Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wind power, the Producers, and fun

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Marxist class analysis is their assumption that rich folks are all alike—mostly bastards, actually. And the biggest advantage of Producer / Predator class analysis is the realization that these are very different people—even when they are very rich and most especially when they are having fun.

I just spent a couple of hours watching the 19th and final race of the 34th America's Cup on my computer. As an example of an expensive Producer Class sport, it would be exceedingly difficult to top sailboat racing. And this one was ridiculously expensive with educated estimates putting the cost to enter a boat in the neighborhood of $100 million.

What made this year's America's Cup so expensive were the new boats called AC72s.  Not only were they catamarans, they were made of carbon fiber, the mainsail had been replaced by an articulated wing 13 stories tall, and they had L-shaped daggerboards that lifted them out of the water at speed.  Making all this work was an incredible task for the designers, hydrodynamicists, navel architects, and the folks who fabricated all the specialized parts.  And once these amazingly complex boats were built, the crews had to figure out how to actually sail them.  These boats are VERY fast and unforgiving.

Needless to say, the learning curve was damn near vertical in the beginning.  There were breakdowns and accidents.  An Oracle Team USA boat capsized on a training run and was dragged by the tides upside down through the Golden Gate out into the Pacific.  They didn't actually lose the boat but there was enough damage that it required four months of repairs.  Team Sweden had an Olympic medalist crew member named "Bart" Simpson go overboard in an accident and even though there were rescue crews on the scene within seconds, he still died.

In the preliminary rounds, team New Zealand pretty easily disposed of teams from Sweden and Italy.  Helmsman Dean Barker and his crew were astonishing smooth, coordinated, and graceful.  By the time they came up against the team from USA, they were a well-oiled unit and would run up the score to 8-1 (first team to 9 wins) and were leading by a wide margin in a supposedly ninth victory when the race was called off due to insufficient wind.  They would not win another race.

In the early going, Team New Zealand was just crushing Team USA on the upwind leg.  Part of this was the Kiwis were just smoother on their tacks.  Tacking a catamaran is extremely difficult anyway, but the AC72s are so light, they have almost no momentum to get them through that moment when the wind comes right over the bow.  Any tiny mistake on a tack and the boat can come dead in the water (or very close.)

But after suffering their near-death-down-8-1 experience, Team USA started to go faster upwind.  Part of this was improved crew performance—these are world-class sailors who were not about to go screwing up forever.  But mostly, the boat got faster.  No one knows why because the folks who did the improving aren't talking (yet).  But this is typical of Producer Class sports—the difference between winning and losing is usually the result of efforts by folks we never see on TV.  Nerds with serious computer skills and advanced degrees in subjects like fluid dynamics.  Once the USA boat was faster, winning eight straight races was mostly a matter of not screwing up.  Interestingly, Team New Zealand got faster upwind in their desperate attempt to win the ninth race but they didn't improve as much or as quickly as Team USA.  Their seamanship was still stunning but they were losing the battle of the nerds who tweaked the boats between races.

It is probably fitting that a Producer Class sporting event was won by a Producer Class billionaire.  Larry Ellison's enterprise (Oracle) lives and dies by its nerds.  Ellison himself is a classic nerd.  And the nerds just won him the Americas Cup.  Here Ellison is interviewed by Charlie Rose.

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