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Thoughts from (Last Week’s) TMQ

Running a week behind again on my reading of Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on ESPN.com, so just getting to the entirety of last week’s TMQ. The football pieces are old news now, but here are my favorite non-NFL pieces (find the whole thing here):

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On Christmas Creep:

Christmas Creep: Reader Jill Andvik of Seattle reports, “In QFC on Sept. 11, 105 days before Christmas, there were snowflake-themed mugs and bowls — next to the Halloween candy, 50 days before Halloween.” Jeremy Nichols of St. Louis writes, “On Sept. 13, the Lakeside Christmas Collection finally arrived!”

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On the Chinese Navy (don’t panic):

Anchors Aweigh, My Mandarins, Anchors Aweigh: With national red ink meaning the defense budget is likely to decline, aerospace contractors, and members of Congress with aerospace contractors in their districts, dearly would love a new bogeyman. How about the Chinese? OMG, China is building ships!

“CHINA FLEXES NAVAL MUSCLE” was the Wall Street Journal banner headline last month when the unnamed Chinese aircraft carrier took a test sail. Many of the nation’s major newspapers had this menace on the front page, in stories that could have been written by the P.R. department of any defense contractor. One factor at work is that many journalists at elite media organizations have little knowledge of military affairs, and so don’t know how to put the Chinese carrier into perspective. So let’s put it into perspective.

The “Chinese” aircraft carrier is actually the Varyag, laid down in 1985 by the old Soviet Union. The Varyag languished in port for two decades, a white elephant for Moscow. A few years ago, the Russkies sold the leaky hull to Beijing. The Varyag was in such poor repair it had to be towed to Chinese waters.

Now the Chinese navy — whose delightful official name is the People’s Liberation Army Navy — has been tarting the hull up. Let’s suppose the project is successful. The Varyag does not have nuclear power, like all United States Navy carriers. It’s primary design element is a shortened “sky jump” deck, not a flat deck with catapult like all United States Navy carriers, meaning the Varyag can launch only short-range medium-performance jets, not long-range high-performance jets like all United States Navy carriers. The Varyag weighs 67,000 tons and carries about 40 aircraft; the latest United States Navy carriers weigh about 100,000 tons and carry about 100 aircraft. The Varyag is what the United States Navy would call a Kennedy-class aircraft carrier, the John F. Kennedy being the last conventionally powered carrier built by the United States. And the Kennedy was launched in 1967.

Even if all goes well for the Varyag, it brings the Chinese navy to roughly the position, regarding warship quality, that the United States Navy was in 44 years ago. Now take into account quantity. The United States Navy has 11 supercarrier assault groups — a very large nuclear supercarrier accompanied by guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, with two types of nuclear submarines unseen underneath. How many supercarriers are possessed by the rest of the world combined? None. The race to naval supremacy, a grand theme of 500 years of great-power politics, has ended with the United States besting the rest of the world combined by a final score of 11-0.

China’s obsolete carrier does nothing to alter this. The politics of the obsolete carrier are particularly silly. Commentators are suggesting that China’s work on an aircraft carrier means it plans to engage in hostilities with the United States. Yet America says its far larger and far stronger navy is strictly for defensive purposes, threatening no one. If the United States asserts that 11 advanced supercarrier strike groups can patrol the world’s seas without hostile intent, how can we simultaneously claim that China possessing a single obsolete aircraft carrier represents a provocation?

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On the fact-checking of political debates:

Sad Reality Watch: I proposed that presidential political debates enjoy real-time fact-checking from some neutral third party or possibly from Tony Reali. Reader Kristen Parry of Laurel, Md., writes, “This is a great idea, but would just be an end to debates altogether. If any sponsoring organization publicized that they would be conducting live fact-checks during a debate, not one politician would show up.”

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On planets (see my post about part of this here):

A Cosmic Thought: Not long ago, it was assumed that planets existed beyond the solar system, but owing to great distances and the fact that planets don’t shine like stars, none had been found. As of the end of last week, the count of known exoplanets was up to 683. Millions, or billions, of other worlds may exist in our Milky Way galaxy alone, and there are at least 100 billion galaxies.

One reason distant worlds are being found is that NASA launched a probe called Kepler that is customized to scan the “nearby” part of the galaxy. Previous deep-space telescopes had been optimized to inspect the farthest heavens. Kepler has been looking at “nearby” sun-like stars, ones similar to Sol, and finding their output of heat and light varies quite a bit more than predicted. This may eventually become a factor in the global warming debate. When you hear people say that solar variation causes warming — bear in mind, there is nothing we can do about solar variation, we can only control artificial greenhouse gases.

