Monday, December 24, 2012

It's Christmas Eve, Babe

It's time of year again, Gentle Readers of the Blog, this time in the festively adorned Hong Kong. So pull up some nog, light a fire if you have a safe place to do so, and enjoy one of the most bittersweetest of bittersweet holiday songs ever in a Read Ink tradition.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Spectacular Et Cetera to you all!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The gift that keeps on giving*

Happy Holidays, dear readers. Shopping season is in its last violent throes; Hong Kong, for one, is overrun with people buying even more stuff than they usually do. I wouldn't go inside Sogo right now if you paid me.

But if you're looking for the perfect present that won't break the bank, have I got a great suggestion for you. It ticks off all the elements you could possibly want: Cheap (in this case, free), unusual, colorful, fun.

I am of course talking about a North Korean-made driving game in which you motor around a digitized Pyongyang.

Probably higher-resolution than the actual city.

Play it here, Comrades. And a Very Merry Dear Leadermas to you.

*until you violate the rules of the road and are thrown into a reeducation camp.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A farewell to good grammar

I'd like to think I'm still too young to be a curmudgeon, but every once in a while I spot something that, linguistically speaking, makes me want to scream "Get off my lawn!"

In this case, it's the main headline on the homepage of a certain international news organization that will remain nameless.

Dios mio.

I have never been a grammar dork (no, really, I'm serious), but I appreciate good English and have been known to write a headline or two in my day. Using "farewell" as a verb... that's just viscerally painful. It doesn't even sound right! Sure, sure--it's a tight space for a headline, but come on, I promise you there is a two-line hed somewhere in the universe that will accommodate crazy stuff like the rules that govern the English language.

That's my rant. Now I'm off to the 5 p.m. buffet before Wheel of Fortune comes on.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rockin' around the Clocken

One of the unfortunate things about life in the Middle East was the lack of a genuine local music scene. There were bands everywhere--including some truly killer cover bands--and big shows came through every couple of months, but there wasn't a lot of local musical innovation.

So it was with great pleasure that Mrs. Blog, the Sister-in-Law of the Blog and some Friends of the Blog came face to face with Chochukmo, a local band from Hong Kong. We were spending our Saturday night at an annual music festival with the unfortunate name of Clockenflap.

Note the classic "singing into the audio monitor" pose.

They put on a great show, with a lead singer whose body language could accurately be described as Jaggeresque and a broad-spectrum sound that the kids these days apparently call "math rock."

And the setting was terrific, too. It was cool and a little rainy, but the West Kowloon Cultural District is right on Victoria Harbor, meaning every performance had a spectacular, multicolored backdrop (or sidedrop, whatever).

Note the two giant Christmas trees.

Sure, the crowd made me feel slightly old at times (Hey! You kids! Quit with yer crowd-surfin', I can't see!), but it's hard to beat live, outdoor music on a Saturday night. And it's always good to hear a new band, even if I'm not totally sure how to pronounce its name.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Offensively Sweaty Gweilo IV: Packin' Heat

Greetings, dear readers. It's time once again for another installment in the occasional series of answers to your burning questions for Hong Kong's most overheated resident.

It's after Thanksgiving, kids, and you know what that means: Holiday lights are up, and the temperatures are down. I wasn't quite sure what to expect on either front--Mrs. Blog and I got here in late January, so the arrival of winter is a new thing for us. But I can safely say that things are definitely gettin' festive up in here, and in a development that seemed unimaginable in August, I am now wearing a coat to work. It is waterproof.

Q: Dear Offensively Sweaty Gweilo,
I see that you're now wearing a waterproof coat to work. Way to stay behind the curve! I have been wearing a fleece for several weeks now. You probably already have hypothermia.

A: Yep, I noticed that. But to be fair, you also carry an umbrella on sunny days. The thing is, though, it's still not cold--not really. Not like it was in Chicago. I could easily walk to work in shirtsleeves and not be particularly uncomfortable (assuming it's not raining. I'll get to that in a sec.). At night it has gotten just chilly enough, like in the 50s, to warrant a jacket. Plus, this particular jacket, which Mrs. Blog bought me in Beirut, is awesome, and I'm not ashamed to admit I'm glad I have an excuse to wear it.

Q: But OSG,
 it's raining so much! Aren't you afraid you'll ruin your coat? It is awesome, as you pointed out.

A: Aha! But my coat is waterproof. This also means I am somewhat protected if I'm caught without an umbrella... and that means I can leave my umbrella at home more often. Everyone wins, especially the people I accidentally poke with it on the subway.

In your home country, does it get gray and rainy just as you're putting up holiday lights?

A: Depends on where you are, really. In Chicago, my most recent city of residence in the United States of Awesome, it tended to be a little cloudier during the winter. But mostly it just got cold. The cold of deep space. The cold of a Antarctic grave. The cold of a political strtegist's heart. Often, the sun would be shining on what appeared to be a beautiful day, but when you went outside, your tears would freeze. Anyway, the point is, is that there were lots of beautiful decorations, but it would often be more comfortable to view them from inside.

Q: Hey, OSG,
What are you doing to get into the holiday spirit? Besides listening to all the Christmas music playing in our grocery stores over... and over... and over.

A: Well, we're getting a tree! That's a big step--it's our first actual Christmas tree since we moved overseas. So exciting that I'm not even really concerned about cleaning up all the pine needles afterward. We're also enjoying all the holiday lights that have sprung up in the last month or so. My office building, the festively named K. Wah Centre, is festooned with an almost-complete holiday message in 20-foot-tall letters made of colored lights. It currently reads "Erry XM," but I'm sure they'll get it finished by the time XM rolls around.
In the meantime, Hong Kong, a city with an impressive skyline already, is becoming full of displays like this:

Megawatts' worth of peace on earth.

