Why Do I Write So Much About History?

Statue of Edmund Burke in Washington DC. See i...

Edmund Burke Image via Wikipedia

[Yesterday we ran one of Jessica's older posts and today we're going to represent one of mine, not (entirely) because I'm lazy but, because they have kept their relevance, and we have new readers since they were published. If you visit here often (or even seldomly) you've likely noticed that I write a lot about history. This is why. This was originally published in October of 2011, if you remember it, I'm extremely pleased, if not, I hope it speaks to you as well.]

Firstly: Because I like it.

History is one of my personal favorite things, especially military history and the history of technology (which tend to be all mixed up in each other anyway).

Secondly: Because the world we live in was built on the shoulders of giants.

Men like Archimedes and Aristotle, men like Henry V and Stephan Langton, men like Marlborough and Wolfe (and Montcalm), men like John Paul Jones and Nelson, men like Washington and Jefferson, men like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Men like Frederick Douglass and John Calhoun, men like John Bunyan and Henry Ward Beecher, men like Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, men like Carnegie and Edison, men like Alexander Graham Bell and Steve Jobs. And don’t forget the comparable (and incomparable) women like Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and Abigail Adams who also belong on this list. Without the likes of these people we would still be living in mud huts hunting and gathering our dinner.

Thirdly: If we study how our ancestors solved problems, we give ourselves a head start on solving ours.

While I don’t believe history repeats itself, exactly; but as Mark Twain told us, it surely rhymes. One of the major distinguishing marks of Homo Sapiens is our ability to use external memory; to write things down to help us remember. This is true whether we are memorializing a hunt on a cave wall in France or what I did today on my iPhone. This forms a the basis for a lot of the decisions we make. ” If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Fourthly: Why specifically military and technology?

Because I believe that the individual has much to do with the progress of the human race (for good or ill). The military has several things to offer: It was the very first organization going all the way back to stone age hunting parties, it also preserves our traditions better than we as civilians do, for instance: Do you know why three volleys are fired at a military funeral, it’s not arbitrary, there’s a reason that almost any soldier can tell you. This helps us in uncertain times to build on the past to chart where we want to go in the future. It also has always been the laboratory for leadership.

What technology offers is this: the intelligently lazy man. The guy who got tired of packing his gear who watched a rock roll down the hill and went on to invent the wheel.

OK, I got all that but, I’m an American, what’s with so much English history?

As Americans our history is all mixed up in English history, until 1776 we were English. Our heritage and respect for the individual comes down to us from the Anglo-Saxon Britain, was codified in Magna Charta, reaffirmed in the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution and it’s Bill of Rights which preceded ours. Our philosophers of government were English (or Scottish). The American Dream is founded on English freeman’s rights and obligations.

For that matter our thought processes throughout American history have almost always paralleled the English. Differences? Sure, but rarely on the basics. And now we have been allied for nearly a century. I’m with Churchill here when he said: I’m content to see our countries get more and more mixed up in each others affairs. Great Britain in the European Union is, I think, by the way, an abomination. They belong firmly in an association of the Anglosphere. Never has there been such an accumulation of power based on the individual free man, and that is not Europe’s tradition.

When England won control of the sea between 1588 and 1805, she became the final arbiter of global power, and she used it for mostly good purposes, such as outlawing the slave trade and fostering world trade, generally. When Great Britain essentially went broke during World War I, that mantle passed to the United States. This was as Adam Smith had foreseen in The Wealth of Nations in 1776, as he urged the British government to secure a deal with the North American colonists. They didn’t but, it’s worked out fairly well even so.

Finally, a lot of what I do here is what I was taught in 8th Grade history, that we have forgotten or that our schools no longer teach. The men (and women) who preceded us were smart thinking, observant men. Why wouldn’t we want their input on how to rule ourselves?

