Quotulatiousness

August 28, 2014

Digital “ecosystems”, “platforms”, and sunk costs

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:19

The Guardian Technology Blog looks at how digital product vendors attempt to lock you into their own (more profitable) platform or ecosystem:

Depending on your view, the stuff you own is either a boon to business or a tremendous loss of opportunity.

For example, your collection of spice bottles in your pantry means that I could possibly sell you a spice rack. On the other hand, it also means that I can’t design a special spice rack that only admits spice bottles of my own patent-protected design, which would thereby ensure that if you wanted to buy spices in the future you’d either have to buy them from me or throw away that very nice spice rack I sold you.

In the tech world, this question is often framed in terms of “ecosystems” (as in the “Google/Chrome/Android ecosystem”) or platforms (as in the “Facebook platform”) but whatever you call it, the discussion turns on a crucial different concept: sunk cost.

That’s the money, time, mental energy and social friction you’ve already sunk into the stuff you own. Your spice rack’s sunk cost includes the money you spend on the rack, the time you spent buying fixings for it and the time you spent affixing it, the emotional toil of getting your family to agree on a spice rack, and the incredible feeling of dread that arises when you contemplate going through the whole operation again.

If you’ve already got a lot of sunk costs, the canny product strategy is to convince you that you can buy something that will help you organise your spices, rip all your CDs and put them on a mobile device, or keep your clothes organised.

But what a vendor really wants is to get you to sink cost into his platform, ecosystem, or what have you. To convince you to buy his wares, in order to increase the likelihood that you’ll go on doing so — because they match the decor, because you already have the adapters, and so on.

The vendor wants to impose a switching cost on you, to penalise you for disloyalty should you defect to another ecosystem/platform. The higher your switching costs, the worse the vendor can afford to treat you — rather than supplying the best goods at the best price, he can provide the best goods at the best price, plus the switching cost you’d have to pay if you went somewhere else. Or he can offer the best price, but offer goods whose manufacture — and quality — is cheaper by a sum of about the cost you’d have to pay for switching.

QotD: “Intelligent Design” and the paradox of the human body

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Religion, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The human body, very cunningly designed in some details, is cruelly and senselessly bungled in other details, and every reflective first-year medical student must notice a hundred ways to improve it. How are we to reconcile this mixture of finesse and blundering with the concept of a single omnipotent Designer, to whom all problems are equally easy? If He could contrive so efficient and durable a machine as the human hand, then how did He come to make such botches as the tonsils, the gallbladder, the ovaries and the prostate gland? If He could perfect the elbow and the ear, then why did He boggle the teeth?

Having never encountered a satisfactory — or even a remotely plausible — answer to such questions, I have had to go to the trouble of devising one myself. It is, at all events, quite simple, and in strict accord with all the known facts. In brief, it is this: that the theory that the universe is run by a single God must be abandoned, and that in place of it we must set up the theory that it is actually run by a board of gods, all of equal puissance and authority. Once this concept is grasped the difficulties that have vexed theologians vanish, and human experience instantly lights up the whole dark scene. We observe in everyday life what happens when authority is divided, and great decisions are reached by consultation and compromise. We know that the effects at times, particularly when one of the consultants runs away with the others, are very good, but we also know that they are usually extremely bad. Such a mixture, precisely, is on display in the cosmos. It presents a series of brilliant successes in the midst of an infinity of failures.

I contend that my theory is the only one ever put forward that completely accounts for the clinical picture. Every other theory, facing such facts as sin, disease and disaster, is forced to admit the supposition that Omnipotence, after all, may not be omnipotent — a plain absurdity. I need toy with no such blasphemous nonsense. I may assume that every god belonging to the council which rules the universe is infinitely wise and infinitely powerful, and yet not evade the plain fact that most of the acts of that council are ignorant and foolish. In truth, my assumption that a council exists is tantamount to an a priori assumption that its acts are ignorant and foolish, for no act of any conceivable council can be otherwise. Is the human hand perfect, or, at all events, practical and praiseworthy? Then I account for it on the ground that it was designed by some single member of the council — that the business was turned over to him by inadvertence or as a result of an irreconcilable difference of opinion among the others. Had more than one member participated actively in its design it would have been measurably less meritorious than it is, for the sketch offered by the original designer would have been forced to run the gauntlet of criticisms and suggestions from all the other councilors, and human experience teaches us that most of these criticisms and suggestions would have been inferior to the original idea — that many of them, in fact, would have had nothing in them save a petty desire to maul and spoil the original idea.

