It’s been a tough week. A good friend and neighbor died this week after a year long bout with cancer. He put up a hell of a fight.
Then, last night, I learned that milblogger extraordinaire and retired naval aviator Carroll LeFon had been killed when his F21 Kfir fighter jet crashed near the west gate of Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada.
Lex, as most people knew him, was probably one of the best writers in the milblog community, bar none. A retired Navy Captain and former carrier squadron commander, he loved flying and detested “life in a cube”. After retirement he managed to land a dream job for men of his ilk – flying fighter jets for a civilian company contracted to provide the opposing force for naval aviators at the TOPGUN school. Lex, during his active duty days, had been the Executive Officer at that school.
I had the privilege of meeting Lex at one of the milblog conferences and then, over the years, kept up an on again, off again email relationship with him. I enjoyed our conversations immensely and I was a huge fan of his blog. I mostly lurked because, well, I’m a grunt and that wasn’t my world, but I learned more about naval aviation and aviation in general than I would have ever learned elsewhere. I also enjoyed his slant on other topics as well. He had a large and engaged commenting community, the sign of a healthy and well-loved blog.
The stories in tribute to him are just now starting to come out. There’ll be more as the days go by. He was a heck of a guy, a brilliant writer, a man who loved and adored his family and died doing what he loved best – flying a high performance aircraft.
His last post at the blog was a bit eerie but pretty much stated his philosophy best when it came to what he was doing. He’d had a drag chute malfunction on landing and had to “wrestle snakes”, as he put it, for a bit before finally landing the aircraft safely.
When I taxied back to the line the maintenance guys told me to go away for 10 minutes. Just in case the brakes might, you know: Catch fire. Which they didn’t, so no harm done.
It’s funny how quickly you can go from “comfort zone” to “wrestling snakes” in this business.
But even snake wrestling beats life in the cube, for me at least. In measured doses.
Every fighter pilot out there, in fact every pilot in general, knows that at some point or other they’re going to have to wrestle snakes. And, they also know that the possibility exists that the snakes may, at some point, win.
Yet even knowing that, they’d never trade the opportunity to do what they do for that “cube” of safety.
Lex was a good man doing a necessary and dangerous job training our future naval aviators. He paid the ultimate price. But he did it his way doing what he loved to do.
Fair winds and following seas, CAPT LeFon. You’ll be missed.
Yesterday, on my ride home from work, I decided to go by North County House of motorcycles. While there, I saw a brand new 2010 VFR1200F with the DCT automatic transmission on sale. They’d marked it down from $17,499 to $11,999. So, I traded my FJR1300AE for it on the spot.
This is the only picture I have of it, a crappy cell phone pic the sales guy took just before I geared up and rode off on it. Here’s a professional picture of it:
I didn’t get saddlebags with it, but I put my tailbag on it as soon as I got home.
In short, the VFR1200F has a V-4 powerplant that puts out a peak of 170HP, and weighs approximately 600 lbs—which is about 60 lbs less than my FJR, with 145 peak HP. The performance is noticeably superior. It’s shaft-driven, with the shaft putting power to the rear wheel via a single-sided swingarm. It does the 1/4 in 10.2 seconds @ 136MPH. That’s about as fast as I need.
I had a lots of work to do today, so I only got a chance to ride it to the store and back. So I’ve only got 20 miles on it. I can already tell that there’s a bit of a learning curve for it.
The transmission has an interesting setup. Honda took the dual-clutch transmission they use in their Formula 1 Race cars and fitted it to this motorcycle. So, there’s no clutch. You can can either manually shift using buttons on the hand grip, or you can switch it to an automatic transmission with two modes.
In automatic, there’s a standard Drive mode that short-shifts and is very strongly biased to fuel economy…to the extent that you’re in 6th gear by 40mph. Not very exciting at all. Like a moderately sporty scooter. Then there’s the Sport mode. It’s…the opposite. It shifts at redline. And, while I can’t really use the sport mode much during the break-in period, it is…exciting. Let’s just say you can leave rubber from the rear wheel…in 3rd gear, though with brand-new tires.
