Jul 15, 2014 I Miguel Romero

Red Pills of the Week: Scientific FUBARS, Disinformation Tweets & Space UFOs

Greetings, fellow Coppertops!

For your next assignment aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, you'll be required to investigate the case of an alleged miracle cure for HIV that failed to fulfill its promise; we will also study whether scientists experimenting with killer viruses are following proper precautions, and how the much-hyped Brain project in the EU is on the verge of collapse; we will then put on our tinfoil hats to determine whether alphabet-soup agencies are using social media to spread disinformation; finally we'll revisit one of the most important events in the last century -- the first Moon landing-- to ponder whether other eyes besides the millions on Earth following the mission on TV, were also keeping track of Apollo 11. After this mission is over I'll have to excuse myself since I'm bound to take a remedial course in Arithmetic; how else to explain my incredible blunder of last week, when I assumed that the Drake equation, which was conceived in 1961, was celebrating its 50th god-damned anniversary?! Oh well, like the Romans used to say, Errare Junkium Est...


The HIV Cure that Wasn't

HIV-infected H9 T cell

Let's just face it: We ALL make mistakes from time to time. In the case of my Red Pill FUBAR of last week, it just amounts to some personal embarrassment & a WTF moment for my 3 or 4 readers; but in the case of the Mississipi baby who had been publicly announced to be cured of HIV thanks to a new revolutionary treatment --a story we covered last March--the mistake amounts to a major disappointment in the medical world, along with years of treatment for the poor child.

Last Thursday it was announced that researchers found evidence of the dreaded virus in the body of the young child, who is now 4 years old; a revelation amounting to 'a punch in the gut' for Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The child has been put back into therapy.

“It’s obviously disappointing news,” says Daniel Kuritzkes, Chief of Infectious Diseases At Brigham & Woman’s Hospital.  ”There was great optimism and enthusiasm when the case was first brought to life-a-year-and-a-half ago. What it really tells us is how extraordinarily challenging it is to be able to say with any certainty that somebody who once had HIV infection has actually been definitively cured of the virus. We need better tests for knowing if the virus is still there and able to come back.”

Was the treatment a complete failure, then? Not necessarily, since the child was proven to be HIV-free for an unprecedented period of 2 whole years --the virus usually rebounds in a matter of weeks-- though it certainly puts a stop in the plans to replicate the experience with 450 world-wide clinical trials.

But it sure means we can't still claim victory in the war against AIDS.


Beware of Viruses, Both Natural & Artificial


The shadow of HIV has been looming over us for so long, chances are most of you have heard of it all your life. I remember when the AIDS paranoia started to spread in the mid 80's, just when I was starting to get interested in sex; as if we didn't have to worry about the Clap, Gonorrhea and getting the girl knocked up, now we had to deal with this mysterious threat that could actually kill you just for managing to score 3rd base. It was like waking up inside some slasher movie, in which horny kids ALWAYS got the ax first...

A funny thing happens when a threat remains in the air for too long, though: Sooner or later it becomes unimportant, not because it has been contained, but because people get used to it. Humans are infinitely malleable creatures, you see.

But even if AIDS doesn't seem so scary anymore, Nature is always seeking to keep us on our toes: Take for example the rising spread of this seemingly new viral threat, Chikunguya. Never heard of it? Well, me neither until last week, but chances are this somewhat ridiculous name will be mentioned A LOT in the years to come. This nasty virus is transmitted through mosquito bites and it's not actually lethal --it just makes you wish you were dead, which is why some people refer to it as the pain virus.

Most people infected with chikungunya virus will develop some symptoms.

Symptoms usually begin 3–7 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito.

The most common symptoms are fever and joint pain.

Other symptoms may include headache, muscle pain, joint swelling, or rash.

Chikungunya disease does not often result in death, but the symptoms can be severe and disabling.

Most patients feel better within a week. In some people, the joint pain may persist for months.

Chikunguya is usually reported in African nations, like Zimbabwe; but the first confirmed case of infection has been confirmed in Texas this week, from a patient who had recently traveled to the Caribbean. You wanted globalization, humanity? you've got it!

