Friday, December 19, 2014

Two Bad Days, One Good One

Flight test is a harsh, unforgiving business.

Modern computer modeling can sometimes give you an incorrect appreciation of this. You think you have all the angles figured. You think you've accounted for everything. You think you've analyzed the stresses down to the last nut, bolt, rivet and weld. But there's a small problem ... one of the unfortunate implications of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem is that every model is necessarily incomplete. That is, the only complete model of a thing is the thing itself.

So ... the only way to find out how the thing behaves is to go try it out for real. To try it in the real world, where there are few (and sometimes only one) way to succeed, and innumerable ways to fail.

That's not always a bad thing, by the way; failure can be instructive. But those lessons sometimes come with a staggeringly high price tag.

On the 28th of October, Orbital Sciences Corporation had an Antares launch vehicle sitting on the pad at Wallops Island in Virginia, set to carry a Cygnus resupply pod to the International Space Station. The Antares rocket's first stage is powered by two AJ-26 rocket engines. The AJ-26 is a repackaging by Aerojet General of the Soviet-built NK-33. Originally, the NK-33 was intended to be the main engine for the N-1 lunar booster, with thirty in the first stage and eight in the second stage.

Someone ... oh, God, someone should have thought this through. Because the N-1 "flew" four times, without much variation in the outcome.

Anyway, recycling old rocket bits is Orbital's stock in trade. When they found a bunch of perfectly good rocket engines sitting in a warehouse, someone thought "Score!" Which is how two ex-Soviet engines ended up in an American rocket. Engines, by the way, that were notorious for trying to eat their own turbopumps. Which is more or less how this happened.

At some point you have to wonder if the actual purpose of the NK-33 was the conversion of fuel and structure into shrapnel and combustion by-products. Needless to say, Orbital is now looking for a new engine for Antares. (Addendum, 27Dec14: I'd have expected them to look for a non-Russian engine, but ... yeah, they're using another Russian engine. On the upside, the RD-181 is built in the same factory as the RD-180. The RD-180 has proven fairly reliable so far. On the downside, this puts Antares at the mercy of whatever the hell Putin decides to pull this month. They may yet regret this choice.)

The good news is that nothing was hurt, apart from OSC's pride. The same can't be said for the test mishap suffered by VSS Enterprise.

On October 31st, VSS Enterprise dropped from its White Knight Two carrier airplane for its fourth powered flight, and its thirty-sixth flight overall. Virgin and Scaled Composites had, by all accounts, been pursuing a long and fairly conservative flight test program, expanding the flight envelope bit by bit with each new powered flight. It should have been a fairly routine outing. The full NTSB report won't be available for some time, but what seems to have happened is that the copilot hit the "feather" switch too soon, while the rocket engine was still burning. The sudden nose-down pitch caused the ship to break up in flight, killing both crew on board. (Addendum, 27Jan15: Rarely have I been happier to have been wrong. Peter Siebold, while seriously injured, was not killed in the crash.)

I'm reserving judgement, here. I don't know enough about how it operates ... but it does seem to me that switch should have a guard of some kind. By way of comparison, on the C-130, the paratrooper "jump" light switch has a metal flange that will not allow you to turn that light on unless you've already opened the jump door. And maybe there's already something like that there, and the crew got confused.

Truth is, we just don't know yet, and probably won't know until the report is released.

There is some good news to go along with the bad, though. In early December, there was a test flight of the new Orion crew capsule. NASA looks like they've shook off whatever was ailing them back in their Ares-1X days. On December 5th, a test version of the Orion spacecraft was launched on a Delta IV Heavy booster on a two-orbit test flight. The launch and re-entry both came off without a hitch.

I had heard Ares-1X described as "a low-fidelity test of a bad design." It's not really fair to say that of Orion. Orion took two passes through the Van Allen radiation belts, and the Delta second stage fired a second time on the last orbit, to accelerate into re-entry. The peak deceleration was 8.5 times the force of gravity. This was a fairly rigorous shakedown cruise. It was a legitimate test that NASA could have failed.

They didn't.

Now, it's probably still true that Dragon V2 will beat a manned Orion into space, because Orion is paced by NASA funding and Dragon is paced by the whims of an eccentric billionaire, but once it does fly, Orion will be a top-notch ship. Of that, I'm very confident ... and a few years ago, I wasn't.

Flight test is a harsh, unforgiving business. Its lessons are paid for in blood. But we do learn, and in the end, the lessons are worth it.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XLI: Decision '64, Part 2


As late in the year as July, President Lincoln's re-election chances were looking sketchy, at best. The Republican Party was undergoing a split, similar to the one the Democrats suffered in 1860. The war had dragged on far longer than anyone had ever thought possible. One group of voters just wanted the war over, at any cost. The other wanted it won, by any means necessary. Neither group was happy with Mr. Lincoln.

But events conspired to deliver Lincoln a reprieve. One, we've already talked about: Sherman's capture of Atlanta. The other wasn't nearly as dramatic, but still important. A Union army under General Philip Sheridan had routed the Confederate army defending the Shenandoah Valley, and Sheridan had rendered the once-productive farmlands to a state such that it was said that a bird flying overhead would have to bring along its own rations. As is so often true, victory covers a multitude of sins. The Radical Republicans were somewhat mollified by the improved fortunes -- and the vindication of Lincoln's overall war plans those improved fortunes indicated. Fremont did get something for his trouble, though; as his price to drop his candidacy, he did manage to get the Postmaster General replaced.

History does not record what beef Fremont had with the existing Postmaster General, who was presumably doing an acceptable job.

Incidentally, there was no Confederate Presidential election. The Confederate Presidency was limited to a single six-year term, with the first actual election scheduled for 1866. Provided, of course, that the Confederacy would last so long.

The November election, when it came, was something of an anticlimax. The popular vote was much closer than the Electoral vote. Although the popular vote counts weren't what you'd call close -- Lincoln won 55% of the vote to McClellan's 45%. In the Electoral College the totals were much more lopsided, 212 to 21. McClellan won his home state of New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. That was about it. Many Northern voters were tired of the war -- McClellan did quite well, winning a sprinkling of counties across the country -- but not enough of them were ready to throw in the towel just yet. With the events of the last year, particularly the last few months, they could smell a sea change.

And ... so could Southerners.

I think they knew they were doomed. Depending on who you ask they'll draw the line here or there, the point at which they knew the jig was up. Some will say Gettysburg, others Vicksburg. General D.H. Hill said Chickamauga was the breaking point ... ironically, a Confederate victory, but one they were unable to exploit. "It seems to me the élan of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga," Hill would later write. "He would fight stoutly to the last, but after Chickamauga, with the sullenness of despair and without the enthusiasm of hope." But I think it was the re-election of Lincoln that well and truly drew a line under it. They first pinned their hopes on a foreign intervention that never came, and then upon a Northern war-weariness and exhaustion that would not come in time. Undergirding it all was a reliance upon the daring and dash of their soldiers, and now that was gone, too.

But fight they would, with as much as they had, and with all the time they had left.

And so the war rolled on. The Southern armies still in the field had to be subdued. General Sherman in Atlanta had advanced a ... somewhat unconventional proposal to Grant and Lincoln. And, for all its risk and all his worries about it, Lincoln finally decided to let Sherman off the chain.

It was time to end this.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

There are some people who claim that the last 20-odd minutes of 2001 were originally intended to have a score by Pink Floyd. It's hard to disagree.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Against All Odds

Seventy years ago, the pieces were in motion that would lead to the largest battle in naval history.

The Pacific strategy that the Allies had been pursuing for two years and change had begun to show fruit. The Naval forces under Admiral Chester Nimitz, and the Army forces under General Douglas MacArthur, had zig-zagged across the ocean, bypassing some pockets of Japanese strength, while seizing other islands to use as way stations. Now, in late October of 1944, the fleet stood off of the Philippine Islands to support the Allied invasion.

