Friday, May 24, 2013

Memorial Day, 2013

(Mostly reposted from 2009)

From the Lay of Horatius, by Thomas Babington Macaulay:

But the Consul's brow was sad, and the Consul's speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall, and darkly at the foe.
"Their van will be upon us before the bridge goes down,
And if once they might win the bridge, what hope to save the town?"

Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods,

"And for the tender mother who dandled him to rest,
And for his wife who nurses his baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus, that wrought the deed of shame?

"Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul, with all the speed ye may!
I, with two more to help me, will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand may well be stopped by three,
Now, who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?"

Then out spake Spurius Lartius; a Ramnian proud was he,
"Lo, I will stand at thy right hand, and keep the bridge with thee."
And out spake strong Herminius, of Titian blood was he:
"I will abide on thy left side, and keep the bridge with thee."

"Horatius," quoth the Consul, "As thou sayest, so let it be."
And straight against that great array, forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome's quarrel spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son, nor wife, nor limb, nor life, in the brave days of old.

We Americans celebrate three major patriotic holidays throughout the year. People tend to say the same things at each, forgetting sometimes that each one has its own character. On Veterans' Day, we celebrate the service of all of our veterans, honoring all who have taken their turn keeping the bridge. On Independence Day, we honor everyone, veterans and others, who have served our nation's institutions, faithfully bequeathing a legacy of freedom under law that, God willing, we will in turn bequeath to our children. But on Memorial Day, we specifically honor those who paid the ultimate price for our liberty.

Memorial Day is for Nathan Hale. It's for Sullivan Ballou. It's for Lloyd Williams, who led his Marines into that French forest that would be known forever afterward as the Bois de Brigade de Marine. It's for Rodger Young on New Georgia, Ernest Evans off the island of Samar, and Theodore Roosevelt Jr. on Utah Beach, each earning a Medal of Honor posthumously. And it's for Mel Apt, who was all too briefly the fastest man alive, until his X-2 went into an unrecoverable flat spin and hit the unforgiving desert floor.

Not many of us know that the Star-Spangled Banner has more than one verse. Francis Scott Key originally wrote four stanzas. The last one begins:

O, thus be it e'er when free men shall stand
Between their loved home, and the war's desolation!

The young men and women we have recently commissioned as Second Lieutenants and Ensigns have signed on to lead their comrades into making that stand, knowing full well what the cost might be. They have volunteered to stand their post upon that bridge, just as the Romans Horatius, Spurius Lartius, and Herminius did back in their day. Most of them will survive their experience. Macaulay tells us that all three survived the battle. But he also tells us that in some versions of the story, Horatius died holding the end of the bridge while his companions withdrew. Some of the young men and women we've commissioned this week will find that fate to be their own.

The task they leave to us is to honor their memory. We must never forget those things for which they gave their last full measure of devotion. We must remember their courage, their honor, their dignity. And we must teach our children to remember, to make these stories of bravery and sacrifice live for each new generation.

For as long as we remember them, they never truly die.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LX

The Bogatyrs of Old Kiev are the heroes of the Russian myth cycle, in much the same way that the Knights of the Round Table were the heroes of the Arthurian legends, and the Peers of Charlemagne were the heroes of the Matter of France. And, as legendary heroes, it befits them that their stories should be told with reverence and majesty. Usually, that's been the case.

Then again, on the other hand, you have these guys.

I find it curious that the wife of one of these famous epic heroes is a journalist. But apparently, that's true to the source material.

There are other clips. Here, the Three Bogatyrs take on Super Mario:

And the Big Bad Wolf:

Wait ... was that last one out Kenny?

Anyway, they're worth a look. Weird, but funny.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXV: Objectives


In the West, we've seen that the Union Army had been working according to General Scott's Anaconda Plan, with the eventual goal of cutting the Confederacy in two, and removing its ability to trade abroad. Thus deprived of the means of modern war, the rebels would be forced to yield, eventually. It wasn't broadly trumpeted that this was their goal, but every movement made in the West since the very earliest days of the conflict could be predicted by anyone familiar with General Scott's plan. First they made sure the Union's own east-west lines of communication and supply were secure, then they began to work their way down the river valleys. It wasn't very hard to figure out.

