Seattle Transit

Matt Yglesias points out, or more accurately has it pointed out to him, that California isn’t the only major player with a big rail bond/program on the ballot this fall.

The Vision Thing

NASA Administration Mike Griffin teaches a little history:

The planned Apollo 20 mission was cancelled a few weeks after the Apollo 11 landing, and Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled some months later. With those actions, the space program as we knew it in the 1960s was over, finished, and done. NASA is often blamed for its so-called lack of vision after the apotheosis of the Apollo years, but frankly, after those decisions, it didn’t matter what NASA did, or didn’t do. Our elected leaders had lost the vision and sense of purpose for our nation in space, and we retreated to low-Earth orbit.

We have become inured to what should be recognized as alarming trends, the subject of a recent hearing before the House of Representatives Science & Technology Committee. There are half as many bachelor’s degrees in physics awarded today in the United States than when Sputnik was launched in 1957. The number of engineers graduating with bachelor’s degrees declined by over 20% in the last two decades prior to a recent up-tick – but that up-tick is primarily due to an increase in the number of foreign students, who are increasingly returning to their home countries. In 2004, China graduated approximately 500,000 engineers while India graduated 200,000 and the United States graduated 70,000. In 2005, the United States produced more undergraduates in sports exercise than in electrical engineering. In 2006, only 15% of college graduates in the United States received a diploma in engineering or the natural sciences, compared to 38% in South Korea, 47% in France, and 67% in Singapore. The number of PhDs in engineering awarded by U.S. universities to U.S. citizens declined 34% in a single decade. Two-thirds of U.S. engineering PhDs are awarded to foreign nationals. In some surveys, U.S. public schools consistently rank near the bottom in mathematics and science as compared to their global counterparts. We are surpassed by, among others, Azerbaijan, Latvia and Macao.

Feeling Apocalyptic

Kevin Drum and Tom Friedman both see trouble ahead. Drum:

McCain, in his overwhelming desire for office, is unloosing [culture-war] forces that are likely to make the country only barely governable no matter who wins. This would be very bad juju at any time, but George Bush has so seriously weakened the country over the course of his administration that we don’t have a lot of room for error left if we want to avoid losing the war on terror for good and turning America into a banana republic while we’re at it. 

Friedman:

I have long felt that what propelled Obama early was the fact that many Americans understand in their guts that we need a change, but the change we need is to focus on nation-building at home. We’re in decline. We need to get back to work on our country.

Not that Jeffrey Goldberg is any more cheerful:

The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America. Everything else — Fannie Mae, health care reform, energy independence, the budget shortfall in Wasilla, Alaska — is commentary. The nuclear destruction of Lower Manhattan, or downtown Washington, would cause the deaths of thousands, or hundreds of thousands; a catastrophic depression; the reversal of globalization; a permanent climate of fear in the West; and the comprehensive repudiation of America’s culture of civil liberties.

China to Top TGV

The Chinese are growing four-lane highways like weeds, but they also want the world’s fastest high-speed rail system:

“It is possible that we can start to manufacture 380km/h trains in two years time, and put them into service on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway,” Mr Zhang told the state-owned China Daily.

Meanwhile, here in the US it’s a struggle to assemble political support for even one of these. Technological feats are increasingly the domain of other countries.

FAA IT Systems: Snafu

In the dog-bites-man department, the computer system the Federal Aviation Administration relies on to track flight plans is tottering:

Stratfor, along with many other industry watchers, is very concerned about the flight-plan system and evidence that the system is wearing out.

“Regardless of what caused the Aug. 26 [National Airspace Data Interchange Network] crash, [there] is a monumental challenge the event underscores. Here an archaic system that had survived nearly seven years of 9/11-inspired overhauls went down, dumping its entire workload on one other switch. The NADIN system had already been partially upgraded with systems from Lockheed Martin and is slated to be replaced altogether with the FAA’s much-hyped NextGen Air Traffic Control system. But the lack of redundancy and dynamism demonstrated again by the latest NADIN crash makes a cyberattack against critical U.S. infrastructure all the more feasible. And the cost of comprehensively upgrading these systems would be an enormous financial investment, far more than we have seen so far in the years following 9/11.”

