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 23 July 2014

I’ll be back. More posts coming… really!

June 13th, 2014

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Just a quick announcement:

Any regular readers will notice a great lack of new posts recently. I’m aware of this, obviously, and it certainly has resulted in a big reduction in traffic.

No, I have not given up blogging and no this site is not dead. However, I’m in the midst of a major political situation which is taking all of my time for the moment. I do, however, hope to be able to make a couple of new posts in the next week or two and I will certainly make many more in the future.

In all likelihood, my time will be very limited and posts will be relatively few up until July. Thereafter, I will have a bit more time in August, but expect to be consumed once again in September and October. Then, following November, I’ll either have a lot of free time or very little time.

While you’re waiting, feel free to contribute to my political campaign. Yes, I know, it’s a blatant call for money, and I hate doing it, but it will make a difference, I can promise you that.


Posted in Announcements, personal, Website

Tomorrow Is When I Will (hopefully) Get the Nomination

May 15th, 2014

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Just a brief announcement: Tomorrow is the state Republican Convention. It’s the day when delegates will vote on who the candidates are for state and Federal offices.

I am competing with one other for the nomination to be the party-sponsored candidate for the US Congress. I’m pretty confident I will get it, but a lot can change, even at the last minute.

If you want to watch it happen, you can do so on the Connecticut Network, which has streaming live coverage of the convention caucuses. The Congressional one starts at 4PM Eastern Time.


Posted in Announcements, Misc, personal, Politics

Ivanpah Solar Power Facility Is Incinerating Birds

May 11th, 2014

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The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility is a very large solar thermal power facility.  And by “very large,” I mean very large.  In fact, it is so enormous it’s hard to even wrap your mind around how large it is.   It also cost about 2.2 billion dollars, which is quite a lot of money.   A reasonably sized nuclear power plant could be built for the same cost.  In the US, this would be difficult, given the regulatory costs, but other countries have built modern Generation III+ reactors for two billion dollars per unit or less.

 solarfacility

Of course, that’s just the capital cost.  It’s harder to pin down the operational cost.  As many will point out, it doesn’t use any fuel in the conventional sense.  But it does employ 86 full time workers, plus an even larger number of contractors.  It also has a lot of sensitive equipment baking in the sun, which is likely to need frequent replacement.   It’s hard to know exactly what it costs to operate the plant and what the cost per kilowatt hour comes out to be, because the operators have kept much of the relevant financial data confidential.

What is known is that the agreed price per wholesale kilowatt hour is “at or below” 12.5 cents per kwh, before time and demand adjustments.  That would seem to imply it is more expensive than other methods of power generation.   Published data indicates the cost of operating a solar thermal power plant is more than 2.5 times that of a coal or nuclear facility.  The Ivanpah facility may benefit from economics of scale to bring that down a bit, but it’s still clear that the plant has a much higher cost per megawatt-hour than a fossil fuel power station.

None the less, plants like Ivanpah are financially viable, at least for the time being.  They receive massive tax credits and other

But in terms of power output, it’s not actually that big…

The total nameplate capacity of the Ivanpah facility is anticipated to be 377 megawatts, when complete.  That’s not small, but it’s not really that large either.  In utility terms, if it were a standard thermal power plant, it would be considered medium sized.  By comparison, a modern nuclear facility with two generation III+ reactors might have an output of between 2.5 and 3.5 gigawatts.  Large coal and gas plants can be equally large and occasionally larger.

floatingpowersystem377 megawatts, however, would be enough to power the New York City subway system, but not during rush hour.  It would power a medium sized aluminum smelter.  It would not be enough to power a city of any size, but could provide the power used by a medium sized town on a summer day.

Of course, 377 MW is the anticipated nameplate capacity of the plant.  The capacity factor is only about 30%, meaning that the plant could be thought of as the equivalent of a continuously operating base-load power plant that produces about 110-120 megawatts.  Most nuclear and coal plants operate at near full capacity most of the time.  There are also many hydroelectric plants that crank out a continuous 120 megawatts night and day.