This was not merely a vanity project of MacArthur's, although the man had vanity and to spare for it to be so. No, if the Allies were to win possession of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy would be in a terrible fix. Their weapons and ammunition were in Japan. Their fuel, though, that was in Southeast Asia. They had one chance, and one chance only, to smash the invasion.

They basically threw everything they had into the operation. It wasn't a suicide operation per se, it was a cold realization that if they lost the Philippines, the fleet wouldn't be worth much in any event. If they stayed in southern waters, they could maneuver, but couldn't shoot. If they stayed in northern waters, they could shoot, but wouldn't have enough gas left to get anywhere. It was well and truly "smoke 'em if you got 'em" time.

The Japanese fleet was divided up into three sections. The Northern Force, under Admiral Ozawa, had the remaining fleet carriers capable of sailing. Those carriers were mostly devoid of planes or pilots. The disastrous Battle of the Philippine Sea had seen to that. Nevertheless, Ozawa figured he could dangle the flat-tops out there as bait. If he could draw Admiral Halsey into a wild goose chase, if Halsey would go chasing carriers and leave the invasion beaches mostly unguarded, the operation had a decent chance of success. The Southern Force and Center Force would be heavy on large surface combatants, battleships and cruisers, and their target would be to strike the invasion beaches thus left unprotected. Southern Force would be under the command of Admiral Nishimura, and the Center Force under Admiral Kurita. Admiral Kurita's group had the Yamato and the Musashi, the largest battleships that had ever been (or would ever be) built.

The Northern Force would approach the Philippine Sea from the north. The Southern Force would wind its way through the Surigao Strait on its way to the landing grounds. The Center Force would drive up the middle, through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait.

The plan would depend greatly upon whether Halsey would take the bait. He took it, all right ... hook, line, and sinker.

Of course, the Southern and Center Forces still had to get there. And that was far from guaranteed. The Southern Force was turned back in the Battle of Surigao Strait after taking heavy damage. The Center Force came under heavy air attack from Halsey's carriers, and the Musashi went down somewhere in the Sibuyan Sea. They must have thought that they'd taken care of the Center Force, because no one would thread the San Bernardino Strait at night, in bad weather. Or so they thought.

So, overnight on the 24th, Halsey took most of the Third Fleet north to go hunting for carriers. He left Admiral Kinkaid with a small force of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort carriers to guard the invasion beaches from attack. This force was divided into three groups. Task Unit 77.4.1, call sign "Taffy 1", was under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague, on the escort carrier USS Sangamon. "Taffy 1" also included the escort carrier USS Santee, which I mentioned earlier. Task Unit 77.4.2, call sign "Taffy 2", was under the command of Rear Admiral Felix Stump, on the USS Natoma Bay. Task Unit 77.4.3, call sign "Taffy 3", was under the command of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague (no relation), on the USS Fanshaw Bay. Near enough, the Task Unit deployment ran from south to north, meaning "Taffy 3" held the north flank and "Taffy 1" the southern flank.

Thus it was at dawn on Wednesday, the 25th of October, that "Taffy 3" was the first to spot the ships of Admiral Kurita's Center Force.

The thing that you must understand, here, is that Yamato -- by itself -- outweighed all of "Taffy 3" put together. Against four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers, "Taffy 3" had six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. A more lopsided mismatch could hardly be found. And yet, they had one ace in the hole -- the other two Task Units were not under attack, and could throw their air wings into the fight. Clifton Sprague could count on four hundred aircraft -- mostly fairly new Grumman Wildcats and Avengers -- to turn up the heat on the Center Force.

Not that it mattered. Those thirteen small, thin-hulled ships were all that stood between the Japanese bug guns and the invasion transports. There was only one option.

Commander Ernest E. Evans on board the destroyer USS Johnston said to his crew, "A very large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can."

Evans ordered flank speed, and charged directly at the Center Force. He was followed shortly thereafter by Commander Copeland on the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts. After that, Admiral Sprague ordered the rest of his destroyers and destroyer escorts to attack, while he took his carriers towards a nearby rain squall. With all the aircraft launched, the escort carriers had only a single 5" gun, and weren't worth much in a gun fight.

The American ships had one other key advantage, though; their guns had radar-controlled gun directors. While the Japanese ships used dye markers on shells to gauge the range to a target, the American ships merely pointed their gun directors towards what they wanted to hit. Not that the tiny American guns had any realistic chance of piercing the Japanese armor ... but the Japanese had this odd habit of storing their torpedoes on deck, in unarmored containers. They would pay for that design decision today.

The Japanese guns would not have that problem ... except for two minor issues. One, the armor-piercing ammo the Japanese used would more often than not smash straight through the thin-hulled ships without arming, fuzing, or exploding. And two, the American ships were charging in so close that the guns could depress low enough to fire upon them anyway.

The Americans had a run of astounding good luck. Johnson's radar-guided guns scored at least 45 hits on the heavy cruiser Kumano's superstructure, setting it ablaze. Then, as soon as they were in torpedo range, they fired a full salvo of ten torpedoes at the Center Force, hitting Kumano, blowing off its bow. The battleship Kongo was forced to make a hard turn to avoid four torpedoes heading its way. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, stopping to assist Kumano, was taking heavy damage from aircraft. Even the flat-tops got into the action. The Japanese cruiser Chokai got close enough to the USS White Plains to get a reminder that yes, they do carry live ammunition. The gunner on White Plains knew that his 5" gun wouldn't do much damage to Chokai ... but those Long Lance torpedoes sitting on her deck? Another story. The resulting explosion was quite impressive, taking out her rudder and engines. A 500-pound bomb dropped a few minutes later finished the job. But their luck could not last forever.

Johnston was eventually hit, several times, and sank. So was the Samuel B. Roberts, but not before winning the name "The Destroyer Escort That Fought Like A Battleship." Survivors tell of Japanese sailors standing at attention and saluting while their ships went down. Japanese guns would sink two escort carriers, and one more destroyer.

Time and again that morning, these small fragile ships would charge ships ten and twenty times their size, doing what they could. Time and again, aircraft attacked with bombs, then with machine guns, and then lined up to make "dry" attack runs, so that they could draw fire from their comrades that still had ammunition. But as much damage as they were doing to the Japanese, they did not have the firepower to destroy many more ships.

They wouldn't need it. Admiral Kurita had lost two crucial things: surprise, and control of the battle. His ships were maneuvering wildly all over the place. They would have to be regrouped for a strike against the transports ... assuming they could get to the transports. The Third Fleet could show up at any moment, and then the tables would turn with a vengeance. Not that the tables were looking all that great in any case. Kurita had already lost three heavy cruisers, had three more damaged, and just about all of his ships had taken some abuse. He no longer believed he could accomplish his mission, and called for a withdrawal.

The Nihon Kaigun would never again sail in such force. The Battle of Leyte Gulf had broken the back of the Japanese Navy.

(Personal Note: My father was a Machinist's Mate on the escort carrier USS Santee, CVE-29. His assignment was as a ball turret gunner on a Grumman TBF Avenger in Torpedo Squadron 26. Seventy years ago, he fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.)

VT-26 Insignia

TBF Avenger from VT-26

USS Santee, CVE-29

Friday, October 17, 2014

How Long? Not Long...

I've been keeping an eye on fusion research for quite some time. Some thirty-odd years ago, I made a short list of developments that would figuratively keep the wolf from our door. There's no particular order to them. As I saw it then, our key long-term problem was resource exhaustion. It's still our key long-term problem. There are three things that can solve that problem if they arrive soon enough. Back then, I saw the first as cheap access to low Earth orbit. I still think that's important ... but I also think that we'll basically get it for free if we get the other two items. So today's list gets pared down to two: high-temperature superconductors, and controlled fusion.

