(9 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)
This is going to be a busy evening, because there are several things to cover. First, I shall give a correction to last weeks’ Pique the Geek after the fold. Next, we shall discuss the very silly notion that 20121221 is the end of times. Finally, we shall get some more information about 8-track tape technology from one of the original developers.
That is one of the nice things about blogging: you “meet” a lot of people. This individual (who gave me permission to identify by name) was on the development team just about from the start, and has written a memoir (JUST for Pique the Geek, by the way) and I shall add parts of it, in suitably sized pieces, at the end of PTG until we reach the end.
I had originally planned to write about the Noble Gases of the Periodic Table, but I happened to be puttering around the house when a TeeVee show about this came on today. The interesting thing to me is that almost everything is just made up from whole cloth.
First, the correction. Last week I indicated that the incredibly stupid Trace Gallagher from the Fox “News” Channel repeatedly referred to crucifixion as “crucification”. This is in error. In fact, it was the stupendously stupid Jon Stewart who used that term. I regret the error.
Now let us go to 20121221 Disaster. Most “authorities” on this subject refer to the Mayan Calendar as its genesis. It is true that the current long cycle of the Mayan Calendar (and it is a long period, 394.24 years) ends on or about 20121221, and that this date is the end of the 13th long cycle since the inception of the current one, or 5125 years since the start of the first long cycle of the series. After the end of the 13th one, a new cycle starts. No where in Mayan records is it indicated that this was the end of time, rather the end of the current reckoning cycle and the start of a new one.
Coincidentally, it appears that this date also corresponds to an astronomical event that happens every 25,800 years. The earth, sun, and galactic center will be in alignment on that date, except that is not necessarily so. Because this apparent alignment changes with latitude and the time with longitude, the date and time are ambiguous. In addition, it is not possible to determine the galactic center with enough precision to say this in the first place. This 25,800 year unit is an artifact of the earth having a slight wobble (technically called precession, think of a top spinning with a bit of wobble), and the magnitude of it is such that we trace out a complete circle in the wobble every 25,800 years.
Somehow that got conflated with the Mayan calendar (it is unclear if the Maya were aware of precession, since the process takes so long), but there is no integer relationship with the precession period and the long year or 13 of them, the ratios being 65.4 and 5.03. OK, you can say that 5.03 is pretty close to an integer, but why five? It had no special meaning to the Maya.
The 2012 Disaster proponents believe that the earth, and time itself, will end on that date. Personally, I think the potential for disaster falls in early November of 2012, specifically on a Tuesday, but that is just me. Here are a few predictions that they have made.
The one that I like the best is that the magnetic poles of the earth rotate by about 90 degrees, ending up near the equator. It is a fact that the magnetic poles have shifted by more than that many times However this occurs over thousands of years, not in a day. Various theories have been proposed to account for this sudden shift, notably the pseudoscientific torsion field physics explanation promoted by the world class crackpot Richard C. Hoagland. This “theory” promotes the idea that there are certain concentrations of a mysterious energy that can act as antigravity at various locations determined geometrically, and that this energy is becoming “out of balance”, and that on the date in question it will “snap” to get back to where “it wants to be”. By the way, this is the same guy who believes that the moon astronauts did not report about the glass buildings on the moon because NASA hypnotized them to make them forget, and that the rock formation on Mars that resembles, with the right angle of the sun, a human face (IF you REALLY want to believe) was actually carved by Martians who fled Mars for Earth and were our ancestors.
Anyway, if the magnetic poles shift, depending on what nut you believe, several things can happen. According to one, since the crust of the earth is magnetized, the entire crust will shift to follow the poles, essentially tearing the crust of the earth everywhere, with earthquakes and volcanoes that will end all life. Think of plate tectonics at warp factor 9! Some other crackpot says, no, that is not what will happen, but rather the earth will spin backwards, stressing the crust until essentially the same things happen.
Of course this is ridiculous. However, there is certainly one serious consequence of the magnetic poles shifting by 90 degrees (remember, we are talking thousands of years, not instantly). It turns out, that if you think of it, it is very convenient for our magnetic and spin axis poles coincide. Because of the shape of the magnetic field, the current polar regions are not as shielded from radiation as are the lower latitudes. Since the lower latitudes are more hospitable for human living, our electric grid is more protected by the magnetic field that it would be if the magnetic poles were closer to the equator. I shall worry about that in a few thousand years.
The magnetic field of the earth varies constantly, and is in an apparent weakening phase at present. This has happened before and will happen again. One problem with life on the current Mars is that it finally lost its magnetic field (analysis of rocks by our robots show that it once did have one, but no longer has) and therefore has no protection for solar flares, amongst other radiation from space. That happened because the molten core of Mars finally solidified, thereby becoming unable to generate a magnetic field since, according to the discipline of magnetohydrodynamics a liquid phase is essential. Mars is much smaller than the earth, so lost its heat much more quickly than we have.
Another disaster scenario is that a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) will strip the magnetic field from the earth. That is not possible, as long as there is a liquid, metallic outer core and that the earth rotates. It IS possible for a really large CME to overcome the protective effect of the magnetosphere, but not for long. This has actually happened in the past. One event around a decade ago interfered with the electric grid in Canada, and a really big one back in September of 1859. The 1859 event was so large that aurorae were seen as far south as Cuba. The electric grid at the time consisted of only telegraph lines, since electrical power plants had not yet been developed and the telephone was still in the development stage.
That storm released so much energy that the currents induced in the telegraph lines were of a high enough voltage to shock telegraph operators! Since the telegraph grid was pretty robust and not that extensive, it did not require a whole lot of repair to get it back in service. However, if such a geomagnetic storm were to happen today, the damage to the present grid would be devastating. Some estimates (by credible sources) indicate that it might take years to restore the grid. Imagine being without electricity for years! I friend of mine put it this way back in college (before the internet), “No TeeVee! No food! No BUDWEISER!” But why is this associated with 2012?
We are indeed nearing a peak in solar activity, which operates on a roughly eleven year cycle. However this cycle is of low amplitude, and NOAA estimates that the peak will occur in May of 2013, not in 2012. Well, close enough. You also have to look a probabilities. Since a CME is like a bullet, with no way to change course after occurring, it has to happen at a very specific place on the surface of the sun in order to strike earth. Since the sun is about 150 million km from the earth, it is rare indeed for one to strike us. At solar minima, a CME occurs, roughly, every five days, whilst during a solar maximum we are looking at around three per day, a 15 fold increase. But as I said, NOAA predicts a below average maximum this cycle based on what has occurred so far.
One of my favorites is that we are going to collide with a large planet on that date. The problem with that is that we would already SEE it, even without a telescope! Well, others argue that it is not a planet, it is a black hole. Yeah, that’s the ticket! A black hole! Sorry, we would already have detected its gravitational effect on us. Once again, bunk.
There is another problem with using the Mayan calendar to predict doomsday. That problem is that there are references to dates further out then our 20121221 in Mayan records. If that were the end of time, there would be no references to them. This whole thing is just bunk, for several reasons. First, all calendars are arbitrary. All systems have different start dates, relative to the Gregorian one that we use, so it is pure coincidence that the end of the 13th long year of the Mayan calendar lands on 20121221. Second, there have been other dates suggested instead of that one. As a matter of fact, the most credible proponent Michael Coe a Ph.D. (Harvard) anthropologist who is considered one of the academic community’s greatest authority on the Maya actually first calculated the date to be 20111224. OH NO! It is closer than we thought! He recalculated it to be 20130111, and finally accepted 20111223. The 20121221 date was calculated by Robert Sharer, another highly respected academic. Neither Coe nor Sharer believe that actual destruction of the universe will occur then, but rather indicate that the Maya might have believed it.
Another problem is that the Mayan calendar was really most likely the Olmec (a more ancient people) calendar. Thus, even the terminology is incorrect. Yet another problem is that the concept of the end of time is a repeating idea in all cultures, and all cultures, almost without exception, have attempted to determine when this will happen. The Hindu tradition is particularly rich, with the Puranic school believing in and endless cycle of creation and destruction. Christianity has the Book of Revelation, whilst many “primative” societies have similar ones.
I think that this is sufficient to debunk the 20111221 end of times nonsense. There is absolutely no basis in fact in it, and even the mechanisms dreamt up to provide for its becoming so are pretty much beyond the pale.
I think that I mentioned that one of the original developers of the 8 Track system contacted me after reading my piece a few weeks ago. He was kind enough to write a narrative of those days. Here is half of the first piece that he sent me. I shall post the second half next week, and I believe that he is going to send more, which I shall post as it comes. I very much appreciate him taking the trouble to do this, and it is an exclusive here at Pique the Geek.
THE LEARJET 8-TRACK AND ME
By Edward A. Lawrence
Set your mental clock back almost a half a century. 1964 is about right. Now envision the plight of a married Electronics Technician, freshly out of a job at North American Aviation due to a Government Contract that NAA had failed to land. Did I mention that my wife was expecting? No? Well, she was!
