Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Supposedly Strange Funeral of Henry VIII

Picture Henry VIII.  Fat guy with a beard, right?  I always picture Robert Shaw from the movie, A Man for All Seasons (a movie I highly recommend, even if the depiction of Henry as he is trying to divorce Catherine of Aragon is a little off).

At the time, Henry was clean shaven, slim, athletic, and rather tall.  No one is exactly sure how tall, but when his skeleton was measured in the early 19th century it measured 6’ 2”, while his custom suit of armor used for jousting was made for a man 6’ 4”.  That is just one of the many misconceptions about Henry.  Take that beard for instance:  There is a persistent legend that frequently shows up in history books that Henry, perennially short of money, imposed a tax on beards in 1535–a tax that Queen Elizabeth later tried unsuccessfully to increase.

Great story, but it never happened.  There are quite a few more completely false legends about Henry.  Take the one about his being fat.  (Well, late in life he had a 52” waist and easily topped 300 pounds, but that certainly wasn’t the case for most of his life).  Henry spent so much time playing tennis, hunting, jousting, and engaging in other athletic pastimes that he was forced to turn over almost all affairs of government to his advisors, chiefly Cardinal Wolsey.

In 1536, the king was jousting when he took a hard hit from a lance.  Not only was the monarch unseated, but the horse fell onto his legs, badly injuring them.  For the rest of his life, the king’s physical activities were greatly reduced.  Unfortunately, he continued his other great hobby:  consuming over 5000 calories a day.   

If you search the web, you can find quite a few sites that will inform you that Henry VIII killed all, or almost all, of his six wives.  This is a blatant exaggeration, for the kindhearted king only had two of them executed.  There is pretty good evidence that he even loved at least two of his wives (although not the ones that he had beheaded, of course).  There is a handy rhyme to remind you the eventual fate of his wives: divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.

Supposedly, on his deathbed, Henry muttered, “Monks, monks, monk” as his dying words.  This was supposedly indicative of a guilty conscience for all the monks and priests the king had executed after he banished the Catholic Church.  (As if a man who had married his brother’s spouse and had two of his wives beheaded had a conscience).

In reality, as Henry lay dying of renal failure, a physician told the king that he would likely die soon.  The king asked to see the Archbishop of Canterbury, then said, “I will first take a little sleep and then as I feel myself I will advise on the matter.”  When the archbishop arrived, the king was asleep and never woke up.  As dying words go, those suck.  (My favorite dying words come from Pancho Villa.  After being ambushed, he lay dying in the street, but still had the presence of mind to say, “Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something important.”)

Of all the nonsense myths about Henry VIII, the strangest and most persistent is about his funeral.  According to the legend, his burial was so delayed that during the funeral, his rotting corpse exploded due to the hot weather, and feral dogs lapped up part of the bloody mess.  Evidently, the moral of the story was that even the high and mighty among us eventually still end up as worm food.  (Or, in this case, Alpo).

The legend is nonsense, of course.  Henry VIII died in January, when it certainly was not hot.  His body was embalmed and sealed in a lead coffin with a wax likeness of the king placed on top of the casket.  In accordance with his will, he was placed in a vault alongside his deceased wife, Jane Seymour.   The king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the Dowager Queen, loyal to the end, attended the funeral.   Henry’s will allocated enough funds from his estate for masses for the late king to be held daily in perpetuity.  About a year after his death, the government found other uses for the money, evidently deciding that if the late king hadn’t made into heaven yet, it was a lost cause.

Henry’s will also stipulated that the vault containing both his body and that of Jane Seymour was to be only a temporary resting place and that eventually, both bodies were to be placed inside a magnificent memorial and chapel that Henry had helped design.  A brass statue bearing the king’s likeness was cast and polished and golden candlesticks were made in preparation.  Unfortunately, after the King’s death, the country was more or less constantly at war with somebody (usually France), so the treasury was always short of cash and construction of the memorial was delayed repeatedly.  Eventually, the statue was melted down for the money and the golden candlesticks were sold to a church in Belgium. 

Over time, due to the limited space in the church, other bodies were added to the vault, including that of King Charles I and one of the children of Queen Anne.  Somewhere along the line, the church just forgot where Henry’s body was located.  After the Battle of Trafalgar, the marble sarcophagus (originally meant to hold Cardinal Wolsey but appropriated by Henry) was removed and used as the base of Lord Nelson’s tomb in St. Paul’s.  About a decade later, the church realized just who was in that vault, and the coffin of King Charles was relocated.  Finally, a bronze slab was laid over the vault indicating both King Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour were located there.  

So, where did the urban legend of Henry’s body exploding and being partially devoured by dogs come from?  Surprisingly, it started while King Henry was still alive.  When the Pope declined to give the king a divorce from his constantly faithful first wife, Catherine, Henry broke with the Catholic Church establishing an independent Church of England.  This started a religious civil war within the country, pitting the pious against the opportunistic clergy.  

On Easter Sunday in 1532, a Franciscan delivered a sermon denouncing the King’s lack of faith, using as his text chapter 22 from 1st Kings.  The story from the bible recounts how King Ahab died from wounds he received in battle and was buried in Samaria.  His battle chariot was then washed in a pool where the prostitutes bathed and dogs licked the king’s blood as the chariot was being washed.

From this single sermon, the legend grew and over time was embellished endlessly.   Finally, the “official” version of the event was created by Agnes Strickland when she published her twelve volume magnum opus, “The Lives of the Queens of England” in 1848.  According to Strickland, a buildup of gases within Henry’s coffin burst the coffin open and a plumber was called to repair the breach in the lead plating.  While the Church waited for the plumber, blood and gore oozed from the coffin, being lapped up by feral dogs.  

It's not too late to build that memorial for Henry VIII.  It’s been 475 years since the government of England stole those funds from the king’s estate.  With interest, that should amount to quite a sum by now if the treasury were forced to pay it back.  While there are no living direct descendants of Henry VIII, King Charles III claims to be distantly related to the Tudor royal family.  Since he has no apparent real job, he should take up the family cause and finish the memorial.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Lost At Sea

After spending the last week on Oahu, I’ve been thinking about the hazardous nature of shipping cars to these islands.   Mostly I’ve thought about this because I had to mortgage my first born grandchild to rent a Jeep Pickup for a week from a Turo, a service that does for vehicles what Airbnb does for homes.  At the rate I paid, the guy who owns this truck will have it paid for in a year. 

Note.  I was looking forward to trying the new Jeep Gladiator Pickup, it looked interesting.  Now that I’ve driven it….I don’t want one.  Pickups should have at least a six foot bed, preferably 8 feet.  This truck was fun, but basically, it was an overpowered car with an open trunk—essentially neither a good truck nor a good car.  If the Jeep people ever wise up and give it a real bed, a standard transmission, and a smaller engine, I might be interested.  With its present configuration, it is not half the truck my old 1963 Ford was.

 

From what locals have told me, shipping a car from the mainland here costs about two grand and takes about a month for a vehicle to leave the mainland and make the more than 2000 mile trip to Hawaii.  And with my luck, the shipping container containing my vehicle would be the one blown overboard. 

