Monday, February 28, 2022

Preparing for the Chipocalypse


A friend of mine who used to work in the aerospace industry is fond of referring to "single-point failures."  If a rocket relies on any single component that has no backup to take over in case that component fails, you are liable to have a single-point failure that destroys the rocket.  The Chipocalypse of the title refers, not to the actions of a character in a new Disney animated series called "Big City Greens," but to what might happen if the world's supply of critically important integrated circuits (ICs) was disrupted in a major way.  And the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) is the most obvious single-point failure in the global semiconductor supply chain.


Last week's invasion of Ukraine by Russia draws attention to the way war can interrupt the peaceful international exchange of goods and services which is the realization of economist Adam Smith's "invisible hand."  We have already seen the price of gasoline leap upward in response, and further disruptions may come in other markets.  But that is chump change compared to the costs consumers in the U. S. and Europe would pay if Asian IC suppliers quit making chips.


An article published over a year ago in Bloomberg News points out that the great majority of the world's semiconductor "foundries" (factories that produce chips designed by outside customers, not by their own engineers) are in either China, South Korea, or Taiwan, with TSMC running the largest single foundry in the world. 


Taiwan is not the first place you would choose to site such an important facility.  For one thing, it's prone to earthquakes.  As recently as 1999, a 7.6-magnitude quake hit Taiwan and killed thousands of people, leaving about 100,000 homeless.  Given the atomic-scale precision that is required for successful IC manufacturing, a major earthquake that caused significant damage to TSMC's facilities could knock it out for up to a year or more.


But besides Mother Nature, Taiwan has been in the military sights of the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC) ever since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist followers evacuated to Taiwan and established their government there.  The PRC has claimed ever since that Taiwan is rightfully theirs, and would like to find an excuse to invade and take over what has since become a manufacturing giant that overshadows the PRC's IC production capability. 


But as we will no doubt rediscover in the next few days and weeks with regard to Ukraine, wars never go quite like they are planned.  And an armed conflict in the Far East could easily cut off supplies of ICs to the rest of the world for months or even years.  Hence the Chipocalypse.


Now that we've embarked on this dismal speculation, what would it be like?  Chips aren't the only thing made in Asia, but they are at the heart of many of the most highly-capitalized modern industries.  Apple, for example, derives much of their profit from hardware rather than software, although this has been changing in recent years.  And as I discovered recently, a lot of hardware sales are driven by changes in systems and software.  The recent upgrade to 5G by T-Mobile and other telecomm firms in the U. S. has obsoleted millions of devices that otherwise work fine, including yours truly's third flip phone in almost as many years. 


Left to my own devices, I would still be using my Motorola mini-brick with the pull-out antenna that was my first mobile phone.  But the telecomms are not about to let that happen, and so as a chronic late adopter, I have been dragged kicking and grumbling through the various G's, always one of the last trailing points on the bell curve, until now I am the reluctant possessor of a flip phone with a touchscreen. 


Multiply this experience by the millions, or even billions worldwide, as more enthusiastic early adopters drop their phones for the latest model, and you get the synergistic process of innovation in both software and hardware which is our age's best answer to the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, but not nearly as long lasting, unless you count the piles of dead electronics in landfills.  A chipocalypse would put a serious brake on this process, leading to all sorts of disruptions like the one we saw in the automotive industry last year, when car makers could not get chips to go into their electronified cars, and so they simply shut down whole lines for months.


That is bubkis (beans, as the Yiddish speakers used to say) compared to what we would see in a full-scale chipocalypse.  Imagine there's no new mobile phones, server farms, robotic manufacturing systems, Xboxes, or anything electronic with a chip in it, which means basically anything electronic these days.  In principle, software updates would not be affected, although by halting the production of new hardware you would be cutting off one of the two legs of the consumer-electronics giant, the other being software.  Like a one-legged man, it might manage to hobble around, but at a greatly reduced speed.


