Posts tagged ‘Frank Borman’

Shock of the New

Jackalope Pursuivant takes off from my post yesterday about Pearl Harbor.  If I were to give it a theme, I would call it "shock of the new."  From time to time folks, for example in the military, may say that they understand a new technology, but the fact that a few smart staff officers "get it" does not mean that the military has really adjusted itself to it.  Like any large organization, it has a culture and set of expectations and people who have been successful based on the old model of things.   They may say they understand that naval aviation has changed things, but they don't really adjust themselves until Pearl Harbor and Clark Field and Guam and Singapore are full of smoking ruins of planes and ships.

Dan's observation about how quickly the US dusted itself off and recognized that the world had changed is a good one.  One could argue that no one did this in WWI.  The Europeans had every chance to see what the machine gun could do even before the war in a few African wars.  Heck, the final year of the American Civil War around Petersberg was a preview of WWI, as was the ill-fated charge of the light brigade.  But armies were still dominated by cavalries and plumed hats and bayonet charges and elan vital. Even in 1916 and 1917, when they should have learned their lesson, commanders were still obsessed with making full frontal charges.  The Americans had the chance to watch the war for four years before they entered, and then promptly began committing the exact same mistakes based on the exact same faulty assumptions as in 1914.  (Neal Stephenson has a great take on American flexibility to craft radically new combat doctrine based on new facts in WWII in Cryptonomicon, absolutely one of my favorite books).

As for Pearl Harbor, I am reminded of a quote that was attributed to Frank Borman (at least in the From the Earth to the Moon documentary) when he was testifying about the Apollo 1 fire.  He called it "a failure of imagination" -- no one was even thinking about danger on the ground, all the focus was on space.  At the end of the day, the ultimate answer for Pearl Harbor's negligence in readiness was a failure of imagination.   They may have had war games and studies discussing Pearl Harbor attacks, and they may have addressed the possibility intellectually, but no one in command really believed that a couple of hundred aircraft would suddenly appear over peacetime Honolulu dropping bombs and torpedoes.

Japanese Nukes, Michael Crichton, and Frank Borman

I have always enjoyed Michael Crichton's books, but sometimes turn up my nose at his science.  I must say though that the chain of seemingly stupid errors that led to the park crashing in Jurassic Park bear an amazing resemblance to what is going on with the Japanese nuclear plans.  I don't buy his application of chaos theory to the chain of events, but its hard not to see parallels to this:

Engineers had begun using fire hoses to pump seawater into the reactor — the third reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 complex to receive the last-ditch treatment — after the plant's emergency cooling system failed. Company officials said workers were not paying sufficient attention to the process, however, and let the pump run out of fuel, allowing the fuel rods to become partially exposed to the air.

Once the pump was restarted and water flow was restored, another worker inadvertently closed a valve that was designed to vent steam from the containment vessel. As pressure built up inside the vessel, the pumps could no longer force water into it and the fuel rods were once more exposed.

The other line I am reminded of comes from the docu-drama "From the Earth to the Moon."  In the episode after the fire on Apollo 1, they have Frank Borman testifying to a hostile Congressional committee about the fire.  When asked to explain the root cause, he said "a failure of imagination."  I don't know if this is a true quote of his or purely fiction, but it resonates with me from my past troubleshooting work.  Almost every fire or major failure we looked at in the refinery resulted from a chain of events that no one had even anticipated or thought possible, generally in combination with a series of stupid human screwups.  I would describe the Japanese nuclear plant problems in the same light.

Update: Failure of Imagination from Wikipedia

From IMDB, how the line was quoted in the mini-series

Clinton Anderson: [at the senate inquiry following the Apollo 1 fire] Colonel, what caused the fire? I'm not talking about wires and oxygen. It seems that some people think that NASA pressured North American to meet unrealistic and arbitrary deadlines and that in turn North American allowed safety to be compromised.
Frank Borman: I won't deny there's been pressure to meet deadlines, but safety has never been intentionally compromised.
Clinton Anderson: Then what caused the fire?
Frank Borman: A failure of imagination. We've always known there was the possibility of fire in a spacecraft. But the fear was that it would happen in space, when you're 180 miles from terra firma and the nearest fire station. That was the worry. No one ever imagined it could happen on the ground. If anyone had thought of it, the test would've been classified as hazardous. But it wasn't. We just didn't think of it. Now who's fault is that? Well, it's North American's fault. It's NASA's fault. It's the fault of every person who ever worked on Apollo. It's my fault. I didn't think the test was hazardous. No one did. I wish to God we had.

