What’s All This Cottage-Cheese Stuff, Anyhow?

July 9, 2012
In this 1991 column, the late Bob Pease reflects on persistance, perceived and as actually practiced by real engineers. The "cottage cheese" reference is an amusing anecdote about submariners.

First published in the June 13, 1991 issue

Once upon a time (to be specific, about 1950), there were no nuclear-powered submarines. So when the U.S. Navy decided that they wanted to plan for some nuclear submarines (that would be able to cruise for many weeks without coming into port for fuel or food), they began to do some very thoughtful planning. They took an old conventional submarine, sealed it up, immersed it, and berthed it at the end of a dock in New London, Connecticut. Then they set up some pretend games that a nuclear submarine would have to play.

A crew of a few dozen seasoned submariners was sent down, with a good supply of food and other standard supplies. Then after a few weeks, they asked the sailors, “What food would you like to have?” The sailors sent up a list that included such things as “coffee ice cream, carrots, and cottage cheese.” Within a week, the supply crew sent down coffee ice cream and carrots.

The next week, the Navy planners sent down a questionnaire again: What would you like to eat? The questionnaires were filled in: fried chicken, Swiss steak, and cottage cheese. Shortly, the Navy fulfilled the sailors’ requests for fried chicken and Swiss steak—but for some odd reason the Navy could not supply cottage cheese. Week after week, the brilliant planners asked, “What is missing in your diet?” and every week the sailors renewed their requests. And on every list, the men kept asking for cottage cheese—because when they were making up their new list, they took the previous lists and asked for anything they had not yet received.

After many months, an enterprising young newspaper reporter decided there must be some kind of a story, something around this idea of planning for the much-heralded nuclear submarines that he could make a story out of. He requested, and obtained, a large amount of random (but declassified) information.

Included in the information was the “request list” for various kinds of food. The reporter was bright enough to do a scientific analysis of the lists the sailors sent up from their test space. And what was the result of this scientific analysis? Every week, the sailors renewed their request for more cottage cheese. More and more, the requests rang out, “More cottage cheese!”

My, but a sailor on a nuclear submarine will soon develop a craving for COTTAGE CHEESE!!! So the reporter filed his story, and soon the world learned that, if you go down on a long cruise in a nuclear submarine, the isotopes and the synchrotrons and the nuclear physics will lead you to crave COTTAGE CHEESE. It’s a well-documented fact.

Of course, the mere fact that the sailors had simply asked for everything they had previously asked for (but had never gotten any delivery of) was not a fact available to the bright young reporter. The fact that cottage cheese was one of the few foods that the Navy discovered you could not store in a freezer was not obvious to the bright young reporter. So the artifact of the “craving” was not evident to him, and it took a long time before the hoax of the “craving for cottage cheese” was discovered.

A while back, my boss called a meeting about our new Capital Plan. We should bring a list of Important New Equipment that we will need to fulfill our projects. Now, you will probably suspect (correctly) that I am a klutz when it comes to neatly documented plans and paperwork.

So when my boss asked me for a list of equipment we ought to buy, he was astonished when I handed him a neatly typed list of equipment, part numbers, quantity discounters, delivery dates, etc. I mean, the paperwork looked almost neat and coordinated, and my boss was struck by the amazing, unprecedented degree of precision and professionalism. He asked, “Bob, why is this list so neat?”

I replied, “It’s the same as last year’s list. It’s all the equipment that we needed to buy last year—the equipment that got disapproved at the last minute…” He replied, “Oh.

I explained that I only needed this equipment last year, so me and my guys could do our work more efficiently. If I couldn’t get it last year, well, it would still be helpful this year, or next year.

I pointed out something I had read, that linear circuit engineers are the most persistent guys in the world. If they can’t get the fanciest new computer, or the fanciest software, or a good modern scope or DVM, or the highest resolution fab equipment, well, they can make do with what they have got. It may be a little inefficient, but they get things done, one way or another. This year, though, I got my Capital Equipment.

There are a lot of times people ask for things and they don’t get them. What do they do next? Sometimes they wait and see. Sometimes they scheme and plot on how to get it anyhow. Other people holler and scream and raise a ruckus, because to acquiesce to a refusal might be interpreted to mean that you really didn’t need it very much after all.

One time I needed some power supplies, and even though these little supplies were not a capital item, I could not get authorization to release the funds in this half of the fiscal year. I got in a demo of this power supply, and it was a really nice machine, well designed and really well built.

Just then I got a call from the distributor. The distributor was going out of business (even though the manufacturer was not), and I could get as many as I wanted of these power supplies, at 40% off, if I ordered right away, before the distributor shut down. I knew I could not get authorization to buy these for many weeks.

What to do? After some soul-searching, I gave the guy my credit-card number and told him to send four to my house. They arrived soon, and I brought them in to the lab, where they have been very popular ever since.

Half a year later, I asked my boss to approve a check to pay for all of those nice power supplies that we had been using for several months, since the second half of the fiscal year had come around with a little more funds than the first half. He listened to my whole story. He was delighted that we had gotten such a good deal on the supplies, but then chewed me out severely because it was going to be very complicated to get a check approved for that long tangled chain of finance. So I promised I would never do that again. And I did eventually get a check for the $1400 I had spent. Well, I’ll never do that again. I may do something else, but I’ll never do that again.

It’s the same way at my house. If there is something that somebody has requested but has not been able to get, well, that’s “Cottage Cheese.” At least until we find a way to get what we need.

All for now. / Comments invited! / RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer


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