Saturday, June 20, 2015

Belief versus Reality

"I am an Engineer, cursed with actually knowing something."  --Robert Platt Bell

For a lot of people, what they want to believe is akin to fashion in clothes.   You pick and choose among the styles, and then select what you think makes you look good, or is "fun."  Whether something is actually true or not is, of course, secondary.   And of course, most people will play stupid mind games with you and argue that there is no such thing as an absolute truth.

But there is.   Hit them upside the head and ask them if they feel that "absolute truth" or not.  Chances are, they will snap back to reality in short order.

I just got off the phone with an inventor who is convinced he has invented perpetual motion.   It is a bugaboo of our business that every so often you do get a raging "true believer" who thinks they have figured out a way around the laws of thermodynamics.   I explained to him that even though the Patent Office basically threw up its hands and stopped rejecting perpetual motion machine Patent applications (because inventors would claim such rejections were evidence that "the government was in the pockets of the big oil companies!") that he would need to find another attorney, as I could not, in good faith, prosecute an application to an invention I knew would not work.

He tried to persuade me, but his arguments were based more on belief than sound engineering.   But while on the phone, I looked online and sent him links to several nearly identical perpetual motion machines and that seemed to persuade him that even if the thing could work (which it couldn't) he wouldn't get much Patent protection, as the idea was largely "public domain."

(And this is the problem with perpetual motion machines.   Like the Howard Johnson's Motor, they are now public domain designs - yet in the decades they have been around, no one can build one that will work!)

But it begs the question, why was he such a raging true believer and why did I dismiss the idea out of hand as not being possible?   The answer is complex.   I am a skeptic.  I live in the real world.  As an Engineer and Lawyer, I want to see hard evidence, not fantastic dreams, promotional come-ons, or happy talk.   And maybe because of this, I can spot a fraud from 100 yards.  When hard facts are elusive, chances are, you are being deceived.

(I don't believe in perpetual motion, not just because I took Thermodynamics, but because I don't believe in the free lunch.   Nothing in life would be that easy.  And if perpetual motion were possible, the universe would generate more and more energy until it exploded.   No, God doesn't hand out free-passes.  We have to work for it, simple as that). 

Others, well, they cannot discern between advertising puffery, slick talk, vague promises and real hard honest facts and data.   To them, an advertising brochure that says "The New Chevy Camaro is super-fast and powerful!" is the same as technical data that says, "It has 426 HP and 420 ft-lbs of torque."  The former is a bunch of advertising bullshit.  The later is hard data.  And pretty impressive data, considering the original Camaro from the 1960's was a poorly made rusty deathtrap that got shitty mileage and couldn't hope for those numbers even on a good day.

But then again, I live in reality.  Fantasy-man tells me how much better cars were in the good old days.  Fantasy-man has his head up his ass.  He's not an Engineer.

Sadly, puffery and happy-talk is mostly what you see these days.  Put a column of numbers in front of people and they go off to snooze-land, even if they are impressive numbers.   But put together a slick animation or computer generated graphic?   If is a slow news day, the media will lap it up, and the plebes will fall all over themselves gushing on about how great the world will be when the Trollies and Zeppelins come back.

What sort of things am I talking about?   Well, for example, rotating skyscrapers, which made the news a few years ago, and were going to be built "next year" which is a great time-frame to use.  It is like those bar signs that say, "Free Beer - Tomorrow!", but of course tomorrow never comes.

And after the hoopla dies down, you realize the architect of this "rotating skyscraper" never designed a skyscraper before, and doesn't have a client for it, and after several years, still doesn't.  And as an Engineer, you quickly appreciate how the structure of tall buildings works, and how you can't have dynamic loads on a tiny core and have the whole thing stand up.  Not to mention how the plumbing and electrical connections are going to work.  Then you read the claims that it will generate enough electricity to power five buildings, and well, you know someone is pulling your leg.

But others?  You read the comments online and people say, "This is so cool!  I can't wait to see it built!" and they accept, without question, some clever computer graphics as reality.

Or take the air-powered car - coming "next year" as well.  Or the three-wheeled "Elio" car - due next year!

Or floating cities - only "a few years away!"   A third-grader could find the flaws in that plan.  Can you spell "Hurricane"?

An interesting side note - when the "floating cities" press release first came out, one advantage touted was that such cities would be in international waters, and thus beyond national laws.  So drugs and other things would be legal - which tells you a lot about the audience for such wild-eyed fantasies.   Yes, pot smokers are the first to believe in air-powered cars or the return of the Zeppelins - or kicking back and sparking a bowl in your floating-city condo.   Yea, that could all happen.  Maybe not.

All these clever press-releases have compelling made-for-prime-time video and graphics.  If Preston Tucker were alive today, he wouldn't have bothered building 51 prototype cars, but would have done it all in CGI instead.  A lot less hassle.

A new one is the solar powered enviropod, which we are told you can tow with your electric car - while it recharges it!   Again, we are told is is available "next year" which could mean anytime in the next 100 years.  How one is able to get sufficient solar power from a round egg-shape is not told.  And if you know something about the energy density of solar panels and how they work, you would realize that a flat panel that could be angled toward the sun would be far more efficient - but still not enough to run your air conditioning, much less recharge your electric car.

