Graybeard Reflections

One of the benefits of retirement is having the time and inclination to reflect on the

human condition.  When I was still working life was pretty much a cycle of work-related

shadows and reflections

Image by Pedro Moura Pinheiro via Flickr

concerns interwoven with welcome family time.  Entertainment and sleep never seemed to get a fair share, but that made them all the more precious.  Now, the hour glass has been inverted. I used to look forward to weekends like crazy – forget the worries of work and enter the family world.  Now weekends are the more boring part because the whole world seems to stop doing interesting stuff and the streets get too crowded.  Plenty of time for sleep these days, but my eyes pop open when the sun comes up.  Dang.  Plenty of time for entertainment, but they don’t make enough movies for adults anymore.  Same for books – when a really good one comes out I jump on it, and then there’s a gap.  I notice the details of the news more because I have the time, and blogging gives me a reason to pay attention.  I am fortunate to have some excellent online pen pals who keep me sharp that way.  Geeze, one little slip and they are all over me.  I love it.


Image by Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet via Flickr

Time passes, technology advances, but people are still people.  I noticed today that a British nuclear submarine went aground.  Hate when that happens.  How the hell does it when they have inertial guidance and GPS?  It is likely a case of distracted driving.

They were on “sea trials”.  For the non-naval readers this means that the sub was either brand-new or newly-repaired and was doing tests to make sure equipment, systems and the ship itself were all working properly, and I can tell you from experience that, especially in a submarine, perhaps the most complex combination of technical systems man has ever constructed in one package, there are always problems.  So there they are, tooling around near land with

reports flying about this and that not working right and personnel being rusty from being ashore too long or just being brand new, and bang.  Author Bob Woodward would likely call that a WTF moment.  Who put that shallow spot there?  Oops.  Really bad career day for the Navigator and the CO.  The crazy thing is, the ship’s nav systems should have told them exactly where they were every minute.  Unless those were broken.  Anyway, there are always backup methods.  No excuses – it’s distracted driving.

Even the most experienced and best-trained people can get distracted and as long as humans are a link in the chain it is going to be a concern.  The grounding made me recall the collision of the submarine USS Greeneville with a Japanese trawler in 2001.  That was also caused by distraction and lack of caution by an over-enthusiastic skipper.

But you know the amazing thing?  Even as the world gets more complicated we humans DO have the capacity to learn from mistakes.  Take aviation for example.  In the early years airplanes crashed with great regularity, and that includes passenger planes.  But

Artistic picture of Air Traffic Control

Image via Wikipedia

with increasing time the industry has learned and while there have been some close calls from time to time, as far as I can tell it has been 33 years since the last large loss of life on a U.S. commercial flight.  That would have been the collision in the Azores in 1977 when two jumbo jets collided and 520 people were killed.  The Wiki page on aircraft accidents (which strangely includes 9/11 as an “accident”) has this to say about the industry:

Aviation safety has come a long way in over one hundred years of implementation. In modern times, two major manufacturers still produce heavy passenger aircraft for the civilian market:   Boeing in the United States of America and the European company Airbus. Both have placed huge emphasis on the use of aviation safety equipment, now a billion-dollar industry in its own right, and made safety a major selling point—realizing that a poor safety record in the aviation industry is a threat to corporate survival. Some major safety devices now required in commercial aircraft involve:

  • Evacuation slides — aid rapid passenger exit from an aircraft in an emergency situation.
  • Advanced avionics – Computerized auto-recovery and alert systems.
  • Turbine engines – durability and failure containment improvements
  • Landing gear- that can be lowered even after loss of power and hydraulics.

Currently in the news I note that teen driving deaths are down, despite the added

Operating Room

Image by Jeff Kubina via Flickr

distractions of cell phones and texting.  That surprised and pleased me.  This is apparently due to safer roads, seat belts, air bags, and better rules, all part of what one hopes will be continuing improvement.

Now wouldn’t it be nice if we could apply the same principles to medical errors, politics, and financial systems?  Well, don’t worry about keeping track of progress.  There are more and more of us retirees coming along to help you with that.  And raise hell over it too.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Medical errors, Philosophy, Submarines, Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Graybeard Reflections

  1. Jim says:

    Anson, where are you? We expect you to be the first to comment on this subject! Maybe you are in the Comment Queue just ahead of me?

    My nominee for Most Complex are Shuttle-Skylab missions. The autonomous capabilities of nuclear submarines, and the fact that they are opposed by more than just the awesome forces of nature, is part of their valid claim to the title.

    We sometimes do apply the same principles to medical errors, politics, and financial systems. A burgeoning medical application is ‘robotic’ surgery. Too often, advances in technical capability are over-ruled by other considerations. A time will come when the aircraft safety record will be spoiled because technological capability will be finessed beyond safe operating margins. That is a common theme for major disasters. Financial systems (such as automated stock trading) are very sophisticated, but actually vulnerable to chaotic catastrophic failure. The tech stock bust is an example – the machines, with the permission of poor human judgement in placing them in control, caused a swift and irreversible collapse.


