Published on 10 Jun 2012
This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.
The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.
Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.
Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.
July 29, 2015
May 21, 2015
Brid-Aine Parnell talks about the Brunels — father, son, and grandson — and their impact on Britain during the industrial revolution:
When you mention Brunel to most people, they think of the one with the funny name – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A few folks will know that his father Marc Isambard Brunel was the first famous engineering Brunel, but not many will know that Isambard’s own son, Henry Marc Brunel, was also an engineer and finished some of Isambard’s projects after his death.
Between the three of them, the Brunels created landmarks all over the UK; perhaps most famously the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge, linking Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in Somerset.
That bridge, which Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed and often called his “first child,” wasn’t actually completed until after his death and only came about at all because Isambard was nearly drowned in an accident at the massive project he was working on in London with his father: the Thames Tunnel.
It is this masterpiece of engineering, which invented new methods of tunnelling underground and is why the Brunels are credited with creating underground transportation – and by extension, the modern city itself – that you see if you go along to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, London.
The museum itself is in Marc Brunel’s Engine House, built in 1842, the year before the Thames Tunnel was opened, for the engines that pumped to keep the Tunnel dry. The small exhibition tells the story of the design and construction of the 396-metre-long tunnel, the first to have been successfully built underneath a navigable river. The display panels also detail the innovative tunnelling shield technique invented by Marc and Isambard that’s still used to build tunnels today, although these days it’s machines doing the hard work instead of men. Back then, labourers would spent two hours at a time digging, often while also being gassed and showered with shit.
The River Thames at that time was the sewer of London and the tunnel was constantly waterlogged, leading to a build up of effluent and methane gas. The result was that not only would miners pass out from the gas – even if they didn’t, men who re-surfaced were left senseless after their two-hour shift – but there were also explosions as the gas was set alight by the miners’ candles.
Although it’s a tidy and well-kept little exhibition, it is not really why you come to the museum. You come for the underground chamber below, which was only opened up to the public in 2010 after 150 years of being closed off by the London transportation system. This is the Grand Entrance Hall to the Thames Tunnel, used in Brunel’s day as a concert hall and fairground and now in the process of being turned into a permanent exhibition.
May 17, 2015
Your German is not averse even to wild scenery, provided it be not too wild. But if he consider it too savage, he sets to work to tame it. I remember, in the neighbourhood of Dresden, discovering a picturesque and narrow valley leading down towards the Elbe. The winding roadway ran beside a mountain torrent, which for a mile or so fretted and foamed over rocks and boulders between wood-covered banks. I followed it enchanted until, turning a corner, I suddenly came across a gang of eighty or a hundred workmen. They were busy tidying up that valley, and making that stream respectable. All the stones that were impeding the course of the water they were carefully picking out and carting away. The bank on either side they were bricking up and cementing. The overhanging trees and bushes, the tangled vines and creepers they were rooting up and trimming down. A little further I came upon the finished work — the mountain valley as it ought to be, according to German ideas. The water, now a broad, sluggish stream, flowed over a level, gravelly bed, between two walls crowned with stone coping. At every hundred yards it gently descended down three shallow wooden platforms. For a space on either side the ground had been cleared, and at regular intervals young poplars planted. Each sapling was protected by a shield of wickerwork and bossed by an iron rod. In the course of a couple of years it is the hope of the local council to have “finished” that valley throughout its entire length, and made it fit for a tidy-minded lover of German nature to walk in. There will be a seat every fifty yards, a police notice every hundred, and a restaurant every half-mile.
They are doing the same from the Memel to the Rhine. They are just tidying up the country. I remember well the Wehrthal. It was once the most romantic ravine to be found in the Black Forest. The last time I walked down it some hundreds of Italian workmen were encamped there hard at work, training the wild little Wehr the way it should go, bricking the banks for it here, blasting the rocks for it there, making cement steps for it down which it can travel soberly and without fuss.
For in Germany there is no nonsense talked about untrammelled nature. In Germany nature has got to behave herself, and not set a bad example to the children. A German poet, noticing waters coming down as Southey describes, somewhat inexactly, the waters coming down at Lodore, would be too shocked to stop and write alliterative verse about them. He would hurry away, and at once report them to the police. Then their foaming and their shrieking would be of short duration.
