Thursday, July 31, 2014

Re-Evaluating Our Cosmological Models: Why Now?




In my 1964 Science Fair project, entitled 'The Structure of the Universe'  (which was given a feature look in the Miami Herald) I got many things wrong. The reason wasn't to do with errors, but in using the existing base of cosmological data and information to construct my model. Chief among these was the theory of continual creation which had been proposed by Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi.. It proposed that a hydrogen atom was ‘created’ in the universe on the basis of the perfect cosmological principle. A quantitative rate for the input-creation advanced by Jayant Narlikar ('The Structure of the Universe', Oxford Univ. Press, 1977) was:

4.5 x 10-45  kg m-3 s-1

This was taken to be the rate of new matter created per second within a cube - which is expanding at the rate H, where H is Hubble's constant. Then, one second later the side dimension of the cube will have increased by (1 + H)  and its volume will have increased to (1 + H)3 .  In this way, new matter is created within the 1 s interval with new mass: M = 3H r.

 And so,  though the universe was indeed expanding, it didn’t change its appearance. So its density must remain the same.  (The additional space created by the expansion must therefore have the same density of matter, r )   In addition, because of the principle of “continual creation”, the universe had no beginning and no end.  Thereby I was able to construct a model based on a matter and anti-matter universe (one with positive curvature the other, negative)  in a state of "equilibrium" with matter destroyed via annihilation equal to the new matter created via continuous creation.

It was a beautiful model which garnered top awards, but alas only months away from becoming passé.  This transpired when the first  evidence for the Big Bang emerged. This was thanks to Nobel-winning work by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. The experience showed me (as it did Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi) that our perspective on the universe and especially models, can change with just one major new discovery.

I based a lot of my model on the validity of the perfect cosmological principle which maintained that the universe was the same in space as well as time, and the same physical laws that apply on Earth applied everywhere else. In other words, our solar system and planet are nowhere special. Two sub-assumptions of the principle are that: 1)  the universe is homogenous, i.e. looks the same for all locations, and 2) the universe is isotropic, appearing the same in all directions.

But back in the 1960s we still didn't know of the existence of cosmic voids. Those had to wait five decades for their discovery. Voids have roughly 1/10 the matter density of galaxy clusters (like our Local Group) but account for nearly 60 percent of the volume of the visible universe, thereby introducing inhomogeneity.

Even before the void discovery, there was the discovery of relic structures of the Big Bang by George Smoot and his collaborators at the University of California at Berkeley, in 1992. The investigation made use of data obtained from NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite. The data exposed very small temperature differentials (dT), from which density variations could be deduced. (In principle the temperature variations of the form dT/T are taken as a proxy for density fluctuations (dr / r)  in the early universe). These variations were also  found consistent with the postulated characteristics of an inflationary cosmos, as opposed to an always uniformly expanding cosmos. Indeed, an inflationary phase would feature an exponential rate of expansion by way of doublings over very small time periods.

What is the problem? It has remained trying to model a homogeneous universe despite data and findings that show the universe is inhomogeneous.  To quote astrophysicist Thomas Buchert (New Scientist, June, p. 33):

"To model such a complex structure with a homogeneous solution is a bold idealization."

Of course, cosmologists haven't been deterred. They merely resort to what's called modeling via  "statistical homogeneity" which means upping the scale for examining the cosmos to one wherein the inhomogeneities are radically reduced or vanish.  For example, on the scale of 400 million light years, voids and galaxy clusters average out into uniformity. But is this 'kosher'? Probably not because we have no real visualization of the cosmos on such scales.

Not yet mentioned are dark matter and dark energy, especially how the latter overturns our conceptions of cosmic order, see e.g.

Dark energy has also been found to be linked to the accelerated expansion of the cosmos, e.g.
Even more interesting, the cosmos' inhomogeneity contributes separately to the acceleration. Thus as more mass has clumped into galaxy clusters, the cosmic voids have grown causing the universe to expand more rapidly in those regions. The result is an accelerating effect similar to that attributed to dark energy but without any remote hint of it. (See e.g. The Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, Vol. 10, p. 043).

What does all this mean for our cosmic perspective and cosmological models? Headaches! It means we may have to ditch the simplistic idealizations that pander to order, uniformity and aesthetics and instead come up with some ugly alternatives that violate our temperaments. For example, the whole Einsteinian notion of space-time is predicated on a continuum in which the entities are conjoined. But....if space expands at much faster rates in certain places then one must accept that clocks will tick at different speeds too.

As incredible as that sounds, it doesn't come near the ultimate conclusion: that if this is so it means the very age of the universe (which we now give as 13.8 billion years) is not a constant and instead will depend upon where the measurement is made. If you measure within a void you will get one answer, and in a galaxy cluster another. (According to one recent theory, it implies the age of the universe would be measured to be up to 18.6b years old where the low density of matter "means the clock has ticked particularly fast", New Scientist, op. cit. )

But which is better? To live with our idealistic fantasies of order and uniformity of space-time, or to live in reality and know the actual truth of how the universe operates?   Bear in mind the entire history of our science has been overturning sundry pet concepts of the universe, and especially our place within it.

Now may be the time for cosmologists to put on their big boy pants and devise theories which, although they may try the orderly temperament, are much closer to reality!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What We're Not Being Told About The Ebola Outbreak - And Why a Pandemic Is Not Impossible


The Ebola virus in an electron micrograph

Researcher working with Ebola using a BSL-4 positive pressure suit

Ok, I readily admit my specialty is not biology, viruses or human epidemiology. Hence, you may take this blog post for what you believe it's worth. But I have been following news of the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa and I become more alarmed with every new report - especially the latest in which an American (Patrick Sawyer) actually got on a plane and flew into Africa's 2nd largest city (Lagos) with 21 million people.

The medical media cognoscenti continue to soft soap the incident and I believe it may be to prevent any public alarm. But I think the public ought to have plenty alarm and here's why:

In the most recent AP report (Denver Post, 'New Fears About Ebola Spread After Plane Scare', July 29, p. 13A), we are informed:

"Witnesses say Sawyer, a 40-year old Finance Ministry employee en route to a conference in Nigeria, was vomiting and had diarrhea aboard at least one of his flights with some 50 other passengers . Ebola can be contracted from traces of feces or vomit, experts say."


I would like you to read that over again and think about it. If a passenger is ill on a plane he or she has two choices, reach for a barf bag or try to make it to the nearest rest room and let it rip. In the last case it is probable no "witness" would have been present to see anything and especially any diarrhea. If the passenger couldn't make it and is constrained to release in his seat - THEN it is likely there would be witnesses to both unfortunate emissions (in the case of the diarrhea, more likely as a god awful odor - which in fact, the Ebola virus produces.)

Now, the fact bio-lab and CDC et al research workers have to wear  BSL-4 positive pressure suits when working with the virus (see above image) means it is no walk in the park for any unprotected people if a guy on a passenger plane displays any eruption of body fluids! I mean, this is serious! It means possibly five or six people might have been affected, if not more. And at the Ebola phase of fluid ejection, even bloody droplets from the victim's eye can cause infection.