In the East, the motto was "On to Richmond!" Except, that wasn't quite the goal Lincoln had in mind.

Oh, seizing the Rebel capital would be a fine thing to accomplish. If it proved practicable, Lincoln was all for it. But, as the months wore on, Lincoln came to the belief that in the East, the primary objective was the Army of Northern Virginia, and not any particular piece of geography. Lincoln figured that if he could remove that force from the board, the rest would sort itself out.

In a way, it was an example of a commander using the Indirect Approach: you don't go straight in at what you really want, you go by a roundabout way so your opponent has a harder time countering your moves. Except that the Union armies could march in such a way to threaten Richmond, because in that case, Lee would have no choice but to move to interpose.

And such were the instructions that President Lincoln gave to the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac in the Spring of 1863. Once again, he was giving these instructions to a new commanding general: Ambrose Burnside had been reassigned in the head-rolling that had taken place after the debacle at Fredericksburg last December. Joseph Hooker was the new top man, and for once he was a man with a plan. Another novelty: it wasn't a bad one.

Hooker drew up a campaign plan that, if it came off right, would trap the Army of Northern Virginia in a double-envelopment. Thus trapped, and surrounded by a superior force, the war in the East could then be ended by a battle of annihilation.

He would be helped by two main advantages. First, there had been a complete overhaul of the Bureau of Military Intelligence since McClellan's tenure. Allan Pinkerton was nowhere to be seen, nor were his absurd over-estimations of Confederate strength and deployment. Hooker was gifted with the most complete, and most accurate, assessment of the Army of Northern Virginia's organization and deployment that any Union commander before him had ever had. Basically, he knew where Lee was, and more or less what he was doing.

His other main advantage stems from the first, in a way: Hooker knew that his army was much larger than Lee's. And he intended to make use of that advantage.

He would detach his cavalry, under General Stoneman, to make a deep-penetration raid behind Lee. At the same time, he would detach three full Corps of infantry, nearly half his strength, to make a stealthy march down the Rappahannock, and cross over the river to surprise Lee from his rear.

It was with this plan of action that the Army of the Potomac set out in late April.

The early results were all that Hooker could have hoped for. Stoneman's cavalry were keeping the Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart busy, depriving Lee of accurate information about Hooker's deployments and line of march. Initial reports seemed to indicate that the Rappahannock force was able to cross more or less unopposed. Hooker now had full confidence that he would be able to proceed to Chancellorsville, as he intended. That was where he intended to make contact with Lee's army.

That would be the last thing that happened according to Hooker's plan.

There's a time for following the rules, and there's a time for breaking them. You spend the early part of your career hewing assiduously to the rules of your profession, because you don't know them yet well enough to know exactly why they're there. But once you attain a certain degree of mastery, you do understand the "why" behind them, and then you know when it makes sense -- when it's necessary -- to set them aside. Robert E. Lee had attained such a degree of mastery, and he was about to show why Winfield Scott had originally intended him as his replacement.

Lee found out, almost too late, what Hooker was intending to do. If he acted according to the book, keeping his whole force intact, there was no way he could react to two forced advancing from opposite directions. But Lee also knew that Hooker's cavalry division was occupied elsewhere, meaning that Hooker wouldn't necessarily be able to see what Lee was doing ... so Lee did the unthinkable. He divided his already-inferior force, detailing part of it to intercept and delay the Rappahannock force while he met Hooker's main body at Chancellorsville.

And so it was, on May 1, 1863, that part of the Army of Northern Virginia met part of the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. The rest of them had a smaller-scale rematch of December's battle outside of Fredericksburg.

