Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Monday, August 9, 2021

"One Thing:" Remembering keen insights

 By "One Thing," I mean a statement you heard that sticks in your mind .. an observation that lasts for years! It could be advice a person had about living, or an insight from their work experience. 

My dad was a construction-machinery dealer so he did a lot of dickering on equipment transactions. I remember this advice: “If you’re not willing to walk away when someone makes an offer, you can’t negotiate!”

Here are some I've collected over the years from my interviews. 

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On helicopter cross-country travel: “I don’t do unplanned back-lot landings because I don’t know the municipal attitude. They all have to have a say in helicopter landings. You’re walking into trouble to do that kind of thing.”  Actor and helicopter pilot Harrison Ford

On tall-tower work: “Sometimes you can see waves coming at you in the cloud banks. There's a certain thrill to it, but you have to appreciate that you can die. I remember a foreman asking me, 'Are you scared about this?' I said, `Yep!' And he said, `Good! That'll keep you alive. If you stop being scared, you're in trouble." Nate McIlhaney, steeplejack 

“They say you can teach a monkey to fly, but to know the systems is very important. If you know what the aircraft will do in all circumstances you can save yourself.”  Alaskan helicopter bush pilot Mel Campbell

On the World War 2 shipbuilding miracle: "One thing we did to make the Kaiser shipbuilding yards succeed was to send out expediters across the country. These were men who located and cleared up logjams that blocked supplies or equipment we’d ordered and weren’t getting. There were just two rules: no rough stuff, and never give up."  Clay Bedford, Henry Kaiser's key man in the WWII shipbuilding effort

On leadership: “You have to know where the decisive point is. That's where a leader is supposed to be.”  John Novomesky of IBM, on his West Point training

On coping with first-hand disaster: “The things I saw inside the wreckage could be called horrifying – what happened to the people caught inside. But it didn't bother me and it still doesn't. To me, those bodies were husks. Their spirits had left.”  Greg Gothard of The Washington Group, on his work in body recovery at the collapsed Marriott World Trade Center Hotel.

On astronauts and deep-space exploration: “You can automate the piloting really well, such as for landing. That you can do. The real question is the on-site judgment, to sense the situation and make rational judgments. Man’s unique ability is to assimilate data and make decisions, not to be an expensive replacement for robots.”  Ed Gibson, who in 1973-1974 flew on the third mission to Skylab

On backcountry travel: “I use the four-wheel drive to get out of trouble, not into it.”  Phil Thomas of Gerlach, Nevada, on crossing the Black Rock desert in his pickup “Grapes of Wrath”

On tunnel work: "It can be dangerous enough, so we work together. It's not the wild rushing about that you might see other places. We call that highballing, when you rush too much."  Charlie McWilliams on sandhog work in the deep tunnels of New York City

On oil exploration: "Just pretend you're going to Las Vegas. If you've got money you can afford to lose, fine, but don't take the kids' savings." Danny Biggs, oilfield superintendent

On the long-term life of buildings: “The idea of a 50- or 100-year life span for buildings is patently ridiculous. There's no structural reason not to go on and on. The effective life span is completely dependent on those who maintain them. Properly maintained, a building is ageless."  Structural engineer Leslie Robertson, chief engineer for the World Trade Center towers

On persistence: “There ain't no hold that can't be broke.” Major General Robert Littlejohn, before tackling the war-surplus problem that remained after WWII

On training for emergencies: “We want to avoid chaotic responses. Two or three seconds of panic can kill, but one or two seconds of thinking can save you.”  Chris Judah, executive director at Survival Systems, which teaches how to escape from crashed and sinking aircraft

On unpublicized Cold War plans: “You didn't want to have the fireball touch the ground. But there might be decisions to make, say if you had a lot of Russian bombers coming in, not just a couple. You might say 'To hell with it' and accept some fallout. That's if you knew absolutely it was Russians and they had 25 megatons on board.”  Frank Evans, former Nike base executive officer, on the authority that Army antiaircraft batteries had in the 1960s to launch nuclear-tipped missiles for detonation at low level over American cities

On trying to see orbital hazards from a space station: “We always looked outside [during the close passes] to spot oncoming objects and it was inevitably futile. Imagine trying to see a small dot ten kilometers away over your left shoulder, and a second later it's right next to you, and another second later it's ten kilometers over your right shoulder."  Astronaut Michael Foale on trying to spot orbiting objects while on station Mir

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Ever Given: Cork in a Bottleneck

Observations on the Ever Given, in FAQ style.