One of the most serious threats posed by a chipocalypse to a nation's integrity would be the consequences to military operations, dependent as they are on electronics for everything from communications to military vehicles.  Military hardware wears out fast, and if the armed forces are constrained to hunt around in used-electronics scrapyards for replacement ICs like the Space Shuttle technicians had to do for the last few years of its existence, that will put a severe cramp in the military's style.


But undoubtedly the most severe consequences would be economic.  Although the tech sector (e. g. Apple, IBM, Microsoft, etc.) made up only about 10% of the U. S. GDP in the period 2017-2020, it is a highly critical 10%, employing some of the best-paid workers in the country and providing new capital and growth to the fastest-growing locales.  Anything that severely damaged this sector would have ripple effects much larger than the 10% directly affected, ranging from real estate to luxury-goods consumption.


All of which makes me wonder whether we are a little too dependent on our shiny new toys.  But that is an argument for another day.


Sources:  The Bloomberg report on TSMC's critical role in the global economy is at  Earthquakes in Taiwan can be read about at, and the statistics on the tech sector are from 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Are There Batteries In the Grid's Future?


Texas has the largest installed capacity of wind generation of any U. S. state as of 2019.  But all those windmills did no good a year ago when historically low temperatures knocked out natural-gas production and generators, leading to the Big Freeze and the deaths of over 200 people.  The reason?  There was almost no wind associated with the cold snap, and no wind means no wind generation. 


In the debate about the Texas power grid that followed, some charged that our increasing reliance on wind power (and to a lesser extent, solar power) was destabilizing the grid.  Up to now, at least, power has to be generated on demand, so electric-utility operators have come up with a combination of base-load and peak-load generators to deal with the fluctuations in demand, which can go very low at 2 A. M. on a mild spring day, but soar to many times the minimum on a blazing August afternoon.


Base-load generators are most efficient when they run all the time.  Nuclear power is in this category, as are fossil-fuel plants that use steam turbines and large boilers fired by natural gas (or, decreasingly, coal).  These types of plants are used for base loads because starting and stopping them is a big deal and can take hours or even days. 


Peak-load plants, on the other hand, are designed to come on line in just minutes.  One example is the gas-turbine plant, basically a bunch of jet engines hooked to generators.  Peak-load plants are typically less efficient than base-load plants, but they can be started up quickly to meet soaring demand in emergencies. 


Solar and wind don't fit either of these categories, as they depend on whether the sun's out or the wind's blowing, respectively.  Fitting the fairly unpredictable output of these renewable types of energy into an existing grid can be challenging, because it adds fluctuations that weren't there before.  If the wind's blowing hard and Texas is getting up to 10% or more of its total electricity demand met by wind energy, and all of a sudden the wind stops, you have to be ready to jump in with peak-load plants and supply what's missing, and that isn't always easy.  So as more fluctuating renewables are added, the problem of managing the grid to meet fluctuating demand gets even harder.


Although experts determined that this issue was not a primary cause of the February 2021 Texas blackout, it's an ongoing concern, and one way of dealing with it is a very old one:  batteries.


Using batteries as electric-utility energy storage is not a new idea.  I have a 1910-era book on my shelves that describes how electric-streetcar power plants were supplemented by banks of lead-acid batteries attached across the lines at strategic places along the streetcar routes.  In periods of light demand with low traffic, the batteries were charged by the central power plant.  And during rush hour when there were more trolleys on the line than usual, the batteries would discharge into the overhead wires and supplement the base-load power generated at the central plant.


The problem with lead-acid batteries is that it takes a huge number of them to store enough energy to make a difference with a large-scale power grid.  Depending on the technology, a lithium battery of the same volume as a lead-acid battery can store up to ten times the energy, and the weight advantages are even better.  That's why electric cars had to wait until lithium batteries were fairly practical to compete with internal-combustion cars. 


In December of 2020, Vistra Energy connected what was then the largest battery-storage energy facility in the world to the California grid at Moss Landing in Monterey County.  The system can provide up to 300 MW of power and can store 1.2 gigawatt-hours, implying that it could provide its peak energy output for three or four hours before pooping out.  But that is plenty of time to tide a grid over an emergency until other more conventional sources can be put online.


