Tag Archives: gullible

The Future of Humanity, part 2: what went wrong?

Let’s face it:
Today we don’t live in the future we (or our parents) envisioned. Civilization was not eliminated or at least decimated by a nuclear war – at least not yet. TV hasn’t dumbed down all of society as predicted. But we also didn’t get our flying cars and there is definitely no big space station shaped like a wheel in earth orbit from which deep space missions are launched (as in 2001). I guess it’s a trade-off. In our everyday life we use so many things our parents never even imagined one could possibly have a need for. And maybe it’s a good thing those flying cars didn’t come out, they might be pretty dangerous under human control.

The reason the Moon is as far as humans went has become obvious lately: The race to the Moon was not about science but it was to show the Soviets and all the world that the US could do it. Considering that all the resources, manpower and money that went into that effort wasn’t spent on weapons was a good thing already. Maybe people started to think that there was so much good technology for everybody in the pipeline that they turned to SF and Fantasy when the goodies didn’t materialize. I guess our ancestors were used to gradual or no change in someone’s lifetime. The 20th century had so many projects and developments that were deemed impossible when proposed and then led to the wildest blooms. Aviation is probably one. At the same time human flight didn’t exactly start with the Wright brothers in the early 1900’s. The wish to fly seems to have been in human consciousness long before that. So, patience.

A little update might be in order:
Just a few days ago US president Obama canceled the Constellation program. This program was very much focused on going back to the Moon. It remains to be seen what happens now. It is hoped that private companies like SpaceX could provide launch capacity soon. Maybe that means that Bob Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan gets a closer look. Or how about Marshall T. Savage’s Millenium Project?

Solar Power update (part 8)

(continued from part 7)

So here we are. February 2010. We had our solar array online for close to a year now.
What are the first year impressions of our life with a 1.2kw solar array in our front yard?

First, if you read the initial installment of my solar power posts you will notice that we built a post with a mount laid out to hold 12 panels. Because 200W panels aren’t cheap we only populated half of the array at first. These six panels were actually only 195W a piece, so to be correct they only add up to 1170w total. Since going online on February 11 2009 we made 1361kwh as of January 31 2010. The array has been producing power for just over 4010 hours. The power output during the course of a nice sunny day starts up around 8:30am (in the winter) with just enough wattage to turn the inverter on, typically 10 watts or so. Around 11:30am, when the sun clears our roof and hits the panels full on we are up to 800 watts which will quickly ramp up to 1050-1150 watts just around noon. It stays there until 2:30pm or so and slowly creeps back down to 50 watts around 5pm. On a sunny, cloudless day this will produce between 4.5 and 5.2kwh. In the summer we get up to 7.5kwh on some days. Of course if we have a very cloudy sky the power never exceeds 50 watts. January around here is like that sometimes. Total electricity usage in our first year with the solar panels was 14,320kwh. That means the panels contributed a little under 10% of the electricity used at our house.

As it turns out my installer, Alex Jarvis from Solar Systems of Indiana, helped me to sign up with a company by the name of Sol Systems which brokers SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Credits). Based on the size of your system you get a yearly check for offsetting carbon output. I actually did get a check of a couple of hundred dollars for the first year. More than the $85 I saved on my power bills.

One other thing is that my system over-produces sometimes. In other words it makes more power than we use in the house and we get credit for it from our utility company. Unfortunately the credit that we get back is a little more than half of what we pay (we pay $0.0631 per kwh while we only get $0.03357 for a kwh that we feed back in.) Unless we overproduce during peak times – then we get a credit of $6.67 per kwh! During last summer we were actually able to still produce around 500 watts during evening peaks and it turns out it is a good time to turn off everything non-essential in the house for an hour to feed back as much as possible and get the peak time credit. If you can feed back half a kwh on 10 days in a month it adds up to a $40 credit on your power bill – pretty substantial.

Then, on January 5 2010 Alex came over and we added six more panels for a whopping 2370kw. This what our array looks like now:

Why, you ask, would I spend another $4,500 to add six more panels? I mean, I really *only* made about $285 last year. If nothing else happens, nothing changes, the price of electricity stays the same or the days become longer it will take me 33 years to break even, not counting at least one inverter replacement for about $2k in that time – and that calculation does already include a 30% tax break.

