Friday, February 22, 2013

A Fine And Enviable Madness

(mostly reposted from February, 2010)

"... it was, in fact, a fine and enviable madness, this delusion that all questions have answers, and nothing is beyond the reach of a strong left arm." -- from The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I love my job. I love the alchemy that takes the stuff of daydreams, and spins it into hard, tangible reality. What we have dreamed, we have done; generations of men dreamed of flight, and dreamed of touching the stars ... and when you look up tonight, you'll see airplanes drifting across the sky in exactly the way that a hundred tons of aluminum shouldn't, and five of our spacecraft are sailing out into interstellar space. Generations of physicians dreamed of a world without disease ... and in one singular case, the dream was realized. I've been vaccinated for smallpox, but most people younger than me haven't.

This is National Engineers' Week. We celebrate it during the week of George Washington's birthday, in honor of our first President's first career as a surveyor. The mechanic arts as they were called then were recognized early to be key to both our prosperity and our security. Whenever America has faced a steep challenge, her engineers have always answered, and delivered the goods.

It's a profession that could easily lead to a swelled head, if Nature wasn't always there to take us down a notch or three as required. We rarely enjoy the "luxury" of hiding our mistakes. An unscrupulous doctor might hide their mistakes in the morgue, and an incompetent lawyer's mistakes vanish into the prison system. But an engineer's mistakes? They tend to come unglued with a loud enough BANG to make the evening news. We never have to look far for accountability, it always comes looking for us.

There are two ways to deal with that kind of responsibility. Some find it too heavy. The rest of us accept the responsibility, and the challenge. We enjoy knowing that our work counts for something. We don't dread the possibility of highly-visible failure; that motivates us to make our work as clean and error-free as we know how. The challenge -- the satisfaction of having done a difficult job well -- is a large part of what gets us out of bed most mornings.

It can be a crazy life sometimes. Schedules get very unpredictable, close to delivery time. But on the whole I wouldn't have it any other way. It truly is "a fine and enviable madness."

Hymn of Breaking Strain

by Rudyard Kipling

THE careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware!)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the Stuff - the Man!

But in our daily dealing
With stone and steel, we find
The Gods have no such feeling
Of justice toward mankind.
To no set gauge they make us -
For no laid course prepare -
And presently o'ertake us
With loads we cannot bear:
Too merciless to bear.

The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend -
What traffic wrecks macadam -
What concrete should endure -
But we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure!

We hold all Earth to plunder -
All Time and Space as well -
Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in the mid-illusion
Of Godhead 'neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned -
The mighty works we planned.

We only of Creation
(Oh, luckier bridge and rail)
Abide the twin damnation -
To fail and know we fail.
Yet we - by which sole token
We know we once were Gods -
Take shame in being broken
However great the odds -
The burden of the Odds.

Oh, veiled and secret Power
Whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour
Of overthrow and pain;
That we - by which sure token
We know Thy ways are true -
In spite of being broken,
Because of being broken
May rise up and build anew
Stand up and build anew.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Iranian Stealth Fighter

One of the news stories you've seen making the rounds this week is that Iran claims to have built a stealth fighter. I say "claims to have" because...

... that's about fifteen different kinds of wrong, for an airplane where you expect the number of landings to be approximately equal to the number of takeoffs.

First, no way in Hell are those supersonic inlets. They're too small, for a start, and very badly placed. There's no evidence of ramps for compressing the inbound supersonic airflow. And sitting up there? That's a guarantee that you'll stall the engine at a high angle of attack. At which point, the pilot will have to pull the loud handle, and get the heck out of Dodge.

Second, where's the nozzle? Inside the fuselage? Holy crap, that's a really stupid place to put it. If this beast allegedly has an afterburner, you'll only get to use it once. Because, just like after he would after stalling the engine after pulling a high-pitch turn, he'll have to pull the loud handle, and...

Third, where's the radar? That nose is nowhere near big enough to carry anything like a useful military radar. If you go up against an adversary who really does have a proper go-to-war radar, you're going to have a very bad day, because he's going to see you before you see him. Which means that he's going to get the first shot. At which point, you'll have to pull ... well, you get the idea.

And the instrument panel ... no, that doesn't look real either.

Now the wings, I'm fairly sure those wings could keep it airborne. Nice to see they got something right.

No, this isn't a stealth fighter. It's not even a mockup of a stealth fighter. It's an elaborate hoax. To what end, I can't imagine, because exactly no one in our defense establishment is taking this seriously. I mean, people were worried about the Chinese stealth fighter a few years ago. More worried than it deserved, true enough, but at least they're flying an actual prototype.

Nobody should be worrying about this stupid thing. Except, that is, for Iranian test pilots.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXIII: The Hinge


After you read about a few of them, Civil War battles begin to display a depressing sameness to them. One side, we'll call them the Defenders, get to the scene of a battle first. Then, the Attackers show up and try to dislodge them. They usually try flanking attacks first, and when those don't work they go right up the middle. The usual result: appalling casualties on both sides, but most especially for the Attacker. So the battles themselves aren't all that interesting.

