Saturday, May 6, 2017

Thinking hiatus

As I consider some possible major changes to life, this blog is in hiatus (has been for a while).

That's a hiatus for thinking, not a hiatus in thinking.

The blog will be moving to Wordpress: https://josecamoessilva.wordpress.com.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Word-thinking, Science Marches, Engineering, and my abs hurt.

🎵 Science! Ooo! What is it good for? Aah! Absolutely everything. 🎵

"If I drop a large ball bearing from a five meter height, how fast will it be going when it hits the ground? Approximately is fine."

This is a trivial Physics question, made simpler by the choice of numbers. Using $g=10$ $m/s^2$ as an approximation and ignoring other forces on the ball bearing (because they're relatively small), the time for the drop is one second ($5 = g/2 \times t^2$; solving yields $t=1$) and in one second the bearing accelerates to $ 1 \times g$, or 10 m/s.

Most people, including those who have had enough Physics in their formal schooling to know the above relationships, can't really answer questions like this. I've speculated that it's a mix of innumeracy (ignorance), acalculia (inability), and numerophobia (attitude).

It's also a reason why so many people believe that being word-thinkers over technical matters is acceptable. It's not. For a technological society to work, technical matters must be dealt in technical terms, and that almost always implies numbers-thinking.

Sadly, one sees the word-thinkers, or at least word-thinking, invading technical domains.



Many words about "science" but not one about scientific matters


There are several "Marches for Science" around the US today. Because there are some political undertones to some of the elements of these marches, a number of people who oppose the political side of those elements has made a lot of pronouncements about science.

(It's almost guaranteed that these people making pronouncements couldn't answer the question above, or do a mass calculation for the stoichiometric combustion of 2,4-dimethylpentane in pure oxygen.)

Politics aside, and that's a big aside, these people who are so concerned about the hijacking of science by political forces make a big deal of how the word "science" means a bunch of things, scientody, scidolatry, scientage, and other made up words, and then keep on harping about how the "dialectic" of this versus the "rhetoric" of that and so on and so forth.

Word-thinkers. Talking about science. The mirth potential is endless.

And as I read these (with my core muscles sore from yesterday's squat workout making belly laughs extremely painful), all that keeps going over in my mind is "can you explain the function of the Golgi apparatus?" or "what's the difference between alpha and beta decay?" Perhaps you wouldn't sound so ridiculous talking about "scientody vs scientage" if you could explain the macroscopic effects of the differences between a body-centered cubic crystal structure and a face-centered cubic crystal structure.

It's just ab-crampingly funny to read comments on how science works and how is should be interpreted by people who think that evolution and vaccines are conspiracies by the ruling elites to keep the sheeple under control, all data and evidence be damned. To read lofty words of advice on research methodologies by people who can't tell a burette from an Erlenmeyer flask.

As one might imagine, many of these word-thinkers about science are creationists, so it's without a drop of self-awareness that they talk about the sheeple "accepting authority" of scientists regarding the nature of reality.

Of course, most people don't simply accept the authority of scientists blindly; most people, at least people who think for a moment, recognize the incredible advances in quality of life brought on by science and technology (and the one that actually makes stuff, engineering).

While creationists accept the authority of, no, not God, they don't get their ideology from God (at least not without a large dose of LSD, Ayahuasca, or Psilocybin 'rooms -- and that's not God talking, that's the brain malfunctioning). They accept the authority of religious leaders, who have proven themselves a lot less than scientists and engineers.

As I said, not a drop of self-awareness.






Don't abracadabra with technical words, please

(This is an adaptation of a post on the EEVBlog forum.)

I pains me to see engineers use words as if they were incantations rather than technical concepts that have precise meanings.*

A little context: there was a discussion of a water-harvester device using a composite, MOF-81; there's a Science News article presenting it here and the actual peer-reviewed Science paper is here.

Some people complained that the paper itself is behind a paywall; I'm a member of the AAAS, so I can see it fine, but there are ways to read it without paying, the simplest one being through the proxy server of a public library. (Many libraries, including college libraries that carry Science online, have open proxies for their patrons and students to access online databases remotely; some of these proxies require no authentication or geographic validation.)

A few commenters in the forum were disparaging the research, using words like "thermodynamics" or "enthalpy of evaporation" without taking a minute to do some calculations. And no, you don't need to read the Science paper or solve the heat equation to avoid wrong statements.

The point of contention is the 3 liters of water per kg of MOF-81 per day. So, how much energy are we talking about and how big a surface to dissipate it?

The enthalpy of evaporation for water is 2.3 MJ/l and because it's so high you can pretty much ignore the energy of temperature change within the gas or liquid phases; only the phase change matters to a first approximation.

3 liters $\times$ 2.3 MJ/l = 6.9 MJ - per day, therefore (divide by 24*3600) 80 W of power.

(At this point most engineers should realize that there's no problem; 80 W from a large-ish metal surface in open ambient air will almost surely be peanuts. A human being radiates about 100-200 W depending on the level of activity, or at least that's the number used for HVAC dimensioning when I was in college, back in the Pliocene.)

How big an area are we talking about? Again, even without reading the paper we can do some basic calculations, assuming planar geometry for the MOF-81 deposition.

If the MOF-81 were as dense as lead, 11.34 kg/l, a thin(ish)-film deposition over the base material, say 1/25 mm, would lead to 2.2 $m^2$ of area, or a square about 1.5 m on the side. To dissipate 80 W. Piece of cake.

But since the MOF-81 is much less dense than lead and is deposited to maximize porosity (that's how the MOF-81 works, it's all physics, no chemistry), it's more like styrofoam, and the area would be around 24 $m^2$, which makes the "enthalpy of evaporation problem" a non-starter. (It was already a non-starter with 80 W in 2.2 $m^2$, but the 24 $m^2$ is closer to reality.)

(The actual geometry of the deposition is more complex, highly non-planar, making use of a copper foam that is infused with the MOF-81 powder, all on a copper substrate, but to know that you'd need the actual paper. Which you can easily read online using a library proxy.)

We are engineers; let's not act like muggles and resort to lobbing words around as if technical terms were incantations. If it's an engineering word, there are probably numbers hiding behind it somewhere. Get those numbers.