In utility terms, that’s hardly a lot of power.  It’s more than enough to power everything in many homes, but a power plant with this capacity would not be considered very large at all. It’s more in line with the kind of “distributed” power plants that might be used to provide local peaking and load-following.  It’s less power than a large ship produces.  Even a single 747 can produce more power when cruising.  It is, however, enough to power a few dozen small to medium sized locomotives.

So it is not tiny but not that big, and comes at a huge financial cost.

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Posted in Bad Science, Enviornment, Politics

Some Are Up In Arms Over Bodies Being Used For Crash Experiments

May 1st, 2014

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Cars have never been safer.  That fact is largely due to the use of crash tests and destructive experiments conducted on car designs.   Similar tests have improved the safety of everything from airline seats to passenger rail cars.

To do these tests, sophisticated crash test dummies have been developed.  These dummies have improved vastly over the years.  They are reusable, packed with sensors and designed to accurately mimic the human body’s response to crashes.

However, to make these dummies and to validate their response, there must be something to compare them to.  Ideally, that would be real, living, breathing, healthy, humans.  Unfortunately, ethics boards tend to have a problem with using humans for anything other than the most benign of crash tests.  Living human volunteers are still used for some things, like range of motion measurements or determining things like tissue density.  When it comes to actual crash tests, however, it’s dead humans, cadavers, that are used to conduct the tests.

The overwhelming majority of crash tests don’t use cadavers, but they remain an important part of research.  The bodies are treated with respect and are generally wrapped in materials that cover parts like the face and hands.  But, in the end, they are hurled against things and beaten to a pulp before being x-rayed or autopsied to determine the injuries sustained.

This really bothers some people a lot…


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Most of the bodies used are from those who never granted specific permission to use their remains in crash tests, but did donate their bodies to science.  There is no requirement that those who agreed to have their bodies used for scientific purposes are given more details about what kind of research that might be.  In fact, it’s often not until after they die that it is determined how the body will be used.

I find the distaste for this to be misplaced.  If one donates their body to science, it is to be expected that things will happen to it that might not be pretty.  If it doesn’t get hurled against a wall, it will be chopped up in pathology studies or anatomy classes or it might be left out to rot in decay studies.  No, it’s not pleasant to think of, especially with loved ones, but it’s not much worse than the alternative.  If not donated to science, the body will either be put into the ground to rot or burned.   Neither of these are really something many of us want to look forward to.  But that’s death, which is something I am trying to put off for as long as reasonably possible.

If nothing else, this use of cadavers could be considered the most important, at least in so far as its impact on the living.  Few other experiments represent a more direct means of saving human lives.

Personally, I do not find it deceptive to not tell donors or their families about the possibilities of crash tests.  The best way of dealing with a grieving family, in my opinion, is to provide some basic information.  For example, one could say “Your relative has decided to donate their body to science.  Their remains will be used in a manner that will advance scientific and medical knowledge.   There are a number of ways this might happen.  We could give you the details about the kind of experiments carried out, but to be honest, you would probably wouldn’t want to hear all the details.”

It’s no different than most funeral arrangements.  Families may know their loved one will be embalmed and prepared for display and burial.  However, they aren’t normally given the full details about how the deceased will have their blood drained, their eyes glued shut and cotton balls stuffed up their anus.  That’s just not a picture most would want to have.

 

 


Posted in Bad Science, Culture, Good Science, Misc

People Panicing Over Military Equipment Shipped By Rail

April 25th, 2014

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Imagine this:  you see a train pass you by and rather than just having nondescript boxcars or inter-modal containers, it has *gasp* military vehicles on it.  It’s as if the military sometimes has to ship vehicles from one place to another!   Well, this has been happening, in fact, it seems that this activity is increasing and the result is about what you might have expected.  Youtubers and conspiracy theorists are posting videos like crazy saying it is a sure sign of impending marshal law/genocide/mass imprisonment or something similar.


The simple answer as to why you might see tanks and large trucks on trains:  they burn a lot of fuel.  Trains tend to be more efficient as a means of transporting military hardware.

Also, treaded vehicles can’t be driven on US roadways, and even if they could, they are too slow to keep up with traffic on highways.  They therefore must be transported by flat bed trucks or railroad.  Rail is the preferred method when moving more than a small number.

