# Locklin on science

## Why everyone should learn the slide rule

Posted in Progress, tools by Scott Locklin on June 20, 2021

The obsolescence of the slide rule is mostly un-mourned, but as with many technological obsolescences, we have lost something valuable with its demise. The type of thinking which goes along with using a slide rule is useful, and the type of thinking which goes along with using its replacement of digital calculators and computers can be deceptive and sometimes harmful. It is true that using a slide rule was onerous. Learning to use all the scales on a usefully complex rule is not easy. More complex calculations require for you to capture intermediate results, and the results are imprecise. For many calculations, this basket of drawbacks is exactly what you need.

Consider physical reality. Reality is, roughly speaking, analog. You can convert an analog world to something digital, but when this happens, it is rare to use more than 16 bits. 8-12 is more typical. In most cases, the mantissa of your “real number” only has a few actual bits of information in it. Slide rules acknowledge this fact. You can see it on the physical rules themselves, which are essentially logarithm tables. You don’t get 64 bit precision floats in your slide rule at any point in the calculation, just like in “real life.” Propagating around 64 bit results can be useful at times, particularly when running a calculation which iterates many times, but it is more the exception that you really want this extra precision, and you could fool yourself with it on a calculator/computer. You can’t make this mistake using a slide rule. The slide rule trains you to think about what numbers corresponding to physical reality means. Sure, I don’t want to do my book keeping or HFT time coordinate on a slide rule; those are basically integer problems (on a computer) where the bits all mean something important. But in roughing out the design for a wing or jet turbine blade, or even in calculating a p-value those extra bits absolutely don’t mean anything. Slide rules give 2-3 significant decimal digits of precision. When calculating things involving matter, that’s about right. You can design things made out of matter which require more significant digits, but it’s very likely a bad design if you do.

Modern “engineers” have precision neurosis. It comes from having learned about numbers by using calculators and computers rather than slide rules. If you are used to calculating things using a slide rule, there will be no such neurosis. It’s why engineers will do things like build a cantilever beam which requires finite element analysis instead of just building a fucking bridge.

The fact that slide rules are cognitively relatively expensive is also useful. The difficulty in their use  makes you think about what you are doing. You have to keep track of order of magnitude stuff and simple operations like addition. Many calculations are irrelevant. Slide rules force you to think clearly about what you are doing, rather than mindlessly pecking away at a calculator or computer. It is a bit difficult to describe how this works without waxing tedious (here’s a well written set of examples ironically by the founder of autodesk), but it is the difference between knowing how to do a complicated integral by hand, and just  feeding the integral into Maple and hoping for the best. Maple is pretty good, but you can get into all kinds of trouble this way. Ideal world, you can calculate your own damn Green’s functions, so you understand where computers can make mistakes. Same story with doing numeric calculations: know how to do it on a slide rule and all kinds of trouble can be avoided.

The history of the slide rule is more or less the history of science, mathematics and technology. Famous names such as Napier, James Watt and Newton were involved in its evolution. The greatest engineering achievements of human beings were done almost entirely on slide rules. Yes, the moon shot required digital computers, but the design of the thing was done on slide rules. I maintain from experience with engineering objects in the corporeal world that shipping the thing is strongly correlated with slide rule thinking, not digital computer thinking. For twerps who are hypnotized at their computers all day and think we’re living in a digital simulacrum, this is a near unbearable thought, but it is material and business reality.

I could make the argument that a protractor, slide rule and graph paper is more efficient and has a better user interface than a CAD system for about 90% of objects which get made on CAD systems, but some ninny will think it is only a matter of time before progress makes graph paper obsolete because murble wurble “muh Church Turing thesis.” There is very good reason to believe this, and I’ve pointed it out before. Modern design lifecycles which don’t take place on physical paper and using slide rules take longer. The B-52 is a great example; literally designed on graph paper with slide rules in 1947, they shipped one in 1951. SR-71; even more innovative and shipped even more quickly. Now, crap like commercial airliners have decade long development timescales where a bunch of dorks are fooling around with finite element analysis, more or less like dogs licking their butts: because they can. I’m not even sure modern engineers can do a seat of pants calculation or differential equation solution by hand any more. While computer design allows for a lot more predictability in outcome, it also takes a lot longer than hacking something out on graph paper and seeing if it works.

Of course, even worse if the thing you are designing has software in it. There was no software in the XB-52. That’s one of the reasons it shipped. The military in its blind, moronic way, has started to realize this: they appointed a Luddite Czar to the F-36 NGAD system to avoid creeping featurism, which very obviously don’t add to airframe capabilities.

Human beings are corporeal; drawing something with your hand, and fiddling with calculation sticks, writing out a differential equation solution on paper engages different neurons than typing and dragging and dropping with a mouse. The fact that we are corporeal is something modern spergoids have forgotten; lost in the dreamy womb-like twilight consciousness that fiddling with computers brings. The man drawing a sketch of a mechanical object is an active creator; his ideas conjured from the void via the power of his mind. This kind of design requires attention and focus. CAD simply doesn’t; not in the same way. Literally the nature of your consciousness is different designing on paper and using a sliderule than it is in front of the one-eyed devil. It’s like a physical embodiment of the Moravec paradox; the man who designs with slide rule and paper on the knee is a Faustian superhero and the CAD fiddler is a dreamy cog in a giant machine. That’s also one of the reasons why modern objects are so unspeakably ugly. Beauty and truth are close relatives.

Childish NGAD gibberish where they try to look all futuristic: https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/7/Take_the_Red_Pill-Digital_Acquisition.pdf

How to use a slide rule: https://sliderulemuseum.com/SR_Course.htm

### 110 Responses

1. Filip said, on June 20, 2021 at 2:47 pm

100% agree

There is a classic anecdote by Freeman Dyson on using slide ruler for calculating income tax – and he mentions that analog computers is the road not taken.

“Then in 1936, Alan Turing wrote his paper “On computable
numbers” [Turing, 1936], which revealed the power and beauty of digital computing
as an abstract logical construction. After that, analog computers slowly went out of
fashion. Analog computers became the road not taken. I still used my slide-rule for
calculating my income tax until the 1980s, when the tax collectors of the State of
New Jersey demanded four-figure accuracy in the calculation of interest-rates. For
four-figure accuracy, I was forced to switch to a digital calculator. Now we are so
immersed in a world of digital computers that it is hard to imagine things going the
other way.
If it is true that brains are analog, then we must sooner or later take the road
that Turing did not take and explore what analog computers can do”

https://ur.booksc.org/book/63338740/7ef7ec

• Scott Locklin said, on June 20, 2021 at 3:38 pm

Very nice quote; thank you.

There’s been some recent work on analog computers for solving NP hard problems I was going to shoe horn in here, but it didn’t make sense so I’ll write about this some other time.

• Naranja said, on June 21, 2021 at 7:38 am

2. a scruffian said, on June 20, 2021 at 6:29 pm

I wonder, did any of those Faustian gentlemen who made these analog computers ever design a specimen which would give that four-figure accuracy that Dyson missed?

If not, it’s surely doable, if only as an atelier machinist’s feat — some large, wall- or cabinet-mounted, laser-etched piece with a magnifying glass, perhaps.

I always want to live in a neoclassical villa filled with astrolabes and such things.

3. Rickey said, on June 20, 2021 at 7:19 pm

Since we think analogically and not digitally, I learned my most practical engineering skills by playing with Legos, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, scrap wood, etc. as a child. I was able to comprehend and develop a feel for the practical effects of stress, strain, sheer, stability, torque, etc. I would not trust an engineer that never made anything with their own hands.

I used your Luddite Czar link and the F-36 instantly reminded me of the F-16XL design from 40 years ago that I read in Aviation Week and Space Technology. This version will probably cost five times as much even after you adjust for inflation. The only significant improvements I foresee from the F-16XL would be in propulsion, infra red detection and data link capabilities.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Dynamics_F-16XL

• Scott Locklin said, on June 20, 2021 at 11:18 pm

It really does look a lot like the F16XL. Probably shoulda just built that. They could have stuck a new engine and radar in it later building incrementally the way the Rooskies did with the Su-27. That’s the problem with American aircraft design; everything has to be new, as if they’re actually building something significantly new and innovative, despite technology not actually improving enough to justify this.

4. George W. said, on June 20, 2021 at 9:24 pm

Another great, witty mini-rant.

I actively discourage young adults from becoming engineers or scientists. Glad that I saved myself, probably along with a handful of others that despite possessing the mathematical wherewithal and creative drive, somehow refused to constrain their mind to a small grid of eye-scalding pixels with keyboard bound hands deprived of the pleasures of prototype building and bolt turning. Instead, the engineering discipline is now reserved for a mentally–and probably sexually–impotent generation of hentai-crazed stoners that can’t change a tire and whose only source of excitement in life is new Apple products.

At least that’s what I see. To pen, paper and the mind, the tool of choice for millennia.

One of my fondest memories in college was striking a short conversation with a math professor on the way to class and eventually asking him how his research was useful. He was mortified, very grossly offended. I actually smirked in his face for the hell of it.

Seems like engineers face the same problem: “don’t ask why we use finite element analysis, just turn off your critical thinking at the door.”

• Walt said, on June 23, 2021 at 4:44 pm

I actively discourage young adults from becoming engineers or scientists. Glad that I saved myself, probably along with a handful of others that despite possessing the mathematical wherewithal and creative drive, somehow refused to constrain their mind to a small grid of eye-scalding pixels with keyboard bound hands deprived of the pleasures of prototype building and bolt turning. Instead, the engineering discipline is now reserved for a mentally–and probably sexually–impotent generation of hentai-crazed stoners that can’t change a tire and whose only source of excitement in life is new Apple products.

What do you encourage cognitively-blessed youth to do? The scientific and engineering disciplines, as practiced in the USSA, are either narrowly-constrained to working on politically-correct (useless) problems or boring step-and-repeat from previous generations of tech. Nothing is groundbreaking. As ASCIIlLifeForm said, science is possible on a low budget. He gave the example of the first electron microscope being developed by Russians under siege in Stalingrad. But how do you pay the bills in a post-industrial society and do low-budget research on your own and to what end?

• George W. said, on June 25, 2021 at 2:55 am

The current job market is blurry in terms of moral imperative and job satisfaction for the cognitively-blessed. Very few people are actually “changing the world for the better” or “doing what they love”. Only a small fraction of engineering graduates become long-term engineers: there are obvious reasons for this. Financial security and stress should be the two primary factors in choosing a job: that’s what I say to the youth.

It also seems like most of the low hanging fruit in science and technology is gone. The joy of discovery is now reserved for teams of researchers with access to expensive equipment and resources. Like you said, the problems they approach are boring and low reward, i.e., “Nothing is groundbreaking”.

This world is rotting. Compare google earth images of a cemetery to a suburban American neighborhood: if you squint they look the same. It may be another century before we can get rid of our current social and political problems. I’m optimistic it will happen! In the meantime, I plan on laughing at this shit-show instead of trying to do research. But to each their own.

• Walt said, on June 25, 2021 at 5:40 pm

Dear George,

I was hoping you were going to say something else. I think our problem is that we don’t have a positive vision for the future; we only extrapolate from the current decay. Moving work and production back to the household is the first step, I think.

