Interesting Links, July 27, 2013

Here are links I found interesting on July 27, 2013:

Transponders for Dummies

Get the facts straight.

One of the podcasts I listen to on my morning walk is called Stuff You Should Know. Produced by the folks responsible for the How Stuff Works website, Stuff You Should Know is a pretty thorough discussion of a specific topic by two hosts, Josh and Chuck, who base their discussion on a website article and some of their own research. It’s a great way to learn new things when you’re stuck doing something mindless — like walking, driving, flying, etc. So far, I’ve learned about revenge, diamonds, Atlantis, social security numbers, air traffic control (ATC), and bullfighting. You can find its RSS feed here.

The April 24, 2012 episode of the podcast was titled “How Air Traffic Control Works.” It was based on a How Stuff Works article of the same name by Dr. Craig Freudenrich. The article was very detailed; the podcast was based on that article and several other articles on How Stuff Works.

As a pilot, I know quite a bit about air traffic control — but not everything. The article (and podcast) was mostly concerned with ATC as it relates to airliners. After all, that’s how most people interact with aviation. But I’m involved with general aviation (as opposed to airline aviation or military aviation). And, as a helicopter pilot, I don’t interact with ATC nearly as much as, say, an instrument rated pilot flying a King Air from Phoenix to Seattle.

So I was hoping that I could learn something new. And I did.

But I also heard the podcasters misinforming listeners about transponders (among a few other things). And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s when an informational article or podcast or video — or anything else — includes errors. So I thought I’d set things straight.

What Is a Transponder?

Garmin Transponder
This is the Garmin 330 Transponder I have in my helicopter.

A transponder is a part of an aircraft’s avionics. It assists air traffic control by making it easier for ATC radar to “see” an aircraft. It basically sends out a signal that says “Here I am!” ATC radar can pick up this signal, along with any additional information encoded within it, to plot the aircraft as a “blip” on the radar display and differentiate it from other aircraft.

Transponders include a feature that enables the pilot to send a specific “squawk” code. Normally, in VFR (visual flight rules) flight, an aircraft’s transponder is set to send the code 1200 — in fact, this code is used so often that many transponder models — including mine — have a VFR button the pilot can press to quickly enter that code.

IFR (instrument flight rules) flights are assigned a discreet discrete squawk code. This code is used by ATC to identify that particular aircraft. Sometimes, when operating within tower-controlled airspace, ATC will assign a discreet discrete code to a VFR flight. Or perhaps a specific code is used by signatories to a letter of agreement between ATC and pilots — for example, 0400 is used by Sharp Alpha signatories in the Phoenix class bravo airspace.

Most transponders are equipped with automatic altitude reporting features, which is known as Mode C. Indeed, Mode C transponders are required within 30 miles of a class Bravo airport — think major airports like the kinds most airlines serve — and in a bunch of other places detailed in Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation.” (This, by the way, is an excellent resource for learning more about transponders in general.) Mode C transponders interface with an aircraft’s altimeter to get the altitude of the aircraft and send that information to ATC.

Garmin 420 GPS
My Mode S transponder interfaces with my Garmin 420 GPS to show traffic when information is available. I blogged about this here.

A Mode S transponder, which is what I have on my helicopter, is also capable of two-way communication with ATC radar. In certain radar coverage areas — primarily near Class Bravo and Class Charlie airspaces — a Mode S transponder receives traffic information from ATC. This information can then be plotted on compatible GPS equipment to create a simple traffic information system (TIS).

There are some other things about transponders that are interesting, including the fact that there are special squawk codes a pilot can use in certain emergency situations. And although the transponders were turned off on the 9/11 airliners, that didn’t make them invisible; it just made it impossible for ATC to definitively identify what they were.

What the Stuff You Should Know Guys Said

There’s no transcript available for the podcast, so I had to create one for the part that irked me. It was related to when the transponder is turned on and what the transponder is/does.

At 22:55, Josh has just described how the tower controller hands off the airplane to a departure controller.

Chuck: All right, so now we’re in the air, we are enroute. And you have to, if you’re a pilot, activate your transponder, which will basically make you the little blip on the radar. Very important thing to do.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: That’s how they can follow you as you move across the country. Or around the world.

