Plane truth


On March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Its final appearances were some unexpected cameos on radar and satellite data. About 40 minutes after departure, the Boeing 777 signed off from Kuala Lumpur air traffic control over the South China Sea.

Minutes after signing off, the pilots made a U-turn back toward Malaysia. The plane was equipped an ACARS system which periodically transmits maintenance data, and the system was inoperable after the U-turn.

Later, a right turn was made and the military radar detected the craft west of Thailand. The final contact, between an Inmarsat satellite and the aircraft’s automated satellite data unit, located the plane as having been in the Indian Ocean west of Australia. That is about when the plane’s fuel would have run out. Search and rescue teams were unsuccessful, though conspiracy theorists enjoyed much more fruitful days.

Plausible ideas such as a hijacking or pilot suicide were aired. But hijackers want something in return or, in the case of 9/11, aim to commit a very public atrocity. Neither of those things happened. As to the latter idea, Captain Zaharie Ahmad had recently separated from his wife and a flight simulator game at his home had some unusual Indian Ocean landings on it. But that’s hardly enough to (reasonably) deduce he committed a mass murder/suicide.

Some have pondered about North Korean involvement. There are two competing narratives here: One has Kim Jong Un lackeys hijacking the plane in order to reverse engineer it; the other paints North Koreans as the victims, with the 777 carrying a nuclear weapon meant to take aim at Pyongyang. This idea was reminiscent of suspicion that the downed KAL 007 airliner in 1983 had been on a spy mission. However, there is no satellite or radar data suggesting the Malaysian airliner was ever on a route to North Korea.

Keeping with the theme of vile eastern dictators, another hypothesis implicates Vladimir Putin. In this tale, a cutting-edge Russian spy satellite detected the Malaysian airliner plummeting into the Bay of Bengal. However the Russians kept quiet about it in order to not reveal it had this new technology. How anyone in the West knows this, since it contradicts the narrative it’s trying to promote, is unclear.

Another Putin-related claim was that the vanishing came after the US had imposed sanctions against Russia, so Putin arranged for hijackers to divert the plane to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Besides being post hoc reasoning and lacking all evidence, this proposal fails to explain how a Malaysian airliner being set to Kazakhstan would harm the United States.

The most far-out explanations include the airliner making its way to an alternate dimension or being caught in a time warp a la Manifest

While the disappearance remains a mystery, a reasonable answer has been suggested by members of the Air Line Pilots Association. What follows is a succinct version of the theory.

First, since the airliner’s automated communications stopped, this may indicate the ACARS system had been damaged. Second, an emergency locator beacon was never triggered while within range of ground personnel who could have heard it. This suggests that whatever doomed the plane took place over several minutes and was not an instantaneous catastrophe. Third, it seems probable that the pilots became incapacitated. All three of these occurrences could be explained by smoke.

Members of the association agree their initial action when smelling smoke would be to turn off all unnecessary electronics, to included radios. This would explain the ACARS no longer transmitting, and would also explicate the lack of communication from the airplane to traffic control. As to the emergency locator beacon, pilots cannot switch it off, and besides, there would not necessarily been anything to trigger it.

If the smoldering got pronounced enough, carbon monoxide or smoke inhalation could have rendered the pilots incapacitated. As to why they wouldn’t have responded with a Hollywood “Mayday!” moment, no one in air traffic control can help with a smoky cockpit. Pilots follow at guideline of, “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” – in that order.

The reconstructed flight path that we now know the plane followed is consistent with the association’s recommendations of what backup airports the pilots would have chosen. And when debris from a Boeing 777 did begin to appear more than a year later, it was all consistent with the notion of a crash in the ocean west of Australia.   

“Back in my daze” (Youth bashing)


Back in my day, we didn’t need social media to ostentatiously announce the shortcomings of these dadgum young’uns.

Nor did anyone decades, centuries, or even millennia ago. Adults have been ruminating about the current generation’s faults from Socrates to Weird Al. This would suggest that the stereotype is inaccurate. Each succeeding generation getting worse for 3,000 years would leave societies and cultures in ruins. Instead, humanity has consistently experienced a general uptick in the quality of life, education, medicine, housing, transportation, food, and innovation.