  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    Jim too,

    Some decades ago I knew a fellow submariner who went on up the ladder to higher rank and along the way got himself a PhD. in physics (of all things!). I remember the instance not just for its rarity but for the interesting nature of his oral examination. The lead question was: “Explain and describe the physics involved in the operation of a submarine and its various systems”.

    Now on the surface of things that doesn’t sound so hard, does it? That is until you get into the nitty-gritty. My memory is a little hazy but here is a sampling from my rusty memory cells:

    Buoyancy and stability of the ship on the surface, submerged and in between, including how the metacenter shifts relative to the center of buoyancy when submerging.
    Fluid dynamics of hull design surfaced and submerged.
    Cavitation of the ship’s propellers; its variance relative to depth, salinity and design.
    The effects of liquid densities and viscosity on ship operation, including sea water, fresh water, diesel fuel, and hydraulic oil.
    The operation of trim systems submerged including converting fuel tanks to ballast tank operation.
    The chemical properties and handling requirements of torpedo fuel.
    Operation and maintenance of lead-acid batteries, including handling and sensing of hydrogen gas at different charge rates.
    Operation of pneumatic torpedo tubes.
    Design of torpedo warheads (explosives) and torpedo propulsion systems.
    Geomagnetic variation and patterns relative to operation of magnetic compasses.
    Gyro compass theory: limitations and operation.
    Design considerations for the many kinds of fluid and gas valves in the various systems.
    Metallurgical, and design considerations, and safety-margin considerations for, pressure-hull design relative to operational-, test- and crush-depth specifications.
    Capabilities and limitations of ship’s sensors including optics, radar, radio (of differing frequencies and including radio navigation), fathometer, underwater telephone (acoustic), sonar (passive and active) as affected by varying oceanographic environments such as sea depth, salinity, and sea state, sun spots and diurnal variation (re: radio).
    Principles of operation of diesel engines, dc versus ac power and the conversion between same.
    Design and properties of dc and ac motors and generators.

    Naturally, all this took place in the old days when most submarines were conventional diesel-powered boats. As a nuclear-power submariner Anson can add interesting aspects to the discussion for sure. Rockets and spacecraft involve high-tech design of propellants and safety margins but IMO they lack the breadth of complexity of the submarine.

    Jim also


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    HERE I AM, Jim II,

    First and foremost might I point out that “shit happens”, any time and anywhere. And it almost ALWAYS happens because of human error. As the blog points out GPS should have told the personnel responsible exactly where the ship was located, yet…..

    Now let me add that since the early 70’s I have always maintained that a nuclear submarine armed with ballistic missiles is the MOST complex machine ever devised by mankind. It still is in my view, far more complex that “merely” a “spaceship. I could write at length to make that point but so what.

    Here is a question asked of me during the turmoil of a day long ago of “Rickover interviews” to be admitted into the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. “How does a radio work?” was the question from an engineer on Rickover’s staff.

    I had had a “ton” of engineering and math courses and thought the question to be very easy. I started with plug it in and turn it on. I then drew a sketch of a circuit with amplifiers, transformers, etc to show how the electrical signal was “engineered”. I then showed how a speaker vibrates and the underlying acoustic “science” behind sound transmission to the human ear. And on and on. I was on a roll and very cocky.

    Well, the interviewer asked, how does a radio station “get” its sound to your receiving antenna to generate all of that electrical and acoustic engineering to listen to music. So I started with a singer at a microphone, moving to other electrical circuits at the station and on to the transmitting antenna, all correctly drawn out. Now we have an antenna “vibrating” at the station and my radio antenna receiving those “vibrations”. Again, I was very pleased with myself.

    the interviewer then asked how does a “vibrating” antenna 200 miles from your radio make your radio antenna vibrate?

    HUH? I said.

    This was in 1964 and I actually had taken a course in quantum mechanics. So there I was, now trying to explain electromagnetic theories of such energy and the transmissions of such through space.

    It became abundantly clear that in spite of all my “education”, I really could not explain how a radio worked!!!

    Such was THE CLASSIC Rickover school of thought to prove just how stupid we all are from “dumb midshipman that can’t explain how a radio works” to skippers that run aground.

    The moral to the story is that constant attention and constant progress is required to “know how to listen to a radio” or drive a nuclear submarine or fly to the moon or keep one’s checkbook balanced. Humans err in all such cases and bad things happen from time to time.

    Hard work, attention to detail, throrough reseach (particularly when blogging as an old man) and a bunch of other “stuff” is needed in society to thrive. And as the farmer was recently quoted on the front page of the Globe, “you can’t tell whom to vote for by watching TV”. He was sad that such was the case and probably thought that was the fault of politicians, for Christ’s sake.



  4. Jim Wheeler says:

    Good answer, Anson. There must be zillions of Rickover stories out there, and yours was a good one.