“Now then, now then, what’s all this about?” the voice of German authority would say severely to the waters. “We can’t have this sort of thing, you know. Come down quietly, can’t you? Where do you think you are?”
And the local German council would provide those waters with zinc pipes and wooden troughs, and a corkscrew staircase, and show them how to come down sensibly, in the German manner.
It is a tidy land is Germany.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
March 29, 2015
Published on 12 May 2012
A project between Khan Academy and Rome Reborn – with Dr. Bernard Frischer
March 19, 2015
The Scots are almost everywhere you go – every corner on the planet — anything that’s worth it, doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about banks in Hong Kong or rubber plantations in Malaya or the Canadian Pacific Railway, everywhere you go on the planet was built by Scots. And you go back to contemporary Scotland now, and they’re these pathetic, feeble, passive economic swamp of dependency – parts of Glasgow, male life expectancy … they all sit around eating fried Mars bars all day, and life expectancy is getting down to West African rates in certain wards of Glasgow. So if you’re someone who knows the Scottish diaspora, all that great stuff they did around the planet, and you go back to Scotland, you think, “What the hell happened?” Well what happened is government. What happened is welfare.
February 16, 2015
Think Defence looks back at an anti-invasion project to deny airfields to German forces along the southeast coast of England after the Dunkirk evacuation and onset of the Battle of Britain:
A method was also sought to deny the runway to enemy gliders and transport aircraft and so the Canadian Pipe Mine was devised by the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company. 50-70mm steel pipes were inserted into the ground using hydraulic pipe pushing equipment and laid in a criss cross pattern about 6ft under the surface. They were subsequently filled with explosives, usually a blasting gelignite called ‘Polar Blasting Gelignite’ which was very powerful.
They were also called McNaughton Tubes after the GOC of 1 Canadian Division who according to his biographer got the idea for using hydraulic rams from bootleggers who used the method for creating an offsite distribution point for their whiskey!
Only 9 airfields were identified for mining initially but this rose to include other locations, by the end of 1942, after the threat of invasion had receded, 30 locations were mined, not all of them airfields. It is estimated that over 40,000ft of pipe mines were installed.
During the war some of the pipe mines were made safe and removed because of the deterioration of the explosive filler but most were left in situ. After the war Canadian engineers were tasked with removal but it seems from reading different sources that records were incomplete and some doubt exists whether the clearance activity was completed. Additional clearance efforts were made, one that resulted in the death of a Ukrainian worker at one of the locations.
October 26, 2014
At The Diplomat, James R. Holmes talks about the recent accident on board the Chinese carrier Liaoning:
Reports of Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning’s death — or debilitating wounds — are greatly exaggerated. The flattop suffered some sort of steam leak that prompted her crew to stop at sea and conduct repairs before resuming operations. The news comes from Robert Beckhusen of War Is Boring, who relays a Sina.com story that Liaoning suffered a “steam explosion” following “a leak in ‘the machine oven compartment to the water pipes.’”
Beckhusen denies that PLA Navy leaders will decommission the flattop because of mechanical problems. (By raising the possibility, though, he seems to imply they might.) He does speculate that the accident will force the navy to relegate her to training duty.
Would an engineering casualty represent a setback unseen in the annals of naval history? Hardly. All sea services have been there, done that, and will likely find themselves there again. It’s doubtful such travails will induce PLA Navy officials to overreact, demoting Liaoning from whatever plans they have in mind for her. China’s first aircraft carrier is probably destined to serve as a training platform in any event — a ship used to groom China’s first generation of naval aviators, flight-deck crewmen, and air-group commanders. She will remain such despite minor hardware problems belowdecks.
Indeed, if suffering zero engineering casualties were the standard for maritime competence, the briny main would be empty of shipping. Think about what going to sea involves. A warship is a metal box largely encased in an environment hostile to metal — namely seawater and salt air. And it’s a box packed with machinery, flammables and explosives of various sorts, and human bodies. In such surroundings, rare is the seaman without a hair-raising tale to tell about fires or floods, equipment failures, and sundry mishaps.
I could spin a few such yarns myself. One involves a pipe springing a pinhole leak. And spraying fuel. On a steaming boiler. While crewmen are loading ammunition. At anchor. In rough weather. And that was a good-luck ship for the most part. Murphy’s Law — a.k.a. s*#t happens — is an iron law of marine engineering, and of seafaring writ large. When it does happen, you fix the damage, learn whatever lessons there are to learn, and move on.
