April 22, 2019 Zimmerman/Thomson podcast


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The podcast of my hour long interview with Steve Thomson on WCCO-830-AM in Minnesota on April 22, 2019, is now available here.

Hat tip reader Wayne DeVette

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5 comments

  • Edward

    Robert,

    You mentioned, during the interview, that you think that the word “anomaly” is often used to understate the seriousness of something going wrong. I’m not quite certain what word or phrase you would like used, but words like “disaster” are not really appropriate for SpaceX’s test problem. It is appropriate for the Challenger explosion, because people were killed during an operational flight, when things are not supposed to go wrong, but for this test, SpaceX, NASA, and perhaps some vendors were looking to see whether everything works as intended. Clearly, something did not work as intended.

    The effect of the problem could be spectacular, such as a test article (e.g. Dragon capsule) exploding and leaving a large, visible-for-miles plume of smoke, but is the problem really a fatal flaw in the equipment worthy of a word worse than “anomaly?” Perhaps a small adjustment to the process could make a large difference, as happened after the SpaceX pad explosion (a safer fix was to change the hardware, and SpaceX has done that).

    Just because an anomaly results in a spectacular sight does not mean that the something that went wrong is serious.

    A major problem that I see is that if emotional words are used then there is a negative influence on the project, even when the problem is actually minor and easily fixed. When the wrong words are used then an entire industry can be adversely affected. The words “Oh, the humanity!” ended the airship industry. Safer methods were available, such as using helium rather than flammable hydrogen. Other factors contributed to that disaster, but had there not been a spectacular fire and loss of life, the anomaly that started the fire would have continued to be a minor thing, as it had been for the prior duration of that airship’s life. Rather than make the industry safer, the passenger airship industry came to an abrupt end the following day with the safe landing of the Graf Zeppelin II.

    I think that using the word “anomaly” is appropriate until we know more about a situation. A company, its employees, its vendors, and its customers may be depending upon a calm, rational, unemotional solution to an otherwise non-serious, minor, and fixable problem.

  • Edward: You are correct that “anomaly” is a perfectly appropriate word to use to describe an engineering failure. My issue is that words like this and “glitch” are now too often used to minimize the seriousness of the failure, rather than merely keeping the language unemotional.

    A good journalist must never buy into that game. Too many do these days. I won’t. This was also an explosion, and that was the word I used on air to describe it. It might make it sound worse, but in truth it does not. It is actually a very accurate description of what happened. They had a failure serious enough to destroy the capsule. Such a failure should not be taken lightly.

  • wayne

    Edward–
    I empathize with your take on the situation. Every profession has it’s own lingo, “anomaly” is, I would put forth, ‘more correct,’ but as you note it lacks emotional impact. It feels like a weasel-word to an amateur like myself, only because we can instantly watch the film and arm-chair second-guess everything from the safety and comfort of our living rooms.
    The thing obviously “blew up,” but that really doesn’t tell us anything of substance.
    As in, did it detonate, burn, combust, or deflagrate, etc.? (words have meaning)

    totally tangential (we already paid for these films, might as well watch them!)
    “Experimental Investigation of Liquid Hydrogen Hazards”
    1960, Film Number 1
    https://youtu.be/7bFJK5kU_UQ
    12:25

  • wayne

    whoops–
    I should have said, “we’re still paying the interest on the debt used to make these films, might as well watch them…”

  • Edward

    Robert,
    You are correct about the word “glitch.” It has a specific meaning, usually electrical.

    We may be arguing over cause and effect. Something went wrong with Dragon, the anomaly, and it resulted in an explosion. We can talk about the explosion and the resulting cloud of gas, or we can talk about what caused the explosion, the as-yet unknown anomaly.

    “Anomaly” works very well while we do not know what the problem is or was. “Explosion” works well to describe the spectacular effect of the problem. It is a very accurate description of the result of the problem. It describes the spectacular and emotional sight, but fails to describe the unseen problem that caused it.

    What is seen may not be as important as what is not seen. In economics, Bastiat explained that solving the visible problem may not solve the underlying unseen cause of the problem and actions taken based upon what is seen can exacerbate the problem.
    http://bastiat.org/en/twisatwins.html
    It may look like there is economic advantage to breaking the baker’s window, because it provides work for the glazier, but is it really? “how much trade would gain by the burning of Paris, from the number of houses it would be necessary to rebuild?

    When educating the public about a topic or incident, it is important to get it right. Otherwise people will think a variety of incorrect conclusions, such as NASA trying to put a teacher into space in time for the President to put her on TV during his State Of The Union Address or that an airship was brought down by sabotage rather than poor execution of design (and probably improper design, too).

    When a company or engineer uses the word “anomaly” to describe an unknown problem, he is making sure that he is not misleading the public about what the problem is.

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