Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Stel Pavlou is an Idiot

Recently. I had the extreme displeasure of reading Stel Pavlou’s "Decipher". [1] Pavlou manages to make Dan Brown look like an intelligent, educated adult who did his research.

The book does not start off well. One of the first scenes involves the main character, Richard Scott, a professor of religious studies, shock an audience of academics by announcing that he doesn’t believe that Jesus was a historical figure. Maybe in Pavlou’s world that's a shocking statement but not in modern academia.[2] But it is worse than that. The current President, is a religious Christian who has publicly “questioned” Scott’s work. This is apparently evidence that there’s a lack of religious freedom in the United States. Stel, Presidents are allowed to give their opinions about things as individuals. Really. That’s ok.

And Pavlou isn’t just ignorant about major areas of academia. In another scene early in the book he describes how GPS works. Only the GPS in his universe has little to do with how GPS actually works. “GPS kept track of every vehicle linked into its network of satellites. Those vehicles could access all kinds of navigational data, including pinpointing all the other vehicles plugged into it, anywhere on earth, at any given time…Red Osprey had the distinct advantage … in that, thanks to some bright young computer programmer, it didn’t actually register on any GPS system. At a distance, Red Osprey was to all intents and purposes invisible.” The description of GPS seems to be a combination of radar, GPS and the voices in Pavlou’s head.

Let’s have quick refresher on how GPS actually works and what it actually does. The main component of GPS is a system of satellites (Pavlou managed to get this single detail correct) orbiting about 20,000 km up. So the satellites are not geostationary but are not so far down as to be in low earth orbit. The GPS satellites have very precise clocks and they continually send out a signal containing their current time.[3] Now, on the ground there are receivers. Receivers do not send any information to the satellites. They receive. Hence the name “receivers”, ok, Stel? A receiver can do one thing: find my position. Here’s how it works: The receiver compares the signals it gets from the different satellites. Since some satellites are farther away, their signals take longer to reach the receiver (since the speed of light is finite). Thus, they give slightly out different current times. The receiver can use these discrepancies to estimate how far away it is from each satellite. Then, using simple geometry, the receiver can figure out its actual position. That’s it.

GPS doesn’t tell you where anyone else is; the technology that does that is radar. Radar bounces radio signals off of objects and times the signals return time to estimate distance of objects. Stealth objects (generally ships and boats) do exist. They don’t work by “bright young computer programmers.” Instead they use special materials that absorb radio waves and special shapes which make sure that the reflected radio waves don’t go in the direction they came from. There's no technology that allows you to connect to a network of any sort to see where everyone is.

The book only gets worse when one learns about the general plot: Atlantis exists and was designed as part of a sophisticated system by an advanced civilization to protect against a large solar flare that occurs every 12,000 years. The civilization was trying to build the system before the flare destroyed it but failed. Their survivors completed the system and then left clues buried in the world’s different religions about how to activate the system at the desired time. The system includes Stonehenge, the pyramids at Giza, and many other places. Of course, the heroes get to Atlantis in time (which is apparently buried in Antarctica) and managed to protect the Earth while the solar flare erupts.

I’m not going to discuss in detail how if anything like this were remotely true we’d see genetic bottlenecks for pretty much every species dating back to 12,000 years ago and how we’d see signs of recent extreme heat exposure on Mars and elsewhere. I don’t need to do that because there’s an even more basic problem with the ending. Pavlou tells us that “for the first time in 12,000 years the dark side of the moon was completely illuminated.” I'm sorry Stel. There is no dark side of the moon as you would know if you knew basic astronomy. There’s a far side but it is lit half the time just the like close side.

There are many other problems with this book but I'm not going to bother listing them all. Of all the errors in the book the description of GPS is the most damning. One can argue that not knowing basic astronomy isn't going to hurt you. Now, this is a bad argument because if you are going to write something you no longer have an excuse for your ignorance. But I'm genuinely puzzled by how Stel could have such deep misunderstandings of how GPS works. This waste of paper was published in 2001 by which time GPS was already a common technology. So in 2001, Stel was spouting nonsense about a technology already in common use.

This is in some ways more disturbing than Modern Geocentrism . There we are dealing with isolated fanatics. This waste of paper was published by a major publishing company and sold in major bookstores. Enough of this drivel. Stel, please try to get a real job. Flip burgers. Or pump gas. Whatever you do, please stop killing our brain cells.

[1] Ok I did enjoy the book but primarily out of intellectual masochism.

[2] Disclaimer: I think that Jesus was more likely than not a historical figure.

[3] There’s some other data sent out in the signal including the approximate position of the satellite but this isn’t important for our purposes.


John said...

His premise reminded me of (and might have been borrowed from) "Inconstant Moon," a short story by Larry Niven (wikipedia link). I rather enjoyed it when I read it several years back.

