Category Archive: Failures in history

These are the orphan ideas and events no one wants to talk about, but are common to every country, every race, every religion, every form of science and quasi-science and every person. If you've screwed up, and you know you have, you'll feel better after reading these examples of things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sep 12

Yikes! Luciano Fabro sculpture smashed to bits

'Impronta' in rests in pieces.

Luciano Fabro’s ‘Impronta’ created as a testment to the durability of the planet Earth was not up to a tipsy visitor. A Swiss journalist described as ‘Mr. Bean’ knocked the sculpture from its perch, becoming the news he was supposed to report.

A Luciano Fabro sculpture created as a testament to the durability of the planet Earth was not up to a tipsy visitor.

During Saturday evening at the Meno Uno gallery in Lugano, Switzerland, 30 guests gathered to tuck into canapes and free drinks and to see history be made.

Or unmade.

It was reported the guest was a Swiss journalist who has been given the delightful nickname of ‘Mr. Bean’.

‘Impronta’ was considered a ‘priceless’ work of art, but the value of 30 million pounds sterling, has been reported.

As one of the aforementioned guests, slightly less nimble on his feet, knocked the Fabro from its perch and landed on the floor. The opaque glass disk bearing an imprint of the Earth, smashed on the floor.

Radio Switzerland (RSI), reported:

“Caught between a canapé and a chat with someone, unfortunately knocked over a work by Luciano Fabro and smashed it to pieces. It is, or rather, it was, the famous Impronta (Imprint) dated 1962-1964”.

Fabro died in 2007 at the age of 71. He was an Italian sculptor and conceptional artist and associated with the Arte Povera movement, which is based in Italy. Arte Povera means ‘poor art’ and flourished in the 1960s.


Dec 09

Whether you’re a botanist or prime minister, math is hard

Let’s face it, math is hard. Barbie and Christopher Walken (as the befuddled apartment dweller in the SNL census sketch) are right.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government are getting slagged for their arithmeticatical

Prime Minister Stephen Harper should feel bad if he finds math is hard. Even stellar minds like David Douglas had problems grappling with concepts of math and elements of surveying.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper should feel bad if he finds math is hard. Even stellar minds like David Douglas had problems grappling with concepts of math and elements of surveying.

acumen for the F-35 handling. Maybe, like Walken he’s ‘not really good at math’.

How much will the F-35s cost?

‘Oh geez, I dunno, maybe $9 billion.’

Wow, that seems awful cheap for such high tech kit!

‘I’m not really good at math. Maybe $40 billion.’

The Conservatives have claimed for years the cost of the F-35 was being puffed up by critics. The the parliamentary budget officer weighed in. He said the Conservatives were not accurate in their cost estimates.

Well relax folks. There are lots of other smart folks who are flummoxed by math.

Take esteemed botanist, David Douglas. He’s famous for a bunch of things, including having a tree named after him.

“Being well rested by one o’clock, I set out with the view of ascending what seemed to be the highest peak on the north,” wrote Douglas during his crossing of Athabasca Pass in 1827.

“Its height does not seem to be less than 16,000 or 17,000 feet [5,000 metres] above the level of the sea.”

On top, about seven hours after he started climbing, he noted, “The view from the summit is of too awful a cast to afford pleasure. Nothing can be seen, in every direction as far as the eye can reach, except mountains towering above each other, rugged beyond description. This peak, the highest yet known in the northern continent of America, I feel a sincere pleasure in naming ‘Mount Brown,’ in honour of R. Brown, Esq., the illustrious botanist.”

Douglas noticed a mountain to the south, almost as high.

“This I named Mount Hooker…”

So went Douglas’s record of discovery of the highest points in Canada, indeed in all of North America. Or so everyone thought for the next seventy years.

David Douglas found that math is hard and so are other elements of surveying. Luckily as a botanist, that wouldn’t hinder his success.

Apparently, Douglas had based his estimates of the heights of the mountains on those of an earlier traveller who had lost his barometer.

Douglas didn’t have the best eyesight, but he would have been hard pressed not to have noticed that other mountains in vicinity were obviously taller than those he named Brown and Hooker.

