job. After all, it doesn’t provide a regular paycheck. Accordingly, I appreciate all the stress protection I can get.

Still. whatever about the stress of being a writer, the truth is that I rarely feel stressed while actually writing no matter how difficult the project. On the contrary, while actually writing, I spend most of the time in the zone—which is about as stress free as it gets (and pretty damn wonderful). In fact, it’s much better than anything I used to imagine.

It’s not like the transient thrill you get when you win a prize or watch a good movie. It’s a continuous pleasure which you get to experience pretty much all day every day.

In the past, I have described writing as living with failure—because you never write quite as well as you want (or, if you do, you raise the bar).

Well, the other side of the coin is that is that it appears that in terms of sheer satisfaction, certain types of failure may be seriously under-rated.

It is something I feel exceedingly fortunate to have found out.

July 28 2014: The missile factor when it comes to flying. It is not just a threat in combat situations. We don’t want to admit it, but it may well prove to be a major problem in civilian aviation. There are many more SAMs out there than we seem to realize—and more people incentivized to use them against civilian aircraft. And SAMs are getting better and deadlier.

“We're not afraid of sanctions. We're not afraid of military invasion. What frightens us is the invasion of western immorality.”

Ruhollah Khomeini


The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 has brought the threat of anti-aircraft missiles front and center. In fact, it has never really gone away, but is an issue that has received remarkably little media attention for some considerable time. Given the large number of such missiles in circulation, that was surprising in its way. Then again, the media depend upon advertising, airlines are good customers, and airlines certainly don’t like talking about such threats.

For their part, governments certainly don’t want to alarm their populations. Aviation plays a vital role in all economies today—whether developed or otherwise. Shutting a nation’s aviation down would have catastrophic economic consequences—but the possibility is becoming likelier by the day. Missiles are getting better and better, propellants are becoming more powerful, electronics are improving at phenomenal speed, and guidance systems are becoming more discriminating, yet harder to evade. In short, a whole new generation of SAMS is coming into circulation.

There is more to it than that—and this is particularly important. The expertise that underpins the various technologies that go into constructing an effective SAM is becoming much more widely available. Let me express it simply. For a host of reasons—including the internet and perceived urgent need—our enemies are becoming vastly more technologically literate at a rapid rate. That means they will soon be able to match our destructive toys—even if they cannot already. It also means we are soon going to be seeing highly sophisticated weaponry emerging from non-traditional sources. Or such is my opinion.

The U.S. has helped to create this situation in a host of ways—both by enabling the technologies, and by creating a climate of threat. Regarding the latter point, our invasion of Iraq—which has yielded such disastrous results—must have incentivized all who don’t have our best interests at heart to develop advanced weaponry at the fastest possible speed.

Iran, for instance, already has drones and increasingly sophisticated missiles—and these are just the weapons we know about. But, it would be hard to deny that they must have a well justified fear of being attacked—and possibly being invaded. Any doubts to that effect must have been swept away by our invasion of Iraq in 2003.

All of that apart, according to the Professional Pilots Rumour Network, over 40 civilian aircraft have been hot by MANPAD missiles since they were introduced in 1967. Most occurred in conflict zones. They caused 28 crashes and over 800 deaths (not including the recent Ukrainian incidents).

But here is the kicker: Over a million MANPAD and other missiles have been manufactured worldwide—and most are still out there and ready to be upgraded and used.

SAM = Surface to Air Missile

MANPAD = Man Portable Air Defense System (such as an SA7 or Stinger.

So who might want to use these MANPADs against civilian aircraft? Well, apart from our traditional enemies such as Iran and North Korea, we are building up a whole host of relatively new enemies—mostly extreme Islamists—who will sooner or late come to the view that shooting down civilian aircraft attracts at least as much publicity as hijackings, creates a greater climate of fear, and does vastly greater economic damage.

Can we counter this? Sure we can—up to a point. But it’s not a threat we are taking seriously as yet. We need to do so—and to think strategically about our communications. For instance, it may make sense to invest much more in high speed rail—or Elon Musk’s concept—if  only from a National Security point of view. Here it is worth pointing out that the Interstate system was justified by the Eisenhower system as essential for defense. Well, it was—but the economic advantages have been incalculable.