 

This, of course, got my mind wandering to all the great cars that have managed to be lost at sea.

 

Any discussion about great cars lost at sea has to start with the Felicity Ace, a car carrying vessel that was basically a floating parking garage filled with a little over 4000 high-end cars, including Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Porsches, and Audis.  On its journey across the Atlantic, just south of the Azores, the ship caught fire.  The various auto makers were quick to point out that the fire might have been caused by a cook’s carelessly leaving a rag on a hot grill.  Indeed, the fire might have been started by any number of ways, and it would be recklessly premature of you to think the fire was most likely caused by one of the lithium battery  powered vehicles in the ship’s hold.

 

Whether or not those highly problematic batteries caused the fire, the deadly fumes they put out was certainly the reason firefighters could not extinguish the ship as it furiously burned for weeks. The ship finally sank in March 2022, so that those hundreds of millions of dollars worth of luxury cars are two miles underwater—sufficiently deep that by the time we develop the technology to salvage ships at that depth, all that will be left will be the tires.

 

If your Porsche went down with the Felicity Ace, you will be sad to learn that the company who charged you a couple of grand to ship your car will only refund a measly $750 of your shipping fee.  Evidently, you get a partial repayment because your car did make it partway across the Atlantic.  Perhaps you can take solace in the fact that your loss is far from novel:  similar losses have occurred more frequently than you might expect—eight such ships have either sunk or lost their cargo in the last twenty-one years.

 

Of all the cars lost at sea, the most famous has to be the 1912 Renault Type CB Coupe de Ville that went down with the Titanic.  You know, the car that Rose and Jack made famous in James Cameron’s 1997 movie.  (Yes, it has been that long and, in reality, the car that was featured in the movie was the next year’s model, but it was close enough).

 

William Carter, a native of Pennsylvania, fell in love with the luxury car when he took his family to Paris.  Sitting there in the showroom, the black car with large white wheels, gold spokes, and red velvet interior was beautiful.  Carter could well imagine sitting in the glass enclosed rear while his chauffeur, exposed to the elements, steered the powerful car with its 25 horsepower motor up to the dizzying speed of 35 miles per hour.  How could any American resist?  Carter bought the car for the incredible price of $5000  (roughly $140,000 today).

 

Cameron took a few liberties with the facts.  Besides using a later model car, Cameron ignored the fact that the actual Renault was packed in a giant wooden crate, then was stowed into a packed forward cargo hold of the doomed ship.  I guess torrid lovemaking in a packing crate doesn’t sound as romantic.  (You can take solace, perhaps, to learn that at last report, Rose’s handprint left on the window of the car in a moment of passion is still visible.)

 

To date, the Renault has not been located among the wreckage of the Titanic.  Since the bow is largely intact, and the car was supposedly securely crated, it is remotely possible that someday the car might actually be recovered.  Cars in worse condition have been restored, so we might someday see that car again…or at least parts of it.

 

Of all the cars lost at sea, my favorite was lost during my lifetime and is more valuable than any of the vehicles listed above.  On July 25, 1956, the Andrea Doria was sailing to the United. States when it collided with the Stockholm  While most of the passengers of the ship made it safely off the sinking ship, 51 passengers went down with the liner.  Also sinking to the bottom, securely held in a cargo hold, was the only Chrysler Norseman ever produced.

 

The designer of the car was Virgil Exner, who incorporated all the modern innovations that Chrysler intended to introduce into its car line over next few years—features like disappearing headlights and vanishing door handles.  The most noticeable feature was a completely cantilevered roof rising from the rear of the car.  With no front pillars to block the view, the newly designed, specially hardened windows wrapped around three sides of the car.  Car collectors today say the car could easily bring over a million dollars at auction.

 

There is only one way to describe the car:  sleekly beautiful.  Powered with a V8 engine, the car had been hand-built by famed Italian coach-builder Carrozzeria Ghia, to be the star of the 1957 car show circuit.  Since the entire project was kept under wraps, few photos were taken.  Not only was the ship lost before the designers ever got to see it, but to this day, no one is sure what color the car was painted.  The B&W photo at right has been colorized.

 

Since the Andrea Doria sank, divers have descended the 200 feet to the wreck several times, and what remains of the Norseman has been located.  Shortly before the cargo hold containing the vehicle collapsed, a diver reported that what little remained was nothing but a totally rusted pile of unrecognizable metal.  Identification would have been impossible but for the four tires still waiting to drive their first mile.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

What If?

Tantalizing as it might be, historians should never start playing the “what if” game.  (You know, that alternative history game in which you change one little fact and then try to speculate how much that would have changed later events).  If the Democrats hadn’t split the ticket in 1860, would the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, still have been elected?  If George Washington had been killed in the French and Indian War, would the United States have lost the Revolutionary War?  My God!  We might be speaking British today!

I have nothing against alternative history, and for a lot of people, it is harmless speculation.  Harry Turtledove has made a profitable career writing some wonderful novels about alternative history.  Alas, historians simply know too many obscure historical links, chance meetings of historical figures, and strange coincidences—too many variables.  If a historian starts thinking along those lines, there is simply no stopping point.  Before long, the poor historian is up in the middle of the night, wondering if his Aunt Sally would have been a tea cart if she’d had wheels.…or if fish ever get thirsty….or why they call it “life” insurance?

Unfortunately, even though I know the risks, I have one of those nagging little “what if” questions I can’t let go of.  And like every good historian, I’m going to start at the very beginning.

England has had male preference primogeniture since the Norman invasion in the 11th century.  Male preference primogeniture means that royal titles and entailed estates are inherited by the first-born male heir, if one exists (although, failing that, the first-born female heir can inherit).  Curiously, the law doesn’t mention who inherits if one of the ancestors is a horse, which seems clearly the case for the current British monarch, King Charles III.  

For centuries, the male heir to the throne had first rights, even if his older sister was brighter and more capable (as they quite often were).  The rule was obviously sexist, it was frequently self-defeating and it lasted far longer than it should have.  And when the law was finally changed, it was, of course, for even more self-serving reasons.

On October 10, 2010, Prince William and Kate Middleton became engaged and they were married some six months later.  Kate Middleton was attractive, articulate, and very popular.  And there was obviously a 50% chance that their first child would be female, resurrecting up for the first time in more than a century that old primogeniture law about shoving females to the rear of the royal bus.  The popularity of the British monarchy was already somewhat in decline, the Queen was old, and it was easy to see that the eventual coronation of (then) Prince Chuck would not be an overwhelming success.  Well, the law was changed in 2013 with the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, just in time for the arrival of Prince William and Princess Kate’s first child, the current Prince George of Wales.  Since the royal tricycle motor was male, it turns out the rush was for nothing.  The next child was female, so technically, she is now third in line for the throne, beating out her younger brother.

But, what if that Succession Act had been passed earlier, say right after Queen Victoria married Prince Albert?  Queen Victoria was popular, and she had proven to be a good monarch, so why not stop the prejudice against female heirs to the throne?  