When Douglas’s book and associated maps recounting his experiences in Canada’s mountains were published, Mount Brown and Mount Hooker became well known.

The two mountains became alpine seductresses, always calling but hard to visit.

“A high mountain is always a seduction but a mountain with a mystery is doubly so … I studied the atlas and saw Mounts Brown and Hooker … [and] I longed to visit them,” wrote Toronto geology professor Arthur Coleman.

In 1893, during his third summer of explorations, Coleman finally reached the pass where the mountains were supposed to rise, but the highest mountain he could find nearby was only about 2,800 metres high.

“What had gone wrong with these two mighty peaks that they should shrink seven thousand feet in altitude and how could anyone, even a botanist like Douglas, make so monumental a blunder?” mused Coleman.

The mystery of the highest peaks endured. J. Monroe Thorington, a mountaineer who first came to the Rockies in 1924, wrote, “When I was little, when you were a school-child, geography books taught that the highest mountains of North America — Mount Brown and Mount Hooker — lifted their unsurpassed heights on either side of Athabasca Pass.”

This mythical pair had been talked about for so long and appeared on so many maps that the legend did not die easily. Even experienced Rockies mountaineers such as Walter Wilcox and Norman Collie still believed they may have existed and continued the search.

Finally fed up, Collie searched the libraries of England for Douglas’s original account. He noticed that Douglas claimed to have climbed Mount Brown in a single afternoon.

“If David Douglas climbed a 17,000 foot peak alone on a May afternoon,” he wrote, “when the snow must have been pretty deep on the ground, all one can say is that he must have been an uncommonly active person,” Collie wrote.

“For nearly seventy years they have been masquerading in every map as the highest peaks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains; they must now retire from that position, and Mts. Forbes, Columbia, Bryce, and Alberta will, in future, reign in their stead.”

That put the wooden stake through the mountain monster myth that until then would not die.

Today, Mount Logan, of the Elias Mountains, in southern Yukon, is recognized as being the highest point in Canada. It’s 5,954.8 metres tall.

Douglas is remembered as a fine botanist, so fine that the Douglas fir was named after him. He is not, however, remembered as a fine mountaineer.

For more on Stephen Harper and the F-35s click here.

For more on David Douglas click here.

Nov 28

The F 35 fighter probably seemed like good idea, so did the ADATS

You know, the F-35 fighter probably seemed like a good idea at the time, for Canada.

The current Canadian Conservative federal government is wrestling with the challenge of replacing the Canadian CF-18 fighter.

It’s a twin engine plane, something considered important for survival as it patrols the vast emptiness of the Canadian north and the country’s three coastlines.

The Conservatives all but declared the F-35 the replacement aircraft until it got out that the true cost of the aircraft would be almost double what the government was saying it would be.

It’s also a single engine fighter, something that can be a problem when one engine goes on the fritz. If you have two engines, you get home. If you have one not-working-engine you get to watch your plane crash in flames while you drift down into the arctic wasteland or the frigid north Atlantic or Pacific under the canopy of your parachute. If you’re lucky.

Now, um, the whole thing is, up in the air? Sorry.

The opposition to the decision is expected to gain strength next month.

Between now and Christmas, KPMG is expected to table it’s review of the cost of the fighter to Parliament. It’s expected the Conservative government will be accused of mismanagement by opposition parties.

It should shoot the fighter deal down.

Well, we’ve made bad decisions before. In fact, the Progressive Conservatives were looking around for an air defence weapon at the end of the cold war.

That’s right, although not always thought of as a major player on the world scene, Canada was just as worried as other countries during the Cold War, so officials began casting about for a system to protect our troops from enemy aircraft. By the time Canada actually pulled the trigger on the decision and the system was delivered, well, it was 1989; the last of it wasn’t delivered until the early nineties. The Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was no longer a monolith.

this seemed like a good idea at the time.

This ADATS weapon seemed like a good idea to the Conservative government at the time in Canada. It turned out to be a costly machine to operate and hard to transport.

Still, the world is a dangerous place. And our troops should be protected. So just what did we get to do the job?

