Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jessica Watson - A Fabulous Achievement

Jessica Watson has met every challenge along the way and triumphed. Those who have been to sea in small boats will know how much of a challenge she has faced. This is a very raw and confronting experience, there's not much between you and the elements. Disaster can be close and sudden.
I have a sense however that Jess is facing her greatest challenge right now. Jessica and her team have always said that she won't go through Bass Strait, but rather will pass south of Tasmania. That's good and sensible, the passage through Bass Strait has some elements of "threading a needle" particularly if you are solo and sleep deprived. There's plenty of shipping, as I well know. You can see that here. Just home in on the Bass Strait area and you'll see the traffic as well as the geographical obstacles.
Here's the rub however: Jess has come a long way north due to weather and is now almost loitering at the entrance to Bass Strait - off the mouth of the Hunter Strait really. This is the time of year when low pressure systems sweep through - on about the latitude of Tasmania and about every 4-7 days. If Jess is to pass south of Tasmania she will have to turn south and run down the west coast of Tasmania. I'm not in the least convinced that that is a good move.
Ocean Passages for the World is an Admiralty publication that has been published since the days of the sailing ships. It adjures masters as follows:
...and thence west of Tasmania...It is often necessary, and in heavy weather, desirable to make this passage at a considerable distance from the coast of Tasmania; namely at from 120 to 250 miles from the W coast...
Now that's the summer route! The winter route is as follows:
For the rest of the year, and as an alternative to the summer route, pass through Bass Strait...
Now let's be clear. Jessica is sailing a vessel that's much more weatherly than the old sailing ships. She is also naturally disinclined to take the risk of another encounter with shipping. However there is real risk in running the west coast of Tasmania at close proximity at this time of the year and solo. Without sufficient sea room Jess doesn't have the option of running before any weather until it abates. Instead she must continue to sail and to claw offshore.
If the conditions do deteriorate with the inevitable passage of a front then she may be placed in a difficult situation.
To put this in perspective. This week, as a front passed, the Cape Sorrell waverider buoy registered a maximum wave height of around 13.5 metres and was at or above 10 metres for a period of nearly 3 days. It can be very hard or impossible to make progress to windward with wave heights like that. Add to that there really aren't any safe havens on that west coast.
It's a tough decision, however I reckon I'd rely on my AIS and run through Bass Strait. Of course that is not to underestimate the unpleasant conditions that form in Bass Strait in a SW gale.
Whatever the decision I think that Jess has demonstrated a fantastic determination and skill and I wish her a safe and quiet run to Sydney.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Storms at Melbourne Storm

The story so far, as told in the media, seems to be this:
$20,000 a week - a total of $1.7 million - was being paid for a "hospitality tent" when in fact that tent was being provided as part of another contract. Instead the money was being paid to an unknown number of players in breach of the salary cap. This was discovered when the NRL salary cap auditor was tipped off to the existence of a number of side agreements, between Storm and player(s), which were held in a separate room at Storm HQ. We are told that only the ex-CEO knew anything about this. His ex-deputy has been stood down. Neither the NRL, the Storm Board, the owners of Storm, the other executives at Storm, the players, nor it seems anyone else knew about these payments.
I'm actually finding all of this a little difficult to understand. If I was investigating this, or if I were the owners, I'd like some questions answered:
  1. What was the nature of the agreements found in the "other room" and who were they with? What did those other parties think they were for?
  2. What form did the payments take and was that form such that it should have been questioned?
  3. What did the company's auditors think of the regular payment of such a large amount of money and in conducting their audits what documentation did they review for these payments?
  4. What review process did the Audit Committee of the Storm Board undertake with respect to payments being made and the correlation between contractual obligations and the payments made under contracts?
  5. How is it that payments of this sort could be made and yet no other member of the executive team was aware of them? What control mechanisms does the Storm have in place for the review and control of payments?
At the moment one person appears to be taking the fall for this. I don't know whether that's right or wrong. However, generally accepted corporate governance standards provide checks and balances which mean that payments of this magnitude and duration should be identified and questioned.
No doubt there are simple explanations for these questions and we will hear them in the fullness of time. I await the investigation with interest.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tailwheel Travails - Lessons Four & Five

