The Fiscal Cliff

Hate to break it to those all up in arms about this whole budget crisis… The Fiscal Cliff is not the end of the world (nor did the Mayans predict it). It’s an emergency measure that will force spending cuts (good) while letting the tax breaks expire (also good). I’m aware that the post-Thelma-and-Louise conditions suggest another recession but that is only if a budget doesn’t get worked out for another year. A month or two off the cliff is not a worry. Wall Street will freak out for a couple days, but that’s to be expected.

I’d frankly be surprised if the budget gets resolved before the end of the year. Congress is just doing a lot of posturing and the media outlets are just playing up the drama, as usual.

By the way, when did I get so political? I refuse to admit it, it’s just that I read a book about this whole mess and I think about it more than I should. The whole point of this post is that I just shouldn’t bother with it.

UFOs

A few weeks ago a video montage of mainstream media coverage of UFO sightings did the rounds on the internets. Cut, chop, add in some intense music, and this is what you get.

I really don’t understand these videos. Or rather, I don’t understand the masses that get swept away by videos like this. Decades ago, a blurry photograph or video was enough to cause a stir but in today’s age of Photoshop and Hollywood I don’t see how either hold any credence. Decades ago, a claim of something large and not immediately identified in the sky was perhaps cause for alarm but in today’s age of Predator drones and satellites do these objects really cause the mind to wander?

Upon first seeing this video I knew at least a couple of the featured events were already explained but that scoff was the extent of my lazy protest. However, a coworker of mine took the time to debunk much of it and I felt he did such a great job that I wanted to repost it here.

Firstly, try not to let the spooky music impair your judgement! I’ll examine the first seven “sightings” in the video (I gave up after that because it then launches into a frenzied montage with few specifics), and augment them with my findings and those of other people. I’ll deal with them out-of-order because some are debunked with almost no effort.

2. China, Jul 15th 2010

There’s video footage of this:

It certainly had the two newscasters bamboozled (unsurprisingly, seeing as it was Fox news), but anybody who has lived in the Los Angeles area for a few years should be able to identify immediately it as a satellite launch or a missile launch. As the launch vehicle moves into the upper atmosphere, the tenuous air presents little resistance and the exhaust plume spreads out to enormous size. With the time of day just right, it can be night on the ground but the plume is high enough to catch sunlight and appear very bright. It’s hardly surprising that paranoia was running high at that time, as the sighting occurred only about a week after another high-profile one in China, examined further below. For me, this one set the tone for the rest of the video – the person who put it together is either extremely naive, or being intentionally deceitful.

5. Moscow, Oct 8th 2009

We see video footage of this beautiful object:

Though spectacular, it’s just an uncommon type of cloud formation. Try an image search ‘fallstreak holes’ or ‘hole punch clouds’.

Perhaps revealingly, the immediately preceding footage of a news presenter describing it has been edited so that it sounds a lot like she says “and scientists / left baffled by…”, where ‘/’ represents the moment of the edit, as can be clearly seen by watching the news ticker jump to a completely different sentence.

3. Norway, Dec 9th 2009

We’re shown images of this bizarre display, which appears at first sight to be completely ‘shopped:

But this effect was really observed, and the cause was quite quickly discovered to be a failed Russian Bulava missile. The third stage of the rocket malfunctioned and began to spin, spewing its exhaust plume like a Catherine wheel. As with the China sighting, the upper atmosphere presents almost no drag and allows the plume to expand to a gigantic size, and the plume catches sunlight at high altitudes while it’s nighttime on the ground.