In order to reconcile this contradiction, University of California-Santa Barbara psychology professors John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler led a team that conducted five studies to assess people’s tendency to believe that kids these days are deficient, relative to those of previous generations, especially their own, or from generations they hold in high regard.

The studies measured three traits and found that U.S. adults believe today’s youth are indeed in decline. Researchers found the subjects were more likely to hold this position if they were good at a specific trait they were questioned about. For instance,  authoritarian types strongly feel youth are less respectful of their elders than in years past, intelligent people especially think today’s youth are less brilliant than they were before, and well-read people think young folks enjoy picking up a book (or Kindle) less than they did.

The attitudes toward children’s intelligence is telling because intelligence has risen fairly steadily over the years and centuries. Still, intelligent people believed that children today were becoming less so. Adding authoritarianism to the mix showed this characteristic to be unrelated to person’s beliefs about children’s intelligence. This is further evidence that the Kids These Days Effect primarily afflicts those who are proficient in a certain area themselves. Put another way, there were kids in your day who were just as disrespectful, dumb, and lazy as the current crop you are criticizing. But selective memory and a tendency to generalize the current generation but not one’s own leads to a skewed perspective. And again, this is only true if the subject exceled in that area themselves.

Also a factor is people’s tendency to romanticize the past and think of it as the good ol’ days. They envision the 1950s as the days of Leave it to Beaver instead of as a time of entrenched segregation, and the 1870s a the time of Tom Sawyer instead of the era of Native American genocide.

“Flash drive” (Reactionless space drives)


Today we will look at an idea which marries lovers of conspiracy theories with aficionados of science fiction masquerading as emerging technology. It centers on a purported ability of humans to travel far deeper into space than they ever have.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning tackled this issue and he noted that sizable limits that are placed on such a notion. Flying in space, he said, requires reaction mass. In other words, to change a spacecraft’s direction of movement, those on board must expel mass in the opposite direction. It can either be a lot of mass that astronauts push off from gently, or it can be a little mass which they use to push off from aggressively. In either case, Newton’s Third Law of Motion comes into play: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

As Mankind has yet to make it to a neighboring planet, there’s little reason to contemplate spacefaring beyond the solar system or especially the Milky Way. But there are some that do boldly go where many man has gone before: Offering baseless charges of a cover-up.

These types are motivated less by a spirit of adventure and exploration and more out of the chance to offer self-congratulation and to get excited about a nefarious plot. If they were intrigued by possible advances space travel, they would be reading astronomy magazines, pushing for funding, and contemplating a return trip to the moon or an inaugural trip to Mars. Instead, they salivate over winning a game of technological hide-and-seek and vacationing in the Andromeda vicinity.

Travel to this star system would require a massive amount of acceleration in order to overcome the literally astronomical distance. If deep space pioneers were to expel that much reaction mass, physics would require them to start the trip with such a quantity of reaction mass that the amount of inertia would mean the spaceship would never budge.

The type of space travel depicted in science fiction often employs a space drive, the name for a hypothetical reactionless drive system. In the real world, there are proposals, patents, and prototypes for these devices, all of which fail owing to the aforementioned Newtonian physics.

But here are a look at a few of them. There are EM Drives, which depend on microwaves or other radio waves bouncing around a closed chamber, which is designed so that pressure on the bouncing waves will be greater on one interior surface than on the opposite one, thus pushing the whole system.

Occasionally, a prototype of such a device will be credited with managing a very short positive thrust, which in theory could be refined and improved upon until extreme space travel is realized. However, even these modest gains have always been proven false during replication attempts. According to Dunning, assorted measurement and experiment errors have caused the false positives.

Next we have the Gyroscopic Inertial Thruster, supposedly based on centrifugal force. The idea here is that the ships carrying future astronauts or space tourists would employ the Thruster, which would swing faster when going in the direction of intended travel. This would fail because any changes to the force needed speed up or slow down the spaceship would be met with equal and opposite reactions. The net will always be zero.