Last week Kepler researchers announced they had found a planet locked in a complex orbit with two stars. According to the standard understanding of astronomy, this should not be possible. The assumption has been that star systems form from swirling discs of gas and dust. If one large star forms at the center, then there is material remaining for planets to coalesce in the outer disc, as seems to have happened in our solar system. If a small star forms orbiting the central star, then there should be no material left for planets. Yet at Kepler-16b, both a small star and at least one planet formed around a large star.

This is just one of the many indicators that humanity knows hardly anything about the larger universe. If binary stars (more common than sun-like stars) can have planets, there may be a truly huge number of planets in existence. There may be star-forming and planet-making physics we haven’t yet guessed at. Astronomers have been startled recently to find in what was assumed to be the interstellar void “orphan” planets that seem to have formed independent of stars. Good luck explaining that.

The Kepler probe has yet to discover another world similar to Earth in size, temperature range, relationship to a sun-like star and with a Jupiter-like gas giant outer companion. (Jupiter’s gravity vacuums up most of the infalling comets that would otherwise pummel Earth.) But at this point it seems only a matter of time. An Earthlike distant world could be discovered any day. It will be the first indication we are not alone.

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On the latest sci-fi offering:

If Only We Could Time-Travel to 1966, When “Star Trek” Premiered: Fox is saying its sci-fi series “Terra Nova,” which premieres on Monday, is the most expensive television show ever made.

The premise: In the year 2149, environmental problems place humanity on the verge of extinction. No stardrive has been invented, so people can’t flee to other worlds. But time travel has become possible. A group of plucky settlers is sent 85 million years into the past to “restart civilization” as kind and good, so the extinction scenario of 2149 never happens. But — though possessed with the ultra-sophisticated knowledge necessary to build a time machine — scientists of the future forget that 85 million years ago, there were dinosaurs. The travelers emerge from the time portal to a settlement surrounded by killer dinosaurs, and the show becomes what Hollywood likes best, a succession of chase scenes.

Recently the networks have given viewers big-budget sci-fi series “V,” “Flash Forward” and “The Event.” The common elements: lots of money was sunk into production, lots of overpaid people with connections were listed as producers, and terrible writing. All three were financial fiascos. “Star Trek,” “Stargate” and “Dr. Who,” TV’s moneymaking sci-fi franchises, do have special effects, but the emphasis is on plot, story and sense of humor. The sci-fi audience is smart and seeks these things, reflecting the fact that well-written sci-fi series make money while poorly written sci-fi series lose money. But modern Hollywood hates the notion that shows should be well-written. This sets the bar too high! Modern Hollywood wants to believe the television audience is composed entirely of fools. So viewers get explosions and drek, while the networks’ shareholders don’t get ratings. Why doesn’t actual experience make it obvious to television executives that well-written sci-fi shows earn returns and poorly written shows do not?

Now about “Terra Nova.” Even if, in the year 2149, everyone somehow forgot that dinosaurs once existed, why would the people be sent 85 million years into the past? That’s an unimaginable span, about 17,000 times as long as the period between the present and the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Supposing the plucky group did “restart civilization” that far back in the past, after 85 million years had gone by, their civilization might have vanished, or its people have evolved into a form unrecognizable to us.

If heading into the past made sense, the place to go to restart civilization would be 15,000 years ago — when the last ice age was ending and the Holocene beginning. The world of 15,000 years ago would be recognizable to people of the 22nd century, and near enough in time that any better society they created might last into the present.

Another silliness, noted by reader G L Crosslin of Biloxi, Miss.,: The “Terra Nova” expedition is going back to a point before the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, when our world was struck by an enormous comet that ended much of life on Earth. Wouldn’t you rather materialize after that nasty business concluded?

Other time travel premise problems:

• Suppose it is possible to travel into the past and change things. If so at the instant you step into the time machine, any changes you caused already happened long ago, and the present would already be transformed. The instant the first settlers stepped into the “Terra Nova” time machine, whatever impact they were going to have they’ve already had. The year 2149 would already be a result of their past impact.

• If people emerged from a time portal in the past, they wouldn’t forget how they got there. They might conclude that unless the Earth of 2149 was falling apart from pollution, the time machine would never be built, they would never be sent back, so they would cease to exist. Therefore they would have to conspire to ensure that human history unfolded in such a way as to cause calamity in 2149. Maybe the whole reason the world of 2149 needs a time machine is that a prior world of 2149 had a time machine!

These kinds of paradoxes are among the reasons time travel is almost surely impossible on a physical basis. Beyond that, the big objection to time travel is not how the time machine would function. The big objection is that even if you had a time machine, where would it travel to?

