Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Intellectual counterfeit fashionistas and the corruption of STEM and analytics

I have acquaintances who say they like classical music but never listen to it and can't tell Bach from Brahms. While this is entertaining to classical music aficionados, a similar disconnect happens in STEM and business analytics, where it has serious consequences.

I've observed many people who are always saying how important science is, who can name several recent Nobel laureates in the sciences, but can't compute the kinetic energy of a 2-ton SUV going 65MPH (766kJ), or, ironically, can't explain what the research of those Nobel laureates was about.

I know people who are always talking about Big Data™ and "the" Management Information Revolution™ (yes, they think the current one is the only one), but cannot write Bayes's formula and think that standard deviation is the same as standard error.

These are the signs of the rise of the intellectual counterfeit fashionista (ICF). The ICF wants others to consider him or her an intellectual (that's the I), up to date on the latest hottest intellectual topic (that's the F), but is not willing to do the work and the learning necessary to understand that topic (that's the C).

No matter how infuriating or entertaining an ICF can be on a personal level, their rise is a problem -- chiefly because of their effect on education, the practice of technical professions, and the general perception of STEM and analytics in society.

Education: by trying to recruit proto-ICFs into STEM/analytics, teaching institutions end up having to water down their courses, since the ICFs don't want to do the work needed for real learning. This leads to lower quality education for every student, even the non-ICFs.

In the mid-to-long term, this creates a number of credentialed ignoramuses and gives rise to the strange situation where people who hire engineers say there's a dearth of them, while engineering associations say there's a glut. I guess it depends on how you define engineer, by skills or by credentials.

Professions: the obvious effect of ICFs is the rise in average incompetence. The more pernicious effect is the destructive nature of internal politics, which always increase in organizations with large numbers of people for which appearances and narratives are more important than observable realities and hard work.

I wish nerdiness became unfashionable again, so that the ICFs moved on to corrupt something else and left STEM and analytics alone.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Carrying less to do more

Every so often I look back at a packing list from some years ago, and find myself flabbergasted at how much simpler travel has been made by technological advance and some judicious choices.

This is all the hardware (plus cell phone, mine being a prepaid for emergencies only) I carry on a work trip:

+ Power brick
+ VGA adapter
+ Presentation remote (with green laser and 4GB drive)

iPod Touch 5
+ Charger cable
+ audiophile earphones
+ sports earphones

Backup hard drive (2TB of space, mostly filled with optional content for work & downtime)
+ USB 3 cable

Large capacity USB flash drives (including a 32GB one on my keychain!)

Rite-in-the-Rain notebook
+ Fisher space pen

Microfleece cleaning tissues doubling as packing material.

Add a magazine to read when electronic devices aren't allowed (I get The Tech and Smithsonian Magazine for free, so I take those and dispose of them when done), clothing (planning helps), toiletries, and food for travel.

The magic enabling the ever shrinking ever more powerful hardware packing comes from multitaskers and digital content.

The iPod Touch replaces a lot of equipment I previously carried (iPod, still camera, video camera, voice recorder, backup remote control for presentation, books to read, and even my iPad 1.0 in many respects). The hard drive carries an hitherto unthinkable library of work and play stuff. (I don't play computer games, other than the occasional solitaire, bejeweled, or mahjong, so I don't carry -- or own -- a game controller.)

The second part of the magic is the move to digital content.

Many years ago I'd carry a small sleeve case with CDs for my Sony Discman (Get off my lawn, kids!!!), some DVDs, paperback books, work books -- hardcover textbooks! -- and other heavy objects with minimal bits-to-atoms ratio. Now I carry thousands of music tracks, hundreds of books, audiobooks, and technical papers, dozens of movies, videos, and television shows, and even a few comic books for nostalgia sake, all as bits on the hard drive. (Obviously these are not the only copies I have of those bits.)

Anything important is backed up in a multiplicity of places: laptop hard drive, portable hard drive, USB flash drives, multiple online services. Because it's well known that anything important of which you only have one copy will, by the laws of Physics, necessarily be lost, inoperative, or confiscated by the TSA.

