Failure is not must always be an option…

I am a scientist (if you know me at all, you’re saying “duh” right about now) but I am not a science cheerleader. By this I mean that I do not try to uphold the ivory tower at all costs. Primarily because, if we start to do this, then we are no longer doing science. That said, let me shed some light on a glaring problem with the way that science is done nowadays.

Most institutions are “publish or perish” in fact if not outright stated. This means that, as a working scientist, you are regularly expected to publish your results. This part, I’m actually okay with, in principle at least. Putting things in to the public domain is a good thing. But now for the two not-so-good things (there are more than two, but I’ll only talk about these today).

First, most journals do not put their content in to the public domain. You have to pay (and pay through the nose) in order to see it. This is not conducive to good science. Mind you, there are attempts to mitigate this. There’s the physics pre-print archive covering physics, the public library of open science with bioscience-related content, and most journals now have a free content section. There are even (illegal) torrent sites and aggregators dedicated to swiping content from closed journals and sharing with the world (nope, I won’t provide a link for those). So this is slowly getting a bit better.

Second, and much more importantly, failure is not an option when it comes to publication. With very few exceptions, only successful experiments and proven theorems are accepted for publication. This is so absolutely wrong that it almost defies logic. Science would be far more transparent and progress much more rapidly (and more importantly, honestly) if null results could be published. Again, this is slowing starting to change. Recently there have been attempts to rectify this to a degree. the Journal of Negative Results is one such attempt, though it limits itself to the biosciences.

Clearly these two factors are a huge hindrance to the reasonable progression of scientific research. I myself have been stymied in the past, needing to see a particular set of results, but being unwilling or unable to pay the exorbitant journal access fees. Additionally, I could have been save a lot of trouble had null results been published. But that’s now how scientific publishing works. And so I (and countless others) have wasted a significant amount of time following paths that could have easily been avoided, if only access were more open and honest failures held in equal esteem to successes.

I’ll end it here, though I’ll pick this up again shortly. And if you’d like to read more, here’s a better written article:

Unpublished Results Hide the Decline Effect

For your amusement…

A Wrinkle in Time is so much more amusing when you mentally replace “IT” (the name of the big bad monster thing) with “I.T.” (as in “the I.T. department”). Try for yourself:

“Calvin’s voice again. ‘Anyhow you got her away from IT. You got us both away and we couldn’t have gone on holding out. IT’s so much more powerful and strong than—How did we stay out, sir? How did we manage as long as we did?’

“Her father: ‘Because IT’s completely unused to being refused. That’s the only reason I could keep from being absorbed, too. No mind has tried to hold out against IT for so many thousands of centuries that certain centers have become soft and atrophied through lack of use. If you hadn’t come to me when you did I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted. I was on the point of giving in.'”

What I’m up to (part whatever)…

So much to do, so little time.  But it’s all good, so I’m not feeling overwhelmed.  Just the right amount of whelm, I suppose.  Anyways, on tap for this week is paper writing (due tomorrow!), art project materials gathering (the name of the project is “Your own, personal Jesus” and I’m still keeping the rest a secret), Arduino development (also a secret), a big LabVIEW project that is to serve as a proof-of-concept for future work, some Android programming (yep, also secret), a new web site (secret), and journal article reviews.

In and around all of this is some financial/business crap that needs taking care of.  That one seems to be never-ending, probably because it is actually never-ending.  Someday, I’ll be making enough to hire an business manger to foist all of that on to.  Until then, I just have to deal.

So yeah, a lot of secret stuff still happening.  At least I’m dropping a hint for the art project.  It’s going to be a busy week!

Science v. Art — the final word

I’ve had pretty much enough of two aspects of the science v. art arguments. The first argument is that they have been, are now, and forever shall be, at odds with each other. Bullshit. Those who make such arguments tend to have no knowledge of either science or art. I am a scientist who dabbles in a variety of artistic endeavors. My girlfriend and my best friend are both artists who are very scientifically-minded. There are no differences in our philosophical outlooks. More on this in a moment.

The next common aspect of the argument is that science and art need each other: science to improve the quality of art, and art to enable visualization of science. Well, yeah, maybe. But that misses the point. At least those who put forth that argument are not perpetuating some mythical war between the two.

Here’s how it really is, folks: They are the very same thing!

We are puny humans with very small minds and a very limited capacity to describe and define the universe. Reality around us is so much grander than we can ever know, let alone describe. To paraphrase Oliver Sacks, not only do we not live in reality, we’ve never even visited the place. And so, in an attempt to capture its beauty, we create metaphor.

Science does so by using a variety of descriptive languages (various mathematical systems, and words as precisely defined as the language allows). But science goes in knowing full well that all of these constructs are nothing more than metaphor for something that may never be fully understood, except in limited context.

