Archive for March, 2012

You get taken seriously AFTER you take the lessons to heart

March 31, 2012 Comments off

You’d like to think that, if we make catastrophically expensive and damaging mistakes, we’d at least learn something from them, right? I mean, surely in the future we’ll make an effort to at least avoid the stupidest things we’ve done in the past.

From Foreign Policy online magazine comes the Top 10 lessons of the Iraq War. Here’s lesson number 3:

Lesson #3: The United States gets in big trouble when the “marketplace of ideas” breaks down and when the public and our leadership do not have an open debate about what to do.

Given the stakes involved, it is remarkable how little serious debate there actually was about the decision to invade. This was a bipartisan failure, as both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats all tended to jump onboard the bandwagon to war. And mainstream media organizations became cheerleaders rather than critics. Even within the halls of government, individuals who questioned the wisdom of the invasion or raised doubts about the specific plans were soon marginalized. As a result, not only did the United States make a bone-headed decision, but the Bush administration went into Iraq unprepared for the subsequent occupation.

I remember people who questioned the war being dunned for lack of patriotism. As if it was patriotic to let your country run off a cliff without at least saying “Um…”

Companies punish CEO’s who attempt risky strategies that fail. The same should apply to any decision to go to war: “You had damned well better be right”.  You can be wrong about lots of other things but not war. Leaders who get war-decisions wrong but refuse to admit it ought to be consigned to shame and ignominy. They ought to be scorned, not given airtime, and no one should buy their books. They, and the party that produced them, ought to pay a heavy price in subsequent elections until they show signs of having learned something other than fancy ways to pretend it didn’t happen. And Democratic leaders who gutlessly went along? OK, it wasn’t their idea, I’ll give them that. Otherwise, shame.

We need to develop some immunity to the patriotism card, if we want to save our country.

Categories: Uncategorized

Start walking…

March 30, 2012 2 comments
Lotto ticket, drawn in crayon

Lotto ticket, in crayon

OK, so your odds of winning that super Mega Millions Jackpot are 1 in 176 million, right? Here’s a Lotto Ticket I just made using an index card and some crayons. It has about the same chance of winning as tickets that people pay for.

Think of it this way: if each of those chances were $1 bills, and they were laid end-to-end, the winning bill would be somewhere along the seventeen thousand miles of bills. You can work it out from there.

Categories: Uncategorized

Education as competitive market

March 29, 2012 5 comments

I enjoyed Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police, which is about the close control of language and thought in schools by various pressure groups. Since then she has also been watching the progress of the school reform movement, and although she would once have been classified as on the Bush side of No Child Left Behind, she’s changed her mind based on the actual data. That is the subject of her NYT article, How to, and how not to improve schools. She discusses the progress of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), Teach For America (TFA) and charter schools as they have played out in the reform game. She also discusses the Finnish model of highly paid, masters-level professional teachers whose autonomy may be a major factor in their success.

The article covers a lot of ground but here’s a striking bit:

Experienced teachers are fleeing American public education in response to the testing demands of No Child Left Behind, which reduce professional autonomy. According to federal data, the “modal years” of teacher experience in our public schools in 1987–1988 was fifteen, meaning that there were more teachers with fifteen years of experience than any other group. By 2007–2008, the largest number of teachers were in their first year of teaching. In response to the ongoing drumbeat of public opprobrium inspired by corporate-style school reform, we are losing the experienced teachers that students and new teachers need.

OK, great – new blood and all that. Let’s do the same thing with aircraft design and civil engineering! But I digress. The striking thing is that the new teachers aren’t staying either: 40 to 50 percent leave in the first five years. This may be partly due to the fact that teachers with the toughest classes will be judged “unsatisfactory”.

Someone once said; “If your boss tells you exactly what to do, sooner or later he will find someone cheaper than you to do it.” (citation needed). This is the recipe for an education “race to the bottom”.  If you want your kids taught by inexperienced teachers who aren’t allowed to apply much thought to their work, this is the way to go. Because The Free Market™ is the only model for getting anything done in any context, right?


