Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Interstellar delivers truth bombs

Early on in the movie Interstellar there are two important lessons about what makes a society fail (or succeed), both delivered in the parent-teacher conference that Cooper attends.

Lesson one: don't underestimate the power of engineering (and science)



Lesson two: beware of those who would rewrite the truth



(Excerpts from the novelization of the movie by Greg Keyes. No, I'm not a nerd. Ok, I am.)

Andrew Rader points out some problems with the movie:



The main problem was also pointed out by Kip Thorne in The Science of Interstellar: that fighting the blight on Earth would make a lot more sense than going to a different planet.

Thorne also raises the problem of orbital mechanics in chapter 7 of the book:


and proposes a few speculative mechanisms to get the necessary changes in velocity from gravity assists. Note that there are two decelerations one of $c/3$ and one of $c/4$ for a total speed change of  $7c/12$ or $1.75\times 10^{8}$ m/s. Returning to the Endurance requires an increase in speed of $1.75\times 10^{8}$ m/s as well.

To see the size of the problem, let's say they take 500 seconds (8 minutes and 20 seconds) to do each maneuver (while the rest of the Universe ages significantly) and the Ranger's mass is 2 metric tons (for simplicity, we'll assume that the water taken in on the planet makes up for the loss of Dr. Doyle to stupidity, indiscipline, and lack of planning). If we assume constant thrust for simplicity, assume away all friction and ignore the propellant mass loss (yay, infinite specific impulse!), the thrust needed for each maneuver is $7 \times 10^8$ Newton or about the same as 1077 SpaceX Merlin engines (averaging their atmosphere and vacuum thrust to 650 kN). Since there's propellant mass loss, let's say we "only" need the equivalent of 900 Merlin engines. So, yes, only a gravity assist would do.

Yes, it's an oversimplification, but didn't feel like solving the Tsiolkovsky equation. Hence the drop from 1077 to 900 engines. (That's still equivalent to 100 Falcon 9 rockets.) By the way, Thorne appears unconvinced of the feasibility of those gravity assists and hence of the feasibility of whole expedition to Miller's planet. But at least they tried to be accurate with some science in the movie.

Oh, and speaking of nerds:


Monday, December 26, 2016

Much Ado About Extreme Intelligence

The Supreme Dark Lord of the Evil Legion of Evil wrote a post about the qualitative differences between Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) and Ultra Large Crude Carriers (ULCCs) Very High IQ (VHIQ) persons and Ultra High IQ (UHIQ) persons.

Speaking from my position in the fat part of the distribution, this qualitative difference looks a bit like an unnecessary threshold. Also, the comments on the post appear to be from very smart people, who nevertheless seem unaware of the basics of performance measurement, so: way-to-go MBA training!

On to the main point:

Since intelligence is something one has no control over, being determined mostly by factors of genetics and early childhood environment, it's strange to be proud of it. As a person of reasonable, compact stature, I noticed a similar behavior in tall people who were proud of being tall. It's not something you achieve; therefore it's nothing to be proud of. Thankful, maybe.

Furthermore, there's a measurement problem, once one moves away from pattern-matching and response speed tests (I used to think that psychometrics was put in the world to make phrenology look good; then I realized it happened by accident) and into real-world outcomes, which depend on a lot more than raw brain power, for example, observable outcomes depend on:
  • The opportunities to use that brain power, and the fields in which it's used.
  • The motivation to use it, and the goals to be achieved.
  • The skills and knowledge, including thinking skill (which is separate from intelligence in the same way that competitive weightlifting skill is separate from raw physical force) and a can-do attitude towards thinking.
  • Outside factors which distort the observables; they can be random events (what engineers call 'noise') or they can be environment biases.
So, from my position in the fat part of the distribution, but standing on the intellectual (and experimental) shoulders of much smarter others, here are VD's points (in blue) with my comments:

"VHIQ inclines towards binary either/or thinking and taking sides. UHIQ inclines towards probabilistic thinking and balancing between contradictory possibilities."

Maybe. This reads a lot more like differences as to when the mental decision trees are pruned rather than the binary/continuous difference (not just probabilistic, also threshold-thinking on continuous quantities).

Raw power may make a difference as to how many branches can be considered and how far each branch can be developed for any given problem, but then the boundary between VHIQ and UHIQ would be fuzzy,  porous, and contingent on the problem; not a situation conducive to qualitative differences.

"VHIQ seeks understanding towards application or justification, UHIQ seeks understanding towards holistic understanding."

Different tools for different objectives, I would think.

Certain problems (most engineering problems, thankfully) can be decomposed and processed in ever more cohesive and less coupled chunks which are processed separately and integrated hierarchically. Other problems require holistic understanding of emergent properties (most large-scale systems formed by similar small units communicating among them, aka complex systems) and a completely different mindset. (Here's an example of the two mindsets applied to economics.)

Other than that, practice with a field of knowledge will eventually lead to a holistic understanding of that field, though raw brain power makes that easier.

"VHIQ refines the original thought of others, UHIQ synthesizes multiple original thoughts."

Conceptually different, but in essence the same response as the previous one: what to do depends on the purpose of the doing.

"VHIQ rationalizes logical conclusions, UHIQ accepts logical conclusions. This is ironic because VHIQ considers itself to be highly logical, UHIQ considers itself to be investigative."

Maybe it's my observation sample, but I don't have this experience (with other people); the people I notice rationalizing [wrong] things tend to be non-high-IQ (when in good faith) or are high-IQ  but are doing it knowingly, in response to outside incentives (in bad faith, in other words).

"VHIQ recognizes the truths in the works of the great thinkers of the past and applies them. UHIQ recognizes the flaws in the thinking of the great thinkers of the past and explores them."

Maybe this is field-dependent, and in the fields I'm exposed to, it's a matter of knowledge and goal stratification.

"VHIQ usually spots logical flaws in an argument. UHIQ usually senses them."

This difference is a matter of practice, therefore differences in motivation (say, in curiosity) will be more important than differences in raw intellect. This is the case for almost all 'intuitive' or 'natural' skills, other than proprioperception and motion control. And even then, gym n00bs spend several minutes placing their feet for each deadlift attempt, skilled powerlifters' feet fall in place as soon as they enter the lifting platform.

It's true that mental capacity will put a limit on how fast and how far this 'intuitiveness' in skill development can go, but motivation, training, and opportunity differences will spread out any differences that separate VHIQ from UHIQ.

"VHIQ enjoys pedantry. UHIQ hates it. Both are capable of utilizing it at will."

I would venture that it's a continuous scale, starting at about one standard deviation below the mean, and negatively correlated with IQ. As for utilizing pedantry at will, this seems to be more of an operational decision, as when people who 'love science' (but don't learn any) start talking down to engineers and get a 'how many Joule in a kilowatt-hour?' question in return, for example.