Now, here's the bitch. As the article observes:

Sawyer was quarantined upon arrival in Lagos - a city of 21 million people-  and Nigerian authorities say his fellow travelers were advised of Ebola's symptoms and allowed to leave.

Allowed to leave!? WHY?  WTF!  This disease kills 60- 90% of those infected!

They ought to have ALL been quarantined on the spot, given the "authorities" had no a priori clue who had come into direct contact with Sawyer's bodily fluids - if even in a happenstance way  - say him rushing out of his seat to the toilet with drops of virus-laden stool leaking from his spattered trousers (the diarrhea is almost as bad as c.diff. and cholera) onto hapless passengers. Who, may have believed it to be just some juice from a drink (though the odor ought to give it away).

My point is that if those who work with Ebola need positive pressure suits, and people in an airplane have nothing and are exposed and allowed to walk out of the airport - then something is seriously amiss. The "authorities" did not practice due diligence and allowed 5 or more possibly infected sources of the virus to escape!

Then there's the problem with "looking for symptoms".  The sad fact is that they can take up to 21 days (3 weeks) to manifest and some sources cite 25 days. By that time most of the passengers might have forgotten about it. The next thing, the symptoms are initially vague and general - often mistaken for a bad flu.

The symptoms usually begin with severe headache, sore throat and muscle pain accompanied by a burning fever.  As it progresses, hiccups are often soon to follow with severe nausea. By now, it's critical the person get himself to a treatment center to begin prepping for the process of re-hydration, because the explosive vomiting and diarrhea will soon follow, along with hemorrhagic bleeding from multiple orifices. At that phase, the danger for cross infection of others is at a maximum.

In the movie, 'Contagion', many passengers aboard commercial aircraft are infected by the victims of the depicted deadly virus coughing or sneezing. The problem is that they don't turn themselves into hospitals, but they go home to try to recover. There, they infect loved ones, and the epidemic soon turns into a pandemic.

Could it happen with Ebola? If so, it would mean airborne infection is possible in the new outbreak and we're not being informed. Indeed, Canadian scientists believe the disease can now be transmitted through the air, which would explain the rapid spread of this new outbreak and the deaths of 3 doctors (two Americans and an African)  who took every precaution, including positive pressure suits. As reported in the link above:

"Canadian scientists have shown that the deadliest form of the ebola virus could be transmitted by air between species. In experiments, they demonstrated that the virus was transmitted from pigs to monkeys without any direct contact between them.

The researchers say they believe that limited airborne transmission might be contributing to the spread of the disease in some parts of Africa."

If that is the case we're really for the high jump. But let's stay conservative and hope it's no more than a possibility. In that case the spread would require a long chain of total screw ups by everyone involved, from airport authorities to local officials to the CDC. But hey, after several old supply stores of smallpox and anthrax were found improperly stored at the latter, it could happen!

Sawyer, the American working with the Nigerian government, ultimately would have returned home to Minnesota - and indeed was planning to do so next month. So what if, I say IF - he'd have still not shown his symptoms outwardly by the time he got on a jet home. Then, after arriving home had begun dispersing the virus to his family via his bodily fluids - they'd have surely tried to clean up after him.

I would argue all would have been infected.

Well, Sawyer was stopped in his progress at Lagos Airport, but a lot of possibly infected people (who came into contact with him on the plane) are on the loose. The medical authorities insist the risk from any of them - say catching a plane to New York or Chicago - is "low" and they'd "likely report to a medical center if they see symptoms".

Let's hope these medical soothsayers are right.

For my part,  I remain skeptical.  Actually you can call me a pessimist! Reinforcing my pessimist take is this statement from Dr. David Heymann, Professor or Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, quoted in the Post piece (ibid.):

"The best thing would be if people did not travel when they're sick, but the problem is that people won't say when they're sick. They will lie in order to travel, so it is doubtful that travel recommendations will have a big impact."

I suspect the same applies to those who travel,  then show symptoms, and are supposed to then report to a medical center, pronto.

We have to trust that the medical gurus are right and affected people are cooperative enough to understand the greater good trumps anything else. I am just not so sure that will hold.

----------------
UPDATE: Friday, Aug. 1:

Dr. Jon La Pook informs viewers  (CBS) this a.m. that U.S. entry airports are NOT screening any passengers from West Africa - specifically from  the affected nations.  Need I say, must I, that this amounts to callous oversight for which we may a dear price? By contrast, the Chinese have  sophisticated infrared-thermal detectors trained on all arriving passengers and sequester any with temperature readings above 99.5F. The Chinese take their nation's interests and welfare seriously and we evidently do not. Meanwhile, the words of media medical gurus like LaPook and Richard Besser (from ABC) continue to ring hollow on how they are "certain" any problems can be contained here in the U.S. Sorry, I don't buy it.

Further, I predict this ghastly virus will spawn an outbreak on our shores before the month is out. I also challenge LaPook's and others' claims that "infection can only occur by direct contact with bodily fluids". I challenge it because Canadian drs. have already demonstrated in their labs it can spread by air! Further, the patients being flown to the U.S. for treatment are being contained in AIR TIGHT vestibules and - once they arrive at Emory University in Atlanta for treatment - will be confined to special isolation units with their own air systems and filtration.

Now, you figure it out,  dear reader. Who exactly is being fed a load of bollocks here? Should we be lulled into a sense of false security, or should we ourselves begin taking every precaution we can? You be the judge!

See also:

http://www.smirkingchimp.com/thread/william-rivers-pitt/57242/all-the-blood-in-your-body

and:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10998222/Ebola-outbreak-Victim-who-sparked-fears-of-global-epidemic-was-on-way-home-to-US.html

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The BMI ('Body Mass Index') - As Ridiculous as It Is Unscientific

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In one of the Sunday magazines, we behold a brief article (thankfully):” ‘What’s Your BMI and Why Should You Care?  In the lead paragraph ‘the Doctors’ write:

The BMI (body mass index) is a good indicator of how much body fat you have. Health professionals use it to screen for weight problems in adults.

They do add that “it doesn’t paint a full picture of your health” and that’s an understatement. As noted in a Penn & Teller ‘Bullshit’ episode,  lampooning BMI and the whole “obesity is an epidemic” baloney, both Michael Jordan and Brad Pitt would be overweight, and Russell Crowe and George Clooney would be “obese” on the BMI index scale.

Apart from such whacked out nonsense, as one Univ. of Virginia prof quoted in the segment observed:

Another problem with the government using BMI is that it says everyone needs to be a certain weight within a certain height range in order to be healthy.”

But this disdains the range of variations for most humans pertaining to a host of attributes. It mandates that only a certain human height-weight body profile is acceptable while labeling the outliers “unhealthy” or “obese” or “overweight”. Using this bogus index we’ve actually come to believe “one third of Americans are obese” – based on having a BMI of 30 or higher.