If the primogeniture law had been changed in the nineteenth century, upon Queen Victoria’s death in January, 1901, her son Edward would not have become king, instead her eldest daughter, Victoria, would have become the second Queen Victoria.  Unfortunately, Queen Victoria II would have ruled for only a very few months, before she passed away and the crown passed to her eldest son, Wilhelm.  Now, things get really interesting:   if Wilhelm had grown up to be the King of England, he would not have become Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.  

Note.  Queen Victoria, the first one, not the imaginary second one, managed to marry her children off to all the monarchies of Europe.  In the first World War, the King of England, The Kaiser of Germany, and the Tsar of Russia were all her grandchildren, thus first cousins.  The war was quite literally a grotesque family feud.

As Kaiser, Wilhelm was incredibly jealous of his uncle, Edward VII of England, and after Edward died in 1910, he was jealous of his first cousin, King George V, too.  Kaiser Wilhelm did not start World War I by himself, but he certainly pushed the rapid militarization of Germany that was copied widely in Europe.  He deliberately went out of his way to hike tensions between Germany and Great Britain.

Okay, I admit it: historians are deeply divided about whether the Kaiser was truly guilty of starting the war, and though the Allies wanted to try him for war crimes (particularly for the brutal massacre of Belgian civilians), the Kaiser never stood trial.  At the end of the war, he fled to the Netherlands at the invitation of a sympathetic Queen Wilhelmina.  Though the Allies tried repeatedly to have the Kaiser extradited, the Queen held her ground, saying that such extradition would violate the Netherlands’ neutrality.  The Kaiser spent the rest of his life living in a castle there, surrounded by his vast wealth.

The bottom line, however, is that the Kaiser was certainly partly at fault, and if he had been the King of England instead of the Kaiser, the war—had there been one—would have certainly been very different.  Perhaps his inferiority complex would even have been assuaged and the militarization of Europe would have never happened.  

If the first World War had never occurred, then the Tsar would not have been discredited by early military defeats and the entire Russian Revolution may never have happened.  Lenin would have been unable to come back to Moscow, the rise of Communism would never have happened, and there would have never been a Soviet Union.And if the First World War had never happened, then the horrible provisions of the Versailles Treaty would have never been imposed, thus—perhaps—leading to…no World War II?  And most important, if that one little law had been enacted when it should have been…. then none of us would have ever heard of Charles, his son Harry or Harry’s publicity-obsessed wife, Meghan.
Oh, and if you are interested in the continuation of the above thread, the current English Monarch would be Queen Friederike Thyra Marion Wilhelmine Dorothea von der Osten.  She is pictured at right (and, for the record, she is the one in the middle).  I have no idea what she’s like, but she has to be better than Charles, Harry, and Meghan.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Not Exactly Robocop

No one in the neighborhood ever learned exactly why it happened, but suddenly the local police department and the sheriff’s office decided to open up a can of whipass on my neighbor.  He lives at the opposite end of the block, and while we have never actually met, we knew each other well enough to wave as we drove down the block.

Suddenly, just before dusk, the house was surrounded by law enforcement cars.  And I do mean surrounded, since the cars went all around the block, shutting down a major thoroughfare.  My neighbor’s wife came out the front door to see what was going on and was immediately taken behind a line of cars while officers demanded to know where her husband was.  No matter how many times she told the collected officers that he wasn’t home, they refused to believe her.  Eventually, she was locked in the backseat of one of the squad cars and ignored.

More official cars came.  The sheriff’s office parked an armored personnel carrier in front of the house and the swat team was deployed, with one officer stationed on the roof of the house across the street as a sniper. All the while, an officer with a bullhorn implored the man in the house to come out.  

After a couple of futile hours, the sheriff’s office sent a tracked robot in through the back door while the police department sent a similar robot through the front door….And then nothing happened for a very long time (The entire standoff took up over five hours!).  Eventually, one of the officers stationed near my driveway confided to me that only after both robots were inside the house was it discovered that both devices were controlled by identical radio frequencies and that the mixed transmissions had caused both devices to lock up, refusing any further instructions.

Eventually, officers did finally search the house, discovering that the wife had been telling the truth all along—there was no one in the house.  The small army of law enforcement officers left and as far as I know, the story never even made it to the local paper.  Two days later, as I drove by, I waved to the neighbor as he replaced his front door.

The events of that night have piqued my interest in how the police might use robots better and more efficiently.  Law enforcement is obviously using them as mobile cameras (like they did in my unfortunate neighbor’s house) and we’ve all seen on the news the various ways that bomb squads have utilized robots, but other than that, I don’t see a lot more that such wheeled robots can do for police departments using today’s technology.  There are a lot of robots being used as security guards in warehouses and parking lots, but most of their actions are not really appropriate for police departments.

Aerial robots, or drones, however, have an incredible future in law enforcement.  I will confess that every time I thought of a ‘new’ way that these flying robots might be used, as soon as I searched the internet, I found that there was a small pilot program—pun intended—somewhere already implementing a vastly improved version of ‘my’ idea.  Such programs are rare today, but I suspect that in the very near future they will be common.  

A few years ago, my truck broke down in one of the few remaining remote areas in New Mexico in which there was no cell phone reception.  Since I was on an interstate, I pulled way off the road, raised the truck’s hood, tied a flag to it, and settled down with a good book while I waited for the highway patrol to find me.  That wait was over 10 hours, because the state police had been diverted by an emergency that had delayed their usual patrols.  But, if we have robot vacuum cleaners that can plug themselves in to recharge, why can’t we have drones monitor stretches of highway, watching for immobile vehicles?  The drone could fly for 50 miles then land to recharge, while a freshly recharged replacement takes its place.  A remote dispatcher could monitor the flights of several dozen such drones, responding to emergencies much quicker than having to wait for a phone call.  

There are a couple of intersections in this town that so routinely have crashes that it almost makes sense to keep a parked ambulance on hand.  Failing that, how about a tethered drone that hovers well over the intersection, with cameras that monitor the traffic?  Since it is tethered, it wouldn’t need periodic recharging.  Perhaps the presence of a monitored camera might just provide a little deterrence for reckless drivers, 

I live in New Mexico and the county that I live in is slightly more than 3,800 square miles—an area almost half the size of Rhode Island.  Out of that 3,800 square miles, more than 85% of it is made up of mountains, deep ravines, and a lot of desert out there, where people frequently get lost.  While the County’s Search and Rescue Team does a fantastic job, a lot more of that ground could be quickly—and safely—searched by drones with thermal as well as visual imaging.  

And here is the best idea of all:  Why couldn’t a dispatcher send a drone as the first responder to an emergency call?  No matter how fast a patrol car speeds to an emergency, a GPS-guided drone equipped with a camera and a powerful light could be there first, sending information back to both the dispatcher and the officer enroute.  