H.L. Mencken, “The Cosmic Secretariat”, American Mercury, 1924-01.

April 17, 2014

QotD: User interface design for all ages

Filed under: Humour, Media, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:51

As your body staggers down the winding road to death, user interfaces that require fighter pilot-grade eyesight, the dexterity of a neurosurgeon, and the mental agility of Derren Brown, are going to screw with you at some point.

Don’t kid yourself otherwise — disability, in one form or another, can strike at any moment.

Given that people are proving ever harder to kill off, you can expect to have decades of life ahead of you — during which you’ll be battling to figure out where on the touchscreen that trendy transdimensional two-pixel wide “OK” button is hiding.

Can you believe, people born today will spend their entire lives having to cope with this crap? The only way I can explain the web design of many Google products today is that some wannabe Picasso stole Larry Page’s girl when they were all 13, and is only now exacting his revenge. Nobody makes things that bad by accident, surely?

Dominic Connor, “Is tech the preserve of the young able-bodied? Let’s talk over a fine dinner and claret”, The Register, 2014-04-17

January 13, 2014

Defining glamour

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:22

Virginia Postrel is interviewed at Paleofuture:

I think of glamour as a form of communication, persuasion, rhetoric. What happens is you have an audience and you have an object — something glamorous. It could be a person, could be a place, could be an idea, could be a car — and when that audience is exposed to that object a specific emotion arises, which is a sense of projection and longing.

Glamour is like humor. You get the same sort of thing in the interaction between an audience and something funny. It’s just the emotion that’s different. So when you see something that strikes you as glamorous, or you hear about or see something glamorous, it makes you think, “If only. If only life could be like that. If only I could be there. If only I could be that person, or with that person. If only I could drive that car, fly in that spaceship, or whatever.”

And there are always three elements that create that sensation: one is a promise of escape and transformation. A different, better life in different, better circumstances. The other is there is a sense of grace, effortlessness, all the flaws and difficulties are hidden. And the third is mystery. Mystery both draws you in and enhances the grace by hiding things.

Another way of thinking about glamour is to think about the origins of the word glamour. Glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see something that wasn’t there. It was a Scottish word. A magician would cast a glamour over people’s eyes and they would see something different. As the word became a more metaphorical concept, it always retained that sense of magic and illusion. And where the illusion lies is in the grace; in the disguising of difficulties and flaws.

November 4, 2013

QotD: Software quality assurance

Filed under: Business, Government, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:13

The fundamental purpose of testing—and, for that matter, of all software quality assurance (QA) deliverables and processes — is to tell you just what you’ve built and whether it does what you think it should do. This is essential, because you can’t inspect a software program the same way you can inspect a house or a car. You can’t touch it, you can’t walk around it, you can’t open the hood or the bedroom door to see what’s inside, you can’t take it out for spin. There are very few tangible or visible clues to the completeness and reliability of a software system — and so we have to rely on QA activities to tell us how well built the system is.

Furthermore, almost any software system developed nowadays for production is vastly more complex than a house or car — it’s more on the same order of complexity of a large petrochemical processing and storage facility, with thousands of possible interconnections, states, and processes. We would be (rightly) terrified if, say, Exxon build such a sprawling oil refining complex near our neighborhood and then started up production having only done a bare minimum of inspection, testing, and trial operations before, during and after construction, offering the explanation that they would wait until after the plant went into production and then handle problems as they crop up. Yet too often that’s just how large software development projects are run, even though the system in development may well be more complex (in terms of connections, processes, and possible states) than such a petrochemical factory. And while most inadequately tested software systems won’t spew pollutants, poison the neighborhood, catch fire, or explode, they can cripple corporate operations, lose vast sums of money, spark shareholder lawsuits, and open the corporation’s directors and officers to civil and even criminal liability (particularly with the advent of Sarbanes-Oxley).