Actually, because batteries can start supplying massive amounts of power in less than one cycle of the 60-Hz power frequency, they are very useful for damping out short-term instabilities in power grids that can otherwise trip relays and cause blackouts.  This type of operation can't be done with mechanical generation systems.  So a battery storage facility like this is one more tool in the power-dispatcher's toolbox to use in meeting fluctuating demand.


The Moss Landing facility was in the news recently because of a fire that destroyed ten of the nearly 100,000 battery packs at the facility, the second such fire in five months.  The first fire was caused by leaking water from cooling pipes, and so the second one may be due to similar causes.  The fire was contained and out before the fire department had a chance to do anything. 


The nice thing about battery systems is that failures can be isolated fairly easily, as the Moss Landing mishaps show.  Although the plant was shut down during the fire for safety reasons, repairs are fairly straightforward and the system was back online in short order.  This feature of gradual degradation is a big asset in the utility business, where shutdowns can cause big headaches.


It remains to be seen how significant a role battery storage will play in the future of the so-called smart grid.  Electric-car makers such as Tesla have dreams of distributed battery storage, in which thousands or millions of electric cars plugged in overnight could serve as a virtual storage facility controlled by the electric utility they're plugged into.  That would require massive changes in both hardware and regulatory structures that I'm not sure we're ready for.  But it's a nice dual-use idea that might evolve into a much more reliable, robust, and efficient grid than the fairly brittle things we have now. 


When I worked at an electronics repair shop one summer in college, I'd be amused when a customer would say, "This radio isn't electric, it runs on batteries."  In the future we may all be running on batteries more than we realize, and the grid will be more stable as a result.


Sources:  The website carried a story about the Moss Landing fires at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on "Wind generation in the United States" and "Battery storage power station."


Monday, February 14, 2022

SpaceX Versus the Astronomers: Starlink In the Telescope Crosshairs


Elon Musk, who no one has accused of being shy and retiring in his corporate ventures, is engaged in deploying what he hopes will be some 40,000 low-earth-orbit satellites to form what he calls a Starlink system to provide internet service to underserved areas of the globe, and also presumably to make money.  So far, several thousand of the mass-produced satellites have been launched in batches of dozens at a time, although a recent geomagnetic storm caused an early demise for some of the newest ones as the resulting denser atmosphere at their orbital heights dragged them to a fiery death.


The satellites are comparatively small—about 500 pounds (220 kg) and about the size of a table—and burn up completely when they de-orbit, so we don't have to worry about pieces of them falling on our heads.  But the folks who are worried about the ones staying in orbit are astronomers, who are already seeing little bright Starlink satellite dots streak through their telescope fields of view, especially when they try to observe close to the horizon near dusk or dawn.


For some time now, the astronomers have been trying to garner attention for their plight, which only promises to get worse as other commercial space firms compete with SpaceX, Musk's company, to gain low-earth-orbit communications satellite market share.  Last week, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a sort of United Nations of astronomy, announced the organization of the Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Skies from Satellite Constellation Interference.  For once, the name of the new organization doesn't form a cute acronym, which perhaps bespeaks the seriousness of the endeavor.


The reason they call it both dark and quiet is that communications satellites, by nature, emit electromagnetic waves, usually in the microwave radio spectrum.  And although astronomers are provided with protected bits of the electromagnetic spectrum in which no radio emissions are allowed, these tend to be fairly narrow slices surrounded by wide bands where communications-related emissions are permitted.  Radiotelescopes use the most sensitive and delicate radio receivers on the planet, and they are not designed to reject nearby out-of-band interference very well.  If one of the Starlink satellites happens to sweep through the narrow beam of a radiotelescope, the satellite's emissions are likely to mess up the astronomy receiver in an unpredictable way.