But this is nonsense!

As Penn & Teller observed it was a Belgian polymath,  Adolphe Quetelet who devised the  BMI formula in 1832 in his quest to define the "normal man" in terms of everything from his average arm strength to the age at which he marries.  Obviously and clearly, his numerical basis would be irrelevant to today given the “normal man” ca. 1830s Belgium would not be in an way comparable to the normal man today - especially in the US of A. His diet would be more frugal, less protein for one thing as well as fewer nutrients,  and hence he’d naturally bear more a resemblance to reed-thin Stan Laurel than George Clooney, or Russell Crowe.

So his project had nothing to do with obesity-related diseases, nor even with obesity itself. Rather, Quetelet used the formula to attempt to describe the standard proportions of the human build—the ratio of weight to height in the average adult- in that reduced nutrition era. Using data collected from several hundred countrymen, he found that weight varied not in direct proportion to height (such that, say, people 10 percent taller than average were 10 percent heavier, too) but in proportion to the square of height. (People 10 percent taller than average tended to be about 21 percent heavier.)

The new formula had little impact among the medical community until long after Quetelet's death. While doctors had suspected the ill effects of obesity as far back as the 18th century, their evidence was purely anecdotal. The first large-scale studies of obesity and health were conducted in the early 20th century, when insurance companies began using comparisons of height and weight among their policyholders to show that "overweight" people died earlier than those of "ideal" weight. Subsequent actuarial and medical studies found that obese people were also were more likely to get diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. (Of course, this  later allowed the medical insurers to either invoke "pre-existing conditions" to bar people from coverage or, more often, have an excuse to increase their premiums.)

By the early 1900s, it was fairly well-established that these ailments were the result of having too much adipose tissue—so the studies used functions of height and weight as little more than a proxy for determining how much excess body fat people had.  The problem with proxies, of course, is that they are not direct quantifiers or indicators and are only so good as the physical basis really allows.

It would actually have been more accurate for the actuaries to compare longevity data with more direct assessments of body fat—such as caliper-measured skinfold thickness or hydrostatic weighing. But these data were much harder for them to obtain than standard information on height, weight, and sex.  So they punted!

Medical researchers , meanwhile, needed a standard measure of fatness, so they could look at the health outcomes of varying degrees of obesity across an entire population. For decades doctors couldn't agree on the best formula for combining height and weight into a single number—some used weight divided by height; others used weight divided by height cubed. It arrived in 1972, when physiology professor and obesity researcher Ancel Keys published his "Indices of Relative Weight and Obesity," a statistical study of more than 7,400 men in five countries. Keys examined which of the height-weight formulas matched up best with each subject's body-fat percentage, as measured more directly. He concluded that the best predictor came from Quetelet’s BMI: weight divided by height squared. Keys renamed this number the body mass index.

But this was decidedly premature.

A recent critique (in PDF) of the body mass index in the journal Circulation suggests that BMI's imprecision and publicity-friendly cutoffs distort even the large epidemiological studies. (For example, there's no definitive count of how many people are misclassified by BMI, but several studies have suggested that the error rate is significant for people of certain ages and ethnicities. That old natural variation bugbear again!) It's impossible to know which studies have been affected and in what direction they might have been skewed.

Further, the BMI is actually a solid example of the “proofiness” that Charles Seife referenced in his book,
Proofiness: How You're Being Fooled by the Numbers.

Seife decries the tactic of using numbers not just to lie but to baffle the susceptible with bullshit.  He refers to a common failing of most people unversed in math to be hoodwinked merely because some form of math or numbers are interjected into arguments.  Not just using numbers to bolster one's argument. In his words, to use fake numbers to prove falsehoods and to seek to prove something is true - even when it's not- is one of the most egregious forms of  intellectual  fraud.

In this regard, one of the surest signs of proofiness is the failure to provide attached uncertainties to the measurements - any measurements! Since BMI is always recorded as an absolute single number, say 29, and never as 29 + 2 or whatever, then it is inherently proofy - a bogus quantity. Seife emphasizes there can NEVER be a 100 percent accurate number if based on physical measurements, and he's right. Maybe the scale used is off by a pound or two, and maybe the height isn't evaluated for the associated probable error - based on the instrument used to measure it.  OR......maybe, just maybe the presumed cutoffs along the BMI chart indices have been majorly distorted by earlier misclassifications in large epidemiological studies. 

The BMI also takes this to new level because the combination of the 2 quantifiers make no sense. I mean the ratio of  weight in pounds to height in inches squared? And then multiplying by 703? That’s pure baloney and in no way even comparable to say obtaining metric mass by dividing the weight (in newtons) by the acceleration of gravity in N/kg.
Where does 703 come from anyway? Well it’s the correction factor introduced if one used Imperial units (foot, pounds) in stead of metric system. In the metric system the BMI is simply:

Mass (kg)/ [height (m)]2

Again, this is bollocks, since the result  (mass per unit area) yields no conceptually consistent physical quantity as applied to human biology!  It’s fully an example of more proofiness: In this case putting two unrelated units together in a ratio and making people believe the result (in kg/m2) has some innate core physical meaning. It doesn’t. It’s bullshit. (As Penn and Teller also pointed out in their show on “Obesity”.)

The medical -industrial -insurance- PhrMA whackos will try to tell you the ratio is valid because height and weight "are related", but this is a presumption unwarranted by the total constellation of data- especially applied to distinct ethnic groups. Also, if one investigates the fundamental units of physics that comprise it, s/he will find no such equivalent anywhere. (Which can also be deduced by using the basic SI units in various combinations.)

The closest one can come is the combination of units:


kg m -3    Which is mass divided by the length cubed or M L -3

This yields what we call “density”.   And at least the use of density would make some physical sense, but the ratio for BMI makes zero sense, because no comparable physical quantity in terms of mass per unit area exists for human bodies. It make no difference how many idiotic trials were used to attempt to validate it in the health sense. I could as well take the Martian mass in kg, and divide it by its assorted  Earth opposition values in meters to show that UFO sightings increase whenever the ratio approaches a certain value (say 1013 kg m-1.)  It is pure nonsense, and any “findings” add up to little more than lucky coincidence.

The use of this dumb obesity quantifier is even more enraging given there’s at least a more rational alternative. It turns out that the circumference around a person's waist provides a much more accurate reading of his or her abdominal fat and risk for disease than BMI. One unit, no hocus pocus. Simple. Besides, wrapping a tape measure around your belly is no more expensive than hopping on a scale and standing in front of a ruler. That's why the American Society for Nutrition, the American Diabetes Association, and other prominent medical groups have lately promoted waist circumference as a replacement for, the body mass index. (Some have indicated as a “supplement” but why waste time with proofy contrived numbers at all?)

