Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Why do we let them dress like that?, Jennifer Moses asks, referring to teenage daughters, of course:

In a few years, [the 12- and 13-year-old girls'] attention will turn to the annual ritual of shopping for a prom dress, and by then their fashion tastes will have advanced still more. Having done this now for two years with my own daughter, I continue to be amazed by the plunging necklines, built-in push-up bras, spangles, feathers, slits and peek-a-boos. And try finding a pair of sufficiently “prommish” shoes designed with less than a 2-inch heel.

All of which brings me to a question: Why do so many of us not only permit our teenage daughters to dress like this — like prostitutes, if we’re being honest with ourselves — but pay for them to do it with our AmEx cards?

I posed this question to a friend whose teenage daughter goes to an all-girls private school in New York. “It isn’t that different from when we were kids,” she said. “The girls in the sexy clothes are the fast girls. They’ll have Facebook pictures of themselves opening a bottle of Champagne, like Paris Hilton. And sometimes the moms and dads are out there contributing to it, shopping with them, throwing them parties at clubs. It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘Look how hot my daughter is.’” But why? “I think it’s a bonding thing,” she said. “It starts with the mommy-daughter manicure and goes on from there.”

I have a different theory. It has to do with how conflicted my own generation of women is about our own past, when many of us behaved in ways that we now regret.

The Littlest Invasions

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

The closer you look, Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) says, the worse all of our small-scale interventions appear, even the ones that supposedly succeeded:

Take Clinton’s mini-war on Serbia in 1999. The official version is that we did a great job, stopping a Serbian massacre of Kosovo Albanians without losing much. Wrong on both counts.

For starters, you may have noticed that the Chinese air force is deploying a new stealth fighter. And how’s that related to the war against the Serbs? Well, a brand new F-117 stealth fighter went down over Serbia on its way to bomb the afternoon reruns. The stealth tech from that downed fighter found its way to the China’s aircraft designers, who reverse-engineered it to make radar-invisible fighters. America was never in any danger from the Serbs; China’s another matter.

That’s what happens when you start indulging every pundit and ethnic lobby’s pet interventions: you lose sight of what the real job of American security is supposed to be. I mean: keeping America secure.

Take a look at what that supposedly successful intervention in the Balkans actually did. The Serbs had been having a problem with a so-called army of Albanian irregulars called the KLA, “Kosovo Liberation Army.” These guys couldn’t fight at all and had already been beaten by Serb militia, tired middle-aged cops and veterans. But they realized that with the gullible Beltway pundit crowd, losing can be your fastest way to win. They took the corpses of their men who’d been killed by the Serb cops and militia, stripped them of weapons, and showed them to the international press as victims of Serb massacres. This being the Balkans, where massacres have been every tribe’s way of making war since the glaciers retreated, nobody doubted them.

The American press took it from there. The Beltway pundits can’t imagine a situation without a good guy and a bad guy, so they made the Serbs the bad guys and the Albanians the good guys. Now, I have no trouble with the Serbs as fairly bad guys when provoked—though I wish more people remembered what happened to the Serbs in World War II, so they’d understand why the Serbs are so easy to provoke—but the idea that the KLA were ever anything even slightly resembling good guys was just ridiculous. The KLA is a gang of bloodthirsty tribal killers who make it a policy to kill any Serb civilians they catch and have also been involved in heroin smuggling, human trafficking, and even organ sales. They actually harvested Serbian prisoners for organs to sell on the black market. And unlike Saddam, the KLA are genuine about their Muslim militancy and have tight connections with al-Qaeda.

At least the Serbs weren’t pro-al-Qaeda. That might have counted for something if anybody in D.C. had actually been thinking about us, the Americans they’re supposed to be protecting. But it didn’t figure into the decision to help the KLA. It never does.

One of the lessons you could learn from Kosovo, if anybody inside the Beltway was into learning lessons, is to take a look at the world you’re butting into. Kosovo is the heart of the Balkans, where tribal warfare is a way of life. What are the odds yougoing to find one tribe of totally evil people and another of totally good, gentle people in a region like that? But that’s the idea behind interventions like Clinton’s: bad, bad Serbs and good, sweet Albanians. God, just imagine how the rest of the Balkan tribes laughed at the idea of the Albanian mafia as noble victims.