Categories: Uncategorized

Being a serious journalist means ignoring the asteroid

March 26, 2012 1 comment

Suppose an asteroid were coming toward Earth, and scientists were pretty much in agreement that it would flood coastal cities, destroy large chunks of the food chain, and mess up agriculture around the world. But politicians, citing bible verses, said no, that wouldn’t happen and it was all a plot by “Asteroidists” to gain socialist control over world government. And major corporations funded think tanks and news media to publish a flurry of jiggered “studies” to sow confusion about the scientists’ conclusion. If that happened we could count on the news media to see through the fog, couldn’t we?

Secondly, it is always safer for a journalist, pundit, or talking head to echo conventional wisdom, even when it is terribly wrong (see: Iraq; 2008 financial meltdown; climate). Career advancement comes to those who stay within the herd.

To be a Very Serious Person is to echo conventional wisdom, safe in the knowledge that even if you’re wrong, so is everyone else — at least everyone else who’s serious! One good indicator of a VSP is that he/she claims to be unbiased and non-partisan, occasionally “centrist.” To VSPs, being on “a side” is a sure path to illegitimacy; one must always be above all that, moderate and reasonable. Again, this has nothing to do with accuracy or facts, only with where the herd is located at the moment.

Grist – What it means for media to take climate seriously

In the movie Star Wars, the heroes are about to be captured or destroyed by The Empire and captain Solo confidently hits the hyperdrive control to escape. The ship makes a pathetic sound, then comes to a complete stop. “It’s not my fault!”, he protests, as if that were the really important thing.

Just in the last ten years we’ve had two enormous disasters, and the Serious Media failed to speak clearly about both of them. Scientists are currently predicting a catastrophe that will make those two disasters look like peanuts. Should we go on getting our information from MSNBC? From FOX?  Here’s how they frame things:

the failure on both the international level and the U.S. level to muster any serious climate policy is inevitably described by mainstream reporters as “a blow to environmentalists,” as though it’s some boutique policy meant to benefit a special interest group. If reporters took climate change seriously, they would say, “the failure to secure serious climate policy makes widespread suffering and destabilization in the latter half of this century far more likely.” – IBID

They can’t report what climate change really means; it would mean their jobs. As if that were the really important thing.


  • (h/t @mikethemadbiol for the link)
  • Back when Katrina hit, Dick Cheney said “No one could have predicted the failure of the levies”. But Scientific AmericanNational Geographic, and the New Orleans Times Picayune had all done just that, well in advance and in chilling prophetic detail. I guess they’re not “serious journalists”. There’s always a reason to dismiss the bad news while you could still do something – however inconvenient – about it.
  • Someone once said; “Nature always sides with the hidden flaw”.


Categories: Uncategorized

Adam Savage on observation, thinking and scientific discoveries

March 25, 2012 3 comments

Since Adam Savage is at the Reason Rally this weekend, I thought I’d post my favorite video of his:

Thing is, I’m a freak about this stuff. I love reading how Daniel Rutherford discovered Nitrogen using only whatever he could get his hands on in 1772. I love reading how Thomas Edison did scientific usability testing on silent films long before we did it on web pages. It’s fantastic to me how Darwin, building on a lifetime of painstakingly careful observation and research, figured out the basic idea of evolution before anyone even knew about genes. It’s awesome just to think about it.

What I try not to think about too much, because it makes me so sad, is how schools suck the life out of scientific discovery and make it into a dry subject. Maybe it’s part of our culture; you’re only allowed to get excited about sports I guess.  But one thing the Internet has done for us is to give a platform for geek culture. We’ve been waiting to share the thrill we feel in discovery, in knowing stuff. Used to be, you were considered odd. Now you’re still considered odd, but you can look at Adam Savage and go “Yeah! Take that, people who think we should be all blase’ about the Universe!”

