Saturday, February 6, 2016

Four bad messages from a Mythbusters episode

I had high hopes for the Mythbusters when they started, but these hopes were quickly squashed. Now in its last season, the Mythbusters have become a perfect representation of the 'people who "love" science, as long as they don't have to learn any.'

The recent episode "Driven to destruction" had four clear, though not explicit, messages; all of them were anti-science messages. Here they are:


I - Don't bother checking existing knowledge or consulting field experts

Adam wants to lift a car using only the suction of a vacuum cleaner to attach the car to the crane. He builds some suction cups and then places them on the car, without any consideration of the distribution of mass (and therefore of the lifting force necessary) in the car.

If Adam had consulted a mechanical engineer (or anyone with enough of an interest in mechanical structures to read a couple of books), he'd have learned that to lift an heterogeneous object using multiple attachment points to distribute the load, one needs to consider the distribution of mass and not just the total mass.

But here, like in most if not all episodes, the Mythbusters spurn extant knowledge and actual expertise and decide to pretend that science is 'make stuff up as you go.'


II - Calculations are boring, but show pretty charts (and formulas)

Adam's rig doesn't lift the car, it just creates attachment. Computing the attachment force is a simple matter: the total force is the maximum sustainable pressure of the system (vacuum cleaner motor fighting the atmospheric pressure on the output side, seals fighting it on the contact boundaries) times the surface of the attachment. This would be simple enough to measure and calculate (and then multiply by an engineering safety factor to account for faults).

Instead we get a chart about "linear relationship," which is true enough for the purposes of lifting the car, but doesn't even show what the calculation is. Also, because of the lack of expertise in how distributed lifting works, the calculations are actually quite dependent on where the attachment points go and therefore not linear at all.  (The point of saying "linear relationship" is to teach the audience yet another identity phrase.)

(There were no formulas in the show itself, but there are several, apparently randomly selected, during the opening credits.)

Note also that in the early part of the show pressure was measured in pounds per square inch, while in the last version of the experiment pressure was measured in millimeters of mercury. No effort was put into explaining how these relate to each other. Because the purpose of the gauge (and of the "measurement" for that matter) is to look and sound scientific without actually making any type of calculation.

"Math is hard," said Barbie the people who "love" science (as long as they don't have to learn any).


III - Experiments don't need controls or replication

As usual, Mythbusters experiments are made without a control condition and run only once. The lack of a control is less important in this episode, as they were really not testing any theories (unless one considers the quality of vacuum cleaner seals a theory), but the lack of replication is problematic.

Adam does make a lot of attempts to lift the car, eventually getting his rig to work. Once. Since there are all sorts of situation variables that aren't fixed, including the speed at which the crane operator lifts the load, that "experiment" needs replication.

Note that here we're not talking about the independent replication that is now debated in science (when team A publishes a result and team B checks that result by replicating the experiment). Independent replication has been the bane of the social sciences, for example. What we're talking about here is to make the car go up more than once.


IV - Change whatever elements of an experiment you want, no problem

When measuring the "force" (in fact the pressure) of the vacuum cleaner in the shop, and for the first few tests, Adam uses a home vacuum cleaner (looks like a Dyson), but later the experiments with the car use a shop vacuum cleaner, which in my experience creates a lot more pressure ("suction" is pressure). Jamie changes the explosive from a plastic explosive to ANFO (ammonia nitrate - fuel oil, a much slower explosive).

For the small-scale experiments to have any relevance to the large-scale experiments, all the elements other than scale should be unchanged. There could be a case for a different explosive if Jamie were trying to scale up the detonation speed, though that's hard to do correctly, but it would have gone in the other direction, using an explosive with higher detonation speed.

(The explosives are rigged by demolition experts, who could probably have taught Jamie how to do the detonation correctly, since it's their expertise; but that wouldn't work with the psychological premises of the show: that the Mythbusters are experts and experts don't ask for help -- both totally wrong.)


None of these things matter

To the audience, that is. Because their audience is full of people who "love" science, as long as they don't have to learn any. And they want explosions, words that they can use to impress equally ignorant friends (like stoichiometry), and the warm glow of looking down upon other people who don't profess "love" for science (but might actually know some).