For example, it's usually the people who can't recognize the period of a music piece by the music alone that make a big deal of correcting someone who says 'Bach' with 'Johann Sebastian Bach.' Musicologists, good and very good, only become pedantic to wave off the poseurs. So I'd venture that VHIQ might be more exposed to poseurs than UHIQ and therefore come across as more pedantic (which they are, in a small way, given their lower IQ and the aforementioned negative correlation) than the UHIQ.

"VHIQ is uncomfortable with chaos and seeks to impose order on it, even if none exists. UHIQ is comfortable with chaos and seeks to recognize patterns in it."

Different fields of endeavor have different requirements. Intelligence is, among other things, and with other things (motivation, skills, opportunities, environmental factors), the ability to adapt to and if needed change the environment and the field of endeavor.

"VHIQ is spergey and egocentric. UHIQ is holistic and solipsistic."

I've never observed this, so I can't comment; then again, I'm not a people person so it could well be true and hard to spot from the fat part of the curve.

"VHIQ will die on a conceptual hill. UHIQ surrenders at the first reasonable show of force."
"VHIQ attempts to rationalize its errors. UHIQ sees no point in hesitating to admit them."
"VHIQ seeks to prove the correctness of its case. UHIQ doesn't believe in the legitimacy of the jury."
"VHIQ is competitive. UHIQ doesn't keep score."

(These four are pairwise different but my response to all is the same.)

All four statements above appear to me as orthogonal to differences in raw brain power, as they can be seen at all levels of intelligence down to the middle of the curve; I'd place them in a two-dimensional space of (pragmatic-pigheaded x internally-externally motivated), but that's probably already been done better by some psychometrician.

This is reminiscent of the chapter on nerds in The Inmates are Running The Asylum, which summarizes nerds as more interested in being right than being successful. That's not because they're stupid, but rather a learned attitude (and some personality differences, which aren't intelligence differences).

"VHIQ believes in the unique power of SCIENCE. UHIQ sees science as a conceptual framework of limited utility."

People who understand science, as opposed to people who 'love science' (as long as they don't have to learn any) or great scientists [in their own minds, if no one else's], treat science as a collection of best models and a method for finding better models. This is a matter of knowledge rather than raw brain power, though more raw brain power makes acquiring and expressing this knowledge easier.

It's possible that some of VHIQ are more likely than UHIQ to be selected by certain institutional designs for compliance with a particular view of science and that impedes their understanding of science as I just defined it; however, this would be a case of environment (incentives) not a consequence of intelligence itself. Kind of a "A-grade managers hire A-grade employees, B-grade managers hire C-grade employees" survival rule for mediocrities.

"VHIQ seeks to rank and order things. UHIQ seeks to recognize and articulate concepts."

Orders are a subset of networks and to our best understanding of how people recognize and process concepts they do so by fitting them into networks of other concepts. So, this is again a matter of degree, though when networks are involved, all sorts of emergent behavior (what could pass for creativity or super-fast reasoning) can happen that are hard to predict.

"VHIQ asks "how can this be used?" UHIQ asks "what does this mean?""

Engineers vs scientists of all intelligence levels (well, at least those above the mean) exhibit this difference in thinking goals. Since they do so at all intelligence levels, this has a significant orthogonality to the IQ dimension.

Inasmuch as there's a correlation it may come from the mental power requirements of answering questions of meaning rather than doing something, but both questions are present in children before the education system takes away their will to think, so this would be an environmental influence, more than a difference in underlying abilities needed, driving the choice of problems to work in.

So, okay it may be that from my position in the scale I can't see the existing differences, but it appears to me that performance measurement theory has a pretty good explanation for most of these points, and it doesn't require too much smarts to understand.

Good for me, otherwise I'd have to go for a long walk to think about it. πŸ˜‰

 - - - - -

Addendum:

Vox Day's response concurs [with his reading of my penultimate paragraph to mean] that I just don't have what it takes to understand really intelligent people. πŸ˜‚

(That's not what that paragraph means.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Geeking out midweek

πŸ˜€ Via Watts Up With That, I learned that some mentally ill people in California are talking about secession from the rest of the US (which a lot of people in the rest of the US would support wholeheartedly). WUWT mentions the electrical problem of secession, which I decided to take a little further by computing the shortfall in dispatchable capacity:


(Click for larger, as usual.) Wind and solar are non-dispatchable, so their production needs to have a back-up of slack dispatchable power; given that California imported about 1/3 of its electricity last year, it's reasonable to assume that the required slack capacity isn't available in-state.

The rest is basic arithmetic, which hasn't stopped people from asking how to go from a yearly consumption of 126.4 TWh to a capacity shortfall of 15 GW (14.4 and change, but power plants tend to have 1 GW units; well, big, Rankine cycle-based power plants do).


πŸ˜€ I like to wear sciency t-shirts to the gym and these are my two newest,

New gym t-shirts. Nerd, me?

but the one on the right is already outdated, as element 118, Oganesson has been added to the periodic table and is a noble gas (an element with a full complement of electrons in its outer orbital layer):



πŸ“— Alton Brown has a new book, EveryDayCook, with some science in it as usual. I find that cooking is a very important skill to have and a great way to introduce kids to science. So, naturally, almost all families with children I know either don't cook at all or keep the kids out of the kitchen. Alas.

Just got the book, so can't say much about it, but if Alton Brown's previous books (and television show) are anything to go by, go buy it. Check out AB's podcast too.


πŸ“Ή Destin "Smarter Every Day" Sandlin likes opals (a type of semi-precious stone) and takes his viewers to Australia to see how they are mined:



πŸ“Ί The remake of MacGyver isn't as good as the original (no surprise there, I guess): while the science is as bad as it ever was (it was never good), there's a lot more stupidity (things happen that a 6-year-old would know to avoid), violence (Robert Dean Anderson's MacGyver was averse to solving problems with it), and preachiness (there was a bit in the old one, too).

I still like the general idea of MacGyver, that of solving problems with science (STEM, really) and creative thinking. That's why I give MacGyver a pass on most of the problems, because the attitude is right: thinking and STEM are what makes humans advance as a species.

Also, the self-description of the new MacGyver, when he met the hacker (I guess they needed one in 2016) was spot-on: "you hack computers, I hack everything else."