I believe we are in much the same situation today—except that now we seem to be ideologically averse to planning or investing. 

We also need to think through the consequences of our actions more seriously. Iraq has opened a Pandora’s box—and we may soon do just the same thing in Africa (where we are operating extensively as if we were invulnerable).

Our military may be be effectively militarily invulnerable (subject to acceptable casualties). American civilians are not.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

We need faster, cheaper, (hurricane proof) housing—and I have this thing about domes. Blame Buckminster Fuller. Now meet architect Nicoló Bini.

Unlike traditional low-cost, temporary disaster relief shelters, Binishells are intended to be permanent fixtures. The technique is speedy and, according to Bini, costs start at just $3,500.

I grew up in big old houses in Ireland. Such ‘Big Houses’ were a  feature of my (fast fading) class, the Anglo-Irish. They looked good, had well proportioned rooms, separate servants’ quarters, normally came with land (our house in Bray had five acres) and frequently featured large walled gardens, orchards, horse paddocks, and the like.

They were also near impossible to heat at an economic cost—and were impractical in more ways than I have space to list. However, the features I recall most were dry rot and damp—which, somehow, never seemed to be eradicated.

I thought all of this was normal for a long time because I was rarely exposed to any other kind of house—but when I hit puberty, and found the tie I had planned to wear for a date was covered in green mold—decided there had to be a better way.

Yes, males really did wear ties on teenage dates in those days—and horse-drawn carts were still a feature of Dublin traffic. I kid you not.

My epiphany came when I went to Germany and encountered a sash window that didn’t rattle, but closed with a satisfying clunk—and doors that fitted tightly, and didn’t let in drafts.

Good grief! There really was a better way. How had these people lost the war!

From then on I collected houses (so to speak) and, over time, came to the conclusion that there were endless better ways—and less expensive ways of building—but that too much money was at stake for radical alternatives to be tried. In fact, they were mostly sidelined through ignorance, inertia, zoning, insurance restrictions, mortgage technicalities, and other techniques. Housing was much more about money than shelter—and, sadly, it still is. If we really wanted to house everybody more than adequately in energy efficient, comfortable, dwellings, we have the technology and resources to do it with relative ease. But those who control the levers of power do not.

That hasn’t stopped me thinking about alternatives—and the following showed up in that marvelous magazine, Wired.

Here is an extract. Read on.

Each Binishell starts as a two-dimensional shape on the ground, ringed by a wooden form into which an air bladder, reinforcing steel rebar, and a load of concrete is placed. As the concrete sets, an air pump fills the bladder and a concrete dome begins to rise from the Earth. An hour later, the concrete has hardened, the bladder is deflated, removed for reuse, and the building’s soaring shell is ready for inspection and interior construction. The concept is bizarre, combining a building material from the time of Julius Caesar with a Jetsons aesthetic, but the approach has already worked before.

Binishells were pioneered by Dr. Dante Bini, Nicoló’s father, and the first Binishell, which popped up in 1964, is still standing. All told, over 1,600 Binishells have been built in 23 countries across the globe, including gymnasium-sized shells 120 feet in diameter and tiny bubble-shaped bungalows in the developing world. “Binishells have survived even extreme environments—such as the lava, ash and constant earthquakes on Mount Etna—for almost 50 years,” says Nicoló. The younger Bini is reviving the technique as a way to provide low-cost housing for refugees and displaced people, but believes Binishells could be used and to fabricate schools, military bases, sports stadiums and generally provide architects with a cost-effective way to explore convex construction.

Unlike traditional low-cost, temporary disaster relief shelters, Binishells are intended to be permanent fixtures. The technique is speedy and, according to Bini, costs start at just $3,500. A cluster of Binishells might look like a sci-fi film set, but the materials to build one could be found on any job site. “Aside from some special additives, our concrete mix can be sourced locally almost anywhere,” says Bini. “Similarly our reinforcement is the same rebar you find sitting on the shelf of supply stores around the world.”

