Opinions, thoughts, & recommendations.

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Name: Dave Leigh
Location: Union, South Carolina, United States

I was born too young. And when I die, I'll still be too young.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Geeky Pleasures.

OK, I'm a geek, aaaaaand a Trekkie. So much so that I sat down last June and GIMPed myself a picture of -- well -- me, in Starfleet gear (TOS, natch!). This was deliberately done in Filmation style.

(For those that are wondering, Filmation produced the animated Star Trek series in the 1970s.)

This being my pic, done by me, I took the liberty of un-greying my beard. And yes, it's science officer garb.

I can hardly wait for the new Star Trek Phase II episode, "Enemy Starfleet". Here's a sneak peek:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

REVIEW: Deception Point

Although it's yet another "intellectual thriller" -- this time involving NASA and US Presidential politics -- it's not stamped out of the same mold as every other Dan Brown book to date. That is perhaps the second-most incredible thing about it. The most incredible thing about this book is that I actually enjoyed it, against my better judgement.

But let's get the unpleasantries out of the way first. The book is about a startling NASA discovery in the arctic... one which can change the course of American politics. And of course there is a conspiracy to mis-direct the public regarding this discovery. With a name like "Deception Point" you can hardly expect anything else.

For a book that leans heavily on science, and which features A-list scientists in its cast, the science here is atrocious, beginning with the fact that Brown evidently can't do math. For the record, if you have a sphere of 10 feet in diameter, and its density is greater than that of water, then it is likely to weigh in excess of 15 tons, not 8. Brown also has great difficulty with geology, biology, astronomy, etc. Every bit of the "science" in this book is fraught with inaccuracies.

But you know what? It doesn't really matter that much. The inaccuracies that Brown introduces are cumulatively less aggregious than those in your average episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and they had a "science advisor"(!)). At least Brown didn't introduce magic gravity plating, FTL engines, and Transporters. So we can get past the bad science.

Unfortunately, the characterizations aren't much better. "NASA scientists" are biased and bad; "Civilian scientists" are good and honest and true. Politicians are either pure as the driven snow or are evil and corrupt. And Delta Force makes an appearance in this book, but apparently they were replaced at the last moment by the Keystone Kops in disguise, led by Inspector Clouseau. Much of the novel's momentum is driven by the repeated unlikely blunders of this "elite" fighting force.

But you know what? That doesn't matter so much, either. I enjoyed Westerns in my youth even though the same simplistic white hat/black hat dichotomies were present. I'm a little more miffed about the "NASA scientists" vs "civilian scientists" thing, but it actually made sense in the context of the story... the civilian scientists were there because they DIDN'T make the discovery. They were there to confirm, thus they were characterized as being unbiased.

The action in the book (and there's a lot of that) stretched the bounds of credibility beyond the breaking point. When dropped into arctic waters without a boat or survival gear, what are your chances of survival? When trapped in a disabled and sealed submarine in shark-infested waters sinking rapidly into a oceanic volcano, what are your chances of survival? When fired upon by a military helicopter with heat-seeking weapons, what are your chances of survival? Answer: pretty close to 100% if you're the protagonist in a Dan Brown novel.

But you know what? That doesn't matter so much, either! After all, the Anthropic Principle indicates that it's irrelevant how improbable any event is... if we're alive to wonder about it, it happened, the odds be damned. So we can put that behind us as well.

Also put behind us the improbability of Brown's portrayal of Presidential politics. Just last night we heard a State-of-the-Union address in which our president expended untold minutes extolling his plan for creating jobs through a "green energy" strategy which, if effective at all, will amount to a raindrop in the economic ocean. Politicians stress ridiculous things, so that can be put behind us as well.

Given that the plot, the sub-plot, the action, the characterizations, and the science all sucked, why did I enjoy the book? Probably because this is the fourth Dan Brown book I've read and it's the first that's different from the others in any significant way. At least it's not The Da Vinci Code. And once you've suspended disbelief and just decided to go along for the ride, it's actually fun, partially because you're intrigued to learn how Brown intends to resolve the next ludicrous cliff-hanger.

