Thursday, August 25, 2016

Thoughts about "The Irrational Atheist" by Vox Day

I'm an agnostic. I don't believe in the God of any human religion, but I don't know what's outside the universe, so I can't assert that there's no "creator of the Universe," or God, as it's commonly called, there.

But your God? It might just be Steve. Because Steve is a powerful, yet mischievous alien.

The Book Of Hours [of reading]

"Here's a book I think you might like, but don't tell anyone I was the one who gave it to you; I don't want people to know I read Vox Day" --- how I came across The Irrational Atheist. Via he/she/xe/it who shall remain anonymous. But why?

Vox Day. Supreme Dark Lord. Leader of the Evil Legion of Evil. He who shall not be named.

Ok, I can see how his politics may be abhorrent to some. I don't care about politics. I know that politics cares about me, but I understand the commons problem, so I don't do politics.

I had promised myself that I wouldn't do any more commentary on "atheists" (especially e-atheists) and "skeptics" (especially e-skeptics). I had said all I had to say. This blog was going to be all positive all the time about science, engineering, math, business, and management.

My ideal science popularization

Still, a book with a title of The Irrational Atheist, about Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens... That's worth a look.

This is that look; 3000-words worth.

I. The Three Horse's-Asses Of The Atheist Apocalypse

That's what they call themselves, I believe, though it's four, not three. It's something like that, my memory may be failing me, lexically but not semantically (if we exclude Daniel Dennett).

VD prefaces the discussion with two important observations:
"This trio of New Atheists, this Unholy Trinity, is a collection of faux-intellectual frauds utilizing pseudo-scientific sleight of hand in order to falsely claim that religious faith is inherently dangerous and has no place in the modern world." This is one side of the error, that made by the Unholy Trinity; but as I show below, there a mirror-image version of this error, made by VD and coreligionists. 
"Agnostics so often regard theists with puzzled bemusement while viewing their godless cousins, with whom they superficially appear to have far more in common, with a mix of embarrassment and unadulterated horror." Yes, this is me.
I'll present my views on the Unholy Trinity, noting where they deviate from VD's.

I.1. Richard Dawkins

Dawkins's The Selfish Gene was one of the first books I read that explained evolution in detail.* (I was a teenager then, more interested in electronics, chemistry, space exploration, and teenage girls, not necessarily in that order.) It was a good book for its time.

Sadly, that seems to have been the high point in Dawkins's opus, and also the time when his model of evolution was frozen. Time didn't improve Dawkins's material: his books have made up for the increasingly outdated model of evolution by pumping up the anti-religion sentiment.

(Anyone wishing to argue Dawkins's model of evolution will first have to pass a short test: three or four questions picked at random from Molecular Biology of the Gene --- a book I've read for leisure; several times, to make up for its price. I've had it with people who "love" science but only if they don't have to learn any. It's embarrassing!)

Interestingly, the most one can say from understanding evolution is that there's no need for a God to guide the process of creation of different species. VD and I disagree here, but that has more to do with the difference between algorithmic complexity and computational complexity than with any argument Dawkins has ever made --- another drawback of having a 1970s-vintage model of evolution.

In retrospect, Carl Sagan (the late great Carl Sagan, I should say) made a much better job explaining evolution in The Dragons of Eden than the entire Dawkins opus.

I.2. Sam "reincarnation might be possible" Harris

I remember Sam Harris saying something along the lines of that quoted phrase at a conference. He really seems to believe a lot of mysticism and superstition. But his audiences forgive him those small trespasses, as long as he continues to attack the religious, under the guise of attacking religion.

I did read one of Harris's books; it made me want to relapse into the Catholic faith of my upbringing. (I didn't.) That's how biased, poorly thought-out, poorly researched, supercilious, and absurd it was. I thought that was the worst possible case for atheism one could make.

Then I watched Harris in a conference and realized that a worse case was possible. If I had any doubts regarding my agnosticism, I would have become a young-Earth creationist speaking in tongues and handling snakes right then and there.

If anything, VD's takedown of Harris is too kind.

Paraphrasing an earlier essayist, Harris's books aren't to be tossed aside lightly; they should be thrown with great force.

I.3. Christopher Hitchens

Great wordsmith, and that's why I've read every one of his books. But terrible thinker, more interested in scoring debating points than actually constructing an argument. On these two points, VD and I are in agreement.

Possibly Hitchens's most quoted line (and a derivative of a similar Carl Sagan epigraph), "that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence" reflects a self-absorption and blindness to other points of view that is shared by many other atheists and skeptics.

As shown in this numerical example, what counts as "asserted without evidence" depends critically on the beliefs of the person who's supposed to do the "dismissing without evidence."  Namely, their a-priori beliefs and how they interpret evidence (what one thinks of as dispositive evidence is non-evidence to another).

The aggressive attitude that Hitchens brought to the atheist community --- a community which includes many whose only reason to participate is the desire to belong to a group that looks down upon others --- was one of the biggest steps back for atheism since Carl Sagan died and his guerrilla warfare on behalf of reason was superseded by direct confrontation.

