Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rockets, Restaurants and Quality Control

I was reading about the Soviet Moon project thanks to this post pointing out that this was the biggest man-made non-nuclear explosion in history.

And my back-of-the-napkin theory for why the Soviets had such a hard time with the Moon* project occurred to me looking at all these engines:


The Soviets were famous for great designs often implemented with extreme size and brute force--and really awful quality control.

The Soviet T-34 tank, for example, was a superior design to the American Sherman tank. But the T-34 in the actual field greatly suffered from quality control issues and even from silly things such as a lack of proper radios.

Once the basic technical problems of how to build a chemical space rocket have been solved, the building of a more complicated rocket really becomes about quality control. When you double the amount of engines on a rocket, you increase the complexity of that rocket by a huge amount, I'm hesitant to say exponential, but certainly a geometrical amount.

If you look at the failures of the Soviet Moon rockets, they are technical screw-ups, the Soviets were simply unable to deal with the complexity of the system they had created.

Why not?

A rocket of this magnitude is made up of a ridiculous number of parts and those parts are designed by engineers, manufactured by factories made up of workers, engineers, managers, etc, assembled by factories consisting of workers, engineers, managers, etc, and the whole process is organized by bureaucrats, managers, engineers, etc. It's hard to conceive of the complexity of that problem and it being solved in an era essentially without computers.

The American 'capitalist dog' system was better able to produce and supply a consistently higher number of all these people. But I think the true advantage was in management.

When I first moved to the Czech Republic in '95, and for a long time after, the restaurant situation was pretty awful. I decided that there are four factors that make a successful restaurant: price, service, food, and atmosphere. For a long time it was almost impossible to find a place that didn't fail miserably on one of those basic elements. A restaurant might have decent food, nice staff, fair prices but play really loud annoying techno-pop music (and you'd be shocked how often this happened, or still happens today). Or a restaurant would have everything, but the service was almost intolerable. There always seemed to be one basic factor that fell through the cracks.

What these places seemed to be lacking was decent management. The most egregious mistake, in my opinion, was the playing of loud, awful music in a place that had everything else going for it, but I may be especially allergic to this, a lot of people, especially Czechs, seemed to be desensitized to what I considered ear-rape. The managers in the Czech restaurants, when they were visible, usually spent their time displaying their hierarchical status, ie hanging out at the bar with their expensive phones, looking cool, and generally lording it over the place. This was in marked contrast to managers at restaurants I worked in the States.

Is this an Eastern European thing? A Slavic thing? A communist thing? Since the situation has greatly improved here in Prague since '95 I'm going with communist. The managerial system under communism was mostly about class hierarchy, connections and nepotism rather than meritocracy. The system in America in the late 60s wasn't a perfect meritocracy, but it was much closer to it than the Soviet system.

Ironically it was Karl Marx who pointed out quite a while back that changes in degree of a social system lead to changes in kind.

Socialism, under whatever name it travels--communism, progressivism, liberalism--is a system that emphasizes equality of outcomes in an inherently hypocritical manner. It's a system that inevitably replaces the merit of intelligence, knowledge and creativity with the merit of gaming an inherently increasing corrupt system.


*I capitalize Earth, Moon and Sun these days, because they are proper nouns, like Mars, Jupiter, and Your Anus. I don't know how the convention of not capitalizing them took hold, so I'll just attribute it to the general decline of civilization.

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