Modern civilization is electrical power. That's a gross oversimplification, but it's nonetheless true that given enough economical, clean power, a lot of our problems go away. Not all, not by any stretch of the imagination, that's an unfortunate consequence of human nature. But just about any resource-based problem you can name can be either greatly reduced or even eliminated if you can throw enough power at it. Water shortage? Cheap desalinization fixes it. Emissions? Plentiful clean power fixes it. And once you take those two off the table, that buys us time to deal with what's left.

High-temperature superconductors are a force multiplier. Most of the power we generate -- about two-thirds of it -- vanishes between the generator and the user. This isn't due to sloth or inattention. This is a fundamental physical fact. If you push one ampere of current across one ohm of resistance, you lose one watt of power. Two amps, four watts. The power lost is equal to the square of the current times the resistance. High-tension lines run at scarily high voltage on alternating current, so that they can reduce the amperage to as low a value as possible. And even with some of the country's best electrical engineers having worked on it for a century or more, a two-thirds loss is the best we've been able to manage. Now, replace those power lines with a high-temperature superconductor. The resistance drops to zero. So do the power losses. At a stroke -- without adding any extra generators -- you triple the deliverable power. And that's before you get to the other things superconductors can do for you: better electric motors, better generators, better everything ... except heaters. The guy who tries to use superconductors to make a better electric heater is going to be a sad, sad man.

Controlled fusion is the other key. We're getting into a resource exhaustion problem to begin with because everything we try to extract power from runs out on us. Coal, oil, even radioactive isotopes will run out on us eventually. Fusion power relies on hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the entire Universe. Something like 95-99% of everything you see when you look up at night is hydrogen. It is, therefore, something we're extremely unlikely to ever run short of.

Virtually limitless power will change ... well, just about everything.

This is what makes Lockheed's announcement this last Wednesday so important.

For the last decade, several teams have been investigating odd corners of plasma physics to try to find a better way to control the fusion reaction. I've written several times about the Polywell project, founded by the late Robert Bussard, and they had some promising results from 2007 to about 2010, when they went dark. They're still working under a Navy contract, I think. But there were other approaches, too: dense plasma focus, inertial confinement, field-reversed configuration, Z-pinch ... one of them was bound to pay off sooner or later.

The announcement didn't have much detail. What Lockheed said is that they'd build a small reactor within the year, and have a prototype for a 100-megawatt model within five.

First, what this says to me is that the Navy is their primary customer. That's the right size to be a reactor replacement for the Navy's submarines and carriers, but it's also the right size to re-engine their frigates and destroyers. The Navy would like to start putting things like railguns on their surface combatants, but they don't have the power available to do that yet. This will change that.

Second, this is a project Big Oil won't be able to stifle. The small guys, like Bussard's old outfit, they could bully or stymie. Lockheed is the DoD's biggest supplier. If there's anyone that can tell Big Oil to help themselves to a tall, cool glass of SHUT THE **** UP, it's probably Lockheed, the DoD, or both.

Third ... we're close. Real close. I've always said fusion would be the transformational game-changer. We've never been closer to it becoming reality. It won't change everything, and not right away, but fission power will become obsolete overnight. The knock-on effects are going to be tremendous.

There does remain the possibility that it won't work. There's always that chance. I don't think it's very high, though; they wouldn't make such a public pronouncement and stake the company's name and reputation on it unless they were pretty damn sure of their success.

By the end of the decade ... we'll know.

And our world will never be the same.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Small World, Musical Division

You never know what you're going to find when you go down a rabbit hole.

Each of the armed services has a different scheme for aircraft identification. They all use tail numbers. But they have two different ways of coming up with those numbers. The Army and Air Force use the same kind of scheme, where aircraft are identified by fiscal year, and then by sequence within the year.

If you look close at the tail, you'll see black letters "AF", then under those the number 67. This aircraft was procured in FY67, and was the 463rd aircraft procured that year.

The Navy doesn't do that.

If you look very carefully under the horizontal tail -- and I do mean carefully -- you'll see the number 165675. That, very simply, means this is the 165,675th aircraft the Navy has bought since 1940. It's a nice, straightforward system. The downside is that you can't tell by BuNo when an airplane was bought ... but that's a fairly minor quibble.

A couple of weeks ago, I found a web site where you can look up all of those Navy numbers. All of them. So, I got to thinking ... Could I find the TBF Avenger my Dad flew on in WWII? (Flew on, not flew -- he worked the ball turret.)

That list contains the disposition of each airframe, when known. And that first run of Avengers makes for mighty depressing reading. Those that didn't crash or ditch either fell off the catapult, or fell overboard, or were shot down, or just took off for a sortie one day and no one ever saw it again. It made you wonder how anyone survived a tour of duty in Naval Aviation, back in the day. But I did find out a few interesting tidbits that I hadn't known before. For one, air wings went from one ship to another with some frequency. Not all the time, mind you, but if one ship was laid up for repairs its air wing would embark upon an available ship. Which is how the USS Santee, CVE-29, was carrying Torpedo Squadron 26, that you'd ordinarily expect to be embarked upon CVE-26, USS Sangamon. The other discovery came when I stumbled upon a web site devoted to the former sailors aboard the Santee. What I found ... wasn't at all what I was expecting.

See that kid with the saxophone, kneeling on the right? You may have heard of him.

Yes, Tito Puente, the King of Latin Music himself, played with the ship's band when my Dad was in the Navy. And he never once mentioned this. I'm guessing it's because Latin Jazz wasn't his thing. I don't think it was racial. When Chappie James got his fourth star, he told us about how he'd been his crew chief in Korea. But anyway ... I just wish I'd have known sooner.

And that's the other thing I found out: Santana's "Oye Como Va" was a cover. Speaking of covers ...

Anyway, I never did find what I was looking for. But I've found a whole new area of music to enjoy, so it's all good.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XL: The Golden Age of Beards


Something very puzzling happened back in the 1830s. But, I get ahead of myself...

This train of thought got started a few days ago with the announcement of Attorney General Eric Holder's impending resignation. A wise guy, I forget precisely who, lamented the fact that President Obama's Cabinet was now a mustache-free zone. Which brought up the question, how long had it been since we had a President with facial hair?

The answer was kind of surprising. Our last mustachioed President was William Howard Taft. Yes, the Oval Office has been whisker-free for over a century. But before him? An almost unbroken reign, from 1861 to 1913, of bewhiskered Chief Executives. From Lincoln to Taft, excepting only Johnson and McKinley, for fifty-two years our Presidents had beards, mustaches, or both. But only in that era. Before Lincoln, there were none. Likewise, after Taft, there have been none.

The question is ... why?

I read somewhere that the Founding Fathers consciously emulated the Roman Republic in a lot of things, facial hair being one of them. Romans, at least in that period, were famously clean-shaven. But, so were just about all of the European upper-class of the late 18th Century. Even the Russians, whose nobles were famous beard fans ... at least, up until Peter the Great instituted a tax on them.

Along about 1830 or so, that's when things started changing.

I haven't been able to find a source that will tell me exactly why. Near as I can tell, all over the European-controlled world, all at once, men decided that growing beards was the manly thing to do. It became an expression of strength, virility, courage, what have you. And there was an impressive variety to be had.

Grant and Lee wore beards, of course. They were fairly ordinary, and their owners kept them well-trimmed. Other men, they let it hang out. Like Ambrose Burnside, for example.

Seriously, he could take off with a decent headwind.

Or James Longstreet.

A small squirrel could find refuge.

Or Jubal Early.

Combs? For the weak and the cowardly.

Or Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Are you calling me a coward?

And let us not forget John Brown.

He was right. But he was more than a little crazy.

By 1860, it was pretty uncommon to find men in public life who went whisker-less. Joe Hooker was one of the few Union generals who came to mind. And as the Civil War generation grew old, the younger generation emulated them. The generation after that, not so much. Men still wore beards, of course, but they were on their way out as of 1914. The Great War finished the job.