Direct confrontation may play well with the echo chamber, but it's an ineffectual way to change other people's minds.

I.4. Analysis

VD calls Dawkins "The Ironic Atheist," Harris "The Incompetent Atheist," and Hitchens "The Irrelevant Atheist." No contest on Dawkins or Harris. But Hitchens, with his contagious pugnaciousness isn't irrelevant; he's relevant, like a contaminant in a chemical reactor.

That contamination contributed to increasing polarization of atheists, leading to their various schisms and fights, and the rise of the strident "atheists" whose Patreon feed requires the production of video after video substituting snark for thought or knowledge. (Look past the high-quality writing of Hitchens and what you find is mostly snark. Good quality, quasi-Waughian snark, but snark nonetheless.)

One (me) wonders whether the whole atheist "project" since the late 1990s hasn't simply been an attempt by opportunists to monetize their echo chamber by feeding the prejudices of those who want to feel superior to others without actually having to do anything that would test that superiority.

My opinion of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens is captured, by revealed preference, in how difficult it was to dispose of their books during the great decluttering of 2013: while I agonized over old scifi paperbacks for which I already had kindle versions, God is Not Great, The God Delusion, and The End Of Faith went into the 'donate' bin without a thought.

II. The Fundamentally Flawed Equivalence: God's Existence And Goodness Of Religion

When VD positions the book with "this trio of New Atheists, this Unholy Trinity, is a collection of faux-intellectual frauds utilizing pseudo-scientific sleight of hand in order to falsely claim that religious faith is inherently dangerous and has no place in the modern world," he describes one type of error,

[Science $\Rightarrow$] Non-existence of God $\Rightarrow$ Badness of religion

while not noticing that in parts of his argument in the book, and in some of his writings that I perused on his blog, he makes a mirror-image of that mistake:

Goodness of religion $\Rightarrow$ Existence of God [of that religion].

Neither implication is axiomatic; religion, taken as part of a culture, can be evaluated separately from its divine origins. If Chicagoans' belief that the Cubs are a real baseball team keeps them happy, is the patent falseness of that belief a justification for creating unhappiness and social unrest? And does that happiness of the believers/fans, in itself, make the Cubs a real baseball team, despite their performance? (Memo to self: avoid Illinois in the future.)

(I already said all I have to say about religion, but I'll tl;dr it here: religion can be evaluated as every other facet of culture, by its values and the actions of the members.)

Unfortunately there's a lot of ignorant caterwauling about this religion and that religion and this religious leader and those religious followers; as if it all amounted to anything other than "It's God's fault," an abdication of responsibility by the responsible humans, thinly covered.

I swear to Feynman, the next time someone starts saying that religion is a force for evil tout-court, I'll tie them down, Clockwork Orange-style, and make them watch this episode of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation:

Note that a decoupling of religion from the existence of God (which I believe is the theological foundation of the Church of England, at least according to Yes Prime Minister's "The Bishop's Gambit" episode) solves the morality question: morality comes from religion (as culture); people who want to think more deeply about morality can debate the finer points of mechanism design (in the game-theoretic sense), the rest can treat morality as any other component of the culture: a screening device for the group, a signaling tool for the individual.

(While making arguments for morality, VD uses the outdated version of the golden rule: treat others as you'd want them to treat you. He's apparently unaware of the modern version: those who have the gold make the rules.)

And a final note, inspired by Sir Kenneth's video: the second stupidest thing I've ever heard Richard Dawkins say was, paraphrasing, that "we'd still have all the art without religion," something that would be a surprise to Johann Sebastian Bach, who used to write "Glory To God Alone" at the end of his compositions, including many of the secular ones.**

III. A Not-Quite-Missed Opportunity: the Kardashian of Science, spared

No, You're What's Wrong With The World!

I didn't come up with the Kardashian index; it was in Genome Biology, "The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists" by Neil Hall (2014); Science (yes, that Science) wrote about it and computed the Kardashian index for 50 popular Twitter science popularizers and scientists. The index is simply the number of Twitter followers divided by the citation count (a rough measure of influence in the field).

Surprising no one, the highest Kardashian index goes to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who, with 150 citations and 2.4 million followers has a K-index of 11,129. For scale, Brian Cox at 1188 and Richard Dawkins at 740 are second and third, respectively.

(Did I read that right? 150 citations? Career total? One hundred and fifty?)

Neil is certainly worthy of the Kardashian umbrella brand, with insightful tweets like

String theorist Lubos Motl has some kind and warm words for Neil Kardashian on the occasion of his debate with [real scientist] Brian Greene, where Neil Kardashian used that wonderful new modern scientific technique of switching off Greene's remote and then summarizing the arguments giving himself the victory.

(150 citations? Career total? Seriously?)

