USS Clueless - Letters to the Captain

Stardate 20040727.1609

(Captain's log): Hitting the old mailbag, Rob wrote:

I'm a frequent reader and enjoy your writing immensely. As a non-engineer your articles on engineering give me great insight into the mind of engineering types and help to point out problems that do not occur to laymen. In my work, I often interact with engineers and programmers and this has helped me understand their constraints and dispels the myth of the Obstinate Engineer. That is, the can't vs. won't syndrome and in some cases has helped me figure out who is full of it and who isn't. That said, I find myself more drawn to large and ambitious engineering projects. Previously, I emailed you about the Freedomship which you said is likely a scam and pointed me to an article you wrote on it. While I agree on it's infeasibility, I didn't think it's a scam so much as a delusion. However, I've been tracking the progress (or lack thereof) and think you are probably right.

Onward: I've also been following the creation of the "Palm Project" and "The World" project in Dubai. Similarly, the Hydropolis is fascinating. I know the two Palm projects are underway as is "the world" but Hydropolis appears to be stalled in the concept stage. My question (yes, I'm finally there) is something as ambitious as the Palm project possible b/c it's driven by one may (the Sheik) with massive wealth and political power? I'm not a subscriber to the "Great Man of History" theory but he appears to be thinking big and looking forward far moreso than his neighbors. I guess I'm looking for your thoughts about grand engineering projects in general as you don't seem to write about them much.

Care for another engineering aphorism? Don't start vast projects based on half-vast ideas.

I happen to think the "Freedom Ship" project is a scam, but such projects can be evaluated without reference to the motivation of those who propose them. It often doesn't matter all that much whether they are crooks or deluded fools, or just unwise.

I can't say I've heard of either the "Palm Project" or the "Hydropolis Project", and I don't really have the inclination to delve into them deeply. Based on a quick look at the home page, the Palm Project seems large and very ambitious but there's nothing inherently silly or misguided about it. That kind of thing is not unprecedented, though. (Consider, for instance, the Kansai airport.)

The Hydropolis project is a lot more speculative, but I don't see any fundamental problems with the concept. I'm not at all certain that it's wise, however. Such an underwater hotel, open to the public, would be particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It would not take much initial damage caused by gunfire or small bombs to initiate a cascading failure which would destroy the entire place and kill everyone in it.

As to the idea of "great men", a lot of things can be done if the backers are willing to lose vast amounts of money, or if they aren't even thinking in terms of "making/losing money".

I don't write about "grand engineering projects in general" because they can't be discussed in general. Some grand engineering projects are boondoggles which will never be finished; some are technically feasible but make no commercial sense. Some are completely reasonable commercially. Some could be reasonable but fail anyway because those in charge make stupid decisions.

The devil is always in the details. They can't be discussed in general because there's little they have in common in general except scale and ambition.

The Chunnel was financed with a mixture of government money and private investment. It was successfully built, and it's been operating ever since. Is it a "success"? It depends on what you think was the project goal. It was partly a prestige project, and it is probably successful in those terms. But it will never make back the investments; so from a commercial standpoint it is not a success.

Another "great project" was the annihilation of smallpox worldwide. That one was motivated almost entirely by humanitarianism. It was financed with a mixture of government money and money from private foundations, and so far as we know it was a total success in eliminating one of the great diseases which has plagued the human race throughout history.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) project is one I've been watching for a long time, and I've always been very impressed with it, and I've written about it several times (e.g. here). It's a scientific instrument in Chile built by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), financed by European governments. It's an amazing engineering achievement, and will end up being an extremely valuable scientific asset as well.

By contrast, the Superconducting Super Collider project in the US did not get finished. Ultimately Congress decided that the price tag was just too great compared to the benefit. About two billion dollars were spent, and a huge tunne

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004