🚢I like to take long walks to think, so I took a 25 km one in San Francisco last weekend:

Walk in San Francisco


😠 Whomever does the social media for Los Alamos National Laboratory posted this shameful tweet (the image is the problem; see if you can figure it out before reading further):


And my comment (which, of course didn't get a response, since whomever does their social media probably doesn't understand science beyond the level of a kindergartener):
And that fireball, so far outside the atmosphere, what causes it, @LosAlamosNatLab? Seriously, I literally can't even! #facepalm 😱😑
The fireball heat is caused by compression of the atmosphere in front of the meteor, then air friction creates the tail by slowing some of the burning material. It's that $PV=nRT$ thingamaboyle, when the pressure $P$ gets very high too fast for the volume $V$ to change (particularly in front of objects traveling much faster than the speed of sound), the temperature $T$ has to get very high to balance out the equation, since number of moles $n$ doesn't change and $R$ is a constant. Science. It works.

It's not inconsistent behavior to upbraid the LANL and The Science Channel for their bad science in social media while giving MacGyver a pass. MacGyver is a fiction television show; the LANL and The Science Channel are (or should be) serious institutions with an educational mission.


🎱 Puzzle of the week (from a Twitter rathole so I have no way to credit): find "DOG"


(Yes, it's just a matter of exhaustive search, but this has been fiendishly well-designed, to maximize the need for searching. Such design effort just to thwart intelligent searches is worthy of mention.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Love of science and depth of knowledge

For a successful modern society, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Technology cannot be fooled. -- Adapted by JCS from Richard Feynman's final sentence in his appendix to the Report of the PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.

Thinking In Engineering

Suppose someone says "I love French [the language]." You'd probably assume they spoke French. If someone says "I love skiing," you'd probably assume they can ski; if someone says they "love science," well, that's a bit more complicated.

In fact, if people "loved French" like they "love science," most of them wouldn't be able to translate "Oui."

And that's a problem on three different levels:

1. At the most basic level, pretending to like science but with no interest in learning any (which is what "I love science" people do) creates a disconnect between words and reality. That disconnect has been thoroughly exploited by publicity-seeking celebrities, opportunistic politicians, and greedy stem-o-preneurs to advance their own agendas.

2. Past this basic 'branding/image-driven' level, we find that those who benefit from a distortion of the meaning of science (STEM, really) and those who are afraid their pretense will be exposed actually act against the advancement of science (STEM, really), using arguments more suited to politics ("x percent of scientists believe that..." as if science was a matter of votes) or authoritarian autocracies.

3. But at a very deep level, this "I love science" pretense corrupts the very idea of actually knowing or understanding something, which is essential to the development (and maintenance) of our technological-dependent society.

A previous blog post has touched on this idea, but we'll elaborate on it here, with some implications.

The figure at the top describes four levels of knowledge, roughly separated by their real-world implications; a big problem with the "I love science" crowd is that they act as if the differences between these levels have no real world implications, which they do. From top to bottom:

Ignorance, particularly when combined with obliviousness, can be funny but can also be exasperating. I make some hay from media ignorance in a number of posts (one, two, three), and YouTubers Thunderf00t and EEVblog have fun debunking nonsense that's based on exploiting this ignorance.

But ignorance of science persists, and persists in people who "love science," mostly because their interlocutors are not willing to ask questions. Imagine that someone said they love French; we could then say "tu parles Français, alors?" The people who love French like they "love science" will hear gibberish. This would be an immediate "poseur" alarm; but most people who would do it for French won't ask these questions for science.

(One may even be called anti-social for asking sciencey things to someone who "loves science.")

A passing familiarity with the topic can be a dangerous social trap. As the joke goes, these are the people who believe they can argue successfully with an expert based on having heard a TED talk on the subject while cycling at the gym. It's particularly dangerous when this passing familiarity is acquired by reading popularization tomes created by popularizers (instead of people working in the field).

The problem with passing familiarity is that most people tend to overestimate the reach of their familiarity, mistaking the recognition of sentences for actual understanding of those sentences. In our continuing French example, this would be the case of someone who had some French lessons decades ago and watches French movies with subtitles but can't do much more than ask people in France if they speak English.

In STEM this is a complicated level, since there are people who have a reasonable qualitative understanding of the issues without being able to actually solve technical problems (of any complexity), while there are others who follow the Mythbusters' "science as big booms" or focus on the scientists rather than the science.

There's a second-order effect in this problem, which comes from the importance of quantitative thinking in STEM. Many people have some sort of numerophobia: they resist numerical thinking for whatever reason. Perhaps insecurity, perhaps bad experiences with the educational system. But for STEM, once we're past the basics, numbers matter. Numbers become all that matters.

(There's an interesting case of this familiarity-level overreach in Business Management [as a discipline]: many people who have a vague familiarity with business speak think that they actually know business material. Some of them say things as ignorant as "management is just common sense," at which point I ask them to value an option or process some market research data using common sense.)

Operational knowledge is the level at which most people who actually know something operate. For our French example, that would be a person who can communicate like a French person (talk with French people, watch French-language movies and TV shows, write blog posts in French, read French books).


In STEM this level is easy to separate from the passing familiarity (and to divide into sub-levels) by using actual applications. In the chart at the top of the post, computing the angular speed of the axles of a differential is a simple, high-school level Physics question; the kind of thing engineering students have to know how to do in their freshman year.

I have in the past suggested screening social interactions using simple questions, sometimes as simple as asking for basic unit conversion (how many Joule in a kilowatt-hour?) sometimes with a problem or two:

Fundamentals. Usually forgotten before end of formal education.

A deep understanding of the field is something most people, including those who have operational knowledge, have no need for. Continuing with the French example, this would be the case of someone who creates crossword puzzles for Le Monde, copyedits literature tomes in French, and generally argues fancy matters of language.

In STEM these tend to be the Research and Development departments, the research scientists, the design engineers, the specialized technical consultants. In other words, the people who create the future of our technological society.

(At this point one feels obliged to note that people with a deep understanding of STEM tend to be the most reviled in most social environment: cf. definitions for nerd and geek.)



What is both ironic and dangerous is that (as indicated in the chart at the top) the number of people in each level of knowledge decreases with increasing knowledge, but (not indicated in the chart) the level of confidence these same people have in their statements about STEM doesn't. I believe that this is a definite change relative to a few decades ago, and not a change for the better.

It appears that the cost of increasing the popularity of "loving science" was the loss of meaning of "knowing science" (STEM, really). This is a dangerous trend in a technology-dependent society.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A bunch of nonsense, obviously. But why does it persist?

Science, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the human species, in its ever-increasing scientific knowledge and broad diffusion of said knowled... wait, that's not right.

Problem with science popularization

A lot of what passes for "science" in the public arena is complete nonsense. Pure, unadulterated bovine feces, metaphorically speaking, if one may be so bold. And one may be so bold, because the nonsense is bold: boldface bald-faced lying to the general public, promoted by those who know nothing to those who know little for the benefit of those who know the right people...