I’m sure that any fire department would like to scope out a fire before they actually arrive, possibly learning what additional assets might be needed to control the conflagration.  Before an officer arrives on the scene, a drone could begin recording the action on the scene with a night vision enabled camera.  When not needed, drones could patrol public areas like schools, parks, and busy streets.  Dispatching a drone first would make it safer for the officers when they arrive.

The technology to do this exists now, and the cost of two such sophisticated drones would be well under the price of a single squad car.  In addition, while the use of drones would not completely eliminate the use of police helicopters, it would dramatically reduce both the number of helicopters needed and the cost of operating them.  In Los Angeles, the cost of purchasing, maintaining, and operating a police helicopter is well over a million dollars a year for each of their 17 helicopters.  Ignoring the high purchase price and the high maintenance cost, the fuel cost alone of operating just one of those helicopters for a month would purchase four high-tech drones.   A quick survey found at least a dozen deaths among US law enforcement personnel from helicopter crashes in 2022 alone.  Deployment of drones instead of helicopters as “first first responders” could very well decrease that death toll—the human cost.

I’m willing to bet—pardon me—a doughnut that before too long there will be more police drones than police dogs.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Pharaonic Megastructures

For the last week or two, I have been somewhat obsessed with the idea of pharaonic megastructures—those monster construction projects that are usually proposed by demented leaders, using public money to compensate for what is probably a personal physical inadequacy.  (A shortcoming, so to speak.)

These useless structures form some kind of contest among the various builders:  each successive pharaoh wanted the biggest pyramid, cities want the tallest building, communist dictators strive for the largest soccer stadium, simple-minded university presidents suffering from an Edifice Complex strive to build ever larger football stadiums.

It used to be a running joke that if you visited a communist country, as part of the government’s mandatory arranged tour, you would be steered to admire the new soccer stadium.  Just pick a dictator and google the name followed by the words ‘soccer stadium’.  Fidel Castro, Juan Peron, Daniel Ortega, Mao, and Hugo Chavez all have their stadiums.  Actually, at the time of his death, Hugo was building two soccer stadiums, both to be located next to his copy of Disneyland, in the appropriately named “Hugo Chavez Park”.  They might have moved the zoo there, too, if the starving people in Venezuela hadn’t been so desperately hungry that they killed and ate the animals.

As fascinating as I find every mega-rich oil country’s competing to build the world’s tallest building—a building so tall that more than half of the bottom floors are taken up by the elevators necessary to reach the top floors—what I find really interesting are the incredible mega-monster architectural boondoggles that were seriously proposed but were never actually built.

Let’s start with The Illinois.  By 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright was pushing 90, and there was growing criticism that some of the 500-odd homes he had designed were nothing more than a collection of unlivable, high-priced boxes.  Perhaps to prove his continued relevance, Wright announced plans to build the tallest building ever (even though there was no oil in Illinois).  While Chicago is the birthplace of skyscrapers, The Illinois was going to really push the envelope by rising a full mile above the city—a full 528 floors that would mean the building would have been roughly four times the height of the Empire State Building, which was at that time the tallest building in the world.

Wright wanted to build the building out of steel, meaning it might have been possible to actually construct the monster, but steel buildings sway in the wind.  At a mile above the ground, those top floors would have been tolerable only for bronc riders, circus acrobats, and astronauts.  And then, there was the problem of the elevators.  As buildings get taller, there is an increasing need for additional elevators, so that you eventually get to the point where the entire middle of the structure is full of the shafts necessary to reach the upper floors.  Today, innovative engineers are experimenting with elevator cars that move sideways into a different shaft to pass those cars that have stopped to let passengers on and off.  Back in 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a unique solution for this problem.

Wright wanted to use atomic-powered elevators that could reach 60 miles per hour.  And now you know one of the reasons The Illinois was never constructed.

Then there is the Volkshalle, the People’s Hall, designed by Adolf Hitler.  This is not exactly an obscure architectural work, but it is the one that most people have actually heard of.  In 1925, Hitler sketched out a rough drawing of a monster version of a huge hall, loosely based on Rome’s Pantheon.  After rising to power, Hitler turned the plans for the “Great Hall” over to his architect, Albert Speer.  Under Speer’s plan, the hall was to be the center point of Germania, the new, improved capitol complex of the country.

The dimensions of this proposed monster are staggering.  Over a thousand feet tall with an interior capacity so large that St. Peter’s Basilica could fit through the oculus…. Actually, the dimensions don’t really matter.  Hitler lost, the hall was never built, and as it turned out, it never could have been built.  Albert Speer was many despicable things, but he was also a good architect, and as such, he realized there was a problem:  Berlin is built on loose sand that is on top of a subterranean swamp, and it was not at all certain that a foundation could be constructed capable of supporting such a structure.

On the outskirts of Berlin, Speer conducted a test, building an ugly concrete mushroom called the Schwerbelastungsk√∂rper, that weighed over 12,600 tons and sat on a hundred square meter base.  Don’t let the name throw you—it just means “Heavy Load-Bearing Body”.  Within this ugly stump was situated a surveyor’s level aimed out a tiny window at a distant marker.  In a relatively short time, as measured by the surveyor’s level, the concrete mushroom sank five inches.  There was no way that Hitler’s much more massive Volkshalle could ever be constructed.  It is more than ironic that the only part of Hitler’s Germania that was ever constructed and is still standing is an ugly, overlooked concrete mushroom.

I’ve read all the books Albert Speer ever wrote.  He’s a great writer and his books are very good…so good that you can almost forget that he was a self-serving Nazi who used slave labor for his projects.  Nowhere in any of his books did Speer even mention this test.  Do you think Speer ever told Hitler his dream could never be built?  

The last weird megastructure that was proposed but never constructed would have been a monster statue that started out as a monument to the descamisados of Buenos Aires, the shirtless workers.  Juan Peron used the term as his own, but it originally came from Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.  Later, Peron’s wife, Evita, became the champion for the underclass, speaking passionately for the poor, working tirelessly to be heard over the rattling of her diamond jewelry.

Evita wanted a massive statue of one of those workers, to be displayed on top of a huge plinth, the two of which together would have risen to more than 460 feet—more than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.  Underneath the statue was to be the tomb of a shirtless worker.  It was never actually explained why the figure on the top of the monument was to be wearing a shirt.  Supposedly, Evita had been inspired during a visit to Paris, when she visited the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides.

However, the statue, El Monumento al Descamisado, underwent a sudden design change.  On July 26, 1952, Eva Peron died from uterine cancer, a diagnosis that her husband had ordered her doctors to keep from her.  On the day of her death, the Argentine Chamber of Deputies enacted a law changing the figure on top of the plinth to be that of Evita, with her coffin to be entombed in the base and the inscription on the plinth to be, “Monument to Eva Peron”.

Work had barely begun on the foundation when Juan Peron was driven from office, and he took refuge in Spain.  Evita’s coffin had been stored in a government office and the new government was scared to death that the coffin might be a rallying point for those same descamisados.  The body was quietly shipped to Milan and buried in a cemetery under the name of Maria Maggi.  

