Saturday, October 22, 2011

USS North Carolina(s)

Military technology has an amazingly short life for the amount invested to develop it. I was reminded of this fact when a couple of days ago, some friends and my wife and I visited Wilmington, NC for a quick getaway. We poked around the historic Old Town on the Cape Fear River. My friend and I decided to tour the USS North Carolina, the World War II battleship which is now a National Historic Landmark and floating museum.

We started our tour in the informative shore-side museum. I was surprised to learn that there had not been one USS North Carolina but four ships bearing that name. There was also one CSS North Carolina to add to the complement. These ships span the eras of naval technology as a startling-clear indication of just how quickly naval technology has changed.

Model in Museum
The first USS North Carolina was a sailing frigate commissioned for duty in 1824. The ship usually carried 74 cannons but was designed to handle as many as 102 guns. She (ships are always referred to in the feminine) was considered the most powerful naval vessel afloat at the time of her commissioning.  The ship spent most of the middle 1820s in the Mediterranean, showing the U.S. colors to demonstrate the strength of the country and to open trade with the region. She also spent time in the Pacific in the late 1830s defending American trade routes. By 1839, she was taken off the line and converted to more mundane duties as a receiving ship to house young naval recruits. Her time of active duty amounted to only 15 years. The reason she was considered to be obsolete was that she was too large and bulky for the nimble duty needed in naval maneuvers of the day.

The next North Carolina was a Confederate ironclad of the Civil War era. Already, fighting ships were converting from sail to steam and armor plating was the newest technology, even as cannons to pierce such armor grew ever larger. The CSS North Carolina was built in Wilmington, NC in 1863 but the new marine engineering of ironclad ships was not the long suit of the local builders. The ship was unstable and the hull was riddled by sea-worms within a year.  It sank in the Cape Fear River leaving an inauspicious record but it did demonstrate that the era of the sailing ship had passed and steel armor and steam were the technology of the future.

In 1905, the keel was laid on the next USS North Carolina, a cruiser of the era of the Great White Fleet. The ship was enormous by previous standards. It was over 500 feet in length and displaced 14,500 tons.  The cruiser carried a powerful array of cannons with the largest being 10-inch bore main guns. The cruiser (also known as ACR-12) saw combat service in World War I escorting convoys of ships across the North Atlantic. From the time she was commissioned to decommissioning amounted to 13 years.

Model of Bridge and 10-inch guns of ACR-12 in Museum

By far the largest of the ships bearing the name USS North Carolina was the battleship BB-55. This was the ship we were about to tour. The BB-55 was commissioned in 1940, just before the beginning of America's involvement in World War II. The new North Carolina was 728 feet long and displaced over 40,000 tons - three times what her predecessor had displaced. The battleship was on sea trials in the Caribbean when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. She spent the first part of 1942 hunting for the German battleship Tirpitz before being deployed to the Pacific Theater in the middle of that year. For the rest of the war the ship was engaged in protecting aircraft carriers in virtually every campaign across the Pacific islands. She was torpedoed once and left with an enormous hole in her bow but it was not enough to sink her. When the war ended in August of 1945, she sailed back to Boston and was decommissioned in 1947 - a service life of six years and eight months. Her undoing? Aircraft. The modern aircraft found on ever-larger aircraft carriers were easily capable of destroying even a hardened battleship.

The Navy kept four of the World War II-era battleships in the reserve fleet for years and the USS Missouri actually participated in the shelling of Baghdad during the Iraq War. But the North Carolina's days of service were over. She stayed in mothballs for 14 years and was going to be sold for scrap when the enterprising citizens of Wilmington and North Carolina decided to try to save her as a memorial and museum. She was moved to her present berth in Wilmington in 1961 and opened as a museum.

But this was not the end of the ships named USS North Carolina. The latest in the long line of ships is the most advanced class of atomic submarines. The new sub, which is configured to be able to deliver not only missiles and torpedos, but complete Navy Seal teams to trouble spots, was commissioned in 2008. She is now stationed at Pearl Harbor.


