Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Small Error of Fact

If the television craze continues with the present level of programs, we are destined to have a nation of morons. ~ Daniel Marsh, 1950

We have fulfilled our destiny.

As I have said on many occasions, my television viewing is pretty much limited to the Discovery-History axis of channels, with an occasional side trip to sports, very old movies, or cartoons. I have made it clear that I thought that channels that claim to be presenting programs about history or science have a certain duty to get stuff right. History International blew that one magnificently.

The show was Mega Movers, which as far as I can see should be on HGTV or something, since it doesn't have a lot to do with the history of anything. A lot of the programming these days on the Discovery-History axis seems to have strayed a long way from the original focus of those networks. What are we discovering from Survivorman, exactly (which is now boring us for entire evenings on Discovery and the Science Channel)? Do they really expect us to believe that the guy is in real danger and completely out of communication? I don't believe that for a second.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Discovery found some character named Bear Gryls, who was such a phony that he and his crew were camping out at local motels.

Then there are the reality shows like Deadliest Catch, Axmen (and an almost identical show whose name I forget), and Ice Road Truckers. These programs do appear to show real events, but the real attraction seems to be the endless bleeping of the participants' dialog. The other night, I wondered why the Son was watching a program on telegraphy, since all I heard coming from the set he was watching was Morse code beeps. It wasn't Morse code; it was just an endless stream of bleeped expletives coming from some idiot on a crab boat.

What meaningful prgramming.

Remember The Learning Channel? It became TLC, because when you turn a channel into a freak show, there's not a lot of learning going on.

At any rate, the Mega Movers were moving a full-size copy of a space station module to one of the space centers so they'd be able to train astornauts and replicate problems that might be occurring on the real article. To do this, NASA uses an aircraft designated as the 377SGT Turboprop, better known as the Super Guppy, for reasons that should be apparent. Well, sort of. Personally, I'd have called it the Baluga whale (which is what Airbus calls their own updated version).

Originally, there was simply the Pregnant Guppy, which was pretty darn big, but needs changed and the Pregnant Guppy got replaced by the Very Pregnant Guppy. At this point, someone decided that pregnant airplanes didn't cut it, so the name was changed to Super Guppy.

During the Mega Movers episode, the difficulties of flying a whale were made obvious. After all, you have a massively loaded aircraft with the cross-section of a watermelon. Crosswinds at takeoff or landing are potentially deadly for such a monster, so the pilots have to be a skilled bunch. The link to the Pregnant Guppy is worth a read because it details how close a little town in the Mojave Desert came close to be being obliterated by the maiden flight of the expectant fish.

Yet, the show went on to say, the plane was so well built that it survived a near catastrophe. It seems that during a test flight in the Mojave, part of the cargo canopy got ripped off, yet the pilots managed to land the plane. Now that's some mighty fancy flying, Wilbur.

Except that it evidently didn't happen, at least not that I can find. Read the extremely detailed article on the Pregnant Guppy again. Go ahead, I'll wait. Not a single mention of the canopy getting ripped off either the Pregnant or Super Guppies. I looked at several sites, yet not a one, including the Wiki articles, mentioned landing a Guppy with major damage to the canopy. The Super Guppy link has, buried way down in the page, a picture of some wing damage sustained in a test, but no references to canopy damage.

I don't know where Mega Movers got their information, but it would appear that the photo they showed may not have been in-flight damage. It's easy to imagine a lot of ways that the canopy could be torn up on the ground, perhaps during a loading operation.

Now, you might be inclined to ask why I even bothered to take the time to fact-check such a small item from an otherwise fairly dull program. Well, when they described the incident, they said the canopy came off during a test flight in the Mojave Desert. They then presented an old piece of film showing a plane in the distance slowly descending. To begin with, the plane's profile didn't look the least bit pregnant. But there was a more telling issue. As the plane flew over the Mojave, which is in California, for those of you unfamiliar with North American geography, it passed behind some familiar structures.

It seems that Mega Movers think that the Mojave Desert is home to the Pyramids of Giza.

For those of you who have fulfilled your destiny, Giza is in Egypt.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Still Looking for the Smoking Gun

The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. ~ Larry Niven

When last we met -- well, I was here, where were you? -- I was discussing a new theory that pterosaurs, at least the big ones, may not have been able to fly. Now, that is the sort of discussion that can get a group of paleontologists reasonably worked up, but if you really want to see a bunch upset scientists, start talking about the last great extinction event, when the dinosaurs ceased to walk the earth, 65 million years ago.