I promised more on my ham-fisted attempts to learn to fly a tailwheel aircraft. It's been a while but here we are. In the meantime I've been flying tamer aircraft - ones with the third wheel on the other end. I've also been doing some time in the right hand seat which is fun. Just as an aside: as I understand it there is no "command" seat in the Australian regulations. You just have to be able to reach all required equipment from the seat you are in. But a big word of warning: some people find it relatively easy to fly from the right hand seat and others don't. So until you know and until you are confident in a range of conditions, don't try it without an instructor. I've done a bit now in a range of aircraft and I like it, but I still want more time with an instructor.
So to the tailwheel. This time we've been flying a slightly different version a Zlin Savage Cub, rather than the Classic we were flying before.
First lesson back was a brush up on 3 pointers and general handling, just getting my hand back in really. For those of you new to tailwheel flying the 3 pointer is where all three wheels land at the same time, it's sometimes called a "full stall" landing (though as Langewiesche points out it isn't necessarily stalled on landing). That's because you are doing what you would normally do in a nosewheel aircraft - holding off in a nose up attitude. With a tailwheel aircraft they are basically finished flying when they settle and they have very little tendency to want to bounce or start flying again. They're also generally flying quite slow. That means if anything goes a little squirrelly - as it can - it does so at a slow speed. That's kind of comforting.
The problem is that because you are going so slow you are a bit susceptible to crosswinds. You don't have the lateral control to stop the aircraft from weather-cocking into wind and you may also be a bit prone to wind shear - stopping flying before you planned to!
Langewiesche on this subject says: "The three point landing is not the only way to get an airplane down. It is not even the best way."
This is where the "wheel landing" comes in. The late Pip Borman once told me - in typically blunt Pip style - "If you can't do a wheel landing you can't fly a taildragger". So we moved on to wheelers.
How do you do a wheeler? Not to bore you with the mighty Langewiesche, but he says it better than me:
Coming in with a good deal of speed, break your glide so that the airplane shoots along level, half a foot or a foot above the ground. Then, when the spot arrives at which you want to make ground contact, simply push over forward and "plaster" the front wheels on. Then as you feel the ground, keep right on pressing forward on the stick so as to hold the ship on.
Sounds easy doesn't it? Well it is and it isn't. We started by choosing a higher approach speed and first stage of flaps. That means that the aircraft is in a high lift, modest drag configuration. We came in and did just as the master suggested - flew along level just above the ground using small amounts of thrust as necessary to keep the aircraft airborne. As we reached the end of the strip we powered up and went around. The idea was to learn to control the aircraft in the attitude in which it would land - a flying attitude, and to learn to visualise the actual height we wanted to fly at. It also gave us a chance to judge the inevitable 90 degree crosswind.
Having done that a couple of times we then came around for real. This time the idea was to minimise the sink rate and to kiss the ground. Unlike Langewiesche our idea was to let it settle and then to pin it by pushing the stick forward. The problem of course is that when you do a three pointer you progressively pole back to arrest the sink rate. You can't do that in a wheeler. So instead you have to very finely judge your height and very gently fly it on. That's counter-intuitive to all of us pilots who are used to flying tricycle gear.
So the inevitable happens - you bounce. Not much but you bounce. Here it's a case of just letting it settle again and getting that stick forward. With the stick properly forward, even though you have flying speed, the wing is at zero or negative lift angle of attack. It is "pinned" to the ground. You can get on the brakes quite hard and then slacken off as you slow down.
After a few of these the bounces got less and my judgement improved. Now it was time to go for a full flap wheeler. This meant that to keep the aircraft flying a fair bit of thrust was needed - we were behind the curve. So we came in with plenty of throttle and just held off the ground a few inches. Closing the throttle slightly allowed the aircraft to sink onto the ground and then I just poled forward to hold her there. You can use thrust at this point to maintain control and keep the tail up.
That's the thing about a wheeler, you can just keep pushing forward as the aircraft slows. You need to do that if you want to keep the tail up. As you slow you eventually lose elevator effectiveness the tail gently settles into a three point attitude.
These were fun landings. I really got a kick out of them and I can't wait to do a few more.
The other thing that's happened is that my tricycle undercarriage landings have improved as well. I reckon everyone should have to fly a 'dragger at some point in their training.
Note: Stick and Rudder: An explanation of the art of flying. Wolfgang Langewiesche, McGraw-Hill Inc, 1944, 1972. A book every pilot should read.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Story of Love & Travel