This is sci-fi right? Certainly you could have a system where all GPS units all informed a central server of their location. For instance a GPS enabled cell phone I believe can be set to tell 911 where you are and non-GPS ones will guess based on tower locations (This of course depends heavily on your 911 provider's infrastructure).

Joshua said...


I've read Inconstant Moon hadn't thought about the connection. That's a good point.

As to the GPS while that's an interesting idea if one were to read the complete section on GPS it seems he more or less thinks that the system always worked that way. Moreover, even if it had been upgraded to do that there's little doubt in my mind that the military and indeed almost all large ships would still use radar in case someone wasn't on the gps system even if they thought it was impossible to hack.

I'll note that as scifi ideas go this is an interesting one to consider. It isn't doable but why it isn't doable is interesting. First, one would need massive increases in bandwith. Second, you'd need completely new satellites able to receive and process very weak signals (not a priori impossible since satellite phones exist).

Finally, if the satellites are transmitting all the data about everyone else's positions you wouldn't need fancy programming to pick that up, anyone could just not opt in. It might be possible to design an encryption system so that if people aren't giving their positions also then they aren't given access to the other data to prevent freeloaders but this would drastically increase the processing power required and increase bandwith even more.

Bottom line: implausible technology and even then doesn't explain why people still wouldn't have radar. Given that radar detects other helpful things that aren't man made one is left with the situation that even if he meant to make a special, more advanced form of GPS, he then ignored the far older and simpler technology.

Stel Pavlou said...

It's true!

Stel Pavlou said...

It's true!

Joshua said...

I have no idea if the above comments are actually Pavlou. For some reason I doubt it...

Stel Pavlou said...

Oh, by the way, Josh, I can call you Josh, can’t I? Thanks.
Since you seem to be unaware of AIS, SAILWX and other GPS related maritime tracking systems; I thought I’d throw you a couple of links. I would break them down for you, but as you know, I’m an idiot and it makes my poor little head hurt.
The dark side of the moon reference was both a Pink Floyd shout-out to my brother, and a dig at my astronomer friend, because I know it annoys him.
There are lots of jokes in the book. The Furthark writing transliterates as SMART ASS if you care to look, and the priest’s full name is Roger McCrack.
But hey, this has only been discussed a thousand times on various forums, and what would be the point in looking any of that up?
Stel, flipping burgers.

Joshua said...

Well Stel, nice of you to drop by. Here's a reply which isn't quite as well-organized as I'd like it to be since I'm a bit busy at the moment.

Your comment makes me marginally more happy with you. There's no way of verifying your claim about the dark side of the moon. But let's say for now that you are telling the truth there.

Your understanding of GPS is still pretty crappy. AIS is well-known and frankly, not very relevant to what you were talking about. Sailwx which aggregates AIS data isn't very related to what you were talking about either (for one thing, it doesn't update that quickly and for another it only includes ships with AIS). Moreover, if you were talking about AIS then your claim about a "bright young programmer" is even more ridiculous since AIS equipment that receives but does not transmit is commercially available (it is in fact cheaper generally than an AIS that also transmits and allows one to pick up AIS data on a much smaller power-source which is useful if one is on a small boat). Moreover, you seem to have completely ignored the problem that large ships like your Chinese ships would still use radar. Trying to bring AIS into this really doesn't help your cause much. At best it shows either extreme confusion or extreme sloppiness in mixing different technologies.

Moving on, I'm not sure what you mean by being discussed "thousands of times", I can in fact find only one discussion about your work and GPS:


(And it seems like most of the people there agree with me). In fact, google groups shows some interesting totals for how often your book get mentioned in usenet:
(interesting the fans in alt.prophecies.nostradamus. Yeah, that's a strong sign that you've connected with the educated, sane fraction of the population)

Frankly, Stel, if the repeated problems in your book are due to deliberate jokes then instead of being an idiot you are an ass who is willfully misinforming people. But the second case doesn't seem to be what is happening here simply because of the large number of mistakes about a wide range of subjects.

For example, in your post above you made no attempt to defend the part about the historicity of Jesus or the President "questioning" Scott's work.

And for another example, I never even bothered listing most of the other fun errors, like getting the temperature of the sun wrong. So much wrong, in such a short book. And your claim is that they were all jokes? Frankly, that seems similar to how at the beginning of Barry Trotter and The Unauthorized Parody there is a note that any spelling or grammatical mistakes are declared intentional. Of course, there are two differences between Barry Trotter and Decipher: First, one of them made the claim in advance, not retroactively. Second, one of them is actually funny.

Stel Pavlou said...