Much has been made of Hooker's alleged indecision, in ceding the initiative to Lee. I'm not sure it's fair to hang this entirely on Hooker. So far as he knew, all was still going according to plan. He had always intended to fight a static battle, and let Lee come to him. The plan was for the rest of his army to be the hammer to his anvil, trapping Lee in between. He had no way of knowing, just yet, that the hammer wasn't coming today, or tomorrow, or the next day. In any case, he had his men dig in, and wait for Lee's attack. It would come the next morning.

This is more or less when Lee would again do the doubly-unthinkable: having already divided his force once, he would do it again. He'd detach a force under his right-hand man Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and send them around Hooker's weaker right flank, while the rest of Lee's army attacked from the front.

Ordinarily, there's no way this would have worked. But Jeb Stuart had disengaged from Stoneman, and was again available to conduct screening duty for Lee. Stuart's cavalry was able to keep the Union from seeing Jackson's preparations for a flanking attack long enough for the attack to come as a surprise.

It was a complete surprise. Enough of a surprise that had this been the Union Army of 1861, or even 1862, they might have broken and fled, like they did at Bull Run. But this was an experienced, hardened army of veterans. The flank bent, but it didn't break. Hooker's lines bowed back upon themselves, until both ends were anchored in the river, on either side of Chancellorsville.

Fighting recommenced all along the front outside of Chancellorsville early the next morning. The Union forces were doing fairly well, right up to the point where a Confederate shell struck a wooden pillar Hooker had been leaning against at his headquarters. Hooker was injured, but not seriously, but he had definitely had his bell rung. He didn't look hurt, but he was valiantly struggling to remember his name, rank, and serial number; to say nothing of trying to remember the situation at the front. Unfortunately, he didn't transfer command, nor did anyone take it. Without effective coordination, the Union troops were pushed out of Chancellorsville.

For what it's worth, the three Corps that had been detached to Fredericksburg actually managed to win the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, and were marching towards Chancellorsville ... but the anvil was rather worse for the wear. Hooker finally ordered a general withdrawal.

The loss was as stinging as it was unexpected: the fighting on the third of May was only surpassed by the Battle of Antietam, and still stands as the second bloodiest day in American military history. Lincoln is supposed to have cried, "My God! My God! What will the country say?" at the news of the defeat and the casualties. One outcome of the battle would be the second major command shake-up in the Army of the Potomac in six months. Hooker, Stoneman, and several other generals would be relieved, either immediately or eventually. But buried in all the bad news was one very important fact.

Hooker had achieved one very important goal. It was now far too late for Lee to do anything constructive about Vicksburg.

Grant's plan was working to perfection. He had made it down the opposite bank of the Mississippi, and was able to cross without interference below Vicksburg. Now, he had good land to march upon, and no significant opposition until he reached the defensive works outside of Vicksburg itself. He would attempt to carry the works by direct assault. When that didn't work, he'd settle down into a siege. With nothing going in or out, they'd have to ask for terms eventually. It would take some time for their supplies to run low, but Grant didn't really care.

Grant could afford to wait.

Friday, May 03, 2013

End of Carbon: A Herculean Effort

Every once in a while, I revisit the topic of the end of fossil fuels. The basic point hasn't changed much: while we need to get off of fossil fuels, we have to face up to the fact that if we do, we face an enormous energy shortfall. That is, unless we've taken the steps needed to get ready. Ordinarily I have an aversion to repeating myself. But in this case I make an exception. For one, it's a very important point, one that's glossed over far too often. For another, I like to look at the most recent data available.

And when I went to look for the most recent data available, I made an important discovery. There's actually a government office whose job it is to keep track of this stuff. Who knew? The U.S. Energy Information Administration, among other things, keeps a summary of American energy production and usage here. The data for 2011 is shown below:

Wow, that's much easier to read than the others I've seen.

First, there are some general points to make. When we're talking about oil, we're mostly talking about transportation. By a large margin (71%), our oil usage involves moving people and things from Point A to Point B. Natural gas is a utility player, about a third each going to electricity, homes, and industry. And coal is predominantly (92%) used for generation of electricity. If we want to get off of fossil fuels entirely, we need to replace that watt-for-watt with something else, most likely in the form of electricity, generated at a power plant and then delivered to the customer.

