Monthly Archives: February 2012

The entertainment of conspiracy theories (and the people who believe them)

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Shhhh…. Don’t tell anyone about this!  THEY might find out!

In my adventures around New Zealand, I met an inordinate number of people who believe in conspiracy theories surrounding Sept 11th. And when I say this, I don’t mean people who believe that “well, maybe the US Government knew something, or maybe their not telling us everything, but I think its basically what people know”. I mean people who think that the Illuminati specially designed the trade towers to collapse at a predetermined time.

Ok, maybe not that extreme, but the two people I’m going to talk atebout were damn close… and the truly scary part is that they were both otherwise quite intelligent and successful people, even international businessmen in one case. And yet, for some reason, they felt the need to reach out for “greater meaning” and “hidden agenda” in events, both times ignoring accepted facts and scientific evidence in favor of the belief that the vast majority of people are out to get us.

 

First up is a young woman about the same age as me, that I met on a long bus ride in the South Island. Her and I were sitting next to each other, and had started chatting about pretty much whatever came to mind. After about an hour of basic “getting to know you” conversation she dropped the bomb – “what do you, as an American, think of September 11th?” My reply, as always, was couched in a veil of ambiguity that I’ve learned to keep up when discussing sensitive subjects with people I don’t really know. As I expected, she took my vague reply to mean that I agreed exactly with what she thought, and so she leapt headfirst into a rant about how “the science just doesn’t add up” as to how the Tower’s could fall like that.

Really. Seriously. She was trying to convince an engineer that the science didn’t add up. Don’t get me wrong – I haven’t done any in-depth stress/strain analysis of the World Trade Towers, and I haven’t run any Finite Element Analysis of the impact forces on the super-structure. But an important part of being an Engineer is being able to understand information, and to verify the results of others. I’ve heard the theories that “Jet fuel doesn’t burn hot enough to melt steel”, and that “the towers should have fallen over if they were hit, right?”, and I’ve done enough basic research to understand that they don’t hold up. First – Steel doesn’t have to melt in order to weaken to the point that it will collapse. Metal is like that, it doesn’t need to be liquid for it to be useless as a support structure. And that’s just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to a discussion of why those thoughts are incorrect.

But, not surprisingly, when I told her about this, she worked over it with a simple “well, thats what they want you to think”. Right there, is what I cannot understand. “So, what you’re trying to say, is that hundreds of years of modern engineering, not to mention thousands of years of science, have been fabricated simply to trick the American public?”

 

A second example comes from a very successful young entrepeneur that I met while exploring the Northern Island of New Zealand. (See what I did there? One example from each Island. I’m good like that) He ran an export business that shipped kiwi products over to Europe, and at age 28 had amassed a very impressive lifestyle that I honestly would very much enjoy myself. However, the same scene repeated itself again here; an hour or so of “getting to know you”, followed by the dreaded question of “so as an American, what do you think of the wars in Afganistan and Iraq?”.

/Rant-On

Right here I’ll mention something else that I’ve learned on my travels – I am an “American”, its true. But so are Canadians, Mexicans, Venezuelans, and Bolivians. The United States is NOT the only country in America, and its honestly insulting to every other country when you assume “American” only means “people from the United States”. I know this is strange, a Politically-correct rant from someone like me, but I find statements that marginalize entire civilizations in preference for more “European” nations to be a bit small-minded.

/Rant-Off

As I always do, I zigged and zagged, dodging and weaving in my reply enough that he was confident that I was on his side… or at least confident enough to drop the real bomb of information into my uneducated skull – Osama Bin Laden hadn’t planned or helped with Sept 11th, and he had actually denounced the attack as unethical. And that, when he released a video saying that the Arabic world and the Western world should ally, the United States hid it, and refused to accept his offer to help find the real perpetrators.

I questioned the sanity behind this statement, as politiely as I could, and requested some sort of verification as to its authenticity. “Ohh man, just give me 5min on Google and I’ll show it to you. I saw it on this one news site, or maybe it was Wikipedia…” And then he proceeded to start rocking the Google searches, expecting any moment to be rewarded with a BBC article explaining how George W Bush himself had actually installed computers in the planes that hit the trade towers. He never found anything of course, but this lack of evidence only further stoked the furnace of his conviction, “It’s gone because THEY don’t want you to know about it!”