And our apartment is getting full of visitors. That's the kind of thing that warms a heart, no matter how kind-of cold and perpetually rainy things get outside.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A tale of two centuries

I should probably stop harping on this, but I can't help myself.

This week, the Internet was all atwitter about China's flying a jet off of (and onto) its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. I have written in some depth about why the carrier itself is not a huge advancement or a threat. I also have tweeted a bit about why the flight ops are also not worth freaking out about.

But a defensetech post this morning really illustrates the differences between China's naval airpower and more established navies'.

China operated a jet off an aircraft carrier, which Britain did for the first time in 1945 (the Chinese jet's lead designer, by the way, died of a heart attack during the testing. True story.) Yesterday, the U.S. hoisted a totally new type of aircraft onto one of its carriers for sea trials.

It literally is the difference between 20th Century and 21st Century airpower. China is learning to walk; the U.S. Navy is learning to Gangnam Style while wearing roller skates.

I firmly believe that trade between China and the rest of the world--including the U.S.--precludes any war (if not dance battle) in the near future. China isn't exactly hurting for resources either. But if push came to shove, the Chinese military has a huge advantage in manpower, but not much else... no matter what the Internet tells you.*

*Except for this blog. Always believe what I tell you. One of us... one of us... one of us....

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Crash, burn and... sell?

I have spent quite a few electrons here discussing China's foray into stealth aircraft technology. Although the Shenyang J-31 and Chengdu J-20 look pretty neat, they face a lot of "under-the-hood" technology issues, including basic stuff like engines, before they are ready for prime time... let alone poised to compete with the F-22s and F-35s of the world. (Even the 35-year-old F-117 design is more combat-ready.)

Well, in the last week, apparently the People's Liberation Army Air Force has reached a similar conclusion. The J-31, it has decided, is not worth buying. The China Aviation Industry Corporation, or AVIC, is marketing this shiny, new aircraft for export.

Stealth fighter for sale! Get your stealth fighter here!

This has several implications.

First, China doesn't have the same arms-export laws that the U.S. does, which limit what types of technology can be made available for sale. Of course, the government ultimately has to approve such sales, but there is nothing automatically keeping Shenyang or AVIC from selling the J-31 to a country like Iran. The Iranians, with a dismal track record of indigenous front-line aircraft production, would love to buy a squadron of these (if their economy weren't collapsing). For that matter, any number of Persian Gulf countries would love to get their hands on this type of technology... and Lockheed isn't going to sell them any F-35s.

Second, it implies a degree of go-get-'em that you don't usually see from Chinese arms makers. There is still a lot of old-school production inertia, by which I mean a Cold War Soviet-style process in which the government decides what it is looking for and orders its design bureaus to come up with it. Shenyang, by contrast, appears to have stone cold designed a plane without a PLAAF mandate. And now it needs to recoup the money it spent on research and development.

And third, of course, it underscores the limitations I outlined earlier in Chinese production of high-tech aircraft. And to be fair, AVIC seems to realize this:
“Operational effectiveness will be higher than current or upgraded fourth-generation fighters or almost equivalent to typical fifth-generation,” says Avic. The reference to fifth-generation aircraft presumably indicates the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35.

Not to keep flogging a deceased equine, but it's easy to build an airframe that looks nice. These days, it's even relatively easy to build and program computerized flight controllers (necessary to make the inherently unstable facets of a stealthy plane stable enough to fly). But making an effective warplane--that has the hardware to accelerate, climb, find targets and destroy them in a high-threat environment without being tracked--is much, much tougher.

So tough, in fact, that the J-31's foreign buyers might find themselves with little more than the equivalent of a winged white elephant with racing stripes... and a high-profile dud will have Shenyang crying all the way to the state-owned bank.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The medicinal properties of passing years

In our travels--and especially during our time in the Middle East--Mrs. Blog and I have visited a lot of places with painful histories. Lebanon is a great example of this: although there is obviously a fair amount of tension beneath the surface, and violence occasionally spills over from Syria, it is a peaceful and calm place today compared with 30 or even 10 years ago. Beirut is a beautiful place filled with amazing art, friendly people, ancient sites and delicious food. But everywhere you go, you can see the scars of war. Sometimes it's figurative, in the form of monuments or signs. Other times it's literal: the bullet-pocked shell of the Holiday Inn still squats among luxury high-rise developments on high-priced waterfront real estate.

A building with a troubled past.

But in the formerly troubled countries we visited, America was never one of the major belligerents in the conflicts that had scarred them (although U.S. troops were obviously in Lebanon in 1982, Israel played the role of invader/occupier in that one). That changed with our recent, brief visit to northern Vietnam.

I'll keep this short and sweet: Hanoi is a friendly place. I didn't run into any lingering dislike of Americans, which, depending on how cynical you are, may or may not be surprising considering how many thousands of tons of bombs the United States dropped on and around Hanoi. This is possibly because in the end, the United States threw up its hands and left the country after realizing that getting involved in someone else's civil war was not worth American blood and treasure. If you're North Vietnam in 1974, that's victory. And it's easy to forgive when you're the winner. Maybe things would have been different if the Paris peace accords had held up, or a more Korea-like situation arisen through other means.

I can't say that I totally understand the complex psychology behind present-day attitudes. But I am glad the country seems to be at peace with its past. In any event, this picture sums up the result:

Photo courtesy iPhone of the Blog.

Those, by the way, are tourist boats cruising under a unified Vietnamese flag through a bay that empties into the Gulf of Tonkin.