There is also the Dean Drive, a 1950s device whose inventor tellingly never let anyone examine or test it. The Drive would gradually scoot across a table when activated, though observers concluded any movement was just the result of friction and the device’s vibrations.

Finally, we consider the Alcubierre Drive, which is described as being akin to Star Trek’s warp drive. Its inventor, physicist Miguel Alcubierre Moya, claims to have based it on physics and kept it consistent with Einstein’s field equations.

Alcubierre said his device works by coopting a virtual wave of spacetime, thereby constantly shrinking the space in front of it and expanding the space behind it. The problem, Dunning said, is that ,”Doing this would require a region with lower density than an absolute vacuum, a concept that works only if one has ‘exotic matter,’ a placeholder term for any hypothetical matter with properties that deviate from the known types of matter.’”

So Moya is explaining one remote hypothetical with a second remote hypothetical. And even if exotic matter were real and accessible, any Flash Gordon wannabe would need to procure impossibly high amounts of it.


“Of one mindfulness” (Mindfulness meditation)


Mindfulness is a type of meditation derived from the Buddhism, with a Western twist. Its intent is to promote the observation and introspection of thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings. The Western influence paints Buddhism as rational, universal, and compatible with science. Like many avant garde approaches to ancient ideas, mindfulness presents itself as way of getting back to the true meaning of the original concept.

Associating itself with Buddhism allows mindfulness advocates to reap the philosophical fruits of attaching itself to a major Eastern religion and appeal to those captivated by such leanings. Yet it maintains enough distance from the most esoteric concepts that mindfulness isn’t considered overtly faith-based, which would drive away those too far in the other direction. And when proponents declare mindfulness to be universal, they further extend their potential reach.

Some research credits mindfulness with a slew of health benefits, which is usually a pseudoscience giveaway. Genuine medicine generally alleviates or cures a specific condition or disease through a scientifically-understood method. The longer the list of supposed treatments, the more likely the product or practice provides none of them.

Also of major note, most mindfulness studies are poorly designed, hampered by insufficient sample sizes, lack control groups, and are not double blinded. In short, evidence for most of the claimed benefits is scant. A review of 47 meditation trials involving 3,500 participants found no evidence for such stated benefits as increasing an attention span, kicking a drug habit, conquering insomnia, or managing weight loss. There are, however, signs that it leads to moderate improvements for some persons in dealing with anxiety and stress. But the technique only works for people for find mindfulness mediation relaxing. A person who finds painting relaxing would get the same benefit from taking brush to canvas.

Another problem is that there is a lack of agreement on what mindfulness is. The various approaches make it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion as to if and how well it works. Dr. Steven Novella of Science-Based Medicine wrote that the lack of definition matters because proper research controls for specific variables. If those cannot be defined or isolated, the topic cannot be studied in any meaningful way.

He explained this by using an analogy to acupuncture: “If we define acupuncture as placing thin needles through the skin at acupuncture points, we can confidently conclude based upon the research that acupuncture does not work. However, proponents continue to claim that acupuncture does work, citing research results that use a deliberately loose definition of acupuncture. Proponents have essentially said, ‘acupuncture works, it just doesn’t seem to matter where or if you stick the needles.’ Then what is acupuncture? And if specific variables don’t seem to matter, how can you control for non-specific effects?” This lead to another issue, there being no way to control for nonspecific results.

One assertion proponents get right is that mindfulness produces measurable changes to the brain. But the type of brain change cited – thicker gray matter – is associated with many different activities, such as sports competition, playing musical instruments, or learning to reason. And there’s no reason to think these brain changes are beneficial or something to strive for. In summary, a person should use mindfulness if it helps them to relax and destress, but they shouldn’t expect any reward beyond that.