Thunderf00t has posted a couple of more-or-less sciencey videos (why not do things a little more precisely, I ask...? Patreon him some moolah, maybe he'll be able to afford a haircut), one on the EM drive and one on spinning solar cones nonsense:


As for the EM drive, I like Lubos Motl's approach better (emphasis added):
I am sorry but if this stuff was allowed to be published in a journal, it only means that aside from the 7 men listed as co-authors, there exists at least one additional imbecile who was hired as a "referee". So there are at least 8 imbeciles in the world. What a profound discovery. In reality, there are surely billions.
The spinning solar cones nonsense is nonsensical, and TF does a reasonable job of ridiculing it. It does raise the question, though, of why this nonsense keeps coming, and why it keeps coming from the alternative energy crowd. I think I can venture a guess or two, having interacted with a large number of IGORs whose attitude to knowledge ratio approaches infinite.

Why the nonsense keeps coming: because it's profitable for those purveying it.

Why in the alternative energy crowd: because most people who understand energy production and transmission avoid this crowd like the plague (it being filled with IGORs), unless they profit from the crowd's ignorance; so the crowd is composed mostly of well-meaning ignoramuses and con artists exploiting their ignorance.

As an aside, there are some very effective solar-powered electricity production facilities. They are called hydroelectric dams. (What? You didn't know that the Sun powers the water cycle on Earth?) Personally, I am ambivalent about these dams, as their reservoirs destroy usable land but also create large artificial lakes for recreational boating.

Most of the alternative energy crowd wants to do something to save the environment (laudable, that), but they don't know -- and don't want to learn -- engineering and science (not so laudable, that), and therefore fall victim to the publicity-seeking, ignorant statements of uneducated celebrities, opportunistic politicians, and greedy eco-preneurs.

Problem with science popularization

One might surmise that falling victim is not their fault, but in fact they don't just fall victim, they jump in and call for more victimization. (I believe there are some clubs in San Francisco SoMa that cater to a similar set of preferences.)

If "communications studies" graduate Bob talks over Nina the electrical engineer when she tries to explain how wind generation without efficient storage isn't a practical source of energy, that kind of arrogant ignorance is definitely Bob's fault.

(Nina looks like MIT Materials Engineering professor Donald Sadoway in this video:

  .)

When Bob's retort to Nina's question "how many Joule in a kilowatt-hour?" is to call Nina a nerd and accuse her of destroying the planet (with 6th-grade science questions, apparently), that's definitely Bob's fault.

I don't pity the Bobs (or IGORs) of this world, as their ignorant arrogance is their fault. I pity those who have to live in places where the ignorant arrogance of the Bobs and IGORs is exploited by uneducated celebrities, opportunistic politicians, and greedy eco-preneurs, to get publicity, political power, and unearned money, all at the expense of the general public.

It's almost as if large numbers of ignorant arrogant people were a detriment to technologically advanced societies.

Australia: proof the correlated risks aren't just for finance
Oops… [in Australian]

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Collected midweek geekery

😎 Zero Hedge reposts an article about unemployment in the age of robots: coming for you in five years. Too optimistic regarding robots, but a lot of process reengineering has been going on, motivated by, among other things, the increasing cost of labor and the low cost of borrowing money for capital investment. I think 10-15 years is a better estimate than 5 years, at least for "millions of american jobs" to be at risk.

😎 Fun things you find in NOAA charts: the water off the coast of Southern California seems to be a bit of a munitions dumping ground...  nothing to see here, just "chemical munitions dumping ground, disused." Nice to know it's disused; I'm sure chemical munitions are really stable over decades and their casings not subject to corrosion in constantly moving salt water... oh, wait.


(Those are the beaches that appear in lots of movies and TV shows.)

😎 Super-capacitors are coming. Well, there's another discrete improvement in those super-capacitors, at least. These are storage devices that don't convert the electrical energy into another form (say chemical for batteries), but rather store it directly as an electric field between two electrodes separated by a dielectric. This makes for a very quick charge and much better roundtrip efficiency after several discharge cycles. Read the paper here (you may need to go through a public library proxy.)

😎 Congratulations to the United Launch Alliance for another successful launch, this one a spy mind control communication satellite for the military-industrial-intelligence complex:




πŸ˜‚ Speaking of energy storage, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bananarama, ahem Bainimarama, announced his country's investment in a new technology that uses the "excess energy stored outside the battery in your cell phone" to recharge the batteries of the cell phone. I believe it uses Multi-Access Generative Integrated Congruence for that, or M.A.G.I.C. for short.

πŸ˜‚ The MIT football team, "Engineers" because "Nerds" is a registered candy trademark, are as of last week 3-and-8; the allegedly professional football foosball team known as the San Francisco 49ers are 1-and-10, the 10 losses having been in a row.  The 49ers have a 12 million dollar a year quarterback; the Nerds have a quarterback that has to keep a B+ or better average in one of the most academically strict schools in the world. I'm not an expert on sports or anything, so is 10 losses in a row good or bad?

πŸ˜– This week's example of "if you want to help the cause, join the other side" comes from the Daily Kos, where apparently their illustrators know less about zoo-geography than my 6-year-old nephew after watching Happy Feet:


I've been told it's a photoshopped photo, but that's nothing compared to the small difference between the North and South poles. Penguins live close to the South pole; polar bears and seals live close to the North pole. Little kids know this; the Daily Kos apparently doesn't.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Res Ipsa Loquitur

The thing speaks for itself.

Words to live by when making illustrations; words that are mostly ignored by most people. But since I had a free evening (social engagements in this cold? No way I'm living my comfy warm home!), I decided to make a couple of figures, just to keep the skill well-honed.

First, using data from Spaceflight Now, I punch a hole through the most dramatic part of the plot of The Martian, the mutiny:

We're living in a space opera future: 13 space launches planned for December

And using a 1853 geographical survey of San Francisco, from the NOAA archives, I make fun of the San Francisco Millennium Tower, also known as the Leaning Tower of San Francisco:



If you believe that these are good communication tools, I recommend Edward Tufte's web site as a source for information design. If you don't I still recommend it.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Friday night geekery

Just because I'm a quant doesn't mean I lost my marketing eye


This is almost surely a case of pricing oversight. But it creates an attention-based segmentation tool that might be worth exploring. Also, as a customer, from now on I'll make a point of searching broadly... one never knows.