Ah, but between the battles ... that's the meat of the matter. And it's not always the movements of armies and reassignments of officers that are of most interest. What really counts in a long war, especially in the modern age, is how well you can keep your troops resupplied. From the beginning, the plan that General Scott laid out for the war was one of ensuring the Union's ability to move men and supplies, while slowly denying the rebels the same. By early 1863, that strategy was beginning to show some fruit. The Union had blockaded all of the Confederacy's ports, severely hampering its ability to conduct trade. To all intents and purposes, aside from a handful of blockade runners, Confederate trade had to go through Mexican ports, then wind their way north and then eastward. Which brings us to one of Jeff Davis' most serious problems.

I've said before that the Confederacy had a fundamental problem: they could raise an army, or they could equip it. There wasn't any good way for them to do both. But I've never yet explained what I meant by that. If we go back here, we can see that the Confederacy really has no manufacturing to speak of. Their original plan was to rely on the power of "King Cotton" to bring Europe, specifically Britain, to come to their aid. Cotton would flow out, and arms would flow in, protected by the Royal Navy. By 1863, it had become painfully obvious that this wasn't going to happen. The Emancipation Proclamation had sunk just about the last nail in the coffin of that strategy. Now, the Confederacy would have to provide just about all of the arms and supplies that their armies in the field would use. Which they could do, if virtually all of their skilled work force weren't already in uniform.

Here, we see one of the fundamental disadvantages of a slave society. In the Union, unskilled workers formed an immense pool of manpower from which soldiers may be drawn. When the draft was instituted it was massively unpopular, to the point of riots in some cities, but the Union Army generally met its manpower goals. In the Confederacy, the vast majority of their unskilled labor pool was ambulatory property. If armed, they'd still be ambulatory, but would no longer be property. Nat Turner showed them what generally happened when you put hot lead and cold steel in a slave's hands. So, the Confederate Army would have to poach from the skilled labor force ... who were sorely needed to run the factories, foundries, and all of the other things that kept the war machine running.

Jeff Davis, then, was on the horns of a dilemma: he had to both raise and equip an army, but only had resources to do one of those well. He decided to take a third option: equip them, and then let them figure out the supply thing on their own.

Napoleon famously said that an army marches on its stomach. His opponent Wellington never said as much, but it's plain from his memoirs that he agreed. Upon reading them, one of his friends remarked that it seemed to him "that your chief business in India was to procure rice and bullocks." "And so it was," replied Wellington, "for if I had rice and bullocks I had men, and if I had men, I knew I could beat the enemy." Wellington's memoirs went into exhaustive detail about his logistical affairs. From his memoirs, we know that one of his cavalry regiments required some 25 tons worth of supplies for three days' action, and about 250 mules with which to haul them. (That's 246 mules to carry the supplies, and four more to carry the hay with which to feed the mules.)

In his honor, I call 25 tons a "Wellington": the amount of food and ammunition to keep a regiment in fighting trim for three days. The Union was usually able to provide a full Wellington for its troops in the field. The Confederacy was usually doing well to supply about half that, with the Rebel troops scrounging the rest as best they could. And that's with the Confederacy being able to move goods in and out of the country via Mexico.

Which brings us back to the hinge: Vicksburg. It was the last stronghold the Confederacy still held on the Mississippi. With Vicksburg, they still have a lifeline to the outside world. Without it, the Union owns the Mississippi from its headwaters to the Gulf, and the Confederacy is cut in two. Everyone knew that Vicksburg was Grant's next objective. Discovering Grant's plans for getting to Vicksburg was a major target of Confederate spies. They would be frustrated in their desires to discover Grant's plans, mainly because Grant himself had no idea how he was going to get there. The approaches from the Mississippi, where the Union generally enjoyed unquestioned naval superiority, were too well-guarded by guns on the bluffs. The city itself was ringed with fortifications. And outside of those were swamps, generally considered impassable.

Generally, that is. But Ulysses S. Grant wasn't going to take that for a final answer. One way or another, come Hell or high water, he was going to have Vicksburg. He'd spend most of the winter and spring figuring out how to get there, but he wasn't about to let anything get in his way.

He'd come too far to give up now.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Ten Years

Ten years ago, I was sleeping late on a Saturday morning, when I was awakened by a loud sound outside. I had no idea what it was. As soon as I turned on a TV, I found out:

I'm an alumnus of the University of Texas at Arlington. Our Master of Science program in Aerospace Engineering boasts two graduates who've flown in space, and I've met both of them. One is Robert Stewart, and the other was Kalpana Chawla.

And I find that I really can't say anything else about it. This one hurt.

Godspeed, Columbia.