Most American interventions come from two closely related childish fantasies: first, that one side in a tribal war is all good and the other all bad; and second, that the weaker tribe are the “underdogs” and therefore the good guys. Just look at those two ideas and you’ll see that they’re a series of disasters waiting to happen. The first one is bad enough, idealizing one bunch of desperate killers—but idealizing the weaker bunch of killers is even worse. That means you’re stuck propping up totally evil people who can’t even fight, like the KLA.

There are no good guys in tribal wars. The novelist V.S. Naipaul has a good line about that kind of world in Bend in the River, his surprisingly cool novel about the Congo War: “It’s not that there’s no right or wrong here. There’s no right.” The best thing to do about a place where everyone’s wrong is stay the hell away from it.

If the world had enough sense to do that, even Congo might not be so bad. If the Europeans and the do-gooders had left Congo to sort itself out, it’d be at peace now—a Roman-style peace, under the strongest and best-organized tribe, the Tutsi, hardcore warriors, the only tribe in that part of the world that can fight and stay disciplined.

Instead, the First World keeps clawing at the Tutsis every time they get stronger. They must be evil because they’re strong; that’s how the argument went. So when almost a million Tutsis were hacked to death with machetes in Rwanda, there really wasn’t much complaining from those compassionate Euro-lefties, or Bono, or any of the usual suspects. But oh, the minute the Tutsis organized a relief force and entered Rwanda to save the few of their people who were still alive, you should have heard the screaming from Paris! Aggression! Actual military progress, actual accomplishment! Mon dieu, we can’t have that! And so General Nkunda, the Tutsi leader and the one man who could have brought a kind of peace to Central Africa, is on trial for “war crimes,” while most of the Hutus who hacked up his people are sitting pretty.

Energy is like medicine

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

George Monbiot explains why Fukushima made him support nuclear power:

Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com. It shows that the average total dose from the Three Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I’m not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.

If other forms of energy production caused no damage, these impacts would weigh more heavily. But energy is like medicine: if there are no side-effects, the chances are that it doesn’t work.

Some Greens argue for local power production — or even using power directly, without transforming it into electricity. Not Monbiot:

The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain – wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad, as well as most sea trout and salmon.

Traction was intimately linked with starvation. The more land that was set aside for feeding draft animals for industry and transport, the less was available for feeding humans. It was the 17th-century equivalent of today’s biofuels crisis. The same applied to heating fuel. As EA Wrigley points out in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, the 11m tonnes of coal mined in England in 1800 produced as much energy as 11m acres of woodland (one third of the land surface) would have generated.

Before coal became widely available, wood was used not just for heating homes but also for industrial processes: if half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland, Wrigley shows, we could have made 1.25m tonnes of bar iron a year (a fraction of current consumption) and nothing else. Even with a much lower population than today’s, manufactured goods in the land-based economy were the preserve of the elite. Deep green energy production – decentralised, based on the products of the land – is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown.

(Hat tip to Anomaly UK.)

Even Chernobyl did not do a Chernobyl

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Michael Hanlon, science editor for the Daily Mail, says that what’s happened in Japan should be an endorsement of nuclear power:

Think about it: despite being faced with a Magnitude 9 Great Earthquake which knocked the whole island of Honshu several feet to the west, a 35ft tsunami and the complete breakdown of the infrastructure, a handful of rather ancient atomic reactors have remained largely intact and have released only tiny amounts of radiation.

There have been some dramatic explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but casualties have been light; maybe a dozen blast-injuries and a handful of cases of suspected radiation sickness. And remember: thousands were killed by the tsunami.

We could be looking at another Three Mile Island, and that would be terrible, right?

Well, not really. The accident at the eponymous nuclear plant in Pennsylvania took place on 29 March 1978. That day, a partial core meltdown in Reactor Core No 2 led to local then national panic. There was talk of a China Syndrome, the title of a schlock disaster movie released coincidentally that year which dealt with a reactor meltdown leading to a blob of molten nuclear fuel burning its way through the Earth to emerge on the other side (i.e, from the US to China).

In the end the meltdown was contained, and there was no breach of the reactor containment vessel and certainly no China Syndrome (which turns out to be a myth in any case).

As with Japan today, a small amount of radioactivity was released but this resulted in zero deaths and no measureable increase in illness. In fact, one epidemiological study concluded that the net effect of the world’s second-worst nuclear accident was to give everyone living within 15 miles of the plant a radiation dose equivalent to one chest x-ray.

What if Fukushima does a Chernobyl?