Josh, is this you on YouTube? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FLfaA0j9mM
My apologies if not. My sincere sympathies if it is. You have a lot to contend with.
Now, I’m afraid I’m not here to make you any more or less happy. I neither care nor am particularly invested in your current emotional state.
It took you some hours to reply. I too am busy, but not so busy that I needed to run off and do some quick reading before trying to fake a coherent reply. AIS and SAILWX are entirely relevant.
In what context do I use GPS in Decipher, Josh? Oh yes, ships. What are AIS and SAILWX? Why ship tracking systems that rely among other things, on GPS. Being a writer of fiction, you know, stuff that isn’t real, I see what’s out there and adapt it for my story. It’s not entirely unreasonable to see these systems in 1999 (when I completed writing the book) think ahead to 2012, which as of this writing I believe we haven’t reached yet (correct me if I’m wrong), and conclude there’s enough there for me to use and play with in a story.
The same goes for the rest of the book.
Since most of my sources are listed in the bibliography, it’s very easy to see what my inspiration was. Seeing books like Fingerprints of the Gods should give you a clue.
Much of the science and linguistics in the book is accurate. But it being fiction and set in the future, there is much that is invented. I haven’t seen a phone in a pen yet, have you? And I’m fairly confident Atlantis does not in fact exist, despite my fictional claims to the contrary.
Not to labor the point, but I write fiction, not textbooks. I am under no obligation to describe things the way they are. I describe them the way I want them to be for the purposes of the story.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is shocked when the NAZIs discover Tanis, when he shouldn’t be, because in real life it was discovered over a decade earlier. Similarly, in the Da Vinci Code, Rosslyn chapel was not built by the Knights Templar and there is no worn Star of David in the floor. Are you going to go postal on Dan Brown for basing entire plot points on things that aren’t real? In fiction?
Oh the humanity.
The jokes in Decipher are there. In black and white. They predate you ever reading the book by several years. If you don’t have the sense of humor or capacity to see them for what they are, that isn’t really my fault now, is it? (Hint: look in the mirror.) Humor is subjective. You, much as you wish to be, are not the final judge on what is and is not humorous.
Are there actual mistakes in the book? You bet. The temperature of the sun by the way wasn’t one of them. The Corona, the outer most layer is nearly 2 million degrees C (1.7 million last time I checked from updated figures.) Could I have been more specific? Sure. Was I wrong? No.
Now Joshua, this has been fun, but really, if you’re going to spout off at the mouth, have the good grace and sense to know what you’re talking about.
There are things out there in the big wide world that you do not know. If this conversation is any indication, there are a great many things you do not know.
I’m sure your mother thinks you’re a nice kid. For the record I think you’re rude, intellectually dishonest, and arrogant.
You’re also wrong. Have fun with that.

Jim said...


Dude, on the Kelvin scale you were only off by 17.6% -- no biggie. ROFL

Now for a lighthearted break:

The continent of Atlantis was an island which lay before the great flood
in the area we now call the Atlantic Ocean.
So great an area of land, that from her western shores
those beautiful sailors journeyed to the South and the North Americas with ease,
in their ships with painted sails.
To the East Africa was a neighbour, across a short strait of sea miles.
The great Egyptian age is but a remnant of The Atlantian culture.
The antediluvian kings colonised the world
All the Gods who play in the mythological dramas
In all legends from all lands were from fair Atlantis.
Knowing her fate, Atlantis sent out ships to all corners of the Earth.
On board were the Twelve:
The poet, the physician, the farmer, the scientist,
The magician and the other so-called Gods of our legends.
Though Gods they were -
And as the elders of our time choose to remain blind
Let us rejoice and let us sing and dance and ring in the new
Hail Atlantis!
Way down below the ocean where I wanna be she may be,
Way down below the ocean where I wanna be she may be,
Way down below the ocean where I wanna be she may be.
Way down below the ocean where I wanna be she may be,
Way down below the ocean where I wanna be she may be.
My antediluvian baby, oh yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah,
I wanna see you some day
My antediluvian baby, oh yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah,
My antediluvian baby,
My antediluvian baby, I love you, girl,
Girl, I wanna see you some day.
My antediluvian baby, oh yeah
I wanna see you some day, oh
My antediluvian baby.
My antediluvian baby, I wanna see you
My antediluvian baby, gotta tell me where she gone
I wanna see you some day
Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, oh yeah
Oh glub glub, down down, yeah
My antediluvian baby, oh yeah yeah yeah yeah

c Donovan Leitch

Stel Pavlou said...

Hey, just for you, in a future story I've decided to keep rounding Pi down to 3. ;)

Joshua said...

Stel, I suspect this will be my last remark on this matter. That one is writing fiction is not an excuse to be sloppy about the material connected to reality. Indeed, I mentioned Brown in my original post precisely because I think he shows some of the same problems you do: writing fiction is not an excuse for sloppy research. I would for example contrast your and Brown's work with that of Umberto Eco who writes much better, well-researched fiction and doesn't get basic technology wrong.