But if you're someone who is averse of innovations & more fond of 'the classics', don't worry: Not only have we not been able to eradicate Ebola, but even diseases that we thought to have gotten rid of could make an unexpected comeback --all thanks to human carelessness: Forgotten vials of smallpox dating from the 1950s, were recently found inside an unused storage room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Cue the X-Files music!

A government aircraft took the smallpox vials to CDC's high-containment facility in Atlanta on Monday, according to the CDC statement. Overnight genetic testing in a top-security lab confirmed that the vials did indeed contain smallpox, but CDC officials say they will need to do additional tests to find out whether the smallpox is viable or able to reproduce and spread. Testing could take up to two weeks. CDC scientists will destroy the smallpox samples after finishing the tests.

Forgetting old vials of smallpox may be considered reckless, but how do we judge the deliberate design of a new altered form of a deadly virus? American scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka has recently received a lot of backlash from his peers, for creating an enhanced strain of the H1N1 virus inside a laboratory without the proper level of safety conditions.

“The 2009 pandemic strain of influenza is studied in many laboratories across the world. It is easily isolated from anyone who gets sick with influenza virus during the flu season. The appropriate biosafety level for this virus is BSL-2,” Ms Moritz said.

However, leading experts in infectious diseases were amazed to discover that this work was carried out in a BSL-2 laboratory with only relatively minor precautions against accidental releases compared to the two highest levels of biosafety.

“That would be incredible if true because a modified virus that evades available protective immunity clearly mandates much greater biosafety,” said Professor David Relman of Stanford University in California, a member of the US’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

“If real, this work is irresponsible, and unduly places humanity at risk of death and illness. The apparent lack of common sense and insensitivity to our responsibility as scientists to do no harm, is striking. It would seem that this area of research is now an unregulated free for all,” Professor Relman said.

Endangering the whole human race... FOR SCIENCE.


The Many Headaches of the European Brain Project


Perhaps if we understood the human brain better, we'd know why even smart people like Yoshihiro Kawaoka get to make such reckless decisions. A year ago we discussed the Human Brain Project, a ginormous endeavor financed by the European Union intended to be the most comprehensive neuroscientific study of the brain, a goal akin to the Human Genome Project of previous decades.

But it seems not every neuroscientist is happy with the HBP's main goals & with the way its director, South African neuroscientist Henry Markram is allocating the 54 million euros the project has received from the EU. The dissenting scientists are very critical of Markram's intention to make a simulation of the human brain in a supercomputer, when there are still so much we don't understand about its basic structure; as a result of this, Markram's critics have signed & released an open letter demanding changes to the management & governance of the project (read: fire Markram):

Neuroscience advances our understanding of normal and pathological brain function, offering potentially enormous benefits to society. It is, therefore, critical to Europe. The Human Brain Project (HBP), sponsored by the European Commission (EC), was meant to forward this mission. However, due in great part to its narrow focus, it has been highly controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community and even within the consortium, resulting in on-going losses of members. The HBP is now scheduled for review and we wish to draw the attention of the EC to these problems. We believe the HBP is not a well conceived or implemented project and that it is ill suited to be the centerpiece of European neuroscience. We are particularly concerned about the plan to tie a substantial portion European member states’ neuroscience funding to the HBP through so-called ‘partnering projects’. We call for the EC to go beyond the strict requirements of the upcoming review, to demand transparency and accountability and, if necessary, change the structure of the HBP’s governance and supervision to correct their shortcomings. Failing that we call for the EC to redirect the HBP funding to smaller investigator-driven neuroscience grants. We stand fully behind a strong and united European neuroscience strategy and we pledge not to seek funding through HBP partnering projects that would compromise that mission.

The European Commission has acknowledged the concerns of the signers, but claims it is still "too early to draw conclusions on the success or failure of the project," given that it's only been operational for 9 months. The HBP has also issued a response promising more transparency in its management.