As I've said before, the biggest problem here is that you lose an enormous amount of energy in transmission. The rule of thumb is that you have to generate three watts of power at the plant to realize one watt at the wall outlet. There aren't many good ways to get around Joule heating.

So: in 2011 we generated a total of 97.2 quadrillion BTUs. Of that, 79.8 quads came from carbon-based sources. If we had to replace 79.8 quads at three-for-one, we'd need to generate a grand total of 256.8 quadrillion BTUs of power. Which means, we'd be generating about three times as much power as we do today. Or more to the point, we'd have to generate 15 times as much non-carbon power as we did in 2011.

It's actually not quite as bad as all that. There are two things that can work in our favor. First, some kinds of clean power we can locate at the point of use: solar panels, for example. In those cases, we can eliminate the transmission penalty. That won't cover every possible case, but it'll make enough of a difference to move the needle a little. Let's assume it's possible 25% of the time. In that case, we'd need to generate 216.9 quads, bringing our extra power required down to a multiple of 12.5 from 15.

The other possibility is more speculative, but could have far-reaching possibilities. I've mentioned superconducting power lines before. It'll be a long time before they're possible, if they're ever possible, but they're worth looking into. The reason should be obvious. Joule heating scales with the product of the resistance and the square of the current. If the resistance is zero, the Joule heating is also zero.

That's huge. This way, the 39.3 quads of electrical power generated actually is 39.3 quads, rather than the 13.1 that's actually delivered, knocking 26.2 quads off of the deliverable power we need to generate.

That means we'd only have to come up with 53.6 quads of non-carbon power, or about 3/4 of what we'd have to come up with otherwise. That's a much, much easier prospect. Superconductor technology is worth every last penny that we can spend on it.

The question then becomes, with what can we replace oil, coal, and natural gas? That hasn't changed since the last time(s) I've written about this, but I'll recap anyway.

1) Solar power. Every environmentalist's go-to favorite, but not necessarily your go-to source for steady, reliable, day-to-day base load. It's a good answer for homeowners, especially homeowners in the South and Southwest, who get plenty of sunny days. There's poetic justice in using the Sun's rays to power the air conditioners that fight back against the Sun's heat. But, I really don't see photoelectric power running steel furnaces. It's a matter of scale.

2) Wind power. The second favorite of environmentalists everywhere. There's a lot of power to be extracted from wind, and if you've got it you may as well use it. There's a potential problem to be aware of, though; if you extract too much energy from the wind, you'll alter the climate without intending to. And we don't know yet how much is too much.

3) Tidal, geothermal, hydroelectric power. While useful, these are very dependent upon local conditions. Such as, having a coastline, or a big river, or local hot spot. But if you've got it you may as well use it. Waste not, want not.

4) Nuclear power. As much as environmentalists everywhere hate this particular N-word, there's no way around it: if we're truly serious about getting off of carbon, we have to make more use of atomic power. For all its problems, it provides large amounts of reliable base-load power. And when you look at the statistics on deaths per terawatt-hour, summarized here, nuclear power isn't nearly as dangerous as its foes claim. There are problems that must be dealt with, but those are problems of engineering, not of science. We could do this now, if we had the will. We could be off carbon in a decade. The question is, do you really want it?

5) Fusion power. It's the eternal dream -- the vast amounts of power of fission, but without the noisome radioactive waste. The problem is, we're not entirely sure how to do this yet. The interim results from the WB-8 unit are encouraging, to the extent that we've heard about them. The work is proceeding slower than hoped, but it's still proceeding. And Polywell was never the only game in town. Sooner or later, someone's cracking that nut, and with it, they crack the energy problem essentially forever. Just about everything you can see in the night sky is hydrogen. The most abundant element in the entire Universe is something we're very unlikely to run short of.

As I've said before, it's important not to delude ourselves: this is a huge task. But not an insurmountable one.  If we get started soon enough, we'll have the tools we need, when we need them.

But we don't have forever. It's about time we got started.