The thing is, even Chernobyl did not do a Chernobyl. This was, by far, the worst nuclear accident in history (a Category 7) and yet the most astonishing thing about Chernobyl is just how uncatastrophic even this mega-disaster turned out to be.

After the explosion, the world waited. For the cancers, for the gruesome birth defects, terrible radiation burns. Up until the mid-1990s, the generally accepted death toll (including that quoted by the Ukrainian Health Ministry) was in the region or 125,000. As time wore on, these figures plummeted.

In fact, 31 people were killed when the reactor blew — 28 from radiation exposure and three scalded to death by escaping steam. In addition, 134 people received high radiation doses and several dozen of these have subsequently died, although several of unrelated causes. A few hundred people, maybe a few thousand, may die prematurely in years to come, mostly from untreated thyroid cancers, but it is becoming clear that the original assessment was wildly pessimistic.

He goes on to cite Britain’s “excellent” Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington:

If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get the dramatic word ‘meltdown’. But what does that actually mean? What a meltdown involves is [that] the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials. That is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen.

‘In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area. It’s not serious for elsewhere … if you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down – do we have a problem?

‘The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue. The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres but to 30,000 feet. It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometres.

‘And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That’s not going to be the case here. So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health.’

(Hat tip to an anonymous Slovenian guest.)

Rail Zeppelin

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

The Schienenzeppelin, or rail Zeppelin, seems like exactly the kind of preposterous contraption only a steampunk artist could imagine — a pusher-prop-driven locomotive — but it really ran:

Conceived and built in 1930 by the German rail company Deutsche Reichsbahn, the Schienenzeppelin was a design alternative to the streamlined steam locomotives of its day. It was a slick and relatively lightweight at 20 tons, running on but two axles and powered by a 46-liter BMW V-12.

The same engine was later used to power the light bombers of the Luftwaffe. The engine sent 600 horsepower to a massive ash propeller, tilted seven degrees to produce downforce. [...] Originally good for 120 mph — on par with the fastest streamlined steam locomotives — the Schienenzeppelin topped out at a magnificent 140 mph in the summer of 1931. It was a record that stood for 23 years and was never surpassed by a gasoline-powered locomotive.

Unfortunately, the train never made it into production. Problems with propeller safety and reliability kept it from attaining mass production. The prototype that set the speed record was dismantled in 1939 on the eve of World War II.

Caplan’s Case for Charter Cities

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an interesting accountability mechanism, Bryan Caplan notes. After they make a major funding decision, they solicit memos on “roads not taken” — like Caplan’s memo on charter cities.

I largely agree with his case, but, since this is the blogosphere, I must pick nits:

At first glance, increasing production seems extremely slow and difficult, requiring decades of investment in education, infrastructure, political reform, and who knows what else. But there turns out to be one foolproof way for people from the Third World to drastically increase their production overnight: move to the First World.

“The Place Premium,” an important paper by the Center for Global Development’s Michael Clemens, Claudio Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett, offers the most precise estimates of the benefits of migration. They find that the effect of country of residence on income dwarfs the combined effects of poor education, poor health, poor work habits, and all the other defects commonly ascribed to Third World labor. Holding workers’ traits fixed, moving a Haitian from Haiti to the United States increases his wage about ten times — a gain of 900%. The lesson: Third World workers are less productive than First World workers largely because they live in the dysfunctional countries.

The first-best solution to global poverty, therefore, is for the First World to allow much higher levels of immigration. Unfortunately, despite its low absolute level (annual U.S. immigration is well under 1% of its population), immigration is already extremely unpopular. For the foreseeable future, significantly more open borders — not to mention truly open borders — seem politically impossible.

Doesn’t this present a pretty obvious scalability problem? A few Third World workers come to the First World and become dramatically more productive. Multitudes of Third World workers come to the First World and it becomes a new Third World, doesn’t it? It’s not like Japan is Japan because of its physical capital.

Back to the topic of charter cities:

In principle, Third World countries could put nationalistic prejudice aside and “import” the written and unwritten rules that have made the West rich. But this is extremely difficult. Intense populist opposition aside, it is hard to graft one country’s institutions on to another’s — especially when entrenched interests fight you every step of the way. This is true in the business world as well. Competitors often try and fail to adopt leading firms’ “best practices.” Corporate culture is notoriously stubborn. In both business and politics, success often requires a clean slate. It is easier to open a new WalMart than to make the Kmart chain better. Advocates of charter cities argue that is also easier to bring in “outside management” to make a new city that works than to reform existing countries that don’t.

