Top Gun

Last night I went to see Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 1986 film Top Gun. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. But for those that don’t know, the first film starred Tom Cruise as a naval aviator, pilot, who flew around in F-14 Tomcats learning to become an expert dogfighter. Top Gun is the name of an actual school that instructs US Navy pilots.

Back in the 1980s, the F-14 was the premiere fighter jet used by the Navy. But the Navy retired the aircraft in 2006 and it’s been replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a larger and more powerful version of the F/A-18 Hornet. So no surprise that the new film features Super Hornets instead of Tomcats.

And so I wanted to compare the two.

The important thing to note is that the Tomcat flies farther and faster than the Hornet. The F-14 was designed to intercept Soviet bombers that were equipped with long-range missiles that could sink US carriers. The Hornet was designed more of an all-purpose aircraft. It can shoot down enemy planes, but it can also bomb targets on the ground. That’s the “/A” in the designation F/A-18. In the role of intercepting enemy aircraft, the F-14 was superior. It could fly well past two-times the speed of sound and it could fly combat missions over 500 miles away from its carrier.

In the interception role, however, the F-14 had another crucial advantage: the AIM-54 Phoenix missile. It was a long-range air-t0-air missile designed for the Tomcat. It does not work with any other US aircraft and so the Hornet uses the newer AIM-120 AMRAAM, a medium-range air-to-air missile.

There are plans to design a long-range version of the AIM-120, but it doesn’t exist yet and so the Hornet ultimately flies slower, less distance, and cannot engage targets at longer ranges.

However, dogfighting isn’t about long-range engagements with missiles. It’s about close-up twisting and turning to evade short-range missiles and gunfire. And even in that, the F-14 could use four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles whereas the F/A-18 carries only two on its wingtips.

By the 2000s F-14 was an older aircraft and while the moving, sweeping wings look cool, they cause maintenance problems. They were expensive to maintain and troublesome to keep in the air. But they are arguably superior to what the Navy flies today.

Moving forward, the Navy is beginning to introduce the F-35 Lightning II to the carrier fleets. Maybe I’ll need to a comparison between those three.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Serfs Up, Bro

Now get him into the fields.

Well that was a week. But at least we made it to Friday and for my American readers and myself this weekend and its bank holiday on Monday, Memorial Day, mark the unofficial beginning of summer. So thanks to Indexed, it’s time to head down to the beach and hang ten (serfs).

Serfs down

Credit for the piece goes to Jessica Hagy.

Exposing More of China’s Crimes in Xinjiang

For those who don’t know, China currently engages in ethnocide, or cultural genocide in its western province of Xinjiang, a province with a majority of its population being Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people. Ethnocide is a term I prefer over genocide as genocide more commonly refers to practices like those in Nazi Germany or 1990s Rwanda and Bosnia wherein people are systematically executed and murdered. Ethnocide leaves a people alive but aims to destroy and extinguish their culture ultimately replacing it with that of another. In this case, Beijing’s policy is to strip the Uighurs of their Muslim culture and identity and replace it with loyalty to China and the Chinese Communist Party.

The BBC have just published what they call the Xinjiang Police Files, files and data hacked off of Chinese government servers and then handed over to a US-based expert on Xinjiang and the atrocities there. That person then handed copies to the BBC, which has verified much of the content.

There is not much by way of data visualisation or information design, but the story is worth mentioning because maybe over one million people are being forcibly detained and “re-educated” by Beijing. One of the articles about the files, however, does have a small graphic of one of the “re-education camps”, i.e. prison, and details its design and the facilities therein.

Certainly not like any school I have ever attended…

Political liberalism and pluralism are messy. Often it means we hear and listen to things with which we disagree, sometimes vehemently. Freedom of speech, expression, and religion can make us feel uncomfortable, hurt our feelings, and even sick to our stomachs. But that is also the price of our liberty to speak, express, and pray ourselves. Because we only need to look to China to see what happens when a society or a government decides what is or isn’t acceptable speech (peaceful protests against the government), expression (growing out a beard), or religion (praying in a mosque). An authoritarian regime, an anti-liberal regime, will attempt to stifle, silence, and ultimately imprison those who go against the (Chinese Communist) party line.

1984 rings a little more true each year.

Credit for the piece goes to John Sudworth and the BBC’s Visual Journalism Team.

Hey, Cousin!

As many of my long-time readers know, I count genealogy as one of my hobbies. A few weeks ago for Orthodox Easter I travelled up to the hometown of my late grandfather. There I get to see people to whom I’m related as many of us can point to ancestors from the same few villages in a small geographic cluster in the Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia and Poland. In other words, we’re all cousins.

But as xkcd shows, so are we all. And that means you too, cousin.

He’s my cousin too.

Happy weekend, cuz.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

The B-52s

Not the band, but the long-range strategic bomber employed by the United States Air Force. This isn’t strictly related to Ukraine, but it’s military adjacent if you will.

