Friday, December 2, 2016

Res Ipsa Loquitur

The thing speaks for itself.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

Friday night geekery

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

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

Finding fault with Independence Day: Resurgence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Again, the problem with science communication

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

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

No. That's not true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem with science popularization

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Why I write careful posts on nonsensical topics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live long and prosper -- JCS

Sunday, November 13, 2016

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

Non-linearity is a pain in the neck

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's non-linearity.

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

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

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

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

Stephen Wolfram helps popularize science. Real science.

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

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

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

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

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

Media Briefed on New NASA Hurricane Mission

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

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

(Mood music.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Powerlifters vs Gym Rats, take 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Parable of the stamp collecting community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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