Finding fault with Independence Day: Resurgence

Some people watch a movie and eat popcorn, some people watch a movie and do basic math that shows how ridiculous the movie premise is:


The calculation is quite simple, using only Pythagoras's theorem (not drawn to scale):


Because someone made a good point that this could actually be used to motivate little ones to learn math (When do kids learn the Pythagorean theorem? I ask because the movie is PG-13.), here's an easier to read version (add numbers yourself; they're above if you need them):


And from the web, the layers of the atmosphere, to show how tall those spaceship legs would have been, and how wrong their representation in the movie (about 2-5km high, definitely inside the Troposphere) was:



'm sure that's the only scientific/technical/military error in the whole movie. Hollywood prides itself on accuracy and verisimilitude! Just kidding; here's Cinema Sins with some other problems:




And, by the way, did the story really need a shot of Brent Spiner's buttocks? Really? That which has been seen cannot be unseen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Again, the problem with science communication

The problem with science communication is the science communicators who aren't interested in communicating science.

Take, for example, this tweet:
Yes, it's quite obvious that the Science Channel twitterer is referring to the solar system, not the galaxy.

No. That's not true.

The announced television show itself, I'm sure will get that right. But the twitterer? I literally can't even, as the kids say. And I literally can't even... bet a cup of coffee that the twitterer understands the difference between the solar system and the galaxy --- because I have an MBA.

Yes, a Master's degree in Business Administration, and that's what tells me that it's quite likely that the twitterer has no clue about the science. First, because it was posted at midnight on Friday; second, because it's television; and third because it's on twitter.

It's not even a case of people who "love" science (as long as they don't have to learn any). It's more a case of 'we need a "communications/social media team" for this property.' (Property here refers to the Science Channel.) That's the twitter part: the team is grown as an appendage to the marketing group because that's how people in media tend to see twitter, just another channel to add to the communications mix.

And these "communication/social media team" members are recruited from communication programs and from people who are part of the influence network of those in charge of recruiting, because that's how things are done in mass media conglomerates. So that's the television part.

At midnight on a Friday, the most junior or least competent members of the team will be the ones operating the account. And those are likely to be the ones who are least likely to know the difference between galaxies and solar systems.

But the recruitment of people who know nothing about science to positions of science communication isn't the worst problem.

The worst problem is that there's no problem, not really, because:
  • Since the audience doesn't care, the advertisers don't care either. After all, it's not like they really want a critical thinking audience for their commercials. (Remember, I have an MBA. Only few products and companies want a critical thinking audience.)
  • Since the advertisers don't care, the channel management doesn't care. And most in management have no interest in science; it's a product to be sold, just like potato chips and time-share vacations.
And the science-educated audience, the ones who notice these things? Well, everyone hates a know-it-all tattle-tale nerd. Until the technological society that was built by engineers on the foundations of science collapses.

Then, well, then that was a totally unpredictable act of God Nature.

Problem with science popularization

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Why I write careful posts on nonsensical topics

Basically, because I'm not allowed to write or talk about work-related matters.

So I apply my considerable intelligence, broad knowledge, and unbeatable modesty to things like the differences between powerlifting and bodybuilding (and the superiority of the former over the latter), using the standard B-school two-by-two matrix format (click for bigger):



I also take to task people who think that knowledge is superfluous as long as their intentions are good (or at least consistent the the current "virtuous" narrative). For example, I did congratulate TIME for not using a photo of cooling towers for this article (unlike almost everyone else who uses images of cooling towers' steam to write about pollution),


but I do have to point out that most of what's seen coming out of those stacks is also steam. First, the color and the shape of the expansion give that away, but even if they didn't, gaseous $\mathrm{CO}_{2}$ is transparent, as is water vapor. (Steam is liquid water suspended in water vapor.) And soot and other common pollutants have distinctive colors; that white means water.

If you're surprised that combustion would generate water vapor, which condenses when it expands at the top of the stack, remember that hydrocarbon-based fuel combustion is mostly
$ \mathrm{C}_{n}\mathrm{H}_{m}  + (n+ m/4)\,\,\, \mathrm{O}_{2}\rightarrow n\,\,\, \mathrm{CO}_{2}  + m/2 \,\,\, \mathrm{H}_{2}\mathrm{O},$

and most of the rest (nitrous and sulfurous compounds, metals, soot and ash, the souls of the damned) are removed from the smoke before it's allowed to leave through the stacks (because of laws against pollution):



Sometimes I do take the nonsense dial to 11 --- but all the calculations are correct.

About a year ago, when I temporarily changed the name of this blog to Project 2016, the idea was to track non-work related learning, which is one of my hobbies; but time constraints made me choose between actually learning stuff and blogging about it, and I chose the learning.

So, expect some more carefully thought-out nonsense. Careful thinking is another one of my hobbies, so I practice it even on nonsensical topics. I have very strange hobbies: another one is moving heavy objects for no immediate purpose, like this gentleman



Live long and prosper -- JCS

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Non-linearity is a pain in the neck and other smart content of this week

Non-linearity is a pain in the neck

Literally; and I use "literally" literally, not figuratively.

Most of the time we have an implicit linear worldview: if $x$ effort gives you $y$ result, then $(1+\epsilon)x$ effort should give you $(1+\epsilon)y$ result, approximately. And in many cases, where the $\epsilon$ is very small, this tends to be the case.

But the world isn't linear, especially in the gym. Especially in conditioning. (Editor note: conditioning is like cardio, except it actually works because it's high-intensity, short, and paused; that makes it very painful. This is why most people who are happy with no results prefer cardio, which delivers no results with only mild discomfort.)

Along with the basic, more functional conditioning movements (hill sprints, farmer's walks, stair sprints, sandbags), I've been doing medicine ball Atlas stones. Basically, one lifts a medicine ball from between one's feet to a platform above shoulder height (like an Atlas stone), then brings it back to the floor. Like any other conditioning exercise, this needs to be done correctly to avoid injury and not the CrossFit way of "fake it until you break it."

(The real Atlas Stone exercise. Those are not medicine balls.)

Medicine ball Atlas stone lifts have one of the most nonlinear pain response functions in the gym. Basically, for the first 5-10 reps, it feels like nothing is happening; the heart rate raises slowly and the muscles get a little hot. Then, at about 15, you discover muscles that never hurt before; discover them as they start hurting hard and fast. I discovered several new muscles in my neck --- and I regularly train neck as part of the posterior chain.  At 20-25, the ball has become pure neutronium, the platform has relativistically moved up several parsecs, and your blood pressure could drive a nuclear power plant turbine. So you rest 90 seconds, then restart; that's conditioning.

That's non-linearity.

In fact the response function is highly non-linear, not something that could easily be approximated with a low-degree polynomial, so I propose the following model:

Plot of $\mathsf{Pain} \doteq \exp(\exp(\exp( 0.035 \times \mathsf{Reps})))$

One of these days I'll write something serious about the misuse of linearity in everyday thinking; possibly also comment on the use of "exponential" to describe all convex functions and the unprofessionalism of drawing said "exponentials" on slides using the 'draw ellipse segment' tool in PowerPoint instead of plotting the actual function. But that's for another day.

