Loren C. Steffy's Blog
December 23, 2015
I went to see the long-awaited Star Wars sequel this past weekend with my wife and daughter, and inevitably I found myself thinking back over the years to when I saw the original.
“Star Wars” — and back then, that was its full name, no “A New Hope”– was the first real movie I ever saw in a theater. By “real” I mean a new release played in a theater that actually showed first-run films. My parents and I had moved to Texas about a year earlier, and although most people would consider College Station in the mid-70s a small town (its population was about 15,000 at the time) it was about 10 times the size of the town we left in central Pennsylvania.
My hometown didn’t — and still doesn’t — have any fast-food restaurant chains, let alone a movie theater. The nearest cinema was the next town over, and it showed whatever movies it could get. “Jaws,” the biggest film of 1975, didn’t arrive until well into the nation’s Bicentennial.
My parents took me to see movies in that theater twice — Disney’s G-rated “Million Dollar Duck” and, a few years later, “Herbie Rides Again.”
My parents didn’t have much interest in movies, or popular culture in general for that matter. In fact, it always seemed to me that my dad thought entertainment had stopped progressing after the 1950s. Glenn Miller had done the best songs, and Katherine Hepburn had delivered the best performances, and everything that came after was pretty much a waste of time.
Perhaps because of their small-town roots, or perhaps because they were older than many parents of children my age, my mother and father were more cautious about how much violence and sex they allowed me to see on TV. My mother frowned on the original Star Trek series because it was, as she saw it, weird and violent (she always walked in during the mandatory fight scene that the network forced Gene Roddenberry to add in every episode). “Starsky and Hutch” had too much violence, sex and general crudeness. “Laugh-In” was too risque, even though my grandmother watched it faithfully.
When I asked to see “Star Wars,” it was the first time I wanted to see a PG-rated movie. This was no “Million Dollar Duck.” Given the implied violence in the title, my father decided — or, more likely, my mother decided — that he would take me. He sat silently through the whole thing, and didn’t say much afterwards. I think he understood why I liked it, even if he was generally unimpressed. I knew he would rather be somewhere — probably anywhere — else, but as was so often the case, he never complained.
The only time I recall him mentioning “Star Wars” at all was several years later, when he argued that movies had become all about special effects rather than great acting. No one in Star Wars was a very good actor, he said. They had special effects to carry the show, unlike Kate, who had to win over audiences with the sheer virtuosity of her performance.
Having endured Mark Hamill’s sophomore effort, “Corvette Summer,” I found it hard to argue his point.
It is, of course, ironic that I associate “Star Wars,” which set up the story of one of the greatest family dysfunctions in film history, with spending time with my dad. Unlike Darth Vader, my father had no dark side.
I could rattle off a long list of more significant father-and-son experiences, and I know I’m fortunate to have so many. But that day was the last time we went to a movie together, and though he lived another three decades, I believe it may be the last time he ever went to the movies at all. Seeing the series revived after all these years, I couldn’t help but think of that day once again, even though I suspect my father never gave it a second thought.
November 1, 2015
Jeff Smisek resigned suddenly as chief executive of United Airlines in early September. His legacy is forever linked to the merger of United and Houston-based Continental Airlines, where Smisek had worked since 1995. While the merger has been problematic, even by airline merger standards, Smisek’s departure also closes the door on the legacy of Continental itself. The carrier played a key role in redefining how airlines operate in the deregulated world, and it led the way on many innovations that today’s travelers take for granted. In the latest Texas Monthly, I take a look back at how Continental helped change the way we fly and what Continental’s loss mean to Houston.
As news of United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek’s departure reached Houston in early September, you could almost feel the collective response: good riddance. Even before Smisek was caught up in the corruption investigation that led to his resignation, many Houstonians resented him for merging their hometown airline, Continental, with the Chicago-based United five years ago. The move cost Houstonians more than first-rate air service—it stole a bit of civic pride. Just months after NASA ended the space shuttle program, Houston lost its only airline; Space City was grounded. “Continental had Houston DNA,” says Jeff Moseley, the former head of the Greater Houston Partnership. “To see it fold up and move out of town was painful.”
What hurt the most, perhaps, was that Continental was a paradigm of the sort of corporate innovation that Houston has long prided itself on. “Continental’s whole history was being a maverick airline,” says Phil Bakes, the company’s president in the mid-eighties. And much of that history was tossed out the window after it was swallowed up by United.
