Monthly Archives: December 2016

A British tradition of inefficiency and silliness

While many British industries are forward thinking and reasonably efficient, i find Britons take particular pride in traditional craftsmanship. That is, while the Swiss seem to take no particular pride in their coo-coo clocks, the British positively glory in their handmade products: hand-woven, tweed jackets, expensive suits, expensive whiskey, and hand-cut diamonds. To me, an American-trained engineer, “traditional craftsmanship,” of this sort is another way of saying silly and in-efficient. Not having a better explanation, I associate these behaviors with the decline of English power in the 20th century. England went from financial and military preëminence in 1900 to second-tier status a century later. It’s an amazing change that I credit to tradition-bound inefficiency — and socialism.

Queen Elizabeth and Edward VII give the Nazi solute.

Queen Elizabeth and Edward VII give the Nazi solute.

Britain is one of only two major industrial nations to have a monarch and the only one where the monarch is an actual ambassador. The British Monarchy is not all bad, but it’s certainly inefficient. Britain benefits from the major royals, the Queen and crown prince in terms of tourism and good will. In this she’s rather like our Mickey Mouse or Disneyland. The problem for England has to do with the other royals, We don’t spend anything on Mickey’s second cousins or grandchildren. And we don’t elevate Micky’s relatives to military or political prominence. England’s royal leaders gave it horrors like the charge of the light brigade in the Crimean war (and the Crimean war itself), Natzi-ism doing WWII, the Grand Panjandrum in WWII, and the attack on Bunker Hill. There is a silliness to its imperialism via a Busby-hatted military. Britain’s powdered-wigged jurors are equally silly.

Per hour worker productivity in the industrial world.

Per hour worker productivity in the industrial world.

As the chart shows, England has the second lowest per-hour productivity of the industrial world. Japan, the other industrial giant with a monarch, has the lowest. They do far better per worker-year because they work an ungodly number of hours per year. French and German workers produce 20+% more per hour: enough that they can take off a month each year and still do as well. Much of the productivity advantage of France, Germany, and the US derive from manufacturing and management flexibility. US Management does not favor as narrow a gene pool. Our workers are allowed real input into equipment and product decisions, and are given a real chance to move up. The result is new products, efficient manufacture, and less class-struggle.

The upside of British manufacturing tradition is the historical cachet of English products. Americans and Germans have been willing to pay more for the historical patina of British whiskey, suits, and cars. Products benefit from historical connection. British suits remind one of the king, or of James Bond; British cars maintain a certain style, avoiding fads of the era: fins on cars, or cup-holders, and electric accessories. A lack of change produces a lack of flaws too, perhaps the main things keeping Britain from declining faster. A lack of flaws is particularly worthwhile in some industries, like banking and diamonds, products that have provided an increasing share of Britain’s foreign exchange. The down-side is a non-competitive military, a horrible food industry, and an economy that depends, increasingly on oil.

Britain has a low birthrate too, due in part to low social mobility, I suspect. Social mobility looked like it would get worse when Britain joined the European Union. An influx of foreign workers entered taking key jobs including those that with historical cachet. The Brits reacted by voting to leave the EC, a vote that seems to have taken the upper class by surprise, With Brexit, we can hope to see many years more of manufacturing by the traditional and silly.

Robert Buxbaum, December 31, 2016. I’ve also written about art, good and bad, about the US aesthetic of strength, about the French tradition of innovation, And about European vs US education.

A thought on what Cornwallis should have done 240 years ago

Build a wall.

As we’ve seen, Cornwallis’s actual plan January 1777 failed badly. Clearly, it was a bad mistake attacking Washington at Trenton. I’d asked what he should have done, and note that the British high command answer was that Cornwallis should have withdrawn from Trenton and hoped that Washington would have entered and allowed Cornwallis to trap him in the city. I don’t like this solution as it depends on Washington doing something very stupid.