Binishells could be a compelling alternative to current disaster relief housing which is usually intended to be temporary, often end up as shanty ghettos. Concrete fabrication makes passive solar heating an easy option, reducing drain on strained infrastructure. The domed shape is naturally aerodynamic providing some protection from hurricanes. A gentle curvature and low roof height allow green roofs to be planted and easily tended. “With 25% of the world’s population living in sub-standard shelters, this is where we feel we can have the most impact,” says Nicoló.

I don’t know whether Blinishells—or domes in general—are the answer, but I do believe we should experiment vastly more. Could be fun—and interesting. The primary reasons we don’t right now is because of all the restrictions I have mentioned. Mostly, we have made it legally impossible to stray from the status quo.

 But that’s crazy!

So one might think.

Extracts from a terrific interview with the consistently impressive Maria Popova—founder, writer and editor of Brain Pickings. The interviewer is Jocelyn K.Glei and the piece runs on

The real work is how not to hang your self-worth, your sense of success and merits, the fullness of your heart, and the stability of your soul on those numbers—on that constant positive reinforcement and external validation. That’s the only real work, and the irony is that the more “successful” you get, by either your own standards or external standards, the harder it is to decouple all of those inner values from your work. I think we often confuse the doing for the being.

Maria Popova

I find it hard to praise Maria Popova too highly. Essentially her website—always visually striking and rich with compelling content—explores creativity, and, in so doing, helps both justify and explain the unexplainable.

The following are some extracts from the interview with (itself a fascinating site which rarely fails to intrigue me).

How do we answer the grand question of how to live—and more importantly—how to live well? This is the deeply philosophical (and yet eminently pragmatic) inquiry that lies at the core of Maria Popova’s remarkable blog, Brain Pickings. Since she launched Brain Pickings as a passion project back in 2006, it’s grown impressively, becoming an intellectual touchstone for inquiring minds that now draws several million readers a month.

In the age of information overload, Popova is the ultimate hunter-gatherer-curator, bringing her intensely curious mind to bear on everything from Susan Sontag’s journals to Maurice Sendak’s vintage illustrations to Albert Einstein’s letters. Rich with in-depth quotations and rarely seen imagery, Popova’s articles suss out overlooked wisdom on writing, Buddhism, daily routines, falling in love, storytelling, motherhood, mental illness, critical thinking, growing old, vulnerability, and a wild array of other topics. In the process, she exposes readers to books and concepts that they would likely never otherwise come across.

Not surprisingly, Popova’s work ethic is as relentless as her curiosity. Yet, after eight years of providing a service that lights up creative minds around the world, she is feeling the strain. Over tea, we talked about her struggle to dial back the pace of her workflow, and the tension between “getting things done” and being present in your own emotional reality.

The “Information Age” seems to have ushered in this hectic, new pace of working that’s driving us all a bit crazy. And it feels unsustainable. How do you think we ended up here?

I think that word “should” in our internal narratives is very toxic—this notion of, “what should I be doing?” and it’s always pegged to some sort of expectation, whether it’s self-imposed or external or a combination of the two. It’s hard to balance those expectations of what you should be doing with what you want to be doing. I feel very fortunate in that to a large extent what I do is exactly what I want to be doing for myself, and I still write for an audience of one. I read things that stimulate me and inspire me and help me figure out how to live and then I write about them. The fact that there are other people who enjoy it is nice, but it’s just a byproduct.

I think there is a high correlation between “type A” personalities and people that “do their own thing.” But we typically do that thing within a structure that’s borrowed from the world of working for the man—the only difference is you’re the man now. When you’re your own boss, the demands you place on yourself are probably higher and more intense than any demands anyone else would place on you if you were an employee.

If we are so busy being successful that we don’t have time to be happy, then we need to seriously reconsider our definition of success.

A friend of mine and I have an ongoing debate about whether great creative work comes out of happiness or sadness. She believes it generally comes out of misery or depression. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. What about you?

I think the only person who was right on this was Anais Nin, who wrote in her diary in 1945 that it is emotional excess that is the root of good writing and good creative work—and that could be in either direction, joyous or miserable.

The New York Times has this column called “The Lives They Lived” which they do at the end of every year, remembering all the people that died that year and what makes their lives worth contemplating, and they asked me to do one. I had a hard time deciding between two people but I ended up going with Ray Bradbury. I chose him precisely because I think his work ethic was such a beautiful and heartening antidote to that myth that genius requires some sort of malady of the soul.