“Strong claim” (Temporary super strength)


In elementary school, my younger brother and I observed a couple of juvenile miscrenats trying to sneak a smoke. When they noticed us, they sprinted in our direction and one of them held me down, nervously asking me what I had seen and threatening me with harm if we told anyone. I laid there and meekly took it all until I looked to my side and noticed the other youthful tobacco connoisseur had my scared sibling pinned on the grass.

This provided a surge of energy and determination that caused me, a somewhat wussy 5th grader with average strength, to fling aside the 6th grader who was holding me, then doing likewise to his same-aged cohort. I was now the one doing the pinning down, and my firm grasp kept both assailants immobilized until my brother safely fled.

While there was no lifesaving involved in this case, there have long been tales of heroes rescuing a disaster victim by temporarily acquiring superhuman strength. This power affords them the ability to do much than control a pair of grade school hooligans. These stories’ central figures are said to have summoned the means to lift objects as massive as a car or boulder.

One of the more well-known instances of the putative phenomenon was when the helicopter used in Magnum, P.I. crashed and pinned the pilot under shallow water. A quick-acting onlooker lifted the 2,000-pound helicopter and allowed the pilot to survive.

Occasionally, the courageous crusader is asked to repeat the feat and is unable to do so, sometimes being unable to even budge the object. This lends credence in the mind of some that a temporary super power enabled the hero to do it the first time.

The usual explanation centers on a surge of adrenalin. It’s true that an adrenalin rush leads to physically-measurable changes. As it is pumped into the bloodstream, airways relax, metabolism increases, and muscles experience glycolysis, which readies them for action. Additionally, endorphins are released, peripheral vision is reduced, reflexes sharpen, and reaction times improve.

But while all this may make one capable of doing something that he or she normally couldn’t, does this extend all the way to being able to literally lift a ton? For that answer, we can look to the work of biomechanist Vladimir Zatsiorsky. He uses different strength categories to describe someone’s lifting potential. The primary ones are Absolute and Maximal.

Absolute refers to the theoretical maximum that a person’s muscles, fibers, tendons, and bones would allow them to lift. This is what physiology shows would be theoretically possible, but people actually fall short of being able to reach the full amount.

Meanwhile, Maximal strength is the most that could be lifted using conscious effort, such as in construction work or a weightlifting session. This usually caps out at about 67 percent of the person’s Absolute ability. Beyond that, tissues would fail, no matter how strong the desire to lift more or how much adrenalin had been released.

There is a third, seldom-seen category that rests between these Absolute and Maximial. It can be attained when one is in a competitive mode, such as in the Olympics, especially if being cheered by frenzied onlookers. Zatsiorsky has detected some world-class athletes reaching as high as 92 percent of their body’s Absolute strength during the most intense competitions. That this could happen in such a venue makes sense, as no situation is more pressurized. Unless, perhaps, there’s a life in your vicelike hands.

Such as in a case cited by Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning. He relates an anecdote where a car ran over an Arizona bicyclist in 2006 and trapped the victim to the pavement. On the scene was powerlifter Tom Boyle, who had previously demonstrated the ability to deadlift 700 pounds. Impressive stuff. But the car weighed a ton and a half, and as the story goes, our muscular rescuer managed to get its front wheels off the ground. But since the vehicle’s weight was much more than Boyle’s Absolute lift, his body would have hit structural failure well before summoning the ability to raise the vehicle.

This supposed ability cannot be tested. There is no way to replicate the exact original conditions and there are obvious ethical constraints to intentionally placing someone beneath a pinned car or helicopter. In the Arizona, Magnum P.I., and similar cases, leverage or buoyancy likely came into play and substantially lessened the amount of weight lifted. Another possible mitigating factor, Dunning noted, is that lifting many cars a few inches leaves most of the vehicle’s weight still supported by suspension springs.

So to be clear, these stories are not being fabricated by the hero, victim, or onlookers. In life-and-death situations, details are going to be fuzzy and mis-remembered. Perhaps Boyle lifted from the lighter back end of the car and not the heavier side. Perhaps the car was inclined in such a way that the leverage angle was more favorable.