The answer isn’t exactly simple.

1) While looking at my power bills, we developed strategies to use electricity when we get it for free from the panels. We learned that dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, computer tasks involving multiple computers, etc. are better done during the day to use power from our solar panels rather than the grid.

2) With the help of a Kill-a-watt, which shows you how much energy a connected appliance draws over a given time, I was able to locate some real energy wasters in the house. For one, the dehumidifier in the basement is now turned off – that things sucks 300-400 watts! That’s about 3000kwh in a year! The solar panels make me really conscious about that stuff.

3) We have about 4-5 months in which we can actually overproduce and feed back power during peak times. With 12 panels we should be able to maximize our credits considerably.

4) While at the moment the 1/2 ratio between what we pay for a regular kwh ($0.0631) and what we get credited for ($0.03357) seems quite unfair, this will change eventually. Even in Indiana the law says utilities are required to pay retail rates for power fed back into the grid. It’s just that our power company is a coop and they are still excluded.

5) While our initial six panels were $1200 a piece and rated at 195w the new ones we put on just three weeks ago where $800 and are rated at 200w. So prices have dropped.

Today was really the first full day of sunlight since we installed the additional panels. Just before shutting down the inverter read 10.41kwh produced. And that’s pretty cool. Considering that on average we use about 39kwh in a day that’s about 1/4 of total electricity from solar. I am sure we will find more holes to plug in the walls and more ways to save energy. It should be an interesting year.

The Future of Humanity, part 1: so last century

When in the 1960s and 70s technology seemed to jump forward with new inventions and discoveries practically every week, with the crown of course being the first manned landing on the Moon by Apollo 11, it looked like it would only be a short two decades until we would have humans live in a  permanent Moon base and we would reach Mars shortly thereafter. Assuming that the movie 2001 by Stanley Kubrick tried to reflect the honest expectations of technology minded people we would have a mission to Jupiter on the way by that year. There was no doubt that the Space Shuttle might be the beginning of cheap access to space and people would soon move into giant space habitats as envisioned by Gerard K. O’Neill. Of course nuclear power had come out of favor in the 70s after an accident at Three Mile Island and even more so after Chernobyl in 1986. Surely the nuclear arms race between the two super powers contributed its share. But for the optimistic technologists nuclear fusion was just around the corner – fusion power was also of course the energy source many SF authors based their spaceship propulsions on.

SF literature eagerly foresaw easy space travel aboard huge and quite comfortable vehicles. Encounters with countless alien races were described – sometimes humans were enslaved or driven into the underground often they prevailed (due to their ingenuity or unintended actions). Sometimes they even made friends with the aliens. Encounters with aliens presumed that travel between stars was possible. Ways had to be invented of how to travel many lightyears in reasonable timeframes (without the effects of time dilation). Although there were stories which made time dilation their theme (Poul Anderson – Starfarers). The other type of long distance space travel was done in so-called generation ships – whole societies living on huge star ships, on their merry way at sub light speeds for many generations. Also one German SF series which has been appearing in weekly pulp booklets since 1961 called Perry Rhodan was practically expanding the human empire by thousands of lightyears every week. About four years into the series humans had already traveled back in time to meet their ancestors and were traveling to Andromeda, the closest neighboring galaxy, in about as much time it took Apollo 11 to get to the Moon and back. Funny enough all this was done with cryptic computers printing out course directions on punch cards. The robots of course were as intelligent as needed. And really, this brings me to…..

….computers. When I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s computers were these ominous machines in big buildings that had to be ‘fed’ with punch cards (aha!), only to be operated by experts. I saw the very first computer in person at a friend’s house in Germany in late 1981 – a Commodore PET. Only two years later I bought my very own first computer – a Commodore 64. In early 2010 I am writing this on an iMac, which runs about 3,000 times faster than the C64 and has 64,000 times the RAM, while I listen to music streaming through iTunes and the computer crunches numbers for SETI@home and Einstein@home. Officially 2010 will be the year the US Space Shuttle will be retired after almost 30 years. No human has gone back to the Moon after Apollo 17 returned in December of 1972. We have put a space telescope in orbit (the Hubble) and started building the International Space Station in 1998 which will be completed this year. NASA has launched a good number of highly successful unmanned missions to Mars and the outer planets – and a few not so successful ones. But where is all the space stuff we were promised 30 years ago?