I attended a wedding this weekend, to protect the innocent in this story I will use initials for the key players.
"A" was marrying her fiancee "B"; B's identical twin brother "C" had returned from overseas to be B's Best Man. Like a proper Best Man, C had slaved for weeks to prepare his speech. However at the reception he got up and said: "I'm not going to give the speech I prepared, instead I'm going to tell you a story of Love and Travel which I have just heard this week". Here's the story:
More than 8 years ago when A and C had just got together they were forced by circumstance to spend a few weeks apart over Christmas. Being in love, A wrote B a love letter. B was sharing a student house with C and with another guy "P"; he didn't want them to read the beautiful letter that he had received from A so he hid a slit in the cushion of the old sofa that they had in their student house.
Later B and C moved out of the house and sold the sofa to P; B forgot the letter hidden so carefully. Later P moved out of the house and, after carefully cleaning the sofa, he sold it to another person. The letter still didn't come to light, B had hidden it well.
The new owner of the sofa happened to feel something in one of the cushions one day and the letter at last came to light. Not quite knowing what to do with it, the new owner stuffed it in his knapsack. Shortly afterwards he travelled to Amsterdam and stayed there in a random house. Finding the letter in his knapsack, and still not knowing what to do with it he gave it to the owner of the house.
This woman thought it was a beautiful letter and so she put it up on the wall of her kitchen.
Much later another Australian visitor came into possession of the letter, after seeing it on the wall of the same Amsterdam house. This Australian returned to Australia and being equally moved by the letter he put it up on the wall of his house.
By chance P visited that house and saw the letter and its envelope - he recognised the addressee. Though never having seen the letter before he, after many years, again became the "owner" of the letter. Along with the letter came the missing story of its discovery in the sofa and its travels to Amsterdam and back - handed from each "owner" to the next as it travelled.
When C arrived in Sydney for the wedding he met up with P and P said "I've got a letter and a story for you".
The whole audience at the reception were awestruck by the story and when C reached into his pocket and pulled out the letter, in its original envelope, there was rapturous applause. He opened it and read the first paragraph. It was simple and it said something like: "I missed you so much this Christmas that I realise that it's you I want to spend the rest of my life with."
By this time the Bride and Groom were both in tears.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

How big is too big?

I spent a long time in the car yesterday. It was pretty boring, but at least there's time to think. One of the things I ended up thinking about was the relationship between the "size" of a country or state and the effectiveness of its government. By "size" I mean the number of people and the complexity of services provided. I think there's an inverse relationship between size and ability to deliver.
In Australia, very few direct government services are provided by the Commonwealth. Kevin Rudd wants to change that with regard to the hospitals, because he has a view that he can do it better than the states. Two things concern me about that. Firstly I think that's the naive view of someone who's never had to do it - deliver direct health services; secondly the Rudd government has, disappointingly, shown itself to be completely unable to deliver anything except mindless blather. I don't expect that to change if they get their hands on the hospitals. And just whilst we are digressing: it seems (from what little we have been told) that one of the key planks of the "Rudd Hospital Plan" is to give more power to, inter alia, the doctors. Wrong move! Assuming that doctors know how to improve or run the health system is just plain wrong and confused thinking. It confuses the delivery of clinical services with the management of a highly complex and resource hungry system. I have great respect for the ability of doctors to deliver clinical services. That does not mean that they have the ability to manage a complex beast like the health system. Demonstrably they are part of the problem and their role in the solution needs to be carefully managed.
But back to the subject in hand. The most populous state in Australia is NSW (around 7 million +) followed by Victoria (5.5 million +). NSW seems to be chronically unable to deliver services and chronically unable to make the money stretch. Hospitals in NSW, in particular, are creaking and groaning at the seams. If you also think about places like the US and India it appears that they have similar problems.
Now I know that this is painting with a very broad brush, but give me some license here! This is an embryonic thought. Let's just assume that my hunch is right - that at some point government becomes too big and hard and we start to fail to deliver. I came to thinking that this might be because of a pair of linked issues:
  • Is our system of government designed to cope with the scale issues that emerge as the scale grows? Systems theory shows us that systems develop emergent issues as they grow and change - issues that were not previously apparent but which emerge due to some change in system scale or structure;
  • Are the humans who manage the system reaching the limit of their capacity to manage the complexity and the issues that arise? It's an interesting point to ponder. Management is a process of simplification and distillation. We make the complex understandable and manageable. I wonder if there is a limit to our capacity as humans to do that and whether we see that arising in government performance.
If this is an emergent issue of government systems, at what size do these issues emerge? Is it between the size of Victoria and the size of NSW?
PhD students and other researchers can take this idea and run with it - with attribution - just tell me what you find out -;) I'm interested!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