Added Nov 16, 2016: while we wait for that "another day," here's a visual comment on convex functions:




Stephen Wolfram helps popularize science. Real science.

Stephen Wolfram, creator of Mathematica and author of A New Kind Of Science (but don't hold that book against him), helped the producers of the movie Arrival (2016) make less fools of themselves than the usual in scifi movies:
When I watch science fiction movies I have to say I quite often cringe, thinking, “someone’s spent $100 million on this movie—and yet they’ve made some gratuitous science mistake that could have been fixed in an instant if they’d just asked the right person”.
Part of that is the audience, who says "I love science" but really only likes the image (or at most the idea) of liking science and has no interest in actually learning any. It's like those people who like the idea of getting in shape, but don't exercise or change their unhealthy habits.
Occasionally one can see code. Like there’s a nice shot of rearranging alien “handwriting”, in which one sees a Wolfram Language notebook with rather elegant Wolfram Language code in it. And, yes, those lines of code actually do the transformation that’s in the notebook. It’s real stuff, with real computations being done. (Emphasis added.)
Here's Dr. Wolfram (whose alter ego is Mr. Tungsten --- couldn't resist πŸ˜€) talking about serious things:




Living in the future is great, never mind those who long for the "good" old times.

I have two words for these who long for the good bad old times: modern dentistry. (Not my original thought, but I've heard it from many sources; don't know original attribution. Still effective at capturing the power of technological change at an emotional level.)

Ai Build's system uses video cameras outfitted with machine learning algorithms to allow robots to learn from their mistakes—meaning they can operate more quickly, correcting for errors on the fly instead of moving slowly to prevent them. According to Cam, Ai Build's arms can print in half the time it would take using standard techniques. (Via Singularity Hub.) 

In one of the first medical applications of this concept, Synlogic has patented a version of E. coli engineered to develop “an unquenchable appetite for ammonia” and turn it into the amino acid arginine, which, unlike ammonia, is harmless to the human body. (Via Singularity Hub.)  

Media Briefed on New NASA Hurricane Mission


As you can see, NASA is causing all these hurricanes to create a New World Order where scientists will rule and… huh, no. It's just that hurricanes are kind of easier to spot from high above the atmosphere than from the basements where the people who come up with these NASA conspiracies spend their lives.



That's it for this geek-out. Live long and prosper. --JCS



(Mood music.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Powerlifters vs Gym Rats, take 2

(This is a redo of the numbers in my previous powerlifters vs gym rats post, with assumptions that are less favorable to powerlifters.)

First, since we need some sort of metric to compare athletes, I'll unbiasedly πŸ˜€ choose the average of three lifts, bench press, deadlift, and squat, as a percentage of the bodyweight of the athlete. Call that metric $S$.

We'll use a standard Normal for the distribution of this metric, by subtracting the mean (100 percent of bodyweight for non-powerlifters, assuming that the average gym rat can bench, deadlift, and squat their own bodyweight) and dividing by the standard deviation (say 15 percent of bodyweight, using the scientific approach of judging 10 to be too little and 20 to be too much). In other words, for non-powerlifters, $z \doteq (S-100)/15.$

As in the previous post, we'll assume that powerlifters are 1 percent of the gym rats; but instead of the powerlifters having a mean at 2 (in $z$ space, 130 in $S$ space), they only have a one-SD advantage, that is their mean is at 1 (in $z$ space, 115 in $S$ space). In other words

$\qquad z \sim \mathcal{N}(0,1)\qquad $ for non-powerlifters
$\qquad z \sim \mathcal{N}(1,1)\qquad $ for powerlifters

Using these assumptions we can now compute the percentage of powerlifters that exist in a gym population above a given threshold; we can also compute the median score of all athletes who score above that threshold (click for larger):


Note that the conditional median that we're using here is lower  than the conditional mean, as the conditional distribution is skewed to the right, i.e. has a long right tail. The choice of the median is more informative for skewed distributions as a "sense of what we'll see in the gym."*

It's interesting to note that this is the median of the combined distribution of powerlifters and other gym rats, weighted by their proportion in the population above the threshold, so the difference between this median and the threshold is a non-monotonic function of the threshold as the curvature and the weight of the distribution of each type of athlete change significantly in the $1-8$ range of the table.

Under these weaker assumptions (pun intended), only when the threshold for inclusion passes 5 standard deviations from the other gym goers' mean do powerlifters become the majority of the qualifying athletes. Unless the gym is full of football players (that's american football), weightlifters, and strongman competitors, I think these assumptions are too unfavorable to powerlifters.

Here are some strong athletes moving metal, for variety (NSFW language):


"While they squat I eat cookies" has to be the most powerlifter-y sentence ever.

Update Nov 11, 2016: Here's the percentage of powerlifters in the population of qualifying athletes for different assumptions about the advantage of powerlifters (i.e. the mean of the powerlifters' distribution in standard deviation units); click for larger:



- - - - - -
* Unless there are CrossFit-ers in the gym, in which case what we typically see in the gym is dangerous, counter-productive nonsense.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Parable of the stamp collecting community



Once upon a time there were some people who collected stamps.

They got together on discussion forums, organized small conferences, and had animated discussions about their stamps and their stamp collecting.

One day, at one of these conferences on stamp collecting, a speaker (who, unbeknownst to others, wasn't that keen on stamp collecting) decided instead to start attacking email and those who use email. And proceeded to assert that email users who collected stamps were creating a hostile environment for non-email users in the stamp collecting community.

Much consternation ensued, both in the conference and the online discussion groups. Shortly after, a well-known figure in the stamp collecting community, the best-selling author of "The Franking Machine Delusion" posted a sardonic dismissal of the original speaker's concerns with email, by comparing it to the plight of stamp collectors in lands where franking is mandatory.

This was taken by some in the community as a direct personal attack, while others thought that the side of the original speaker was the one that had opened up hostilities. Soon after, the then-nascent stamp collecting community broke into three camps, though only the first two were clearly visible:

• The augmented stamp collectors, who believed that in order to be a stamp collector one also needed to have a position on email, that position being against, and -- for good measure -- positions on a dozen or so other issues, some as far removed from stamp collecting as the price of tea in airport cafes.

• The orthodox stamp collectors, who, despite asserting their focus on the stamp collection part of stamp collecting, also took positions on many of these other issues, usually in the opposite direction of the augmented stamp collectors. And, like the augmented stamp collectors, the orthodox stamp collectors spent all their energy and time on these other issues, justifying it as defending the community against the augmented stamp collectors.