And for those who believe that the Mythbusters might have some value as a motivator, consider the case of Planet Fitness: a gym where you pretend to work-out and people tell you how great you are doing, therefore preventing you from actually working out at a real gym.

The Mythbusters are the Planet Fitness of science education.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Big numbers, big confusion; small numbers, bigger confusion.

I can make something almost impossible happen. And so can you.

Let's start by defining what "almost impossible" means. Less than one-in-a-trillion chance? How about less than one in a trillion-trillion chance? One in a trillion-trillion-trillion chance?

Ok, lets take a breath here. What's this trillion-trillion and trillion-etc stuff?

(In my observation, economists say million, billion, trillion, and all their audiences hear is "big number." Innumeracy over scale has bad consequences when applied to public policy.)

One trillion is 1,000,000,000,000. (Yes, I'm using American billions, pretty much like everyone else now does.) This is written as $10^{12}$. A trillion trillion is $10^{12} \times 10^{12} = 10^{24}$ and a trillion-trillion-trillion is $10^{36}$, a one followed by thirty-six zeros.

To put that number in perspective, the age of the Earth is about $4.5$ billion years, or about $1.42 \times 10^{17}$ seconds. That's 142,000 trillion seconds. Note that this is much smaller than a trillion-trillion seconds (it's over one seven-millionth of a trillion-trillion), let alone a trillion-trillion-trillion. If you had seven million planets the same age as the Earth, and you picked at random one specific second in the history in one specific planet you'd would have about a one in a trillion-trillion chance of picking this precise second on this planet. A one in a trillion-trillion-trillion chance is one trillion times smaller than that.

So, something that has a one in a trillion-trillion-trillion chance of happening has to be a very low probability event. Shall we call anything less likely than that "almost impossible"? We shall.

So, here's how I make something almost impossible happen, over and over again, and you can too: shuffle a deck of cards.

Using only 52 cards (no jokers), there are $52! = 52\times 51 \times \ldots \times 2$ possible card shuffles, and $52! \approx 8.1 \times 10^{67}$. That number is $8.1\times 10^{31}$ times bigger than a trillion-trillion-trillion.

And yet, every card shuffle produces an event with 1-in-$8.1 \times 10^{67}$ probability. You and I can generate scores of these "almost impossible" events using a simple deck of cards.

(A little thinking will lead an attentive reader to the solution to this apparent paradox. It's not a paradox. I will post a solution here in a few days, if I remember :-)

-- -- -- --

Just for fun, a simple brain teaser:

Imagine you have two decks of 52 cards (blue and red); what has more possible combinations, shuffling the two decks together and dividing into two piles of 52 cards by separating in the middle of the full shuffled two decks, or shuffling the two decks separately each into its pile?

(Yes, it's obvious for anyone conversant with combinatorics, but apparently not everyone is conversant with combinatorics. Common answer: "it's the same.")

Friday, January 22, 2016

Cook and teach your children to cook

Cooking has health benefits

If you cook, you control what goes in your food. That's reason enough to do it.

As for all the bad things in food that isn't prepared by you or your family, I recommend the book Salt Sugar and Fat. It describes how the processed food industry, and to a smaller extent restaurants, make choices that are good for business, good for taste, and bad for your health.

Cooking your own food allows for better control of what is ingested, a lesson that should be cultivated in children as early as possible. It also serves as a mechanism for avoiding excesses. For example, making your own french fries reduces the amount of french fries consumed, because of all the trouble it is to make them at home, from scratch, and clean up afterwards.


Cooking is educational

It's a great way to introduce science. Physics, chemistry, arithmetic, measuring, biology, nutrition (duh). Something as simple as making a vinaigrette illustrates different densities (vinegar and oil), solutions (salt in vinegar), immiscible liquids, emulsifiers (mustard), the importance of measuring quantities , acids (vinegar), fats (lipids), salts.

Cooking teaches production engineering. (Well, it is production engineering. Think about it.) Planning, organizing, executing, measuring, controlling, failing and recovering (when in doubt add butter), scaling recipes up and down, dealing with spoilage and leftovers, balancing choices (making baklava takes a lot of time, but sometimes you really want baklava). It can also be used to bring up the matters of cost management. Never too soon to teach kids fiscal prudence.

