Archive for September, 2013

Here’s The Big Problem With Mobility

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Something’s been bugging me about all of the contemporary discussion on mobility, mobile devices, and the federal mobility strategy. A star of federal mobility, Rick Holgate of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, gave me a clue some months ago. I’d been using my two iOS devices and found them extremely resistant to the function of editing documents. Rick showed me a small technique I hadn’t known: Simply holding your finger on a word for a moment causes that area of the screen to magnify. You can then move the curser to the middle of a word just by sliding it. I’m certain I was the last person in the world to learn that trick. Since then I’ve shown it to a couple of other people and surprised them. It’s absolutely necessary since iOS doesn’t support a mouse, and in any case iPads don’t have USB ports, God forbid.

Say what you will about Windows 8, but at least you can punch your forefinger into the middle of the word and the cursor will go there.

Also, relative to now, the mobile versions of applications like WordPress and Google Docs were buggy and erratic as late as a few months ago. The most recent updates have eliminated many of the bugs that prevented you from editing documents more easily.

At last week’s Mobility Summit, put on by the Mobile Work Exchange, the thing that’s been bugging me got a name, courtesy of George Jakabcin, the CIO of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. We were co-moderating a wrap-up session at the summit. His word was, “content.” Mobile devices are primarily designed to consume and display, but not create, content.

Duh! Why couldn’t I articulate that earlier? By “content” I mean written documents. Others mean business grade spreadsheets, or presentations. If by “written” you mean tweets or text messages, then fine. But if you mean field reports, white papers, investigations, detailed memorandums, or policy statements, you’d be crazy to try and originate them on a mobile device.

Of course this seems obvious. I do lot of white papers, speeches and ghost-written pieces for a number of Beltway companies. Writing, I like to tell people, is easy. You sit in front of your screen — it used to be your typewriter — and wait for the blood drops to form on your forehead. The writing I do requires a lot of research, and therefore lots of open web sites and source documents. At my main setup I have 475 square inches of display space, and wish I had half again more. Plus a mouse and full-sized, full travel keyboard. Even trying to do this sort of work on a large notebook is a pain, with only one screen. As for Android or iOS mobile devices, forget about it. In some ways, these are basically TSR — terminate-and-stay-resident — operating systems like CP/M (kids, look it up).

At this point in the mobile revolution, most federal use is confined to e-mail, text messaging, SharePoint for the more advanced, and of course making phone calls. A few agencies, like the Agriculture Department and FEMA, have mobile apps for specific tasks. Most haven’t yet mobile-ized their Web applications. But largely missing from the discussions is the basic distinction between creating and viewing content. As telework, which generally means using a remote PC hooked up through a VPN, transforms into mobile work, which means certain types of devices used anywhere, the create-consume distinction needs to be acknowledged.

As does the fact that content creation on mobile devices is mostly a nightmare.

The mobility crowd will have a stronger sell if it refrains from overselling what professionals can reasonably do on mobile devices. I’ve heard the stories of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding that everything be served up to her on an iPad. I’m willing to bet her speech writers and presentation-makers didn’t originate any of her content on one.

I’m as addicted to my iPhone as anyone. Mine brings in three e-mail accounts for various pieces of my life, a library of YouTube music videos to practice along with for the cover band I’m in, do Instagram, Twitter and all the rest. Just the other night, I’d forgotten my recording kit for a radio interview. When I got to the wi-fi equipped restaurant where the guest was waiting, I downloaded a competent — and free — voice-recording app that was good enough for broadcast. (Hear it here; it’s the interview with RSA’s Mike Brown.)

But the heavy, professional, highly paid-for stuff? That still take a conventional computer.

Categories: Uncategorized

“Movie Memphis Belle” B-17 Keeps Memories Alive

September 7, 2013 Leave a comment

When I was very young, family vacations to Atlantic City – decades before casinos – would include a stop to visit an elderly couple living in Woodbury, N.J. My parents had known them since before they, my folks, were married. One of my most vivid memories is of Snyder’s Smoke Shop in downtown Woodbury, with its seemingly endless variety of penny candy, little toys and comic books. Another memory is of a tiny model airplane that hung on a short string in the archway between the living room and dining room in the home of that couple, Jack and Hazel.

I once asked my mother about the plane. “That’s a B-17,” she told me. I looked closer and noted its four miniature propellers. Turns out, my mother had corresponded with Hazel’s son during World War II when mom was still in high school. Once on leave Ray Jackson visited Washington, D.C. and spent a couple of nights in my grandparents’ spare room in their row house in Petworth. He took my mother out to dinner. Returning to Europe, he was killed soon after, when the B-17 of which he was co-pilot was shot down over Germany, as half of them were. Although she barely knew the son, my mother stayed close with his mother. She and Jack were like third grandparents. Hazel lived until the 1980s, and I always equated her with B-17s.