Corporate culture is notoriously stubborn. So is national culture. But I digress.

The challenge seems to be to find a politically feasible way to introduce a charter city where the current regime doesn’t want — or can’t find a way — to introduce business-friendly laws and institutions.

Pentagon-Crafted Nonsense

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Operation Odyssey Dawn sounds randomly generated, because it is:

Each command within the vast Defense Department apparatus is given a series of two-letter groupings that they can use for their operations’ two-word sobriquets. Under the system, the U.S. Africa Command, nominally in charge of the Libya strikes, was given three sets of words that it could begin the operation with.

“These words begin between the letters JF-JZ, NS-NZ and OA-OF, and those three groups give about 60 some odd words,” explains Africom spokesman Eric Elliott. “So, the folks who were responsible for naming this went through and they had done recent activities with NS and they went to O.”

Using the O series of letters, Africom officials picked out “Odyssey” for the first word. The second word is picked “as random as possible because that’s the goal of these operational names,” says Elliot. Africom pulled out “Dawn” for its second word and the resulting combination, “Odyssey Dawn,” is devoid of any intended meaning, Elliott insists.

The modern system for assigning names to operations, exercises and the like came out of bad PR experiences in the Korean and Vietnam wars, according to Lt. Col. Gregory Sieminski’s brief history of “The Art of Naming Operations,” published in Parameters in 1995. Nicknames like “Operation Killer” during the Korean war and Vietnam’s “Operation Masher,” Sieminski wrote, caused controversy when reported in the press. As a result, the Pentagon issued its first guidelines restricting how nicknames can be formed in 1972 and created the two-letter system in 1975.
The two-letter system isn’t the exclusive way to pick an operation and exercise names. For larger operations, like the first Gulf War’s operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, commanders have picked names that sound good to them or influence public opinion — something Sieminski dates to the renaming the invasion of Panama to “Just Cause” from “Blue Spoon.”

Some lesser operations, like a 2004 roundup of insurgents in Kirkuk called “Operation Slim Shady,” also don’t seem like they would have passed through the Defense Department’s official guidelines.

Coalition partners in the no-fly zone have their own operation names. Britain’s Ministry of Defence labeled its participation in the no-fly zone “Operation Ellamy“; Canada’s efforts are called “Operation Mobile.” Ever a patron of the arts, France seems to be the only coalition partner going for the poetic route. It calls its operations in Libya “Harmattan,” referring to a “hot, dry wind that blows from the northeast or east in the western Sahara.”

Historically Hardcore

Monday, March 21st, 2011

The Smithsonian declares itself historically hardcore with this ad comparing and contrasting rapper 50 Cent and adventurer-politician Theodore Roosevelt:

50 Cent got shot and still whines about it on stage. Teddy Roosevelt got shot mid-speech and didn’t leave the stage until he finished.

“Fiddy” got shot through the face — and eight other places — while “Teddy” got shot through, well, some other things:

While Roosevelt was campaigning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 14, 1912, a saloonkeeper named John Schrank shot him, but the bullet lodged in his chest only after penetrating his steel eyeglass case and passing through a thick (50 pages) single-folded copy of the speech he was carrying in his jacket.

Roosevelt, as an experienced hunter and anatomist, correctly concluded that since he wasn’t coughing blood, the bullet had not completely penetrated the chest wall to his lung, and so declined suggestions he go to the hospital immediately. Instead, he delivered his scheduled speech with blood seeping into his shirt. He spoke for 90 minutes. His opening comments to the gathered crowd were, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

Afterwards, probes and x-ray showed that the bullet had traversed three inches (76 mm) of tissue and lodged in Roosevelt’s chest muscle but did not penetrate the pleura, and it would be more dangerous to attempt to remove the bullet than to leave it in place. Roosevelt carried it with him for the rest of his life.

If Roosevelt had died then, rather than a decade later — of the malaria he soon contracted in the Brazilian jungle — Wilson might never have become President.

Addendum: The Smithsonian has asked the commercial art students behind the work to remove the Smithsonian logo.

The Ineffectiveness of Science Videos

Monday, March 21st, 2011

The Khan Academy has earned all kinds of praise for its wonderfully clear educational videos, but Derek Muller, who did his PhD thesis on the (in)effectiveness of science videos, explains his concerns:

Please watch the video, before reading on.