So I'm giving this a solid 3.5 stars simply because Dan Brown inadvertently wrote something that would make a great episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


"...tired of hearing about Haiti. Why can't [we] hear about someplace cooler like Kenya?"

This was posted to Facebook by one of my children. I responded, "Because, my cold and calculating son, natural disasters are not slaves of fashion. We will discuss."

What follows is the gist of that discussion. PLEASE read this through to the end, as I think it's well worth it.

Once there was a small boy who never said a word. From birth he never uttered a single sound... not to cry, not to complain. Nothing at all. One day at the dinner table, as he and his family were eating, he quietly said, "The soup's cold."

His parents were astounded! His mother, shedding tears of joy, shouted, "My son! My son! All your life you've been completely silent! Never a word! And now, suddenly, miraculously, you speak! Tell me, why have you never spoken before?"

The boy meekly replied, "Everything's been OK up until now."
When someone is doing OK, you don't necessarily hear from them. The old adage, "No news is good news" is generally true. But when someone is in trouble you hear from them and about them A LOT. This is true whether it's another country, like Haiti, or the family in the house around the corner. You may never have met that family. You may not even know their name. But if their roof were to collapse you would help, right? Of course!

We have an unusual sort of "charity" in my house. On occasion (about five times now) we invite someone in distress to live with us. It didn't start out as a conscious decision to be charitable. Rather, we knew someone who needed a "leg up" and we had some spare room. Then it happened again... and again. Once it was a young woman who was living in Florida. She was in a bad neighborhood, surrounded by drugs and "gangstas" and bad influences, with no apparent way out. She and her two sons were living in one room of a trailer. We invited her and her boys to stay with us. The deal was the same as we have always offered. Stay with us. Pay no rent. Buy no food. Don't worry about expenses. Just be part of the family, look for a job and save your money for six months before you even think about moving out. If you do exactly that then you'll have six months of wages for a security deposit, first and last month's rent, and any deposits necessary for utilities and you'll still have a little in the bank so you're not living hand-to-mouth.

As I said, we've done this a number of times, and it's not really a difficult thing to do... most Americans waste enough food to feed yet another family, and we're no exception. And everybody has room, whether they think they do or not. A fold-out couch or a couple of cots... c'mon.

Well, Peggy took us up on the offer and as usually happens she asked how she could repay us. The answer, as always, was, "You can't. We won't let you. But someday you'll be in a position to help somebody and you will do it. Not because I'm telling you to, but because you know it's the right thing to do." It has never once been our intention to receive some reward or "payback" for helping somebody out.

A few years later my own mother took ill. She had struggled with various forms of cancer for decades, but this time it was lymphoma, and incurable. She was in a nursing home for a short time, but that really wasn't the sort of place you'd want to spend your last moments, so we brought her home to stay at my brother's house. Although hospice workers could visit occasionally, it got to the point where Mom needed 'round-the-clock care, which was completely unaffordable.

By this time Peggy's kids were out of school and working, so they took over the rent on her place as she quit her job as a cashier and moved back in and took care of my mother until Mom died. We couldn't afford to pay her a salary, but again she had no rent, and no expenses, as well as the exclusive use of Mom's car (which Mom gave to her before she died. As a totally inadequate thank-you we had it completely serviced and painted). I've incidentally mentioned Peggy before.

When we helped Peggy and told her to pass on the favor, we had no idea that we would be the people to benefit down the line. And when Peggy quit her job to help us, she had no idea that she herself might benefit from her own boundless generosity.

Nevertheless, she did. The hospice workers noticed what she was doing, and that she was very good at it. They suggested to her that she could do this as a living. They set her up with financial aid, a part-time job at the hospital, and credited her time caring for my mother as an internship. She wound up with the best job she had ever held in her life. Her act of selfless charity turned her life around. Instead of being a low-paid cashier in a convenience store she is now a respected and well-paid healthcare worker.