Of course, you still need to bring a few changes of clothes and toiletries. There's no digitizing those.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The roots of my disillusionment with 'official skeptics'

There were several contributing events, all similar in one point: 'official' skeptics prove to be so in name but not in actuality. This is one of the events, involving James Randi, whom I still admire.

James Randi had a long feud with Uri Geller regarding spoon bending. Now, I used to do a lot of spoon bending myself before I got a OXO Good Grips ice-cream scoop, but that's not the type of spoon bending that got Mssrs Randi and Geller at loggerheads.

Mr Geller claimed he had paranormal powers, which he demonstrated by bending spoons. Mr. Randi implied (for legal reasons he couldn't outright state) that Mr Geller was in fact using prestidigitation. (For a moment ignore the obvious question of why someone with paranormal powers would use them to bend eating utensils instead of, say, make a fortune on Wall St.) You'd think that Mr. Randi would explain how the trick is done, so that the audience could check whether Mr. Geller was in fact using that trick.

No. Mr. Randi invoked the Magician's Code and declined to explain how the trick is done. (FYI: you bend the spoon with finger pressure or against a table, takes a bit of practice to do it without other people noticing, and even with practice they will notice if they're looking for it.) So, here is Mr. Randi, allegedly a skeptic, asking his audience to accept on faith that there exists such a trick that Mr Geller could be using.

When Mr. Randi replicated his great feat of spoon bending, allegedly using a trick, Mr. Geller took advantage of Mr Randi's adherence to the Magician Code to say that Mr. Randi was in fact using his -- Randi's -- paranormal powers. All because Mr. Randi's argument relied on the audience's faith, not a testable proposition.

Now, that's ironic.

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Note: this vignette was part of the post "Fed up with 'trust us, we're experts' science," but it detracted from the point of that post so I separated it into its own post.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fed up with "trust us, we're experts" science

Somehow in my lifetime we went from Feyman's idea of science requiring 'a belief in the fallibility of experts,' to a caste system where science experts must be trusted without question, and acolytes jump on anyone who dares ask anything.

The trigger event for this rant was the Mythbusters Breaking Bad Special. In particular, the test of the hydrofluoric acid disposal of a body in a bathtub that ends up with a big hole on the floor and ceiling of Jesse's home. (Season 1, Episode 2, "Cat's in the bag.")

(Big Breaking Bad fan here, and still grudgingly a fan of the Mythbusters.)

First off, the Mythbusters test the effect of the 100ml of hydrofluoric acid on a number of samples of the materials involved (meat, wood, drywall, iron, steel, linoleum), all of the same size. Yes, size, not appropriate mass computed from molar calculation. Apparently no one thought of asking a chemist (though one is present to run the experiment) about mass balance and stoichiometry. 

After they fail to dissolve these objects with the apparently arbitrarily chosen volume of hydrofluoric acid, the Mythbusters move on to replicate the scene in the show with a different solvent.

This is the point when I really lose it: they say that the solution to the body-disposal problem is to use sulfuric acid and a secret sauce.

A. Secret. Sauce.

Because knowledge should only be held by experts?! Say whaaa?

This is what science entertainment teaches its audience: if you're not an expert, you should not expect full information: "Trust us, we know what's going on, and you'll get to see the result on TV, so it's real." Of course this trains audiences to (a) accept TV as the authority on who's an expert; (b) believe in experts' statements without requiring proof or independent verification; and (c) think of science as something beyond the comprehension of the audience member, and therefore not to be questioned by him or her.

Yes, I get their legalistic "we're not here to teach people how to dispose of bodies," but it's ridiculous: acquiring the large quantities of acid necessary would be more suspicious than a number of other ways that can easily be found on the interwebs or on Bones or Dexter. Joe Pesci explains the traditional approach at the beginning of Casino: "dig the hole before you whack the guy, so you don't have to dig it with the body out in the open."

(The secret sauce is hydrogen peroxide, another chemical that would really raise eyebrows -- FBI and DHS eyebrows -- if purchased in quantity, since it is used for improvised explosive devices. Also, really really really temperamental chemical.)