You shall know the numbers, and the numbers shall set you free.

 - - - -
 * Of course, not all forum denizens are engineers; trolls make themselves obvious by nitpicking on details that engineers would assume and by responding to math with word-thinking and cherry-picking.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

In memoriam

In remembrance of income lost to the revenuers, posting will be light during April.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Early April geekery

😎 Much ado about YouTube monetization: a few pictures

There's a lot of nonsense in my social media feeds about "The End Of You Tube" and other self-serving notions by people who lost monetization of their videos. Here are a few images about that, which I made in my free time and using only public information sources.





😎 Shane Killian again schools Thunderf00t on basics of Engineering




😎 Having some fun with Rstats

Since RStudio is always up on my machines, sometimes I use it for fun. First, not quite chaos, with the logistic map, $x(t+1) = r \, x(t) \, (1- x(t))$, for an $r$ below the critical level:

Then some cellular automata (using package CellularAutomaton):




Monday, March 27, 2017

Creationists attack evolution, hilarity ensues.

On a site that I occasionally peruse there was a post today about evolution. Since the owner of the site is a creationist and so are most of the commenters on that site, I decided to pick some short comments for analysis.

Usually creationists give themselves away by using "evolutionist" instead of "person who understands basic biology"; they also focus all their attention on politics and personalities instead of ideas and evidence, for example using "Darwinism" and "Darwinian evolution" instead of simply saying evolution.

Comments from that site in italic blue, my analysis follows them.


So now the neo-Darwinists are just like Darwin himself, once again they're holding to their theory out of dogmatic bloodymindedness in spite of the overwhelming evidence against it.

As they say on Wikipedia "citation needed." In fact, evolution by random mutation and non-random selection has been validated as a mechanism for speciation, for example with the flu virus; details of the process get increasingly better understood as we learn more from molecular biology, and as with everything in science, the evidence is what matters.

The alleged "overwhelming evidence against it" always ends up being something that has been thoroughly debunked ("how could an eye evolve?"), arguments from ignorance of the basics, cherry-picked or outright made-up data, personal attacks, or a combination of these.


No one understands the first thing about evolution because all of the predictions it makes come out false.

Ditto with "citation needed," and the response to previous quote.


[Responding to] "Surely, if it was intelligently designed by a supernatural entity or an alien, they would not have made such a very sloppy work."

Only someone who has never been in an engineering lab could possibly make such an ignorant statement.

Engineering labs make technology demonstrators and prototypes. Finished products are held to a different standard. (That was my beef with Thunderf00t's criticisms of the Hyperloop.)

If there had been a designer, then that designer would fail all design and product creation courses in existence, what with putting a waste disposal outlet and amusement area in such close proximity. No need to ask about the infinite regression of designers, which is what design arguments for life always end up tangled in.


Simple observation of the complexity of plant and animal life reveals the theory of evolution as one of the most retarded pieces of BS ever believed by human beings.

The ignorance in this comment might have been tolerated up to the 1960s, as explanations of the actual work of replicator dynamics and evolutionary stable strategies (not by that name, which is modern) were too technical for most people to understand. But since the 1970s there have been a slew of simple, easy-to-understand explanations of how the process works, so there's no longer any excuse for even a lightly-educated person to say such nonsense.


Darwinism violates the central limit theorem, one of the most fundamental laws of probability in the universe.

Now here we have a great example of a species called the Pomposus Ignoramus Maximus: someone who picks a concept at random, places that concept in a already-faulty argument, and states the resulting mess as fact.

The central limit theorem (more precisely, each central limit theorem, since there are many, each a generalization of an earlier one) says that under certain regularity conditions, the distribution of the sample mean converges to a Normal distribution with mean equal to the population mean and variance equal to the population variance divided by the sample size.

Note that this is a theorem about generalizing the results of sampling and has nothing to do with biology or evolution. That's the "picks a concept at random" part. Anyone familiar with a central limit theorem would understand that it has nothing to do with evolution, but obviously the commenter doesn't know that.

The "already-faulty argument part" usually goes as follows: because evolution creates what appears to be order, it violates the second law of thermodynamics. This argument is faulty on a number of different levels, the obvious one being that the second law of thermodynamics doesn't apply to open systems that receive energy from outside, and evolution, which depends on reproduction, does receive energy from the environment.

Of course, the first word, "Darwinism," gives the commenter away as an ignoramus, as no one who understands biology refers to evolution this way. "Darwinism" is used to make it appear as if evolution is just a political movement or a personality cult.



There was also a lot of nonsense about the Universe being a computer simulation. I'll let Lubos Motl deal with that.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Late March geekery and revealed preference


I drew a random sample of 100 pages from the browser history on my personal laptop, and then classified each of the pages into a number of categories. Results were rounded to 5% because such a small sample will necessarily contain a lot of noise; the 5% is essentially a low-pass filter cutting out the high-frequency noise of occasional browsing.

This is a very rough measure of preference, since it doesn't account for time spent on the page, for example, or other measures of interest. But it's a good starting point, and it matches interests outside of online content (books, videos, participation in forums). I classified book-related pages into the most appropriate category, so the two SciFi-related pages in the sample went into STEM, because they were hard-scifi not space opera.

STEM and business (including economics) are my work areas, but on that chart I map only the non-work related perusal. I start the day with a massive RSS-feed reader, about one- half business and one-half science and engineering; of that about two-thirds has no direct use for work. The other categories in the chart are personal interests with typically map to activities in the real, physical world: exercise, food, culture, and the Bay Area and California (events, traffic, weather, local news; I live in the world, after all).

One surprising omission is photography-related content, but that's the problem of 100 observations. I would have sampled 10,000 but then I'd need to classify those 10,000 by hand, so I didn't. I did have some hits from the StyleForum, but most were about food, not clothing or shoes, so they were classified appropriately. The London Lounge, alas, didn't appear in the sample.

Other than business and economics-related news, I don't follow current events, celebrities, gossip, or sports, so it's not an anomaly that they're not represented in the chart. (I get enough relevant news and cultural developments as part of the work-related information stream. Backed up by charts.) Obviously there's no adult or embarrassing content in my browsing  --- because I don't consume that, of course, not because I understand private mode browsing.

