December 4, 2009

A Call To Engineers

More than a century ago Albert Einstein laid out his theories on relativity. Ever since, countless complex debates have raged in scientific journals and physics laboratories, challenging the veracity of the theory. Even today there is little consensus on whether relativity reflects the actual state of affairs, or just conveniently models certain physical behaviour. In the meantime however, Engineers have rolled out a global positioning system that allows anyone with a few hundred dollars to burn, to plot their location on Earth to an accuracy of a few metres. If those Engineers had failed to include the theory of relativity in their calculations however, the system would accumulate errors of about 10km per day1 and quickly become a global positioning mess. Yet, despite the complex scientific principles at work, the global positioning system is accessible to a vastly wider audience than the latest debate on the challenge to relativity theory posed by, say, gravitational lensing or black hole warping.

In 2009, a century after Einstein disturbed the space time continuum, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum delivered an impassioned plea for enhanced scientific literacy in their book, “Unscientific America”. The authors cite dismay with the lack of educated leadership on fundamentally scientific challenges such as global pandemics, climate change and the energy crisis. They voice a call to arms for an army of ambassadors to translate scientific knowledge into material ready for consumption by the wider public. The primary recruits for the new army are scientists and scientific advisors, but consider this - what proportion of the wider public you know would turn glassy-eyed in a discussion on the bending of space-time but at the same time would barely raise an eyebrow when their GPS tells them to take a left at the next lights?

Fellow engineers, our profession is the link between science and the wider public. Our craft is responsible for delivering science to the people. Make no mistake, this is our call to arms.

Before you drop your soldering irons to don iron arms however, let us consider what is at stake.

Humanity has always had unanswered questions. Are we alone? How does consciousness arise? Why do we die? And we accept that any answers to these questions are necessarily matters of faith. Humanity’s body of knowledge is not substantial enough to rely on rationality. The complication we face today however, is that these unanswered questions have extended to matters of our own creation. Are vaccines safe? How does my GPS work? Why is nuclear power generation dangerous? In these matters our body of knowledge is enough to substantiate rational answers, but it is no longer feasible for any one person to consume the entire body of knowledge. Humanity wants answers however, and as is human, people will turn to faith to find them.

So far there is nothing wrong with this scenario. It is unreasonable to expect that every question one faces should result in scientific investigation, so we need to take some answers on faith. However, like the bifurcation point in a chaotic system, the decision on where that faith is placed causes radically different paths to be taken. Due to the innate “in-group” effects of trust in human psychology, the initial formation of a source for matters of faith has powerful ramifications. In particular, the bonding effect of trust gives the bifurcation point its typical point-of-no-return quality, and is such a powerful motivator that people regularly abandon their personal values to adhere to it.

Still there is not necessarily any dilemma here. Humans will seek to place their faith in a source for matters that are beyond their immediate rational comprehension. This faith will naturally form groups and members of the group will often act in the interest of the group, rather than their own. Many constructive organisations are based on these principles. Political parties, companies and community groups all operate well when their members - initially inducted by some shared appeal - continue to row in the same direction.

The dilemma arises subtly. It starts with a group who base their faith on principles that are unambiguously orthogonal to scientifically established knowledge. Even then, no immediate peril awaits - we would be much worse off in a world without dissenting opinions. No, the dilemma arises through the interaction of incorrectly formed faith, and the perpetuating effects of groupthink. Psychologist Irving Janis describes the results of groupthink as a “fiasco”2, for once a harmless conclusion has been established due to faith in incorrect principles, it becomes exceedingly difficult to extricate members of the faith when logical application of its existing conclusions form new, dangerous conclusions.