You don’t need to know how I know that. Or how badly my pants were soiled.
The main difference is that, unlike the FJR AE model, you don’t have to hit 2,500RPM on the tach before it starts to move. Touch the throttle and it goes. And I mean goes. The performance simply outclasses the FJR in every way…if you want it to.
It’s got lots less wind protection and general cushy comfort than the FJR had, though I knew that going into it. I miss the heated grips, too.
But it’s a stonkin’ great engine. Which is what I was looking for in this case.
My cunning plan is to have both a fancy man’s sporty bike like a VFR or K1300S, and a fancy man’s touring bike, either the R1200RT or K1600GT. So, I guess I’m halfway there.
Now, before I ask this, keep in mind that I’m a National League fan, being a life-long Astros fan, as well as a Dodgers fan. I also like the Rangers and the Tigers, but I’m primarily an NL devotee. As such, I am inclined against the designated hitter, because I grew up watching the National League brand of Baseball, prefer it, and only later developed a taste for AL teams.
But here’s the thing. Albert Pujols is 31 and has a shiny new 10-year contract with the Angels. As of today, Prince Fielder(28) is going home to Detroit for 9 years with the Tigers. That puts them at 41 and 37, respectively, when their contracts are up. Do we really think Pujols will be holding down the first bag at 41? Jeez, will Prince Fielder be able to play first at 31 with his…ahem…physical stature. No, of course not.
But, they can work out big deals in the AL because of the Designated Hitter rule. Even when they can’t play a position any more, big hitting still gives them a place on the roster.
But what NL team can take a risk on long-term contract for a big-hitting position player in his 30s? Doesn’t that force star hitters into the AL, and make the NL a weaker league offensively? I mean, not only do you have the pitcher at bat, but the remaining players are lesser sluggers than the AL guys. Is the NL really all about pitching, or is it just weaker hitting?
There seems to be a bit of a push to make the DH apply to the NL, in order to keep the leagues competitive offensively. The reasoning is that, at this point, everybody but the NL uses the DH, and it’s a bit silly for the two major leagues to play two different brands of baseball. And the DH really does result in a different kind of game. Not only would applying the DH to the NL equalize the game, it would allow sluggers—and teams—more options to keep sluggers kin the game, even when they get a bit too old to hold down a position well.
Could the NL just give in and accept the DH? Should they?
I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and other appropriate greetings of the season. I also want to take time to thank QandO’s loyal readers and commenters for another wonderful year. A couple of weeks ago we rolled past 8 million unique visitors on Site Meter. Since that’s always been the way we’ve celebrated another million unique visitors, we’ll continue the tradition.
What it tells me, since we average about a million a year, is that QandO is and remains relevant after all these years. That’s nice to know.
We look forward to another great year in 2012 and a very interesting political season as well.
The best to you and your family … may this be the merriest of Christmases and all the best from the QandO gang. Here’s hoping for a very happy New Year as well.
The wife of one of our own, James Joyner of Outside the Beltway blog, passed away over the weekend. Her death was obviously untimely as she was only 41. James started OTB about the same time QandO started and has been a friend to this blog and many others over the years.
We here at QandO want to express our most profound sympathies and condolences to James and his family. Kimberly leaves behind two young daughters. Please include the family in your prayers.
I wrote this in 2006, and it is as true today as then. Our combat troops are the best the world has ever seen – but without those who support them so well they wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective as they are.
Anyone who doubts all veteran’s are heroes need read no further. But for the vast majority of you who do, I’d like to take a little different slant in my tribute than you might read elsewhere. Most of the time when you read tributes to vets, they’re filled with the stories of those who’ve suffered in combat and we see pictures showing the battle-weary combat vets which pointedly make the argument about the sacrifices our veterans have made and continue to make.
But not all sacrifices are made on the field of battle. While infantry, armor and artillery are the combat arms – the tip of the spear – they, better than anyone, know how important the team that makes up the rest of the spear are to their success on the battlefield.