Ever since dinosaurs were discovered, people have been wondering where they went. For years, the prevailing theories were some sort of disease or significant climate change. Then, in 1980, a geologist named Walter Alvarez got to wondering about this thin black stratum he kept finding at the end of the Cretaceous. When he and his father, physicist Luis Alvarez analyzed the material in the stratum they discovered an abnormally high amount of the element iridium. The most likely source for a lot of iridium was from a meteor impact. Since the iridium layer (known as the K-T boundary, from the German form of Cretaceious-Tertiary) was found all over the planet, it had to be a big impact. They theorized that this could have been what did the dinosaurs in.

Now any group of scientists don't really like outsiders telling them their business, and paleontologists are no different than anyone else in this regard, so the Alvarez' theory was met with polite skepticism at best and outright derision at worst. Then someone found a big hole in the ground.

Actually, the big hole was mostly under water, off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula. It was dubbed Chixulub and seemed to settle the issue once and for all, at least for most people. It was generally now assumed that most, if not all, dinosaurs were wiped out by the catastrophic event.

Well, maybe not. Some scientists got to wondering if the dinosaurs weren't already on the decline because of climatic changes or maybe because of the eruption of the Deccan Traps, volcanic activity on a massive scale. And then there was Gerta Keller, who didn't think Chixulub had anything to do with it at all. First she announced that another meteor was responsible for the extinction, which is a pretty fine point. If two meteors hit the Earth close enough in time to have resulted in one K-T layer, asking which one killed the dinosaurs is like asking whether the fall or the sudden stop is what killed a guy falling off a cliff.

Then a little while later, Ms. Keller came back and said it wasn't meteors at all. It was the Deccan Traps in India that did the deed.

Then, recently, there was an article that was titled, "New Blow against Dinosaur-killing Asteroid, Geologists Say." It turns out that the "geologists" are actually a team led by -- wait for it -- Gerta Keller, who is basically rehashing her theories of three years ago. She announces unequivocally that not a single species went extinct because of the Chixulub impact. She doesn't mention if any went extinct by the other impact she once hypothesized.

One of the problems here is the popular picture that, when the dinosaurs went extinct, they did so in one afternoon, geologically speaking. Meteor hits, worldwide catastrophe, no more velociraptors. The thing is that it is becoming generally accepted that while the a Chixulub-size meteor would not be pleasant, it would not have created the planet-wide fires and other global disasters originally predicated. That said, it would have altered the climate significantly for a lengthy period, possibly long enough to starve a lot of sauropods because of a lack of plant life (thanks to global cooling) whcih would deprive a lot of theropds of their sustenance. Add the Deccan Traps outburst, and you have a very difficult time for dinosaurs.

So it's unlikely that any one cause killed the dinosaurs off, but it's patently silly to deny the effects of the Chixulub impact. It can't be pinpointed whether it occcured before, after, or during the Deccan eruption, but it would have been a serious blow. Whether it was a killing blow or just one more body shot is the question.

Then there's the whole issue about how long it actually took the dinosaurs to vanish. Generally, as I said, the thinking is that they were in decline and some catastrophe (take your pick) finished them off. But a new theory holds that some of them hung around for about 500,000 years. Of course, the theory is controversial, and not many people are buying into. In fact, unless the Deccan Traps can fit into this new time line, not even Gerta Keller is going to be buying in.

Personally, I don't find it hard to imagine isolated pockets of dinosaurs hanging on for some slightly extended period. I doubt any of the large beasts that normally come to mind when someone says dinosaurs are among those that survived (the story doesn't say what sort of bones were found). But it is easy to imagine smaller saurians, of which there were many, eking out an existence for a little while longer.

Of course, one thing that will come of this most recent theory is that there still could be dinosaurs roaming around, an old sci-fi standby. Worse, some news reader or writer is going to misunderstand the time frames involved and boldly announce that this proves that dinosaurs and humans actually were alive at the same time.

