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Capricorn One and Other Conspiracies November 18, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Capricorn One was a 1977 movie about a purported Mars space mission.  It turned out that the three astronauts were escorted off the spacecraft just before liftoff, and were told that the spacecraft was not capable of supporting life during the journey.  Months (more like two years) later, the entire spacecraft malfunctioned on the way home, and the astronauts realized that they out of necessity must die to maintain the illusion of success.  Thanks to an intrepid reporter and one astronaut who made it briefly to freedom, they exposed the conspiracy to fake the Mars landing.

It was a really good conspiracy movie.  But there were many situations where in real life the conspiracy could have been exposed.  Essentially, it took all of NASA to maintain the illusion of a successful mission up until the point the capsule malfunctioned.

That simply won’t happen.  As it won’t in any secret conspiracy.  In Capricorn One, it couldn’t have happened like this, because much of NASA would have known.  Yes, there was a NASA worker who thought there was something suspicious, but in reality it would be far more than a single control room worker.  And they can just speak up, without threat of an untimely death.  There is absolutely nothing that motivates them to keep a conspiracy.

That’s not to say that people won’t try to conspire.  It simply means that they are all doomed to failure.

So this leads us to the Flat Earth conspiracy.  You can personally see the Earth curve at altitude, and the images of Earth from space are convincing to all but the conspiracy-minded.  Yet people, for reasons unknown, are convinced that the Earth is flat.

I’m sorry, the physics of rotation and gravity and the like (some apparently claim that because they haven’t seen gravity, they are convinced it doesn’t exist.  Whatever that means.) are pretty unambiguous.  Apparently the members of Flat Earth are growing rapidly.  It’s really a shame that people, even seemingly intelligent people, don’t have a fundamental grasp of science.

The psychology behind this and other conspiracies is fascinating.  According to the experts, conspiracies are a way for people to believe they are in control of events.  Yet it’s not at all clear to me how believing in a massive conspiracy makes people in control.  So in reality, we have people rejecting hard science because, well, because they want to.  And that’s not a reason that will help them through life at all.

When A Grab for Revenue Looks Like Conspiracy November 14, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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As I’ve explained on several occasions, I don’t believe in conspiracies, despite their current popularity.  They simply go against rational thought.  Ten thousand people cannot possibly keep a secret about Roswell, and Area 51.  Kennedy was killed by a single deranged gunman, not a cabal of the Russians and the CIA (aside: I love the cartoon from the early 1990s, where two Kennedy assassination researchers were examining photos of November 22, 1963 – “Look!  There behind the grassy knoll.  It’s . . . Bill Clinton!”).

My thesis is that the only way that three people can keep a secret is if two are dead, and that logic is impossible to argue against.

So I generally believe in what those in positions of authority say about controversial events.  It’s simply too hard to make up a credible alternative.

Yet a surprising number of people believe in aliens, a Kennedy conspiracy, or, well, that vaccines are deadly (or at least deadlier than no vaccines).  In some of these conspiracy issues, there are reasonable questions that science doesn’t have definitive answers for, but that is the nature of science.  Science is rarely definitive, and allows for alternative theories backed with rigorous science.

But not with vaccines.  The only anti-vaccine study that even pretended to be scientific was immediately discredited and was eventually withdrawn from the medical literature.  Yet that doesn’t stop people from referring to it ad nauseum.  Other cited studies are bogus, unrefereed, or made up, and all refer back to that original, discredited study.

Why was it discredited?  It was performed by a group paid by lawyers suing vaccination manufacturers.  The sample selection was biased toward those children already diagnosed with autism, whether or not they had vaccines.  Fast-forward thirty years, and no unbiased study has found a link between vaccinations and autism or other childhood afflictions.

Let me repeat.  No unbiased study has found a link between vaccinations and autism or other childhood afflictions.

Yet Google, Twitter, and Facebook are still accepting money from anti-vaxxers for advertisements that cite this, as well as bogus research on the health detriments of vaccination.  Google and Twitter claim that they don’t, although the above link demonstrates conclusively that they do.  Facebook, the money machine that it is, proudly accepts such advertising, although it claims to place such advertising lower in its priority list (whatever that means).

Folks, wise up.  Google, Twitter, and Facebook aren’t here to let you search for information, share your thoughts, or keep in touch with people you don’t even remember.  They are here to help sell you stuff.  And if they have to bend the bounds of logic to do so, well, let the buyer beware.