And that presumes that the system can actually go into production. The software engineering literature and the trade press are replete with well-documented case studies of “software runaways”: large IT re-engineering or development projects that consume tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, or in a few spectacular (government) cases, billions of dollars, over a period of years, before grinding to a halt and being terminated without ever having put a usable, working system into production. So it’s important not to skimp on testing and the other QA-related activities.

Bruce F. Webster, “Obamacare and the Testing Gap”, And Still I Persist…, 2013-10-31

October 31, 2013

Canada’s shipbuilding strategy – the worst of both worlds

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:15

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) both are badly in need of new ships. The federal government has been aware of this for quite some time and has made plenty of announcements about addressing those needs … but the actual steps taken do not give me hope that the needs will be met economically or in a timely fashion. Canada no longer has a domestic ship-building industry with experience in producing military vessels, and it does not make economic sense to re-create it for the relatively small number of ships the RCN and the CCG actually need.

Politically, it can be a good election ploy to pour lots of government money into new shipyards which will employ hundreds of skilled and unskilled workers. The newly employed will be spending their salaries in Halifax, Vancouver, and Quebec and the visible signs of construction (both of the facilities themselves and of the hulls of the ships) will be a steady reminder to voters that the feds are investing in their cities. From the political viewpoint, it makes lots of sense to design and build the ships in Canada.

Economically, the situation is quite different. None of the remaining shipbuilding firms have the trained staff for either designing or assembling modern military ships. They’ll need to expand their yards and hire new skilled workers to take on the contracts. The civilian economy probably does not have all the necessary trained would-be employees ready to hire, so many would need to be brought in from other countries while training courses eventually turn out enough Canadians able to take those jobs. This will all increase the cost of the shipbuilding program, and delay the already belated eventual delivery of the ships. J.L. Granatstein explains:

The government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy aims to provide Arctic patrol ships, supply vessels and eventually replacements for the RCN’s fine frigates, as well as a large icebreaker and 10 smaller ships for the Coast Guard. The cost, including the frigate replacement, is estimated at $80 billion, and the process involves re-establishing the nation’s shipyards in Vancouver and Halifax, in effect re-creating a defunct industry. Up to 15,000 jobs are to be created.

But this is Canada, so pork and high costs are inevitable. National Defence and Public Works are deeply involved, politicians’ hands are all over the plans, and costs are sky-high. Consider the two Joint Support Ships to be built in Vancouver for $3 billion. They will likely be fine ships when they hit the water, years late. Britain’s Royal Navy, however, is buying four roughly similar ships from South Korean builders for $750 million — for all four. Should the RCN ships cost eight times those of the British? The Dutch navy is buying ships built in Romania; the Danes use ships built in Poland. Why? Because the cost is far less, the quality is good, and the work of installing the armaments and communications systems can be done in home waters, creating good jobs.

Take another case, the 10 small vessels to be built on the west coast for the Coast Guard for $3.3 billion. In 2007, the Danes bought similar, larger ships for $50 million each, ships with an icebreaking capacity the CCG ships will not have. Even with six years of inflation factored in, the CCG ships will cost at least three to five times as much.

But, the government will say, the jobs being created on the coasts are good ones, paying well for the skilled workers who are being trained to fill them. It is true, but will the Canadian public support the RCN and the Coast Guard when it realizes the massive costs involved to create each job? Moreover, no government can bind its successors to follow any policy. Jean Chrétien killed the maritime helicopter project when he came to power two decades ago, and the RCN still has no new ones. A future government might well say that the deficit is too high and the ship projects cannot proceed. After all, governments have killed the shipbuilding industry in this country before — after the two world wars and after the RCN frigate program ended in the 1990s. There are no guarantees in politics, and neither the Liberals nor the NDP seem high on defence spending for anything other than peacekeeping.

However, any time the political equations and the economic equations point in very different directions, you can almost always count on the politicians to go for the most expensive/most politically advantageous answer.