Those F-16s don’t show up on target at the right time unless that gal flying the boom of a KC10 tanker at 30,000 feet at 2am doesn’t do her job. That sabot round from an M1A1 fired at a threatening T72 isn’t there unless the truck driver hauling ammo day in and day out gets that ammo where it needs to be when it needs to be there.
Veterans are the guys like the cook who gets up every morning at 3:30 am and begins to prepare breakfast for his soldiers. The young man below deck on an aircraft carrier who makes sure the F/A 18 he’s responsible for maintaining is in perfect shape and ready to fly. The nurse who holds a dying soldier’s hand as he takes his last breath, wipes away the tears, straightens her uniform and heads out to do it again.
He’s the youngster in the fuel soaked coveralls who hasn’t slept in 2 days gassing up another Bradley from his fuel tanker. The company clerk who makes sure all of the promotion orders are correct and in on time, or the instructor in basic training who ensures those he trains get his full attention and who puts his all into helping them learn important lessons that will save their lives. He’s the recruiter who’d rather be where the action is, but does what is necessary to make sure he gets the best and brightest available for his branch of service. Or the MP at the gate who shows up every day, does her job to the very best of her ability and never complains.
Most vets have never seen combat in the sense we think of it. But every single solitary one of them has contributed in vital ways to the success of our combat efforts. Without those who support the combat troops, success would impossible. Without the wrench turners, truck drivers, fuel handlers, cooks, clerks and all those like them, the greatest military the world has ever seen is an “also ran.”
It doesn’t matter what a vet did during his or her service, it matters that he or she chose to serve and do whatever vital job they were assigned to the best of their ability. It isn’t about medals, it isn’t about glory, it isn’t about what job they did. It is about the fact that when their country called, they stood up and answered. They are all, every one of them, heroes.
To all the vets out there – Happy Veteran’s Day.
And thank you for your service.
You may have noticed that there was no podcast this week, and that there haven’t been any economic statistics reports this week. That’s because I had to travel to Houston, Texas this weekend to attend the funeral of my grandmother, Mildred Davidson. Many years ago, my grandfather bought their funeral plots at Brookside funeral home, and, though the family migrated out to California, we took them back home after their deaths. My grandfather, Paul E. Davidson, died in 2003. Now, he and my grandmother are finally together again.
When I returned for my grandfather’s funeral, I didn’t have a lot of time to do much beyond see some family, and go to his funeral. This time, I spent three days in Houston, and had time to travel back to all the places I remember from my childhood.
I was born in Houston, and grew up there. My parents divorced when I was two, and my father moved back to New Mexico, where he was from. I spent most of the year living with my mother, and summers with my father, mainly in Albuquerque, NM. So, I sort of have two homes, and two sets of people—entirely unrelated to each other—who saw me grow up. It’s kind of weird. But, Houston was the place I identify as home. So, I went back to the places I remember.
Below the fold is a picture-heavy story; part travelogue, part history. If you’re interested in all about finding out about me, or my past, this is it.
I’m coincidentally the same age as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I’ve seen and worked in the industry they created – what we first called "micro-computers" and later "personal computers" or PCs.
Even that term is falling out of favor. "Laptop" is probably heard more often now, with "tablet" and "slate" moving in.
I’m wondering, though, if "slate" will actually stick. Just as "kleenex" is the word most of us use for a small tissue to wipe your nose (no matter how Kimberly-Clark feels about it), I wonder if we’ll someday be talking about "ipads" from Amazon and Samsung. That would merely be continuing the trend where "ipod" is becoming the generic term for an MP3 player.
This is one example of the power of Steve Jobs to set the agenda in the last ten years. There are plenty more.
The changing signs on Music Row in Nashville are another testament to his ability to turn an existing order upside down. The iPod changed the music industry beyond recognition, and here in Nashville we had a front-row seat to watch the changes.
The area of most interest to me, though, is in software. I’ve focused more on user interface design over the years than any other area. I’ve watched Apple drive a trend that is powerful and desirable in our industry: moving from just making something possible with technology to making it easy.