About Facebook and Free Speech October 18, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I read Mark Zuckerberg’s commentary on Facebook and free speech with a measured amount of incredulity.  Measured, because it was about what I expected him to say.  Incredulity, because with Facebook standing for fake users, made up news, fake ads, political influencing, and the dark underside of the Internet, he has the chutzpah to claim that he is all about free speech, and the rest be damned.

Free speech is a wonderful ideal, and rallying cry.  I would love to be able to claim a free speech mulligan for anything said online.

It’s not that easy.  Especially today and in the future, when speech is not just limited to face to face.  We tend to say things online that we would never say in a live setting.  And can do so anonymously, or even with a pseudo identity.  And we can make up things, and manufacture news, and it is accepted by many readers.

So if we let everyone say anything they want, in any identity they want, we end up with people with the time, money, and clout who say whatever it takes to get attention.  They can slur individuals without evidence, make absurd claims without proof, and bring discord and division to people who should know better.

So this is where free speech gets messy.  When so-called free speech includes lies, slurs, insults, unwarranted accusations, and more that can potentially reach millions of people, it is dangerous to individuals and society.  We try, imperfectly, to mitigate that danger through laws governing bias and hate, but the likes of Zuckerberg battle against both honesty and integrity, in the name of the almighty dollar.  You heard me correctly; Zuckerberg has no personal or professional integrity.

And that means that Facebook has no desire to mitigate such danger.  Zuckerberg knows this, but his advertising dollars are more important to him.  In a sense, he is propagating his own set of lies in order to achieve his goals of money and power.  And he is succeeding, despite the cost to society.

I debated writing this at all, because no one has listened to my screeds of Facebook in the past.  And Zuckerberg certainly has a much broader reach than I could ever hope to achieve.

I don’t believe that Zuckerberg is naïve to the subtilities and practical limitations of free speech in the Facebook era.  However, he is highly cognizant of the profits he makes by allowing anything, whether or not truthful in any sense of the word, to be given the same credence as real news and facts.

And don’t kid yourself; the MSM still delivers the vast majority of truth that is published.  Facebook is not a news creator; they have no reporters or editorial staff.  They get their “news” from those whose interest it is to manufacture it, and to pay for it.

The only other thing I will add is that we (well, not me, because I have never used Facebook) enable Zuckerberg to pervert free speech into whatever he wants in order to make money.  Remember that the next time you log on.

Burn Baby, Burn October 13, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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To those born in approximately my coming of age (I was perhaps a few years later), that statement has a very specific meaning.  It was the rallying cry of some blacks in the 1960s who felt oppressed by the legacy of racism, supposedly wiped out by Brown Versus the Board of Education, but in reality existing to this day and beyond.  The only way they believed they could achieve practical equality was to burn the existing structures to the ground and start over again.  I don’t personally subscribe to that ideal, but I get the sentiment.

In my coming of age, I read the likes of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  From them, I took away some truths that 45 years later I still consider absolutes.  First, while there are different points of view, there is such a thing as Truth; the current narrative of alternative facts is scary in its acceptance by so many people.

Second, people are both capable and free of making up their own minds.  I am not an Ellen DeGeneres fan by any means, but she spoke truth when she said we can be friends with people who don’t share our views.  Yet she was still pilloried, simply for attending a baseball game with George W. Bush.

Last, we do not burn books.  Ever.  However much we may disagree with them.  I used this YouTube clip in a presentation recently, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where there was a book-burning party in Nazi Berlin.  “We are pilgrims in an unholy land,” said Henry Jones Sr, upon happening upon the event.  This could never ever happen again, right.

Except that it has.  At Georgia Southern University, students have burned the books of author Jennine Capó Crucet, which target a world of white privilege.  Students there disagreed, and showed their disagreement by burning her books.  University officials said these students were exercising their First Amendment rights, and face no retribution.

I’ve not read anything by Crucet.  I may not like her books either, or agree with her premise or conclusions.  But there is a visceral emotion that would prevent me from ever burning them.

The problem is that partisanship and activism have become careers, and many people today aspire to a lifetime of anger against others.  We display our credentials through our hatred, rather than anything we’ve accomplished in life.

Ideas are invaluable.  Once lost, they cannot be replaced.  To wantonly destroy the expression of ideas is against everything I believe.  They may not be your ideas of a lifetime, in which case you can simply shrug and move on.

That’s not to say that all ideas have the same value.  But if we actively hate, we are doing damage not only to ourselves, but also to society.  Think about that before you burn your next book.