• Walt said, on June 26, 2021 at 4:00 am

It seems like the biggest problem is that we lack a positive vision for the future. Bill Lind and some others have written books on what the future should look like, but we can’t get there without recovering previous moral and spiritual components of our civilization.

I think the first step is trying to produce more at home and teaching our kids the same.

• anonymous said, on June 27, 2021 at 8:50 pm

Have a workshop now. I’m spending crazy money trying to do things in the real world on my own dime and in my own terribly limited time. I’ve just about given up hope of accomplishing anything meaningful in my official working hours. Instead, if I want to do anything remotely creative or productive, I have to steal the time from when I would otherwise be sleeping.

I hope I can hold the house: The future looks like a nightmare for my people.

• Scott Locklin said, on June 28, 2021 at 5:05 pm

What are you building, anon? I have been very much enjoying making pieces of metal into smaller pieces of metal in my miniature machine shop. I doubt anything will come of it, but it beats screwing around on computers more than I already do.

• anonymous said, on June 29, 2021 at 10:18 am

Right now I’ve been working on making motion stages for some sort of CNC thing. (Also the programmable motor controller boards, relay boards, LCD display modules, and other crud). Not because you can’t buy this stuff, just to learn how to do it. I want to use my full size machine tools to build smaller more compact machine tools (the sort of non-garbage desktop scale stuff I’d always wanted when I had no space of my own.) Rigidity is always the issue with metal cutting, but it seems to me that adequate rigidity should be able to be had without quite so much mass. Eventually you run into L^4 (moment of inertia) vs L^3 (mass) issues, and the surface accuracy of the metal parts. (Though I’ve got a ways to go before I’m Dan Gelbart with his optically smooth surface finishes).

Eventually I’d like to branch out into making other instruments. Maybe an FTIR spectrometer or something (again, not because you can’t buy this stuff. Just to learn how to make lab instruments.)

Also need to learn to weld. So much to do, no time.

• Scott Locklin said, on June 29, 2021 at 10:57 am

I’d thought about building a lamellar grating interferometer myself.

My Cowells lathe makes me think you can take decently deep and precise cuts without too much mass, but I haven’t found a small milling solution which makes sense. Small mills which are respectable seem to start at 250lbs or so. I suppose I could try one of their mills as well, but don’t know anyone who has.

• George W. said, on June 28, 2021 at 2:02 am

There’s nothing wrong with pessimism per se. I just want to live life and help others do the same; that is, without lying about a positive future. While I’m sure that I and many others could have found an abundance of joy in doing scientific research & engineering in the past, one must acknowledge that the previous era–that culture–is gone. Likewise, the possibility of me or anyone else reviving that culture are slim to none. Small scale research could be a cool hobby, but pretty unlikely to change anything.

I’m sure you’re aware of the problems that plague America and obstruct progress. They are enormous, systemic, complex, and outside of the scope of a mere human being. Just laugh at the problems. Laughing is therapeutic and brings people together!

Take basically all major American cities for instance. It’s always the same urban sprawl nonsense, endless traffic, gargantuan parking lots, zero walkability and zero bike-ability. It’s depressing and ugly. Now, what would happen if I asked the city council to pass sensible zoning reforms? Answer: More or less, they would tell me to go fuck off. Compare this scenario to that of one where I merely fuck off without bothering. It saves everyone time.

We can’t even stop making pennies, nickels and dimes… for some reason. Probably to stop people from using cash.

5. gbell12 said, on June 20, 2021 at 10:30 pm

I’m going to go unconventional here and blame the youth.

Seriously, though, once I became an old engineer – that is, > 30 years old, all of my “let’s keep this simple” suggestions were met with a clear “sure thing, Grandpa” vibe. Never mind that I’ve used computers since I was 10, and LOVE computers. The engineering culture is one of MOAR, as Scott points out.

I hate to say it, but I wonder what the Chinese are doing here? Deliberate early training with Legos and bandsaws for their eventual CAD-savvy fighter jet engineers?

• Scott Locklin said, on June 20, 2021 at 11:26 pm

It could be ipotato short attention span, but it seems to be universal.

6. Igor Bukanov said, on June 20, 2021 at 11:33 pm

Landing of SpaceX booster does require a lot of digits. It can be it was possible at all due to a recent progress in control algorithms.

Flying a helicopter on Mars also required a lot of software and worked on the first try without a possibility of realistic testing.

Then Soviet Shuttle landed automatically which required rather sophisticated software. NASA has not even bothered with that and thought it was not possible.

So it is known how to properly glue sophisticated soft and hard together. One can speculate why it is not done more often, but I doubt that lack of slide rule is the reason.

• Scott Locklin said, on June 21, 2021 at 9:53 am

The Soviet Shuttle is a great example of what not to do. Big success; expensive reusable spacecraft used once.

Flying a helicopter on mars probably a good example of what not to do also: in slide rule days, they would have put a television in a couple balloons or gliders. You’d end up seeing more.

I concede SpaceX boosters look cool at least.

• Igor Bukanov said, on June 21, 2021 at 4:39 pm

The purpose of the Martian helicopter is not just take any pictures, but rather to gather information where to drive the rover. So the thing has to make repeated controlled flights. And in the slider era a sufficiently advanced autonomous rover was not possible so there would be no need for aerial pictures.

But then there are plans for purely mechanical rover for Venus, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/a-clockwork-rover-for-venus. I suppose in the slider era they would create it much faster with more usable sensors.

• anonymous said, on June 27, 2021 at 8:54 pm

I think the point of the exercise was to just fly something aerodynamic in a non-Earth atmosphere and gravity, just for the hell of it. Exploration is inherently inefficient: Sometimes you just have to screw around.

Mars’s atmosphere is only really there for annoyances sake, and maybe aerobraking as far as practical use is concerned. Maybe Titan would be a better world for aeronautics.

7. gbell12 said, on June 21, 2021 at 4:21 am

Well, thanks a lot Scott. I made the mistake of checking my feeds this morning before getting down to work, this article was the first thing I read, and now 6 hours later I’m still playing with my 1940’s slide rule and watching videos about manual flight computers and nomographs. This is why I’m unemployable!

There’s one place I think a slide rule actually gets the better of electronic calculators: If I can measure how long it takes me to cover any random distance, I can set that ratio on my C & D scales, and immediately read all sorts of other numbers in that same proportion. So I can see how long it takes me to cover 1 metre, or how many metres I could cover in an hour, in the remaining minutes, etc.

This of course goes was any quantities that are useful in proportion.

Seriously, though, thanks for the brain food.

8. Formerly Chuck's said, on June 21, 2021 at 8:44 am

I collect those big books full of tables of numerical approximations of transcendental functions. The best have clear plastic covers and thin pulp paper. I rarely look anything up in them but I did today. Tactile. They are good for me to collect because people throw them out without thinking, but during my lifetime they will become very hard to get since none are in print any more.

Non Sequitur: I am an undergrad and will graduate in spring of 2022. When I look at the jobs people around me get I see nothing of interest. Everybody I know is some kind of attorney, menial office type (near me, it’s always Quicken Loans employees), or working on bullshit at the entry level of some depressing FAANG eidolon. Right now my plan is to try to make a career in math research, which would continue the only good paying jobs I’ve had (that is, TAing and some research projects in algebra). But that requires a lifelong commitment to working for and at universities, which are all fucked up and deeply untrustworthy, and it also requires (as far as I know) immense skill, hard work and luck to succeed in that career. I might even get filtered at the graduate school applications stage.

Is there something I’m missing? Every time I look at what people like me do for jobs it depresses me and makes me think I will never make any money.

• Scott Locklin said, on June 21, 2021 at 9:36 am

Yep, I have a couple of those, even though they were fading out in my day. When the big EMP hits and I’m the only one who can calculate the zeros of a Bessel function, I’ll make them all pay.

If you have the misfortune to get involved in software, go straight to the money (blockchain for the last few years). Everyone else is going for the money, mostly these days in FAANG hellscapes. Working on stuff that seems “fun” is a trap.

• t2015 said, on June 21, 2021 at 1:59 pm

there’s always embedded work, pay is less, but seems more interesting than your standard software stuff

• Ianski said, on June 22, 2021 at 6:19 pm

This is my experience as well.

• Formerly Chuck's said, on June 22, 2021 at 2:59 am

I’m not sure what you mean by “working on stuff that seems ‘fun’ is a trap.” I usually don’t have any fun working. What I’m concerned with while working, feelings wise, are two types of satisfaction:

1. I want to work on something real enough so I’m sure that I’m not a conman and that my job is fairly secure;
2. I want to make money.

I enjoy working on science but in its current state it absolutely fails 1), as most people who check this blog know. Relatively speaking it also fails 2). So there must be some X factor attracting me to math. Is this the trap you are referring to?

• Scott Locklin said, on June 22, 2021 at 8:57 am

Pretty simple

Project-A: a slog guaranteed to make you a shit ton of money in a reasonable number of years

Project-B: fun math thing which you will derive personal satisfaction from and make a modest living at

Which one do you pick? If you answered B in current year America and don’t have fuck you money, you have failed the test.

• Walt said, on June 23, 2021 at 4:59 pm

But Project A is a low-probability moonshot, isn’t it? How does a 20-something pick something that will make him rich by 30?

Project B is not to be found anymore. Even if you find a job you like, which I have, the Elites have conspired to make it un-doable through their COVID restrictions

• Scott Locklin said, on June 23, 2021 at 7:46 pm

Whatever’s trendy and making other people money. Presently decentralized finance.

Most people will go for the shiny thing instead; muh AI, nanoshitte, quantum computers, etc, etc; I’ll just get tenure, it will be great.

No: sell out early and often. Move away from depressing AmeriKWAanza. Join the sea people with Club Orloff. Raise cattle in Siberia. Anything but shiny thing project B.

9. Altitude Zero said, on June 21, 2021 at 2:34 pm

A lot of this falls under the question of ” Things are so much better today, why aren’t things better today?” that I see so many younger (under the age of about fifty) people asking today. Women have way more rights than they did in the 1950’s, why were women happier then? People drink and smoke and eat less fat than fifty years ago, why did people look healthier then? We have much more computer power than we did fifty years ago – why has progress slowed down in so many areas?, and so on. Now some of this is just nostalgia for an idealized past, but some of it isn’t, and the obvious answer is that, in the ferment of the revolutions of the last sixty years (social, political, electronic), we threw some rather important babies out with the bathwater, and as long as any suggestion that the past might have something to teach us is met with career-killing cries of “racism”. we’re not likely to recover much. If slide rules ever started to make a comeback, there would, within a matter of week, be an article in the Atlantic called “The Racist Roots of Slide Rules” or some such – I guarantee it.

• Kirk said, on June 25, 2021 at 3:44 am

“We have much more computer power than we did fifty years ago – why has progress slowed down in so many areas?, and so on.”

Because of that computer power.

The reality is that 99.9% of all that “power” is being misused by everyone and their ‘effing cousin to produce useless cruft like the “TPS Report” that Mike Judge highlighted in Office Space.

You wonder where all that “productivity” went? I’ll tell you–It’s eaten up by having every executive do his own correspondence, because we can do that now. All those old-school secretaries that used to carry the load? Fired or repurposed to gather data and fill out useless reports that tell people higher up in the hierarchy nothing that they really need to know.

Meanwhile, the critical information is being ignored, the low-level employee that could tell the boss why the company is losing money is similarly ignored, and the whole thing is drowning in a sea of excess extraneous information that we can’t not gather, collate, report, and process… Because we can, we must.