Cooking creates opportunities to talk about history, culture, and geography. Yes, food itself could be used to introduce these topics, but if you do it in the preparation (and the purchasing) it will be better remembered, and it fills up the time when things are in the oven or fermenting.

(As a side benefit, cooking also educates the parents, as they need to be prepared for teaching the children.)


Cooking develops important traits

Discipline. Like most interactions with the real world, cooking utensils and ingredients are very hard to emotionally blackmail or bargain with.

Patience, carefulness, study habits, observation skills. Because there's a clear payoff at the end, the food, cooking can be used to develop these important life skills. Baking and sauce reductions, for example, teach patience and carefulness. Analyzing recipes and procuring fresh ingredients develop study habits and observation skills.

Plan, Prepare, Work, Clean-up. Many intellectual experiences or intellectual descriptions of physical experiences are too circumscribed. Cooking provides a teaching laboratory for thinking about interaction with the real world: plan the work (and the shopping trip); organize the resources into a mise-en-place; do the work (this is the part that matches most intellectual tasks, the carefully circumscribed activity); clean-up and deal with the consequences.

Rule-following and creativity in balance. This is a very important life lesson, that many people get wrong. There are times when following the rules (the recipe) is essential, especially for beginners. And there are times, usually after a long period of following the recipes so that their rationale is well understood, for deviating and being creative. Creativity is not randomness borne of ignorance, it's willful deviation from rules borne of deep understanding of those rules.

Respect for manual work. Many educated people have a latent bigotry against manual work. Cooking, by integrating the intellectual, the creative, and a lot of physical work, acts as prophylaxis against that bigotry. (Lifting weights and playing a musical instrument partially remove this bigotry as well.)


Cooking is a bonding experience

Humans are, or so I'm told, social animals; apparently, you people like to do things in groups. Cooking presents many opportunities to develop teamwork and leadership skills. And it's extremely meritocratic, as the taste of food doesn't depend on the personal characteristics of those preparing it, other than through the actual cooking.

Family time is good, shared family work much better. Cooperating towards a shared goal creates a stronger bond than just spending time together. Teaching your children to cook is an act of love. It's a lot of work, of course, but that's part of the whole "love" thing.


Cooking has physicality

When things are done in the real world, there's no 'preferences' panel, no 'undo' button. Interacting with physical objects teaches important lessons about reality in a way that no intellectual task (reading, watching, simulating on digital devices) can: things smell, break, are hot, sharp, sticky; sauces separate, soufflés deflate, meat burns, vegetables wilt, frozen desserts melt, cakes crumble, liquids spill.

Also, for small children, cooking provides both opportunity and motivation for developing dexterity and sensory skills. Dragging a finger across the screen of an iPad is not adequate activity to develop motor skills and there are more senses than vision and audition.


Cooking is an important skill to have

Even if all the above benefits were unimportant, which they aren't, cooking is an important skill to have.

You don't have to be a prepper to understand the value of being able to turn ingredients into a meal; you don't have to be a food critic (better yet, a gourmet) to appreciate that a little bit of knowledge about flavor creation and combination can make a lot of difference; and you don't have to be an hypochondriac control freak to be suspicious of the quality of ready-to-eat meals.

Most of all, cooking has a smooth learning curve which makes it one of the easier skills to acquire and maintain, and the results are often delicious and almost always edible.


Cook and teach your children to cook.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

"Don't try this at home, we're experts"

I understand why the Mythbusters say this at the beginning of the show, considering the lawyer-driven culture of America. But it's the opposite of science.

A long long time ago, in a country far far away, eight-year-old me was given a pair of books called "Science for the People" ("Ciência para o Povo," in Portuguese; two volumes). These books introduced concept of Physics and Chemistry to a general audience, using small experiments done with household items and then elaborating on these experiments to present the science behind them.

This drove home two important lessons: science is real (you can do the experiments yourself) and science is about phenomena not about the persons who do it (you can do the experiments yourself).

But that was then, and this is now.