Art does so by using a variety of descriptive languages (visual symbols, forms, musical notes, and words as the language allows). But art goes in knowing full well that all of these constructs are nothing more than metaphor for something that may never fully captured, except in limited aspect.

Both rely on the same tools and insights and reasoning; indeed, the very same parts of the soul. Because in all cases, the sciartist is attempting to express an aspect of the universe that they see, in order to better understand it, and maybe even present it to a wider audience.

So enough of the arguments. Science is art. Art is science. Both are nothing but metaphor for the vast, the sublime, the beautiful, and the unknowable. End of rant.

Beautiful Failure

I fail at things.  A lot.  Almost everything, really.  And the only reason that I have actually succeeded at the few things that I have is because I’m either too stubborn or too stupid to know when to quit.  I suspect a little of both.

I’m working on a side-project (yes, another one) that is a sort of combined art-science-interaction piece to celebrate all of the ways in which we fail.  I’ll probably be posting a link to this in the next couple of months or so.  Stay tuned.

What I am up to (part 3 of N)…

And now for art projects.  Again, I cannot say much.  Not because of any particular non-disclosure agreement this time, but because I am loathe to discuss half-formed notions.  So in vaguebooking tradition, here’s some of the things that I’m researching.  You can draw your own conclusions from them (and no, they do not necessarily reflect a single project):

  • Low-temperature enameling
  • Working stone with a CNC milling machine
  • Electrochromic and thermochromic chemicals
  • Photoresist etching of various materials
  • Laser-induced surface plasmons (yes, for arts’ sake)
  • Cellular automata (also for arts’ sake)
  • Quasicrystals (yeah, my art has a lot of science to it)

At some point, I’ll post pictures. But not yet. I have a few more pressing projects to work on.

What I am up to (part 2 of N)… Arduino!

So let me expound upon the virtues of the Arduino platform for a minute. In case you are not familiar, this is a family of hobbyist microcontrollers with minimal memory, no OS to speak of, and a lot of I/O. Very useful for making things that read information from, or control things in, the real world. Right now, I’m making good use of the Adafruit Feather line. Useful (to me) features:

  • Support for single Li-ion battery use, charging, and monitoring
  • Built-in micro-SD card reader (on my model, at least)
  • Really, really tiny

Anyways, my favorite part about it is the programming environment.  Being so resource constrained, and with such a simple programming model, it feel a lot like coding in the early 1980’s.  Yes, I’m old.

I cannot (yet) go in to detail about the project, but I will put something up on the “Projects” page when I am able.  As soon as I’m no longer sworn to secrecy.

What I am up to (part 1 of N)…

This is part “1 of N” simply because I don’t know how many of these I’ll end up with. You see, I’m up to quite a lot, actually. It all started a couple of months ago, when I lost my previous job (no one’s fault — just one of those things). Anyway, that got me thinking a lot about what I want Life version 3.0 (beta-1) to look like. In these first few months, I’ve determined to create a viable “meta-life”, meaning that I am working on things to get me the life that I want to have.

First up was a new job, and for this I decided against a regular 9-to-5 sort. I’ve had quite enough of that, thank you very much, and I’m well past the point where I can be happy with ten days of vacation per year and dealing with abusive HR departments. And so I’m now a happy member of the “gig economy”, working on a number of small projects that kinda-sorta add up to a job. No more stupid HR departments or having to ask permission to use the bathroom (yes, I really had to do this at a job once).

Second: learning. I’m teaching myself Android programming and that is going swimmingly. I do have a specific project in mind and will be sharing the details at some nebulous point in the future. Arduino is in there as well, and I am happy to report that I got the hang of that really quickly. I’m working on a couple of nicely complicated Arduino projects and, again, details to follow at some undetermined time.

And while we’re discussing learning, I’ve discovered EdX. Kid, meet candy store. Enough said on that one.

I’ve always thought that a good balance between mind, body, and soul is something to strive for. So in order to not neglect the other two, I’ve been hiking every day and will be trying to get to the gym at least a couple of times per week. On the last, it’s time for art! A couple of conversations have put it into my head that I’m well overdue in getting back to this one. I can no longer use the “no room” excuse (for a while, I was living in a storage shed and so that became more valid), so… it’s time.

More soon!

The cross I have to bear…

… Far too many ideas, far too little time. And so I have to carefully plan and allocate resources and spend a lot of time culling the ones that are less practical and putting the others into various categories. On the upside: never ever bored. And hey, I have “setting up a WordPress” site checked off the list!

Anyways, the project page is up. Expect some filling to happen at some point in the future.

