Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fermi's Paradox

A post at io9 got me thinking about Fermi's Paradox. The great physicist Enrico Fermi asked why, if there are numerous other technological civilizations in the universe, why have they not contacted us. You may recall in the movie Contact, an alien construct sends us a signal as soon as it picks up one of our very first television broadcasts. Why hasn't this happened?

The answer has to do with the inverse square law. The strength of a radio signal is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from its source. If they are monitoring radio signals out there, they probably still don't know we're here because by the time any radio signals from Earth reach another star, they are too weak the be distinguished from the background noise of the universe.

Remember that radio broadcasts propagate in all directions at once (stopped only by physical things like the Earth itself). So imagine a radio broadcast 1 second after it has left the Earth--it is 186K miles away. Moreover, it is occupying the surface of a sphere (we're imagining a radio signal not blocked by Earth) with a surface area of 435 billion square miles. The power of the signal hasn't degraded (let's assume), but at any spot on the sphere it is much much weaker than when it was broadcast, of course.

Now let's assume another second passes. The signal has traveled 372K miles from Earth. But now the surface area of the sphere is 1.7 trillion square miles! The signal power at any point on the sphere of propagation gets weaker in proportion to the square of its distance from its origin. So once you start getting to other stars, the signal is just lost in the background white noise of the universe. This is why it is very unlikely that civilizations communicate using radio waves or any other kind of photon, and also why movies like Contact seem fundamentally mistaken. The chance that any aliens are listening to our old TV broadcasts is very slight.

The universe may be teeming with intelligent life. But the inverse square law keeps us from communicating with photons (radio, visible light, or high-energy particles) and the limitations of the speed of light keep us from visiting one another. You might say, "Wait a second! We see photons from light years away all the time, every time we see a star." True, but that just goes to prove my point. Imagine the energy required to make a star visible for just one second. That would be roughly the energy required to make a signal visible for just one second. So let's say a civilization wants, Who-like, to broadcast its existence. It doesn't know which direction to broadcast because it doesn't know where other civilizations may be. So it has to broadcast out in all directions, i.e., it's signal will propagate along an ever-expanding sphere.

So to create a signal strong enough to be recognized, it has to basically create something with the energy of a sun. Maybe it could be done, but it would require an astonishingly advanced civilization with access to enough fuel (hydrogen or other fusionable material, I would guess) to do it. That has to be a pretty rare combination.

But a civilization that advanced (or maybe even only slightly more advanced than us) might have novel ways of communicating that don't involve sending out photons at the speed of light. Maybe they have some hitherto undiscovered (by us) quantum way of sending out a "we are here" signal. Again that leaves us out because we are technologically unable to "hear" the messages. In this scenario, one can imagine numerous interstellar conversations taking place among many civilizations--that we, in our technological ignorance, are deaf to.

That is my science amateur explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Powerlines In Houston Should be Buried

Wouldn't the sky look lovely without those powerlines?

I was astonished to read about this report:
Burying the more than 6,500 miles of above-ground Texas electricity transmission lines near the Gulf Coast would cost some $33 billion but would not be a cost-effective solution, according to a report commissioned by the state’s utility commission.

The report by Quanta Technology released this week said the huge expenditure to bury the lines within a 50-mile radius of the coastline would likely only cut utility storm restoration costs by $27 million a year. The report was ordered by the Texas Public Utility Commission in late 2008 in the wake of Hurricane Ike’s extensive damage.

Fifteen storms struck Texas from 1998 to 2008, requiring about $1.8 billion in restoration costs, or $180 million annually, the report said. About 80 percent of the costs were attributed to the distribution system and 20 percent attributed to transmission.

Ok, if this article is correct, they are comparing the cost of burying power lines to the cost of restoration of those lines after they have been damaged by wind, falling tree limbs, lightning, etc. By that measure, it is obviously uneconomical for the power companies to do it.

But that is an insane way to measure something like this. The cost of downed powerlines is not merely born by the power companies! It's born by the businesses and homes that have to go without power for some period of time. And the cost of preparing for that risk (from buying candles and flashlights and wind-up radios to continual backing up of data). How much work time was lost because of Ike? That must have cost Houston area businesses millions if not billions. The company I worked for was closed for a couple of days. Many were closed for much longer times. This lost economic activity might be the biggest single cost associated with power outages.