But how exactly can an awry explanation of some physical phenomena lead to a dangerous conclusion? Consider the following hypothetical conversation between a well-intentioned enquirer (WIE), a rationally-minded aid (RMA) and a kind helper (KH):

WIE: I’ve got a crook knee. What should I do about it?
RMA: Looks swollen. It could be an autoimmune disease causing an inflammatory response. You might need some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen.
WIE: Okay thanks. I’m going to get a second opinion just to be sure.
KH: Hmm, I think your second chakra might be blocked by stress and the healing energy is not getting to your knee. You’re under a bit of stress aren’t you? Yes, that’s okay, I have just the thing. Try this homeopathic remedy, it’s great for soothing the second chakra.
WIE: Okay. It’s safe is it? I’ll give it a try.
RMA: You tried what? It’s just bloody water! Why didn’t you try some naproxen?
WIE: Um, well, I already feel much better.
RMA: You idiot, it’s just the placebo effect!
WIE: Oh, okay. By the way, I was thinking about getting my kid vaccinated but Kind Healer was saying something about it leading to Autism.
RMA: Kind Healer is a dangerous crack pot. Don’t listen to anything she has to say. By skipping vaccination you are risking outbreaks in the general population of diseases that can be safely controlled. All drugs have side-effects but do you really want to jeopardise the eradication of plagues that have killed millions?
WIE: Um. I guess not. Um… I’m going to see what Kind Healer has to say anyway.

Individual freedom to form scientific conclusions based on faith in principles that are at odds with established scientific knowledge is worth defending. Any pressure to give up this freedom is a slippery slope towards the Brave New World dystopia of Aldous Huxley. As author Neil Gaiman says, “Freedom to believe means the freedom to believe the wrong thing, after all”3. Dissenting opinions should be welcomed, if only as opportunities to check our own assumptions.

How then, can we prevent a benign misunderstanding of the way the world works from perpetuating a destructive application of groupthink? First consider why, as “Unscientific America” claims, science has so far ultimately failed to bring about enlightenment.

For making assessments of the mechanisms of the world, to enable prediction for how it will operate in the future, the scientific method is the best we have. And it is mighty good - a great deal of the natural processes around us are well understood and can be precisely modelled to formulate generalisations about how they work. For the technically trained, the scientific method seems about as natural and suitable as eating and laughing. But, and here’s the rub, the scientific method is not a great way of sharing scientific insights with those without a technical background or a aptitude for technical thought processes.

The failure of the scientific method to garner support is particularly well illustrated by the Intelligent Design Movement. Advocates claim that Intelligent Design is a scientific theory4. Scientists claim that it fails to adhere to some of the tenets of the scientific method, in particular the requirement that predictions can be made, tested, verified and falsified. The debate often falls into a pit when an advocate asks why, since evolution is just theory, Intelligent Design can’t also be a theory. After all, isn’t having freedom to pose alternate theories what scientific debate is all about?

To most scientists, the claims are absurd. The misinterpretation of the scientific method is painfully clear to them. But arguing such is rarely a fruitful exercise and it is not long before accusations of defective intellect are made and nothing constructive will result.

The subtlety of the scientific method was no more dramatically and desperately demonstrated than on the 18th October, 2004, when the Dover Area School District board in Pennsylvania voted 6-3 to add the following statement to their biology curriculum:

Students will be made aware of the gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and _of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.

As part of the decision, teachers were required to read a statement to their Biology students in the following year that read in part:

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence.

The three school board members who voted against the original curriculum change, resigned in protest. Ultimately a court order a year later ruled that the board had violated the First Amendment and that intelligent design was not a science so shall not be taught in a biology class. But the widespread misunderstanding of the pursuit of science is evident. And history does not give much hope for change on this front, since the same fundamental controversy ignited the headlines more than 84 years ago, in the infamous Scopes Trial5. In 1925, John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution in a Tennessee school and the ensuing legal case brought fame to the sensitivity of teaching a scientific theory that offers challenges to an established faith.

This disconnect between a scientist’s methods and the general public’s methods is at the core of the failure of science to bring enlightenment to the masses.