Why Shouldn’t We All Get Along (with the aliens)?

If you read some of the posts here you might have guessed that I try to be a rational, skeptical, scientifically minded individual. Somebody who has never been to college but realized he probably should have been. This ‘rational’ streak of my life isn’t very old, though. Up until about ten years ago I was into paranormal-UFO-alien-conspiracy stuff – big time. I didn’t exactly know what I was believing. Everything, I guess. Of course that was also the time when the internet started to offer easy access to all sorts of before unseen material – at least unseen by me.

I was raised Protestant. In Germany there were really only two confessions at that time: Catholics and Protestants. Other than the obligatory go-to-bed prayer, school mandated weekly church visits (can you believe that?), and Confirmation at age 14 we were pretty much left alone by our parents’ religion, although my mother was a bit shocked when at age 15 I choose to opt out of religion in school. After I left school and moved out from home religion lost any meaning for me whatsoever. But I slowly started to get interested in ‘the other side’. UFO stories made my ears perk up. When I read my first book about past-life regression I was hooked. In Germany it was still pretty hard to find material to read about all these topics. In the mid 1980’s I read my first Seth book by Jane Roberts. Couldn’t get enough of these.

After moving to the US in 1988 I found there were huge bookstores with hundreds of books covering everything supernatural and metaphysical. We had book stores in Germany but nothing in comparison. Maybe it’s because I am German, but “if it’s in a book,” I thought, “it must be true.” While I was still consuming Science Fiction at an alarming rate my exposure to any real science all but disappeared.
My wife must have thought I was nuts when I was telling her all the strange and outlandish stuff I was learning from this strange literature .

Then, as I mentioned, came the internet. The MJ12 papers. Area 51. Roswell. Conspiracies. When I read Robert Anton Wilson’s  Illuminatus! books there was a slight nudge to becoming a bit skeptical. And then I came across David_Icke’s “…And The Truth Shall Set You Free” and the whole thing blew up in my face. In this whole fabric of UFO reports, conspiracies, alternative realities, whatever, everybody was claiming they were correct and everybody else was wrong. The one claim they all had in common was that scientists were close-minded and didn’t want to hear anything about their lofty claims. It took another year or so for me to make the connection: Why didn’t I believe in a biblical god? Why, again, did I think following religious leaders blindly is foolish? Then I realized that most if not all of these fringe beliefs were just that: beliefs with no substantial proof, based on an individual experience or, even worse, a deliberate deception. Just the same as religious ideology – and I didn’t believe in that. And then all of a sudden I was free!

Another fact had kept bothering me all through my paranormal phase:
I was so eager to experience any supernatural phenomenon, so open to see a UFO, see a ghost or develop my own psychic abilities – but nothing ever happened. I guess I don’t have the ‘gene’.

In short order I became a skeptic. Subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer, started listening to skeptical podcasts and reading science books. It was kinda cool to slowly find out that there were many people like me even though somehow in most personal conversations I just stayed away from the topic of skepticism and atheism – just to be polite.

Then people like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins published books about atheism. And they didn’t really take care not to step on anybody’s toes. Harris asks, why can’t people who act on their religious believes held as accountable just as anybody else? Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” accuses parents of indoctrinating their children into their religion and damaging them for life. These authors were expressing what I had been thinking for many years. For a few years I became really mad. Partially that was due to a government which tried to play the religious card whenever possible. Not a Christian? Then you’re not one of us. Makes you feel very welcome indeed.

I have some friends who are Mormon. At least I think so. They never told me. I never asked. Although there were times when I almost did because I was curious. They never tried to convince me to become Mormon. They are very cool, creative people. They show up on time, don’t get drunk on the gig, don’t yell at me. They didn’t ask me if I was an Atheist when I called them for a gig. Who am I to tell them that their belief is ……what? Stupid? Irrational? Old fashioned? Maybe their belief system doesn’t really do that much. They would probably be decent folks without it.

So, then, are there two sorts of religion? The religion people carry inside? Their ‘personal’ belief. Can’t really share it because it may well have been inspired or evolved (snicker) from the other form of religion: the dogmatic sort, the rules imposed from outside for no good reason except that a pope, priest or pastor somehow extracted them from the Bible, the Koran or some other historic text. The kind of religion that the people in high places want to keep the same, absolute, a constant, untouchable. I suppose that the religion people display when they are together in church is not exactly the same thing they feel when they are by themselves.