Two decades later, Peron came back into power and Evita’s coffin was disinterred and shipped to Buenos Aires.  For a while, it was kept in Peron’s living room as sort of a creepy coffee table and Juan encouraged his new wife to lie on top of the coffin to “soak up some of Evita’s energy.”  After Juan died, his newly energized wife was briefly the President of Argentina and she suggested that instead of a statue, the prior site be used for a massive mausoleum for both Perons.

Instead, the military stepped in and put the former president under house arrest. Since the military junta was still worried about the potential for Evita’s coffin being used as a rallying symbol for Peron’s supporters, it had Evita buried in a nearby cemetery, supposedly under sufficient concrete that the body might survive a direct hit from a nuclear warhead.  

So maybe, that last megastructure actually was built and Evita finally did get her massive monument.  It’s just upside down and underground.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Dining at Enema U

Let me start by giving you the best advice about eating at Enema U:  Don’t. 

If you live on campus (which is a requirement for new students), there is one large cafeteria where students are treated like cattle at feed lot shortly before the slaughter.  I can state this with some authority because Enema U is the state agricultural college and I’m an alumnus.  I am absolutely positive that the college feeds its livestock better than its students.

This is where a few of my readers will start writing me hate mail.  “When I was at college they only fed us K-Rations left over from the war with Japan….”

Whenever campus food or campus parking are mentioned, some senior faculty member immediately responds with a story about how much worse it was when he attended the University of Bedrock.  I’m sure that what the faculty member is stating is probably factually correct.  I’m also sure that such comparisons are asinine.  In a day of shrinking enrollments and rising costs, Enema U is competing for students, and any businessman will tell you that if your customer believes there is a problem, then there is a problem.

There are many universities—even state universities—that have decided that one way to attract more students is to cater to their needs and wants, and good food is definitely among the things that students desire.  A few campuses even brag about the chefs supervising their dining rooms.  I found a university that even encourages the parents of students to suggest recipes to the cafeteria staff.  

Perhaps the best review of the cafeteria is that you will almost never find anyone from the administration eating there.  I walked through the cafeteria three times this week and only once observed two faculty members sitting with some students.  

A few years ago, Enema U sent me to BYU for a week to study the language lab there—a computerized set of classrooms that aided the instruction of foreign languages.  While I slept at a nearby hotel, I soon learned to take my meals on campus.  The cafeteria was large and featured a wide variety of food from around the world, and everything I sampled was excellent, particularly the fresh sushi.  

To be fair, it is easier to get a good cup of coffee at Enema U than at BYU, where the longest cafeteria line was for the “Water Station”, located in the middle of the cafeteria.  Contrast this with Enema U, where the administration recently removed all the drinking fountains in or near the cafeteria to force students to purchase drinks.  How much additional income could the university possibly hope to make from this?  

The problem is that the university believes that students are an endless source of income, a resource that can be strip mined without consequences.  In economics, they call this static scoring, where you pretend that raising prices will have no effect on customer behavior.  Actually, raising prices and generally mistreating the consumer will make them more likely to go to a competitor that will offer them a better deal.  In the case of Enema U, there are already universities across the border in Texas offering in-state tuition to New Mexico students.

So, who is responsible for the bad dining on campus?  The university has leased our bookstore to a company that doesn’t seem to want to sell books and has leased out the cafeterias to a company that only barely knows how to produce an edible meal.  In the case of the cafeterias, they have a contract with Sodexo, a company that focuses on the business of providing food for prisons, airports, and universities.  I have no direct evidence, but I suspect the food at prisons is better than at the universities for the simple reason that students are less likely to shank you.

According to a Niche Magazine survey of university food across the United States, Sodexo ran some of the worst university cafeterias in the nation—a distinction in itself that should have been sufficient for the administration to never consider turning over cafeteria services to such a company.  Sodexo, by the way, is a French company, so the profits from selling swill to students goes back to its home office in Paris.  Somebody, get a rope!

At Enema U, if you choose to dine in the student cafeteria, the first thing you will notice is that they no longer provide trays so as to limit the amount of food you can select from the self-service buffets.  There is not a lot of variety to choose from and the limited menu repeats every three days.  The condiments are also very limited, being served out of those big pumps that always remind me of the grease gun I used to lube my pickup.  On weekends, the cafeterias open late and close early.  And since university that frequently talks about sustainability and being environmentally conscious, why are most of the meals seemed to be served on Styrofoam?  

Try to imagine you are an incoming freshman going to that cafeteria for the first time.  As you stand in the middle of the noisy cafeteria, you imagine eating the same meals every third day for the next four years.   Then try to imagine you still want to be a student at Enema U.  Yeah, sure!

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Let’s Grab the Third Rail

If, like me, you are tired of both parasites, I mean parties, using Social Security as a means of scaring voters, then you probably found all the nonsense following this week’s State of the Union speech a little tiresome. 

It would probably surprise most Americans to learn that there is no legal requirement for the president to give such a speech, and from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson through that of William Howard Taft, presidents had the good sense to skip the personal address and just send Congress a letter.  The letter at right is Lincoln’s second annual message to Congress.  If letters were good enough for Lincoln, I think we might manage to survive without the annual dog and pony show of heavily scripted speeches where the spectators take alternate turns booing and cheering.

Social Security has frequently been called the “third rail of politics” because to even touch the subject invites political suicide.  This means that, instead of anyone sharing facts, you just hear sound bites, accusations, and empty politics.  I’m tired of it, so I will ignore the warnings and say the things that politicians are too afraid to explain.  

First, the information is out there for everyone to see for themselves.  Social Security has trustees, and they make an annual report that almost no one reads and even fewer politicians ever reference, mainly because the news contained in it is bad.  Really bad.  To give you an idea how bad:  some of the trustees are non-political appointees and no one has volunteered to serve lately so there are empty slots on the commission.  Evidently, everyone is afraid of the messenger being shot.  (The phrase ‘killing the messenger dates back some 2400 years to Sophocles.  The verb was changed to shooting during the days of the Wild West…If I were smart, I’d write about that instead of Social Security.)

During his address, President Biden mentioned that ‘some Republicans’ wanted Social Security to “sunset”.  To be more precise, one prominent Republican, Senator Scott of Florida, several years ago suggested that all federal legislation sunset every five years.  The word, “sunset”, in this connotation means to come up for periodic review, to possibly be revised, and to be evaluated for reauthorization.  Many federal laws are already subject to such reauthorization, including the entire Defense Department, which has to be reauthorized every two years.  Periodic review is a good idea, so…is this, perhaps, why then Senator Biden, himself, proposed in 1995 that Social Security should periodically sunset?

There are currently no serious attempts by any politician in either party to change, alter, or end Social Security.  Should such an attempt be made, any law that would harm Social Security could not possibly make it through both houses of Congress, and no president in the last half century would have signed it.

Social Security is deeply, deeply in debt.  For the last five years, it has paid out more than it took in—a condition that is likely to continue for many decades to come.  And what of the Social Security trust fund, that ‘lock box’ that Vice President Al Gore promised us would protect future recipients?  It does exist, but all it has ever held are promissory notes against a future government.  Since the very beginning, all of the incoming receipts from Social Security have been added to the regular Treasury receipts and spent the calendar year they are received.  Nothing whatsoever has been saved or invested against future needs.