So maybe there's no animosity because despite all the atrocities and bloodshed, things ended up right where both sides wanted them. In 1975, Ho Chi Minh was able to spread his banner of communism over the entire country. And the U.S. leadership of that era would no doubt have been thrilled to know that in 30 years, Vietnam would be home to a nominally capitalist economy (and the Soviet Union, the "head domino," would no longer exist).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

That wasn't so bad

The 2012 U.S. presidential election is FINALLY over, and Barack Obama won in a relative snoozefest. No big surprises, unless you count the repudiation of all the anti-intellectual (and, really, counterfactual) backlash that sprung up against election data analysts like Nate Silver.

And then there's Florida. Oh, Florida, how you yearn to be at the center of electoral controversy. In my very first wet-behind-the-ears job out of college, I was an editor at the St. Petersburg Times. The year was 2000. The election was... complicated. Let's just say spending months trying to reframe the issue of "no one has any idea what is going on in Florida" in a story every day was taxing.

This year, of course, the sun is about to come up in Miami the day after the election and no one has figured which candidate carried the state. That came after days' worth of complaints about inaccessible polling sites and ridiculous lines for early voting. That's right, even when the election's outcome is not in doubt, Florida insists on being in the spotlight. What, LeBron James and Disney World aren't enough attention? Sheesh.

But like I said, aside from that this seemed to be a relatively painless deal. The same cannot be said, however, for what remains the best way of interpreting modern politics: the violent video game.

Let's do it again in 2016!

Friday, November 2, 2012

There's something in the air

Hello, Dear Readers of the Blog--A quick post today about the news on China's J-31, allegedly its latest attempt at building a stealth aircraft.

On Wednesday, according to unnamed "reports" cited in the reputable defense blog, the J-31 took to the air for the first time. This in itself is not a huge deal; flight testing is, quite obviously, a part of getting an aircraft operational. However, I just wanted to note that the engines, seen here…

Which Instagram filter did they use?

… once again do not appear to make any attempt at having stealthy nozzles. This graphically illustrates a problem Reuters summed up nicely in a feature a couple of days ago: China may have the raw materials and know-how (even if it was, ahem, "borrowed" from other countries' projects) to build an airframe with no problems, but high-performance engine technology remains out of reach. That is a big issue for a country with high-tech military ambitions:
"Historically, all major players in aerospace have possessed both airframe and engine design capabilities," said Carlo Kopp, the Melbourne, Australia-based founder of Air Power Australia, an independent military aviation think tank. "Until China can design and produce competitive engines, the performance and capabilities of Chinese aircraft designs will be seriously limited by what technology they are permitted to import."
Anyway, the bottom line is that the J-31 is in the air, but like its older brother the J-20, it does not appear to even remotely be on par with current-generation stealth technology, or even as stealthy as the grandaddy of stealth aircraft, the F-117 (whose design originated in the '70s). It may have flown on Halloween, but for now it's still missing some key tricks, although it's a treat for plane-spotters.*

*Terrible pun. Sorry.

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.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Democracy in action

My fellow Americans (and everyone else), I come before you today to discuss that most American of all Greek-invented activities: voting. It is an act that is simple on its face--voicing support for someone to represent you in creating legislation and governance--but complex in execution and effect. Sometimes there's no one out there who represents your ideals. Sometimes the person who DOES represent your ideals has no shot of winning. And sometimes the person you vote for and wins ends up not really doing what you expected.

All part of the process. It's one I have been enjoying and growing into for nearly two decades now. Living abroad has given me a different perspective on democracy in a lot of ways, of course; in the Middle East, democracy doesn't really exist, so it was always interesting to explain to people that, in my opinion, it was better for people in a given country to be able to peacefully kick out whoever was running the country than to just allow someone to be in charge because of their surname. The results are messy and almost always imperfect, but on the whole, pretty nifty.

This year will be the first time I vote in a general election while living overseas. I know, I know… there was a congressional election in 2010, and I am a terrible American who did not participate. This was not out of protest or apathy, but simple laziness. As a citizen relatively new to overseas life, it seemed impossibly difficult to, you know, vote from 5,000 miles away.

The reality, though, is that it is impossibly easy to vote from 5,000 miles away. Or 7,000 miles away, as the case is now in 2012. You tell your most recent voting jurisdiction where you are--via a form you can e-mail--and that you would like a ballot. They e-mail you the ballot. You fill out the ballot and mail it back. The end. Democracy rules!

What democracy looks like.

If anything, it's actually easier than voting in the U.S., which requires me to do insane stuff like leave the house, walk a few blocks and wait in line for 10 minutes. And if you thought living 15 hours (direct flight!) from the continental U.S. meant I was far removed from the craziness of campaign season, think again. Mitt Romney had a fundraiser here in Hong Kong on Thursday night.

Wrong flag. But hey, there weren't any pictures taken at the fundraiser, so what do you want from me?

And there's one other interesting issue at play here. About 5 million Americans live outside the United States. If, like me, they are casting their ballots now, the homestretch of the campaign--including all three presidential debates--simply does not matter. I guess that's a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, if everyone in the U.S. voted early, it might mean a little less money spent on incredibly annoying partisan advertising. On the other hand, it might also just mean that most people have their minds made up already, no matter how hard any candidate campaigns. So much for intellectual discourse and persuasion.

Whatever. What it means for me is a lot more obvious: I get to cast my vote, then sit back and watch (or ignore) the fireworks.  And because I live 7,000 miles away, those fireworks will occur around breakfast time on Nov. 7. Breakfast fireworks and easy voting: now that's a platform anyone could get behind.