Then: Science was a niche market, even for educated people. Being interested in science, engineering, or --worse of all-- math (guilty of all three, me) was indicative of upcoming social integration problems. (Lifting weights solves all sorts of social integration problems. Powerlifting, especially.)

Now: Everyone, from lawyer politicians using Science(TM) as a bludgeon against opponents (regardless of what the science itself may be) to journalism majors explaining to an EECS how electricity works (ignoring minor details like the difference between power and energy), believes in Science(TM), a brand name applied to everything that the right people say. And only the right people.


Then: Kids who saved their allowances and monetary gifts from family members to buy reagents, electronic components, and the occasional capital investment (microscope, lab glassware, breadboard, multimeter, soldering iron) were advised, especially by friendly peers, to keep those strange spending habits to themselves. Wouldn't want to appear weird.

Now: Kids who have no interest whatsoever in learning science, engineering, or math brag about the microscopes (never used), telescopes (never pointed at the sky), and other expensive "I love science" gifts from their parents. They might also have lab-grade glassware in their rooms, used for decor or perhaps to store coins. (*)


Then: Interest in science, engineering, and math correlated with being interested in how Nature or machines work, being suspicious of authority, and solving logic and mathematical puzzles for fun.

Now: "Loving" science correlates with name-dropping celebrities that are vaguely science-adjacent, parroting lines from said celebrities (including the most anti-scientific of all "science is settled" which is equivalent to "you don't get to be skeptical over [what I say are] facts"), and never, ever question the authority of the right authorities. But only the right authorities. (They'll be identified for you by your betters.)


Then: People who liked science, engineering, and math, tended to be interested in science, engineering, and math.

Now: People who "love" science tend to be interested in politics, attacking certain religious groups (mislabeled "atheism"), politics, demographics of certain professions, politics, the shirt worn by an astrophysicist who was the principal scientist for a mission landing a probe on a comet (but not interested in the probe, rockets, the comet, or Astrophysics), politics, the sex lives of other people, politics, and have I mentioned politics?


Then: People who liked science, engineering, and math typically could answer simple questions about science, engineering, or math better than the general population. When they couldn't answer a question, that was generally seen as an opportunity to learn.

Now: People who "love" science respond to being asked simple questions about science by attacking the questioner, declaring such questions harassment, and running away.


As I said, it was a long long time ago in a country far far away. Words had meaning then.


-- -- -- --

(*) Of course they all have (like everyone else) all sorts of electronic devices, computers, tablets, smartphones, which makes some people say nonsensical things like "this new generation really understands technology." No, there are some who do, of course, but the vast majority has no idea how their devices work.

What happens is that they have commercial products designed by interaction and user experience engineers who make the technology usable by those who are not engineers. Or maybe I should say it like above:

Then: Understanding technology meant understanding what made it work. For example, understanding how a cell phone worked meant being able to sketch the cell-to-cell handover algorithm or explain how packet-switching networks are different from older channel-switching networks, for example.

Now: Understanding technology means being able to make a call on a cell phone by using it as it was designed by the manufacturer.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

How to deal with skepticism about science

Sometimes one has to respond to people who believe that a scientific theory currently considered valid is wrong. Something like: "I'm skeptic about the Moon gravity causing the tides."

There are three ways to deal with this: the good, the bad, and the ugly.


The good way

The appropriate skeptic response to people questioning currently valid science is 'let's look at the evidence.'  That's it.

The good way has advantages: occasionally the questioner may be right and the responder will learn something; in the other cases, it's easier to persuade the questioner if the responder starts by taking the question seriously.

Reliance on evidence (observation and/or experimentation) is the foundation of science and skepticism, so there should be no question about skeptics responding this way. Alas, many don't, since to them science and skepticism/atheism are just identity products.


The bad way

The bad way, the most common response by "skeptics," "atheists," and people who "love" science (but don't learn any), is to say 'you can't question scientific facts.' There are some variations, like 'all/most scientists agree' or 'this source that I trust says.'

Besides being precisely the opposite of what science is (pace Feynman: science is the belief in the ignorance of experts), answering this way helps the cause of those who say that science is just another form of dogma (or faith).