Bradbury was always talking about how he never did a day of work in his life. He always wrote with love and with joy and that was the only way to really be for him. I think that sort of romantic idea of the despondent writer somewhere secluded, drinking and cutting her veins or whatever, is just horrible! And, I think a lot creators today think that that is the way to have good ideas, but I think just being in touch with your emotional reality is what it takes to make meaningful work.

Go read the full thing at There is a video of Popova there also.

Game of Change.The American Way of Life is so strongly entrenched that it seems impossible to change within any reasonable span of time—even for any reasonable reason. But could that be an illusion? Perhaps the status quo is not quite so strongly entrenched as we think. And appreciate that change rarely happens with adequate warning.

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Steve Jobs


I have often said that if ever I get reincarnated in reasonable form—which I guess means human for the purposes of this exercise (I’m far from sure being an academic python would cut it. How would you hold a book, let alone turn the pages?) I’ll study cognition.

I jest, of course. We both know I’ll become a writer all over again.

It frustrates the hell out of me that we don’t really know how we think—let alone how other people think. However, that eminently reasonable goal has competition. Another subject fascinates me also—and that is change. I would really like to understand how the process works—and how to achieve it.

I have been endeavoring to change things for most of my life—and my track record is mixed. Perhaps trying to change both the Irish and U.S. economies (consecutively not concurrently)—not to mention the U.S. Army—set the bar too high. Failures have scarred me—and yet I have had successes. But, being human—and not a python—I’d like more.

As you read this, you probably think I’m making this up. Feel free to believe just that if it fits your mental model of how the world works—but you would be wrong.

I used to think that the sheer logic of an argument supported by the balance of the evidence would result in a change in direction—but clearly that is not so. Why not? Because we are much more emotional than rational animals—and we are extremely vulnerable to propaganda. That means that vested interests—who benefit from the status quo and who are prepared to spend enough money—can seem to stop even the most eminently sensible reforms even if the majority support them.

Let me proffer Congress as an example. It has an approval rating of under ten percent—and yet we already know that most members will be re-elected.

Let me put forward Big Business as another example. Polls demonstrate that a significant majority of Americans are concerned that corporate power is excessive—and yet it seems to increase by the day.

And yet, there are faint signs that the Maginot Line, that is the status quo, is vulnerable.

And, by the way, the Maginot Line really was a formidable barrier to invasion—so much so that the Germans went around it.

Think of these signs as the slightest of the kind of tremors that may—or may not—portend an earthquake of epic proportions. They are the kind of manifestations that most of us will rarely notice—unless directly involved.

In fact, they appear downright inconsequential.

In that spirit, let me put forward a current Time magazine story on

10 Things Americans Have Suddenly

Stopped Buying

  • Cereal
  • Soda
  • Gum
  • Guns
  • Cupcakes
  • Chef Boyardee
  • Golf Gear
  • Razors
  • Bread
  • Convertibles

Doesn’t mean a thing? I think it might.

July 27 2014: Tiny weeny things that fly and spy—and what such development signify. Incidentally, this nano drone isn’t American. It is the British PD-100 Black Hornet. Before long, it could equally well be Chinese or Iranian. So where are we going with all this?

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Army to test next generation nano drone PD-100 Black Hornet. Photo via Youtube

The trouble with weapons technology linked to globalization is that it seems to be becoming increasingly difficult to retain a technological advantage. No sooner do you come up with a new widget than the other guy seems to have it too—or, if he hasn’t quite got it yet, he soon will.

The key point is that you don’t retain a competitive advantage for long. Back in the days of the longbow, you could be ahead of the game for hundreds of years—as the English were with the longbow. Today—where some technologies are concerned—you’ll be fortunate to be in front for much longer than a year, and it could be merely a matter of months.

The next logical development from this trend is that the other guy will have the development first—and we’ll be playing catch-up.

All of that should be a strong argument in favor of world peace—but if you look at the Middle East, it seems fairly clear the locals haven’t got the memo.

Have we? Based upon our behavior since 9/11, it would seem not. In fact, we’ve been engaged in more military adventures than ever—with not much to show for it except a vast increase in our National Debt, and considerable political advantage for our enemies.