That part, I understand. With the advent of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas on the battlefield, whiskers weren't just unfashionable. They were a deadly hazard, because they prevent your gas mask from making a proper seal. Clean-shaven once again became the thing, for fashion and for safety.

Recently, beards have been making a comeback, at least amongst civilians. They're still a no-go under military regulations ... pretty much for the same reasons as a hundred years ago.

But I do wonder. How much longer, before we see some whiskers in the White House again?

It ain't a bad look...

Friday, September 19, 2014

In Praise Of Federalism

Yesterday, Scotland went to the polls and decided they still wanted to be part of the United Kkngdom, as opposed to a separate nation. Not everyone is happy with that decision. However, I can't help but think the question itself could have been avoided, had Westminster been willing to devolve some real power to the constituent nations -- Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

If you squint at Devo-Max in bad light, it looks a lot like something familiar to those of us here in the States... Not that we haven't had our own problems with it.

A hundred and fifty years ago, six hundred thousand Americans died sorting out the primacy of the Federal government over the several States. That notwithstanding, the several States still enjoy a fair degree of autonomy. That autonomy is what prevents such a referendum from becoming an issue over here. Paradoxically, autonomy undergirds unity.

It has several other advantages.

I've heard Federalism described as "fifty laboratories of democracy." It's not a bad image. Each state tackles issues in its own way, some successfully, some less so. The bad ideas get left behind. The good ones -- a key example being the Massachusetts health care reform law that became the basis for the Affordable Care Act -- become more widely adopted. We are seeing it happen in marriage law, too. And in marijuana legislation. A few States try something new, others see it work -- well OR poorly -- and take the lessons to heart.

And sometimes, different conditions will perforce lead to different laws. Montana, with cities separated by miles upon miles of a whole bunch of nothing, will NEED different highway rules than Rhode Island. It's lunacy to force identical rules on both.

And, last but certainly not least, our founding documents state clearly that a government's legitimacy rests upon the consent of the governed. As a practical matter, it's easier to secure that consent at the local level, than at the State or Federal level. The more decisions that are made closer to the citizen, the better. You feel more like you have a real stake, more like you can have a real effect on policy.

I have a lot of friends who disagree. I expect I'll be hearing from a few shortly. Nonetheless, I'm still a Federalist.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Video Del Fuego, Part LXVI

Kidney stones are a whole bunch of no fun. The treatment is marginally preferable to the ailment.

Oh, I'll probably feel much better about the whole thing in a few days. But on Wednesday morning, I had an extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy ... which is a fancy way of saying I got punched in the gut by Science.

This is how you feel the morning after:

So, how was your week?

(Note: I do have to say that the folks at USMD Hospital in Arlington, Texas did a fine job, and I have nothing but good words for their care and treatment. And they did warn me that there'd be some pain afterwards, so it's not fair to imply that they were at fault in any way.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXIX: A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight


No one loves a siege. (Am I repeating myself?)

By the end of August 1864, the Union had settled down to besiege not one, but two Southern cities: Richmond and Atlanta. Granted, the Atlanta siege was new, but Richmond had been under siege since late Spring, at the conclusion of the Overland campaign. As I said before, sieges combine all the things least enjoyable about campaigning: you have all of the danger of active engagement, plus all of the boredom of garrison life. And into that, you can add the rampant disease of so many men quartered so closely together.

It sometimes sounds odd to the modern ear, but up until fairly recently, disease claimed more lives in wartime than did enemy action. A Union soldier was more likely to fall to cholera, fever, or some other illness than he was to fall to a Confederate Minié ball. Scientists were beginning to understand the link between germs and disease -- Louis Pasteur was wrapping up his landmark experiments at almost this exact time in 1864 -- but they had not yet applied this knowledge to military sanitation or medicine. It had long been known that a clean soldier was a healthy soldier, and that if you dig your latrines just so it holds off the sickness longer ... but they did not yet know why.

All that said, the siege of Atlanta was less than a month old, and Sherman didn't think it would last much longer. He knew that the Confederate army under John Bell Hood didn't have much in the way of supply stored up in Atlanta, and if he could manage to destroy his last rail link with the outside, he'd have to abandon Atlanta in short order.

Here we begin to see the payoff of two Union strategies: first, the long-range strategy of isolating the Confederacy; and second, the "attack everywhere" plan that kept the Confederate armies from supporting one another. The first essentially guaranteed that no Confederate force had any more than a few days' supplies on hand at any given time, and the second guaranteed that a hard-pressed Confederate army could not depend upon support or reinforcement. Armies that were based at or near a major city, such as the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond, could draw upon considerable supplies ... but were essentially immobile. Armies like Hood's, on the other hand, either had to have a steady source of supplies or had to keep moving. Atlanta had no fortifications like those that had been built up around Richmond, nor did Atlanta have any natural defenses like Vicksburg. So hunkering down in Atlanta wasn't a real option.

So it was, then, that when Sherman's army threatened Hood's last rail link at Jonesborough, Hood was forced to come to its defense. Hood sent two corps under General Hardee to keep Sherman from cutting him off. But Hood seriously underestimated how much force Sherman was willing to commit to this effort.

Of his seven infantry corps, Sherman sent six. And a Union corps was larger than a Confederate corps to begin with.

If this had been 1862 or 1863, the Battle of Jonesborough probably would have been a bloodbath. But the survivors of 1862 and 1863 had learned the value of maneuver. And they also learned when to cut their losses. Hardee's two corps made a stand as long as they could, but were forced to yield or be destroyed.

For Hood, it may as well have been six of one or a half-dozen of the other. With Sherman's army in Jonesborough, his position in Atlanta was no longer tenable. If he stayed put, he'd be crushed. So on September 1st, Hood's army retreated from Atlanta, destroying all stores of military use beforehand.

That night, Atlanta burned.

The next morning, Sherman and his army arrived. "Atlanta is ours, and fairly won," he exulted in a message to President Lincoln. It was the best news Lincoln had received all summer. It was the best news anyone in the Union had received all summer. The capture of Atlanta had several effects.

First, the capture and reduction of an important supply center would have long-ranging implications for the Confederate war effort. The already-precarious Confederate supply system would now be in truly dire straits. Worse still, from Atlanta, Union forces could threaten the most valuable, most productive agricultural areas.

Second, it was an important symbolic victory. Vicksburg had cut the Confederacy in half. The capture of Atlanta had gone halfway towards doing it again. This was a boost to Union morale, and a dreadful blow to Confederate morale -- what was left of it. The first half of 1864 was a dreadful slog, with no end in sight. That had changed. With the capture of Atlanta, and the measurable progress that represented ... well, that's not victory, but you can see it from there.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it provided a powerful boost to Lincoln's re-election chances. McClellan's candidacy was predicated upon a negotiated peace. Why negotiate, when the matter is so very nearly settled? Sherman's victory at Atlanta took the wind out of McClellan's sails. He'd still have his partisans, of course; he'd still have a fair share of people who'd had enough. But the voters still in the undecided middle were now going to be that much harder for him to win.

For now, though, Sherman needed to take time to reorganize his army, and figure out what he was going to do next. A plan was taking shape ...

... a plan that would be the biggest gamble of his life.

Friday, August 01, 2014


We chafe at limits.

We don't like being told something is impossible, even -- or maybe especially -- if it is. Virtually anytime someone says "it can't be done", you can find someone willing to put the matter to the test. And whatever can be done, you can be sure someone's on the prowl looking for a way to do it better. A way to go higher, or farther, or faster.

For most of human history no one ever traveled faster than a horse could gallop. The steam engine changed that. Man got his first taste of higher speed in 1804, when Richard Trevithick built his "Puffing Devil" steam locomotive. Towards the end of the century, the first automobiles were built, and were soon faster than locomotives themselves.