Clearly, people do notice when you do "the right thing." But I'm not telling this story to suggest that if you are charitable you're going to get something back from it. This isn't about karma or payback or quid-pro-quo*. Oprah's wrong... there is no 'The Secret'. I'm telling you this for this reason... I want you to ask yourself a question:

Isn't it a comfort to know that if someone truly needs help there's someone else in the world who is willing to give that help? Isn't that nice?
But you can't know that. You can't know what's in anybody else's mind and heart. The only person you can speak for is yourself. If you want to know... for a fact... that someone in this world is willing to help a total stranger, the one and only possible way to know that is to be that person.

That's the point that you can realize that no person is truly unique. We all share our humanity. There are many people like you. And if you're willing to help, they are too. Get it? If there's one person who's willing to help, there are millions. But the only way to ensure that there is one is by being that 'one'.

This is why we as individuals must be charitable. If we're not, then there's no guarantee that anyone will be. And it's not enough to just let the government do it. That is a solution reserved for the lazy, the cowardly, and the apathetic. It's a way for them to not be charitable and say they are. It's a little lie they tell themselves because they don't understand what and why they should do for others.

And it's wasteful. We as individuals could help someone like Peggy out without any material injury to ourselves, absolutely no expense to others, and with negative waste. By contrast, how much would it have cost to put her up in government housing with subsidized furniture rentals, provide her with food stamps, etc.? If she -- or any of the others -- had gone that route they would probably still be there. How many American homes have a "spare room" of some sort? How many people just absolutely could not put up someone temporarily? Now ask yourself, "why is anyone homeless?"

Furthermore, government agencies can only do what they're set up to do. But there is no limit to the number of ways that people need help. And it's not hard. If someone is hungry, invite him to dinner. If someone needs shoes, buy some. Donate your old clothes to the Salvation Army, and drop some change in the bucket next Christmas. Smile when you do it. Donate to Toys for Tots. Watch the neighbor's kids.

In terms of disasters like Haiti we can't all pick up and rush down there to dig in the rubble and rebuild. It would be chaos if we did. But the least we can do is send representatives, and the money, and the food, and the comfort that these people need. They don't live next door, but they are our neighbors and our brothers and deserve every bit of compassion we can share.

Charity begins in the home, but it need not end there.

* I purposely left out any mention of God and religion from this discussion. The reason is very simple. There's not one thing that I'm saying here that isn't as valid for the most staunch atheist as it is for the Pope himself. And though God may choose to reward good behavior, He doesn't owe you Jack. Nor does he make any promise as to exact nature or time of your reward. Do nothing good in this life on the premise that you will be rewarded for it. Do it because its right, or don't bother. If you don't understand this paragraph you are currently in the "don't bother" category.

My Home

I "adopted" Union after having left the USAF. Here are some reasons:

Now, obviously, this film is a piece of propaganda. I mean that in a good sense... "propaganda" is a word that literally means "promotion" (not "lies" as is sometimes thought). Now, watch the film and notice the number of times the word "go" is used. You go to Spartanburg, go to Greenville, go to Columbia, go to the mountains, go the beach, go, go, go. As Union is in the middle of so much Upstate SC goodness, it's natural to promote Union's proximity to all of that. But I think in doing so the film misses out on quite a bit to recommend Union itself.

For instance, if you can GO to Spartanburg, why not LIVE there? There are a number of answers to that, one being that the cost of living in Union is incredibly low. I'm going to illustrate by sharing something that you have no business knowing. I live in a rather nice brick house, with a huge basement/garage (the size of the house itself) and an attached office. This house sits on a hill surrounded by mature oak, pecan, and pine trees on a three-acre plot of land about 2 miles outside the city limits. I bought it for $102K. My property taxes amount to something like $750/year.

For another, the amenities are in fact quite good, in part due to the low population. For instance, Charter Cable provides internet service with actual serviceable bitrates that are quite close to the 10 meg advertised limit. That's like having a 10Base-T connection to the internet! I get a better connection here that most of my acquaintances in more "developed" areas. As a result, I'm able to work productively from a home office that I jokingly refer to as being "equally inconvenient to everywhere". The water is extremely good, and the power company (owned by the city) does a very nice job of keeping things running. The city's ownership of the power company is a major plus, in that by having such a profit center the city can keep property taxes low. The film does mention the schools, which are in fact very, very good. In addition to having up-to-date facilities, our schools are NOT plagued by "zero-tolerance" rules that haunt other districts. We pay teachers and administrators to think, and they are quite happy to do that.

