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labeled VITRIOL © John Holden]

Uncle Don's Notebook

16 July 2002

Each of us needs a notebook in which to jot down those flashes of insight, one-liners, bad jokes, Nobel-prize-worthy ideas, and provocative tidbits and scraps read or heard. This is mine.

This document is the natural successor to my regular column Scraps From The Editor's Wastebasket in The Vector, published from 1976 to 1991.

Entries are stacked in reverse order, with the most recent ones first, so readers won't have to wade through old ones to get to the new ones. Occasionally they will be collected and archived.

Signs of Boredom [Aug 2002]

We got suckered by reviewers into seeing the movie Signs. That Newsweek cover story on director Shyamalan may have had some influence, too. Now I've seen some bad movies in the past. Nashville, Magnolia, The Mask and Welcome to the Dollhouse sit at the bottom of the barrel of movies I should have walked out on. This new stinker isn't that bad, but it leaves a bad taste just the same.

Signs is a shameful exploitation picture, mining cliches from many movies of the past. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (also a dissappointment) comes to mind. The movie's several explicit references to War of the Worlds just remind us that that was a better story (though not a great movie).

Here we have the theme of the kid with asthma, which is surely a set up for something later in the picture, and also the other kid with the water purity phobia. The ex-minister who has lost his faith is another cliche, but when he regains it, it's totally unclear what in this story motivated that.

Then there's things which just don't add up. We have an alien trapped in a kitchen storage closet, inexplicably lighted well enough so that the closet's contents and the alien are visible in the reflection of a kitchen knife. Water is poisonous to the aliens, so why do they come so far across space to a planet which has so much of this poison? And how did they survive for several days without clothing or protective suits? Were they having a drought all over the world, so they never got caught in the rain? And for all the business about crop circle designs all around the world, we never got a believable explanation of why the aliens should do that. I could go on, but why dignify this proliferation of cliches by discussion?

This movie is an insult to the intelligence of moviegoers. The director/writer has slickly thrown together elements from other (and better) movies, tried to give them some "logical" connections, but not out of any conviction or passion for the story. They are used only to manipulate the popcorn munchers in the audience. This is a cold exercise by a director who would like to be a Spielberg or Hitchcock, but hasn't the intelligence to do it.

Perpetuum Mobile [Aug 2002]

Since I created web pages called The Museum of Unworkable Devices I've gotten a surprising amount of email from people who submit their pet perpetual motion machines for analysis. Apparently many people tinker with this in their spare time. These are not con-artists like Dennis Lee, but simply folks who like to construct machines for their own amuseuemt. Everyone needs a hobby, they say.

My pages are somewhat different from most other books and web pages about perpetual motion. I treat each case as a puzzle, the object being to find the flaw in physics or reasoning which prevents the device from working as the inventor intended. It's always a simple misapplication of elementary physics. So these puzzles are useful ways to test and strengthen one's ability to apply physics principles.

But even when I do this, some inventors still have faith that their idea can be made to work by some modification or other. It's a triumph of blind faith and hope over reason and experiment.

I find it noteworthy that most of these proposals come to me with no calculations, equations or experimental measurements to support the claims. Many are no more than pencil-and-paper exercises, totally unsupported by any laboratory experimentation. One person did offer to send me a set of blueprints! I told him a simple sketch and description would be quite enough.

One person hinted that my pages do a disservice, for by showing all those examples of machines that don't work I am discouraging inventors and stifling their faith and optimism as they try to devise perpetual motion machines that do work. Well, repeated failure does that, too.

Every perpetual motion machine inventor I've encountered is also religious. This isn't surprising. The religious mindset, especially that of the Christian Fundamentalist, doesn't really trust science, and firmly believes that "With God, all things are possible." The scientist has learned better, that nature does some things with relentless regularity, but refuses to do certain other things. Science is the process of determining what nature does, and how it does it, and what things nature does not do. Nature is under no obligation to behave as we'd like it to. No amount of faith, hope or perseverance can alter the fundamental laws of nature. Our time is better spent trying to find out exactly how nature does work, then exploit that understanding to accomplish new and useful things within those limitations.