Given his prominence in the {skeptic, atheist,  I "love" science} talk circuit and his invasion of PBS airtime (plus an attempt at riding on Carl Sagan's coattails), I was surprised Neil Kardashian wasn't in VD's book.

The Supreme Dark Lord took some time from directing the flaying of his enemies by the Evil Legion of Evil to respond:

Apparently, neither have the other scientists, at least not in a scientific capacity. 150 citations. One-hundred and fifty citations, career total. The go-to "scientist" in the media. One hundred and fifty freaking citations, career total.

IV. Where Vox Day And Vox Mea Part Company

Obviously an agnostic (atheist with respect to all earthly religions) and an evangelic christian are going to have a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life.

Putting that aside, there are some other points of discord:

1. "Many, if not most, of the great scientists in history were religious men" [and a well thought-out argument for science evolving faster then] 

Granting ad arguendum the premise that science was moving faster in the early days of religious scientists, one possible explanation (one quite likely explanation, considering the history of the places where this science happened) is that there's a mediating factor: call it civilization. (Yes, I'm cribbing from Sir Kenneth.)

Religion contributed to the creation of a set of values that we can call, for short,  civilization. That set of values formed an  intellectual ecosystem that allowed science to flourish --- in certain locations. (That suggests that there were other, also important, parts of the ecosystem.)

The question then becomes, once there's the ecosystem, do the scientists themselves benefit from being religious? That's an empirical question, and given the large number of endogenous covariates, a very difficult one.

Simplistic analysis of the beliefs of scientists and the evolution of a number of metrics would suggest that modern scientists do well without religion. But it would take more than simplistic analysis to make a strong case. (I guesstimate that the effect would be negligible, simply because most modern people, even most religious people, live lives more or less orthogonal from their religion. Now, if we treat unfounded beliefs from funding agencies, secular as they may be, as a religion, that's clearly impactful on scientific production.)

Also, as the number of scientists and their influence in society increases (at least relative to what it was), the ecosystem itself mutates to accommodate and mold the progress of science. Which brings us to VD's discussion of some confounding factors:

2. [Confounding factors for why fewer 'great scientists' today, including:] "Religious scientists of the past had it easy, working with a relatively blank slate, and have left only the most difficult tasks for their secular successors."

The change from open peer review (where the peers reviewed by writing signed public rejoinders) to pre-publication anonymous veto was probably the biggest change to science quality. This institutional change creates incentives to comply and begets a winner-take-all system, particularly when combined with up-or-out career ladders that preclude deviations from orthodoxy in early career, when most researchers have more energy.

This confounding factor is orthogonal to religion in itself, being born of a desire to manage scientists (especially academics) like other human resources, with "objective" metrics and structured incentive systems. But it coincided with a decrease in the religiosity of scientists, so it would be very difficult to separate the effects empirically without having some instrumental variables.

3. "But the ultimate atheist irrationality is the idea that Man himself is rational."

Perhaps some atheists do believe that, but there are those like me, whose agnosticism is precisely an acknowledgment of the limitations of human reason: I know that I have in the past believed things that eventually I learned to be false, hence I don't trust a belief without a failure criterion (that is, a test).

4. "While the atheist may be Godless, he isn't without faith [JCS summary: in science and technology]"

First, let's concede the obvious point that most people, including most atheists in my experience, know very little of the science and technology that modern life depends on. There's an orthogonal issue of many people using science as an identity product, something that bothers a few of us others quite a lot. These are distractions from the main point.

There's a fundamental difference between science and faith:

It's possible to dig deep into most scientific results and engineering techniques to get to a point where pragmatically we can say "this is where it comes from, and as you can see, it passes an independent test." When one digs down religious belief, there's a point where the foundation is authority or self-experience ("revealed truth"); neither is a good foundation for building a technological society.

For example, practical limitations to computing power (measured in frames per second on Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare) are a lot more important and visible than the abstract fundamental limitation of computation found by Turing/Church/Post. So, saying that a computer is an incomplete logical system because of incomputable functions is a true limitation, but one that doesn't apply to what people care about in their daily use of computers.

People "believe" in computers because computers take them to Facebook. But they can learn how transistors work, then logic gates, then microprocessors, then operating systems, then network protocols, then distributed systems programming. At that point, they don't "believe" in the computer taking them to Facebook, they know how the computer takes them to Facebook.

People's trust in science is earned by the availability of explanations that rely on observation; the farther science gets from those observations, the less trust people put into it. (Conditional on their interest in understanding the science; as noted above, most people don't care or care only about the identity, not the knowledge.)

(This is one of the reasons why "trust us we're experts" is precisely the wrong attitude for scientists and science popularizers to have.)

Science is the substance of things to be delivered by technology, the evidence of things seen everywhere. To crib from a famous letter.

5. "The Earth is a disc mounted on the back of a very large turtle"

This point is obviously wrong. It’s a disk supported by four elephants standing on the back of the Great A’Tuin. Requiescat In Pace, Sir Terry Pratchett, satirist extraordinaire.