But here's the thing... while the film shows a lot of pretty places (not all of which are actually in Union county), and impressive things, and beats the drum of progress, progress, progress; it's the things that don't change about this place that really recommend it.

When I first came to this town in 1989, Main Street closed every Wednesday afternoon. Follow that? Main Street... the whole street.... every business... closed. Why? Because everybody went to church Wednesday evening, and took time off to prepare. Main Street doesn't close any more, and it's prettier than it was, but it's still populated by good, decent people.

We've had some scandals, yes. Susan Smith famously drowned her children in 1995. But such occurences are few and far between. In general, the people of Union are generous to a fault, honest, personable, friendly and hospitable. They're also creative... each year Union's Boogaloo Folk Life Productions produce and perform two completely original musical plays. (I'm happy to participate in these, as I describe here). These are based on true stories submitted by the residents of Union.

I've previously described my biggest reason for adopting this town, and rather than repeating it here I'm going to link you to that account. But let me leave you with this: Union has a great location, amenities, scenery, yada, yada, yada... but it is the people of Union that make this the best place I have ever lived.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Critical Thinking for the New Year

One of the things I've noticed about social networking sites is that they really cut down on the blogging, and a bunch of other things I should be doing as well, both on- and off-line. Once in a blue moon I make resolutions, and as it so happens, the New Year coincides with a "blue moon" (the second full moon December). The only resolution I have for this coming year is to try to meter myself and give balanced attention to all the pokers in my fire.

There are a number of things I've not blogged about that I've mentioned on Facebook or elsewhere. Among them are the large number of really interesting sites I've found on the web, like Imagine user-created content made by people who really know how to do it. Then you have some idea of it's the open-ness of YouTube with the production standards of Hulu. Really awesome.

Here's one of the films I found there, by way of Brian Dunning's Skeptoid podcast:

"Here Be Dragons" is a 40-minute film by Brian Dunning about critical thinking, which should, in my opinion, be shown to every elementary school student. It's not a film that "debunks" anything... rather, it's about how to think logically and skeptically so that valid useful information isn't drowned out by a the cacophony of pseudoscientific and just plain bogus claims that bombard us every day. Dunning targets many of the "dragons" that plague modern thinking... areas of sloppy thought and pseudo-science that reflect thought processes stuck in the Dark Ages... a time when mapmakers annotated the unknown blank areas of the world with the titular label.

I've already heard criticism that the film doesn't address the biggest "dragon" of them all... religion. You can't be comprehensive in a 40-minute film, and Dunning deals with many, many more issues in his weekly podcast than in this film. Skeptoid is a fascinating podcast, well worth your time. Nevertheless, having been a long-time listener of Skeptoid, I know where Dunning's coming from, but I do wish he'd have given a more prominent mention of religion than he did in the film to make it clear.

In the film Dunning notes that not every belief needs to be debunked. Those that stand in the way of progress do. When you're looking at the "dragons" that are addressed in the film, note that they are measurable claims that are nonetheless unsupported by empirical evidence. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are wrong; but that, to the extent they are measurable, they fail. This includes such things as palmistry, homeopathy, ghostbusting, etc. What it does not do is address those claims that are not measurable. I.e., matters of faith.

The mere claim of the existence of God cannot be disproved; therefore it is in no way productive to even attempt to "debunk" it. It's a matter of faith, and faith in no God has no argumentative advantage over faith in God. Where specific, measurable claims are made, however, Skeptoid is on it like white on rice. Does faith healing work? Psychic surgery? New Age energy fields? These are areas ripe for critical thinking.

Keep in mind that Dunning is not out to do your thinking for you. Instead, he's telling you about logical fallacies and questionable debating techniques used to obscure the truth. You are encouraged to research and think on your own. And this is another sense in which "critical thinking" is "critical"... if something is debunked for you, then you're no better equipped to avoid the next scam that comes your way. But if you are taught to think critically, then you are nobody's mark.