Alas, few doctors  - including our own - have made the switch. This is probably because waist measurements require slightly more time and training to interpret  than it takes to record a BMI reading and use some fake out chart, which doesn’t come with any “official cutoffs”. (Right now, my BMI is 29.5 but I laugh when anyone says I am “over weight” for the reasons given above, especially the proofiness of the index and nonsensical units.)  The sensitivity of doctors to these slight inconveniences signals just how difficult it will be to unseat Quetelet's antiquated and irrational, proofy formula. See, the body mass index is cheap and easy to get (never mind the absence of uncertainty), and it has the incumbent advantage in that the Lords from On High in Health Central have conferred their benediction – along with the political-Pharma –lobby enclave – so who’s going to argue with them? Well, I am!

Sadly, just like tea leaves, natal horoscopes and palm reading, BMI is here to stay—despite its flaws – the chief of which is that it’s irrational and has no bearing to any real physical quantity (as the examination of its units discloses)

But that doesn’t mean I have to treat it any more seriously than other monkey fool bollocks, including horoscopes, palm reading and tarot cards.

 As for rationality in terms of obesity these are the key obesity- BMI  myths you need to know, summarized from Prof. Paul Campos in his book, 'The Obesity Myth':
1)  Weight is a good proxy for health ("97 percent false" according to Campos)
2) Health improvement comes via transition from being fat to thin. (Hardly ever, for most people - especially the elderly who are more at risk if they become frail.)
3) We know how to produce long term weight loss.
In respect of the last, Prof. Campos makes it clear that despite the bloviations of the medical-industrial-insurance complex and the government health brigade as well as the health diet faddists, no one really has a clue how to sustain long term weight loss. Yes, they say, "balance intake of food with exercise" -but if a lot of weight gain is traced to gut bacteria this is  a non-starter. 

Then there is the leptin factor, which hormone levels decrease when people don't get enough sleep - and which causes them to eat inordinately. As explained on one medical site (WebMD):

"When you don't get enough sleep, it drives leptin levels down, which means you don't feel as satisfied after you eat. Lack of sleep also causes ghrelin levels to rise, which means your appetite is stimulated, so you want more food,"

 The sad fact is too many overworked and  tech over- connected Americans are in this latter category. Dieting won't help them but getting on a regular, decent sleep schedule might!
Stay tuned, and in the meantime don't get hysterical over your BMI!

Monday, July 28, 2014

What 'Spiderman" In Times Square Could Learn From Austria's Mendicants

By now the youtube video is all over the place, showing a "Spiderman" character being throttled by New York's finest for unsavory behavior - which presumably the real character would never project. As the story goes, according to CBS Morning News, the character was given a buck tip by a woman but he felt that was way way too small after having to get dressed up in tights and all. So he demanded fives, tens or twenties only. When she didn't comply he got disgusting, insulting and rude - whereupon the police stepped in, demanded his ID - and then this guy (who fancied himself a real superhero) started throwing punches. See also:
http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/man-dressed-spider-man-punches-nypd-times-square-article-1.1881561

Evidently, according to the report this morning this isn't unusual. The cartoon and comic book characters parading on Times Square - mainly for tips - do go ape shit if the tips aren't as large as they expect. In the last two years:

- A woody from 'Toy Story' and a Mario Brother were accused of groping women

- A Cookie Monster shoved a two year old boy

-And an 'Elmo' became notorious for his anti-Semitic rants.

New York Councilman Andy King also reported the experience of his grand daughter and family who were accosted by 'Strawberry shortcake" - who became dissatisfied with his tip started cursing at the family

New York is not alone, as costumed characters also roam the Vegas Strip and Hollywood Blvd. (where two Captains America got into a fist fight last year).

The question is why these costumed characters can't be more like the dignified ones we encountered in Innsbruck and Salzburg, Austria, like 'Charlie Chaplin":
Photo: This photo appears to have vanished from my FB page, so am re-posting: "Charlie Chaplin" in Innsbruck.
Who, on being provided with a tip (of any size) would do a little dance and give a bow. There was no berating or rude accosting if the tip was a half euro instead of a euro. Tourists could also have their photos take with him and there'd be no hard feelings - irrespective of the size of the tip. The guy exuded class, unlike "Spiderman" in NYC (maybe one reason Americans need fewer "super hero" costumes, and more cultural or historical ones - say like Abe Lincoln, Gen. Patton, et al)

Ditto with the Painted Lady of Innsbruck, where I'm shown below giving her a euro tip.
Me in front of the 'Painted Lady' of Innsbruck.
Did she bash me on the head with her umbrella because the tip was a single euro and not five? Of course not! Did she sic her doggy after me: "Get him Napoleon! Bite his ass for only giving me a euro tip!"

The Austrians, in whatever character guise, have way too much class for that! The reason is that they don't just get decked out and panhandle, they provide performances too.  Allowed to ply their trades in assorted locations in both Innsbruck and Salzburg, these creative performers - which is really what they were- never disappointed.  Each street character, whether the "Headless Puppet", Painted Lady and "Charlie Chaplin" in Innsbruck, or "Mozart", and assorted RC "Cardinals" in Salzburg, knew their stuff and how to beg with aplomb - while not seeming to beg.

This is an art form, make no mistake. Having seen how panhandlers operate (including those in comic book costumes) in cities from Vegas to New Orleans to San Francisco to Baltimore, they could take a lesson or two from the magnificent mendicants of Austria.  These latter street characters understand how gauche and unseemly it would be to simply beg, so they turn their need for money into practical street theatrics. They also probably grasp that donning a super hero outfit only tempts the wearer into out-sized, radical rude behavior - which is why you won't see a single "Spiderman" or "Wonder Woman" anywhere in Innsbruck, or Salzburg.

One pointed attribute stands out above all others: There are NO aggressive moves toward any passersby - even if you (and your spouse) are the only ones in the vicinity. Every single mendicant performer respects his or her "guests" (even if they tacitly ignore the costume or act) and also refrains from  meandering into other mendicants' staked out realms.  These are very important aspects!

I've always noticed in the U.S. cities mentioned,  irrespective of having a costume or not, most street characters  approach rapidly and aggressively  toward their targets and either scare them off, or turn them off. They also behave in an unseemly fashion if the tip isn't large enough, by their reckoning.  Thereby they forfeit a possible extra buck, and are 'bucked' in their pleas for more instead. They fail to grasp that if one goes into the begging field, at any level, some type of social interface is needed to ease the transaction.

A proper costume and a shtick (some performing act - singing, dancing etc.) can also help by deflecting the inevitable attention away from the implicit begging itself.  In this way, the Euro beggars appear to have achieved something their U.S. counterparts can only dream of, i.e. encouraging passersby who willingly put out cold hard cash for what they believe - and actually are - receiving!  But again, a major reason for this may be the choice of costume - which differs radically from the childish, clownish wear of American street beggars. (Likely reflecting the childish, clownish mass entertainment culture which keeps most people at an infantile consumer level.)