October 25, 2013

The glamour of big IT projects

Filed under: Government, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Virginia Postrel on the hubris of the Obamacare project team:

The HealthCare.gov website is a disaster — symbolic to Obamacare opponents, disheartening to supporters, and incredibly frustrating to people who just need to buy insurance. Some computer experts are saying the only way to save the system is to scrap the current bloated code and start over.

Looking back, it seems crazy that neither the Barack Obama administration nor the public was prepared for the startup difficulties. There’s no shortage of database experts willing to opine on the complexities of the problem. Plenty of companies have nightmarish stories to tell about much simpler software projects. And reporting by the New York Times finds that the people involved with the system knew months ago that it was in serious trouble. “We foresee a train wreck,” one said back in February.

So why didn’t the administration realize that integrating a bunch of incompatible government databases into a seamless system with an interface just about anyone could understand was a really, really hard problem? Why was even the president seemingly taken by surprise when the system didn’t work like it might in the movies?

We have become seduced by computer glamour.

Whether it’s a television detective instantly checking a database of fingerprints or the ease of Amazon.com’s “1-Click” button, we imagine that software is a kind of magic — all the more so if it’s software we’ve never actually experienced. We expect it to be effortless. We don’t think about how it got there or what its limitations might be. Instead of imagining future technologies as works in progress, improving over time, we picture them as perfect from day one.

August 28, 2013

Home 3D printers are not quite plug-and-play yet

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:45

Ars Technica‘s Lee Hutchinson finds through actual hands-on experience that “home” 3D printers are still in the “tinkering” stage of development:

I volunteered to put the Printrbot through its paces from the perspective of someone who’s only vaguely aware of home 3D printing as a technology. Before getting my hands on the Printrbot Simple, I’d never even seen a home 3D printer before.

What I found as I dug in was a pit without a bottom — an absolute yawning Stygian abyss of options and tweaking and modifications and endless re-printing. To own and use a 3D printer is to become enmeshed in a constant stream of tinkering, tweaking, and upgrades. It feels a lot like owning a project car that you must continually wrench on to keep it running right. Almost from the moment I got the Printrbot out of the box and printing, I had to start the tweaking. And as a total 3D printing newb, it really soured me on the Printrbot and on the entire concept of low-cost 3D printing in general. “Surely,” I thought, “this frustration is because I’m cutting my teeth on a $299 3D printer intended for early adopters. Surely a higher-end 3D printer is easier!”

And so, in order to see how a higher-end home 3D printer works, I found myself in possession of a much more expensive, much more impressive-looking Makerbot Replicator 2. That device costs $2,200 as opposed to the Printrbot Simple’s $299. The first few things I printed out with the much more expensive device were amazing. It was like leaving the project car in the garage and driving the Lexus to work — you get in, press the button, and go. But then, after perhaps 20 hours of print time, the problems started. Filament would fail to feed. The printer would clog. The printer produced spaghetti instead of actual models, ruining overnight print jobs. I had to replace the plunger-based filament extruder with a new spring-loaded version to overcome a design flaw. I found myself re-leveling the build plate and disassembling and reassembling the extruder way more than I ever had to do with the little Printrbot. All of that was as fun as it sounds.

The Makerbot wasn’t turning out to be an expensive but reliable Lexus. It was turning out to be an expensive and you-better-own-two-because-one-will-always-be-broken 1970s-era Jaguar. It wasn’t just frustrating — it was actually enraging. If I had paid $2,200 out of my own pocket for the Makerbot, I would have been sorely tempted to drive up to New York and fling the thing through the windows of Makerbot’s office.

Update, 30 August: Another thing holding back widespread adoption of home 3D printing is that you need proper designs to use for your 3D printer, and most people are not familiar with CAD or CAD-like design programs. This will continue to be a hindrance for original designs, but MakerBot Digitizer can help you copy physical items:

The Digitizer is about the size of a portable 45 rpm record player — with a laser-shooting accessory attached to the back. MakerBot head honcho Bre Pettis debuted a prototype of the Digitizer at his SXSW keynote address back in March, and now the device is almost ready for sale. The MakerBot Digitizer starts shipping in October.

