Archive for August, 2006

Books to Check Out

Thursday, August 31st, 2006

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Check out this story in Slate about two new books on mercenaries. The author of the Slate piece (disclosure: my husband) spent time on patrol with private contractors in Iraq late last year, so he has his own perspective about the role of these companies. He rightly points out that the use of private contractors “raises a host of questions about legality and accountability.”

On a related issue, I’m still troubled by the recent decision that gets private contractor Custer Battles off the hook by claiming that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) wasn’t a government entity. I’ve been reading through the judge’s decision, and I find little effort to deal with congressional intent in providing these funds. The authority of CPA was always (and probably on purpose) ambiguous. But in funding the CPA, Congress was anything but ambiguous, calling it a government entity. I think it’s a logical arguement that since the contracts were funded by Congress to be used by the U.S. government, Custer Battles should fit squarely under the False Claims Act.

Anyhow, tomorrow, I’m back to talking about various imaginary weapons.

Let a Thousand Plots Bloom

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

According to a recent poll, more than one-third of Americans believe that the U.S. government either assisted in, or somehow covered up, aspects of 9/11.  

That number doesn’t surprise me. A while back, I was interviewing people at a political rally here in Washington when I met a nice gentleman studying the events of 9/11, or more precisely secret societies’ involvement in 9/11.

Most Americans believe that 19 Arab hijackers connected to Al Qaeda took over planes on 9/11 as part of an ambitious plan to undermine U.S. society. This man, however, believed the date of 9/11, the flight numbers of the doomed aircraft, and the trajectories of those aircraft, are all part of an intricate code created by secret societies hell bent on taking over U.S. society (I haven’t read the Da Vinci Code, but this seemed to be an intellectual influence on the man). He also thought Warren Buffet, Lord Rothschild, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in on the plot (personally, I’ve always had my suspicions, at least about the last man on the list).

I stood and listened with rapt attention, because I’ve heard lots of theories about the “real” story behind 9/11 (including some who believe my former employer made remote control devices that allegedly were used to guide the aircraft to crash into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.)

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“I’m very, very interested in learning more about your 9/11 theories,” I said, which was completely true. “Do you have any more information you could give me?”

The man glanced at his female partner–throwing her that ”Can we trust her?” look. She nodded her head and then they handed me a CD, which contained a full presentation of his theories. We chatted for a while about his theories, and then the man offered some helpful advice:

“Don’t be in Washington on June 26.”

I gulped. It’s one thing to be offered an interpretation of the past, it’s quite another to be warned of an impending event one week away. Frankly, I admit feeling a bit nervous. But to leave would have required packing up my husband and cat, and explaining, at least to my husband, the reason for the sudden day trip.

What would I say? “Some guy studying secret society codes told me not to be here.”

Should I warn our neighbors? Friends?

Instead, I kept my mouth shut, hoped for the best, and checked to make sure we had duct tape and bottled water.  A week passed, and on June 26 I got up, turned on our TV (a good sign that at least the electricity grid was still working) and watched the news: flooding in Washington and surrounding areas — lives lost, homes destroyed, general chaos.

Now, I can interpret the flooding in one of two ways: the gentleman at the rally is really on to something with the code stuff (how secret societies could change weather is another fascinating area of investigation), or that on any given day in Washington, DC, bad things happen (particularly when Congress is in session). People are killed, threat levels are elevated, and yes, the streets are occasionally flooded.

We could dismiss the 9/11 codes as nonsense, but the real issue is that these theories are multiplying faster than Washington mosquitoes in August. More importantly, the conspiracies seem to be gaining in popularity. Why?

I’m going to spend some time over the next few months gathering a few of these theories — not to debunk them (and certainly not to promote them), but to understand why people come up with what should be the most unlikely way to explain things. My guess is that the growing popularity of these theories points to a more troubling theme — that the government’s current obsession with secrecy, particularly surrounding the events of 9/11, has created fertile ground for conspiracy theories to blossom.

Texas Calling

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

I’ve gotten a couple comments from ”John Warner” of Austin, Texas (although the IP address points more in the neighborhood of a certain household in Dallas, Texas linked to the imaginary isomer bomb). “John,” who is not a fan of my book, Imaginary Weapons, wants to know why I won’t answer.

I won’t answer “John,” because I’m concerned, based on his multiple use of pseudonyms (Andarte, George, Peter, Drac2000, Stephen, etc.), his fabrication of quotes, and completely inappropriate web behavior – that he is a cyberstalker. Life is short, so sorry, I won’t answer. But “John” should look at the bright side, I’ve decided not to delete his comments from my blog.

