Refuting an alarmist article with facts
In his first inaugural speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”
To the extent that is true, we should fear a spate of alarmist “news” articles that catalyzed fear by excessively magnifying threats to America. For example, the Deputy Editor of Bloomberg published an article (The Biggest Threat to the Economy Is From Outer Space) saying that a coronal mass ejection (a.k.a., sunburst) could “knock modern civilization back to the 18th century.”
Yes it could, but not for nearly as long as that article suggested: two years. Maybe more. Why so long? I laughed when I read this explanation:
“The reason an outage could last so long is that many of America's biggest transformers don't have spares, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences. Most are no longer produced in the U.S., and if new custom transformers must be ordered, the lead time is a minimum of five months.”
Nonsense! To finance my college education, one of my primary jobs was making large industrial transformers, some of which weighed more than automobiles. If I took five months or even five days to make a transformer, I'd likely have been shot or at least fired by the CEO, who called me Buddy. Others called me The Winder, my CB nickname at the time, because in addition to cutting the steel for the transformer cores and stacking it, I also wound their coils and brazed on giant copper plates for the electrical contacts, after which the transformer was dipped and baked, then tested. I assume that all of mine passed because I otherwise would have heard from Bob the plant foreman or Pete the General Manager, a brilliant man I greatly admired who went on to become CEO.
I made many transformers per week without breaking a sweat or working overtime. I'm a doctor and inventor now but I still know how to make such transformers, which I could do in case of a national emergency. I used engineering data to guide me, but cloning existing (but damaged) transformers is almost as easy. Bottom line: no one is going to go without power for long; we’re more resilient than the Bloomberg author thinks because some of us still know how to make stuff.
The company I worked for is still in business, bigger and better than ever, and still in the United States, but even if they weren't, I could make transformers in my garage or coordinate local businesses to build components for them. I live near an upscale yuppie tourist town but even that has enough industrial capacity to make large transformers, which is closer to child's play than rocket science—likely why my peak wage was only $3.71 per hour ($14.98 in 2013 dollars).
The mindset that afflicts so many “the sky is falling” prognosticators is that only corporations can make critical stuff like transformers vital to our power grid. Hogwash. Corporations are just legal entities that pay workers who possess the skills to produce their products and services. Our diverse nation includes people who collectively can do just about anything, and do it considerably quicker than armchair theorists think possible. Perhaps some pencil-pushers need five months to get in gear, but I don't.
When writing about a technical subject, it helps to have expertise and real-world experience. The author of Bloomberg's piece relied on eggheads who likely never were shop rats, as I once proudly was, making stuff. Whether it was performing surgery, building transformers or other gizmos, one of the central lessons of my life is that doing those things proved to be much easier than I imagined.
While Bloomberg's Tom Randall likely believed what he wrote and didn't seek to sensationalize it, drama attract more readers than matter-of-fact articles reporting that seemingly big problems have surprisingly simple solutions. Speaking of which, it's time for me to resume working on one that poses a much greater threat to you and our economy than a coronal mass ejection.
- Bloomberg hires smart, educated people. To become Deputy Editor, Tom Randall must be outstanding, and he relied on sources that seem very reputable. That is what's so alarming about this article: when such bright and informed people put pieces of the puzzle together to form a picture distorting reality.
- Having made many transformers at home, I know that the challenging ones aren't the big ones but tiny ones using very fine wire—undoubtedly why their production is automated.