Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Remembering why we fought the Revolution

I must confess my fondness for things British disappeared a long time ago. But I most certainly WAS a full-blown Anglophile at one time—Harris Tweed jackets, the willingness to quote Shakespearian sonnets in mostly vain attempts at impressing women, and the Austin-Healy Sprite.  (Mine was a yellow 1964 but otherwise similar to the one in the picture.)

It was the Sprite that put an end to the Anglophilia. One day, I was driving along about 45 mph when the rear axel just twisted off. I went to the nearest dealership to get a replacement hoping they had one. They had a whole stack of them—apparently bad axels were normal for 1964 Sprites. And when I went to replace it, I discovered the old shaft was so brittle, it disintegrated under the assault of a common screwdriver. I got rid of that car as soon as possible because brittle steel was simply the last straw. From Lucas--Prince of Darkness electrical failures to an engine on its last legs at only 30,000 miles, that car was easily the most poorly made mechanical device I have ever encountered—before or since.

I had mostly written off my encounters with that wonder of British engineering as so much youthful foolishness until I saw some articles in 1997 about the low quality of the steel used to fabricate the hull of Titanic. First were the findings about the low quality of the steel plates used to fabricate the hull. Then the rivets were examined and that nightmare was even worse.

The problems were these: 
1) The builders of Titanic were in a hurry and there were not enough steel rivets available--so they used iron rivets in the bow.  When Titanic stuck the iceberg, the seams created with inferior rivets just exploded.
2) The steel plates were brittle because of a metallurgical problem of most British steel--too many impurities.  The Brits never really did get their arms around this problem.  By the time their metallurgists figured out a way to make better steel in the late 1970s, the industry was mostly dead.

AHA!  The shitty steel that sank Titanic was the same crap that twisted off on the rear end of my Sprite.  Brit metallurgy hadn't progressed much between 1912 and 1964.  And the practice of knowingly using substandard materials was still alive and well.  These problems would eventually destroy the very industry the Brits invented--underinvestment in critical areas like metallurgical research, and cutting corners--especially in areas that are not immediately visible to the public. 

And lest one think the Brits have learned ANYTHING since 1964, we are now beginning to see the corner-cutting at British Petroleum.  If there is ONE lesson to be drawn from the tragedy in the Gulf it is: NEVER use the Brits as a model for industrial organization.
Congress Confirms WSJ’s Story on BP’s Corner-Cutting
By Ryan Chittum
The Audit (Columbia Journalism Review) — June 15, 2010 11:38 AM 
The evidence keeps stacking up that BP cut all kinds of corners to save time and money at the expense of safety while drilling the Deepwater Horizon well.
The Wall Street Journal goes A1 with congressional confirmation of its excellent BP storyfrom three weeks ago.
In one case, BP engineers decided on April 16 to use just six so-called “centralizers” to stabilize the well before cementing it, instead of 21 as recommended by contractor Halliburton Corp. according to BP internal emails made public by the panel.
In their letter, the lawmakers say that BP’s well team leader, John Guide, “raised objections to the use of the additional centralizers” in an April 16 email released by the panel. “It will take 10 hrs to install them…I do not like this,” Mr. Guide wrote.
The lawmakers cited another BP email as an indication that “Mr. Guide’s perspective prevailed.” A BP official wrote in an April 16 email: “Who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine.”
Ten hours. “Will probably be fine.” Good luck in court, guys! more
And more on BP negligence.

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