In a recent Lateline interview, Chris Mooney offered some suggestions as to why people had lost touch with science and therefore what prompted his “Unscientific America” book. Mooney explained that the problem arose because scientists are rewarded for technically dense work. They are not taught to, and not compensated for, distilling their work into approachable summaries. Mooney urged scientists to present their work to a wider audience and to make their judgements available to politicians. But what profession is based around adopting scientific developments for use by the general public? What profession is concerned with extracting the elements of science that have practical applications and producing those applications? Are not Engineers best placed to deliver science to the people?

In fact it goes deeper. Not only are Engineers uniquely placed to act as the bridge between the technically exclusive world of science and the reality of the public, but Engineers have the power of the tangible.

The truly frightening element of the declining respect for science is the parallel damage to trust. The general public is still curious enough to look for answers and concerned enough to base decisions on the word of their sources. But the impenetrable, dynamic, theoretical nature of good science has left people looking to other, more practical sources to relate to and trust. And there are few more practical sources than a tangible, physical artefact.

As psychologist Dacher Keltner6 has shown, physical touch has a strong connection to the experience of trust. For example, an experiment widely used to demonstrate the influence of touch on trust involves a host describing a task, while very lightly touching the backs of some of the participants. The participants who received the brief touch were more likely to cooperate with, rather than compete against, their partner. In short, the mechanism of trust is activated by the sensation of touch. If “I’ll believe it when I see it” then I can’t refute it when I touch it.

Fellow engineers, consider your role as the mediator between science and the people. Consider the tangible products of your work and their power to establish trust. Consider the good intentions of those without your technical training in their pursuit for knowledge. And consider the ramifications for all of us, if we fail to establish scientific knowledge as an authority for answers.

The onus of scientific enlightenment lies not with the scientists, but with the professionals who routinely create products of science - be they bridges, calculators or nuclear power plants - that the wider public can touch. Mere scientific rigour will not capture the trust of the people. A scientist’s unwavering subscription to the principles of rationality and deduction will do them few favours in capturing the minds of the people. As Rabindranath Tagore put it, “A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.”7. Instead it is the engineer who must realise their role in bringing scientific enlightenment. It is the field of engineering that must encompass the challenge of ensuring cultural and political thought has strong rational influences. It is engineers who must be available to offer honest, dependable, humble and tangible solutions to the scientific challenges of the world.


  1. As calculated by Richard W. Pogge, Ohio State University, published in Real-World Relativity: The GPS Navigation System and generously made available here.

  2. Irving L. Janis’ seminal work concerning groupthink is Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes published in 1972 by Houghton Mifflin.

  3. From page 435 of Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods published in 2001 by William Morrow.

  4. The Seattle based think tank, Discovery Institute, is well known for its advocacy of Intelligent Design. Their FAQ webpage summarises some of the claims made by advocates.

  5. The trial of Scopes vs. The state of Tennessee, often called the “Scopes Monkey Trial”, tested the Butler Act, which states that any theory that denies Divine Creation and states that man descended from animals must not be taught in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee. The text of the Butler Act is available here.

  6. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, is a proponent of “positive psychology”. He is the directory of the Greater Good Science Center and explores the establishment of traits such as trust in his book, Born to Be Good published in 2009 by W.W. Norton & Co.

  7. Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali polymath. This quote is from his 1916 poetic work, Stray Birds, translated to English by Tagore himself.

Posted by LightYear at 9:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

November 15, 2009

There's a hole in my roof

After some cardboard template deliberation, and too much back and forward with builders and retailers, I finally booked in a day for the roof window install.

The builder really knew his product, and lacking a sheetmetal cutter and reciprocating saw, I'm very glad I bit the bullet and paid for the install.

The first cut

The surgeon making a little incision

A hole!

Window from outside

Window from inside

With the window installed I was left to my own devices to redo the wiring for the light and install the tunnel. After some significant delays getting the wiring done, and some time-consuming struggles trying to decide on design and style in Bunnings, progress started to appear.