Is the ship still stuck? As of almost midnight local time, March 27, it was. There's some hope, perhaps exaggerated, of it being freed tomorrow. Here's a link to Marine Traffic, giving its status. Scroll down to the map labeled "show live traffic."

How big is the ship? 1,312 feet long and 192 feet wide. 

How much does it weigh? Ship tonnage is measured several ways. Deadweight tonnage, or DWT, is how much a ship can carry to its maximum draft, meaning cargo, fuel and supplies. Ever Given's DWT is about 199,000 tons.  The other important figure is “lightweight tonnage,” and it's the mass of the hull and structure before it left the shipyard, and without fuel, water or supplies. Putting deadweight and lightweight tonnage together, the total weight of Ever Given could be 240,000 tons. 

Why did it happen? No official word, but after initial blame pointed to high winds and a sandstorm, now some reports suggest human error may have figured into itAt the time (7:40 local on March 23) there were 19 other ships in a northbound convoy. As far as I know none of the others went aground. Most of the ships were astern of Ever Given. (Photo, Copernicus Sentinel, from Wikimedia)

Is there a detour at this point?  No. The canal does have a smaller channels that could be used as a bypass, but there's no such bypass where Ever Given got stuck. There must have been some close calls, with those trailing ships barely able to stop in time. 

Photos don't make the Ever Given's problem look all that serious. Why can't it be simply pulled backwards at an angle, to set it straight with the canal? This seems like a very reasonable question! But lots of tugs have tried that already, and if it were simply a matter of a bigger pull, then strand jacks deeply fastened to the shore could provide thousands of tons of pull. Salvors call that arrangement of winches and deadman anchors "beach tackle." See my blog post about the awesome power of strand jacks

But the situation here is not that simple: when a fully loaded ship has a big portion of its tonnage resting on land, and that's the Ever Given, then simply adding more winches risks tearing the ship apart. 

Consider how badly the ship is stuck. From photos, it may appear that only the ends are stuck. The turquoise-blue surface of the canal makes it look like the canal has the cross section of a swimming pool; it looks deep all the way across. (Photo, Container News)

But in fact it's a sand and dirt trench with a very flat profile. Only the middle third of the canal is deep enough for a giant boxship like Ever Given. When it turned the wrong way and headed for the bank, the ship had so much momentum it ran itself up a gentle slope of mud, digging a furrow perhaps three hundred feet long and raising the forward section ten or more feet higher than the stern. 

The stern slewed sideways so it's probably not as hard up as the other end, but the important thing to salvors is that the ship is sitting on the ground in the bow and stern, while the midships part is floating. So whenever the tide is low (and it varies by about five feet) the middle of the ship wants to sag. 

What about dredging? Salvage expert Nick Sloane says a very thoughtful dredging approach, along with removing some weight from the midships by pumping out tanks there, looks like the best bet. The Suez authorities certainly hoped dredging would solve the problem, because they started dredging even before the owner signed Lloyd's Open Form and hired a salvor. 

Is there any risk with dredging? Yes. Salvors want to study the ship's loading and hull in detail, and the seabed profile, before taking action. I'm guessing that one risk is this: if dredging were to take the seemingly obvious choice and concentrate on removing the mud nearest the middle of the ship, then working toward the ends, then the sagging problem gets worse since the middle portion is going to be less supported than it was on the first day.

