“You Better Go to Raw Data”

People operating complex machines and systems–ships, aircraft, and nuclear power plants, for example–are often dependent on information that has been processed or filtered in some way. The same is true of people exercising their responsibilities as citizens in a large and complex society, inasmuch as they  cannot directly and personally observe most of the relevant facts and events.  Disasters that occur in complex physical systems can serve as a metaphor to help shed light on disasters–actual and potential–in the political sphere.

On June 9, 1995, the cruise ship Royal Majesty was on a routine voyage in good weather.  The vessel was equipped with GPS, which displayed latitude and longitude position…which the crew diligently plotted..and also drove a moving map overlaid on the radar scope.

Unfortunately, the information being displayed and plotted bore little resemblance to the actual reality.

As the gray sky turned black veil, the phosphorus-lit radar map with its neat lines and digital indication seemed clearer and more inviting than the dark world outside. As part of a sophisticated integrated bridge system, the radar map had everything–from a crisp radar picture, to ship position, buoy renderings, and up to the last bit of data anyone could want–until it seemed that the entire world lived and moved transparently, inside that little green screen. Using this compelling display, the second officer was piloting a phantom ship on an electronic lie, and nobody called the bluff.

The bluff was finally called by reality itself, at 10 PM, when the ship jerked to the left with a grinding noise.  It was hard aground on the Rose and Crown Shoal, and could not be backed off.

It was quickly determined that the cable to the GPS antenna had come loose, and the system was not actually obtaining the real, current positions. The captain ran to the LORAN unit, a completely separate electronic navigation system. The position accurately displayed on the LORAN differed from the displayed GPS position by 17 miles.

The GPS unit had in fact honestly disclosed its lack of current information: it did this by displaying the characters ‘DR’…for Dead Reckoning, ie, extrapolating the current course and speed..but the annotation appeared in small characters and was not noticed. The crew thought they were getting an actual portrayal of the current reality, rather than an estimate that would progressively become a guesstimate with the passage of time.

To use the term which has become common in media and political circles, the GPS and its associated display units were creating a convincing narrative…a narrative so convincing that no one, evidently, took the trouble to cross-check it with the LORAN, or to do a celestial fix.

How many American citizens live in a media and information environment which is as closed and as convincing as what the crew of the Royal Majesty was seeing on their bridge?  Consider how quickly overwhelming media narratives were put together concerning, for example, the Hunter Biden laptop or the murders of the women in Atlanta.  In most such cases, you could watch CNN, MSNBC, and some of the old-line tv networks, you could listen to NPR, you could look at the memes being circulated on social media–and they would all be telling you the same story, an overall narrative which for most people will be as consistent and as convincing as that phantom world displayed on the Royal Majesty‘s radar scope and plotted on the paper charts was that ship’s Second Officer.

As disasters go, the Royal Majesty affair was a fairly minor one: embarrassing and expensive, but no one was killed or injured.  Here’s a case which was much worse–the approach of a Delta Airlines flight into Boston Logan Airport, on July 31, 1973.

At 11:40:07, the Captain advised the First Officer, who was doing the flying for this approach:

You better go to raw data.  I don’t trust that thing.

“That thing” was a Flight Director, an instrument which displays the calculated actions needed to follow a desired flight path.  Both Captain and the FO had become concerned about indications on this instrument which didn’t seem to make sense.

It was too late.  25 seconds later, the plane slammed into the seawall. There were no survivors.

The NTSB determined that the Flight Director’s ‘mode’ switch was incorrectly set: while the Captain and the FO believed it was displaying the calculated actions required for the airplane to follow the Instrument Landing System radio beam down to the runway, it was actually doing no such thing.  “Raw data” refers to the display of the plane’s actual, physical vertical and horizontal deviation from where it should be on the ILS beam…and would have shown that the airplane was not where it needed to be.  The Raw Data was not, however, so prominently displayed on the instrument panel as were the Flight Director commands.

Convincing displays, convincing narratives, can be very dangerous.  New information tends to be absorbed into the overall picture.  When the navigating officer of the Royal Majesty observed the radar reflection of a buoy on his radar screen, and, shortly thereafter, the passage of a buoy was reported on the ship’s port side, it confirmed in his mind that it was the ‘BA’ buoy, which marks to entrance to the Boston traffic lanes…and the whole GPS-derived picture became even more convincing.  But it wasn’t really BA–it was actually the Asia Rip buoy, anchored to a sunken wreck, which marks the Rose and Crown Shoal.

In the political/media sphere, the misleading narratives that are convincingly presented are not the matter or mechanical or human error, they are a matter of human design.  Some of the people and organizations propagating these narratives know they are false, some would rather–for career or social reasons–not think about it too deeply, and some actually believe the narratives. It happens on both/all political sides, but happens a lot more, and more effectively, on the Left, because the Left/Woke dominance of media is so nearly complete.

The pilot and copilot of Flight 723 had only a matter of seconds to question and cross-check the ‘narrative’ that they were seeing on their Flight Director.  Citizens, operating in the political/media sphere, have less time pressure…but the time available is not infinite.  Multiple sources of information are more available than at any point in history–but the Narrative of the like-thinking media and its influence strategies is overwhelming, especially for people who don’t have a lot of time to follow political matters.  Confirmation bias, too, plays a strong role.

Will a sufficient number of people, metaphorically check the displayed GPS position against the LORAN, or check the Flight Director command bars against the raw localizer and glideslope data?  And will they do so before it is too late for recovery?