Take note, Times Square  costumed  characters - and maybe take a clue from your classy European counterparts- on how begging can be elevated to an art form - as opposed to a gauche, rude display of bad behavior. You might want to ditch those superhero costumes too!

The Gamma Ray Bubbles In The Milky Way - Linked To Super Massive Black Hole?




Two images of the gamma ray bubbles in our galaxy as recorded by the Large Area Telescope during 50 months of observations. (From Physics Today, July, p. 61)

Question: If a stellar black hole, i.e. as one member of a binary system, is capable of pulling the outer gaseous envelope of its companion off and generating x-rays in the process (by which we can confirm its existence) is it possible the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy could emit much more powerful gamma rays – as matter accretes onto it?

This is a question researchers Anna Franckowiak and Stephen Funk  (of SLAC) seek to answer with their research as proposed in their article, ‘Giant Gamma –Ray Bubbles in the Milky Way’ (Physics Today, July, p. 60). The authors refer to gamma rays recorded by the Large Array Telescope (LAT) aboard NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope as an indicator, revealing two giant structures (“Fermi bubbles”) that appear to emerge from the galactic center. These bubbles “extend 39,000 light years above and below the galactic center and have well-defined edges.”. In addition, the intensity of the radiation doesn’t vary across their expanse.

As usual with a new concept in astrophysics the proof will be in essentially explaining away all other possibilities and leaving the Fermi bubbles as the only viable hypothesis. At present this isn’t possible because the origin of these ‘bubbles’ can be explained without recourse to the supermassive black hole.   If the bubbles can be tied exclusively to the supermassive black hole at the galactic center then the way is paved for “better understanding of the energy output of the enigmatic massive object at the center of our galaxy.”

As most physics students and aficionados are aware, gamma rays are the highest energy photons. Generally, they earn their keep by exposing the highest energy processes in the cosmos which are most often predicated on relativistic charged particles. (I.e. those traveling near the speed of light, c).  Since the atmosphere blocks them, fortunately for us, special detectors have to be dispatched into space on satellites.

A few words are in order for the LAT and its capabilities: It is sensitive to gammas rays in the energy range of a few tens of MeV to a few hundred GeV. (Recall here, MeV refers to one million electron volts. Recall the energy conversion: 

1.6 x 10-19 J = 1 eV  so that:

1 MeV =  106  eV (1.6 x 10-19 J /  eV )  =      1.6 x 10-13

Similarly for 1 GeV, the joule equivalent is:


1 GeV =  10 9  eV (1.6 x 10-19 J /  eV )  =      1.6 x 10-10

The LAT has a field of about 20 percent of the sky at any given moment and continuously scans the whole sky with unprecedented precision. (The images shown were taken over a 50 month time frame.)

If the reader examines panel (a) in the top graphic, the sky as recorded by the LAT at energies above 6.4 GeV is seen.  As the authors note (ibid.):
Clearly visible are the galactic interstellar emission and point sources well within and beyond the galaxy. Less evident, but still visible, is an additional component of gamma ray emission above and below the galactic center, extending perpendicular to the galactic plane.”

In panel b, meanwhile, “the symmetrical Fermi bubbles stand out once all known sources of gamma rays in and outside the galaxy are subtracted and the Milky Way Band is masked. “


The authors note that the alternative explanations still hold court and it may be difficult to ultimately tie the Fermi bubbles to the supermassive central black hole. The primary reason for that is that the latter is currently in a “quiet phase ” – meaning the rate of material accretion onto it is low, so that gamma ray generation would be low. Franckowiak and Funk acknowledge that the supermassive hole can go through quiet and active phases and point to “x-ray light echoing off interstellar gas clouds” as evidence for “a prior episode of intense eruption that occurred a century ago.” (One alternative hypothesis is that a burst of star formation in dense gas clouds occurred in the vicinity of the galactic center.)

In any case, we will have to let the extended investigations play out and see if the Fermi bubble link to the galactic black hole is real or just a mirage.  The physical processes for such generation are at least well known and may exhibit one of two forms: 1) Inverse Compton scattering, i.e. in which relativistic electrons collide with low energy photons and boost them to gamma ray energies, or (2) high energy protons interact with the nucleons of interstellar gas to produce pions (pi mesons, neutral particles) that immediately decay into two gamma rays each.

The stage is set and perhaps a renewed “active” phase may soon arrive. In that case all eyes will be (via LAT) on these Fermi bubbles and also whether they have companion microwave bubbles.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why Libertarians Will Never Win a National Election

While the political philosophy of libertarianism remains popular, especially among a specific demographic - mainly young 'up and coming' professionals and a segment of high I.Q. societies - such as Intertel and Mensa- the fact remains it is a bankrupt engine for real political change. There are sundry reasons for this which I'd like to examine more closely in this blog post, which will show why the 'Libbies' can never win any national election.

For a fairly generic idea of the core libertarian principles we can consider Charles Murray's statement in What it means to be a Libertarian (p. 6):

“It is wrong for me to use force against you, because it violates your right to control of your person....I may have the purest motive in the world. I may even have the best idea in the world. But even these give me no right to make you do something just because I think it's a good idea. This truth translates into the first libertarian principle of governance: In a free society individuals may not initiate the use of force against any other individual or group

Of course, this is also undoubtedly where the pet libertarian canard that “taxes = theft’ comes from. But look at it objectively (not to be confused with ‘Objectivism’) this is arrant twaddle and illogical to boot. Further, it takes no note of actual political and social reality which may make these perceptions even more egregious.

I mean “libertarian principle of governance”?  This is an oxymoron! Governance presumes and demands the non-passive act of governing, which means the projection of force for enforcement of laws.  Someone is invariably and actively setting standards of expected action, and also providing the means to uphold the standards. In other words, force inevitably backs up governance. Why do you think cities maintain police forces, and the nation a large volunteer standing army - along with assorted weapons to control crowds?  It is to sustain coherent and FORCE-ful governance. The libertarians, then, espouse a philosophy which cannot possibly work in the real world - because that world implicitly recognizes and declares government the primary agent of force, i.e. to enforce laws. Look around for a "force-less" government, i.e. which retains adherence and respect for its laws with no use of force. I defy you to name one!

If governments aren't enabled to enforce their laws , what’s the point? It’s all an exercise in mental masturbation. People can do whatever the hell they want!  Set up sex store emporiums or pot shops next to schools, or sell cocaine  and semi-automatic weapons in open stalls on the sidewalks of major cities!  Freedom thereby becomes perverted into a veritable "free for ALL". In other words, unless governance declares limits to actions - and someone (coercively) enforces governance, a functional society becomes  impossible. Now, maybe there IS a docile libertarian principle of “governing suggestion”- but this in no way is the same as “governance”! I also warrant such "suggestion" will always remain that and never be adopted.

One of the examples assorted libertarians invoke is that public tradespeople ought to be free  to decide with whom they trade. Thus, the druggist, the restaurateur, the hobby store, the home renovation store --- whoever- ought to be free to decide themselves with whom they trade. Of course, this is a prescription for absolute chaos. If every person, corporation, etc. could decide with whom they trade we'd have market bedlam. Economics would be in an even worse predictive position than it is presently.