Most "skeptic/atheist/effing love science" prefer the bad way because to use the good way they must know what they're talking about. And many of them don't. For example, take this pitiful response to Bill O'Reilly. Carl Sagan would have said "it's an effect of the Moon gravity" before O'Reilly finished asking. But the president of the American Atheists apparently slept through that 5th-grade science lesson.


The ugly way

The ugly way is to impugn the motives of the questioner, launch a number of ad-hominem attacks, and block or ban them from participating in any further discussion. This is the response of many "skeptic" and "atheist" groups, platforms, and strident advocates.

(Of course, in my case, it was more of a 'how dare you pleb correct me, professor doctor scientist?' which is a type of pathology you meet in certain corners of academe.)

Richard Nikoley had a similar experience after making a related point using more colorful language.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Recognizing, knowing, understanding.

The future needs people who really understand technical material, but I fear what now passes for technical education (including self-education) lacks depth.

Reusing my example of the Heisenberg (physics, not cristal meth) joke, namely,
Police officer: "Sir, do you realize you were going 67.58 MPH?
Werner Heisenberg: "Oh great. Now I'm lost."
there's a number of levels at which we can understand it.

At the recognition level, Alex associates "Heisenberg" with "science reference" and decides to laugh to appear educated. I find that most people who "love" science are like Alex. I also find people like this in my field of work, effectively LARPing at being experts.

At the knowing level, Blake has some idea that Heisenberg said that you can't measure speed and position together with arbitrary precision. Blake also knows that Heisenberg was talking about electrons or other particles, so applying his "rule" to a car must be hilarious.

At the understanding level, Chris can do what I did and spoil a joke by making calculations. From the linked post:
A simplified form of Heisenberg's inequality, good enough for our purposes, is 
$\qquad \Delta p \, \Delta x \ge h $ 
Going by orders of magnitude alone, assuming that the mass of Heisenberg plus car is in the order of 1000 kg, and noting that the speed is given to a precision of 0.01 mi/h, an order of magnitude of 10 m/s, with $h \approx 10^{-34}$ Js, we get a $\Delta x$ of the order of 
$\qquad \Delta x  \approx \frac{ 10^{-34} }{10 000} = 10^{-38}$ m.
There are degrees of understanding, from the ability to make use of the uncertainty principle, as above, to deeper understanding of what that means for what the universe is like. But at the most basic level of understanding, you should be able to operationalize knowledge into decision, calculation, program, etc.




I think that there's some merit in trying to improve from recognition to knowledge and from knowledge to understanting. So here are a couple of observations on that:


Recognition to knowledge


The main problem in most cases, as I see it, is not of ability or opportunity but rather of motivation: if Alex gets social cachet for "loving" science just by recognizing a "science situation," why put in the effort to learn some science (or other technical material)?

There's a trap, however, for people who decide that they want knowledge: because of the identity problem in science popularization, most of the more popular sources are designed for recognition only, not understanding.

I find that books, lectures, etc. from active researchers or practitioners in the technical field (say Leonard Susskind instead of Neil deGrasse Tyson) generally mean better chance of knowledge rather than recognition. Even when non-researchers and non-practitions are better at showmanship (mistaken for communication skils), it's worth a little effort to get real knowledge from those who understand it and don't treat their readers or audiences as an echo chamber.

(As for television shows, except for a few that are based on books by active researchers, they are to be avoided: they are not reliable sources, not even for the recognition level.)


Knowledge to understanding


Problem sets. That's the solution.

Well, to be precise, the step from basic knowledge to understanding has two parts: first, learn the concepts, principles, and tools of the field; second, practice them with incrementally difficult problems.

For the Heisenberg example, some of the elements needed for understanding are:
Concepts: speed, mass, momentum;
Principles: uncertainty principle;
Tools: order-of-magnitude reasoning.
My rule-of-thumb for learning technical material is $1\%$ from being a passive member of an audience (to a lecture or a video) or a passive reader (reading but not thinking); $9\%$ from actively studying the material (say, working through solved problems, making sure you understand all the steps in an example); and $90\%$ is practicing, in the lingo of academe solving problem sets.

