Baltimore bridge destruction reading: a biography of Rudolf Diesel

As we wait for someone to explain how the Dali lost power from its 55,000 hp (or 0!) German diesel engine, The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I (2023) may be worth a read. In addition to a biography of the man who created the efficient reliable (except sometimes) high-torque engines, the book has some interesting stuff about

  • the rapid industrialization of Russia circa 1900 (I’ve read in other places that it was the world’s fastest growing economy prior to the revolution)
  • the development of Standard Oil
  • the utopian dreams of rich industrialists, including Diesel, circa 1900 (see also Andrew Carnegie!)

Who else would like this book? Greta Thunberg! Diesel predicted that we would completely trash the earth from burning fossil fuel (not an unreasonable prediction at the time given that cities were already horribly polluted from coal smoke), that we would run out of fossil fuel, and that solar energy would ultimately be our primary source of power. Diesel also loved the U.S., predicted that it would become and remain the world’s dominant industrial power, and was very impressed by our passenger train system(!). He thought that the U.S. was guaranteed to stay ahead of the Europeans in passenger rail because we weren’t constrained by old cities (i.e., California high-speed rail should be easy, quick, and cheap to construct!).

MAN was a leader in diesel technology 100+ years ago and remains a leader today, an interesting story in corporate continuity right through to making the Dali‘s engine.

Let’s have a look at the engine family… (for scale, check the staircases and handrails; source)

Mark Zuckerberg also chose German-made (MTU) diesel engines for his climate-saving yacht:

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Gerald Ford’s foreign policy challenges and the Houthi situation

An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford covers a few mostly forgotten foreign policy challenges that Gerald Ford faced.

The Fall of Saigon in April 1975 was depressing, but people didn’t blame Ford for it.

One that lifted his reputation was a debacle by body count standard: the Mayaguez incident (May 1975). The Khmer Rouge seized a merchant vessel and its crew. The U.S. military rescue operation resulted in as many deaths among our soldiers as the number of crew members rescued. The American public was nonetheless happy to accept this as a victory and it boosted Ford’s approval rating substantially.

The U.S. gave the green light to Indonesian President Suharto to invade East Timor in December 1975, a former Portuguese colony, so long as the Muslim takeover of the Christian territory was done quickly. At least 100,000 Christians were killed, mostly via starvation, out of a total population of about 600,000. After decades of occupation and war, East Timor became a country in 2002. It’s fair to say, therefore, that Gerald Ford had a far larger impact on the Catholics of East Timor than he did on Americans.

Palestinians killed our ambassador to Lebanon, Francis E. Meloy Jr., in June 1976, and left his bullet-riddled body at a garbage dump. Having gone nuts with aggression in response to the kidnapping of the Mayaguez crew, none of whom were harmed, we didn’t retaliate.

The Mayaguez response included “Ford ordered the Air Force to sink any Cambodian boats moving between Koh Tang and the mainland” (Wikipedia). It’s unclear why we aren’t doing that with the Houthis. They’ve attacked U.S. warships as well as merchant ships. Why do we allow them any use of the ocean? We recently lost two Navy SEALs who were trying to board a ship:

This wouldn’t have happened under Ford’s orders because the ship would have been sunk by a plane or shell without being boarded.

Ford put a lot of effort into negotiating with the Soviet Union, but ended up with nothing to show for it. Ford and Henry Kissinger (later a Theranos board member… for three years!) spent a lot of time trying to take away from Israel territory won in the Yom Kippur War (a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria that, like October 7 for the Gazans, began well). Ultimately, Jimmy Carter could take credit for the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt (1979) and the SALT II agreement with the Soviets (1979; repudiated by the U.S. Senate after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).

The book is a good reminder that we’re not the boss of the rest of the world and nobody listens to us unless we present a credible threat of carpet bombing with B-52s.

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An Ordinary Democrat: Gerald Ford biography

I’m listening to what is supposedly one of the best books of 2023: An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford. It’s a good reminder of a lot of history 1940-1980.

