Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Chris Lee in Ars Technica on NASA’s EM-drive, the rocket engine that either runs on heretofore undiscovered physics, or experimental errors. Spoilers: it’s probably the latter.

Then there’s the error analysis: the authors estimate many measurement uncertainties so that each thrust measurement has an uncertainty of about ten percent. That sounds brilliant, right? Except the authors ignore the main uncertainties. In one experiment at 60 Watts of microwave power, the authors measure thrust of 128 microNewtons, while all three data points for 80 Watts of microwave power have thrusts of less than 120 microNewtons. Indeed, the thrust at 60 Watts for all data overlaps pretty much perfectly for all data taken at 80 Watts. They can only claim a slope by turning the power down to 40 Watts, where they do consistently measure less thrust.

In other words, you apparently can’t get more than 120 microNewtons of thrust out of this machine. Why? The paper doesn’t speculate on that question at all. The more important point is that the individual uncertainties in their instrumentation don’t account for the variation in the thrust that they measure, which is a very strong hint that there is an uncontrolled experimental parameter playing havoc with their measurements.

Lee does a great job of pointing out how breathtakingly exciting this new EM-drive paper would be, if it were weird in the “good lord, we have discovered an entirely new physics” way, instead of weird in the “we have conspicuously omitted all the details which would satisfy skeptics” way. Not that anyone is accusing the EM-drive folks of deliberately misleading the public, but this paper seems to raise more questions about the measurement of the results than it does about the physics at play.

Postscript: Ethan Siegel in Forbes describes exactly what it would mean for physics if this is validated.

Published on under Reality Distortion Fields, Non-Jobsian

Why the Trump Machine Is Built to Last Beyond the Election:

Parscale was given a small budget to expand Trump’s base and decided to spend it all on Facebook. He developed rudimentary models, matching voters to their Facebook profiles and relying on that network’s “Lookalike Audiences” to expand his pool of targets. He ultimately placed $2 million in ads across several states, all from his laptop at home, then used the social network’s built-in “brand-lift” survey tool to gauge the effectiveness of his videos, which featured infographic-style explainers about his policy proposals or Trump speaking to the camera. “I always wonder why people in politics act like this stuff is so mystical,” Parscale says. “It’s the same shit we use in commercial, just has fancier names.”

​A lot of people have walked into a new situation and said to themselves “oh, this seems simple enough!” at first. I would wager that most of them were humbled sooner rather than later.

Published on under Don't Screw This Up, America

Tim Harford, in the Guardian on how computers are setting us up for disaster:

We fail to see that a computer that is a hundred times more accurate than a human, and a million times faster, will make 10,000 times as many mistakes […]

As someone terrified of flying, the Air France crash from 2009 has morbidly fascinated me for half a decade. The Airbus plane was smart enough to stop the pilots from crashing it in some ways, but not others. When the autopilot shut off, the pilots were unprepared to take control of the plane; one of them made a fairly basic mistake, and stalled the plane into the Atlantic Ocean.

Harford points out that we might have this backwards.

An alternative solution is to reverse the role of computer and human. Rather than letting the computer fly the plane with the human poised to take over when the computer cannot cope, perhaps it would be better to have the human fly the plane with the computer monitoring the situation, ready to intervene. Computers, after all, are tireless, patient and do not need practice. Why, then, do we ask people to monitor machines and not the other way round?

When humans are asked to babysit computers, for example, in the operation of drones, the computers themselves should be programmed to serve up occasional brief diversions. Even better might be an automated system that demanded more input, more often, from the human – even when that input is not strictly needed. If you occasionally need human skill at short notice to navigate a hugely messy situation, it may make sense to artificially create smaller messes, just to keep people on their toes.

​See also my favorite law firm, Robot Robot & Hwang.

Published on under Computer-Based Disasters, Lesser-Known

Andy Greenberg, writing for Wired, on Google’s Clever Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits:

Google has built a half-trillion-dollar business out of divining what people want based on a few words they type into a search field. In the process, it’s stumbled on a powerful tool for getting inside the minds of some of the least understood and most dangerous people on the Internet: potential ISIS recruits. Now one subsidiary of Google is trying not just to understand those would-be jihadis’ intentions, but to change them.