The Lean Submariner  put up a post which is exactly on point. If there is one thing we have learned over the millennia it is that paying Danegeld is no good. Whether it’s to keep the Danes out of England, or US trade secure. I agree completely with Captain Bainbridge who wrote to a friend:

“The Dey of Algiers, soon after my arrival, made a demand that the United States’ Ship, George Washington, should carry an Ambassador to Constantinople with presents … Every effort was made by me to evade this demand but it availed nothing. The light in which the chief of this regency looks upon the people of the United States may be inferred by his style of expression. He remarked to me. “You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves;I have therefore a right to order you as I may think proper.” The unpleasant situation in which I am placed must convince you that I have no alternative left but compliance, or a renewal of hostilities against our commerce. The loss of the frigate and the fear of slavery for myself and crew were the least circumstances to be apprehended, but I know our valuable commerce in these seas would fall a sacrifice to the corsairs of this power of this power, as we have no cruisers to protect it…

I hope I may never again be sent to Algiers with tribute unless I am authorized to deliver it from the mouth of our cannon…”

I recommend that you read his entire post, entitled “Bullies Redux“. If you’ve ever doubted the value of military strength, and the will to use it, you will learn the perils of weakness. Would that our so-called leadership would read and heed article like this.

This is an example of building on our knowledge base, whether it is Alfred the Great’s experience or Captain Bainbridge’s. This is how the human race makes progress.

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Autonomous Cars? Really? Why?

Shelley, the autonomous race car

Shelley, the autonomous race car (Photo credit: Saad Faruque)

So are you excited about what they’re calling ‘Autonomous Cars’? Personally I think them a horrible idea.

First, the more complex you make any system, the more prone to failure it is, and these systems are complex indeed. You also have to think about their failure mode. In my business, in the old relay days, when something failed, it would usually stop. With electronics, failure usually means that they go full speed until something outside intervenes. You know like Toyota throttles.

Cruise controls, even what they call adaptive cruise controls are fine, probably even good for safety, a sort of back up for momentary inattention, which we are all guilty of. Almost anything like that is a positive good, as long as the operator can override it at any time.

But, the fully autonomous car, on the other hand, where you tell the car where you want to go, and it takes care of it, is a different kettle of fish, and it smells worse than 3-year-old Lutefisk.

First, if your fancy car goes wrong and kills 5 people by running over them, and setting Neiman-Marcus on fire on the way, You’re going to end up liable. Sure some will try to blame the manufacturer, and possibly it might work occasionally but, the basic rule in American court is ‘deep pockets win’. Who has deeper pockets? You, or the Ford Motor Company. That’s what I thought.

More at Who Is Liable When a Self-Driving Car Crashes?

And what are you going to do when NSA or the police tell your car; “Go directly to jail, do not pass go.” Why can’t they? Your car is talking to who knows who, all the time anymore, even when you’re not. Keep reading.

And by the way, airplanes have had autopilots since the 1940s, they still have 2 (count ‘em 2) pilots, and people get very excited when they take a nap at work. Even though there are autopilots available that could manage the aircraft from terminal to terminal. What do the airline people know that we don’t?

And then there’s this. Kit Lange writing on The Victory Girls Blog tell us this,

But the privacy war isn’t just raging on the internet.  It’s in your car too.  Ford VP of Marketing and Sales, Jim Farley, got a bit too honest at an electronic trade show in Vegas this week.

“We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone,” he told attendees.

Naturally, Farley retracted his statements and put up a clarifier: “I absolutely left the wrong impression about how Ford operates. We do not track our customers in their cars without their approval or consent.”

The problem with that is this: By purchasing a car with GPS, you are approving and consenting to be tracked.  That’s how GPS works.  It can’t tell you where to go without tracking where you are.  In other words, his retraction is actually a confirmation.

Continue reading Google, Ford, and the NSA’s Fight to Stay in Control

Frankly, I think I’ll keep driving for myself, thank you very much. And by preference I’ll do it in a car that doesn’t tell the world every half-second or so where it is, either.