Tunnel about to start

Making progress on tunnel

Night time, tunnel taking shape

There's some trim, filling and staining yet to go, but things are coming together very nicely.

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October 5, 2009

Long weekend craft

This weekend I discovered that when unfolded, the cardboard from a beer carton is almost precisely the size of the sky window I'm having quoted at the moment. In fact, the excess cardboard fits into the gaps to produce a template with such precision, I just had to stick it to my ceiling.

Given that this whole measuring/quoting/waiting on builders process means that I'm not actually getting any construction done, I've had to make do. And given that my imagination can often use a little assistance, this is a useful exercise in making an informed decision about sizes and positions.

Basically my options are the size of the cardboard template, 550x980, or with some extra constructions work, the next size up, 780x980. In a room so small, 780x980 is a big window. Think it would be a better choice?

Roof window template 1

Roof window template 2

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September 24, 2009

Newsstand, you're dumped

No response from my enquiry to Newsstand's developer, posted here, but as fortune would have it NewGator silently released their iPhone client with Google Reader sync a couple of days ago.

I make a point of saying "silently", because for the past month or two they've been very vocal in assuring us loyal users (I've used NetNewsWire on the Mac for yonks) that phasing out of their own synchronisation service would be followed by updated support for Google Reader sync instead. We'd be first to know, they said, when the iPhone client was ready. Somehow I missed the release until tonight.

And the results of synchronisation of my entire 47 subscription feed list is clear (test done with one unread post):

Newsstand: >5MB
NetNewsWire: <47KB

There's just no question about it. Newsstand is unusable and NetNewsWire is usable.

Technically, the difference is this:

Both readers start by grabbing the feed list from Google Reader. Newsstand then grabs all of the last 25 posts of every feed through the Google Reader api. Stupid. NetNewsWire on the other hand, grabs the feed list and then uses the Google Reader api to find out if any feeds have unread posts. Then, instead of grabbing 25 posts from all the feeds, it uses the 'xt' flag to only grab the unread posts from only the feeds with unread posts. In other words, NetNewsWire uses Google Reader for what its designed for!

Now I'm a bit peeved that I paid $6 (and $5 for 40MB of wasted data) for Newsstand after reading the unequivocal buy recommendation on Wired. And on a wider scale, I'm peeved that I'm relying on a Wired article for iPhone app recommendations. Either the reviews on the App Store need to become better informed and more reliable, or there needs to be some way of trialling apps! At least NewsGator have got the model right - I used their free, ad supported version to conduct this test, and once I've finished writing this post I'll be straight back to the App Store to buy their "Pro" version. I wouldn't even care if it was any different to the free version - it's only a couple of bucks and the value to me is immense.

Oh - unlike Newsstand, NetNewsWire only supports Instapaper, not ReadItLater. Argh, it appears I signed up for the wrong one. Great... another sign up process to battle through.

Stay tuned for a more considered report on the shortcomings of the iPhone.

Posted by LightYear at 11:40 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Newsstand for iPhone download stacks of data?

Sent to the Newsstand developers:

I noticed a large spike in my iPhone data usage, and on investigation I find my recently purchased copy of Newsstand is transferring about 5MB during every refresh of my feeds from Google Reader, even though only one or two new messages are downloaded.

When I sniffed the traffic, I find Newsstand is passing the parameters "?n=25&ck=535895056" to each feed on Google Reader, which downloads a heap of data every time. For example, "GET /reader/atom/feed/http://feeds.feedburner.com/WhereTheHellWasI?n=25&ck=535907056 HTTP/1.1" returns over 225KB of data.

I don't know alot about Atom, but shouldn't Newsstand be passing the "r=o" and "ot" parameters as well, to only get the posts since the last check?

If Newsstand has to download the last 25 message from everyone of my feeds, every time I want to check for new posts, it's useless to me. That's why I'm hoping I've missed something!