The folks who hope to make machines with unlimited energy output bristle at the laws of thermodynamics, which are usually stated in a manner which tells us what isn't possible in nature. They don't like "negative" statements of laws. But every law of physics does that. A law which specifically tells us precisely what will happen in certain circumstances is also telling us what will not happen.

What's new? [Aug 2002]

Again, my lame excuse for neglecting these Notebook entries is that I've been making additions to my other web pages. For example:

  • The Ideal Equipment Company Catalog where you can fantasize about equipping your laboratory with apparatus that works like it's supposed to.
  • The Museum of Unworkable Devices. This presents classic and new perpetual motion machines as puzzles to test your knowledge of physics. They all have fundamental errors in application of elementary physics.
  • The Keely Engine Company An account of John Worrell Keely's incredible scams in which he claimed his machines were tapping etheric energy (or something aetherial).
  • Math Mayhem. This was actually an excuse to learn how to make mathematics equations look nice in HTML with the SYMBOL.TTF font and borderless tables.
  • Illusions. This document now has color!
  • Illusions with depth. These stereo 3d illusions have also been colored, and new illusions added.
  • Cutting Edge Science. Satires and parodies of pseudoscience.
Panoramic Photography [July 2002]

When I was a teenager I experimented with the family box Brownie camera, and later with my first $15 folding camera which took 120 film. I shot close-ups, stereos (by moving the camera horizontally) and panoramics (by taking overlapping pictures, then carefully cutting and dry-mounting the prints into a picture four feet long).

All that has changed now that photography has gone digital. Digital pictures taken in an overlapping sequence can be stitched together with software. I've just discovered some remarkable software to do that: PanaVue. It can alter the perspective of the pictures cylindrical or spherical (your choice), stitch the pictures together, blend the stitch area and do color correction. It can usually do all this automatically. But you can do it manually if necessary. The results? Well, here's one:

Covered Bridge across Loyalsock Creek, just off Hwy. 87 between Hillsgrove and Forksville.

I photographed this Pennsylvania covered bridge with an inexpensive digital camera in very low lighting conditions. The only good vantage point was too near the bridge for an ordinary camera lens to see more than about 1/5 of the span of the bridge. So I shot seven pictures, overlapping. This picture covers only a modest visual angle, but the PanaVue system can assemble much larger panoramics, even up to 360°, horizontal, vertical, or any other way, and even stitch photos in a matrix (useful for aerial photos). I give this software four stars.

The Fundamentalist Mindset [July 2002]

The tragic events of last November ought to stimulate a sober re-examination of the perversion of religion by fundamentalists of all stripes and the dangers of religious fanaticism and religious dogmatism. But instead it has fueled the flames of religious conservatism in our own country. It has encouraged zealots who wish to impose prayers and their own brand of religious instruction into our public schools, and who seek to reaffirm the religious symbolism which has already corrupted our government and political life, such as the "under God" addition to the "Pledge of Allegiance".

As an outsider to religion, these trends are alarming to me. Fundamentalist religion of any variety has one central characteristic. The fundamentalist is passionately convinced of the "rightness" of his or her beliefs. The fundamentalist is right, and everyone else is wrong. This isn't a matter of opinion or reason for the fundamentalist, but is a matter of divine inspiration. Once one has that conviction, most any actions against nonbelievers can be justified, for unbelievers are by definition, wrong. While such religious fundamentalists may live relatively peacefully with neighbors of other religious views in secular countries which respect diversity, they look for any opportunity to seize control of the social or government structure and bend it to their own beliefs. And when they are in a position of power, any respect for other views vanishes.

