Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Word on Censorship

Censorship can come in many forms that can range from governments to individuals.  It is usually a derogative term to describe the action of a person, either voluntarily or by force, to act, think, or create based on the dictates of another.  The most common form of this is self-censorship.  We behave, and alter our behavior to fit into a situation or set of circumstances that are within the learned social norms of the society where we live.

An example of this would be if we disagree with politician X, or their platform.  We may privately say, “If I ever meet politician X, I’m going to give them what for.  He/she is a jerk, and deserves a punch in the nose!”  This may be your feeling, and certainly, you are entitled to it.  However when you are confronted with the situation of being in the same room as politician X, you will probably not behave in a manner that would be contrary to your upbringing, or the situation at hand, and you certainly aren't justified in assault or battery.
I encountered this situation once.  I was once asked to work a political protection detail as part of my job as an EMT.  The politician in question was the Vice-President of the United States.  For about a day, I would follow his every move, and stand quietly behind the scenes in the event that I was needed.  I wasn’t.  My personal feelings toward this man were not positive.  I didn’t much care for this individual, or his politics, but that wasn’t my job.  My job was to insure that I would do my very best if he needed me.  When it came time for him to leave, we all stood in a line next to the plane to shake his hand.  When he got to me, I politely shook his hand, and told him it was an honor to meet him.  I had my picture taken with him (still haven’t ever seen it), and he left.  I didn’t tell him I thought he was a jerk, or what I thought of his politics.  I did what every decent person should do, and treated the situation appropriately.  It wasn’t the time for a political discussion, or debate.  It was a photo-op for my benefit, because I’m certain he neither knew or cared who I was.
This was my own self-censor to keep my attitude, and behavior in line with acceptable norms.  Unfortunately, the line between what is and isn’t acceptable seems to be forgotten in today’s society.  People (including myself) seem to have become so polarized that we have forgotten the art of tact, and decency.  We have become polarized to a degree that I’ve never seen.  It is commonplace to see people willing to go on offensive rants, use obscene language, belittle, behave outrageously, use caustic and hate filled words, personal attacks, demand retribution, servitude, and intolerance for opposing views.  People don’t seem to be interested in debating topics; they simply attempt to be louder and more obnoxious than their opponents are.  This attitude is detrimental to the continuation of a civil society, and leads only to one place...tyranny.
You don’t have to be Kim Jong Un, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, or Fidel Castro to be a dictator.  Tyranny can come from mobs or small groups, just as easily as a single man can.  Tyrants, in all forms, seek to silence dissent by any means necessary.  Soon you live in a place where you no longer have the freedom to object, or debate.  You live the way the tyrants want you to live, think the way they want you to think, talk the way they want you to talk, and act only as they wish you to.
This type of closed-minded system is inherently counterproductive.  It is as caustic to society and politics as it is to science.  This is not saying that people can’t have differing opinions, or that facts aren’t possible in a discussion.  I am saying that when people use censorship to silence all objections, bad things happen.
In January, my uncle passed away.  He was a soil physicist specializing in nuclear waste interactions with soil and groundwater.  Until his funeral, most of his relatives knew virtually nothing about his life’s work.  Based on what I’ve learned, every person in the world should be eternally grateful for this unsung hero.  The reason — he was confronted with withering censorship, and won.
My uncle worked at a large facility in Washington State that stored high-level radioactive waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons.  It is the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation.  That’s pretty stiff competition considering they detonated over a thousand warheads in various sites in the US, with most occurring on the Nevada Nuclear Test Range.  He was concerned that the radioactive material could leach into the soil and contaminate the groundwater, and eventually contaminate the Columbia River.
The reason for his concern was the policy of the US Department of Energy of burying the waste in the deserts of Washington State, just in the ground.  This would be seen as an obvious DUH to us now, but back in the 40’s through to the 70’s it was no big deal.  Discussing it was taboo, and anyone questioning the policy was fired and blacklisted...until my uncle showed up.
Using his tact and knowledge, he was able to convince his superiors that dumping highly radioactive waste into the ground and hoping it would just disappear wasn’t going to work, and would actually make things worse.  He was able to help mitigate the issue, and begin to solve the problem; unfortunately, it probably came too late.
 This attitude isn’t limited to science and politics.  Recently, Entertainment Weekly devoted TWO articles to the controversy surrounding the author Orson Scott Card; specifically the book and movie “Ender’s Game”.  BEFORE you all start jumping on the comments with hate filled trolling, I AM NOT taking a side on anything.  I don’t think my political view, or lack thereof, is anyone’s business but my own.  I don’t advocate, or publicize my feelings on issues.  What I take issue with is: the mob centric censorship being used to silence his personal view is just as ignorant and counterproductive as the censorship used to silence early nuclear scientists.
In Mr. Card’s case, he has deeply held religious beliefs that conflict with the prevailing sectarian belief.  This has caused people to compare him to Hitler.  Somehow, I don’t think a mass-murderer has ANY comparison to an award-winning author who hasn’t killed a single person.  The idea of censoring someone for advocating religious convictions in a peaceful legal way cannot compare to genocide.  I could see an argument made for chastising an author for advocating his beliefs as part of his literary work, but Ender’s Game doesn’t have anything to do with the politics in question.  Even with that situation, he still has a right to write, and produce material related to that opinion.
That said, those who have a differing opinion from Mr. Card are certainly within their right to not watch the movie, or purchase his work.  No one is forcing them to.  They even have the right to offer opposing points of view in public forums, but stooping to personal attacks and blacklisting is counterproductive.  Personally, I’m not planning to watch the movie, because I think it will be a terrible adaptation, and it’s made by the same people who made the Twilight trash series. 
I could care less about a person’s personal beliefs, or if they mirror my own.  I know that there are people who disagree with me on many topics.  There are people who insist the pyramids were built by aliens, the world is flat, little green men crashed at Roswell, the Earth is the center of the Universe, God doesn’t exist, black/white/brown/yellow/pink/purple people are better than black/white/brown/yellow/pink/purple people, and that they are always right and I’m always wrong.  What should be respectful, calm, and reasoned discussions have turned into shouting matches that need to have an absolute winner.  
What we need to remember is that civil discussion, and a respect for the freedom for the thought you hate are more important than seeing who can shout the loudest, and have the most polar opposite opinion.  Considering that, your beliefs could cause considerable unintended harm (i.e. dumping toxic waste in the desert), it is more profitable to discuss and learn than to think you’re right without changing anyone’s mind. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Why We're Stuck With Old School Tech

