Undisclosed Location

Big storm. Tree down where I originally parked last evening, but I moved my car into better shade. Power out. Fire alarm (luckily false, because the fire department too a long time to show). Hot. Eventually, too hot.

Fled the state in search of an internet connection and juice, yes, the precious juice. Hoping things have been restored by this evening. Enjoy your leap second tonight.

Because People Could Die

Back when I was teaching in the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, I saw that there was an foundational attitude towards operational systems: these are the rules — obey them. It is not up to you to decide that it’s OK to not follow them. And the unspoken undercurrent to that is because if you don’t, people could die. This applied to the reactor systems, because they were designed to work a certain way and had safeguards that assumed you were operating it according to procedure. The attitude was also present, as far as I could tell, to general shipboard operations. Most of my students were going to serve aboard submarines, and the potential for disaster is magnified by orders of magnitude when you are in a closed container some depth below the surface, and a loss of propulsion or breathable air could spell your doom. (Not that duty aboard a surface ship means tolerance for corner-cutting, either). That’s why they continually drill — practice your responses to emergency situations and do it right, because if you don’t, people could die. Commanding officers are used to orders being carried out, rather than getting “that’s not in my job description.” And you know what? The navy has a pretty good track record for a task that’s just a little dangerous. (As a side note, I can only imagine the frustration of the navy folk atop my org chart, dealing with a staff that is >90% civilian and who generally lack this ingrained response to following orders and rules without question*, and among whom are several people who do decide that a rule is silly and therefore will not be followed)

This attitude goes beyond the military. It’s why we have safety rules and building codes, and people who work within professions that have them, you will generally find a serious attitude toward such protocols. The people with experience do not relish putting their health or life at risk at the behest of someone looking for a shortcut. And usually a shortcut is a temptation for those who wish to save time and/or money, and for whom it means putting someone else at risk.

I was reminded of this when I read Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes. (The link title is a play on a tweet by Dave Ewing, who proclaimed that it was a headline you would not see.) And though some of the numbers are out of date (it was posted on the 12th, and the death toll is significantly larger), the idea is still valid. The Japanese have recognized the continual danger of earthquake and tsunami and instituted building codes to minimize the destruction, despite the fact that it costs more to do that. While such efforts did not (and probably cannot) result in no damage or loss of life, the devastation was far less than has occurred with weaker earthquakes elsewhere.

The difference is that Japan has made a commitment to earthquake-safe buildings, and had the money to carry out that commitment. Haiti lacked the money to implement strict construction standards and a government capable of compelling compliance. Builders and government regulators in the United States have the power and the resources to ensure Japanese standards of construction apply here, but my sense from living in California for 3 years is that we may lack the commitment needed to do this.

I think Josh is right about the US lacking the commitment — it’s just not how we do things here. We moan and wail about how damnably expensive regulation is, and how we should be free from government intrusion (curiously, I have yet to see any small-government proponents claim that the nuclear power industry is over-regulated). The question of how much money a regulation will cost is always asked, but the question of how many lives will be lost or saved does not seem to get the same attention. We bemoan the loss of life and note the monetary costs when a bridge or dam fails, but the money to inspect, repair and modify them isn’t always spent. There is a push to let businesses regulate themselves, to let “the market” take care if such things, except that “the market” doesn’t punish transgressors until after the fact, if at all. Action is taken, or not taken, for money, not because people could die. Prevention is usually invisible, which was the point behind the tweet, and too often we reward politicians for bold responses, not bold prevention.

* “without question” is not the same as “without grumbling.” Generally speaking (or Admirally speaking, since this is the navy) you grumble but do the task, and sailors are excellent grumblers.

The Non-Physics of Rockets

Space Stasis: What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation.

The development of rockets — driven by war and the invention of nuclear weapons, and the relationship the story has with recent economics and innovation.

The above circumstances provide a remarkable example of path dependency. Had these contingencies not obtained, rockets with orbital capability would not have been developed so soon, and when modern societies became interested in launching things into space they might have looked for completely different ways of doing so.

Before dismissing the above story as an aberration, consider that the modern petroleum industry is a direct outgrowth of the practice of going out in wooden, wind-driven ships to hunt sperm whales with hand-hurled spears and then boiling their heads to make lamp fuel.


Since the Last Progress Report, I Have Worked on This Progress Report

This always takes much longer than it ought to, in large part because it’s hard to remember exactly when certain significant things happened, which leads to a lot of searching of my email trying to determine when various things saw print, and which of the available categories it fits in. I probably really ought to keep a running tally of my activities as the year goes along, but they tweak the form every year or two, so my attempts have always been thwarted– I end up spending a bunch of time working out how to convert from one version of the form to another.

I have to do monthly reports, and then I can choose my greatest hits from them for the annual report. At one point long ago the reports were weekly, but that got to heavily into minutia, which wasn’t particularly useful. There’s only so much you can report about aligning optics and tweaking lasers, and sometime no real progress is made at all, especially if you’ve stepped in some management and can’t spend time in the lab. All too often the reports go along the lines of

Week N: Discovered some anomaly.

Week N+1 Investigated anomaly; finally identified and solved the problem

Week N+2 Oops, no I didn’t.

When you finally do fix the issue, what you’ve reported is all of the path-dependent work you did, instead of the actual progress you made.