It’s All a Bunch of Hot Air

It is late January 2014, and a bizarre controversy is generating a lot of interest on social media and on a wide variety of websites.  The rather intense discussion centers around the discovery of footballs with lower than normal air pressure during an important playoff game.

I am not a fan of sports in general.  I am a writer.  As a writer I see so many commentators on television, in newspapers, in magazines and on websites weighing in on the controversy and yet few seem to truly understand the issue and merely wish to either inflame the rabble or to quixotically attempt to quell the rabid rhetoric of the most vitriolic who often claim that this controversy has somehow harmed them.

It is frustrating to watch seemingly rational people abandon logic and common sense while arguing a situation that concerns a game.  I will attempt to look at the controversy objectively and explain it to those who find the wearying war of words a bewildering bramble of impenetrable prose.

If you watch much television, you are familiar with the brilliant detectives on programs such as C.S.I, or Sherlock Holmes, or for those of us long in the tooth, Columbo.  It is important to realize that these detectives are fictional, and that the wonderful insights that solved the cases were devised by writers.  Writers must not only come up with solutions that are possible, but those solutions and the methods for finding them must pass the plausibility test.  You seldom see anyone using the deus ex machina ploy to solve the crime in their novels.

Let’s look at what we know and do not know at this point in the football air-pressure controversy:

1.  We KNOW that, by rule, NFL game officials, including the referees, examined the footballs to be used in the game indoors 2.25 hours before the start of the game in question.

2.  We KNOW that the Patriots quarterback selected 24 footballs for the game and those were given to the officials to examine, according to his comments in his press conference.  It is unclear how many footballs were supplied to officials by the opposing team.

3.  We KNOW that (according to an official NFL statement)  the footballs they examined were all within specifications for ball manufacture and for air pressure as specified in the NFL rules.

4.  We KNOW from eyewitness accounts that the NFL officials kept possession of the footballs in zippered duffel bags (for each team’s game balls and for kicking balls) until approximately 30 minutes before kickoff when the officials transferred control of the bags of footballs to the ball handlers for each team.

5.  We KNOW from video that the Patriots ball handler kept the zippered bag of game balls by the replay machine on the sideline.

6.  It is reported that the footballs from both teams were re-examined by game officials at half-time.  This has not been officially confirmed by anyone.

7.  There are unofficial statements that “eleven of the twelve” Patriots game footballs had air pressure below what was measured prior to the game.  This has not been confirmed officially.  The official NFL statement says only that the investigation began on information that suggested that the Patriots had used under-inflated game balls.

8.  We do NOT KNOW much about the measurement of the footballs prior to the game.

9.  We do NOT KNOW if anyone tampered with the game footballs after the officials relinquished control 30 minutes before the game.

10.  We do NOT KNOW what forensic analysis if any was done on the footballs after the investigation began.

From a technical standpoint, the NFL rules are vague about “in-game” air pressure.  The rules very clearly specify that the footballs must be tested to conform before the game, and that the footballs must not be tampered with at any point after the officials examine the footballs.

I am not stating that the footballs WERE under-inflated during the game.  I will wait until the NFL confirms this.  If it turns out there was no under-inflation, then this was just a red-herring.

It is more interesting to me to imagine that the footballs did become under-inflated.   I can play “what if” and find several ways that all of the rules were followed by everyone and yet under-inflation might occur for only one team.  The most likely scenario would be the one everyone has argued incessantly – the effect of temperature on air pressure in footballs, and that the Patriots footballs were already near the bottom limit allowed by the NFL.

We do NOT KNOW if the air pressure was measured on any footballs after the pre-game examination (despite unsubstantiated reports of a half-time air pressure measurement and re-pressurization by officials), nor is there any official report of the results of the purported measurement (again despite often-repeated rumors of the number of footballs measured and the amount of pressure lost), so it is impossible to say if the footballs in fact had lower pressure.

As a science-educated writer, I find it impossible to believe that no one in the NFL was aware that football air pressure decreases with temperature.  Ask elementary school kids that play with inflated game balls outdoors and they will tell you that basketballs, kickballs, and footballs seem less firm in cold weather than in warm weather.  Is it asking too much for adults making rules in the NFL to also know this?

If the NFL rules makers ARE aware of the effect of temperature on air pressure inside footballs, then the wording of the rulebook requiring measurement two hours before the game indicates that the rules makers expect that the footballs will be at a different pressure when the temperature on the field differs from that indoors where the officials measure the air pressure.  If the NFL rule makers are NOT aware of this phenomenon, then science dictates the pressure limits are meaningless at any temperature significantly lower or higher than the temperature where the measurement was made.  In either case, it is a stated fact by game officials that the footballs met the requirement in the rulebook prior to the game.

It is important to realize that the important temperature is not the football leather temperature or the room temperature but the air temperature inside the football.  Most air pumps heat the air as they increase its pressure while inflating a ball or automobile tire.  This heating is unavoidable.  Therefore if game officials inflate a ball that is barely below the minimum to just above the minimum requirement, that ball will deflate slightly after the “new” warmer air mixes with the presumably room-temperature air already in the ball.

Since Rule 2 Section 2 of the NFL rulebook only defines that the footballs must meet the specifications during the pre-game inspection and that they may not be subject to tampering afterward, the balls may be considered official as long as the pass the inspection and were not tampered once approved.

Should you believe that I am looking for excuses to sweep a possibly criminal act under the rug, the scientist in me has devised multiple legitimate ways an unscrupulous person could make the footballs lose pressure during the game.  These methods would let footballs pass the pre-game measurement, yet lose pressure without any tampering after giving the ball to the officials.

First, petroleum jelly may be applied to the football air intake valve.  This application can occur hours or days beforehand. Petroleum jelly will partially dissolve the fill-valve allowing the air to leak out particularly when the football is physically abused.  Ask anyone that has mistakenly lubricated their air pump needle with a dab of this stuff if unusual leakage started later.  A particularly sinister person could encourage the officials to lubricate their official pump needle with petroleum jelly making the NFL unwitting participants in the scheme.

Nothing in the rulebook says the ball has to be filled with room air.  A team could fill the footballs with any number of gases.  Pure nitrogen will attack the valve and the urethane bladder walls much like petroleum jelly, so if someone wanted a football to deflate more quickly they would fill the balls with pure nitrogen. Note that room air is more than two-thirds nitrogen, so using pure nitrogen is not filling the ball with a “foreign” substance.

Helium atoms are much smaller than nitrogen or oxygen atoms found in room air, and are more likely to leak past the football valve.  If you put a balloon filled with room air next to similar balloon filled with helium, you will observe the helium balloon loses internal pressure and shrinks faster than the air-filled balloon.  No, the helium-filled footballs would not float in the air like miniature blimps. The weight of a football filled with helium would be almost the same as a football filled with room air.

There are numerous other ways that a football can legitimately lose pressure in a short amount of time without tampering, but I believe I have shown that if indeed footballs were at low pressure, there are numerous ways it can happen, in both innocent and sinister ways, all while following the NFL rules.

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Data in a roach motel

We live in an age when data, pictures, videos, e-mails, tweets, and documents migrate into the internet to live forever but they never disappear. To paraphrase the Roach Motel insect trap advertisement on TV: “your data checks in but it doesn’t check out.”

Some say that’s a good thing.

Sometimes we humans desire that sort of permanence, and other times we do not. I’m sure everyone has experienced or heard of a case where something ended up public knowledge that would have been better kept a secret forever.

Were there an unlimited army of data management specialists behind every website, it would be possible to remove unflattering contemporary data and let the fog of time blur the memory into an imprecise recollection.

More data arrives in the public purview each day than there are human “data shufflers” available to organize, delete or correct the information already present. I discovered a web-retail corollary to this “not enough clerks to handle the flow” effect recently.

As I have mentioned several times over the years in this blog, I publish books for myself and a host of other authors. Since i do not own a printing press, this involves converting the raw manuscripts into polished prose, formatting the finished work to display as an e-book, or into a file destined to print as a physical volume, and to wrangle the resulting computer files into the distribution chain where the books are sold (or printed and then sold) by third parties.
I publish books through two primary aggregators. Aggregators facilitate getting books released at retail stores in malls and webstores.

One such aggregator is also a service of a very large web retailer named after the largest South American river. The other is much less known, but uses well-known third-party retail media websites to sell the books and e-books. Each aggregator controls a significant portion of the book retail market and has negotiated favorable terms for their author/publisher clients, so it is important to use both aggregators to get a book to retail as opposed to using only one or neither.

The first aggregator/retailer requires by contract that the books submitted to them not be lower-priced at any other website. That retailer performs frequent price checks at their competition to assure that their suppliers/clients are maintaining this promise.

Unfortunately, one of the third-party retailers (a company world-famous for its iconic line of smart-phones, tablets and media players) used by the second aggregator unilaterally lowered the price of one of our books by 16 percent in its European store. This price drop triggered a stern rebuke to us from the first aggregator, threatening to remove our products from the first aggregator’s webstore until either we lower our price everywhere to that level or we convince the rogue retailer to raise their price.

Sound’s like a simple problem, doesn’t it?

It isn’t.

Since the renegade retailer has never heard of us – the second aggregator supplies our books to the retailer and collects payment on our behalf – we have standing neither to correct nor to investigate the problem. Meanwhile, the second aggregator seems oblivious to the seriousness of our concerns and is delaying further while the first aggregator’s compliance deadline looms. Nothing we can do seems to light a fire under the party able to correct the problem.

The final resolution may require that we stop selling the books through one of the aggregators, which will dramatically limit the availability of the books.

In terms of technical difficulty, this would take no more than five minutes of time for someone to correct, or possibly as few as a handful of seconds. What makes this particularly frustrating is that a seemingly automated process for book pricing apparently has a human element that has introduced an error. Because of an inflexible policy, the pricing error reduces our profitability, and we have no means to solve the problem directly other than by intentionally reducing our profitability to make the problem moot.

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Aren’t There Supposed to be Helperbots?

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s – and yes, I was alive then – we were told that the future would be a time of leisure.  Appliances would run themselves, and those that didn’t would be tended by robots as mechanical servants.  Our time would be spent raising our families and enjoying our lives.  There were projections that we would enjoy a thirty-hour work week, or get several months of vacation each year.  No longer would we have to struggle to make ends meet.  Life would be sweet.

Here we are, a half century or more later and I for one have less leisure time than I did twenty years ago.  I work more than forty hours a week (but only get paid for forty), mainly because of the tentative nature of jobs these days.

At one time a person would work for the same company their entire career, and at the end of 40 or 45 years, would receive a handsome pension and enter a well-deserved retirement.  Not these days, my friend.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person stays in a job less than five years.  Obviously, this plays havoc with the typical idea of seniority: that the oldest person has been around a company or department in a company the longest.

Employers gain a lot from a fluid workforce…the stigma of an employee layoff is lessened if everyone is comfortable with looking for a new job.  Virtually no one accumulates enough time with a company to merit the highest bonuses, large vacation accrual, or other benefits of a long tenure – every employee is only a few steps removed from being a new hire.

Company-paid pensions have given way to employee-funded retirement plans.  Sadly, most people do not or cannot save enough to live out their retirement on the amount they can afford to withhold from their paycheck.  Moving to a new employer has an effect; the fees involved in moving savings from one company’s retirement plan to another nibble away at the nest egg little by little.  The downtime between jobs is detrimental as well.  Every month without a paycheck is a month where a person may have to draw on some aspect of their savings.

So here we are in the glittering twenty-first century future of our childhood.  I have not taken a vacation on the moon.  My car does not fly…nor does it drive itself.  The minimum wage is about six to eight times what it was in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but the cost of living has gone up faster.  A loaf of bread in 1950 was $0.15, but now it’s $2.00 or more.  Gasoline was $0.26 a gallon in the mid 1950’s, but averages $3.60 a gallon as I write this, that amount in part due to imported oil and higher gasoline taxes.

Inflation has made us job-masochists.  We can’t get ahead, so we work – longer and more diligently so that we will not lose our job.

I do not have robots that sort my laundry or clear the dinner table after a meal, or scrub the toilet.  I am a college-educated professional and [this month] I am the age where my father retired with a pension.  Barring discovery of precious metals on my property or winning the lottery, I will likely work until the day I die even if that means a trivial income and one dead-end position after another… I have no choice.

It is sad what I.. nay, what WE have become.  We are consumed by our careers and driven to accept our fate as the drones in the hive, rather than being those enlightened, happy families zipping from city to city in rocket planes and underground tubes.  Sadder still, we no longer dream that a future like that is in store for us at all.

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Where Has the Time Gone?

Wow!  Look at all of the dust on this blog.

My last blog post  was 10 months ago just before New Years Eve.  Since then I have been quite busy with my occupation (and the killer commute getting there and back every day).  I’ve had precious few moments to blog — or to sleep.

Some very talented authors are developing projects for the SleighFarm Publishing Group to release in the upcoming months…and yes I have been remiss about updating that website as well.  Some of the works already published by SPG are doing quite well in the electronic book market, and at least one author is receiving recognition for those efforts in the form of interviews, newspaper articles and substantial royalties from book sales.

November is three days old as I write this and many people are feverishly pounding away at their keyboards to write a novel during the National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo).  These intrepid (or foolhardy) souls usually try to write the first draft of an original novel between Halloween and December 1.  Most set a goal of 50,000 words, and a surprising number of these budding authors exceed their goal.

I participated in a “wrimo” back in the days when I had the energy to write on weeknights rather than collapse into bed at the end of a grueling commute.  After a few days writing, the story had a life of its own and I was merely transcribing the action and dialog as it was performed by the characters.  That is a marvelous feeling: to be swept away by the creative process.  I heartily recommend that anyone try participation in a wrimo.

The best part is that you are not alone.  Part of the event is the comradery with others that are under the identical self-imposed deadline.  There are forums (or “fora” for the pedantically inclined) where the wrimo participants can seek out others for character or plot advice, or to rant about how one’s own story is becoming overwrought or the plot has wandered from the original outline.  Everyone on those message boards knows the joy and anguish of putting a ludicrous number of words together in only 30 days.  At the end of it all there is no prize money – merely the recognition from your peers that you tested yourself and were victorious.   If you are lucky, you have the first draft of a manuscript you could publish and possibly sell.  If not, you have the satisfaction of staring into the abyss and walking away unbroken.

There are other similar writing competitions in other months (JanNoWriMo, JulNoWriMo and others) if you are daunted by starting too late for this one.  A web search for “wrimo” will result in links to many good resources for prospective authors.   A book by Chris Baty called  “No Plot? No Problem! – A Low-Stress High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days” is an excellent resource if you are interested in joining a wrimo.  The book does not tell you what to write or teach you how to tell a story but gives encouragement and strategies for maintaining focus on the task over the long-haul.

Who knows?  Maybe I’ll dive into the upcoming JanNoWriMo and write a sequel to my first novel…I’ve certainly had enough time to think about it.

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Another Year, A Brighter Hope

The year 2011 was a memorable one.  The U.S. Space Shuttle program ended.  Several internationally known despots and evil-doers departed this world – some quite violently.  A nation was paralyzed and remains wounded by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

Weather in the United States was particularly odd.  A burst of springtime tornadoes devastated many communities.  A hurricane destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars of property in Vermont, a state that rarely gets any hurricane damage.   A freak October snowstorm dumped several feet of snow in New England days before Halloween, and in the two months since then almost no snow has fallen in that region. The months of September through December have been abnormally warm in the Eastern U.S.

We saw well-publicized trials where the verdicts did not turn out as many had predicted, and heard of horrific crimes perpetrated by emotionless criminals.

Collectively, we lost some fellow travelers too early; most taken by diseases.

The global economy cooled, with China and Asia joining the already tepid U.S. and European economies.  The prospect of economic recovery is clouded by the long-term climate outlook and years of benign fiscal neglect from well-meaning governments.

But, in spite of the doom and gloom, there were bright rays of hope.  Several Middle Eastern countries have shed their brutal regimes and are considering representative governments.  More than a few people on international terrorist and criminal lists were apprehended or killed.  There is even word that the location of ex-Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa’s body may have been discovered 36 years after he mysteriously disappeared.

On a personal note, I welcomed the arrival of my first grandchild this spring, and after several frustrating years of independent consulting found a somewhat longer term position for the last several  months.  Both events brightened my expectations.

I look forward to the new year with optimism and a renewed sense of vigor.  I am dedicating a portion of my energy to making the world a better place for everyone, and urge others to do the same.  Think about what we can  do to help others and find ways to spread good fortune to the many that have not had those positive opportunities for so long.

Make 2012 a year all of us can recall fondly and not one that evokes a grumble, a tear or sigh at its very mention.   Together we can do this…and together we must.

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The Virtue of Patience

In the last few weeks, there have been a few news items that are positive for independent publishers. First, the number oe-book readers is dramatically increasing and shows no signs of slowing. Amazon announced four new versions of their Kindle family of e-book readers, at price points below the existing Amazon e-book reader products.Their competitors are expected to announce new products or lower prices on the existing ones. This should drive up demand for e-books which are independent-publisher-friendly. The print-on-demand giant Lulu.com now has a very powerful service you can use for free through their website to convert RTF and Microsoft Word documents to ePub format. I used the Lulu converter ePub for several books that had been problematic in other conversion programs, and in seconds had a file that was exactly what I wanted.
Lulu also offers authors and publishers the ability to sell those freshly-converted ePub documents through Lulu and potentially through other e-tailers in partnership with Lulu.
I mentioned patience earlier, and by that I mean that by simply giving the e-book reader device market time to mature, it has started the exploding sales ramp that many companies expected would be triggered from their devices years ago. Likewise the e-book conversion tools have become better and more available, thanks to the early pioneers that suffered the glitches, crashes, and document disasters that the earlier programs brought to the table.
Patience has been rewarding in another few ways for me personally. More than two years ago I lost my job as an electrical engineer and was forced to find engineering jobs here and there, earning little or nothing, and working only a few hours or days before completing the finite tasks offered to me. While this was going on, I was growing my publishing business and searching for another long-term engineering job. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen one of the authors my company publishes sell several orders of magnitude more books than in a normal month. During those same weeks, I was offered a long-term “termporary” job that may even become a full-time permanent job if the stars align correctly.
As a writer, a father, and recently a grandfather, I’ve learned patience. That patience has been tested in recent years, but I am pleased to say that for now, and in my case, it has paid off. If you, the reader, find yourself in a test of your courage or patience, take heart. Push forward. Keep trying. Nothing is hopeless, so long as you make an effort and you recognize the opportunities that present themselves.

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News Coverage: Overblown or Not?

I normally write about books, and publishing, and the creative process, but this time I decided to add my opinions about recent events in the news.  In actuality, my comments are not as much about the events themselves, but are instead about the way the events were covered by the various media.

As I write this, it is midday Monday following a weekend where a major hurricane threatened the East Coast of the United States for the first time in several years.  This particular storm threatened a significant portion of the coastline, with early reports a week ago warned of potential landfall anywhere from Florida to Maine.

There are reports of just over twenty fatalities now, and although the storm is now a weak front far away from US territory, swollen rivers and streams are flooding low-lying areas in the Northeastern United States and millions of homes are without power, phone service and (in many cases) potable water.

In the interest of disclosure, I admit that I worked in broadcasting many years ago.  It is that experience that helped shape my opinion of the way that radio, television, and newspapers covered the approach and onslaught of the storm.

I write this from my home in New England where the recent storm was considerably weaker than a hurricane, but I have siblings whose homes are located in areas that have been devastated by significant hurricanes such as Hugo, Andrew, and Isabel, to name a few.  One of the siblings is currently without electricity, and is told not to expect power to be restored for two weeks.

I cannot speak for other areas of the East Coast, but nearly continuous broadcast coverage of the storm began here in Massachusetts on Friday when the storm was still exiting the Bahamas more than a thousand miles away.  By Saturday, the coverage on local television had pre-empted most programs.  The coverage was increasing Saturday as the storm moved onshore in North Carolina and hugged the coast as it inexorably moved northward.  Overnight Saturday, the coverage turned continuous as the first tenuous rain bands arrived over Long Island.  Normal programming did not resume until after 6PM Sunday in the Boston area, although the strong winds continued into the wee hours of Monday morning.

I am a firm believer in being prepared for situations, and that good information is critical in making decisions to better prepare yourself.  What I saw on Saturday and Sunday was a lot of air-time consumed and not a lot of new information presented.

As early as Thursday, national and local meteorologists had been predicting significant storm damage in New England.  Days before, they had warned of the “potential” of the hurricane reaching this area, but as the storm strengthened and the track became more certain, the word “potential” was also dropped in favor of certainty of storm-related effects.  From about Friday morning until the storm had passed, the drumbeat of dire warnings in newspapers, on radio and on television continued.

Even as the storm weakened, as many hurricanes do when moving north of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream  in the Atlantic, the warnings remained severe.  When the National Weather Service lowered the severity of regional watch advisories, the media cautioned that there was still a potential for major wind and rain damage.

The field reporters on television were obviously desperate for pictures of anything that looked like horrific damage.  On radio, callers with reports of downed trees and power outages were put on the air.

To be sure, tropical storm Irene (it was not a hurricane when it reached New England midday on Sunday) did sink some pleasure boats and break sailboats free of their moorings.  Yes, there were trees, tree limbs, branches and leaves down over the entire six-state area.  There were a few people (in New England) that were injured or killed by drowning or being struck by falling trees, or in unusual traffic accidents.  My concern is that “wall-to-wall” coverage of the storm did not prevent any of those deaths, nor could it.

I believe that the constant images on TV and dire intonations on radio may have had the opposite effect, as people looked out their own windows and saw nothing dangerous even as the reporters and weather forecasters spoke of dangerous conditions happening  apparently in the same neighborhood as viewers seeing contradictory evidence with their own eyes.  Curiosity may have led some to venture out to see if what they were hearing was over-enthusiastic reportage or not.  There were, in fact, pedestrians in the background of several television reports from the city, some obviously jogging and others walking their pets even as the in-studio anchors reported gale-force wind gusts and downpours were affecting the area.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the coverage was the “no-news” paradox.  The stations were determined to stay on full-time coverage in case something happened, but there was nothing newsworthy happening, other than a few loose boats, some power outages and a few toppled trees.  Much of the coverage was punctuated with “so far there has been no damage, but…” statements – further proof that there was no news.  The storm had behaved approximately as had been predicted days earlier.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say.   The coverage was unexciting, and one might add was unnecessarily intrusive.  With the tools we have today for weather prediction (particularly when one compares a very slow-moving hurricane/tropical-storm to a tornado or even a surprise blizzard), in the absence of noteworthy changes in the storm or increased damage or loss of life, the public would have been better served by periodic half-hour updates than the continuous repetition of “so far so good” we got instead.

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