As I was slowly becoming a skeptic I noticed how hard it was to let go of irrational believes – and it’s incredible how much stuff we accept as real and true that’s actually total bogus and yet it influences our lives in profound ways. Here’s a personal example:
When I was 16 and my guitar playing was slowly becoming presentable to a public I realized that it was also developing into something special: Through it I was able to express my individuality. More importantly, it became my ‘pie-in-the-sky’. If only I could become so good and write so many tunes, etc, one day I would be successful. People would know about me and my music and it would have financial rewards. This became my carrot and my stick. For many years it was almost inconsequential whether my pie-in-the-sky would ever materialize. I can easily imagine that for a religious person Jesus and going to heaven could be their pie-in-the-sky. While my pie essentially came down to earth some years ago – when I noticed that I am playing gigs for people who come to see me play, some buy my CDs with my music on them, and while I am not famous I am well known and recognized locally – the religious ‘pie’ ideally stays in heaven until you die. At least from the outside this looks like a pretty effective carrot (although with many religions it seems more of a stick.)

So, what then am I trying to say?
I just said that I don’t believe in a god – Christian or otherwise. But I also know from first-hand experience that I won’t practice my guitar without having something to practice for. It helps the motivation imagining some huge gig in front of thousands of people – even though that gig will probably never become reality. Hell (no pun intended), it’s next to impossible to get up in the morning without having somewhere to go to or something worthwhile to do. And not to defend organized religion, but they usually do offer you one heck of a benefits package even though I think it’s all made up.

As always, instead of black and white it’s a spectrum of finely shaded colors what people believe in and why. Just don’t come to my door and tell me that your god loves me because he might be a little disappointed.

Rebooting Reality, part 1

I have often wondered what would happen if we could start over with something. For example language. Let’s say we wind back time to the beginning of the development of language – assuming, for the moment, there is such a thing as a starting point. If we let it run again from that moment how would it develop? Would it develop pretty much along the same lines? Totally different?

Now, take something like Mathematics. Push the RESET button. Do we expect the exact science of Mathematics to develop the same way it did? Maybe it will develop along different ways but still end up with the same formulas, constants, rules, etc. One would expect the latter if Mathematics is as universal as it is usually made out to be. Wouldn’t we feel utterly betrayed if somehow these RESET mathematicians came up with a consistent, workable and applicable system that is totally different from ours?

Think of a house. Over its lifetime the owner will put on a new roof. Floors might be ripped out, walls torn down. Additions might be built. A second floor added on. When you get to the thought of adding passive and active energy savings measures such as insulation, windows that reflect the sunlight at just the right time of the year and let the light through at other times, solar panels? geothermal heating & cooling? – you get the idea – one might find that the original dwelling was built at a very odd angle to the sun that doesn’t allow easy usage of sunlight. You might find out that there is not enough room to run the water pipes from a roof installation of solar hot water panels – the rafters might be too weak to carry the weight anyhow. There comes a point when the owner realizes that if she really wants go ahead with all the upgrades it would be much more efficient to start over. Tear the old house down and build a new one – doing it right this time.

Another interesting target for such speculations is the wide field of Physics. Especially Theoretical Physics. This is a field which interests me tremendously yet I must admit my actual understanding of the whole thing is pitiful. I tend to read these really cool articles in Scientific American and various other magazines. While I read I go “Yeah, right. I get it this time. Makes total sense.” But as soon as I am supposed to tell somebody else in my own words what the article was about I can’t put it back together. What is probably the most outlandish aspect of it is that it’s all so small. Not only can’t we see any of the quarks, leptons, let alone force carriers such as photons. Somehow all of that seems so removed and irrelevant to our everyday lives. And yet the interactions between all these different forces and particles produce our reality. What if we press RESET for Theoretical Physics? One would imagine that while we don’t know how, when and by whom various effects would be discovered and what language would be used to express this knowledge there still would be someone to figure out the theory behind electromagnetism (James Clerk Maxwell did it in our reality). You would think that somebody would eventually uncover E=mc squared although we don’t know what mathematics she would use to describe it. Could it be that the building of Theoretical Physics might be constructed in a different order and thereby would actually come out differently? Impossible, you say, physics describes the underlying rules of reality but maybe our physics only describe the tip of a huge iceberg. RESET physics and another tip of the iceberg might be sticking out of the water.