July 17, 2014
Robert Tracinski points out that the recent discovery of a “peer review and citation ring” for mere monetary gain illustrates that when much is at stake, the temptation to pervert the system can become overwhelming:
The Journal of Vibration and Control — not as titillating as it sounds; it’s an engineering journal devoted to how to control dangerous vibrations in machines and structures — just retracted 60 published papers because “a ‘peer review and citation ring’ was apparently rigging the review process to get articles published.”
The motive here is ordinary corruption. Employment and prestige in academia is usually based on the number of papers a professor has published in peer-reviewed journals. It’s a very rough gauge of whether a scientist is doing important research, and it’s the kind of criterion that appeals to administrators who don’t want to stick their noses out by using their own judgment. But it is obviously open to manipulation. In this case, a scientist in Taiwan led a ring that created fake online reviewers to lend their approval to each others’ articles and pump up their career prospects.
But if this is what happens when the motive is individual corruption, imagine how much greater the incentive is when there is also a wider ideological motive. Imagine what happens when a group of academics are promoting a scientific theory that not only advances their individual careers in the universities, but which is also a source of billions of dollars in government funding, a key claim for an entire ideological world view, an entrenched dogma for one side of the national political debate, and a quasi-religious item of faith whose advocates believe they are literally saving the world?
November 24, 2013
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.”
Clay Shirky, “Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality”, Shirky.com, 2013-11-19
November 4, 2013
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 6, 2012
In the Wall Street Journal, a comparison of university education in the US and in other countries:
Both India and China have intense national testing programs to find the brightest students for their elite universities. The competition, the preparation and the national anxiety about the outcomes make the SAT testing programs in the U.S. seem like the minor leagues. The stakes are higher in China and India. The “chosen ones” — those who rank in the top 1% — get their choice of university, putting them on a path to fast-track careers, higher incomes and all the benefits of an upper-middle-class life.
The system doesn’t work so well for the other 99%. There are nearly 40 million university students in China and India. Most attend institutions that churn out students at low cost. Students complain that their education is “factory style” and “uninspired.” Employers complain that many graduates need remedial training before they are fully employable.
[. . .]
The U.S. and the U.K. are ranked first and second, driven by raw spending, their dominance in globally ranked universities and engineering graduation rates. China ranks third and India fifth, largely on enrollment (Germany is fourth). The reasons for U.S. supremacy are clear: For one, it spends the most money on education, disbursing $980 billion annually, or twice as much as China and five times as much as India. It is also the most engineer-intensive country, with 981 engineering degrees per million citizens, compared with 553 for China and 197 for India.
American universities currently do a better job overall at preparing students for the workforce. The World Economic Forum estimates that 81% of U.S. engineering graduates are immediately “employable,” while only 25% of Indian graduates and 10% of Chinese graduates are equally well prepared. “Chinese students can swarm a problem,” a dean at a major Chinese university told us. “But when it comes to original thought and invention, we stumble. We are trying hard to make that up. We are trying to make technical education the grounding from which we solve problems.”
August 21, 2012
Thomas Harding in the Telegraph:
Internal documents warn that a lack of recruits for the Submarine Service may leave attack submarines and boats carrying the Trident nuclear missile stranded in port.
A separate threat comes from a predicted 15 per cent shortfall in engineers by 2015.
One in seven posts for weapons officers at the rank of lieutenant will also be vacant, raising operational questions over the boats equipped with nuclear and cruise missiles.
Many submariners are being poached by the civilian nuclear sector and those who remain are being forced to go to sea for longer and more frequently.
Adml Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, said the situation was “very worrying” and he hoped the Navy had mechanisms in place to make up for the shortfall.
[. . .]
The Navy has a fleet of six attack submarines and four Vanguard boats that carry the Trident nuclear missile, but the personnel issues could mean they cannot be deployed.
The report found that the recruiting and retention of submariners was also threatening operations. “Inability to recruit, retain and develop sufficient nuclear and submarine design qualified personnel will result in an inability to support the Defence Nuclear Programme,” the document said.
March 2, 2012
Sarah Bakewell at the Guardian on the wonderful products of the railway building era in Britain:
Once I saw merely bridges, tunnels and stations, and mostly I didn’t even notice these, so busy was I rushing to get over or through them. Now, I see a delicate ecosystem of rivets, cleats, plates, gussets, joggles, spans, arches, ribs of attenuated iron and steel.
