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To build ships that break ice, U.S. must relearn to cut steel (wsj.com)
77 points by the_third_wave 4 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 170 comments

Everybody likes to dump on Russia here but their nuclear icebreakers are something to behold:



People don't dump on Russia for their nuclear icebreakers ;)

Maybe in an alternate, more peaceful world, Russia would be happily selling icebreakers to the US for profit?

It is actually a surprising that Russia is not the manufacturing capital of the world. They have super-cheap energy, Soviet-era high-quality STEM education, and 50 million cheap workers from Caucasus, Siberia, Far East Russia, and the Central Asian countries.

Russia is still structured as an empire, though the fraction of ethnic Russians is relatively high, historically speaking. That, together with its large size, requires a large section of the economy be slaved to the security sector.

Frankly, Russia as a Chinese suzerainty might be one of the more productive alignments for the global economy, even if it isn’t great for America.

For those interested in a more analytical approach, this article/youTube video explains how the geographical vulnerability of Russia's western borders has led to both its high degree of overall militarization as well as its extreme sensitivity over Ukraine in particular:


Although it is usually ignored, geography is fundamental to understanding why nations act the way they do.

There's actually an interesting book on this topic (first chapter covers exactly what you just wrote):


The paradox of Russian borders is that at the current border, and also beyond it, are flat plains. So as soon as they create a "buffer zone" (let's not dwell on what that means for the people in said "buffer zone"), they create a new border... on the same flat indefensible plain. So the next policy goal is to extend the border, etc.

Say Russia achieves is "geographic necessity" of conquering Ukraine (which I very much wish doesn't happen). What's beyond there? Romania is a mix of plains and mountains - so what, Russia gets to invade there? Poland is mostly flat and with few major obstacles (Vistula running south-north is probably the only major one - and a very topical one...). So then what - extend the "buffer zone" into Germany? And... Finland? And I mean, you can't trust these warmongering Swedes and Norwegian - remember the Vikings? Better pacify these guys too before it's too late.

It's not a logic anyone outside of Russia wants to entertain.

> geographical vulnerability of Russia's western border

This is Russia's argument, but it is nonsense. Nobody would attack any Russian border, western or otherwise, because Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons. It's as simple as that.

Given the extremely high cost, why do you think countries with nuclear weapons have conventional military at all?

Nuclear weapons prevent an all-out invasion, but they're not much good at anything else. The US, for example, could not have used nuclear weapons in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The US is something of an outlier. Most countries maintain much smaller militaries. They have them on hand for a variety of purposes: disasters, foreign peacekeeping, border patrol, and keeping their hand in Just In Case.

NATO countries, for example, are supposed to keep militaries so that Russia doesn't get any ideas. Say, Wagner troops meander across the border into Poland. Russia clutches its pearls and says, "Oh, no, don't end the entire world by nuking us even though it's obvious that we ordered it." So troops would get sent... which is why it never actually happens.

How much military you need to achieve that is up for debate. The US often claims that other NATO countries need more, and that the European countries are relying on America to provide most of that deterrent. But the US is almost certainly providing way, way, way more deterrent than is needed -- more about national preening than serious consideration of needs.

>keeping their hand in Just In Case.

Just in case of what? Nukes are the perfect defense and the only one you need you said it yourself. You think 4% of the GDP is wasted.

That was what I was trying to explain. Nukes are a blunt weapon, and they want to have a bit more precision. They're not going to nuke Russia if Wagner group made a little, deniable cross-border excursion.

Nukes get MAD real fast. If their only weapon is a nuke, their bluff could easily be called.

Very few countries spend 4% of GDP on the military, and most of them are at war. Not even the US, which comes in at 3.5%. NATO countries are supposed to spend (IIRC) 2%, but most don't.

It's a 2% that they might like to have back, but militaries are pretty good make-work programs. Even Japan, whose constitution prevents it from having a military, still spends 1% on its military.

Not clear what your point is? Are you saying that indeed there was any chance of Nato invading Russia? I think that was what you're implying, but I'm not sure, since you replied to me with a question.

Do you have any scenario of how that would happen, so that Russia's invasion of Ukraine makes any sense as a preemptive move?

I knew I'd be able to bait you out of hiding with my comment. The handful of resident anti-Russian zealots on here are so predicable.

I mean goodness, can we just admire a cool boat for a second?

> bait you out of hiding with my comment

What? With this [1] comment? Look at the time stamps. (Do we know each other?)

> Don't you have anything at all nice to say about them?

About the current Russian state? No. It’s pathetic and broken, and I don’t see a way to fix it other than devolving it—functionally, not legally—to China.

About Russia as a culture, people and nation? Of course. Russian literature from the classics (Turgenev) to mid-century (Bulgakov) and modern, together with Soviet films, are among my favourite genres. I love the food. I adore the operas and music. And Russians’ sense of wit and humour is among the sharpest and funniest in the world. As a species also we’re eternally in the Soviet Union’s debt for their aerospace and medical advances, to say nothing of dealing the death blow to the Nazis at Leningrad.

Much of my bitterness towards Moscow stems from knowledge of the potential of Russia’s people that is being squandered, delayed or permanently destroyed, in service of delusions.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=37562330

You love their food?

Totally misread you ;)

> It is actually a surprising that Russia is not the manufacturing capital of the world.

Why the USSR did not become a major industrial exporter has been the subject of some good historical studies. It's been a while, so I don't have any good references at hand, but I recall that the main problem was Soviet management policies. Companies had a very hard time implementing quality control, and the government was also reluctant to close obsolete plants, because their primary goal was to maintain full employment.

They don't really have the population for it. In fact, they've got an acute skilled labor shortage (and had one even before the war).

Key to understanding this is understanding the massive toll that was inflicted on Russia during WWII.

And a very corrupted government and no rule of law. China is also corrupted, but the level of corruption in Russia is on a different level.

Also declining population and worsening education.