One subject of interest to me is music. How could music develop differently after a total RESET? (Assuming of course that music would actually develop in the first place.) Since music is a subject I have a bit more expertise I want to offer an idea I have been elaborating on for a few years now. Assuming a piece of music – for the moment this could be one of the simpler, shorter and clearly structured compositions of J. S. Bach – we know what theoretical background it comes from. We know the key, the meter, how the melody relates to the bass notes, how the notes in between create a harmonic movement. We know how, through the circle of fifths, the major and minor keys relate to each other. Seemingly the composition of the piece is more or less an application of general rules mixed with personal preferences on the musical raw material which has been fine-tuned and formalized over hundreds of years. So, now assume that some alien digs out a recording of that piece. No other materials are found. No reference points to what culture that music came from. The piece of music clearly has structure. It clearly works according to certain rules. But which rules? Can the alien figure out by that piece of music alone what the underlying system of rules and customs that led to its composition were? Could it actually be that this alien might come up with a totally different underlying system for the creation of the piece? I guess if these aliens find more music they will develop a better and better handle on what concepts it’s based upon. Or really? Maybe after a piece of music has been composed or created in some way it’s roots are best forgotten. On the other hand I wonder if it could stand all by itself, apart from the culture that brought it forth.

Finally, for part 1 of this train of thought, think how science actually developed over thousands of years from mythology, religion, superstition, etc. People wanted to know. What knowledge they didn’t have they filled in – by connecting the visible dots, consequently ignoring countless little details in between. Obviously nowadays we know much more about the details in between the dots. And much of it actually seems to be correct since we can use the theories we came up with and reliably predict how certain things in reality will behave. We use these theories to work out what will happen if we put together two chemicals in specific quantities We use them to calculate how to construct rockets to deliver satellites into space and figure out where to put them so they appear to stay over the same geographical location all the time. We use them to program the algorithms that let our GPS navigation systems use these satellites to guide us through big city jungles of one-way streets. So the theories we have work on various chunks of reality. None so far seems to pull it all together. There are still dots hidden and one wonders if in a RESET reality other dots might be found first.

Legoland – which part don’t you understand?

When I grew up in Germany during the 1960s and early 70s there was hardly any programming on TV. Computers? Internet? Yeah, right!

But there were LEGOs. Practically every kid I knew had a box full. I had a big box. And every day after coming home from school and finishing my homework I just built stuff. At that time there wasn’t quite such a huge selection of different LEGO elements as there is today. But we still built airplanes, ships, castles, spaceships, rockets, trains, you name it.

The time came when other things became more important in life than building LEGOs. I guess my mom gave the LEGO box away when I moved out. But little did I know back then that several decades in the future I would take my very own kids to Legoland in Ulm, Germany.

Here some of the impressive mini-towns and cities built entirely from LEGOs.

The first three shots are in the Berlin set.

Berlin Reichstag
Berlin Reichstag
Berlin Cathedral
Berlin Cathedral
I like this train bridge
I like this train bridge

Many of the settings include rivers and lakes featuring real water.

Netherlands scene, love the boat
Netherlands scene, love the boat
Venice with lots of canals
Venice with lots of canali
The famous Rialto bridge in Venice
The famous Rialto bridge in Venice

And upon closer looking you find out that all the plants are alive! Trees, shrubs, grass covers. Once you build the structures they stay there. They are glued together. But there are actual gardeners pruning and tending to all the green stuff. That makes everything look so real.

All trees, shrubs, grass, etc. in Legoland are real, 100% organic
More trees in teh Netherlands set
More trees in the Netherlands set
Check out the grass, lovely
Check out the grass, lovely
real grapes, probably not, but real plants nonetheless
Real grapes? Probably not, but real plants nonetheless.
You gotta go when you gotta go. The little things you see these Lego people do.
You gotta go when you gotta go. The little things you see these Lego people do.

Airports, harbors, trains, hundreds of cars and trucks, I spent hours finding new stuff to look at.