September 14, 2015
August 25, 2015
My father, left, “listening” to the Kyrenia Ship with Michael Katzev as the first frames on the port side were put in place. (Photo: Susan Katzev)
In Sunday’s New York Times, author and New America fellow Jamie Holmes makes the case for teaching students the importance of ignorance. Too often, Holmes argues, students are taught about scientific breakthroughs and understanding, but not the important role that ignorance plays in achieving them. As Holmes explains:
Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.
People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.
In reading the piece, I was reminded of a conversation I had in researching my book The Man Who Thought Like a Ship. I was talking with Kevin Crisman, one of my father’s former students, who’s now a nautical archaeology professor at Texas A&M.
My father believed that reconstructing ancient ships involved embracing ignorance. With little information about how many ancient ships were built, he perfected the technique of “listening to the ship” by allowing the original hull fragments to “show” him how the hull originally was constructed.
Of course, it isn’t perfect communication; a lot can be lost in translation. He was trying to get inside the minds of shipwrights who lived centuries ago. Once he became a professor, he often allowed his students to share in a problem he was struggling to solve. He never hesitated to admit when he got something wrong. In fact, he often argued that getting something wrong was the only way to be certain you eventually got it right. “If you put 6,000 pieces of ancient wood together, and they all seem to fit perfectly the first time, you’ve done something wrong,” he used to say.
He tried to instill in his students the importance of failures, mistakes and do-overs. “It’s not something professors talk about a lot in their work — the failure stuff,” Crisman told me. “That is so important for students to get, too. People who are less secure in themselves don’t want to be wrong and show weakness.”
By listening to the ship, by embracing failures and trying again, a reconstruction would get closer to the original design. Of course, the idea that a reconstruction was ever really finished was folly. Ancient ships are complicated constructs, and my father learned that the ships did more than “talk” to him. The more he studied them, the more they would ask him questions he hadn’t thought to ask in his first study of them.”You’re going to solve one question and raise five,” he said.
Even now, new generations of archaeologists are reviewing some of his reconstructions, learning new lessons by using his methods. Therein lies the value of ignorance and failure.
August 24, 2015
By Mike Cauldwell via Wikimedia Commons
Can Bitcoin retain its anarchist edge while still operating more like a central bank? Last year, I wrote about how Texas has become a hotbed of Bitcoin development.
One of the challenges the digital currency faces is how it can replace conventional central banks without adopting many of the same characteristics, which Bitcoin loyalists loathe. This week, The Economist has a piece on how Bitcoin is now at a crossroads over how the digital currency should be governed:
On August 15th two of [Bitcoin’s] main developers released a competing version of the software that powers the currency. With no easy way to resolve feuds, some are warning that this “fork” could result in a full-blown schism.
The dispute is predictably arcane. The bone of contention is the size of a “block”, the name given to the batches into which Bitcoin transactions are assembled before they are processed. Satoshi Nakamoto, the crypto-buff who created the currency before disappearing from view in 2011, limited the block size to one megabyte. That is enough to handle about 300,000 transactions per day—suitable for a currency used mainly by geeks, as Bitcoin once was, but nowhere near enough to satisfy the growth aspirations of its boosters. Conventional payment systems like Visa and MasterCard can process tens of thousands of payments per second if needed.
By how much and when to increase this limit has long been a matter of a heated debate within the Bitcoin community. Overlapping cabals of “core maintainers” and “main developers” serve as de facto keepers of the currency, especially in Mr Nakamoto’s continued absence. Now one camp wants to increase block sizes, and do it soon. Otherwise, they argue, the system could crash as it runs out of capacity as early as next year. Transactions could take hours to confirm and fees could rocket, warns Mike Hearn, a leading Bitcoin developer. “Bitcoin would survive,” he wrote in a blog post in May, “but it would have lost critical momentum.”
The rival faction, supported by other heavyweight developers, frets that rushing to increase the block size would turn Bitcoin into more of a conventional payment processor. The system currently relies on thousands of independent “nodes”, computers dotted across the world that check whether transactions are valid and keep tabs on who owns which bitcoins. Increasing the block size could make the whole edifice so unwieldy as to dissuade nodes from participating, so hastening a recent decline in users. The result would be a more centralised system, prompting angst among Bitcoin purists who fret concentration could undermine the currency.
August 12, 2015
July 23, 2015
The site of the explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery in 2005. The blast flattened a trailer in which Dave Leining was working and left him trapped under a pile of debris
Dave Leining died last week when his private plane crashed in the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge south of Houston. He was 63.