Side View Looking Towards bow

It was a beautiful fall morning with crisp, cool air as we strolled the teak decks of this state-of-the-art (for 1936) battleship. Even today, some 75 years later, she is still impressive.

Aft 16-inch Gun Turret

The massive 16-inch guns, three mounted in each of the turrets, one aft and two forward are the heart of the battleship's armament. We scrambled inside the aft turret and I was astounded to see the amount of hardware and control systems needed to make these guns work.

Inside Aft 16-inch Gun Turret

What we saw in the turret was only part of a huge support system that went down five decks from the main deck. These 16-inch guns could propel a 1200 pound shell out of the barrel at over 1500 mph, with a range of 20 to 25 miles!

Diagram showing multiple levels in gun turrets

The tour below decks was visiting a city - bakery, laundry, doctor, dentist, operating rooms, soda fountains, sleeping quarters, shoe repair - it was all there to maintain the crew of 2400 sailors.

GE Turbine powering one of four propellors

The ship was propelled by four main steam turbines that each powered a propellor, moving the ship forward at almost 30 mph. In places, the ship's armor was 16-inch thick steel plate. In fact, about 40 percent of the total weight of the ship was accounted for in the armor alone.

If you are ever near one of these large World War II battleships, I would certainly encourage you to go. While the BB-55 remains, Her sister ship, the USS Washington, was scrapped. A very similar class of battleships (known as the Iowa class) has several ships still in existence.  The USS New Jersey is berthed in Camden, NJ. The USS Missouri is part of the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Hawaii and the USS Wisconsin is now a museum in Norfolk, VA.

Each generation of vessel carrying the name of USS North Carolina was an example of state-of-the-art naval technology in its day. None of these vessels remained at the cutting edge for even a decade. The enormous investments in design and development for most weapons systems has a very short half-life.  It would be pleasant to think that a day might arrive when such investments are no longer necessary. Until then, the ever-evolving technology of war will be part of the price of peace.

I wonder what the next ship that carries the name USS North Carolina will look like? Given the brief lives of these vessels, we might not have to wait that long to find out.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What Does Technology Want?

I just finished reading Kevin Kelly's book from last year entitled, What Technology Wants. When I first heard about this book when it was published it sounded a little too woo-woo for me. Technology wants something? Isn't technology simply a manifestation of our own ideas and creations? When I found a used copy of the book, I decided to check out what Kelly was trying to say.  After finishing the book, I would have to say that I pretty much agree with his premise.

So what is Kelly's thesis?  He basically believes (and provides many supporting pieces of data) that the universe is not only governed by entropy (the thermodynamic force leading to increasing disorder) but by a force he dubs "exotropy"- a tendency for the universe to become more ordered with an ever-increasing energy density associated with each layer of order. Since the Big Bang, particles have self-assembled into atoms which have self-assembled into molecules which have lead to solar systems, planets, water, and the building blocks of life. The self-assembly goes on with the evolution of simple cells, multi-cellular organisms, animals and plants, and finally primates and humans. All of this has been well-documented in the scientific literature.

According to Kelly, the next level of exotropy is the human creation of technology - simple at first (think fire and stone axes), but becoming increasingly complex as different technologies are combined and recombined into evermore complex technologies. The highest energy density in the universe can now be quantified as being, not in the core of the sun or a star, but in a Pentium computer chip.  The sum of all this technology is what Kelly dubs the "technium" - a complex web of everything that humans have created.  All the technology that exists can now be recombined at an ever-increasing rate to lead to new capabilities. This is the basis for Moore's Law and a host of other trends that can be shown to be increasing at an exponential rate.

While not truly thinking or sentient (yet), Kelly argues that technology now is on a path that is moving beyond the control of its creators.  Think about the internet. We would have a hard time drawing an exact map of every server and page on the internet because it is constantly changing. The changes are not organized from one central planning organization. They happen because of the spontaneous activity of millions of people. And yet the system works beautifully, rarely failing us and never going completely dark. The internet is not sentient but there is the sense that it is more than the sum of its human-created parts.