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All Aboard

One of my favorite writers and bloggers, Rachel Charmley of Changing Skin and other stories ( you should follow her blog, if you like good fiction) asked me the other day what it is like to travel on American trains. Rachel is British and so lives in a land that has nothing but what we would call regional trains, much like, I suppose, our North East Corridor service. This is my response, I hope it pleases her. :-)

picAMT35005You know when Jess was talking about my trip back east, here, she said this:

Well, Neo is on his way East by train; somehow that seems a much more appropriate mode of travel for our favourite engineer than a plane; it is also, and that seems appropriate too, a more civilised way of travelling.

Other than the fact that she overstates my qualifications rather dramatically, she’s right. It is much more civilized, hearkening back to a time when we treated each other in a civilized manner, no matter our station in life. As a conservative, and as a practical man, I have many qualms about Amtrak qua Amtrak but, it remains my preferred method of travel.

One of the things that bugs me is the high cost of sleeping accommodations on the train, like so many things in America, there is a historical reason for it. Up until World War I, a sleeper berth was affordable for almost anyone travelling and then the Wilson administration took over the railroads during the war (and mucked the job up so badly that Roosevelt didn’t even consider it) and added an extra fare for first class trains, like so many temporary government measures, it’s still with us today.

I’ve written before about the trip, in an article called Reflections on a Train Trip, which talks a bit about the sights one sees on the trip, so there’s little point in talking about it again. Instead let’s talk a bit about the predecessor roads on this trip.

$_35When I leave, I join my train at an old division point of the Chicago Burlington and Quincy, Usually called the Burlington Route. This is the route of one of the very first streamliners in the 1930s, The Denver Zephyr, last I knew one of the train sets was on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, The Burlington itself was of course the king of the Granger Roads, reaching into nearly every county between the Mississippi and Denver, and taking a large share of the agricultural production of the Heartland to Chicago or New Orléans for transhipment. It was a solid, conservative road, financed by Boston money, which was often British in origin. We will follow this route through the shops of the Burlington at Burlington, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River all the way to Chicago. If all goes well this leg will last about 13 hours starting at 0100 Central time and will cover about 706 miles.

A panoramic view of the front of the station

A panoramic view of the front of the station

That will bring us into Chicago Union Station at 14:50 still in the Central time zone. Transcontinental train travel in America has nearly always gone through Chicago, this has always been the major change from eastern roads to western, although there are others, such as St. Louis and New Orléans. But Chicago was built by the railroads and shipping, it grew from shipping the produce of the “Breadbasket of the World” to the world, by rails and by lake. It is quite a town, at once one of the largest Polish cities in the world, one of the largest Irish cities in the world, and many others. Home to jazz, pizza, pirogues, and ribs.



At 18:40 we will be off on the Capitol Limited. This train carries the name of the Chesapeake and Ohio’s flagship train, which was famed for the scenery in the Potomac Gorge, and its wonderful chicken pot pie, back in the old days. It’s route includes using the New York Central’s route across Ohio and Indiana, which was the only way the C&O could compete on time with the Pennsylvania’s Washington section of the Broadway Limited. When things are good, I’ll usually buy a sleeper on this leg, there’s enough time to get a reasonable nights sleep, which is not true on the western leg. This was not that year, but you know, unlike like the cattle car confines of an airplane, long distance coaches have enough room (especially leg room) to sleep fairly well without beating each other up,

pa_pittsburgh04If all goes well, I will leave the train in Pittsburgh at about 05:00 the next morning, having racked up another 491 miles. And here our layover will be rather boring since Amtrak’s depot is in the basement of the old Penn Station, and the only services are a bank of vending machines, and waiting room chairs more suited to an airport. :-) But it’s fairly short because at 07:30 we’ll be off riding the Pennsylvanian.

PRR_LogoAnd here we are on the track of what was known as the “Standard Railroad of the World” the Pennsylvania Railroad. It got that way because it was a mountain road competing with the water level route of the New York Central on one of the great trade routes of the world: New York to Chicago. It was done so well that the cost per mile was almost exactly the same to ship either road, as was the transit time. It was done by sheer engineering and competence, and maintaining the standards. Earlier, I referred to the Broadway Limited, many assume it refers to the street in New York City, it doesn’t. It recalls the “broad way of steel”, the Pennsylvania’s four track main from New York to Pittsburgh, where the Pennsylvania proper ended. from there it ran on leased lines, The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Railway (The Fort Wayne), The Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad (The Pan Handle Route) to Chicago and St. Louis, and others.