Here’s how it works. You start with a relatively small object — you’re limited to a maximum weight of 6.6 pounds, and the object has to be less than 8 inches wide and 8 inches tall. Put it on the Digitizer’s turntable, and the device scans it with two “eye-safe” lasers as the turntable spins. After the object has been fully scanned, the Digitizer outputs a 3-D design file. The entire scanning process takes about 12 minutes, according to the MakerBot website — there are 800 individual steps within a full 360-degree rotation.

Of course, this is just a surface scan: hollow objects or objects with interior voids will still need further design processing before you can hit “copy”.

August 23, 2013

The avant-garde is dead, dead, dead

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:03

In Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory talks to Camille Paglia about themes in her new book Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars:

In Glittering Images, you argue that the avant-garde is dead. Are there any artists — be they painters or pop stars — who are making innovative work right now?

The avant-garde was a magnificent and revolutionary phase in the history of art, but it’s completely over. Artists and galleries must (in Ann Landers’ immortal words) wake up and smell the coffee! The avant-garde, whose roots were in late-18th-century Romanticism, was a reaction against a strong but suffocating classical tradition. The great modernist artists, from Picasso to James Joyce, were trained in that tradition, which gave audacity and power to their subversion of it.

But then modernism began to feed on itself, and it became weaker and weaker. As I argue in “Glittering Images,” there has been nothing genuinely avant-garde since Andy Warhol except for Robert Mapplethorpe’s luminous homoerotic images of the sadomasochistic underground. Everything that calls itself avant-garde today is just a tedious imitation of earlier and far superior modernist art. The art world has become an echo chamber of commercially inflated rhetoric, shallow ironies and monolithic political ideology.

In the past year, the only things that sparked my enthusiasm and gave me hope for an artistic revival were in pop music: Rihanna’s eerie “Pour It Up,” which uses a strip club as a hallucinatory metaphor for an identity crisis about sex and materialism, and the Savages’ slam-bang “City’s Full,” which channels the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith to attack (with gorgeously distorted, strafing guitars) the urban parade of faux-female fashion clones. The visual arts, in contrast, are being swamped by virtual reality.

Video games and YouTube.com are creatively booming, even though Web design, as demonstrated by the ugly clutter of most major news sites, is in the pits.

[...]

Earlier this year, you wrote a highly critical article about recent academic books on the world of kink. What do you wish that these academics would say about BDSM?

My principal complaint about those three books, all from university presses, was that their intriguing firsthand documentation of the BDSM community was pointlessly shot through with turgid, pretentious theorizing, drawn from the slavishly idolized but hopelessly inaccurate and unreliable Michel Foucault.

In this tight job market, young scholars are in a terrible bind. They have to cater to and flatter the academic establishment if they hope to survive. Furthermore, they have not been taught basic skills in historical investigation, weighing of evidence, and argumentation. There has been a collapse in basic academic standards during the theory era that will take universities decades to recover from. I was incensed that none of those three authors had read a page of the Marquis de Sade, one of the most original and influential writers of the past three centuries. Sade had a major impact on Nietzsche, whom Foucault vainly tried to model himself on. Nor had the three authors read The Story of O or explored a host of other crucial landmarks in modern sadomasochism. No, it was Foucault, Foucault, Foucault — a con artist who will one day be a mere footnote in the bulging chronicle of academic follies.

You’re such a beloved and divisive figure, I had to solicit questions from folks on Twitter. Here’s a funny one: “Why do you come down so hard on skinny white girls? Your views on sexuality leave so much room for individuality, so why is it so bad if I am attracted to Meg Ryan or Gwyneth Paltrow?”

When have I ever criticized anyone’s fetish? I am a libertarian. Go right ahead — set up plastic figurines of 1950s-era moppets to bow down to in the privacy of your boudoir. No one will scold! Then whip down to the kitchen to heat up those foil-wrapped TV dinners. I still gaze back fondly at Swanson’s fried-chicken entree. The twinkly green peas! The moist apple fritter! Meg Ryan — the spitting image of all those perky counselors at my Girl Scout camp in the Adirondacks. Gwyneth Paltrow — a simpering sorority queen with field-hockey-stick legs. I will leave you to your retro pursuits while I dash off to moon over multiracial Brazilian divas.