(Since Savage mentioned Eratosthenes, there’s a question that has always bothered me. For Eratosthenes to measure the differential angle of the sun between two cities a known distance apart, he had to know the moment at both cities. How did he get a signal from one city to another fast enough for the measurement to be useful? And if he did use a time-dependent method, might his accuracy have been helped by the coincidence that Alexandria is just an eyelash to the West of Due North from Swenet? Or did he simply figure the time at both cities using E/W solar angle then use the N/S solar angle to do his circumference calculation? Does anyone have a good link about that?)

(h/t @LesJenkins for the link)

Categories: Uncategorized

Pretty good $10 LED light bulb

March 24, 2012 1 comment
EcoSmart 429 Lumen LED light bulb, $10 at Home Depot

EcoSmart 429 Lumen LED light bulb, $10 at Home Depot

Home Depot has this 429-lumen LED bulb for $10, so I thought I’d try one and see how it worked.

Pretty good. The light is bright and crisp. It comes on instantly, and it’s dimmable. The bulb is quite directional, so it works much better in a fixture where it is pointed at the surface to be illuminated. A floor lamp or desk lamp would be good applications. When installed in a table lamp where it’s pointed at the ceiling or at the inside of the shade, not so much. So think of it as a little floodlight.

The color quality is very good. It is a bright, slightly warm neutral white which is a neat trick with an LED. I really like the result for reading or cooking. Better than CFL or most incandescent.

The box claims extraordinarily long life for the bulb; I doubt it but we’ll see. I decided to use it over the stove, which (because it is a hot location) will probably shorten its life. Otherwise it’d be great for locations where it gets used a lot or is switched on and off a lot. Or needs to be dimmable.


  • Most people who say they don’t like the color of CFL bulbs complain that they aren’t “warm” enough, but what’s really bugging them is the slight green cast. Since the eye is 8 or 10 times as sensitive to green light, that spectrum spike really throws off the result for most people. Of course, some companies do a better job mixing the phosphors, and the GE “Reveal” CFL bulb actually has neodymium-doped glass to filter out the green.
  • One big advantage of an LED is you can turn it on and off and then back on again without worrying about hurting it.
  • 429 lumen LED light in useHere it is installed above my stove. I took this picture in the daytime to show that it is a strong bulb. When I get up before sunrise to make breakfast, it’s the only light I turn on in the kitchen. Click the picture to embiggen.
  •   Need more light? Check out Philips’ 800-lumen bulb for $25. (h/t @LesJenkins for the link)
  • Question: why the hell is “embiggen” not in my spell check dictionary? It’s a perfectly cromulent word.
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s a bit early for this…

March 18, 2012 6 comments

Thermometer says it’s over eighty degrees f out there. Calendar says it’s only 18 March. Out of curiosity I looked up the high temps for this date in 10-year-intervals, going back to WWII…

Emerging leaves 17 March 2012

Emerging leaves 17 March 2012

High temps for Bloomington, IL 18 March at 10-year-intervals:

2012 82
2002 45
1992 34
1982 50
1972 56
1962 56
1952 53
1942 53
Source: Wolfram Alpha. 1942-72 are for “Center of Illinois” (which is right where we are) and ’82-2012 are for Bloomington. 1992 seems a bit of an anomaly, doesn’t it? Anyone remember what happened in 1991?

Categories: Uncategorized

The garage window

March 16, 2012 2 comments

Just now I was putting stuff in away in the garage, and thought I’d share this with you:

Garage Window at night

Categories: Uncategorized

Let’s put up a sign

March 15, 2012 8 comments

First, some XKCD:

XKCD communication comic

How exactly do you communicate a hazard? Or anything else? Would it help to "put up a sign"?

It’s a common science-fiction trope for the good guys to encounter some kind of wired-up culture where people have traded individuality for connectivity; Star Trek’s “Borg” being the most famous example.  There’s always a big fight where the collective tries to “assimilate” the culture of heroic individuals but in the end individuality always wins out. At least, in stories written by individuals.