It’s a glass half-full sort of thing for “John,” I guess.

P.S. For the record, the real John Warner (as in the senator from Virginia, not a sockpuppet from Dallas) didn’t support the isomer bomb either–his congressional committee cancelled it. So, ”John,” might want to find a more appropriate nom de geurre.

This is Only a Test

Monday, August 28th, 2006

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The count-down to Thursday’s test of the ballistic missile defense system has begun. About time, since the last attempted test was 18 months ago.

This is not, however, a full intercept system, as the Los Angeles Times points out:

Military officials are seeking to lower expectations. Although a target missile will be fired from Kodiak Island, Alaska, and an interceptor rocket topped with a “kill vehicle” will launch from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, military and industry officials say the goal isn’t to actually shoot down the missile.

“We are not going to try to hit the target,” said Scott Fancher, head of Boeing Co.’s ground-based missile defense program. “It is not a primary or secondary test objective to hit the target.”

That said, there’s a lot on the line with this test, and any mishaps could have serious repercussions for the system — particularly when it comes to divying up money in the next budget.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took a tour of the Alaska-based site in the run-up to this week’s test. The New York Times made it sound as if Rumsfeld wasn’t as enthusiastic as other officials about the system’s capabilities. I think that’s probably an over-statement — Rumsfeld has long been a leading advocate for missile defense.

Jimmy vs. Jack

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

I woke up Saturday to find that I had e-mail from none other than Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. Wow, I thought, Jimmy must be writing me to address the Wiki War over my puny little Wikipedia entry.

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No such luck. 

Instead, I found that Jimmy was responding to Jack, as in Jack Sarfatti, co-founder of the Physics Consciousness Research Group. Actually, the response was to the entire Sarfatti list–the dozens if not hundreds of people who get e-mails every day from Jack and his colleagues about subjects ranging from wormholes to UFOs. The list is great reading, although Jimmy (or Jimbo as he’s called) does not agree:

“Including me personally on the cc list of random emails about the sorts of things you all talk about (UFOs, the future of Iran, etc.) is just totally not a good thing. –Jimbo”

Jack Sarfatti has been waging a long and hard battle over his Wikipedia entry, which has led to a rather personal war with Jimmy Wales. The batttle has had many incarnations, but right now it’s over a link on Jack’s entry to “pseudophysics.”

Wikipedia is a great resource, but I have been even more fascinated by a model of dealing with knowledge that could dispense with the elitism inherent in peer review. Wikipedia’s open editing model sounds so wonderfully subversive. But now that Wikipedia has a dominant web presence, it’s finding that allowing the masses to have free reign over knowledge has its downsides.

I have argued in many recent interviews about my book, Imaginary Weapons, that peer review, though an imperfect system, may be the best system we have for dealing with science–at least as it pertains to science funded by government. I’ve often doubted my own conviction about this argument, and had secretly hoped that Wikipedia offered some alternative–if not for funding science–then at least for propagating science that might be unfairly quashed by peer review.

This appears, so far, not to be the case.

For example, when I  went to the Wikipedia entry for the isomer bomb, I found that it’s been merged with what was already an oddball entry for Ballotechnics, and that the latest changes were dominated by the same people who waged war on my entry, i.e. those who support the imaginary isomer bomb. The isomer bomb entry is now a collection of selective facts, bits of nonsense, and a definite bias toward Carl Collins‘ claimed results with triggering the hafnium isomer– results which have been rejected by the scientific community (that fact has been mostly wiki-edited out by you-know-who).

In fact, someone currently reading my book has pointed out how Wikipedia makes the idea of an isomer bomb now sound almost legitimate.

So, returning to Jack Sarfatti’s entry. Some people see Jack Sarfatti’s work as belonging to the pseudophysics category; Jack and his allies don’t. Jack himself has been banned from editing his own entry. Under the current Wikipedia system, to determine whether pseudophysics belongs on Sarfatti’s entry comes down to an edit war (and/or intervention by an administrator). Short of daily Wiki Wars, how are we to resolve this? Answer: Under a true open model, we can’t.

Jack has unconventional ideas about physics, but I’ve also seen him denounce plenty of pathological science (like the hafnium bomb). Maybe there needs to be some new category.

In the final analysis, my issue with the entry isn’t even whether Sarfatti belongs to pseudophysics, but who gets to determine that classification. Wikipedians, Jack Sarfatti, Jimmy Wales, or perhaps peer review?

