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
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.