There is a statistically significant correlation between the level of corruption and economic growth:


Putin has dismantled most of the check and balances in the system. Nobody would invest in that country. Check Bill Browder's story on how they raided the Hermitage fund.

And with this useless war going on they're forced to buy arms from DPRK.

> And a very corrupted government and no rule of law.

Claim without evidence. Let’s throw in a bit of whataboutism- have you seen how improbably good pelosi’s stock market trades are? Almost like she’s insider trading.

> Also declining population and worsening education.

Population seems to be more or less in line with the rest of the world, and likely better once you factor for immigration.

“In 2014 the Pearson/Economist Intelligence Unit rated Russia's education as the 8th-best in Europe and the 13th-best in the world”

“In 2016 the US company Bloomberg rated Russia's higher education as the third-best in the world”

I mean really. I get that we all have biases, but lying about such easily verifiable things is pathetic, even for the average anti-Russian propaganda shill.

I am Russian and I know what I'm talking about living in that place about corruption and business and institutions.

Corruption data with sources: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/average-rating-of-corrupt...

About demographics check these: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Aging_of_Russia&u...

About education: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/pisa-score-of-the-worst-a...

Let's not cite "Bloomberg" as a good data source for this. It's not good enough.

Your “ourwordindata” link shows a net improvement between the two data points.

The “demographic crisis” appears to be on par with, if not better than, what the vast majority of Asian and European countries are experiencing.

And are you seriously quoting “perceived corruption”?

That’s a subjective measure. It’s literally in the title.

Could you at least try instead of throwing random links that you probably haven’t even reviewed yourself? Because this is pathetic. I expect more rigorous research and effort from an HN reply.

The data confirms my point of trends worsening in all the charts. Especially from 2015 (uppss... what happened that year? nothing like a small war) onwards. Check the education graph I've linked. You're correct that it rose in the beginning, but it went down from 2015 to 2018 (the last data available).

Personally from hiring people and from my brothers 2 businesses there is a stagnation too. The government talks about "reforming" the universities to break with Bologna system with internationally recognized degrees - this won't help either. Additionally along with the reform and with all the sanctions it'll be harder to go to foreign universities for students. And don't forget all the "arrests" of prominent scientists: https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/11/27/88134-berut-lyud...

Population is declining and the war won't help with that either. It doesn't matter than in Japan it's worse, we're talking the number of people in active economic age going down. This is not good in the long term, who would work and pay pensions? Oil is a finite resource.

About the corruption, I can tell you many personal stories (tax authorities & fire department are one of the worst ones and if you try to build something without bribes it's impossible to get the paperwork done ), but this would be hearsay, not data. There are 2 global indices and both suffer from subjectivity. You can check the trends for direct foreign investments and capital outflows from Russia, especially after 2015. Russian ministers live like billionaires and fly their dogs to Europe in private jets (check the story of Shuvalov's dogs flights). I'm not aware of such gimmicks in the "morally bankrupt" western countries. You're correct that it's subjective, but it's subjectively better in Sweden and Germany than in Russia or Ukraine. If you can't provide a better metric your argument is even more subjective, because it's not aggregated from many people over the years (the trend should be correct even if the values are not).

So please provide links and data, not your "expectations". And do you live in Russia and have personal experience as I do to have a better subjective perspective?

To highlight, Russia’s future changed dramatically after 2014. You start to see this in ca. 2016 statistics. It’s damning by even the start of the war.

>To highlight, Russia’s future changed dramatically after 2014.

Actually things started going south for the Russian economy in 2010-2014 when both US oil companies and Saudi Arabia started pumping out oil as no tomorrow.

Soviet-era high-quality STEM education

The last batch of such manufacturing apprentices went through in the mid-eighties. They're just about all gone from the workplace.

Tell that to the US aerospace industry which is full of Russian and Soviet trained engineers (who are not in their 90s).

Soviet trained engineers; last batch was in the eighties, so the youngest of them are now in their fifties and the majority of them are retired or dead.

I would guess the nit being picked was "Soviet era" rather than whether there are Russian engineers trained since then.

Does USA even have civilian dry docks to build ships? I thought everything was outsourced to Korea.

I know it can build military vessels, but at horribly slow pace. Australia will get their nuclear submarines some time in 2040. I can not imagine building civilian nuclear ice breakers in US.

Yes. The NASSCO shipyard in San Diego. I worked there as a ship welder for a while after the first .com crash, and two of the three ships I worked on were civilian.

Also Aker in Philadelphia. US law requires ships in domestic trade to be built in the US so there is a market for new builds.

>Does USA even have civilian dry docks to build ships?

The article was about getting new ice breakers for the Coast Guard, a branch of the US military.

US shipbuilding is uncompetitive because of the Jones act. They literally don't have to compete because ships that travel between American ports have to by law be built in the US.

Plenty. Newport News, Puget Sound, Portland, San Diego.

But Korea is operating at a much, much grander scale and scope. Like having a chain of 7 respectable burger shops vs. McDonalds.

And building ships isn't even that hard... Like a really nice passenger ships takes what 2 or 3 years?

Major difference between building a cruise ship and a polar ice breaker.

Yes, the later is much smaller and simpler...

I guess simpler the same way a tractor is simpler than a mini van...

There's Gunderson Marine in Portland, OR.

> designers, engineers and welders grapple with something the U.S. hasn’t done in decades: reliably shape hardened steel that is more than an inch thick into a curved, reinforced ship’s hull

I don't understand. Aren't modern military ships armoured anymore?

No, they aren’t armoured nearly as much as WWII era ships; it shorten range, slows them down, and doesn’t really work against guided weapons

Yeah, the dreadnaught arms race of the first part of the 20th century was kinda an anomaly in ship design, especially considering how little big-gun naval battles happened despite two world wars. Turns out up-armoring ships hard enough that they end up legitimately surviving a close range nuclear shockwave (look up Operation Crossroads) is actually a massive waste of resources.