The Fred Flintstone syndrome lives on.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Grounded

Scientists are complaining that the new Dinosaur movie shows dinosaurs with lemurs, who didn't evolve for another million years. They're afraid the movie will give kids a mistaken impression. What about the fact that the dinosaurs are singing and dancing? ~ Jay Leno

For a bunch of critters that went extinct around 65 million years ago, before even I was born, dinosaurs are always popping up in scientific news. On the one hand, new species are regularly turned up, which is not surprising, really. We find new species of living animals all the time. When we see the variety of life on the planet now, then the creatures we've dug up can only amount to a tiny percentage of all the beasties that walked the planet millions of years ago.

On the other hand, scientists keep developing theories about the dinosaurs we do know about. Dinosaurs used to be lumbering tail-dragging lizards, clomping across the landscape. It's now generally agreed that there were a lot of very agile dinosaurs, including some of the big ones. And few if any of them dragged their tails; the tails actually streamed straight out behind the dino, providing balance and, in some cases, a defensive weapon. And some were warm-blooded, not lizard-like at all.

So the vision of lumbering giants spending their time half-submerged in some swamp has been replaced by mobile herds of sauropods grazing their way through entire forests, while being bushwhacked by the occasional allosaur or T-rex, depending on the geological era. Of course, there seems to be considerable disagreement these days over tyrannosaurus rex himself. He was fast, he wasn't fast, he was an accomplished pack hunter, or he was just a scavenger. Oh, and he may have been covered by feathers, at least as a juvenile.

But, no matter how you envision the dinosaur age, one part of the picture never changed: The sky was always filled with flying pterosaurs. Not so fast, says Katusfumi Sato.

If you're like me, you've always had a bit of a disconnect between imagining the soaring pterosaur and imagining one on the ground. In particular, if you really thought about it, you had the nagging feeling that it had to pretty hard for a pterosaur to get off the ground. Trying to imagine quetzocoatlus, a pterosaur with a wingspan the length of a school bus, getting airborne was difficult. According to Prof. Sato, it was probably impossible for the largest specimens.

One could speculate that these were cliff-dwelling animals that could launch themselves from the lofty reaches and soar around with impunity. The trouble is that any large pterosaur that landed on the ground would have a serious problem ever getting airborne again. That would not bode well for their continued existence. Sato even debates whether their fragile wings could have supported them in the air at all.

Of course not all paleontologists agree with this view. They point out that using studies of modern birds may not be a good model for the more reptilian pterosaur. Perhaps the atmosphere was more dense (a distinct possibility), or gravity was lower (not very likely). At any rate, it is quite possible that the rules for pterosaur flight were different those governing an albatross, just as the flight rules for a bumblebee are different from that of an eagle.

One rather weird suggestion is that perhaps the pterosaurs were flightless and used their wings for swimming, like penguins. Unfortunately, as one scientist points out, the wings "do not look very efficient for swimming." In fact, it's hard to imagine the thin membrane being able to hold up against the rigors of underwater propulsion.

Some years ago, someone actually built a lifesize model of quetzalcoatlus, which was about the size of a decent ultralight aircraft. They equipped it with motors to make the wings flap and actually got the contraption airborne. Once in the air, the model performed quite well, soaring along nicely, fitting our classic view of the magnificent pterosaur ready to swoop down on its prey. Lovely image, but they did not try to get the thing flying from a standing start. They actually towed it like a glider then released it into flight. Since we can rule out quetzalcoatlus having friends with towing vehilcles, that still leaves open the issue of how he got into the air in the first place.

Prof. Sato has his critics and is by no means the last word on the subject, but we just may have to give up that image of the majestic flying reptile.

At least we still have the feathered theropods.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Matter of Deflection

O poor mortals, how ye make this earth bitter for each other. ~ Thomas Carlyle

Google seems to be in hot water again. For a company whose motto is supposed to be "Do no evil", they certainly get accused of it often enough. Except this time, I'm not so sure they're the guilty party.

It seems that the "evil" Google has done this time is to publish a historical map of Japan as part of it's online collection of maps. Now keep in mind that this is not some sort of secret map. It's been published elsewhere and was even part of a historical display in Tokyo a few years ago. Yet, Google's publication has created a huge stir in Japan.

What Google did was publish a centuries-old set of woodcut maps which showed, among other things, the location of "burakumin" communities. If this means as little to you as it meant to me, some additional explanation is in order. In the time of the shoguns, Japanese society was caste-based. At the bottom of the system were the burakumin, evidently similar to the Untouchables of India. The burakumin did jobs related to death, like butchering, leather-making, and burials.