So, the surprise punchline breaks down into these five points:

  1. Students think they know it.
  2. They don’t pay utmost attention.
  3. They don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking.
  4. They don’t learn a thing.
  5. They get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before.

The surprise punchline for good students who never went on to teach is this: most people learn little or nothing from school. They don’t get it.

In the physics example, I can see exactly why someone who already knows physics would interpret the video entirely differently from a normal person who doesn’t yet grok elementary mechanics. Force is a well-defined bit of physics jargon that isn’t at all so well-defined for a normal audience. As the ball goes up, its upward velocity — and thus momentum — decreases at a constant rate, passes through zero, and becomes downward velocity — but force, velocity, and momentum aren’t clearly distinct and mathematically defined for normal people. So they follow along and agree that the ball goes up and then comes down. That’s what the stuffy-sounding narrator is saying, right? I already knew that. Jeez.

What happens if a Japan-sized earthquake hits California?

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

What happens if a Japan-sized earthquake hits California?

“The question is not if but when Southern California will be hit by a major earthquake — one so damaging that it will permanently change lives and livelihoods in the region,” warns the United States Geological Survey in a 2008 study. A magnitude 7.8 quake in California — Japan’s quake was 30 times more powerful — would kill at least 2,000 people and cause $200 billion in damage, the USGS estimated. Because of how the state’s many faults are structured, a quake of more than 8.0 is unlikely in much of California, geologists say.

The good news for California is that, according to the USGS forecast, there’s only a 4 percent chance of that 8.0 quake hitting in the next 30 years. The bad news is that a 6.7 quake or stronger is 99 percent likely to hit, and a 7.5+ temblor has a 46 percent shot. In far Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, the forecasts are even more dire: A one-in-ten chance of a major earthquake, 8.0 or greater, along the dangerous Cascadia subduction zone in the next 30 years. “Some day we will be having this same type of earthquake [as Japan] near our shores,” says UC San Diego geophysicist Frank Vernon.

Many of California’s newer skyscrapers conform to the state’s now-rigorous building codes — but many older structures would likely collapse into a “carpet of rubble.” Reuters also reports that California’s “hot desert winds could fan fires that quakes inevitably cause, overwhelming fire departments, even as ancient water pipelines burst, engineers and architects say.”

San Onofre and Diablo Canyon both have gravity-based backup cooling systems — in addition to emergency diesel generators — so that shouldn’t be a problem.

Are we at war with Libya?

Saturday, March 19th, 2011

Are we at war with Libya?, Steve Sailer asks. (We’ve always been at war with Libya, my inner Orwell answers.) Anyway:

In theory, this shouldn’t be all that hard to blast Gadaffi’s air force and tanks in open desert. There’s a difference between a land war in Asia and a land war in North Africa. We already won one of those 68 years ago, against a better general than anybody working for Gadaffi.

But, then what happens? I don’t know.

Let’s say, best case scenario, there’s immediately a military coup in Tripoli and the Colonel goes away. Whoo-hoo!

Except, then, whose side are we on? Two weeks ago, the Eastern rebels would have likely taken over following the U.S. Air Force’s arrival because they were sort of winning at the moment and they held the oil fields, which is the whole point of Libya, anyway. They had momentum.

So, that would have been a simple solution, except that the rebels would have started fighting amongst themselves over the oil.

But since then, the Eastern rebels have proven pretty incompetent. So, are we going to back the member of Gadaffi’s inner circle who tells Gadaffi to go, yet then continues to hold onto the oilfields against the rebels? The promise of oil can motivate a lot of fighting as we saw in Iraq.

Or is this just to save the rebels in Eastern Libya? But what good are they without the oilfields on the east central Libyan coast?

Further, as a commenter notes, if the rebels win, the Libyan people will likely try to ethnically cleanse from Libya the sub-Saharan black immigrants Gadaffi invited in and is using as mercenaries.

Radiation is good for you!

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Most of us learned what little we know about radiation from anti-nuclear propaganda and sci-fi stories featuring mutants roaming post-apocalyptic wastelands. Large doses of radiation do in fact lead to a gruesome death, but small doses do not.

First, small doses of radiation are common. In fact, we regularly eat radioactive foods. Bananas contain potassium, and thus radioactive potassium-40, and they’re harmless. If authorities shared radiation levels in banana equivalents, most scares could be avoided.