Yes and no, the ship and crew might have survived. But the steel wasn't thick enough to block all the radiation. Moreover traditional ship design up until that point didn't handle Nuclear Biological, and Chemical threats well. They weren't really designed to be completely sealed. It's important to recognize that the assumption that the next war would be atomic killed a lot of technology paths because the people with the money assumed it was a waste of time to continue in those directions. By the time the military started to re-explore those paths the tech had languished. It's why the Iowas went back to sea with the Mk8 fire control computer, a completely analog computer. Because nobody had really bothered to build a better one for large caliber shells since WWII.

But it's important to note that before the Iowas were given their final retirements into museum ships the Navy made sure to basically document everything they could about firing large caliber guns. Because when they initially pulled them out of mothballs in the 1980s they were woefully inaccurate, but by the time they were decommissioned for the final time they could hit a proverbial fly on a flag pole (allegedly).

The other part of it was that the Soviet Union didn't really have a surface fleet to really speak of. They invested heavily in submarines, so consequently the US Navy focused heavily on ASW. So... nobody really knows how 16" of modern armor would fair against modern weapons, it's literally never been tried. Whereas you can find pictures from way back when they were testing guns, of how various shells fared against various thicknesses and types of armor.

Long story short: We've forgotten most of what we knew about surface warfare, and we're starting to forget what we knew about shipbuilding and design. The US has outsourced all it's naval architecture and shipbuilding so long that the necessary skills are either all retired or lost.

Or torpedoes.

At the end of WW2, the Japanese had developed, but not yet deployed, suicide airplanes with 2,900 Kg shaped charges built into them. If they were deployed, and managed to get close enough, it's possible it would have blown right through the 12" armor of an Iowa class battleship.

It was Mitsubishi Ki0167[2], according to Ryan Szimanski the curator of the Battleship New Jersey, in this video[1].

This marked the effective end of the concept of armor thick enough that it couldn't be breached, and the Battleship.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KlFxbF8hrs

[2] https://www.daveswarbirds.com/Nippon/aircraft/Ki-167.htm

ok but that's 12" armour. But doesn't necessarily mean we went to the other extreme, i.e. that a modern military ship has the same hull than a trawler. A quick google search suggests the thickness of an ice breaker hull seems to be about 2 inches.

> I don't understand. Aren't modern military ships armoured anymore?

No, no amount of armoring is useful against modern weaponry, but it does increase the "m", thus lowering the "a" you get from your engine's "F".

I'm curious as to whether manned ships will continue to prevail in the age of drones.

Wire up a cheap boat with explosives and it can sink an expensive naval vessel. The Ukrainians are using this to massively great effect right now against the Russians.

What if instead of building one new aircraft carrier, you build an autonomous submersible capable of launching drones with variable payloads?

Or instead of a destroyer, build a drone ship that can launch missiles?

Or an entirely new class of ship that simply swarms enemy defenses and is laden with explosives? Mass-produced autonomous jet skis with explosive payloads. But faster.

> Wire up a cheap boat with explosives and it can sink an expensive naval vessel.

This has been pretty obvious since the Millennium Challenge 21 years ago, when they just called them suicide attacks. Nobody seems to have cared then and not much has changed.

I think the issue is pretty tightly limited to boats/sea drones, though. If you're even a few feet under the surface then sonar can see you. If you're a few feet above the surface then radar gets you. Both options die a mile away.

I also think Russia is probably not very representative of the overall threat, too. I don't think their navy is running particularly better than their army. I don't know that other navies can do much besides trying to spot ships and blow them up with guns (do top-attack missiles work?) but whether or not they're good at it they'll definitely be much better than Russia. Until there's some sign that countries are actually investing in sea drones I don't think anything will be done, and I wouldn't be surprised if some kind of small top-attack rocket makes it a non-issue.

> autonomous submersible

autonomous and submersible don't go very well together. Radio contact underwater is terrible. It's not like drones fly themselves; we haven't figure out the whole autonomous thing.

> capable of launching drones with variable payloads?

Landing a plane on a ship is actually really hard and requires constant maintenance, even for VTOL. Even for helicopters. Smaller the ship, harder it is to land.

> build a drone ship that can launch missiles?

But like, why? Why not have people on it? Ships are not big because of the people on it. People can treat casualties, repel boarding, land on the ground etc. Ships are also constantly being maintained and repaired. Waves and salt are a real bitch.

If you make a ship without people it'll cost almost the same, be almost the same size, be very hard to repair and be much less capable.

> Why not have people on it?

Simply looking at costs and complexity "on paper" from an engineering / accounting perspective doesn't really capture all the differences between humans and machines, especially considering civilian morale.

The US military lost <2.5k in Afghanistan over two decades, and that generated enough war weariness for us to quit.

The current American public and political system simply isn't willing to tolerate large numbers of casualties. So it makes a whole lot of sense to take people out of the equation.

there is evidence of major navies investing in autonomous surface vehicles: https://www.usff.navy.mil/Press-Room/News-Stories/Article/35...

Obviously not combat vehicles but it’s not hard to imagine such a thing being reframed in a similar way.

Only the most vital parts receive some armor iirc. But not as thick as the armor found on the old battleships, and probably not curved.

The thick steel (like the landing deck of an aircraft carrier) is flat not curved. The curved stuff is actually Kevlar, not steel.

Didn't know they had kevlar hulls in WW2.

Makes me wonder how much manufacturing knowledge has been lost in the west, and how long it might take to rediscover it all.

Does anyone know of any good sources on this?

I remember a very old WSJ article about "swiss style machinists" and how there are no young American ones any more. This style of machinist makes tiny objects (think of how small things inside a mechanical watch are), where a day's production fits into a coffee cup. It takes a 10 year long apprenticeship to become productive enough that a company is willing to one of these machinists. All of the "younger" ones came from Germany or Austria because their governments subsidize the long training & apprenticeship programs. In the US, virtually all of them were laid off at the end of the Cold War.