Josh: [laughter]

Chuck: Right?

Josh: You are covering all bases on this episode.

Chuck: Well, the little blip is going to obviously represent your plane and it’s going to have your flight number, your altitude, your airspeed, and your destination.

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: And, uh, so where are we now?

Josh: It’s also how they find you if you go plummeting into the ocean or the earth.

Chuck: Sure. Is that the black box?

Josh: Uh, I think that’s probably a part of the transponder.

Chuck: Okay. Yeah.

Then they continue talking about what TRACON does.

What’s Wrong

There are a few things wrong with this.

First, a pilot usually turns on the aircraft’s transponder when he (or she, of course) powers up the rest of the avionics, including the radio. On my helicopter, in fact, the transponder turns itself on automatically when I turn on the “Master Battery” switch, which provides electrical power to the helicopter before I even start it.

Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation,” states:

3. Civil and military transponders should be turned to the “on” or normal altitude reporting position prior to moving on the airport surface to ensure the aircraft is visible to ATC surveillance systems. IN ALL CASES, WHILE IN CONTROLLED AIRSPACE EACH PILOT OPERATING AN AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH AN OPERABLE ATC TRANSPONDER MAINTAINED IN ACCORDANCE WITH 14 CFR SECTION 91.413 MUST OPERATE THE TRANSPONDER, INCLUDING MODE C IF INSTALLED, ON THE APPROPRIATE CODE OR AS ASSIGNED BY ATC. IN CLASS G AIRSPACE, THE TRANSPONDER SHOULD BE OPERATING WHILE AIRBORNE UNLESS OTHERWISE REQUESTED BY ATC.

(The FAA used those caps; I didn’t. I guess they wanted to shout about it.)

So the FAA says to turn on the transponder before you move the aircraft and keep it turned on during flight. The pilot does not wait until the flight is turned over to departure control to turn it on. It’s already on. In fact, it’s one of the ways ground control can track the airliner as it taxis between the runway and the gate.

Note: I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Phoenix TRACON and tower back March 2012. I got to see the radar screens and their blips firsthand. It’s interesting to note that there are no windows in the TRACON facility. It’s a dark room filled with computer screens. If you’ve seen the movie Pushing Tin, which was mentioned in the podcast, you’ll get the idea.

So although the podcast guys made a big deal over the fact that ground controllers are only one of two kinds of controllers that can use binoculars, the reality is that only ground controllers and tower controllers have windows to look out of. They’re the only ones close enough to the airplanes they guide to actually see them.

To say that activating the transponder “makes you the little blip on the radar” is misleading. Radar does not need a transponder to see aircraft traffic. After all, do you think fighter planes use transponders when they’re out on patrol or attack? If a transponder was required to put an aircraft on radar, there would be no need for stealth technology. Instead, radar works by bouncing radio waves off objects. It doesn’t need a transponder signal. The transponder simply makes it easier for ATC radar equipment to find targets and provides additional information to ATC.

While it’s true that a radar blip might include an airliner’s flight number, this information is not sent by the transponder. The transponder sends the discrete squawk code assigned to the airplane from its flight plan. The ATC computer equipment looks up the code in the flight plan database and provides the information from the flight plan on the blip.

Josh is partially right when he says that the blip is how they find you if you crash. The transponder helps keep the aircraft on radar. Radar tracks where you are. But there comes a point — especially in remote or mountainous terrain — when radar coverage is limited. If you are flying too low, you can literally fly “below the radar” and not be tracked. Helicopter pilots commonly fly this low — that’s why its so difficult to get flight following in certain areas. An airliner should never be that low, but if it’s having trouble, it may disappear off radar before an actual crash. So although a transponder and the resulting radar blip can help locate a downed aircraft, it doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be found. Think about Steve Fossett. His plane likely had a transponder, yet he wasn’t found for well over a year after his crash.