Eric Aitala said...

As the Astronomer and Pink Floyd fan in question, I did notice the 'dark side' issue.

And it did annoy me. But that's OK, he got the fact that I used to hate Diet Coke correct.

Eric A

StephenMartin said...

Well Josh. Just for the record. I've known Mr. Pavlou for well over five years now. I've had many conversations with him. Read much of his stuff and I can tell you this without reservation that he is one of the most intelligent people I know. He's a hell of a lot smarter than I am. Saying he's an idiot is just plain laughable. And considering his successful writing career I'd say your misguided opinion is in the vast minority.

Now, I only know you from what you post here, so my current opinion of you might not be totally accurate. But I think I have a pretty good read. That said, if you really feel moved to challenge Mr. Pavlou, you need to put more effort into your homework. As it stands right now...Stel is much smarter. Don't give up though. Learn from this and grow. Who knows, someday you might actually get to the point where you can post something really useful to the rest of us.

Be well..

Joshua said...

Stephen, having a successful writing career isn't evidence that someone isn't an idiot as the aforementioned Dan Brown demonstrates. I'm also a bit perplexed as to how you think that your claim that you find Pavlou to be smart is supposed to convince me or anyone else reading this exchange.

StephenMartin said...

It's obvious that your are under the impression that you and I are having a discussion. We're not. I could care less if you're convinced or not. I am, and that is all that matters to me.

I made myself clear in my previous post. In short, here's what I said; I know Stel on a personal level and I have read many of his works, and I 've read your misinformed arguments. As a result, I formed an opinion. And in my opinion, he's not an idiot. Far from it. But you, on the other hand... well you get my point.

I'm now done with this.

Have a nice life.

Joshua said...

Stephen, I wasn't going to post a reply to your latest comment since you said you were done with the matter. But then I saw in the log that since you posted that remark you've revisited this page more than 15 times (I stopped counting at 15). (One of the advantages of a blog with low traffic is that you can notice this sort of thing).

So let me declare that I am a bit perplexed by your behavior. You state that you aren't interested in a discussion and that you aren't interested in convincing me or someone reading this exchange. Given that, why did you bother posting a comment in the first place?

Also, why are you repeatedly visiting this page if you are done with the matter?

Finally, a minor technical tip that might help you. You are apparently using a blogger ID to post. It is easy to set it up so that followup comments on a thread get sent to your email address. Among other advantages of this are 1) you woun't have to repeatedly type into google "Stel Pavlou is an idiot" 2) You won't need to waste time checking to see if I've posted anyone has posted followup comment 3) You won't get caught visiting a page after you've declared that you are done with a matter.

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Caryl Lawson said...

Wow. I've actually very much enjoyed reading this - it made for some nice entertainment in an otherwise somewhat dull day. lol I would like to say this: Decipher WAS a work of fiction, right? Fiction meaning...not real. Just checking.... I'm sure the actors on the popular and long-running show E.R. got numerous details wrong when reciting medical dialogue...I'm sure medical professionals noticed this time and time again. I wonder if any of those people felt so strongly about those mistakes as to rail against the show, it's actors, writers, producers etc? There were issues in the book I disagreed with. For starters, I am a person of strong faith and belief in both God and Jesus Christ. However, back to one of my original points...it WAS a work of fiction. Let's just all keep that in perspective.

Steve said...

You are an idiot! the book is not a academic thesis. IT JUST A SCI-FI BOOK, for entertainment purposes. You getting all upset and defensive when someone disagree with you on a sci-fi novel is childish. If you want to argue on something scientific, do your home work and argue with a scientist not a novelist who job is to entertain us.
By the why, even if the book has error in it as in books has, I did enjoy the book for what it was... a SCI-FI BOOK. It is a good book Mr. Pavlou that even my physic teacher at the university enjoyed.


Anonymous said...

All I know is I read Decipher and have spent all my time since then looking for comparable stories.This work of "fiction" led to my now well formed love of the genre.Its been marvelous reading the exchanges here.And i wish Stel would write more works of "fiction".Oh..and its creepy to count how many times someone visits your site.

Taoskier said...

Joshua, who is afraid to use his real name, is an idiot. How does it feell to be called an idiot? Especially when the brain size fits. Ever try writing a a novel? It's hard. I picked up Decipher at a beach hotel library (l'll return it but I couldn't put it down). It's a thriller, a page tuner, romance, which is enough for a publisher. But also Mr Pavlou went to great lengths, like Dafoe, to give it verisimilitude (look it up). Finally, he researched the hell out of a work of fiction. Man, I don't know where you're coming from but you don't know diddly about commercial fiction. And, most of all, you owe an apology to Mr.Pavlou.