Like most trade workers, the worker owns the tools that they use on the job. When they sell their tools, they leave the trade.

I don't think there have been any good studies or histories written about the decline in tradeskilled labor.

There's a lot of discussion about how tradespeople are retiring and leaving big gaps in the workforce, and there's a strong element of truth to it, but America is still producing large and small machined parts.

There's still large machine tools being refurbished in Rockford, Illinois, Haas is building a large new facility in Nevada (delayed; thanks covid) for making CNC machine tools, medical and aerospace parts are still earning machinists a crapton of money, and people are still hobbing enormous gears that are very, very expensive.

It's pretty clear that American machining has lost its production bandwidth due to offshoring, but it's not accurate to say that the field is dead.

Not the same industry, but here is an article in the WSJ about declining numbers of petroleum engineers: https://www.wsj.com/articles/big-oils-talent-crisis-high-sal...

"Big Oil’s Talent Crisis: High Salaries Are No Longer Enough

Energy companies scramble to attract engineers as young workers fret over climate and job security

Good news from the oil patch: Jobs are plentiful and salaries are soaring.

The bad news is that young people still aren’t interested.

Even as oil-and-gas companies post record profits, the industry is facing a worsening talent drought.

At U.S. colleges, the pool of new entrants for petroleum-engineering programs has shrunk to its smallest size since before the fracking boom began more than a decade ago. European universities, which have historically provided many of the engineers for companies with operations across the Middle East and Asia, are seeing similar trends.


> The bad news is that young people still aren’t interested

And maybe that is also good news, because the youth realizes what we won't and what is at stake? Wouldn't have thought that not everything can be bought.. a little hope for them's still there, as we will ignore it til our deaths ;)

Or maybe this is bad news, because the youth do not realize what is at stake. After all the article is talking about skills that we have lost relative to other countries which may not like the U.S. very much.

Was not referring to the article but apparently to the oil industry specifics the article also doesn't talk about, and try to see everything negative just with a bit of optimism ;)

Thus, you cannot just repeat "bad news" unfair :( Bring a new perspective please.

(And feel free to downvote, yeees I know we need some oil industry.. but no, if we'd do it right still not as much as >95% of it is right now for.. no way around it).

Skills will come and go as needed, the drama is overrated and sensationalism imo (just to ensure more downvotes ;))

The idea that new skills just magically materialise on demand is increadibly dangerous.

It reeks of disrespect for the commitment it takes to nurture an industry, and is why in the west prodictoce 8ndustries are ocershadowed by asset bubles and speculation

I think we in the West need to get better at creating excitement about manufacturing.

The two biggest wind turbine manufacturers in the world, Vestas Wind Systems and Siemens Gamesa, are located here in Denmark. It is definitely possible to do manufacturing in high income developed countries.


Dated article, says USA doesn't make these anymore -

Baseball Babyfood Etch a Sketch Converse Shoes Stainless Steel Rebar Dress Shirt Mattel Toys Minivan Vending Machine Levi Jeans Red Wagon TV Cellphone Railroad Turnouts Sardines Dell Computer Cutlery Bulb

I can't speak to many of these. However, some baby food is made in the US.


Strictly speaking, none.

The knowledge is all there, the problem is lack of experience/training.

Training is a cost center. Just put out a job req demanding 20 years experience in forging curved steel. Problem solves itself. Now just let me collect my plum consulting fee for this bit of genius business management advice.

> Now just let me collect my plum consulting fee for this bit of genius business management advice.

Come on, you’ve got to at least offer them something other than what they’ve already been doing for years.

I think for anything we don’t actively make anymore, we can assume the skill has been lost.

It's the skills that are lost. The knowledge is safe in print.

There's a lot of practical/contextual knowledge that isn't documented, and what's documented isn't guaranteed to be correct or can be misleading (terminology changes, standards change, some things are implied because they are obvious at the time, etc.)

Though knowledge of experience is sometimes wrong as well. Sure it works - unlike print where mistakes (sometimes intentional to hide a secret) can tell you something that cannot work, but that doesn't mean it is a good way to do things.

Give some examples? That kind of 'undocumented' knowledge is lost because better tech has completely replaced it. I'm talking about inventions like the Spinning Mule or the steam engine. We have superseded them with electric motors and logic boards.

First thing that comes to mind is friends father was hitting retirement age after working at a petrochemical/plastics facility for ~20 years, was in charge of maintenance of some section. I think he told me the owner had to call him twice to help diagnose problems that were causing product outages.

These things don't get built on a whim - there's risks, regulations, documentation, procedures, experts, etc. At the end of the day you have people doing the work for decades, with an intuition about how things work.

Given infinite time you can recreate anything - but by the time you're done putting the puzzle together you're out of business.

>At the end of the day you have people doing the work for decades, with an intuition about how things work.

That's exactly my point. This intuition is undocumented however it becomes superseded by new tech. Nobody can (successfully) run a plastics plant with decades of old hardware knowledge and expect to be in business another 20 years.

"In 1991, Aldo retired and Ed took over day-to-day management of the company. First Plastics began the initiative to replace and update its molding equipment with new large capacity presses in 1995. This initiative has placed First Plastics as one of the most technologically advanced injection molders in the Northeast. Today it continues to add the latest technology while increasing its manufacturing capacity."


> Nobody can (successfully) run a plastics plant with decades of old hardware knowledge and expect to be in business another 20 years.

You would be surprised - I've seen production lines 30+ years old running profitably.

Note this was not plastics moulding - this was producing raw plastics/petrochemical facility.

One example is how they had to reinvent the material codenamed fogbank.

We can't build the engines for the Saturn five rocket anymore though the engineering documents still exist. You need the documentation and skilled craftsman.

If that's true ... then how were the engines ever built in the first place?

You know, back when they had neither the plans nor people that had built such large engines before?

About 20 iterative engine designs from the Rocketdyne A-1 to the F-1, building experience and skills along the way.

