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