Posted by LightYear at 3:35 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

September 22, 2009

Rafto's Rapid Recovery

or the meal for when you couldn't be stuffed preparing a meal:

3 raw eggs
2 peeled bananas
1/6 cup desiccated coconut
1/6 cup sugar
400mL milk

Throw it all in a blender. Blend. Consume.

Experiment with the coconut and the sugar to get the balance just right - you want enough coconut to get the flavour, but not too much you're choking on the flakes. And you want enough sugar to offset the tang of the eggs but not too much to make it sweet. The second banana helps.

The rest you can just use as you have available.

I'm really surprised I hadn't discovered this earlier. Just the thing after a night of climbing and martial arts, when the thought of cooking a meal is too much. Delicious once you have the balance right, and second only to a beer for soothing aching muscles.

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September 9, 2009

The Fragility of Curiosity

In the early 20th century Albert Einstein lamented that “it is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education”. Last Saturday, about a century after Einstein voiced his concerns about the fragility of curiosity, I had the grand pleasure of being uplifted by the hoots, gasps, laughter and feverish involvement of juvenile curiosity at the ABC Family Science Fun Day in Ultimo. There was no sign of a damaged sense of curiosity, as hundreds of children raced from display to display, touching scaly and spiky reptiles, wielding soldering irons, crawling through a large scale stomach model and interacting with scientists.

My science festival weekend began portentously when on the train to Sydney I was seated behind three junior high school aged kids who, fortunately enough, hadn’t developed the social graces that tend to keep our conversations quiet. I was privy to every word then, and it didn’t take long for one of them to quip,

“Hey, why when you’re on the train and you stand up like this, and jump into the air, you don’t fly back?”

“It’s cause there’s no wind pushing you back ay.”

“Nah I reckon it’s cause when you jump, see, this happens and it’s like, different.”

“Like with gravity and stuff?”

“Yeah, like imagine, what if you had the train all around here and then there was a big gap in the middle here, so there’s still wind but the platform would be there…”

The conversation trailed off but it’s hardly important. It was already clear the boys’ schooling had not dulled their curiosity but indeed, invigorated it. Not only were they voluntarily discussing physics problems, but they were using their powers of hypothesis and thought experiments to do so.

Incidentally, the problem the boys were discussing reminds me of an old Hey Hey It’s Saturday skit where a cannon was used to launch a tennis ball vertically from a moving vehicle before it passed under a bridge. The experiment showed that if the vehicle maintained its velocity, the ball would in fact fall back into the vehicle after it emerged from the other side of the bridge. A rather more spectacular demonstration of similar physics principles shows that with some care, it’s possible to land a plane on a runway less than 15 metres in length:

Some time later, one of the boys piped up again,

“How many millimetres in a kilometre?”

I kid you not - the coincidence is startling.

“That’s easy, 100! No, 10,000.”

“Nah, like there’s 1000 metres in a kilometre isn’t there? How many millimetres in a metre?.

At this point, Dad gets a little fed up with all the distractions and interjects, “just, just don’t worry about it, okay?”.

But still, neither their education nor their uninterested guardian could quell the curiosity burning within, and after some silence, the conversation picked up as if it had never stopped,

“It’s 10,000! Yeah cause it’s times isn’t it? Is that like multiply? Okay… 1000 times… is it 100 millimetres in a centimeter?”

Again, the boys never quite settled on an answer, but the scientific curiosity and the scientific techniques for exploring that curiosity were evident. It was a splendid precursor to the ABC Family Science Fun Day.

Among from the general air of fascination and wonder that permeated the Fun Day, several moments remain in my mind as indicative of the unbridled enthusiasm that exists in children if they’re given a chance to explore their scientific curiosity.

  • The Mad Labs were massively popular all day. Here participants were given a chance to build a lie detector or other simple device by actually soldering the parts together. Father and son teams were common and it was great to see the kids handling the soldering duties. As one of the organisers said during a live radio interview on the day, “20 kids with hot soldering irons? What could possibly go wrong?”.