The book devotes a fair amount of space to Ford’s career-ending decision to pardon Richard Nixon. The mental space that Americans devote to the prosecutions of Donald Trump certainly prove that Ford was correct in his belief that the U.S. wouldn’t be able to move on to tackle other challenges if Nixon weren’t pardoned. (Various state and local prosecutors could, nonetheless, have continued to harass Nixon for violating state/local laws but they chose not to.)

The book reminds us that the U.S. used to be a Christian society and that Americans, including Ford, were sincere believers in Christianity. Prayer is often a preclude to making a decision, for example, and Christian values are cited as a reason for making a decision. One of Ford’s reason for pardoning Nixon was that it was required by Christian principles of forgiveness.

Ford’s political beliefs seem to line up pretty well with today’s Democrats. He was pro-immigration for anyone with a tale of woe to share. He wanted 18-year-olds to vote (the 26th Amendment was passed in 1971 and signed by Nixon; Florida never voted to approve it!) and he supported most forms of welfare state expansion. In other words, Ford wanted to ensure a voter base of Americans who had never worked and would never work. Where he was out of step with today’s politicians is opposition to deficit spending. Ford considered a $30 billion budget deficit horrifying and a $100 billion deficit unimaginable (for comparison, the deficit for FY2023 was about $1.7 trillion and is on track to be higher in FY2024). He believed that deficit spending would fuel inflation, which was his bête noire. Speaking of inflation, though, many of his ideas were similar to today’s politicians, e.g., when prices go up the government should shovel out cash to people whose purchasing power has been reduced (i.e., if there is too much cash in the economy, thus generating inflation, you solve the problem by injecting more cash). Ford was passionate about deregulation to increase the U.S. economy’s production/supply capability, but that doesn’t make him misaligned with today’s Democrats, few of whom support the kind of intensive regulation of transportation, for example, that we had in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Fall of Saigon is covered extensively, good background for those interested in what seems to be a continued pattern of U.S. military failure. The heroism of the helicopter pilots is referred to. They flew in terrible weather and were exposed to small arms and RPG fire from the ground in order to rescue Americans and Vietnamese from rooftops and the U.S. embassy. Let’s never complain about having to fly a Robinson R44 again!

The book reminds us how much less competitive the U.S. was. There weren’t any obstacles to getting into the University of Michigan, for example, which is today far too elite to be a realistic possibility for most white or Asian Americans. Similarly, with no elite connections or claim to victimhood, Ford found the gates of Yale Law School open to him in 1938.

The book didn’t turn me into a huge Jerry Ford fan. He was a full participant in the delusional government spending and expansion programs that resulted in the hyperinflation of the Jimmy Carter years. But the decisions to pardon Nixon and Vietnam-era draft dodgers seem to have been good ones (Wikipedia has some background on these).

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Schools that are closed are “open fully” (flashback to 2020)

My favorite NYT headline of August 5, 2020 characterizes schools that are 100-percent closed as “open fully”:

Supporting those in New York, Maskachusetts, Chicago, and California who now say that lockdowns and school closures never happened, this headline cannot be found either with a Google search or a search on itself.

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The Inevitable Demise of the Web

Remember to listen to the credentialed experts, such as Hal Berghel, Ph.D. computer nerd. A 1995 academic paper… “The inevitable demise of the Web”:

There is no doubt that the fastest growing part of the Internet is the World Wide Web. From its inception in 1990, the Web has established itself as the leading packet hauler on the Internet, passing beyond FTP, Telnet, WAIS Gopher and all of the other, more established Internet client protocols. The reason for this success is that the Web has established itself as the standard unifying environment for the Internet’s digital riches.However, the days of the Web are numbered. The technology behind the Web is outdated already and may not survive the decade. The current growth rate, which some estimate at 15% per month, suggests that if the end of the Web is to come soon, it will likely be cataclysmal. If this seems unrealistic, consider that this fate befell Gopherspace. As Figure 1 shows, Gopher lead the Web in packet volume as late as March, 1994. In the following twelve months Gopher presence on the Internet all but disappeared. Life cycles are accelerated to frightening paces on the Internet.