War has a close companion called Unintended Consequences we really need to get to know better. 

Where the U.S. is concerned—nuclear weapons apart—our military dominance is based upon the strength of our economy (which allows us to maintain a more powerful military than anyone else) linked to airpower. True, we have strong land forces and a formidable navy as well, but our edge comes from the air.

The not so good news is that we are losing our economic advantage at a fairly rapid rate—and doing very little about it—and our aerial superiority is no longer something we can take for granted. We will certainly retain air dominance in terms of aircraft for a considerable time to come (I won’t comment here on the cripplingly expensive and technologically challenged F-35), but that may well be of limited advantage if missile technology continues to improve. Consider what the Chinese are achieving with missiles. Consider what both the Russians and the Chinese have already achieved in space. Consider what military progress a slew of other unfriendly nations are making that we don’t know about—but can imagine.

Imagine what we can’t imagine.

“Make love not war” seems to make more and more sense to me. My books, being thrillers, tend to feature both.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Does technology affect your cognition—and specifically your ability to write? That’s something I think about.

Even if you’ve shunned all distractions, you still won’t absorb information you read online as well as you would if you’d read it in a book. And you can blame hypertext for that. Those colorful little links scattered throughout online articles (including this one) make your brain work harder than it would otherwise, leaving less brain power to process what you’re reading. Even just reading on screens, like a laptop or iPad -- links or no links -- has been shown to diminish comprehension.

Research has shown that reading linked text “entails a lot of mental calisthenics -- evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats -- that are extraneous to the process of reading,” Carr wrote in “The Shallows.” And giving your brain more work to do makes it harder to absorb information. Text that’s peppered with photos, videos and ads is even worse.


It’s strange—to the point of being destructive—how we classify and grade occupations. It is my observation that most human activities require more cerebral involvement than we normally credit. Overall, I don’t like the division between the respect we give manual as opposed to cerebral work. There is an assumption of superiority there which owes more to class superiority than to merit. I was brought up to believe in it implicitly. I no longer do so, and now regard such attitudes as destructive.

Be that as it may, writing is generally considered to be an almost entirely cerebral activity—and I certainly pay great attention to anything I see regarding cognition.. Firstly, I know I rely on my mind to write; secondly, I am acutely aware of both my mind’s strengths and weaknesses; thirdly, I am decidedly uneasy at the effect of the barrage of propaganda we have to endure 27/7; fourthly, I am even more concerned at the possible consequences of how we currently communicate.

Where the latter is involved, I am referring to everything from the phone to the internet, to tablets, to the Smart Phone—and, in particular, to texting. We seem to have evolved a culture of interruptions—the last thing a writer needs. As for multitasking, it is best left to helicopter pilots (who have no choice).

I have never flown a helicopter though I have spent a few hours in simulators. I flew a Blackhawk adequately, but the Apache blew my mind. Flying a helicopter is hard enough, but gunship crews have to shoot and communicate as well—and control drones. Now, that really is multitasking (while people are shooting at you). 

I salute you guys.

I am absolutely sure that technology has an impact on cognition. As for one’s ability to write—I’m not sure I can tell. It is certainly vastly helpful in many ways, but I’m equally sure it can be destructive to focus—if you let it. Getting into the zone and staying there is a discipline which requires work. In particular, you have to make a conscious effort not to be distracted—not an easy thing in the context of our current culture.

The 2011 book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr includes the claim by neuroscientist Michael  Merzenich that technology is causing our brains to be “massively rewired.”

This led the Huff Post to put together a provocative piece on the negative effects of technology. I’ll just list the headings.

1. Tech is screwing up your sleep.
2. You’re easily distracted.
3. You can’t remember much...
4. you’re relying on the Internet to remember things for you.
5. And you're much more forgetful than you used to be.
6. You can’t concentrate on what you’re reading.
7. You can’t find your way around without GPS.
8. You have the brain of a drug addict.

Good grief! If that little lot is a consequence of utilizing technology, the prospect of becoming a real drug addict has singular appeal. Clearly, many Americans agree with me since half of us are on legal drugs already.