After thinking a bit, I think Cornwallis should have left a detail of British soldiers, perhaps 2000-3000 and should have built a berm wall (an earthen wall) about the town. Cornwallis should have distributed guns to the Tory inhabitants, or encouraged the inhabitants to form a militia. Washington could still have shot in, but with far less precision than before. And he would now find he’s killing Americans. A likely result would have been the Trentonians shooting back at Washington’s men from Trenton’s rooftops. The combination of civil war and weather would have defeated Washington, or at least drawn him off. This is how we dealt with hostile Indians in the 1800s, and I suspect it could have worked here too.

Robert Buxbaum, December 27, 2016. Here, by the way is some odd Christmas music, and two odd Chanukkah songs. The strong defeated by the weak, the many by the few. In those days, at this time of year.

Cornwallis attacks. Washington goes to Princeton.

In the previous post, I asked what you would do as a general (Cornwallis), December 27, 1776. You command 30,000 troops, some 12,000 at Princeton of at total 50,000 against Washington’s 3500. Washington is camped 12 miles to the south just outside of Trenton with a majority of his men scheduled to leave in three days when their enlistments expire.

In fact, what Cornwallis did, is what every commenter recommended. He attacked at Trenton, and lost New Jersey. Cornwallis left 2-3000 troops at Princeton and marched south. Despite fallen trees, swollen rivers, destroyed bridges — all courtesy of Washington’s men –Cornwallis reached Trenton and attacked. By the time he got there, 2000 of Washington’s men had left, partially replaced by untrained militia. After a skirmish, Washington set up 400 militia to keep the fires burning, and without telling them where he was going “Fall back if the British attack”, he took the rest of his forces east, across frozen fields and swampland, then north to Princeton along the Quaker-bridge road. He later said the reason was to avoid looking like a retreat.

He split his forces just outside of Princeton, and a detachment, led by Hugh Mercer and 350  regulars had the first battle as they ran into the 17th and 55th British regiments as they prepared to escort supplies to Trenton. The British commander, Lt.colonel Mawhood, seeing how few men he faced, sent the 55th and most of the supplies back to Princeton, and led his men to shoot at the Americans from behind a fence. Mercer’s men fired back with rifles and cannon, doing little. Then, the trained British did what their training demanded: they rose up and charged the rebels with fixed bayonets. Mercer, having no bayonets, called “Retreat!” before being stabbed repeatedly, see painting. Mawhood’s men seized the cannon, turned it on the fleeing remnants of Mercer’s men.

General Mercer defeated at Princeton, as Washington shows up.

General Mercer defeated at Princeton, as Washington shows up.

It looked like a British victory, but then General Nathaniel Greene (the fighting Quaker) showed up with several hundred Pennsylvania militiamen. The militiamen had never seen battle, and many fled, after shooting into the British lines with rifles and another cannon and grape-shot. At this point it looked like a draw, but then, Washington himself joined the battle with two brigades of regulars: Hitchcock’s 253 New Englanders and Hand’s 200 Pennsylvania riflemen.

Washington managed to rally the fleeing Pennsylvanians; “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy and we will have them directly!” And Mawhood, now without most of his officers, ordered a last bayonet charge and fled down the Post Road to Trenton. Washington rode after for a bit “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!”

James Peale, 1783. John Sullivan and his forces at Frog Hollow. Battle of Princeton

James Peale, 1783. John Sullivan and his forces at Frog Hollow. Battle of Princeton

The rest of the British along with Mawhood, met the rest of Washington’s men, lead by John Sullivan, at a place called Frog Hollow, near where Princeton Inn College (Forbes College) now stands. The Americans opened with grape-shot and the British put up little resistance. Those who did not surrender were chased into town, taking refuge in Nassau Hall, the central building of the university. Alexander Hamilton’s men (he’d been rejected by Princeton) took special enjoyment in shooting cannon into the building. A hole remains in the college walls and a cannonball supposedly decapitated a portrait of George II. About then the New Jersey militia broke in a door, and the British surrendered.

Washington had captured, killed, or destroyed most of three English regiments, took a wagon train of supplies, and left going north following a bit of looting. “Loyalists” were relieved of coins, liquor, shoes, blankets. They ate the breakfast prepared for the 40th, and were gone by 11 AM, heading north — to where?. Cornwallis returned before noon “in a most infernal sweat — running, puffing, blowing, and swearing.” His men looted the town again, but now what?