New Scientist

4. Australia, Jun 5th 2010

A sighting similar to (though less spectacular than) the Norway one:

I think you are already equipped now to guess at the nature of this object. The rocket causing it is thought to have been the maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon-9:

Space.com

7. New York, October 13th 2010

No especially revealing footage is shown, but people in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York spent the afternoon gazing up at some brightly-colored distant objects which appeared to hang in the sky:

There is no mystery to this one, once it is known that earlier the same day several large bunches of bright yellow balloons were released from Times Square, in celebration of the Centennial of Madrid’s Gran Via:

1. China, Jul 7th 2010

China’s Xiaoshan airport was temporarily closed because of something seen visually by a flight crew but not on radar. In the video, we are presented with the following extraordinary images from an ABC News report:

The first thing which struck me was that the pictures didn’t appear to match the description. Why weren’t we told something like “residents captured stunning close-up photos of airborne craft flying near Xiaoshan airport”? The pictures also appeared to me to have been taken in very different locations from one another, which at least hints that something might be awry. A bit of investigation reveals the answer.

A search for a sharper version of image 3 finds this one:

The consensus seems to be that this photo quite possibly was taken in or near Xiaoshan on the given night. However, close examination suggests that it’s just a plane photographed with a long exposure. The plane is moving from right to left, with landing lights on, leaving a bright white streak while the camera shutter stays open. The beam of the landing lights is visible to the left. The port wing-tip has a red light which leaves the upper red streak. Visible in that streak are bright spots which are the strobing lights on the wing-tip – you can see matching points on a fainter streak at the bottom, which is presumably the right wing-tip.

Armed with this new perspective on one of the photos, more information emerges on the others. They are long exposure photos of helicopters which somebody presumably dug up from the internet, and they have nothing to do with the Xiaoshan incident. If you look at one of the posts some way down the following page: http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread558335/pg1, you’ll see that it contains images 2(a/b) and 4, with the description “pictures of helicopter as an example (all I had in my MATS folder)”. But, crucially, the posting was made on April 4th 2010, 3 months before the Xiaoshan incident. The red lights on the top of the object in 2(a/b) are again strobing lights captured by the long exposure.

Still don’t believe they’re helicopters? Look what I found using tineye:
http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Lille_helicopter_Img004510.ppm.jpg
This is the original source of image 4. Note that it was taken in a different continent, 3 years before the alleged sighting.

But in image 2a, for example, how does the beam get focused like that? The helicopter is circling something. As the beam points towards it, the long exposure creates a cone of directions. We’ve all seen this happening with police helicopters in California. (Indeed I can’t help thinking that the pine tree in 2a might be in California.) Shame on ABC News for jumping on the sensationalist bandwagon. Unfortunately I think this type of thing is typical of much of today’s mainstream news.

6. Jerusalem, Jan 28th 2011

We see parts of 4 videos which allegedly show, from 4 different view points, an object hovering above the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s old city, which then appears to swoop down to a spot just above the dome. It remains there for a while, after which there are some flashes and the object shoots skyward, leaving a pattern of dancing red lights in the sky.

Given the obvious religious significance of the site, we should be on high alert that a hoax might be in effect here. And hoax is precisely what this is. Luckily the debunking has already been done for me, showing that the videos are the result of special effects trickery. (Not particularly good trickery, even.)

The first video has been shown to have been played with digitally. Post-added camera shake has introduced gaps at the edges of the image, which were filled by mirroring the image contents:

Here’s an analysis of the second video in which camera shake is removed, revealing severe registration errors between the object and the background:

The third video used this stock image in place of the real scene, as you can verify yourself:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/Jerusalem_night_7088.JPG

The fourth video has been debunked by audio analysis:

The 4 videos also make, to varying degrees, a classic error in their synthesis of the motion blur of the rapidly moving object. (It’s an error we’ve made in many of our games, too. I can elaborate on this for anyone interested.)