V. Final thoughts

In the words of Al Pacino, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Ok, ok, in the words of Michael Corleone. The book was well worth the time to read it, which given my very limited time (between work and the pile of other books to read), is a glowing endorsement.

I disagree with Vox Day on many things, like the nature of reality and the meaning of life, but his book was a good way to stress-test my own thoughts. They came out stronger for the task.

Pity that most "atheists" will never read it; they never read anything that might make them think. They would much rather be sure of their intellectual superiority over those that they deem inferior, the majority of the world.

That always ends well.

-- -- -- --

* Yes, it's Dawkins's, Hitchens's, and Harris's. The possessive "'s" is appended to singular nouns ending in "s"; it's replaced by a single apostrophe only for plural nouns ending in "s". If you don't believe me, check Strunk and White or The Chicago Manual of Style.

** This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard Dawkins say: That someone would "guide him through an LSD trip by taking half a dose." That's not how the brain works, professor Dawkins. Each brain would hallucinate independently.

Thanks to Timothy Michael Devinney on Facebook for telling me about the Kardashian Index. 150 freaking citations, career total. Unbelievable.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The strange case of the oscillating black hole at the gym

There's a micro-black hole at my gym, and it oscillates between a position under the squat cages and the deadlift platform, in synchrony with my powerlifting program.

It's the only possible explanation.

The data: following my not-very-demanding powerlifting program (which is very low volume, even for powerlifting), I should have gained $5\%$ in both the squat and the deadlift in the last six weeks. This is feasible because I'm recovering strength from the beginning of the year, not creating new strength. (Who said powerlifters have crazy superstitions?)

Clearly, what is happening is that the same mass (bar + weights) is exerting a larger force on my body, which means that there's a micro-black hole under the gym. Since I estimate that there's a 3-meter foundation, this being earthquake territory and all, I postulate that the black hole is below that:

Furthermore, it has to move, since it doesn't affect bench press (where, despite a damaged right rotator cuff, I'm recovering strength well above the program envelope) but it affects the other two lifts. Since it affects both lifts the same percentage, that black hole has to move diagonally, as seen above. It also oscillates back and forth between the squat and deadlift stations.

Two black holes, you say? Don't be ridiculous. Two back holes, indeed! Pah!

So, a little back-of-the-drawing calculation, the kind that drives OCD quants crazy...

(with three or four corrections along the way, including a slight ahem when I used $c = 3\times 10^{9}$ instead of the correct $c = 3\times 10^{8}$ m/s)

... and I have my micro-black hole. As small as the total gains of an entire continent's worth of CrossFitters, at a Schwarzchild radius of $3\times 10^{-16}$ meter and as heavy as a Planet Fitness personal trainer, at a mass of $2\times 10^{11}$ kilogram. That mass means that the black hole won't evaporate anytime soon, so my stalled gains will continue.

(The time to evaporate a black hole with a mass of $10^{11}$kg  is in the billions of years, about the time it would take for a CrossFitter to do one good chin-up or a Planet Fitness client to lose five ounces of fat.)

Clearly this is an important discovery. Hello, Nobel Committee? Got a pick for 2017 Physics yet?

Alternative explanation 1: weight gain on my part

First off, to cancel a $5\%$ increase in squat and deadlift, I'd have to have gained close to $15\%$ of my bodyweight over six weeks. That's not impossible (or even unheard of), but in reality I've been losing weight at about 1kg per week, mostly fat, hopefully more than 1.5kg of fat per week (muscle mass increasing at 0.5kg/week during a recovery is reasonable).

Also, weight gain wouldn't affect squat and deadlift in the same way, unless I gained all the weight above my sternum. (I continue to improve my mental skills, but that doesn't significantly increase the mass of the brain...)

In an ass-to-grass squat (my type of squat), the femur goes over a 110-120 degree arc, hence getting to the weakest part of the quads force curve. So, some more weight in the torso may affect the ability to squat heavy. But for the deadlift, the drive with the legs is only an arc of 60-70 degrees, well away from the weak part of the force curve for the quads, therefore the loss of deadlifting power given additional bodyweight should be much lower than the loss for the squat, not the same. But the same it is.

(In the squat my weakness is the quads, in the deadlift, the spinal erectors; never my glutes. Hip thrusts, baby, hip thrusts FTW! I do leg-extensions with the full stack for reps, but only an ass-to-grass squat hits the quads at their full extension...)

This explanation is therefore dismissed.

Alternative explanation 2: poor supplementation

A picture is worth a thousand words (and about two hundred dollars):

Of course, I eschew that marvelous "supplement" family, anabolic steroids, or if one wants to be a little more discreet, TRT, testosterone replacement therapy. I like my reproductive system to stay at manufacturer's specification. It's kind of a big deal for me, to have the theoretical capability for reproduction (Theoretical because the 3.75 billion women in the world took a vote and unanimously –minus my mother– decided that for the good of the universe I should not reproduce; who am I to question democracy?)