The HBP wants to galvanize the scientific community to take on the challenge of finding out what we know, what we can predict, and what we still need to measure. This is a proposal for a methodological paradigm shift, to combine our data to get more value out of what we already generate. It also comes with a cultural paradigm: be it to reconstruct and simulate a single synapse, neuron, brain region, whole brain or a disease, large teams of scientists, clinicians, and engineers need to work side-by-side on a single problem. It pushes all of us beyond what we are used to and are comfortable with. This is an essential state change that is needed to leverage everyone’s data and synthesize all our knowledge. If we do not begin such an effort, neuroscience will not be in a position to shape and exploit emerging supercomputing and big data technologies. The European Commission was forward-thinking to accept our proposal, and the spirit of the Flagship initiatives is to go far beyond what we would normally do.

This seems to be quite the blow for the Transhumanist movement, because no doubt a complete digital simulation of the human brain would seem as a huge step forward in the creation of A.I. But even if my suspicions are right, and Markram gets ousted as director of the HBP, it's quite likely he'd soon find another similar job in the private sector --working for Google, for example.


The Tweets of Spooks: UFO Disinformation?

U-2 Dragon Lady

It's commendable that the HBP will try to be more transparent. If only intelligence agencies followed that example; alas, using the excuse of 'national security' we usually find out about their activities after 30 or 50 years have passed --and that information might not be that trustworthy in the end...

Take for instance the tweet released by the CIA on July 2nd --BTW is it just me that finds it weird  (and creepy) that a spy agency is seeking to be popular in a social network like Twitter??-- that created a bit of a digital storm:


Embedded in the tweet was a PDF file title The CIA and the U2 Program, 1954-1974, a 272-page document detailing the now-famous high-altitude reconnaissance plane that proved crucial for observing strategic targets within the Soviet Union. Of those 272 pages, a small paragraph in page 72 with the headline U-2s, UFOs, and Operation Blue Book briefly explains how sometimes airline pilots or ground observers would see their spy plane. Because most commercial planes flew at an altitude or 10 to 20,000 feet, and the U-2 could reach 60,000 --something that was considered impossible back in those days-- and also due to the sun reflecting on the wings (thanks to its higher horizon) giving it a 'fiery look', those sightings would be mistaken for a UFO.

The Norway press was all-too-willing to give the CIA a free pass. On July 4 the newspaper The Local ran a story with the title Norway's UFO mystery of 1950s finally solved:

The CIA has revealed sightings of mysterious flying crafts travelling at high speeds with flashing lights were actually test flights of US military aircraft.

Top secret U2 spy planes flying at 18,000 metres created the phenomena and the CIA recently posted on their Twitter account, reports Aftenposten newspaper, saying: "Do you remember the reports of unusual activity in the sky in the 50's? That was us."

U2s flew at higher altitudes, way above most passenger planes and military aircraft. When the sun set below the horizon the U2s were still high enough to reflect its rays, and other pilots saw them as bright, silvery objects in the night sky, the CIA explained.

The official explanation was kept secret to avoid the Soviets learning of US military intentions during the Cold War.

One little Tweet seems to be all its needed to close an entire chapter of UFO sightings. Never mind that perhaps some of those reports described objects performing maneuvers impossible to achieve by the U2, or any conventional aircraft for that matter. Never mind also that 'ghost rockets' reported in Scandinavia date back to 1946 --way before the age of the U-2!-- but no, it's all been solved and now you can forget about those silly flying saucers.

But getting back to the CIA pdf file, the most interesting thing about it is the mention of the famous Blue Book project launched by the Air Force to 'investigate' UFOs:

Not only did the airline pilots report their sightings to air-traffic controllers, but they and ground-based observers also wrote letters to the Air Force unit at Wright Air Development Command in Dayton charged with investigating [UFOs]. This, in turn, led to the Air Force's Operation Blue Book. Based at Wright-Patterson, the operation collected all reports of UFO sightings. Air Force investigators then attempted to explain such sightings by linking them to natural phenomena [emphasis mine]. Blue Book investigators regularly called on the Agency's Project Staff in Washington to check reported UFO sightings against U-2 flight logs. This enabled the investigators to eliminate the majority of UFO reports, although they could not reveal to the letter writers the true cause of the UFO sightings [emphasis mine]. U-2 and later OXCART flights accounted for more than one-half of all UFO reports during the late 1950s and mos of the 1960s.