There are a number of reasons why tanks and other equipment might be shipped in mass on rail:

  1. There is some kind of realignment or transition in the location of forces which results in it being sent between installations.
  2. It is required for a training exercise or some other temporary function.
  3. The equipment is new and being deployed to the location where it is to be kept.
  4. It is traveling to or from a facility where it has been refurbished or had other major maintenance preformed.
  5. It has recently returned from deployment overseas.
  6. It is on its way to deployment overseas.
  7. It is surplus equipment which is being disposed of, which could include any number of ultimate fates, including scrapping, sales to other armed forces, sales to private entities etc.
  8. It is being placed in long term storage in a location where it will be in “mothballs.”  Typically this is at one of a few large installations located in the Western US.

Transition of equipment by train is quite common and routine.  It’s also nothing new.  During the Second World War and into the height of the Cold War, military equipment trains were a very common site.  Though the practice never really went away, it is not surprising that the practice would have recently increased in frequency.

The United States has withdrawn from Iraq and is currently drawing down troop levels in Afghanistan.  The result of this is that huge numbers of military vehicles have been brought back to the US.  These are likely to be shipped on trains to the facilities where they will be stored.  It has been pointed out that many of the vehicles have been seen in green forest camouflage color schemes, leading to the claim that they must not be related to the activities in the middle-east.  However, these vehicles may simply be those which have been displaced by the return of other vehicles, which has resulted in a huge realignment of assets.

One of the biggest realignments of vehicles is occurring with the MRAP or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. Thousands of vehicles of this type were purchased in huge numbers by the US military during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are designed to be highly survivable when attacked by IED’s, landmines, rocket propelled grenades and other such weapons. This was a direct response to the tactics used against the US by insurgents.

The vehicles worked very well and resulted in a reduction in the deaths of soldiers from ambushes on convoys. However, the military now has thousands more MRAP’s than it requires. Although several thousand will be retained, more than 13,000 are in the process of being declared surplus. Some are being given to law enforcement agencies (which does present some concerns of the militarization of police forces) while others are behind sold to allied nations. Still others are off to the scrap heap or the bone-yard.

Transporting all these vehicles to reprocessing facilities and then to their ultimate fate represents yet another huge logistical challenge.

A few other things to consider (if we are to play devils advocate):

  1. Tanks are not very good for urban warfare.  They might work for breaking down some of the initial barriers, but they are too big to go through narrow allies or streets, too heavy for many bridges and overpasses and pavement causes a great deal of wear on the treads (and the treads cause a lot of wear on the pavement).  They’re better for warfare in more open and unsettled areas.   Also, the sheer armor of tanks would not be necessary for war against the population, where they would likely only face small arms fire.
  2. Those big heavy vehicles use a huge amount of fuel, so if they are planning on actually driving them around, they would also be transporting an equal number of tanker trucks.  In modern military activities, the logistics of fuel delivery turns out to be a huge issue.  Raiding the local gas stations won’t keep them moving very long.  The fuel tanks might be large enough to ferry the vehicles off the train cars, but sustained combat means huge fuel requirements.
  3. When military vehicles need to be brought to an area for something urgent, like combat, trains are not generally the best method for transportation.  Trains are cheap, but they are slow, vulnerable, subject to delays etc.  If they wanted to quickly deploy urban combat vehicles, they would airlift them in.  That way, it could be done rapidly, before anyone even knew what was happening.  Tanks can be brought in on large cargo planes.  It’s fast and effective, but expensive.
  4. A train full of tanks is not going to do much good in declaring marshal law unless you can get the tanks off the train.  That is more involved than you might think.  It requires parking the train, separating the cars, with switching engines, rolling the tanks down ramps and removing any equipment used to secure them during transport.  For a large train, this is not a trivial task.  It requires a rail yard with the proper equipment, which exist on military bases, but not generally in random city locations.
  5. If they really wanted to hide them, it would not be that hard to put them in large boxes or just cover them with tarps to make it more discrete.  Do you really think they would be doing this in broad daylight?
  6. Many of these videos are months old.  A few are years old.  This has been going on for a while.  Granted, the government is slow, but that slow?  How long do you think they are going do be doing this evil transportation before they pounce on you?