It's understandable and perfectly excusable if you think that electric cars are a recent innovation, but that's actually not the case. The first land speed record held by an automobile, set in 1898 by the French vehicle Jeantaud Duc, was set by a car with an electric motor. Steam engines were too heavy, and gasoline engines too unreliable, so in the early days of the automobile electric engines were the motors of choice. That didn't last very long, though. Four years later, a steam-powered car overtook the electics with a then-blistering speed of 75 miles per hour. Lest you think that steam was making a comeback, it was displaced in mere months by a gasoline-powered car driven by the American driver William Vanderbilt. This would begin an American dominance of land speed records that would last ... oh, about five years. A Frenchman would take the lead in 1909, and then an Englishman in 1914. The English would hold the record for a while. Almost fifty years, in fact.

Their dominance came to a temporary end for two reasons. First, they were hitting a hard limit with what could be accomplished with wheels. Second, some might say that the Americans ... cheated.

First, the problem. If we go back a few years, I wrote about the maximum speed a running man could achieve. It's the same basic principle with cars. You can only drive the wheels so hard before they start slipping. You can make the tires extra-sticky, you can hold the test on the most favorable ground possible, but there's only so much direct drive can do. Which means ... you have to do something that isn't direct drive.

Purists would call what comes next cheating. If direct drive doesn't give you enough satisfaction, you heed the maxim "everything's better with fire", and use a jet engine, or better still, a rocket.

Which is exactly what Craig Breedlove did in 1963. Granted, the Spirit of America only raised the speed record from 403 to 407 miles per hour, but it showed what a jet-powered car could do. Two other Americans would yank the record away from Breedlove before he came back to the ring with a new and improved Spirit, this one called Sonic 1, built around an engine from an F-4 jet fighter. He set a record at 555 miles per hour, then broke his own record a few weeks later when he hit 600 miles per hour. The record rested comfortably in his hands for about five years. Then, Gary Gabelich comes along with the Blue Flame, a rocket-powered car that hit 622 miles per hour in 1970. This is where the record would stay for another thirteen years. It would stay there, because engineers were beginning to reach another problem.

Compressibility becomes a huge problem when you get that close to Mach 1. That's true for any vehicle. That's doubly true for a vehicle that has to maintain contact with the ground. The shock wave really wants to get between you and terra firma, which would be ... a problem. And not "a problem" as in "this is a really sticky equation," but "a problem" as in "holy mother of God, I've been flipped like a pancake at 700 miles per hour." Only there'd be a lot more screaming and loss of bladder control involved. It would take some high-power computational wizardry to figure out how you build a car that can go that fast without killing its driver.

Richard Noble started the climb up that steep hill in 1983 with the Thrust 2. This car, built around a Rolls-Royce Avon jet engine, hit 633 miles per hour. Nowhere near Mach 1, but it did claim the record. Noble would spend another fourteen years designing and building its successor, Thrust SSC, powered not by one, but two Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines. Power was only half the problem. Control was the other half. Thrust SSC has a triangular control surface on its aft fin, to help keep the vehicle on the ground during high-speed runs. Appropriately enough, the car was driven by a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, Wing Commander Andy Green. And in October of 1997, Thrust SSC broke the sound barrier.

That's where the land speed record stands. There are a couple of teams at work trying to beat it, but no one's succeeded yet. It's the longest gap between broken records, and it's liable to stay that way for a while.

But don't feel too bad for rail-based vehicles, so unceremoniously left behind in 1898. They got the last laugh. In 2003, at a test range near Holloman AFB, a four-stage rocket sled pushed its payload to the staggering speed of 6,416 miles per hour -- EIGHT AND A HALF times the speed of sound -- as a test of the High-Speed Test Track.

It's ... gonna be a while before anyone drives that fast.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Video Del Fuego, Part LXV

No unifying theme today ... well, except for the second and third items. And maybe the fourth. Anyway, here goes:

Forty-five years ago this coming Sunday, human beings first set foot on another world. Twenty-nine years later, Tom Hanks and Ron Howard teamed up to tell the story in miniseries form. I'm not sure anyone streams From The Earth To The Moon online, at least not legally, but the series is available on DVD, and is well worth watching.

It features a fairly large ensemble cast. Of course, you're bound to see some familiar faces. The actors here also had roles elsewhere. Most of the time, that's not a problem. But once in a while, you come to a jarring realization. Like, for example, the fact that Tarzan was the first man to walk on the Moon. And his Lunar Module Pilot was a crystal meth kingpin. Oh yes, and the fact that their ride home was under the control of an infamous pirate.

In an unrelated matter, a while back I saw a video of an Islamic heavy metal band. What does an Islamic heavy metal band sound like, you ask? Like Cookie Monster chasing a drum kit down a stairwell.

Then again, just about all heavy metal these days sounds like Cookie Monster chasing a drum kit down a stairwell. I suppose that means they're doing it right.

Speaking of which ... A Reddit thread going south isn't all that unusual. What is unusual is that a Reddit rant about the KFC Double Down sandwich by a vegetarian became a death metal song.

And to wrap up -- and, hopefully, leave you with something that won't melt your brain -- here's Weird Al with a grammar rant.

Use complete sentences, boys and girls. If you use 1337speak, the terrorists win.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVIII: Decision '64, Part 1


It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies. On this point the present rebellion brought our government to a severe test, and a presidential election occurring in regular course during the rebellion, added not a little to the strain.

-- President Abraham Lincoln, 1864

One hundred fifty years ago, a Confederate force 10,000 men strong made an assault on the Federal capital. It didn't amount to much. By this point, Washington was the most heavily fortified city on Earth. This detached force under General Jubal Early was a desperation move by General Lee, who'd been well and truly backed into a wall. Lee was in Richmond, which by this point was more or less surrounded by Grant's Federal troops. While Lee had never lost a battle during the Overland Campaign, and while Grant had never won a battle, Grant was nonetheless able to continue forcing Lee to yield ground. And so it came to pass that Grant was encamped in front of Petersburg, his siege works facing off against the Confederate fortifications.

The Battle of Fort Stevens didn't amount to much. The most interesting thing about it was that it was probably the last time that an American President came under direct enemy fire. Lee didn't actually expect Early to capture Washington. What he did expect -- and more or less got -- was that the assault would draw off some of Grant's strength, so that Grant wouldn't be able to crack the Confederate works like a walnut.

Lee had a secondary intent, though. He also wanted to remind the Northern voter that the war wasn't over yet. Yes, Grant was besieging the Confederate capital. Yes, Sherman was slogging his way towards Atlanta. But neither general had managed to close the deal yet.

Something was about to happen that had never happened before in the history of the world. A nation riven by civil war was about to hold a general election for its head of state -- an election where the head of state stood a non-trivial chance of loss.

The Democrats had split in 1860. In 1864, it was the Republicans' turn.

It must be said, though, that the rift wasn't as deep or as rancorous. A wing of the Republican party, the Radical Republicans, weren't happy with Lincoln's management of the war. They nominated John Fremont as their candidate, just as they had during their very first Presidential election in 1856, and they were preparing to run under the banner of the Radical Democracy Party.

The remainder of the Republican Party, along with the loyal elements of the Democratic Party, joined forces that year under the National Union ticket. They nominated Abraham Lincoln for re-election, and chose as his Vice-Presidential running mate Andrew Johnson, a former United States Senator from Tennessee who had stayed staunchly and vocally loyal to the Union. Johnson was the then-current Military Governor of Tennessee.

But the Democratic Party itself hadn't quite disappeared. While the Radical Republicans thought Lincoln too dilatory, the rest of the Democrats wanted peace at virtually any price. Their nominee? The one-time hero of the Union, George McClellan. Again, I think it important to remember McClellan's early contributions. He won one of the Union's most significant early victories. And, he turned the dispirited mob that had run away from Bull Run into a real army again. But his positive contributions to the war basically ended there. Now, he was running on a platform that would essentially let the Southern states go, damning the consequences.