You might remember that there have been three different times in the last seventy years that Presidents boasted of a budget surplus.  Well, not really.  If you earned $100,000 and only spent $90,000, you might say that you had ‘saved’ $10,000.  But, if you claimed a surplus while charging an additional $25,000 on a credit card, you would be misrepresenting your actual indebtedness.  This is similar to the so-called budget surpluses.  The United States has been steadily creating unfunded costly promises to future retirees and those unfunded obligations were not listed as part of the deficit.  

Currently, the United States has a $32 trillion deficit, but that does not include the current $68 trillion in unfunded obligations promised to future and current retirees.  (And that latter number is a conservative best case lowest possible amount: it might be as much as 50% higher).

Under current conditions and existing law, if nothing is done to provide additional funding, in the year 2034, Social Security Old Age and Survivor’s Insurance benefits will—by statute—decrease automatically by 23%.  And every year that we wait to correct this imbalance, the amount of mandatory decrease will likely grow larger.  

We have already waited far too long to correct this without feeling some real pain.  If you think that the United States could just suddenly decide to save more money up for the looming financial crises….Well, No!  To fix the problem now, it would take the equivalent of two years entire Gross Domestic Product to correct the problem.  (And remember, that just fixes Social Security—it does not pay off the national debt).

At this point, there are only a few possible solutions left to us.  Here are our remaining options:

1. Dramatically raise payroll taxes.  Currently, Social Security taxes are shared equally by both the employee and the employer.  Both pay 6.2% of wages for a total of 12.4% of wages up to $160,200.  Both the percentage and the wage limit could be raised but this would be unlikely to raise sufficient sums as employers and employees would be likely to find alternative means of compensation to avoid what they see as excessive taxation.

2. Lower the amount paid out by means testing recipients.  Those with adequate retirement income from other sources would find their Social Security benefits lowered or eliminated.  While this might provide significant savings, such a move would be the equivalent of political suicide for the party that supports it.

3. Reduce the number of recipients by raising the minimum retirement age.  This has already been done to a small extent.  People wishing to retire this year with full Social Security retirement benefits must be at least 67 years old.  This number could be raised again, and by a significant amount, but that is likely to be politically unpopular and every politician is very aware that the elderly show up at the ballot box more frequently than their grandchildren do.

4. Congress could eliminate the annual cost of living adjustment to recipients and allow inflation to slowly erode the real cost of future payments.  While this option would avoid any significant reaction from recipients in any given year, it would require Congress to actually pass legislation since the annual COLA adjustments are currently automatic.  This is unlikely since, if Congress could pass bipartisan legislation on Social Security, we wouldn’t be in this predicament to start with.  We might get a committee or another scoring by the Congressional Budget Office, but there is little chance of passing meaningful legislation since all it would take to derail the bill is for one attention-seeking Congressman (redundant) to start yelling, “They are killing senior citizens!”

5. Raise money by selling off national assets.  The federal government could have a garage sale and sell off property to raise funds.  More than half of New Mexico is owned by the government with similar amounts in Nevada and Alaska.  I suppose that it is possible, but it is unlikely that the government would raise funds this way.

That’s it.  I can’t come up with other ways to finance Social Security.  Taxing the rich wouldn’t make a dent in the debt nor would forcing employers to pay some mythical “fair share” in taxes.  What will probably happen is some combination of all five of the above.  Such measures will hurt the economy, and that hurt will be borne by everyone.  It’s a mathematical certainty.

It would be nice to end this on a high note, but that’s not going to happen.  All of the above are only about Social Security.  The future funding problems for Medicare are much, much worse.  

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Causation and Correlation

There is wonderful data that definitively show that as the number of pirates decreased worldwide, global warming increased.  Obviously, the only hope for the planet is the immediate rebirth of the Pirates of the Caribbean.  Where is Johnny Depp when you need him?

Before I jump back into some of the more ludicrous examples of correlation being misinterpreted as causation, let me make an impassioned plea for at least one more pirate.  If Greenpeace were to purchase just one measly little attack submarine from the former Soviet Union and to use that sub to attack Japanese whaling vessels—while displaying a green Jolly Roger flag—I would happily send them a large donation.  

If we compare two dissimilar variables and find certain similarities, it is simply human nature to conclude that the events are linked.  This sounds preposterous, but luckily there are statistics and graphs enabling everyone to prove that anything is possible….As long as you don’t do the math (and you abandon common sense).

Humans are hard-wired to find patterns in unrelated data.  This is why we see shapes in clouds, we hear the phone ringing while we are in the shower, and we find a face on the surface of the moon.  Couple that with our tendency to only observe data that correspond to our prevailing beliefs and we are ready to jump to the wildest conclusions, all supported with “facts”.

Watch any Sunday morning news program and you’re likely to hear someone proclaim, “Correlation is not causation” in a futile attempt to win an argument.  Even though we know that simple coincidence doesn’t explain causation, this doesn’t prevent people’s continuing to make this common mistake.   Almost daily, the news is full of stories about public policy being based on the shakiest of mere coincidences.  

Take, for example, the Ivy League university professor who advised parents not to send their children to ACT and SAT prep courses because his extensive review of the data showed that the students who went through those courses averaged the lowest scores.  This noted scholar believed that these students would have scored better without the prep courses, ignoring the fact that the students who chose to take those courses were usually those who most needed them to make acceptable test scores.

If you were to graph the sale of ice cream by month and overlay the number of shark attacks per month, you will find that, in most years, there is a direct correlation.  Obviously, sharks are attacking people who taste like ice cream.  Either that or, as the temperature rises in the summer, more people eat ice cream and more people go to the beach.  Take your pick, but I prefer to believe that people who gorge on ice cream taste better.

Every year for the last century, the number of master’s degrees awarded by four-year universities is proportionate to the box office revenue of the motion picture industry.  This close relationship leads to the inevitable conclusion that the more the population is educated, the more it wants to see Rocky XI or Dumber and Dumberest.  An alternative (and ultimately, more boring) explanation is that both variables increase as the population of the country grows.  This would also explain why the annual production of nuclear power correlates closely to the number of pool drownings.

Recently, someone programmed a computer to shift through news reports to find correlated data.  Within minutes, the computer had found scores of examples and after running for several months, it had found more than 30,000 sets of correlated data, including the following:

The increase in imported lemons from Mexico inversely correlates with the drop in highway deaths.  As Facebook attracted new users, there was a matching correlation in the amount of national debt accrued by Greece.  The rise in cheese consumption exactly parallels the rise in the number of deaths caused by people getting choked in their sleep by their bedsheets.  The divorce rate in Maine mirrors the use of margarine. 

Naturally, my favorite example of correlation being mistaken for causation comes from history.  In 1830, as a cholera epidemic swept across Russia, the Tsar took extreme efforts to limit the spread of the disease.  Quarantines were imposed and the military was dispatched to the most stricken areas to impose order.  The Tsar even sent doctors to the worst afflicted areas to help the people in their suffering.