So does this film slay the "dragon" of religion? No, nor is it intended to. Not only is that "dragon" not slayable, there are many skeptics that would deny it is a dragon at all. And those that do fare very poorly in debate, as I had previously noted with regard to Michael Shermer's poor showing in a debate on that very subject. Even a highly accomplished skeptic flounders against the immeasurable. Shermer's first and last mistake in that debate was agreeing to it at all.

But the bottom line is that it doesn't matter. The critical thinking techniques laid out by Dunning (and Carl Sagan, and Michael Shermer, James Randi, and others) are every bit as valid and useful to the clergy as it is to an atheist. Something that every human being on this planet should be aware of is that those things that are provable, measurable and demonstrable take precedence over those ideas that are purely held by faith. It's why the Vatican acknowledges a round Earth, heliocentrism, and evolution. So long as religion doesn't deny what is demonstrably real, there is no "debunking" to do.

And that's how it should be.

Do yourself a favor. Watch the film. Read the references Dunning recommends at the end.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Quantum Propulsion and other random thoughts

I'm really geeking out about something right now.

For a while I've had an idea for a sci-fi concept which I call a "vacuum propeller". The concept is that a ship can be propelled by exploiting the quantum fluctuations in empty space. Ever since Stephen Hawking wrote about the phenomenon I thought it was pretty cool, and that this would be a cool application for it if it could be exploited. The cool part is that since you're propelling yourself through a medium, you don't have to carry reaction mass, and your spaceship can be many, many times smaller. Look at how much larger a rocket is than a jet, and you get the idea.

Well, it looks like somebody else had the same idea (as they should... it's obvious), and took it way farther by actually working out how it would work. It's explained here in Technology Review.

BTW, I love just thinking about such stuff. For instance, with this technology I wonder, since quantum fluctuations are particle/antiparticle pairs, could you exploit it for both propulsion (particle) and fuel (antiparticle)? Would it leave a wake?

I LOVE old space operas (of the "Doc" Smith genre) and this has every hallmark of it. The very best science fiction, IMHO, takes ONE possibility and explores the ramifications of it. It keeps everything believable by grounding everything in real science except the one speculative bit. (That's what keeps Star Trek firmly in the fantasy genre for me... they can solve any problem whatsoever by making up a bit of jargon, and they do.) For me, real science fiction can "cheat" on known physics... but only once.

Here's one I'd like to see explored. What if a real force field were possible? The sci-fi staple applications are shields and jail doors (which are silly, IMHO... why burn the power when you could have just put a door in the hole?). What more unusual applications could result? Could you use it as a balloon by forcing air molecules away from your ship? Could this allow you to realize the old sci-fi achievement of apparently levitating your ship well away from the surface prior to kicking in the reaction engines (giving an advantage similar to the advantage that White Knight gives SpaceShipOne)? Could it take the place of your usual reaction engine by accelerating the propellant away from the ship? Would it give you "levitating" cars like Luke Skywalker's landspeeder? No antigravity here... just various applications of the one forcefield technology.

One that I'm absolutely sick of seeing is "magic gravity". The only way of achieving artificial gravity is to substitute mass with acceleration. It doesn't matter what kind of acceleration. So if you constantly speed the ship up you have apparent gravity. Spin the ship (or part of it) and you again have artificial gravity. But "gravitons" and "gravity deck plating" etc don't explain anything. In fact, it becomes a major problem if you consider that in most sci-fi tales the artificial gravity works even when all ship's power dies. And why don't people walk on the ceiling? They should be able to if the deck above you also has "gravity plating". Gravity isn't directional. So lay off the magic gravity. Also, I wish they'd lay off the complicated carousels when designing spaceships with plausible artificial gravity. It's safer, simpler, and more reliable to do away with all the mechanical hocus pocus and simply spin the whole ship. You don't want to have to try to replace or repair a monstrous carousel gimbal while you're a gazillion miles from home.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

I've got a YouTube channel


News at 11.