Chuck and Josh are completely wrong when they suggest that the black box is part of the transponder. It’s not. They’re two completely separate devices. The transponder sends live information to ATC as an aircraft moves around on the ground and in the sky. Most aircraft have them. The black box is a virtually indestructible device that records data during an aircraft’s operation and stores it in the event of a mishap. Only aircraft providing certain air transportation services have them. For example, although I have a transponder on my helicopter, I don’t have a black box.

It’s interesting to me that the guys got this so wrong when the How Stuff Works website actually has an article called “How Black Boxes Work.” Maybe they should have read it?

Other Things

In listening again to parts of the podcast — mostly to find the passage quoted above — I heard other things that weren’t quite right. That bugs me. It calls into question the rest of the podcast — the stuff I don’t already know for sure. It also calls into question other podcasts that these guys do. How factual are they?

When I’m listening to a podcast titled “Stuff You Should Know,” I expect it to be factual, not conjectural. If these guys are guessing about something, they should make it clearer that it’s a guess. To state that a pilot activates a transponder after the aircraft is enroute and handed off to departure control is an incorrect statement of fact. To say “I think” a transponder is part of the black box helps identify it as conjecture or a guess, but is there really any place for guesses in a podcast like this?

Or am I expecting too much?

List of Interviews Added to Site

Yes, I do promote my work.

Since one of my publishers seems unable to find instances of where I’ve made efforts to promote my work, I’ve added a list of recent radio and podcast appearances to this site. You can find the list at the bottom of the Digital Media on the new Appearances page. In most instances, you can click a link and hear the interview or podcast in question.

I want to mention here that I am available for interview or panel participation on radio shows and podcast episodes. Contact me if you have something in mind that you think I could contribute to.

I do actively promote my work as a writer. I don’t, however, feel comfortable with the level of self-promotion that some authors indulge in. If this results in lost work, so be it. I’m not prepared to sell myself like a cheap commodity to score points with a publisher who’s more concerned with self-promoted brand names than quality work.

Taming My Skeptical Side

And how a podcast helps guide me.

As a skeptic, I’m not likely to believe any outrageous claims without solid proof. Unfortunately, I’m surrounded by people with all kinds of weird beliefs.

I have friends and relatives who believe in things such as ghosts, astrology, psychic power, homeopathy, magnetic therapy, crystal power, and other tested yet unproven concepts. Over the years, as I’ve learned more and more about how unproven these ideas are, I’ve wanted to share my insight to “enlighten” these people in my life. All I’ve faced, however, is frustration. They cannot let go of these beliefs — even enough to see how “proofs” can be faked.

Strained Relationships

One example of this is psychic power. I know people who watch John Edward on television and visit psychics and swear that they’re proof of real psychic power. Yet it’s pretty obvious to me that all these “psychics” are doing is using cold or even hot reading techniques and relying on human nature to remember the “hits” and forget the “misses.” I try to convince these people that what they’re seeing is a scam, but they don’t believe me. In the end, frustrated and disappointed, I feel a great loss. My inability to reconcile my knowledge with their conflicting belief causes me to lose my connection with them. I can’t see them the same way anymore. It puts a huge dent in our relationship.

In the end, I simply begin avoiding the person with the wacky beliefs.

I should clarify here. There are a lot of things people believe in that I don’t. For example, God. I’m an atheist, but I understand why people believe in God and how it helps them in their daily life. If we don’t discuss it, their belief does not affect my relationship with them. The same goes for any other relatively harmless belief that they have but generally keep to themselves.

It’s only when a wacky belief becomes a regular conversation point that I start to back off. Some people want to “convert,” me, to make me a believer, too. But they’re unable to provide the proof I need to believe. I’m unable to convince them to look at things from my point of view. We’re deadlocked. If this becomes an issue each time we’re together, I’d rather just avoid them.

And yes, I realize that “wacky” is a strong and possibly derogatory term. But from my point of view, many of these beliefs are just that: wacky.

Realistic Expectations, Curiosity, and Caution

Actually SpeakingEnter the Actually Speaking podcast. This is a different kind of podcast for skeptics. Instead of preaching to the choir by providing us with the facts and scientific evidence we need to understand the reality of unproven beliefs, Actually Speaking helps us deal with non-skeptics in a way that won’t ruin our relationships. Podcaster Mike Meraz offers advice, not facts. And the advice is, on the whole, very good.