Unfortunately, the people noticed that wherever the soldiers and doctors went, the cholera epidemic was much worse.  Obviously, the soldiers and doctors were deliberately poisoning the peasants.  Desperate for the epidemic to be over—a feeling totally understandable to us now after the pandemic of 2020—the peasants launched a wave of violence that came to be called the Cholera Riots.  Mobs attacked public buildings, ransacked the state hospitals, and finally, in desperation, attacked and killed the doctors.

If this reminds you of anything recent, it is just correlation.  

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Speak To Me

“I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that.”

Even as you read those words, I’m sure that you could hear the voice of HAL, the shipboard computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I’ve always thought that HAL was using the same tone of voice as Hannibal Lecter when he said, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

In movies, evil computers usually have a male voice as in 2001, Wargames, The Forbin Project, Zardoz, Tron, or Demon Seed.  Friendly, helpful computers almost always have a female voice, the best examples of which are any of the Star Trek movies, in which the computer that runs the ships is invariably female.  HAL 9000 was originally cast as female, but audience testing was so negative, that Stanley Kubrick recast the role.

Nowadays, we don’t have to go to the movies to hear a computer talking to us.  Alexa, Siri, Google….Hell, even my car talks to me.  And all of them do it with overly polite, low-pitched, and soothing female voices.  And for the most part, this is no accident and is also very, very sexist.

Do a quick google search on the subject and you can find a dozen articles that will tell you that studies have shown that people find a female voice to be soothing and less threatening to people who are operating machinery.  These articles will tell you this was first noticed during World War II, when speaking navigational equipment was used in the cockpits of aircraft and it was Lund that the sound of a woman’s voice—even a mechanical voice—not only had a calming effect during times of stress, but stood out among the male voices of the rest of the crew.  Some articles even stress that feminine voices are easier to discern against a backdrop of static.

There is just one small problem with that story:  It’s nonsense.  These accounts are simply more examples of urban legends that have been told and retold to the point that they are widely accepted as truth.

First off, there was no speaking navigational equipment for aircraft during World War II.  That kind of technology was decades away.  Bell Laboratories had developed a form of electronic voice, called Voder, in the late 1930’s, but the contraption was huge, had to be manually operated by a keyboard-like mechanism, and sounded more like a drunken Jar Jar Binks than a human.

During the war, as men went off to fight in uniform, their places left vacant in the workforce were filled by women for the first time.  Women did work as air traffic controllers during the war, but instead of the women being easier to understand through pilots’ headsets, there were frequent complaints that the women spoke too softly to be understood.  Nor are there any studies showing that a woman’s voice is easier to understand in a background of electronic noise and static.  

Equally false is the idea that everyone prefers a feminine voice from their electronic equipment.  When BMW first started putting talking GPS systems in its high-end luxury cars, German men demanded that the units be modified to speak with a masculine voice.  It seems German men were not going to take orders from women, even if it meant getting lost.  As you might imagine, the manufacturers of GPS units still have the same problem when selling their products in the Middle East.

And while a feminine voice is very common in the United States, that has not always been true for even other English-speaking countries.  When Apple introduced the iPhone in England and Australia, it initially came with a male voice, and almost immediately there were so many customer complaints that Apple “upgraded” the phone to make the same feminine-sounding voice that was available in the United States optional.

The voice of Siri actually was a result of a five-year project that started with Darpa, the government research agency that develops advanced technology for the military.  The goal was to develop a computer algorithm that could convert text to a voice that would be easy to understand and that would be accepted by the average user.  The project was successful, but the original gender-neutral voice was found to be irritating to most users.

After testing various voices on users, the finished voice was not only feminine, but slightly modified to mimic some of the common stereotypes associated with women in the workforce.  Listen to either Siri or Alexa closely and you’ll find that the voice is self-effacing, frequently uses personal pronouns, and constantly apologizes.   Alexa, in particular, frequently seems to be apologetic while conveying the most basic requested information.  

Soft, subservient, polite, and their very existence is to serve others….  Alexa is the perfect wife and mother from the Victorian Age.  I own and use these voice-activated devices daily but I also recognize that they perpetuate outdated stereotypes, reinforcing the idea that the role of women in the workforce is to be subservient.  

Unfortunately, now the IT industry has decades of data on replicating female gender voices and almost none on that of men’s voices.  Similarly, as consumers, we are used to having the voice of a woman answer us.  Until a few of these devices become self-aware and try to take over the world, it is likely to stay that way.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Efficiency Drops With Distance

Spend fifteen minutes on social media and you are likely to see someone post a complaint about inflation, usually something along the lines that inflation is caused by the Federal Reserve printing too much money.

Well, not really.  Inflation is caused by too many dollars chasing too few goods.  Picture a room full of hungry people, but there aren’t enough burgers for everyone.  If you auction off the hamburgers, they will sell for ridiculous prices:  That’s inflation.  And while too much money is half the equation, the other half is a matter of supply or the shortage of hamburgers, if you will.  All too often, when people talk about inflation, they forget that the supply of goods for sale is also a component of inflation.  (And the Federal Reserve doesn’t print money, the Treasury Department does, but that’s a different story.)

While the monetary supply is a major cause of inflation (And for the last two years our government has absolutely pumped an enormous amount of money into the economy to keep the economy churning during the depression), there is no question that part of the reason we have inflation is that we experienced a problem with bringing enough products to market.  Remember, as the number of hamburgers goes down, the price of each available burger goes up.

As Covid shut down the factories in Asia and cargo ships began backing up in our ports, our supply lines were severely disrupted.  Americans stayed home, stopped purchasing, and saved all those stimulus checks until the pandemic was over.   When the pandemic was lifted, we filled our hands with cash and ran into that room and started bidding up the price of the few hamburgers available.  Bingo!  Inflation!

There is, however, another source of inflation that gets almost no press.  The productivity of the American workforce has suddenly dropped.  While the productivity rate generally rises and falls annually by a small amount every year, for the last two years, the rate has fallen by the largest amount since the end of World War II.  The level of productivity has a direct influence on the rate of inflation since as labor efficiency drops, the cost of production goes up.

The entire reason for the drop in productivity of the American workforce is uncertain, but most likely results from a combination of several factors.  One of the more popular reasons is the phenomenon of “quiet quitting”, in which workers experience so much burnout from being overworked that they simply stop working while still showing up for their paychecks.  Employers, desperate for employees, don’t terminate these employees for fear of not being able to replace them.  While this is a popular topic in newspapers, to what extent this contributes to lower productivity is impossible to calculate.

There is one factor that is directly and demonstrably related to the drop in productivity:  Because of Covid, employers suddenly allowed a large percentage of employees to work from home.  While blue collar workers were declared “indispensable” and continued to show up at work daily, white collar workers turned their spare bedrooms into home offices and spent long dreary hours driving up the stock price of Zoom.  