It's probably a myth anyway, Rocketdyne's expertise continues with the RS-68 and there are probably still employees that worked on the RS-56 that was derived from the H-1, which was essentially a smaller F-1

edit: Apparently, an upgraded F-1B is part of the SLS Block 2 spec anyway, so yes, they can still make them.

You can't even document computer code accurately. And neither can I.

Gordon Ramsey can't document how to cook a steak and how to tell thats its done. 3 different cooks will read his instructions and will end up with 3 different steaks.

The idea that a lifetime of steelworking experience can be foind in books, especially by people who aren't known for love of books, is pure folly.

Skills are living. They live in flesh and bone.

I call BS. Code and any process can be documented just fine.

> 3 different cooks will read his instructions and will end up with 3 different steaks

Either his instructions are shit, or the cooks are donkeys.

Sear steak at high heat, 1 minute, rotate steak 45 degrees, flip steak to sear back side for 1 minute, rotate steak 45 degrees. Move steak to indirect heat until internal temp probed at center of steak reaches 145F, remove steak and plate steak after resting for 4 minutes.

There. If you follow those instructions you can get a perfectly done steak every. single. time.

Shit is only subjective if you don’t have a repeatable way of measuring things.

You absolutely can learn steel working and foundry type of stuff from books, but you have to find ways of measuring what you are doing. E.G. heat to this temp, control cooling process by means of $X, $Y, $Z. Inspect crystal structure of coupon, X-ray for porosity.

It isn’t easy, but it can be done.

> Code and any process can be documented just fine.

Can be? perhaps. Is documented? definitely not.

90% of code is not documented, whether it is a trojan or firmware for a soda dispenser. If I find you a random piece of code that was not maintained for the last 5 years, in a random language, what is the chance that you can get it to work? 30%?

> It isn’t easy, but it can be done

So most of the time it isn't done.

Its software engineer's job to document code, it is not the job of a machinist to document minitua of his job. In fact some proffeshions made historically a point of keeping their craft secret and passing knowledge on to an apprentice.

> Code and any process can be documented just fine.

You can make it documented. Can other people understand completely same as you? It's a different story

Fun fact, the USCGC Healy is the ship that the Half Life 2 Borealis model is based on.

We should buy the icebreakers and retrofit them minimally and inexpensively, not rebuild a niche industry just because we are running out of 50+ year old icebreakers in the Coast Guard.

Surprise, this is what happens when you shift everything in heavy industry or production in general off to India and China without keeping at least some production domestic or at least have everything documented and regularly (i.e. once every ten years) check if the documentation is accurate and workers can understand it to build a product that meets specifications.

> this is what happens when you shift everything in heavy industry or production in general off to India and China without keeping at least some production domestic

I disagree, or at least think it's a lot harder than that.

1. It's not like we closed down Metal Cutting Inc. and just bought everything from China. There's no single company to have saved; there was Icebreakers and co. and Reactor Vessels Ltd. and ValvegearForgingCo. Any one of them might have been able to adapt but none of them were save-able and a lot of them were obviously obsolete.

2. Even when there is a Metal Cutting Inc., that's almost as bad. The supply chain was more efficient when it was integrated, not when its contracted out to a third party... or we would just buy from the places that still make things.

3. In this specific instance, but also in many others, market forces are not really the real problem. Look at Alcoa- hugely successful because small mills were cheaper to operate than large mills, but now we don't have huge mills everywhere. Can't fix that- even we had seen it coming and kept large mills alive, what would they make? What about harder problems,where you need a varied set of things to make to keep knowledge from dying out?

4. How do you do this without picking specific winners, and lobbying for who will live and who will die? If industries can survive the decline without losing their experts, how do you decide how much money to give them? How do you incentivize them to actually keep that knowledge, instead of getting into a more profitable industry?

5. In the end, the problem isn't about the companies or documentation or people. If you continued to employ all the people who operated the great presses, they'd just be mostly dead by now. It's not like people need much more than a wage, but I do think that an industry that depends on government subsidies, cannot possibly grow, does not build truly useful things, and could disappear because a new appointee dislikes it is not a line of work most people would be drawn towards.

My take is: Academia is the right place for some fraction of the people who are made redundant by outsourcing or technological change. They don't have to be lecturers, but they are already teachers. They pass on their knowledge to new employees. Document, research, experiment, and prove manufacturing and industrial techniques. Preserve that knowledge for when it is needed. Humanity doesn't invest nearly enough into education, much less the preservation of knowledge.

>to India and China

You probably mean just China. India's manufacturing output is less than 1/10th of China's manufacturing output.

India does a lot of steel, but especially medicine, which suffers from the same problem.

Here in Germany, we're lacking cough syrup and antibiotics for children and so fucking much more drugs it's not even suitable for making jokes about the situation, it's so dire. Decades of "cutting costs" by always going for the cheapest manufacturer - i.e. China and India - has led to serious issues now.

[1] https://www.dw.com/en/health-ministry-confronts-germanys-dir...

[2] https://www.deutsche-apotheker-zeitung.de/daz-az/2021/daz-30...

The U.S. doesn't have a centrally planned economy. Each business is free to do as it wishes... and if they wished to survive competitively, they moved their production offshore (helps avoid UAW strikes).

Easy to know U.S. lost expertise, but tough question how do you get it back? Tariffs? A larger military-industrial complex? Even larger government?

Every large company is itself a "centrally planned economy". I worked for General Motors - it was much more like the Soviet Union than people want to admit. Every conglomerate I have worked for that had more than 10,000 workers was run like dictatorships.

Ok, so those company dictators are interested in national security instead of profits? The entire topic here is how to maintain or build skills within the U.S.

ive been at a few F500 companies, and while internally that might be true... you can just quit.

if anything, that "I can just go" leads to more of a cult or prison than a dictatorship.

> The U.S. doesn't have a centrally planned economy.

You don't need a centrally planned economy. Subsidies are enough incentive to at least keep a bit of production around.