Well, the Progressive Conservative government in power at the time did what governments generally do – ignore the real needs of the Canadian Armed Forces for something that will cost lots of money and never be used.

So it considered a system designed by the Swiss company Oerlikon-Buehrle. Now its name – the Air Defence Anti-Tank System, or ADATS – is a bit misleading, suggesting as it does that the system defends against tanks in the air (which are well known to be more heavy and brick-like than aerodynamic), but actually the system is made to shoot down both low-flying aircraft and tanks.

The more analytical among us might wonder what those two things have in common that makes a consolidated defence system a good idea. And the more economical among us might question the practicality of missiles that cost $300,000 each. At that price you might want to try just waving a cheque for $250,000 in front of the tank crew and offering to buy the tank from them, pocketing a handsome $50,000 for yourself.

The ADATS has some good points. For example, the ADATS missiles move really fast. They approach Mach 3. That’s three times the speed of sound. That’s faster than most jets. So they can catch up to a jet without problem. And if they hit one, there won’t be much left of the jet.

Of course, if the jets are flying low, which low-flying aircraft generally are, there are frequently trees and buildings and hills and such obstructing the line of sight, so often there just isn’t enough time to lock onto them and then “service” them (as military personnel euphemistically term it) with a missile.

The missiles can certainly catch a tank. Tanks move at about sixty kilometres per hour, maximum, on a smooth road, leaving plenty of time for the missiles to lock onto them.

Of course, today’s tanks are very heavily armoured. Chobham armour, which is a British invention, is made of layers of steel and ceramic. Even old Soviet-era T-72 tanks — which don’t have Chobham armour, just feet and feet of steel plate — are tough. So while the tanks can be caught, they can also easily withstand a shot from a kinetic energy weapon like the ADATS — at least from the front.

The armour at the back end of a tank is much thinner, so if the ADATS could hit it from behind, it would be game over for the tank. Of course, to do that, the ADATS would probably have to go behind enemy lines. And the ADATS is not heavily armoured. If it were hit from the right angle, an assault rifle or a rocket-propelled grenade could shoot it up.

The ADATS also has an anti–air radar dish, which makes it tall. And therefore difficult to hide behind enemy lines.

In fact, the ADATS is so tall, the military had to create a “clenching kit” to make the ADATS shorter for shipping. The kit bolts onto the bottom of the chassis and clenches the torsion bars to make it lower.

Unfortunately, because the ADATS is so heavy, the corroded loading ramps on the Hercules cargo aircraft that carry the ADATS overseas have to be buffed up to take the weight, which means the ADATS, even clenched, is too tall to fit on.

And given that our troops need protection overseas, there’s not much point in keeping the ADATS in Canada. Its range is ten kilometres. At that rate, we can’t even shoot past our territorial waters.

So, thanks to the Cold War – and typical government decision-making – what we ended up with is a system that can destroy a jet but has challenges locking on to it, that can catch a tank but has challenges destroying it, and that isn’t really needed at home (which is all to the good, of course) but is too tall to be shipped overseas where it’s needed most.

Eventually, the military realized that the missiles are too expensive and they’re not all that effective at disabling a tank, so they ordered ADATS to be used only in an anti-aircraft role. So much for the consolidated defence system.

But it gets better.

The full ADATS system with missiles and maintenance and all that good stuff, has cost taxpayers about a billion dollars – so far.

It’s so expensive it is rarely deployed even domestically (although during the G-8 Kananaskis conference in 2002, it being less than a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Canadian military actually sent some of the precious anti-air units off to the wilds of Alberta to help protect the G-8 leaders against a terrorist attack). And it has not been used for training since the time one rolled over and severely damaged the expensive radar and missile system.

Now you have to understand, Canada ordered just over 30 ADATS. The cost per vehicle is about $30 million per vehicle. Yes, $30 million. It was hoped the cost to Canada would be defrayed by the Swiss selling the system to other countries, like the United States. But only Canada and Thailand showed interest.