Is the ship damaged? There is flooding in the bow thruster room, but that may not be too big a problem. Some damage was to be expected because the bow crashed into a rock barrier. I wouldn't be surprised if the stern, the rudder and screws in particular, sustained damage from the sideways slide into the mud. A big worry would be cracks appearing in the lower parts of the middle part of the hull, then lengthening.

Can the ship be lightened by removing the containers? The ones in the middle are the priority but this would be a last resort and very slow, whether done by the world's most powerful helicopters or very large floating cranes, one on each side. Such cranes would have to be more than two hundred feet high and long enough to reach the middle stacks of containers, which are a hundred feet from the sides. I haven't seen much information on the floating-crane option yet.  


Monday, January 11, 2021

Favorite Films

My Disaster-Wise blog is now ten years old, with a few hundred posts and about a third of a million views along the way. I never really introduced myself, so how about this: a list of movies I'd recommend to a friend. This isn't a list of movies that all smart people are supposed to love, like Citizen Kane: these are ones that resonated with me over the years.

I'm sure there are lots of great movies that I haven't seen yet, so the adventure continues. Also, I included one Outer Limits episode at the end. Comments?


Sorcerer  (1977) - a remake of The Wages of Fear (1953, also very good). Amazing, gripping movie. Once past the improbable premise (that an urgent delivery of dynamite to an oil-well fire would go by truck over bad roads rather than by aircraft) the movie never falters. The effects are stunning. The depiction of nitroglycerin is pretty accurate, such as its tendency to sweat out of the clay filling of aging dynamite sticks. 

The Dam Busters (1955) - Very hard to find now but worth chasing. The story of the RAF squadron ordered to destroy three dams on the Ruhr River drainage, using unconventional weapons. Quite accurate to the after-action reports, and it doesn't hold back from the terrible cost of such missions. It was one of George Lucas's inspirations when crafting Star Wars. 

The rest of my picks, in no particular order:

Terminator 2  (1991) 

Das Boot (1981)

Flight of the Phoenix (1965; the original)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Groundhog Day (1993)

Metropolis (1927)

Blade Runner (1982)

Signs (2002)

Empire of the Sun (1987)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

The Abyss (1989)

Steamboat Bill Jr (1928)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Searchers (1956)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

No Highway in the Sky (1951)

Outer Limits episode - "Demon with a Glass Hand" (1964)

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Those "nuclear codes" that travel with the President

I've seen several articles lately about distancing the President from the National Command Authority (NCA), the rather short decision chain that authorizes nuclear war. Some writers say the President could be blocked if the circumstances justified, while others say the process allows no interference, leaving only the duty to carry out his lawful orders once valid identification is established.


In 2017 in connection with research on the history of DEFCON alerts, I had a lengthy discussion about this with Bruce Blair, who died in 2020. Bruce was a former Minuteman ICBM launch officer and later the co-founder of Global Zero. He was an authoritative, patient, super-helpful, on-the-record source for national defense correspondents. He is greatly missed. 


(When I was interviewing him later about shortcuts in the nuclear enterprise pre-1973, he directed me to declassified Air Force reports that were, to say the least, disconcerting. If there's interest I'll blog on that.)


Back to the National Command Authority, NCA. Bruce was quite firm about the unforgiving process, which is built for speed in response to strategic attack, rather than reflection. He said that despite some accounts to the contrary, the Secretary of Defense plays no formal role in the NCA strike-decision-making process and, for example, could not hold things up by requesting additional identification. The SecDef would likely be part of the discussions, if available at the Pentagon's war room on short notice, but that's not the same as being in the chain of command.


Here’s how it works in the main case: assume the President is in his motorcade and sitting next to the officer with the satchel, aka Football. 


The President gets a call on the satchel via the National Military Command System and is connected with an Air Force general on duty at Offutt AFB and the War Room at the Pentagon, the National Military Command Center (NMCC). The President and his civilian and military advisers quickly discuss the threat and possible responses. The President is already scanning the options in a briefing book kept inside the satchel. The President gets a challenge question and responds by reaching into his pocket for the foil-wrapped packet he carries and reading a code string from a 3x5 card. (That packet is often called the Biscuit because when sealed, it resembles a package of English cookies.) 