Not only are small doses of radiation less harmful than large doses; they may actually be good for you. Thirty years ago, a Taiwanese metal recycler melted up a batch of cobalt-60 along with scrap steel. The resulting metal went into the frames of new apartment buildings, where the residents received more cumulative radiation than the Hiroshima survivors or the Chernobyl rescue workers. Their mortality rate from cancer was dramatically lower than normal, as was their rate of birth defects. (Chernobyl is a veritable Eden today.)

For optimal health, Dr. T.D. Luckey recommends a chronic dose of 100 mSv/y. Perhaps we should switch away from nuclear power and toward coal for that reason — coal waste is more radioactive than nuclear waste.

A legacy from the 1800s leaves Tokyo facing blackouts

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Years ago, before my first trip to Japan, I decided to look up what kind of adapters I might need for my electronics, and I was surprised to learn that the country isn’t on one standard — and this legacy from the 1800s is leaving Tokyo facing blackouts today:

Japan’s electricity system got its start in 1883 with the founding of Tokyo Electric Light Co. Demand quickly grew and in 1895 the company bought electricity generation equipment from Germany’s AEG. In west Japan the same evolution was taking place, and Osaka Electric Lamp imported equipment from General Electric.

The AEG equipment produced electricity at Europe’s 50Hz (hertz, or cycles per second) standard while the General Electric gear matched the U.S. 60Hz standard. That probably didn’t seem important at the time — after all, light bulbs are happy on either frequency — but the impact of those decisions is being seen today.

All of eastern Japan, including Tokyo and the disaster-struck region to the north, is standardized on 50Hz supply while the rest of the country uses 60Hz.

Connecting the two grids is possible, but it requires frequency changing stations. Three such facilities exist, but they have a total capacity of 1 gigawatt.

When the quake hit, it shut down 11 reactors including three that were in operation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that is now at the center of Japan’s nuclear problems. With the 11 reactors offline, 9.7GW was gone from eastern Japan’s electricity production capacity.

And that’s the root of Tokyo’s current electricity problems: utility companies in west Japan are unable to make up for all of the lost power.

No one ever recommends drastically increasing the price of scarce electricity during such crises.

Heat Death

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Freeman Dyson explains the dismal doctrine of heat death.

The visible growth of ordered structures in the universe seemed paradoxical to nineteenth-century scientists and philosophers, who believed in a dismal doctrine called the heat death. Lord Kelvin, one of the leading physicists of that time, promoted the heat death dogma, predicting that the flow of heat from warmer to cooler objects will result in a decrease of temperature differences everywhere, until all temperatures ultimately become equal. Life needs temperature differences, to avoid being stifled by its waste heat. So life will disappear.

This dismal view of the future was in startling contrast to the ebullient growth of life that we see around us. Thanks to the discoveries of astronomers in the twentieth century, we now know that the heat death is a myth. The heat death can never happen, and there is no paradox. The best popular account of the disappearance of the paradox is a chapter, “How Order Was Born of Chaos,” in the book Creation of the Universe, by Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuxian. Fang Lizhi is doubly famous as a leading Chinese astronomer and a leading political dissident. He is now pursuing his double career at the University of Arizona.

The belief in a heat death was based on an idea that I call the cooking rule. The cooking rule says that a piece of steak gets warmer when we put it on a hot grill. More generally, the rule says that any object gets warmer when it gains energy, and gets cooler when it loses energy. Humans have been cooking steaks for thousands of years, and nobody ever saw a steak get colder while cooking on a fire. The cooking rule is true for objects small enough for us to handle. If the cooking rule is always true, then Lord Kelvin’s argument for the heat death is correct.

We now know that the cooking rule is not true for objects of astronomical size, for which gravitation is the dominant form of energy. The sun is a familiar example. As the sun loses energy by radiation, it becomes hotter and not cooler. Since the sun is made of compressible gas squeezed by its own gravitation, loss of energy causes it to become smaller and denser, and the compression causes it to become hotter. For almost all astronomical objects, gravitation dominates, and they have the same unexpected behavior. Gravitation reverses the usual relation between energy and temperature. In the domain of astronomy, when heat flows from hotter to cooler objects, the hot objects get hotter and the cool objects get cooler. As a result, temperature differences in the astronomical universe tend to increase rather than decrease as time goes on. There is no final state of uniform temperature, and there is no heat death. Gravitation gives us a universe hospitable to life. Information and order can continue to grow for billions of years in the future, as they have evidently grown in the past.

The Social Animal

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

David Brooks is a more entertaining speaker — discussing the social animal at TED — than I expected: