Letters: Hoaxes and Hybrids

April 7, 2009
A reader points out that a video circulating through the Internet  is a commercial. Another reader believes if we can accept complicated of hybrid powertrains, then even advanced diesel engine shouldn’t be a problem.

A well-versed reader points out that a video circulating through the Internet — an aircraft landing on just one wing — is a commercial created by some sleight of hand at the computer. Another reader believes if we can accept the complications of hybrid powertrains, then any diesel engine, no matter how advanced, shouldn’t present a problem.

Pass the spam
I just read your article about spam (“Death, taxes and spam,” March 5) and have to agree. I have absolutely no idea how people are getting my email address nor where they get the idea they can just send me e-mail. I am not sure which upsets me more — real hard-core spam or spam in which someone took liberties using or selling my e-mail address.

Howard Minnick

When seconds count
If our planet’s rotation were slowing down by 2 msec/day as stated in Backtalk (Feb. 19 issue), we would’ve all been in serious trouble long ago. The rotation period is actually slowing down about 1.7 msec/century. The 2 msec/day figure refers to the difference between Universal Coordinated Time (as set by atomic clocks) and mean solar day (as set by the Earth). When the switch to the atomic standard was made, an offset remained which is adjusted every so often with the leap second (the last time being December 2008) to keep official time closely in sync with the “natural” time based on Earth’s rotation.

Steven Geppert

You are correct. An editor took NIST’s press release at its word. The release says the Earth is slowing by about 0.002 sec/day. We regret the error and will tell NIST to check its clocks. — Editor

Theories and models
The editorial on models (“When you can’t believe the model,” Feb. 19) says that we should be skeptical of models where we cannot do experiments to confirm the theories. Finance and climate change were two examples given. There is a third area where we should be equally skeptical: The Origin of Life. Leading professors propose many theories on how life began. However, Pasteur’s nonspontaneous generation of life’ experiments, conducted over a century ago, have yet to be disproved. Creating amino acids and nucleotide bases, as is commonly done, does not come close to proving that those molecules will naturally assemble themselves into the long, information-packed, DNA string. On the other hand, many experiments show that unprotected by a cell, DNA naturally breaks down faster than it can be assembled. Until experiments confirm otherwise, we must be extremely skeptical of the idea that a supernatural intelligent designer was unnecessary to create life.

John Burhoe

Simple or too complicated?
In the Feb. 5 editorial (“On the bright side: A few good things coming out of Detroit“) you compare a diesel engine (albeit with an ECU controlling injectors) using more-or-less standard a transmission and running gear to a hybrid with a much-more complex powertrain that includes batteries, high-power inverters, and complex ECUs. Then you say that occasionally adding some urea fluid to a reservoir is “too complicated and prone to hiccups”? I’m thinking that perhaps you should reacquaint yourself with the definition of the word, “complicated.” Modern hybrids are much more complex than diesel-powered vehicles. While diesels may require occasional urea replacement, they should run for several hundred thousand miles with fairly straightforward maintenance. How much does the battery pack cost to replace in a hybrid? While I realize that it is not fully relevant to the editorial, out in the west here we regularly drive long distances (trains and subways are in short supply) and the diesels get fuel economies very close to the hybrids but without the complex powertrain and problems they bring. Both types should be viable, depending on where they are used.

David P. Telling, Jr.

I never said hybrids weren’t complicated. Urea systems, though, are just one more thing that can go wrong with vehicles and one more maintenance item. — Leland Teschler

Without change, there is no growth
I have used the above statement for years. Until now, I did not think anyone really noticed. As your article states (“The upside of negative thinking,” Jan. 8), no one in management seems to understand this. And, all too often, when someone who does understand the concept gets into a management position, they forget it.

Recently, I read a news story that claimed our society has adopted the “show-me-the-body” mentality when it comes to bridge repair and upkeep. That is, until people start dying in bridge accidents, no one will spend a dime to fix them. In manufacturing, it seems bodies have been accumulating for years in the form of killed ideas. To make matters worse, these ideas then spring to life elsewhere. Stories of how U.S. firms developed but not profited on the digital watch and digital camera are classic, but few American managers seem to comprehend and understand the lesson.

I have been in manufacturing facilities all across America and, as recent events support, the automotive industry seems to be the worst at change. Those of us who think and live outside the box are crowded out by those who cannot see beyond a budget (aka bean counters).

So shareholders beware, your managers are handsomely rewarded for sending your future elsewhere.

Steve Mayo

The computer is quicker than the eye
Your Backtalk column (Feb. 9) mentions a well-known video of an aerobatic airplane losing a wing and managing to land safely. It seems the video was a promotion for a company that has also done other videos which include amazing aircraft landings. The plane in this video bears the name of the company, making it clear that whatever happened was part of a plan.

Frame-by-frame analysis of the video reveals there is more than one airplane involved. The position or markings and small changes in shape (e.g., the shape of the engine nacelle and the wings) are apparent throughout the flight. Computer morphing between planes takes place when the video camera seems to lose focus momentarily.

The initial shots are of a remotecontrolled model airplane. Final shots are of a full-sized plane with a pilot. The latter shots were also taken after the plane was on the ground. It is unclear whether the missing wing in the final shots was managed by actual removal of a wing or by computer manipulation of the images.

The type of flying demonstrated in the video is what is known as “3D” in RC airplane circles. These planes have huge flight control surfaces that can be operated differently from normal airplanes, and they also have the power to “helicopter”, or hang suspended from their propellers. Another common aerobatic technique demonstrated here is “knife edge flying”, where the fuselage of the plane provides the lift that keeps the plane in the air.

To conclude, the video in question is a deliberate hoax made as a promotion for a company. It shows a small model plane deliberately ejecting a wing and then flying near the ground using a combination of 3D, helicoptering, and knife-edge flying techniques. A real airplane with a human pilot in it is morphed into the final scenes. The final interview with the stunt pilot is simply part of the promotion.

Paul Schmidt

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