Thursday, May 28, 2009

There is reincarnation, at least for bureaucracies

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US Railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.
Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads?

Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads?

Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. And bureaucracies live forever.
So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses!

Now, the twist to the story

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.
The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory at Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.
The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains.
The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel.

The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass.

And you thought being a HORSE'S ASS wasn't important!

NOTE: This is a forward I got, and I don't know who wrote it. I loved it so here it is.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A win beyond their dreams

Even Priyanka Gandhi thought it was going to be 'touch and go', but in the end, it's turned out to be the biggest victory for the Congress since 1991. Who would have thought, 24 hours ago, that this was coming? Not the Congress itself, because its leaders were still in touch with potential allies of all shades and shapes. Not the President, who was consulting constitutional experts on her options in the event of a hung parliament. Not the pollsters who again got it wrong - every single one of them. They predicted that UPA would be ahead, but were off target by about 50 seats on averge. And yes, not the media, or even the wise bloggers, who all thought it was going to be a close call.
In the end, it was a wave no one saw coming. The nightmare scenarios didn't come to pass. There will be no loonies ruling us in the next few years.
Much punditry is on already about why the Congress won the victory it did. It's all speculation, none of it based on fact.
But here's what we do know: the Congress fought this election on the slogan, "Aam aadmi ke badhtey kadam, har kadam par Bharat buland". Translated, that means, "The advancing footsteps of the common man, a stronger India at every step". In other words, the Congress targeted the common man in these elections, and did so suggesting this would lead to a stronger India. Its campaign song, set to the tune of "Jai ho" from Slumdog Millionaire, was similarly an aspirational tune addressed to the common man. Even its advertising was about empowering the masses, empowering rural India and empowering youth.
The party has evidently won support from all these sections. To some extent, it would have done so because of the work the government did, especially through generous acts like the NREGA and the Rs 65,000 crore dole to farmers. That has paid off.
Rahul Gandhi's campaigning has also doubtless played a part, especially the image of him in contrast to the octogenarian Advani. The poor old man lifting weights to try and prove a youth he no longer had will remain among the sad images of these elections.
A lot of the credit for the Congress win in Uttar Pradesh must also be given to its regional rivals in the state. They have so thoroughly discredited themselves that the only party left for anyone to vote was Congress. Something similar happened in Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, where TRS was decimated, and even in Bengal, where the Left had become the party of hubris.
The internal divides in its opponents helped the Congress in states like Rajasthan. The same factor hindered it in Karnataka.
The takeaway message from this win for ALL political parties in India should be that the common man is no fool and cannot be taken for granted. Good work and a measure of honesty are becoming important for winning elections. That's why Nitish Kumar won in Bihar, and Lalu and Paswan lost. That's why Naveen Patnaik won in Orissa. And even Modi in Gujarat.
Politicians must now earn their votes. They can't merely buy them.