• The people who just wanted to collect their stamps in peace, who therefore ignored these two groups, stopped frequenting the discussion groups and conferences, and generally lived a much better life, though with the loss of community. This was by far the largest, though the least visible of the groups.

[...]

Several years later, an outside observer remarked that the stamp collecting community appeared to be entirely made of people who didn't collect stamps, but had very strong opinions about email and other non-stamp issues. In fact, they had conferences notionally about stamp collecting that were one hundred percent about these "other" issues.

Meanwhile, some people who didn't belong to the "official" stamp collecting community were happily getting together to admire each other's stamp collections and celebrate their interest in stamp collecting. They just had to be careful to avoid letting any member of the "official" stamp collecting community know about these gatherings.

Otherwise they too might end up with "stamp collecting events" that had nothing to do with stamps.

- - - - - END OF PARABLE - - - - -

When people are brought together by a joint interest in something, they tend to drift apart when that something is superseded by other, unrelated, matters. Social parasites don't care, they jump from community to community, feeding off the attention (and sometimes more tangible rewards) of the communities as they kill them.

This lesson is always learned too late by the communities they invade, exploit, and eventually kill. The communities that survive are those who police themselves against invasion of unrelated matters. The ones that don't die a slow, ugly, contentious death.

On a totally unrelated topic, how are those skeptic/atheist conferences doing? I'm asking for a friend.

By the way, a quote that's all-too-apropos these days:

On this hill!? On this hill you choose to die!?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Kicking "Angels and Demons" while it's down

First, the ever entertaining Cinema Sins:



Now for some science. Let's assume that the stolen vial contained 1 gram of antimatter. Then, the explosion would release $E = mc^2 = (0.002) \times (3 \times 10^8)^2 = 1.8 \times 10^{14}$ Joule. At 4.184 petajoule per megaton of TNT equivalent, that is an explosion of roughly 43 kiloton.

(The more observant readers will notice that there's two grams in the energy computation. That's one gram each matter and antimatter.)

The operational ceiling of helicopters is around 25,000 ft, but the helicopter piloted by Ewan McObi-Wan Kenobi is nowhere close to that altitude when he jumps. An air burst of 43 kiloton even at say 10,000 ft would create a lot more damage than shown in the movie. (For comparison, Hiroshima's burst was at the yield-optimized height of 2,000 ft and with a yield of about 15 kt.)

So Ewan McThe Ghost Writer would probably be a carbonized carmelengo rather than a usurper to the Vatican throne. And probably so would the faithful in St. Peter's square and the Cardinals in Busch Stadium The Sistine Chapel.

- - - - Fait divers - - - -

Here's the page that CERN put up to address the errors in the movie.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who plays the assassin, plays the corrupt CEO of the energy company in the recent Danish series "Follow The Money." I guess he's typecast as the sociopathic type now.

I claim extra nerd points for using RStudio to do the computations (was already open; it's pretty much always open these days):



Sunday, October 23, 2016

Gravity "batteries"

When there's too little demand for electricity, certain grid operators (like the Portuguese one) use excess capacity to pump water from downstream of dams to the dam reservoir. This is a way to store energy for peak demand.

I understand that some mountainous region is studying the possibility of replicating this with a funicular that would operate as the water in the dam. The losses involved in moving the funicular imply low roundtrip efficiency (the ratio of the energy recovered to the energy entered into the "battery"). And, of course, the funicular can't be used for passengers, unless there's some special discount for unpredictable schedules.

At least two people have told me about a start-up (I forgot its name) that wants to solve the battery problem by using the same approach, only with dedicated masses on vertical tracks.

The tragedy of engineering is the murder of beautiful illusions by ugly numbers.

Let's say this company can use $100\%$ roundtrip-efficient motor/generators, that is, all the electrical energy that is converted into potential energy of the moved mass can be recovered as electrical energy with zero losses in the whole process. (Yes, this is a ridiculously generous assumption, but it won't matter.)

Say this company has a 1000 metric ton mass that can be raised up to 10 meters. It can therefore accumulate $98$ megajoule (MJ) or $27.44$ kWh. Sounds ok-ish for a battery, except:

1. If that mass is made of lead (density = $11.34$ kg/l), a cheap-ish dense material, its volume is 88.2 cubic meters. That's large for a battery: it's a cube almost 4.5 meters on the side. Remember that this assumes $100\%$ roundtrip efficiency motor/generators.

2. Gasoline has an energy density of $46$ MJ/l and jet fuel has an energy density of $42$ MJ/l; using a readily available commercial-grade combined-cycle generator with a $37.5\%$ total efficiency, 98 MJ can be generated with $98/(42 \times 0.375) = 6.22$ liters of jet fuel, or less than two gallons.

Okay, the combined cycle generator takes some space, but so do the motor/generators and the support frame for the 1000 ton mass. And the space for the vertical track, of course.

Numbers. Killing illusions. No wonder so many people avoid them.

- - - -

To make up for the bursted bubble of delusion, here's the feel-good video of this week:



Thursday, October 20, 2016

Much ado about the University of Cape Town video

Here are Thunderf00t and Computer Forever on it:



I can only assume that neither has been in academe for a while (no, Thunderf00t, I mean real academe, with students and administration and academic life; you know, that for which you talked down to Prof. Moriarty -- a curious reversal of the usual academic snobbery). This kind of thing is common enough in academia. And in most cases it's more entertaining than worrisome.

If the original video was of a meeting of the presidents of Caltech, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford, then I'd be worried. But these were kids having a bull session in college. As in something that happens in all colleges at various times.

There are some worrisome trends in the treatment of science, technology, engineering, and math in society. These kids are a distraction, and true to form the professional YouTubers bring attention and light to the distraction, inadvertently (I assume) helping distract from the more serious problems.


Sunday, October 9, 2016

Aging engineers versus experienced engineers


There are growing complaints that Silicon Valley companies discriminate against middle-aged engineers. But it might not be just ageism, it might just be aggregation error.

Engineering comprises mainly two things: a body of knowledge and a problem-solving mindset. To be a good engineer one needs an up-to-date body of knowledge in the relevant field and a facility with different problem-solving approaches used in the field (and possibly outside it as well).

(For the moment let's leave aside the problem-solving mindset; its dynamics are complicated and very situation-dependent: while some engineers acquire and develop problem-solving skills with experience, other fossilize their thinking, for example due to organizational practices.)

As part of what I do is continuing education, I have observed the dynamics of the body of knowledge as engineers' careers progress.