And of course, visible-light telescopes pick up the Starlink satellites easily, even if the satellites are painted black.  One recent report in The Independent (UK) says that astronomers are seeing their visible-light exposures messed up with Starlink tracks an average of once every ten days.


So far, the problem is at a manageable annoyance level.  But multiply it by ten or more, and just the Starlink satellites will interfere seriously with a lot of astronomical projects, including the search for killer meteorites that might bring a premature end, not only to Starlink, but to everybody who could use it as well. 


It's an interesting problem in engineering ethics, if you want to view the situation through that lens.  In this corner, you have the public that would presumably like Internet access but lives too remotely for it now, and SpaceX wanting to provide that service with Starlink.  And in that corner, you have the IAU saying that what Starlink and similar firms are doing could raise havoc with a large portion of their activities.  


Historically, when you have a conflict between an entire industry and another popular institution such as astronomy, a third party such as government or an international organization has to get involved.  This is the way that radioastronomers obtained their reserved slices of the electromagnetic spectrum, by pleading with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for them and making effective arguments, possibly together with a little political diplomacy. 


Now that the commercialization of space has been going on for at least a couple of decades, we are seeing the kinds of conflicts that led to the formation in former years of the ITU for radio.  Although nobody "owns" the low-earth-orbit region of space in an exclusionary sense ("this is my two quadrillion cubic meters and you can't send your satellite into it"), it is clearly a limited resource, just like the electromagnetic spectrum, and we are now seeing an increasing need for some kind of global regulatory body to adjudicate issues such as the one that has arisen between SpaceX and the astronomers, represented by the IAU.


Something similar came about when transoceanic flights became routine and different countries had to arrange for protocols of using flight routes and standards for international airports.  The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), whose present embodiment dates back to 1947, arose as a part of the United Nations to perform these duties. 


The UN currently has a couple of branches dealing with space: the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and a registry of objects launched into orbit.  But neither of these outfits appears to have the regulatory clout needed to deal with disputes between a brash private firm bent on networking the Earth with 40,000 satellites, and a bunch of scientists who have little money for lobbying and whose main argument is that if you clutter up our telescopes too much, there's a teeny little chance that we'll miss seeing a meteor that will creep up on us and destroy civilization.


So far, the astronomers are just having to deal with the problems that Starlink causes them on a case-by-case basis.  And ultimately, it's quite possible that most cutting-edge observational astronomy will move to outer space anyway, as the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope promises to beat anything you can do with earth-based telescopes.  As a global culture, we may find that turning the night skies into shimmering collections of satellites and ruining them for astronomy is a reasonable price to pay for letting the most remote tribe in the world livestream SuperBowl C (100, if you're rusty on your Roman numerals).  But if that happens, I think we will have lost something that will be hard to get back.


Sources:  I referred to a report on The Independent's webpage at, a BBC report at about satellites lost to a geomagnetic storm, and the Wikipedia articles on the ICAO and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. 

Monday, February 07, 2022

The Surveillance State of the Olympics


On this date, Feb. 6 of 1936, the Winter Olympics opened in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria—the last time both the Winter and Summer Olympics were held in the same country in the same year.  The Olympics that year attracted some controversy in the U. S. because of the nature of the German political regime under Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who had by then been in power only three years.  But the argument that sports should be independent of politics won out, and so the U. S. went on to participate in both sets of Olympic games.


Last Wednesday, the 2022 Winter Olympics kicked off in the Peoples' Republic of China.  The U. S. is once again participating, although the Biden administration has enforced a diplomatic boycott of the event in protest of  "the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.”  Britain, Australia, and Canada joined the U. S. in the diplomatic boycott, which does not prevent athletes of those countries from participating in the games.  Chinese government representatives fired back that the U. S. was taking actions that “politicize sports, create divisions and provoke confrontation," according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


If you are an athlete or anyone else attending the games, the Chinese government is requiring you to download an app to your smartphone called "My 2022," two weeks before your arrival, and make daily reports of the state of your health.  Ostensibly, the app is supposed to help the government achieve a 100% COVID-free event.  But when computer scientists examined the app, they found serious security flaws in it that can allow not only the Beijing government but random hackers to gain entry to your phone.