Was Washington headed to New Brunswick where a handful of British soldiers guarded Cornwallis’s supplies and a war chest of £70,000? He didn’t go directly, but perhaps by a circuitous route. Cornwallis went straight to New Brunswick and jealously guarded the place, its money and supplies. Washington meanwhile ran to safety in the Watchung Mountains outside Morristown. Cornwallis’s 17th claimed victory, having defeated a larger group, but Cornwallis gave up Princeton, Trenton, and the lives of the New Jersey loyalists. Rebels flocked to Washington. Loyalists were looted and chased. Hessians were shot in “a sort of continual hunting party.” Philip Freneau expressed the change thus:

When first Britannia sent her hostile crew; To these far shores, to ravage and subdue, 

We thought them gods, and almost seemed to say; No ball could pierce them, and no dagger slay.

Heavens! what a blunder—half our fears were vain; These hostile gods at length have quit the plain.


Robert Buxbaum. December 21, 2016. So now that you know what happened, what SHOULD Cornwallis have done? Clearly, it’s possible to do everything right militarily, and still lose. This is an essence of comedy. The British had a similar Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill. I suspect Cornwallis should have fortified Trenton with a smaller force; built a stockade wall, and distributed weapons to the loyalists there. That’s a change in British attitude, but it’s this dynamic of trust that works. The British retreat music, “the world turned upside down“, is a Christmas song.

You are Cornwallis, Dec 29, 1776. What should you do?

Here’s a military thought question: what would you do? It is Dec 29, 1776, and you are General Howe and/or Cornwallis. You command 32,000 troops, a big chunk of the largest and finest expeditionary force that England has ever mustered. Washington’s rag-tag army has shrunk from 25,000 at the beginning of the year to 3335 now. They’re arrayed outside of Trenton NJ following their one victory of the year. Their Christmas raid on Trenton killed 100 Hessians and captured 900. In that raid Washington lost only 6 (two to frostbite), but otherwise his year has been nothing but defeats, and you’d like to make sure his string of bad luck continues.

Washington at Trenton with captured regimental flag. December 25, 1776. Peale.

Washington at Trenton with a captured British flag. Dec. 25, 1776. Peale. What should Cornwallis do now?

You’ve retaken the city and have 4000 or so at Trenton and another 10,000 at Princeton, 12 miles to the north. You can march or stay. In favor of staying: the enlistment of 3000 or so of Washington’s army is up Dec. 31, and they’ve not been fed or paid. They will almost certainly quit. You can thus wait and attack Jan. 1, or attack now and give the rabble another reason to quit. Two other options: hole up and let the weather do the job, or bypass Washington, cross the Delaware, and attack Philadelphia, the colonial capital. Philadelphia is completely undefended. What would you do? What should you do? Making the decision somewhat pressing, Washington’s men keep making skirmish raids in and around Trenton. Shooting cannon or rifles in, killing here and there.

Please post your opinion of what Cornwallis should have done, and in a week or so, I’ll post an account of what Cornwallis actually did and how it played out (not well for Cornwallis).

Robert E. Buxbaum, December 8, 2016, roughly 240 years after the events described. I’ve written about other great revolutionary mistakes, and about the battle of Bunker hill.

How do you drain a swamp, literally

The Trump campaign has been claiming it wants to “drain the swamp,” that is to dispossess Washington’s inbred army of academic consultants, lobbyists, and reporter-spin doctors, but the motto got me to think, how would you drain a swamp literally? First some technical definitions. Technically speaking, a swamp is a type of wetland distinct from a marsh in that it has no significant flow. The water just, sort-of sits there. A swamp is also unlike a fen or a bog in that swamp water contains enough oxygen to support life: frogs, mosquitos, alligators,., while a fen or bog does not. Common speech ignores these distinctions, and so will I.report__jaguars_running_back_denard_robi_0_5329357_ver1-0_640_360

