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)

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. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Essayons! The reason for unity during WW2 is no mystery

Writers have been calling for World War II-style unity lately, but seem puzzled: how did Americans achieve the apparent, single-minded unity back then? 

It took more than fear of defeat. Mostly it was fear for the well-being of one's relatives and friends. In that long-ago war, men were drafted for the duration. Against great odds, Congress approved a draft bill well before America’s homeland was threatened; the main reason was attacks on US shipping and the fall of France and Belgium in May 1940. By 1943 the U.S. had exhausted the pool of young unmarried men and was forced to reach for younger and older cohorts. A rule evolved: “Do War Work or Fight.” The US pulled 16 million men and women into the armed services, by draft and enlistment. That was one of every nine adult Americans. 

And the Army didn't stop there. If the war needed experts on something it either reached out and drafted them or forced them in as uniformed civilian members of the “Army Specialist Corps.” Those men were paid slightly more than draftees but were under military discipline. There was no premium-priced-military-contractor system to substitute for draftees and enlistees. 

That was motivating. Everyone was in the service, or working in war plants, or coping under rationing, or had a relative or friend overseas. So a common bond was forged. Consider this poster, pinned up in hundreds of war plants: “The boy in the draft army may be yours and your neighbors! The marching will be very tough if we fall down back home.” Here it is:


That's the kind of spirit that supercharged Louis G. Schwartz, "Louie the Waiter," who worked at the Sixth Ave Deli in New York City. Both his sons-in-law were in the service; one had been captured by the Germans. Louie decided that every war bond sold to citizens would shorten the war, so he took up a personal crusade to sell as many as possible. He could not be persuaded otherwise. Operating out of his apartment and the delicatessen, Louie sold $30,000 worth of war bonds every week. Adjusted to 2020 money, that's equal to $420,000 now. 

That's every week. 

Louie would size up a new customer at the deli and try to sell him a bond that very day, and then get him to buy another bond every payday. On every menu was this slogan: "You'll buy war bonds sooner or later, so get them today from Louie the Waiter." The deli had customers from all walks of life. Several customers bought bonds with a face value of $100,000. 

All told, according to his obituary, Louie the Waiter sold $9 million in war bonds. That went to buy 66 P-47 Thunderbolts, each painted with "Louie the Waiter" on the nose. His customers asked for no receipt: they gave him cash or checks. Louie turned in the money at the bank or to a volunteer group, and the customer got their bonds in the mail from the U.S. Treasury later. Louie spent most of every afternoon on the phone or walking the neighborhood collecting money and visiting bond prospects. Then he worked eight hours at the deli. He paid all expenses himself. 

Here's the point to take from Louie the Waiter: the secret of successful emergency mobilization is to have clear and fair government mandates that mesh with well-publicized voluntary efforts that rise above the requirements. Those two driving forces, one pushing and one pulling, make a very potent combination. 

If citizens can join in efforts like war bonds or victory gardens that are easily visible to anyone at the street level, the movement will spread faster. As sociologists have found, the visible actions of friends and neighbors are the most powerful way to engage an individual. 

What's it mean today? I'd guess that many of the most determined social-distancing, mask-wearing people have friends or relatives on the front lines of the COVID crisis, whether those at risk are medical staff, first responders, or clerks in essential businesses.