> Easy to know U.S. lost expertise, but tough question how do you get it back?

Invest money into subsidies / R&D like in the icebreaker case, or raise tariffs against Chinese and Indian price dumping.

> The U.S. doesn't have a centrally planned economy. Each business is free to do as it wishes...

Currently US federal government spending is around 36% of GDP, which means 36% of the US economy is in fact centrally planned, albeit with some devolution in some cases.

I don't really disagree with you, but that's very misleading to say.

64% of the federal budget goes to social security, medicare/medicaid, disability etc. That is, it goes to individuals. It's not meaningful to call that economic planning. It's not in the slightest like paying for defense contractors or research or infrastructure.

11% goes to interest payments, ie people who bought bonds etc. For individuals that's certainly not central planning, since they are the ones who decided to buy. A large amount goes towards paying of quant. easing etc, but it seems a little goofy to count that like we spend it every year still.

You raise valid points and I agree with the thrust of what you're saying. To quibble a bit though I'd say that Medicare and Medicaid aren't really individual spending, but rather a pharmaceuticals and healthcare subsidy, much like how food assistance programs amount to a food and agriculture subsidy.

Meta: What is it about this post that attracted so many flippant comments?

Non-meta: Why does the US have so few of these ships? Were more just not produced? I didn’t see an answer in the article but it’s possible I missed it.

>> Why does the US have so few of these ships? Were more just not produced? I didn’t see an answer in the article but it’s possible I missed it.

Article mentions that as the polar ice melts there is MORE activity up there which increases the need for these ships. And the US is about to have just one left, which for some reason in down for maintenance in... the winter?

Non-meta Answer from user @bruce511: "Russia doesn't have much in the way of non-polar coast (well, not today European end) so they've been breaking ice since forever. The US by comparison has very little polar coast and so less need for icebreakers."

Not a huge need, really just Alaska and the Great Lakes. For geostrategic purposes, our friends to the north have something like 20 including a couple heavies.

Interesting. I would have thought that the Great Lakes would be important to keep cleared and necessitate more than 1-2.

Weather on the great lakes in winter is generally bad enough that shipping shuts down first. There have been a lot of shipwrecks on the great lakes - much more than the oceans, even though a lot more ships cross the ocean.

1-2 active. that also means 1-2 in repair, reserve, training, mothballed, etc.

and the Great Lakes are Great -- bigger than you'd think, and highly traversed.

> Why does the US have so few of these ships

No need to ship goods from China to the West Coast through the Arctic.

Icebreakers? No need, as simple as that.

Just wait a few years, there won't be any ice.

Two articles now I try to access the content at archive.ph and cannot make it past the Captcha. I've disabled uBlock Origin and that seems to make no difference. Is anyone else seeing this and if so, have a solution? (Firefox 117.0.1 (64-bit) on Debian Linux.) does not work with archive.ph and the related family of archive sites, due to choices on the archive.* end of things. See ex. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=36970702

I don't understand the details of the problem but that is surely it.


It's Cloudflare's fault.

Are you with Starlink by any chance? Had similar trouble from one of their IP's, but a different ISP's (same device) is working fine.

Archive.ph has trouble from time-to-time. Give it a couple hours and someone will "reboot the hamster".


I had a similar reaction - I thought that the ice was reducing (which it is). Wait a bit no ice, no problem.

The article speaks to that. The polar cap melting means thinner ice, which can in turn make sea lanes.

Simplistically, no ice is fine, thick ice is fine, but when there's "thin" ice you need ice breakers.

Russia doesn't have much in the way of non-polar coast (well, not the European end) so they've been breaking ice since forever. The US by comparison has very little polar coast and so less need for icebreakers.

Frankly, not sure it needs them at all except for bragging rights. Canadians maybe, but not sure about the US.


If there's a workaround, it's ok. Users usually post workarounds in the thread.

This is in the FAQ at https://news.ycombinator.com/newsfaq.html and there's more explanation here:



Do we really need to OWN icebreakers? Maybe we could start a website where countries and companies who own icebreakers can operate them for the benefit of other countries and companies who want to use them. They just walk to the shore in the Canadian north, click the "Call Icebreaker" button on the app and wait for an icebreaker someone else owns to arrive.

Generally speaking, states try to avoid having critical dependencies on other states, because they become points of leverage for adversarial foreign policy. For the purposes of keeping America running, yes, we really do need to own icebreakers in the same way that we need to own powerplants, steel mills, chip foundries and and refineries.

In this case though we're talking about Canada - the Canadian and US economies are incredibly linked. Personally, I'm a Canadian who makes money examining the US healthcare market and reselling that data to other Americans - there's lot of crossover here.

I think it still applies, albeit much less than with an adversarial state like, say, China.

But then market pressures for efficiency will lead to mergers and acquisitions...

Versus being quite literally held hostage by a non-cooperating foreign power for political gain?

Things like energy independence sound cute and quaint until you find yourself being taken advantage of at best, or ground to a halt during armed conflict at worst.

Can't we all just get along...

One can dream - but we have the entirety of human history as evidence that no, we cannot all just get along.

Yeah, and then we'll enter a cycle of repatriation when it gets painful enough. Generally speaking, it's precisely the bean-counter mentality of aggressive cost reduction (with a narrow definition of "cost") that gets us into this position to begin with.

Robust systems need some overhead.

Fun times when our Space Shuttle program shutdown we had to rely on Russian Soyuz to get astronauts to and from ISS. Well, whenever Russia didn't like something the US was doing, guess what the bargaining chip was?

We still are sending Astronauts on the Soyuz, even though we are also sending them up in the dragon capsule. (https://www.reuters.com/technology/space/russia-us-agree-add....)

> Do we really need to OWN icebreakers?

That would depend on one's strategic goals and priorities. Personally, I do not believe the US should be the world police so I don't think it is necessary.

I think in this case the US is mostly concerned with securing the increasingly lucrative exclusive economic zone north of Alaska. Anything beyond that we can use air power over sea power, now that we've given up on desert power.