I honestly don’t know why this belief in grand conspiracies annoys me so much. Maybe its the ignoring of the basic scientific method, or maybe its that they always make the deaths of so many innocent people seem like simple moves in a grand chess game. Perhaps it’s because these people always use these conspiracies as a reason why life isn’t better. They feel that a grand scheme is in place to make the world a bad place, and to keep the normal people down… and if there is a grand scheme, it’s not their fault that the world is in such sad shape.

But I think that my problem, at the heart, may come from something akin to jealousy – I am honestly somewhat envious of peoples ability to believe in their opinion so strongly that no science, no lack of evidence and no expert can sway them from their belief. Its horrifying, at some level, that I want to be able to ignore the world around me as well as they can. But I can’t, I can’t even begin to pretend that I understand the real way that the world works. And I think that’s part of being human, the ability to admit that we don’t understand everything, and to accept that there will be things that aren’t controlled by some outside force. That there is no grand scheme in place for humanity, and that we only survive by the barest strands of luck and fate.

The Great North-Island Adventure: A New Zealand Road Trip – Day 3

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It’s finally time – to pack up my bag again and move on from New Zealand. What calls me onward is not a new country, but instead a return to a home that I haven’t seen in months. I would enjoy staying in New Zealand for another six months, but unfortunately a lack of good job options and my non-infinite bank accounts have conspired together, and the clearest course for me is to return home to rest and rebuild my finances before starting out again on another world trip.

For now, what that means is that I am taking my leave of Christchurch. While the city has been amazing to me, I haven’t had the time to see anything of the North Island as of yet, and so I’ve planned out a road trip in order to remedy this.

The dawn broke… and then shattered into a thousand droplets that rained down onto my tent. So I guess the bugstorm did help me out a bit, in the end, since they forced me into setting up my tent versus simply laying out a sleeping pad. That realization didn’t make getting out of the tent any easier though, and it took me nearly half an hour to finally motivate myself enough to brave the rainstorm.

Once I did leave the tent, I found myself in a place that looked a bit like what I had seen the night before – the fog was thick over the road, the rain was drizzling down (not nearly as bad as it had seemed while inside the tent), and everything was coated in a thick layer of “eww, I want to go back to sleep!” Thankfully all of the sandflys that had infested the car the night before seemed to have died, or at least disappeared, and so I was able to stuff my sleeping back back into my backpack without any interference from small flying insects. I didn’t end up packing the tent up though, opting instead of just let it sit in the back seat and hopefully dry out a bit before I got into Auckland that night.

And so, back onto the road I went. The morning wasn’t really much different from the night before, if we’re being honest, except for the possibility of the landscape being even more creepy in the daylight. The sun hadn’t fully broken the clouds and fog by the time I started off again, and so my total visibility was just a few hundred meters. This combined with two other facts to convince me that we, as a planet, were being invaded my alien war-robots: I was driving under power lines, and the fog was still thick around the hills. Why did that convince me of an alien invasion? On the side of the road all that I could make out was the vague shape of hills rolling by, each topped with a large bipedal metal creatures standing guard like great sentinels.

(Ed Note: if you weren’t sure, Ben means that the Electrical line towers were blanketed in fog just enough to look line alien robots on top of the hills that he was driving by)

As the morning wore on, the fog did slowly lift off of the landscape, and I got to see more of the reason why people love New Zealand – the countryside is amazing. The hills and rock outcroppings slowly rolled by as I drove, and I started to notice a strange thing… New Zealand driving distances seem to be off; either that, or the speedometer on the car I was driving was significantly off. I suspect the latter, since its was a rental car, but either way the distance that I was traveling did not pass nearly as quickly as my speed would lead one to expect, and I spent a significantly longer time driving that I expected.