As you may, or may not, know I am a science fiction author.  Authors tend to write what they know, but occasionally they have to conduct research for topics that they aren’t as familiar with but still influence their work.  In conducting research for an upcoming novel, I had to consult with someone more versed in nuclear physics than me.  That person was my uncle, who has a PhD in that discipline.  During the course of our discussion, it was decided that the tech I was proposing (although still theoretical) was simply a refinement of an existing and outdated technology.  He asked why I would be considering putting it in my novel.  I replied: “because it works.”  We continued to discuss the idea of antiquated technology used in science fiction, but it got me thinking about why we didn’t progress faster.  Later, I saw the movie “Pacific Rim”, and saw that they were using the same technology as a plot device.

Why, with all the advances in technology, do we still cling to outdated and clearly inferior technology?  For example, almost all automobiles manufactured today use a combustion engine for power.  Oh sure, there are all electric cars made by Tesla, Nissan, Toyota, Chevy, Ford, and others but they aren’t widely used.  The technology for the internal combustion engine has been around (in various forms) for nearly 300+ years. 

What about nuclear power, and other power generating technologies?   Nuclear reactors, coal, and natural gas power plants all use steam turbines to generate electricity.  Steam, wind, and waterpower have been used for thousands of years (around 1st century AD).  The only ‘tech’ that changed was the method used to turbine.  There is so much energy lost in this process that it’s almost laughable that it’s our primary conversion method for energy.  The best we can get from converting thermal energy to electricity is a paltry 58%.  Hydroelectric power is far more efficient (98%), but isn’t useful in powering spacecraft.

So, instead of developing more efficient means of energy production, we try to shoehorn the current technology into better efficiency.  It’s like trying to cram the ugly step—sister’s foot into the glass slipper, it doesn’t quite work.  The question of why we haven’t been able to progress beyond our current technology comes down to practicality.

Fusion would be great, and holds a lot of potential, but there are steep engineering obstacles to getting our money’s worth out of the most basic equation E=M .  That simple formula tells us that the amount of energy of 1 kg of matter would be 9x  joules.  Unfortunately, our most efficient nuclear reactor is only 34% efficient, but these are fission reactors, and NOT fusion reactors.  The problem with fusion is that it currently takes a tremendous amount of energy to begin the process, we can’t sustain it, and it would prove difficult to maintain.  Other ideas have gravitated to anti—matter reactors, but all anti—matter we have created is almost instantly destroyed when it encounters regular matter.

Our inability to move on is due to our inability to overcome the engineering obstacles in converting the latent power that exists in every atom into something we can use to power everything we need it to power.  That may seem dismal on its face, but I think of it as an opportunity.  As we continue to refine current/ancient technologies to make them more efficient, we solve problems that help us make technologies that are more advanced possible.