Whenever such incidents are captured on video and can be paused and rewound, extenuating circumstances can be noticed, which a terrified witness would have missed at the time. For example, during the helicopter incident, the rescuer did not lift the rotorcraft as was reported; rather, he rocked it as it was lying on its side against a sloped and uneven riverbank. While the act was heroic, it did not require the superhuman effort attributed to it.

Physical changes that take place during an emergency situation may lead a person to exceed their usual abilities, but only by a known, limited increment. The hero won’t acquire the ability to impersonate Christopher Reeve. Hitting 80 percent of one’s Absolute strength or subduing a pair of Marlboro-packing bullies seems to be the limit.

“Lyin’ hearted” (Sphinx age)


I have been fortunate to do extensive travel and and my favorite of all the stops is the Sphinx. Workers carved the man-lion hybrid, whose face likely depicts the Pharaoh Khafra, into a limestone bedrock hill. It remains one of the world’s most recognized sculptures thousands of years after its construction. But how many thousands of years is that?
Whether built by Egyptians or aliens, these workers left behind plenty of evidence of their time spent there. Radiocarbon dating evidence shows the tools, housing, and ovens employed by Sphinx workers were in use around 2500 BCE. Despite a strong consensus among archaeologists, geologists, and Egyptologists about this date, a few non-experts prefer a contrary timeline.

There was, for example, a 1990s television movie, The Mystery of the Sphinx: New Scientific Evidence, which suggests it was built much earlier. Also, science fiction author John Anthony West and alchemist René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz have both claimed the extent of wall erosion surrounding the Sphinx is much greater than other places in Giza. The duo claim this could only happen if the limestone lion had been exposed to the elements thousands of years before the consensus date of 2500 BCE.

But Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning points out that weathering can result from desert winds combining with native sand. Also factoring in is how soft the limestone would have been when the Sphinx was being built. Contrarians believe the weathering is  best explained by water that flowed near the Sphinx site during a period when there was much greater rainfall. However, archaeologists have excellent paleoclimatology data for the region, so they know rainfall there 4500 years ago was much heavier than what it is today.

Crucially, the Giza Plateau is high ground and the area encompassing the Sphinx and Pyramids is a summit and is therefore a highly unlikely place for water to flow to. Furthermore, almost all geologists maintain there is little reason to try and squeeze water erosion into this Egyptian equation. Dunning writes, “The pattern of erosion on rock depends not upon what’s doing the eroding, but upon the characteristics and hardness of the rock itself. It’s impossible to tell what did the weathering, water or wind.”

And according to geologist August Matthusen, “Variations in the rock usually account for the different weathering morphologies.”

There are a number of ways to explain why there is significant weathering found on the Sphinx’s deep west wall and no other place on the plateau. These reasons include salt crystal exfoliation, underground water, and excavation.

To make the alternate hypothesis work, contrarians propose the existence of an earlier advanced civilization that preceded Egypt. The deficiencies with this idea are the geological evidence presented so far and the lack of proof of a society large and advanced to build the Sphinx, then disappear – all without leaving traces of themselves.
In the Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology, Dr. Ken Feder writes, “There is no sign of an infrastructure necessary to support a large population of workers, no sign of the ability to produce a large agricultural surplus to feed the construction workers, no evidence of dormitories for housing them, no huge storage facilities for food, no great bakeries, no cemeteries in which to bury the workers who would have died during the construction project.”

And one doesn’t need an alternate history anyway. The Sphinx is magnificent enough on its own. My amazement when gazing upon this ancient wonder would not have been any more pronounced by thinking it was even older or by suspecting that sleuth pseudoscientists had exposed a cover-up.

“Nyet so fast” (Rasputin invincibility)


A Siberian works his way from poverty and obscurity to become the primary confidant of the Tsarina. He plays a pivotal, albeit unintentional, role in the collapse of the Romanov Dynasty and the birth of communist societies. He was known as the Mad Monk, though he was neither. He did, however, spent time in a monastery debating theological ideas, and sported a greatly unkempt appearance, which when combined with his captivating, harrowing eyes and strange demeanor, made him at once the target of suspicion, wonder, and revulsion.