August 19, 2013

US Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS) program under budget threat

Filed under: Military, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:42

The US Navy is betting big on the eventual success of their Littoral Combat Ship program despite the early teething troubles (earlier posts here and here). The more traditional hull design (there are two distinct designs in the same class) is being built by Wisconsin’s Marinette Marine, as a subcontractor to Lockheed-Martin. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on the latest political hitch in the program:

The littoral program has been dogged by problems, including early cost overruns. The completed ships have suffered from mechanical problems as well as from delays in producing switchable mission modules aimed at making the ships adaptable to varied types of warfare.

Testing has revealed deficiencies with “core ship systems,” according to the July 25 GAO report, which says Congress should consider restricting funding for additional littoral combat ships until the Navy completes technical and design studies.

Littoral combat ships are meant to be fast and capable of operating in shallow waters close to shore in places such as the Persian Gulf.

“We continue to believe that the acquisition approach for this program, with large quantities of ships and modules being bought ahead of key test events, is risky, especially for a new class of ship like LCS,” Paul Francis, a GAO official, said in recent testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee looking into the program.

“The current LCS program is not the program envisioned over a decade ago,” Francis said, adding the Navy still doesn’t know how well the ships will perform their missions, how well the unique crew and maintenance concepts will work, or how much it will cost to equip and support the ships.

Further, the Navy is still considering changes to the ships and determining whether there are advantages to having two radically different designs — one built by Lockheed and Marinette, and the other by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

“These are things the Navy and Congress should know before contracting for more than half of the ships,” Francis said.


USS Freedom at sea. Click for full-sized image at Wikipedia

July 10, 2013

How Avro salvaged a bad design to create the Lancaster bomber

Filed under: Britain, History, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait goes back to his Airfix modelling days to rediscover his admiration for Avro’s Lancaster bomber. In the process, he discovers just how strange the evolution of that aircraft actually was:

In the late 1930s, believing that bombers would always get through and that they therefore had to have lots of bombers or lose the war, British Air Officialdom had two ideas about how to build a bomber. They accordingly announced two specifications, which different potential bomber-makers were invited to meet with their designs. They wanted a two engined bomber, like those that the Germans bombed Britain with in 1940 but better, or like the Wellington but better. And they wanted a much bigger four engined bomber, such as the Germans never got around to building, and like … well, like the Avro Lancaster.

So, the Lancaster was Avro’s answer to the second requirement? Actually, no. Or, not at first. Britain ended up with three four-engine heavy bombers, the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax, and the Lancaster. But strangely, by far the worst of these three, the Short Stirling, was the only one of the three that was all along intended to be a four-engine bomber. Both the Halifax and the Lancaster started out as answers to the two-engine specification rather than the four-engine one.

[. . .]

In particular, all the work that Avro had done improving, as they had hoped, the fuselage of the Manchester, which had done nothing to improve the Manchester, suddenly came into its own in the new configuration. Ever since I built my Airfix Lancaster as a child, I have wondered about the oddity of that Lancaster fuselage. Simply, this fuselage seemed too small for the airplane as whole. And the wings seemed too big. Not ugly exactly, in fact not ugly at all, but nevertheless a bit like the arms of one of those misshapen body builders with excessive biceps. My Lancaster photo (above) even shows how the wings between the fuselage and the inner two engines go straight out rather than tapering, as if these wings were only widened late on in the design process. Now, all that makes sense. The Lancaster’s fuselage began life as the fuselage of a smaller airplane. No wonder it looked to me too small. It was too small. The Lancaster’s wings look stretched because they were stretched. It is only now, after half a century and more of gazing at the Lancaster, that one looks at the Manchester, and sees its fuselage as too big and its wings as too small.