Ohio born, I used the loss of that job as a reason to run to that (to me) unknown city, Denver! This was in late July. Colorado had its own problems with the rising unemployment rate and the Unemployment Office folks gently advised me to scurry back home, or at least depart Colorado! Not in a mean way, just that everyone would be better off.
I dropped down to Colorado Springs as there were some job leads in the Denver newspaper that looked promising. The trip was a pleasure for this boy from the flatlands of Northern Ohio. Every time I looked west, I saw those magnificent mountains, every mile bringing new wonders. I “did” a few of the attractions, my favorite being The Garden of The Gods. Unfortunately, the only job offered to me was a Technical Writing position with one of the largest firms in the area and I was unsure of my writing skills, never having had any real work experience in that field.
About that time I read in the local newspaper that Lear had gotten certification on the Lear Jet, over in Wichita, KS. That looked promising. I had worked on aircraft electronics in my last job, so Lear might have a use for my skills. I drove the remainder of that day and most of the night. After only about two hours sleep in the previous 24, I arrived at the LearJet plant in Wichita.
I was tired. I was grungy, unshaven, still wearing the clothes I had driven all night in, more than a bit unkempt. Still, I had no other local prospects so I proceeded to the Employment Office. I had no prepared resume. My work history was pretty simple at age 25, only three years out of the US Army. Life was a bit simpler then. I just filled out the Employment Application from memory.
Next came a surprising written test. This bugger started off with easy questions in electronics but got progressively tougher with each question. I am usually the first in a room full of applicants to finish an exam. 50% of the allotted time is generally what it takes me. Not this time! The test expanded its range, demanding answers to practical but mechanical issues on assembly techniques. Each question required longer to answer than the one before. At last, the allotted time expired. I had failed to complete the entire test, and this had never happened before.
The girl asked me to wait while the engineer who would do the technical evaluation came to get me. He showed up a few minutes later, a man a few years older than I. I noted his crisp but non-hostile manner. As we walked toward whatever came next, I asked who had written that test. “That is the meanest test I have ever taken” I remarked. “Who wrote it?” Dick Kraus answered in a matter-of fact manner, “Oh, I did. I give that test to the Technicians to see how much they know, and to the Engineers to see how practical they are.”
Dick asked me a few questions as we walked along. You need to have a picture in your mind of the size of an aircraft plant. A Lear Model 23 is larger than a Cessna 150 and smaller than a Gulfstream. It takes a lot of area under roof to build a production line in addition to the Engineering Test areas. It took about 10 minutes walking time to get where we were going.
We finally got to the ‘little’ 8-track production area. This was perhaps 60 x 120 feet, upstairs, entered from an outside covered walkway. Dick showed me around and introduced me to the people who I might need to know. To my surprise one of the Line Foremen said, “I know Ed. We met at a party in Rochester, Minnesota.” I took a closer look and recognized the man. We each were hundreds of miles away from our home states but here we were at Lear.
After we left the production area, we went to the 8-track Engineering area. Here is where design changes were tested, and the 8-track tapes recorded. There was a tall, slender, dark-haired girl running a custom recording console, wearing headphones to monitor the audio being recorded at normal speed.
There also was a sharp featured, intense, slender young man with a shock of blondish hair that was a bit unruly. He said nothing. One other man was there, clearly the head Technician. He and Dick had several pleasant exchanges, using the verbal shortcuts that render whatever is being conveyed unintelligible to any outsider. No real introductions here, just an intro to the head Tech, his name being lost to me. He left Lear before I really got to know him, but he was a good man. If I remember correctly, he had headed up a Field Service group for a while before leaving.
Leaving this part of the tour, I asked Dick if I could have some time to clean up before I met any more people. I explained that I had basically driven all night, needed a wash-up and a shave, as well as a change of clothes to be presentable. Dick agreed and I went off to clean up. I ran down to the closest gas station and asked if I could use their restroom for a bit to change clothes. That accomplished, I went back, and Dick and I continued the tour. I asked, “Who do I meet next?” Dick answered “Oh, you’ve met them all. You have the job if you can accept the wage offer.”
The rate was below what I had been making at North American but I could live on it. I took the job. Later I found out that I had been offered about 10% more than others that were hired for similar positions. I guess I did OK on that test.
I’ll omit the move from Columbus, Ohio to Wichita. Just me, my pregnant wife and our second-hand German Shepard – Husky mix, named Satan. No, I did not name him. He had that name when we got him.
