Archive for the ‘media’ Category

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

Friday, March 21st, 2014

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:



Bill Nye Debates Creationist Ken Ham

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

For those who don’t know, science advocate and educator Bill Nye recently debated young earth creationist Ken Ham in a highly publicized internet-broadcast event.

There have been many mixed feelings from the scientific community on the event.  Many of which, I would tend to agree with.  Debating a creationist really won’t do much of anything.  Believers will continue to believe in what they want, regardless of the arguments or evidence.  Those who look at things objectively will have no choice but accept evolution as a well tested and established scientific fact.

Some might say that the debate raises creationism to a level it does not deserve.  It is not a matter of debate for the scientific community; it was closed long ago.  If we were to assume the earth were thousands of years old, biology were the result of a being simply willing it to be so and the bible could guide all scientific thought, we would have to throw away most of the advancements of science.  Evolution is key to our understanding of biology.  We have seen it happen and have fossil evidence of how it has shaped life over the long term.

Some warned that Bill Nye could end up losing the debate, or just come off looking bad, if Ham backed him into a corner using contentions that were too illogical to easily and directly refute or by forcing Nye to waste his time providing a class in biology 101 in order to simply explain where he is coming from.  Given that creationism has no scientific evidence, only religious faith, it seems likely that a creationist would fall back on appealing logical fallacies.   It should be noted that one can be factually correct and still lose a debate if faced with a skilled opponent.

Thankfully, Bill Nye seems to have held his own.  Still, I tend to side with those who think it was unnecessary and generally unproductive to even bother engaging in the debate.   It didn’t change anyone’s mind.

Here’s the video for those interested (Starts at roughly 13:00)

The ELF Solar Bike-Car-Hybride Thingy: Another Vehicle That Makes Me ask “WHY?”

Friday, January 31st, 2014

The Organic Transit ELF has been getting a lot of attention recently.  It’s another vehicle that claims to be poised to revolutionize the way we get around.

Granted, in this day and age of global warming concerns, congested cities and high gas prices, it might seem natural to go looking for alternatives to automobiles.  Using human power also seems like a good idea, given the way to go, since many of us can use exercise anyway.

Via the Wall Street Journal:

Elf Electric Pedal Car: When 1 Horsepower Is Enough

Mr. Cotter is the founder and CEO of the Durham, N.C.-based Organic Transit, which makes the Elf: an ovoid, semi-enclosed, solar-chargeable, plug-in, bike-lane-legal, electric pedal car. Got that? With a 1-hp (750-watt) electric motor in the rear wheel hub and a lithium battery pack, or two, snugged into the center frame rail aft of the front wheels—and a plastic canopy to keep the weather off drivers—the Elf proposes a solution for urban commuters who want to leave the car at home but can’t quite hack the rigors of a conventional bicycle.

“We’re creating our own consumer product category,” said Mr. Cotter, whose operation in a downtown storefront in the former tobacco capital is bustling. The company has 1,500 orders in hand—more than enough to reach profitability, said Mr. Cotter, a TED talker who Kickstarted much of the original funding—and soon the company’s retinue of bike gurus and production staff (including some volunteers) will be moving to larger quarters downtown. Prices just went up: the Elf costs $4,995, more if you want the backup battery, the continuously variable transmission rear hub or the better solar panels.

The Elf’s capacity is 350 pounds; top assisted speed is 20 mph (it goes faster downhill); and the 10-amp-hour batteries offer a range of up to 30 miles, but the batteries last longer the more riders pedal. It takes one whole sunny day to charge a fully depleted battery with 60-watt roof-mounted solar panels.

Mr. Cotter and I took a couple of Elfs for a tour of Raleigh recently, and according to the vehicle’s smartphone-app instrumentation, I traveled 15.4 miles at an average speed of 15 mph; burned 586 calories (by pedaling) and displaced 15 pounds of CO2 (using solar watts). It’s a start.