The birth of the Lancaster illustrates a general point about making airplanes, which explains why successful airplanes often fly on for so long. Consider the airborne WW2 mega-hit, the DC-3 (aka the Dakota), and then later the big Boeings, the B-52 and the 747. The Lancaster didn’t last as long as those hardy perennials, because propeller driven heavy bombers were soon replaced by jet bombers (like the B-52) and by intercontinental ballistic missiles. But even the Lancaster flew on for many decades, in the only slightly altered form of its close cousin, the Avro Shackleton, which only went out of service in 1991!

May 27, 2013

The economic and technical issues with domestic ship-building programs

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:44

The Royal Canadian Navy is supposed to be getting some new ships (eventually), at a proposed cost of $25 billion. But the best way to get the most bang for our buck is not the way the government is going about it … building these highly specialized vessels in Canada does two things: it guarantees that we’ll pay far more money for fewer hulls, and it briefly raises employment in certain fields (metalworking, electrical work, welding, etc.). What it doesn’t do is create a viable industry for building naval or coast guard ships for other countries — because most other countries can either build their own (France, Germany, the UK, and the US) or have the economic sense to buy from friendly countries that can build efficiently at reasonable cost. Even if we pay a significant premium to build frigates or destroyers in Canada, once that job is over the shipyards will close down and most or all of the workers will be looking for new jobs.

Michael Whalen has more:

Given the above, the second, far more strategic, issue to be discussed is: Should we in fact be building warships in Canada at all? What is the long-term benefit to Canada?

The immediate answer from politicians of all stripes is, interestingly, not great ships, but jobs, jobs, jobs. However, the jobs they are talking about may well be far less valuable than we imagine.

There is no standard breakdown of the costs of building a warship, but a recent study by the South Australian government (as part of its input to that country’s proposed 30-year, $250- billion naval shipbuilding strategy) suggests the actual shipbuilding represents much less than half of the cost of a warship, perhaps 30 per cent to 40 per cent.

The rest comes from the design, armament, engines, electronics, etc., which will largely be procured outside of Canada, certainly outside of Nova Scotia. The benefits to Nova Scotia and to Canada will be in largely blue-collar jobs such as shipwrights, welders, electricians and general labour. In a job-poor province such as ours, these are nothing to sneeze at. This massive expenditure will not, however, create a sustainable long-term industry for our province.

To put it bluntly, there is no market for Canadian-built warships. The major buyers, the Americans, the British, the French, the Chinese, etc., build their own. They will never buy a ship from Canada.

Our governments, federal and provincial, will spend billions establishing a small, inefficient industry for which there is no market outside the government of Canada.

There are economies of scale to consider: for a dozen ships, it makes no sense to essentially create an industry from scratch. For a hundred ships, the costs start to be reasonable (but we don’t need that many, couldn’t crew that many, and nobody will buy them from us). We have an infamous historical test of this, too:

There is something of a parallel here with the aircraft industry. John Diefenbaker has been condemned for nearly 60 years for cancelling the Avro Arrow, Canada’s last attempt at building a warplane.

In retrospect, he was right. Instead of spending billions on a jet for which there was no market, subsequent governments invested in companies like DeHavilland and Canadair (both ultimately purchased by Bombardier) and Pratt and Whitney Canada which focused on the growing market for commercial aircraft, particularly small airliners serving regional markets.

Today this country has a vibrant aerospace industry that is among the world’s largest. Canadian-built aircraft fly on every continent and jobs have been created across the country, including many here in Nova Scotia.

Large parts of this industry resulted from the identification of a sustainable, growing niche market (regional airliners) and investing in the components (e.g. airframe design, small turbine engines, landing gear) required to meet that demand. There is no evidence that kind of strategic thinking has gone into Canada’s shipbuilding program.

May 22, 2013

Spain needs to put new submarine design on a diet

Filed under: Europe, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:33

If they launch the new class of submarines as designed, they might not be able to re-surface after diving:

Spanish engineers, who already spent some $680 million on designing the new generation S-80 class submarine, say it is a major “technical innovation.” There is just one problem the calculations show – if submerged into water, it may never come up again.