Posted in Bad Science, Conspiracy Theories, Just LAME, Misc

Why do enviornmental groups hate desalination?

April 12th, 2014

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Water is one of the most important resources to society.  The availability of water has dictated the locations of some cities and limited the growth of others.  It is also one of the major necessities for agriculture.

Many areas have limited supplies of water and others are prone to shortages or droughts.  Still others do have sufficient water supplies, but in securing necessary water, huge quantities had to be diverted, resulting in ecological disasters such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

kennedyquoteOf course, there is an effectively limitless supply of water in the world’s oceans, and many of the most arid regions are located near the coast.  However, ocean water is far too salty for consumption by humans, for irrigation and for most other uses.   Thus, it is not that the world lacks water – we have plenty of it, but that many areas lack fresh water.

Therefore, assuming it could be made economical, desalination would seem like an ideal solution to this persistent problem.  Desalination is the only source of water that can be considered to be, for all intents and purposes, unlimited.  After all, all nearly all water ends up back in the ocean anyway.  With desalination, there are no concerns over droughts or of overdrawing an aquifer.  There are no seasonal shortages or reduction in the availability of water.

It could also be argued that desalination, in and of itself, has virtually no negative ecological consequences.  The need for water has lead to aquifers being depleted, rivers being diverted, lakes running dry and to the construction of massive dams and canals, sometimes with severe environmental consequences.   Therefore, even in areas where adequate fresh water is available, using desalination for basic water needs could greatly reduce the impacts of water sourced from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

The only negative environmental consequence associated with desalination is the need to dispose of the highly concentrated brine that is produced.  Separating the water from the sale of seawater means that salt must be disposed of.  It is usually in the form of a highly concentrated brine, much more salty than the water that was taken in.  This brine is not itself toxic, but the salinity levels are too high for most marine life.   If it were to be discharged directly into the ocean, it would result in the area around the discharge becoming too salty for most marine life.

This is certainly not an unmanageable problem.  The most obvious solution is to dilute and disperse the waste bring back into the ocean.  This is possible, but it can be a major task for large facilities.  Other options include recycling the brine into a useful product.  For example, it can be used to produce saltcrete.  Or, it can be further concentrated and then dried into salt, which can be sold commercially.

desalplantoperationalwThe one major downside of desalination is that it is energy intensive, far more energy intensive than more conventional means of obtaining freshwater. In addition to energy usage, desalination plants can be complicated, and the handling of saltwater requires the use of corrosion-resistant materials.  The water produced often requires additives for PH adjustment and the addition of trace minerals.  All of this adds to the expense of desalination as a water source.

For this reason, it is not generally used if other alternatives exist.  Many parts of the world, including much of the middle east and numerous islands are dependent on desalination to provide for their basic water needs.  While it does work for this, it remains the option of last resort, due to the economics.

That said, the economics of desalination have been improving steadily over the years.  With increasing demand for water, a great deal has been invested in desalination research and development.  New plants are constantly being built with ever-increasing efficiency and improved economics.  In recent years, major improvements have been made to reverse osmosis-based water desalination systems, which are now being deployed on an industrial scale.  The efficiency of distillation systems have also improved with the introduction of better heat recovery and multiple-effect distillation.

Modern desalination plants can now get a large portion of their energy requirements from the waste heat produced by power generation.  The use of co-generation for desalination further improves economics and reduce energy requirements.  Nuclear desalination is an especially appealing option, since nuclear reactors can produce ample process heat without emissions.  The Soviet Union built a highly successful plant to produce water from the Caspian Sea and today, India and China are exploring the use of nuclear reactors to run large desalination plants.

So, desalination is a good thing and we would like to see it continue to improve and become more economical, so it could be put to greater use….right?

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Posted in Agriculture, Bad Science, Enviornment, Good Science, Politics

Don’t Worry, Yellowstone Won’t (Likely) Erupt

April 4th, 2014

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Yellowstone National Park is a true national treasure of the United States and indeed is one of the world’s most unique and majestic natural settings.  The park is home to pristine wilderness and wildlife and to numerous dramatic geothermal features like geysers and hot springs.  The park is visited by more than three million per year and is one of the most popular national parks in the world.