How Science Works October 11, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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About 65 million years ago, give or take, dinosaurs roamed the Earth.  Then, on a single day (more or less), a massive asteroid struck in what is today the southern Gulf of Mexico, just north of the Yucatan Peninsula.  A decade or two ago, there was evidence of a massive asteroid strike in the Gulf of Mexico at the K-T boundary.  Seemingly, this changed the Earth’s climate so drastically that dinosaurs became extinct (this took likely a million or so years).  While this theory was first proposed about two decades ago, it is receiving additional support through further research.

None of this is known in an absolute sense; there were no witnesses, of course.  Paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, and more have deduced this from evidence on the ground.  You will truly be amazed at the amount of effort scientists have put into discerning the distant past.

It’s important to note that the evidence is not first-hand.  Scientists typically start with a theory, then look for clues that support or reject the theory.  The clues are not clear-cut.  Other scientists pose alternative theories.  More research is conducted.  Based on the preponderance of research, one theory may win out over time, but other scientific theories may still be valid.  We may never know truth in an absolute sense.

I remember, now about 45 years ago, a novel by Larry Niven called Lucifer’s Hammer, which postulated a modern-day (well, the 1970s) asteroid strike on the Earth.  For months before the strike, the possibility was dismissed because the margin or error was too large.  That margin of error became smaller and smaller, until the day the asteroid, in major pieces, hit various parts of the Earth.  But only the “kooks” bought into it before the margin of error equaled certainty.

All science is messy, and that causes many people fits.  Theories are proposed, supported, refuted, and supported further.  We had Newton’s Three Laws (which are not the same as Asimov’s fictional Three Laws), until Einstein proposed a more accurate theory.  But Newton’s laws are still useful for many computations, and in a physical sense, easier to understand.  So we continue to use them.

Too many otherwise educated people become frustrated at the ambiguities and contradictions of science, and reject the conclusions because they don’t like the process.  Others fail to grasp the nuances, and fall back on undocumented legends and stories.

Does this mean we should reject science because it is a work in progress?  Many people say yes, reverting to other beliefs.  We think that science is all certainty, and when we become disillusioned, we reject everything.  But that’s not how science works.  As we are increasingly in a world where it may take decades or longer to discern truth, or even never completely be cognizant of truth, we can’t reject science because we don’t like the process.

One More Trip Around the Sun September 11, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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And it is once again 9/11, eighteen years later.  I was a working mid-career adult at the time, and it is striking to me that people who are voting for the first time this year were likely not even born on that date.  It is history to them, and that is how it should be.  My own memories remain vivid, at work, knowing that the world had just changed, but not knowing what that meant as to just how.

It’s personal to me, though perhaps not in a deep sense.  I lost friends and colleagues that day.  Last year, I did a virtual road race in support of their memories, as well as those who were first responders.  This year, I wanted to once again acknowledge those memories.

Today, we are afraid, not like we were in the immediate aftermath of that day.  I remember that evening, watching President Bush walk across the White House lawn to a podium set up out in the open.  He was as protected as any human being could be, yet I cringed that yet another airplane, or a missile, could come crashing down at any moment.

Today we are afraid of the randomness of our existence.  We could be at work, at the mall, in a restaurant, and our next breath could be our last.  Of course, that was always true, but we believed we had a modicum of control over our future and our fate, only to be violently reminded that we are players in a larger drama.

If you could, please take a moment today to remember those who were going about their daily lives, only to have the Fates suddenly and randomly cut their cords short.  And remember those first responders who gave their lives and their health to do their difficult jobs to the best of their ability.  Thank you.

Nuke the Hurricanes! August 27, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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The topic of dropping a nuclear bomb into a hurricane is currently making the rounds in general purpose journalism and politics.  The theory intrigues many people, in large part because it assumes that humans can exercise a large amount of control over their environment.

Now, I am not a meteorologist, but I think I understand a little bit of the physics involved.  First, a hurricane is likely far too large to be torn apart by a nuclear weapon of modest megaton explosive capability.  There may be some disruption of wind forces, but not at all stop a hurricane in its tracks.  Those who have been in hurricanes (I have been in two Category 1 systems) realize the incredible power of such systems, and how we are just bit players in a cataclysmic event.

Second, the more profound result is the spread of nuclear fallout across wide regions of the world.  The enormous winds of a hurricane will only serve to spread radiation across oceans and continents, endangering people and environment.