With the above distribution in mind, the rest of the post is an illustration of the content making up that revealed preference (and my take on some of it). I avoid commenting on business, management, and economics for work-related reasons, so I'll leave those out.


😎 Thunderf00t shows how Fukushima worrywarts are wrong:


Here's Thunderf00t being uncharitable again! Making these poor people stretch their 2 IQ points together to understand that 2 Becquerel per cubic meter of seawater from Fukushima is not so enormously dangerous when compared to 10,000 Becquerel from our own body radiation (for 100kg person). Or the extremely dangerous bananas.

Pretty interesting explanation about the bio-accumulation of Strontium (because of chemical similarity to Calcium, which is in our bones).


😎 Internet fitness experts, what a joke:


I could be naughty and notice that both of these pull-up experts have narrow shoulders and thin upper arms, which is interesting since the main purpose of pull-ups is to develop broad shoulders and thick upper arms. But I won't be naughty.


😎 Your tax dollars at work (at Fermilab): the weak nuclear force.




📕 I recently read Dan Ariely's "Payoff," an interesting book about motivation. Highly recommended for everyone: it's not about how to motivate employees (though it does serve that purpose), but rather how to understand one's own motivations. By allowing me to see outside of my own behavior, it clarified some issues of work-related happiness I'd been struggling with.


📕 Now reading Joel Mokyr's "A culture of Growth," an analysis of what really drove the success of industrial civilization. Not one to bury the lede, Mokyr states early on that, unlike what economists and historians (and economic historians) tend to think, it was not intellectuals driving the change but rather the pragmatics (what we would call engineers, entrepreneurs, and venture investors).


👍 Some interesting links:

  • What Costco knows about customers. This is the kind of thing I collect in case I start doing executive education (or regular MBA teaching) again. Interesting, and if I wanted to turn it into a discussion piece or an exercise, it would take less than one hour to do so. I browse these for fun (yes, I've idiosyncratic tastes), but there's a bit of a pragmatic background to it.


🎵 Closing music, via Voices of Music:


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reality vs nonsensical products (part 688 of Aleph-null)

Via Thunderf00t, I found this Waterseer-wannabe, which is about as feasible as the original Waterseer, that is not at all.



Obviously it's very important that the product is 3D-printed, rather than CNC-machined or heat-molded. 3D-printers, like the Internet Of Things, are magical incantations that can get around the laws of Physics. Or so one would think, given how credulous people become at the sound of these incantations.

Alas, as is usual with engineering, ugly numbers murder beautiful illusions:



Since the battery voltage is 12V, a 12kW Peltier effect cooler will require a 1000A current, which is likely to make Li-ion battery a bit... well, just watch what happens:



Engineering rule: when an electronic device starts outgassing, that's generally not a good thing.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The power of "equations"

If a picture is worth a thousand words, an equation is worth a thousand pages of text.

This was inspired by a livestream about free trade based on criticism of "original texts." (Basically Ricardo and Schumpeter.) The quotes aren't a diss on the texts themselves, but rather a way to emphasize that this is a type of scholarly pursuit in itself, though not the type used in modern economics, STEM, or pragmatic professional fields like business analytics or medicine.

What's the problem with the argumentation from these original texts? Simply put, the texts are long and convoluted, with many unnecessary diversions and some logical problems in the presentation. The valid arguments in these texts can be condensed in about one page of stated assumptions and two results about specialization.

It's not just that math's an efficient way to communicate, math has precise meaning and an inference process. It brings discipline and clarity to the texts and the inference process isn't open to debate. (Checks and corrections, yes; debate, no.)

Unfortunately, without math, the speaker's argument was essentially a sequence of variations on "Schumpeter points out that this assumption of Ricardo doesn't hold true," without the extra step of determining whether those assumptions are important to the final result or not. (We'll come back to this problem.)

Word-thinking about quantitative fields is generally to be avoided.

That was the inspiration, and this post isn't about free trade or the particular mode of thought of that speaker, but rather about the power of mathematical modeling, which I'm calling "equations" in the title.

Here's a reasonably robust statement: when the price of a commodity goes up, people buy less of that commodity. (Sometimes this is put as "demand goes down," which is incorrect, it's the demand quantity that goes down. Changes in demand are movements of an entire function.)

So, quantity is a decreasing function of price (and first-time readers of economics textbooks get confused because the charts have quantity in the $x$ axis and price in the $y$ axis). This has been known for a long time; what's the problem with that formulation, simplified to "when price rises, quantity falls"?

The problem, of course, is that there are many different types of decreasing function. Here are a few, for example (click for bigger):


Functions 1 to 4 represent four common behaviors of decreasing functions: the linear function has similar changes leading to similar effects; the convex function has decreasing effect of similar change (like most natural decay processes); the concave function has increasing effect of similar change (like the accelerating effect of a bank run on bank reserves); and the s-shaped function shows up in many diffusion processes (and is a commonly used price response function in marketing).

Functions 5 to 8 are variations on the convex function, showing increasing curvature. (Function 2 would fit between 5 and 6.) They're here to make the point that even knowing the general shape isn't enough: one must know the parameters of that shape.

That figure does have 2000 data points, since each function has 250 points plotted. (When talking about math, some people use drawing tools to make their "functions," I prefer to plot them from the mathematical formula; it's a habit of mine, not lying to the audience.) To describe them in text would take a long time (unless the text is a description of mathematical formulation), while they can be written simply as formulas; for example, the convex functions are all exponentials:

$\qquad y = 100 \, \exp(-\kappa \, x) $

with different values of $\kappa$. They are the type of exponential decay found in many processes, for example, where $x$ is time and $y(x) = \alpha \, y(x-1)$ with $y(0)>0$ models a process of decay with discrete-time rate $0 < \alpha < 1$. In case it's not obvious, $\kappa = -\log_{e}(\alpha)$.*

So, what does this have to do with reasoning?

Here we go back to the problem with arguments like "Schumpeter showed that Ricardo's assumption X was wrong." When a model is written out in equations, we have a sequence of steps leading to the result, each step tagged with either a know result, rules of math inference (say "$a \times b = a \times c$ simplifies to $b = c$ unless $a = 0$"), or an assumption of the model. This allows a reader to quickly see where a failed assumption will lead to problems and determine whether the assumption can be replaced with something true (or, as is the case with many of the assumptions made by Ricardo, is unnecessary for the result).