One libertarian actually wrote in a blog comment several months ago:

 "If it is morally wrong to force someone to work for you against their will, how is it any less wrong to force someone else to trade with another against their will? I'm sure you will disagree on this point, but it is really about extending the same freedom to everyone, even if they choose to use that freedom in ways that you do not approve of."

The error the Libbie commits is conflating slavery ("making someone work for you") with  making someone trade with you. But this is mixing chalk and cheese. Free trade is regulated by licensing from the local community, county, state or nation (commerce clause).  The restaurateur or trader is afforded certain privileges (via licensing)  that a slave is not. These include the ability to manufacture goods and create services that can be publicly offered for sale in the market realm.  The trader's  so called "freedom" is thereby  limited to do whatever the trader wants - and hence he can't include refusal of service unless there are extenuating circumstances, i.e. the customers enter drunk and disorderly. The trader doesn't have the latitude  or "freedom" to refuse service on basis of ethnicity, skin color, or sexual orientation. It does not matter what personal likes or dislikes the trader has, or his preferences. If he is to trade in the licensed public domain he is obliged to put these aside. If he can't handle that, then his only resort is to create a "black market" where he can choose as he sees fit. Or he can barter on the individual level and decide with whom he'll trade to his heart's content.

But to do otherwise in the PUBLIC regulated domain flouts Civil Rights legislation passed in the 1960s which again is an example of government force to assert and promote citizens' rights.  The impetus of any trader to willingly impose racial or ethnic bias  to delimit with whom he does business is thus rightfully outlawed.  Meanwhile, the government's right to forcibly shut down any trader  - say selling knockoffs of trademarked products, or selling harmful products or marijuana (in a non-legalized state) or illicit sexual services, is preserved.

Again, traders are delimited and can't do whatever the hell they want. Their freedom is naturally circumscribed by the state. Any state!

Let's bear in mind that anti-statism is a central tenet of libertarianism, but it rests on no foundations, other than the so-called libertarian principles babbled by Murray and others. For example, Frank Chodorov, quoted by David Boaz of CATO Inst. in ‘Libertarianism: A Primer’, goes so far as to write:

Society is a collective concept and nothing else; it is a convenience for designating a number of people... The concept of Society as a metaphysical concept falls flat when we observe that Society disappears when the component parts disperse

Boaz himself joins in on what the “individual” means:

For libertarians, the basic unit of social analysis is the individual.... Individuals are, in all cases, the source and foundation of creativity, activity, and society. Only individuals can think, love, pursue projects, act. Groups don’t have plans or intentions


But, as Prof. Ernest Partridge puts it in his 2012 article, ‘Liberals and Libertarians’:

Now consider the implications of this denial of the "independent existence" of "the public" and "society." If there is no "public," then there are no "public goods" and there is no "public interest." If there is no "society," then there is no "social harm," or "social injustice" or "social (and public) responsibility." It then follows that government has no role in mitigating "social injustice" or promoting "the public interest," since these terms are fundamentally meaningless. Poverty and racial discrimination, for example, are individual problems requiring individual solutions”.

I can assure the Libbies here that if Boaz’ concept held sway and government force was not used in Alabama in Sept. 1963 (JFK nationalizing the Alabama National Guard to enforce school integration) and the later passage of the Civil Rights Act we would still be a segregated nation, with blacks sitting in the back of the bus, ‘colored’ water coolers and restrooms, and the rest. Only someone totally divorced from reality would claim individual African-Americans could have obtained their civil rights with mere individual effort and no government input.

Meanwhile, The Libertarian Party Principles state:

We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

Again, more inherently contradictory twaddle and piffle:  Interference with the lives of others is permitted, so long as it’s not “forcible interference”?   This is incredible! So,  if a neighbor has a "rape room" where teen girls are regularly taken - so he can "live in whatever manner he chooses",  we are obliged to not forcibly interfere? And what if it comes to attention that he's making bombs of assorted types, we're still not permitted to forcibly interfere - or notify law enforcement to do so?

 Their definition also excludes much that others would see as coercion. For example, to me, the TABOR law in Colorado is coercion, because it continuously and aggressively scales back tax support for the public domain (based on the past year’s population and growth) under a rigorous "formula" that is never subject to alteration - whether in good economic times or bad. Thousands of disabled people across the state may stand to lose their services thanks to TABOR and controls like it. all with the best intentions of course. The perverse basis of this law is that we not “take by force” those hard-earned gains of the filthy rich bastards ensconced in one of several of their 45.000 square foot mansions in Aspen!

As one critic has put it (to do with libertarians’ convoluted principles):

Libertarians make exceptions for defense of property and prosecution of fraud, and call them ‘retaliatory force’ But retaliation can be the initiation of force: I don't need force to commit theft or fraud. This is a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand that libbies like to play so that they can pretend they are different from government”.

Libertarianism clearly posits initiation of force for what it identifies as its cosseted minions' interests and calls it righteous retaliation, and uses the big lie technique to define everything else as “evil initiation of force". (As they would certainly call JFK’s nationalization of the AL guard in ’63 to force school integration) They support the initial force that has already taken place in the formation of the system of property (e.g. the seizure of Native American lands and violation of umpteen treaties), and wish to continue to use force to perpetuate it and make it more rigid. It is this inchoate ethics that translates into the system’s weakness and exposes libertarians as true hypocrites.

I warrant libertarianism and its fanciful  world of minimal force might work, in a fantasy parallel universe where all citizens are equally educated and have equal access to facts and information, and equal opportunities to advance their social-economic station. But that is emphatically not the world we inhabit, whether the Libbie concedes it or not. This is why libertarianism will remain the province of the very few, though it is disturbing to behold all the inroads it’s made into the high I.Q. societies like Mensa and Intertel. To read some of the letters or articles is almost like witnessing a collective mind-virus unleashed, and by people whose “bible” is ‘Atlas Shrugged’.

More sobering, it is virtually impossible to reason with these individuals. They have so bought into the airy fairy ideations of Libertarianism they won't deign to remotely entertain the notion that it  simply can't work in the real world.  For this reason too, since it is so useless to debate, I no longer accept comments from libertarians on this site, even say in response to this post. They will have to set  up their own blogs and make their rejoinders there!

Of course, for all these reasons libertarianism will never garner more than the 2 percent or so it barely manages in national elections. Even in local elections one seldom sees libertarian candidates running on their own (not aligned to either party) barely reaching the 5 percent level. The reason is clear: most voters see that the Libertarian principles can't work in the real world humans inhabit. The presumptions libertarians hold are simply untenable, unworkable and non-existent in the real world.