Most of this is entirely useless to the real interests of the organization, but because it’s easier to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic than to address the “insignificant” little problem of having the binoculars for the lookout locked up in a cabinet instead of being used to spot icebergs dead ahead in the water…

The reality here is that there are parallels with the current situation throughout history. Time was, an admiral like Nelson was lord God himself, once he was out of sight of the Admiralty in London. Nowadays? The poor bastard is observed by satellite in real time, and micro-managed from afar. There is no discipline flowing uphill in the organization, a discipline that should say “Let the man on the scene do his job, and leave him alone…”. Instead, because we can, we demand that poor bastard submit endless useless reports detailing minutiae that won’t matter and which will be inaccurate an hour after they’re submitted.

It’s the same problem with use of computers in engineering. With a slide rule, a discipline of “what’s truly important and significant” was enforced; nowadays, because we can, we do finite element calculations that would have engaged a hundred thousand old-school “calculators” (which used to be a job title and description, not a tool…) for decades. We’re lost in the cruft, flailing around at the insignificant while the truly important and significant passes us by all unnoticed.

The problem here isn’t the computer; the problem is the human using it. I’ll contend to my dying day that a huge component of what’s going wrong with our entire civilization isn’t necessarily what we think it is, but the simple fact that most of the people running things don’t really understand the organization they’re in, or how it actually works. Most of the managers and executives think that the world functions on diktat, that what they say or put in an email effectively creates reality around them. The fact is, however, that the reality of things is not as easily influenced by their words as they think. There are ten thousand little influences out there that influence the organization, some of which are almost always going to operate in diametric opposition to the diktat of the manager. An executive that crafts his policies and instructions in ignorance of “how things really work” out in the field will suffer nothing but disappointments and failure.

Man proposes; God (or, whatever force you want to ascribe things to… Murphy, maybe…) disposes. Similarly, you can sit in your office and write a policy letter or memorandum, and send it forth into the field; the reality of the environment out in the organization will do more to determine what happens than anything you meant to happen, should you be so blind as to ignore what actually drives the employees and customers to do the things they do.

You see this crap in every field, in everything we do. Want to know why it’s so damn expensive to build a house? Blame the flippin’ computer; in my county, you now have to submit “Energy Efficiency” worksheets that are actually utterly useless; they don’t have the money or the time to actually inspect after the build is completed to see whether or not you actually installed the “EnergyStar” appliances you put in the paperwork; nobody is going out to ensure that the promised “energy efficient” (and, entirely useless…) heat-pump water heaters are actually there after the final inspection; one of our plumbers is making a sideline of essentially renting the heat-pump models for construction, and then going in afterwards to install the actual electric water heaters that work.

Thirty-forty years ago, this stuff wouldn’t have been asked for, because nobody could have produced it in a timely or efficient manner. Now? Because we can, they demand it. And, it’s an utter waste of time, effort, and money. Where submitting for a building permit used to be a simple task you could do in an afternoon once your plans were completed, now? LOL… It’s a three-day odyssey through reams of mindless paperwork that really doesn’t serve a damn purpose outside the entirely imaginary delusions of control that the various politicians running things in this state have.

The world ain’t going to end in either fire or ice… It’s going to be drowned in paperwork.

Computers enable far too much vice, in terms of “unnecessary information” demands and attempts to control things. You cannot make decisions for someone a thousand miles away; those need to be made on the scene, by the actual person doing the work. You want that sort of control, then you need to be out there doing that.

And, unfortunately, the modern enabler of all this, the computer and the internet? It’s as much a vice as it is a boon. You have to discipline yourself, when in charge of things: Do not ask for that which is not actually needed. Sadly, this is a point that most of our “elite” can’t quite figure out.

• gbell12 said, on June 25, 2021 at 11:40 am

I stopped reading when you conflated progress and productivity.

• Kirk said, on June 27, 2021 at 9:34 am

I’m not conflating anything. I’m pointing out that both “things” are not what they could be, and that is because of the same factor–The penchant for demanding excessive accuracy in everything and the drive to control which is enabled by modern computer and communication technology.

We wonder why it is that everything slowed down at about the same time and the same point in technology development, and the answer is that the slowdown corresponds very well with the rise in computing and the rest of the associated technology.

Correspondence and correlation do not always indicate a relationship, it is true–In this case, however, I think the evidence is pretty clear: It’s “paralysis by analysis”.

You don’t need accuracies past that provided by the slide rule, in most cases. Demanding the sort of thing that we do routinely these days creates that “drive for the perfect” that paralyzes the entire endeavor it is directed at.

It’s all an aspect of the same problem, that of the control freak personality type being simultaneously enabled and provided cover by the rise of the computer and its associated technologies.

If you’ve been alive as long as I have, you’d remember a world run on the typewriter and the mimeograph master; “good enough” was good enough, and you didn’t have this endless capacity for detailed mindless “accuracy” that could be demanded by the officious drones higher up in the food chains of the world. Now that they can, they do, and that demand for pointlessness in accuracy and reporting causes all that “improvement” and “progress” to evaporate in a puff of TPS reports.

It is all part of an overall interrelationship that we need to acknowledge, in order to compensate for it. A discipline must be imposed across the hierarchies of the world, one that says “Don’t demand the unnecessary”, or we’re all going to drown in the paperwork.

• JMcG said, on June 25, 2021 at 10:01 pm

This is one of the all time greatest comments I’ve ever read. I work in the electric utility industry. When I come across old manuals or procedures or construction standards, I’m struck by the sheer adult competence they portray.
That is, shall I say, no longer the case. It’s fascinating to have a front-row seat to civilizational decline. Terribly sad, though.

• Kirk said, on June 27, 2021 at 9:50 am

Surely, you must have meant to reply to another comment…?

I’m not expressing myself at all well enough for this to actually be an “all time greatest” anything. If I were able to do that, I’d be making mint as a consultant. Maybe.

Still, I think I have ahold of the edge of something, here–All the commentators and pundits pronouncing and prognosticating on the effect of the rise of computing all state their puzzlement at the same things highlighted in the post I was replying to–Why the hell aren’t things better?

Typically, since they’re not the guys working down at the low-level minion level, they don’t see all the wasted time and effort that’s come in since about the 1980s.

Small things, but they add up. All that potential improvement in productivity and progress itself evaporated in a haze of demands from on high about what you were doing, and all the associated reports. Computers should have enabled a much higher level of interrelated and synergistic effort, but because of the people higher in the hierarchy, what it actually accomplished was enabling the worst behaviors of the control-freak types. Which is why the computer and its associated technologies haven’t lived up to their promises anywhere in the economy.

Used to be that the military taught its members something called “supply discipline”, where you didn’t order more than you needed so as not to burden the logistics system, and so you yourself weren’t overburdened with more crap than you needed to haul around. We very badly need to implement something like that idea across the board, everywhere in the culture. The mindless desire for “order” and all that is a dangerous thing, when you consider all the ossifying effects it has, when spread across everything. It’s not the computers themselves that are the problem, it’s the people running them. We’ve been mesmerized by the potential and entirely illusory power granted us, and we need to get the higher-ups across it all to give up their fantasy-land grasp for power and unnecessary information.

• Walt said, on June 27, 2021 at 7:54 pm

Great comments, Kirk. You and Cal Newport are definitely on the same page. The point about computers enabling control freaks is one I hadn’t considered. Consider so-called “agile” software development where every developer’s tasks are tracked down to the minute after an hours-long scrum meeting. It’s clear that less and less quality software is being developed, judging by the “30 Million Line Problem,” but the computer has enabled managers to believe more is being done, even as schedules constantly slip to the right: “See, it’s all here in my Jira report!”

Virtual reality is clearly separating us from reality and causing the loss of manual and analog skill so necessary to get things done.

John Boyd would love your point about endless analysis, also. Where is the synthesis, these days?

• anonymous said, on June 27, 2021 at 8:58 pm

Oh God. Agile. It’s taken what by rights is a solitary creative act (the design of software) and turned it into a hideously micromanaged team-ridden Dickensian-factory hell. I left a job because of Agile. Where in *hell* did anyone get the idea that thinking was a collective activity?!

• Cleetus said, on July 30, 2021 at 6:25 am

“You wonder where all that “productivity” went?” The quote from the Wall Street Journal tells why:

“According to current and former executives, Mattel’s executives needed to be thinking up better toys. Instead, they became entangled in a culture that valued endless meetings and long PowerPoint presentations,” Paul Ziobro and Chelsey Dulaney report in the Wall Street Journal.

• Kirk said, on August 2, 2021 at 6:32 pm

That is, unfortunately, the story for most modern businesses. And, government agencies…

Back in the MS/DOS dark ages, I saw a lot of this coming, what with Harvard Graphics taking over where I was in the Army. At the time, I thought it would be a short-term issue, that people would learn the software, get tired of it, and then it would all pass. It did not.

It’s an interesting thing, too, to examine where this all came from: Believe it or not, presentation software is pretty much the last and most deadly of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen. Presentation software got its very start with Albert Speer’s takeover of the Ministry of Armaments, he undertook Hitler’s briefings on issues relating to industry and the economy. Since Hitler was, by that point, pretty much a drugged-up incoherent mess, Speer had to establish an entire team of graphic artists to create the briefing charts used to keep Hitler’s attention focused and to shape his irrational decision-making process. At the end of the war, this team was essentially taken over wholesale by the Occupation forces (it being based in Frankfurt am Main near the I.G. Farben headquarters that the Occupation took over in the American sector…), and from there, the “presentation mentality spread like a virus through the US military.

Not entirely without resistance, but it was sooooo sweet to have all those pretty-pretty graphics and charts set up to brief the brass and press with. From what I was told by an old-time staff NCO who’d been there to witness it all, the US Army went from having one or two graphics people on staff for a corps-level headquarters to having nearly a full platoon of them during Vietnam, mostly to support all the press briefings. Post-Vietnam, that number went down, but once the computer came in, along with Harvard Graphics, everybody was their own graphic artist. Which turned into a huge productivity sink, along with email.

Someone is going to come along one of these days and actually trace out the full history and effect of this stuff, and I’ll wager that it won’t be pretty.

TL;DR: PowerPoint is inherently Fascist, originating with the Nazis. And, possibly a key reason we were able to defeat them the way we did…

• Kirk said, on June 27, 2021 at 10:10 am

Here’s a thought, as well:

Stop and think about it for a bit, after you ask yourself “Why has it taken Iran decades to build an atomic bomb, when most of the technology and necessary knowledge is out there in the public domain…?”.

After all, the US went from “atomic bombs are pure science fiction” to “Hiroshima” in a little less than three-four years; they didn’t know for sure that it was even possible.

Iran knows that the atomic bomb is possible, and most of what it takes to build one. Why have they taken so long…? Good God, they have computers, and the guys in the Manhattan Project were doing a lot of what they had to do manually, with humans, paper, and pencils. Shouldn’t Iran already have “the bomb”?

Without even going into the complexities of culture, I’m gonna submit that in large part, the reason they don’t have “the bomb” is because of the computer.

Think about it–Without the computer, they’d be running everything in those labs and centrifuge centers manually. Thus, no potential ingress path for Israeli (or, whoever…) hackers to introduce crippling virus packages designed to use those computers and computerized industrial controls to crash the system. How much further ahead would Iran be, without this insane desire to computerize everything…?

