Bob’s 9/11 post from 20 years ago — To a Man With a Hammer

Some things are worth reading again. For the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, here — unedited — is my column originally published September 13, 2001.

My smarter and handsomer brother was in Northern New Jersey on Tuesday looking across the water at what was for just a moment longer the single remaining tower of the World Trade Center. A cold front had passed through the night before, leaving the day startlingly clear. The carnage was easy to see even from a distance. Only the rising cloud of smoke and ash marred the sky. And then that tower, too, was gone. The magnitude of this disaster and its sister at the Pentagon in Washington is […]

Einstein’s Fridge: Who knew the history of thermodynamics was so much like high school?

Almost 50 years ago I had the misfortune to take two statistics classes at the same time. One was a required introduction to statistics and the other was econometrics. Don’t ask why I took them both — I don’t remember. But I do remember one day in the Intro to Statistics class when another student asked about this distribution plot (below).

 “What was it? What did it indicate? What could it be used for?” they asked.

“It’s nothing,” said the TA. “It’s useless.”

But I had seen that shape before, in econometrics, where they called it a split normal distribution. that was said to […]

The Big Sky is Falling

The history of instrument flight (originally called blind flying) has had three distinct phases. The first began with Elmer Sperry’s Gyro Horizon in the 1920s that allowed skilled pilots to fly through clouds by showing them where was the horizon they couldn’t otherwise see. Race pilot Jimmy Doolittle used Sperry’s gyro and a precision altimeter, a gyro compass and a primitive navigation radio in 1929 to make the first flight entirely “under the hood” with takeoff, flight, and landing all without visual references. That Jimmy Doolittle was one hell of a pilot. But for the purposes of this column what I want to concentrate on is that in this first era of instrument flight the only thing Doolittle had to worry about hitting […]

COVID-19 Lessons from Three Mile Island #2 — the NRC

My last column was about crisis management lessons I learned back in 1979 while investigating the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (TMI). Let’s just say that FEMA wasn’t ready for a nuclear meltdown. Today we turn to the other federal agency I investigated at that same time — the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). While FEMA was simply unprepared and incompetent, the NRC was unprepared and lied about it.

Like FEMA, the NRC had recently undergone a rebranding from its previous identity as the Atomic Energy Commission — a schizoid agency that had been charged […]

Three Mile Island Lessons for COVID-19: FEMA and Me

Forty-one years ago this summer I was a young investigator working in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC for the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, a big federal investigation chaired by Dartmouth Professor John Kemeny, who is best known as the father of the BASIC programming language. I learned a lot that summer and fall not only about nuclear accidents but about how governments and industries respond to crises. Some of those lessons apply to the current COVID-19 pandemic, which is also being poorly managed. This may surprise you (that 41-year-old lessons can still apply) but governments, especially, change at a glacial pace.

The two […]