I’m not sure that’s how it would play out in the real universe. I’m thinking there wouldn’t be a big battle; the wired-up culture would ply some economic advantage to perfect coordination and win by delivering better goods and services.

I suppose the outcome you expect depends on your theory of economic advantage. If efficiency is everything then yes, The Borg will win every time. If innovation matters most, then you can expect the culture that allows minds to escape to privacy of thought to come up with that big, disruptive surprise that wins the day.

I think about this fairly often because I have to communicate asynchronously with crowds. For instance we’d like people to avoid using the handicap doors during the Winter months (unless of course they actually need them) because the automatic doors stay open long enough to turn our main hallway into a giant icebox. And lacking the budget to hire ten more cleaning professionals, we like to keep coffee drinks out of classrooms and labs. To these ends we put up signs, varying the design to try and get the message across. Our (lack of) success makes me glad we aren’t handling a nuclear reactor. (“Caution! Please stop leaving fuel rods in the break-room refrigerator”)

Information design guru Don Norman capsulizes this experience in three words: “Signs don’t work.” In the XKCD comic above you could put up a sign indicating the hazard and it might actually increase the number of accidents by diverting attention away from the sidewalk. Reading and interpreting signs seems to take place in a different part of the brain than navigating 3-dimensional space.  This is why it’s important to design well, do a/b testing and measure results. Slapping any old thing up there only satisfies the need to have a sign to point at, when someone falls in the gap in the sidewalk.

The problem of communication is multiplied when the hazard is something complex and dynamic, like climate change. Or abstract, like the economic consequences of anti-science education. This explains a lot of political speech, which takes the shortcut of presenting some out-group as the object of hatred and fear. Perhaps gays or Muslims put the gap in the sidewalk, and attention is gained by putting a rainbow or a turban on the sign. At this level even the hazard itself can be made-up. There’s no need to be data-driven when your only goal is to get elected.


  • (You do read XKCD, don’t you? If not, please consider this recommendation my one good deed for the day.)
  • A lot of innovation comes from speculative thinking and stories, but I wonder how fiction would work in the Borg culture. How would anyone get away from the collective long enough to write interesting stories? Or would the whole collective try to do it? If everyone is connected, surprise is impossible. And if they did manage to write fiction, what would it be like?
Categories: Uncategorized

Know tomorrow

March 12, 2012 1 comment

One of my favorite scenes from Men In Black. The history is a little skewed but the sentiment is spot on:

Just now I looked up in the sky and saw Jupiter and Venus “side-by-side”… even though they are in completely different orbits. I could put my arm out and they would straddle my thumb. And over my shoulder was Mars, like all the planets circling in a dance of momentum and attraction around the sun’s gravity. I could picture it all in my mind, with me standing on the Earth and where all the other spheres were. In relation to my body.

Venus and Jupiter

Venus and Jupiter from Normal, Illinois, 13 March 2012, 9pm. Click to embiggen.

Once upon a time we didn’t know what those lights were, and we didn’t even know about “orbits”, but people were killed for saying the wrong things about them. Galileo figured it out and he was arrested. We’ve sent robots to get a close look; now we know. What they are. There is still so much to be learned about them but our stories are better now. We don’t have to kill anyone if they get it wrong; we show them the data and if they still don’t get it, we get to stop taking them seriously. The aggression of belief has been supplanted by the joy of discovery.

We didn’t know blood circulates in the body. We didn’t know about mitochondria, let alone how they got there. We didn’t know about oxygen. We didn’t know, really, why people got sick. Now we’ve seen the little wee beasties, and we are wrestling with them now instead of with myths.

Some of our tools for learning can be touched and felt; telescopes, particle accelerators, microscopes, spectrometers. But the most important one is courage. We stopped praying to the lightning god and started… studying lightning. And Ben Franklin came up with lightning rods.

Imagine what we’ll know, tomorrow.

Categories: Uncategorized