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 24, 2013
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.
July 28, 2011
This sounds a bit fishy, as this kind of error has been known in railway signal systems for over 100 years: signals that fail to show stop as a default whenever power is lost:
After it was struck by lightning, the signaling device at the Wenzhou South railway station malfunctioned and failed to turn from green to red, An Lusheng, chief of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, told the news agency. He also said workers on duty were inadequately trained and failed to notice the malfunction.
Xinhua’s report, the first official explanation of the cause of the crash, raised further questions about China’s high-speed rail system, one of the world’s largest and most costly public works projects. The accident occurred when one high-speed train rear-ended another that had stalled on the tracks near Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province. High-speed rail has an excellent safety record elsewhere, especially in Japan, which has never had a fatality.
Chinese have flooded microblogging sites with furious complaints about breakneck development without heed to safety. Many also expressed fears of a cover-up, especially after reports that one train car was buried at the site despite the ongoing investigation and only later excavated.
July 26, 2011
In the wake of the deadly collision between two high speed trains, China announced a safety review of the high speed railway system:
Mr Sheng said railway officials would be deployed at frontline rail operations across the country to overhaul maintenance standards and checks on power connections to pre-empt outages.
All local railway bureaux were to draw lessons from the accident, a statement on the railways department website said.
Public fury and scepticism have been expressed in China’s blogosphere, both about the death toll of 39 people — suggesting it is too low — and the safety of China’s rail network.
State newspapers have also expressed concern. The Global Times ran a headline: Anger mounts at lack of answers.
“As the world is experiencing globalisation and integration, why can’t China provide the same safety to its people?” an editorial read.
July 24, 2011
. . . when you use backhoes to bury the wreckage before determining the cause of the high speed rail crash:
The wreck on Saturday night killed 35 and injured 210 after a high-speed train lost power for more than 20 minutes and then was rear-ended by another train, according to the Xinhua news agency. Six cars derailed and two fell off a viaduct near the city of Wenzhou.
[. . .]
Photos on the popular Weibo microblogging service showed backhoes burying the wrecked train near the site. Critics said the wreckage needed to be carefully examined for causes of the malfunction, but the railway ministry said that the trains contain valuable national technology and could not be left in the open in case it fell into the wrong hands.
Foreign companies maintain that some crucial technology was stolen from their imported trains. But more importantly to domestic audiences is the perception of a coverup. Initial reports of how the accident occurred are already being partly contradicted by reports in the official media.
June 21, 2011
They’ll still qualify as high speed trains, but they’ll only travel at speeds up to 250kph instead of the 385kph they were designed to achieve. The problem is safety concerns:
The Chinese government has announced a significant lowering in the top speed its hallmark Beijing-to-Shanghai high-speed train will be allowed to run at when it opens later this month after a review of safety, shoddy workmanship and corruption.
The new service halving the 10-hour rail travel time between China’s political and business centres was meant to be the flagship project of a massive $400-billion program to give the country the most extensive bullet train network anywhere.
But the announcement last week by the Railway Ministry that trains on the new line will only be permitted to run at about 250 kilometres per hour instead of the projected 380 km/h has taken the bloom off the opening.
The restriction follows a review by officials stemming from the sacking in February of the railway minister, Liu Zhijun, and the deputy chief engineer of the department, Zhang Shuguang.
The concerns about safety are not at all unwarranted:
Contractors are said to have skimped on using expensive hardening agents when making the concrete for the rail bases. These ties are predicted to crumble within a few years. And there is said to have been a similar shortage of strengthening ingredients included in the concrete used to build bridges and their supporting columns.
A high speed train requires the right-of-way to be engineered to a much higher standard than ordinary passenger or freight rail lines. If too many corners have been cut in this construction, it would be insane to allow the trains to run at full speed until the entire line has been inspected, tested, and problems addressed. If there were even greater “economies” taken during construction, it might not be safe to run the trains at any speed.
And what’s a story like this without a bit of trash-talking from a rival high speed railway operator:
“The difference between China and Japan is that in Japan, if one passenger is injured or killed, the cost is prohibitively high,” he said. “It’s very serious. But China is a country where 10,000 passengers could die every year and no one would make a fuss.”
That’s a quote from the chairman of Central Japan Railway, which runs the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen service.
June 11, 2011
It’s been “officially” a wonderful thing with absolutely no negative attributes for so long that it’s almost refreshing that the Chinese government is finally admitting it’s not all good news around the massive Three Gorges dam and reservoir:
In private, officials have worried about the project for some time and occasionally their doubts have surfaced in the official media. But the government itself has refused to acknowledge them. When the project was approved by the rubber-stamp parliament in 1992, debate was stifled by the oppressive political atmosphere of the time, following the Tiananmen Square massacre three years earlier. Last July, with the dam facing its biggest flood crest since completion in 2006, officials hinted that they might have overstated its ability to control flooding. On May 18th, with the dam again in the spotlight because of the drought, a cabinet meeting chaired by the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, went further in acknowledging drawbacks.