Mad Labs

  • The Surfing Scientist held two hour long shows and I caught the moment in both where he asked for volunteers. Skilfully he had already involved them in his show, “shooting” them with air from a makeshift air cannon and stunning them (and the rest of the audience) by sending beautiful toroidal vortices of fog over their heads. When he then asked for three volunteers, the reaction was an explosion of outstretched hands and excited pleas. It was truly inspiring. I can’t mention the Surfing Scientist’s show without including this awesome video, which he used to end the show.

  • From the walk-through stomach to the bed of nails, the line ups of kids super keen to take part was huge. They couldn’t get enough.

Bed of Nails

  • The animal displays were a huge hit. But not only were the kids chomping at the bit to get to pat a blue tongue lizard or look at a green tree frog, they were just as fascinated by the preserved scorpions and spiders, and had barrels of questions to unload on the demonstrators. When I let this large leaf insect climb on my “geek” shirt, I inadvertently became one of the demonstrators and fielded a barrage of quick questions and requests for a “turn” with the insect.

Leaf insect

The real value of days like the ABC Family Science Fun Day occurred to me while seated at the “Inventors” show. Three of the judges and two of the past inventors (of the electric water purifier and the earthquake-hardened mud brick house) from the ABC’s New Inventors show held a discussion panel on the reality of invention. The themes raised tended to concern the economics and the effort involved in producing a viable invention, but one discussion path struck a cord with me. A young girl asked the panel if they always wanted to be a inventor when they grew up. The two inventors who otherwise had quite different experiences, both suggested that they found it hard to consider themselves inventors - instead they were exercising their curiosity about the way the world works, and combining that with an innate desire to actually fix a problem when they see it.

The Inventors

When another audience member asked what traits they thought had led them to their success, the panel was unanimous is expressing humbleness - that they felt they had no special traits beyond the farmer that solves problems on the farm on the run with whatever resources are available at the time. One of the inventors put his success down to growing up in the country, getting a practical feel for how things work, “working out how far up the tree you can climb before you’re in danger of breaking your arm”, then coming to the city to find a hundred problems looking for a solution - and creating that solution.

It occurred to me that the inventors were discrediting the notion that they had some gift, or that their methods were unusual, precisely because they had been born with curiosity just like everyone else. Their discriminating feature then, wasn’t possession of a unique trait (although clearly they had developed expertise in their particular fields), but that their juvenile curiosity had survived formal education. From curiosity comes a desire to understand how the world works, and from understanding how the world works comes a desire to improve the way the world works. If your curiosity can survive through to adulthood, you’ll never find yourself without an occupation. As Dorothy Parker put it, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

And that’s why I get excited about events like the ABC Family Science Fun Day and urge you to rediscover your juvenile curiosity or stimulate it in someone else - you may just be kindling the start of a world changing career path.

Addendum: I’ve included pictures of children in this post, which lives on the Internet. I realise that’s controversial, but found it difficult to justify that the report of a family event, emphasising the important role of kids, should censor muddy pictures that happen to include kids enjoying the event. If I receive any suggestion that the photos are not welcome, I’ll remove them immediately.

Posted by LightYear at 12:25 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

September 6, 2009

Woolworths Everyday Money credit card

I recently signed up for a Woolworths Everyday Money credit card. I figure that I'm not the only person in the world that actually researches the impact of financial designs on their own situation, so I won't be the only person to get frustrated by the lack of useful comparison data available. For the sake of a small contribution to that cause, here is the value table for the Everyday reward program. Why every company from Qantas to Telstra insist on valuing their deals in "points", only the citizens of Pointsville will know.

Points earned - value received
3,448 (min) - $20
4,310 - $25
5,172 - $30
Each 862 points thereafter a further $5
172,400 (max) - $1,000

You earn a point for every dollar spent, double for partner shops and triple for Woolworths shops.

I'm fairly happy so far. Do your own research!

Posted by LightYear at 2:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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