Kelly argues that technology wants what life itself wants:

  • Increasing efficiency
  • Increasing opportunity
  • Increasing emergence
  • Increasing complexity
  • Increasing diversity
  • Increasing specialization
  • Increasing ubiquity
  • Increasing freedom
  • Increasing mutualism
  • Increasing beauty
  • Increasing sentience
  • Increasing structure
  • Increasing evolvability
He goes into detail in his final chapter of what each of these mean in more specific terms.

Kelly is not a wholehearted devotee of technology. He sees the dark side of technology as well. In a chapter entitled, The Unabomber Was Right, Kelly writes:

I, too, argue that the technium is guided by "technical necessity." That is, baked into the nature of this vast complex of technological systems are self-serving aspects - technologies that enable more technology, and systems that preserve themselves - as well as inherent biases that lead the technium in certain directions, outside human desire. [Ted] Kaczynski [the Unabomber] writes, "Modern technology is a unified system in which all parts are dependent on one another. You can't get rid of the 'bad' parts of technology and retain only the 'good' parts."

Kelly sees technology and the technium as being, on balance, a little more slanted to good than evil. If it weren't that way, that particular technology would eventually die out. Nonetheless, both sides are always with us. The internet brings great connectivity but also a loss of privacy. Fossil fuels have powered the technium for over a century but they bring on climate change.

One particularly interesting chapter entitled, Lessons of Amish Hackers, delves into a society that actively rejects some technology and yet embraces other technologies readily. The fundamental reason for the rejection of, say, electricity to the home is that it connects the Amish to the grid which invariably leads them to being drawn into a tainted society. Yet, the Amish have no problem with putting a diesel generator behind their barn which run an air compressor which pipes compressed air into the house to run everything from the washing machine to a food blender. The difference?  They are off the grid. Kelly argues that their basic ability to make such choices is facilitated by the very technology they reject. Without machined parts and transportation systems, they couldn't live their lives in the way they choose. Kelly is not against the Amish. In fact, he finds their lifestyle to be attractive on many levels. But he argues that one of the prime reasons to embrace technology is that it expands individuals' choices for the pursuit of their own fulfillment. The Amish limit schooling to the 8th grade level. There are no Amish doctors or lawyers. Their lifestyle limits their choices.

In the final analysis. Kelly believes that the trajectory the technium is on is the right one, or maybe more accurately, the only one in could be on. But he also observes that we are moving into an era when technology will start to become decoupled from human control and this is a totally new era for humanity. Where it will all lead is anybody's guess. What Technology Wants is a thought-provoking book that should be on the reading list of anyone who is interested in the broader questions of where we are going.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

In Defense of Steve Jobs

It seems that everyone with any sort of digital soapbox has felt the need to write about Steve Jobs.  I was particularly interested to read a couple of articles that tried to either make or dispel the idea that his impact on society equalled that of Thomas Edison or Henry Ford.

I think Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal might have started the comparison in a very personal article he wrote about the thoughtful and personal side of Steve Jobs.  Rick Newman at US News and World Report picked up on the theme but threw mostly cold water on the comparison of Jobs to either Edison or Ford. Even the Christian Science Monitor got into the act with a followup article to Newman's.  At this particular moment in time, the loss of a leader in any field is felt acutely and the loss of someone with as many proven leadership skills as Steve Jobs is perhaps all the more strongly felt amongst the rest of us.

Of course, only history will be able to sort out the contributions of Mr. Jobs. But it seems safe to at least question some of the aspersions that Rick Newman made in his piece. Mr. Newman writes of Edison:

By the late 1800s, Thomas Edison developed an electric-lighting system that literally turned darkness to light and ushered in sweeping second- and third-order changes, from the improvement of working conditions in factories everywhere to safer homes no longer lit by candles.

Thomas Edison was a persistent, egocentric, dynamic leader of highly skilled technologists whom he employed to help create his vision for new products. (Sounds kind of like Steve Jobs to me.)  He never pursued anything without thinking about its likely commercial impact. He was a master of managing his image in the media. His work on the incandescent light was innovative not because he found a filament that could endure long durations of being heated, but because he envisioned that to make lighting successful he would have to build the whole system. This included the dynamos, the distribution wiring, the switching, and the end appliance - the electric light. That he pulled it off was a testament to his determination and persistence in the face of many, many hurdles.