The vehicle has gotten a huge amount of press and attention. It even managed to raise nearly a quarter of a million dollars on Kickstart – apparently from a large group of people who are genuinely convinced this is an amazing and revolutionary concept.   It’s even touted as the “Cleanest, most efficient vehicle on the planet”


I do not mean to rain on this parade, but I just don’t get it.  Not only is it not revolutionary, game-changing or the next big thing, but it seems to me that this is just a vehicle which serves the same roll as the bicycle, while being inferior in most respects and considerably more expensive.

Let me know if I am missing something or just wrong…


Just who decided to start “naming” snow storms

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Has anyone noticed something new about winter storms?   At least in the United States?   They now have names.   That’s right.   The Eastern US now is getting ready for Winter Storm Hercules.   That sounds rather impressive, given it’s the name of a Greek half-god known for strength.   This follows last years storms that include Athena and Nemo.   The names now seem ubiquitous, and even officials use them.   So you might ask, what government agency decided to start naming winter storms and when did they start?

The answer is none.  These names are not official and have no standing in any way shape or form other than being made up by the Weather Channel.


Around the 1940′s, forecasters ran into a problem when it came to big tropical storms.  With more communications, spotting aircraft and ships, they started getting reports of multiple storms at the same time.  They were also keeping more records and it was getting confusing.  “The Hurricane of 1938″ just did not cut it when it came to keeping one storm straight from the other.   Military meteorologists came up with a pretty simple system: any storm that was considered tropical storm force (sustained winds over 65 miles per hour) was given a letter.  They thus had “tropical storm A” and “Tropical storm B” etc.   The actual names, however, used the then-current phonetic alphabet, so the storms were actually called “Storm Able,” “Storm Baker,” “Storm Charlie” and so on.   The names were repeated each season.

HurricaneCarolIn 1953, the United States Weather Bureau started to standardize the names.  In 1953, there was a major policy change.  Phonetic alphabet names were replaced by a list of female names, which were assigned to each storm as it occurred.  In part this was because a new phonetic alphabet had been developed.

Initially, the plan seems to have been to reuse the same names each year, but in 1954, Hurricane Hazel and Hurricane Carol received a large amount of press and it was realized that reusing those names in 1955 would cause much confusion.  For that reason, a new policy of coming up with a new annual list of names to use was created.  Names are sometimes reused, but storms the practice is avoided for storms that are significant or strike land.  For storms that are especially significant, the names are officially retired.  Thus, there will never be another Hurricane Hugo or Katrina.   Initially the letters Q U X and Y were omitted from the list.  Today only the letter X is routinely left off the list of hurricane names.


“Psychic” Sylvia Browne Dead

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Perhaps it is in poor taste not to be a bit more sad and respectful of the dead, but if that is the case, let me be in poor taste.

There are many self-proclaimed psychics who take advantage of people who are in a state of grief or desperation.  One of the most odious has been Sylvia Browne.   A frequent guest on the Montel Williams show, she is known for having made a series of predictions that turned out to be dead wrong, such as saying Shawn Hornbeck was dead when he was later found alive.

While the more skeptical of us would not pay much attention, it did cause a great deal of pain to the families searching for their lost loved ones.

So bad were her scams that my friend Robert Lancaster started the page Stop Sylvia some time ago.

Well, now she is stopped….

Via the Huffington Post:


Jenny McCarthy to Join “The View”

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

For those who do not know what “The View” is, which is likely to be most who live outside the US and perhaps a few in the United States – it’s a popular television show on the ABC television network.   The morning talk show was created by Barbara Walters in 1998 and has included a number of Co-Hosts.   It’s reasonably popular and targeted primarily at women.  It is one of the longest running daytime talk shows in history.