In order for your time machine to open a doorway 85 million years in the past, there must be another complete universe, with another Earth and another 100 billion galaxies, suspended forever in the moment of 85 million years earlier. If you jumped instead 84 million years into the past, there must be a third complete universe, with another 100 billion galaxies, except it’s 84 million years earlier. If you wanted to use the time machine to go back to yesterday, there must be a fourth complete universe, with yet another 100 billion galaxies, suspended forever in yesterday. Jump to last week? A fifth complete extra universe is required.

For your time machine to jump to different years in the past or future, there must be billions, even an infinite number of different universes — each with 100 billion galaxies, each suspended forever in a different instant. OK, I cannot prove there are not an infinite number of universes, each suspended forever in a slightly different moment. But unless there are, a time machine would have no destination to which to travel.

Reader Al Vyssotsky of Greenville, S.C., adds another complication: “The solar system is rotating around the galactic center at approximately 43,000 miles per hour. Thus if a person were to travel back in time, he or she would wind up many billions of miles from Earth’s position in the past. Our Milky Way galaxy is moving at 1.3 million miles per hour or about two-tenths of the speed of light, in the direction of the constellation Hydra. This suggests that even a short time-travel trip would place the traveler trillions of miles from Earth’s position in the past. Going backward 85 million years, as is depicted in “Terra Nova,” would result in being about 170,000 light years from Earth’s position at that time. That distance is roughly twice the diameter of the galaxy. So you’d need to bring along quite a starship with you through the time machine.”

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On non-Christmas creep:

Unified Field Theory of Creep: John Friedline of Roswell, Ga., reports he just received this email: “Your Lotus Notes password will expire on 6/15/2012. Please update your password.” Mark Eskridge of Chicago reports that on Labor Day weekend, he received the Thanksgiving issue of Fine Cooking magazine.

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On government waste:

Wasteful Spending on Bodyguards Watch: Tuesday Morning Quarterback has been on a high horse about government officials who surround themselves with taxpayer-funded bodyguards not for security, but in order to feel more important. Reader John Ballard of Natchez, Miss., provides a pleasant counter-example: “I recently attended an economic development event in Roswell, N.M., where Governor Susana Martinez was the keynote speaker. She entered without fanfare. She had one police officer with her, no entourage, no massive security detail. I felt refreshed by the experience. It was an example of how government officials should conduct business.”

On the flip side, subsidized security details that exist mainly to stroke someone’s ego increasingly are not confined to public officials. Reader Andrew Kilmas of Bel Air, Md., notes this account of two Baltimore police officers who were injured in a traffic accident on their way to escort NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to the Steelers at Ravens game. Goodell is a private businessman. Why should he receive a special police escort, racing through traffic lights and inconveniencing taxpayers on the roads?

The Baltimore Sun quotes a police official as saying, “The National Football League had security concerns given Goodell’s rank, the high profile football game, and the anniversary of Sept. 11.” This seems farfetched: no al-Qaida terrorist incident in the United States has targeted a specific individual.

The chance of Goodell being specifically targeted by terrorists seems about the same as the chance he will be struck by a meteorite. If the NFL had a legitimate security concern regarding Goodell, it could have hired private bodyguards at its own expense. In a follow-up story, The Baltimore Sun quotes a retired high-ranking Baltimore police official as saying the escort was really for Goodell’s “convenience,” so that he could cut through game-day traffic.

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On disclaimers:

Disclaimer of the Week: Reader Chris Collins of Pittsburgh writes, “I work at a university. When training our staff to enforce policy, we burn a pellet that makes simulated marijuana odor. On the packet these pellets come in is printed, ‘For educational purposes only.’ I’m not sure what other purpose there would be, considering they are not intoxicating and would make lousy potpourri.”

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On the politics of tax cuts:

News You Won’t Want to Hear: This story by Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post could be the most important article on American politics this year. Even if you think taxes should be raised on the well-off , as I do,Montgomery shows that the bulk of federal income tax favors go not to the rich but to the middle class, especially to typical homeowners.It’s easy and appealing for Americans to say, “Let’s blame the rich for the national debt.” And the rich do need to pony up. But there are far more middle-class Americans than rich Americans — meaning tax favors to the middle class are what is driving deficit growth. Politicians love to campaign by wagging their fingers about the rich. None wants to deliver bad news to average voters. But with tax cuts under George W. Bush and Barack Obama having led to 49 percent of Americans paying no federal income taxes at all, if the debt is to be addressed, the middle class must pick up part of the tab.

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Read the football parts, and other miscellany, here.

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