The Spanish media has been furiously discussing the errors made by the state-owned Navantia construction company, which has spent about a third of the huge $2.2 billion budget only to produce an ‘overweight’ submarine that is not able to float.

Spain’s Ministry of Defense has confirmed that Navantia detected “deviations” in the new submarine’s design, thus delaying its March 2015 scheduled launch for one or two years.

Navantia said an excess weight of up to 100 tons has been added to the sub during construction, and the company may have to redesign the whole craft.

May 11, 2013

The “Liberator” isn’t really a gun … it’s a political theatre prop

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In The Register, Lewis Page points out that the 3D printed “Liberator” isn’t actually much of a gun at all:

People are missing one important point about the “Liberator” 3D-printed “plastic gun”: it isn’t any more a gun than any other very short piece of plastic pipe is a “gun”.

You can take my Liberator ... and shove it

You can take my Liberator … and shove it

Seriously. That’s all a Liberator is: a particularly crappy pipe, because it is made of lots of laminated layers in a 3D printer. Attached to the back of the pipe is a needlessly bulky and complicated mechanism allowing you to bang a lump of plastic with a nail in it against the end of the pipe.

An actual gun barrel is a strong, high quality pipe — almost always made of steel or something equally good — capable of containing high pressure gas. It has rifling down the inside, making it narrow enough that the hard, tough lands actually cut into the soft bullet jacket (too small for the bullet to actually move along, unless it is rammed with massive force). At the back end there is a smooth-walled section, slightly larger, into which a cartridge can be easily slipped.

It’s not much of a gun at all. But as with the old saying about the dancing bear, it’s not how well it dances but that it dances at all. After some 100,000 downloads, the company was requested to take the files offline on Thursday:

May 8, 2013

More questions about the Arctic Patrol Ship project

Filed under: Cancon, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:48

Last week, the CBC’s Terry Milewski posted an article questioning the progress and ongoing costs of the Arctic Patrol Ship program. The ships are supposed to be based on the same design as the Norwegian Coast Guard’s Svalbard:

KV Svalbard

The design was purchased for $5 million with the intent of revising it for Canadian requirements. The government allocated an incredible $288 million for the revisions. The original Svalbard cost about $100 million in 2002 … but that was to design, build, and launch the actual ship. Not just to come up with a revised design.

In yesterday’s Chronicle Herald, Paul McLeod predicted that the price of the patrol ships will rise in the same way that the F-35 project costs have risen:

The mandate for the Arctic/offshore patrol ships is to do offshore work on Canada’s coasts and also be able to patrol icy northern waters. Yet a recent report by the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives argues the ships will be able to do neither job well.

Co-authors Michael Byers and Stewart Webb say the ships will be too small to be effective icebreakers and will only be able to crash through thin ice in the warmer months. They also say the thick, reinforced hulls of the ships will make them too slow for patrolling jobs like chasing off smugglers or illegal fishing boats.

And of course, because we’re designing them from scratch, they will cost far more than an off-the-shelf design.

So the purchase of the original plans — a trivial amount in proportion to the current budget — was a waste of money because the new ships are in effect going to be a new design anyway.

The PBO only looked at two ships being built in Vancouver, but there’s no reason to expect the same problems won’t hit Halifax. The $3-billion price tag for the Arctic/offshore patrol ships has stayed the same for years, though purchasing power has decreased.

Ottawa still says it expects to buy six to eight Arctic/offshore patrol ships but almost no one believes eight is realistic anymore. The Byers-Webb report points out that the navy initially wanted the ships to be able to drive bow-first or stern-first, like Norwegian patrol vessels. That feature was ruled out; presumably it was too expensive.

The ships will still be built in Canada because it would be politically disastrous to move those jobs overseas now. Fair enough. There’s historically been a 20 to 30 per cent markup on building ships in Canada, says Ken Hansen, a maritime security analyst at Dalhousie.

So in summary, we’re going to be paying a higher per-ship price for fewer ships with lower capabilities than we originally specified? This really is starting to sound like a maritime version of the F-35 program. And the Joint Support Ship program. And the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter project.

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