The main power, however, is that mathematical notation forces the speaker to be precise, and inferences from mathematical models can be checked independently of subject matter expertise. A mathematician may not understand any of the economics involved, but will merrily check that a decay process of the kind $y(n)= \alpha \, y(n-1)$ can be described by an equation $y(n) = y(0) \, \exp(-\kappa \, n)$ and determine the relationship between $\kappa$ and $\alpha$.

From those precise models, one can make inferences that take into account details hidden by language. Consider the "price rises, quantity falls" text and compare it with the different decreasing functions in the figure above. The shape of the function, its slope and its curvature have different implications for how price changes affect a market, differences that are lost in the "price rises, quantity falls" formulation.

It bears repeating the first mentioned advantage: that hundreds of pages can be condensed in one page of equations. Once one's mind is used to processing equations, this is a very efficient way to learn new things. Stories about Port wineries in Portugal and textile factories in England may be entertaining, but they aren't necessary to understand specialization (which is what comparative advantage really is).

Math. It's a superpower mostly anyone can acquire. Sadly, most opt not to.


- - - - - Addendum - - - - -

No self-respecting economist would use the Ricardo comparative advantage argument for international trade now, particularly because it's so simple it can be understood by anyone. Most likely they'd use some variation of the magic factory example:

"Let's say a new technology that converts corn into cars is discovered and a factory is built in Iowa that can take ~ $\$20,000$ of corn and convert it into a car that costs $\$30,000$ to make in Michigan. Can we agree that this technology makes the US richer?

Now, move the factory to Long Beach, CA. Maybe there's a little more cost in moving the corn there, but we're still making the US richer, right?

Now, someone goes into the magic factory and discovers that it's really a depot: stores grain until it's sent to China on bulk carriers and receives cars made in China from RoRos during the night. The effect is the same as the magic factory, so it makes the US richer, right?"

There are many cons to this example, but it does make one issue clear: trade is in many respects just like a different technology.


- - - - - Footnote - - - - -

* It's obvious to me, because after decades of playing around with mathematical models, I grok most of these simple things. There are some people who mistake this well-developed and highly available knowledge (from practice) for ultra-high intelligence (rather than regular very high intelligence), a mistake I elaborate upon in this post. 😎

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Collected early March geekery

😎 Two talks by Edward Tufte (I read Tufte's notebooks regularly):




😎 The end of modern medicine (rise of the superbugs):


Be afraid. Be very afraid. Ok, moderately cautious.


😎 Don't let Dave Jones borrow your pre-release not-yet-for-sale oscilloscope:


(The electrolytic capacitors in the power supply led to a big argument in the EEVBlog forum.)


😎 A digital clock coded using the Conway "game of life." From twitter user Abraham (click that link for an animated version, or get the code and run it on any of the many simulators):


Behold this example of "my code-fu is bigger than your code-fu." Nerds, nerds everywhere (on Stack Exchange, that is):
http://codegolf.stackexchange.com/questions/88783/build-a-digital-clock-in-conways-game-of-life/111932#111932
It's a French coder... I expect the clock to end the cycle with a "Ich gebe auf!" 😉


😎 Interesting paper on molten salt reactors, works as a good introduction (non-technical) to them. MSRs are the future of nuclear (at least for now).



😎 Nice to see physicists addressing the really important problems (not really):



😋 Two-ingredient (plus salt and spices) tomato soup: 6oz tomato paste, 24oz milk.

Two ingredient tomato soup.

And the final product (3 hours in the slow cooker), dressed with fresh basil and parmesan:

Two ingredient tomato soup dressed up with fresh basil and grated Parmesan.


🀄️ Easy puzzle from a repository of Martin Gardner puzzles: Which of the two dots is the center of the circle? Can you prove it?
(More of an optical illusion than a puzzle, since there's enough information in the picture to make a determination without guessing.)

I have a complete collection of Martin Gardner puzzle books and partly trace my interest in computation and information manipulation systems to the "Mathematical Games" columns in Scientific American. (And to their successor, "Metamagical Themas," which is an anagram of "Mathematical Games.")

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Deep understanding and problem solving

There's value in deep understanding.

Nope, I don't mean the difference between word thinkers and quantitative thinkers. Been there, done that. Nor the difference between different levels of expertise on technical matters; again, been there, done that.

No, we're talking the crème de la crème, experts that can adapt to changing situations or comprehend complexity across different fields, by being deep understanders.

Because any opportunity to mock those who purport to educate the masses by passing along material they don't understand, let us talk about Igon Values... ahem, eigenvalues and eigenvectors.

Taught in AP math classes or freshman linear algebra, the eigenvectors $\mathbf{x}_{i}$ and associated eigenvalues $\lambda_{i}$ of a square matrix $\mathbf{A}$ are defined as the solutions to $\mathbf{A} \, \mathbf{x}_{i} = \lambda_{i} \, \mathbf{x}_{i}$.

Undergrads learn that these represent something about the structure of the matrix, learn that the matrix can be diagonalized using them, how they appear in other places (principal components analysis and network centrality, for example).

But those who get to use these and other math concepts on a day-to-day basis, who get to really understand them, develop a deeper understanding of the meaning of the concepts. There's something important about how these objects relate to each other.

After a while, one realizes that there are structures and meta-structures that repeat across different problems, even across different fields. Someone said that after a lot of experience in one engineering (say, electrical), adapting to another (say, mechanical) revealed that while the nouns changed, the verbs were very similar.

This is what deep understanding affords: a quasi-intuitive grokking of a field, based on the regularities of knowledge across different fields.

For example: while many who have taken a linear algebra in college may vaguely recall what an eigenvalue is, those who understand the meaning of eigenvalues and eigenvectors for matrices will have a much easier time understanding the eigenfunctions of linear operators:


The structure [something that operates] [something operated upon] = [constant] [something operated upon] is common, and what it means is that the [something operated upon] is in some sense invariant with the [something that operates], other than the proportionality constant. That suggests that there's a hidden meaning or structure to the [something that operates] that can be elicited by studying the [something operated upon].