But still, people want to believe.  In the future, we will all live in eco-pods and travel in our three-wheel air-powered cars to our Zeppelins, if not by Trolly or jetpack or whatever.

It is a nice fantasy.  It is not reality.  Like it or not, we have to live in reality.   It is not that mankind cannot accomplish amazing things.  My Grandmother was born in the horse-and-buggy era and yet also saw a man land on the moon.  Surely an amazing pace of accomplishment.   And when I was young, it seemed like trips to the space station would be routine - scheduled to fly on Pan Am, of course!   And colonies on the Moon and Mars were just "a few years away."  Maybe "next year."  Always a compelling timeline.

What happened?   Reality happened.   It turned out that landing on the moon was a very dangerous stunt that killed one crew (Apollo 1), nearly killed the first crew to land (Apollo 11), and nearly killed the third crew (Apollo 13).  Turns out, we live at the bottom of a gravity well, and getting into space is never going to be as easy as booking a flight on an airliner.  Not now, not tomorrow, not ever.  

This isn't to say we shouldn't try, and that down the road, maybe things will change.  But it won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight.  A self-sustaining colony in space, as we are finding out, is an expensive undertaking, as every damn thing you need has to be lifted free and clear of our gravity well and then flung out into orbit days, weeks, or months away.   And there are no practical shortcuts to this.

Of course, it is far more fun to believe otherwise.  And there are no shortage of people who will indulge your fantasies in this regard, such as the folks at Mars OneBut let's face it - these folks haven't got a snowball's chance in hell of ever going.  A nice website and a press release do not a Mars mission make.

So what's the harm in all of this?   Believing in "fun things" like aliens and conspiracy theories is just harmless fun, right?  It's like religion - silly stories about a guy living in a whale, that get us through the day and make our hum-drum lives seem more important and interesting, right?

Maybe.   But frankly, I find reality - with all its drudgery, hardship, difficulty, and disappointment - to be fascinating enough.   For example, the fact that people believe all this bullshit is part of reality, and that is fascinating to me.  Just understanding this is a big key to understanding people and how the world works.   If you can live in reality more than in fantasy, your personal life will be so much better, trust me.

The other harm in this is that sometimes these fantasy-sellers are outright con-men.   There have been accusations that some of these press-release wonders are just fronts for investment scams - asking people to front money to "invest" in these schemes, or dealerships or deposits or "automated prefabricated factories" to build (whatever) in your "territory".   Yes, dreams like this are usually bait, with a hook attached, and the goal is to separate you from your money.

"But what about all the great inventions in the past?" you say, "Didn't folks have to have a dream back then and sell it to investors?"

Yes and No.  If you know the back story about Microsoft, for example, you realize there was no "dream" of creating DOS or Windows - just projects that fell into their laps.  No one was selling Microsoft's "dream" to investors.   A lucky few made a lot of money by being in the right place at the right time.

Thomas Edison wasn't prone to making press releases to raise money.  The only media "stunt" he ever did was to invent the electric chair in an effort to discredit Westinghouse.

The Wright Brother's strategy was to sell one airplane to the government for the astounding sum of $50,000.   They actually sold one, too.   But of course, first to market was last in the market place, as we have learned all-too-often.

Henry Ford?  He quit the company that became Cadillac.  He was just one of hundreds of people hoping to cash in on the burgeoning car business.  His real insight was going after the low-end of the market, and succeeding by cutting production costs and adopting mass-production standards.

No, no, real innovation and real invention is rarely accompanied by hoopla and hype.  In fact, hype can often kill off a good invention.  When you see fancy press releases about inventions "coming next year!" chances are, you are being bullshitted.

And perhaps I am missing out on something in life by being grounded in reality.  I have had clients tell me they see angels.   I have friends who claim to be ghost hunters.  Others believe in faeries and whatnot.  I suppose theirs is a magical world full of whimsy and wonder.   But then I look at their financial situation and think to myself, maybe reality ain't so bad after all.  And maybe if these folks paid more attention to reality, they wouldn't have to retreat into a fantasy world

And fantasy beliefs go beyond fantastic inventions or elves and whatnot.   Fundamentalist religious beliefs - beliefs that intrude into your personal and financial life - are on the rise.  One friend tells me that her son (who is older than I am) believes the "end times" are coming, and thus has saved nothing for retirement but instead gave all his money to the evangelical church.   Same shit, different day, as far as I am concerned.

For me, reality ain't so bad.   And reality isn't just as you perceive it to be.  Or more precisely, how you perceive reality is often cross-checked by actual reality - just like the Scientific Method.  If your belief systems are continually clashing with reality, then maybe it is time to adjust your belief systems to fit the real world, rather than try to force reality to fit your preconceived notions.

Because reality really isn't all that scary.  And retreating into delusion and belief is really no answer - and in fact often makes things worse.

Confront reality.  Make it your friend.  It ain't all that bad!