So am I actually interested in ‘flying saucers’? Yes, I find them fascinating – but as a purely social phenomenon. There has never been a single piece of scientifically substantiated evidence in support of the notion that we’re being or have ever been visited by aliens. Give me any piece of video footage, and before I even look at it, I’ll bet you a thousand dollars that it’s not a video of an alien spacecraft. If you really are interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, you’d be much better off investing your time in keeping abreast of the real scientific work behind missions to other bodies in our solar system, the SETI program, and the recent technological advancements in the hunt for exoplanets which have led to a genuinely exciting explosion of discoveries. I’m very passionate about that science. But I’m even more passionate about the alarmingly dumbed-down state of the population at large. I’m not singling out the US here – the same criticism can be leveled against many technologically advanced nations where society ought to be better equipped. ‘UFOs’ represent just the tip of the iceberg – astrology, ESP, telepathy and other psychic abilities, the paranormal, ghosts, reincarnation, out-of-body experiences, fortune telling, homeopathy, Holocaust denial, alien abduction, crop circles, a young Earth, the list goes on. Widespread credulity, lack of scientific literacy, and lack of critical thinking and analytic capabilities seem to be the norm today, leading to the ease with which we buy into unfounded beliefs, with total disregard for presence or lack of evidence, and ultimately leading to untold damage and suffering.

As for the Area 51 caller at the end of the video, well, let’s just say I don’t think he’ll be winning any Oscars. And it doesn’t take much background checking on the radio program’s host, Art Bell, to discover that the forum in which this conversation aired is less than credible:

Ø In 1998, Bell was named as recipient of the less-than-prestigious Snuffed Candle Award. The CSICOP Council for Media Integrity cited Bell “for encouraging credulity, presenting pseudoscience as genuine, and contributing to the public’s lack of understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.”

It turns out that many people would rather jump to conclusions for dramatic effect. Big surprise.

It is ok to be in wonder of these phenomena because we live in an interesting natural world. Making up stories, however, cheapens them. Do people at large not realize that as a population we’ve sent many craft into the sky and space? Why would the first thought upon seeing one be that it was built by a life form other than ours? It is quite overdone to point out that the simplest answer is the most likely, but what is sometimes lost is the true wisdom behind those words.

Non Daylight Saving Time

We all know it – the clock shift is stupid. Days are longer in the summer so we can keep the mornings mostly the same and shift the extra sunlight to the evening. Whether or not you prefer daylight saving to standard time is your personal preference and I am not here to tell you which to like. But having a time system that requires a shift twice a year is retarded and it’s about time we did away with it.

What does shifting the clock actually accomplish? There are numerous studies and the short answer is either it saves electricity or it doesn’t. Seriously, that is about all we know about modern daylight saving time. Having more sunlight in the evening reduces the use of lights but very likely increases the use of air conditioning. But what do we need to deal with to keep it going? A giant pain in the ass, that’s what. Sunlight times are going to vary no matter what. Why not keep the change more gradual instead of throwing it in our faces in a single moment?

Reminding the country to change clocks once a year and then again to change them back sounds like an exercise in futility. It is like we are forever adjusting our perception to look for the perfect schedule but can’t quite pin it down. Listen, this is the deal. We can make time whatever we want it to be – there is nothing about the sun that says, “It is now 5:50 PM.” It’s all arbitrary since the rotation of the Earth causes days of different lengths that a fixed hour can’t deal with elegantly. Add the complexity of time zones and you could be in one place at 2:00 and 10 feet away it could be 3:00. Trust me, the sun looks to be in exactly the same position from both those vantages. Some countries, like China, don’t even have time zones and average it out so that most of the country is on an equal time.

But enough about the complexities of world time. The point is that we can declare time to be anything we choose. So whether we decide to roll GMT-8 or GMT-9 is of no consequence – what matters is that we keep it consistent to make it easier on, not only ourselves, but all the other countries who care to know what time it happens to be in the United States. I am a programmer by trade and one of my major beefs within my profession is when engineers try to be more clever than is needed. Usually the simplest solution works best. When you add underlying complexities to a system you are adding more points of failure- more moving parts means there is more to break down. There are scheduling, health, and economic repercussions to the change, and it is ironic that software engineers devote countless man hours to support the time changes because of their more dangerous cousins, social engineers.

Pennies

PennyI have long told people that I don’t believe in pennies. Many might agree that, sure, these coins don’t serve a useful function in today’s world, but with me it is different. I literally do not believe in pennies. I liken it to a child finding out that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy don’t actually exist- of course something so ridiculous isn’t true. Of course a fat stranger doesn’t climb down my chimney and give me gifts. Of course there are no such creatures as teeth hoarding sprites. Of course millions of people don’t go around keeping clunky metal in their pockets, taking time out of their days to obsessively count over them and worry about fractions of transactions.

