Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Power to the people

So the storm formerly known as Hurricane Sandy (now the much less-impressive sounding Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy) is, as anyone with an Internet connection or an East Coast mailing address can tell, knocking out power to huge numbers of customers. LINK

Living overseas, I have heard a lot of people wonder, "why on earth do people in the richest country on earth have to deal with power outages during storms." This, apparently, is not common in most other developed countries.

The bottom-line answer is simple: cost. With estimates that burying power lines runs up to $15 million per mile, wind-proofing your power grid can be pretty pricey.

But it's a little more complex than that. It's not just that it would cost the power companies and their customers money to bury power lines. It's also that those companies have determined that it's actually cheaper for them to string lines from poles--and periodically repair them--than to bury them and repair them less often.

Burying lines to begin with is cheaper; you're not replacing anything, you're just building infrastructure, and as it's likely there's a road being built nearby, stuff like excavation cost is less prohibitive. That's why newer communities tend to have buried power infrastructure. (And places like Hong Kong, for instance, which saw an explosion of building in the last 50 years, are ahead of the game. No power outages during Vicente!)

Additionally, outside of the Pacific and South Asia, which are next to huge bodies of storm-generating water, you just don't see the volume of severe weather in other countries that you do in the U.S. that you see in other countries. A meteorologist could explain the "why" better than I; the effect, however, is that the country's power grid takes more of a beating than other places. And the fact that the country is so large--and population so spread out, outside of dense cities--contributes again to the cost-benefit analysis of using power poles rather than buried lines. It also goes without saying that the U.S. doesn't always do a great job of recognizing the potential for disaster.

The end result? The richest country in the world deals with a lot of storm-caused blackouts. That might be the most cost-effective way to handle power transmission, but judging by the way things are going for the folks in New York today, I'm not sure it's the most customer-friendly.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

In space, no one can hear you hum

Voyager 1 is on the doorstep of interstellar space; as of a few weeks ago, it probably became the first man-made object to leave the solar system. Besides instruments and a big antenna, it also carries a bunch of stuff meant to help whoever finds it understand the people who built it. In other words, humanity.

Of course, that's a tall order, summing up several billion people. But we gave it a good shot. There's a kind of dust jacket describing humanity:

Not out of place on a Pink Floyd album.

... and a gold-plated record inside that included sounds, messages and data from all corners of the world:

The hottest record in the galaxy.

The music on the disc--images were also encoded--is what I find most interesting about all the inclusions. In terms of music, it featured recordings of many genres and nationalities from throughout history (listen here). But even that turned out to be just a snapshot, not a sampling. Hip-hop, a form of music popular around the globe in 2012, barely existed in 1977, when Voyager 1 was launched (and almost certainly did not exist in the record collections of the probe's creators). Same with modern electronic music, and I'm sure many others that people more plugged in than I could tell you about.

In the end, it's all fairly academic. Even if some alien race were to come across Voyager 1 tomorrow, the civilization they would find on Earth would, culturally speaking, be in a much different place than what the record depicts. Some things about humanity are universal--basic shape, expressions, nourishment. Some aspects of culture will endure; Mozart's work, the pop music of his generation, is still moving audiences hundreds of years later. And of course, the odds that an extraterrestrial civilization not only notices Voyager but traces its footsteps are infinitesimal to begin with.

But if they do, I guess there are a lot worse problems than the aliens thinking Chuck Berry is our president.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Read my lips! Or don't

As a guy whose hearing, shall we put it generously, "kind of sucks," I find myself reading people's lips without even realizing I'm doing it. In noisy bars, this can come in handy. While watching sporting events, it can be amusing: no, that coach wasn't loudly telling the referee to have a great day.

And during times like these (and by that I mean near the end of a long U.S. presidential election campaign), it can be hysterical. Because even though I KNOW Jim Lehrer isn't saying "and then when he died, they had him stuffed. Like that water buffalo--stuffed." his lips sure are moving in a way that closely matches those words. It also helps that I am a sucker for absurd humor.

To put it another way, this made the presidential debate not just watchable and entertaining, but possibly even more informative than the real thing... even without sound.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Politics is a bloodsport

As I have mentioned before, it is kind of a blessing living overseas during a presidential election year: not only is voting easier but we are spared the barrage of campaign commercials.

I'm sure politics has actually always been like this, but to my eye it has become much more polarized--a sport rather than a discussion of competing ideas--and vitriolic. That makes it less interesting and more annoying. It is often juvenile and easy to ignore.

So let's talk about juvenile behavior for a minute. Way back in the day, I spent four summers taking some classes in North Carolina. We were a bunch of junior high and high school students basically living like college students: on our own except for showing up to class and meals. And after lunch, there would invariably be a crowd of people gathered around the cafeteria's Mortal Kombat machine. Oh, how we would drop quarters into its bottomless maw.