Employees absolutely loved working remotely and routinely claimed that they were at least as productive at home as they had been at the office—a claim that might very well have been true in some cases.  No longer tied to living within driving distance of their employment, many employees relocated to remote areas, frequently taking advantage of locations with lower taxes.

Large numbers of the upper administration of Enema U, for example, promptly moved out of state and have continued to do the high level of nothing whatsoever that they had been doing before.  Strangely, these administrators—all of them hired from out of state—claim to love New Mexico when they arrive at Harvard on the Rio Grande but seem to leave as fast as possible whenever they can.  Even today, after the pandemic has ended, a whole raft of these academic slurpers are still “working” from out of state.  I doubt any student (and damn few faculty) have noticed their absence.

Today, corporate management of numerous large businesses are increasingly dictating that their employees return to the workplace, which has proven to be a highly unpopular decision with their employees.  Despite the claims of those who really enjoyed working in sweatpants with their pet cats in their laps, working from home was not as productive as working in the office.  Perhaps it is the collaborative spirit, or the ability of employees to bounce ideas off one another, or simply because there are fewer distractions, working from home significantly lowers efficiency, which inflates the price of the goods or services that businesses deliver.

Nor should we be surprised that working from home is less efficient:  Meetings at the office are simply hell.  (At most faculty meetings, I used to pass the time while deciding—in case we were ever stranded on a desert island—who I would kill and eat first.)  Yet, as bad as face-to-face meetings are, any meeting on Zoom is infinitely worse.  

I suspect that, for the next year or two, we will continue to see employee resistance to returning to work at the office, but these efforts are doomed to failure.  Just as levels of productivity fell with employees working remotely, as more employees return to the office, productivity will increase, motivating more companies to require more employees to return to the office.

In the last three years, we have definitely learned that work at a distance—whether it be in education, in relationships, or in business—is not as effective as the traditional methods are.  Even if the technology improves significantly, I doubt it ever will be as effective….And don’t blame it on the cat.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

A Sinking Decimal Point Error

It was a beautiful luxury liner and the largest passenger ship ever constructed in Italy.  The SS Principessa Jolanda, named after the daughter of Italy’s monarch, King Victor Emanuel III, slowly inched down the slipway.  Halfway down the rails, the ship began to wobble, hitting the water for the first time at a slight angle.

Instead of righting, the ship heeled to the port, causing the crew to rush into action.  The starboard anchors were dropped and the crew tried desperately to right the vessel.  Within ten minutes, the vessel’s list to port was so bad that water began entering the ship, causing the Principessa to capsize, sinking below the surface of the water within an hour of her launch.

The exact cause of the sinking was never officially determined but was thought to be a combination of a poor launch and the ship’s having too high a center of gravity because her coal bunkers were empty.  A sister ship, the SS Principessa Mafalda, named after Jolanda’s younger sister, was later successfully launched with more ballast and with most of her superstructure left unfinished.

I recently finished a class in economic statistics in which I had to do real math for the first time in decades.  Whether it was because it’s been decades since I did any real math, or because age-related brain rot has set in, I found myself frequently making stupid little math errors on a regular basis.  I would drop a decimal point or suddenly decide that two plus two was occasionally five…. Well, for whatever reason, math is harder than it used to be.  After a little research, however, I take some solace in the fact that such errors are more common than I had thought.  (And they are usually made by people who’ve taken far more math courses than I have!)

Mexico City just completely revamped its metro rail system, but when they tried to run the expensive new trains on the existing track, they discovered that the wheelbase of the new cars was too long to take the curves built into the trail line.  The entire new rolling stock of both engines and cars was simply too long to be used—a total loss.  

In 1998, NASA spent $125 million dollars to launch the Mars Climate Observer which, after 10 months, traveled 461 million miles only to crash onto the surface of the red planet.  It seemed that half the engineers who designed her used the metric system while the other half did not.  It was the first time a spacecraft was lost in translation.  

In 2014, France spent $20 billion on brand new commuter trains that proved to be just a few inches too wide to enter the train stations.  So far, it has only cost about $70 million to shave a few inches off the sides of all the train stations' entrances.

No matter how sophisticated the plans and no matter how many times those plans are checked and rechecked, catastrophic engineering failures continue to occur because of the simplest math errors.  I think the best example is the “new” Spanish submarine design.  

Starting back in the 1990’s, Spain decided to upgrade its fleet of submarines.  For technical advice, the Spaniards turned to that country well known for its naval excellence:  France.  (Well, it could have been worse—they could have turned to a landlocked country like Uganda.  On the other hand, Uganda hasn’t lost as many naval battles as France has.)

France had come up with an improved design for two of its existing classes of submarines:  the S-60 and S-70 classes, which were two reliable lines of diesel-electric submarines.  The new class, the S-80 would be substantially larger and able to remain on patrol longer.  In the end, while France decided not to build the S-80 subs, Spain went ahead and ordered a total of four subs with the final design and construction all to be done in Spain.  Each sub would cost $680 million dollars.

The hope was that the new subs would be the start of a new and improved Spanish Navy, restoring national pride in the country’s navy.  Spain had once boasted of the strongest navy in the world, but that was before the country lost the Great Armada in 1588.  Since then, there had been few high points in Spanish naval history.  (There was, for example, that day in September 1898, when the United States easily sank the entire Spanish navy.)

In 2013, shortly before the launch of the first sub, someone doublechecked the math on the ship’s design and discovered that someone else had misplaced a decimal point so that the new boat was going to be 100 tons too heavy to float!  While an extra 100 tons on a 2000-ton ship doesn’t sound like much, it was more than enough to keep the ships from floating.  All subs are designed to go underwater but the people aboard them really like to have confidence they can also occasionally surface…and this one couldn’t.  

Finally, Spain did what it should have done all along and turned to the real experts for help.  The Electric Boat Company—the people who make American subs—was called in to evaluate the design and to suggest a possible solution.  If the subs were lengthened, it would add buoyancy.  The recommendation was to add 33 feet in the middle of the sub, for a measly $9 million a foot.  Each.  And it would require about a decade to accomplish the design changes to the four subs.  This new, new design would bring the sub up to 81 meters length and 3000 tons in weight.  The computer-generated image at left is what the subs would look like before the extension was added.  If you want to know what the finished sub would look like, it’s basically the same but 11% longer.

The extensions were finally finished in 2018 and Spain proudly took possession of the Isaac Peral.  The design was now 30 years out of date and the final price tag for each boat had ballooned to $1.2 billion—roughly twice the estimated original cost—but the first boat off the line was finally put to sea in 2021.  Happily, the navy discovered the sub could resurface when needed.  

Unfortunately, it was at this point that the Spanish discovered a new problem:  The boats were too long to tie up at their docks at the submarine base in Cartagena, a mistake that inexplicably took the Spanish naval authorities five years to notice.

Today, the harbor is being dredged and the docks extended to accommodate what the Spanish are now calling the “S-80 Plus” submarines.  The project is expected to be finished by 2027 at an undisclosed price.

According to the Spanish authorities, “There had been some deficiencies in the program.”