If you look at our engines and generating technologies, you will notice a stark improvement over previous generations.  When I first entered college, the most fuel-efficient production car was lucky to get 27 mpg.  Today the most efficient car is an electric that gets 121 empg.  A lot of small engineering problems had to be solved in different disciplines in order to obtain that level of performance, and there are more to be solved before it becomes widely viable.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Movie Madness

Sorry for the absence, but I've been on vacation.  I'm trying to put out a new article once a week, so hopefully I can keep it up with all the writing I have to do.

I love movies.  It’s nice to sit back and relax in the fantasy of a good story.  Problem is: I have all these silly facts floating in my head from lots of education, and they tend to detract from the experience. UGH!

Let’s start with one of my biggest pet peeves: timelines, that annoying nonsense that gets in the way of a Hollywood story.  Take the Lone Ranger from Disney.  The premise of the whole film was the personal feud between two pair of brothers, one nefarious (Cavendish) and the other lawmen (Reid) surrounding the events of the Transcontenental Railroad (May 10, 1869).  Let’s start with a few minor issues.

1. Bass Reeves (Texas Ranger who is thought to have inspired the Lone Ranger stories) wasn’t a Ranger until 1875.
2. A corrupt US Army officer, Jay Fuller, massacres a village.  The only one I can find that remotely happened around that time, occurred around Christmas of 1868 (6 months before, not days), and in Oklahoma NOT Texas.
3. Tonto was supposed to be the only survivor of his village after the Cavendish brothers massacred the village 27 years earlier. No record of such a mass killing exists.
4. Tonto was given a cheap pocket watch from Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1842 in exchange for information on a silver deposit.  Sears, Roebuck wasn’t founded until 1893.

This leads us to the next bone of contention: Location continuity.  As much as I like to see Utah’s film industry get a nod, it’s a little disconcerting to see Utah become Texas in every way possible.
1. The Golden Spike (last spike) was driven in Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869. Promontory, UT is almost 800 miles (as the crow flies) from the area in Texas that this was depicted in maps in the movie.
2. The Texas does not have Delicate Arch, or Monument Valley.  It doesn’t have anything close to that.  No matter what a certain Texas themed steakhouse chain wants you to believe.
3. Comanche territory in Texas was nowhere near the size that the maps in the movie portray (taking up most of the area of Texas to North Dakota).

Then my last beef: Bad science.  Some of the science in movies is just plain awful, and downright dangerous.
1. No helper engines.  Trains are heavy, and require at least one helper engine to make it up steep inclines.  This is especially true for steam locomotives in the 19th century.
2. Handling nitroglycerin like any other liquid.  Let’s be honest here.  Nitroglycerin is a HIGHLY volatile chemical.  Manufacturing was so hazardous that its inventor, Alfred Nobel, insisted on having NO machinery or anything to cause vibration in his factory, and even lost an assistant when an explosion blew it up.  The point being that you would NEVER put it near the railroad, let alone on it.  That’s why Nobel invented Dynamite.  It was nitroglycerin in a stable form for easy transport. 
3. Guns + dynamite = huge explosion.  Unless you’re using it against said liquid nitroglycerin, you would need Tannerite (yeah, not around then).
4. Silver makes a terrible ballistic material.  It’s terribly expensive, valuable, and less than half the weight and density of Lead.

When movies do get things right I have to cheer.  Star Trek: Into Darkness did a lot of things right, but even then I was a little disappointed.
1. Kirk and gang never experience ANY time dilation when going warp speed = Bad.
2. When at warp the light is red shifted, so you see microwaves and radio waves as white light = Good.
3. Space ship damage leaves debris field = Good.
4. Enterprise enters earth’s atmosphere shortly after engaging in battle near the moon = BAD! (3 day trip for Apollo mission).
5. Transporting people from Earth to Kronos = BAD!  Doesn’t that make the whole starship thing moot?
6. Bat’leth vs phazer = don’t think Klingons are stupid enough to take a knife to a gunfight.
7. Kirk getting in trouble for violating The Prime Directive = Good, but wouldn’t a court-martial be held.
8. Seatbelts! = Good.  Finally, someone got the hint to install seatbelts on a moving vessel.
9. Handling a radiation victim without a suit = BAD!  One of the first victims from a core meltdown was so radioactive they had to bury him in the ambulance he died in.  It was only for the homage to Wrath of Khan, and a set up for a cheesy KHAAAANNN!!!
10. Flying in arcs = Good.  When Kirk and Khan are launched out of the garbage chute, they travel on a curved arc instead of a straight line.

I’m sure there’s more I could nitpick, but I think you get the idea.  I guess there must have been more to enjoy with Star Trek than Lone Ranger, because I’ve seen Cris Pine kick holy behind 4 times in the theater, and I’m never going to sit through Lone Ranger again.  It wasn’t the actor’s faults.  Both had decent talent that acted well, but Trek did more things believable and right than Lone Ranger.  Despite the fact that not all the Enterprise crew rate seatbelts.