Iran has been at trying to get “the bomb” since the 1980s. They’re likely still working at it, today–And, that’s been nearly forty years of effort, with no real results. How is that possible?

I would submit that we ought to thank the computer, because that one factor alone has crippled the Iranian effort in more ways than one. It’s enabled the crippling attacks by their enemies on the entire effort, for one thing, and I’ll wager that there are hundreds of thousands of man-hours tied up in progress reports and other totally unnecessary BS that the Manhattan project never had to worry about…

• JMcG said, on July 19, 2021 at 4:56 pm

Well, Stalin seemed to get frequent progress reports on the Manhattan Project.

• Kirk said, on July 28, 2021 at 10:17 pm

Most of which are now available open-source down at your local library…

The Soviets detonated their first bomb in August of 1949. Four years and a month after Trinity.

Iran has been working on a nuclear weapon since about the time they founded the Islamic State in 1979. That’s a little over 40 years, and most of it has been within what we will eventually be likely to term the “digital era”. They’ve had computers nearly the whole time, and computers have apparently been integrated into every aspect of their project.

No bomb.

The US and the Soviets did everything with pencil-and-paper. Bomb from standing start, at most? Six years.

I don’t think the computer is doing as much for human progress as we’d like to think, and I will continue to assert that the deleterious effects of how we use and abuse them as tools are probably doing more to hold us back than we’d ever admit. In some cases, that’s bad. In the case of the Iranians and their apparently endless pursuit of “the bomb”? It may be a net good.

It’d be interesting to know how much and how well-integrated computers were with regards to North Korea. Maybe they’ve figured out a way to get past all the organizational cruft that computers enable, here in the vaunted West…

10. NZT said, on June 21, 2021 at 5:03 pm

A few months ago I read The Retro Future by John Michael Greer (kind of a weirdo, but a good writer on the subject of technological decline) and he also advocated returning to slide rule / pen and paper-based engineering, for much the same reasons of reducing dependence on technology to do our thinking for us (partly in anticipation of difficulty in keeping up all the trappings of industrial civilization in coming decades), and psychological liberation from pixelized abstractions.

Your comments about the psychological difference between working on a computer and using pen and paper really jibes with my own experience. There are many domains of activity that have clearly gone too far down the realm of tech-based over-optimization and -virtualization, to the point that much of the human effort involved is just unproductive masturbation. Finance, education, and advertising all come to mind. Is it that we won’t get the next round of tech breakthroughs because our best minds are instead shaving nickels off of option spreads or optimizing Pornhub ad targeting algorithms, or are the best minds doing that because the next round of tech breakthroughs turned out to be unobtainium?

Anyway, since I made a Dune reference, it occurred to me that that’s a story that likewise works much better as an analog written word that engages your imagination to bring it to life, than as a Hollywood blockbuster spoon-feeding you slo-mo action scenes and CGI video game battles.

11. anonymous said, on June 21, 2021 at 5:32 pm

Do you have a source for nice new slide-rules? I taught myself a bit on my grandfather’s slide-rule, but I don’t want to damage it. Frequent use would probably rub off the markings, and it’s already pretty well used.

I was looking around online, but the best I could do was this 18″ long monster from e-bay, also ancient.

I’ve been experimenting with doing drawings of things I’m subsequently been building in my workshop with just a paper and pencil. It’s really all I need most of the time. The “user interface” of paper/pencil really does have a lot more freedom than digital. And the load-time/lag-time is extremely important: If it takes 10 seconds and a splash screen to give you your prompt, you’ve already lost detail.

I’ve been taking notes on paper for a few years now, and scanning/shredding them or binding them to try to get “the best of both worlds” of not taking up physical space, but having the freedom to draw and write things.

• anonymous said, on June 21, 2021 at 5:35 pm

3d printed some triangles and right-angle-edges, etc. Old drawing tools. I bought a stupid-cheap compass that somehow managed to make its manufacture *more difficult* just to save a few mils of pot-metal in its construction, on principle I guess. The hand-wheels are little folded sheets of tinfoil instead of just discs with threaded holes drilled in them, like on my grandfather’s pretty simple but robust, because actually metal compass.

• Scott Locklin said, on June 21, 2021 at 8:33 pm

Just buy an old Pickett on ebay; nobody makes them any more. Except specialized ones for aircraft, or, say, the Moonstick.

12. Christopher said, on June 21, 2021 at 8:23 pm

Cliff Stoll wrote an article in the May 2006 issue of Scientific American that also follows some of the arguments in the post, and includes a template for readers to print or photocopy onto “thinker paper” to get “a reasonably robust calculating instrument”.

I still have an how-to book on using slide rules that I inherited from my father somewhere around my house. Maybe there still a slide rule around as well. He didn’t really like computers all that much, along with, thinking about it, much of late 20th century modernity, like pop music or the metric system (at least when it came to his beloved woodworking). He may have had a point.

For twerps who are hypnotized at their computers all day and think we’re living in a digital simulacrum, this is a near unbearable thought, but it is material and business reality.

The fact that we are corporeal is something modern spergoids have forgotten; lost in the dreamy womb-like twilight consciousness that fiddling with computers brings.

I think it goes deeper than that; modern American/Western culture, at least at the elite level, is profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of physical and biological reality, of any such constraints on their “freedom”. See, for example, the rise of the transgender movement (you are whatever of the 500 genders you decide that you are, not merely the bigoted biological binary of “male” or “female” that is just “assigned” to you), or, to use a now clichéd example, the response of the coronavirus over the last 1½ year.

• Scott Locklin said, on June 22, 2021 at 7:23 pm

Cliff is an awesome person and everyone should buy a Klein bottle from him. Definitely a peak experience working briefly with him. That PDF is great, which is what I’d expect from him.

You’re probably right about the disembodied brains running around. There’s good reasons no society has ever trusted nerds.

• Walt said, on June 23, 2021 at 5:12 pm

I think it goes deeper than that; modern American/Western culture, at least at the elite level, is profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of physical and biological reality, of any such constraints on their “freedom”. See, for example, the rise of the transgender movement (you are whatever of the 500 genders you decide that you are, not merely the bigoted biological binary of “male” or “female” that is just “assigned” to you), or, to use a now clichéd example, the response of the coronavirus over the last 1½ year.

Yep.

13. Ianski said, on June 22, 2021 at 6:17 pm

As an engineer my knee jerk reaction to this post is to protest but you are right on once again.

There is no substitute to intuitive physical thinking when it comes to engineering design and analysis. I was taught in school to just use the computer as a black box and mostly trust what comes out and it has taken me years to undo this disastrous approach. I’m still recovering.

To be fair I think some of my professors had industry or hands on experience and tried to teach us the physical intuition but the system is just not set up for this anymore. The current university experience rewards cranking out the right answer fast rather than a deep understanding, or “computer” skills (running the black boxes that produce numbers) over hard engineering. I actually benefited from this at the time, but I regret it now.

This train of thought got me wondering if there is any field (or work style) that rewards deep understanding versus being good at cranking the black boxes.

On a related note, thank you for sending me down the rabbit hole of John Walker’s website.

Keep these posts coming!

14. CS said, on June 23, 2021 at 4:17 pm

there’s that story about Cray’s favorite CAD tool being a pencil and graph paper.

15. Dave said, on June 23, 2021 at 5:40 pm

I think this why most of the white-collar American economy is fake and soul-crushing. Most office work is done on your computer so you are forced to work very abstractly and out of touch with reality.

16. Speaking of Finite Element Analysis and doing math via pen and paper, I took a FEA class in grad school that was entirely 100% done on pen and paper. Derive the bilinear operator, set up the element matrices, solve them by hand, etc. Only time I used a computer was to take pictures of my homework with my ifoam so I could email them to my instructor.

• gbell12 said, on June 25, 2021 at 2:54 am

I’d like to see that. Is it like this: https://enterfea.com/finite-element-analysis-by-hand/ ?

• The first part of the course was very much like that. It got more complicated later on (2D problems, beam and frame problems, and so forth). The idea behind the course was that you needed to understand the underlying math well… instructor said “want to do this on a computer? take the undergrad course.”

I never planned on taking it, but then shenanigans happened and I learned that it was the only course available in a required set of electives I needed so take it or don’t graduate on time.

17. Jerry said, on June 24, 2021 at 7:17 pm

Recently saw the quote: “An engineer is someone who calculates to five places, and then multiplies by 2 [for a safety factor]”.

I still remember the laughter in the big LeConte lecture hall when, in the physics for engineering series, Roy Kerth crossed out a 3 and a 4 and said, “That’s one.”

I wouldn’t entirely object to matching 2+2 to 5 if people would only write the correct symbol for “approximately equal”. /There is a frigging symbol for that./

18. Altitude Zero said, on June 25, 2021 at 6:27 pm

Here’s a nice little mini-course on how to use a slide rule, along with some other cool slide-rule related stuff.

https://sliderulemuseum.com/SR_Course.htm

• Altitude Zero said, on June 26, 2021 at 2:41 am

Sorry, forgot you had already posted this. Too early in the morning…

19. Hank Scorpio said, on June 26, 2021 at 5:01 am

I still use pen/pencil with a graph pad and my trusty HP-15C. A very different experience to getting a screen tan and wiggling a mouse.

20. gbell12 said, on June 28, 2021 at 12:35 am

So, quick survey, just about everybody here writing about how computers suck – male and over 60?

The accuracy that computers have given us allows us to NOT HAVE accuracy errors in designs, as well as tackle designs thousands of times more complex than “the good old days”. The magic they’re working on Mars is way harder to pull of than what they did in the 1960s.

The reason your fridges and cars are drastically cheaper and more efficient is because of CAD and computer-based analysis.

I’m old enough to think the world is going to hell, sure, but if I had had to manually add up the several-hundred-million combinatorial logic path delays for the integrated circuits I was working on in the early 2000s, those products just wouldn’t have happened, and, to extrapolate, you wouldn’t have the luxury of typing your words to dozens of readers around the world on a \$100-\$1000 device.

Scott’s point that we’ve lost something in the process is our fault, not computers’. Computers have improved the design and manufacture every product they’ve gotten involved with.

Some of the stalling in innovation may be the result of diminishing returns; an ICE can’t get much better. Rather than lament the stalling, we could celebrate how we’ve nearly reached perfection in hundreds of major products. Good on us, and thanks computers.

And mimeographs and typewriters? Give me a break – those things were terrible. Nothing like having blurry, hard-to-read text and diagrams adding to the stress of an exam. Or to have to retype a whole page just to change a word somewhere. Those tools limped us along until we could have real tools like word processors and laser printers.

• Kirk said, on June 28, 2021 at 1:27 am

You miss the entire point. Perhaps deliberately.

It’s not that the typewriter and the mimeograph were better tools, or that the computer isn’t a superior solution to what you can do along those lines, but that the inadequacies of the “old school” tools ensured a certain, shall we say, slackness in the reins of control? A slackness that could be exploited by the competent to actually, perish the thought, get shit done?

Computers are great tools. I love them. The trouble is, the damn things are enablers for negative human factors that I can’t even begin to start enumerating without writing a damn book on the issue. The damn things are a trap, I fear–You can write far more easily, but because it’s so damn easy to go back and edit things, you’re left in a state of continual “Let’s go back and get that right…”, never actually completing a damn thing. If you were writing a novel on paper, with pen…? A certain discipline is imposed by the tools you use; you have to get it right the first time, with paper and pen, eschewing everlasting editing. I suspect that were you to put a computer into the hands of either Shakespeare or Hemingway, their oeuvre would become drastically truncated.