The fine art of approximation

It has been said that, during the first atomic bomb test, Enrico Fermi wanted a quick estimate of the energy of the blast. So, as the shock wave hit, he tossed a handful of paper scraps in to the air and watched how far they were carried. He estimated that the energy was about ten kilotons – remarkably close to the measured value of twenty.

Whether this actually happened or not, is a subject for historians to debate, but it makes for a good story nonetheless. And it serves to illustrate how a quick and dirty estimate can aid in decision making. In science classrooms around the world, these sorts of approximation problems are used to teach “science thinking” without getting bogged down in math. And, like all good science tools, it’s partly a matter of convenience and partly a matter of laziness. Some approximation exercises that I remember from my own schooling:

  • How fast would you have to stir your coffee in order to make it boil?
  • How many gas stations are there in the United States?
  • If everyone in China faced west and sneezed at the same time, how would the earth’s rotation change?
  • How fast would you have to drive a car through a hard rain in order to meet a wall of water?

With these types of problems, it isn’t the answer that is interesting but how one arrives at it. And once you get the hang of this you can get a surprising level of accuracy, particularly if you know which way to fudge the numbers. Of course, there are a few tricks to this kind of “Fermi estimate”. Trick number one, don’t care too much about what the answer actually is. If you’re attached to an outcome, you may subconsciously pick numbers that steer toward it.

Trick two, go fast the first time around and then fix it later. The first pass-through is just to get the process right. In subsequent estimations, you can try to get better numbers or to include things that you hadn’t previously thought of.

Trick three, round to the nearest whatever. Some numbers are easier to work with than others. You can work with powers of ten just by moving the decimal point. Computer engineers and programmers know the powers of two better than their own phone numbers. Once you get a feel for how numbers themselves work, then calculation becomes a snap. And because you don’t care about the end number, you can feel free to round off a bit.

Here’s an interesting example…

Global air-conditioning

One morning, I was driving up to a nowhere spot in central California to meet with a client. Radio coverage was essentially non-existent and so I ended up listening to someone on AM talk radio. This someone made the claim that if global warming is man-made, it’s probably from everyone running their air conditioners. Let’s look at this claim and construct a very simple model.

There are approximately four hundred million people in the US right now (and we’re going to ignore Alaska – they probably don’t do too much air conditioning). We’ll assume that each and every person has a five thousand square foot home, five thousand square foot office, and ninety thousand square feet representing their share of communal space (public buildings, malls, etc.). So every man, woman, and child has their very own air-conditioned area of one hundred-thousand square feet. Further, we shall assume that their ceilings are ten feet high, giving each person a million cubic feet of air-conditioned bliss. Four hundred trillion cubic feet in total (notice all of the powers of ten that I’m using).

How cold do they like it? Let’s further assume that every person in the US is currently trying to fight one hundred degree weather and cool their space down to seventy degrees. If air conditioners were one hundred percent efficient (spoiler: they are not) then we’d have to warm a like mass of air by thirty degrees. For our initial model, we’ll assume that air conditioners are only twenty percent efficient (probably they’re a bit better than this, but this is closer to the truth) and so we will have to warm five times that volume (five is almost as easy to use as two and ten).

So, in our hypothetical model, we’re warming up two quadrillion cubic feet of air by thirty degrees. That’s a lot of air. Let’s convert to cubic miles, for sake of readability:

(2,000,000,000,000,000) / (5280 x 5280 x 5280)

So about thirteen thousand cubic miles – a much more manageable number.

How much air is there in the continental United States? According to Wiki, there are about three million square miles of surface area. The atmosphere extends upward to about sixty miles, but most of the action takes place within three miles of the surface, so let’s just use that and approximate that there are about ten million cubic miles of air.

Divide the one in to the other, and the air-conditioned-warmed air represents only one tenth of a percent (note that I’m doing a lot of rounding here) of the volume of air in the United States. All of our air conditioning would warm that mass by three one-hundredths of a degree.

But (and this is a big “but”), our model assumes that all cooling and all air is evenly distributed all over the country by the same amount, everywhere. This simply isn’t true. Additionally, it isn’t true that every person has that much cooled volume. And finally, it isn’t true that every person in the country requires cooling by thirty degrees, all at once. Cities like Phoenix may require more cooling all in one spot; and places like Seattle may not require any. So we can see some ways to begin to refine our model.

I’m not going to argue that air conditioning causes or doesn’t cause warming. It may actually have a measurable (though tiny) effect in some places. The point of this exercise is to show both the power and the peril of making a casual model.

My homework assignment to you: play with this (either on paper or in your head)! See if you can think of ways to refine it. See if you can think of wrenches to throw in to the works. See if you can find some better numbers to use. Feel free to cheat and use the internet if you get lazy (but please give it a go, first).