Monday, September 24, 2012

What market forces sound like

Hong Kong, like many large Asian cities, is up to its neck in electronics and gizmos. Cell phones, for instance, are beyond ubiquitous--you can buy any model of any manufacturer in stores ranging from alleyway carts to big-box department stores. Computers, too, are sold anywhere you can tack up a piece of neon. When you ride the train, nine out of every 10 passengers are using one or the other during their commute. Even taxi dashboards are festooned with gadgets, from front-facing cameras to dueling GPS systems to DVD players... plus, of course, cell phones of assorted shapes and sizes.

It was against this backdrop that Mrs. Blog and I optimistically set out to find a new stereo system for our new Hong Kong apartment. The goal was three-fold: eliminate much-hated wiring, streamline the appearance of our A/V setup (we are currently rocking a Panasonic Dolby 5.1 system with the rear speakers and subwoofer--and their several hundred feet of wires--disconnected), and subject our surroundings to stunning sound.

A component system was out of the question; Hong Kong being Hong Kong, we needed to keep it small and simple. Shelf systems were too tall; any 5.1 system involved more thousands of feet of wires. And then we found this:
Cue the angelic choir (in simulated surround sound)

A soundbar. With a wireless subwoofer. Its multiple HDMI ports meant I could run all of our A/V stuff into the reciever, leaving just one cord running to the TV. The wireless sub meant we could hide it behind a chair. And its minimalist styling meant all the previous clutter would melt away to nothing.

Great! Solution found. For one reason or another, we put off actually getting it, though. We were out of town... we had guests... needed to do more research... and so on. And you know what the punchline here is, right? When we finally went to go buy it, there were none to be found.

Hong Kong, it seems, has a very short built-in shelf life for electronics. In Abu Dhabi, you were likely to find last year's products advertised as though they were brand new. Here, last year's products (the Sony soundbar above was released in the second quarter of 2011) are treated like rotten fruit. Why keep 'em around? No one wants to eat a mushy banana.

All the newer models from other manufacturers at the moment in Hong Kong are no good for our purposes: maybe the subwoofer is wired, maybe they use an optical port instead of HDMI for some reason, maybe the design is ugly, maybe it just sounds bad. And there is little sign of new soundbar releases on the horizon for Hong Kong; customers in the Special Administrative Region clearly prefer component or shelf systems, of which there are dozens of options in every single electronics store.

So, what do market forces here sound like? For now, they sound like an old stereo or a saleseman saying "Sorry, not in stock." But one hopes that maybe by the time the holiday shopping season rolls around, stores in these parts will be singing a happier tune.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

To the stars of tomorrow via the science fiction of yesterday

If you have for some reason Googled "Star Trek" or "warp drive" in the last 24 hours, your results were drastically different than they would have been a week ago. In the second week of September, both of those terms pretty much went together: in the Star Trek universe, the warp drive is the main means of interstellar travel, allowing giant, funny-looking spacecraft to go real far, real fast.

But starting early this week, those results would have been a bit different. That's because scientsists think they may be close to warping a tiny bit of space... a small step toward the gargantuan goal of warping enough space to literally move stuff around at up to 10 times the speed of light, without breaking any of nature's laws.
An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind.

Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn't being warped at all.
"Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light," explained Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit group of scientists and engineers devoted to pursuing interstellar spaceflight. "But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light."

With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

Yeah, the math behind this--which the scientists thankfully left out--would no doubt make my head implode like a dying star. But the idea is actually pretty simple, and on paper anyway, pretty promising.

An object can't physically move faster than the speed of light; E=MC^2 means the amount of energy needed to accelerate that object becomes infinite as it approaches that "barrier." But if space itself can be reshaped, then the actual velocity of that object can remain at non-ludicrous levels, and it can get from Point A to Point B much faster because the distance has been made much smaller. Actually, when you think about it, this isn't much different from what Madeleine L'Engle proposed in "A Wrinkle in Time": like folding a piece of cloth to make points far apart close together.

So what is the upshot of all this?

Well, humans have been trying to explore more and more space for a while now, and at some point we're going to want to leave our solar system. Even that is a huge amount of celestial real estate; the Voyager I probe is JUST NOW leaving the neighborhood, and it was launched in 1977. So we need to travel faster. All kinds of proposals have been made in this area, mostly involving nuclear propulsion. Some, like Project Orion, might actually work. But they all have drawbacks (Orion's drawback: its propulsion system involved detonating nuclear weapons behind it).

The "warp drive" described above skirts all those issues. Of course, the scientists involved are careful to note that these are only small-scale experiments and a long, long way (light years, one might say) from an actual engine. But hey, even the mighty Space Shuttle started life hundreds of years ago as some gunpowder and a hollowed-out bamboo shoot. In the meantime, it's fun--and exciting--to think that science may actually be catching up to science fiction.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Another non-stealthy rollout

By now, you may have seen pictures of what appears to be China's latest foray into the world of stealthy combat aircraft, the J-31. It is, like its predecessor, a neat looking plane.

But once again, I have to say "appears," because although it looks like a stealth and quacks like a stealth, those qualities do not make it a stealth. Materials, internal structure, avionics and even paint are a huge part of making an aircraft low-observable.

And even BEING low-observable does not mean an aircraft is 100 percent invulnerable (as the U.S. learned in Yugoslavia). The radar cross-sections of the B-2 and F-22, the leaders in this field, are not published, but are widely assumed to be minuscule. But even these will show up as flickers on the screens of low-frequency radars, and X-band fire-control radars can conceivably pick up some hint of them too... but only at close range. Like, "bombs already are falling" close.

And that's the key: It's not about being invisible, it's about being invisible at a range where you can shoot and the other guy can't. Which the U.S. stealth offerings seem to be able to do marvelously.

And that brings us back to the J-31. It definitely looks a lot like a twin-engined version of the F-35, as noted aviation observer Bill Sweetman points out. It also isn't exactly being kept under tight wraps:

 Literally in broad daylight.