There you have it folks: The CIA is publicly admitting that project Blue Book was a bunch of horse-shit, intended not only to downplay most UFO sightings as misidentifications or trivial phenomena, but also LIE to the American public whenever their sighting compromised secret programs.

But they're totally coming clean with us this time... right?

Let's face it though: There's every reason to believe that a significant percentage of UFO reports are not otherworldly objects, but secret experimental craft. And if the 1950s the CIA had something the public believed to be impossible --a plane capable of reaching 60,000 feet in height-- just imagine the things the might have today! To give you a hint, just take a look at these concept videos released by BAE Systems as a sort of 'wish-list' of the avionics technology they wish to see developed by the year 2040:


Being a student of UFOloy has never been easier. And it's about to get a lot harder.


Aldrin's AMA: Downplaying the Apollo 11 UFO


Keeping with the UFO topic, 5 days ago legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin recently participated in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit, as a way to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. A strong proponent of planetary colonization, Aldrin used the AMA to express how the 1st humans to set foot on Mars shouldn't be tourists, but settlers:

“I have considered whether a landing on Mars could be done by the private sector. It conflicts with my very strong idea, concept, conviction, that the first human beings to land on Mars should not come back to Earth. They should be the beginning of a build-up of a colony / settlement, I call it a 'permanence'.

"A settlement you can visit once or twice, come back, and then decide you want to settle. Same with a colony. But you want it to be permanent from the get-go, from the very first. I know that many people don't feel that that should be done. Some people even consider it distinctly a suicide mission. Not me! Not at all. Because we will plan, we will construct from the moon of Mars, over a period of six to seven years, the landing of different objects at the landing site that will be brought together to form a complete Mars habitat and laboratory, similar to what has been done at the moon.

"Tourism trips to Mars and back are just not the appropriate way for human beings from Earth – to have an individual company, no matter how smart, send people to mars and bring them back, it is very very expensive. It delays the obtaining of permanence, internationally.”

Mars ONE exploiting Buzz Aldrin's remarks as 'endorsement' in 3... 2... 1...

Brainstorming about Mars colonies is all well & good; but as a Fortean, I was more interested to see if any Reddit members would have the balls to inquire about Aldrin's previous statements about an alleged UFO sighting while he & his crew members were en route to the Moon, with all the eyes of the world watching them:


Sure enough, a Redditor rose to the challenge!

[–]newbie12q 723 points 5 days ago

Do you believe in aliens and what are the sightings you saw aboard Apollo 11?

[–]BuzzAldrinHere[S] 1434 points 5 days ago

On Apollo 11 in route to the Moon, I observed a light out the window that appeared to be moving alongside us. There were many explanations of what that could be, other than another spacecraft from another country or another world - it was either the rocket we had separated from, or the 4 panels that moved away when we extracted the lander from the rocket and we were nose to nose with the two spacecraft. So in the close vicinity, moving away, were 4 panels. And i feel absolutely convinced that we were looking at the sun reflected off of one of these panels. Which one? I don't know. So technically, the definition could be "unidentified."

We well understood exactly what that was. And when we returned, we debriefed and explained exactly what we had observed. And I felt that this had been distributed to the outside world, the outside audience, and apparently it wasn't, and so many years later, I had the time in an interview to disclose these observations, on another country's television network. And the UFO people in the United States were very very angry with me, that i had not given them the information. It was not an alien. Extraordinary observations require extraordinary evidence. That's what Carl Sagan said. There may be aliens in our Milky Way galaxy, and there are billions of other galaxies. The probability is almost CERTAIN that there is life somewhere in space. It was not that remarkable, that special, that unusual, that life here on earth evolved gradually, slowly, to where we are today.