Scott Taylor, perhaps Canada’s best military affairs journalist, wrote in his magazine Esprit de Corp:

“With no chance to expand their sales, Oerlikon-Buehrle cut their losses and pulled its funding out of the Canadian ADATS program. The result was that the Canadian government alone (read: DND’s budget) was left propping up the entire project. With all the start-up costs and research and development factored into the equation, the original 32 units manufactured cost taxpayers over $1 billion – a staggering $30 million per vehicle.
“During a 1992 training exercise, a transport trailer carrying an ADATS unit rolled over and crushed the vehicle’s high-tech turret. When DND accountants wrote off the loss, the brass suddenly realized that they couldn’t afford to even train with such expensive toys. At that time, all remaining ADATS vehicles were mothballed at the St-Jean-sur-Richelieu factory, with maintenance costs of approximately $40 million per year being paid to Oerlikon.”

In 2005, the Canadian government under the Liberals, initiated a $750 million modernization program for the weapon system which was cancelled in 2006 due to complications with the concept.

Now it looks  like they will be stationed outside museums and similar sites across the country, more likely to be sitting places for feathered aircraft.

Well, as long as they’ve found a good home, right?

For more on the F 35 click here.

For more on ADATS click here.

Nov 20

Brotherly love and, well, Canada and the U.S.A.’s complicated relationship

Fort Montgomery is a good example of the complicated brotherly love relationship Canada and the U.S.A. share.

Fort Montgomery in New York State is a good example of the complicated brotherly love relationship Canada and the U.S.A. share.

The weird relationship between Canada and the United States often seems like something between two brothers. The concept of brotherly love is part of Canada and the U.S.A.’s complicated relationship.

Most of the time it’s fairly friendly. Sometimes there’s a cautious and covetous eye cast over the other’s things. Sometimes a punch is thrown but as soon as an interloper tries something they band together.

And every now and then it’s like a long summer trip in a hot  car with the chorus from the back seat not one of song, but ‘I’m not touching you’. Usually said by the larger boy as he holds his hand in front of the face of the other.

Yeah, good times.

Once upon a time, the United States was terrified of being attacked, so it put security on its northern border on high alert. No, this is not a post-9/11 story. This is a post-1812 story.

In fact they were so terrified of an attack on their northern border that they started building a fort on the northern tip of Lake Champlain at Sand Island near Rouses Point in 1816.

They wanted to make sure it was right up at the border.

‘I’m not touching you…’

There was another good reason for putting the fort there. It was on a route Americans liked to take when they were attacking Canada, so it wouldn’t hurt to make sure it wasn’t used in reverse. (And other armies had recognized its value. French commanders had attacked the British through this route during the Seven Years War and the British marched down after the Americans had marched up it during the War of 1812.)

There was one good reason for not putting the fort there. The fort was actually in Canada.

So much for the ‘I’m not touching you!’ thing.

The Americans had worked for three years building the fort when military leaders realized their mistake and abandoned it. The locals felt entitled to help themselves to parts of the fort for use in their own buildings.

Thirty years later a treaty between the two countries moved the border slightly north, placing the fort back in the U.S. Still fearing an attack from the north, the Americans started building a second fort on the same site. Fort Montgomery was named after General Dick Montgomery, who had led the army up that route in the late 1700s, heading north with the plan to liberate Quebec. As it turned out, the Quebecois declined the offer and chased the Yanks back through the bush in the middle of winter.

Nonetheless, Fort Montgomery was a fine piece of military engineering and cutting-edge technology for the times. No fewer than five masonry walls surrounded the core and mighty gates and bastions were added. Lots of gunnery was put in place, including seventy cannon.

As it turned out, the real threat to the United States was from within. In the middle of the 1800s, the war that was to wind up killing more Americans than any other erupted when the northern states and southern states declared war on each other.

The American Civil War did much to hone arms manufacturers’ skills around the world, and with the advances made in guns, masonry forts could be smashed to gravel. So by the time the second version of Fort Montgomery was finished, it was obsolete.

And — like its predecessor — it was ransacked by locals and used for local buildings. The final insult to the fort took place during the Great Depression, when the Works Project Administration hired locals to pull down the masonry walls and crush them into gravel to be used in the construction of a bridge from Rouses Point across to Alberg, which looks down on the ruins of the fort better known by its nickname: Fort Blunder.

For more on the fort, click here.