9/11 Conspiracies

Popular Mechanics has a very readable debunking of many of the most prevalent 9/11 conspiracies.  I am sure conspiracy theorists will generally respond to most of the scientists quoted with the all-encompassing "they're in on it!"  Once you get so many people giving evidence that the conspiracies are incorrect, you drive the conspiracy into the realm of Meyer's Law:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, ignorance and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

In this case, the word stupidity is unfair.  The 9/11 attacks fall into the category of the "unimagined".  Frank Borman (as portrayed in the awesome mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", I have not been able to find out if they used his actual words) is speaking to a committee hearing on the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.  Under intense scrutiny for a set of conditions that in retrospect seemed ridiculously unsafe, Borman described the problem as "a failure of imagination". 

In this case, for example, conspiracy theorists ask why no military plane intercepted the aircraft.  First, I would argue that without any prior precedent, no military commander or politician would have the cajones to shoot down a planeload of innocents on a commercial airliner (now THAT would be conspiracy fodder, had it happened).  Second, though, the article quotes a number of military commanders to say that the US didn't really have the radar coverage or aircraft patrols in place to intercept an airplane attacking from within the country - everyone previously imagined the threat to come from outside our borders, and that is how our defenses were arrayed.

Anyway, read the who article - it is an entertaining roundup of conspiracy theories (people do have good imaginations) and a well-argued debunking of them.  (via Instapundit)

Update on Coyote's Law

Given all of the conspiracy theories bouncing around the net nowadays, I thought it would be timely to revisit Coyote's Law.  Coyote's Law states:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

To some extent, Coyote's Law is a logical extension of Occam's Razor.  However, it seems to have consistent and frequent application in modern politics.  Here are a couple of examples, but I am sure the reader can think of more:

  • There are a number of revisionist historians that make the argument that Pearl Harbor was actually an elaborate FDR plot to overcome domestic isolationism and bring the US into the war.  They point to the many missed intelligence clues, the incredible unreadiness of the defenses at Pearl Harbor, and the missing US carriers as evidence of a conspiracy.  However, most historians have concluded that Coyote's Law holds, that our failure at Pearl Harbor we the result of mistakes and incompetence, not conspiracy.
  • The mother of all conspiracy theory subjects is, of course, the JFK shooting.  Many people simply refuse to believe that a lone gunman, and a fairly unimpressive one at that, could have pulled off such a killing.  He must have had help from the Cubans, or the Mafia, or the FBI, or the CIA, or the grassy knoll, or whatever.  Despite all the millions of hours of research into these theories, Coyote's Law still holds - it is much more likely that JFK was killed due to poor protection and the vulnerability of any one man to a sufficiently dedicated gunman who is not committed to getting away after the assassination (which, by the way, is still true).

To some extent, in both these cases it is a bit unfair to use the word "stupidity".  I am reminded of a quote by Frank Borman (as portrayed in the awesome mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", I have not been able to find out if it was his actual words) in a committee hearing on the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.  Under intense scrutiny for a set of conditions that in retrospect seemed ridiculously unsafe, Borman described the problem as "a failure of imagination".  To some extent, that is what happened both at Pearl Harbor and with the JFK assassination, and, essentially, with the 9/11 attacks.  What occurred was so new, so unprecedented, that no one could really make themselves believe in advance that it would happen.  But, none-the-less, it resulted in incompetence, not conspiracy.

Which brings us to the 2004 election.  Certainly, in this case, no one can claim a failure of imagination, as just about everyone half anticipated vote-tally screw-ups after Florida in 2000.  However, in their review of conspiracy charges regarding election counts, this Caltech-MIT report has a fantastic restatement of Coyote's Law:

Well, I don't want to write off legitimate questions about the integrity of the voting system. But turn the question around: Which is more likely -- that an exit polling system that has been consistently wrong and troubled turned out to be wrong and troubled again, or that a vast conspiracy carried out by scores and scores of county and state election officials was successfully carried off to distort millions of American votes?


EEEK!  Frank Borman is the astronaut.  I had Martin Borman, the Nazi.  Sorry.  (and yes, this mistake was due to my STUPIDITY and INCOMPETENCE, and not a Boys From Brazil conspiracy.