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Rearranging the Deckchairs on the Titanic

April 22nd, 2008 | by Omnipotent Poobah |

Arranging the Chairs in the Deck of Titanic

Where once the name simply meant “colossal”, we now think of the Titanic as the perfect metaphor for incompetence, hubris, and sometimes the overwhelming ability of humans to be cavalier with their neighbors’ lives. It certainly illuminates much of what our poor excuse for a president does. “Rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” is his stock-in-trade.For years, scientists have looked for a reason to explain why the ship sank so quickly. Their latest discoveries show a pattern that’s eerily reminiscent of how our government and businesses work today. Had the sinking already occurred, pundits of the day might have charged the executives of the shipyard - Harland and Wolff - with rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

It turns out that one of the reasons the “unsinkable” Titanic went down was the use of substandard materials. Harland and Wolff took on the job of building Titanic, but underestimated how difficult such a technology-stretching exercise it would be. Over-budget and under pressure from the White Star line, Harland and Wolff looked for ways to make up the shortfalls so as not to lose money.

They decided to shore up their shortage of experienced riveters with a crew not up to the tricky, exacting task of setting the low-tech iron rivets of the time. They were having logistic problems too. There was a shortage of the proper strength iron hull plating and their inexperienced riveters had to join them with weak, sub-standard rivets.

But those weren’t the only problems Harland and Wolff built into Titanic. The broken hull plating might not have sunk the ship if Titanic’s designers had scaled back their over-confidence. The main bulkheads in the ship didn’t go from the keel to the top deck, thereby creating a series of isolated spaces. The gaps allowed the in-rushing sea water to simply overtop the bulkheads one by one until the ship filled. That decision saved expensive steel, but doomed the ship. The company also saved money by not providing enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone. They conceitedly reasoned these design and material flaws weren’t critical because, after all, Titanic was unsinkable.

Change the date or the circumstances and you can see why the Titanic is such a perfect metaphor. It works as well for Bush’s poor planning in Iraq as it does for Ford and the Pinto, and in all three cases there was death and large sums of money lost.

Unfortunately, some things never change.

Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks!

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