OK, the who would you suggest should be the world's police?

The post-WWII world order is predicated on the agreement that the age of imperialism is over and that invasion by force to annex another country is illegitimate.

It is obvious that all nations do not agree to this. E.g.: China on Tibet, Taiwan, 9-dashed line, etc., Russia in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine. Those authoritarian states think it is perfectly fine to use force or threats of force to occupy & annex other territories and peoples.

The fact that we also have global shipping and travel at a relatively low cost (cheap enough to make & ship goods petty much anywhere-to-anywhere, and international travel is available to non-elites), is a direct result of US Navy keeping a lid on piracy.

Anarchy, or unpoliced random aggression would be a very bad option.

So, if the US does not do it, who do you think would do a better job, Putin, Xi, Kim, someone else?

> OK, the who would you suggest should be the world’s police?

> The post-WWII world order is predicated on the agreement that the age of imperialism is over and that invasion by force to annex another country is illegitimate.

If that was true, it would be inconsistent with any one nation or narrow relatively fixed set of nations being the world’s police, as that would indicate that the age of imperialism was not over and that the world had a single imperial power or small group of such powers.

The central institution in the aspirational design of the order you describe had a solution to the problem: the UN would itself be the world’s policeman, via a centralized military command to which all member nations would subordinate command of designated units of their armed forces for the purpose.

This…did not work out in practice, and is one of the very many pieces of information suggesting that your accurate description of the aspirations which people at the end of WWII had for the postwar international order were never realized.

> Anarchy, or unpoliced random aggression would be a very bad option.

It would be, but its mostly what we have between the major powers, with the major powers (alone or in combination) policing everything else, with…issues where the policing desires of the major powers conflict.

Just like in past ages of imperialism.

The main difference is that the fact that the major powers are also nuclear powers exerts constraints on the form of their direct conflicts mostly to forms that are at least partially deniable to prevent pressure of uncontrolled escalation which could lead to nuclear annihilation.

> that would indicate that the age of imperialism was not over

Wide berth between an imperial power and one that survives on a system of alliances. Balance of powers realism works, but it’s far more brutal than a uni or bipolar world order.

> the UN would itself be the world’s policeman, via a centralized military command to which all member nations would subordinate command of designated units of their armed forces for the purpose

Many states have tried this. It never works. Either you centralise command. Or you get the Holy Roman Empire.

>>aspirations which people at the end of WWII had for the postwar international order were never realized.

Yes, the UN failed to live up to that aspiration.

Of course some kind of Shangra-La where there is no conflict and no authoritarians trying to take over would be fantastic. The problem is that it is just that - a fantasy. We must deal with the reality of the world.

This is in no small part to the failure of including as permanent members on the Security Council the authoritarian states of USSR and China, which have done little but abuse the system attempting to game it for their own interests.

So, yes, we are down to a choice. Either:

1) The nations attempting (however imperfectly) to let their people live self-determining lives, and elect self-determining governments step up and enforce that aspirational world order as best they can.


2) Abandon attempts at suppressing imperialism and maintainting order, and allow again states to engage in war of all against all.

Suggesting that #1 is the same as imperialism, or as #2, is absurd.

We can seen where the policing has broken down, because the states trying to maintain democracy and the Post-WWII world order have tried appeasement or failed to police. It is endless war crimes, cities reduced to rubble, internment "reeducation" camps for millions.

So, if you are going to throw accusations that the US, UK, FR, NATO, attempting to maintain whatever peaceful world order is some kind of problem or is illegitimate, you need to come up with a better and viable solution.

What is your suggestion?

> We can seen where the policing has broken down, because the states trying to maintain democracy and the Post-WWII world order have tried appeasement or failed to police.

We’ve also seen where it succeeded in its real goals, which are often not democracy or any rules based order, but the parochial security and economic interests of the powers doing the “policing".

We've also seen that the power that holds itself up as the primary architect and enforcer of a “rules-based international order” particularly refuses (often with histrionic gestures, like the act nicknamed the Hague Invasion Act) to subject itself to the the rules and institutions of that order.

> It is endless war crimes, cities reduced to rubble,

Yes, we've seen that caused by the active engagement, not merely the restraint, of the “policing” powers.

> So, if you are going to throw accusations that the US, UK, FR, NATO, attempting to maintain whatever peaceful world order is some kind of problem or is illegitimate,

What I said was the suggestion that powrful countries policing the behavior of others is not imperialism but something categorically different is self-delusion.

Its others making the implicit claim that imperialism is illegitimate and what is legitimate is some other order that exists only in fantasy.

(I can certainly conceive if something that would be legitimate in a way that the imperialist order is not, but as I see no obvious pass yo achieving it, its not worth advocating.) But in the meantime, without a route out, the best way to mitigate the worst potential harms of the imperialist order starts with recognizing the nature of that order for what it is, and understanding where it is prone, by nature, to oroduce bad outcomes.

The age of imperialism is not over, except where someone enforces it. That someone is mostly the US, but UK and France also do a lot of work that I know of. None of them are perfect, all have a lot of blood on their hands, but overall imperialism is mostly dead despite many who would turn to it if they could.

In economic theory there are good reasons to say that every country has better options than imperialism - but imperialism often looks easy.

> The age of imperialism is not over, except where someone enforces it. That someone is mostly the US, but UK and France also do a lot of work that I know of.

I would suggest that “the age of imperialism is over only to the extent that what were among the last of the great imperial powers enforce that condition” is absolutely no different than “the age of imperialism continues, under some of the same imperial powers as its most recent previous form”.

Imperialism has a specifc definition which is not what we are doing. I'm not claiming the US is good, but it is better than imperialism anyway.

> Imperialism has a specific definition

Yes, when a central power (the metropole) dictates outcomes and behavior to other powers (the peripheries).

> which is not what we are doing

Its exactly what the upthread claim is that we are doing. I’m not as much arguing whether or not that is happening, as that the assertion that it is happening and that it is a constraint on imperialism is self-contradictory.