Bob Shaw wrote a book (Orbitsville) about the idea of a Dyson Sphere being a huge trap, meant to entangle entire civilizations and immure them in the vastness of the provided space. There’s another author out there who wrote a similarly-themed short story with the same basic idea. What I would propose is that the vices of the modern computer are similar to this idea, a trap for the unwary.

It’s that discipline thing, again. The sorts of people who naturally wind up running things (due to a certain sociopathy…) cannot allow things to go on without sticking their fingers in, and demanding things so that they’re both “informed” and so that it appears as though they are accomplishing things while simultaneously gumming up the works with their many and sundry idiocies. The computer and all of its allied tools are uniquely suited for enabling these people, being nectar for their controlling personality types.

They lack the discipline to “let go”, and let the rest of the world get on with getting on. Because of that, we’re drowning in meetings, paperwork, and endless demands for ever more inane information. Like as not, we’re going to be entombed under a pile of paper, and future archaeologists are going to have to treat our civilization as though it were the creation of hoarders like the Collyer Brothers. They’re gonna find us buried beneath massed piles of TPS reports…

As with anything, it’s a question of adaptation to the tools we use. Tools should serve the man, not the other way around–And, with what you can observe going on around us, the tools are driving a lot of the dysfunction because we simply can’t help ourselves.

First step to dealing with this? Recognize what is going on, acknowledge it, and start finding ways around the control freaks. It’s just too bad that there are so few of us who recognize what is going on, and that we can’t quite “route around” the idiots who demand all of this useless cruft. I imagine adaptation to it all will eventually come, but it seems as though it may take our civilization down before we figure it all out.

• Scott Locklin said, on June 28, 2021 at 4:55 pm

I assume you’ve read Burnham’s Managerial Revolution. Kinda factors into my thinking on this.

• Kirk said, on June 28, 2021 at 5:27 pm

TBH, no, I have not. I will remedy that in the shortest order possible.

I’ve only ever encountered Burnham in cites from various “neo-con” pundits and writers, and I have to admit that that fact alone has colored my thinking about him and his works. Looking more deeply into him, I see that I should not have been that casually dismissive of his work.

I’m certain that I’ve come up with nothing new in the way of insight, and that better minds than mine have been all over this territory. What flatly blows my mind, however, is how few of the general population can see even the vague outlines of the problems we have with all this.

Humans simply do not do hierarchy and structure at all well. Every time we set one up, we do it as though we’re building a monument for the ages, and the fact is that once that’s been accomplished, the parasitic lusters-after-power show up to infest the entire structure, turning it into a sinecure for themselves and others of their ilk. Which, of course, generally means that the entire sorry edifice gets turned against everything it was meant to combat.

We don’t do bureaucracy at all well; I’d propose that we’d be a lot better off if we created one-off “ad-hocracy” instead, and build finite lifetimes into them such that the attainment of power within such a structure was a fleeting and useless thing.

Of course, being human, we’d no doubt corrupt that, as well. People can munge up anything, and I suspect that just about any system would eventually founder on that factor alone. Frankly, I sometimes think we’d do better to seek outside management. At least, there’d be new and different mistakes to observe…

• Altitude Zero said, on June 29, 2021 at 11:27 pm

I’m told that one of the secrets of the success of the Israel Defense Forces is that they are very good at what you describe as “ad-hockery” working with very fluid command structures and readily alterable plans. Or maybe, as Moshe Dayan was fond of saying, its just because they fight Arabs…

• Kirk said, on June 30, 2021 at 2:13 pm

That’s actually one of my historic examples of such things working out, in a military context. Others would be the Germans during WWII, when they’d be able to throw together Kampfgruppe under some random officer and a collection of rear-echelon units that would wind up stopping unexpected Allied attacks dead in their tracks with whatever happened to be in the area. The German response to the parachute drops at Arnhem are an excellent example.

As well, you look at the Fall of France in 1940. British and French generalship could not operate inside the German decision cycle because they were always ensconced in some chateau, well to the rear, and churning out voluminous orders that detailed everything, and which were overcome by events before they were even completed. Meanwhile, the Germans are writing their operations orders on single sheets of paper from within the lead elements of the advancing columns, and completely dislocating everything the Allies were doing.

The more control over something you strive for, the less you actually have. It’s far more effective to properly train your subordinate elements, and let them do their thing on their own, without minute supervision. You get more by taking less…

Which is something the control-freaks of the world simply cannot tolerate. And, why whatever they build isn’t sustainable, inevitably collapsing. Whether its the Soviet Union or Imperial Rome, things like price controls and “permission cultures” are destructive of functionality and sustainability.

If you look for it, the ossifying effects of these mentalities and personalities throughout history have been harbingers of destruction and decay. If you have to have control over something in order to validate yourself, you’re probably going to kill whatever it is you’re striving to control, whether it’s a process, a culture, or an institution. I think there’s a distinct inflection point where the necessities cease, and mindless power-grabs of the creatures of control, the “order-givers” start to become actively destructive of the overall purpose and effort.

If you read the situations the way I do, much of what Dayan was talking about with regards to Arab military culture is based on just this fact alone–In many Arab military institutions, there’s about zero “power-down” going on. You actually have officers going around behind US trainers in places like Saudi Arabia, and confiscating manuals from the lower enlisted, because they can’t tolerate the idea that a sergeant or private might know more about maintaining and operating a piece of equipment than his officers do. It’s all very byzantine in the cultural complexities–There’s this idea that the officers derive much of their power from “knowing more” and “being authority figures”, and anything that reduces that is anathema, even if it means that none of the actual people who’re supposed to be turning wrenches and doing daily maintenance are kept stone-ignorant. There’s also the other factor, which is that in a lot of Arab cultures, that sort of thing is seen as being “beneath” the dignity of the Arab male…

Control-freaks will almost always lose out to the more loosely-organized types who’re united in a self-generated common purpose. This is why so many American military campaigns during the Indian Wars came to grief–Until we started emulating the Indian warrior “ad-hoc” mentality, and began relying on converging columns of competent junior leaders whose men were well-versed in the realities of things on the frontiers, we usually had our asses handed to us.

Same thing goes on in the business world. Smaller, more agile organizations eat the lunch of the dinosaurs in every field–Up to a certain point, which is usually when a dinosaur organization exerts the power of mass that it has procured, and then buys up the smaller firm to take over, usually effectively destroying it in the process. That’s what Coca-Cola did to Odwalla, what Microsoft did to the folks at Visio, and on and on and on. It’s unfortunate that so few of the mega-corps can manage to leverage their takeover properties into something that lasts, but that’s the way it is. And, it’s something that badly needs fixing.

• Kirk said, on June 30, 2021 at 4:40 pm

Germane to the discussion, relative to military operations:

https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/9/20/trigger-happy-autonomous-and-disobedient-nordbat-2-and-mission-command-in-bosnia

Quick compare-and-contrast of this to the micromanaged Dutch unit at Srebrenica and the negative outcomes for all concerned. Swedish politicians felt like they’d lost control over what was going on in Bosnia with their troops, but because the commander they selected operated in near-total disregard of the politicians, they avoided the fallout that the Dutch forces garnered for them at Srebrenica–Where they are still held in contempt to this very day.

Where the Swedes were? They name schools after them…

• Walt said, on July 1, 2021 at 8:59 pm

John Boyd, is that you?

• Altitude Zero said, on July 1, 2021 at 9:37 pm

Great article, Kirk, you should most certainly start your own blog – high quality comments.

• Great comments Kirk, I was also surprised at the tale of Nordbat; didn’t think they had it in them. I rolled my eyes at this though:

“In “The Language of Mission Command and the Necessity of an Historical Approach,” Jörg Muth argues that the U.S. Army needs to understand the culture of mission command in order to implement it.[3] This article provides a brief case study of the tactical and strategic impact of one such culture. While the events described here occurred over twenty years ago, they are as relevant as ever to further our understanding of the strategic role of leadership culture in mission command.”

How can someone write something like that in view of what the US Army is becoming? I mean of course Muth is right in naive way but asking that from today’s US Army is impossible, the culture is deeply rotted, the tendency for a long time has been away from such an idea of command and towards every increasing technology-enabled micromanagement from the top, and that is now supercharged with leftist political paranoia that is obsessed with “extremists” in the ranks, as well as the festering racial and cultural issues. I’m also a former soldier and am appalled by what I see going on in the military today. I don’t think the Army will get free of that short of collapse; the GO leadership is nearly completely compromised, exhibit A the embarrassing GEN Milley.

• Kirk said, on July 2, 2021 at 5:02 pm

Couldn’t agree with you more about the only path to reform being utter dissolution followed by rebuilding. I don’t see anyone in the modern Army even remotely akin to the guys that brought about reform in the post-Vietnam era. I was a small part of the whole “rebuilding” thing starting from when I enlisted in the early 1980s, and spent 25 years in front of the flag. I spent that time observing everything around me, trying to understand what the hell was going on, and I have to say that it is my conclusion that there are a host of cultural problems underneath it all.

The biggest one is the inflexibility and total unwillingness to take in information from outside the various stovepipes. Back in the early 1990s, I worked for a field grade officer on staff with I Corps, and one of the things he threw at me was a question about the validity of some assumptions that came up during a pretty major command post exercise that was directed at the question of how to intervene in Rwanda. The key thing he wanted answered was the issue of route clearance, how you got the roads cleared of mines and IEDs–Which led me down a rabbit hole of research that should have raised a huge stink with the people making the assumptions, when I reported my findings. It didn’t.

The basic thing was, the staff planning handbook showed numbers about clearance rates, and the type of units necessary to do the work–None of which had been updated to reflect the massive changes in structure the Army had undergone since the manual was written. To make it even worse, the exercise designers had apparently taken the number of miles of road they’d need to clear and divided it by the number of specialized units available to do the work, and then extrapolated that it would take X days to clear some 2500 miles of road. The only way that would have worked is if we had somehow magically dropped each of those units out along the route to work independently, starting simultaneously. No attention paid to the fact that you’d have to start from one end of the route and then work through from that end to the other, if you wanted to actually do more than get a bunch of guys killed that you wouldn’t be able to support or supply. The whole set of assumptions was nuts, and a multi-million dollar staff exercise was predicated on assumptions like that.

End of the day, intervention in Rwanda was logistically impossible, for many other reasons. There was no way to get enough ground forces into the region and supply them, given the terrain and infrastructure. Any aid or relief would have wound up having to feed the “humanitarian relief” forces rather than addressing the problems that brought them there in the first place–Just like Somalia. There weren’t enough airheads available in Rwanda, nor were there enough aircraft available, even if we’d activated CRAF and totally disrupted civil aviation in the US for about a year or two while all this was going on. Ground forces were an impossibility for the reasons I outline–All the highways through from the coastal harbors we had available were disused, mined heavily from earlier conflicts, and overrun with people who weren’t going to be happy and cooperative. Odds are, putting troops on the ground in Rwanda would have been a disaster, and we’d have lost huge numbers of men, materials, and money trying to “do good”.