This explanation is therefore dismissed.

Alternative explanation 3: I'm no longer an 18-year-old kid.

Poppycock and balderdash! Balderdash, I say!

Age is but a number and you're as young as you feel. Besides I'm barely in my early middle age -- just a few months past 30.*

This explanation is dismissed with extreme prejudice and a SEAL Team 6 visit.


The only possible logical conclusion is that, like in the 1990 David Brin scifi novel Earth, there's a naughty micro-black hole oscillating between the space under the squat cages and the lifting platforms, and by enormous coincidence its period matches my powerlifting program.

Obviously the solution is to combine the Westside Barbell approach of growing a big belly with the Testosterone Nation recommendation of synergistic beard growing and head shaving so that, even with increasing gravity, gains will come:

It's Science!

-- -- -- --
* 236 months, to be precise.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Working the solution versus solving the problem

Some time ago I tweeted that I was going to row a number of nautical miles on my trusty old Concept IIc machine. As an engineer, I use SI units for everything --- except on the water, where I use traditional units: nautical miles and knots.

A couple of rowers I know asked me how I had hacked the controller on the Concept IIc to change the units. This was my answer:

How I "hacked the software" on the Concept IIc to use nautical miles. #genius

Many people miss the point, that the others were making a common mistake in problem-solving, a mistake that forecloses most creative solutions:

The mistake is working the solution instead of solving the problem.

Hidden in the question about the hack is an assumption: that the solution has to come from my programming skills (they know what I do, so it's not an unreasonable assumption). That assumption sets a path to a solution, which would include reprogramming the firmware inside the Concept IIc controller.

Having the ability to backtrack from that path into the beginning and to choose another path is the key process in the thinking process here. Too many people start on one path and can't get off it to pursue other possible paths to the solution.

By focussing on the problem, i.e. the question "what is to be achieved?", rather than the solution under consideration, changing the software, the mistake was avoided.

Yes, this is a trivial and obvious (after the fact) example, but often the difference between a non-working "solution" and a working solution is a matter of focus on the problem to be solved.

Alas, changing their focus is too hard for some would-be problem solvers.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Numerical fun: tracking my blood caffeine level in one day

A few days ago, I decided to see what my blood caffeine profile looks like on a typical day. Since I didn't want to draw blood at regular intervals for analysis, I did the next best thing and tracked consumption and computed the blood level using a model of its dynamics.

Tracking consumption was simple: I have two french presses, both used for tea; the smaller one (1 liter) brews the caffeine equivalent of two espressos (80mg each, or 160 total) and the larger one (1.5 liter) brews the equivalent of three espressos (240mg). I just made a note of when I finished with one of the french presses and which it was.

To convert consumption into blood level, we need a state equation. We make the following assumptions:
  1. Caffeine level on wakeup is zero (an approximation).
  2. Time $t$ is discrete and measured in half-hours.
  3. Caffeine half-life in the body is two hours.*
The last assumption gives the equation

$\qquad L(t) = c(t) + 0.8409 \times L(t-1)$

where $L(t)$ is the level and $c(t)$ is the consumption at time $t$. This equation is an exponential decay process with a half-life of two hours: for a given $t=T$, assuming no consumption,

$\qquad L(T+4) = (0.8409)^4 \times L(T) = 0.5000 \times L(T)$.

(Two hours is 4 half-hours, since we're using the half-hour as the time unit.)

Putting the consumption and the initial condition into the equation and graphing it on a scale for the day in question we get

My average level was a bit high, but I'm used to it.

-- -- -- --
* I got this number from a doctor, but several sources have told me it's too low. Online sources point to a half-life of 3-6 hours. This changes the coefficient for $L(t-1)$ in the equation above to somewhere between 0.8909 (for three hours) to  0.9439 (for six hours). Possibly there's an update to this post in the future to deal with that.

Update in the future: I did the computations (click to embiggen):

Corrected Caffeine Level Profile

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Product ≠ Prototype ≠ Technology ≠ Idea

Production note: Some credit to Thunderf00t, for had he not made such a complete pig's breakfast of his analysis of Hyperloop, this "why scientists are bad at engineering" post wouldn't have been written. *

Product ≠ Prototype ≠ Technology ≠ Idea

There are significant differences between an idea ("it would be great to fly from London to New York in four hours, let's use fighter jet technologies to make an airliner") and a marketable product (the Concorde). That's just on the engineering side, without the additional complexity of the business side.

Ideas to technology

An idea is just an organization of thoughts, for example: "if we got a train riding on magnets instead of wheels, we could get rid of friction, wear, and fatigue; then if we put the train in a low pressure tube we could go really fast."

This idea becomes a technology when you get something actually working; this something is called, for obvious reasons, a technology demonstrator. It's used to show that the technology has some potential, and it used to be a minimum requirement for getting funding. (More on that below.)

Linear motor Maglev technology is already available, though maybe not quite up-to-spec, but there are some technological barriers to overcome regarding the tubes and the pods.