But the distances involved in where some evidence of life may be, they may be hundreds of light years away.


ad012 570x474
The left drawing shows the 4 panels Aldrin considers to be the answer to the Apollo 11 mystery. Do those look L-shaped to you?

Most of the media seem to be very satisfied with this explanation, but I wasn't. More than an explanation, it felt like Aldrin was 'downplaying' the event, even though he now says his interview in the documentary embedded above took his statement out of context --which might well be the case, I admit-- and yet he himself should admit that in the interview he stated that neither he or his crew members were able to identify the object.

In the interview Aldrin claims the Apollo 11 crew was hesitant about blurting out to Mission Control their observation of the object, for fear their words would be misinterpreted. Here what appears to be adequate caution could also be seen as foolhardiness from these highly-trained men expected not to do anything what would jeopardize their mission; deciding on their own not to report their observations to Houston could be considered such a jeopardy, because if it wasn't 1 of the 4 discarded panels, then it could have been a part of the craft that had accidentally come off. The lesson of Apollo 13, which would happen 1 year later, is as clear as it can be: Withholding information during a space mission could be a fatal mistake.

A serendipitous event occurred not long after Aldrin's AMA, Alan Boyle wrote an article about the book Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight, written by senior space correspondent for NBC Jay Barbree, who also happened to be one of Armstrong's closest friends. It is Barbree who adds yet another twist to the mystery of the Apollo 11 UFO.

UFO mystery, solved at last?

Barbree does present a new take on a longstanding Apollo 11 mystery: a bright object that the astronauts saw in space while they were heading toward the moon. The report sparked decades' worth of UFO speculation — and just this week, Armstrong's crewmate Buzz Aldrin said the object was probably a spent rocket stage or a discarded panel from the lunar module.

In the book, Barbree says he was told by a confidential source that what the astronauts saw was the glint of sunlight from a top-secret spy satellite that was tumbling out of control.

"The only UFO Apollo 11's astronauts were seeing as Neil had suspected had been built here on Earth — one they could not identify," Barbree writes, "and when I told him, he laughed and said, 'Well, what the hell, isn't that what a UFO is — an unidentified flying object?'"

A secret satellite instead of a discarded panel. Could this be the answer to the mystery? Aldrin's decision to stick to the panel theory could mean only 2 things: Either the Apollo crew were considered not to have enough clearance to be briefed about the existence of such a satellite, even after their successful return to Earth --something that is not within the realm of possibility, given what we discussed earlier about the CIA-- OR they were indeed informed, but asked to keep the secret for reasons of national security --something that is not entirely implausible, especially if you're a Michael Bay fan...


The main problem with Barbree's explanation of course, is that since he's not revealed the name of his anonymous source, there's no way to confirm his story. And there's also other thing that doesn't sit well with me: Remember the first seconds of the UFO documentary clip? It states the sighting occurred during the 2nd day, when Apollo 11 was 200,000 miles away from Earth. So that brings up the inevitable question: Just how CLOSE was the object from the Apollo capsule that the astronauts were able to observe it, and give the impression it was 'flying alongside them'?

If the Moon were at the same distance as the ISS 2 570x317
Distance between the Earth & the Moon

According to Wikipedia, "Approximately 500 operational satellites are in low-Earth orbit, 50 are in medium-Earth orbit (at 20,000 km), the rest are in geostationary orbit (at 36,000 km);" which means Barbree's spy satellite was waaaay farther than any conventional satellite in existence. Again, that seems to leave us with 2 options:

  • The CIA or NSA is/was in possession of a satellite with an incredible eccentric orbit (but why would they need that?)
  • If the satellite was 'tumbling out of control' as Barbree's source told him, then what was capable of knocking it out of its orbit, and give it escape velocity out of the Earth's gravitational influence?

I don't pretend to know more than these space experts. I'm just a simple Fortean who knows that he hasn't all the answers --but is trying to raise the right questions just the same.

Until next time, this is RPJ jacking out. Remember to question everything --especially your own assumptions.

Miguel Romero

Miguel Romero a.k.a. Red Pill Junkie is a cartoonist and fortean blogger who writes at Mysterious Universe

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