(More on the Royal Majesty incident at my post here.  Detail on the Delta Flight 723 accident is provided in the NTSB report.)

 

 

Worthwhile Reading

Vitaliy Katsenelson writes worthwhile content for those interested in investing, art, classical music, and philosophical thoughts about life in general.  See his recent post about coveting and envy.

Doggedness, canine and human.

A piece about skateboarding and flying, with thoughts from St-Exupery.

Speaking about flying, TxRed the Cat Rotator writes about some of her aerobatic experiences.

Projecting (simulated) 3D images onto your plate.

Doctors and state borders.

Worthwhile Reading, Viewing, and Listening

Smiling Victorians…a photo essay

A tour of the Atlanta Hartsfield air traffic control tower

Speaking of ATC…a controller at Boston Center and a Delta pilot on her frequency discover that her grandfather was the man who hired him, back in 1981.

The transistor:  a documentary from 1954.

Tonight being Burns Night, here’s a song I like from Robert Burns...musical setting by Ludwig Beethoven, oddly enough.  Some 19th-century musical entrepreneurship was involved in the Burns-Beethoven connection. Lyrics, including modern-English translation, here.

Think I’ll pass on the kilt and the haggis, though.

Comm Check

When the First World War broke out, a British cable ship set sail with orders to cut the German undersea cables.  Given the British control of the seas, the cables could not be repaired during the course of the war, and this led to a British dominance of communications with neutral countries–especially the United States.  While Germany was not totally cut off from the world–they had a powerful radio transmitter at Nauen–communication from the Allied Powers was more convenient and subject to British influence; war correspondents, for example, tended to file their reports from Britain.  In the opinion of many writers (here, for instance), this gave the Allied Powers a considerable advantage in propaganda.  (Also in message interception for purposes of espionage, of course)

Availability of communications is of great importance in conflicts of all kinds. “Congress can make a general, but only communications can make him a commander,” is how the American general Omar Bradley put it.

We have seen in recent how control of communications can influence political outcomes, with, for example, the playing down and outright banning of the Hunter Biden story perpetrated by both traditional and social media.  How many people would have voted differently had they been aware of this matter?  One survey suggests that the number would have been quite significant.

And is it beyond the realm of the possible that certain ‘tech’ and infrastructure companies might go beyond the blocking of political communications with which they disagree and…actively or passively…block government operational communications that they don’t like?  See this post:

The Department of Defense uses software created, delivered, and maintained by many of the same high-tech companies now engaged in shutting down online speech. If the titans of tech can pull the plug on public communications tools people have come to rely on, some observers fear, they might do the same to the Pentagon in response to a military action deemed unacceptable by San Franciscans.

Something along those lines already happened with Project Maven, a major Pentagon initiative using Google algorithms to identify drone targets. The software was well under way when, in 2018, thousands of Google’s workers protested their company becoming a defense contractor. 

Could companies, acting on their own opinions or in order to placate key groups of employees, really get away with refusing to supply urgently-needed capabilities to the government?  From the article:

The Hudson Institute’s Clark says that if a tech giant withdrew access to services it had agreed to provide to the military, it would likely have to pay penalties for breach of contract. Such fines might make little difference to the bottom line of Big Tech. But the loss of cloud capabilities in the middle of a conflict could be disastrous for warfighters.

During the Iraq War, the Swiss company Swatch refused to supply parts for the JDAM missile.  I don’t know whether litigation was filed by the DoD to recover damages. But the consequences of such refusals could well involve lives as well as money.

(Gregory Sanders, a fellow at the Defense-Industrial Initiaves Group) says the Pentagon could always invoke the Defense Production Act “if a company pulled out of a service provision in a crisis environment in a non-orderly manner.” As the Congressional Research Service puts it, the act “allows the President to require persons (including businesses and corporations)” to “prioritize and accept government contracts for materials and services.”  But that isn’t a guaranteed strategy for success. “The quality of work you get when compelling an objecting vendor wouldn’t necessarily be the best, so DoD wouldn’t want to invoke those authorities needlessly.”  It’s well-known that ‘working to rule’ can greatly slow things down in activities of all kinds; much more so, surely, where creative thinking is a big part of the work to be done.

H G Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come posits the emergence of the Air Dictatorship: global rule established by a technocratic group that begins with the imposition of a monopoly over global trade networks and especially control over the air.  Benevolent, rule, of course, as Wells saw it.

Are we in danger of de facto rule by a Communications Dictatorship, or at least a Communications Oligarchy?

 

Consistent Group Membership for Epidemic Control

This paper argues that having a mutually-consistent and reasonably small network of contacts can help in controlling coronavirus spread…for example, if a group of 7 people work together and also socialize together, they are better-off from a potential infection standpoint than if individuals in the group are socializing with different, and frequently changing, sets of people.

Somewhat related:  the Federal Aviation Administration is taking steps to limit the spread of coronavirus in air traffic control facilities:

Each air traffic control facility is establishing separate teams of controllers that will stay together throughout the duty week. Each crew will contain the same employees, limiting the possibility of cross-exposure to COVID-19 that would come through normal shift rotations. If a person on one team gets sick, the only people who would be exposed are the other people on that team.

So, presumably, if one member of a team gets sick, all the team members would go home until they can get tested and found coronavirus free, and a new team will be swapped in to support operational needs. Not sure how large these teams are: in a control tower for a medium-sized airport, a team might consist of all the people working on a particular shift, but for a large facility like Potomac Approach or Kansas City Center, I imagine that the teams must comprise only subsets of the total workforce; probably people who work in close proximity to one another.