Saturday, January 28, 2012

It's always the little things that count

So today I forgot my watch when going into work. It is easy to forget something you're always wearing, but today for whatever reason I wasn't wearing it when I left my apartment. Now I feel totally disorientated. It doesn't help at all that the store has a no cell policy, which means I'm back to reading analog clocks which, for some reason, my brain refuses to catch onto. This got me thinking.

 It always seems to be the small things that really screw things up.  As our technological abilities increase exponentially, we find that little things trip us up, and cause major disasters.  Take the Spirit of Kansas.  when they first rolled off the line each B-2 Spirit (the Stealth Bomber) was roughly $1 Billion a piece.   Now to put that in perspective, that is roughly the same price as one Ticonderoga class Cruiser (CG), which is essential to the modern Carrier Group.  One plane costs as much as a guided missile cruiser.  Think about that.  Now, the Spirit of Kansas was on a 4 month deployment to Diego Garcia, when it was taking its last flight out.  About halfway down the runway it pulled up sharply (far too sharply) and stalled.  This caused a crash.  The cause of the error?  Water droplets.  I am not joking, a little bit of humidity on a few sensors took down a bomber that literally had almost every modernized nation in the world shitting its pants for two decades. 

This is a pattern that is repeated again and again.  A small piece of a spring and a fan inside an oxygen cylinder caused Apollo 13 to fail spectacularly. A $.75 O-ring took down the Challenger (our Second Shuttle).  A small Block of Foam the Columbia (our first).  A glitch on a decimal point being in the wrong place sent a Mars probe into too steep a decent and there went a billion dollars and four years of effort. 

When the Boeing 757 was brand new a small piece of tape, caused a crash of an AreoPeru flight, because it cause the static sensors to be blocked.  Pilots literally got Over-speed and Stall warnings at the same time (which unless you're in Bizarro world is literally impossible).  Recently a Turkish Air Flight 1951, a Beoing 737-800, which was on auto pilot made to "flare" like it was landing, when it was still 500 feet in the air (and less than a mile from the runway), why did it do this? because the Radar altimeter said the plane was at -4 ft, so obviously the plane should be in landing mode, the result, was predictably, the plane quit flying.  

Another great example was Aeroflot Flight 593 (Russia's National Airline) flight Aeroflot had just got some shiny new Airbuses (A-310 in this case).  Now there's an interesting feature that none of the pilots knew about.  If you push on the column in a certain axis for a few seconds you'll actually disengage the autopilot. . . In that Axis, on that control.  Only. So the pilot proud of this brought his kid up to the cockpit, to show him around and predictably the kid tried to make a turn.  Only the turn kept increasing.  Another interesting thing, once you get past a certain degree in bank the autopilot disengages entirely.  Can you imagine what happened?  The copilot was knocked aside, unable to reach the controls because of a wild maneuver, and a kid was in control of the plane.  Amazingly they actually managed to recover, and the Captain returned to the controls, just in time to cause another stall.  Another interesting feature, that people forgot to tell the pilots, Airbus planes have an auto correct.  If you stall you're supposed to (assuming everything is working right) take your hands off the controls and let the plane fix itself.  So the Computer tried to correct the stall, and the pilots tried to correct the computer. . . which caused actual stalls, and wild banks, and climbs, before finally. . . well you get the picture. 

But one could apply this principle to more than Aviation though.  Look at say computers.  One small fleck of dust when they are being made, and the whole thing is really expensive junk.  In fact the clean rooms where they make microprocessor chips, has to be 1,000 times cleaner than an operating theater.  You think your mom was anal retentive when she told you to clean your room?  try scratching your nose in front of an OR nurse after you "scrubbed in".  You will be escorted out, forced to re-scrub (to include using one pack of Bernadine scrub brushes per finger) a process which will take you a at least 1/2 hour.  And the place they make micro chips is cleaner than that.

If you remember the Y2K scare, it was actually based on very real worry that suddenly it would show that people hadn't paid their bills in over a hundred years.  You laugh now but imagine if every American suddenly got a "100 years past due" notice on all their bills.  Automatic interest rates would kick in and pretty much everyone's credit rating would have sat at negative numbers. 

Even in biology, it will most likely not be the big things, like Fire Flood and Famine that will get us (well, not all of us) but what will really be our undoing is less than one tenth of a nanometer long.  A virus (or bacteria in the case of Y. Pestis).  If you're worried about the one you say in that Hollywood movie where you bleed from every orifice, don't worry, it's not likely to happen, those (rather thankfully) are very temperamental, and actually delicate viruses.  They're also very quick at killing their host.  You really don't have time to run around say coughing on people, feeling sick, but still mobile.  With Hemorrhagic fever, once you start getting sick you go down hill fast.  No it'll be Influenza.  The cough that kills.

It would be wise for anyone going forward to remember, that we may do great things.  We may conquer the stars, and colonize the oceans, but in the end the more big things we do, the more the little things we take our eyes off of will make those big things fail.  Just as I was disorientated without my watch at work, so too would you be disorientated (sometimes fatally so) when that little thing that you don't even think about, finally catches up with you.  This fact of life is only exacerbated by the fact that we can not afford to know a little bit about everything anymore, there is too much to know.  On some level you have to trust that the other guy did his job right.  The only way that you can ensure this in the future is to do yours right.  Remember attention to detail and maybe, just maybe the little things will not bite you in the ass so hard next time.  Then again maybe not.

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