Frankfurt airport with a cut-open Airbus A380
Frankfurt airport with a cut-open Airbus A380
Hamburg harbor. Check out the soar panels on the roof to the left.
Hamburg harbor. Check out the solar panels on the roof to the left.
The solar cells make power for that ferris wheel.
The solar cells make power for that ferris wheel.
What's this riverboat doing here?
What is the riverboat doing here?
Frankfurt with it's skyline in the background
Frankfurt with it's skyline in the background
This stadium is in a smaller scale
This stadium is in a smaller scale. There must be thousands of the small Lego people.
Summit station up in the Swiss mountains
Summit station up in the Swiss mountains
...and right behind the station in the woods, a fracking UFO with green aliens.
...and right behind the station in the woods, a fracking UFO with green aliens.

Fractals in action? From the distance this looks like it’s made up of pretty big Lego technics elements. But if you get closer you notice that the big blocks are themselves built from real, smaller blocks.

Lego technics dino, big Lego blocks, right?
Lego technics dino, big Lego blocks, right?
....see the details? All the big parts....
....see the details? All the big parts....
...are themselves built from real Lego blocks.
...are themselves built from real Lego blocks.

I hope you enjoyed this little trip to Ulm, Germany.

UFOs have landed – and they are….WTF?

After listening to the 11/23/2008 episode of Tim Harold’s  Paranormal Podcast featuring an interview with Stanton T. Friedman I had some more thoughts about the relationship of the UFO phenomenon with Science.

I want to say upfront that while I more often than not highly disagree with Tim Harold’s guests he is an excellent interviewer who somehow manages to keep a straight face (or tone of voice) while his guests tell the most outlandish stuff. I have heard Mr. Friedman interviewed on other shows before, I have checked out his website and viewed some of his video material on youtube. While I actually agree with him and many other ‘fringe’ or paranormal people that there might be more to a certain phenomenon than current scientific knowledge can explain I find the way they on one hand condemn scientists, universities and research in many fields when it contradicts their ideas while on the other hand eagerly striving to be scientific themselves to be a little inconsistent. Alright, I think I understand where they are coming from. People like Stanton Friedman used to work in a scientific field. They believe the stuff they research now is for real, too. What struck me with that particular interview was that Mr. Friedman spent a whole hour telling how close-minded scientists are when the subject of UFOs comes up. He specifically mentioned Brian Dunning, who produces the excellent Skeptoid podcast. I have listened to every episode of Skeptoid. I find them well reasoned, thoroughly researched and occasionally disturbing (I am a vegetarian and the episode about organically grown food didn’t go down easy.) Mr. Friedman also mentioned Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute who produces a podcast called ‘Are we alone’. The SETI Institute listens for intelligent signals from outer space (remember the movie ‘Contact’?) The podcast deals with scientific topics around that. I have learned much about robotics, astrobiology, physics, etc. listening to that show. Stanton Friedman called the search for extraterrestrial life a ‘religion’.

When I found out about podcasting I was surprised how many science shows there were. Scientific American offers two podcasts. Groks Science Radio Show is a great podcast with different guests each week. Not to forget The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skepticality, Geologic Podcast, Quirks and Quarks. There are many more but they don’t all fit on my iPod. The days are too short to catch them all. All of them have one thing in common: I actually learn something from them. And they actually talk about real things, or sometimes hypothetical things. It’s about stuff that has something to do with my reality. The people on these shows are not whining about not being accepted by the general science community (probably because their research has passed the peer review process?) Funny, too, when they talk about the fringe stuff (at least they do on the skeptics’ shows) the consensus is that if there was a real flying saucer or compelling evidence for ESP or life after death scientists wouldn’t hesitate to probe the subject in depth. Anyway, to make it short: podcasts or TV documentaries, books or magazine articles dealing with UFOs have often been about how serious scientists ignore the evidence for alien visitation accompanied by a few blurry or inconclusive photos, and the demand that more research needs to be done (and that the US government must release all the secret documents pertaining the Roswell incident.) I haven’t really learned anything new or conclusive from the UFO guys. And it’s not that anybody prevents people like Stanton Friedman from producing their own weekly podcast. I might actually tune in, in search for new information but for some reason I think it might be a bit repetitive after a few episodes when the reality I live in somehow turns out to have no relationship with what they talk about on the show. It just doesn’t hold much water to see a light in the sky and to extrapolate from that observation that grey aliens and reptilians are at war, etc. I know it’s oversimplified but my call goes out to the UFO folks: If you have real things to report about then produce your own podcast and convince me with compelling evidence.