Many co-hosts have come and gone, being replaced to maintain a panel of five women.    Now, with the departure of Elisabeth Hasselbeck, it has been announced that Jenny McCarthy will join the show as a co-host. Barbara Walters stated “We are delighted that Jenny will be joining us as a permanent co-host on ‘The View’ starting in September…Jenny brings us intelligence as well as warmth and humor. She can be serious and outrageous. She has connected with our audience and offers a fresh point of view. Jenny will be a great addition to the show as we usher in an exciting new chapter for ‘The View’”

This is not good news for anyone who likes science, good health, children and dislikes idiocy and infectious disease. While it is certainly true that the cast of “The View” is not exactly chosen based on their intellectual caliber, it’s worth noting that Jenny McCarthy has absolutely zero background in journalism, entertainment, commentary or anything else that can help bring “intelligence as well as warmth and humor.”

Jenny McCarthy would be unknown if not for the fact that she was Playboy’s Playmate of the Year in 1993. Following her career as a nude model, Ms. McCarthy had a few roles in B-list movies and TV show appearances. Her foray into writing and advocacy began after her so Evan, who was born in 2002, was diagnosed with Autism. Initially, McCarthy was a supporter of the “Indigo Child” movement, which claims that certain children have a special spiritual energy. Later she became a major promoter of alternative treatment for autism and of the belief that autism is caused by vaccination.

It is unfortunate that she will be on a program like “The View,” both because it gives her a platform to continue to spout her nonsense and because the demographic targeted by the view seems to be upper class women who are not working during the day (stay at home mom’s).   This happens to be a group that is especially prone to buying into anti-vaccine hysteria.

More than a Dozen Killed in Train Derailment in Canada

Monday, July 8th, 2013

It is always interesting to me to note that there is a much different response to how the media and public treat different types of disasters and dangers.

Recently, a Boeing 777 crashed on landing.   The reason seems to be human error.   The emergency evacuation protocol worked reasonably well.  Two lives were lost.   As with almost any plane accident, the media has been all over this.

When an incident happens at a nuclear plant, even a minor one, it makes headlines.  Nobody has been killed by an accident at a nuclear power plant Nobody has died as a result of a reactor malfunction or has any member of the public been killed by an accident at a nuclear power plant since Chernobyl, but when there is even a small risk, it seems to dominate the headlines.

Yet trains carry dangerous chemical cargo day in and day out.  Given the number of shipments, the safety record is reasonably good. Its not perfect, however, and people can and do die when trains derail and cause explosions or release massive amounts of toxic material.  Trains carrying dangerous cargo go traverse cities and towns on a daily basis.  Few, if any complain about this, but if you dare consider placing something radioactive on one, you can expect to face furious opposition.

Two days ago a train carrying petroleum products derailed in Quebec, resulting in an explosion and fire.   At least 13 people are confirmed dead.  Many more are missing.

Here, on the east coast of the US, which is not far at all from the event, the disaster was not the lead story on the news or even the second story.  It was not buried on page five of the paper, but it was not on the front page either.   It was on page two or three.   Most people, who do not pay a great deal of attention to the news, are likely unaware of it and, in a year, I would expect it will be largely forgotten.

I do not mean to make light of this.  Certainly it is a terrible event, and, almost certainly, there were safety procedures or protocols that were either not followed or broke down.   It should not have happened.  But it did and it does.  Industrial accidents happen.  When they involve massive amounts of chemical energy, it’s just not something that holds the public’s attention.

By the way, this should not be seen as a reason to oppose petroleum pipelines, but quite the opposite. Pipelines, especially modern ones recently built, are far and away the safest way of transporting petroleum. They rarely fail, and when they do, it is a leak that is not nearly as violent and is usually quickly contained.

Feds Say They Cracked “X-Ray Weapon” Plot

Friday, June 21st, 2013

One thing I am always especially bothered by is when a big deal is made out of a trumped-up claim that the government has thwarted a major terror plot, that is, in fact, either nothing of the sort, or not a real danger.  These news stories come up constantly and seem to reenforce the idea that we need to give more power and money to the various agencies involved.   They tell us both that we need to fear the danger of evil plots and credit the authorities for their diligent work in keeping us safe.