Dr. Berghel predicts that, with a little more innovation (from funded academic research?), the muscular connection-oriented Hyper-G protocol will crush HTTP and Java will replace HTML.

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Remembering William Lewis Herndon, captain of the gold-laden SS Central America

On this Memorial Day I’d like to celebrate the memory of William Lewis Herndon, author of Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon and captain of the SS Central America, a commercial ship with a U.S. Navy captain that sank off the Carolinas during a hurricane in 1857, resulting in a loss of 425 lives, mostly people returning from the California Gold Rush. Herndon could have escaped with his life, but chose to go down with the ship after ensuring that all women and children had been evacuated (including Lucy Dawson, the only black woman on board; we are informed today that Americans in 1857 were irredeemably racist, yet white men gave up their lives so that Ms. Dawson could keep hers).

Herndon is described in Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World’s Richest Shipwreck (Gary Kinder, 1998):

Married and the father of one daughter, Herndon was slight, and at forty-three balding; a red beard ran the fringe of his jaw from temple to temple. Though he looked like a professor or a banker more than a sea captain, he had been twenty-nine years at sea, in the Mexican War and the Second Seminole War, in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean Sea. He knew sailing ships and steamers and had handled both in all weather. He was also an explorer, internationally known and greatly admired, who had seen things no other American and few white men had ever seen.

Herndon ordered Ashby and his first officer not to let a single man into the boats until all of the women and children were off. “While they were getting into the boats,” observed one man from the bailing lines, “there was the utmost coolness and self-control among the passengers; not a man attempted to get into the boats. Captain Herndon gave orders that none but the ladies and children should get into the boats, and he was obeyed to the letter.”

The ship took 30,000 lbs. of gold 8,000′ underwater, which is what led to the main story of the above book. This cargo was worth $8 million at the time and roughly 1 billion Bidies today (inflation of 125X or 12,500 percent).

If you can tolerate an old-style book in which race, gender ID, and sexual orientation are seldom mentioned, the story of engineering challenges being addressed one after another is fascinating. The hero of the book is Tommy Thompson, a self-motivated engineer who attends Ohio State, works for Key West treasure hunter Mel Fisher, and comes back to work for Batelle. While at Batelle, he comes up with the idea of salvaging wrecks in the deep ocean.

“A galleon drafted about fifteen feet,” Tommy told Bob, “so they generally hit reefs in about fifteen feet of water. It is not like men to leave gold lying in fifteen feet of water.” Most of the artifacts Fisher had found were at twelve feet, and the only reason Spanish salvage divers had not completely stripped the Atocha in 1622 is because a second, far bigger storm had hit the wreck site three weeks later.

During the three centuries following Columbus’s voyages to the New World, much of the gold and silver on earth had been transferred from the New World to the Old World, and 25 percent of it had been lost. But don’t search for it among the thousands of shallow-water shipwrecks in the Caribbean, said Tommy; the odds were too slim. Search for treasure where storms couldn’t buffet the remains, where ships were not piled on top of each other, where the bottom was hard and the currents slow, and where no government could stake a claim. Tommy told Bob he wanted to recover historic shipwrecks in the deep ocean.

A key enabler of the quest for the Central America‘s gold is Martin Klein, the inventor of practical side scan sonar, but this MIT graduate is not credited by the author. Once found, however, there is a question of how to conduct mining operations on the ocean floor with mid-1980s technology.

If you got your submersible safely into the water, your ship at the surface was rising and falling while your submersible was descending; each fall caused the cable to go slack, and each rise snapped the cable taut, like pulling a car with a chain. That load suddenly became ten times heavier than the submersible itself, and the cable often broke and you lost your submersible. That armored cable was filled with electromechanical wires that carried signals down to the sub and back again. If the snap loading didn’t break it, every time that cable passed over a pulley, the wires bent and straightened with the weight of the vehicle, and often ten times the weight of the vehicle, and the wires fatigued and parted. A replacement cable took three months to manufacture, and carrying a spare cable on board meant needing more space on a bigger ship, tended by a larger crew, for much more money. Attempting to land on the seafloor was risky and difficult for two reasons: First, the rocking of the ship would jerk the vehicle—one minute you’d be looking at the bottom, the next minute you’d see nothing, the next minute the camera would be in the mud. Second, hanging something heavy on the end of a cable twisted the cable; if you set that heavy weight on the seafloor and slackened the cable at the same time, the twisted cable tied itself in knots, like the cord on a telephone. When an armored cable with several thousand pounds on the end kinked up, and the bouncing of the ship topside jerked on those kinks, the cable again often broke, which meant you left your vehicle on the bottom and headed back to the beach for the rest of the season.