They had a good deal of support, especially since the offensive seemed to have bogged down. Lee's bet that the Northern voter would eventually tire of the effort wasn't an especially bad one. Scott's Anaconda Plan was always going to end in a slow war of attrition, and no one loves a siege. Not the soldiers on the outside, the inside, or anyone footing the bill. They look pointless and wasteful, right up to the time they don't.

Lincoln was beginning to fear he wouldn't have that time.

His fortunes, and quite possibly the fortunes of his nation, now hung on the efforts of two men. General Ulysses Grant outside of Petersburg, and General William Tecumseh Sherman marching towards Atlanta. How well they did their jobs would probably determine whether or not Lincoln would be able to continue doing his.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Any Landing You Can Walk Away From...

As the old saying goes, any landing you can walk away from is a good one. And if they get to use the airplane again? That's a great landing. A couple of things I saw recently brought that to mind.

First, an incident reported by CNN. They didn't say which ship this was, but a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II pilot had a bit of excitement during a training mission. Takeoff was routine enough, but when he raised his landing gear, the nose gear didn't come all the way up. OK, that's bad. Time to go around for a landing. But wait, there's more!

CNN doesn't do embedding, sorry to say. But the rest of the story is that the nose gear wouldn't come all the way back down, either. But that's OK, because they're prepared for just such an emergency. Turns out they've got a standard piece of equipment to catch the nose. The pilot just has to line up on it exactly for it to work. Fortunately, lining up exactly is what Marine Corps aviators do for a living.

But, I have to say, that feat of airmanship pales by comparison to something I saw on my way home. The traffic seemed worse than usual. You almost never know exactly why. As I took the Highway 287 exit south from I-20, I saw some police cars parked on the overpass below. I didn't see what they'd stopped for. I was kind of busy driving. But, after I got home and checked up on some news, I saw what it was and wish I'd actually seen it.

Pictured: A lifetime supply of luck, expended.

Yes, you're seeing that right. Someone landed an airplane. On a curved highway overpass. IN RUSH HOUR. And they're probably going to live long enough to brag about it.

I'm trying to think of something else to say about this, and I'm failing miserably. If you pitched this as a scene in an action flick, they'd laugh you out of the room. No one would believe it. This is either a harebrained stunt gone wrong, or an unbelievably awesome feat of airmanship, bringing a busted bird home. I really hope it's the latter.

Either way, they've got a story to tell their grandkids that'll be hard to top.

Friday, June 13, 2014

"A 21st Century Spacecraft"

A week or so ago, we finally got a look at the long-anticipated manned version of the Dragon spacecraft. Originally, we were expecting something not too dissimilar to the existing Dragon. We've seen it presented like this:

Designs often change, though; what we saw a few weeks ago looked like this:

The unveil event can also be seen on YouTube, if you haven't seen it yet. I'm not going to talk about it much, but here it is in case you're interested.

A few non-obvious points:

First: This gives us something we haven't had in a long time, if ever: a manned spacecraft with a crew abort option throughout the flight envelope. We had that after a fashion with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Mercury and Apollo had a launch escape tower, and Gemini had ejection seats. The Shuttle had its own ... special problems. First of all, while the SRBs burned, you had no options. None. As I say sometimes, if something goes wrong before you punch those things off ... well, the Chaplain briefs that Emergency Procedure on Sunday mornings. And the Return to Launch Site abort wasn't much better. In simulated aborts, I've heard they got the Orbiter back about one time in three. They got the crew back somewhat more often, two times in three. Not. Good. But now, we'll get a fully controlled, accurate landing capability, available throughout ascent. This is much better.

Second: I find the relocation of the solar cells interesting. Look at the proposed Falcon Heavy for a minute:

I ran the numbers a while back, and a Falcon Heavy can put a nearly-full Falcon second stage plus Dragon payload in Earth orbit. The second stage has enough juice left for Translunar Injection, Lunar Orbit Insertion, and Transearth Injection. That said, I wasn't sure how the "wings" on the current Dragon would hold up under thrust. Well, that's a moot point with Dragon V2. Now that the cells are mounted flush against the outer wall, it's all good. Clearly, they're looking ahead to using V2 with the heavy-lift version.

Third: Seven seats. And, they look like pretty nice seats. 

Hand-tooled leather available as an upgrade option.

As I've said before, seven seats is what you really want for ISS crew change-out. Six space station crew plus one pilot. More to the point, we will no longer need to rely on the good graces of the Russian government ... good graces that we're having more and more reason to doubt.

Fourth: A proper, modern "glass cockpit" instrument panel, with the most critical functions having manual back-ups. I didn't see a standby instrument cluster in that middle area, but by the time they ship the first unit I wouldn't be surprised to find one there. Standby instruments are important, people...

In any case, now we know what it'll look like. If all goes well, next year we'll find out how it flies.

Friday, June 06, 2014

D-Day Plus Seventy

Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven for these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has greatly reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God on this great and noble undertaking.

-- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Order of the Day, 6/2/1944

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

-- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, handwritten note of a message to be released if the landings failed

That is the price of liberty. Vive la France!

-- Contre-Admiral Janjard, Free French Navy, giving the order to bombard the French coast

Will someone tell me how we did this?

-- Colonel James Rudder, Ranger commander, at Pointe du Hoc twenty years later

It's a fair question.

Mine is slightly different: Where do we find these men?

Without fail, every generation of Americans has stood forward to the call. And I do mean without fail. I can remember being worried about our country's future, back in the early to mid 1990s. I looked at the younger generation, teenagers then, and they looked feckless and mostly useless. I despaired of them rising to meet any challenge ... then 9/11 came, and they surprised the Hell out of me. As useless as they looked, they grew into fine, strong men and women.

Seventy-odd years ago, it was my father's generation's turn. In early 1939, America had about 300,000 men under arms. We barely had an Army. That changed in December of 1941. The attack happened on the 7th, a Sunday. On Monday the 8th, recruiters had as much business as they could handle. And so the work began, turning civilians into soldiers. Accustoming men to had been used to doing their own thing to routine and discipline. There was exercise and hardship to develop their bodies, and other forms of training to focus their minds. They always knew, even from the start, that they'd have to invade continental Europe. They also knew they'd have to put paid to Imperial Japan, more or less at the same time. They didn't know how just yet, they just knew they'd have to do it.

Amphibious assault wasn't new ... except as a matter of scale. The invasion of Europe was the most complex undertaking in human history to that point, perhaps equalled by the construction of the Great Pyramids, but not surpassed. Before the men could even begin to assault the beaches, stupendous amounts of weapons, vehicles, and supplies had to be amassed in England; and plans drawn up to ship those ashore. The raid on Dieppe early in the war showed that capturing a port intact probably wasn't going to happen, so they had to develop a work-around for that. And, at the same time that they were assembling such amazing amounts of stuff that a blind man could see the invasion coming, they had to deceive the Germans as to where the blow was to fall. They sold a bogus Army to the Germans, aimed at the Pas de Calais, while the real invasion was targeted for Normandy. The kicker was that the fake Army was under the command of General George S. Patton, probably the one American commander the Germans actually respected. Maybe not as an equal, but as a near-equal. That sold it: they bought the deception hook, line, and sinker.

They originally wanted to go in May, but the weather wouldn't cooperate. It looked like the weather wouldn't cooperate for June, either ... but in the late hours of June 5, they got a lucky break. The storms would let up for the morning of the 6th. Eisenhower wasn't totally happy with the odds, but he was even less happy about waiting another month. He didn't much like it, but didn't see any other option but give the order: Go.

Assault transports, destroyers, and battleships stood out to sea. Transport aircraft stuffed to the gills with paratroopers took off, followed by other transports towing gliders. The finely-honed plan went cubist almost immediately, with the airborne troops dropping all over the target zone, and landing craft missing their mark by as much as a mile. It didn't matter. From the commanders ashore like Norman Cota and Theodore Roosevelt Jr., to the common private, everyone improvised to the utmost to do the most important thing that day: break the Atlantic Wall. Get inland. Establish a foothold.