I didn’t know him well. In fact, we only met in person once, when I interviewed him for my book, Drowning in Oil. But I’ve found myself thinking about that interview a lot since I first heard of his death. We sat in an office in the back of his archery shop in Santa Fe, Texas, south of Houston, as he recounted in painstaking detail his story of surviving BP’s 2005 Texas City refinery disaster and his year-long recovery from injuries he suffered that day.
I interviewed a lot of people for the book, and I had a lot of discussions about safety, but something that Leining said stood out. Speaking of the refinery, he said: “It’s a dangerous place to work, but it shouldn’t be a hazardous place to work.”
I think of that comment every time someone tries to dismiss an industrial accident as inevitable. After the Texas City refinery explosion, dozens of people in the industry told me something to the effect that “refineries are dangerous; accidents happen.” Leining’s point was that yes, refineries are inherently dangerous. But companies that don’t take the proper steps to reduce risk make them unnecessarily hazardous, too, and put workers’ lives in jeopardy as a result. Companies that operate dangerous work places have a responsibility to make safety paramount.
Leining had been in a temporary trailer, chatting in his boss’s office, when a nearby isom unit at the refinery exploded on March 23, 2005.
The blast flattened the trailer, pinning Leining under piles of debris. He was one of the lucky ones that day. He survived, although he had two broken ankles and would take almost a year to walk again. Many of his co-workers who were in the same trailer that day were killed.
In all, 15 people died in the blast and more than 170 were seriously injured.
When he had recovered, Leining returned to the refinery. It was, as they say, in his blood. His father had worked at the plant, and so had other members of his family. His wife worked there at the time of the explosion.
Leining returned because he thought he could make a difference. He wanted to help institute the changes in safety procedures to which BP said it was committed. After a few months, he quit in frustration over what he described as a dispute about some of those safety procedures.
Lening gave numerous interviews in 2010, both to mark the fifth anniversary of the refinery disaster and then, a month later, in the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. He didn’t do it for the attention. He did it because he knew that over time, we tend to forget the human toll of industrial accidents. And he did it because he knew that without people like him to tell his stories, change is far less likely to come to unsafe work places. He got a painful reminder of that fact two years after the explosion that almost killed him, when his cousin, Richard Leining, died in another accident at the same refinery.
Dave Leining always said he shouldn’t have survived the accident. The fact that he did, and that he was willing to talk about it, provided an important perspective on process safety. It’s true that refineries will always be dangerous places, but Dave Leining knew that there was no excuse for allowing them to be hazardous, too.
July 20, 2015
In writing about offshore drilling over the years, I’ve always been stunned by the vagaries of maritime law. The New York Times is running a great series examining just how lawless seas can be. The first installment ran Sunday, with the series continuing this week. It’s a good and disturbing read.
July 19, 2015
Fort Worth billionaire Sid Bass is reportedly pumping $125 million into Blue Bell Creameries, a move that will enable the iconic Texas ice cream maker to return to full production and may give Bass one-third ownership in the 108-year-old, family-run business.
It may not be enough.
To fix what ails Blue Bell requires a cultural change, which is one of the greatest challenges a company can face. As I wrote in the Houston Chronicle in May, Blue Bell’s initial response to the listeria outbreak that forced it to stop production demonstrated an unwillingness to recognize the root causes of the problem. That, combined with the family-run aspect of the business, may make it extremely difficult to implement the changes the company needs to prevent the crisis from recurring, as I outline in my latest op/ed:
Sid Bass is being hailed as Blue Bell’s white knight. The Fort Worth billionaire agreed to make a “significant investment” in the iconic creamery, which has been shut down since this spring because of listeria contamination linked to three deaths and seven illnesses.
Bass tends to be a passive investor, which may not be what Blue Bell needs to fix its problems.
Without any revenue to speak of for months, Blue Bell was undoubtedly growing concerned about its future – it was becoming easy prey for vulture investors.
Enter Bass, bursting with oil billions and benevolence. He can save Blue Bell with the spare change from under his couch cushions – where he apparently found $125 million, enough to buy one-third of the company. But Texas pride and a love of ice cream only go so far.
Because Blue Bell is a private company, and Bass is a notoriously private person, we don’t know how involved he’ll be in the company’s daily operations. But we do know that Bass isn’t the sort of guy to get his hands dirty.
But if he’s really going to save Blue Bell, if he’s serious about turning the company around, a couple of things need to happen. First, he or his representative needs a seat on the board, perhaps even the chairmanship. Second, that representative needs to demand sweeping changes to Blue Bell’s safety culture, and those changes need to be closely monitored.