Everyone who had previously worked in this area was funded by militaries, which had essentially unlimited budgets to look for sunken submarines and similar valuable items. Tommy Thompson needed to do the job for $millions when others had failed with $1 billion budgets. There’s also an interesting legal challenge:

The Central America lay at the far reaches of the Economic Zone, almost two hundred miles offshore. No one had ever tried to recover an historic shipwreck so deep it lay beyond the three-mile boundary. Tommy could bring a piece of the Central America into the courtroom, but no one knew what would happen next.

One of the more unusual challenges was how to bring up gold coins without scratching them, which would reduce their value to collectors. The team of salvors came up with the idea of a silicone injection process that would embed gold objects in a block of the soft substance before it was all brought to the surface.

If you love engineering, I recommend Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. Even if you don’t love engineering, I hope that you’ll join me in remember Captain Herndon and his decades of service in what was a hazardous job back then (wooden ships combined with no GPS and no weather forecasts).

(Since 1998, Mr. Thompson’s career has developed some warts. I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but let’s just say that, as in family court, a big pot of gold can lead to accusations of unfairness.)


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How about decimation for the Memphis police department and city government?

The Killing of Tyre Nichols seems to be fading from the news. The New York Times thinks that pizza is more important:

There has been no coherent explanation thus far of why the police killed this particular guy, as opposed to all of the other people with whom they interact daily, but presumably no explanation could justify their actions.

We are informed that the problem is the culture/institution, not the individuals. See “The Myth Propelling America’s Violent Police Culture” (Atlantic, Jan 31, 2023):

This past weekend, as I watched the videos of Tyre Nichols being beaten to death, I asked myself, Why does this keep happening? But I know the answer: It’s police culture—rooted in a tribal mentality, built on a false myth of a war between good and evil, fed by political indifference to the real drivers of violence in our communities. We continue to use police to maintain order as a substitute for equality and adequate social services. It will take a generation of courageous leaders to change this culture, to reject this myth, and to truly promote a mission of service—a mission that won’t drive officers to lose their humanity.

The organization is at fault, in other words, and the problems extend to the city government as a whole because crime wouldn’t happen if there were “equality and adequate social services”. The author’s point that police officers’ behavior are primarily driven by peer expectations rings true and, therefore, merely imprisoning or executing a few rogue officers won’t stop the next murder by police.

What would happen in Roman times if there were serious problems with a military unit (and the police in the U.S. definitely qualify as “military”)? Decimation:

Decimation (Latin: decimatio; decem = “ten”) was a form of Roman military discipline in which every tenth man in a group was executed by members of his cohort. The discipline was used by senior commanders in the Roman army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offences, such as cowardice, mutiny, desertion, and insubordination, and for pacification of rebellious legions.

The word decimation is derived from Latin meaning “removal of a tenth”. The procedure was an attempt to balance the need to punish serious offences with the realities of managing a large group of offenders.

A cohort (roughly 480 soldiers) selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten. Each group drew lots (sortition), and the soldier on whom the lot of the shortest straw fell was executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning, clubbing, or stabbing. The remaining soldiers were often given rations of barley instead of wheat (the latter being the standard soldier’s diet) for a few days, and required to bivouac outside the fortified security of the camp for some time.

As the punishment fell by lot, all soldiers in a group sentenced to decimation were potentially liable for execution, regardless of individual degrees of fault, rank, or distinction.