We settled into small quarters in South Wichita. It was really a converted motel with minimal space, a U-shaped drive, young married couples, and the occasional teenager. The roads in that part of Wichita were unpaved (dirt) with all of the niceties you expect in that setting. (None!)
As I was working insane hours and my wife had a TV to pass her time, all went well. Insane hours? Try this: Work until you drop. Go home and sleep. Wake up and go back to work. Seven days a week, as many hours as you can stand. We were rushing to finish up the 8-track tape player and get the test production rolling.
Bill Lear kept close tabs on EVERYTHING. He knew the name of every one of his approximately 300 employees. He would drop in unannounced and, placing his hand upon your shoulder, say: “Well, Ed, what are you doing today?”
I quickly sensed that one was never fixing a problem. One was making an improvement to the product. Bill might ask a question, nod at the answer and leave to inspect some other area of his kingdom.
What was Bill Lear like to work for? The best! He inspired loyalty, did not attempt to micro-manage, allowed you to work as long as you could in order to deliver the goods as quickly as possible. I did not usually deal with him directly but we all understood what he was after and that it would be best not to disappoint him. Money seemed to him to be the tool that needed to be applied to make things happen. Although others saw him exercised (angry) when they diverted their energies to trivial side issues, I never heard him raise his voice.
Was I Bill Lear’s friend? No, I was his employee. I did the job I was paid to do, aiming to achieve the goal that had been set. But I would have felt a failure if I had not given the task everything I had to give. I was a good employee. So was everyone else employed there that I ever met.
Near Christmas, my wife delivered us a fine daughter. I had no insurance and the hospital business office clearly felt that I would ‘stiff’ them for the bill. The tired-looking lady dejectedly suggested that I could set up payments and eventually pay off the $400 bill. I told her that I would pay it out of my next paycheck. I informed her that I worked a lot of overtime and it would not be a problem, and that is just how it worked out.
The weird hours always generated protesting calls from the Payroll Department. “You’ve messed up your time card again! You didn’t punch out Monday evening. Then you came in early Tuesday at 4:30 AM, punched out again at 4 PM when you should have left no earlier than 5 PM, and from there on we can’t figure out when you worked! You’ll have to come down here and straighten this out!” We would calmly inform them that we had punched in and out correctly, as usual.
Then we would truck over to Payroll once again and sit down (once again) and proceed to show them when we had gotten there and when we left, just as it was punched on the card. They really seemed to feel that we were doing this just to make their life difficult. Next Payday, another encore! Same old script, same old players, fresh wailing from the inhabitants of the Payroll Department! A pox upon accounting departments and their narrow minds!
I got to know the two employees who I was not introduced to when I first visited the 8-track Engineering Area. They were brother and sister, the children of a German engineer Bill Lear had hired. Klaus Kindt was an Electronic Technician. Krista was his older sister and approximately my age. Klaus spoke better English than Krista. Both were highly intelligent, as was their father. Both were great to work with.
Strange to say, we did not socialize much with the vast majority of Lear employees. We had little time for that as all excess time and energy was spent working toward getting the new model 8-track ready for production. We lunched together, usually right in our lab. The common goal gave us the feeling of being members of an extended family. The social bond was strong but available time was inadequate.
We needed more help. Another round of applicants presented themselves for another Electronic Technician after the prior Head Technician left our group. Dick Kraus narrowed the field to two applicants. Dick asked me which I would choose if it were up to me. As I was (and still am) an Amateur Radio Operator, I favored the applicant who was another Amateur. I felt that the practical experience from Amateur Radio would be a large plus for that applicant. Dick apparently agreed as he hired him. That person, Francis (Frank) Hacker, became a part of our little group. He died late January 2011 after being my friend for 47 years. He had moved to Texas about 1966 and held the call W5RNF for the last few decades.
The person who worked on the development of the 8-track cartridge itself was Frank Schmidt. He and Frank Hacker were both Kansas boys and remained fairly close over the years. Frank Schmidt presently resides in Mulvane, KS.
Well, you have done it again! You have wasted many einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this disastrous piece. And even though the Manhattan Megalomaniac temporarily stops trying to get attention for himself when he reads me say it, I always learn much more than I could ever hope to teach by writing this series, so keep the comments, questions, corrections, and other feedback coming. Remember, nothing about science or technology is off topic here, so do not hold back. I shall stay around as long as comments warrant tonight, and shall return tomorrow evening to check for stragglers.