It’s one case where I’m glad that the “do nothing” types got their way; had we done an intervention, that deep into Africa…? Yeesh–You first, is all I would have liked to have said to the do-gooders. Some things simply are not amenable to a military solution…

That said, that’s how I got into the whole counter-mine and route clearance deal. It was obvious from my reading and talking to all the old-timer Vietnam vets that there was this whole arena of warfare that the Soviets had developed, and which we’d ignored. If you go back to the Eastern Front in WWII, you can see the outlines of it–The Soviets had this whole doctrine of “interdict the rear areas and make it impossible to support the front line”, turning the idea of linear warfare into a fantasy. They taught this to all of their proteges, and you can see the effects of it in the Korean War, Vietnam, and all the post-colonial conflicts where they had proxies. There’s a clear thread through, and nobody in the US hierarchy ever saw it or even took it as a reality of modern war. They’re all still married to this idea of the linear battlefield, with clear progressions through from the “home front” up to the edge of the fighting. That thinking simply doesn’t exist on the Soviet side, or anywhere that their teachings reached. And, it’s a natural outgrowth of the fact that US firepower is such that you simply can’t tackle combatant forces and live–So, you have to do what the Soviets did with the Germans and eliminate the ability of your enemy to support those highly lethal and very fragile combatant forces.

We tried telling the “powers that were” back in the 1990s, and I was hardly a lone voice in the wilderness, that something like the IED campaign in Iraq was coming, and that ohbytheway, “safe rear areas” weren’t really a thing, but… Complacency and arrogance prevented any actions. I was actually told that “…we don’t want to develop that capability, because if we have it, then we’ll be expected to use it, and we don’t want to divert money from elsewhere in the budget to support it…”. That was why we didn’t have any armored route clearance equipment or armored logistics vehicles available in Iraq until about 2005 and later. It wasn’t that we didn’t know, or that we had to develop the equipment (all available off the shelf from South Africa…), it was that the people running things simply decided to stick their heads into the sand and ignore it all.

You can see the same thing going on with regards to force structure. Going into Iraq, we had to stand up what were called “Personal Security Detachments” or PSD elements for every level of leader in the chain of command that had to circulate around outside the wire. These detachments were stripped out of line units, manpower and equipment, drastically lowering their capabilities. Had to be done, though–But, what’s amazing to observe? Did we actually learn anything, and make those detachments a permanent part of the unit structures? Nope; as soon as we got back to the continental US, they were all stood down, and the fantasy returned to, that we’d never have to do anything like that again.

They like to claim that the Army is a “learning organization”. Not from where I sit…

Another case in point–You go look at the South African SAMIL range of trucks, and do a quick comparison to the US FMTV program. The SAMIL line is all conventionally designed, with the front axle waaaaay out in front of the armored crew capsule, ‘cos that’s where you want that lead axle to be, when it inevitably sets something explosive off. FMTV, however? Unarmored, no crew capsule, and the front axle is right under the crew compartment because it’s a cabover design. I helped one of my bosses write up a short paper that we sent off to the people running the FMTV program, back when it was still in the design phase, pointing these things out. We got a nice letter in return, basically patting us on the head, and telling us that we needn’t worry, these weren’t tactical vehicles and would never see front-line use, so there was no purpose to addressing our concerns.

In 2003, the Engineer battalion that I belonged to when we raised these issues went into Iraq with those unarmored FMTV vehicles; they were tasked with route clearance missions during much of the 2003-04 campaign, and had to do it with the same, slightly-improved tools that their grandfathers had in Vietnam: Sandbagged trucks and hand-held mine detectors.

The Army could have been prepared. Because of the “system”, and what I can only term systemic blindness, they weren’t. I’m still pissed-off about that whole thing, because I saw it coming and tried to get them to “get off the X”, but noooo… Too much inertia, and too little foresight or imagination.

The bureaucracy is the problem, period. And, the people that it attracts and who thrive in the atmosphere. It’s also amazingly seductive, in that it will suck in people who know better and who are smarter, yet who inevitably become part of the problem themselves, after very short periods of time. Buddy of mine was instrumental in revamping a lot of the urban warfare technology and techniques; he did a lot of good things while “inside the system”, but even he reached a point where he could no longer do any good, and retired shortly after he realized that point. Whereupon he got brought back in as a “consultant” and was paid medium-big bucks to do what he was getting enlisted pay for before, and to implement the things he’d recommended while still in uniform. If they’d have simply promoted him appropriately, and listened to him when he’d told them what was coming…? Would have cost a hell of a lot less, and they’d have been ready for a lot of the crap that came down our pipe in Iraq and Afghanistan. System didn’t respond; signal didn’t get through, and that’s the way it is.

Like you say–It’s going to take an utter and complete collapse before we can rebuild on the rubble, and I suspect that the resultant “rebuilt Army” is going to follow the same life-cycle of effectiveness, complacency, then failure all over again. And, because the velocity of change has sped up so much, it’ll likely happen even more quickly than before.

Used to be, institutions would take centuries to “go bad”. These days? Decades; years, even. The reason? No idea, but I suspect it’s got a lot to do with the speed and volume of information transmission. Everything is faster now, even decay, dystrophy, and dysfunction.

• Walt said, on July 2, 2021 at 9:34 pm

The Rwanda situation could’ve been solved by Executive Outcomes or a similar light scout force with combined arms. The Military Reformers wanted to make Army like this – into a maneuver force with jaeger units that needed little equipment that could operate autonomously with CAS, but the Army wasn’t interested. Our generals are embarrassing failures. They are walking PowerPoint presentations with no intellect.

• Kirk said, on July 2, 2021 at 11:54 pm

We’re way, way off-topic here, but…

If I remember right, they actually approached a couple of firms like Executive Outcomes to “do something”, and their response was pretty much “Not only NO, but hellno, and by the way, get out of our offices before we resort to violence…”.

By the time it got to the point where the powers-that-were became convinced that they needed to intervene, it was too damn late for anything small-scale and within the range of what someone like Executive Outcomes could accomplish. Picture an avalanche: Easy to stop when it’s at the early stages and there are just a few pebbles falling, but once the mass of the hillside gives way and it’s all in motion? Yeah; you’re not stopping that with a couple of guys, some helicopters, and small arms.

Rwanda, by the time they wanted to intervene? It was already gone, and far past the point where anything less than heroic outside intervention could have influenced anything. The Canadians who were telling the UN that they “…just needed a few more troops…” were nuts; you had the vast majority of the Hutu population out whacking away at Tutsis with pangas at that point, and there wasn’t going to be anything that got them to stop, short of the madness burning out or someone showing up to chop them up.

Reasonably good estimates were saying it would have been a minimum corps-size effort, with at least as many other troops in support. Three-four divisions in Rwanda, probably as many more securing supply lines, and God alone knows what would have happened had we actually done that. Cops don’t like intervening in domestic disputes for good reasons; that’s an excellent way to have the beaten wife pick up a kitchen knife and come after you once you cuff her husband. A similar dynamic might have come into play with regards to all the other players in the region…

If something was to be done, it had to be done well before the issue ever got to the point where it made the international news, and it needed to be done delicately, like brain surgery. Absent a time machine, or much better intelligence on the region, that wasn’t going to happen.

Once the avalanche was in progress, nothing short of XVIII Airborne Corps and heavy reinforcements was going to have effect, and that would probably have had significant follow-on effects that are entirely unknowable.

I still don’t know what the hell was going on in Rwanda to trigger all that–I’ve heard the full range of conspiracy theories about the French and Belgians stirring up trouble to it being a bunch of other things. About the best explanation I’ve found from anyone was an Afrikaner acquaintance whose sole comment on the situation was “It’s bloody Africa, mate…”.

As an outsider, I’m not really sure that there’s much more than that to say, or to do. There are a lot of things in Africa that are legacies of colonialism, but there’s also the fact that colonialism only happened in the first place because of underlying factors–There was no African Meiji emperor that came to the fore and managed the continent’s confrontation with modernity. Had there been, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

• Chiral3 said, on July 4, 2021 at 9:18 pm

By that time some wealthy dudes had spent some years importing tons of machetes into the country. It was fait accompli in many ways.

• Kirk said, on July 6, 2021 at 6:24 pm

@Chiral3,

Absolutely. The point at which outside agency could have put an end to the Rwandan “thing” would have been when the shadowy conspiracy was engaged in ramping up. You could have done it just about anywhere along the timeline from “propagandize” to “issue the order” over the radio networks, but once that maddened cat was out of the bag, there was no stuffing it back in short of using at least a few hundred thousand soldiers on the ground, who’d have had to show up everywhere and near-simultaneously.

At least, that’s the opinion I share with a bunch of other folks whose knowledge and opinions I respect on the issue. Might-maybe we were wrong, and you could have put a stop to it the way the Canadian general on the scene thought, but… I kinda-sorta doubt that he got that right.

Had we tried his route, I think we’d have likely lost every single soldier committed to the whole effort, because of the psychology of it all–“Mighty Whitey” coming in to save the day would have triggered a whole attendant set of antipathies due to colonial history, and I suspect that the first use of genuine force on the part of any “peacekeepers” would have triggered a paroxysm of violence–Unless, as postulated by myself and others, there were enough forces on hand to terrify the stupid out of the nutters with pangas. Which means, no “tiny commitment” would work: It would have had to be psychologically overwhelming; the nutters with knives would have had to have seen overwhelming force arriving, convoys of trucks, thousands of men, planes overhead every single moment of every day, bringing in troops…

Absent that, they’d have likely just thought “Well, there aren’t very many of them, there are a lot of us, and we’re already kinda committed here, sooooo… Yeah, let’s rush those few guys with guns, and kill all of them. They can only kill a fraction of us, and if we put some fear into the people that sent them by videoing the massacre and aftermath for broadcast…? Yeah; they’ll back off.”.

At least, that’s my feel of the situation. Go big, or don’t go at all. I’m glad that mentality triumphed, because a bunch of my friends would have likely gone down swinging in front of the mob, had we tried the itty-bitty “solution”.

• Scott Locklin said, on July 3, 2021 at 10:03 am

I’d assume any Army not involved in “survival of the country” warfare is going to be 98% apple polishing technocrat organization men and other such shitbirds. Always has been. These examples sound extremely tame compared to, say, watching videos of modern integrated boot camp.

• Walt said, on July 3, 2021 at 5:28 pm

I still don’t know what the hell was going on in Rwanda to trigger all that

Sin and the Devil.

One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them. “Where have you come from?” said the LORD to Satan. “From roaming through the earth,” he replied, “and walking back and forth in it.” Job 1:6-7

• Kirk said, on July 6, 2021 at 5:54 pm

God’s own truth, right there, about the peacetime military any time, any place, any nation.

The problem is, you have to somehow preserve that which worked from the last war through the current “peace”, such that you’ve got something that is vaguely functional next time you actually need the army or navy. This has always, always been a problem.

I dunno… I’ve always thought that maybe we should have kept the old “military on a for-profit basis” idea going, and then allowed the resultant privateers/private armies to go hire themselves out overseas as a bleed-off for the adrenaline junkies attracted to such things, and in order to keep military skills fresh and viable. Under such a system, you’d only go to federally-operated units once you were in a state of total war, and you’d shut those down as soon as you hit “peace” again.

I don’t think the constant standing army idea really works, because it just creates a huge power/finance sink for the criminally and morally corrupt to go after. Instead of having McDonnell-Douglas there as this prize, maybe it’d be healthier to have those criminal types engaged in privateering out elsewhere in the world…?