If you want to drain a large swamp, such as The Great Dismal Swamp that covered the south-east US, or the smaller, but still large, Hubbard Swamp that covered south-eastern Oakland county, MI, the classic way is to dig a system of open channel ditches that serve as artificial rivers. These ditches are called drains, and I suppose the phrase, “drain the swamp comes” from them. As late as the 1956 drain code, the width of these ditch-drains was specified in units of rods. A rod is 16.5 feet, or 1/4 of a chain, that is 1/4 the length of the 66′ surveyor’s chains used in the 1700’s to 1800’s. Go here for the why these odd engineering units exist and persist. Typically, 1/4 rod wide ditches are still used for roadside drainage, but to drain a swamp, the still-used, 1956 code calls for a minimum of a 1 rod width at the top and a minimum of 1/4 rod, 4 feet, at the bottom. The sides are to slope no more than 1:1. This geometry is needed. experience shows, to slow the flow, avoid soil erosion and help keep the sides from caving in. It is not unusual to add one or more weirs to control and slow the flow. These weirs also help you measure the flow.

The main drain for Royal Oak and Warren townships, about 50 square miles, is the Red Run drain. For its underground length, it is 66 foot wide, a full chain, and 25 feet deep (1.5 rods). When it emerges from under ground at Dequindre rd, it expands to a 2 chain wide, open ditch. The Red Run ditch has no weirs resulting in regular erosion and a regular need for dredging; I suspect the walls are too steep too. Our county needs more and more drainage as more and more housing and asphalt is put in. Asphalt reduces rain absorption and makes for flash floods following any rain of more than 1″. The red run should be improved, and more drains are needed, or Oakland county will become a flood-prone, asphalt swamp.

Classic ditch drain, Bloomfiled MI. Notice the culverts used to convey water from the ditch under the road.

Small ditch drain, Bloomfield, MI. The ditches connect to others and to the rivers via the culvert pipes in the left and center of the picture. A cheap solution to flooding.

Ditch drains are among the cheapest ways to drain a swamp. Standard sizes cost only about $10/lineal foot, but they are pretty ugly in my opinion, they fill up with garbage, and they tend to be unsafe. Jaguars running back Denard Robinson was lucky to have survived running into one in his car (above) earlier this year. Ditches can become mosquito breeding grounds, too and many communities have opted for a more expensive option: buried, concrete or metal culverts. These are safer for the motorist, but reduce ground absorption and flow. In many places, we’ve buried whole rivers. We’ve no obvious swamps but instead we get regular basement and road flooding, as the culverts still have combined storm and sanitary (toilet) sewage, and as more and more storm water is sent through the same old culverts.

Given my choice I would separate the sewers, add weirs to some of our ditch drains, weirs, daylight some of the hidden rivers, and put in French drains and bioswales, where appropriate. These are safer and better looking than ditches but they tend to cost about $100 per lineal foot, about 10x more than ditch drains. This is still 70x cheaper than the $7000/ft, combined sewage tunnel cisterns that our current Oakland water commissioner has been putting in. His tunnel cisterns cost about $13/gallon of water retention, and continue to cause traffic blockage.

Bald cypress swamp

Bald cypress in a bog-swamp with tree knees in foreground.

Another solution is trees, perhaps the cheapest solution to drain a small swamp or retention pond, A full-grown tree will transpire hundreds of gallons per day into the air, and they require no conduit connecting the groundwater to a river. Trees look nice and can complement French drains and bioswales where there is drainage to river. You want a species that is water tolerant, low maintenance, and has exceptional transpiration. Options include the river birch, the red maple, and my favorite, the bald cypress (picture). Bald cypress trees can live over 1000 years and can grow over 150 feet tall — generally straight up. When grown in low-oxygen, bog water, they develop knees — bits of root-wood that extend above the water. These aid oxygen absorption and improve tree-stability. Cypress trees were used extensively to drain the swamps of Israel, and hollowed-out cypress logs were the first pipes used to carry Detroit drinking water. Some of these pipes remain; they are remarkably rot-resistant.

Robert E Buxbaum, December 2, 2016. I ran for water commissioner of Oakland county, MI 2016, and lost. I’m an engineer. While teaching at Michigan State, I got an appreciation for what you could do with trees, grasses, and drains.