I don’t have the answer, and neither does Wikipedia, so I think Jack has a legitimate gripe.

Billionaires Invited!

Saturday, August 26th, 2006

Earlier this year, I was flying back to Washington, D.C. from Paris and ended up sitting next to some the nicest guys I’d met in a long time. They worked counter-terrorism issues at the Pentagon for the Joint Staff. Along with giving me coupons for free drinks (since most lousy carriers now charge $5), they talked me through my intense fear of flying (I wonder what tipped them off—the look of sheer panic on my face each time we hit the tiniest bit of turbulence?)

One of the stories they told me was about a guy who kept writing the Pentagon with with his idea for how meditation would solve our problems in Iraq. By meditating, the would-be Gandhi wrote, the warring sides would be soothed and no longer wish to fight.

“But what if only one side meditated?” asked the Joint Staff official. “I mean, the guys planting IEDs in Iraq may not want to meditate. So, then only our side would be peaceful. It could prove a tactical disaster.”

“Well, the soothing brain waves from the side that was meditating would travel to the insurgents and calm them,” insisted the meditation guy.

For this to be as funny as I found it, you perhaps needed to be sitting on that plane I was convinced would crash, drinking your second gin & tonic, and watching a straight-laced military official make little waving motions with his hands held up to his forhead as he recounted the story.

Why the heck were the Pentagon’s best and brightest spending their time talking to a guy who thought that only thing standing between us and world peace is a cheap yoga mat?

Their boss, they explained, strongly believed it was the job of public servants to communicate with the American public. So, while they personally thought battlefield  brain waves were a little looney, they took it as their duty to listen to the idea (note: no money was involved in this consideration).

I thought that was a great explanation.

What reminded me of this little vignette was a recent e-mail I received on what must surely be the same idea. The e-mail message subject read: “Billionaires Invited!”

Billionaires Invited to
Make Their Nations Invincible

Employ 500 to 1000 Yogic Flyers to
Create Coherent Collective Consciousness
for a Problem-Free, Sovereign Country

“You Will Be Crowned as the
True Ruler of Your Nation”

The Yogic Flyers are linked to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and  Maharishi University in Holland. If you’re interested in learning more (and if you’re a billionaire), they hold weekly press conferences.

Of course, if you are a billionaire, you face a dilemma: train Yogic Flyers or fund a perpetual motion machine. Both claim to solve some of the word’s biggest problems. Choices, choices.

P.S. The Guardian ran this really great article on Steorn, the company that purports to have a perpetual motion machine.

Speaking about Imaginary Weapons

Friday, August 25th, 2006

I’ll be speaking in Philadelphia Monday, Aug. 28, on the topic of Imaginary Weapons at Drexel University’s Great Works Symposium. I’m going to cover the isomer bomb, but also weave in some very real weapons–specifically, debates over the nuclear stockpile and new nuclear weapons.

Also, on September 18 I’ll read from my book, Imaginary Weapons, at Prairie Lights, a bookstore in my hometown of Iowa City. Prairie Lights is an Iowa City institution–a real independent bookstore, so it meant a lot to me when they actually tracked me down to invite me to speak there.

P.S. Later today I’ll be doing a radio interview about the book with WJBC in Bloomington.

Local Paper Makes Good

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

I stopped taking the DC Metro a couple years ago, around the same time I had regular nightmares about dirty bomb attacks. In my dream, I would be trying to escape the metro after an apocalyptic attack, only to have my way out blocked by underpaid workers thrusting copies of the Washington Examiner in my face.

 But now, I’m pleased to have something nice to say about the Examiner. Over the past few days, the free tabloid has been on a rant on my favorite topic: the Pentagon and disturbing technology, focusing on one company’s attempt to sell RFID tags that would be implanted in members of the military–basically tracking soldiers the way Wal-Mart tracks its stock of garden gnomes.

They started off with this article about connections between former cabinet official Tommy Thomson and VeriChip, which is marketing the chip.  They moved on just one day later to an article doubting the technology. They’ve also written about the company’s attempts to lobby the Pentagon and questions about whether the proposed chip is really secure.

It’s such a great little story, because it contains all the elements of a conspiracy movie: a company with Orwellian technology meant to track your every move; questionable government ties; possible congressional pork, and then attempts to get the military to buy into this whole plot.

I’m so proud of the Examiner, I almost want to go out and pick up a copy. Well, not quite, but I do recommend checking it out online.