A recent example is the supposed “X-Ray Weapon” that has supposedly been stopped.   While the individuals involved may well have been attempting to build a deadly device, their hair-brained scheme was not likely to be an acute danger to anyone.

Via the New York Times:

2 Men Charged in Bid to Make Deadly X-Ray Weapon
In April 2012, the authorities said, an industrial mechanic walked into a synagogue in Albany and announced his intention to build a weapon that could help Israel kill its enemies while they slept. He wanted to know if anybody would provide financial backing. Turned away, prosecutors said, he sought money from another source: a leader in the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.

Both the synagogue and the white supremacist group told the authorities about the man, Glendon Scott Crawford, who, until his arrest this week, devoted himself to building a weapon of the sort he had promised, the authorities said. The weapon was an X-ray-emitting device that could be activated by remote control, which he intended to use to kill Muslims, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in Federal District Court in Albany.

Mr. Crawford, who the authorities say works for General Electric in Schenectady and lives in Galway, N.Y., believed the device would enable him to secretly poison people with lethal doses of radiation from a safe distance, the authorities said. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors charged Mr. Crawford, 49, and an engineer, Eric J. Feight, 54, of Hudson, N.Y., whom the authorities described as a co-conspirator who works in industrial automation, with conspiring to provide support for the building of a weapon of mass destruction. The authorities say Mr. Crawford relied on Mr. Feight to design the weapon.

Mr. Crawford, the authorities said, conceived of a powerful X-ray device that could be placed in a truck and driven near a target. The driver would park, leave the area and activate the device, “killing human targets silently and from a distance with lethal doses of radiation,” the complaint against the men stated.

To add to the hysteria, other news stories have said the men planned to use the device to target President Barack Obama or that they were members of the Tea Party (a political movement which has been labeled as everything from racist to terrorist.)

There is a lot of questionable information in the reports.  For one thing, if they were actual KKK members, one wonders why they would be seeking support from Jews or looking to target the “Enemies of Israel,” since the Ku Klux Klan hates Jews.   They also reportedly lived in upstate New York, an area which does not have any active chapters of the Klan.   They may just have been garden variety racists who sympathized with hate groups.


This Month In Radiophobia

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

We all know that radiophobia is rampant. Every time there is even a hint that someone might get exposed to some ionizing radiation, the media goes nuts. It seems like it’s the latest thing to write “studies” pegging cancer risk to medical x-rays or using the wrong kind of tile grout. Just for fun, I wanted to see how many news stories which qualify as “radiophobic” I could find for one month. Here’s what I found in the media, for May 2013:


High School Chemistry Demonstration Gone Wroing

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

One of the great benefits of the proliferation of cameras on phones and devices is that so many wonderful events of every day life are not captured and uploaded to the internet.

Here’s a great one from a high school chemistry class.

Now I’m all for hands-on learning, because it shows how science can be fun and helps demonstrate basic principles.   I’m not sure exactly what they are demonstrating here, but I’m guessing that it’s the fact that methane gas, the primary component of natural gas is both lighter than air and flammable.

What could possibly go wrong?    My first concern would be that they could inadvertently set fire to the ceiling.   Hanging ceiling tiles are supposed to be fire resistant, but that only means they will usually char slowly and self-extinguish.  They can still, under the right conditions, catch fire, and there are exampled of hanging ceilings that, for whatever reason, did not seem to meet the standards for fire resistance.   Hence, given the low elevation of the ceiling and the potential to start a fire, I would not consider this an entirely safe demonstration.

Thankfully, that did not happen.   However, something even funnier did…

I have no idea whether the teacher kept his job. My guess would be that he did, since teachers unions tend to be quite protective and he didn’t seem to have done anything overtly indefensible. (like an inappropriate relationship with a student or stealing from the school) But regardless, it’s pretty certain that he had some real egg on his face after this, and that by the time they got to the valve to shut down the sprinklers, there was a pretty huge mess to clean up and some substantial water damage.

One should remember that as far as chemistry demonstration mishaps go, many have gone far worse than this one!