It then becomes a matter of how much practice and how much effort you're willing to put in: at this level, the difference between amateurs and professionals is that amateurs practice something until they get it right, professionals practice until they can't get it wrong.




Understanding something is so much better than just knowing it, and knowing it so much better than just recognizing it. It worth the effort and the change in attitude required. At least for me it is.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Best books I read in 2015

I read a lot of work-related books, but in this post I'm excluding those.

Best fiction book is a tie between:

The Martian by Andy Weir, for its hard-science attempt. Best description of the book is Andy Ihnatko's (I think, I heard it on a podcast, so I may be wrong): think of it as the 5-minute scene in Apollo 13 when the engineers have to solve the $\mathrm{CO}_{2}$ scrubber problem, except it's an entire book like that. I have quibbles with the science here and there, and its stoichiometry is a bit iffy, but overall -- well, it ties with a Neal Stephenson scifi novel, so that's a major achievement.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, for the usual NS reasons: well-researched material, engaging mini-puzzles in the narrative, and interesting story. Plus the second novel that he added at the end, which most writers would have published as a separate book. A number of meta- and meta-meta- references for those of us who like that kind of thing. Despite being 1000-plus pages, I did my usual Stephenson-book thing and read it twice in a row.


Best non-scifi fiction goes to a French book; read the French version, if you can:

Soumission by Michel Houellebec ("Submission" in English), a book that skewers a number of sacred cows of the politically correct, while presenting an… interesting, that's the word, view of Humanities academic life in Europe. Two favorite excerpts, among many:

On peut même, dans une certaine mesure, les persuader de la haute valeur érotique des professeurs d'université (We can, to a certain extent, persuade [marriage brokers] of the high erotic value of university professors - JCS translation).

L'intellectuel en France n'avait pas à être responsable, ce n'était pas dans sa nature (French intellectuals are not expected to be responsible people, that's not in their nature - JCS translation).


Honorable mention in fiction to:

Code of Conduct by Brad Thor, which presents a scary end-of-civilization scenario, unfortunately all-too-possible. Sadly, there are people who actually cheer for that scenario. (I once met someone advocating for a world population of five million. That would be more than a $99.9\%$ reduction, a genocide unparalleled in history.)


Best science book was easier than usual, as I have cut down my reading of science popularization books in favor of reading science textbooks and research papers:

The Science of Interstellar by Kip Thorne is a companion to the movie Interstellar and explains some of the science underlying the story. For those who have the BluRay (like me), the book is a deeper and longer version of the special feature "The Science of Interstellar," with deeper explanations and a few speculative areas. Kip Thorne writes well for a general audience, but he doesn't baby-science the science: despite the accessible prose, thinking is required.


Honorable mention in science to

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall, two concepts that aren't usually put together (as the intro says), is a tour of some new results and some old knowledge in physics written in accessible prose. Like Kip Thorne's book, it requires thinking. (It lost to Thorne because his book had a movie and a documentary attached. :-)


Best nonfiction non-science goes to a combination of two books by the same author:

The 4th-Generation Warfare Handbook and On War by William S. Lind, both illustrate the change in warfare from 3rd-Generation maneuver warfare to 4th-Generation warfare by non-state agents. On War is a book of collected columns and includes quite a few that will jar sensibilities, even considering the topic. The Handbook reads like lecture notes or a textbook for the armed forces or law enforcement, but accessible to the general public. Fair warning: once you learn some of these things, your level of paranoia will increase and your general happiness with the world (hitherto achieved through naïveté) will decrease.


Honorable mention in nonfiction to

The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingues, a book that will make for many entertaining family dinners for machine learning and artificial intelligence practitioners and researchers. (Because their relatives who read the book will believe that they understand the material to the point where they can debate experts, and that's always entertaining to see.) It covers machine learning at a basic level and makes it easier for non-experts to read articles on automation and decision-support with some understanding of what's going on.


The last book I read in 2015 was a re-read,

Castles of Steel by Robert K Massie, a history of naval combat in World War I. I read it before, of course, when it came out in 2004. Niche appeal to those of us who like to know history (and not from Captain America comic books), have an interest in Europe and Western Civilization, and are nautically-inclined. Despite the topic, little overlap with Dreadnought, by the same author.