This life story is fascinating enough without needing embellishment. But there are some persons who find humans landing a probe on a comet to be ho-hum while being simultaneously fascinated by evidence-free doomsday tales of a hypothetical Planet X. In the same way, there are some who remain unsatisfied with amazing true historical accounts and crave a still more spectacular story.

Hence, the idea that Rasputin was nearly indestructible was born. Allegedly, killing him required that he be poisoned, shot multiple times, beaten, and tossed bound into a river, and even all that was barely enough. For maximum efficiency, this fable sometimes holds that he owed his quasi-invincibility to his mystical powers, the same supernatural abilities that Tsarina Alexandra was convinced had saved her hemophiliac son. Because she was certain he had, the self-proclaimed miracle healer and seer became the darling of the ruling matriarch.

She wanted to keep him close, literally and figuratively, so the man who once lived as a peasant received a massive upgrade to castles, ballrooms, and carriages. He enjoyed high society status, had access to the royal inner circle, and influenced politics, culture, and society. Most everyone of relevance had a strong opinion about him, either good or bad.

Some of those in the latter category were insiders who thought Rasputin was dooming the Romanovs and Russia, and wanted him out permanently of the way permanently. The first attempt on Rasputin’s life came in the summer of 1914, when he was stabbed in the abdomen. He survived but a year later, conspirators hatched a second assassination plot, which was uncovered before it could be acted upon.

In December 1916 came another attempt, and the third time was the harm. Led by Prince Felix Yusupov, four other conspirators lured Rasputin to a St. Petersburg palace, where the dastardly deed was done.

Three are three sources which relate what took place in those early morning hours of Dec. 30: The written accounts of Yusupov and his henchman, Vladimir Purishkevich; and the autopsy report. There are some key differences between the first two sources and the other one.

Yusupov recalled that he offered Rasputin tea, cakes, and alcohol, all laced with cyanide. Despite being plied with a lethal chemical compound, Rasputin merely complained about a headache and fiery stomach.

The rest of the putative first-hand account from the assailants goes like this: At 2:30 a.m., Yusopov fired a bullet into Rasputin’s stomach at close range. The victim collapsed, seemingly dead. Rasputin was left lying there for nearly an hour before coming to and attacking Yusupov. Rasputin rushed past the other conspirators, who fired shots at the fleeing man. This time, the killers shot him through the back and head, yet still he survived.

A frustrated and enraged Yusupov then grabbed a club and began pummeling Rasputin, whose body was eventually bound and tossed into the icy Malaya Neveka River. Some claimed that when found, Rasputin was making the sign of the cross, proof he had been thrown living from the bridge and worked free of his ropes.

The autopsy shows something far less dramatic than all this. First, the pathologist found no cyanide present, even though he looked for it specifically since Yusupov  said he plied Rasputin treats laden with it.

Second, while three bullet wounds were found, the pathologist determined that  two bullets hit the torso and one entered the forehead. These entered from the front, not in the back as would be consistent with a fleeing man. Moreover, gunpowder residue was found near the wound, suggesting the gun was fired from close-range, not from across the room. The pathologist also reported that the wounds’ angle indicated the victim was lying down when shot.

Also of note, the autopsy referenced no water in Rasputin’s lungs. And while photographs of the frozen corpse do show Rasputin’s arms to be free, they are not making the sign of the cross.

In summary, the autopsy shows Rasputin was shot from behind, collapsed, rolled onto his back, and was then shot through the head as he lay dying. There was no poison, no water-filled lungs, and no bound, beaten body. He had merely been done in by a lethal head shot.

The embellishments have been fabricated to create a fascinating but false narrative of Rasputin being nearly indestructible. That he had survived two earlier assassination plots, including one that came to fruition, may have sparked the notion of invincibility, and his mystical nature likely added to the post-mortem reputation. Such unwarranted speculation is common when fascinating life comes to a premature end, and has happened with the likes of JFK and Elvis.