42419728On the main west of Altoona, Pennsylvania is one of the engineering wonders of the world, the Horseshoe Curve. which was built by hand to replace the Allegheny Portage Railroad, which was very slow and expensive. Just a few miles on is Altoona itself, where the PRR’s main shops were located, and they manufactured their own steam locomotives and freight cars. And then when we reach Harrisburg, where we will change out our diesel locomotive for an electric, in what was (and still is) the largest electrification project on an American railroad. It started when the Railroad built the Hells Gate bridge into Manhattan, and the tunnels into the island as well to serve the station they were building: Pennsylvania Station, New York.

In one of the greatest acts of architectural vandalism ever committed, the station itself, based on the Roman Baths of Caracalla and on the scale of St. Peter’s Nave in Rome, was demolished in the early sixties to build the new Madison Square Garden. This is what spawned the historic building preservation movement in the United States.

300px-Amfleet_I_seatsAnd at about 14:12 we will reach our station, having journeyed almost exactly half way across the continent in a total of 36 hours, pretty comfortably, and treated with courtesy and respect all the way. Although I will admit that the diner is not what it used to be, a bland, overcooked steak, doesn’t compare to the first really good meal I had, Roast Duck l’Orange in the diner of a second class Pennsylvania train in the mid 60s, it’s still a bunch better than a bag of peanuts and a bottle of water, in a seat designed for a pygmy in a cattle car called an airplane, although I do fly when necessary, I consider it quite suboptimal.


Then and Now

Wright Flyer III de 1905

Wright Flyer III de 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


110 years ago today, a plan came together. A couple of bicycle mechanic from Dayton, Ohio studied some stuff, worked hard, applied what they learned, and today they made the first powered flight by a heavier than air craft.

They were of course Orville and Wilbur Wright, and they changed the world. And all that I said above was true, and more. They studied bird’s wings until they figured out that they needed an airfoil. They needed an engine with far more specific output per pound than was available, so they made it. they built their models and then built the first wind tunnel to test them. And on and on and on.

The thing was, they had a high school education and maybe a bit of business school. Just average Americans, doing something nobody else in the world had ever done. Once their plane worked, improvements came fast and furiously, but the famous SR-71, still the fastest and highest flying aircraft ever, even though it is now retired, Blackbird which was faster than a rifle bullet, used exactly the same principles as the Wright Flyer.

Average Americans inventing something that had been dreamed of by Kings and Emperors since the dawn of time.

Today, a mere hundred and ten years ago


You can’t get a woodstove, or much of anything else fixed, let alone built. A friend of mine, The Adaptive Curmudgeon had his woodstove break, and no, woodstoves are no longer a steel or cast iron box, with a campfire inside. The EPA fixed that oversight a decade or so ago.

Let’s start with a Curmudgeonly gem of insight shall we

Anyone who refers to ‘homesteading’ as ‘the simple life’ is utterly and irretrievably full of shit. What’s simple is working 30 years in a cubicle while cutting a check for civilization to do your dirty work for you. Going your own way is complex. Fixing your own problems is physically and emotionally challenging. Never forget that a brain surgeon can screw up a vegetable garden.

Yup, he’s got that right, it’s easy to make money and write checks, fix it yourself, I dare you, or even better build it yourself, the Wright brothers did, and you’re smarter than a bicycle mechanic aren’t you?

Here’s how it goes, and yes, I’ve been on both sides of this conversation

Me on the phone: “Hello I’m looking for someone to service a wood stove.”

Other guy: “Where do you live?”

Me: “Mumble mumble mumble”

Other guy: “Where?”

Me: (Saying it clearly this time.)

Other guy: “Hells bells I wouldn’t drive there for all the tea in China.”

Me: “I will buy you all the tea in China.”

Other guy: “No, the boss won’t go for it.”

Me: “I will pay cash. The boss doesn’t need to know shit. I’ll throw in a six pack, two steaks, and plane tickets to Tahiti.”

Other guy: “Can’t do it.”

Me: “For any amount of money?”

Other guy: “You know how it is; liability and stuff.”

Me: “I won’t sue. I will kill any lawyer who sues.”

Other guy: “Ha ha.”

Me: “Capitalism is dead isn’t it.”

Other guy: (Sighing) “I can’t take your money so maybe it is.  We’re all screwed.”

Read the whole article, it’ll tell you a good bit of what’s wrong with the world.

So, how do you fix a woodstove, these days? Like everything else, you don’t. You throw it away and buy another one, which will cost more and be made more cheaply than one that broke, probably in China, and will last about 3 days longer than the warranty.

That Wright Flyer? It’s hanging from the ceiling of the Smithsonian, it would probably still work, because it was made to last.

“Failure Is ALWAYS an Option”

Yesterday, Moe Lane had post that talked about “Failure not being an option”. It’s a fantasy, as anybody who does real stuff can tell you. We all like to talk about the space program in the 60s, me included. In fact, when I was in college, a group of us went together, rented an airplane and flew down to the Kennedy Space Center to see an Apollo launch. This one

If I’m honest, that video is a very poor impression. It was quite simply the most awesome (in the real sense) thing that I have ever seen. It was rather like watching the sun come up 5 miles away, in a god like roar that shook the ground. If you can imagine four college guys, who had stood directly under the Blue Angel soloists (in F-4 Phantom jets) a few weeks before, just staring with tears running down their faces, you’ll know how we felt. Never before or since have I been so proud to be an American.

But failure was always an option, it was only a few years before that “Houston, we have a problem” had entered the lexicon (Apollo 13) and only five years since another Indiana boy (and Boilermaker) had burned to death in Apollo 1. All of that engineering done on drawing boards and with slide rules. I’m not sure we could do it today with all our advantages. That was Kennedy’s legacy to us all: Americans can do anything, with nearly nothing, at any time. But to get to that point we saw a lot of this

And that’s the lesson for us all from the space program. You’re going to make mistakes, errors, and even blunders. If you learn from them, you will eventually get it right. If you’re smart, you do your testing in such a way that you don’t kill too many people testing. And that’s especially true, if like the American space program, you’re doing it right out front in the store window, where the whole world can watch.

It was great TV though.

Here’s part of Moe’s:

“A free hint to my fellow liberal arts majors: outside of our own, rather narrow, academic disciplines, it really doesn’t matter how hard you wish for something. You’re not gonna get it that way:”

The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright. Failure is always an option. Engineers work as hard as they do because they understand the risk of failure. And for anything it might have meant in its screenplay version, here that sentiment means the opposite; the unnamed executives were saying “Addressing the possibility of failure is not an option.”

Continue reading Moe Lane » “Failure is ALWAYS an option*.” #obamacare

Ulfberht: Viking Technology

An SVG version of this image. Created with Ado...

An SVG version of this image. Created with Adobe Illustrator CS3. Based on the blank Europe map available on the Commons. The enclosed legend is as follows: eighth centuries ninth centuries tenth centuries eleventh centuries denotes areas subjected to frequent Viking raids but with little or no Scandinavian settlement (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday we spoke of a Saga-man, a Viking hero and warrior, in spite of his health problems. But the Viking carried nearly all before them. Why? and How? Did their weaponry have something to do with it, or was it merely the character and heroism of Egil Skalla-Grimsson, and his compatriots?

Turns out that part of it may have been technological at that. Ever heard of a swordsmith named Ulfberht? Neither has anybody else really, and nobody knows if it was a name, a trademark or something else.

But it was the best in the world at its time, a sword worthy of Valhalla, itself. Even by modern standards, its steel was very good, and that makes it really exceptional, making steel, good steel, is one of the hardest things to do, technically, especially on a small scale.

Ulfberht was good enough to counterfeit in antiquity, for men that would have thought nothing of killing you for lying to them, it must have been a remarkable weapon, whose legend has been almost completely lost, Here its story.

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