And this structure, mathematical as it might be, has a lot of applications outside of mathematics (and not just as a mathematical tool for formalizing technical problems). It's a basic principle of undestanding: what is invariant to a transformation tells us something deep about that transformation. (Again, invariant in "direction," so to speak, possibly a change of size or even sign.)

And this is itself a meta-principle: that the study of what changes and what's invariant in a particular set of problems gives some indications about latent structure to that set of problems. That latent structure may be a good point to start when trying to solve problems from this set.

Yep, really dumbing down this blog, pandering to the public...

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Deepwater Horizon: Movie not-a-review



Even though this is not a review, but rather a description of how to enjoy a movie through advanced nerditude knowledge, there are some noteworthy points:

- The beginning gives an idea of how much infrastructure supports offshore exploration and the number of different companies and support industries involved. Maybe this will reduce the "nuclear energy needs a lot of additional infrastructure" comments; I'm not optimistic, though, because those comments are born of ignorance and fear.

- Casting is phenomenal and the actors portray accurately the type of worker one finds in dangerous, rough, hard jobs. Props to John Malkovich who plays the quintessential John Malkovich villain, with additional villainy and a southern accent.

- A scene I thought was "too Hollywood," when Wahlberg runs across a burning rig to start the emergency generators and save the day (well, within possible), is actually true. It actually happened, pretty much the way they showed in the movie.

- Kudos for the minimal "character development," a disease that has made many other movies unwatchable. There was some, obviously, but the movie kept to the story and focussed on the main action (first the decisions leading up to the accident, then the evacuation of the rig).

- Instead of "you should really care about this person because they have a family and lost their dog when they were little"-type "character development," we get credible interactions among human beings (which humanize them a lot more than that usual pap) and an accurate depiction of the culture in heavy industry, epitomized by: Wahlberg (about the skipped cement test): "Is that stupid?" Roughneck: "I don't know if that's stupid... but it ain't smart."

- The class demonstration that Wahlberg's daughter is preparing in the kitchen foreshadows the blowout, but it's a bit Hollywood: the complexity of what happened is beyond the movie and in fact the movie has a lot of situations where it's clear the writers decided to move forward without trying to explain what was happening (it's a movie, after all, not a training film for petroleum engineers).

- For all the entertainment value of the movie, and the educational points one may take away from it, there were 11 fatalities, a large number of injuries, and an ecological disaster involved. So, it was nice of the producers to include the final vignettes commemorating the losses.

Now, to the hard nerditude.

I heard of the incident at the Macondo well (that's the correct name for the location, the Deepwater Horizon is the drilling rig) when it happened and for a while the news were, as usual, full of uninformed speculation, name-calling, mentions of Halliburton (always a good villain for certain parts of the population) and greed, and attacks on fossil fuels.

Not being a petroleum engineer, I assumed that (a) everything the media said was either wrong or very wrong; (b) at some point there would be smart and knowledgeable people looking at this; and (c) reports from these smart and knowledgeable people would be put online, as a prelude to the many many many lawsuits to come.

So, when a friend bought the movie (friends with kids are great: they buy movies that I can borrow), I borrowed it and in a moment of extra nerdiness decided to learn something about the Macondo/Deepwater Horizon incident before watching the movie.

I struck gold with Stanford University:


I had a general idea about how drilling works, but the details are quite important. This video was very helpful:


Being an engineer, I went to the reports too. The easiest to read is the report to the President. Having read the report helped situate the movie, since a few of the important events are not in it (some are referred to in passing):

Halliburton simulated a specific cementing plan for the well, but the actual cementing did not follow that plan. In particular, because of the tight window of usable pressures for the cementing, the cementing pipe had to be centered accurately in the hole using more spacers than were actually used. Halliburton isn't mentioned in the movie because (a) they are scary and have lots of lawyers; or (b) they didn't do what they had simulated, on orders from BP, which makes it BP's responsibility.

Schlumberger (Sch-loom-bear-g-heh, which a roustabout calls Schlam-burger to mock Wahlberg's correct pronunciation) was on site to conduct a test of the cement and see if it had set, but as the action on the movie arrives on the rig, the testing team is leaving without running the test (what happened in reality). There's no doubt that the cementing failed, since that's where the oil and gas got into the pipe and eventually the riser to the surface, so in retrospect that test would have saved the rig and well.

Unmentioned in the movie is the large quantity of highly viscous plugging fluid used as a spacer between the cement and the drilling mud, which might have blocked the narrow pipes of the kill line and shown the zero pressure when there was in fact pressure. This is the part in the movie when the writers gave up, decided that giving an impromptu course in deep-water drilling to the audience was not their job, and moved forward into the actual action.

The most unbelievable scene in the movie, when Wahlberg runs across essentially a field of giant exploding flamethrowers (the burning rig) to start the backup diesel generators, is actually true. The rig was all electrically-operated, including the thrusters; without electricity they had no lights, no PA, and lost control of the rig (it moved off-station enough that it pulled the drill string through the blowout preventer and possibly disabled parts of the blowout preventer that would have cut the pipe and sealed the well).

Watching the movie, I found it difficult to believe that Transocean management, especially HR, was okay with 1 woman and 125 men on a 21-day rotation on a drilling rig, but that is apparently accurate (maybe a few more women, but overwhelming majority of people on the rig were men). The potential for lawsuit-inducing behavior just seemed too high.

All in all, I think that the movie was much more fun to watch having read the report and watched the videos beforehand than it would have been otherwise. I would have been thinking about the discrepancy between the drill pipe and kill line pressure and the blowout preventer failure till the end of the movie, so I would have missed the emotional and action-loaded last thirty minutes.

The Wahlberg/Rodriguez jump was all Hollywood, though.



Update April 5, 2017: the problems in the blowout preventer.


Friday, February 24, 2017

If it's a math problem... do the math

Or, The Monty Hall problem: redux.

I recently posted a new video, addressing the Monty Hall problem. The problem is not the puzzle itself, which has been solved ad nauseam by everyone and their vlogbrother.


The video is about what information is. By working through the details of the Monty Hall puzzle, we can learn where information is revealed and how. That is the reason for the video; that and a plea for something so simple and yet so ignored that I'll repeat it again:

If it's a math problem, do the math.