Here it's worth noting a common error of reasoning, which is to assume that just because something hasn't been done, it can't be done.
For example, TF's use of a video excerpt showing Brian Cox inside "the largest vacuum chamber in existence." It's the largest because there was never a need for a larger one. It doesn't represent a technology limit. It's not that difficult to make a long tube that can take a big pressure differential (= pipeline), though we currently design this kind of tube for over-pressure because that's what its current use requires.
Many of the "the largest X in existence" limits are determined by economic necessity, not laws of physics. Think about the largest pizza ever made; was its size determined by some limit of the laws of physics?
Sometimes the technology is based on existing science, or co-developed with it, like some of the current work in biotech. Sometimes the technology precedes the science needed to explain it (or at least the attention of the scientists whose expertise is necessary to build the explanation), as was the case of most of the mechanical innovations in the first industrial revolution.

Part of the funding of Hyperloop is an investment in technology development that will have applications beyond the Hyperloop itself ("spillovers"). There's this thingamabob called a "laser" that was imagined as a pew-pew death-ray in sciFi, became reality as a pure Physics experiment, and mostly is used to checkout groceries, read data off of polycarbonate discs, pump bits down fiberoptics, and annoy cats. Oh, some pew-pew, too.

Sometimes licensing or developing the technology in directions other than the originally intended ends up being the most important part of the business.

It's probably worth noting two things at this point:
  • Hyperloop projects haven't finished the technology development phase; that would be indicated by a technology demonstration. Assertions about the final product at this stage are futile.
  • Getting funded by professional investment organizations (with their due diligence and fiduciary obligations) requires passing much stricter scrutiny than that given to crowdsourced projects (like Solar Roadways, the Fontus water bottle, or Triton artificial gills).

Technology to prototype

Once the technologies necessary for implementing the idea exist, they have to be put together and made to work under laboratory conditions or at test-scale, in the form of prototypes.

Here's where the "scientists are bad at engineering" point becomes most pointy.

Prototypes will obey the laws of Physics (and other sciences), since they operate in reality. It may be the case that the laws aren't known yet (as with the first industrial revolution) or that they are being simultaneously developed, but no prototype can violate the laws of Physics.

The problem is that there's a lot of specialized knowledge that goes into engineering. Each small piece of knowledge obeys the laws of Physics, but deriving them from first principles isn't practical. (And real scientists don't dirty their hands with engineering.)
For example, a physicist friend of mine didn't know why the suspenders of a suspension bridge (the vertical cables from the big catenary cable to the bridge deck) sometimes have a thin metal helix around them. When pressed on it he said "it's probably a reinforcement of some kind." I knew that the helix is there to limit aerodynamic flutter, and told him. He said, "oh, of course" and mentioned some interesting facts of turbulent flow.
That's what I mean by "science is the foundation of engineering, but scientists don't learn the body of knowledge of engineering." Most scientists are humble enough to understand that there are things they don't know. My physicist friend didn't assert that the helix was for reinforcement; he actually said, "I don't know," a sentence more people would be wise to use.
For illustration, here's a series of videos about metal shop work (the presenter is a professor, I believe, since he keeps talking about research prototypes, but he's seriously shop-savvy):

Instructive and entertaining videos. A big hat tip to Star Simpson for the link, via Casey Handmer. Such is the serendipitous nature of internet knowledge discovery.

A prototype is a one-off, possibly scaled-down, version of the product reduced to its core elements. It's designed to be operated by specialists under controlled circumstances. It requires constant attention during performance and, conversely, is usually over-instrumented for its final purpose (as a product, that is), since part of its purpose as a prototype is to see which parts of the engineering body of knowledge need to be applied to the technology itself.

Sometimes that extensive instrumenting of prototypes helps discover hitherto unknown issues or phenomena and leads to rethinking of extant technologies and redesign or retrofit of existing products. Historically a good part of the body of knowledge of engineering has evolved by this process.
For example, vortex shedding in aircraft wings was not identified for the first several decades of aviation, even though the physics necessary for it was developed in the late 19th Century. Once the engineering idea of vortex shedding wingtips (or, for older airframes being retrofitted, winglets) entered the body of knowledge, it became universal for new airframe design.
The gulf between a prototype, typically a one-off object made to laboratory-grade specifications that requires an expert to operate, and a final product is almost as big as that between idea and prototype, and a lot of other specialized skills are necessary to bridge that gulf.