Insinuations of design-copying aside, what does any of this tell us? Is this a program to be feared? Are the J-31 and J-20 challenging American air dominance?

Not likely. And that's mostly because, as I said, it's what is under the hood that counts. Basic design elements (like canards and "turkey feather" tailpipes) are clearly unstealthy. The engines are Russian-made. And outside of a stealthy shape, there is no indication the Chinese have perfected key items like low-probability-of-intercept radar, which means an aircraft can actively search for targets without giving its position away.

Even with an accelerated flight-testing program, both of these aircraft are 20 years behind the technology that produced the F-22. The F-35 (which Sweetman hates) is, despite having a less-impressive flight envelope than the F-22, a step forward in avionics and networking--more "under the hood" stuff. What's more, the Navy is five or so years away from fielding stealthy, unmanned combat aircraft and the military is taking proposals for the next generation of fighters. By the time the J-20 and J-31 are being mass produced, if that ever happens, they will already be out of date, and fleets of F-35s should (fingers crossed) already be in the hands of allies around the world, including Japan and Korea.

The J-31 and J-20 will always look awesome. But in the real world, looks aren't what count the most.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An aviation fairytale

Once upon a time, in the midst of the Cold War, there was a class of aircraft called "interceptors." These high-flying birds were designed to do exactly what it says on the box: intercept incoming strategic bombers.

Oh, how they were popular. The U.S. rolled out a huge number of models--exotic beasts like the F-104 Starfighter (basically a big engine with small wings) and more conventional models like the F-106 Delta Dart. The Soviets eventually fielded their brute-force MiG-25, which could touch the edge of Mach 3 if you didn't want to bother using the engines ever again. The British had the sleek Electric Lightning.

And the Canadians had the F-101 Voodoo. But for a second there, it appeared they were going to have an indigenous design... an aircraft called the Avro Arrow that would have been among the most advanced of its day.

How advanced? It was designed to travel twice the speed of sound and carry up to eight air-to-air missiles, or four unguided nuclear air-to-air rockets. It could cruise above 50,000 feet, albeit with a combat radius of less than 400 nautical miles. But hey, that was fine, as all you were doing was scrambling to blow up bombers before they got around to the business of bombing.

One sleek-looking snowbird.

It was, controversially, canceled in favor of buying the Voodoo, which isn't exactly in the pantheon of amazing flying machines. And these days, no modern military really uses single-purpose interceptors, as that role has largely been taken up by long-range surface-to-air missiles that are much cheaper and more effective.

So, it appears, the Avro Arrow is a footnote to aviation history. But! Some Canadian politicians, unhappy (as many are) with the cost of the U.S.-built and as-yet-undelivered F-35, say there is good reason to revive it. They argue that a re-designed Arrow could not just replace, but outperform the Lightning II.
Mr. MacKenzie said the proposal he’s put before the Harper government is for a made-in-Canada plane that could fly twice as fast as the F-35 and up to 20,000 feet higher. It would feature an updated Mark III engine and its range would be two to three times that of the F-35.
Well, now. Those are some serious claims. Yes, the F-35 has been enormously expensive and isn't exactly running on schedule, but could it be outgunned by 1950s-era technology?

The answer, let me assure you, is a "NO" the size of a Tu-95.

As another commentator pointed out, "twice the speed" of the F-35, currently listed at more than Mach 1.6, is obviously a minimum of Mach 3.2. Guess how many jet-powered aircraft have managed sustained speeds that high? One. The awesome and awesome-looking SR-71. It was purpose-built for that speed, which entails enormous heat and aerodynamic forces. It carried cameras, not weapons... although an interceptor version was considered. And although it was impervious to any SAM systems of the late 20th Century, flying too high and too fast to get hit, that is almost certainly not the case today.

The SR-71, by the way, was retired because its job could be done more cheaply by satellites.

Which is a shame, because did I mention it was awesome-looking?

The other performance stuff the New Arrow's supporters note seem equally unlikely. A ceiling 20,000 feet above the Lightning II's is 80,000 feet, which also happens to be in the flight realm of the SR-71, and pretty much no other aircraft. Similarly, a combat radius three times that of the F-35 would be about 1,500 nautical miles... a range nearly four times that of the original Arrow and 50 percent more than the closest thing to a modern interceptor these days, the F-15 Eagle.

So to recap, a 1950s airframe will be magically updated to fly higher and faster than the current world record holder, and have more range than one of the most effective combat aircraft in history. That's leaving out the question of avionics--the F-35s are among the most advanced in the world out of the box--and stealth.

I hope no one in the Canadian government is taking this proposal seriously. The Arrow is a neat-looking plane and it's a shame it never really got off the ground. But reviving it in a 21st Century combat environment makes about as much sense as a flying submarine.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ask an Offensively Sweaty Gweilo III: Playing it Cool

Hello, faithful followers of this irregular column. It's been a while since our last installment--which found the titular gweilo swimming in perspiration mid-summer--and there is news to report. Specifically, the arrival of autumn.

Summer was not. Not Abu Dhabi Hot, but uncomfortably warm, especially when walking to work in long sleeves. It was also wet. We had a big ol' typhoon, and for a while there it was raining almost every day.

September, though, seems to have been equipped with a meteorological "off" switch for all that stuff. It's sunny. It's breezy. And most important, I can make it from the MTR stop to my office without mopping my brow even once.

So with that in mind, let's dive into the totally-not-made-up mailbag:

Q: Dear Offensively Sweaty Gweilo: It's great that you're not offensively sweaty anymore, but I have noticed you still don't make much of an effort to stay in the shade. Don't you know what the sun will do to you? Carry an umbrella!

A: Oh, trust me--I am well aware of what the sun will do to me. I am familiar with the sting of denim on a sunburn and the soothing properties of aloe. But one cannot live in fear, right? And if nothing else, I'd like to get a little bit more color; I may never be anything but a "ghost man," but a bit of tan actually makes time in the sun more tolerable. That's one reason why I don't carry an umbrella. The other is that it's not raining. And when you've got 8 million people packed into a tiny island, carrying an umbrella to protect you from the sun AND the rain can get a little awkward, no?

Q: Hey, OSG--we noticed you at a Mexican joint in TST the other night. You're always making noise about finding good comida Mexicana outside North America... what did you think? (P.S. You did not appear to be sweaty)

A: Sharp eyes. Yes, Mrs. Blog and I went to place over there to meet some friends. And you're right--I was not sweaty. We were actually right underneath an air conditioning vent, which kept me a normal temperature and made Mrs. Blog chilly. As for the food, well... they have great happy hour drink specials. The search for excellent Mexican food continues, and I'll let you know if there are any developments. There is actually a place in our neighborhood that is supposed to be pretty good, but it has always been closed when we try to drop by.

Q: OSG, in your homeland, fall means the start of football. How's that going in Hong Kong?

A: Not well, both in terms of watching it and results. I can't say that the air here is crisp and full of the delicious aromas of tailgating, so my normal instinctual drive to find a game is not at its peak. But even if I did want to watch a game, they start--at the earliest--at midnight Hong Kong time. And also they're not on TV, meaning I would have to resort to [REDACTED] measures. On the plus side, both my beloved Jayhawks and Chiefs lost their games this weekend, so at least my eyeballs didn't have to endure that.

And that's it for the September edition of AOSGA. Remember, keep those questions coming, stay cool and please... look where you're going when you're carrying an umbrella.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Droppin' Hong Kong dimes*

Hong Kong is a big place--or at least a lot of people in a small place--but even so, I can't believe I missed Kevin Durant's visit here. Worse, I apparently walked right by Southorn Playground when he was playing some pickup ball.

Showing off for a different Hong Kong crowd.

How do you miss a 6-foot-9 shooting guard in a place where the average height is something like 5-9? I dunno, but it happened. Doesn't say much for my court vision, does it?

*worth approximately $0.013

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Golden rule days

This weekend, there will be a reunion of the University Daily Kansan, the student newspaper of the University of Kansas.

Readers of the Blog are probably familiar with the university, given my seasonal predilection toward writing about basketball. But I don't think I have ever said anything about the Kansan. (And a warning: this is going to be text-only. All the photos I have of that era are good, old-fashioned prints that have never visited the inside of a scanner. This will also help protect the guilty, including me.)

Although the newspaper is run and staffed by students, I have always hesitated to call it a "student newspaper." It is (or was) supported by its own ad revenue, and the students running the show were acting as professionals; all the management positions were paid.

When I was there in the glorious days of yesteryear--let's just say this was back in the day when the phrase "dot-com boom" was spoken unironically--the Kansan had a great crew. Sharp people. Fun people. It was a good time.

But more than that, we all learned a lot. Some of it was good old fashioned classroom learnin', but a sizable chunk of it was out in the real world. We learned how to chase stories by chasing them. We learned good news judgment by deciding what to pursue and how to play it. Art direction. Photography. We got better because we were doing them every day.

And to me, one of the the most incredible things about that time is that I completely took for granted how fortunate I was to work in a real newsroom before I worked in a real newsroom. In literally every job I have had--including my current one--I have encountered roughly the same organizational structure, meeting schedule, newsroom layout and even jargon as I did at the Kansan. Even then, in the early days of Web media, we had an online editor who was working hard to create a well-trafficked news site.

I don't think of myself as a newspaperman anymore. I'm a print journalist in an era where most of the printed words appear on screens of various sizes. It's an exciting time. But it turns out that the lessons I learned at the Kansan still apply today, and I suspect this is true for most of my fellow co-workers who are still in the business.

Which I guess made us students, and the term "student newspaper" perfectly appropriate.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Going out on top

Neil Armstrong's career involves more than 200 different types of aircraft, teaching, advanced engineering degrees, combat experience and of course spaceflight. That's a lot of highlights.

He piloted the X-1, the plane used earlier to break the sound barrier for the first time...

He took the X-15 to the edge of space and hypersonic speeds--more than 3,500 miles per hour...

He saved the Gemini 8 mission from disaster by hands-on piloting in Earth orbit...

And of course, the guy didn't just walk on the Moon, he landed a spaceship on it...

As I mentioned in my previous posts, achievements like this aren't just individually important--they inspire great things. Here's to those great things including another giant leap for mankind, whether on Mars or elsewhere in deep space. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Amelia Earhart found?

Air & Space had a great article a while back about the search for the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra in the Pacific. She, the plane and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared about 75 years ago while trying to circumnavigate the world.

I probably don't have to explain that the disappearance is one of aviation's great mysteries. There was a massive search for them when they didn't arrive at their landing site, but nothing was turned up. Explanations ranged from the ridiculous--alien kidnappings and the like--to the imaginative, in which they were captured after spying on the Japanese.

In reality, they probably just crashed where no one could easily find them with the technology of the day. It's a big ocean, and the odds were always against solving the puzzle of where they ended up.

But now the search described in that Air & Space story may have come across something interesting. To my eyes, it looks like nothing:

 Coral? Airplane parts? (photo from Gizmodo)

But to the search team, there is reason to be excited. I guess the more definitive proof will be when they bring some of the possible artifacts to the surface to examine. And maybe a cliffhanger whose first chapter began in 1937 can finally have a satisfactory ending.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Missed it by that much

The U.S. Air Force tried to fly an air-breathing aircraft for about five minutes at Mach 5--roughly 3,600 miles per hour--yesterday. They failed.

It's the third time they have test-flown this one-of-a-kind system, called the X-51. The first test went relatively well; the novel propulsion system, a "scramjet," or supersonic-combustion ramjet, ran for more than two minutes before a seal blew somewhere and the whole thing stopped working:

In the second test, the scramjet never ignited.

In the most recent test, a control surface failed.

It's all very frustrating because there is a huge amount of promise in being able to propel an aircraft at those speeds, where normal jet engines won't work. The Air Force has shown that the scramjet concept does, indeed, work, but can't seem to get the whole X-51 to function the way it should. The test yesterday, for instance, is like failing to bake a cake because you tripped on the way to the kitchen: it has nothing to do with cake-baking but is necessary to get it done. The scramjet never got a chance to turn on because an unrelated system crapped out.

This, by the way, is roughly the same sort of failure that has kept DARPA's Falcon project from working properly.

I can't help but think that NASA has a much better record with experimental craft and high-risk missions. I don't think it's fair to say that scientists there are any smarter or more detail-oriented than those at military research agencies. I do, however, have a sneaking suspicion that when your budget is shrinking, you work extra hard to make sure you stick the incredibly challenging landing... and secure more funding for the next big step.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Landing on Mars: a first-person account

The coverage of Curiosity's landing yesterday was pretty awesome, right? I thought so too. But I had also thought that the lander was capturing video of its own descent, which was going to be streamed live. That didn't appear to be the case.

But it turns out I was half-right. The lander actually captured more than 1,500 high-resolution images during its descent; when sequenced, those will of course look a lot like a video.

Curiosity is still warming up on the surface of Mars, and there are many higher priorities for bandwidth than getting those images back to Earth. In the meantime, however, it has sent nearly 300 low-resolution images of the landing, which are good enough for security-camera-style video.

HOW COOL IS THAT? You see the heat shield fall away, you see the surface approaching, you even see the dust kicked up by the "sky crane's" engines as it hovers and lowers the lander. I can't wait to see what the full-length, full-resolution images show; someday, that will roughly be the view of astronauts as they hurtle toward another giant step for mankind.

Monday, August 6, 2012

NASA is landing on Mars!

Everyone agrees the Curiosity lander will arrive on Mars sometime in the next couple of hours. The suspense stems from a more difficult question: whether the attempt will results in a scientific triumph or a gently smoking crater.

This project is a big deal, as it gives NASA the ability to do more science on Mars' surface than ever before. Liquid water--and even small-scale life--could be among the discoveries Curiosity digs up. That's neat. What's also neat is that they will be streaming the landing live from more than 350 million miles away... a distance so great it takes light (and radio transmissions) about 15 minutes to traverse.

So by the time you watch Curiosity touch down here...

Live Video streaming by Ustream

... it will already have been on the surface of Mars long enough to listen to half a Weezer album.

No human boots will make footprints like Apollo 11 in 1969. But like that mission, people all over the world (OK, mostly space dorks like me) will be watching... and hoping this is a giant step.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A 10.0 from the Russian judge

Watching U.S. TV overseas is more complicated than you might expect. All of the major networks have IP blocks that prevent you from accessing whatever they put online if you're outside the country, and thus outside the scope of U.S. copyright laws. Many times, you can get around this by either [REDACTED] or simply [REDACTED], both of which are illegal in the U.S., but hey, you do what you have to if you want to stay current with Breaking Bad.

The sole 100 percent legal way of watching TV abroad that I'm aware of is buying episodes on iTunes if you're in a country in which iTunes sells things. (This only recently became the case in Hong Kong, for instance)

Sporting events by definition require a live feed, which can often be found on [REDACTED], [REDACTED] or [REDACTED]. For the NCAA Tournament, I used a [REDACTED], which is legal unless you're using it to pretend you're in the U.S., and therefore are allowed to view all the CBS live feeds of the games.

Of course, right now the biggest sporting event in the world is going on in London. Allegedly, there is an over-the-air channel in Hong Kong that carries coverage of the Olympics, but neither Mrs. Blog nor I have owned rabbit ears in the last decade. Our free cable service doesn't carry it. It streams free, and live, in China, but they have put an IP block on anyone outside the mainland... apparently being "part" of China doesn't apply to the People's sports programming. Thanks, guys.

NBC and the BBC have geographical limits on where you can access their online Olympic feeds.

That's where the Russians came in. After scouring the Internet last night for a working feed, I finally came across [REDACTED], Russian site that carried multiple feeds of all the events. So I got to see this...

 Durant doing what Durant does.

... in somewhat pixelated form, presented on our television via my laptop. The U.S. didn't look great in terms of picture quality OR basketball. But in the end, I guess we both won, even if only one of us played strictly by the rules.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ground control to major exhibition

As I mentioned before, China's space program has landed in our little corner of Hong Kong. A display of rocket models, space paraphernalia ranging from a toilet (er...) to a space capsule and informational signs have been set up in CityPlaza for the last month.

Most of that time, I was in the United States of Awesome. But last week, as it was raining for the fifth (or sixth? I lost count) consecutive day, Mrs. Blog and I decided to do a little mallwalking in space. Or spacewalking in the mall. Whatever, we went to look at the exhibit.

Visitors are greeted by six giant models of China's launchers. Five of them are for unmanned projects; one of those five still has not been launched because it is awaiting a facility large enough to accommodate it. One was used for the Shenzhou manned program.

 What's white and red and flies all over?

A bit down the hall, there is a smattering of additional models, plus some real, live hardware. Here's what the Shenzhou capsule stack looks like, with service and docking modules on either end:

Big, but not as big as the real thing.

Next to it was a model of the Tiangong assembly, which was used to perform tests of in-orbit docking:

Like a mobile home in the stars.

It will be used as a basis for China's planned space station program. Next to it (and behind the model in the second photo) there was an escape tower for a Shenzhou capsule that actually flew. The tower is discarded after the rocket hits a certain speed and altitude. Before that, it can accelerate the manned portion of the rocket--the capsule--if there is an emergency.

Also on display were random items from everyday life in space: food pouches, the aforementioned toilet, a sleeping bag, canteens, and my personal favorite, the space tray:

You know it's a space tray because it's decorated with an astronaut!

And finally, the main event. I posted a picture of this before when they were setting up the exhibit, but now the real, only-been-used-once Shenzhou capsule is all prettified, with glittering rocks underfoot, a spacesuit standing guard and its parachute draped overhead:

 One small capsule for three people. One giant leap for the Chinese space program.

Overall, an impressive setup. China has come a long way in a short amount of time; of course, its space program also has benefited greatly from all the space exploration of the last 60 years, so the nation's scientists know what works and what doesn't, and how to do it right. The Chinese also have universities that can train rocket scientists and the resources to build those rockets. Theoretically, they have a high ceiling indeed.

But I remain optimistic the U.S. will win the race for a mall exhibit of Mars landings.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Great Typhoon of Aught-12

Sunday evening, there was a tropical storm named Vicente plowing along more than 250 kilometers south of Hong Kong. It was headed almost due west, and its 100-kilometer-per hour (about 60 mph) winds were projected to make landfall somewhere in China.

But when I woke up on Monday, the storm had turned 90 degrees to the right, which put it on a due-north course... directly at the Special Administrative Region. The Hong Kong Observatory issued this warning, known as "hoisting the signal":

That meant: "Strong wind is expected or blowing generally in Hong Kong near sea level, with a sustained speed of 41-62 kilometres per hour (km/h), and gusts which may exceed 110 km/h, and the wind condition is expected to persist."

But as the day went on, it became evident that Vicente was not going to deviate from his course again. And the storm grew stronger, with sustained winds of up to 120 kph near its center. By midafternoon, the observatory announced it would be increasing the warning to this...

... before 6 p.m., meaning "gale or storm force wind is expected or blowing generally in Hong Kong near sea level, with a sustained wind speed of 63-117 km/h from the quarter indicated and gusts which may
exceed 180 km/h." And looking out my office window, I could see why. The rain was pretty much nonstop, and winds lashed the side of the building. When it was clear enough, I could see trees bending and whitecaps on the harbor. Once the Number 8 flag was raised, everyone in my office (and every office across Hong Kong) was obligated to go home. Taxis disappeared. Buses stopped running. And although my commute home entailed literally two minutes where I was not sheltered from the storm, I arrived at our front door looking as though I had taken a fully clothed shower. Umbrellas don't protect against horizontal rain, and even if they did, it wouldn't have mattered--mine turned inside out.

I took a picture of the storm as seen from the base of our building, and I don't know what to tell you--it was much more impressive in person.

If the wind had changed direction, I would have been soaked.

Anyway. Safely ensconced in our high-rise, I, Mrs. Blog and a friend turned what had been planned as a low-key taco night into an impromptu typhoon watch party. Tacos and gale-force winds... what's not to love?

Documenting the guts of the storm at night with my iPhone would have been difficult, I think. You saw the picture of what it was like outside. Inside our local department store, there were a few effects:

 Protected from the elements?

But it was a pretty intense experience. The high winds caused our ears to pop when they blew at our building from the right direction. Our poor air conditioner struggled as gale-force winds battered its exhaust vent. Rain pounded against the windows with a vicious insistence. And overnight, the storm intensified according to the observatory. First to a nine:

Which meant "gale or storm force wind is increasing or expected to increase significantly in strength," and then to a 10:

Ten is the second-highest warning they can issue here, and the most recent hoisting of the 10 signal was in 1999. Officially, it means "Hurricane force wind is expected or blowing with sustained speed reaching upwards from 118 km/h and gusts that may exceed 220 km/h," and practically, it means stay inside and keep your head down. There are a lot of glass-faced buildings in Hong Kong; all of the businesses I passed last night had taped their windows or fixed boards over them.

And I guess it all paid off. Supposedly only about 100 people were injured and no one was killed. This morning the storm was downgraded to an 8, then back to a 3. Now it's just windy. And on the streets, it's business as usual... almost.

 A relatively calm morning... but the PLAN is still parked outside my apartment.

Signs of the storm were everywhere. On the highway exit near our building (which you saw from street level in the first picture I posted), trees sprawled across the road.

Just another commuting obstacle.

On train stop where I get off for work, the crowds to get on the train were so thick they spilled from the platform back into the hallways leading to the platform. Only a few dozen passengers could make it onto each train.

 Fortunately I was going the other direction.

On the street, there was detritus everywhere. Remember how I told you my umbrella turned inside out? The sidewalks were a graveyard of umbrella devastation.

Not storm-proof.

Signs had blown down, leaves were strewn about and a lot of businesses were still closed, despite the crowds of commuters.

 Some umbrellas didn't even make it to the trash can.

Which direction was the wind blowing last night? Let's ask these trees (the air was calm when I took this picture):

The answer appears to be west.

And that's the story of Typhoon Vicente, as seen from about 100 kilometers from the storm's center. It has moved on now, passing almost directly over Macao and making landfall at Huangmaohai.

There is only one higher level of typhoon warning, the "10 signal plus black rain." That is not likely to happen while I'm here. But until it does, I can say Mrs. Blog and I made it through the biggest typhoon to hit Hong Kong in more than a decade... and toasted it with margaritas.