Then I remembered the Mythbusters had done this before, in the thermite episode, for which they blurred the names of the igniter reagents. FYI,  to ignite thermite you drop glycerol on a mound of potassium permanganate on top of the thermite; though you can simply use a long-neck torch, like they did on, oh irony, Breaking Bad.

When I was a kid, I liked chemistry almost as much as electronics, and this is the kind of thing we got to play with before the world became full of Sitzpinkler. Do they even sell chemistry sets for children anymore? If not, where is the next generation of chemists and chemical engineers going to come from? Chemistry can be dangerous, but bringing up an entire generation ignorant of it is terminally stupid. But I digress...

Back to the main problem: It has become acceptable to make the argument that the audience should trust the experts on faith, since the technical stuff is either too difficult or too dangerous or too easily misused by the non-initiated.

This kind of thinking is more dangerous to science than 10 Tomás de Torquemadas. Because this is the kind of thinking that creates 10,000 Torquemadas, all convinced that they are the paladins of science and all ready to auto-da-fé those whom the experts deem to be the enemies of Science™. Thus quelling dissent and killing the basis of all progress in science.

A lot of people will line up for this; after all there are many people who like the idea and image of science. As long as they don't have to learn any, of course.

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Note: edited on Nov 21st to remove unnecessary detour about "skeptics."

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thoughts inspired by a science joke

Another day, another science joke. Not a very funny one, but enlightening.

When I say "science joke," I mean one that involves a modicum of science knowledge. Which makes this yet another post against the scientistologists that are all in favor of science as long as they don't have to learn any. They like the idea and the image of science, but are not willing to do the work necessary to learn it.

Last sunday I tweeted: According to my alarm clock, the computer & phone spent two hours moving at almost 90% of speed of light. That's one explanation.

Since that was the end of Daylight Savings Time, what that tweet says is that clocks which get a synchronization signal from the internet were one hour behind those that I have to reset manually. The twist is that I calculated what speed would compress time 1:2, $v = 0.8660254 c$, and included that in the joke.

(By the way, this time compression is an example of the twins "paradox," which is not paradoxical at all.)

As for the people who "love science" (as long as they don't have to learn any), well, many of them have a vague notion that I was referring to relativity, but no idea whether the 90% number was right, wrong, or random. Science is something they believe in, without actually knowing any of the details.

More and more people are falling into this trap of believing in science as opposed to actually learning it. That is a very bad trend in a technology-dependent society.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Twitter valuation is a bet on network value

No, I don't think Twitter is prima facie over-valued.

The following graphic from the WSJ (reproduced here because deep linking is discouraged) has been making the rounds, generally in support of the idea that Twitter's valuation is yet another finance mistake:

But here's the funny thing. Note how both LinkedIn and Twitter are apparently over-priced, and suddenly an alternative explanation appears: the market understands that, while right now the revenue models of these companies are not good, there is value in their networks that, either directly through advertising and other attention-monetizing strategies, or indirectly via the information value of the network, will eventually be captured. (Even if that requires a change of management, which sometimes it does.)

It's a bet on the future value of networks and their associated preference and communication data.*

As I mentioned in my post about the Skype acquisition, these companies are not just some black-box generators of revenue. In particular Twitter's resources include:
  • Knowledge of the network to a level of detail that can be closed off to outsiders.
  • Personnel and technology that allow for exploitation of the knowledge in the network; inasmuch as the data and technology have unique features, the personnel and the resources are partially locked into the company and are assets to be taken into account in valuation.
  • An installed base that serves as a barrier to entry to competitors trying to build their network.
So, not being privy to the financial details, I cannot say whether the valuation is right or wrong, but I can certainly say that people who pass judgment on that valuation based on last year's revenue are terminally myopic. Sadly even people whom I respect seem to fall for this trap.

There's gold in those networks and the nerds who can analyze them.

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* A bet not dissimilar to that of Google trying to build their own social network with Google Plus and all the actions they take in other properties like YouTube trying to nudge people into using the social media affordances of Google Plus instead of the older comments and video responses (now discontinued, get your linkage on G+).