Prototype to product

Any engineering product development textbook will identify a lot of things that separate a prototype from a product, but here are a few off the top of my head (and the figure above):
  • Products have to be mass-produced by production facilities, not prototyping shops or laboratories. Figuring out how to mass-produce a product and organizing that production is what's called production engineering. Sometimes that involves the development of specialized production technology, and its prototyping and production, which might involve production engineering of its own, which might require... etc.
  • Products are to be operated by normal people, not expert operators (the drunk Russian truck drivers in the figure were motivated by the Only In Russia twitter account, a terrible sink of productivity). Though it's not entirely accurate, many people believe that Apple's success stems from its ability to deploy technology into final products by making it accessible to average users. That is the field of user experience design.
  • Products also need to be much more resilient, safe, repairable, and maintainable than prototypes. Though, sadly for the practice of engineering  ---and the environment --- the "discard don't repair" mentality has taken hold, so maintainability and repairability aren't priorities in much product design. It being a railway, Hyperloop would have to be designed for both, of course.
There are a lot more. Engineering textbooks exist for a reason, they're not just collections of photos of pretty machines. A lot of knowlege goes into actually making things.

In the case of Hyperloop the product is passenger rail transportation, so there's yet another body of knowledge involved, that of managing railroad operations.

Yes, it sounds exciting, doesn't it?

The whole "how hyperloop will kill you" schtick is nonsensical, since there's no final design to evaluate; but it becomes hilarious when almost all the ways to "kill" the passengers have well-established railroad solutions, namely sectioning (you can isolate sections of a line, and you can have isolation joints in the tube), shunt lines and spurs (to remove a pod from the main tube and access the outside world), instrumentation and control system with appropriate redundancies, and a wealth of other factors that any railroad engineer would be aware of.

I'm not a railroad engineer; these are basic Industrial Management observations.

And then there's deployment…

Anyone with a passing knowledge of operations management or project management could find some possible issues with the infrastructure of Hyperloop, even without knowing the details of the technology. Not impossibilities, issues that might cost money and time.
For example, a number of logistics complications come to mind regarding the construction of the Hyperloop along Route 5, namely: the movement of large-sized tube elements; the use of the Route 5 lanes as part of the construction area (even if most of the staging is done off of the road itself) while it's in use as a public roadway; and let's not forget that California municipalities are among the most anti-change in the world: NIMBY was invented here. Unless you know someone who knows someone who knows…
To have an idea of the scale of the problem created by moving the many elements of the tube, consider what happens when just one large assembly has to move on public roadways:

Building the Hyperloop infrastructure is essentially a large-scale project management problem, and specialists would be involved; I added the example above to show that there are more obvious difficulties than the risk of depressurization; in fact, depressurization isn't much of an issue under good operations management and a well thought-out track.

But pointing out commonsensical logistical difficulties doesn't help with the whole "I am a great scientist, hear me snark" persona.

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* My current view of transportation is that trains and ships are better for freight and cars and airplanes are better for people. By cars I mean autonomous individual vehicles, not necessarily individually owned, chaining for inter-city travel at 200-300 km/h (individual pods self-organizing into convoys), and swarming for autonomous intra-city travel. Most of the current problems with air travel are economic, regulatory, cultural, and managerial, not technological, though I'd like to see supersonic aircraft further along the product development process.

Maybe the Acela corridor would make sense for Hyperloop, though. Particularly since weather in the frozen Winter wasteland and broiling Summer Inferno of the Northeast is more volatile than in California, and the Hyperloop tube would be more resilient than the air shuttles, particularly the small planes. (Boston to NYC late December in a small plane… the horror, the horror.)

But as mentioned above, I believe there are some potential high-value spillovers from the technological developments necessary for Hyperloop, including advances in materials science and production engineering, even if it isn't ever actually built.

A couple of acquaintances asked me why I don't address TF's video (or its follow-up and comments on both YouTube and Reddit) directly. Giving it minimal thought,

But the main reason not to get into online arguments with strangers is basically the same as for not wrestling with a pig: you both get dirty but the pig enjoys it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What is and isn't Ad Hominem

Perhaps the most common logical fallacy, Ad Hominem is an attack on the source of an argument instead of analysis of their argument. It's a fallacy because a bad source may have a good argument and vice versa.


There are many cases which look like ad hominem, because the source of the argument is part of the analysis of the argument, but aren't ad hominem. For example:

YouTuber Thunderf00t, after making a video criticizing Hyperloop, gets into a Twitter fight with (from what I gather) a SpaceX employee:

(I gathered incorrectly; Casey Handmer is a Hyperloop One employee. In my defense, his profile header is a diagram of a rocket engine... I'll add corrections where appropriate below, in blue.)

At this point one might ask the --- apparently ad hominem --- leading question
Does Thunderf00t believe that he, who is not an engineer, noticed "a lot of" engineering problems that a number of SpaceX Hyperloop One engineers didn't? 
(According to the preamble to interaction above, SpaceX Hyperloop One uses the Hyperloop Alpha paper as the basis for a recruiting question; also, since it's a pet project of Tony Stark Elon Musk, many SpaceX engineers will try to impress the boss with Hyperloop-related ideas or comments. Yes, I'm leaving that last SpaceX unchanged because what I meant was that engineers working on the rocket side at SpaceX would try to impress their boss by showing initiative on a different project.)

This question has some of the hallmarks of ad hominem: it appears to accuse Thunderf00t of putative arrogance and therefore appears to be an attempt to discredit his arguments without addressing them. And it would be ad hominem if that was the end of the process.