Having called the dam “hugely beneficial overall”, the cabinet’s statement said there were problems relating to the resettlement of 1.4m people, to the environment and to the “prevention of geological disasters” that urgently needed addressing. The dam, it said, had had “a certain impact” on navigation, irrigation and water-supply downstream. Some of these problems had been forecast at the design stage or spotted during construction. But they had been “difficult to resolve effectively because of limitations imposed by conditions at the time.” It did not elaborate.
June 9, 2011
David Axe is not losing any sleep over the soon-to-be commissioned Chinese carrier Shi Lang:
Leaving aside her modest size compared to American carriers, her incomplete air wing and escort force and the fact that she’ll sail without the company of allied flattops, Shi Lang could be even less of a threat than her striking appearance implies. Shi Lang’s greatest potential weakness could be under her skin, in her Ukrainian-supplied engines.
Powerplants — that is, jet engines for airplanes, turbines for ships — are some of the most complex, expensive and potentially troublesome components of any weapon system. Just ask the designers of the Pentagon’s F-35 stealth fighter and the U.S. Navy’s San Antonio-class amphibious ships. Both have been nearly sidelined by engine woes.
China has struggled for years to design and build adequate powerplants for its ships and aircraft. Although Chinese aerospace firms are increasingly adept at manufacturing airframes, they still have not mastered motors. That’s why the new WZ-10 attack helicopter was delayed nearly a decade, and why there appear to be two different prototypes for the J-20 stealth fighter. One flies with reliable Russian-made AL-31F engines; the other apparently uses a less trustworthy Chinese design, the WS-10A.
For Shi Lang, China reportedly purchased turbines from Ukraine. Though surely superior to any ship engines China could have produced on its own, the Ukrainian models might still be unreliable by Western standards. Russia’s Kuznetsov, also fitted with Ukrainian turbines, has long suffered propulsion problems that have forced her to spend most of her 30-year career tied to a pier for maintenance. When she does sail, a large tugboat usually tags along, just in case the carrier breaks down.
If Shi Lang is anything like her sister, she could turn out to be a naval version of the mythical “Potemkin village” — an impressive facade over a rickety interior.
H/T to Nicholas “Ghost of a Flea” Packwood for the link.
May 24, 2011
Jonathan Amos reports on the UK Space Agency (UKSA) long-simmered design/proposal called Skylon:
Skylon has been in development in the UK in various guises for nearly 30 years.
It is an evolution of an idea first pursued by British Aerospace and Rolls Royce in the 1980s.
That concept, known as Hotol, did have technical weaknesses that eventually led the aerospace companies to end their involvement.
But the engineers behind the project continued to refine their thinking and they are now working independently on a much-updated vehicle in a company called Reaction Engines Limited (REL).
Realising the Sabre propulsion system is essential to the success of the project.
The engine would burn hydrogen and oxygen to provide thrust — but in the lower atmosphere this oxygen would be taken directly from the air.
This means the 84m-long spaceplane can fly lighter from the outset with a higher thrust-to-weight ratio, enabling it to make a single leap to orbit, rather than using and dumping propellant stages on the ascent — as is the case with current expendable rockets.
Update: Lewis Page has more on the Skylon project.
May 13, 2011
If Professor William Johnson is successful with the new process, you may see lots of structural glass in use:
A new breakthrough in superspeed pulse mould technology will allow aeroplanes, mobile phone casings and suchlike to be made out of a miraculous type of glass which is as tough as metal, according to the inventors of the new process.
So-called “metallic glass” has been well known since 1960 and has been in industrial production since the 1990s. It is a metal alloy, but one with the disordered structure of glass — not formed into crystals the way most metals are.
The crystalline structure of metal is a disadvantage, making it weak. Unfortunately, ordinary glasses — while strong and rigid — generally crack and shatter easily. What’s wanted is a metallic glass, made of metal but with a non-crystalline structure like window glass. This won’t crack or fracture, but will be much stronger than an equivalent object made of ordinary metal.
[. . .]
“We uniformly heat the glass at least a thousand times faster than anyone has before,” says William Johnson, engineering prof at Caltech.
Using this method the metalglass is heated up, moulded and cooled to solid again before crystals have any chance to form: the new part is still metalglass, not rubbishy regular metal.
“We end up with inexpensive, high-performance, precision parts made in the same way plastic parts are made — but made of a metal that’s 20 times stronger and stiffer than plastic,” boasts Johnson.