It was a near-run thing, especially on Omaha Beach. But all five beaches were secure by the end of the day, thanks to the skill and courage demonstrated by the British at Gold and Sword, the Canadians at Juno, and the Americans at Omaha and Utah. It would be a while before enough strength amassed ashore to break out, but with the Atlantic Wall ruptured, the Germans would be unable to do a single thing about it.

But none of that answers my question: Where do we find these men?

I think the answer is ... we find them everywhere. Because in a real sense we don't find them. They find themselves. Free men, given the liberty to choose, see their home in danger, and refuse to let anyone else do their job.

This, of course, leaves us with a very important question, one that I'm not sure we've ever answered adequately.

Are we keeping faith with the sacrifices they've made on our behalf?

I look at the VA ... and I am ashamed.

Surely, we can do better. Surely, we must do better.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVII: The Scrum


"I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." -- LTG Ulysses S. Grant, May 1864

The first element of the Union's new "attack everywhere" plan began in May of 1864, when Grant, Meade, and the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan river into Virginia on the 4th of that month. Grant's hope was to force Lee into battle by threatening Richmond, and defeat his army in an open battle. What he didn't expect was that Lee would respond aggressively. And as I write that, I realize how little sense it makes -- anyone who knew anything about Lee ought to have known he'd respond to an invasion of Virginia aggressively.

Historians call this the Overland Campaign. I call it The Scrum, because while you can divide it into a number of set-piece battles, what it really entailed was a non-stop engagement that rolled southeast through Virginia across the Rapidan, across the Anna, down the Pamunkey and then across the James over a period of about six weeks.

The first direct clash between Grant and Lee began while Grant was trying a quick move through the underbrush of the Wilderness. Lee sent two of his Corps, under Ewell and A.P. Hill, on a parallel course to intercept.

This ... wasn't the ideal setting for Grant. The dense underbrush that hindered movement also rendered his numerical advantage mostly irrelevant. But the underbrush was an equal-opportunity hindrance. It made Confederate movement difficult, too.

The underbrush had another unexpected effect, and a horrifying one: it sometimes caught fire when a soldier fired his weapon from a kneeling position. An unwounded man could run free. A wounded man could not. Eyewitness reports note that, once this became known, many wounded men would keep their piece loaded. Not against the enemy, but because there's one way a man can be sure he wouldn't burn to death.

The fighting around Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road on May 5 was confused and confusing, lasting until nightfall, but Grant and Meade were able to keep their Corps under control and hold a steady line. They were planning a counterattack the next morning, when fresh troops would show up, but fresh Confederate troops showed up, too. So the fighting on May 6 wasn't much different. There wasn't a whole lot of movement going on, and the Confederates were beginning to throw up earthworks to defend themselves from Union fire.

Grant didn't like the looks of this. He had as much of direct assaults on prepared positions as he ever intended to at Vicksburg. So, he elected to disengage.

And so the story might have ended here, had any man but Grant been in charge. The previous two summers, a largely unharmed Union army had disengaged from Lee and gone home. But not Grant. He was going to disengage, try to move around Lee's right flank, and try again.

This was a novel experience for the Army of the Potomac. When the artillery withdrew to the rear, they expected to march back north. When they realized that the Sun was on their left and not their right, it hit them. They were still on the attack. They'd been fighting hard for three days, but that didn't matter. Their minds were reinvigorated. This is what they'd longed for. A commander who'd follow up a hard-fought battle with an advance. Surviving veterans would look back on this moment as a major turning point.

There would be more fighting. Lee was nobody's fool. He knew what Grant was doing. He disengaged as well, and marched to the southeast as fast as he could, to interpose. Fighting would resume at Spottsylvania Court House on the 8th, and would last through the 21st via a series of attempted flanking movements on Grant's part. The armies would fight more or less constantly, through several major battles, for the better part of both May and June. Yellow Tavern, where J.E.B. Stuart would fall. Wilson's Wharf. Haw's Shop. Cold Harbor. Trevilian Station, and Saint Mary's Church.

Strictly speaking, Lee didn't lose any of these battles. And Grant didn't win any of them. But even so, it had to give President Davis pause. Because while the Confederate papers trumpeted Lee's glorious victories ...

... those glorious victories were getting, day by day, closer to Richmond.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVI: Change of Command


"He who defends everything, defends nothing." -- Frederick the Great

President Abraham Lincoln had a command problem. The popular perception of the Union military leadership has it that Lincoln had a "revolving door" of generals cycling in and out of top command. That's not exactly correct, but it's close enough to the truth for any ordinary purpose.

It's more true for the Army of the Potomac than for Commanding General. Lincoln went through no fewer than four commanders for the Army of the Potomac before finding the one who finished out the war in that post, where he only went through three Commanding Generals. The first commander of the Army of the Potomac was Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. He was sacked not long after Bull Run, which some might think unfair. The goat-rope at Bull Run wasn't really his fault ... but he took the fall for it anyway. His replacement was Major General George McClellan, who was serving double duty as Commanding General. Maybe two hats were a hat too far, so to speak; he was replaced by Major General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was replaced by Major General Joseph Hooker. Both men were sacked after disastrous battles. Then, Major General George Meade took over as the Battle of Gettysburg was underway.

The Commanding General of the United States Army at the outset of the war was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. He was not well enough to serve as a wartime commander, which was unfortunate. He, more than anyone, knew what had to be done; he just wasn't in any shape to do it. And his first choice for his replacement, Colonel Robert E. Lee, went with Virginia when that state seceded. So, on November 1, 1861, Major General George McClellan took overall command. McClellan's tenure was ... well, mixed. He did turn the Army of the Potomac around after the disaster at Bull Run, and he did fortify Washington itself against assault. But he was not a very good overall commander. Lincoln tired of him quickly. He recalled Major General Henry Halleck from the West to take over. Halleck, as it happened, wasn't a bad administrator. He wasn't replaced as Commanding General for either infirmity or incompetence. It's just that a better man had come along.

That man, newly promoted to Lieutenant General, was Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant was fresh from victories both at Vicksburg the previous summer, and Chattanooga the previous winter. He had earned a reputation as a dogged fighter, and Lincoln hoped he'd bring that pugnaciousness to his new post. Surprisingly, he retained both Halleck and Meade. Neither man was incompetent, both could indeed be quite able when given suitable direction. But he did have an idea of where he wanted to go from here.

What had saved the Confederacy time and again was the fact that they were able to redeploy troops internally. They were able to shift Longstreet's corps from Virginia to Tennessee, giving Bragg a very temporary favorable balance of forces. Really, there was only one way to keep that from happening.

If Davis were forced to defend the Confederacy, the entire Confederacy, he'd be too hard pressed to reinforce anyone, from anywhere. What General Grant intended, and President Lincoln concurred, was an all-fronts press. Attack everywhere. And by everywhere, he meant everywhere.

Not one, but two Union armies would attack Virginia. General Lee would be forced to engage one of those armies, and that's where Grant would make his headquarters. Just as it was the year before, Richmond wasn't the actual goal; but threatening Richmond would force the Confederates to engage. At the same time, another Union army would attack the Shenandoah Valley, to tie up the Confederate forces there. And finally, General William Tecumseh Sherman, now in command in the West, was to attack southeast from Chattanooga, and capture Atlanta.

The Confederate plan ... was to last long enough that the Northern public would become sick of the fighting. Davis had his hands full keeping an Army in the field at all, and had no resources to spare for offensive operations. His hopes for foreign intervention were now completely dashed. The only European country that still wanted to give the Confederacy official recognition was France, under Emperor Napoleon III, but without British co-operation he wasn't about to go it alone. And Queen Victoria wasn't about to give a slave power the time of day, much less official recognition.