I’m not, as it happens. I’ll take meds in extremis, but I find they dull the brain—and who knows what multiple meds do to you. Very few have been tested in combination.

Now to make a confession: People apart, the most distracting influence—as far as I am concerned—is the radio. I love it so—and turn NPR off with the deepest regret. But if I am to get into the zone, it has to go.

You don’t want to know what I feel about texting—except that I rate it along with leaf-blowers—and it’s the strongest argument I know in favor of capital punishment.

Monaco is not the way it used to be—but I remember it fondly. We used to vacation there when I was growing up—and it was where I had my first writing assignment. It also featured more stunningly beautiful topless women than a sex obsessed teenager should really be exposed to. I did not complain.

I pay a lot of tax, and I feel, one of the reasons I stay and pay why I'm not based in Monaco... I think my country helped me.

J. K. Rowling


Yes, I do blog ahead sometimes. If the words are flowing, I keep going. I should not really post the result immediately—one a day is more than enough—but, once written, I like to see them up. Yes, I should (perhaps) be more patient…

I'm never, I hope, stupid enough to believe that Twitter or blogging or any of this stuff is a substitute for actually doing the work or writing a book.

Neil Gaiman

Another reason I post blogs ahead of the due date is because they look different—and better—once posted. Once up, I’m very reluctant to take them down. Call it pride of authorship. I also want to get onto the next one—or something else. I work hard to limit the time I spend on blogging. I regard it as an important discipline—but absolutely not the main event.

As far as I am concerned, a blog is officially posted when I put its date in the title. Up until then—while it is undated—it is only there unofficially. There is a date above it at that stage put there automatically by Blogger (the web service) but you will notice it is not in the title. In effect, an officially posted blog is dated twice—once in the title and once above it.

Confusing? I hope not. It’s just my system to ensure I have one blog a day.

I find I am switching much of my blogging to the weekend to keep my main working days clear for more serious tasks. The exceptions come when an idea grabs me by the throat (ideas will grab you anywhere to get your attention). Then I find it makes most sense to write the thing there and then.

I tend not to get blog ideas when I’m in the middle of something else important. Being in the zone is all about focus so it has an insulating effect. However, when I take a break, or do a chore, ideas have a habit of infiltrating.

Ideas are wonderful, and I’m driven by them, but they are also fickle, elusive, unpredictable—and ruthless. You can have an idea—yet you can never own one. If so inclined, they will do anything to get your attention—yet they will betray you in a heartbeat. Once gone, you don’t know quite what you are missing—but the sense of loss is palpable.

But, they are the stuff of life—and fascinating

Many of us don’t seem to know it, and most don’t want to think about it—but yes—Americans are getting poorer. A little poorer? No, a lot. The typical household has suffered a decline of 36% over the last 10 years. The decline of the U.S. is happening now—and it is happening frighteningly fast. At the same time, it is quite true—the rich are getting richer.

From the 1970s, there has been a significant change in the U.S. economy, as planners, private and state, shifted it toward financialization and the offshoring of production, driven in part by the declining rate of profit in domestic manufacturing.

Noam Chomsky

Understanding American Economic Decline

I don’t particularly like writing about the economic decline of this genuinely Great Nation. I prefer writing about creativity, or exploring technology, or talking about my books. Above all, I prefer humor. I get enormous pleasure from interjecting some wit—even if it is only a twist at the end of a piece—the kind of remark that will make you chuckle. I’m a great fan of the chuckle. Laughter is a wonderful thing, but I grew up in an environment where the chuckle was more common and dry wit the thing. It was also de rigeur to have a sense of the ridiculous—and, of course, it still is. Real life is more Monte Python than Plato.

The reason I do write about U.S. economic decline—and the economy in general, from time to time—is that I have some expertise in this area and I am genuinely concerned. I care.

I am also delusional enough to hope that I will get through to a few people who will initiate some remedial action. I have learned from experience that you don’t have influence a lot of people directly to make a difference. You merely have to connect with the right people—and “light the fuze.”

If that seems an impossible task, reflect that mass movements normally start with one person. You may feel like an insignificant ant in a country with a population of 316 million (and climbing) but you are not. You can make a difference—if you are so minded.