Now, this may seem trivial, but math (and to some extent science, technology, and engineering, to say nothing of business, management, and economics) makes people uncomfortable, even people who say they "love math."

Hence the attempt to solve the problem with anything but computation. By waving hands and verbalizing (very error prone) or by creating similar problems that might be insightful (but mostly convince only those who already know the solution and understand it).

If all you're interested is the computations for the solution, they're here:



The point of the video is not this particular table; it's the insights about information on the path to it: how constraints to actions change probabilities and how those relate to information.

For example, from the viewpoint of the contestant, once she picks door 1 (thus giving Monty Hall a choice of door 2 and door 3 to open), the probability that Monty picks either door 2 or door 3 is precisely 1/2; that's calculated in the video, not assumed and not hand-waved. But, as the video then explains, that 50-50 probability isn't equally distributed across different states:



A final remark, from the video as well, is that by having computations one can avoid many time-wasters, who --- not having done any computations themselves and generally having a limited understanding of the whole state-event difference, which is essential to reasoning with conditional probabilities --- are now required to point out where they disagree with the computation, before moving forward with new "ideas."

If it's a math problem... do the math!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Practicing information presentation design

All skills need practice, and designing ways to present information is a skill.

Since I can't show work-related materials for legal reasons, and also I don't make as many presentations as I used to when it was, well basically my job, I keep my information-design skills in top shape by applying them to more entertaining matters.

(Click the images to magnify.)


Augmenting quotes: South Australia power woes.

In this case the quote is a tweet, but it works with longer quotes too.


I admit that there are elements of chartjunk in my design: the background of wind turbines and the Australian flag in an Australia outline. But those serve as additional cues to what really happened (and where): reliance on non-dispatchable capacity has made the South Australia grid a joke among electrical engineers.

South Australia has been featured on this blog before, for a worse case of the same problem.


A larger version of augmenting a quote: Popular Science shills for WaterSeer


In this case, it's an augmentation to critique, not to support. Thunderf00t has a science-accurate, still very snarky video about the WaterSeer:


(Added on Feb 19, 2017.)

Why, some ask, be so harsh on those promoting the WaterSeer, when equally stupid products like the Fontus Water Bottle and Solar Roadways, not to mention out-and-out con jobs like the Triton Artificial Gills exist?

The answer is that those products take money from people who are both relatively well-off and ignorant. The WaterSeer diverts money that would help the poorest of the poorest, and they have no say in the matter.

The Fontus Water Bottle takes money from people who buy multi-thousand-dollar bicycles and hundred-dollar socks; Solar Roadways fleeces taxpayers a little bit for a product that is stupid on its statement (put solar panels in the shade of moving vehicles).

The WaterSeer, by diverting money from solutions that could actually work, leads to more poor people dying. Clear enough?


Annotated photos: Oroville Dam repairs.

Engineering, that neverending fight between Nature and Man! In the case of the Oroville Dam, Nature's side got a lot of help from Man, or maybe one should say from politics, incompetence, bad design, and bad luck.


There were two points I wanted to make: the scale of the problem (which is nicely contextualized by the size of those dump trucks) and the misclassification of soft soil as a spillway. This one photo from the California Department of Water Resources, with minimal annotation, makes the case quite clearly. All that was needed was to make the points more salient for less attentive audiences.


Contrasting visual narratives with data: The California Drought

While photos (and videos) are great tools to support a narrative, much more so than text and massively preferable to data, sometimes contrasting the narrative (the two photos) with the actual data (the graphs from the California Department of Water Resources) can illustrate how the prevailing narrative is actually stretching the truth.



(Added 2/22/2017.)


Property maps: Science-adjacent television shows.

Recently I found myself binge-watching Numb3rs (from the DVDs, since Netflix has dropped them); it's one of the few fiction shows that actually included teaching vignettes. Charles Eppes would explain real mathematical concepts with simple illustrations and computer graphics.

Pondering that, I realized that The Big Bang Theory also does a little bit of that, much less of course, but there's one major difference: Charles Eppes is cool and well-accepted by the non-mathematicians on the show (and dating Navi Rawat, a/k/a Amita), while the scientists in TBBT are portrayed as total nerds.

The other TV show that portrayed a science-y person as cool was MacGyver (the original, the new one might as well be called McBourne); but in that show the science was terrible. But MacGyver was cool and more importantly, his approach to solving problems was "use your brain, not your fists."

Having been exposed to MacGyver early on, I started carrying around a Swiss Army knife, duct tape, and a lighter (I don't smoke, but MacGyver carried around strike-anywhere matches which were difficult to find in Portugal). I currently own eleven SAKs, from a small keychain model to one of the largest ones that's still practical to use. I don't own the ludicrously fat one.

So, there are two dimensions, goodness of science and coolness of scientists, which my MBA training says necessitates a two-by-two matrix:


But I'm a quant too, so I can do numbers and graphs. Using multi-dimensional scaling on similarity ratings (my own, so there's a clear researcher effect) on a number of television shows, we find more granularity:


House MD and Bones have better science than MacGyver and the vast majority of TV science fiction, but they don't discuss the science much. There are some times when Brennan introduces some real science in the discussion or House points out something accurate, so they aren't "teching the tech," but unlike TBBT or Numb3rs, there's never elaboration.

The scientists are portrayed as less nerdy than those in TBBT (and the general portrayal of people with technical skills in other shows); both Brennan and House have social foibles, but they are highly functioning and comfortable with themselves. They don't make science "cool" per se, but they make scientists central to society (curing people, solving crimes), rather than ivory tower researchers with no connection to the real world.

Numb3rs had a lot of support in the math community; a few links:

Side-by-side comparisons: EEVblog versus Thunderf00t.

Most data only becomes information when adequate context and knowledge are applied. In many cases, a contrast table (a side-by-side comparison) along appropriate variables can make the relevant points more salient. Behold:


This table was inspired by the coincidence that both EEVblog and Thunderf00t made debunking videos recently, one a good video with technical demonstrations and a clear analysis of what was shown, the other a snark-filled collection of fallacies, namely guilt-by-association (with Solar Roadways) and distraction (the video keeps talking about PET as if that was the plastic to be used).



(Yes, I know Thunderf00t's real name is known, but since he was doxxed, I don't use his real name.)