Dunno. I’m coming around to the conclusion that just about any system and hierarchy you come up with will eventually turn into a corrupt mess, no matter what. Just like you can make any system work, so long as the participants are good and decent people–Hell, even some of the nuttier collectivist fantasies worked out, so long as they could attract enough Stakhanovites. Thing is, they don’t last, and you’re building against human nature when you do that. Human nature is fundamentally at odds with the sort of ideal all-the-time behavior you’d need to have in order for any of these schemes to really work, even the supposed “capitalism”. What you should basically design for is a “non-system” of things small enough that you don’t need to worry about them going all corrupt and cancerous on you, yet is still capable of working together on big things cooperatively. The system approach means hierarchy which means the creation of niches for corruption to edge their way in, so… What is likely the best approach is a semi-organized and entirely chaotic anarchy that cannot create the “big structure” things that tend to take everything over and then ossify into uselessness and waste.

Of course, the practicalities of how you go about creating that sort of thing…?

• anonymous said, on June 28, 2021 at 11:27 am

Under 40, and actually extremely good at programming computers. I can make any machine do any math that you can specify (and if you insist, I can expose interfaces in matlab.)

When I was younger, I made an error. I was going through a very abstract, very not-hands-on, very theoretical engineering undergrad. (Astronautical engineering at a school too poor and in a curriculum too packed and rushed to really translate design work into hands-on construction and testing.) On the one hand, I had bags of equations and tons of derivations under my belt, the basic physical principles of the laws of various domains. On the other, what I vaguely knew I needed was a tacit picture of what the consequences of those laws were. You can’t begin the design of anything unless you have a very simplified and trained intuition for what will eventually result from cranking either by hand or on a computer. I had computers, and was good with computers, so I thought I could bridge that gap by synthesizing the experience that I wasn’t getting. Instead of real-world experience, get numerical world experience and go with that. (Just like once I hit on first-order forward-euler, all of math (or at least ODEs and PDEs) are basically solved right? Just dump numbers on a grid and crank and there’s your answer, right? What were all these college math courses? Not even close…)

The simulate-the-world-you-can’t-touch approach sort of works: For simple things like linear elasticity. But it’s a long long looong journey from the abstract world of theory to the practical results of the behavior you’ll observe in the lab or in a device. And the longer the journey, the more mistakes you can make – mistakes that are obvious and fudgeable if you have the experience, but are totally opaque if the thing you are trying to get from the math is the experience. Then there are the domains where the theory *actually doesn’t recapitulate the physical behavior*. Take just about any solid-state property of matter at a finite temperature in real polycrystalline materials with crud in the grain boundaries. For a dirt simple case (that is soluble but only because we have tons of experience): Take turbulent flow around an aircraft. (Just fire up Navier Stokes, throw numbers on a grid, and … oh wait what are all these free parameter knobs? What value do you set them to? (You go to a wind tunnel and figure out what to dial the knobs to.))

It’s been, and will be the work of a lifetime to reattain the physical experience I should have been accumulating, and repair the deficit. Sometimes I call what’s happened to this generation of engineers “being trapped in abstracto-land”. This tendency is reinforced, and enforced, on so many levels by our current culture: By the segregation of the shop floor from the engineers, by the deindustrialization of our culture, by the demand that you justify every damn second of your day and no you don’t need keys “to go play in the lab”. By our caste system. By economics (the moment you touch a tool, your salary drops by half.)

• anonymous said, on June 28, 2021 at 11:44 am

Another good example: Suppose you are making a model of a spacecraft (because the contractors barfed up a model of the spacecraft that behaves in obviously nonphysical ways due to undergrad-stupid numerical instability. They just barfed garbage into a 1500 page pdf report as their “deliverable in lieu of testing”, and it’s WRONG.) You have nitrogen tetroxide in a tank. Just what IS nitrogen tetroxide?

Turn to the first few pages of the Wright USAF propellant handbook report, and you get things like the chemical formula, the density. Its liquid at this temperature, it freezes at this temperature. Everything you need right? (Slightly maniacal laughing.) N2O4 isn’t really N2O4 except on average. What it is changes depending on what mood it’s in. It’s this godawful witches brew of oxides that include the first few micrometers of your tank wall, in a precarious equilibrium. It turns various pretty colors when it isn’t happy, or is about to randomly blow up a thruster. It foams, it froths, it freezes at an inconveniently high temperature, but freezing is a kinetic process – the equilibrium is just the infinite-time result: Your ullage *will* be operating below that temperature during blowdown – is it a problem or not? Had I read Ignition before that particular project, I’d have had a nice forewarning that the pale-greenness of the batch of crud sitting in a *rusted stainless steel tank* since the Apollo program, meant that it had leached the iron out of the material and wasn’t safe. We didn’t “save money and time” by trying to “reuse materials”.

The propellant handbook goes on for 207 pages for a reason: But those 207 pages won’t make sense to you unless you had *prior physical experience with the chemistry* to orient yourself. I didn’t really. We didn’t even *have* chemistry labs where we were. I was expected to derive the experience we couldn’t attain from abstracto-land and arrive at the correct answer. Don’t reinvent the wheel, all this stuff is ancient history, it should be easy right? Just go read a report and stick it in the model.

21. chiral3 said, on June 28, 2021 at 12:44 am

Was hiking and fishing on the Maine/Canadian border 100 miles from a cell signal for the past week so late to this convo. Too much to say, too little time… I’ll only echo that everyone should buy a klein bottle from my friend Cliff. I have three in the house spanning a couple of decades and have gifted several. And read his book.

• gbell12 said, on June 28, 2021 at 1:01 am

Which book? If you mean “Silicon Snake Oil”, he apparently said this about it: “Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler….Now, whenever I think I know what’s happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff…”

This would be consistent with his frequent contributions to the Numberphile YouTube channel.

• Chiral3 said, on June 28, 2021 at 9:58 pm

I guess any of them, but I was referring to cuckoo for no other reason than it was entertaining.

22. John Baker said, on July 1, 2021 at 5:41 pm

Another great post Scott. I am a living member of the last generation that actually learned how to use slide rules. Proper use of the tool embedded a deep “order of magnitude” thinking. You kept track of where the damn decimal point went in your head and that skill flows out everywhere. Your point that computers enable pointless precision is dead on. I see this frequently in the high-precision calculations of my IT life. We have a complex state of art PowerBI report loaded with all the crufty stuff you deplore. Among its goodies, there’s a routine that assigns UPCs, (useless product codes), based on their frequency of occurrence in sales transactions. UPCs cannot be approximated they are keys! Tiny differences in the 11th decimal of their frequencies result in one being chosen over another. The entire calculation is pointless nonsense but no matter how often I explain this we keep getting complaints about how wrong codes keep showing up. Someone used to a slide rules imprecision would never countenance what’s essentially a random selection based on digital noise. That top managers in billion-dollar companies seem to have trouble understanding this is, as many others have pointed, out, a symptom of civilization decline.

23. anonymous said, on July 3, 2021 at 3:12 am

Apparently two independent new measurements of the anomalous magnetic moment of the muon have been made by different accelerator labs. Aaaand … it’s not what QED predicts.

24. I just bought a Nestler 23RF off Ebay, for about \$50. The slide rule case is stamped with label as belonging to a local government plans and blueprinting office in Graz, Austria, pretty sure pre-1938. The back side has a data plate with a bunch of constants useful to mechanical and civil engineers like modulus of elasticity, thermal expansion for various materials, and so forth (in German). I imagine you could have ordered them back then with a backside cheat sheet tailored to your professional needs.

• Kirk said, on July 8, 2021 at 7:04 am

One of the fascinating things I’ve always wanted to know more about were the national differences in things like slide rules and so forth… A Swiss guy I once spent some time BS’ing with mentioned that when he’d been brought up (Switzerland, late 1950s, early 1960s) in Engineering, they’d had “…much better slide rules and other tools…” than he’d found when he emigrated here to the US. Most of what he was talking about was real “inside baseball” stuff that I barely got the outlines of, but he seemed to think that a lot of the tools he’d been given to work with when he arrived here in the US were outrageously primitive and not anywhere near as easy to use as what he grew up with and used at school in Switzerland.

I wish I could remember the details, but it was something about the scales on the slide rules and the accompanying tables…?

Kinda the RPN of the day, I presume. Could have just been him, maybe…?

Incidentally, I’d love to see a post on the many and varied advantages of RPN notation and calculation–That’s always been an interesting discriminator, to find someone who actually even knows what that is, and I’ve generally found that people who use RPN are the guys to talk to. If he has an HP-41 or an HP-48 and a bundle of self-written tools to use on them, well… Yeah. That guy probably knows what he’s about. If they pull out something from Texas Instruments or Casio…? Not so much.

• Scott Locklin said, on July 8, 2021 at 7:57 am

In case you didn’t know: https://www.swissmicros.com/products

• Kirk said, on July 8, 2021 at 6:12 pm

Oh, I’ve been watching them for years. I just hope my HP48GX lives long enough to see one of theirs as a direct replacement…

The decline and fall of the HP calculator line of business is probably very congruent with the decline of American industry, in general–And, it’s all been entirely self-inflicted. HP would still be a powerhouse today, were the founders running the place. As is, Carly Fiorina will have a lot to answer for, when she’s finally in their company again.

Same with those dolts at Boeing, allowing the McDonnell-Douglas coup after the merger. Boeing people I knew were heartsick at what was going on, predicting exactly what we’ve seen since. One guy got it right, almost to the year and model of aircraft that’d be their doom. I remember talking to him back around 2005-ish, and he’d already picked up on the vibe with the new business management team–He predicted it’d be the cheap-jack replacement for the bread-and-butter 737 line that did them in, because the new guys sidelined the engineers and put the money men in charge of making all the decisions.

It’s interesting, too, to note that one of the same things he pointed out as a “sign”, namely the dissolution of the old Boeing surplus store, has proven accurate: It crippled a lot of aviation startups out here, because it used to be super-easy to pick up aviation-related materials and equipment that Boeing put out for sale on surplus, and enabled a lot of companies to get started on a shoestring. Originally, Boeing had done that as kind of a “put out the seed corn” deal so that there’d be a strong and viable subcontractor base around the Puget Sound. Absent that surplus store, there’s a hell of a lot of aviation-related activity down at the grassroots level that just didn’t happen, and the entire sector is a hell of a lot weaker in the region.

So, yet another short-term money-man decision that’s actually proven out to be a long-term disaster in big-picture terms. Or, so I’ve been told–I couldn’t prove that there’s been an effect on small aviation stuff because I just don’t know the information personally, but I have been told this is a valid issue by several Boeing-related people I’ve talked to. The supporting ecosystem for Boeing out here is drying up, and that surplus sales facility going away is a part of it.

• gbell12 said, on July 9, 2021 at 10:18 am

I really loved my HP-28S – RPN is actually easier than big parenthesized expressions, and the 4-line display made manipulating the stack a cinch.

I binned it one day on the job when I convinced myself that it was doing a power-of-2 calculation wrong, and seeing as I was designing digital ASICs at the time, I couldn’t really live with that.

25. Walt said, on July 8, 2021 at 5:03 pm

Does anyone have a good article on drafting with graph paper? Every time I want to design something basic like a woodworking project or piece of camping equipment, I don’t want to have to learn a CAD tool.