Instead, a more intriguing alternative was proposed by fiction writer (and university marine engineering professor) Hilbert Schenck in his 1983 novella Hurricane Claude.  Schenck postulates a hurricane similar to the unnamed 1938 Northeast hurricane (often called the Great New England Hurricane, or the Long Island Express) that wreaked havoc on Long Island, and devises an extremely powerful electrical current from a plane at 30,000 feet to a boat of the surface in the middle of a hurricane.

The problem is with the boat, of course.  Despite being waterproof and presumably unsinkable (of course, it hadn’t been tested in a major hurricane), the pounding taken had the potential to kill anyone on board, even if they are protected from drowning.

But there are still larger problems with Schenck’s concept.  Now, it is not at all clear that an electrical charge, no matter what its intensity, would affect a hurricane.  He presents a compelling case, but I have no idea if it is backed by science (Schenck died in 2013).  And it’s not clear that an airplane and boat can generate the electrical current required.

And even if it did work, would there be a larger environmental fallout?  It’s impossible to tell without trying it, yet the worst case is likely worse than we can imagine.

While Schenck presents an interesting possibility, I’m not sure this can ever reasonably be tested.  But it makes for a better read than a nuclear bomb.

The Future of Flight August 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I thoroughly enjoy travel.  Connecting with other regions and cultures only serves to educate me on just how much we all have in common.  Whether the city is a thousand years old (Tallinn) or a couple hundred years old (Helsinki), I marvel at everything and everyone.

As a flight aficionado, I don’t even mind getting there.  I’ve always been fascinated by aviation, and actually enjoy getting on a commercial airline to go somewhere distant.

However, this article from The Conversation, via Quartz, is right about one thing.  Air travel as we know it is unsustainable from an environmental point of view.  We are still burning massive amounts of petrocarbons to get relatively few people from one place to another.  Prominent people from Meghan Markle to Greta Thunberg are being shamed for their jet travel (unjustly, in part because so many more egregious cases abound; remember when GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt had a second corporate jet follow him around the world, on the off chance that the first one broke down somewhere?).

Here are the four solutions proposed, along with my semi-educated take on them.

  1. Limit and meter air travel by individuals. I presume that this will be accompanied by ways to buy flight credits for those with the need to travel more.  I also presume that politicians will exempt themselves.  Won’t work, of course.  It would put dozens of carriers and air manufacturers out of business with far less air travel.  It would hurt other businesses who would not be able to travel to support their business goals.  Further, this would lead back to air travel being a privilege for the wealthy, rather than a right of all.  It’s funny that most solutions proposed by elitists serve to benefit them at the expense of others.This alternative also included high-speed trains as a way to replace air travel.  It works to some extent in Europe and Japan.  However, both have a smaller land area and denser population (Japan especially), and that makes a huge difference.  Even in the dense Northeast, the Acela beyond short distances is problematic.  New York to California will take 2-3 days.  I’ve even tried to work trains into my conference travels, and they simply take too long to work.
  2. Electric-powered aircraft. This one seems intriguing; I used to think torque was a problem in electric motors, until I rode in a Tesla.  But the overwhelming problem here remains weight, particularly battery weight.  Weight is a consideration in cars; it is /the/ consideration in aircraft.  The first electric aircraft may well be hybrids, like cars, but that doesn’t overcome the weight issues.  While there may be opportunities here, they are not right around the corner.In 1988 Hilbert Schenck wrote a science fiction story of a nuclear-powered bomber that heated water to steam to turn engine turbines.  While steam is extremely powerful, it lacks torque, leading to the building of a 20-mile runway in northern Maine (think Loring AFB run amok).  The bomber only got off the ground because of clever manipulations by the command pilot.  And, of course, we can’t go building 20-mile runways all over the place.  And I’m not sure how that solution would work with jet engines.
  3. Bring back the zeppelin. Once again, this is creating a solution by the elite for the elite.  Those who can afford to take three or four days to cross the Atlantic are welcome to it.  But that won’t solve the pollution problem, because most people don’t have unlimited leisure time.
  4. Orbital maglev trains. As near as I can tell from the description, kind of a Jacob’s Ladder with frictionless acceleration and velocity at about 80km above the planet’s surface.  But there’s been no actual R&D here, so it is very much pie in the sky, at least for decades.

I applaud ways to consider less-unfriendly alternatives to enable travel, but these are pretty much off the charts.  More efficient engines, lighter (composite) aircraft, and better ATC aircraft routings are things we can do today to ease climate change, rather than 50 or 100 years from now.