Note: someone asked what's suspicious about Thunderf00t's recent increase in the rate of video releases and the change in topic mix. When a male of the species increases money-making activities and starts avoiding topics like feminism, that's a strong indication that his mind has gone under the control of a female woman of the opposite sex, or what Millennials call "hooking up." Should the hypothesis be correct, we should see indications of more direct female oppression soon, like button-down shirts and a haircut.

(The obvious suspiciousness of an alleged Australian who's that pale is unquestioned.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Word Thinkers and the Igon Value Problem

Nassim Nicholas Taleb did it again: "word thinkers," now a synonym for his previous coinage IYI (Intellectuals Yet Idiots).
I often say that a mathematician thinks in numbers, a lawyer in laws, and an idiot thinks in words. These words don’t amount to anything. 
A little unfair, though I've often cringed at the use of technical words by people who don't seem to know the meaning of those words. This sometimes leads to never-ending words-only arguments about things that can be determined in minutes with basic arithmetic or with a spreadsheet.


To not rehash the Heisenberg traffic stop example, here's one from a recent discussion of the putative California secession from the US (and already mentioned in this blog): people discussed California's need for electricity, with the pro-Calexit people assuming that appropriate capacity could be added in a jiffy, while the con-Calexit people assumed the state would instantly be blacked out.

No one thought of actually looking up the numbers and checking out the needs. Using 2015 numbers, California would need to add about 15GW of new dispatchable generation for energy independence, assuming no demand growth. (Computations in this post.) So, that's a lot, but not unsurmountable in, say, a decade with no regulatory interference. Maybe even less time, with newer technologies (yes, all nuclear; call it a French connection).

There was no advanced math in that calculation: literally add and divide. And the data was available online. But the "word thinkers" didn't think about their words as having meaning.

And that's it: the problem is not so much that they think in words, but rather that they don't associate any meaning to the words. They are just words, and all that matters is their aesthetic and signaling value.

Few things exemplify the problem of these words-without-meaning as well as The Igon Value Problem.

In a review of Malcolm Gladwell's collection of essays "What the dog saw and other adventures" for The New York Times, Steven Pinker coined that phrase, picking on a problem of Gladwell that is common to the words-without-meaning thinkers:
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong. [Emphasis added]
Educational interlude:
Eigenvalues of a square $[n\times n]$ matrix $M$ are the constants $\lambda_i$ associated with vectors $x_i$ such that $M \, x_i = \lambda_i \, x_i$. In other words, these vectors, called eigenvectors, are along the directions in $n$-dimensional space that are unchanged when operated upon by $M$; the $\lambda_i$ are proportionality constants that show how the vectors stretch in that direction. Because of this $n$-dimensional geometric interpretation, the $x_i$ are the matrix's "own vectors" (in German, eigenvectors) and by association the $\lambda_i$ are the "own values" (in German, you guessed it, eigenvalues). 
Eigenvectors and eigenvalues reveal the deep structure of the information content of whatever the matrix represents. For example: if $M$ is a matrix of covariances among statistical variables, the eigenvectors represent the underlying principal components of the variables; if $M$ is an incidence matrix representing network connections, the eigenvector with the highest eigenvalue ranks the centrality of the nodes in the network.
This educational interlude is a demonstration of the use of words (note that there's no actual derivation or computation in it) with deep meaning, in this case mathematical.

Being a purveyor of "generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong" hasn't harmed Gladwell; in fact, his success has spawned a cottage industry of what Taleb is calling word-thinkers, which apparently are now facing an impending rebellion.

Taleb talks about 'skin in the game,' which is a way to say, having an outside validator: not popularity, not social signaling; money, physical results, a verifiable mathematical proof. All of these come with the one thing word-thinkers avoid:

A clear succeed/fail criterion.

- - - - - - - - - -

Added 2/16/2017: An example of word-thinking over quantitative matters.

From a discussion about Twitter, motivated by their filtering policies:
Person A: "I wonder how long Twitter can burn money, billions/yr.  Who is funding this nonsense?"
My response: "Actually, from latest available financials, TWTR had a $\$ 77$ million positive cash flow last year. Even if its revenue were to dry up, the operational cash outflow is only $\$ 220$ million/year; with a $\$ 3.8$ billion cash-in-hand reserve, it can last around 17 years at zero inflow."
Numbers are easy to obtain and the only necessary computation is a division. But Person A didn't bother to (a) look up the TWTR financials, (b) search for the appropriate entries, and (c) do a simple computation.

That's the problem with word thinking about quantitative matters: those who take the extra quant step will always have the advantage. As far as truth and logic are concerned, of course.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Schrödinger's Cat Litter


"Quantum mechanics means that affirmations change the reality of the universe."
Really, there are people who believe in that nonsense. I don't know whether affirmations work as a psychological tool (ex: to deal with depression or addiction), though I've been told that they might have a placebo effect. But I do know that quantum mechanics has nothing to do with this New Age nonsense.


The most misunderstood example: Schrödinger's cat

A common thread of the nonsense uses Schrödinger's cat example and goes something like this:
"There's a cat in a box and it might be alive or dead due to a machine that depends on a radioactive decay. Because of quantum mechanics, the cat is really alive and dead at the same time; it's the observer looking at the cat that makes the cat become dead or alive. The observer creates the reality."
No, really, this is a pretty good summary of how the argument goes in most discussions. It's also complete nonsense. The real Schrödinger's cat example is quite the opposite (note the highlighted parts):


(Source: translation of Schrödinger's "Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik," or "The current situation in quantum mechanics.")

As the excerpt shows, Schrödinger himself described applying quantum uncertainty to macroscopic objects as "ridiculous." In fact, in the original paper, Schrödinger calls it burlesque:


In other words, this New Age nonsense takes Schrödinger's example of misuse of a quantum concept and uses it as the foundation for some complete nonsense, doing precisely the opposite of the point of that example.

Sometimes "nonsense" isn't strong enough a descriptor, and references to bovine effluvium would be more appropriate. In honor of the hypothetical cat, I'll refer to this as Schrödinger's cat litter.