I tell this story as backdrop to my recent dream-come-true flight aboard one of the dozen or so still-flying B-17s. It’s operated by the Liberty Foundation. The Foundation’s B-17 was a late build, so it never saw combat. But it’s painted in the markings of the most famous B-17, the Memphis Belle. That plane and its storied crew were the subject of a 1990 movie by the same name, in which the Foundation’s B-17 substituted for the actual one. (That historic B-17 was allowed to corrode outside and be vandalized for many years by the city of Memphis. Now Air Force museum experts at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton are restoring it.)

Somewhere along the line I became an airplane fanatic. I’m not a pilot, and I know only the rudiments of operating any plane, much less a four-engine bomber. But I especially love four-engine piston planes, the distinct sound of which has mostly disappeared. I can’t say what it is that make that type of aircraft so appealing to me. Until last week, I may have actually flown on one, probably a DC-7 or Constellation, maybe twice in my life, both times before I was 10 years old. So when an e-mail came saying the “Movie Memphis Bell” was offering journalists flights, I leapt at the chance.

The other reporters probably didn’t know the roar they heard when the plane came in (to Martin State Airport north of Baltimore) came from one of the great mechanical innovations of the 1930s – the Wright Cyclone radial engine. Wright developed its Cyclones into a variety of sizes and capacities. Despite knowing how hot it was, I walked up to one of the Belle’s engine nacelles and touched the engine mounted immediately behind the propeller. Just to say I touched one.

Here’s a secret: When I need a mental break, I watch YouTube videos of vintage radial engines that mechanics nuts have rescued, mounted on trailers so they can haul them to engine meets, start ‘em up and watch ‘em run. The B-17 has 9-cylinder Cyclone 1820s – 1,820 cubic inches of displacement. More exiting is the Duplex Cyclone 3350, 18 cylinders in two rows. When it starts, it belches big globs of fire out the exhaust pipe. Four of those babies hauled up the B-29 “Enola Gay”, which dropped Little Man on Hiroshima.

The Liberty Belle Foundation’s chief pilot, Ray Fowler, has a weekday job. He’s a jet pilot for Delta Airlines. He explains that this B-17 was built not by Boeing, which engineered the plane for the Army, but under license by the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, Calif. It took three companies to build B-17s in sufficient quantities to keep the Army Air Corps supplied. Women flew the new planes, sans their protective armament, over to Europe.

Because this particular B-17 lacks the armor and much of the heavy apparatus of a combat plane, it’s relatively light. That plus the natural stability of the design made for a smooth takeoff. Once aloft, we passengers could leave our decidedly primitive seats and visit all areas of the plane. We took turns crawling under the cockpit to the nose. There we sat in the bombardier’s chair and took in the magnificent, 360-degree view through the Plexiglas nosecone. We could poke our heads up through the open canopy in the radio room, getting views as in an open cockpit biplane. We threaded our way through the bomb bay on a six-inch wide catwalk. We could chat with Fowler and co-pilot Melissa Foures as they adjusted the trims and engine controls like manifold pressure and cowl flaps.

One of our passengers that day was the diminutive Larry Hilte, who flew some 35 missions as a ball turret gunner in B-24s out of Spinnazola, Italy. Now, our 25-minute flight took place on a warm September day. Because the B-17 burns 200 gallons of high octane gasoline per hour, and climbing uses the most fuel. Fowler took us up to only 1,000 feet. But Hilte reminded us that the B-17 and B-24 bombing runs ran up to 25,000 feet. The B-17 is unpressurized and has no heating system, so the men had to use oxygen masks and bundle up with electrically-heated trousers and boots just to survive a 6- or 8-hour frigid ordeal of a mission.

What might have been going through young men’s minds as they climbed into the narrow, metal, totally unadorned interior of their plane, knowing they had a better than even chance of not returning alive, or even of returning? What kind of bonding, I wonder, occurred among the 10 crew members whose lives were locked into mutual dependence?

Enough World War II lore, and B-17 lore alone, has been written to fill small libraries. I have little to add on that front. But because WW II veterans are dying at a rate of several thousand per week, soon all we’ll have are the stories and hardware artifacts. Luckily we have men and women dedicated to maintaining these artifacts for future generations to see, touch, and smell.

Photos: Immediately below, me sitting in the nose cone where the Norden bomb sight was located; middle, reproduced nose art of the original Memphis Belle; bottom, a view of the cockpit.

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