If you open your hands for change and get back a bunch of pennies you may as well have just been given a fistful of rocks. You can put them down, throw them on the floor, collect them in a pile – you can do all manner of things with them except spend them on anything. Ironically, the only reason to have any pennies on you at all is so you can make exact change to avoid getting more pennies. Why bother with the overhead of managing them when the return is so low?

This is a great question. And why doesn’t the government answer it despite the fact that pennies have cost more to create than they are worth for several years already? Sure, Sony sold PS3s at a loss for a few years but their end goals were to also sell a bunch of games and to wait until the technology was cheap enough that they could make a profit on the hardware. Instead of sound financial foresight, we are paying people to design a myriad of commemorative pennies and mint them, all for a net loss. Yes my friends, it looks like the penny is sticking around for a while longer, and I am sure you can imagine my views on change in general.

Any change I do get I just drop in a pile in my car. The only reason I dig through that is to get quarters (unless I pick up a fucking nickel by accident). The rest of it gets cleaned up once in a while into a jar in my house. What do I intend to do with that? Maybe one day I can cash it in and see years of dedication translated into twenty dollars.

Nickel

Nickels are annoying because they are so big almost to the point of tricking you into thinking they are quarters. It is not much of a surprise that these hefty coins have more worth in metal than in monetary currency. Nickels should be close to the chopping block as well but simply making them the little guy would be enough to appease me. I am thinking some sort of smaller sized penny-nickel hybrid.

Dime

It is hard to get mad about dimes. Besides being worth an imaginable fraction of a dollar they seem to realize their place in the currency hierarchy. They aren’t worth much and they know it and they are small and unassuming for it. I don’t generally use dimes but it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, and aside from getting 5 at a time instead of a couple quarters I think they are generally a helpful unit of currency when dealing with change.

Quarter

Even the mighty quarter has the hang up of still being change. It’s not that I care about their value as much as their practicality though. I need to do laundry every week and that is more than enough to justify their existence, but loads upon loads of machines across the country accept these as their only form of payment. Once these machines start taking bills or credit then I may form a different opinion, but there is still more fun to be had with quarters. You can play drinking games with them. You can flip them to determine the outcome of binary situations. You can play table basketball. You can pull them out of children’s ears. Really, have you ever tried to do any of these things with other coins? The results can be disastrous.

Dollar Coin

What a joke these are. It’s bad enough that the kids at Taco Bell think you are trying to screw them by slipping them Canadian currency, but who thought that Americans should have to lug around more change? Are we all just supposed to carry little sacks around everywhere we go? How many strippers need to be knocked out before we discontinue these abominations? And please don’t tell us that we are actually expected to start using 5 dollar bills to snort cocaine. The one dollar bill is a mainstay – don’t mess with a good thing.

Change

But back to pennies. In the store today I got change of $2.15. I put the two dollars in my wallet and was disappointed to see I got 5 pennies instead of a nickel. This is the worst way to receive pennies because you have 5 times as many coins that are 5 times as useless, and you didn’t even really want the nickel to begin with. I put the change on the counter and walk away and an old lady behind me kindly informs me that I forgot my fifteen cents. I told her I left it there for other people to use. Hopefully that change can save somebody else from getting pennies. Then I went to the grocery store and got $3.04 back in change. I put the dollars in my pocket as the 4 cents came out of one of those change machines. I was again warned that I was leaving pennies behind. This is a regular habit of mine and I was surprised that I got called on it twice in the same outing.

I wonder what these people think of me. Am I ignorant of the value of money? Am I an asshole for snubbing my nose at society’s conventions? I had long thought that others had come to share my disbelief of pennies. Maybe it is a childlike case of me closing my eyes and hoping they would go away but I prefer to think of everyone else as the children, finding magic in the simplest of things. And who am I to tell them that what they believe doesn’t exist? I’ll leave that for their mothers.