It's no surprise to Chinese citizens that the My 2022 app is full of holes.  The Chinese government explicitly reserves the right to access any information stored on an electronic device.  My 2022 just makes it easier for them to do so.  According to the University of Toronto's cybersecurity group Citizen Lab, the app can transmit confidential information such as passport and travel data with encryption that can be "trivially sidestepped."  So even before leaving the U. S., Olympic athletes and anyone else attending will be subject to the Chinese national security apparatus.


Some people may not be bothered by this.  After all, there is some weight to the argument that sporting events shouldn't be politicized.  But it seems to me that the only way to completely divorce politics from sports is to have all competitors hail from the same political entity.  Victor Cha, writing on the Center for Strategic and International Studies website about the U. S. diplomatic boycott, quotes famed anti-totalitarian author George Orwell as saying, "sport is war minus the shooting."  Any time you have competition, you're going to have partisan cheering, even at the most humble level of small-town sporting events like the Ponca City Wildcats playing against the Enid Plainsmen in the wilds of northern Oklahoma. 


So at the basic level of identification, all sporting events are politicized.  What Beijing objects to is not mere identification with the participants, however, but any action that singles China out as being a less worthy player on the international political stage. 


Are they?  Consider the fact that for the last decade or more, China has been busily constructing a surveillance state that goes beyond the wildest dreams of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.  One of the most chilling aspects of that book, which came out in 1949, was the omnipresence of "telescreens" which simultaneously broadcast state propaganda from "Big Brother" and spied on people.  Back then, readers reassured themselves that this was rank science fiction, because no regime could possibly afford to hire half the population to spy on the other half, and so most of the time, nobody was watching on the other end.


That was before the Internet and the advent of artificial-intelligence (AI) systems that can recognize faces, voices, and certain words, such as the 2,422 terms in the "illegalwords.txt" file bundled with the My 2022 app.  In it are phrases such as "Tiananmen Riot" and "Dalai Lama." Woe unto anyone who uses those words at the Olympics this winter.


China's goal is to use any information it can get to establish social-credit scores that determine the degree of freedom allotted to each citizen.  People who behave well, according to standards set by the government, can travel, hold jobs, visit certain places, and behave almost like free citizens.  Those lacking a high social-credit score find that their privileges are suddenly withdrawn, and may feel some sympathy with the Uighur people of Xinjiang Province, many of whom have disappeared into "reeducation camps" for no other reason than their identity.


If anyone happens to download this blog onto their My-2022-equipped phone, I will not be held responsible for the consequences.  But it doesn't matter, because the truth about the Beijing regime isn't affected by what I say about it, or by what anybody else says or doesn't say about it.  The Chinese surveillance state has to be one of the grandest violations of human rights, extended over time and space, that the world has ever seen.  Because it has been put in place gradually and folded into the other routine malfeasances and wrongdoings of the regime, it hasn't attracted that many headlines, and billions of people in China manage to go about their business without being seriously inconvenienced by it.


But it's like living in a house with four-foot ceilings.  Nobody would want to live there if the ceilings were dropped all in a day, but if they were moved down three inches a year, you might be able to get used to it.  But it still wouldn't be a good thing.


I can't help but wonder what the endgame will be in China.  Germany overreached its hand, and in 1936 the thousand-year reich actually had less than a decade of future left.  China clearly covets world domination, and in some measures it is well on the way to achieving it. 


But a world in which true freedom is vanquished by an AI-enhanced surveillance regime and every action is monitored and evaluated, is not a world I would care to live in, given a choice.  So far, we still have a choice.  Let's learn from our experience with things like My 2022 that the choice is worth preserving.  


Sources:  I used material from the following websites:  VOA News at, Japan Forward at, CSIS at, and the Wikipedia articles on the 1936 Winter and Summer Olympics.