• Scott Locklin said, on July 9, 2021 at 1:35 pm

If you take a machine shop class, they may give you some good ideas. I think that’s where I learned. Not too much to learn; set a scale, use a ruler, etc. Most shapes you’re going to design by hand, presumably to craft on the hand tools, so they’re not going to be super intricate, and you have to think about how you’d make them on the available machinery. I’m presently slooowly building a metric donkey saw from imperial plans; most of it ends up being scribbling on the diagrams and forgetting to implement unneeded cuts. Kind of winging it for this one off gizmo; the main difficulty for me is machining big press fits for the bearings using a boring head. I also find having a big pile of metal bits to be pretty useful in imagining how it all fits together.

26. Wayne McKinney said, on July 8, 2021 at 8:04 pm

Fact is that CAD only becomes worth it over paper when making changes.

• Scott Locklin said, on July 8, 2021 at 8:44 pm

I think it makes sense past a certain level of complication. I’ll never forget spending months talking to lab engineers fiddling in solid designer about some trivial optics/vacuum tank combination, which they fucked up beyond repair. Handed Noel the mirror and a budget after they screwed it up, and got the chamber/mount in two days. He took a measurement with a tape measure on the air table; that was it.
Perfect fit; worked the first time.

27. anonymous said, on July 14, 2021 at 10:41 pm

Random thing I posted a long time ago, when people were pushing the standard rage about the AES/English unit system:

Lots of shade being thrown at the AES inch-system. I like to defend it for what it is, just to be contrary. Also, to emphasize that any unit system that men choose are a convention based on an arbitrary choice of reference in the physical world. Nature doesn’t care about your base-10 numbering system – even when you reduce things via natural units (c in SR, h in quantum mechanics), you’re still left with at least one arbitrary choice. (This is a fundamental point about what we’re mathematically doing when we manipulate a quantity with a unit attached.)
The inch system is easy to use for engineering because it’s based on binary fractions. You might be able to easily divide by 10 if you’re calculating something, but if you’re laying something out or eyeballing it, binary fractions are far more natural. If you need to ascend and descend orders of magnitude in a base-10 system, metric makes sense. If you need to deal with symmetry, positioning, geometry, a binary-fraction system makes sense. If we had a base-(power-of-two) number system, you could do both.
In computer science, everyone works in base-16 and powers of 2. The logic of digital logic doesn’t care about your base-10 numbering system.
In plasma physics, people work in Volts and eV
In early American aircraft design, everyone worked in slugs-ft-seconds, a consistent mass-length-time unit system.
What units you work with are usually whatever you can keep in your head with the least overhead for a given physical situation
(No large powers of 10 appended to everything for comparable magnitudes, no need to memorize more than 3-4 digits, etc)
As spaceX has discovered, tonnes (1000kg) are a useful unit to use for orbital rocket masses. (kg and lbs are too small). To report interplanetary distances and timescales, AU and days make sense. For maneuvers, km and km/sec.

• Kirk said, on July 15, 2021 at 2:38 am

When I was younger, and far more trusting about what the “experts” and my elders were telling me, I fully bought into the proposition that “metric is better”. Like a lot of that stuff, I’m no longer quite so convinced.

One of the failings of metric is also one of the things they’re always telling you is such an advantage–That flippin’ decimal point. It’s all too easy to misplace that bastard when doing calculations, and while it’s not really that big a deal in some arenas, in others…? It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Do not ask what happens when someone using metric in explosives calculations royally screws up while doing so. Tends to really throw off the expected results, that does–Resulting in creation of impromptu craters and vaporization of the target, when all you wanted to do was break it up. When your calcs call for 100kg of TNT, and you really only needed 10, things do tend to Go Wrong Bigly(tm).

I watched that happen, once, and I think that was where I started to question the wisdom of the whole “Let’s Go Metric” idea. Any system has its issues, and I really don’t think there’s a clearly superior one out there, anywhere. It’s all essentially arbitrary, all the way down.

• Scott Locklin said, on July 15, 2021 at 10:52 am

Metric is better for two things:

1) The screws are better and make more sense.

2) If you happen to not live in a civilized country, everything is metric, so it’s easier to buy tools.

Otherwise as someone educated in a pre-woke US physics department, there are numerous advantages to imperial at least as a measurement system used by human beings. For weather temperature, celsius makes no sense. Oh yeah, OK, 100 for boiling, 0 for freezing. Who fucking cares? For Farenheit, you basically get 0-100 degrees for something like European temperature norms you encounter in day to day life. Centigrade you’re forced to live between -10 and 35 or something (I still can’t figure it out). Quarts are natural enough, the frogs stole it and called it a liter. Half a quart is also a useful measure; binary fraction as stated above. Meters same story: a human is somewhere between 1.5 and 1.85. Feet and inches give you more dynamic range. Pounds; a Japanese girl is 100 of them; American woman 200 of them. You probably need about a pound of food a day to sustain life. Tell me how kilogram fits in here? It’s a mass too large to be useful for small weights and too small for human sized weights. Something similar can be said about grams versus ounces; inconvenient to human normal sizes. An ounce is a fat coin of gold; what is a natural object in one gram increments? Generally speaking, metric is the measurement system of inhuman technocrats who don’t care about human beings and their daily experience. Virtually all customary units of measurement; furlongs, poods, verchoks, cubits relate to something normal humans encounter on a daily basis. All units of measurement are arbitrary, and physicists tend to add the units back in at the end anyway.

• Igor Bukanov said, on July 15, 2021 at 2:05 pm

Fahrenheit is too specific to Western Europe and US. Using Farenheit sucks in Russia and Eastern Europe. As temperatures in winter can stay for months below -18C the Farenheit is not that useful. With Celsius in winter people simply omit the minus, since it is obvious, which gives convenient small 2 digit numbers. Plus for a lot of activities the water freezing point is important, so having it as zero isbintuitive.

And even in US and Western Europe given the heatwaves in resent years using 3 digits for temperature is not convenient.

• Scott Locklin said, on July 15, 2021 at 4:05 pm

>Fahrenheit is too specific to Western Europe

Ya well I guess you mofos should have invented the thermometer.
Heat waves are more convenient; if it’s over 100 you know something’s wrong. No such convenient number in inhuman metric system unless you’re boiling an egg.

• Kirk said, on July 15, 2021 at 6:17 pm

The paper sizes make more sense, as well…

I’ve about reached the point where anyone advocating for a particular system just bores the crap out of me. They’re all blind to the inconsistencies and foibles of their preferred system; mostly, they’re just parroting whatever their first-grade schoolteacher told them, and they’ve done little to no thinking of their own about the issue.

I like metric for some things, and the traditional system for others. I can’t argue that the state of affairs in Europe was better before the metric system came in, either–If you ever look into the history of all the different standards and measures that were in use, you suddenly recognize why metric was such a relief to the participants in that madness.

That said, the decimalized nature of metric has a few issues and idiosyncracies of its own. You don’t notice them from within, but when you’re coming to use the system from outside, they’re brutally apparent. Friends of mine farm up in Canada, and they have stories about fertilizer and pesticide application nightmares from back in the day when they tried metrification in that activity. Many of the farmers and not a few of the suppliers totally horked the whole conversion thing up, and there were abundant tales of woe about over-applied fertilizer and under-applied pesticides. As well as in the opposite direction. I’ve been told that everyone is now just using the old legacy systems, and only paying lip service to the metric measures.

A lot of the problems with measurement boil down to one thing, and one thing only: Human fallibility. It wasn’t the metric system’s fault that someone screwed up the fuel calculations for the Gimli Glider incident, and it wasn’t SAE’s fault that the humans at NASA and the contractors screwed up the Mars Lander, either–It was all people, all the time. I suspect that they would have made similar mistakes, no matter what the system was. The human is always the weakest link in the causal chain.

I think it would probably be a good idea to eventually revamp the system entirely, and come up with something that had error-checking built into it, along with a rational universal basis of measurement. Possibly the Bohr radius, if we can determine with any certainty how consistent that is, and be able to measure it accurately enough?

The current definition of “meter” is the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in 1/299 792 458th of a second, which seems to me to be the very definition of “arbitrary”, and not that much better than “the distance from the King’s elbow to the tip of his forefinger…”.

I have a feeling that our confidence in all three of those factors may be a little misplaced, and as we get better at measuring, we may find that our confidence in those “constants” would be fundamentally erroneous. I dunno about the rest of you, but whenever I hear someone quoting numbers past about the second decimal place in conversation, I start questioning the reliability and accuracy of their calculations.

Someone tells me “Yeah, I think that they’re getting about 4 bushels an acre for crop yield…” as opposed to someone saying with utter certainty and sincerity that “…they’re getting 38.7133557 kg per hectare”, I have more confidence that the guy using the old measurements has a realistic view of the data and its essentially random nature when spread over time and space.

The guy giving me seven digits of precision with utter confidence is probably more than a little demonstrably delusional with his God-like assurance of accuracy in data gathering and calculation. Give me the guy who’s humbly aware of the inherent imprecision, and tells me so.

• gbell12 said, on July 16, 2021 at 12:21 am

> The current definition of “meter” is the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in 1/299 792 458th of a second

Aren’t you’re going to get that sort of thing when you relate any two physical things, no matter the system? Since the universe didn’t see fit to make everything in nature related by an integer factor… seconds being from Earth’s rotation, and light being it’s own boss, they’re never going to be integer multiples of each other unless you base your system on them.

Stupid fact the audience here might appreciate. Since there’s 1.6 km/mile, you can multiply by 2 four times (2^4 = 16) then move the decimal point around until it makes sense. Or divide to go the other way.

100 km/h -> 50, 25, 12.5, 6.25 = 62.5 mile/h

• Igor Bukanov said, on July 16, 2021 at 6:59 pm

Universe kind of made the foot and second units special. 1ft is almost one light nanosecond. There are proposals to change either foot

• Igor Bukanov said, on July 16, 2021 at 7:01 pm

Universe kind of made the foot and second units special. 1ft is almost one light nanosecond, a very useful fact for electronic circuitry design. There are proposals to change either the foot or the second to make it exactly one…

• gbell12 said, on July 16, 2021 at 12:32 am

> what is a natural object in one gram increments?

Do you mean “common”? A paperclip if so. Which I knew as a kid but never did manage to really know what an ounce was (don’t do drugs), nor remember how many feet were in a mile (5200 something something?).

Lived in the US until 20 years ago, so I’ve converted. It’s an unresolvable contest – illogical Imperial system is better for humans, unless having to convert (ie. recipes) or deal with fractions of an inch. Logical metric better for scientists, engineers, builders, and other non-humans.

28. Cleetus said, on July 25, 2021 at 7:08 pm

A really good slide rule is the K+E DeciLon. 4 log-log scales that are accurate. Plus it has a folded square root scale. Log-log scales are equivalent to y^x on your calculator.

29. Tim Zowada said, on May 14, 2022 at 3:37 pm

The above discussion has been fascinating. It all makes me very glad I decided to take a break before my senior year college, and try making stuff. I never went back. The last 40 years have been spent happily tinkering away in my shop. I am able to nerd out as much, or as little, as I like. Optical flats, gage amplifiers, as well as my trusty slide rule are constant companions.

I do sometimes wonder if I should have completed my degree. The above conversation helps reinforce I did the right thing, at least for me.