Why, oh why, does the feds’ civilian IT infrastructure suck so badly?

Rebuilding Passenger Rail

It’s been out for a while now, but a study group says it’d take about $357B over the next 40-plus years to re-create a passenger rail system that would offer travel times competitive with the auto. That annualizes to about $8.1B a year. The group suggests that the feds pick up 80 percent of the tab. See also America 2050.

Tanker Fight

Business Week reports on the ever-more-complicated politics surrounding the Boeing/Airbus/Northrup tanker-contract bidding. Lobbyists from both sides worked the Democratic National Convention and Boeing could be seeing its future at stake:

Adds [Lexington Institute defense analyst Loren] Thompson: “Boeing is at least as worried about their key commercial customers in the U.S. market as they are about the tanker franchise. Once EADS sets up a commercial operation in the U.S. market, Boeing loses a lot of its national advantage in terms of competing for congressional support, protests from the [U.S. Trade Representative], and so on.”

The electoral politics of the thing are straightforward. Washington state [Boeing] votes Democratic, Alabama [Northrup/Airbus] votes Republican, and you can expect the incoming administration to award the contract accordingly.

The defense acquisitions argument is a different matter. Until DoD throws Airbus a contract, Boeing will retain a monopoly on large-aircraft sales to the military because the only other big domestic producer, Lockheed/Martin, got out of the transport business for good after taking a bath on the L-1011. An award to Airbus would also help build the domestic manufacturing base (if perhaps in an industry facing long-term decline) and punish Boeing for its ethics problems.

Shuttle, Extended

Congressional sentiment in the wake of the Georgia/Russia incident is forcing NASA to reconsider the idea of shutting down the Space Shuttle program after 2010. But former Shuttle program boss Wayne Hale says logistics already make that a practical impossibility. NASA managers began shutting down the supply chain for parts four years ago and there’s no way to restart it:

You might think that simple things like bolts and screws, wire, filters, and gaskets could be bought off the shelf some where, but that thinking would merely prove how little you know about the shuttle.  The huge majority of supplies, consumable items, maintenance items, they are all specially made with unique and stringent processes and standards. 

Our shuttle history tells us that when we try to cut corners, trouble results.  Small, even apparently insignificant changes have caused big problems. 

It goes to show how short-sighted the Bush administration’s decision-making was, born out of pure cowardice following the Columbia accident.

The Grid’s the Thing

The New York Times identifies a key barrier to exploiting renewable energy: the fractured state of America’s transmission grid. Eventually, Congress may have to invoke its power to regulate interstate commerce to sort things out:

Politicians in Washington have long known about the grid’s limitations but have made scant headway in solving them. They are reluctant to trample the prerogatives of state governments, which have traditionally exercised authority over the grid and have little incentive to push improvements that would benefit neighboring states.

Bell Labs Drops Basic Research

An icon retreats:

Alcatel-Lucent, the parent company of Bell Labs, is pulling out of basic science, material physics and semiconductor research and will instead be focusing on more immediately marketable areas such as networking, high-speed electronics, wireless, nanotechnology and software.

A damn shame that is too, though truth be told Bell Labs has been in decline ever since the break-up of AT&T. But its research record is monumental and likely will never be matched by a single organization. And there’s likely a ripple effect up and down the research trade:

“Fundamental physics is absolutely crucial to computing,” says Mike Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society. “Say in the case of integrated circuits, there were many, many small steps that occurred along the way resulting from decades worth of work in matters of physics.”

Bell Labs was one of the last bastions of basic research within the corporate world, which over the past several decades has largely focused its R&D efforts on applied research — areas of study with more immediate prospects of paying off.

Without internally funded basic research, fundamental research has instead come to rely on academic and government-funded laboratories to do kind of long-term projects without immediate and obvious payback that Bell Labs used to historically do, says Lubell.

Research depends on linkages between different disciplines. The strength of Bell Labs was that basic and applied research lived under one roof. Universities can duplicate that, but that requires conscious effort on their part and the applied-research side of the house is often controversial if it’s funded by or linked to private industry. There’s always an English professor pissed off because he can’t get a grant to write another critique of Melville who will complain about it when others doing something more valuable can.