For decades, it was enough for a software program to make something possible that was not possible before. DOS-based software was never particularly easy to use. The underlying technology to make it easy just wasn’t there.
Jobs and Wozniak pioneered that era, but Bill Gates ruled it. He reduced IBM to irrelevance, along with Novell, Lotus, and WordPerfect, all major league software companies at one time.
To some extent, Bill understood the importance of making things easy; Excel was about ten times easier to use than Lotus 1 2 3. But he never really innovated much in making things easy. His forte was seeing good ideas produced by others and then copying those ideas and making products based on them affordable and practical. Windows was never the equal of the Mac until (arguably) Windows 7, but it ran on cheaper machines and Bill made it friendly to businesses, which were the biggest buyers of PCs until somewhere in the 1990s.
Steve Jobs and his crew were Bill’s best idea source. I sometimes thought that they served as the unofficial research arm of Microsoft for user interface design throughout the eighties and nineties. Apple sputtered through that period, producing hits (iMac) and misses (Newton). At one point, Bill Gates even stepped in with a capital infusion that saved Apple from likely irrelevance or even bankruptcy. I suppose he didn’t want to see his free research lab disappear.
During that era, Steve Jobs kept pushing the boundaries. The very first Mac was a pain to use, because it was too slow to do what he imagined, and had a screen that we would laugh at today. But it made some new things possible, such as real graphic editing. Though a PC was my main machine in the mid-1980s, I would put up with the Mac’s flaws to do my graphics work. The salesmen at our company often said our diagrams of the system we were proposing often clinched the sale.
I believe Jobs had a vision during that period of what personal technology could be like, but the nuts and bolts were not quite there. Nevertheless, he always insisted on "user first" thinking.
Jobs understood something that is still misunderstood by almost all companies in technology. You can’t innovate by asking your users to tell you what to do.
The typical technology company convenes focus groups and does market research, and then says "Ah, what buyers want is X, Y, and Z. OK, you lab guys, go create it for the lowest possible cost."
Steve Jobs understood that consumers and users of technology don’t know how to design technology products any more than movie goers know how to write screenplays. To create innovative and delightful user experiences, it is necessary to get inside the mind of the user and understand them so well that you know what they will like even before they do.
This is hard. It’s so hard that only two companies in my lifetime have been any good at it at all: Apple and Sony. And these companies have dramatically different batting averages, with Apple up in Ted Williams territory while Sony languishes around the Mendoza line.
Finally, about ten years ago, the underlying technology started matching up with Jobs’ vision. The result was the iPod.
There were plenty of MP3 players that pre-dated the iPod. I had one, from Creative. It had about enough storage for three albums, and required me to organize files and folders on it to store my music.
Steve Jobs saw the small, low power hard disks coming on line and realized they could be the foundation of a new, reimagined device. First, it would store hundreds of albums or thousands of songs – a typical person’s entire music collection. It would use software designed earlier to manage music – iTunes.
The big departure was the approach to user experience. The iPod was so simple to use that someone could pick it up and figure it out in about two minutes.
This was done by purposely leaving out features that were arguably useful. While the other MP3 makers were designing and marketing on checklists of features, the iPod stripped things down to the basics. And kicked the others to the curb.
Jobs realized before others that it was time to stop working on "possible" and start emphasizing "easy". When technology is new and rapidly evolving, something new is possible with each passing year, and giving buyers new features is enough to sell products. But when technology reaches a certain point, and the feature lists get long enough, all products have the essential features. The differentiation then becomes based on something very simple: what people like.
This is particularly true as technology starts appealing to a broad market. If you try to satisfy everyone in a broad market by including all the features anyone in a broad spectrum wants, you’ll end up with an unusable mess.
At some point in the evolution of technology for a given space, people just assume that the features they really need will be in all the devices they see. They start choosing based on emotion. That is, they seek what feels elegant and fluid to them, something they really want to be a part of their daily life.
This is where genuine design, based on universal design principles that go back decades or centuries, starts adding value. For example, Hick’s Law says that the time required to choose an option goes up as the number of options increases. Simply put, users get frustrated trying to find the feature they want from a long list of features in a menu, or trying to find the button they want on a remote control that has fifty-eleven buttons.