Having said that, Edison didn't get it right when it came to extending his vision. He defended his direct current (DC) approach in the face of Tesla's clearly better alternative of alternating current (AC). AC power could be distributed without losses over much greater distances than could DC power. Edison even went so far as to mount a public relations campaign against AC power as being much more dangerous than DC. To prove his point, he was instrumental in the development of the electric chair for executing criminals. In the end, it took another generation of innovators beyond Edison and Tesla to make commercial lighting a reality for most people. Samuel Insull, who made commercial electricity a reality in Chicago, was the first of many of these innovators who built large electric distribution systems to bring power to the people.

Edison didn't get candles out of the home. Most people in the late 19th century were lighting there homes with either piped in gas or with kerosene. Factories were often lit by simply more windows or if night work was required, lighting was provided by arc lamps which predated Edison's invention of the lightbulb.

So who gets the credit?  Edison for the first embodiment of an electric lighting system or Tesla or Insull?  The answer is, of course, all of them, not just Edison alone.  If Edison hadn't developed his system, someone else would have done it within the next five to ten years. It was the focus of too many innovators who wanted to be first to show the new power of electricity.

Henry Ford is a different case but he also shares many similarities to Steve Jobs. Ford was neither a particularly talented machinist or even all that literate. What he did have in spades was the ability to envision a new type of automobile and the charisma and passion which attracted really good engineers to work with him to make it a reality. His first focus was not on a car for the masses but on racing cars (which were the earliest means of demonstrating automotive technology and reliability). He was a partial-founder of two automobile companies that failed to achieve his vision. It was only when he decided to be the founder of his own company - where he controlled the vision - that he began to succeed.

His first cars were not particularly different from scores of other startup auto companies. Everyone was selling to a customer who had the means to spend several thousand dollars on a car. Ford's genius was to see that if the cost of the car could be reduced dramatically, a mass market could emerge for the automobile for the first time. Ford not only hired great engineers, he hired a great business manager, James Cousins, to manage the finances of his company. Ford didn't invent the assembly line. That idea emerged from his engineers touring the disassembly lines of the Chicago meat packing plants. Ford provided the single-minded focus to pursue the dream of a mass market car when everyone else told him he was crazy. The result was the introduction of the Model T in 1908 (This was not his first model. There had already been Models A through S before the T came along).

Ford was a true innovator. He was the first to recognize the value of vertical integration in the automotive industry - owning everything from the iron mines to the steel mills to the final assembly plants in the giant River Rouge complex. Ford pioneered the five dollar day for his workers - not just to have them earn enough money to be able to afford a Model T but to get them to not quit (employee turnover on those first assembly lines was in the hundreds of percents).  Ford's vision proved to be correct and his company dominated the industry. But unlike Steve Jobs, Henry Ford did not die young. He lived long enough to have his initial vision become an impediment to Ford Motor Company's future. He would not give up on the Model T even when it was outdated and sales were plummeting. He micromanaged his son, Edsel's, period of running the company after Henry ostensibly retired. It would take Ford's grandson, Henry II, to put the company back on track.

So the traits that seem to recur in these three men of different eras and different industries are incredible vision, an awe-inspiring sense of determination, dictatorial decision-making, charisma, passion, and an ability to hire the best and the brightest and give them the environment to create. Each had the ability to see a future, not a future that others couldn't see, but a future which was holistic - one that went further than just one product to see what was needed to make it valuable to millions of people.

So in defense of Steve Jobs, I think he will, indeed, go down in history as being in the same league as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a host of other visionaries who have helped to create the world we live in.  His legacy will be felt for generations in the digital devices that are the offspring of the iPods, iPhones, and iPads.  His legacy will be felt in the digital animation studios that come after Pixar.  His sense of what the market needed was truly remarkable. But even more remarkable was his willingness to bet the company on his vision - not once but over and over again.   Steve Jobs was the quintessential American Innovator.  Even though I never met the man, I will miss him.

(Disclaimer: I have been a longtime user of Apple products. I am typing this on my iMac desktop computer.)