If the President issues a nuclear strike order then the rest of the job -- the issuance of Emergency War Orders to the Navy and Air Force, retargeting, code verification, and weapons release -- proceeds without the need for further direction from the President. 


What’s more, the National Military Command Center has the authority to carry out later strikes, without additional direction or authorization from the President.


But other cases of how the President and NMCC might interact in a crisis won't be so streamlined.


What if the Pentagon sees an emergency and cannot reach the President through the satchel or any other means? It will contact the VP, who has his or her own biscuit and can act as backup. But if the VP believes the President is just out of touch, he or she is likely to look for the President before acting.


What if the satchel and his military aide aren’t near to hand, due to some mishap? I believe it’s likely the President could use any phone, preferably a secure one. He would tear open the biscuit, call the NMCC and open discussions. I can guess that he’d have to answer challenges in a manner that's memorized, not written down, to block the possibility that someone else had gotten hold of the Biscuit.


What is a lawful order from the President? The Cold War plans assumed that the discussions would begin only after word from the NMCC to the President that “enemy strategic missiles are on the way from country X.” Because Cold War scenarios presumed the US would have to react in under a half hour, discussions would be short and, assuming the warning information was confirmed, no one on the line would be arguing about the lawfulness of a response. 


But what if the President, rather than the NMCC, makes the first call out of the clear blue and says he wants to issue a nuclear strike order? And what if the NMCC believes the crisis identified by the President (say one in which he'd like to take out a terrorist camp in some other country) doesn't need a strike on a very short timeline and would cause heavy casualties in a noncombatant nation?


My guess is that if the President initiated the conversation rather than the Pentagon, and if the Pentagon itself had registered no imminent threat, the questions from the Pentagon to the President about lawfulness would, or should, be much more probing than if the Pentagon itself had first raised the alert. These questions might well take more than a half hour. It's not that the Pentagon is refusing a lawful order; it's trying diligently to determine if the President has lawfully justified them to issue an Emergency War Order to the nuclear forces: It would be reasonable to take time to reflect because once launched, our missiles cannot be recalled or destroyed in flight. I'm not saying this discussion would be easy or obvious: for military personnel to disobey the President, under the Code of Uniform Military Justice his command would have to be manifestly or patently illegal. if they blocked him, they'd be subject to court martial. But remember that the NMCC's commanding officers actually open the gates of nuclear hell, not the President and his satchel. 


There are more subtleties in the decision process, and not all these are well publicized. One that Bruce mentioned is this: if the President were to draw up his own plan and order a land-based ICBM strike on North Korea, the military would refuse since those missiles would have to pass over Russia and China and the risk of an accidental war would be too high. The Pentagon would insist on some other delivery. This example is perhaps a small thing but indicates to me that the NMCC's role in nuclear strikes is not that of an automaton.


On balance I think the risk of an unhinged President starting a nuclear war on his own are low, assuming the NMCC is willing to think critically about whether a strike order is unlawful.


A more worrisome prospect is a nuclear detonation in the homeland from treasonous insiders in the military. 


Monday, December 14, 2020

"Never Despair of the Commonwealth"

Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson's letter to Nathaniel Niles

March 22, 1801

"The late chapter of our history furnishes a lesson to man perfectly new. The times have been awful, but they have proved a useful truth that the good citizen must never despair of the commonwealth. How many good men abandoned the deck, & gave up the vessel as lost. It furnishes a new proof of the falsehood of Montesquieu’s doctrine that a republic can be preserved only in a small territory. The reverse is the truth. Had our territory been even a third only of what it is, we were gone. But while frenzy & delusion, like an epidemic gained certain parts, the residue remained sound & untouched, and held on till their brethren could recover from the temporary delirium...."