Want an example? Well, the frustration I feel when dealing with the wacky beliefs of my friends and family members is a perfect example of how my skepticism can damage my relationships with these people. My reaction — to just back off — isn’t doing anyone any good. Mike suggests, in Episode 2, to develop realistic expectations for discussing conflicting beliefs. My goal should not be to convince people that I’m right and they’re wrong but to try to guide them to the point of Episode 3, curiosity and caution. After all, does it really matter what they believe? Isn’t it more important that they consider looking at their beliefs from other points of view and not get hurt by decisions made based on faulty beliefs? (For example, using homeopathy to cure a real problem rather than visiting a physician and getting real medicine.)

I realized, after listening to these two episodes back-to-back, that I had actually taken this approach and had a very positive outcome. I thought I’d blog about it to share my experience with other skeptics.

The Dowser

The situation dealt with dowsing. According to Wikipedia, dowsing is:

…a type of divination employed in attempts to locate ground water, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites, and many other objects and materials, as well as so-called currents of earth radiation, without the use of scientific apparatus. Dowsing is also known as divining (especially in reference to interpretation of results), doodlebugging (in the US), or (when searching specifically for water) water finding or water witching.

A Y- or L-shaped twig or rod, called a dowsing rod, divining rod (Latin: virgula divina or baculus divinatorius) or witching rod is sometimes used during dowsing, although some dowsers use other equipment or no equipment at all.

In this situation, an acquaintance — we’ll call him Joe — claimed to be able to dowse gravesites to determine the gender of people buried. He uses this “skill” out in the desert to comb through pioneer cemeteries and other unmarked gravesites and report about people buried there.

A friend of mine — we’ll call him Bill — often writes articles about desert exploration for a Web site I manage, wickenburg-az.com. He went on an outing with Joe and documented Joe’s findings. He then submitted an article about their outing for inclusion on the Web site.

While the general content of the article was interesting and I was sure the site’s readers would enjoy it, Bill included a detailed listing of the gravesites Joe had dowsed, including the number of graves (all unmarked) and the genders of the people buried there. I had a problem with this. I don’t believe that dowsing can provide factual information like this.* Including an account of the dowsing and its results could undermine the otherwise fact-based account of their outing. It could make the site look like a supporter of unscientific beliefs or, to use a term that’s falling out of fashion among skeptics these days, woo.

Worse yet, the article could provide a source of information for serious researchers attempting to find gravesites of specific individuals. Was the female grave at the site the grave of so-and-so’s long-lost aunt Mabel? How could I allow the article to state that there was a female grave there at all if there was no real proof? After all, the only way to be sure there was a grave at all would be to dig it up — which was completely out of the question for so many reasons.

I was in a quandary. I wanted the article, but I didn’t want the dowsing information in it. Bill, I felt, was a reasonable person. I was surprised that he believed in the power of dowsing. So I asked him straight out if he thought the dowsing results were reliable. I told him that I hadn’t heard of any scientific proof of dowsing claims. I told him I was skeptical and didn’t want to report unreliable information.

Bill, to his credit, considered my words. He got on the Internet and started doing some research. He found some documents that seemed to support dowsing. But then he found better documents from better sources — scientific sources — that indicated that dowsing was unproven and likely not possible. He sent me links to everything he found. He seemed embarrassed that he had been taken in by Joe’s confidence in his abilities. He rewrote the article to remove the mention of dowsing. I published it on the site.

By encouraging Bill to be curious about dowsing, I’d helped him come to his own conclusions about dowsing. He made the changes I needed in his article to feel comfortable about publishing it. Our relationship didn’t suffer at all. In fact, Bill seemed genuinely glad that I’d questioned him about it and that he’d had an opportunity to learn more.

Exploring the Human Side of Skepticism

Actually Speaking has helped me see how the way I dealt with Bill’s belief was the right way to deal with it. I didn’t tell him he was wrong. I didn’t belittle or insult him. I treated him like the intelligent human being he is. I made him curious enough to do his own research and come to his own conclusion. This tells me that the advice is Actually Speaking is good, solid advice because it can work.