After driving for a few hours I was finally wide awake, just in time to arrive at the town of Taupo. Taupo’s a small touristy town on the edge of the aptly named “Lake Taupo”. What makes the area special are the geothermal vents around the area, and the hotsprings that they feed. As such, my first goal after I parked the car was to figure out where some hotsprings were, so that I could relax in the natural sauna of New Zealand. The i-Site sent me in the right direction, and after a short walk I was relaxing and soaking in a small pool at the side of a large river.

The pool was fed by a stream running out of the hills, in a little waterfall at the far end of the pool. From here, nearly-boiling water heated the pool up, and cold water from the adjacent river helped to regulate the temperature of the pool to a quite lovely level. I wasn’t alone in the pool of course, but thankfully I seem to have a fairly high tolerance to heat, and so I was able to have a small corner all to myself. And thus I spent nearly an hour slowly cooking myself in the pool – sitting in the shade of a tree, my back against a warm rock and the hot stream falling right next to me as I read my book.

On the way back I explored the hot springs park for a quick bit, wanting to stretch out my boiled muscles a bit before sitting back down in the car for the last leg of my trip. I found a thing called a “confidence course”, which appeared to be an amazingly fun obstacle course consisting of 15 or so stations that incorporate strength, climbing, and generally a fear of heights. Pretty much perfectly my thing, and I think I’d like to set one up somewhere, and use it as a timed full-body workout.

Unfortunately I did have to push onwards though, since while I was soaking I had received a few text messages confirming everything about the place I was going to be Couch Surfing for the first few days of my stay in Auckland. First though, I stopped into town and hunted myself down some lunch – Its strange, but until coming to New Zealand I almost never ate sushi, and now I find myself eating it nearly constantly. I don’t know if its just a more integral part of Kiwi culture, sushi shops are more prevalent, or just that Boston doesn’t have many good places to get sushi, but either way I definitely enjoy it, and think that I’ll start making some myself when I get back to the States.

After the above lunch of Sushi and mocha (mocha is the greatest drink ever, FYI) I got back into the car and wandered off onto the main road. It was beautiful, the road was simple, and it was boring. Thats really all there is to say about it – too much of a good thing means that the good thing becomes normal, and normal things start to get boring.

My one distraction on the road from Taupo to Auckland was an encounter with some roadwork. Not a good distraction, you would think – not so for me. You see, I was stuck behind a bus. A bus full of grade-school boys. They looked back, saw me, and flipped me off. In return, I made a funny face straight out of Calvin and Hobbes. They responded in kind, and after less than 30s the entire back window of the bus was full of kids making faces and doing crazy dances while we waiting for the traffic cop to let us pass through. It actually got to the point that I ran out of funny faces to make, had worked through my inventory of horrible disco dance moves, and had started into random fencing moves with my pen… yes. I am a mature man who has a degree in Engineering and has worked for a Top-50 company. But that doesn’t mean I have to act it 😛

What else is there to say of my Great North Island roadtrip? Nothing, to be honest. I arrive in Auckland right when I planned (for once), and me and my Couch Surfing hosts relaxed, chatted, ate some dinner and got to know each other over a glass of wine that I brought as a “thank you for hosting me” present. It was a simple night, where our class was completely at odds with my earlier face-making escapades. Its the dichotomy of my life that I love so much – getting to be completely immature and rediculous one minute, and then sit in an extremely high-class loft apartment drinking wine and discussing international economics the next.

The Great North-Island Adventure: A New Zealand Road Trip – Day 2

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It’s finally time – to pack up my bag again and move on from New Zealand. What calls me onward is not a new country, but instead a return to a home that I haven’t seen in months. I would enjoy staying in New Zealand for another six months, but unfortunately a lack of good job options and my non-infinite bank accounts have conspired together, and the clearest course for me is to return home to rest and rebuild my finances before starting out again on another world trip.

For now, what that means is that I am taking my leave of Christchurch. While the city has been amazing to me, I haven’t had the time to see anything of the North Island as of yet, and so I’ve planned out a road trip in order to remedy this.

Day 2

Drizzle… why does it always have to drizzle and spit when I try to sleep out under the stars? Seriously, I love the idea of sleeping out without a tent or anything, but its starting to get silly how often it rains on me just enough to be annoying. I actually ended up moving into the car to sleep off the final bits of the morning when the rain started coming down enough to worry me, which wasn’t nearly as cramped as I expected it to be… but still not anywhere near as comfortable as the nice soft grass I had been in earlier.