Real High Risk, High Payoff

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

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One of the things I’ve seen people gripe about my book, Imaginary Weapons, is that I don’t appreciate real “high-risk high-payoff” investments. One person even suggested that I think only inventions or discoveries out of a huge laboratory packed with Phds could work. I don’t remember ever saying that.

I also don’t think that’s true.

It is true that I’m dubious about “super-weapons.” As one person told me: “There is no older snake oil in the military business than trying to sell a ‘revolution in warfare.’”

There is just so much truth in that statement. I think if that statement were hung in every Pentagon office, we would save ourselves a lot of stupid investments. But that doesn’t mean I don’t support the little guy.

Earlier this week, I got a brief note from someone requesting a copy of the magazine I edit, Defense Technology International. I’m always a little curious about who wants to read about the high-tech weaponry we cover in the magazine, so I performed a quick Google search.

It turns out the new reader is Monty Reed, a former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger who was injured twenty years ago in a parachute accident. He now runs an organization called They Shall Walk, which is building a contraption to help the disabled walk:

They Shall Walk is a non-profit 501C3 medical research organization. It was founded to raise awareness of the plight of disabled persons and develop technology to improve their quality of life. Recognizing the need for better mobility beyond the wheelchair, They Shall Walk is developing an intelligent robotic powered brace called the LIFESUIT to allow paraplegics and elderly to freely walk again.  The LIFESUIT can help the wearer walk up to about 2.5 miles per hour and to ascend and descend stairs. 

Reed says they “need $42,000 to start the experimental protocols and $95,000 to get permission from the FDA to run the medical trials.”

This is not to say the Lifesuit is ready for market–it’s bulky and needs to be modified–but that is engineering and testing and sounds like something money could help with.

Okay, so we can spend $10 million for a perpetual motion machine–money that likely will go down the same rabbit hole as a dozen projects before it, or $42,000 for a disabled Army veteran who has a fascinating project that could help people walk again. Reed is not a scientist, nor is he from a big lab. He is the “little guy” who has invented something out of determination and need. We don’t know if it’ll work, but it sounds more promising than trying to challenge the first law of thermodynamics.

Check out his website. E-mail Darpa. Most importantly, wish him luck. I do.

 

Luck of the Irish

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006

Wired News came out yesterday with this extremely balanced article on the subject of an Irish company, Steorn, claiming a perpetual motion machine that will disprove that troublesome first law of thermodynamics. The invention involves magnetic fields (hmmm, why does this sound familiar). The company got people’s attention by taking out a full-page ad in the Economist.

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Perpetual motion and related claims are on my “to read” list this week. There are many, such as Dennis Lee, who has also taken out ads in national magazines. Personally, I like more historical examples, like Joseph Papp.

Let me recount a bit of history, and why this is reminiscent of our Irish friends. Joseph Papp was a Hungarian émigré who claimed in the 1960s to have built an atomic submarine in a friend’s garage and sailed it across the Atlantic Ocean. Papp moved quickly from submarines to free energy, which led to a tragic encounter with Richard Feynman, the iconic Nobel Prize winning scientist.

The two men met in 1968, in what ended up being one of the most notorious demonstrations of free energy. Papp, claiming he had built a “thermonuclear plasma engine,” began shopping his invention around to companies doing business with the Pentagon. TRW (now part of Northrop Grumman) took the bait. To shore up support, Papp announced he would conduct a public demonstration of his engine.Feynman decided to attend the event to expose it as a hoax.

The question of the Papp engine—like every perpetual motion machine before and after it—was whether it could really work as billed. In the live demonstration, Papp dramatically unplugged the engine from the wall socket. But Feynman confiscated the plug in the hopes of proving the engine couldn’t work without the external energy source, Papp panicked, claiming the electricity was crucial for the controls that provided readouts of the engine’s energy levels. Within minutes the engine exploded in a gruesome accident that killed one man in the audience, and injured several more. (Papp actually sued Feynman and his university, the California Institute of Technology, which settled out of court).

It took me six months of scouring the Internet, but I was finally able to track down an original copy of Papp’s book The Fastest Submarine. It’s not an easy book to find, trust me, and it’s now a prized possession. Steorn also promises to demonstrate its invention to skeptical scientists. I hope this company has better luck than Joseph Papp, or that the audience at least keeps to a safe distance.

P.S. A number of inventors have attempted to resurrect Papp’s invention, but I haven’t heard anything about defense companies investing this time around.