The unique topography and geothermal activity are the result of a massive supervolcano which the park sits above.  It has been more than two million years since the volcano had a “mega eruption” amd 70,000 since it had even a minor eruption event. Still, if it were to erupt, it has the potential to cause devastation to the United States, North America, the Western Hemisphere and even the entire world.  Those outside of North America would likely be spared the most direct effects, although there could be noticeable climate effects.  However, the sheer volume of North American farmland that would be devastated would result in a global food crisis.

There a reasonable possibility that Yellowstone will erupt some time in the next hundred thousand years, but the probability of it erupting in any of our lifetimes is miniscule.

Still, many are becoming extremely concerned after a number of videos showed up online reporting to show bison or other animals fleeing the Yellowstone area.  It must mean the whole thing is about to blow… right?   According to some it does.  Because these original videos were followed by many conspiracy-oriented videos claiming that the government is keeping down the information about the impending eruption.


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Posted in Bad Science, Conspiracy Theories, Good Science, History, Just LAME, media, Misc

UN Court Orders Japan To Stop Antarctic Whaling

March 31st, 2014

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I have said it before and I will say it again: if you want to persuade Japan to stop whaling, then you must do so through diplomacy and legal methods.  It’s not that I am a huge fan of whaling, but the actions of Sea Shepherd are totally ineffective, counter-productive, extremely dangerous and highly illegal.  They qualify as acts of piracy, as they are a direct attack on the safety of unarmed vessels on the high seas.

For those who actually would like to see Japanese whaling come to an end, there has recently been a major step in that direction.  And no, it did not happen because a group of idiot activists were ramming Japanese vessels.

Via The New York Times:

U.N. Court Orders Japan to Halt Antarctic Whaling

PARIS — The United Nations’ highest court on Monday ordered Japan to halt its annual whaling hunt in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, saying that its present program was not being carried out for scientific purposes, as Japan has claimed.

In a 12-to-4 judgment, the International Court of Justice in The Hague found that Japan was in breach of its international obligations by catching and killing minke whales and issuing permits for hunting humpback and fin whales within the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, established by the International Whaling Commission.

Reading a summary of the judgment, presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia said that the present “research program,” dating to 2005, has involved the killing of 3,600 minke whales and a number of fin whales, but that its “scientific output to date appears limited.” The ruling suggested instead that Japan’s whaling hunt served political and economic reasons.

Lawyers attending the proceedings said there was a gasp in the audience when Judge Tomka ordered Japan to immediately “revoke all whaling permits” and not issue any new ones under the existing program.

“I rarely heard such an unequivocal, strong ruling at this court,” said a lawyer with long experience at the court who asked not to be named because he is working on a case in progress.

The ruling is binding, and Japan cannot appeal. No immediate reaction from Japan was available, although it has said it would abide by any judgment in the case. But a Japanese delegate said in earlier hearings that Japan might consider withdrawing from the whaling commission, which oversees management of the world’s whale populations.

The court left open the possibility for future whale hunting if Japan redesigned its program. Tokyo has said that it needs data to monitor the impact of whales on its fishing industry and to monitor the whale population’s recovery from overfishing.

Unfortunately, the times article went on to quote a Sea Shepherd representative on the issue, which is a shame, because those idiots should not be regarded as a respectable authority on the issue or even legitimate anti-whaling activists. There are plenty of groups out there who oppose Japanese whaling and do so through legal and sane means.

It’s important to note that while this is a big step, it does not mean that Japan won’t conduct any further whaling or that the issue is closed.   First, this only applies to the Antarctic region.  Although that is the most high profile region of Japanese whaling, the Japanese also conduct whaling in the northern Pacific and that is not affected by the ruling.

Another important consideration is that the decision only reflects Japan’s commitment to the International Whaling Commission treaty.  There is no standing international law against whaling in general.  The only reason Japan is restricted from whaling is that the country signed a treaty to abide by IWC rules.  Those rules include a ban on whaling for all but research purposes.  It should be noted that the research clause was, in part, inserted into the general ban on whaling to appease Japan, who wished to continue whaling activities.  Calling it “research” makes it more politically palatable.