An authentic Roman-style decimation would presumably offend modern sensibilities, but maybe the proven management technique could be adapted for our kinder, gentler world (albeit not kinder or gentler for Tyre Nichols). In addition to individual punishments for the perpetrators (they’re charged with second-degree murder so they cannot be executed), why not cut the salary of every employee in the Memphis police department by 10 percent and take away a year of pension entitlement? The chief of police (“Memphis Police Department’s first Black female chief”) and mayor (“A Democrat, he previously served as a member of the Memphis City Council”) would be fired. These kinds of punishments would give institutions the incentive to reform themselves. Absent collective punishment, which of course will seem unfair to many, why should institutions bother to change?


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King George III and the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community

Happy Pride Month! Let’s look back at an early champion of Pride.

The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III (Andrew Roberts):

In September 1772, John Wilkes joined other important City figures in criticizing the King’s commutation of capital punishment for Captain Robert Jones, who had been sentenced to hang for sodomizing a thirteen-year-old boy (although surprisingly the victim’s age did not seem to have played a part in Jones’ conviction). Friends of Jones – a fireworks expert who had also popularized the sport of figure skating – produced female prostitutes who attested to his bisexuality, as though that would alleviate the seriousness of the crime. Jones (who was in fact an artillery lieutenant) was due to hang until, on the day of the execution, George commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, and then a month later allowed him to go into lifelong exile in the South of France.

Nor was it the only time that George defied the vicious prejudices of the day against homosexuality and bisexuality. In June 1766, as a favour to his theatre-loving brother Prince Edward, the King signed a document making the Little Theatre in Haymarket into the Theatre Royal, which stated that it was ‘Our will and pleasure’ that Samuel Foote, the flamboyant impresario, should have ‘a company of comedians’ act there every summer, and authorized him to charge the sums necessary to offset ‘the great expense of scenes, music and new decorations’.

A footnote showing how much we’ve been enriched by the work of Gender Studies faculty:

These labels of sexual identity were not recognized in the eighteenth century, when people thought and spoke in terms of actual sexual practices, such as sodomy, onanism and so on.

Imagine if elementary school kids, instead of being taught 2SLGBTQQIA+ vocabulary, received an education regarding “actual sexual practices”!


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Memorial Day reading: The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors

For Memorial Day, let me recommend The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, a book about the Battle off Samar, in which puny destroyer-escorts and destroyers charged heavy Japanese cruisers and battleships in an attempt to prevent destruction by surface fire of American escort carriers (cargo ships with a flight deck, essentially).

The situation was the opposite of the typical American military engagement, in which we enjoy an overwhelming advantage in numbers and equipment. Most of the American fleet had steamed far away, distracted by a Japanese decoy force.

The book is also timely because the events are the opposite of what happened in Uvalde, Texas. There, the heavily armed, full armored, and numerous police were so intimidated by a single teenager that they took no action. Off Samar, however, captains of absurdly small vessels steamed forward into what they expected to be near-certain death in order to protect the escort carriers and their crews.

Here’s the Samuel B. Roberts, at 1350 tons:

She was sunk by the Kongō, 36,600 tons.

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Pandemic increases the wealth, power, and prestige of doctors and public health officials even when their remedies are ineffective

I recently finished After the Plague, a lecture series by Simon Doubleday, a professor at Hofstra. The pandemic of the lectures is the Black Death of the 14th century. As with the physicians of spring 2020 who harmed COVID-19 patients by putting them on ventilators (today we realize that most would have done better if they’d stayed home with an oxygen bottle), doctors in 1349 often made plague patients worse and certainly had no effective treatment to offer. As with the fanatical sanitizers of today, public health officials back then tried to stop the pandemic by cleaning up the filthy streets. Ultimately, just as with SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen killed nearly everyone that could be killed despite the best efforts of the doctors and officials.

Professor Doubleday relates that the lack of effective remedies did not reduce public confidence in the experts. In fact, physicians made more money, officials got more power, and both classes of health experts got more prestige even as 50 percent of the population was being felled by Yersinia pestis.

In common with other scholars, Professor Doubleday relates that the reduction in population resulted in a tremendous increase in wages for the survivors (see Immigration is the Reverse Black Death?) due to the reduced supply of labor.

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