But Davis' hope to tire the Northern public out wasn't a vain one. Three years of hard fighting had produced casualties in heretofore unimaginable numbers. Draft riots weren't all that uncommon. The war was expensive, taxes were high, and the national debt was rising to alarming levels. If they could just hold on until Election Day in November, it might well transpire that Mr. Lincoln would be hanging his shingle out once more in Springfield come the next March. Davis might actually have a prospect for a negotiated peace with a Democratic President.

But for that to happen ... his soldiers would have to hold the line for seven more months. They could do it. Maybe, they could do it. It'd be a near run thing ...

... but they'd have to keep the Yankees out. That was going to be a neat trick.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Many preachers have a go-to phrase that expresses their take on the ministry. You might even say it's their mission statement. For Saint Francis of Assisi, it was "Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary using words." A former pastor of mine liked the phrase, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The church I currently attend used the motto "Love Matters" when I first joined. They let you know what kind of person, what kind of congregation, they aspire to be.

Then, you have Fred Phelps. His motto ... well, it wasn't so much a motto as it was an answer to an interviewer's question. When asked about his approach, when asked what he felt about being so widely hated, he said, "Good. If I were not hated, what claim could I have on the ministry of the Gospel?"

That, I think, is the key thing you had to understand about Fred Phelps, and the key thing you had to understand about how to deal with him and his followers. He loved being hated. It was his measure of success. Back when supporting civil rights got you death threats, he was all about civil rights. If you ask how someone who was so right back in the '50s could be so wrong now, you ask the wrong question; the man simply enjoyed the opprobrium of his fellow citizen. Now, why he enjoyed it so is a fair question, but one that has now been rendered somewhat moot.

I never wasted a whole lot of time thinking about him, or his bloated distortion of Christianity. And I never wasted much time on hating him or his followers. Hate is the wrong response anyway, since that's what they crave. No, I'll tell you the proper way to treat them -- as they deserve.

You don't hate clowns. You point, and laugh at them.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXV: Of Fish And Men


One of Mankind's defining characteristics, I think, has been a state of constant rebellion. Call it rebellion against God if you like, or rebellion against Nature, but Man has never been one to accept the limitations placed upon him by evolution. In time immemorial, he rebelled against not being able to swim as well or as far as whales, so he built boats. He rebelled against not being able to fly like birds, so in time he built the hot-air balloon. And he rebelled against not being able to dive to the depths of the sea -- again, like whales -- and so he tried to build submersible craft ... with somewhat uneven results.

Moving across open water was one thing. Floating in the air yet another. But in both of these media, Man could count upon breathing the air around him. When he sought to go under the waves, though, he had to contend with the sad and sorry fact that no, he cannot breathe water. His Savior could walk upon it, but the record is silent on the breathing thing.

The first attempt to build a submersible water craft that we have reliable information about was in the 17th Century, when a Dutchman under contract to King James I of England had a go at it. Going up and down wasn't much of a problem, but lateral movement proved to be a real problem, one that the technology of the 17th Century was not up to solving. So, the matter was shelved for a while. In the late 18th Century, necessity drove an American, David Bushnell, to try to build a military submersible, called the Turtle. It ... didn't work very well. But it worked well enough for its time, and was the first submersible able to move under its own power while underwater. It failed utterly as a practical weapon, though.

Necessity is a harsh taskmaster, though, and the problem of breaking a blockade from within is one that would come up again and again in naval warfare. Which brings us to the story of one H. L. Hunley, who was practicing law in New Orleans when the balloon went up at Fort Sumter.

You may say that a New Orleans lawyer was no expert in submarines. Well, that's okay. No one else was, either. Hunley saw the need, and aimed to meet it.

His first attempt might have succeeded, and might not have. We'll never know: it had to be scuttled when Union forces took New Orleans in 1862. The second attempt ended with a prototype sinking in Mobile Bay. But as they often say, the third time's the charm, and Hunley financed that third attempt on his own. The result was a vessel that would bear its inventor's name: the H. L. Hunley.

Hunley would kill its first two crews. Building a submarine is one thing, operating it was a whole other ball game, and much like there were no veteran submarine engineers in 1863, there were also no veteran submarine sailors then, either. And nautical knowledge must be paid for in blood. All sailors know this. Mr. Hunley himself would be one of those casualties, in the second sinking of the Hunley.

The third crew was either luckier or more skilled, it's hard to say which. But they managed to practice the tricky maneuver of sticking a barbed explosive torpedo into an enemy ship, then backing up to fire the device, often enough that their commanders felt confident enough to risk a real target. And so it was, on February 17 of 1864, Lieutenant George Dixon took her out to engage the Union steam sloop USS Housatonic.

The record becomes somewhat confused at this point, for reasons we'll see shortly.

What is indisputably true is that an enormous explosion tore a hole in Housatonic's hull, sending it to the bottom of Charleston harbor in just five minutes. From this, we must conclude that Hunley's mission was a success.

Except ... that no one ever heard from Hunley, or Lieutenant Dixon, ever again.

A number of legends would attach themselves to the Hunley and her crew over the years. One of them was that Dixon, a Confederate Army officer at Shiloh, carried a gold dollar given him by his sweetheart. The dollar was struck by a bullet during the fight, probably saving Dixon's leg. He'd carry the coin ever after as a good-luck charm.

Time passes.

In time, nautical technology would become advanced enough that the wreck of the H. L. Hunley could, and would, be found. It would eventually become advanced enough that it could, and would, be raised. Analysis of the wreck would reveal that, most probably, the sub was too close to its target when the torpedo exploded, knocking the crew unconscious -- a fatal wound, for a hand-cranked sub with no on-board air supply. Another find would prove more surprising.

The legendary coin we talked about earlier? It's real.

While Hunley, man and ship, came to bad ends, they earned their place in the history books: for the first time ever, a submarine craft sank a surface craft. Hunley was the first. It would not be the last.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Election 2014: Texas Goober Primaries

Yes, it's that time again, when Texans go to the polls to begin the process to elect another Governor, though no one's entirely sure why. I mean, the Texas Governor is extraordinarily weak to the point that your average night-shift convenience store manager has more actual authority within his sphere of competence. Still, this is something we've become accustomed to doing, so here we are.

Pity it's such a dull year.

A few years back, we had a grand old time, with Kinky Friedman on the ballot, and Carole Keeton Strayhorn running as an independent candidate, apparently for the sheer joy of poking a sharp stick in Rick Perry's eye. Now, that was fine sport.

The Democratic primary features Wendy Davis, and a bunch of people who aren't Wendy Davis. The Republican primary features Greg Abbott, and a bunch of people who aren't Greg Abbott.

Mainly, Davis seems to be running against Ray Madrigal, who has been running for the Democratic nomination so long that he's forgotten why. But since hardly anyone has ever heard of Mr. Madrigal, his chances of success are somewhere on the same order of magnitude as the number of R's in "Fat Chance". So, it's safe to say that Wendy Davis will end up the Democratic nominee for Governor after the March 4 primary.

Abbott is running against a veritable Cast of Thousands for the Republican nomination. Said cast includes a right-wing radio host, a secessionist, and a former Univision host who's evidently forgotten that in Texas "G.O.P." stands for "I Hate Mexicans." So, Greg Abbott will probably wind up as the Republican nominee after the March 4 primary, provided that the secessionist doesn't pull enough support to force a runoff. That's a distinctly non-zero probability, given the amount of free-roaming crazy loose in the Republican primary electorate these days.

As to who will win, it's anyone's guess. Pollster says that Greg Abbott sits at 40%, Wendy Davis at 34%, with "We're having an election?" bringing up the rear at 26%.

Early voting starts on February 18, and runs through the 28th. The Primary Election is on Tuesday, March 4th. Vote early, and vote often!