I was terrible at it, of course. I could barely make the characters punch and kick, let alone pull off the complicated combination of button pushes and joystick tugs that would trigger a signature move. It was fun (and oddly social) to watch, but not very interesting to play.

But today, I was introduced to a project that made both the video game and politics seem... well... awesome. Behold:

Paul's "church and state" move and "red vest straitjacket" seem unbeatable, honestly. But Romney was able to easily fight off him and Herman Cain's "creepy ad" power move. Impressive! And round 2:

There are a lot of cheap shots, but hey--art imitates life, right? And the Republican primary was indeed pretty brutal, rhetorically speaking. How will the rest of the battles shape up? We have less than five weeks to find out. Here's hoping the actual campaign has an exciting finishing move... except, of course, with a lot less blood.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Whatever floats your boat

China has been in the news a lot lately. The presumptive next president, Xi Jinping, disappeared for a bit last month. The country was kept in the dark about the Communist Party meeting in which the country's leadership will be swapped out, then told it would be delayed until November. The economy continues to sputter.

But the most important news of all--if you get your news from Chinese media--is a fancy new aircraft carrier that was officially "launched" last week. Here's the thing, though. It's not fancy. It's not new. It's not armed. And there is no one trained to use it.

You would never know this from all the attention it is getting, though.

The aircraft carrier was originally launched by the Soviet Navy in 1988. But of course the Soviet Union was in its last days at that point, and the ship--eventually christened the Varyag--was never fully outfitted for combat. By the mid-90s, it had been stripped of pretty much any useful machinery, including engines. And in 1998, China bought it.

That's the provenance of the Chinese carrier, now called the Liaoning. Now let's talk about its capabilities.

As designed, it was essentially a complement to a larger fleet, not the centerpiece of a battle group. Its lack of catapults limited the types of planes it could use; essentially, it could provide combat patrols over the fleet and conduct limited anti-ship or interdiction missions with its two dozen or so aircraft. In short, its purpose is not to project massive offensive firepower, but to provide cover for missile cruisers. (Indeed, another type of Soviet carrier tried to combine both roles.)

Ski jump: great for catching righteous air, but not for launching righteously large aircraft.

This is a sharp contrast to U.S. carrier design. America basically fields two types: supercarriers and amphibious assault craft.

Supercarriers--typified at the moment by the Nimitz class--are meant to project power. They are the focal point of a carrier strike group, which involves other surface ships and submarines, and are what battleships were 75 years ago: the big guns. They carry nearly 100 aircraft, including strike fighters, airborne warning and control planes, electronic warfare, helicopters, and so on. Because it is catapult-equipped, it can also launch heavier air-refueling tankers--and that means the carrier's fighters can theoretically strike targets or patrol airspace over a thousand miles.

Amphibious assault craft are the province of the U.S. Marines and can be equipped in a variety of ways. Overall, though, the Wasp class carries a mix of several dozen fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, plus a bunch of Marines and a complement of amphibous-landing craft: either LCAC hovercraft or other vehicles.

They also are used to test-fly awesome-looking next-generation fighters.

The Liaoning is nearly the length of a Nimitz-class ship--just a few hundred feet shorter at the waterline. It's a bit heavier than the Wasp class, weighing in at about 50,000 tons compared with 41,000. (Nimitz-class ships typically displace more than 100,000 tons.)

But the important point here is that it is a military match for neither. The nuclear-fueled Nimitz can travel indefinitely, limited only by food supplies. The Wasp has a range of more than 9,000 nautical miles. The Laioning has a range of only 3,800 nautical miles.

Worse, it can't land troops like the Wasp, nor can it control as much airspace as a Nimitz. Designed to protect other ships, the Laioning would essentially have to devote its entire air wing to protecting itself, leaving it with no offensive firepower to spare. In short, it can't project power or even provide a punch beyond what a group of missile cruisers would give on their own. It is a target.

Unfortunately for the Liaoning, that's not even the end of the story.

This is China's first aircraft carrier. That means that the military must now train several thousand seamen to operate the thing--no small feat considering the number of moving parts in modern carrier operations. With such a tiny margin for error and lots of munitions and jet fuel around, mistakes have major consequences. And actually landing on a carrier? That's one of the most difficult feats in aviation. Chinese pilots must be trained to fly carrier-capable aircraft. That aircraft will be the J-15, a copy of the Su-33. And the thing about the J-15 is that it doesn't exist yet.

To sum up, China now has a 25-year-old carrier that can't go very far and has no airplanes or trained pilots to fly them.

In the PLAN's defense, you have to start somewhere. The Liaoning is, at its heart, a proof-of-concept system. Crews will train there, the J-15 will eventually be test-flown there and a decade or so down the line, the navy will have the capability to run a combat-capable carrier. Is the Liaoning that carrier? Not a chance.

So why all the fanfare about this thing? It's simple. If China can get the world to worry about its aircraft carrier, bigger threats--like economic slowdowns and messy power transfers--will disappear in its wake. And that's more dangerous than the Liaoning will ever be.