Okay, so Japan had a caste system, and, like the poorest and lowest of other societies, lived in segregated areas. You can find maps and descriptions of Jewish ghettos and American slave dwellings anywhere. What's the big deal in knowing where the burakumin lived?

It seems that the Japanese haven't exactly kicked their upper-caste repugnance of these people. In fact, some Japanese employers will not hire someone if they have burakumin ancestors or live in the communities that were once solely inhabited by these people. So, the evil thing Google has done is to make it easy to determine where those communities were in relation to modern Japanese locations. This makes Google guilty of racist agitation.

That is one tortured bit of logic.

Google illuminated a bit of history. Evidently, that illumination makes it easier for bigoted Japanese to discriminate against people whose only "fault" is to have a connection, which may be tenuous, to a group who were once shunned by the elite classes, except, of course, when their trades were needed. We have laws against that sort of thing in the U.S., and I suspect that the Japanese do as well. However, we have people who ignore those laws or circumvent them; evidently the same thing goes on in Japan as well.

I'm not surprised.

I've mentioned on a couple of occasions about the reptilian part of the human brain. Whether one buys into that theory or not, it is difficult not to recognize the overwhelming tendency human beings have toward bigotry. Human history demonstrates that people will always categorize each other based on skin color or religion or social class. Having done that, people will proceed to employ discrimination, segregation, or even genocide to eliminate those who are different.

Of course, the "different" are always perceived of as being "inferior," thus providing an excuse for the reprehensible actions.

Everyone is a bigot. Everyone. The mark of a civilized human being is being able to overcome that built-in reptilian reaction to other groups. There have been occasional moments in time when a society has demonstrated an ability to do just that, but it seldom lasts. The reptile is strong.

Google decided to remove the map after learning of the reaction. This promptly drew a reaction from Buraku Liberation League, which had been upset over the publication of the map. Now they were upset at their removal, as though such removal made the burakumin into "unpersons". Apparently the League wanted the maps but with an historical explanation.

This misses the point. It is evident that enough Japanese are familiar with the burakumin and where they lived because active discrimination goes on. The problem is not whether Google publishes or doesn't publish an ancient woodcut. The problem lies with the Japanese who insist on discriminating against the group.

The Japanese Ministry of Justice is now "gathering information" on the matter. I believe that justice would be better served if the Ministry gathered informaton on the organizations engaging in discriminatory practices. It can't be that hard; the author of the article had no apparent difficulty in finding someone in a company will to talk about the company's discriminatory practices.

Evidently, the Japanese would rather create a fuss about Google's actions to deflect from the actions of their own people against their own people. It's an old tactic, used over and over to divert attention from the real problem.

Score another one for the reptile.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Why People Don't Flock to Linux

The Linux philosophy is 'Laugh in the face of danger'. Oops. Wrong One. 'Do it yourself'. Yes, that's it. ~Linus Torvalds

PC World had an article listing the seven reasons people quit using Linux. Since the piece is written by a Linux expert, it is intended to debunk these reasons, marking yet another attempt by a Linux person to tell the rest of the world why they're all stupid for not using Linux.

Well, that's a little harsh, but not by much.

To set the record straight, I have been a fan of Linux. I've run Red Hat, Mandrake (now Mandriva), Debian, Suse, and Ubuntu (both Gnome and KDE versions). I've set up Linux servers for e-mail and proxy services. I like Linux. I just don't use it much, for reasons that will become clear as we go along.

Let's take a look at those reasons and see if they're legitimate.

1. Linux doesn't run a program the user needs. Frankly, we could stop right here. This is the single biggest roadblock to large-scale enterprise deployments of Linux. Even the author admits that there's not much of answer to this one. In fact, he doesn't even suggest using WINE or other Windows emulators, probably because, a)they don't work all that well, and b) you've got to have a legal copy of Windows for the emulator to work.

Okay, there's lots of pirated copies of Windows out there, but we're talking legally running software here. So if you're wondering why Linux comprises 1% of all operating systems in use, you don't need to go much farther. But we will carry on.

2. After installing Linux, some piece of hardware doesn't work. Well, says the author, the same thing happens with Windows, which it does when new versions come out. However, when you've got a two or three year old video card in your system, Windows will have a driver. If it doesn't, a quick trip to a search engine will locate one that you can install in one step. If you're missing a Linux driver, you've got to hope someone has written a driver that will work with your Linux distro. If you can find one, then you may have the fun of compiling it, not a task the average user is going to familiar with. Granted there's been some improvement on this score in the Linux community, but there are still plenty of gaps.