An Easter Message - for the Catholic Church

The catholic church doesn't get a few facts. Most of all they don't get that they are facing the largest crisis that they have ever faced and that they are facing it entirely through their own actions and inaction.
Around the world, like the rolls of thunder from a massive electrical storm, comes revelation upon revelation of sexual abuse. This, years after it became clearly apparent to all that the church had a problem that it needed to deal with.
About the only sensible thing I've read from the church so far is the statement from Archbishop Robert Zollitsch in Germany acknowledging that the church put its own reputation ahead of the needs and rights of victims. That is the crux of this issue.
Allegations have surfaced that Joseph Ratzinger, whilst Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was ineffective and inappropriate in dealing with matters of sexual abuse by clergy in the US. Those allegations are of course unproven but, as the current Pope, Ratzinger has an obligation to allow those allegations to be properly tested.
However in response to those allegations, and more generally the abuse performed by US priests, the Vatican and supporters of the Pope have come up with a number of interesting strategies:
  1. The church has long claimed that the priests in question don't work for the Vatican therefore the Vatican is not responsible. If that is the case why is it also the case that those same priests can and are subject to excommunication by the Vatican when involved in matters of theological deviancy for instance? Why have those same priests not been excommunicated for matters of sexual abuse? How can the Pope be the ultimate authority as per catholic teaching and yet at the same time not responsible? This seems to me to be mere legal wrangling to avoid liability;
  2. In direct response to the allegations that Ratzinger was ineffective at dealing with abuse matters and a subsequent bid to have those matters tested in court, the Vatican has claimed immunity. They say that as head of State the Pope is not able to be subject to such actions. Sounds like Silvio Berlusconi's argument to me. It isn't a valid argument and indeed it stinks simply of a strategy to avoid having the question explored. It is neither honest nor just;
  3. The Pope's preacher, Raniero Cantalamessa, at an Easter service attended by the Pope, argued that the attacks on the Pope were similar to anti-semitism in that they sought to move from individual responsibility to collective guilt. Now prima facie that't a fair point, however it doesn't stand up. We are back to the same problem. At one moment the church seeks to make all clergy responsible to the Pope and yet to reject any notion of responsibility for their actions. Further, the point being raised is not only that the Pope is responsible for the actions of priests who are responsible to him (and that is an arguable point though not simple) but that if the Pope is shown to have, by act or omission, had involvement in the abuse then he is personally, not collectively responsible for his own actions. That allegation is, as I have already said, not proven however it is reasonable to raise it as a matter to be tested and it is not an argument of collective guilt. Cantalamessa is engaging in sophistry and using emotive images in his quest.
The bottom line here is that the catholic church has an abuse problem: its clergy abuse children and adults. Further this situation has long been known within and beyond the church yet it has not been effectively tackled.
This problem is structural - the way the church is governed and organised has given rise to the circumstances which have fostered this abuse. Church doctrine must lead me to believe that the Pope is therefore responsible and able to act to resolve this unacceptable situation. That is quite separate to the allegations about his potential personal involvement - not in abuse so much as in its ineffective control.
Governments and police forces all over the world need to take aggressive action to root out the abusers and to ensure that the catholic church's doctrine and structure do not lead to a continuation of this abuse.
Put that another way: because the problem is structural the response must be structural. The catholic church cannot face that reality. However, any government that funds or supports catholic institutions is supporting institutions that are structurally favourable to the conduct of abuse. That is surely not acceptable public policy. The difficulty for governments is that, for instance, around 5 million Australians are baptised catholics - around 26% of the population. Catholics are a big voting force.
What is right is that governments actively pursue structural change in the catholic institutions that they fund. That is unfortunately highly unlikely.
In addition the catholic church needs to live up to its dogma and answer the questions about the Pope's actions or inactions honestly, quickly and publicly.