It's easy enough to say that the fundamentalist fanatics who engage in terrorism have "perverted" their religion, and easy for us to dismiss their actions as aberrations. But what spawned their particular religious views? Every fundamentalist religion is an offshoot of a "mainstream" religion, and every "perverted" belief of a fundamentalist has its roots in elements of mainstream religious thought. Have not these mainstream religious had their own sordid history of violence, injustice, inhumanity and intolerance? Have we forgotten the crusades, the inquisition, and even the Jim Jones and Heaven's Gate tragedies of recent past? What religion today can claim an unblemished record?

The root problem is belief itself—the kind of belief which admits no possibility of being wrong. This is industrial-strength religious belief. Most religions encourage unquestioning belief, considering such belief to be a necessary, noble and desirable thing. I consider it to be the root cause of many of the evils which mankind has inflicted upon itself.

"Belief" is a word with many shades of meaning. We say "I believe it's going to rain today." That indicates no more than a probability of something happening. The scientist, in casual conversation, may say "I believe in the laws of mechanics." This represents a "provisional" or tentative belief, saying that so far as any experiment has shown, these laws seem to work, and they have theoretical underpinnings in other laws which are well tested and also seem to work. The scientist admits that future scientific developments may cause us to modify these laws to accommodate new discoveries, so his "belief" in the laws isn't absolute.

But the belief of the religious person, particularly the fundamentalist, is fundamentally different. For fundamentalists, religious belief is considered absolute, and religious "truths" are not subject to test or verification—they can never be refuted by any experiment, event, or argument. The "true believer" knows they are right because they feel right. It's an emotional, not a rational commitment, though many believers are quite adept at concocting rational-sounding arguments (rationalizations) to support their convictions in arguments with non-believers. Theology is the "academic" manifestation of this empty exercise in apologetics.

In my view, such absolute beliefs are not only dangerous, but they are totally unwarranted. We simply have no way to discover or test absolute truths. We can only invent them, then believe them, then impose those beliefs on others. The ancient Greeks spoke often of the impossibility of finding absolute truths:

The gods did not reveal from the beginning
All things to us; but in the course of time
Through seeking, men found that which is better.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
And even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it;
For all is but a woven web of guesses.

    —Xenophanes (c. 570-c. 480 BCE) Greek philosopher.

We know nothing in reality; for truth lies in an abyss.
Democritus, (c. 420 BCE) Greek philosopher.

None of us knows anything, not even whether we know or do not know, nor do we know whether not knowing and knowing exist, nor in general whether there is anything or not.
Metrodorus of Chios (c. 4th century BCE) Greek philosopher

This only is certain, that there is nothing certain; and nothing more miserable and yet more arrogant than man.
Pliny ("The Elder") (23-79) Roman naturalist. (Gaius Plinius Secundus).

All we know of the truth is that the absolute truth, such as it is, is beyond our reach.
Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) German cardinal, mathematician, philosopher. De Docta Ignorantia (Learned Ignorance)

The Greek skeptics and rationalists were shoved aside by religionists of all kinds as religious fervor triumphed over reason. "Quit grumbling about the futility of seeking truth," the religious believers said. "We have the truth. The truth has been divinely revealed to us, and you'd better believe it or you'll be condemned to Hell. Don't even question our religious truths, for that indicates a lack of faith, and that's punishable too, not only in the afterlife. We can punish unbelievers in this life as well." Thus began the sordid saga of the rise of the religions which still afflict us today.

Though some of this country's founding fathers were of religious inclination (many of these were Deists), they knew very well the "tyranny of religion" as practiced in Europe. They sought to invent a government immune from the abuses which religion, allied with government, can inflict upon those who think differently. Their motives were sound, and we benefit from their efforts. But they probably did not imagine how their work would be eroded and compromised by the religious fervor of later centuries. Religious symbolism and slogans were added to our coinage, to our oath of allegiance, prayers are said at government functions, many seek to inject religion into education, and politicians of all parties pander to religious voters. It is a shameful exercise of the religious majority's oppression and suppression of minority views, so shameful that even sober and responsible religious leaders have spoken against it. But they are in the minority, especially in these times of patriotic excess.