The frustrating thing about this current decline is that it is unnecessary. My research shows that there are solutions for just about every single problem this country faces—and most are proven. We also have more than sufficient resources to implement all of them—and at speed.

We have opted instead to be a nation of ostriches. The tag line below reads: “The motion has been made and seconded that we stick our heads in the sand.”

It seems to be the one and only thing we can agree on.

The following is an extract from the NYT of July 26 2014.

The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation. Those are the figures for a household at the median point in the wealth distribution — the level at which there are an equal number of households whose worth is higher and lower. But during the same period, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially.

“The housing bubble basically hid a trend of declining financial wealth at the median that began in 2001,” said Fabian T. Pfeffer, the University of Michigan professor who is lead author of the Russell Sage Foundation study.

The reasons for these declines are complex and controversial, but one point seems clear: When only a few people are winning and more than half the population is losing, surely something is amiss.

So one might think.

July 26 2014: Book writers are entrepreneurs—especially these days. Well, let me introduce you to Chris DeVore, a startup and seed-stage investor of exceptional insight.

Founders aren't born but made, first by the hurt the world gives them, and then by their lifelong fight to forge that hurt into something beautiful and strong.

Chris DeVore

I have never met Chris DeVore—though we have spoken on the phone (which he answered himself). I was very impressed by our conversation,—he was empathetic and generous with his time—and have been reading his blog ever since.

He rarely fails to impress, but this time—see below—he has excelled himself.

His business is investing in technology companies, but his insights could equally apply to thriller writers such as myself—and, arguably, many a driven creative person.

Let me show you a sample. This is a particularly brilliant piece. The man gets it—and what he says is both important and true. We entrepreneurs are as described—and we are damaged goods. But, with luck, we are constructively damaged.

It takes a particular talent to detect the latter. Chris clearly has it. He writes well too. He is, as they say, a man of parts.

His blog is called CRASH DEV and his company is FOUNDERS CO-OP

The one thing you can't teach an entrepreneur

Posted: 24 Jul 2014 11:38 AM PDT

Startup founders are like sponges.
You basically can't be an entrepreneur if you aren't relentlessly curious about people, technology, business and culture -- constantly remixing those ingredients in your head to find new and better ways of doing things.

Because they're so intellectually agile, founders can learn almost anything if exposed to the right vectors, whether it's high-performing peers, experienced mentors, academic environments or direct trial-and-error.

But there's one thing that can't be taught—and I know because I keep hoping to be proven wrong about it and making the same mistake over and over.

My work as a startup investor isn't focused on companies, but on founders: helping extraordinarily smart and creative people reach their full potential as creators, builders and leaders. Whenever I meet someone with the intellectual and emotional capacity to be a founder, I want to do whatever I can to help them realize that goal.

But there is an awkward truth about successful founders—awkward because it can manifest in decidedly ugly and antisocial ways. At the deepest levels of their psyche, often hidden even from themselves, they have a hunger that they can't control.

This hunger goes by many names—ambition, competitive drive, the will to win—and it's hard to talk about because it is formed around a hard kernel of insecurity and shame.

For every successful founder I know the story is the same: somewhere along the way someone important to them told them they weren't good enough and would never amount to anything. The anger and self-doubt embedded in them by that searing experience becomes a nuclear core fueling their relentless drive for the rest of their lives, long after they have proven the doubters wrong.
Founders who learn to bank and control this fire are among the most productive and effective people in the world. Those who fail to master it self-destruct as their hunger for domination leaks into their personal relationships and poisons their capacity for empathy.

But no matter how brilliant a founding team is, if one member of that team doesn't carry this uncomfortable burden, that startup's odds of success go from low to infinitesimally small.
It can't be taught—in fact it would be wrong to try, because it would require inflicting deliberate emotional damage on another human being. Though risky, it can be added, by bringing in additional founders or early hires who carry necessary the emotional scars. But if it's not baked into the culture at the most fundamental level, no amount of investor, mentor or board support can infuse a startup with the unstoppable force needed to overcome the indifference, hostility and scorn that the world piles on anyone who dares to try something new.

Founders aren't born but made, first by the hurt the world gives them and then by their lifelong fight to forge that hurt into something beautiful and strong.