Therefore the court has ruled that Japan must cease whaling because their activities do not quality as “research,” and therefore are not in line with the rules of the treaty.  However, because it’s a voluntary treaty, Japan could potentially respond by simply choosing to withdraw from the IWC.  They have the right to do so.   They just might end up doing that, as they have considered withdrawing before.

As a result of these limits, this ruling should not be regarded as an the ultimate victory in the fight against whaling.  What Japan will do next is unclear.  Though they have stated they will abide by the ruling, they may decide to leave the IWC, thus voiding their treaty obligations, or they may simply shift the focus of their whaling program to other ocean regions.   None the less, this is still a major step toward reducing or eliminating Japanese whaling.   If the effort to do so is successful, it will be through diplomacy, appeals to the Japanese public and legal efforts and not through harassing whaling vessels with dangerous and illegal stunts.


Posted in Bad Science, Culture, Enviornment, Good Science, Politics

Electric Taxiing May Provide Signifficant Aircraft Fuel Savings

March 27th, 2014

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While looking at some aircraft videos on Youtube I came across a new technology which will soon be available in both new aircraft and for retrofit applications on existing airliners. The technology in question is electric wheel motors for taxiing.

While it might not seem like a big fuel user, aircraft burn significant fuel while taxing around airports after landing and before takeoff. This is because jet engines happen to be especially inefficient when idled and operating at low power settings. Therefore, once the aircraft starts up its engines and uses them to slowly move down the taxiway, it is burning significant quantities of fuel. For short-run flights, with frequent landings and takeoffs, up to 5-10% of fuel can be burned on the ground.

Airbus, Honeywell and others have been developing a system which replaces this with an electric-driven system. It uses light weight electric motors connected directly to the wheels of the aircraft. Power is provided by the aircraft’s APU. The APU uses significantly less fuel than the main engines of the aircraft.


The system has some other major benefits. Control is far more nimble and precise than is achieved using jet thrust, and less time running the jet engines on the ground means less chance for FOD to be sucked into the intakes and damage the engines. The systems also allow the aircraft to reverse on their own. Normally this would require the assistance of a pushback tractor. As a result, the aircraft can leave the gate without needing to wait for a tractor could simplify and expedite the procedures for entering and departing gates.

This technology has not been deployed earlier for a number of reasons. First, aviation tends to be very conservative about adopting new and unproven systems, especially when existing ones get the job done. Secondly, weight is always an issue, so it has required manufacturers to develop a full system of electric taxiing that is light enough that its additional weight is more than offset by the savings provided.

There have also been efforts to save additional fuel by keeping the APU off for longer periods of time or using a smaller APU through the use of more on board battery capacity. Unfortunately this has been problematic both because of the weight of batteries and because of the problems experienced with high capacity and lightweight lithium ion batteries on aircraft such as the 787.


Posted in Good Science, Misc

Malaysia Airlines 370 and Reporters Who Have No Idea What They Are Talking About

March 21st, 2014

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The disappearance

of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is, without doubt, one of the strangest episodes in recent aviation history.  Though it has not been found, the current evidence seems to indicate that someone on board the plane, most likely a crew member, shut down most of the on board communications systems and then flew the plane in a direction away from its flight plan.  Given that the 777 aircraft has exceptionally long range capabilities and that it appears to have been headed toward a large area of open ocean, with no radar coverage, the search has been very difficult.

The reporting on this event has ranged the gamut from pretty good to absolutely horrible.  One of the worst things seen is the numerous glaring errors in major publications about basic technical facts regarding aviation and the aircraft in question.

Reporters, of course, don’t generally know a lot about commercial aviation, aerospace technology, search and rescue or any of the other specialized topics involved.  Degrees in journalism don’t usually requite training in basic aircraft systems.   That’s a given, as it is with most highly technical topics.  However, it’s not exactly difficult to find people who are real experts in the area.  So if you are reporting on a story for a newspaper or other publication, why not track down an actual expert before writing about transponders or ACARS or ETOPS requirements or anything of that kind?   In fact, I’d advise tracking down more than one, just to make sure the one you find first is not BS’ing you.

Here are some examples:

 

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Posted in Bad Science, media, Misc, Not Even Wrong