After a bit of stretching and popping of joints, I finally roused myself for action. After paying for the campsite I took to the road nearly immediately, not wanting to waste any time that I could be spending exploring the awesome city of Wellington. I had gotten more than a few recommendations on things I should see and places I should go, and so after a quick trip to the i-site to get a city map I started off to find myself something delicious to eat for breakfast/lunch.

And what food there was to be had… Wellington reminds me of the artists section of New York City, in that it’s full of neat creativity and amazing small coffee and lunch shops. While wandering around I saw some amazing murals and art installations, but I think what caught my mind more was the simple Feel of the city; the fact that creativity and invention was simply in the air surrounding you. Forgive my hyperbole; I know that sounds corny, but its the best way to describe what walking around Wellington actually felt like, without actually taking someone there.

After a rather nice little lunch of Nachos (Ed Note: Finally a city with actual fake-Mexican food!) I moved on the the national museum – Te Papa. The outside of the museum was impressive, to say the least, but inside it actually reminded me a huge amount of the Museum of Science back in Boston – A large open center lead out to each of the main exhibits, with amazing shapes and lights peaking out from each of the exhibit halls. My main goal for the museum was to check out two of the biggest shows that Te Papa’s known for – its Colossal Squid and its Earthquake / Maori history.

The squid itself was gigantic and more than a bit intimidating, though it was quite different from the giant squid that I’d seen in the Smithsonian in Washington DC… Colossal Squid are the heaviest squid in the world (that we know of), but Giant Squid are the longest. A small difference it seems, but it means that the Colossal squid is nearly a meter in diameter, ten meters long, and weighing in at nearly 500 kg (over 1100lbs). However, a Giant Squid is nearly 20meters long, while only weighing in at 275kg (600lbs). And yes, I do feel that this information is quite relevant to my roadtrip to Auckland.

The Earthquake and Maori history section of the museum was quite interesting as well, but didn’t really have anything that I hadn’t seen before, so I worked my way through it fairly quickly, wanting to head onwards to my next stop in Wellington – The Weta Cave! Weta is the group that does props and special effects for many of the biggest Holywood movies – notably Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia. Since so many people kept coming to their complex asking for tours, the folks at Weta put together “the cave”, or a place to showcase some of their best works and show a short film about what they’ve done and how they do it. I got to see the original statue of Lurtz (the Uruk-Hai Captain from Lord of the Rings), Narsil in its broken state, and many other props from many other movies… And even a few video games as well. The video that they showed was quite interesting as well, and did a great job of showcasing the extent of Weta’s work, and some of the New Zealand film industry too.

After the Weta Cave, I jumped back into the car and got on the highway again, heading up towards the town of Taupo. Most of the way up the highway was just what I had expected – small winding roads traveling through amazing scenery and landscapes. I did have a few fun moments and frightening situations though – I took a turnoff to explore the “Adrenaline Forest”, what I thought was a cool woodland that I could check out. Not so – it was a kids camp. Disappointment.

The rest of the drive was quick and simple, but it took forever. For every kilometer that I had to go, it seemed that I had to drive three or four, and I found myself averaging just about 30kpm… or just about 17mph. On a main highway. I seriously do not understand how that held true, but this evening was just not happening for me. My original plan had been to camp out in Taupo so that I could hit the thermal pools that night, or maybe early in the morning. When 10:00 rolled around and I had been tearing away at the last 100km for an hour, I finally gave up on the fight and pulled off at a picnic spot to set up camp.

At first, it seemed like a near-perfect spot to set up my sleeping pad and just lay out in my sleeping bag. But then the bugs started showing up. I seriously don’t know where they came from, or what they eat when I’m not around, but I found thousands of sandflys literally coating my headlamp and the light in the car. It became so bad that I could barely see the light from the car, there were so many bugs. But it was nearly 11:00 at this point, so I set up the tent in the dark, and somehow was able to keep it out of the bug-radar until I was snugly inside with the screen zipped up and my sleeping bag snuggly around my neck.