> The post-WWII world order is predicated on the agreement that the age of imperialism is over and that invasion by force to annex another country is illegitimate.

Why bother with the 'annex' part when you can just overthrow governments you don't like and replace them with ones you do?

Even if that were still being done, it is obvious that the authoritarian states think annexing is very important (again, look at Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Tibet, Yuhigurs, etc.). But, nice try with the false equivalency and whataboutism.

> Even if that were still being done

Is it not? Afghanistan in 2002, Iraq in 2002, Haiti in 2004, Libya in 2011, the US is taking sides in the civil wars in Somalia, Yemen, and Syria, and there's whatever happened in Bolivia in 2019.

If those aren't recent enough for you, then it's mildly surprising you'd bring up Chechnya (under Russian (then Soviet, then Russian) control since the mid-19th century, most recent major operations ended in 2009), Tibet (annexed in 1950, previously under varying levels of Chinese control up thru the mid-Qing), and the Uighurs (Xinjiang / the Tarim Basin was first occupied by China as early as the Han dynasty and has been under Chinese control since 1884 (Qing then RoC then PRC)).

I was interested in Arctic tourism. Some of it happens on Russian nuclear powered icebreakers. For giggles, I thought I'd buy one if I won the powerball. No powerball is sufficient, I was looking at about $2.5 billion. And I'm pretty sure that it would be a violation of the NPT for Russia to sell me one. Although the white Persian cat with a diamond collar would merely be a violation of good taste.

As a Canadian I fully support this approach - it's not like the US and Canada could ever effectively have highly contentious relations due to our economic interdependence... and we make good stuff up here, know how to build things that deal with ice and train our crews to deal with ice - ice breakers need special knowledge to operate safely and well.

> Do we really need to OWN icebreakers? Maybe we could start a website

i can't tell what is parody and whats real life

Anyone interested in angel investing for my startup? It's like Uber, but for $50-100 million specialty ships of which there are only a handful in the world, owned and operated by only a few nations, one of which is currently sanctioned by the US government.

Move fast and break ice!

"This new idea could reduce steel’s carbon emissions by 90%" https://www.freethink.com/energy/decarbonizing-steel

Why is steel necessary for ships?

From "Plant-based epoxy enables recyclable carbon fiber" (2022) https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=30138954 :

> And once it’s completed you have an insanely strong material that makes steel look weak and brittle. It’s reported to be as much as ten times stronger than steel, yet is lighter than fiberglass

Make it out of hemp aerogel and you could carry the boat.

Carbon fiber materials have excellent tensile strengths, especially under steady-ish loads.

The front of an icebreaker's hull mostly faces compressive loads, with lots of shocks from hitting ice.

Try searching for "OceanGate Titan" if you want to read more about the performance of carbon fiber composites under large compressive loads in a marine environment.

Reading further from that thread about hemp on an article about carbon fiber: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=30147414

> Have you here contested claims that hemp - biocomposite with resin - has greater Tensile Strength and Compressive Strength than steel and aluminum (and carbon fiber with sustainable binder)?

"Stronger than steel" is a common materials science catchphrase, but it usually carries more than enough asterisks, daggers, and double-daggers to skewer practical applications.

The problem with carbon fiber and epoxy composites. Once it cracks, you cannot repair it, easily. It relies on a continuous composite structure. You can't patch it because that patchwork joint will just be a weak spot.

So you are talking about writing off tens of millions of dollars of a boat just because someone lost control and hit something too hard.

Steel is infinitely repairable, cut out the damaged section and weld in new steel.

Damage will and does occur to boats.

The other big drawback is that damaged composites attend to violently fall to pieces, where metal would bend.

Steel - it doesn't lose strength when you bend it a little. Most other materials suffer fatigue and fail when you bend them repeatedly. This makes steel ideal for many things.

You need mass to break ice.

> You need mass to break ice.

this is one of the narrow cases where pounds comes off the bench to say, "actually, you need weight"

(icebreakers slide/ride up on top of the ice and the weight of the ship breaks breaks it ice downward)

That's because pounds use force as a base unit, mass is kind of incorporated into it the notion of a pound, whereas the metric system generally handles the units for force and mass separately.

The imperial system actually does have a rather obscure unit called a slug which is equivalent to the kilogram (in terms of being purely a mass quantity) in the metric system, but since the pound already incorporates that term ( bundled together with the gravitational acceleration factor) it seldom sees action.

On Earth's surface, it's not like gravity is optional.

To get real technical about it, gravity is inconstant at constant altitudes when varying latitude and longitude.

9.8m/s^2 at sea level, and it decreases with altitude all the way out to Lagrangian points where the gravitational attraction of the sun (and other local masses) is equal to that of earth; but solar pressure presumably displaces objects at zero-gravity rest.

Gravity is 'optional' with quantum locking. Gravity is a weak force.

Gravity is maybe the least lossy form of potential energy storage?

A key feature of ice-breakers is that they operate at sea level, and in fact rely on gravity.

They are also surrounded by fluid that as ballast affects the density/volume/buoyancy/displacement(?) of the hull (and the inertia of the craft), which could be steel-plated [3d printed and/or pressure molded] biocomposite that lasts for spec years in seawater.

Would water be enough ballast for a cutter built with organic biocomposites that weather sea air and water?

Well there's always reinforced ice: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Habakkuk


A boat you could carry couldn’t break ice.

+1. How do mass density of the craft and thrust limit the energy necessary to solve problem?

depends how hard you throw it

If you are a human you cannot break significant ice by throwing. Sure you can break 1cm of ice, but so any any other boat. We need ice breakers because there are cases where the ice is probably strong enough to support a the heaviest truck, but it doesn't quite have enough margin of safety on that probably to actually drive a truck so if you want to get through you need to send a boat through water.

you cannot break significant ice by throwing.

Don't skip boat throwing day!

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