Amidst the furor of press coverage of the "under God" phrase in the pledge of allegiance, one voice of reason stood out. Anna Quindlen (whose commentary is usually insightful) wrote in Newsweek (July 15, 2002, p. 64) reminding Americans that the pledge arose late in our history, in 1892, and the words "under God" only added by act of Congress in 1954 during the excesses and fervor of the "Red scare". She was one of the few journalists brave enough to point out the obvious:

Americans are not a humble people. Instead the pledge had become yet another cold-war litmus test. The words "under God" were a way to indicate that America was better than other nations—we were, after all, under the direction protection of the deity—and adding them to the pledge was another way of excluding, of saying that believers were real Americans and skeptics were not. Would any member of Congress have been brave enough at that moment to say that a Pledge of Allegiance that had been good enough for decades was good enough as it stood?
Many people don't realize how much of this religious symbolism is of recent date, and was a result of Congress bowing to religious pressure. The first coin of the US mint to carry the motto "In God we trust" was an 1864 two cent coin, authorized by an act of Congress during a time of religious fervor. In 1956 Congress declared "In God we trust" to be the national motto. It first appeared on US paper currency in 1959.

Hope and Hype [July 2002]

The news is filled with corporate accounting scandals, corporate bankruptcies, and continually declining stock market performance. Discouraging, yes, but surprising? It shouldn't be. For quite a few decades the conventional 'wisdom' was a vision seen through rose-colored glasses of a booming economy, continued growth and general good times ahead. People forget that such things are cyclic, if history is any indicator. Yes, history does repeat itself, but usually when you least expect it.

Of course we blame this whole mess on greedy CEOs, insider information sharing, and a lack of ethics at the higher levels of corporate management. It's not that simple. Corporate greed is nothing new in our history; look at the machinations of the 19th century robber barons.

Overlooked is something I see as a central issue in all of this. The stock market has always been a gambling game, and those who think they have magical "systems" for beating it are deluding themselves. Any system works when things are booming, if you have enough cash for a stake in the game. The trick is to keep things booming. Since those who run this gambling establishment also have a stake in it, it's to their advantage to make things look as if they are booming even if they aren't. So clever accounting is used across the board to make everyone think that all is well, all is rosy, even when it's actually stagnating, or even if it's on the way down the tubes. It's an elaborate game of self-deception which pays off for those heavily invested in it, if they are privy to knowledge that the average dupe investor can't obtain.

The bottom line is that this economic boom of the last few decades was largely a paper fraud. Everyone involved, from the corporations to the government had an interest in perpetrating the illusion, and no incentive to blow the whistle. At the same time many new investors entered the market (buoyed by hopes of fantastic returns), some of them invested through mutual funds and their pension plans, totally innocent of the real state of affairs. But it didn't take a crystal ball to see signs that the economy was not as healthy as it was pictured. Many saw, and said, that a downturn or worse was to be expected, but no one could pinpoint precisely when. In the meantime, let's invest and get rich. All of the classic con-games take advantage of human greed.

But of course, this illusion produced real financial gains—for a while. Most scams and con-games do. Good returns spur one to invest more and more, and suck in other investors, which all fuels even better returns, until it all falls flat. We've seen this in the past, with the notorious economic "bubbles" of the 18th centuries which almost brought down some European governments. We would do well to read Charles Mackay's classic 1841 "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds." The latest reprint edition I've seen (Bonanza Books) has a new foreword by Andrew Tobias. How appropriate.

Even now some optimistic "experts" predict a recovery. If there is a recovery, it will be a slow one and may be short-lived, for the economic fraud of recent decades managed to hide very entrenched weaknesses in our economy (and the "global economy") which won't be quickly fixed by new regulations on accounting, and won't respond to mere hype and hope.

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