Thankfully,  there are still many of us-  certainly in Mensa and Intertel - who don't buy the resident Libbie bunkum, no matter who tries to peddle it. Call us proud “statists” (or "liberals")  if you will, but we will continue to advocate expanding government so that it serves all citizens – not merely the corporations, the rich, and not so rich, or any who can afford the luxury of Libertarian codswallop. And luxury it is, because I guarantee you that if you poll the homeless in Denver, Baltimore or San Francisco you won't find any libertarians there. You won't because it is a creation for and by the cosseted and privileged few, including pampered academics of the Walter Block mold, who never have to worry about THEIR precious properties or rights taken away - unless in some pseudo-political realm fabricated within their own paranoid brains.

Finally, to anyone out there whose mind hasn’t been infected by the libertarian mind virus, I commend Paul Kurtz’s excellent Editorial ‘Overcoming the Global Economic Tsunami’ in the  ‘Free Inquiry’ magazine, e.g.

http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/2989

Kurtz has it exactly right in his proposals, especially when he avers:

Effective regulation must be reintroduced to protect the public interest”.

This is antithetical to libertarianism because it recognizes no public interest, since it recognizes no "public". As Ernest Partridge put it: If there is no "public," then there are no "public goods" and there is no "public interest." If there is no "society," then there is no "social harm," or "social injustice" or "social (and public) responsibility.

We have to thank the libertarians for creating a reflection of a fantasy world which will never come to pass, other than in their own deluded craniums. Hence, for exposing "principles" that the true rationalist can never accept - because it would mean he has detached himself from any grounding in reality. This is a service because one can then concentrate on making other, existing political systems more workable.

Have they "over thought" political ideals or extended a concept of "freedom" beyond any reasonable bounds? Very likely!   This is why I commend to all Libbies the excellent book by David M. Potter, Freedom and its Limitations in American Life, (Stanford University Press, 1976)

See also:

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/14/why_i_left_libertarianism_an_ethical_critique_of_a_limited_ideology/

Excerpt:

"Anarchism was libertarianism fully realized. Political libertarianism was a deformation of the ideology, only attractive to those who valued the sentiments of libertarianism but weren’t principled enough to carry it to its logical (and moral) conclusions."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Calming the Hysteria: No, Earth Wouldn't Have Been "Destroyed" Had That Flare-CME Struck

Solar flare nearly destroyed Earth 2 years ago: NASA

As usual, much of the media has to use hysteria to command attention. And so numerous media sources reported in the past few days that a monster solar flare- that erupted two years ago (July, 2012) could have "destroyed the Earth", while others asserted "we'd have been sent back to the Dark Ages."  All that, if the event had occurred a week earlier.


According to an astrophysicist from University of Colorado quoted by The New York Post:

"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,”

He then added:

"I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did.  If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”

Yes, but "line of fire" doesn't mean the end of civilization.

Sadly, much of this was based on exaggeration and hysteria.  Note I had also referenced the effects of CMEs or coronal mass ejections in earlier blogs, and the expected effects on human civilization, e.g.

http://brane-space.blogspot.com/2012/06/cme-that-you-dont-want-to-see.html

Based on the above content (and other posts I've written on the subject) the Post did get this much correct:

"It’s believed a direct CME hit would have the potential to wipe out communication networks, GPS and electrical grids to cause widespread blackout.......Just 10 minutes without electricity, Internet or communication across the globe is a scary thought, and the effects of this event could last years. It would be chaos and disaster on an epic scale."

Well, uh yeah, things would get very inconvenient! Make no mistake people would likely have to do without their computers, smart phones, Ipads, Facebook, GPS systems for 6 months or so, maybe longer. The NASA release also made some rough analogies to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and "disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket" as well as "most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.”

In other words, you'd definitely be faced with horrendous and messy issues in the wake - but "back to the Dark Ages" ? Well ok, maybe for a few months. But it would not compare to the aftermath of a nuclear war, for example, which could erupt if we were stupid enough to follow the advice of Johnno McCain and other dumbass Reeptards to "teach Putin a lesson".

But equating not having internet or smartphones or Facebook to the "dark ages" - that's a bit of exaggeration! Well, ok, maybe not given the extent to which most moderns are hooked on all these devices and pastimes.

But as I noted in the above line to do with CMEs, many of the problems that might be caused by their smacking us at the most inopportune time are soluble. For example, our power grids could be protected by the simple expedient of installing large enough resistor -capacitor systems at critical locations (e.g. near power plants or major cities)  in order to sever any CME-driven upward field aligned current connection to the grid. Recall from my basic physics blog, e;g. http://brane-space.blogspot.com/2011/06/introduction-to-basic-physics-electric.html    that resistors act to limit current and also capacitors can do the same by collecting charge.

The problem? Major U.S. power companies don't want to assume the cost for any voluntary installations, which could run $100,000 per transformer. Hence, the grid remains unprotected against the rare - but potentially calamitous - Carrington event CME that smacks us broadside.

Government, of course, could easily provide subsidies to help pay for the C-R systems to protect the transformers, but the moron Tea Baggers infecting our nation (and one whole party)  won't hear of such a thing. They won't tolerate giving any "blank check" to government to subsidize  power companies, especially to build capacitative-resistance systems to protect our power grids. These jerks with their triangle hats still live in the 1790s, after all!

Ok, so forget the "expensive" solution above. Even a bit of help could still be available if we knew the direction of an oncoming powerful CME event and had some time to prepare. Right now such an entity exists: the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which can measure the intensity and magnetic orientation of any CME that sweeps by it. The problem is that ACE is nearly on its last legs and a replacement monitor is needed.

Fortuitously, a fully -ready space craft that can undertake ACE's duties exists. The problem? This Deep Space Climate Observatory (or DSCOVR) sits mothballed in storage at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt,  Maryland. It sits idle because the Obama administration's $47.3 million budget request to refurbish and launch DSCOVR has been forthwith rejected by the Republican-controlled House.

So there it sits, and here we sit, on a planet becoming ever more vulnerable to the ultimate 'blowback' from  the Sun's "burps" - as Neil deGrasse Tyson called them on Bill Maher last night.

So maybe, just maybe, the Reepos really don't care if people have to do without Facebook or smartphones for a half a year, or can't flush their toilets for lack of electric power. I mean, they still haven't furnished all the money needed for the Superstorm Sandy victims, many of whom still sit in darkened homes without electricity or running water.

Maybe the Republicans would prefer that condition for the whole country!

Drones Gone Wild- Why More Air Disasters May Be On the Way If The FAA Keeps Dragging Butt















The Youtube video of a wayward drone scoping out people below on the observation deck of the Seattle Space Needle has commanded lots of attention, as it should.  In fact, this drone - shown in an ABC segment last night - was sent on its mission by some goober in a nearby hotel - who released it from his window. This stunt followed an earlier one a month or so ago when a drone flew high over the wedding of the daughter of a congress critter (who had a hand in fashioning the 2012 bill allowing millions of these things to take to our skies by next year)  In both cases the unleashed drones were in violation of laws prohibiting such drone flight until late next year.