It's clear, a few minutes into the video that Casey Handmer is responding to, that Thunderf00t doesn't know much about engineering or operations management:

(For example, and just off the top of my head, he seems to think that the track will be a 600km tube with no isolatable zones, no shunt lines, no emergency, safety, or maintenance affordances; in other words, nothing like a railroad, which is what Hyperloop is.*)

Ad hominem is attacking the source in lieu of the argument. Noting that the source doesn't know the basics of the field and therefore estimating a low return from investing the time to follow an argument built without knowing the basics, isn't ad hominem. It's effective use of time and attention.

To be clear: this isn't ad hominem because the decision isn't based on {Thunderf00t isn't an engineer} but rather on a probabilistic determination of who is more likely to be wrong, using the new information (the video) to update prior probabilities based on the past observations: {Thunderf00t has correctly pointed out problems with other "innovations"} and {SpaceX does a lot of brilliant engineering} {Presumably not all engineers at Hyperloop One are completely incompetent}.

A  managerial critique of the video is that it treats the preliminary, idea-phase, design as if it was a final specification, whereas Hyperloop hasn't even finished the technology demonstrator phase of their innovation path. Usually this kind of error is made by people investing in the technology; ironically enough, Thunderf00t uses examples of that error to mock another twitterer.

I think that Thunderf00t's style of argumentation lends itself to these Dunning-Kruger traps. (Common to many e-atheists and science popularizers.)  Destin "Smarter Every Day" Sandlin makes great science and technology popularization videos by taking the opposite tack:
(1) Destin doesn't assume that his personal knowledge base is enough to do everything himself: he asks others, experts in the fields, to explain stuff that he mostly already knows, for the benefit of the audience. 
(2) Destin comes across as a genuinely nice person whose videos focus on the science and technology, instead of snark and mockery which may work with Thunderf00t's core audience but fail to convince grown-ups.
Here's how Destin responds to a massive pig's breakfast of a statement by a popular science popularizer:

Nice guy attitude all the way through. All  about the science. Brings in a subject matter expert, despite clearly knowing the material himself. Includes the response of the person being corrected and thanks him. Class act, no snark.

Then again, to some audiences, snark sells. Just doesn't sell actual knowledge.

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* There are many practical issues with the Hyperloop concept, some of which may be dispositive (against it), but none of these is mentioned in Thunderf00t's video. For example, I question the ability of Hyperloop to get the rights-of-way needed for construction, given how anti-change California municipalities are (unless you have pull, of course).

Monday, July 25, 2016

A rational case for Solar Roadways projects in organizations

The first time I heard of Solar Roadways my response was "so they are putting solar panels flat on the ground and shaded by cars?" My interlocutor correctly interpreted that as "What a thoroughly stupid idea; no point wasting more time on it." *

There are, however, some good reasons to start a Solar Roadways project in some organizations. Really: good, rational reasons, that you can convince an engineer with. Well, some engineers.

Because of the buzz surrounding Solar Roadways, the project might be funded. And a project funded means a number of ways to fund other projects that would not be funded. For example:

1. An overhead charge is applied to all outside grants and funding. For example, an organization might add a fifty-percent surcharge to any expenditure: spend 1000 on your Solar Roadways funded project, contribute an additional 500 to a general fund (from which the projects that aren't sexy or buzz-worthy can be funded).

2. Fund as much personnel as you can get away with from the Solar Roadways money; of course, funding them doesn't mean that they can't work on other things, and in many organizations it's difficult to tell which project a worker is working on without expending a lot of effort. Given its own problems, it's unlikely that Solar Roadways project funders will be too eager to get a serious audit of expenditures.

3. Fund as much infrastructure, capital investment, and current expenses with Solar Roadways project money. Basically same argument as personnel.

4. Use the buzz of having a Solar Roadways project to attract attention and more funding, to get potential donors to come to fund-raisers, to impress upon the alumni (for universities) how "with it" your institution is. Also, you can play the "Solar Freaking Roadways" clip with the Serenity captain over and over again for the nerdiest of your audience, thus distracting them from any inconvenient engineering professor whose pet project isn't being funded.

Obviously these aren't arguments for Solar Roadways as an energy source, but rather examples of why smart and knowledgeable people go along with nonsense like that.

Great video by Crazy Aussie Dave Jones (EEVBlog) on Solar Roadways:

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* Some people start going over the details and quibble over the durability of the panels and the visibility of the lights in them or whether they could really melt snow (hint: no, they can't).

That's like arguing about whether the container cross-bracing ties in a Maersk Triple-E would hold if instead of sailing it over water we attached rocket motors to the hull and sent it to orbit and then deorbited it towards the destination port.

(Yes, get it to orbital speed then deorbit, to make it even stupider than a simple --- though also highly unrealistic --- ballistic trajectory.)

The cross-bracing isn't the problem, the concept itself is demented.