To appropriately price this out, they should have accounted for that.

In addition, there is a lot of routine maintenance that must be done to prevent wind-related damage. Crews are always driving around trimming trees near powerlines, whether there is an outage or not. You have to count removing that cost as a benefit as well. Not only that, when there is a power outage, the power companies suffer lost revenues. Were those lost revenues counted in Quanta's model?

Furthermore, overhead powerlines have costs associated with them totally unrelated to the cost of repairing them after outages. Obviously putting up powerlines has a cost. Those poles aren't free. For powerlines that already exist, that is s sunk cost. But there is a replacement cost--those poles don't last forever--and in new developments, the cost of installing powerlines must be included. Also, it is illegal to plant trees a certain distance from powerlines. This limits property rights and limits shade in Houston--one of the hottest cities in the U.S. It's hard to say what this costs us, but it does have a cost. Likewise, overhead powerlines are ugly. Ugly has a cost that is hard to quantify, but it does exist. A more beautiful city is a city that is that much more liveable and desireable and competitive.

Given all this, and given the fact that the freaking federal government is trying its best to give infrastructure money away, I think we should ignore that foolish report, get some stimulus money, hire some unemployed construction workers, and start burying our goddamn power lines (and phone and cable lines).

(By the way, thanks to the Houston Business Journal for reporting this. I couldn't find anything in the Houston Chronicle about it! Did they drop the ball?)

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Enough With Superheroes


When Watchmen came out in the '80s, it was good enough and interesting enough and self-critical enough that it convinced me that superheroes had a reason to exist as a comics genre. The existence of the superhero genre was not up to me, obviously. But I was a comics fan, raised on '70s Marvel superheroes (and reprints of the classic '60s stuff), and I had turned my back on the genre when I discovered Love & Rockets and classic '60s undergrounds. I decided to live in a superhero-free world and to pretend that the mainstream of comics--the comics that were read by 90% of all American comics fans, the comics that were, for many, synonymous with the word "comics"--simply didn't exist.

This attitude carried me along for a long time. Watchmen put a kink in that armor though. Eventually I allowed myself to be sucked back into superheroes (although never full bore). My tastes ran to revisionism and thinly-veiled parody. Think Garth Ennis.

OK, now I have seen the Watchmen movie. It starts off pretty good and just gets worse and worse. (Although I have to say that Ozymandias's scheme is a lot more logical here than in Alan Moore's original.) The movie helped me realize something. I was right--the net good of superhero comics is negative. It would have been better for comics if the superhero genre had died out in the '50s.

Among rock fans, there is a parlor game of creating an alternative history of rock. For me, it has the Velvet Underground as a popular "underground" band, with Love as a big rock hit-maker of the late '60s and Big Star in the '70s. The Village Green Preservation Society would have the same stature in my alternate universe that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band has in ours.

It's much harder to construct an alternate history of comics this way because there aren't as many published examples of the alternatives, the might-have-beens and artistically successful commercial failures. It can be done, though, and in my alternate history, there is no comics code, and comics are aimed at multiple market niches (by age, by interests, by demographics, etc.). Superheroes are just one small niche, aimed at boys. They never dominate.

That's what should have happened. Watchmen was supposed to have revolutionized superheroes in a positive, self-critical way. Moore has acknowledged that it failed in that regard, and that's a tragedy I suppose. But the real tragedy is that Watchmen had to exist all--that Moore thought that it was important to subject the superhero genre to this level of auto-critique in the first place.

I can't change history, but for me personally, I am done with superheroes. In my mind, comics equals art comics and old comic strips, with a few interesting translated comics tossed in. All the rest is noise to be tuned out.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Iceland by Michael Lewis

The rocks beneath Reykjavík may be igneous, but the city feels sedimentary: on top of several thick strata of architecture that should be called Nordic Pragmatic lies a thin layer that will almost certainly one day be known as Asshole Capitalist. The hobbit-size buildings that house the Icelandic government are charming and scaled to the city. The half-built oceanfront glass towers meant to house newly rich financiers and, in the bargain, block everyone else’s view of the white bluffs across the harbor are not.

"Wall Street on the Tundra," Michael Lewis in the most recent Vanity Fair.

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