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Jun. 16 2010 — 8:44 pm | 591 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Build your own railroad empire

Railroads are coming back. The Iron Horse may seem so 19th Century, yet between tighter energy supplies and a crumbling and congested highway system, rail is looking better. Obama may or may not have the political – or financial – capital to push through his plan for high-speed rail. But to see how decaying railroad infrastructure can clog a growing economy, see this NYT piece on Indian railways.

So what a great time to play some railroad games! Fans of Sid Meier’s legendary Railroad Tycoon series of computer games will be glad to know that the master’s deftly digital hand is back at the throttle with “Railroads” (scheduled for October release). In the meantime, for my choo-choo fix, I turned to a board game (remember cardboardware?).

“Railways of the World” is a series of 19th Century rail-builder games from Eagle Games. I tried the base game, which sets up to six players building railroads across the Eastern United States. The first thing that strikes you about this game is its components. The box must weigh 10 pounds, jammed full of trains, water towers, cards, cardboard markers and a large map of the U.S.  There’s enough plastic in this game to send the price of oil soaring.

Each turn in Railways of the World is divided into three rounds, during which players can lay track, ship goods, or draw or play cards. Players earn victory points and money by shipping goods. There are five types of goods – denoted by different colored cubes – that are randomly placed on cities across the map. Some cities on the map also have colors, and game play boils down to shipping, say,  a blue cube to a blue city. The longer the route, or rather the greater the number of cities that the route passes through, the more you earn for each delivery. Problem is, there are only a limited number of rail routes into each city, and if another player is the first to lay track on the shortest route from Baltimore to Philadelphia, you’re either shut out of that market or you build track on a longer route.

And there’s the rub. Laying track costs money. Money is raised by shipping goods. But to deliver goods, you need to first lay track, which also requires money. So you have to take out loans, which means interest payments to bondholders. It’s tempting to go on a track-laying frenzy to sew markets, but it’s a mistake that no one (notably me) will ever make after his first game. The resulting interest payments (curiously, loans never can be paid off) drain your revenues and stifle your growth. Winning in Railways of the World is a delicate balance between expansion and parsimony. As realtors says, location is everything. The Northeast abounds with cities that allow short rail connections that are cheap to build. But there are beaucoup bonus points for building links to the West (which on this map, begins somewhere around Minneapolis).

Cards add a nice random touch to the game. They offer bonus points for being the first to complete certain goals, such as shipping four different colors of goods. Or they allow players to change the color of a city, creating instant markets.

Did I learn a lot about real-life railroads? Not really. But I learned about cutthroat capitalism, and the fine line between ambition and megalomania. Railways of the World is addictive. My board game group has been playing it for months. The randomness of the cards and the random setup of goods make every game different.  I hope railroads will come back. But I’m glad that rail games are.



Jun. 9 2010 — 4:51 pm | 970 views | 1 recommendations | 11 comments

Gulf gusher: Marine Corps expert says bomb it

Forget nuking the BP oil well. There is a better, safer way to seal the gusher, according to a U.S. Marine Corps expert.  One that won’t turn the Gulf of Mexico into a radioactive swimming pool or risk starting World War III.

Franz Gayl, a civilian science and technology advisor to the Marine Corps, wants to drop one of the Pentagon’s giant bunker-buster bombs, the kind that would be used to destroy Iranian or North Korean nuclear site buried deep inside mountains. The GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb is 30 feet long and weighs 10 tons. There are also leftover Vietnam-era BLU-82B “Daisy Cutter” bombs containing nearly eight tons of high explosive.

In an email to Uncommon Defense, Gayl explained that the bombs can be used like a depth charge used against submarines. Instead of being dropped by C-130 transports, the giant bombs would be encased in a simple pressure shell and lowered to a few feet above the leaking well head.

If you explode such devices above ground the released energy would be observed as a huge blast that moves outward through the low pressure and “squishy” (i.e. highly compressible) air. However, at a depth of 5,000 feet the blast bubble will be quite small in volume, even at detonation, and as the gases rapidly cool they will of course shoot towards the surface 5,000 feet above.

So, the obvious question is what becomes of the tremendous amount of released energy in the detonation, if there is no huge blast, as one would get above ground? The answer is an absolutely incredible shock wave that will in a fraction of a milisecond crush every volume that it encounters that is less than the pressure of the water shock front through which it is propagating.

That devastating shock wave will treat any metal cavity like soft Play Doe, sealing every perceived cavity with a crushing force thousands of times greater than even the ambient water pressure. The oil plumbing is filled with rapidly flowing oil that has at any moment a lower density than the surrounding and effectively incompressible water through which the shock wave moves. Not only is crude oil less dense, but it also is compressible, unlike the water surrounding it. At 5,000 feet depth the shock wave will therefore have the effect of a concentric fist crushing every inch of plumbing and instantaneously sealing the full length of exposed pipe, but seal it permanently.

Gayl calls the big bombs an environmentally “green” way of sealing the well.  I’m not enough of a physicist or explosives expert to judge whether the idea is genius or insane. One obvious concern is that the blast might rupture the pipes around the well and worsen the leak. But Gayl argues that detonating the bomb a few yards from the well head will be far enough to avoid destroying the plumbing. I’m also hesitant to call dropping giant bombs a “green” solution, although it’s much greener – and much saner – than underwater nukes.

Gayl previously caught public attention for blowing the whistle on delays in mine-resistant Marine Corps armored vehicles. Then-senator Joe Biden demanded that the Marine Corps cease retaliating against him.

Gayl notes that one party that won’t be keen on the “green bomb” idea is BP. “BP wouldn’t like that option because they wouldn’t be able to reopen that particular well. Fortunately I think the President and the public are at the point of saying this is a national emergency (actually international) and the the business case for preserving the well is trumped by the emergency.”



Jun. 7 2010 — 11:39 am | 1,255 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Gaza music video: “We conned the world”

An Israeli music video about the knife-wielding “peace activists” on the Gaza convoy. Okay, some of the singers aren’t great, and the guy with the Love Boat hat is painful to watch. But the line about the pro-Hamas propaganda campaign – “we’ll make Hamas look like Mother Theresa” – rings true.

Meanwhile, Israeli students are planning to send a convoy to aid  victims of Turkish genocide and persecution. The convoy will bring humanitarian aid to the Armenians – 1.5 million exterminated by the Turks in a forerunner of the Nazi Holocaust – as well as  the Kurds. “It’ll be a peace flotilla without the knives and stones that hurt IDF soldiers, without violence, which is intended for all those oppressed by the Turkish government,” said one of the organizers.

I can’t wait to see all the humanitarian groups, activists and politicians rushing to join a humanitarian mission to the Kurds, who have suffered for years at the hands of the Turkish military in their fight for an independent Kurdish state. I’m sure the same people who insisted on sailing to Gaza will insist on sailing to Cyprus, where Turkish troops occupied a third of the island, expelled hundreds of thousands of Greek Cypriots, and set up a puppet regime recognized by no one else in the world.

Because, after all, the international peace movement cares as much about Kurdistan, Darfur and North Korea as it does about Gaza, right?  I’ll look forward to the international Free Kurdistan movement.



May. 31 2010 — 4:34 pm | 1,112 views | 2 recommendations | 61 comments

Real peace activists don’t carry knives

Real peace activists don’t carry knives.

Real humanitarians don’t beat soldiers with metal bars.

The Islamists on the Gaza convoy that attacked the Israeli boarding party were not peace activists. They were martyrs-in-waiting. Instead of strapping on a suicide vest and walking into an Tel Aviv restaurant, they attacked Israeli soldiers knowing damn well what the response would be. The Islamists knew the Israelis were coming. Anyone and everyone who has been following the news for the past week knew that the Israelis would stop the convoy. There were children and elderly people aboard those vessels. Genuine aid workers with a shred of conscience would have done their best to ensure that there was no provocation, no violence, nothing that would set off heavily armed commandos. Instead we see video of these “humanitarians” stabbing an Israeli soldier. So it was “disproportionate” for Israeli soldiers to respond with lethal force? Try attacking an American police officer with a metal pipe and see how proportionate it is. Better yet, try it on a Hamas cop in Gaza.

Now the usual suspects – the leftists, the progressives, the British media – are leading the usual assault against Israel. They are so filled with self-righteous indignation, and yet so incapable of self-reflection that they cannot ask themselves a basic question: What kind of people would provoke a fight with armed soldiers on ships filled with innocent people? The answer is that these are people who don’t care how many die; martyrdom is glorious, especially against the Jews. These are not people who give a damn about human rights or women’s rights or the environment. The Left does itself no credit by allying with them.

Israel won’t let supplies into Gaza because it fears a flood of Iranian-supplied missiles on its southern border, just like what happened when Iranian-supplied Scuds ended up in Hezbollah’s hands on the northern border. To the Israelis, this is part of a war to destroy the Jewish state.  Sometimes they’re wrong, but not in this case. This convoy wasn’t about humanitarian aid. Those genuinely concerned with human life would have done everything they could to avoid violence. I’m sure many of the people on that convoy didn’t want violence. But some did. If the world is going to blame Israel, it needs to blame them as well.



May. 24 2010 — 6:20 pm | 24,122 views | 1 recommendations | 26 comments

Now it’s ‘Everybody Deny the Holocaust Day’

This is how you payback the unbelievers. Some Muslims, furious at the “Everybody Draw Muhammed Day”, are retaliating with an “Everybody Draw the Holocaust Day”.

Of course, what the author of this Facebook page really means is an Everybody Deny the Holocaust Day, which will teach the infidels not to draw Muhammed in a bear suit. His semi-coherent manifesto seems to be that if people have the right to draw the Prophet Muhammed, then they have the right to question the existence of the Holocaust.

He is correct. We can’t defend the right to satire a religious figure and yet bar the right to deny the Holocaust, as some European states do (frequently the ones who directly or indirectly supported the genocide). However, what is fascinating here is the moral equivalence. Outraged at the “insult” to his religion, this fundamentalist won’t strike back by drawing a cartoon of Jesus or mocking atheists. He’s going to do it by denying the Holocaust. Since in his mind, Jews control the world, then question the Holocaust and the Elders of Zion will pull a few levers to make the cartoons stop. Because this is exactly the kind of world that a fundamentalist understands and desires. A cleric decides what is sacred and what is profane, which cartoons are permitted and which are not. There is no dissent.

So here’s what I say. Go right on ahead. Every time someone draws Muhammed, write a Facebook post that claims that 6 million Jews were never killed, and that they have really spent the last 65 years hiding in Grandma Sadie’s basement. Every time someone satires Muhammed, wave banners proclaiming that the Nazi death camps were actually vacation resorts. See if anyone threatens to kill you. But also see if this stops the cartoons or enhances respect for Islam.

I despise Holocaust denial and Holocaust deniers. But if that’s the price that I must pay for the right to free speech, the right to satire, the right to speak our minds without fear of violence, then I can endure it.


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    I'm a writer in the not-so-sunny Northwest. My work has appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, Wired.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer, National Defense and the Military Times magazines.

    I like to blog about national security and foreign affairs, though I'll write about any topic on which I have a strong opinion (which is most anything). I'm a bit of a contrarian, which drives people crazy. That's a good thing.

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