I thought about creating a graphic a few years ago to celebrate the longevity of the B-52 Stratofortress, more commonly called the BUFF, Big Ugly Fat Fucker. Obviously I did not, but over at Air Force Magazine, they created a graphic timeline showing the history of the aircraft, specifically as it relates to its engines, which will now be replaced in an effort to extend the life of the bombers.

100 years of bombings

I don’t love the image of the bomber behind the graphic, but I understand why it’s there given the B-52 is the focus of the timeline. I wonder if a different layout could have highlighted the placement of the engines and separated the timeline from the image of the bomber.

Overall I like the graphic, but it could just be that right now I’m spotlighting and working on a lot of graphics dealing with military issues and Ukraine in particular.

Credit for the piece goes to Dash Parham and Mike Tsukamoto.

Battalion Tactical Groups

As Russia redeploys its forces in and around Ukraine, you can expect to hear more about how they are attempting to reconstitute their battalion tactical groups. But what exactly is a battalion tactical group?

Recently in Russia, the army has been reorganised increasingly away from regiments and divisions and towards smaller, more integrated units that theoretically can operate more independently: battalion tactical groups. They typically comprise less than a thousand soldiers, about 200 of which are infantry. But they also include a number of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), armoured personnel carriers (APCs), artillery, and other support units.

In an article from two weeks ago, the Washington Post explained why the Russian army had stalled out in Ukraine. And as part of that, they explained what a battalion tactical group is with a nice illustration.

Just some of the vehicles in a BTG

Russia’s problem is that in the first month of the war, Ukrainian anti-armour weapons like US-made Javelins and UK-made NLAWs have ripped apart Russian tanks, IFVs, and APCs. Atop that, Ukrainian drones and artillery took out more armour. The units that Russia withdrew from Ukraine now have to be rebuilt and resupplied. Once fresh, Russia can deploy these into the Donbas and southern Ukraine.

This graphic isn’t terribly complicated, but the nice illustrations go a long way to showing what comprises a battalion tactical group. And when you see photos of five or six tanks destroyed along the side of a Ukrainian road, you now understand that constitutes half of a typical unit’s available armour. In other words, a big deal.

I expect to hear more out of Russia and Ukraine in coming days about how Russia is providing new vehicles and fresh soldiers to resupply exhausted units.

Credit for the piece goes to Bonnie Berkowitz and Artur Galocha.

Let There Be Light

In several decades…

Just a quick little piece today, a neat illustration from the BBC that shows how the process of nuclear fusion works. The graphic supports an article detailing a significant breakthrough in the development of nuclear fusion. Long story short, a smaller sort-of prototype successfully proved the design underpinning a much larger fusion reactor currently under construction in France. We are potentially on our way to proving the viability of nuclear fusion as an energy source.

Why is that important? Well, first of all, no carbon emissions. Nuclear fusion powers the Sun, where hydrogen is fused with hydrogen to produce helium and in the process release an enormous amount of energy. Mankind wants to take that energy and use it to heat water to generate steam to spin turbines to create electricity.

And we use a lot of electricity.

So how does fusion work?

The BBC graphic shows how. This is a bit simplified, even for my tastes, but it’s generally pretty good. For example, I probably would have labelled protons and neutrons earlier (to the left) of the graphic. And my big question mark is about the widths of the arrows, because if the width of the arrows relates to the scale of the energy, as that is the crux of the matter. (See what I did there?)

Basically when we want to generate energy we want to add as little as possible to start a reaction to net as much output as possible. A little bit of energy is used to split a uranium isotope and that generates a tremendous amount of energy. Thus far with nuclear fusion, however, we use a lot of energy to fuse hydrogen into helium and get little back as output. In other words, a net loss.

The graphic omits how this reactor in the UK works, by using a doughnut-shaped vessel to contain the hydrogen reaction. To do this they use superconducting magnets to generate powerful electromagnetic fields. This contains the hydrogen that turns into a superheated plasma. After all, it’s not like there are any materials known to man that can safely contain the temperatures of the Sun. But we have evidence that as the amount of plasma scale up, the closer we get to breaking even. And that’s the goal for the French reactor.

The other big question in the room is how this helps us with climate change, because as I stated up top, no carbon emissions. Unfortunately, not much. The French reactor is still several years away from being complete. And if that works as expected, commercial-scale reactors powering electricity generation stations are many more years away. Fusion will help power us into the 22nd century. And so we will still need nuclear fission and renewables to get us through the 21st.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.

Any science fiction fan—and likely many who are not—can identify the character who utters those words in that order: Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek’s captain of the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-D. Ask your Amazon Alexa for it. Or your Google Home.

Thanks to the work of xkcd, we now know that Jean-Luc—may I call him Jean-Luc?—had a number of other options in the replicator from which to choose before he settled on “hot”.

Although Garak would still like to meet that Earl Grey and tell him a thing or two about tea leaves.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.