Friday, October 16, 2020

John Tyler: VP, President, and Nearly a Techno-casualty

Thinking of the Pence/Harris debate gone by, I looked back at this 2012 NPR feature on vice presidents

Not just long-forgotten, many VPs were barely known even during their terms, never called to greatness, with no discernable effect on the present day.

An exception is John Tylerwho was William Henry Harrison's running mate and became VP in 1841. There are a lot of odd facts in his career, and I'll save the most amazing fact till the last.


Tyler took little interest in the Veep job until he received word a month after the March inauguration that Harrison had died of pneumonia. Then he rushed to Washington.


Although the Constitution as it stood in 1841 was unclear on the details of succession in the event of the President's death (some felt that the VP could be nothing more than a caretaker for the remainder of the term), Tyler announced to Congress that he was indeed the President and moved into the White House. He took a second oath of office to clinch the claim. 

Congress went along with the bold move, though there was no firm legal basis for calling him "President Tyler" until the 25th Amendment passed in 1967. Some wags referred to him as His Accidency.

What's more, Tyler had no vice president at all during his term, which lasted almost four years. The Executive has been VP-less seventeen times.

While in office Tyler estranged himself from his Whig Party and dropped out of the 1844 election, leaving office in March 1845. 

His term could have ended a year before that. On February 28, 1844, he was enjoying a short river cruise aboard the new steam-powered frigate USS Princeton, along with dozens of dignitaries. The captain wanted to show off a new, powerful 12-inch cannon dubbed the Peacemaker. It exploded the third time it was test-fired for the VIP entourage. Tyler had been coming from below to see the cannon, and would have been in fatal range in another few seconds. As it was, the blast killed two members of his cabinet (lithograph by N. Currier)


Tyler was a widower. At the time he was infatuated with a woman on board, Julia Gardiner, though she was 30 years younger. She fainted after hearing that her father had died in the blast, and Tyler carried her off the ship ... and into matrimony.

Leading to the most peculiar fact: it's been 230 years from John Tyler's birth, but he has a living grandchild named Harrison Ruffin Tyler. This seems impossible, but it's true: Tyler married a much younger woman and fathered seven children with her, and son Lyon Gardiner Tyler also had children very late in life. 


Friday, September 18, 2020

Concealed nuclear weapons: an atomic-age nightmare that's never gone away

Finished another feature for Air&Space/Smithsonian Magazine, "Block that Bomb," online today and linked here. It describes a major, and majorly secret, effort to use disguised gamma- and neutron-detection gear at American airports and seaports to catch Soviet agents trying to smuggle nuclear weapon components into the US, perhaps concealed in diplomatic "pouches." It predated by almost two decades the well-known passenger screening that began after a string of airliner hijackings. 

War-gamers of the Pentagon figured that the Soviets might plant a few big ones in New York and Washington and set them off moments before their bombers appeared on our radar net. Detection-equipment work started late in the Truman Administration, inspired by this Soviet test in August 1949:

Over the decades, the main effort shifted to overseas detection work (such as the "loose nukes" problem), and away from reliance on catching all inbound weapons-grade uranium and plutonium at the US border. 

I note in the article that public concern today about an adversary's concealed nuclear weapon is much less than in the Fifties (which saw a string of potboiler thrillers on the topic, like The 49th Man), but the risk could be higher. During the early years, if a bomb were found the only possible suspect would have been the USSR since only the US and USSR had any; and that posed a risk of an immediate retaliatory strike.  

As the number of nuclear states and non-state terror groups has grown, attribution of who is behind a particular nuclear sneak attack will be much more difficult. That suggests that the risk of one country starting a war by setting off a bomb to disable the enemy's seat of government or military HQ (sometimes called a decapitation strike) is higher. 

After the article I checked with friends who live in the DC area and asked what they knew about evacuation drills, and whether they had checked into how to leave the city quickly if an alert were sounded. They had some suggestions on ways to leave without getting stuck in traffic panics, as happened on 9/11 and during several false alarms later. And the city has tested mass-evacuation and nuclear-response plans over the years. If there's interest I'll post on that.