    I had thought you might add to my complexity list to bolster the complexity case. I’m sure it would be long if you did. I speculate some, with some credits to Tom Clancy, for the SSBN, with which I totally agree:

    Online encryption system for comms and missile targeting.
    Weapons targeting computers and software.
    Satellite comms and other antennas for full-spectrum radio reception.
    Night vision and periscope TV system.
    Nuclear warheads, missiles and launch system.
    Radiation monitoring and safety systems.
    Advanced low-vibration HVAC equipment.
    Sound isolation systems for all vibrating equipment.
    Nuclear power reactor, boiler and associated pumps and cooling loops.
    Oxygen generating system, CO2 scrubbers and ancillary equipment for contained atmosphere.
    Sonar triangulation system for passive ranging.
    Distillery plant – salt water to fresh.
    Auxiliary diesel-generator plant, with power battery.

    Have we convinced you, Jim II?

    Jim also


  5. ansonburlingame says:

    to both,

    Simply as a matter of courtesy, here is a brief “complexity” argument.

    Take something the size (actually bigger) of the Washington Monument. Put it underwater for 70 days and make it “roam” all over the oceans of the world, underwater, while keeping 150 men alive and comfortable. Keep it ready at all times to “shot” a pickup truck size “thing” 6000 miles loaded with 10 other “things” in the bed of the truck.

    Every one of those 10 “things” must hit within 50 feet of 10 different targets, 6000 miles away and spread over an area of about 300 miles about “ground zero”.

    Remain undetected and undectable at ALL times before, during and after the launch. Go find another ship at sea, reload 24 new pickup trucks, go back to sea and do it all over again, knowing where “you” or your ship is located within 100 yards at ALL times, again remaining underwater and undetected all the time.

    Makes flying to the moon look simple to me.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      to both too,

      Anson, you’ve jogged my brain again, this time about some things I learned on my first shore duty in the Navy, 1964 to 1966. I was a “test engineer” at the Naval Ordnance Test Unit, Patrick AFB, Cape Canaveral in the mid 1960’s and rode many of the SSBN’s (“boomers”, in the parlance) to help conduct missile test-firings down range. For the non-Navals, a boomer must go very slowly or actually hover in place below the surface in order to launch the solid-propellant missiles. Imagine the engineering involved to keep the ship at neutral buoyancy just below the surface as one after another of the (then-16) massive missiles is explosively ejected up through the water to where it ignites in the air and takes off! Achieving this marvel of engineering design was not an easy thing.

      As far as the missiles themselves, an integral part of the “system” as Anson notes, others in NOTU told me that in the early development days of the SSBN ship/missile system the Polaris missile was humorously known as an “IBRM”. This stood for Intercontinental Banana River Missile, several of the early shots having ended up in the Banana River behind the Cape instead of down-range as they should have.



  6. Jim says:

    Hi again ! My apologies for being inattentive. I have had recent personal developments that are encouraging – and distracting.

    Jim One & Anson – you have made good presentations for your favorite Most Complex. I will not pretent to argue persuasively on behalf of any alternatives (no, not even the one that I mentioned before). Of course, that does not mean that I will go away quietly!

    Your presentations, with some re-wording, can be applied to other endeavors. The incredible performance of individual systems, their integration into the whole, and the extreme conditions and contexts within which they operate are attributes for some other candidates for Most Complex. Your familiarity with your candidate allows you to clearly see how magnificently suited it is for consideration.

    Some of our endeavors are hugely complex, but small in scale. The design & production of a state-of-the-art integrated circuit (such as a computer processor) is as complex as building the largest cities on earth – from scratch. We do this many thousands of times each year, and with rapidly increasing complexity. The synthesis of an electronic product design can be regarded as a microcosm of a Most Complex candidate. If each and every entity and subsystem were examined for its underlying complexity, the composite view could amaze almost to the degree that a large-scale Most Complex does.

    Fortunately, Electronics Design Engineers don’t have to actually deal with the underlying complexities. Similarly, vehicular transportation systems are quite complex, but my Grandmother, born in 1896, could drive a car.

    I approve of folks, submariners included, getting a physics education. I have a certain bias about that subject. Thanks for sharing some thoughts about submarines. Maybe someone should write a book? – Jim Too


  7. Jim Wheeler says:


    Good points. IC design potentially would seem to encompass the complexity of almost any system conceivable. But, then there is the factor of synergy among all its sub-modules and how you can use previous IC designs to design other versions, hence synergy. One could make the case that “book-writing” has a similar potential for complexity. SSBN design however requires multiple engineering disciplines to interact efficiently in a constantly-varying weather environment (different sea states and atmospherics) to achieve near-perfect reliability.

    I have been waiting for years for artificial intelligence but see no signs of consciousness so far. When will we have Asimov’s positronic brain? If that happens, guys like you may have to give up authorship.

    Jim one


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