Scholars can already study railway archives in repositories all over the country, but Network Rail has just put part of its beautiful archive of Victorian and Edwardian infrastructure diagrams on the web. This amounts to an invitation to anyone, anywhere, to contemplate such images out of sheer curiosity and love of beauty. They give us plans of the high-level bridge at Newcastle upon Tyne, with its columns trailing down the screen like tall sepia waterfalls, and Bristol’s neo-gothic Temple Meads station, in ethereal ink outline. The Forth bridge of 1890 appears side on, elongated and webby as if someone had pulled a string cat’s cradle as far as it would go. Its vertical columns climb visibly week by week; target dates are marked at each level, like the tracking of a child’s growth against a wall.
Maidenhead bridge, designed in brick by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1839, has two middle arches spanning the river in great cheetah leaps. They were lower and broader than anything previously constructed in brick, and the Great Western Railway’s directors feared the bridge would collapse: they insisted on the bridge’s temporary timber supports remaining even after it opened. Annoyed, Brunel secretly lowered the supports a bit so they did not actually support anything.
(All links in the original article.)
November 19, 2011
There’s been a crack-brained effort in recent weeks to dispense with the beaver as Canada’s emblem animal and replace it with some frozen-footed albino bear. Conrad Black objects:
It is with regret that I take issue, and square off, with my esteemed friend of many years, Senator Nicole Eaton. But I am scandalized by her rude and almost unpatriotic attack on the noble and distinguished national animal of Canada.
The beaver is an almost incomparably exemplary and original national animal. Eagles abound; Germany’s scrawny black eagle, a panoply of other Alpine, Andean, and Central American eagles, including Mexico’s rampant and belligerent version, Egypt’s somewhat pudgy and suspiciously vulture-like eagle; all compete with the grossly overworked American bald eagle. The official American eagle has been press-ganged into every task from proclaiming a missive from the president to warning the non-paying guests of the Bureau of Prisons of the evils of suicidal thoughts.
No one would take issue with the British lion as a great beast, except that the United Kingdom no longer governs anywhere where the lion is indigenous. The king of beasts (or as the Toronto Zoo calls the lion, the “prime minister of beasts”) is even more majestic when set off against the foil of the unicorn.
[. . .]
If the beaver were a contemptible animal, it would never have been adopted and would certainly be disposable now. But it is a remarkably commendable animal, possessed of a formidable work ethic. (I can’t abide rhetorical questions but am sufficiently overcome by inter-species moral outrage to ask if anyone has ever been described as “working like an eagle” or “busy as a lion,” unless they were preying on the defenseless, or, respectively, overcome by lust or narcolepsy?)
More impressive, the beaver is a natural engineer, who not only grasps but by his own adaptive ingenuity, implements the basic principles of irrigation, flood and drought control, and in most of its elements, power generated from water courses. Apart from the honey bee, which was part of the national symbolism of France under the Bonapartes, in deference to the 500,000 Frenchmen who dutifully gave their lives in the great campaigns of Napoleon, the only other national animal that has made a direct constructive contribution to a country apart from the beaver is the elephant of India, often useful in construction and both civilian and military transport.
October 1, 2011
Neal Stephenson on the ability of science fiction to inspire:
In early 2011, I participated in a conference called Future Tense, where I lamented the decline of the manned space program, then pivoted to energy, indicating that the real issue isn’t about rockets. It’s our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff. I had, through some kind of blind luck, struck a nerve. The audience at Future Tense was more confident than I that science fiction [SF] had relevance — even utility — in addressing the problem. I heard two theories as to why:
1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and somewhat obvious.
2. The Hieroglyph Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.
Researchers and engineers have found themselves concentrating on more and more narrowly focused topics as science and technology have become more complex. A large technology company or lab might employ hundreds or thousands of persons, each of whom can address only a thin slice of the overall problem. Communication among them can become a mare’s nest of email threads and Powerpoints. The fondness that many such people have for SF reflects, in part, the usefulness of an over-arching narrative that supplies them and their colleagues with a shared vision. Coordinating their efforts through a command-and-control management system is a little like trying to run a modern economy out of a Politburo. Letting them work toward an agreed-on goal is something more like a free and largely self-coordinated market of ideas.