Jigsaw, the Google-owned tech incubator and think tank—until recently known as Google Ideas—has been working over the past year to develop a new program it hopes can use a combination of Google’s search advertising algorithms and YouTube’s video platform to target aspiring ISIS recruits and ultimately dissuade them from joining the group’s cult of apocalyptic violence. The program, which Jigsaw calls the Redirect Method and plans to launch in a new phase this month, places advertising alongside results for any keywords and phrases that Jigsaw has determined people attracted to ISIS commonly search for.

On the one hand, interfering with the recruitment of Daesh—and we really ought to call them Daesh—is objectively A Good Thing. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder what will happen when Google and I disagree. More specifically, I wonder whether I’ll notice Google trying to change my mind.

Published on under The Man Won't Let You Read This

Stephanie McFeeters, in the Boston Globe, on the protestors and counter-protestors at a museum exhibit about a collection of Japanese kimonos:

A playful attempt by the Museum of Fine Arts to engage summer visitors has triggered a controversy that is mushrooming beyond expectations, with protesters taking to the museum’s “Kimono Wednesdays” event in increasing force each week, and a group of kimono-wearing counterprotesters joining the fray. […]

It all began with a celebration last month for departing director Malcolm Rogers, when the museum invited visitors to “channel your inner Camille Monet” trying on kimonos and posing for photos next to Claude Monet’s painting “La Japonaise.” Art historians consider the 1876 work, which depicts Monet’s wife wearing a kimono, to be a witty poke at Parisians’ fascination with Japan.

But the event, originally accompanied by a “Spotlight” talk titled “Claude Monet: Flirting With the Exotic,” drew the ire of protesters, who argued that “Kimono Wednesdays,” scheduled to run throughout July, constituted a form of cultural appropriation and racist “exotification” of Asian culture.

As a white guy, I have absolutely nothing to add to the substance of the discussions and protests going on. However, I’m fascinated by how the for and against sides seem to break down by age as much as anything else.

Published on under Turning Japanese is Not Cool Guys

I thoroughly enjoyed this Tim Alberta article in the National Review about the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party. Essentially, he does to the Tea Party what the Tea Party did to the Republican Party:

“What they’re doing is exactly what [the Tea Party] criticized establishment Republicans for doing all these years: succumbing to so-called political realities and setting aside principles to gain power for the party,” says Tim Miller, a prominent GOP operative and leader in the Never Trump movement. “That’s what they killed Boehner and McConnell for. And maybe those criticisms were fair. But sacrificing principle for power is exactly what they’re doing now.”


To answer that question is to accept that pragmatism is being practiced by individuals who were willing to shut down the government to prove a philosophical point; to appreciate that congressmen survive by satisfying the whims of their constituents; to understand that Republicans are desperate to avoid blame for a November defeat that many view as inevitable; and to acknowledge that Trump has taken over the Republican party by annexing many of its most conservative voters, proving that their anti-government rage is not necessarily a mandate for ideological purity.

Succumbing to political realities, as seen here, used to be known as governing. Alberta and his establishment interviewees can barely hide their amusement at the way the Trump wing of the Republican Party is holding the Tea Party wing hostage. ​

There are too many good bits to choose from. ​Here’s the sobering realization that most of the Tea Party voters weren’t interested in any particular policy position so much as anti-government everything:

“A lot of us [predicted] the anti-establishment wave,” Mulvaney said. “We’d seen it in 2010 and 2012 and 2014, so we knew it was coming to a crest. We just never expected it to take the form of Donald Trump. We like that he’s anti-establishment, we like the fact that he’s kind of blowing up the internal party politics as we’ve known them. We’re just not sure if he’s a conservative.”

And their constituents aren’t sure if it matters.

​And because this is the National Review, there’s this gem, which I’m not sure is ironic:

The Freedom Caucus is a diverse cast of characters, markedly different in their geographic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds.

Fun stuff.

Published on under The Movie Speed is 22 Years Old