The existence of the relevant bill was first reported on Feb. 4, 2012 in The Wall Street Journal  ('U.S. Skies Could See More Drones', p. A7)and it came as a shocker of sorts. First, because it disclosed yet another federal agency (FAA) held hostage to the corporatist-industrial complex, now attempting to find new avenues for drone production since the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending (well the first has officially ended, the second nearly may not until 2024). And second, because it discloses how secretive this corporate-benefiting information is.

Medea Benjamin made reference to the spectacle of congressional corporate compliance and being bought out by the drone makers, as she said:
 

"They’ve been able to write the drone legislation and get their lackeys in Congress to push it through and get the president to sign it.”
 

In other words, the congressional rats and whores placed the bottom line of corporations over citizen welfare. But this is what we expect in a corporatocracy.  In the case of the FAA bill, worth some $63 billion (and nearly four years in the lobbying and rewriting), U.S. skies would be inundated with tens of thousands of unmanned drones sharing airspace with commercial planes - and recall these are already at the beck and call of overworked air traffic controllers, as gauged by nearly 300 near misses per year. Imagine if they now had to contend with thousands of these unmanned drones flying who knows where?
 
Well, we no longer have to imagine! We now know how bad it can be! Records and data are now available showing dozens of near misses of commercial aircraft with drones, near major airports - highlighted in the FAA map below:


Photo: FAA Map showing locations of near collisions with drones at major airports.
These incidents, exposed in an investigation by the Washington Post,  include one in which a pilot descending into LaGuardia observed a drone with a 10 -15 foot wingspan above lower Manhattan. In another LA incident, two separate pilots reported a drone "the size of a trash can" perilously close by.  The FAA was not able to pursue or identify the offenders because either "radar data was not available" or "the operators could not be identified." (Denver Post, 'Drone Close Calls', June 25th, p. 17A)   The Post notes that (p. 22A):

"The close calls were the latest in a rash of dangerous encounters between civilian aircraft and drones flown in contravention of FAA rules intended to safeguard U.S. airspace.."

Beyond that, the Post reports that "in 15 cases the past two years, drones flew dangerously close to airports or passenger aircraft" (including the incidents noted above in New York and LA.) The accumulating incidents so spooked one commercial pilot (Greg Cromer) that he actually wrote a letter to the FAA opposing the whole insane idea of opening U.S. airspace to these mechanical beasties, writing (ibid.):

 "I can see no way to prevent a collision with something that could be as small as a bird or a plane or kitchen appliance."


In addition, "the NASA database confirms that dangerous brushes between drones and passenger aircraft are more common than the FAA acknowledges." 

Is the FAA already co-opted and bought out? We hope to hell not!  According to the database, there've been 50 incidents since 2005, including potential disasters. Meanwhile, Chris Stephenson, an operations coordinator with the National Air Traffic Controllers' Association, described the pending integration of drones into national airspace as "a tsunami headed for the front porch". Other drone advocates (e.g. General Dynamics' Krista Ochs) are concerned with how the industry will be set back if and when the first major crashes with commercial airlines occur.  As she put it (ibid.):

"If we have a major catastrophe that involves some type of midair collision it could set us back years."


She has a point!

This past week saw three air disasters racked up, one in Ukraine (the shoot down of MH-17 with 298 onboard), one in Taiwan, and one over Africa. Nearly 500 lives lost in a skein of disasters that even has the most savvy frequent fliers biting nails. Steve Kornacki, on his show this morning, observed how the three plane disasters has him asking why (after taking 13 flights and surviving) he'd ever fly again. An aviation guest he had on said he needs to stop his "catastrophic thinking" and give control back to his rational brain.

But that will be hard for any rationalist knowing that because of a worthless, bought out congress commercial aircraft will be under constant threat when millions of unmanned drones with very few regulations, are released.

The inherent problems,  as noted by the Post report, include:

A limited ability to detect and avoid trouble. Cameras and high-tech sensors on a drone cannot fully replace a pilot’s eyes and ears and nose in the cockpit. Most remotely controlled planes are not equipped with radar or anti-collision systems designed to prevent midair disasters.
 
Pilot error. Despite popular perceptions, flying a drone is much trickier than playing a video game. The Air Force licenses its drone pilots and trains them constantly, but mistakes are still common, particularly during landings. In four cases over a three-year period, Air Force pilots committed errors so egregious that they were investigated for suspected dereliction of duty.
 
Persistent mechanical defects. Some common drone models were designed without backup safety features and rushed to war without the benefit of years of testing. Many accidents were triggered by basic electrical malfunctions; others were caused by bad weather. Military personnel blamed some mishaps on inexplicable problems. The crews of two doomed Predators that crashed in 2008 and 2009 told investigators that their respective planes had been “possessed” and plagued by “demons.”


Unreliable communications links. Drones are dependent on wireless transmissions to relay commands and navigational information, usually via satellite. Those connections can be fragile. Records show that links were disrupted or lost in more than a quarter of the worst crashes.
 
The FAA was to have issued regulations controlling drone flight in commercial airspace - but so far they are dragging their bought out asses. According to a disturbing report in The Denver Post ('Flying Blind', July 6, p. 1D)
 
"...an agency official reportedly has warned that the entire rulemaking process could take up to a decade."
 
A decade! That means the rules governing unmanned drone flight won't be available until 7 or so years AFTER the drones take to the skies!   The Post article goes on:
 
"Although rule-making for small, unmanned devices could begin by the end of the year, even the Inspector General of the Transportation Department has concluded 'the FAA will not meet the September 2015 deadline for safe drone integration and it is uncertain when it will be achieved,"
 
Then the solution ought to be obvious to our illustrious congress critters: the integration of drone flight into commercial airspace needs to be postponed! No unmanned drones going up until such time the FAA has its house in order and proper regulations published and mandated.
 
According to the piece, the FAA "disputes that it is creeping along" and even put out a pamphlet, 'Busting Myths' purporting to show how on target they are and calling out "myths and misconceptions".  One myth, according to the FAA, is that it is "lagging behind other countries in approving commercial drones."
 
But to show how Neoliberal logic has infected even federal agencies, the FAA  - as the Post article notes - "never explicitly denies it is lagging behind other countries in approving rules."
 
The Post goes on: "Because it can't.  Australia, Japan and even Britain has moved on with their own regulations".   But wait, the FAA has a built in excuse:
 
"The comparison is flawed, because the U.S. has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world" and "developing rules is a very complex task".
 
Okay, fair enough. Then delay the integration of drone craft until you have the rules in place!
 
Do not be pressured by the drone makers or their congressional whores! Do what is in the interests of the citizens for once!
 
Steve Kornacki may well worry about three airline crashes in a week - but what if that turns out to be 30 incidents a month by September 2015? That could happened if the FAA allows drones to run wild in our commercial airspace before it has solid regulations in place.
 
It is time for government to act in the interest of we the people for once, and not the corporations who are only interested in making profits.