The Olympics

OlympicsI’m not going to pile on with another discussion on why the Winter Olympics is not as good as its summer counterpart. I also won’t get into the evils of short, unbalanced elimination brackets. (So the US and Canada both lose only 1 game, each to the other, but Canada gets the gold? Sounds like tie-breaker territory to me.) And I’m surprisingly not going to say the Olympics are lame because I hold a lot of respect for the athletes and national pride involved. But I would like to take a step back and talk about the problems with the games today.

The Olympics should not include team sports.

The Olympics are not as originally intended. This is partially a good thing since I am not clamoring for naked oiled men to compete in contact sports. But I believe the spirit of the events was to showcase feats of strength and skill and to show what humans were capable of. Small, short contests between individuals is what I want to see. Team sports in large scale playoffs that encompass the duration of the entire Olympic Games just to be rewarded with a single medal at the end are clearly not the intent. Not only do the large teams not train together for extended periods of time but having a hodge podge group of athletes takes away from the simplicity and gladiator-centric wonder of the original events.

The events should be streamlined.

On one hand you have baseball teams that play many games to get a single medal (or you don’t anymore since the sport is no longer included)- but the flipside to this problem is that a swimmer can pick up 20 medals in the same span of time. Sure, you need races of different lengths, but at some point you need to realize that nobody needs to see 50m, 100m, 200m, and 400m versions of the same thing.

Every contest should be simple.

Remember, the point is to see humans perform feats of strength. It is not inspiring to see a team of curlers defeat their opponents 6-3. The ‘sport’ is too specific- its ruleset is not immediately understood. Being a good sprinter or swimmer has broad applications and appeal but being an expert curler is pretty much useless. Once more than one person and one prop is involved, the event becomes a contest of arbitrary game mechanics.

Judged events have no place in the Olympics.

This is perhaps my biggest gripe of all. Contests only hold weight when there is a clear winner. Who is the fastest? Who is the strongest? Somebody jumping off a diving board and pulling a flip exactly how the judges desire does not belong here. Figure Skating Dancing is not an event that countries need to bother competing in. With so many athletes sacrificing a large portion of their young lives for competition, it doesn’t seem right to allow subjectivity to enter the equation.

Art Movement Terms

Art Nouveau is a wonderful art style that is a mix of practical function and curvy form. The name means ‘New Art’ so it makes perfect sense that its popularity peaked at the end of the 19th century. … If ‘new’ and ‘the 1890s’ don’t jive with you, then, well, you are a normal person. What I don’t understand is why the people living at the time thought Nouveau was an appropriate label. Did they not think ahead?

To be fair, most art movements have more fitting (read: descriptive) names: Cubism, Impressionism, Minimalism, Photorealism. Even a ridiculous name like Dadaism works. But then along came the Modernist movement and everyone was left scratching their heads. Maybe not immediately, mind you, since the term ‘modern’ applied for a little while. Inexplicably, it came time to modernize Modernism and what did we get? Postmodernism.

Is that it? Are we left to tacking on an extra ‘Post’ prefix every 20 years now? Post-Postmod? Is there no better solution?

It’s too bad we used up Futurism in the 1920s because that term could really bail us out today.

Bad Halloween Puns

“Good evilning, boys and ghouls. Get ready for a spooktacular night of puns and rhyming fright. We will be serving a meal … to die for. Bone Appetit!”

Why exactly did Halloween become the holiday of stupid puns? I am sick of hearing this crap every year. And hey, if you have kids and are busy ingraining this stupid tradition into their heads, I can understand it. But getting an email at work from the HR department full of this stuff makes me question some things. It is not reassuring that these people are responsible for my paycheck every week.

But maybe the deeper question is, why Halloween?

You don’t hear this stuff for Christmas.

“Here is a Christmas ham you’re really going to ‘savior’.”

Or Easter:

“You’ll love the Easter Egg Hunt! Not even being crucified will stop the kids from ‘rising’ to this event.”

I just don’t get it.