There is an entire body of knowledge in this space, and the first major computer/software company to emphasize designers who knew and understood this body was Apple. The culture at Apple values people who know how to get inside the mind of a user and then create a new way of interacting with technology that the user will love.
Jobs created and drove that culture. He went from turning the music business upside down with the iPod to turning the phone industry upside down with the iPhone, and now Apple is remaking their original territory, the personal computer, with the iPad.
I’ve discussed before in the comments here that I don’t like the iPad. It’s slow and limited for my purposes, many of the web sites I use are not compatible with it, and I don’t like iTunes.
But it’s not designed for me. That’s a key lesson that designers grow to appreciate. Each design has a target audience, which must not be too broad. The true test of a good designer is whether they can design something for someone who is not like them.
I put my iPad in the hands of my 76 year old mother, and she immediately took to it. I showed her a few basic touch gestures, and she could immediately do the only things she uses a computer for – browsing and email. For her, it was easy, and as a veteran of the made-to-do-anything-and-everything Windows (I got her a computer for email and such six years ago), she really appreciated that.
The culture created by Jobs can do things that Microsoft, for all its money and brains, is not very good at. Microsoft people are smart. I work with many of them, so I’ve seen it firsthand. But almost all of them have a tendency that is all too common in the human race. They can only see the world through their own eyes, and are not very good at seeing it through the eyes of someone with a radically different background or different abilities.
When Microsoft teams start designing a new product or version, most of the times I’ve been involved, the process started with a list of proposed features. In other words, their process starts with what they want to make possible for the user.
Unlike Apple, the culture at Microsoft places little or no value on making things easy. This isn’t surprising, because Microsoft’s success over a span of decades has not been dependent on innovation in making things easy. It’s been in making things possible and affordable. They copied the "make things easy" part from someone else, usually Apple.
But even Microsoft has seen the direction for the industry laid out by Jobs and Apple, and realized that things have sped up. Copying isn’t good enough any more. Jobs perfected the process of laying entire segments waste with an innovative new entry, and as the iPhone showed, it can happen in a single year.
Those at Microsoft are starting down the path of worrying more about user experience. They may not like it much, but they realize it’s now a matter of necessity.
First, they created the XBox – an entirely new product in a separate division that successfully challenged established players in a world where user experience trumps everything else. Then, shamed by the abysmal Windows Mobile products they had produced in the phone space, they created a pretty decent product there in the Windows Phone.
Their steps are halting and tentative, but at least they are toddling down that path now. I hope they learn how to walk and run on that path, but given the effort it will take to turn their culture around, that will take a while.
I don’t know that they would have ever gone down that route if Jobs and Apple had not pushed them down it. I’ve chafed for most of my career at the apathy and ignorance in the Microsoft community around user experience. I’ve always believed that our systems and devices exist for users, not for our own aggrandizement. As such, we owe them the best experience we can give them.
I was never a major Apple customer. Apple was never a cost-effective choice for the business and data oriented software I’ve created.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate what Steve Jobs did for our industry. I absolutely do. I wish he could have been around for another decade or two, continuing to show the world that "possible" isn’t good enough, and push the rest of the industry into respecting our users and making things easy.
As in I’m going to take a short one to hit the road and hang out with my college buddies at a reunion in the hills (and on a river) of Arkansas.
I do it every year now and I’m not going to be contributing here again until next Monday. So hopefully my fellow bloggers will pick up the slack and keep the posts rolling.
Best to all of you, see you next Monday.
And, please consider this an open thread if you like.
Before I leave, a couple of good links.
Occupy Wall Street – Doug Mataconis hits a home run with his post.
Fast and Furious – Trying to kill the coverage.
The podcast is on hiatus this week, as I am in Tucson to see my new grandson.
And, apparently, to fix my vehicle’s air conditioning, which stopped working just about as the sun came up to drench this blazing hellhole with nuclear fire. So, I got that going for me.