Impossible

Let’s talk about “impossible” for a moment.

Have you seen any of the dozens of articles and videos making the rounds under some variant of the headline “This boat is impossible to capsize”? If you haven’t, there’s a good example at Popular Mechanics.

It’s immediately obvious reading the article that the boat can be capsized; the real brilliance here is that it’s designed to flip itself back over automatically.

With a caveat or two. The article above cites three design factors that contribute to the self-righting capability. All are subject to failure modes: “the cabin itself is watertight” (provided no hatches are left open) and “it has a very low center of gravity” and “the cabin is built to be extremely buoyant” (assuming all cargo is stowed properly and nothing heavy is mounted on the upper deck).

This boat was designed for law enforcement, the Navy, and what PM calls “other groups who sail in high-pressure situations”. How many of those organizations are going to want hull-mounted weapons of some sort? Sure, you could counterbalance the guns by stowing their ammunition at the bottom of the hull–but then, are you going to jettison the guns when you run out of bullets?

“Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.” (Rick Cook, The Wizardry Compiled)

It’s not just programming, and the Universe is winning in all fields of endeavor–as I’ve noted before, you can verify this any day on the freeway. All it takes is one person who doesn’t read the directions to undo even the best design.

And that assumes the designers haven’t overlooked anything. Lest we forget, the original “unsinkable” ship, the Titanic, failed to live up to the hype in part because of a design flaw*.

* Accounts differ, but most note that the bulkheads intended to isolate compartments and confine water coming in to a limited area did not extend to the full height of the ship. When enough water had entered the sealed compartments, it began to flow over the top of the bulkheads and fill adjoining compartments.

But I’m not here to denigrate the boat’s designers. Realistically, headline writers are indulging in a bit of click-baitish hyperbole.

I’m on record as accepting the contradictory usages of the word “literally”. But I’m drawing a line here. “Impossible” does not mean “can”. Not even “can, but reversible”.

We need a word to mean “can not under any circumstances”, if only to save writers’ fingers when discussing the likelihood of finding compassion among the Republican’s party leaders.

Don’t sink the Titanic, don’t capsize the Thunder Child, and don’t erode the utility of “impossible”.

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