Archive for October, 2004

I resisted temptation today

October 31, 2004 Comments off

Sunday, October 31, 2004
I resisted temptation today

It was all about listening to that voice of caution, of avoiding the unknown hazard that I was just too tired to anticipate. Here’s what happened:

I just finished bolting the new engine into my 1967 VW beetle. Originally I had hoped to do it the first week of September but a broken shoulder changed my plans. Now, I’d carefully wrestled a 260lb engine into the car without using my right arm, a 2-hour job expanded to 12 hours. Today is a Sunday, with beautiful warm weather. Tomorrow is expected to be cold and wet. Winter is coming. It was 2:00 pm. Most of the systems were hooked up: exhaust, clutch, fuel, generator, heater controls. After months of frustrating delays I could conceivably set the timing, tighten the plugs, and beat winter with a test drive.

But, I didn’t. Why?

Just this: I’m tired and not thinking straight. It’s a 37-year-old German car with a new Brazilian engine, and external engine parts from Austria, Mexico, China, Taiwan, Germany, and the US. Many things had to be custom-fitted together. I got oil in, got the valves adjusted… but did I do everything? Is it ready?

I thought about The Kee Bird, a wrecked WWII airplane lovingly restored on a frozen lake up in the Arctic, with the plan of flying it out. There were delays, lots of problem, and finally they were under time pressure as winter approached. After a quick check, they fired up the engines and tried to take off. But they were tired, not thinking staight and overlooked one detail – an internal generator or something – and had to jump for their lives as the beautiful plane burned to aluminum cinders.

So I rolled the car back under cover, and waited. This weekend will be the next time I might be able to work on it (if it isn’t too cold.) I have all week to assemble a detailed list to make sure I don’t drive off in a car that is not safe or ready. Hopefully there will be a few more warm days to get the car ready for cold weather. With luck, I’ll enjoy driving it all winter; if not, I’ll enjoy driving it in the spring. Either way, I’m pretty sure I won’t regret waiting.
  ΒΆ 8:34 PM
Wrestling a VW engine? No way! Two words: Transmission jack! You can rent one from many automotive stores or renatl places. The jack is adjustable for height and tilt in fore and aft and side to side axes. Makes quick work. I speak from a history as the owner of two beetles and two vans in my past…
# posted by mostly cajun : 6:25 PM

Good idea – next time (hopefully a long time in the future!) I will give that a try. The tilt-axis sounds like it would help a lot.
# posted by decrepitoldfool : 8:10 PM

Categories: Personal, VW

One of my favorite stories

October 26, 2004 Comments off

Something I found while searching for something else: The story of the Gimli Glider – a Boeing 767 plane that ran out of fuel at 46,000 feet and landed safely.

The story linked above tells the technical of just how the hell such a thing could happen – a badly soldered joint, a mistake in calculation measuring fuel the manual way with a stick – but it misses one important detail: the metric-driven screwup.

It seems that someone in the Canadian Parliament got the bright idea that all planes should be fuelled in metric units – litres, kilograms, and so forth – instead of the more familiar gallons and pounds.  Ground crews were sent to school to learn the Metric system and came away with their heads swimming full of numbers.  As long as all the automated systems continued to work, they did OK, but when manual measurements and calculations became necessary, they wound up with half as much fuel as needed.  Only the pilot’s amazing skill and personal knowledge of gliders (see the link) saved the lives of everyone on board.

This kind of screw-up is by no means unprecedented; think of the Mars probe that crashed because American engineers weren’t using the same units of measurement that the European engineers were using.  No one died but millions of dollars were lost and a scientific opportunity missed.

Disasters involving technology run this way: some crucial communication fails to move forward in the social process, or simple denial prevents the problem from receiving the attention it deserves.  Think of the walkway at the Kansas City Hilton, which collapsed and killed 240 people – it turned out to be an error in logic that seems blindingly obvious in retrospect.  Or, the Johnstown Flood, which killed 2,200 people and was preceded by the immortal words, “You and your people are in no danger from our enterprise.”


Categories: News, Science & Technology

“If it saves even one life…”

October 7, 2004 Comments off

Thursday, October 07, 2004 copied from my old blog, The Ballpoint Sketch

Headline: “Death of teenager spotlights rare heart ailment; Screenings urged for young athletes” (Chicago Tribune).

The story describes a Naperville teen athlete who died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy following a sports event.

High school athletes must undergo physical exams each year to participate in sports, but there is no requirement that their hearts be scanned.

That is a mistake, said Larry Scire, director of sports medicine at Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, which began screening the hearts of athletes at seven area high schools and three colleges last year.

“With a normal physical, you would never detect this,” Scire said. “This is a structural anomaly that can only be seen through an ultrasound of the heart, which is an EKG.” (Wrong. I’ve had both procedures, and they’re different things. -DOF)

Scire said such screenings can cost as much as $600 a patient…

“If we save one life, it will make the whole program worth it,” he said. [Emphasis mine]

This is a good example of the high cost of trying to achieve a “safe” world. After all, you can’t put a price on human life, can you?

Sure you can.

The condition that afflicted Jones is extremely rare. New York pediatrician Eric Small, who specializes in youth sports medicine, said there are four to 10 deaths attributable to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy a year. There are more than 12 million student athletes in the country, he notes.

Let’s see: 12 million student athletes times $600 per test. That’s a cool $7.2 billion, with a “b,” or $720 million per life saved… assuming the procedure saved every life.

You can start putting a price on human life when the cost of each one saved is so high that it could save many more if it were used in other ways. Pre-natal screening, smoking abatement, drug rehab, E911 ambulance dispatching, homeland security, or even just healthier food in school cafeterias would probably save more lives.

The phrase, “If it saves even one life…” sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it. The public purse is limited: it can’t abate every risk. The parent who is tempted to say, “You wouldn’t say that if it was your own kid” is welcome to pay for his own child’s scan.

Urgent news stories seem calculated to make you feel like a monster if you reach for the calculator and start punching buttons. But Kurt Gibson, associate executive director of the IHSA says the association added several questions to its athletics registration form to help detect undiagnosed heart problems. And Dr. Vince Bufalino, president and medical director at Edward Cardiovascular Institute at Edward Hospital in Naperville, said “This is a debate of economics. You can scan everyone, but where is the value?”

It’s nice to hear a voice of reason over the hand-wringing.

Categories: News, observations