An un-american speed limit?

Recently, as I was pedaling to town on my bike I had an interesting thought. Having  just passed a ‘Speed Limit 40 mph’ sign I quietly chuckled thinking  to myself that at that moment I would not have to pay attention to any speed limits because unless I strapped a rocket to my back I would not be able to go any faster. When I got home that thought expanded itself into the idea of self-enforcing speed limits.

Practically it works like this: You pass a speed limit sign in your car. There is a chip embedded in the speed limit sign and your car will pick the signal up, and magically refuse to go faster than the posted speed limit. At least superficially workable – except that everyone I mention this to thinks it sucks. And come to look at it closer I too have a strange feeling about it.

From a logical standpoint it makes total sense. If there is a speed limit you are not supposed to go faster – it’s against the law!
Just like Religion – you are not supposed to commit sin. Why then did God leave the sin-enable switch in us in the ON position? Or, in regards to the speed limit situation, why does everybody hate the idea that they could NOT go faster if the wanted to, even when it is against the law?

Could it have something to do with ‘free will’? Does such a self-enforcing speed limit evoke the notion of a driver who is ‘guilty’ by default? Rationally it makes total sense to me – as would disabling the sin-switch – and yet there is something weird. Could it be that committing a sin/breaking the law is *fun*?

Call the Police – UFOs have landed!

Around 1976, back in Albstadt, Germany, I heard about UFOs for the first time. Being interested in all things space I immediately took to it. There wasn’t a lot of information available but I managed to write a short paper about the topic for a class in Gymnasium. I did get an 1+ for it which corresponds to an A+. The paper was pretty critical about the whole thing. There was just not enough information to make up one’s mind.

Then in 1978 I saw my one and only UFO on a night hike a few kilometers from my mother’s house in the woods. It was a light, hovering in the air like a helicopter some distance off over a valley. The thing that was strange was that there was no sound. There is a military practice grounds pretty close by and we were all familiar with the various sounds and sights from the different flying contraptions used in the practice. Seeing airplanes or helicopters at night was pretty common. My sighting happened during a clear and cold night in November. No crickets. Germans go to bed early. No cars on the road where I was walking. Dead silence. I think even at a distance of several kilometers I should have heard some sound. There was no wind. But for some reason, while I wished for it to be a spaceship that would pick me up, nothing much happened. I could see that mysterious light for 30 minutes or so as I was looking over my shoulder while walking back home. I lost sight of it for maybe 15 minutes until I went to the living room window of our apartment on the 6th floor. The light was still there. Moving about a little. When nothing further happened I went to bed. A good camera would have been nice.

A true Unidentified Flying Object. I don’t know what it was. At the same time jumping to the conclusion that it was an alien spaceship seems a bit far fetched. Other people have been taking this subject much more seriously. Since, in 1947, Kenneth Arnold reported his famous ‘saucer’ it developed its own mythology. There are UFO believers, UFO skeptics, UFO researchers and books, movies and documentaries dealing with the subject. There are claims, people who honestly think they saw something or were even abducted, fraud, faked photographs and videos, books full of unchecked, anecdotal stories. I don’t personally have an opinion about it other than people seeing something and jumping to conclusions. In the small cracks of our reality there are quite possibly countless things we don’t know about yet which together might turn the image we have about that reality upside down many times over. While I don’t know if there is other conscious life out there on some planet or if Earth is actually the only place in the known Universe bearing life my personal feeling is that we are not alone. However, what this other life looks like and how far away from Earth it developed is another question. The assumption that beings from another world have, or are visiting Earth has been been investigated for over a century by science fiction in written and later filmed form. In the written variety of science fiction one can find fantastic aliens, truly different. At the same time many alien cultures depicted appear almost ‘human’. Skipping to SciFi (the cinematic form of science fiction) popular TV series like Star Trek have a long history of depicting beings from other worlds. Most of these have more with us in common than Eskimos with Australian aborigines. Alright, they tend to have different foreheads. In many of the classic SciFi movies aliens – who often look just like us – visit Earth in their flying saucers. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some cross breeding of ideas going on. When the expression ‘flying saucers’ came up it was quickly adopted by movie makers as the obvious form for alien spaceships. And then people who saw something in the sky they couldn’t explain had an easy label to put on their observation. Herein of course lies the rub: UFOs in older photos or videos mostly look like hubcaps and lamps as do UFOs in movies made at that time. It’s hard to tell a real UFO photo or video from all the fakery, fraud and prank. And then don’t forget that UFO means Unidentified Flying Object but when people say they saw a UFO they usually do mean an alien space ship. The well is poisoned as in other ‘paranormal’ stuff such as ESP, near death experiences, ghosts, etc. It seems we try to impose archetypical explanations, thousands of years old, on a very thin layer of actual data. By the time a report of some paranormal activity actually goes on record the actual experience has been blurred, interpreted and totally mutated out of proportion and any sensible inspection is futile.