Are you a skeptic or critical thinker surrounded by people with wacky beliefs? If so, give Actually Speaking a try. I think it might help you with your relationships with these people.

——–

* Curious about dowsing? Check out this article in the James Randi Educational Foundation Library: “The Matter of Dowsing.” You can also read about an actual test in James Randi’s book, Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions.

Some Skeptic Resources on the Web

Where I get my doses of reality and reason.

July 9, 2009 was the opening day of The Amazing Meeting 7, an annual gathering of skeptics. This year (and last, too, I believe), they’re meeting in Las Vegas, NV. If I weren’t contracted to sit around and wait for it to rain here in central Washington state, I’d be there among them, breathing the fresh air of reason, meeting people who know how to think for themselves, and watching presentations that help me to understand more about the world around me.

The real world.

I realized that I was a skeptic about four years ago. I’d begun listening to podcasts and had stumbled upon Penn Jillette’s radio show podcast. He and his guests and callers spoke frankly about religion, helping me realize that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts on the topic. Somewhere along the line, the term “skeptic” must have been mentioned. I searched out other resources. Soon, I was listening to skeptic podcasts and subscribing to skeptic magazines. Penn’s radio show has since been discontinued, but I’ll cherish its memory — as weird as that might sound. After all, it triggered the dawn of my skepticism and every free-thinking thought that came afterwards.

A skeptic — in case you’re not familiar with the term as I use it here — is someone who does not believe in anything without evidence to support it. Religion, psychic power, homeopathy, ghosts, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster — these are all topics we’re not very likely to take at face value. We look at everything — or at least most things — with a skeptical eye, always thinking about the evidence that might prove it’s true. I found that the deeper I dug into the world of critical thinking, the more I really thought about the world around me.

It also made me a lot less tolerant when I encountered stupidity, but that’s something to discuss elsewhere.

Anyway, I can’t attend TAM7 in person, but I’ve found a way to attend it virtually, through the tweets of fellow tweeple online. If you’re a Twitter user and skeptic, you might consider following these folks:

@TAMLive
@briandunning
@dcolanduno
@Swoopy
@RichardWiseman
@Daniel_Loxton
@derekcbart
@southernskeptic
@scottsigler
@pennjillette
@MrTeller

If you’re not on Twitter, you might want to tune into some excellent Skeptic podcasts. These are the three I’m currently subscribed to:

  • Skepticality is probably my favorite skeptic podcast. Derek and Swoopy have a great casual style as they interview folks in the world of science and philosophy, and are able to share information in an enjoyable, approachable way. After a Skepticality interview, I feel as if I’ve not only learned something, but I’ve had fun doing it. This is the official podcast of Skeptic magazine, which I subscribed to until recently. (Long story what I can discuss elsewhere.) Each episode is an hour or longer in length, making it a good listen on a long car ride.
  • Skeptoid, by Brian Dunning is a different sort of podcast. Each episode is about 10 minutes long (although some go longer) and looks at the facts behind “pop phenomena.” Brian does his homework and presents each argument well, often making you wonder why you ever thought there was a shred of truth in some of the non-scientific claims. He tends to be a bit sarcastic at times, but the sarcasm often makes for an entertaining episode. Brian is not connected with any particular organization and appreciates contributions; a donation is a good way to get all back episides as MP3s on a CD so you can easily listen to an old episode or share it with a friend.
  • Point of Inquiry is the official podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Hosted by D.J. Grothe, it also uses an interview format. D.J.’s interview style can clearly be seen as “devil’s advocate,” as he often takes the opposite view of his subject, encouraging to explain or defend their views. I’m not a big fan for this kind of interview style, but fortunately, D.J. falls just short of overdoing it. I enjoy most episodes, but since I tend to listen to several in a row, I find that the somewhat lengthy and repetitive advertisements for the Center of Inquiry and its publications can get a bit tiresome. Still, I think this is one of the best out there.

This is my list, in celebration of TAM. Have Twittering skeptics to add to this list? Or skeptic podcasts you think I might enjoy? Please list them in the comments for this post.