After installing SUSE 10.0 some months back, I found that my PC Card wireless modem didn't work. After a significant amount of time searching, I found a rather lengthy procedure for installing a driver and then tweaking configuration files to make the thing actually connect, at half its normal speed. So I could run SUSE as long as I didn't want Intenet connectivity.

Oh wait, the card worked in my Windows machine, so I set up Internet Connection Sharing. I then spent a couple of hours tweaking the wireless adapter, which also didn't work so well with SUSE, to connect to the ICS network.

I got it working but had a tough time imagining the average user doing any of that.

3. Linux can require the use of the command line. Okay, I sympathise with the author here. It's ludicrous that people are so thoroughly intimidated by typing a simple command in a DOS box, if we're talking Windows, or a terminal session. But, friends of Linus, that's the way it is, and distros like Ubuntu virtually advertise themselves as easy-to-use windowing environments, not windowing environments that require knowing a lot of command-line syntax.

You want to spread to the masses, you've got to live with their frailties.

4. Something strange happened that doesn't happen in Windows. I'm with the author here, because things are going to break in any OS, and they'll break differently in Linux than in Windows. In fact, things break differently in Vista than they do in Windows XP. Actually, I've never heard this reason for quitting Linux before, but this guy writes user guides, so he's probably heard weirder ones than this.

5. I tried to get help online and got kicked in the teeth. Tough rocks, says the author. Well, the snobbishness of experienced Linux types has been legendary. Back in the days of the Usenet, Linux newsgroups were places newbies went to die. Or at least suffer a lot of humiliation. If they got any advice at all, it usually was either couched in technical language beyond the user's skill level. Or else the advice was, "Read the man page, moron."

Ironically, these same newsgroups would contain endless threads complaining about how Linux wasn't spreading like wildfire to the desktop. No one could understand why, but it had to have something to do with Microsoft's dastardly strategems.

6. Some people just don't like it. This is another reason that the author pretty much says, well, if you don't, you don't. Personal likes are always going to enter into a user's decisions.

Hey, I don't like Vista, and I'm not all that crazy about XP, but I use it because that's what I need to run the apps my organization uses (see 1, above), and I want to be able to get drivers for my hardware (see 2). XP also works with little mucking about as long as one employs good security practices and keeps the junk software off the PC.

The trouble for Linux is that, if the user doesn't like it, he falls back to Windows. If the user doesn't like the latest version of Windows, though, he falls back to his current version until Microsoft comes up with something he can stomach.

7. Sometimes installations of Linux just go totally bonkers. Yes, this can happen with Windows, and it has. But, having installed all those previously mentioned distros, plus three flavors of BSD, I can state based on experience that weird ju-ju pops up more with Linux than with Windows. Ubuntu and SUSE have become pretty painless, but even those can act strangely at times, usually because of hardware issues.

I have had endless discussions over the last 10 years with colleagues about what it would take to move an organization to Linux. The same roadblocks always come up. We have software that is dependent on .NET or Windows SQL server. It would cost tons to migrate them to Java and a Linux-based SQL. We'd have to hire a squad of internal programmers to do what we could buy off-the-shelf in a Windows environment. We'd have a massive retraining program for users. We'd have compaibiltiy problems with other organizations sending users Microsoft Powerpoint presentations, Word documents that wouldn't format properly in OpenOffice, spreadsheets with VB macros that wouldn't work, and on and on.

I'm not saying that Linux will never get into the enterprise. There are places where it has, but these are few and far between. Linux has had far greater penetration in the server end, particularly in the realm of web and ftp servers. Linux is also popular with the appliances used to provide proxy services, search services, and e-mail scanning. That smaller footprint and truly modular design makes Linux a really good server OS.

But, if Linux is going to win the hearts and minds of the ordinary user, they're going to have to deal with the problems above, especially issues with drivers and installation issues. Like or not, sons of Torvalds, you're going to have to win over home users. And you're only going to do that by
making it as easy as Windows to use and install if you're going to cut into Microsoft's dominance.

Oh, and it wouldn't hurt to be nicer when responding to newbie questions.