Perhaps there is stuff going on. Things our senses can’t really pick up because our eyes only see a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum and our ears have a pretty limited frequency band and range. Our mind (or brain, consciousness, whatever) uses all these inputs to fabricate the image of our reality from these inputs. That’s a pretty complicated task come to think of it. It doesn’t seem at all far fetched that small fluctuations in an input stream might trigger funny interpretations. There might be a lot more fluctuations on a small scale than our crude senses can perceive. Atoms are quite small and it takes a lot of them to form any visible structures. The overused but effective comparison with what you see on your computer screen comes to mind. You don’t think about all the electronic components involved in showing a youtube video in your web browser. One dead pixel on your LCD screen may not have too much of an impact but you do notice when a hard drive starts acting up or a virus or malfunctioning system extension spoils your experience.

Before any labels are put on anything we need to make sure that there actually is something to put a label on. So we are really dealing with two big problems:

1) sort the ‘actual’ physical phenomena taking place outside of the observer, from imaginations, deliberate fakes and other artifacts

If there are actual physical effects provoking observations which then get interpreted as UFOs its signal-noise-ration is very narrow. It may be even harder to come up with a good theoretical framework for these effects than it is in traditional physics because there is hardly anything to build a theory from. And it seems literally out of this world to base the gigantic theories surrounding alien interference in Earth matters on such thin data.

2) drop our preconceptions of what these phenomena might be, follow the data

Forming preconceptions is a human thing and it helps our minds to create the ‘inner’ picture of reality by drawing on previous experiences and acquired knowledge. At the same time, once we have a deep enough storage of preconceptions we tend to apply these first to make sense of what our senses pick up.

UFO and aliens in Legoland
UFO and aliens in Legoland

Improvising with LEGOs

My wife actually got me a set of LEGO Mindstorms for my birthday. I am done buying guitars. For those who don’t know what Mindstorms are:
These are LEGO Technic (not the blocks but the parts that let you build all sorts of vehicles, airplanes, cranes, robots – probably guitars if you push it). The set comes with a few motors, sensors and a small computer which holds programs that control whatever robot – or thing – you build.

Here’s the musical analogy part:
As I am toying around with this I realize that having all the hundreds of parts in one big box really slows things down. Especially finding these very small pins takes time. On a trip to the hardware store I bought a few compartmentalized boxes people use to hold screws and other small stuff on their work benches and then I sorted all parts out and now I can find them quickly.

Somehow that whole process of learning what actually to do with this stuff reminded me of learning about jazz.

1) you start with a big, unsorted box of LEGOs

2) you put together small things from a few blocks to see how it works

3) you look at existing models and try to copy them

4) you start getting a little experience, what parts you can use for which job

5) you start organizing parts so you don’t always have to search in the big box

6) you become aware of what you actually CAN build with what you have

7) you organize your LEGOs in various compartmentalized boxes

8) you develop a ‘style’, things you like to built

9) you start re-using subsections you developed

10) your perception of what you CAN and WANT to build is intimately connected to how you organized the components

11) over time you might actually store pieces you NEVER use in a separate box

blah, blah

This could go on and on. From my perspective this is pretty much how we learn to improvise. Seems the main thing is to not sort our parts too much. You want to keep access to the big, unsorted box of ideas.

I guess I am getting old and a bit bored by ‘what scale goes over what chord’.