  • The largest group by far (sadly), makes little attempt to keep up-to-date with their field after formal education ends. In conversation, after a corporate training event, a member of this group told me that keeping up-to-date was "very nice in theory, but we don't have the time." All of us would like more time; but this person spent tens of hours per week watching TV. One of those hours per week spent updating their skill set would mean 52 hours per year, which would be more than enough (most of the participants in that event had fewer than 20h/year of training or study, and self-paced learning can be much more effective than group events.)
  • Most of the remaining engineers realized their technical obsolescence would become a problem and were retooling themselves for a management job. The main problem with this attitude is that there will always be fewer management jobs than engineers who plan to go into management. Secondarily, firms have both partially replaced management jobs with consultancy engagements and started prioritizing management-trained applicants over engineers.
  • A few engineers fell into a third category: those who keep up-to-date either because they realize the job implications of doing so or because they really love their engineering field. The problem, for those in this group, is that their small number makes them liable to be categorized into one of the other groups.

Placing ourselves in the position of Google, for example, the decision to consider a candidate who's been out of formal education for several years versus considering one that's just graduated --- even if Google believes that the energy of youth can be balanced by the temper of experience --- comes down to which of the three groups above the older candidate will fall into.

In the absence of good information, statistically the older candidate will be in the first group, in other words, aged, not experienced, a distinction that most of the engineers can but will not make (as it defeats their case).

(The younger candidate's type is irrelevant, because being fresh from school means an up-to-date skill set, at least for the near future.)

There are obviously many confounds: consider a choice between a newly minted computer engineer from Idaho State - Tubertown with no code to show (not even from school projects) versus a 45-year-old Caltech graduate class of '95 who has code on GitHub that is particularly relevant to the job, for example.

For the other engineers, who have been lax in their updating of skills, there's a solution: it's never too late to learn. And then: show, don't tell.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Midweek Nerd Pride Post

The thunder down under [brought down the electrical grid]

The South Australia state of, well, Australia serves as a reminder that correlated risks aren't just for financial crises:

Australia: proof the correlated risks aren't just for finance

Source for the timeline and quote: "PRELIMINARY REPORT – BLACK SYSTEM EVENT IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA ON 28 SEPTEMBER 2016" by AEMO  (PDF file)

(My previous analysis, from preliminary and incomplete data, suffered from lack of granularity.)

The memes started immediately:


I don't think the australians deserve this meme, though eight people have sent it to me so far, so it's clearly popular. The problem isn't the wind generation per se, it's the lack of large scale batteries, as explained here by Donald Sadoway of MIT.



Video killed the radio star bad science popularizer


I wrote a post on Sunday that was a little negative on popular science popularizers, but forgot to mention that the emergence of alternative media platforms, like YouTube, could counter the decline in the quality of science popularization on mass media. So here are a few examples from this week.

There's always something fun to watch on the Numberphile YouTube channel:




I watched the Norwegian TV show "The Heavy Water War" on Netflix in the last three evenings (two episodes per evening, not really a 'marathon') and therefore rewatched these fun videos from the YouTube Periodic Videos channel:




Walter Lewin shows how to make teaching come alive, teaching optics to high-school science teachers. He has the advantage of teaching Physics, with practical demonstrations (that is, using real physical objects), unlike those of us who teach more indirect material (like, say, decision-making or strategy or analytics):


As a contrasting example (of how not to talk about Physics), here's the announcement for the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics:


I'm sure there are pretty good Physics instructors in Sweden. But instead they did the European bureaucratic thing and had a member of the committee give the talk, apparently without any sense of how to weave a narrative or what to emphasize. Yes, I understand that he's a physicist, but not one that can present physics to a regular audience. (Compare with Walter Lewin above.)

As a bonus, the announcement also showcases the total lack of interest in science of the reporters assigned to cover this scientific prize. But that's par for what passes for journalism these days. Why bother with knowledge when you can ask "human interest" stories?


Staying with Physics, here's a fun lecture that basically tells us how much we don't know about the universe. Really, we know very little:



And, given the section title, here are the Buggles singing "Video killed the radio star"





Still geeky, but more technical…

Stats… Yesterday was the official October BARUG (Bay Area R User Group) MeetUp at Santa Clara University, so I went early and enjoyed their beautiful campus:

At Santa Clara University for the October BARUG meetup.

There was a talk about Benford's law (a statistical regularity of the distribution of the first digit of large sets of numbers. It was inspired by this Business Insider piece.

Two presentations showed political forecasting; not my thing, but one was an interesting application of kernel methods, particularly KRLS (kernel regularized least squares): Slides on GitHub here. Definitely worth checking out.


More stats… Nassim Nicholas Taleb (backed by Pasqualle Cirillo) is locked in a deathmatch with Steven Pinker and some of his more statistically-proficient supporters. Alas, I think this is game, set, and match for Taleb:



Even more stats… Andrew Gelman finds closure in his argument with Amy Cuddy and co-authors, from an unexpected side: one of the co-authors has now all but retracted the paper.

Some commenters raise an interesting question, for which I have no answer: given that the work on which hiring, promotion, and tenure of these authors was base is at best incompetent and at worst fraudulent, should these authors resign (or their institutions fire them)?

On the one hand, it might seem reasonable that when the work that supported some institutional decisions (hiring, promoting, tenure) is shown to have been invalid, those decisions should be revisited. There are legal questions that make this point moot, but in principle it appears to be a reasonable idea.

On the other hand, any such actions may make it less likely that people might own up to problems with their papers in the future. This isn't a small thing, as some of these errors might be" par for the field" at the time of writing but unacceptable a few years later.

In a follow up post, Andrew asks "Why is the scientific replication crisis centered on Psychology?" Good read, but here's a thought: When a paper "fails to replicate," the problem isn't in the replication, it's in the original research.



Linkage galore

Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 awarded to three pioneers of molecular machines via Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence.

Designer Babies, by Peter Diamandis.

Bacterial molecule trains the immune system to tolerate infection without inducing illness, on Medical Xpress, via Phys.org.

California eyes unusual power source: its gridlocked roads via Phys.org. No, not Solar Roadways nonsense; piezoelectric generation. Still probably nonsense in any appreciable scale, though.

This Huge Robot Will Drive Up and Build You a House, via Singularity Hub.

Privately-developed rocket aces abort test, via Spaceflight Now. Blue Origin's puddle jumper passed its abort test, so it's one step close to being able to take passengers to "space."



A book that's going on my reading list: The Paradox of Stupidity
As Jan Wallander, the ex-chairman of Sweden’s Handelsbanken, said: ‘Business leaders are just as fashion-conscious as teenage girls choosing jeans.’ Many companies adopt the latest management fads, no matter how unsuitable they are. If Google is doing it, then it’s good enough reason to introduce nearly any practice, from mindfulness to big-data analytics. - You Don't Have To Be Stupid To Work Here, But It Helps.