Say his name: Heisenberg (physics, not crystal meth)

Schrödinger isn't the only victim of these cat litter purveyors: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle also gets distorted into nonsense like:
"You can't observe the position and the momentum of an object at the same time. If you're observing momentum, you're in the flow. If you're observing position, you're no longer in the flow."
As I've mentioned before, when over-analyzing a Heisenberg joke, the uncertainty created by Heisenberg's inequality ($\Delta p \times \Delta x \ge h$) for macroscopic objects is many orders of magnitude smaller than the instruments available to measure it. TL;DR:
Police officer: "Sir, do you realize you were going 67.58 MPH?
Werner Heisenberg: "Oh great. Now I'm lost." 
Heisenberg's uncertainty re: his position is of the order of $10^{-38}$ meters, or about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times smaller than an inch.
And yet, these New Age cat litter purveyors use the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to talk about human actions and decisions, as if it was applicable to that domain.


What are the "defenders of science" doing while this goes on?

Ignorance, masquerading as erudition, sold to rubes who believe they're enlightened. Hey, I'm sure many of the rubes "love science" (as long as they don't have to learn any).

Meanwhile, "science popularizers" spend their time arguing politics. Because that's what science is now, apparently...


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Primal entertainment

Really, totally primal. 😉

Ron Rivest talking about RSA-129 (a product of two prime numbers that was set as a factoring challenge in 1977) and its factorization in 1994 using the internet:



RSA-129 = 114381625 7578888676 6923577997 6146612010 2182967212 4236256256 1842935706 9352457338 9783059712 3563958705 0589890751 4759929002 6879543541
=
3490 5295108476 5094914784 9619903898 1334177646 3849338784 3990820577
$\times$ 
32769 1329932667 0954996198 8190834461 4131776429 6799294253 9798288533.

Inspired by that video, here are a couple of fun numbers, for numbers geeks:

😎 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,003 is a prime number. It's an interesting prime number, because the number of zeros in the middle (21) is the product of the 7 and the 3, both of which are, of course, prime numbers themselves. This makes the number very easy to memorize and surprise your friends with. If you want to confuse them, just say it like this: "seventy sextillion and three."

😎 99,999,999,999,999,999,999,977 is also a prime number, the largest prime number under a googol ($10^{100}$) that has the form  $p = 10^{n} - n$, with $n = 23$, meaning that if you add 23 to this number you get $10^{23}$ or a 1 followed by 23 zeros. Here's how you say this number: "ninety-nine sextillion, nine hundred ninety-nine quintillion, nine hundred ninety-nine quadrillion, nine hundred ninety-nine trillion, nine hundred ninety-nine billion, nine hundred ninety-nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, and nine hundred seventy-seven." Hilarious at parties.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Learning, MOOCs, and production values

Some observations from binge-watching a Nuclear Engineering 101 course online.

Yes, the first observation is that I am a science geek. Some people binge-watch Kim Cardassian, some people binge-watch Netflix, some people binge-watch sports; I binge-watch college lectures on subjects that excite me.

(This material has no applicability to my work. Learning this material is just a hobby, like hiking, but with expensive books instead of physical activity.)

To be fair, this course isn't a MOOC; these are lectures for a live audience, recorded for students who missed class or want to go over the material again.

The following is the first lecture of the course, and to complicate things, there are several different courses from UC-Stalingrad with the same exact name, which are different years of this course, taught by different people. So kudos for the laziness of not even using a playlist for each course. At least IHTFP does that.


(It starts with a bunch of class administrivia; skip to 7:20.)


Production values in 2013, University of California, Berkeley

To be fair: for this course. There are plenty of other UC-Leningrad courses online with pretty good production values. But they're usually on subjects I already know or have no interest in.

Powerpoint projections of scans of handwritten notes; maybe even acetate transparencies. In 2013, in a STEM department of a major research university. Because teaching is, er…, an annoyance?


The professor points out that there's an error in the slide, that the half-life of $^{232}\mathrm{Th}$ is actually $1.141 \times 10^{10}$ years, something that he could have corrected before the class (by editing the slide) but decided to say it in class instead, for reasons...?

The real problem with these slides isn't that handwriting is hard to read or that use of color can clarify things; it's the clear message to the students that preparing the class is a very low priority activity for the instructor.

A second irritating problem is that the video stream is a recording of the projection system, so when something is happening in the classroom there's no visual record.

For example, there was a class experiment measuring the half-life of excited $^{137}\mathrm{Ba}$, with students measuring radioactivity of a sample of $^{137}\mathrm{Cs}$ and doing the calculations needed to get the half-life (very close to the actual number).

For the duration of the experiment (several minutes), this is all the online audience sees:



Learning = 1% lecture, 9% individual study, 90% practice.

As a former and sometimes educator, I don't believe in the power of lectures without practice, so when the instructor says something like "check at home to make sure that X," I stop the video and check the X.


For example, production of a radioactive species at a production rate $R$ and with radioactive decay with constant $\lambda$ is described by the equation at the top of the highlighted area in the slide above and the instructor presents the solution on the bottom "to be checked at home." So, I did:


Simple calculus, but makes for a better learning experience. (On a side note, using that envelope for calculations is the best value I've received from the United frequent flyer program in years.)

This, doing the work, is the defining difference between being a passive recipient of entertainment and an active participant in an educational experience.


Two tidbits from the early lectures (using materials from the web):

🤓 Binding energy per nucleon explains why heavy atoms can be fissioned and light atoms can be fused but not the opposite (because the move is towards higher binding energy per nucleon):


🤓  The decay chains of Uranium $^{235}\mathrm{U}$ and Thorium $^{232}\mathrm{Th}$:

(Vertical arrows are $\alpha$ decay, diagonals are $\beta$ decay.)


Unfair comparison: The Brachistochrone video


It's an unfair comparison because the level of detail is much smaller and the audience is much larger; but the production values are very high.

Or maybe not so unfair: before his shameful (for MIT) retconning out of the MIT MOOC universe, Walter Lewin had entire courses on the basics of Physics with high production values:


(I had the foresight to download all Lewin's courses well before the shameful retconning. Others have posted them to YouTube.)

Speaking of production values in education (particularly in Participant-Centered Learning), the use of physical props and audience movement brings a physicality that most instruction lacks and creates both more immersive experience and longer term retention of the material. From Lewin's lecture above: